Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

Brief stop in Bogotá

I’m back in Bogotá after 5 days in Putumayo, in southern Colombia, where I’ve been working on an evaluation of a USAID project.

Here’s a 37-second video of Tuesday morning’s rush hour in Puerto Asís, the largest city in Putumayo:

We were in Puerto Asís and Mocoa, meeting with everyone from the governor and mayors to representatives of women’s, indigenous, afro-Colombian, and campesino organizations.

Tomorrow morning I’m headed to another part of Colombia, where I’ll be all week. Before then, while I’ve got good internet, I expect to post at least once more here.

The day/week ahead: February 12, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach today, and pretty much all week. (How to contact me)

I’m leaving Bogotá shortly and spending the week in another, more remote part of Colombia. Not to sound mysterious—it’s just bad security practice to announce the location beforehand.

I have no idea how good the Internet connections will be, other than phone data, so I may be hard to contact until Friday.

Last week in Colombia peace process

This post is several days overdue because of travel—it covers the week of January 28-February 3.

Wave of violence intensifies

Violence involving guerrillas, guerrilla dissidents, or organized crime forced 2,560 people to flee their homes in January, according to CODHES, an NGO that tracks forced displacement. Of the displaced, 230 were forced out in mass events, a big increase over the 100 such displacements measured in January 2017.

In addition:

  • The Antioquia Indigenous Organization (OIA) warned that 400 Senú people are in imminent risk of forced displacement because of nearby combat in in the Bajo Cauca region municipality of Caucasia.
  • Army troops killed Embera indigenous leader Eleazar Tequia Bitucay in Chocó on the night of January 26. The Army at first claimed that Tequia, a leader of the local Indigenous Guard, was killed while trying to disarm a soldier during a peaceful protest over delayed education funds. However, the community said he was shot for no reason. Five days later, the Army admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness of the community.
  • Elsewhere in Chocó, in the Chagpien Tordó indigenous reserve of Litoral de San Juan municipality, Colombian security forces wounded a minor while carrying out a bombing raid on suspected ELN targets. The Defense Ministry insisted that the joint military-police operation was planned and carried out within the framework of international humanitarian law.
  • Six Colombian employees of the UN Office on Drugs and crime were robbed, apparently by members of a FARC dissident group, in a rural area of Paujil municipality, in Caquetá. The UNODC is verifying that families participating in the crop substitution program mandated by the peace accord are truly eradicating their coca. Two truckloads of verifiers were stopped by armed men who took their vehicles, cell phones, and GPS devices. The assailants said they opposed the crop substitution program. The incident has suspended the ONDCP program in this area.
  • The human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) warned that a longstanding pact has broken down between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a geographically limited but locally strong guerrilla group. The office issued an “early warning” alert about probable violence in southeastern Cesar department and the western part of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region. The EPL appears to be expanding into this zone of increasing coca cultivation.

“Don Temis” and the plight of social leaders

On the evening of January 27, two armed men shot and killed Temístocles Machado outside his house in the Isla de Paz neighborhood of Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. The 58-year-old Machado, known widely as “Don Temis,” was a member of the Black Communities Process (PCN, a national Afro-Colombian rights association). He had been receiving threats for more than 10 years.

In Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port city, Machado had led efforts to save his neighborhood. Isla de Paz is under threat from business interests and aligned armed groups who would eject residents to make room for new cargo warehouses and truck lots for the expanding port. Machado was also at the forefront of efforts to petition the government to provide basic services to his neighborhood. In May 2017, he was among the most visible leaders of a 21-day peaceful protest that brought the city to a halt.

Juan Diego Restrepo, editor of Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative website, had sat down with Machado last October. “Through the civic stoppage” of last May, “Don Temis” told him, “we now have interlocution with the national government. But Buenaventura is a town without law, nothing works, the oversight and accountability entities don’t work.”

“Theft of land in Buenaventura,” he added, “is carried out by the very same public officials, starting with the national government, to the municipal, through its illegal armed groups.… Whenever there’s a ten or fifteen-year plan for a new economic project, the armed groups come first, generating terror, intimidation, fear, to displace the people and later grab the land and sell it. I don’t believe the armed groups come here alone. Without consent. It’s not a coincidence. They are armed apparatuses used by politicians, businessmen. Government authority doesn’t function here.”

Despite frequent threats to his life, Machado had not accepted protection from the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Program. An official of the program told La Silla Vacía, “He said only God protects him.” Berenice Celeyta, longtime head of the local human rights group NOMADESC, rejects that. “It’s not that he didn’t want protection, but that he wanted collective protection [for the neighborhood], more than just a bodyguard and bulletproof vest for one person.”

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) stated that Machado’s killing was likely related to his community work, and that it is prioritizing bringing his case to justice. Just days before his murder, Machado had met with the Office’s number-two official, Vice-Prosecutor General María Paulina Riveros, to discuss his security situation.

That same night of January 27, assailants on motorcycles in Villavicencio, Meta attacked and wounded María Cecilia Lozano, a victims’ leader and survivor of the 1998 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, Meta.

Throughout Colombia, the Fiscalía has counted 101 homicides of human rights defenders, social leaders, political leaders, and community leaders between 2017 and so far in 2018. Counts vary so far for January 2018: the Somos Defensores organization denounced 12 murders, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) counts 18 murders, and the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) has identified 21.

According to Somos Defensores, murders of social leaders in 2017 happened the most in Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, with notable increases in Chocó and Cesar. “We thought that after 2017 things would calm down,” Carlos Guevara of Somos Defensores told El Espectador, “but it seems like the closer we get to elections this is going to get even worse.”

An analysis by the DeJusticia think-tank of data from the ¡Pacifista! website found that 31% of social leaders killed in 2017 were leaders of local Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), 23% were leaders of peasant farmer organization; 14% were indigenous leaders; 12% were Afro-Colombian leaders; 6% were union leaders; and 3% were trying to reclaim stolen land.

ELN violent activity worsening

President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiating team not to go to Quito, Ecuador to start a fifth round of talks with the ELN. The President cited the guerrilla group’s lack of “coherence” after the January 28th bombing of a police post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city.

The guerrillas continued a wave of violent attacks that began after a 100-day bilateral ceasefire ended on January 9. The Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline (which the U.S. government provided $104 million in military assistance to protect in 2003) has been out of service for 23 days after 22 different attempted or actual attacks in Arauca, Boyacá, and Norte de Santander.

Arauca has been the hardest-hit department by ELN attacks since the ceasefire ended, concentrating 46 percent of attacks according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) think-tank. The ELN has been aggressively assuming control of parts of Arauca that had been under FARC dominion. This, FIP reports, has meant the ELN applying its “norms of social control and conduct” in former FARC areas and increased “pressure against social and political leaders who are either FARC-aligned or contrary to ELN policies.”

The ELN structure in Arauca, the Domingo Laín column, is the group’s largest. It’s leader, Gustavo Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito,” is viewed as the member of the group’s five-man Central Command who most opposes peace talks with the government. Other ELN fronts’ actions “have been reduced compared to those of the Domingo Laín,” FIP notes. That could indicate that “this structure may be showing its internal dissent with respect to the Quito dialogues an the slow implementation of the FARC accords.”

In response, the Colombian military’s “Vulcan” Task Force announced an increased deployment of troops from its Energy Operational Command, which consists of three battalions totaling 1,800 troops, to guard pipeline and oil infrastructure.

A communiqué from the FARC political party denounced on February 1 that the ELN kidnapped four of its members, killing three, in Santa Cruz de Guachavez, Nariño. According to the FARC’s count, as of January 23 ex-combatants and party activists had suffered 49 attacks, with 36 killed, since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord. Unknown assailants also killed a demobilized FARC militia member last week in Caquetá.

Armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía meanwhile alleged that in Chocó, Nariño, Arauca, and Catatumbo the ELN is recruiting not only children but impoverished Venezuelan migrants.

In a statement responding to President Santos’s freezing of peace talks, the ELN leadership pointed out that it never agreed to a permanent ceasefire with the government.

Polls for May presidential election

It’s very early and things may change. Also, polls don’t take into account shady get-out-the-vote machinery that may boost turnout for candidates who appear unpopular today. But right now, polling for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election is hinting at a leftward or anti-corruption direction.

Several top local media outlets sponsored an Invamer poll of 1,200 Colombians in 41 municipalities (out of 1,100) in 26 departments (out of 33). It found two left-of-center former mayors in the lead. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who had a stormy 2012-2015 tenure as mayor of Bogotá, leads a crowded field with an intended vote of 23-plus percent. Sergio Fajardo, a center-left former mayor of Medellín, is just behind with 20-22 percent depending on the likely matchups. Also high in the running are two right-of-center candidates, former defense minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras.

Taken together, candidates who support the FARC peace accord and its implementation total about 62 percent of voters’ intentions. The FARC candidate himself, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), is at the bottom with less than 2 percent.

The “Gran Encuesta” poll seems to show Fajardo besting Petro and all others in hypothetical second-round matchups. But either candidate would have to get there first. Despite his low showing in the poll, Vargas Lleras will be a hard candidate to beat. The former vice-president broke with President Santos after spending nearly seven years in his administration, and is now critical of the FARC peace accord. He has assiduously courted local power brokers around the country who are adroit at getting voters to show up and do what they’re told at the polls.

In-Depth Reading

The day ahead: February 9, 2018

I’ll be very hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

Like a Colombian Groundhog Day, I’ve got a fifth consecutive full day packed with meetings here in Bogotá.

We were going to go to “the field” on Saturday, but the ELN’s declaration of an “armed blockade” has forced us to alter plans. I’m now going to be in Bogotá until Monday morning.

The day ahead: February 8, 2018

I’ll be very hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I’m in Bogotá with another full day of meetings, as has been the case all week, interviewing people for this evaluation project. There may be a gap in the early to mid afternoon, but it will probably fill up.

The day ahead: February 7, 2018

I’ll be very hard to reach all day. (How to contact me)

A solid day of meetings with Colombian government agencies here in Bogotá. The only time I’ll see a phone or computer screen (or the sun) is in moments between those meetings.

Tuesday in Bogotá

A day of meetings in the capital city doesn’t lend itself to magical photography. But here are a few quick snapshots.

Calle 26

By the Palacio de Nariño (presidential palace)

Carrera 9

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

February 5, 2018

Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela

Colombia has created a shelter along its eastern border to care for Venezuelans escaping their nation’s autocratic government and ravaged economy, and Brazil may follow suit


Es más probable que la sistematicidad provenga de que grupos locales diversos se consideran políticamente autorizados para perpetrar esos crímenes porque sienten que algunas fuerzas políticas nacionales aprueban esa violencia

Colombia, Peru

Tillerson did not mention Trump’s comments in a news conference in Buenos Aires on Sunday but a senior state department official on the trip who declined to be identified said that they were “not helpful”

Costa Rica

Front and center in the rollercoaster of a race is the hot-button issue of gay marriage


With 98 percent of the vote counted, the National Electoral Council said voters had agreed to reinstate term limits by a margin of 64 percent versus 35 percent

The vote nullifies an amendment put in place by Congress after intense prodding by Mr. Correa, who was president at the time, and who persuaded lawmakers to adopt the measure based on his promise not to run for office in 2017


Though a few won asylum during the Obama administration, denials or prolonged detention have been the norm under President Trump

Western Hemisphere Regional

One option is a temporary extension — perhaps one year — of their legal protections paired with a little bit of cash for border security

It also would not immediately authorize the $30 billion that Trump is seeking to build the border wall, instead greenlighting a study of border security needs

Breier, who currently handles State Department policy planning in the Western Hemisphere, has worked nearly two decades on regional affairs, including more than a decade in the U.S. intelligence community

The day ahead: February 5, 2018

I’ll be in meetings all day. (How to contact me)

It’s my first full day in Colombia. Here in Bogotá I have five or six meetings on the schedule, talking to the principals in the program I’m here to evaluate. That will make me hard to reach.

I was up late Saturday—it took longer than I thought to pack my bags for an entire month—and had an early flight Sunday, so I went through Sunday on three hours’ sleep. I just slept for eight, so I feel better, but now I’m way behind on any tasks and communications involving a computer. So this evening I’ll be in the hotel room doing a lot of housekeeping.

The week ahead

I’m in Bogotá all week—just arrived Sunday afternoon. It’s the first of four weeks in Colombia. 23 or 24 interviews and meetings on the calendar right now, nearly all of them related to the project that has me here.

They put me in a nice hotel with fast (if insecure) internet access. So I look forward to updating this site a bit in the mornings and evenings.

Going to Colombia for the next 4 weeks

Where I’ll be visiting.

I’m off Sunday for an extended trip to Colombia, which I’ll mostly spend in three regions far from Bogotá. I’ll be on a team evaluating a big USAID “helping get government presence into post-conflict territories” program.

I’ve been interested for a long time in this question of “how you start governing ungoverned areas.” (My “2018 priorities” post in December discusses this.) In 2008-12, when Plan Colombia started to become less overwhelmingly military in focus, I took a long look, with lots of field work, at U.S.-supported efforts to do this under what was called the “National Territorial Consolidation Plan.”

My research, and my critiques of those programs, put me in frequent touch with the people in the U.S. and Colombian governments who were carrying them out. Today, many of them are working with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives on a $43 million-plus program to help Colombia capitalize on the peace accord by bringing government services into three regions of the country. Those regions are Putumayo in the south, and Arauca and Catatumbo in the northeast.

The USAID-supported program has another year and a half to go. Late last year, the people in charge asked me to help carry out an interim evaluation of how it is going. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It’s an unusual and fascinating opportunity:

  • I get to learn more intimately about what’s involved with getting state presence into a zone that’s never had it. I’ve never worked in government, so it’s a vantage point I’ve missed. Where are the bottlenecks? Why do some things that seem easy from the outside turn out to be so hard when you’re inside? And as a result, when we “outsiders” make recommendations to well-meaning people on the inside, which ones are helpful in pushing things forward and which ones don’t even pass the laugh test?
  • It’s already been fascinating getting a firsthand look at the program’s documents, database, and notes, especially their own internal evaluations of what is going well and what has been frustrating. (I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, though, so I won’t share any intimate details.)
  • Though I’ve been to Colombia about 70 times, I’ve never stayed for an entire month at a time. And this moment—an upcoming election, a struggle to implement the peace accord—is an important time to be embedded.
  • I get to return to three places I haven’t been in a while: Arauca (last visit 2002), Catatumbo (2016), and Putumayo (2016).
  • I get to meet with a lot of officials and agencies running Colombia’s post-conflict implementation effort, many of whom are hard to pin down.
  • I get to catch up with friends and colleagues, once I have a better sense of when our schedule will allow it.

It will be hard to be away from my family for a whole month. But being on my own also means a lot more time in mornings and evenings to keep up with the work back here in Washington. (Not to mention hours in airports and on endless drives through rural areas.) So I plan to cover my regular WOLA duties, and post things to this site, for a few hours each day.

I’ll still have written output at this site and at WOLA’s site. I still plan to keep up with news coverage around the region. Of course, this output will be lighter during February. And while I’d like to post chatty updates and photos about my impressions from the field, for security reasons I won’t do that until I return to Bogotá or Washington. But I’ll still be around and mostly connected. So let’s see how this goes. Hasta pronto.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

February 1, 2018


Comandante da PM confirma que pretende acabar com 18 UPPs


Cualquiera que sea la versión correcta, estos asesinatos tomaron por sorpresa a los guerrilleros sin armas y prendieron todas las alertas de que esté en ciernes un nuevo frente de guerra

The drawn-out battle means Santos’ successor will likely inherit a reduced version of the accord

Según Indepaz, este año han sido asesinados 21 líderes sociales y defensores de derechos humanos. Este año electoral arrancó con una delicada situación de orden público en las regiones

Hace dos días asaltaron a seis funcionarios colombianos de la Oficina de Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito, Unodc, en Caquetá. Todo apunta a que fue una disidencia de las Farc

La Fiscalía confirmó la desaparición forzada de tres miembros del grupo político de las Farc

El pasado mes circularon amenazas contra los Nasa y sus líderes a nombre de todos los grupos armados que se atribuyen presencia en el norte de Cauca


“Right now in Haiti, the money of foreign taxpayers, your money, is being wasted,” the president said


Navarrete explicó que el despliegue de policías civiles no significa la vuelta a los cuarteles de las fuerzas armadas

Quizzed by ruling party lawmakers on Tuesday, Videgaray denied the air marshals were part of any NAFTA quid pro quo, but said the government was studying the plan


He then suggested the possibility, however, that internal forces might take action, although he offered no evidence the United States had intelligence backing the notion

Western Hemisphere Regional

Except for one other year, 2017 saw the fewest illegal border crossings since World War II

Immigration officials say they no longer “distinguish between border security and interior enforcement” and aim to “push the borders out”

After stalling for the next two years, Latin America’s exports to China increased by around 30% last year

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Thursday for his first multi-country trip to Latin America in an effort to soothe tensions with an important U.S. diplomatic and economic partner that has struggled with the Trump administration

Sometimes I think we have forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere and maintaining those shared values

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Pedro Rios / American Friends Service Committee photo at KPBS (San Diego California). Caption: “A San Diego resident breaks a piñata of one of the border wall prototypes during a State of the Union watch party, Jan. 30, 2018.”

(Even more here)

January 31, 2018


  • Kyle Johnson, ¿Que Pasa Con el Eln? (International Crisis Group, La Silla Vacia (Colombia), January 31, 2018).

Todo por ahora depende de la respuesta del ELN, y si internamente se puede poner de acuerdo

While carrying out operations against the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian Security Forces bombed near the Wounaan Indigenous reservation of Chagpien Tordó, in the municipality of Litoral de San Juán in Chocó, injuring a minor

El pronunciamiento se dio después de una serie de denuncias presentadas esta martes, por un bombardeo que posiblemente afectó el resguardo indígena Chagpien Tordó

El Salvador

The combined effects of Trump’s war on immigrants and street gangs will create communities that are even more alienated from law enforcement and more isolated from the institutions that can protect


The donation consisted of 41 J8 Jeeps, 32 Polaris Rangers, 12 9.5-ton and eight 12-ton trucks, and 12 trailers. In addition, the Guatemalan Army received two transport buses and one minibus


El gobierno federal reforzará los operativos de seguridad en la frontera sur y, en breve, inaugurará un cuartel militar en Chicomuselo, Chiapas

“I don’t agree with it. I take it as if we’re bad neighbors,” she added. “I see it as a bad thing, because it’s like we’re discriminating against the other country”

Some San Diego residents were happy about Trump’s mention of the wall, particularly in East County’s rural areas, where much of the illegal cross-border traffic was pushed

El funcionario admitió que hoy Veracruz no se encuentra en “estado óptimo de seguridad”

Faster and more inclusive economic growth will remain out of reach until the nation can enforce basic legal rules

“We write to urge you to raise the importance of strong, independent electoral systems in Mexico and Latin America more broadly,” write Senators Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Senator Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey

So far, those partnerships have not fundamentally changed, current and former officials said

Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela

Their industry all but destroyed, former fishermen now run guns one way, diapers another

Western Hemisphere Regional

The overwhelming sense is that the Americas at present are experiencing a geopolitical lull – free from major battles for regional influence, perhaps, but also devoid of any vision

The day ahead: January 31, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach all day because of a full schedule of events and meetings. (How to contact me)

I’m giving a talk this morning at the OAS Inter-American Defense Board about the use of military forces as police. (Spoiler alert: I’m opposed to it.) If you’re interested, here is a 5MB PDF of my powerpoint and speaking notes, in Spanish.

Then I’m headed to an event at the Open Society Foundations, have a meeting with management at WOLA to talk about this year’s workplan, and have a call with colleagues with whom I’m working on an evaluation of a big USAID program in Colombia.

Because of that latter project, I’m actually going to Colombia this weekend, and will be there for an entire month. I’ll discuss that project in a post here as soon as things get less busy. My calendar says this is the last super-busy day of the week, so hopefully tomorrow.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Manuel Rueda photo at NPR. Caption: “As the FARC enters politics, its now disarmed Marxist militants have taken on a more moderate tone. Their logo, which used to bear two rifles, now has a red rose, a symbol used by some social democratic parties in Europe and the U.S.”

(Even more here)

January 30, 2018


Nationwide there were 170 social leaders assassinated in 2017, an increase of about a third from the year before

While a campaign by the FARC (the group’s new name forms the same acronym in Spanish) may be controversial, it is absolutely legal

Ending the conflict with the E.L.N., most here agree, will most likely prove to be even more of a challenge than ending the one with the FARC was


Mr. Moreno compared his old boss to Napoleon, who espoused democratic ideals but turned into a despot


Fencing in urban areas has deterred border crossings. But even in areas with little fencing, the number of apprehensions dropped sharply in recent decades

In 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Mexico agreed to place Mexican security agents on certain flights, but said it would never allow U.S. officials on board its commercial airlines


“They want relief, not necessarily to force Maduro from power”

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