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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5 links from the past week

  • Some Latin American militaries have a particular clique, usually an academy graduating class, that rises to leadership and leaves a mark on the institution—often for the worse. At ProPublica, Melissa del Bosque identifies a ”tanda” in the U.S. Border Patrol: a group of agents who served in Douglas, Arizona in the 1990s and rose to top management, “leaving corruption, misconduct and a toxic culture in their wake.”
  • In El Salvador last Sunday, popular populist President Nayib Bukele shocked the region by sending helmeted, rifle-bearing soldiers into the National Assembly’s chambers because legislators weren’t approving a loan fast enough. The best commentary I’ve seen on this huge step back for civil-military relations comes in an editorial from El Faro, in English and Spanish.
  • Keegan Hamilton at Vice looks at the state of Mexican organized crime a year after “Chapo” Guzmán’s guilty verdict in a New York court. For me, the most interesting part is in the article’s second half, where we get a glimpse into the mindset of a veteran narcotics prosecutor who insists on staying the course with a policy that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. “Is there futility in what we do? Are we playing whack-a-mole?” she asked rhetorically. “I think it’s showing the strength of what our system does; there’s a purpose for it.”
  • At Nieman Reports, Tim Rogers talks to independent journalists from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Chile about how they’re staying a step ahead in this era of authoritarians, populists, Twitter warriors, and street protests.
  • This exploration of the current state of democracy and civil-military relations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, by Otto Argueta and Knut Walter at Contra Corriente, could use a bit of editorial tightening up—but it strikes some important and timely notes. “The greatest risk for democracy in these countries is the paradoxical combination of democratically elected governments that lack legitimacy, and the existence of powerful armed forces.…That combination in our contexts can wake the sleeping dragon, the one that leads to authoritarian and undemocratic solutions.”

WOLA Podcast: How Corruption Continues to Erode Citizen Security in Central America

Here’s a podcast recorded last Friday with Adriana Beltran and Austin Robles from WOLA’s Central America / Citizen Security program. We talk mostly about setbacks to the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala and Honduras. Good thing we didn’t talk about El Salvador too much, because two days after this conversation, President Nayib Bukele set everything on fire there by bringing armed soldiers into the legislative chamber with an aggressive display.

I learned a lot about what’s happening just by hosting this. Here’s a direct download link.

Here’s the blurb on WOLA’s website.

Adriana Beltrán and Austin Robles of WOLA’s Citizen Security Program discuss the beleaguered fight against corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their Central America Monitor tracks progress on eight indicators and closely watches over U.S. aid.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Patrick Tombola/laif/Redux photo at Nieman Reports. Caption: “A special anti-gang police member patrols the streets in Herradura, El Salvador. El Faro’s Sala Negra was created as a specialized newsroom project to cover gang violence”

(Even more here)

February 14, 2020

Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Western Hemisphere Regional

Across the hemisphere, the combination of weak democracies, authoritarian creep, struggling economies, government retaliation against advertisers, and worsening levels of political and social violence are pinching journalists from all sides

Brazil, Paraguay

Léo Veras lived in the Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero and ran a local news website. He had recently been receiving threats for his investigative work into smuggling at the border

Brazil

The appointment of Braga, the second active-duty general in the Cabinet, raises to seven the number of military men in the 20-member Cabinet, not counting Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired general

Colombia

La Sala estudiará la solicitud, por parte de las víctimas, de activar el procedimiento adversarial y enviar a Montoya Uribe a la Unidad de Investigación y Acusación (UIA) o de excluir al compareciente de la jurisdicción

Su afirmación de que el Acuerdo de Paz de La Habana era “semifallido” preocupa a las organizaciones de víctimas, pues será ella quien coordine la política integral de derechos humanos en el país donde asesinan a líderes todos los días

Hay una información que circula en Putumayo que tiene que ver con que las disidencias de las FARC se unirían al paro armado decretado por el ELN en los departamentos de Putumayo, Nariño y Cauca

Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela

UNHCR released a campaign last year called “Somos panas” (“We’re mates”) to remind Colombians they were helped by Venezuela when thousands fled the other way during Colombia’s 50-year civil war

El Salvador

To make sense of these events, and the possibility of further contagion, I recently spoke with two of the United States’ most seasoned observers of Latin American affairs

El presidente Nayib Bukele violó al menos tres disposiciones constitucionales y varias leyes secundarias, según constitucionalistas

It was the most overt display of brute force since the end of the civil war in 1992. Yet the United States and the European Union have only issued mild rebukes

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Despierta una preocupación histórica en los tres países y que parece ser el despertar centroamericano del dragón dormido: la participación de los militares en la política

Guatemala

También están en riesgo la autonomía personal, la universitaria, la intimidad, y son los primeros pasos hacia un Estado policial

Guatemalan lawmakers approved changes to laws on non-governmental organizations that would give the executive branch the authority to allow such groups to operate or shut them down if they are deemed disruptive

Honduras

Heavily armed men dressed in military fatigues and police uniforms stormed a court building in north-west Honduras and freed a senior leader of the powerful MS-13 gang

Según documentos judiciales, Mauricio Hernández Pineda está acusado de conspiración para traficar cocaína junto con Tony Hernández, el hermano del presidente de Honduras

Mexico

Con el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, no se logrará dejar en prisión a nadie por el delito de comercio de drogas al menudeo

Official figures show that 3,142 women and girls were killed in 2019, and only 726 of those cases are being investigated as femicides. But women’s rights activists say that number is way too low

U.S.-Mexico Border

President Trump will host dozens of Border Patrol agents at the White House Friday afternoon in what is expected to be a celebration of union President Brandon Judd’s reelection

This year, a significant chunk of those dollars will be funneled from a war account known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, according to a Feb. 13 reprogramming action

Arizona Democrats said that President Donald Trump is “trying to steal money” from the military to “pay for his vanity wall,” while the ACLU said it would continue to pursue a lawsuit

According to budget documents reviewed by The Washington Post, the Pentagon is pulling the funding from two F-35 fighter jets and two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for the Marine Corps; one P-8A reconnaissance aircraft for the Navy; and four C-130J transport planes and eight MQ-9 Reaper drones for the Air Force

On March 14, according to one daily snapshot, 672 people were in custody at all 24 crossings, a 57% occupancy rate

Venezuela

La Fuerza Armada Nacional (FAN), por instrucciones de Nicolás Maduro, realizará los días 15 y 16 de febrero las primeras maniobras militares de este año, bautizadas como “Escudo Bolivariano 2020”

Unos grandes vehículos lanzamisiles aparecieron estacionados en la carretera que conecta Caracas con su aeropuerto, bloqueada por efectivos militares coincidiendo con el regreso del líder opositor Juan Guaidó al país

“He’s no fan of foreign deployments,” said a senior administration official. “It’s absolutely clear that he has a very different view of our hemisphere”

Border walls, military aid, and more: the Defense Department’s all-purpose counter-drug budget

The Trump administration will be taking $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget this year to pay for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Very little of that money will get spent if he loses in November.) He’s been able to move some of that money into his wall—even though Congress never approved it—by declaring a “national emergency” and outlasting congressional efforts to disapprove that emergency (they need a two-thirds majority and only muster a simple majority).

Much of the Defense fund transfers, though, don’t even require an emergency declaration. The money can be moved under existing law. That’s what’s happening with the $3.8 billion that the Pentagon notified Congress this week would be moved from Defense into wall-building.

Here’s the notification PDF. The Trump administration is taking money out of the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft and weapons programs to pay for the wall, something that has even Republicans on the Armed Services Committee unhappy.

How can Trump do this? First, the Defense appropriations law allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year from one account to another. That’s Section 8005 of the annual appropriation. Here, he’s moving money from these weapons programs to the Pentagon’s counter-drug account. This vector was also used in 2019, applied to $2.5 billion in wall-building money. It shows up in yellow on this flowchart.

Second, now that it is “counter-drug” money, Trump can transfer it to the Homeland Security department to build a “counter-drug” wall. This is thanks to the nearly magical flexibility of the Defense Department’s counter-drug account, the product of a 1990 law. Let’s look at this law for a moment.

It was created at the height of the crack plague and the war on drugs. The George H.W. Bush administration and a Democratic-majority Congress had just made the U.S. military the “single lead agency” for interdicting cocaine overseas, and were clarifying what that meant. They agreed to give the Pentagon a bunch of new powers, including the ability to support U.S. law enforcement on U.S. soil if it was for the drug war. (The original law was Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It had to be renewed every few years. But the 2017 NDAA made the law permanent, as Section 284 of Title 10, U.S. Code.)

  • Ever since, a military component called Joint Task Force-North, operating from Fort Bliss outside El Paso, has been carrying out domestic support missions, mainly for CBP.
  • It gave the Defense Department the legal authority to spend its giant budget to build border barriers—as long as such barriers can be justified as “counter-drug.”
  • This same provision also allows the Defense Department to provide several types of counter-drug assistance to “foreign law enforcement agencies.” As a result, for the last 30 years, Latin American militaries and police forces have received billions of dollars in equipment upgrades, base facilities construction, training, and “intelligence analysis” services from the Defense Department.

This Defense Department’s counter-drug account—listed at the Security Assistance Monitor as “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance”—quickly became the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It was a big component of Plan Colombia and of the Mérida Initiative in Mexico.

The Special Forces teams that trained many thousands of Colombian troops at the outset of Plan Colombia? The maritime bases built along Honduras’s northern coast? The drone imagery shared with Mexican forces hunting for drug kingpins? The “Interagency Task Forces” operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, with the jeeps famously used to intimidate the CICIG? That’s been largely Defense money, not foreign aid budget money.

It flows independently of the State Department and foreign aid budget, with poor visibility over how it’s spent. We always have a very hard time learning how much Defense counter-drug money went as aid to which countries’ security forces in the previous year.

Now, that same legal provision is authorizing the building of border walls. Money gets taken from weapons systems, transferred to the counter-drug budget, then transferred to the Homeland Security Department budget to be used for wall-building. And there’s little Congress can do about it.

The process is under challenge in the courts. Last July, though, the Supreme Court allowed this “counter-drug” money to keep flowing while lower courts slowly deliberated.

Meanwhile, this move pits the military-industrial complex (all those fighter jets, Osprey aircraft, Humvees and other equipment being cut) against the border security-industrial complex (wall construction and related technology). These are mostly different contracting companies, bringing money and employment to different congressional districts. While I don’t have a dog in this fight at all, it’ll be interesting to watch the wrangling.

The day ahead: February 14, 2020

I should be reachable from late morning to end of day. (How to contact me)

This morning I’ll be recording an episode of “Foro Interamericano” at the Voice of America. Then I’ll be in the office the rest of the day. I’ll be working on our Colombia website overhaul—the first feature is nearly ready to be added, though the site will continue to have the same “look and feel” for a while. Other than a few check-ins with staff, I should be reachable.

This will be my last day in the office until next Thursday; Monday is a holiday and we’re taking a couple of extra days to visit relatives in Florida.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Pu Ying Huang/Al Jazeera photo. Caption: “Migrants and asylum seekers living in the Matamoros encampment pause from their midday swim to watch US Border Patrol guards steer their boat down the Rio Grande”

(Even more here)

February 13, 2020

Colombia

Persiste el riesgo en las actividades políticas, pese a una sustancial reducción en las muertes por violencia política en 2019

Tanto el general (r) como su defensor dejaron saber que contestarían solo de manera general y sin afectar el derecho del oficial en retiro a no autoincriminarse

La batalla que emprendieron decenas de familias para evitar que el caso del excomandante del Ejército terminara en manos de la JEP volvió a tomar forma

He is focusing on Tibu, heart of the remote, notoriously lawless Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela where Buffett accompanied President Iván Duque

El Salvador

Es el momento más ominoso de una jornada marcada ya en la historia nacional: 9 de febrero de 2020

Guatemala

Desde 2018 ha recibido amenazas, llamadas, vigilancia, ha sido víctima de allanamientos ilegales y más recientemente, de un intento de robo en su residencia

Varias organizaciones sociales y Acción Ciudadana (AC) presentaron ayer ante la Corte de Constitucionalidad (CC) un amparo en contra de las reformas a la Ley de Organizaciones no Gubernamentales (ONG) aprobadas el martes pasado de forma apresurada en el Congreso

Mexico

Entre esas violaciones destaca la aplicación de descargas eléctricas por parte de efectivos de la Guardia Nacional y la Policía Federal

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Ebrard aseguró que la Guardia Nacional no ha recibido ni una sola recomendación de la Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH) por su actuación para detener los flujos migratorios

Mexico

Beto Carmona, reportero de El Piñero de la Cuenca que cubrió el enfrentamiento entre pobladores de Isla y Loma Bonita con la Fuerza Civil y la Policía Federal, expuso que fue amenazado por policías estatales, mientras estuvo retenido por varias horas

Bernardino Sánchez, the founder of the local vigilante force, said the children were enlisted in part to draw public attention to the violence and helplessness of their communities

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

This policy has led to multiple human and civil rights violations at our border, while also causing the mass suffering of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers

Mexico’s foreign ministry said about 2,000 migrants were sent to Mexico under the program in January, down from a peak of around 12,000 in August last year

Los funcionarios del gobierno federal que decidieron cortar el presupuesto para las organizaciones civiles deberían ir a los albergues por unos días, despertar a las 5:00 de la mañana para darles un café y un pan a los migrantes que se van a trabajar

In Mexico’s Matamoros, thousands of asylum seekers wait in an encampment for their asylum cases to be heard in the US

With little to no support from the federal government, nonprofits and migrant aid groups in Nogales like the Kino Border Initiative are doing the bulk of the work but are still struggling to care for migrants sent back under the program

Venezuela

“He’s detained, not forcibly disappeared, he’s detained for bringing prohibited substances onto a flight,” said Cabello

The day ahead: February 13, 2020

I’ll be reachable in the middle and the very end of the day, and that’s about it. (How to contact me)

I’ll have an eye on this morning’s House hearing about security assistance to Mexico, but can’t attend because we’re interviewing candidates for a new assistant today. I’ll also be on calls with groups working on the border, and with a colleague from a rights organization expanding its Latin America work. Otherwise I’ll be in the office continuing work on a website-building project.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ed Vulliamy photo at The Guardian. Caption: “Graffiti and a pink bicycle at the scene of Isabel’s murder, Calle Ochoa, Ciudad Juárez.”

(Even more here)

February 12, 2020

Brazil

From drones to facial recognition, police across the region are adopting digital tools. But some worry about abuse

Colombia

De acuerdo con el Observatorio de Niñez y Conflicto Armado (ONCA), en el primer semestre de 2019 se registraron 33 eventos de reclutamiento de niños y adolescentes por grupos posdesmovilización

La versión, que se llevará acabo entre el 12 y el 14 de febrero, será reservada y contará con la participación y presencia de 41 víctimas y 15 representantes judiciales

EL COLOMBIANO analiza los cinco logros y los cinco asuntos pendientes de la Operación Agamenón, el esfuerzo institucional más grande contra el crimen organizado en los últimos tiempos

Instead of aerial spraying, a better mix of policies would rely on building state presence, promoting equitable economic development that allows small farmers to develop other sources of income, and putting more effort into drug interdiction and curbing illicit financial flows

El Salvador, Western Hemisphere Regional

In a region that long suffered from military dictatorships, the assertiveness by the armed forces is raising fears that democracy is taking a step backward

El Salvador

Tanto la Fuerza Armada como la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) —ambas instituciones claves en un país que apenas en 1992 estaba en guerra civil— se prestaron a seguir el juego al presidente de turno, sentando un peligroso precedente

Mr Bukele has dismissed the criticism saying that “if I was a dictator, I would have taken control of everything”

Además de diputado y directivo de la Asamblea Legislativa, Reynaldo López Cardoza es el encargado de seguridad del recinto que ocupa este poder del Estado. En esta entrevista revela cómo perdió el control de la seguridad durante siete horas

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico

The high levels of violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) is comparable to that in war zones where MSF has been working for decades—and is a major factor fueling migration north to Mexico and the US

Mexico

“In a machista city, she was occupying the streets with art, she was riding her bicycle home alone at night, she was subversive of patriarchal culture. She joined us to fight patriarchal violence in our own ways, her own way”

Alrededor de 200 habitantes de diversos municipios veracruzanos realizaron una protesta frente a cuarteles de la Guardia Civil, Policía Federal y la Guardia Nacional en reclamo por presuntos abusos de autoridad cometidos por uniformados

Ray Donovan, who oversaw the hunt for Chapo as the former chief of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, told me the botched Ovidio arrest is “indicative of the fact that the Sinaloa cartel is still there

Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas Tuesday after he slipped out of the country last month in defiance of a travel ban

Among those affected are an estimated 1,400 soldiers who defected from Venezuela’s military last year. Most now stay in Colombia, where they struggle to make a living

The day ahead: February 12, 2020

I’m around in the morning and the late afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m deep into a website-building project, and hope to be adding the first of several new features to our insufficiently active colombiapeace.org site by the end of the week or the weekend. I’ll be working on that today, when not in mid-day meetings with a researcher/journalist and a class at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and in a phone interview with a Brazilian reporter. Other than that, I should be reachable.

New at wola.org: The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia

Sometime this year, Colombia is likely to reverse 5 years of policy progress and restore a program that sprays herbicides, from aircraft, over many of the more than 119,500 rural households that live in areas so neglected and abandoned that people grow coca to earn a modest living.

This makes me sad and angry, because Colombia’s 2016 peace accord held so much promise of bringing government, for the the first time, into these forgotten territories that I’ve visited—and been moved by—on many visits to the country. Instead of governing, Iván Duque’s government will be sending contract pilots and police helicopter escorts to fly overhead, spraying the highly questioned chemical glyphosate, with the U.S. government footing much of the bill.

Here’s my latest writing about this, based on a contribution I added to documents submitted by Colombian organizations seeking to challenge the policy in the country’s judicial system. It points out that fumigation may bring short-term reductions in coca growing, but does nothing in the long term but bring high costs, environmental and health risks, a high likelihood of social unrest, and danger to the pilots and other personnel.

I wish they wouldn’t do this: there’s no substitute for governing your own territory and serving your own people.

Read “The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia” at WOLA’s website.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

February 11, 2020

Colombia

The goal for coca eradication in 2020 is 30% higher than the previous year

Colombia, de nuevo, terminó un año enterrando a periodistas

Colombia, Venezuela

Al momento del enfrentamiento con cuerpos de seguridad venezolanos, los hombres portaban prendas militares con características similares a las usadas por los “Rastrojos”, asegura el parte militar

Actualmente en la zona fronteriza hacen presencia 28 Estructuras armadas Ilegales

El Salvador

Bukele da una semana de margen a la bancada opositora para que apruebe el crédito e insiste en que cuenta con todos los apoyos para tomar “el control de todo”

There is no greater threat to the future of El Salvador’s democratic institutions than the politicization of the military

Este fin de semana fue la primera vez que Nayib Bukele desplegó a la Fuerza Armada para impulsar su agenda política. Y el resultado es un escenario complejo

En una resolución difundida en Twitter, el organismo ordena a Bukele que se abstenga de hacer uso de la fuerza armada en actividades contrarias a los fines constitucionales

Guatemala, U.S.-Mexico Border

He said he tried to explain to the officer that he had not only already traveled through Guatemala on his way to the US but had faced harassment there. He told the officer he didn’t want to go back

Mexico

Mexico has scaled back a planned judicial reform that alarmed rights defenders and caused a backlash within President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s cabinet

Al parecer, como ocurría antes con las Fuerzas Armadas y con la Policía Federal, la Guardia Nacional es como un departamento de bomberos. Su trabajo es apagar incendios, no construir la paz

U.S.-Mexico Border

Kolfage claims his group’s latest endeavor will be built on federal land and then given to the federal government. But such a move would require the controversial group to meet a slew of rules and regulations, and possibly require the government to ask for bids

Venezuela

“La experiencia de los militares en zonas económicas ha sido nefasta y allí está el ejemplo del Arco Minero que ha devenido en una apropiación indebida de grandes minerales, daños ambientales y la activación de muchos delitos”

What keeps Mr. Maduro afloat and Russia engaged, insiders say, is the commercial value of Venezuelan oil shipments

The U.S. must be clear-eyed about the situation at hand: Putin will support the Maduro regime at nearly any cost, so long as it thwarts Venezuela’s return to democracy

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