Monthly Risk Spotlight: February 2021


Central-South American Asylum Seekers Continue Attempt to Reach the US
In mid-January riot police in Guatemala blocked approximately 7,000 migrants traveling north through the country in hopes of reaching the US. Violence was reported, with police deploying tear gas and using batons in clashes with migrants. This was the first mass group, or “caravan,” in 2021 to attempt the journey to the US. The Guatemalan police and military resources are being deployed in a sustained effort to prevent groups of asylum seekers from reaching the US. Guatemala is doing so with encouragement and support from the Mexican government, which recently published a video of its national guard forces armed with assault rifles along its southern border, where the caravan is expected to attempt to cross. Some observers predict that this year may experience higher numbers of migrants attempting the journey north than recent averages, despite what some believe to be the most difficult conditions in recent history for migrants trying to make the trip.

Amid the pandemic, the traditionally porous borders between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are unusually tight, with officials requiring negative COVID-19 test results at border crossings, which many migrants do not have. Furthermore, the Trump administration, in one of its only Latin America-focused policy initiatives, has spent the last four years pursuing a suite of policies intended to prevent asylum seekers from Central and South America from making it across the US border. This goal became one of the defining features of US relations with countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. These past four years, the US made deals to enlist these countries’ governments and security forces in efforts to stop caravans traveling northbound and send them back to their home country.

The continued flow of migrants north indicates that despite the numerous risks and low probability of success, there remain people in which staying is simply not an option. This can in part be explained by the severe economic suffering exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak, rampant violence, and devastating conditions left by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in parts of Central America.

While the new US Biden administration has stated intentions to reverse these policies, Biden officials have warned migrants that delays to implementation are likely. Potential alternative policies to addressing this issue include providing economic development assistance, improving access to education, and supporting anti-corruption initiatives in the region. Regardless of what policy is deemed most effective, the flow of asylum seekers is likely to continue and any solution to the complicated problem should require strong and continuous multilateral coordination to be successful.


A Recent Attack in Iraq Highlights Significant Security Challenges
On Thursday, 21 January, in Baghdad, 32 people were killed and more than 100 injured in twin suicide bombings. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which its members stated targeted Shiite Muslims. The attack is reportedly the largest in Iraq since a similar bombing near Tayaran Square killed almost 30 people in January 2018.

The Iraqi government and the US military have considered the ISIS threat in Iraq largely eliminated since 2017, when the Iraqi military, assisted by coalition forces, recaptured ISIS-held territory in Mosul, Salahaddin, and Anbar provinces. While ISIS has continued to exercise a presence in Iraq, it has until recently been largely limited to desert lands and mountainous regions of the country, where evasion from Iraqi security forces is easier.

While this recent attack exhibits ISIS’s ability to mount strikes within Iraq, it does not necessarily indicate a significant growth in the group’s capabilities, certainly not approaching anything like their previous strength. Instead, the recent strikes may reveal broader shifts in Iraq’s security environment, namely the deterioration of the Iraqi security force’s (ISF) ability to project control over its territory, actively pursue identified threats like ISIS, and prevent such strikes from occurring.

Factors contributing to reduced capabilities of the ISF include recent discrediting of the central government, which in 2019 and 2020 faced months of large-scale country-wide protests against government corruption and a lack of accountability. Demands for reforms and later a full overthrow of the government was at times met with heavy-handed responses by the ISF, and many protesters were killed. This is relevant because the ISF is made up of a patchwork of different units including traditional military organizations like the Iraqi Army and Air Force, but also the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shia militias which were formed and received direct support from the Iraqi government in 2014. These forces remain relevant and influential across Iraq today, and while they are officially under the control of the Iraqi government, they have a history of conducting operations without government knowledge and some receive support from Iran. As the Iraqi central government loses popular credibility, a similar decline in cooperation across the patchwork of ISF segments has also occurred, decreasing the overall capability to protect and control territory against attacks.

The continued withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, with most recently 500 withdrawn in January, has also contributed to Iraq’s decreased security capabilities. While experts believe that 2,500 soldiers vs. 3,000 soldiers should not have a significant impact on US capabilities in the country, the decrease does represent the continuation of a cumulative trend since 2017.

While the recent ISIS attack is significant, the main takeaway is the Iraqi government’s failure to exercise influence and control over its territory and the multiple autonomous and potentially dangerous groups that operate within it.


Tensions Erupt in New Delhi as Farmers Demand a Full Repeal of Controversial Agricultural Laws
Tensions erupted in New Delhi on 26 January, as thousands of farmers protesting India’s new agricultural laws broke through police erected barricades, with many riding tractors and wielding swords or blunt weapons and stormed into the Indian capital. By the end of the day, hundreds of police and protesters were injured, and one protestor’s death was reported. Protests over the agricultural laws have been ongoing for months now but this latest unrest, notably on India’s Republic Day, was a clear message to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: there will be no negotiating on the controversial agricultural laws and protesters will not stand down until the laws have been fully repealed.

In September 2020, the Indian government passed several laws essentially easing regulations on the ability of private investors to deal directly with those working in the agricultural industry. Small farmers, who account for approximately 70-80% of the agricultural industry in India, interpret these laws as removing their legal protections and putting them in a position where they may struggle against larger corporations. As many small farmers are already dealing with rising debts and other financial difficulties, they see these laws as an attack on their livelihoods. Beginning in November 2020, disgruntled farmers began erecting camps outside of New Delhi stating they would not leave until the laws were repealed. Indian courts, in what many protesting farmers see as a delaying tactic, suspended the laws until a court-appointed committee of experts could negotiate a compromise with the farmers. No such compromise has yet been made nor has substantive discussions between the opposing groups been held.

The current status of the anti-agricultural reform movement can be classified as a stalemate. The Indian government appears to be hesitant to repeal the laws in the belief that the movement will eventually lose momentum. As Indian President Modi sees these reforms as an essential aspect of his broader plan to liberalize and double the size of the Indian economy by 2024, he is unlikely to endorse a full repeal or any major changes to the laws. Protesting farmers, however, appears persistent in their resolve to see the laws repealed. In the short-term tensions are likely to remain high around New Delhi until a compromise is made or one side or the other acquiesces.


Fraudulent and Violent Elections in Uganda
This year, Uganda held its presidential elections on 14 January, and incumbent President Yoweri Museveni was announced as the winner, as a population watched in desolation and anger, but not shock. This marks the sixth consecutive electoral win for Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. He has violently ensured the longevity of his autocratic regime and appears to have zero intention of ceding power in the long term. In the lead-up to the January 2021 election, he threatened war on the country if he were to be replaced. Much-needed change in Uganda appears to be an unattainable dream.

The election results have been declared fraudulent by opposition leaders, right groups, and some foreign governments. Museveni has used various repressive tactics to secure his win, which includes: a full Internet shutdown, an aggressive security presence and response, arresting members of the opposition, cracking down on opposition campaign rallies, imposing politically motivated harsh COVID-19 restrictions on movement, among others. Pre and post-election violence has led to approximately 50 fatalities, multiple injuries and abductions by security forces, and countless other forms of human rights violations. The internet shutdown has made it difficult for the media to report on the actual scale of the violence witnessed in the country.

Museveni’s main political rival, Bobi Wine was projected to turn the tide and win this year’s elections, due to his large support base. Wine has received a large sum of national and international media attention, partly due to his previous fame acquired as a singer, but also due to the countless and senseless attacks inflicted on him by the Museveni government. He has been beaten and arrested on multiple occasions since he announced his bid for the presidency in 2019.

Following the election, Wine was placed under house arrest and is home surrounded by military soldiers, presumably for the purpose of curbing his ability to entice violence following the electoral outcome. The order was presumably given by President Museveni, who has denied any involvement. For multiple days, he was unable to leave his home and all visits were prohibited. Wine was released several days later, following a court order, calling the blockade unlawful.

Wine is challenging the election results and has declared himself president-elect.  He has vowed to continue the fight to remove Museveni from power. Although the violence has significantly de-escalated in Uganda, flareups could occur, particularly if the elections are indeed challenged in court.


Widespread Protest Activity in Russia Over Unlawful Arrest of Opposition Leader
On 31 January, close to 100 Russian cities saw mass demonstrations unfold. Thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand the release of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, jailed by Russian authorities under false pretenses. A fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny grew in popularity as a symbol of change for a country with a long history of autocratic rule. Navalny’s rapidly expanding support base fueled narratives that he could successfully challenge President Putin in the next election.  Navalny thus became a threat to Putin’s government, a threat deemed powerful enough to necessitate elimination. In August 2020, members of Putin’s secret police are said to have attempted to assassinate Navalny, through the use of poison.  Putin has rejected all allegations linking him to the incident.

Navalny took ill while on a domestic flight in direction to Moscow. The flight made an emergency landing in Germany, where he was hospitalized for several months. Upon his immediate return to Russia, on 17 January, he was arrested by Russian authorities. The Russian government justified the arrest by inferring to a violation of a questionable 2014 embezzlement conviction. A justification that raised suspicion of foul play, as it was previously used to disqualify Navalny as a contender for the 2018 presidential election.

Navalny took to social media to send a message of resistance and perseverance in face of adversity, to Russian civilians fatigued by the tyrannical system of government currently in place in Russia. His words would seem to have resonated with thousands, as mass demonstrations demanding for his release, and an end to widespread systems of abuse, oppression, and impunity, ensued thereafter. Russian security forces were quickly ordered to make way to protest gathering points to disperse crowds. The government placed a ban on the demonstrations and warned that violators would face arrest. Some educational institutions also stated that any student who takes part in protest activity would face expulsion.

On Sunday, January 31, with knowledge of the possible repercussions, thousands of protesters marched for the cause, violating clear government orders. Security forces demonstrated little restraint in their interactions with protestors, excessively using their batons and stun guns. Violent clashes were reported in multiple cities.  An approximate five thousand people have been detained, among them Navalny’s wife. Moscow was shut down and security checkpoints have since been installed to restore order. Although Russian authorities are expected to utilize all necessary resources to silent protestors, the movement is unlikely to die. The social movement for Russia’s future is continuing in full force through online campaigns, and with support from various foreign governments.



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