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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The day ahead: November 21, 2019

I’m off today. (How to contact me)

Using vacation time at home, I spent much of the past three days closed off from the world, finishing drafts of two giant reports based on fieldwork done at the Mexico-Guatemala border in August and in Colombia in October. And I mean “giant”: a combined 37,000 words (which will need to be cut back).

I know, I’m not very clear on the concept of “vacation,” but I had a lot of unused vacation time and desperately needed a polite way to shut down the daily torrent of meetings, calls, emails, and chats. I don’t recommend doing this, but I feel much less stressed now, with two giant projects behind me.

While I hope to slow the pace of work here at home today, I still need to continue preparing for a visit to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in three weeks, and to prepare my talk for a public panel discussion this evening at George Mason University. I’ll also have an eye on the massive national protests planned for today in Colombia.

The day ahead: November 18, 2019

I’m on vacation this week, so be cool. (How to contact me)

I’m taking the week off. I’m spending a lot of it at the computer keyboard, finishing a lot of writing. Still, I’m calling it “vacation” because I can actually be at the keyboard: for a week, I’m under no obligation to attend meetings or answer e-mails or phone calls. I’ll be back on duty next week.

Twitter thread of border and migration graphics

I updated my collection of data about security and migration at the border to reflect some new data releases from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from Mexico’s Migration Policy Unit. From those, I have a collection of charts and graphics whose most current version is always downloadable as a PDF file at bit.ly/wola_border.

I just posted a Twitter thread explaining the latest trends. Here it is embedded in one place.

WOLA Podcast: Bolivia’s Post-Evo Meltdown

Here’s a podcast recorded yesterday with Kathryn Ledebur, a longtime Bolivia expert and colleague who directs the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. We discuss:

  • The election process and the events leading up to Morales’s resignation.
  • The disorder and violence following the election, and missed opportunities to achieve an institutional solution to the crisis.
  • The role of the military and police.
  • The political opposition, which appears to be headed rapidly in an extreme direction.
  • The mistakes made by, and future of, Morales’s long-ruling MAS party.
  • The likelihood that Bolivia might be able to hold truly free and fair elections, with a level playing field.
  • What daily life is like in a place like Cochabamba right now.

Download the mp3 file

The day ahead: November 14, 2019

I’ll be hard to reach today and through the end of next week. (How to contact me)

Another day, another plane. I’m off this afternoon to Ohio, where I’ll be on a panel tomorrow at Kent State University, talking about the border wall. Before I go, I’m recording an in-the-moment podcast about Bolivia, which I hope to post before I get in a taxi.

Next week, I’m on “vacation.” I put that in quotes because I don’t have vacation-like plans. I’m going to be at home, avoiding the office, all meetings, and most communications, including e-mail, while I finish two big reports and do a lot of other planning and housekeeping. Mostly while keeping my own hours and wearing sweatpants.

I underused my vacation time this year and now, after 7 trips and hosting a big conference over the past three months, I need to catch up on a long list of loose ends, both personal and professional.

I expect to post items to this site while all that’s happening next week.

The day ahead: November 13, 2019

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

I’m back in Washington, having returned from the border over the weekend—but I have a very heavy schedule (12 hours of meetings and events on the calendar today) and won’t be adding updates to this site. Which is too bad because, from Bolivia to Colombia to the border, there is a lot to talk about.

Tomorrow evening, I fly to Ohio to give a talk about the “border wall” at Kent State University. After that, I’ll be in Washington for a few weeks before traveling again, and hope to be posting here regularly.

Why are homicides declining in Colombia this year?

An argument I included in Monday evening’s post, about the Colombian Defense Minister’s security performance, raised a few hackles on social media.

That post cited President Iván Duque’s crediting Defense Minister Guillermo Botero for a 2 percent reduction in homicides so far in 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. To refute it, I cited the work of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, whose big annual analysis of the conflict, published in August, looked at the data for the first half of 2019.

Much of the 2018-19 decrease in killings, that report concluded, owes to shifts in the landscape of armed groups and organized crime—not to the Duque government’s security policies. In Colombia’s historically conflictive regions, homicides rose in 2018—then shrank in 2019 so far, as armed groups achieved regional monopolies, entered into non-aggression pacts, or otherwise altered their behavior, making many territories less violently disputed.

Some on social media found this argument insulting. A few analysts, some of whom have carried out security policymaking for the Bogotá municipal government, called me out for failing to credit to the work of Colombia’s security sector, especially those in charge of security in the main cities, which have seen important drops in homicides. For them, this argument crediting organized crime realignments lacks “responsibility,” was “politicized,” and “doesn’t stand up to the most minimal empirical analysis.”

I’m sorry, but I need to push back a bit. Let’s unpack this further.

First, I’m not talking about the progress made since 2010, or since 2002. I’m talking about the 2018-19 timeframe, for which Colombia’s government claims a 2 percent reduction in homicides year-to-date, after a 6 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Between 2002 and 2008 or so, and again between 2013 and 2017, Colombia achieved some very important decreases in homicides, unlike anything seen elsewhere lately in Latin America. And I absolutely agree that much of it owed to government policies, especially in the larger cities.

But then there was a hiccup in 2018. After the FARC’s demobilization and exit from many areas, homicides increased last year amid a violent reordering of organized crime and armed-group activity and a continued absence of state presence.

Daniel Mejía of the University of the Andes, a former Bogotá municipal security secretary, tweeted violent crime data charts appearing to show an inflection point after August 2018, when President Iván Duque was inaugurated. Mejia sees this as evidence of the new Colombian government’s actions.

Why would that happen right after August 2018? Did Duque and Minister Botero offer a superior recipe for dealing with insecurity? Was Colombia in need of a conservative government’s more iron-fisted approach? Or have lots of other, parallel, things happened in Colombia since August 2018?

These 15 months saw, for instance, a non-aggression pact form between ex-FARC and other groups in the violent port city of Tumaco, and in surrounding Pacific coastal areas used heavily for cocaine trafficking. It saw the ELN all but vanquish the EPL guerrilla/criminal group in the Catatumbo region. It saw a group called “La Mafia” consolidate its presence, avoiding aggression with FARC dissidents, in Putumayo. In Arauca last month, I was told the ELN and FARC dissidents had entered into a non-aggression pact. I heard the same in Chocó about similar arrangements between the ELN and FARC dissidents and, in some parts of the department, between the ELN and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.

These are just a few examples. A proliferation of these “new equilibria,” most of which date to after August 2018, can’t be dismissed as a potential reason for this period’s drop in homicides.

Second, I’m hardly talking about Colombia’s main cities, most of which for years have had homicide rates well below those of Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and several other U.S. cities. There, talented security technocrats and honest cops have achieved strong gains.

In 2018, homicides continued to drop in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. But the country as a whole saw an increase. Something was seriously wrong in some smaller cities and rural areas where the drug trade and armed groups have thrived. But not the principal cities.

“In effect,” concludes the cited Peace and Reconciliation Foundation report, “the 2018 increase in violence took place in municipalities with the greatest institutional weakness, the presence of illegal markets, and low institutional capacity—that is, in rural areas that have historically been affected by violence. In the big cities and in coca-free municipalities, the violent homicide trend continues to diminish.”

But then in 2019, the trend reversed again: homicides are down nationwide. In its August report, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation crunches the national medical examiner’s data from January through June 2019, comparing it with the same period in 2018. It finds 497 fewer homicides across Colombia during that 6-month period, which in fact is more than a 2 percent decrease.

But it gets more interesting. The Foundation identifies 281 municipalities (counties; Colombia has 1,100) that are “priorities for the post-conflict”: places where government presence is scarce and there’s a history of armed-group activity. Those municipalities made up 30 percent of homicides in 2018. Colombia’s five largest cities made up 28 percent, and the rest of the country shared the other 42 percent.

During the first half of 2019, the medical examiner’s data show these 281 municipalities with a surprising 13 percent fewer homicides: 243 fewer people were killed here compared to the first half of 2018. As noted, nationwide over the same period, homicides declined by 497, so almost half of Colombia’s homicide reductions during January-June 2019 happened in the 281 most troubled municipalities. Colombia’s other 800-plus municipalities, including the major cities, shared the other half.

That is a remarkable result. What’s the miracle in these historically abandoned corners of the country? It’s not a big increase in government presence: the PDETs, “Zonas Futuro” and other post-conflict plans to introduce government into these territories are still just getting off the drawing board. It’s not the genius of urban security planners, whose writ hardly extends to the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities.

That’s where the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation’s hypothesis comes in. Something has happened, in many long-abandoned regions, among the armed groups themselves, without regard to government policy. This makes sense to me, as the most plausible explanation for why homicides have declined in conflictive rural areas. I’m actually surprised, when referring to what’s happening outside of the cities, that it would even be that controversial. Meanwhile, the contrary evidence presented to me doesn’t knock it down.

(A bigger project for another day—I’m traveling right now—would be to use the Colombian National Police’s homicide statistics, downloadable here as big Excel spreadsheets, code the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities, and view the year-to-date data to see whether it differs from Peace and Reconciliation’s number-crunching, and if so how.)

Back at the border

CBP officers “metering” border-crossers last night outside the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Diego River, very early this morning.

I’m here at the U.S.-Mexico border again. This is my fourth visit to San Diego and Tijuana this year. I’m spending most of this visit at a gathering of migration attorneys and experts from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The situation is grim right now, but there’s a lot of talk of solutions.

At wola.org: What’s at Stake in the Battle Over U.S. Homeland Security Funding

With a November 21 budget deadline looming, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives and Republican-majority Senate (and the Republican White House) seem far from agreement on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2020. They’re either going to have to seek another extension to keep the government open, or undergo at least a partial government shutdown.

As happened last year, much of the discord surrounds border security, especially Trump’s border wall.

Here, at WOLA’s website, is a new analysis of six of the most contentious issues in the 2020 budget bill, and where we stand on each.

  1. The Wall
  2. ICE detention of migrants
  3. “Remain in Mexico”
  4. CBP and Border Patrol staffing
  5. “Metering”
  6. Alternatives to Detention

Colombia’s Defense Minister’s indefensible record

From the legislature to the media, a lot of prominent Colombians are asking why, amid regular gaffes, human rights abuses, and evidence of deteriorating security, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero is still at his post.

In an article explaining that it’s basically “Botero is ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s man in his party’s government,” the online journalism outlet La Silla Vacía included this:

the President [Iván Duque, from Uribe’s party] supported him by saying that “it is not time to talk about a resignation of Minister Botero.”

The explanation of the Ministry is that under Botero’s guidance, between January 1 and September 12, 2019, kidnappings fell by 50 percent, homicides by 2 percent, and shoplifting by 15 percent. In addition to the 278 tons of cocaine that the security forces have seized and the 57,400 hectares of coca leaf that have been eradicated.

I don’t know about the kidnappings and the shoplifting. But on the 2 percent reduction in homicides, I’d note this explanation from one of Colombia’s main security think-tanks, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation:

Between 2012 and 2017 there was an incredible reduction in the indicators of violence. In 2018, some of these indicators increased, mainly homicide. In 2019 they are falling again, returning to 2017 levels. However, this good news brings a rather problematic diagnosis: much of this reduction is due to, in some areas, several criminal organizations reaching non-aggression pacts (Pacific coast of Nariño), in other cases some illegal structure won the local war (Catatumbo), or simply decided to lower levels of violence while strengthening itself (Putumayo). In any of the three scenarios the levels of violence would fall. In other words, violence levels are not proportional to the presence of criminal organizations.

So this very modest drop in homicides owes more to adjustments in the criminal underworld than it does to improved performance of the security forces under Minister Guillermo Botero.

And on the cocaine seizures: 278 tons of cocaine seized through September 12 is behind the pace of the past few years. At that rate, the security forces under Botero’s command would seize 398 tons of cocaine by the end of the year. That’s a lot—but fewer than in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup Poll shows 83 percent of Colombians believing that the problem of “insecurity” is worsening—holding steady from Juan Manuel Santos’s second term, but definitely not improving.

This is a very thin defense of Guillermo Botero’s record.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Luis Robayo/AFP photo at Al Jazeera. Caption: “An indigenous woman walks next to a Colombian Army armoured vehicle in Toribio, department of Cauca, Colombia”

(Even more here)

November 4, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Most Americans thought the policy detestable. It was far worse than they imagined

Bolivia

Este sábado en una multitudinaria concentración en la ciudad oriental de Santa Cruz el líder cívico Luis Fernando Camacho manifestó que Morales tiene 48 horas para renunciar a su cargo y envió una carta a las Fuerzas Armadas

Brazil

Indigenous people and illegal miners are engaged in a fight that may help decide the future of the planet

The clash comes amid an increase in invasions of reservations by illegal loggers and miners since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office this year

Chile

After the crowds dissipate, marauding young men—numbering in the hundreds—take over

Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. In the chaos, they see a reckoning

Colombia

Los PDET se asemejan a una hoja de ruta trascendental para cada una de las 16 subregiones y los 170 municipios que abarcan

De acuerdo con cifras del Partido Farc, desde el primero de diciembre de 2016, cuando entró en vigencia el Acuerdo de Paz, 168 firmantes de ese pacto han sido asesinados

Con este homicidio, que es el primero de un desmovilizado dentro de los antiguos Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación (ETCR), van 158 desde la firma del acuerdo de paz, según cifras de la ONU

Echaron del Ejército al subteniente que colaboró en el esclarecimiento del crimen de Dimar Torres. Su testimonio resultó clave para conocer buena parte del escabroso plan del asesinato, y ahora está desprotegido

Luis Acosta, coordinador nacional de la Guardia Indígena, asegura incluso que la llegada de fuerzas militares aumenta el riesgo para las comunidades y que lo que se requiere es una atención integral por parte del Estado

La ribera del río que pasa por la capital del departamento de Arauca, cuyo nombre es el mismo, recibe a miles de familias que llegan desde Venezuela

La masacre anterior fue otra respuesta de los grupos armados al control territorial que hacen los indígenas del Cauca

Ecuador

The actors that run these drug routes are a combination of Ecuadorean, Colombian, Mexican and European criminal networks

Guatemala

El exministro de Gobernación Francisco Rivas cuenta cómo el Ejército nunca fue muy útil en las tareas de seguridad ciudadana. Por ejemplo, de los cien soldados asignados para ello en Escuintla, la mitad se ocupaban en realidad de la finca de descanso del Presidente

More than 600 migrants have died in the Americas so far in 2019, about half of them on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of those bodies are likely to remain unidentified, leaving families without closure

Mexico

The general’s speech created such a stir that López Obrador declared via Twitter on Saturday that his supporters “will not permit another coup” like the ones that rocked Mexico in the early 20th century

Tijuana has seen a methamphetamine-fuelled murder epidemic which produced a record 2,518 murders in 2018 and looks set to cause even more this year

The breaches have been made using a popular cordless household tool known as a reciprocating saw that retails at hardware stores for as little as $100

The day ahead: November 4, 2019

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

This is my only full day in the office this week. I’m flying to the west coast tomorrow for a few days in San Diego and Tijuana, for a delegation and events sponsored by Hispanics in Philanthropy.

Today, other than some internal meetings in the morning, I should be spending the afternoon catching up on writing, as I constantly seem to be trying to do lately.

The Colombian military plotted to murder a demobilized guerrilla. Will there be accountability?

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.

Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.

Soldiers dig a grave in an illustration, by Angélica María Penagos, for Semana’s investigation of Dimar Torres’s murder.

The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)

At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”

(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)

The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”

Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”

And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.

The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.

At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.

Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).

Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.

Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.

On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.

Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.

The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.

Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.

Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.

Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.

That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero continues in his post. The photo is from a story in La Silla Vacía explaining why that is.

“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.

This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”

Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.

How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía contends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.

Interview with “Colombia Calling” podcast

I’m a regular listener of Richard McColl’s “Colombia Calling” English-language podcast, so I was delighted to accept his invitation to appear in an episode (number 297, very impressive). Even better, I happened to be in Bogotá when we recorded (back on October 20), so I stopped by his lovely home where gave me very strong coffee.

I think the conversation turned out well, we covered a lot of ground in about 35 minutes. It’s always great to be in the hands of an experienced interviewer. Here’s Richard’s summary from the show notes:

Adam Isacson of WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America) needs no introduction to the latin americanists amongst us, but, suffice it to say that it was an honour to invite him on the Colombia Calling podcast and hear his thoughts about recent events here in Colombia. As the Director of Defence Oversight for WOLA, Isacson’s remit takes in all of latin america and now includes border issues such as those occurring right now on the Mexico/ US frontier and so, we manage to catch him for a few short minutes in Bogota to discuss: President Duque’s speech to the UN, the future for former president Alvaro Uribe, the reality on the ground in Colombia’s far-off regions such as Choco and Arauca and so much more. Frankly, 35 minutes is nowhere near long enough with one of the most knowledgeable voices for human rights in the region. Tune in and enjoy and be sure to check out his website at: adamisacson.com/
expatoverseascolombiasouth america

Some pleasant surprises in Colombia’s local elections

Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.

In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.

Some highlights:

Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.

Bogotá mayor-elect Claudia López, third from left, speaks at WOLA’s annual Colombia conference in October 2018.

The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.

Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.

During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.

Álvaro Uribe’s grim poll numbers.

Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.

In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.

In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters elected Víctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.

In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters chose Jairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.

In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”

In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.

In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.

In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.

While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.

On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.

In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls “local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).

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