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: December 6, 2019

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

I was up late finishing two writing projects, which will both go online within the next 10 days. Today I’m catching up on research and correspondence. WOLA’s board of directors is meeting today, and I’ll be intermittently involved with their visit.

The day ahead: December 5, 2019

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

Other than an internal meeting and a border-related conference call mid-day, I should be at my desk, writing, all day. This morning I’m at home trying to bang out an analysis of militaries’ role in all the recent turmoil in Latin America. In the afternoon I’ll be in the office doing a “final final” edit to a monster (17,000-word) report on security and migration right now along Mexico’s southern border.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Luke Taylor/The World photo at Public Radio International. Caption: “A student from Bogotá lays candles at San Ignacio Hospital where student protester Dilan Cruz died of brain injuries after being shot with a projectile by riot police. It is one of two memorial sites and rallying points in Bogotá alongside the place where the fatality occurred in central Bogotá. Photo taken on Nov. 30, 2019.”

(Even more here)

December 4, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

It would be overly simplistic to point to a single common denominator or trigger. But there are some keys to understanding how turmoil in one place can feed turmoil elsewhere

Argentina

Además de impulsar un cambio en el organigrama de las distintas fuerzas, que va de la mano con la idea de darles un rol en la seguridad interior, en el combate de los ciberdelitos, narcotráfico y del terrorismo, Aguad deja algunos nombramientos

Colombia

Recorrimos las calles buscando videos inéditos del momento en el que fue asesinado Dilan Cruz. Esta es la reconstrucción que hicimos con la ayuda de Newsy y Bellingcat

Cruz, a young, relatable, middle-class student, is widely seen as a martyr for being killed by state forces while peacefully demonstrating. He has become the face of the movement

En un duro debate de control político, la oposición pidió cuentas sobre las recientes actuaciones de este escuadrón, como en el caso de Dilan Cruz, durante el paro nacional

Esta es una de las principales conclusiones que buscan sustentar los dos informes que cuatro reconocidas organizaciones de derechos humanos del país le entregaron a la Comisión de la Verdad

Cuba

In recent weeks Washington and Havana have raised the animosity level in ways that lead many to wonder if the U.S. is set to cut ties with Cuba again

Cuba, Venezuela

“They are chasing us ship by ship. … We cannot be naive, and we have to protect ourselves,” Diaz-Canel said in reference to the mounting pressure from Washington

El Salvador

Under the agreement, China will help build a large sports stadium, multi-story library and water treatment plant

Guatemala

Desde el día de su elección, Giammattei ha tenido acercamientos públicos con personajes cuestionados de la política guatemalteca

Honduras

The clock is ticking, and the citizens of Honduras deserve continued support to strengthen the rule of law and ensure accountability for corrupt actors

Mexico

La XV Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas de Migrantes Desaparecidos reúne a familiares de personas perdidas en los últimos años para buscar respuestas

Violent gangs are pushing cocaine and imposing a brutal brand of property tax on small businesses in San Miguel de Allende

The blame belongs more specifically on the agency’s asylum policies, especially the so-called “metering” and Migrant Protection Protocols

About 3,000 migrants are living in Nogales, Mexico as they wait their turns to seek asylum

Combining the complexity of Mexico and the catastrophic war on drugs with the problematic war on terror may only make it worse

Venezuela

Las posibilidades del Tiar hasta ahora solo alcanzan lo diplomático y las sanciones contra el régimen de Nicolás Maduro. El uso de la fuerza aún no está en los planes

Hoy no solo parece que Maduro seguirá en el poder, sino que el piso que sostiene a Guaidó se debilita

To a dozen Venezuelans interviewed by Reuters around the country, the scandal has marked another blow to Guaido’s reputation and to their hopes of seeing the back of the deeply unpopular Maduro

The day ahead: December 4, 2019

I’m in meetings nearly all day. (How to contact me)

I’ll be reachable at the beginning of the workday, but after that I’m on a call to discuss an upcoming speaking engagement, attending an event about migration at the border, in an internal meeting at WOLA, and meeting with Colombia-focused NGOs.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

BBC MUNDO/NurPhoto photo at La Prensa (Nicaragua). Caption: “Manifestantes chilenos exponen un cartel delante de un militar, durante las protestas contra el gobierno del presidente Sebastián Piñera.”

(Even more here)

December 3, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

En las últimas semanas aparecieron, con poca distancia unas de las otras, varias imágenes con una misma escena: distintos presidentes sudamericanos rodeados de mandos de las Fuerzas Armadas

We in the Trump administration will continue to support countries trying to prevent Cuba and Venezuela from hijacking those protests

Trump has been enamored with Tommy Fisher, the company’s chief executive, who has made multiple appearances on Fox News to promote his firm and insists that it would do a better job than those the government had already chosen

Deemed potentially lethal or nonessential by border officials, the medications were thrown away, along with other personal belongings, during the first stages of processing at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in southern Arizona

Bolivia

Un relator del organismo dijo que pedirá una visita inmediata de la comisión para analizar las masacres de Senkata y el Alto

Brazil

Após a morte de nove pessoas pisoteadas em decorrência de uma ação da Polícia Militar em um baile funk na favela de Paraisópolis, o governador de São Paulo, João Doria, afirmou nesta segunda-feira, 2, que a política de Segurança Pública do estado “não vai mudar”

The early-morning tweet stunned Bolsonaro, who appeared completely caught off guard in his comments to reporters outside the presidential palace

Colombia

Colombia pedirá más plazo para erradicar las minas antipersonal y lo más probable es que este se posponga hasta el 2025, cuando se cumple el plazo para la erradicación de estos artefactos en el mundo

Se definió que este martes se daría un encuentro entre las partes para iniciar la negociación

Salud Hernández- Mora narra lo que se vive en este municipio chocoano, en medio de toques de queda, amenazas contra las mujeres, desplazamientos de comunidades indígenas y el asesinato de dos personas

“He visto la evidencia y la lógica de alguna presencia e involucramiento de las organizaciones narcotraficantes en estos eventos, por sus propios intereses. Porque para ellos es mejor cuando hay disturbios”

Colombia, Mexico

Los semisumergibles generalmente parten de la costa del Pacífico de Colombia

Cuba

While Cuba has expanded internet access, enabling Cubans with new 3G cellphone service to post daring complaints on social media, Mr. Ferrer’s case has come to represent what can happen when they complain too much

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico

A three-judge panel was hearing arguments stemming from a lawsuit aimed at blocking the administration’s restrictive asylum rule

Haiti

Jacques Yves Sebastien Duroseau told investigators that he brought the firearms to Haiti because he wanted to help train the country’s army, according to court documents

Honduras

Monday’s sentences were welcomed by Cáceres’s family and supporters as an important step, but outside court they reiterated demands that justice be delivered against the masterminds and financiers

Mexico

Con este aseguramiento, la Sedena ha decomisado más de 10 toneladas de cocaína en un año

Informes militares indican que el CDN tiene su principal área de influencia en Tamaulipas, estado fronterizo con Estados Unidos y uno de los más violentos del país, y también una amplia presencia en el vecino estado de Nuevo León

“With this meeting, we showed that we are not enemies of the authorities,” Julian LeBaron, a family spokesman, told reporters

“The silver lining of all of this is that we have been more united in our messaging and the importance of the border”

What has been built has also been constructed “in place of dilapidated and outdated designs,” according to the report, so, technically at the time the report was released, no completely new border wall had been built

Nadie en esta capital parece saber de qué está hablando el Presidente

Si las instituciones de seguridad y justicia atendieran eficazmente los reportes tempranos de violencia intrafamiliar o hicieran cumplir adecuadamente las órdenes de protección que amparan a muchas mujeres, muy probablemente se evitarían un buen número de feminicidios

Once a quick stop for the deported to get a night’s rest and a shower, the city’s shelters have become long-term homes for Cuban and Central American families committed to pursuing their claims under MPP

Metal barriers now block three vehicle lanes at Nogales’ downtown port of entry, days after asylum seekers rushed up to the lanes to make their claims

El escritor y activista Javier Sicilia explica que marchará junto con Julián LeBarón a fin de exigir que, ante la tragedia nacional, el gobierno aplique “políticas de Estado más profundas”

The day ahead: December 3, 2019

I’ll be hard to reach until late in the day. (How to contact me)

I’m writing at home all morning with the phone off. By mid-day I’ll be in the office, but have a series of internal meetings. I plan to be in the office until very late in order to pick up my kid at a late event, so I’ll be most reachable at, and beyond, the end of the workday.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Gerardo Sanchez/AP Photo at Vox. Caption: “The city hall of Villa Union, Mexico riddled with bullet holes following an attack by a drug cartel.”

(Even more here)

December 2, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Debemos comprender que los militares no solo no salieron de la escena, sino que se los ha fortalecido y el contexto actual facilita aún más su crecimiento político

Colombia

Cada vez que el Esmad lanza una granada de mano de gas lacrimógeno nos cuesta 79.620 pesos con 32 centavos

Está esperando una firma del ministro de Defensa para que las Fuerzas Militares le entreguen información de inteligencia

Este asunto lo resolvería la Sala Disciplinaria del Consejo Superior de la Judicatura

El reporte incluye su presupuesto, año a año, para comprar armas y elementos

Se necesitan respuestas rápidas iniciales frente a la gravedad de la crisis, como una reorganización del gabinete o la adopción de medidas que respondan a ciertas demandas de las protestas

Los protocolos para usar este tipo de armas dicen que las fuerzas policiales en el mundo pueden usarlas para inmovilizar a una persona en medio de actos violentos, nunca para matar

El Ejército busca tener control territorial en las zonas rurales de los municipios de Ituango en Antioquia y Alto Baudó, en Chocó, para brindarles garantías a 543 familias, es decir, unas 2406 personas

Desde el pasado 18 de noviembre a este desplazamiento masivo en el municipio del Alto Baudó que ha afectado a 2.160 personas de 448 familias

La muerte de Dilan Cruz revivió el debate en torno al trabajo del Esmad. Pero acabar con este escuadrón no es sensato. Este es el fondo del debate

Tres organizaciones sociales, que durante nueve meses recogieron testimonios en este departamento, le entregaron a la Comisión de la Verdad el informe “Impactos étnico-territoriales del conflicto en el Chocó”

Colombia, Venezuela

Rumors blaming Venezuelan migrants for isolated looting and vandalism connected to the protests have caused a sharp rise in xenophobia over the last 10 days

Ecuador

Son seis helicópteros bimotores para operaciones de búsqueda y salvamento, ocho aeronaves para entrenamiento básico, armamento de calibre mayor y menor, radares para el sistema de vigilancia, alarma y control del espacio aéreo

El Salvador

Multimedia presentation

Mexico

“Entre 2006 y 2018 los gobernantes pretendieron resolver la inseguridad y la violencia delictiva mediante acciones de fuerza militar y policial, sin atender el fondo del problema”, aseguró

He ran on promises to make the state work for the people instead of for the elites that were favored by his predecessors. And many Mexicans feel that he has begun to do just that

Overall, López Obrador’s personal approval rating remains high – a whopping favorability rate of 68%, down two points from Reforma’s last poll in July

The reason for the military-style attack remained unclear. Cartels have been contending for control of smuggling routes in northern Mexico, but there was no immediate evidence that a rival cartel had been targeted in Villa Union

The attack will likely fuel Trump’s argument for categorizing drug cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations,” just as groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram

“The toolbox that you use to confront terrorist organizations is very different from the tool box that you need to confront the roots of organized crime”

Those who do make it past Tapachula now face new U.S. policies that make it much harder to cross the southern border and apply for asylum

They have practically become prisoners in a shelter for migrants in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, where cartels prey on migrants who venture out into the streets

Suriname

Desi Bouterse found guilty by military court over abduction and murder of 15 government critics in wake of coup

Venezuela

The situation is in sharp contrast to countries that Venezuelan leaders have held up as role models — Cuba and Russia — both of which have managed to shelter the primary education system from the worst effects of a comparable downturn

Rosneft “is the intermediary,” highlighting its importance in Venezuela’s crude oil sales strategy

This is the general mood everywhere, folks just got tired of waiting for the government to solve their problems or praying for a miracle from the opposition

The day ahead: December 2, 2019

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

I’m here in Washington all week, putting final touches on two big reports and putting together a visit next week to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Today, I’ve got a weekly staff meeting in the morning and should be at my desk all afternoon.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, December 2

  • 1:30–3:00 at WOLA: Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis: Could an Oil-for-Food Program Work? (RSVP required).
  • 3:00–4:30 at CSIS: AMLO’s First Year in Office: Challenges and Opportunities (RSVP required).

Tuesday, December 3

  • 11:00–1:00 at the International Republican Institute: Colombia’s New Crossroads: How Venezuela’s Crisis Impacts Local Governance (RSVP required).

Wednesday, December 4

  • 9:00–11:00 at the Wilson Center: The Strategy Behind Political Repression in Venezuela (RSVP required).
  • 12:00–1:30 at Refugees International: Voices from the Border: Voices of the Remain in Mexico Policy (RSVP required).

Thursday, December 5

  • 10:00 in Room 419, Dirksen Senate Office Building: Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues on Illicit Mining: Threats to U.S. National Security and International Human Rights.
  • 3:00–5:00 at the Old Japanese Ambassador’s Residence: Japan’s Technological and Infrastructure Engagement with LAC: Toward Stronger Ties? (RSVP required).
  • 4:00–5:30 at the Wilson Center: Electoral Bodies & Democratic Governance in Mexico: A Conversation with Dr. Lorenzo Córdova Vianello (RSVP required).

What happens if Mexican cartels go on the terrorist list

It’s a waste of time to write something that concludes, “President Trump hasn’t thought this through.” Of course he hasn’t. But still, let’s think through Trump’s declaration this week that he plans to add Mexican criminal groups (“cartels”) to the U.S. government’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Here’s that list, covering the whole world. There are some pretty vicious groups listed on it: ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the ELN.

But there are a lot of vicious groups missing. You don’t see the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, Italy’s Cosa Nostra, Brazil’s PCC, Central America’s MS-13—or Mexican cartels. There aren’t any criminals or mobsters on the list. Which makes President Trump’s call to add Mexican organized crime groups look bizarre.

But it’s not that bizarre, because U.S. law about terrorism is pretty weird anyway. Just start with the term “terrorism”: the very good Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Terrorism” finds several different ones in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Defense Department guidances, and elsewhere. Those definitions aren’t in sync.

They differ on an important question: whether an act of violence has to be politically motivated to be considered “terrorism,” or whether it’s enough that the violence just seeks to influence a government’s actions. A drug cartel using violence to keep government out if its business fits the second definition, but “keep out of our business” doesn’t really count as a political motivation.

The law governing the State Department’s listing of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Title 22 U.S. Code Section 2656f(d)(2)) uses the first definition, requiring some political motivation in order for a violent group to be considered “terrorist”:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

So for the purposes of the “terrorist list,” there has to be a political motivation. Adding Mexican organized crime to that list would stretch the definition of “political motivation” so much that it would open the door to adding potentially dozens of worldwide criminal groups to the list.

It’s not hard to imagine why the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community would want to avoid doing that. Mixing criminal groups with terrorist groups means losing focus. In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a broad consensus that the U.S. government needed to concentrate its resources and assets on groups, like Al Qaeda, that had used terrorism to kill civilians for a “cause,” no matter how twisted. There was an assumption (usually borne out) that criminals would not be so radicalized or extremist that, for instance, they’d employ suicide bombers.

So there were no serious proposals to dilute the focus by adding organized crime to the terrorist list. The U.S. government already had—and still has—ample tools for dealing with drug-trafficking organized crime groups, going back to the drug war legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Kingpin Act designations. Lists of specially designated narcotics traffickers. Decertifications of states that collude with them. And billions of dollars in aid each year under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program and Defense budget authorities.

Meanwhile, perhaps because they lack political motivations, organized crime groups tend to be much more transient and shorter-lived than terrorist groups. They’re slippery. They fragment and change names, they lose and gain relevance, more quickly than the groups on the FTO list. Start adding organized crime groups to the list and get ready to update it constantly.

Look at the organized crime landscape in Mexico. In 2006, it was dominated by the Sinaloa cartel and some smaller ones: Gulf, Zetas, Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes), Tijuana (Arellano Félix), Familia Michoacana, Beltrán Leyva, and not many others. If your terrorist list included those today, it’d be irrelevant. Some of those are functionally defunct, you’d have to add splinter groups of some of them, and you’d have to consider adding groups that weren’t on the radar in 2006, like the Cuinis, the Viagras, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Nueva Plaza, Nueva Resistencia, Gente Nueva, Santa Rosa de Lima, Northeast Cartel, and many others—first among them, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, headed by Nemesio Oseguera alias “El Mencho.”

A decade ago, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo said that his country’s authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. When undergoing the thorough, deliberative process of listing a group, it hardly makes sense to keep up with all of these comings, goings, and schisms.

Some Mexican analysts have pointed out since Trump’s announcement that listing Mexican criminal groups as “terrorists” increases the likelihood of military action in Mexican territory. That may technically be true, though it’s still a very slim likelihood. It’s hard to imagine U.S. military personnel carrying out an operation on Mexican soil without Mexican consent just because a Mexican criminal group has been given a new status. Still, there’s always a scenario that goes something like: “President López Obrador, we have the coordinates where ‘El Mencho’ is right now. We have one hour. We don’t care what you say, a drone is on its way.”

Short of military operations, listing Mexican criminal groups would mean a heavier U.S. hand in Mexico because it would cast a wide net across Mexican society. Organized crime survives everywhere through its deep roots in the state and civil society. (Terrorist groups also do, to some extent, but tend to be more “off the grid” because their relations with states are more adversarial.) People who live in legality are quiet “nodes” on the organized-crime network. If Mexican groups end up on the FTO list, the U.S. government’s list of Mexican citizens offering “material support to terrorism” (in the eyes of the law, the same as raising money for Al Qaeda) could explode, and could include officials at all levels of Mexican government. It could also include people who make extortion payments under duress. Mary Beth Sheridan explained it well in the Washington Post:

Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.

This might not be a totally bad consequence, because it would mean more accountability for corruption. But it could gum up travel, trade, and overall relations pretty badly.

But the crackdown wouldn’t just happen in Mexico. Listing Mexican groups as terrorists could also cast a wide net across U.S. society. It’s “possible Trump’s move could see U.S. drug dealers labeled and treated as terrorist supporters,” Alex Ward wrote in Vox. The same, one assumes, would go for U.S. bankers or realtors who facilitate cartels’ money-laundering: no more fines, they’d be looking at jail time for terrorist financing. And it would come down hard on all the U.S. citizen “ant traffickers” who take advantage of America’s lax gun laws by buying a few AR-15s at gun shows and stores, driving them south across the border in their cars’ trunks, and selling them to criminals for robust profits. The banking and gun lobbies will be unhappy with this new counter-terrorist scrutiny.

Another interesting outcome would be that Mexican victims’ asylum claims might get a boost in U.S. immigration courts. Their cases wouldn’t become “slam dunks,” necessarily, but it’d certainly help them. If you’ve been threatened by a group on the FTO list, your claim is going to be stronger than it would be if you were just threatened by a criminal organization.

If a group is seen as so active and threatening that it makes the terrorist list, it’s easier to argue that the group has national reach, so the asylum seeker isn’t safe anywhere in her country’s territory. Also, it’s easier to argue that the asylum-seeker’s government isn’t capable of protecting her. That latter argument is even stronger because of corruption. Several years ago it was nearly impossible to argue that Colombia’s government couldn’t protect people from the FARC because the FARC had corrupted Colombia’s government: the FARC didn’t work that way, they fought the government. But Mexican organized crime does work that way: the victims of the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre—to take one example among very many—were the victims not just of Guerreros Unidos, but of local security forces that had become the criminals’ virtual allies.

Would victims of these groups automatically get asylum? No, not at a time when the Trump administration has raised the bar for asylum to nearly impossible, and certainly illegal, levels. But if asylum-seekers’ lawyers (if they have them) can say their clients are threatened by groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, they will be sure to feature that very prominently in their clients’ applications.

From U.S. bankers being labeled “terrorist supporters” to asylum-seekers having a big new argument, a lot of unintentional outcomes could come from the Trump administration “crossing the streams” and adding Mexican criminal groups to the terrorist list. Clearly, President Trump hasn’t thought them through.

The day ahead: November 27, 2019

I’m working until mid-afternoon, then on holiday with family for the rest of the week. (How to contact me)

It’s been quite a time here in Washington, monitoring the protests in Colombia while pushing two massive research reports out the door. Those reports, one on Mexico’s southern border and one on our October trip to Arauca and Chocó, Colombia, are almost completely out of my hands at this point.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States: like Christmas, a day when the entire country grinds to a total halt. I plan to leave work early and spend the rest of the week with family here in the Washington area. I will be monitoring the region while I’m off, though.

Colombia may never be the same

“Wow. It just keeps going,” I said out loud upon leaving Medellín several years ago. Our car was taking us to the airport via the city’s southeast, through El Poblado, its wealthiest sector. And as we drove, the luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, and manicured parks kept passing by my window for what seemed like miles. They didn’t stop. I’d only been to Medellín a few times, but the fancy part of town was much larger than I’d thought.

It’s the same in Bogotá. Following the eastern mountains 100 blocks north from the financial district around 72nd street—but actually starting below, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Chapinero and La Soledad—through El Chicó, El Retiro, Santa Bárbara, Usaquén, and others, there’s a profusion of gleaming shopping malls and condominiums, creative restaurants, arty hotels, brewpubs, espresso bars, armored SUVs, and uniformed security guards. These neighborhoods are mostly affordable if you live on a U.S. wage scale, but even then, many are too pricey. Most of these amenities didn’t exist when I started visiting Colombia in the late 90s. And now, they just keep going.

There is a lot of money in Colombia. Development economists call it an “upper middle income” country.

But there’s even more lack of money in Colombia.

Go to an upper floor of one of Bogota’s condo towers or bank skyscrapers, and you can see vast neighborhoods of self-built brick houses hugging the hillsides, in Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Bosa, Soacha, Kennedy. The people who live there are Bogotá’s poorest, and they number perhaps three million, maybe more. Many make do in the informal economy, at or below the US$250 monthly minimum wage.

Closer in, you can see thousands of florescent-lit, cramped apartment complexes and housing projects where a similar number of people live. Those are the lower middle class, with enough to eat and their kids in school, probably, but barely making it.

Back on the street, look at all the blue SITP buses and TransMilenio vehicles stuffed with people, packed until they’re pressed up against the windows during rush hour. The sub-compact yellow taxis looking for passengers. The uniformed guards, waiters, maintenance workers, maids, and domestics, just off work and hoping not to have their cash or cellphones robbed during their long journeys home.

The people in those neighborhoods and buses—the “sectores populares”—they see the shopping malls and restaurants, too. (They’re not shopping or eating there, of course.) They see the condos and social clubs. It’s all in plain view, and it just keeps going.

Do they admire and aspire to join those who live there? Or do they tell each other that much of the wealth they see is ill-gotten? Do they believe that most of the “estrato seis” neighborhoods’ inhabitants are simply the most skilled thieves—or those thieves’ descendants? It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion given Colombia’s decades of drug-trafficking wealth, money-laundering wealth, and incessant corruption scandals.

Either way, the majority who ride the bus and make a living rebuscando (barely getting by) probably don’t believe that the people in those well-to-do neighborhoods are paying their fair share. There’s a lot of money in Colombia. If the tax burden were just, and the resources managed cleanly, surely the rest of the city would have better schools, safer conditions, reliable healthcare, fewer potholes, and yes, a modern subway.

Most of the time, the barely-scraping-by majority will tolerate much from the wealthy minority. Especially when a media-savvy populist leader cracks down on petty crime or rallies behind socially conservative causes. Or especially when there’s a commodities boom, and all sectors see their incomes and services improve for a while. Or especially when an armed conflict is raging, and all who complain too loudly get tarred as supporters of radical and unpopular guerrillas—and thus threatened, spied upon, or worse.

But eventually, the populists’ messages wear out, and tepid technocrats take over. The commodities boom ends, and government budgets shrink to what can be collected through taxation. The armed conflict—or at least the worst of it—ends at the negotiating table. What then?

What then, especially, when a belt-tightening government takes measures—or even considers measures—that hit the already-stretched budgets of the poorest and lower-middle? A pensions cut, a fare hike, a regressive sales tax?

What happens is probably what Colombia is seeing now. A labor union confederation calls for a day of work stoppages and protest—something that’s happened, regularly, since pretty much forever. But this time, dozens of other organizations, representing many sectors, join in. This time, word spreads on social media, and within weeks the whole country is bracing for a national event, an inchoate spasm of protests without a unifying demand but with a generalized anger at those who benefit from the status quo.

I’m surely overstating some of this. The protests that began on November 21 in Colombia aren’t quite a “class conflict.” Many of those out on the streets are from the middle class, not the poorest—although the middle also feels financially stretched, uncertain, and unhappy about what they’re getting from government and from Colombia’s economic arrangement. The poorer neighborhoods, though, are also among those ringing with the nightly cacerolazos, where people go out to their windows, roofs, and balconies to bang empty pots and chant slogans.

Still, nobody is marching on the Centro Andino mall or the Zona Gastronómica restaurants, or raiding the mountainside condo complexes of El Chicó. Other than President Iván Duque’s residence, protesters aren’t massed outside the homes of senators or CEOs. People aren’t directing their anger at those neighborhoods that “just keep going.”

At least not yet.

One way to move the anger in that direction is for President Duque and his unpopular ruling party to behave the way that they have during the protests’ first few days. They’ve issued messages conflating peaceful protesters with masked “vandals.” They’ve sent riot police to attack peaceful protests without warning or provocation, blanketing plazas and intersections with tear gas, killing an 18-year-old, and filling social media with shocking cellphone videos. They’ve deigned to meet only with business leaders and elected officials.

The Duque government’s tone may be changing now, and I hope it does. When a government finds itself this out of touch with the mood of the country, its only real hope is dialogue with its opponents. Iván Duque won only 39 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election, his party just got trounced in October 2019 local elections, and now his approval rating is in the mid-20s. To pretend he can govern without dialogue, and without some pretty fundamental concessions about the country’s political and economic model, is folly.

Let’s hope the dialogue that may—may—be getting underway soon is genuine. Colombia has just entered a 29-month stretch with no elections, with the past few days’ protests as a major turning point. The next two and a half years could be a time of difficult but necessary conversations, or they could be a time of intense strife between two very different Colombias, as traumatic as—though fundamentally unlike—what the country endured during 40 years of cartel violence and armed conflict.

It’s President Duque’s call.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

November 22, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The stop at the half-mile stretch of crowdfunded steel bollard fencing, which was built without permits this spring on private land in Sunland Park, N.M., was not mentioned in a media advisory sent by the DHS press office ahead of Wolf’s trip

A jury has found Scott Warren not guilty on two federal felony counts of harboring illegal immigrants. Warren works with a group that leaves food and water for migrants in Arizona deserts

Not only are the non-Spanish speaking families from countries far from the United States, they carry their own cash and credit cards and appear much better educated

Bolivia

When I asked Morales what he would do if his exile became permanent, he seemed taken aback

At least 36 people have been killed in clashes since Morales resigned on Nov. 10

“If he would have respected that referendum, he would have finished his third term as probably the best president in Bolivia,” he said. “But he didn’t do that”

La presidenta interina de Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez, lamentó las muertes ocurridas en la ciudad de El Alto durante un operativo militar y policial y ofreció dialogar “inmediatamente”

Chile

Estos ataques han dejado hasta el momento un saldo de cinco muertos y miles de personas torturadas, maltratadas o gravemente lesionadas

In retrospect Ms Bachelet was right on the big things. For the past month, because of the discontents she identified, Chile has been seared by a social conflagration

Colombia

Las manifestaciones, en su mayoría pacíficas y rematadas por un cacerolazo, suponen la mayor ola de protestas contra el presidente

Guatemala

“Imagine sending back one person – the remedy proves to be more expensive than the disease,” Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei said at an event Thursday afternoon

El anexo con el que se podría determinar si es o no legal la implementación del mismo no se ha dado a conocer

Mexico

The military’s public show of support for Lopez Obrador comes amid heightened concern from Latin America’s left about the role that pressure from the armed forces played in the resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales

En la lista de quienes fueron ascendidos hay tres miembros del Ejército relacionados con escándalos de la pasada administración federal

“Nos sumamos al llamado de organizaciones aliadas hacia el gobierno mexicano para que deje de colaborar con el gobierno del presidente (Donald) Trump en la implementación de políticas inhumanas como el ‘Quédate en México’”

Los municipios del Estado de México “se han vuelto tierra de nadie”, donde por años ha imperado la colusión de las autoridades con la delincuencia, lo que ahora complica el combate a la inseguridad

La cifra mensual de crímenes se ha estabilizado desde que arrancó el segundo semestre de este 2019, frenándose así la tendencia al alza registrada en la primera parte del año

Much of the killing today has little to do with drugs. Organized crime has diversified

Las acciones violentas que está realizando el Cártel del Noreste (CDN) y su brazo armado autodenominado “Tropa del Infierno” en Nuevo Laredo son actos de narcoterrorismo y se tiene que actuar en consecuencia, aseguró el gobernador

De aprobarse, las inspecciones arrancarán en cinco puntos estratégicos: San Diego-Tijuana, El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, McAllen-Ciudad Reynosa y Brownsville-Matamoros

Tucson was one of the last major areas on the southern border that has not been diverting asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings

Nicaragua

Con la prolongación de la jefatura del Ejército en manos del general Julio César Avilés, por tercer período consecutivo, y con esto la cancelación de toda posibilidad de renovación en el alto mando militar, el dictador Daniel Ortega ha reafirmado la desinstitucionalización de las fuerzas armadas

Analysts have called the government’s strategy risky, saying inflamed tensions can fuel unrest

The OAS recommended a special session of its general assembly be convened immediately to review affairs in the country

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.

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