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.



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Notes from Arauca, Colombia

Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.

Looking north at Arauca city. Beyond the buildings, to the horizon, is Venezuela.

Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.

A pretty common sight outside the main towns, where there’s no security-force presence.

The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.

Colombian Army armored personnel carrier outside Saravena.

A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.

Domingo Laín Front graffiti.

The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.

ELN banner on the highway between Arauquita and Saravena.

That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.

Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.

It seemed like ELN graffiti were all black or red, and all FARC dissident graffiti were blue. Perhaps that’s part of their non-aggression pact.

That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.

The Arauca River near Arauquita, with Venezuela in the background. The border is 200-plus-miles long, but there’s only one official border crossing.

Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.

One of several groups of Venezuelan migrants we saw walking along the highway outside Arauca capital.

I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.

Smuggled cheap Venezuelan gas is on sale all along the road.

Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)

The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.

Checkpoint near the Caño Limón oil installation.

Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.

We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.

Back in Colombia

Here’s the unremarkable view from my hotel near the Bogotá, Colombia airport. We just arrived last night, and in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to another region of the country. If I post from that region at all, it will be content that doesn’t reveal my location. I’ll be back in Bogotá on Friday.

The next two weeks

I’m leaving Monday morning for an 11-day visit to Colombia. We’ll be doing field research in two regions of the country, plus a couple of days in Bogotá. It’s shaping up to be an incredible trip, though there’s never enough time to do things as thoroughly as one would like.

That’s four days from now. Over those four days, I need to finish a draft of a big report based on our mid-August visit to the Mexico-Guatemala border. I’m already up over 6,000 words, and I think a barely workable first draft is about six hours away.

Once that’s in the bag, I plan to put in many hours of “desk research” about the two Colombian regions I’ll be visiting, so that I can get the most out of our scheduled interviews. All that, plus 11 hours of meetings scheduled for today and tomorrow, packing for the trip, and spending some time with my family over the weekend before I go away.

This is all to say that, because of that workload, this site may be barely active over the next two weeks. I’ll try to post from Colombia, though for security reasons I won’t post from the regions I visit until I leave those regions.

As of today, though, I need to put on hold things like posting news links. I’ll actually be traveling quite a bit in October: Colombia twice, Florida, Los Angeles, and maybe New York. So my posts here will probably be sporadic for a while.

The day ahead: September 26, 2019

Except for a moment around mid-day, I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

My calendar shows three calls scheduled today with mostly academic colleagues in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also taking my daughter for her annual doctor checkup in the early afternoon. This evening WOLA is holding a public reception for Latin American human rights defenders who are in town for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission hearings.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. /Texas Public Radio photo at NPR. Caption: “In the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, asylum-seekers camp out as they wait for their day in U.S. immigration court.”

(Even more here)

September 25, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The FY2020 Homeland Security appropriations bill fully funds the President’s request for the border wall while also providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the detention capacity needed to enforce immigration laws

“If they do claim fear, they will generally be returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)”

With some humanitarian and medical exceptions, DHS will no longer be releasing family units from Border Patrol Stations into the interior


According to the van’s driver and multiple witnesses, a police officer fired at a passing motorcycle, piercing the van’s exterior and striking Felix in the back

Bolsonaro asserted that the forests were “practically untouched,” and blamed a “lying and sensationalist media” for propagating fake news about their destruction


Las personas que realizaron este reconocimiento a la Comisión son el mayor del Ejército Gustavo Enrique Soto; José Éver Veloza, excomandante de las AUC; y José Benito Ramírez, quien en la guerra fue conocido ‘Fabián Ramírez’

Colombia, Venezuela

The classified report — a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post — offers new allegations about the scope of Maduro’s personal knowledge of the guerrillas’ presence and activities

Una vez más el Gobierno colombiano aportará pruebas en contra del régimen chavista que mantiene una relación de beneficio mutuo con el Eln y las disidencias de las Farc

Según el documento, el objetivo de la reunión habría sido discutir “la propuesta de crear un bloque político de la izquierda Latinoamericana, y el apoyo de movimiento de tropas y entrenamiento a milicias (Eln y Gao-re)”

Are Venezuela and Colombia headed for war? Believe it or not, that’s the big worry in South America right now

El Salvador

The underpinnings of the bilateral relationship — including trade and cooperation in the fight against transnational crime — have not significantly changed


Poor Guatemalan farmers turned to heroin poppies. When the military destroyed their crops, many had only one other choice: Flee to the U.S.


As the one-year anniversary of López Obrador’s presidency approaches, expectations are high that his government will do what his predecessors have not: provide answers to the tens of thousands of families of the disappeared

Central America Regional, Mexico

  • Rick Jervis, Daniel Borunda, Vicky Camarillo, Rafael Carranza, Daniel Connolly, Hannah Gaber, Diana Garcia, Julia Gavarrete, Alan Gomez, Daniel Gonzalez, Jack Gruber, Harrison Hill, Sandy Hooper, Bart Jansen, Mark Lambie, Pamela Ren Larson, Sean Logan, Aaron Montes, Omar Ornelas, Nick Oza, Rebecca Plevin, Annie Rice, Joe Rondone, Courtney Sacco, Matt Sobocinski, Lauren Villagran, Jared Weber, One Deadly Week Reveals Where the Immigration Crisis Begins — and Where It Ends (USA Today, September 25, 2019).

In one week, thousands of migrants overwhelm the U.S. border. We reveal their dangerous journeys and the broken immigration system that awaits them


Resource conflicts and the management and protection of Venezuela’s natural heritage are not only important from a conservation angle—they are the key to achieving a sustainable political solution and unlocking Venezuela’s future

El presidente de Rusia, Vladímir Putin, reiteró junto al gobernante venezolano Nicolás Maduro, su apoyo a «todas las autoridades legítimas» del país y expresó su respaldo al diálogo entre el chavismo y 5 partidos minoritarios

O’Brien’s appointment may be an indicator that the administration is trying to not “rock the boat” as it enters an election year and instead tout the sanctions and previous saber-rattling

The funding was mostly repurposed from aid originally earmarked for Honduras and Guatemala that President Donald Trump cut last year

The day ahead: September 25, 2019

I should be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

Other than an internal meeting in the morning, I should be around today. My goal is to make huge progress on a report about the Mexico-Guatemala border, so that I can have an advanced draft in process by the time I travel to Colombia for a 10-day trip starting Monday.

The day ahead: September 24, 2019

I’m at an all-day conference. (How to contact me)

I’ll be attending an all-day discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace about implementation of the the “Leahy Law,” a 20-plus-year-old condition that (in theory) stops U.S. security assistance to foreign units that violate human rights with impunity. I’ll be hard to contact.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

September 23, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The mechanisms for getting the money back are far from simple and Trump administration officials don’t get to decide how these funds are made available

The department said no Native American tribal lands or national parks were included in the transfer, which includes areas next to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona and Otay Mountain Wilderness in California

It’s not entirely clear where Cuccinelli’s 30 percent figure comes from


Morales is running for a fourth-consecutive term in the Oct. 20 presidential election and some analysts believe that the fires could damage his prospects


Hundreds protest over killing of Ágatha Félix, eight, allegedly shot in back by police bullet in favela

Entre mortas e feridas, já são nove as crianças vítimas da mais extrema barbárie que deveria levar Wilson Witzel aos tribunais


Archila reveló que están en ejecución 1,1 billones de pesos y anticipó que en diciembre se sabrá realmente cuánto se requerirá en los próximos años para atender las necesidades de los seis pilares básicos

“No estamos ni con Iván Márquez, ni con Gentil Duarte. Pero tampoco con el partido”

De los 171 casos reportados por la Oficina del Alto Comisionado para la Paz hasta el 20 de septiembre, se han esclarecido 87 –poco más de la mitad de los casos– y 13 personas han sido condenadas

El escolta de Yolanda González, una lideresa protegida por la UNP, murió abatido por militares y ella resultó gravemente herida. La mujer contradice la versión del Ejército que asegura que el escolta habría disparado primero

Tres candidatos a alcaldías asesinados, cuatro a concejos, más de 40 amenazados y 402 municipios en riesgo de sufrir episodios de violencia política forman la antesala de las elecciones de octubre

Comunidades aledañas a los ríos Truandó y Salaquí han sido desplazadas y sus líderes sociales asesinados

Hoy los colombianos podrán escuchar, por primera vez, las declaraciones de los exjefes guerrilleros sobre el secuestro, caso en el que ya están acreditadas 580 víctimas

Colombia, Venezuela

Colombia’s president compared Nicolás Maduro to Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic as he goes on a diplomatic offensive

Aunque durante más de 200 años ningún conflicto ha terminado en guerra y siempre el diálogo ha imperado, algunos dicen que esta vez hay varios factores que podrían empeorar la situación

With diplomatic ties between the two countries severed, the risk of escalation is high. Bogotá and Caracas should open channels of communication to avoid inter-state clashes

El Salvador

While the Trump administration has suspended aid programs to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Ms. Ou, the ambassador, noted that China had signed 13 cooperation agreements

The government of El Salvador, the country that sent the most asylum seekers to the US in 2018, signed an agreement on Friday to begin accepting asylum seekers sent back from the US

The deal is expected to target migrants from countries like Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and central African nations


En las pasadas elecciones guatemaltecas ganó la presidencia el exdirector del Sistema Penitenciario Alejandro Giammattei —quien asumirá el próximo enero—, conocido por haber sofocado un supuesto motín en 2006 y después acusado de facilitar una lista de reos para ejecutarlos


Neither the United States nor Venezuela’s neighbors support military action, so barring direct aggression by Venezuela or the Colombian groups now based on its territory, that’s unlikely to be a means for toppling the regime

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, September 23

Tuesday, September 24

Wednesday, September 25

Thursday, September 26

Friday, September 29

The day ahead: September 23, 2019

I’ll be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I spent the weekend writing a memo about police assistance, then a declaration for one of the several cases being litigated against the Trump administration’s efforts to limit asylum. Today, I’ve got a long morning staff meeting, coffee with a colleague in the afternoon, and will be speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event in the evening.

Otherwise I’ll be working on a big report about the Mexico-Guatemala border, nailing down details for a trip to Colombia next week, and answering messages that went unanswered while working on last week’s Colombia conference.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Evan Vucci/AP photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “President Trump tours a 30-foot section of the southern border wall in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego on Sept. 18.”

(Even more here)

September 20, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The 18 border projects listed a total of about 309 miles of new and replacement fencing, mostly along the western portion of the U.S.-Mexico border

Planning documents obtained by The Washington Post show the cost of building 509 miles of barriers averages out to more than $36 million per mile

Agents at Dilley are not wearing the Border Patrol’s well-known olive-green uniforms, and are identifying themselves to migrant families and children as asylum officers

The latest case-by-case court records through the end of August 2019 show the court’s active case backlog was 1,007,155. If the additional 322,535 cases which the court says are pending but have not been placed on the active caseload rolls are added, then the backlog now tops 1.3 million

The pair had recently entered the US and made a request for asylum but they were sent to Matamoros, Mexico, to wait for an immigration court hearing


For more than a century, a series of Brazilian governments have sought to move into the country’s interior, developing — or, to be more precise, colonizing — the Amazon


Uno de los antecedentes que influyeron en la posición del Gobierno en la mesa de negociaciones corresponde a las experiencias derivadas del Plan de Consolidación Integral de La Macarena (PCIM), el cual tuvo aplicación en el gobierno de Álvaro Uribe

Colombia, Venezuela

Por ser el principal paso desde Cúcuta hacia las grandes ciudades del país, el páramo es un paso obligado para los caminantes que emprenden la aventura. Por eso, a lo largo del camino existen 13 albergues

Organismos internacionales advierten que son decenas de miles los casos de migrantes que se encuentran explotados por bandas criminales de Colombia


Aunque el Departamento de Estado no ofreció más detalles, la frase “operaciones de influencia” usualmente se refiere a actividades de inteligencia y reclutamiento de fuentes


The plantations are in remote stretches of the municipalities of Livingston on the Caribbean coast and El Estor


Among the opposition’s demands are the establishment of a transitional government, trials for all those implicated in the PetroCaribe corruption scandal, prosecution of public officials accused of corruption, and organization of a National Sovereignty Conference


The attorney-general’s office said it would reinvestigate “almost from scratch” what happened to the 43 after they clashed with local police on 26 September 2014

As of this week, 129 miles worth of projects in New Mexico, Arizona and California “has been obligated and is on contract,”

These are turbulent days for the migrants of El Buen Pastor. For the first time since World War II, the U.S. government is turning away thousands of asylum seekers regardless of their need for refuge

Seeking to relieve the pressure from asylum seekers in border towns, Mexico bused asylum seekers south. The country’s practices could violate international law


La aplanadora de la bancada orteguista con sus setenta diputados aprobó este 18 de septiembre el acuerdo de protección de inversiones con el régimen islámico de Irán


But the depression that began here in 2013 has accelerated into a meltdown, the product of falling oil prices, failed socialist policies, mismanagement and corruption

Police and security forces have killed nearly 18,000 people in Venezuela in instances of alleged “resistance to authority” since 2016

By July 2019, however, only 23.9 percent of the funds needed had been raised

Santos explicó que la reunión se centrará en «la decisión de invocar y a partir de ahí poder tomar decisiones respectivas frente a sanciones». Dijo, no obstante, que de «ninguna manera quiere decir que se aprueba el uso de acciones militares»

There is no indication that the government is moving in the direction of Maduro’s departure followed by a genuinely competitive presidential election under international supervision

The day ahead: September 20, 2019

I’m more reachable in the morning. (How to contact me)

We bade farewell to our excellent Colombian visitors / conference participants last night. Today, I should be at WOLA all day, writing and catching up. I have an internal strategy meeting and coffee with a journalist in the afternoon.

Colombia’s defense minister is a problem

Guillermo Botero is at it again. Colombia’s defense minister said that the security forces he oversees can’t capture a wanted criminal because, as a demobilized FARC member, that criminal is somehow protected by the peace accord.

Leider Johani Noscue, alias “Mayimbú,” is a rearmed FARC dissident in Cauca department whose group is believed to be behind the brutal September 1 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García on a rural road in Suárez municipality. As a former guerrilla, “Mayimbú” faces trial in the post-conflict justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), for war crimes committed during the conflict. The JEP, a deliberative judicial body, hasn’t yet formally expelled him from its list of defendants.

For that reason, Botero seems to think that “Mayimbú” is untouchable. On Tuesday he told Colombia’s Senate chamber, “We consider that he should be taken out of the JEP in order to be arrested. If not, we’ll have to confront him ‘enfusilao’ [on the battlefield, or in the act of committing a crime].” Botero then tweeted that he had sent a letter to JEP President Patricia Linares asking that Mayimbú be expelled “so that the security forces may act.”

But of course the security forces can act. Just because he’s still on the JEP’s list doesn’t mean that “Mayimbú” is exempt from arrest for any crimes committed after December 1, 2016, when the FARC peace accord was ratified. There is ample proof that he has taken up arms again, and indications that he was involved in the attack on Karina García. Of course Colombia’s police and military are free to arrest him without regard to the JEP, and an arrest order exists regardless of his JEP status.

Defense Minister Botero, who oversees both Colombia’s armed forces and police, must know that. So either he was badly confused, or cynically launching a false attack on the JEP, and by extension Colombia’s peace process. Neither case is good.

In a letter to Botero, the JEP responded yesterday that “The security forces have NO limitation to pursue or capture the accused parties who have rearmed or are committing crimes.” “Let the JEP work,” read a statement from Colombia’s increasingly active “Defendamos la Paz” movement. “It does damage to institutions and the peace process to keep promoting this discrediting campaign against the JEP, with inexact, imprecise statements or with lies, to seek to generate a perception in public opinion that transitional justice is promoting or tolerating impunity.”

Guillermo Botero is a problem. He is supposed to be managing military and police forces totaling nearly 450,000 people, including Latin America’s second-largest armed forces. His tenure of more than a year has seen human rights and corruption scandals within the military, signs of discontent among some officers, and some erosion in security gains.

He also makes frequent misstatements that reveal either an alarming lack of diligence about, or deliberate disregard for, critical security concerns. Botero has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the past few years’ hundreds of threats and murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. He has demanded changes in the law that would allow the security forces to confront social protests. Earlier this year, opposition legislators sought to censure him for these and other missteps, including promoting a false narrative about soldiers’ April extrajudicial execution of a former FARC member in the Catatumbo region.

I have heard that Botero is in his position because he was the preferred choice of Álvaro Uribe, the former president and current senator who is the central figure in President Iván Duque’s ruling Centro Democrático party. During his eight years in the presidency, though, Uribe never had a defense minister who was quite this ideologically hidebound, gaffe-prone, or divorced from reality. Guillermo Botero is showing serious managerial shortcomings, he doesn’t appear to have a grip on the truth, and he keeps making egregious public misstatements. He’s out if his depth, and he’s making Colombia’s security apparatus less effective.

The day ahead: September 19, 2019

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

After a very well-attended and lively conference yesterday, I’m accompanying our Colombian visitors on a schedule of meetings with officials around Washington. While this should be a great day, I won’t be available to talk, or do much writing, while this is happening.

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