Academic Webinar: Human Rights in Latin America

Wednesday, November 8, 2023
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Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

José Miguel Vivanco, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at CFR and former executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, leads the conversation on human rights in Latin America.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Fall 2023 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s discussion is on the record. The video and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share them with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have José Miguel Vivanco with us to discuss human rights in Latin America. Mr. Vivanco is an adjunct senior fellow for human rights at CFR and partner at Dentons Global Advisors. He formerly served as the executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, where he supervised fact-finding research for numerous reports on gross violations of human rights and advocated strengthening international legal standards and domestic compliance throughout the region. He is the founder of the Center for Justice and International Law, an international civil society organization providing legal and technical assistance with the Inter-American Human Rights System.

So, José Miguel, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought you could begin by giving us an overview of what you see as the most important human rights challenges and advances in Latin America today.

VIVANCO: Well, thank you very much for this invitation. It is a pleasure to be with you all and to talk for an hour about human rights problems, human rights issues in Latin America.

Let me first make a couple of points.

First, I think it’s very important that, in retrospect, if you look at Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, it was a region that was pretty much run by military dictatorships. So if you look at historically, the region is not in such a bad shape. I know that this comment is quite controversial and many experts who follow the region closely might disagree with that statement, but objectively speaking I think we need to recognize that most of the region is run today—with the exception, obviously, of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—by democracies, weak democracies, the kind of democracies that we have in Latin America are facing very serious challenges and with endemic problems such as corruption, abuse of power, lack of transparency, lack of proper accountability, and so on and so forth. But in general terms, this is a region that has a chance to conduct some self-correction. In other words, electoral democracy is a very, very important value in the region, and the citizens—most of the people are able to either reward or punish the incumbent government at the times of elections.

That is not a minor detail. It is extremely important, especially if you take into account that during the last twenty years in Latin America, if I’m not wrong, the vast majority of the governments elected were from the opposition.

The statistics, I think, show that in eighteen of the twenty last presidential elections, the winner has been the party of the opposition; which means that even though our democracies in Latin America are dysfunctional, weak, messy, slow, you know, short-term-oriented, obviously, but at least citizens take their rights seriously and they exercise their powers so that is why you see a regular zigzag or, you know, transfer of power from a left-wing government to a right-wing government or vice versa. And that is, again, something that is, obviously, a very, very important tool of self-correction. And that, obviously, includes or has an impact in terms of the human rights record of those countries.

You know, I’m not—I’m not addressing yet—I will leave it for the Q&A section—conditions in those three dictatorships in Latin America. Let me just make some few more remarks about one of the biggest challenges that I see in the region.

And that is, obviously, the rise of autocracy or autocratic leaders, populist leaders, leaders who are not interested or as a matter of fact are very hostile to the concept of rule of law and the concept of independence of the judiciary. And they usually are very charismatic. They have high level of popular support. And they run and govern the country in a style that is like a permanent campaign, where they normally go against minorities and against the opposition, against the free media, against judges and prosecutors who dare to investigate them or investigate the government. Anyone who challenges them are subject of this type of reaction.

And that is, unfortunately, something that we have seen in Mexico recently and until today, and in Brazil, especially during the administration of President Bolsonaro. The good news about, in the case of Brazil, is that, thanks to electoral democracy, it was possible to defeat him and—democratically. And the second very important piece of information is that even though Brazil is not a model of rule of law and separation of power, we have to acknowledge that, thanks to the checks-and-balance exercise by the Supreme Court of Brazil, it was possible to do some permanent, constant damage control against the most outrageous initiatives promoted by the administration of President Bolsonaro. That, I think, is one of the biggest challenges in the region.

Let me conclude my—make crystal clear that there are serious human rights problems in Latin America today regarding, for instance, abuse of power, police brutality, prison problems. Prisons are really, in most of the countries in the region, a disaster. And you know, a big number of prisoners are awaiting trial, in detention and unable to really exercise their rights. And unfortunately, populist leaders use the prison system or essentially criminal law, by expanding the practice and enlarging the numbers of crimes that could be subject of pretrial detention, and—you know, regardless of the time that it will take for that case to be prosecuted in full respect for the rule—due process, and so on and so forth.

And that—the reason is very simple. There is a real demand in Latin America for policies that will address insecurity, citizen security. If you look at statistics in terms of crime rate, it is going up in most of the country. Obviously, there are big difference between countries like Mexico, for instance, or Colombia, and if you link—if you look at the power of cartels and big mafias, and gangs in other countries, or petty crime impacting the daily life of the citizens. Regardless of that point, one of the biggest demands in Latin America is for better and more public security.

And that’s why political leaders, usually the solution for that request and demand is to put people in prison with essentially no real due process and increase the number of prisoners without conviction. There are challenges for free speech occasionally, of those leaders who resent scrutiny of their practice. And normally there is a campaign against free media. And there are some attempts in some countries to constantly look for ways to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Keep in mind, for instance, that now in Argentina the whole Supreme Court is under impeachment, and it’s essentially an impeachment promoted by the current government because they disagree with the rulings, positions of the Supreme Court. All the justices on the Supreme Court are subject of this political trial conducted by the Argentine Congress. That is a concrete example of the kinds of risks that are present for judges and the judiciary in general, when they exercise their power and they attempt to protect the integrity of the constitution. So let me stop here and we can move on to the most interesting part of this event.

FASKIANOS: Well, that was quite interesting. So, thank you, José Miguel. We appreciate it. We going to go to all of you now for your questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We already have some hands up. We will go first to Karla Soto Valdes. Q: My name is Karla Soto. I’m from Lewis University.

My question is, what specific measures could be implemented to address and/or prevent trafficking within the asylum-seeking community during their journey to the U.S.?

VIVANCO: Irina, are we going to take several questions, or?

FASKIANOS: I think we should do one at a time.

VIVANCO: Well, Karla, there are multiple tools to address that specific issue. But this applies to essentially most of the human rights problems all over the world. The menu is pretty ample, but depends on one important factor—whether the government involved cares about its own reputation. That is a very important premise here, because if you we are dealing with a democratic government, once again, it’s not—when I refer to a democratic government, I don’t have in mind a sort of Jeffersonian model, I’m referring to the kind of democracies that we have in Latin America.

But, if the leaders in charge are—you know, they care about their own reputation, they care about domestic debate, very important, because these types of revelations usually have ramifications at the local level. If they pay close attention to those issues, I think it’s possible to apply, essentially, the technique of naming and shaming. In other words, collecting information, documenting what exactly is happening, and revealing that information to the public, locally and internationally. That is going to create naturally a reaction, a process, an awareness, and local pressure is—hopefully, it’s not just twenty-four hours news, so splash—big splash, but also will trigger some dynamics.

If we are dealing with a country that is run by a dictatorship, it is a very, very different question, because normally you’re facing a leader, a government, who couldn’t care less about its own reputation. They have taken already and assume the cost of doing business in that type of context. Now, sometimes conditions are kind of mixed, where you have democratic country in general—so there is still free media, there is an opposition, there is Congress, there are elections. But the government in charge is so—is run by an autocratic leader. That makes, you know, quite—a little more challenging to just document and reveal that information.

And you need to think about some particular agenda, governmental agenda. Some specific interests of the government in different areas. Let me see—let me give you an example. Let’s say that the Bolsonaro administration is seriously interested in an incorporation into the OECD in Paris. That is an important piece of information. Whatever you think that is relevant information regarding the record of that government, you could provide information to an entity that is precisely evaluating the record of the government. And the government will be much more willing to address those issues because they have a genuine interest in achieving some specific goal at the international level.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. We’re going to go to Nicole Ambar De Santos, who is an undergraduate student at the Washington University in St. Louis: When we consider weak democracy in a more personal sense, like Peru, the controversy of obligation to help these nations arises. How much third party or other nations, such as the United States, intervene?

VIVANCO: Tricky question. Peruvian democracy is quite messy. Part of the problem is that the system, the political system, needs some real reform to avoid the proliferation of small political parties and to create the real link or relationship between leaders, especially in Congress, and their constituencies, and so they are much more accountable to their community, the ones who elected them. I don’t think the U.S., or any other government, has a direct role to play in that area. My sense is that when we are looking into a dysfunctional democracy that deserve some probably even constitutional reforms, that is essentially a domestic job. That is the work that needs to be done by Peruvians.

Without a local consensus about the reforms that need to be implemented in the political system, my sense is that it’s going to be very difficult for the U.S. or any other large democracy, to address those kinds of points. It’s very different, that type of conversation, from a conversation or an assessment of universal values, such as human rights. When we are looking into cases of police brutality, for instance, the international community has a role to play. But if I were part of the conversation or evaluation by the U.S. government or the European Union with regard to this dysfunctional democracy in Peru, I would approach very carefully by suggesting creating the right type of incentives, more than questions of punishment, or sanctions. It’s incentives for them to create the right conditions to address the domestic problem that is—has become quite endemic, in the case of Peru.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Matthew. Matthew, you don’t have a last name, so can you identify yourself?

Q: Hello. Yes, my name is Matthew. I am a junior student from Arizona State University studying business, but working on a thesis that has to do with human rights and the ethics of supply chain management.

My question is, you were talking at the very beginning kind of just about history and how understanding history is important. And what I was hoping to get was, why is understanding history and culture important when working to address human rights issues, history of dictatorship, colonialism? In cultures it’s socially acceptable things, like child labor, in some countries, that’s not acceptable in Western ideology. So, yeah, just how is history and culture important when working to address human rights for the future?

VIVANCO: Matthew, I think you’re referring to two different issues. History is central. It’s really, really relevant. Because that helps you—if you—if you follow your history, especially periods of time when massive and gross violations were committed in Latin America, it’s important to put things in context and value what you have today. And the job is to—not only to preserve democracy, but also to look for ways to strengthen democracy. Because part of the problem is that domestic debate is so polarized today, not just in Latin America, all over the world, that sometimes people—different, you know, segments of society—in their positions, they’re so dismissive of the other side, that they don’t realize that we need to frame our debate in a constructive way. Let me put it—one specific example.

If the government of Argentina, who is a government very receptive and very sensitive to vast and gross violations of human rights committed during the military dictatorship, so in other words, I don’t need to lecture that government on that subject. They are actually the people who vote for the current government of Argentina—not the new government, the current government of Argentina—is deeply committed to those kinds of issues. I think that one of the biggest lessons that you should learn from the past is the relevance of protecting the independence of the judiciary. If you don’t have an independent judiciary, and the judiciary becomes an entity that is an appendix of the ruling party or is intimidated by politics, and they could be subject of impeachment procedures every time that they rule something, that the powerful—the establishment disagree, I think they’re playing with fire, and they’re not really paying attention to the lessons that you learn from recent history in Latin America. That would be my first comment regarding that type of issue.

And the second one, about you mentioned specifically cultural problems, culture, tensions or conflicts. And you mentioned—your example was child labor. And, and you suggested that that—the combination of child labor is something typical of Western ideology. If I’m not wrong, that was the language that you used. I would—I would push back on that point. And because this is not just a Western or European commitment. This is a universal one. And this is reflected on international treaties, and that are supposed to eradicate that kind of practice.

If you give up to the concept of local traditions, you know, cultural, you know, issues that you need to pay attention, sure, as long as they are not to be in conflict with fundamental human rights. Otherwise, in half of the planet you’re not going to have women rights, and women will be subject of traditional control. And you wouldn’t have rights for minorities, and especially—and not only, but especially—the LGBTQ community. And you wouldn’t have rights for racial minorities, or different religious beliefs. So, we have to watch and be very careful about what type of concessions we make to cultural traditions.

I am happy to understand that different communities in Latin America might have different traditions, but there is some firm, solid, and unquestionable minimum that are the these universal human rights values that are not the property or monopoly of anyone. You know, these are—and this is not an ethical conversation. This is a legal one, because these values are protected under international law.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to combine or take two questions.

The first question is from Lindsay Bert, who is at the department of political science at Muhlenberg College, who asks if you could speak on the efficacy of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in addressing the human rights violations you described.

And the second question is from Leonard Onyebuchi Ophoke, a graduate student at Cavendish University in Uganda: Why is it almost impossible to hold the actors that violate human rights accountable? What could be done to make the mechanism more enforceable?

VIVANCO: The inter-American system of human rights protection, there is nothing similar to inter-American system of human rights protection in the Global South. You don’t have something similar in Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East. In other words, you don’t have a mechanism where ultimately a court, a court of law—not just a commission, a court of law—handle individual cases, specific complaints of human rights abuses, and governments participate in public hearings. The parties involved have the obligation to present evidence before the court, and the court finally ruled on the specific matters where its decisions are binding.

The number of issues that have been addressed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the last thirty years in Latin America are really incredible. And the impact—this is most important point—the impact at a local level is remarkable. In the area, for instance, of torture, disappearances. I’m referring to the elaboration of concepts and the imposing the obligation of local governments to adjust their legislation and practice, and to address specific problems or issues by providing remedies to victims. That is quite unusual. And the court has remarkable rulings on free speech, on discrimination issues, on indigenous populations, on military jurisdiction.

One of the typical recourse of governments in the region when security forces were involved in human rights atrocities was to invoke military jurisdiction. So they say, no worries, we are going to investigate our own crimes. And the court has been actually very, very firm, challenging that notion to the point that I don’t think there is a single case in Latin America today—once again, with the exception of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, that I hope that somebody will ask me a question about those three countries—and I don’t think there is a single case where today security forces try to—or attempt to shield themselves from investigation invoking military jurisdiction. And the credit is to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

I can elaborate, and give you—provide you with a long list of examples of areas where the court has been actually really, really critical in advancing human rights in the region. Let me give you actually one last example that I think is very—is very illustrative, very revealing. In Chile, something like probably twenty years ago or fifteen years ago, full democracy. Full democracy. No Chile under Pinochet. The Supreme Court of Chile ruled that a mother who was openly lesbian did not qualify for the custody of her children because she was lesbian. And she had a couple. So that was sufficient grounds to rule in favor of the father, because the mother didn’t have the moral grounds to educate her own kids, children.

And this was decided by the Supreme Court of Chile. Not just a small first instance tribunal. And I will point out that the vast majority of the—I mean, the public in Chile was pretty much divided, but I’m pretty sure that the majority of Chileans thought that the Supreme Court was right, you know? The case went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And fortunately, after a few years, the court not only challenged that decision of the Supreme Court, forced Chile to change its legislation, and to change the ruling of the Supreme Court of Chile, which is supposed to be the last judgment in the country. And the impact of that one, not only in Chile, in the rest of the region, because it shapes the common wisdom, the assumptions of many people. It helps for them to think carefully about this kind of issues. And the good news is that that mother was able to have the custody of her kids. And not only that, the impact in Chilean society and in the rest of the region was remarkable.

Now, the second question that was asked was about how difficult it is to establish accountability for human rights abuses against the perpetrators of those abuses. I mean, it’s a real challenge. It depends on whether or not you have locally an independent judiciary. If you do have an independent judiciary, the process is slow, it’s messy, it’s complicated. But there is a chance that atrocities could be addressed. And that is— especially human rights atrocities or abuses committed during the military dictatorship. There are countries in the region, like for instance, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, where there are people in prison for those type of atrocities.

In Brazil, thanks to an amnesty law that was passed in 1978, real investigation and prosecution of those atrocities actually never happened. And an important lesson that you could bear in mind is that Brazilian military are very dismissive of these type of issues, of human rights issues. But not only that, my sense is that Brazilian military officers at very high level are not afraid of stepping into politics, and give their opinion, and challenge the government. In other words, they were actually very, very active, and I’m referring to top officials in the Brazilian Army, during the Bolsonaro administration. There were top leaders who actually publicly argued that if they have to organize a coup again in Brazil, they are ready.

That kind of language you don’t find in Argentina, in Chile, in other countries where there have been some accountability. For one simple reason, the top military officers running the show are very much aware that if they get involved in politics, that they are part tomorrow of a coup d’état or something like that, at the end of the day they will be responsible. And they might be subject of criminal prosecution for atrocities committed during that period. And so there is a price to pay. So their calculation is much more, shall we say, prudent regarding this issue.

But again, once again, how difficult it is? It’s very difficult to establish accountability, and much more difficult when you’re dealing with dictatorship, where you need to rely on the work done by, for instance, the ICC, the International Criminal Court, which is pretty active in the case of Venezuela.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Fordham.

Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Vivanco. My name is Carlos Ortiz de la Pena Gomez Urguiza, and I have a question for you.

El Salvador is currently battling crime and gangs with strategies such as mano dura, which have shown a significant decrease in crime at the cost of violating human rights. Do you see a possible effective integration of such policies in high-crime-rate countries, such as Mexico, to stop the growth of narco and crime gang activity? And if so, how?

VIVANCO: Well, look, yeah, Carlos, very good question. Bukele in El Salvador is a real, real challenge. It’s really, really a complicated case, for several reasons. He’s incredibly popular. No question about it. He has managed to—thanks to that popularity—to concentrate power in his own hands. He fully controls Congress. But, much more relevant, he fully controls the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court today is subordinated to the executive branch. And he is constantly going after the civil society, and free media, and the opposition. Now, in violation of the Salvadorean constitution, he’s going to run for reelection. And he will be reelected, because he’s also very popular. And his policies to go after gangs are cruel, inhuman, and without—not even a facade of respect for due process.

Essentially, the policy which is not sustainable and is—I don’t think is something that you could export to other countries—is a policy—unless you have full control, unless you have some sort of dictatorship or quasi dictatorship. Which is based, in essence, in the appearance, in the number of tattoos that people, especially in the marginal communities in the periferia in El Salvador, where shanty towns are located. The police has a, you know, green light to arrest anyone who fit that profile. And then good luck, because it’s going to be very, very difficult for that person to avoid something like several months in prison.

The whole point of having an independent judiciary and due process is that law enforcement agencies have the—obviously, not only the right, the duty to prevent crimes and to punish criminals. Not physically punish them. You know, it’s to arrest them, to detain them, and to use proportional force to produce that attention. But they need to follow certain rules. They cannot just go around and arrest anyone who they have some sort of gut feelings that they are involved in crimes, because then you don’t—you’re not—the whole system is not able to distinguish and to make a distinction between potential criminals and innocent people.

But it is complicated, the case of Bukele, because, for instance, I was referring initially to the technique of naming and shaming as a technique, as a methodology to expose governments with deplorable human rights record. But in the case of Bukele, he couldn’t care less about. In other words, actually, I think he used the poor perception that exists, already that is established outside El Salvador as a result of his persecution of gangs in El Salvador—he used that kind of criticism as a way to improve his support domestically. In other words, when the New York Times published a whole report about massive abuses committed by Bukele’s criminal system, in the prison system in El Salvador, what Bukele does is to take that one, that criticism, as actually ammunition to project himself as a tough guy who is actually, you know, doing the right thing for El Salvador.

It’s a question of time. It’s a question of time. All of this is very sad for El Salvador, one of the few democracies in Central America with some future, I think, because I think they managed after the war to create institutions that are—that were much more credible than in the neighboring countries, like Guatemala, Honduras, and I’m not going to even mention Nicaragua. But under the control of this strongman, everything is possible today in El Salvador. He will be able to govern El Salvador this way as long as he’s popular.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has relaxed its attention and pressure on that government, based on the question of migration. So they are hostage by the cooperation of Bukele government to try or attempt to control illegal immigration into the U.S. So that point trumps or, I mean, supersedes everything else. And that is actually very unfortunate.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next two questions, written questions. One is on the subject that you wanted, from Brittney Thomas, who is an undergraduate at Arizona State University:

How come the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are socialist or communist while other Latin America countries are predominantly democracies? And then from Roger—

VIVANCO: I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand the question. Obviously, it’s about Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, but?

FASKIANOS: Why are they socialist or communist while other Latin American countries are predominantly democracies?

VIVANCO: Oh, I see. OK.

FASKIANOS: Yeah. And then the next question is from Roger Rose, who is an associate professor of political science at University of Minnesota, Morris: Given the recent decline in the norms of U.S. democracy in the last seven years, does the U.S. have any credibility and influence in the region in promoting democracy? And, again, if you could comment specifically on nations with the least democratic systems—Venezuela, Nicaragua—how could the U.S. play a more constructive role than it is currently?

VIVANCO: The U.S. is always a very important player, very, very important. I mean, it’s the largest economy in the world and the influence of the U.S. government in Latin America is huge. However, obviously, I have to acknowledge that our domestic problems here and serious challenges to the fundamentals of the rule of law, and just the notion that we respect the system according to which one who wins the election is—you know, has the legitimacy and the mandate to form a new government. If that notion is in question, and there are millions of American citizens who are willing to challenge that premise, obviously undermines the capacity of the U.S. to exercise leadership on this—in this context.

And the autocrats and the autocracies in the region—I’m not referring to the dictatorships, but I’m referring to the Andrés Manuel López Obrador, once again, from Mexico, or Bolsonaro in Brazil—they take those kinds of developments in the U.S. as green lights to do whatever they want at local level. So that is a serious—obviously, it’s a serious problem. And what is going on here has ramifications not only in the region, but also in the rest of the world.

Now, Cuba is a historical problem. It’s going to be too long to address the question in terms of why Cuba is a dictatorship and the rest of the region. Part of the problem with Cuba is that you have a government that violates the most fundamental rights and persecutes everyone who challenges the official line. And most of the Cubans today are willing to leave the country and to go into exile. But the problem is that we don’t have the right tool, the right instrument in place, to exercise pressure on Cuba. And the right instrument today is the embargo. And that embargo, that policy is a total failure.

The Cuban government is the same, exactly the same dictatorship. There has been no progress. And there’s going to be no progress, in my view, as long as the U.S. government insist on a policy of isolation. You should be aware that every year 99 percentage of the states in the world condemned the isolation against Cuba, with the exception and the opposition of the U.S. government, Israel, and in the past was the Marshall Islands. Now, I don’t think even the Marshall Islands joined the U.S. government defending that policy. So the policy is incredibly unpopular.

And the debate at international level is about the U.S. government policy on Cuba and not about the deplorable human rights record of Cuba. That’s why I was actually very supportive of the change of policy attempted during the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the isolation policy depends on Congress. And since the times of Clinton, this is a matter of who is the one in control of Congress. And the policy of isolation, it once again makes Cuba a victim of Washington. And Cuba, by the way, is not isolated from the rest of the world.

So the U.S. is incredibly, I would say, powerless with regard to the lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba. And at the time, offers a fantastic justification for the Cuban government to present itself as a victim. I think that is the—this is one of the most serious mistakes of the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America that I hope that one day will be—will be addressed effectively.

The case of Nicaragua and Venezuela is different, in the sense that we are looking into countries that—Venezuela in particular—have democracy for—a very questionable democracy, very weak, subject of tremendous corruption, and so on and so forth. But they have a system of political parties, free media, and so on, for many, many years. And they end up electing a populist leader whose marching orders and, you know, actually first majors was to establish some effective control of the judiciary. And the Supreme Court became an appendage of the government many, many, many years ago, which means that they managed during the Chavez administration to run the country with some sort of facade of democracy.

Today, under Maduro it’s no a longer a façade, it’s a clear dictatorship responsible for atrocities. Fortunately, it is under investigation by the ICC. And the case of Nicaragua is an extreme case, similar to Venezuela. And it’s—it’s a dictator who has managed to put in prison everyone who is not in full alliance with the government, including religious leaders, and academics, and opposition leaders, civil society, et cetera. The case of Nicaragua is more complicated because Nicaragua is subject of sanctions by the U.S. government, and the European Union, and Canada, and some governments in the region. But still, we don’t see much progress there.

FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Nassar Nassar, who has a raised hand. You can unmute yourself and state your affiliation.

Q: Yes. Hello.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

Q: Hi. My name is Nassar Nassar. I’m from Lewis University.

So my question is, which are the most significant actors in the global governance of human trafficking? And how effective are they in tackling that?

VIVANCO: Well, this is a matter that is usually—the main actors—so this is organized crime. This is organized crime. This is a question regarding—this is a—it’s a huge business, and extremely profitable. And if you want to address these kinds of issues, you need regional cooperation, which is very challenging. Keep in mind that at a local level, in many of the most democratic countries in the region, you have tremendous tensions among the local police and different police. For instance, the local FBI—equivalent to an FBI, is usually in tension with other branches of law enforcement. And if you expect to have cooperation from the rest of the countries in the region, it’s extremely challenging.

So these type of issues require effective cooperation, adjustment on legislation. Require more better intelligence. The reason why you have this type—proliferation of this type of business is because, obviously, corruption and lack of accountability. So this is—my point is that it is a reflection of how weak is our law enforcement system, and how unprofessional, and subject many times of corruption.

FASKIANOS: Just to follow up on that, a written question from Patricia Drown, who’s at Regent University.

How are the cartels and mafia being armed, and by whom?

VIVANCO: Well, in the case of, for instance, Mexico, weapons comes from the U.S. Sometimes even legally. You know, the Second Amendment plays a role here. It’s so easy to have access to weapons, all kind of weapons, in the U.S. So that helps. And a lack of actually an effective control mechanism to stop that type of traffic. The amount of money that cartels moved in countries like Mexico, but Colombia as well, and this mafia scene in Central America is significant. So they do have capacity to corrupt local enforcement officials that belongs to the police, the army, even the judiciary.

And as long as you don’t address the root cause of the problem, which is the lack of presence of the state—in other words, there are vast—as you know, there are regions of Colombia that are not under the control of the government, the territories in Colombia. And there are regions of Mexico that, unfortunately, are increasingly under more effective control of cartels than law enforcement and legitimate officials. So that unfortunately, is the—in my view, one of the reasons why it is relatively easy to witness this type of proliferation of illegal business.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. I think we are out of time. We have so many written questions and raised hands. Maybe I’ll just try to sneak in one more from Andrea Cuervo Prados. You have your hand raised. I think you also wrote a question. So if you can be brief and tell us who you are.

Q: OK. Hello. I’m adjunct faculty at Dickinson State University.

And, Mr. Vivanco, I have a question related to Colombia. What do you think about the state of the human rights in Colombia under the new leftist president, Gustavo Petro, compared to the previous president, Ivan Duque?

VIVANCO: Andrea, I think it’s pretty much the same. When we witness actually an improvement of human rights conditions in Colombia, it was during the negotiations with the FARC. I’m referring to the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. And with the signature of the peace agreement, when they signed the peace agreement, the numbers shows a serious decline in the cases of, for instance, internally displaced people, torture cases, executions, abductions, and many other of those typical abuses that are committed in Colombia in rural areas where this organized crime and irregular armed groups are historically present.

But then the policies implemented during the Duque administration were actually not very effective. There was a sort of relaxation during that period, and not effective implementation of those commitments negotiated with the FARC. That had an implication in terms of abuses. And today I don’t see a major shift. My sense is that the local communities are subject of similar abuses, including human rights activists as well as social leaders, in areas where there is a very weak presence of the state.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. José Miguel Vivanco. We really appreciate your being with us today. And I apologize. Great questions. I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to all of the written ones or raised hands. It’s clear we will have to do this—focus in on this again and have you back.

You can follow José Miguel on X at @VivancoJM. And the next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, November 29, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Shibley Telhami, who’s a professor at the University of Maryland, will lead a conversation on public opinion on Israel and Palestine. And in the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at You can follow us at @CFR_Academic. And visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues.

Again, José Miguel, thank you very much for today, and to all of you for joining us.

VIVANCO: Thanks a lot.

FASKIANOS: Take care.


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