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.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 13-19)

Transitional Justice System Suspends Santrich Extradition

The case of FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, arrested on April 9 with the possibility of extradition to the United States for narcotrafficking, grew more complicated this week. The Review Chamber of the new Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP, the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord) ordered his extradition suspended. Other entities within Colombia’s government contended that the Chamber doesn’t have the right to do that.

Santrich, a hardliner who represented the FARC at the negotiating table during the entire Havana process, is currently confined at a Bogotá facility run by the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference. His health is precarious, as he has been on a hunger strike since his arrest. Santrich is charged by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York with conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

As he allegedly committed the crime after the peace accord went into effect, Santrich’s case could go to Colombia’s regular justice system, where he would face long prison terms or extradition. First, though, the JEP must determine that the crime did indeed take place after the peace accord’s December 1, 2016 ratification.

That is the task of the JEP’s Review Chamber, which must fulfill it within 120 days. This chamber contended, by a unanimous vote, that fulfilling its duty required a temporary suspension of Santrich’s extradition. The Chamber asked for more evidence of the allegations against the FARC leader, and instructed the “regular” justice system’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) to provide, within five days, information about the extradition process.

Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez responded with a strongly worded 16-page letter alleging that the JEP has no authority to freeze an extradition process, adding that the newly formed body’s action “has left democratic institutionally threatened.” And in fact, the director of another body of the JEP, its Investigations and Accusations Unit, tweeted “I separate myself from the extradition suspension decision.”

The Colombian government’s Justice and Interior Ministries responded with a communiqué arguing that the JEP could not suspend Santrich’s extradition because the United States had not formally requested it yet. Colombian law gives countries requesting a citizen’s extradition 60 days to issue a formal request after that citizen has been detained. That would give the U.S. government until June 8 to issue the request. It has not done so, perhaps out of a desire not to appear to be influencing the May 27 presidential election campaign.

The JEP Chamber, however, stated that in its view, “the extradition process has already begun, because a detention for extradition purposes has been requested.”

There is no sense of when the Chamber may issue its determination of when Santrich committed a crime, or whether the Chamber may seek to determine whether there is even enough evidence that a crime took place. “Still, the political effect of the decision is immediate,” wrote Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.

Above all when the JEP issues it a few days before elections in which the candidate with the best chances of making it to a second round and reaching the Presidency [Iván Duque of the right-wing Centro Democrático party] proposes to make “adjustments” to the JEP that, in practice, would do away with it.

Debate over whether to extradite Santrich continues. Rodrigo Uprimny, founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, believes Santrich should be tried in Colombia so that he may answer to his victims. An analysis in Semana magazine worries about the effect on ex-guerrillas’ desertion:

In the end, the consequences won’t be those of an ideal transition to peace or a return to the open war of the last decades. The scenario in play is intermediate, and has to do instead with the size of the dissidences that may return to the jungle. In other words, if Santrich’s possible extradition creates uncertainty among guerrillas that increases the number of dissidents, it may be best to allow him to serve his sentence inside the country.

An El Tiempo editorial contends that “rules are rules,” despite Santrich’s victims’ right to learn the truth from him.

It could be proposed that, without leaving aside at any moment the importance of the truth, the precept must come first that whoever doesn’t comply with the agreed rules must pay for it.

This, the editorial clarifies, only applies if the evidence against Santrich “leaves no doubt about his criminal conduct.” If so, “there would be no reason to insist that this [his extradition] poses an insurmountable obstacle to the implementation of what was agreed in Havana.”

Government Will Miss Its Coca Substitution Target

The Colombian government recognized on May 15 that it will not meet its target, set for this month, of 50,000 hectares of coca eradicated by growers voluntarily destroying their crops in exchange for economic assistance. That was the one-year goal the Presidency had set for its implementation of chapter 4 of the Havana peace accord, which establishes a national crop substitution program.

In fact, the program fell significantly short. Eduardo Díaz, the director of the crop substitution program, announced that families participating in the program had eradicated 36,000 hectares, of which 11,700 have actually been verified by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares in Colombia in 2016, and media have reported that the U.S. estimate for 2017 could be as high as 230,000. (UNODC’s 2016 estimate was 146,000, and media reports point to 180,000 in 2017.) The government forcibly eradicated 53,000 hectares in 2017.

Díaz blamed security conditions for the shortfall. He told CNN en Español, “In different zones where there are crops, narcotraffickers’ networks have advanced, have killed communities, have killed leaders, have threatened government officials and UN officials.”

Independent analysts place more blame on the slow performance of the Colombian bureaucracy. The idea of the government’s National Comprehensive Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS, the main focus of the accord’s chapter 4) was to provide small-scale coca-growing households with two years’ worth of payments and help with productive projects in exchange for eradicating their coca. The economic benefits for each household would total about US$12,000 over two years. This week, the Ideas for Peace Foundation released a detailed report and dataset (Excel file) laying out the progress of the PNIS program as of March 31. In sum:

  • 123,225 families had signed collective framework community accords agreeing in principle to substitute crops.
  • 62,181 families (50.4 percent of above) had signed specific accords committing to a timetable of voluntary eradication and receipt of benefits.
  • 32,010 families (51.4 percent of above) had received at least one monthly payment.
  • 7,009 families (11 percent of the 62,181) had received any technical assistance to pursue an alternative productive project.
  • UNODC had found (in 2106) 22,025 hectares of coca in the municipalities (counties) where families had begun receiving payments.
  • UNODC had verified and certified the eradication of 6,381 hectares of coca (28.9 percent of above). (This is far fewer than the 11.700 hectare figure that the government substitution program’s Eduardo Díaz had given CNN.)

The report concludes,

The greatest advances of PNIS are found in the signing up of campesinos and the disbursement of payments, while it is falling most behind in technical assistance and in the supply of goods and services. Under those conditions, three months before the end of President Santos’s government, it will be difficult for the program to meet the goal of 50,000 voluntarily eradicated hectares.

The Ideas for Peace report notes that while homicides across Colombia have increased by a troubling 8 percent over this time last year, they are up by a very alarming 57 percent in the municipalities with crop substitution programs.

The Verdad Abierta website visited Briceño, Antioquia, where the PNIS began as a pilot project in 2015. In the coming weeks, the national government is to announce that the municipality’s residents will have eradicated all of their coca, about 567 hectares.

However, Briceño’s farmers told the site that “the campesinos complied, but the government has not.” While monthly payments have come on time, assistance for productive projects has hardly begun. “They did give us the payments, but in the agreement it said that as the payments arrived, then the productive projects to implement them would also arrive, so that we wouldn’t end up the way we are now: with our arms crossed and worried because the money has run out,” said a Community Action Board president.

“The state has a great responsibility with respect to the families who expressed their will to abandon the coca crops and who took part in the substitution process,” the Ideas for Peace report reads. “In the zones where the PNIS began to be developed, the link between populations and the state has been re-established. However, the lack of compliance with what was agreed not only has implications for institutions’ trust and credibility, it generates a risk of re-planting and a possible increase in hectares of coca.”

ELN to Cease Fire During Presidential Voting

The ELN announced that it will cease military activities for five days, from May 25-29, “to contribute to favorable conditions that might permit Colombian society to express itself in the elections” that will take place on May 27.

This raised hopes for a more permanent bilateral cessation of hostilities between government and guerrillas. However, the ELN’s chief negotiator in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, intimated that the group would be unlikely to agree to a ceasefire as long as social leaders continue to be killed at a rapid pace around the country: “We are fully disposed to do a cessation, but what about all the others? It’s not just a call on the military forces, but on paramilitarism, on all these attacks that different popular sectors are receiving.”

Asked about President Juan Manuel Santos’s hope that the ELN talks will leave behind a framework agreement—which, for the next president, would increase the cost of pulling the plug on the talks—Beltrán said that the ELN wants “to leave the accords at such a point of consolidation that any incoming government would have to respect them.” Any advancement, Beltrán added, would have to include more civil society participation; he did not specify what that might look like.

Timoleón Jiménez to Uribe: Let’s Go To the Truth Commission Together

Maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias Timochenko published a lengthy communiqué about the status of the peace process on the eve of Colombia’s presidential election. “The peace accord is shielded,” it reads.

That’s what the Constitutional Court understood when it upheld Legislative Act 02 of 2017. The UN Security Council recognizes it. The community of nations accepts it and applauds it. We’re not going to force absolutely anything, the issue is simply to honor what was agreed when the Colombian state and our former insurgency gave our word. The beautiful dream of peace could be an irreversible reality if you [President Santos] decide to act.

Timochenko’s tone contrasts with that of the FARC’s de facto number-two leader, Iván Márquez, who said that if his close collaborator Jesús Santrich dies of a hunger strike while awaiting a possible extradition, his death “would also be the death of the peace process.”

In his statement, Timochenko asked forgiveness of Ingrid Betancourt, Clara Rojas, Sigifredo López, and other civilians whom the FARC held hostage for years. He called on former President Álvaro Uribe to join him in appearing together before the newly established Truth Commission to show the country “what the search for truth and the clarification of the truth look like.” Uribe led an intense military offensive against the FARC during his 2002-2010 presidency, and enjoyed the political support of many backers of right-wing paramilitary groups.

The presidential candidate of Uribe’s party, poll frontrunner Iván Duque, rejected the FARC leader’s invitation. “He can’t come here like a shameless person trying to appear as the equal of a good citizen. Instead, they should give reparations to their victims, tell all the truth, and pay their penalties.”

Military Operations Against FARC Dissidents

A joint Colombian Army-Air Force-Police operation killed 11 members of the FARC’s 7th Front dissident group in Putumayo. Among the dead was a commander named alias “Cachorro,” reportedly a close collaborator of Edgar Salgado, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” who commanded the FARC’s 27th Front and abruptly abandoned the demobilization process last September. The 7th Front dissidents are a recent presence in Putumayo; they have been most active in Meta and Caquetá.

In Bello, just north of Medellín in Antioquia, an operation carried out by the Army and the Fiscalía captured Henry Arturo Gil Ramírez alias “el Feo” (the Ugly One), a top commander of the 36th Front dissident group.

In-Depth Reading

George Orwell’s Barcelona

This building in central Barcelona was once the Hotel Continental, where George Orwell and his wife stayed when he wasn’t at the front, fighting with an anti-Stalinist Marxist militia during the Spanish Civil War. Here is where this scene in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia played out, just as the pro-Soviet communists began their crackdown on all other leftist factions:

When I got to the hotel my wife was sitting in the lounge. She got up and came towards me in what struck me as a very unconcerned manner; then she put an arm round my neck and, with a sweet smile for the benefit of the other people in the lounge, hissed in my ear:

Get out!


‘Get out of here at once!’


‘Don’t keep standing here! You must get outside quickly!’

‘What? Why? What do you mean?’

…‘Haven’t you heard?’

‘No. Heard what? I’ve heard nothing.’

‘The P.O.U.M.’S been suppressed. They’ve seized all the buildings. Practically everyone’s in prison. And they say they’re shooting people already.’

There are very few remaining signs that, for more than a year in 1936-37, this city was actually run by anarchists and labor unions. (It didn’t last: the Stalinists routed them, and then by 1939 the dictator Franco defeated the Stalinists. The Wikipedia entry on “Revolutionary Catalonia” is a good summary.)

I’m grateful to Alan Warren, who offers tours of Orwell’s Barcelona, for pointing those signs and places out to me. It was a great two-hour break from the Latin American Studies Association conference taking place elsewhere in the city.

This hand-painted sign in Catalán, declaring this square to be the “Plaza of the Unknown Militiaman,” is one of the only remnants of the brief period of anarcho-syndicalist dominion of Barcelona. It was covered by a wooden board until 2004.


My LASA presentation slides

If I were smarter, I’d have recorded my Latin American Studies Association panel discussion and shared the audio as a podcast, like Greg Weeks did.

Instead, here’s the 36-slide presentation I used to explain the experience of U.S. support for Colombia’s peace process under the Trump administration. It’s below, or just download the 16mb PDF file here. Scroll further down for a quick overview.

In a nutshell, here’s the story this is trying to tell.

Since Trump’s inauguration, there have been three battle lines:

  1. How to talk about Colombia’s peace accord.
  2. How to talk about Colombia’s coca production problem.
  3. What the aid package should look like.

And there have been four key sets of actors in Washington:

  1. The Trump White House.
  2. Veteran diplomats and other pragmatic officials.
  3. Foreign aid appropriators and foreign relations authorizers in Congress.
  4. Hardliners in Congress. (Sen. Marco Rubio, who has played a big role, straddles 3. and 4.)

Spoiler: so far at least, (2) and (3) have won the day on all three battle lines. But if Colombia elects Duque, and if Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo harden the U.S. line and work the bureaucracy harder, the coming year could be much worse.

I have this all written out as a 19-page draft, still in need of unifying prose, edits, and footnotes. In the meantime, enjoy the slideshow, which has links to sources for nearly everything.

Day 3 in Barcelona

Here’s a photo from my early morning jog along the Mediterranean. I’m here for the Latin American Studies Association’s annual conference.

I like these gatherings, it’s good to see everyone from old professors to colleagues in the region. And it’s really important to find out about work being done by younger, newer (and less male and white) scholars.

Regular posting, including a new Colombia update I’ve been chipping away at, will resume soon.

Latin America-Related Events in Washington This Week

Tuesday, May 22

  • 9:00–11:00 at the Wilson Center: Rule of Law, a Linchpin of U.S. Foreign Policy: A Conversation with Senator Ben Cardin. (RSVP required).
  • 11:30–6:30 at the Stimson Center: Taking Aim: A Closer Look at the Global Arms Trade. (RSVP required).
  • 1:00–2:15 at the Wilson Center: One Month Out: New Perspectives on the 2018 Mexican Election. (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 in House Capitol Visitor Center Room 210: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee on “Stopping the Daily Border Caravan: Time to Build a Policy Wall.”

Wednesday, May 23

Thursday, May 24

The day ahead

I’ll be difficult to contact today, and all week. (How to contact me)

I’m in a staff meeting, then guest-teaching a Syracuse University in Washington class about Colombia, then headed to the airport. I’ll be flying overnight to Barcelona, where I’ll be all week at the annual Latin American Studies Association conference.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Carolyn Cole photo at The Los Angeles Times. Caption: “Ely Fernandez of Honduras is questioned by Border Patrol Agent Robert Rodriguez after being detained for crossing the border illegally in March with his 5-year-old son, Bryan, center.”

(Even more here)

May 18, 2018


The individuals did not know one another but allegedly were using the messaging app WhatsApp to discuss plans to conduct a terrorist attack


Anti-Castro activists complained that the seminar, titled “Cuba under [Miguel] Díaz-Canel” and organized by the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was to hear only from experts who support the friendlier policies on Cuba

El Salvador

Elías Antonio Saca, who was president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009, and six other members of his administration, will stand trial for allegedly embezzling $300 million from state coffers into personal accounts


El primer día de María Consuelo Porras Argueta como Fiscal General y jefa del Ministerio Público (MP), fue ajetreado; como una premonición de lo que serán sus días durante los próximos cuatro años


Fully implementing the landmark anti-corruption reforms that Mexico approved in 2016 should be a major priority for whoever wins the country’s presidency on July 1

“We have never seen this before and it is affecting everyone,” he said

Asked about the possibility of a safe third country agreement in a television interview on Thursday morning, Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign secretary, said, “There aren’t conditions to speak about new cooperation mechanisms in this matter.”


Even the rations served in military mess halls have dramatically diminished in size and quality. To compensate, soldiers are often given leave several hours during the day to hunt for meals off base

Shortages of food, evaporating salaries and desertions have turned the armed forces into a cauldron of conspiracies against Mr. Maduro

Many Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday hungry. And some may be voting in the presidential election only because they fear what will happen to them if they stay home

They are, in general, wealthier and more likely to have legal representation, an advantage that significantly boosts their chances of being allowed to stay

The latest salvo—targeting the man who is widely perceived as the most powerful man in the country behind the president—hits Mr. Maduro’s inner circle closer than any other previous sanctions

The day ahead: May 18, 2018

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

I’m off shortly to talk about Colombia before a human rights seminar, a class of mostly civilians from around the region, at the National Defense University’s Perry Center. I’ll be in the office in the afternoon, working on my LASA paper and just trying to get re-organized in general after lots of writing this week.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Witness for Peace photo at TruthOut. Caption: “Police from various units are present May 3 in Pajuiles, in northern Honduras, to escort dam construction machinery past a community resistance camp.”

(Even more here)

May 17, 2018

Central America Regional, Mexico

Even supporters of tougher enforcement should tell the White House that it is going too far. It can enforce immigration laws without such draconian measures and protect children


Poco a poco los detalles sobre estas operaciones se han ido conociendo, y cuanto más se sabe más se profundiza el dolor al pensar cómo se pudo permitir que algo así ocurriera


The Florida senator has suspended US funding for a United Nations commission that has had dramatic success in tackling corruption in the Central American country

It is considered an easy domestic victory for Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, whose government is beset by economic problems, gang violence and corruption allegations


The recent crackdown in Pajuiles to impose a fiercely contested hydroelectric dam project is just one of the latest incidents, but it provides a clear example of the involvement of US-trained and -supported special forces in repression


Because of Mexico’s dominant role as either a source or transit point for illicit drugs destined for the U.S., it has also become a primary destination for the illicit proceeds that the cartels earn

Approximately 1,218lbs. of illicit fentanyl have already been seized in FY 2018


Ortega dejó el martes la sede del Seminario de Nuestra Señora de Fátima de Managua, donde se inauguró el diálogo, con una lista de asesinados por la represión leída en su cara, el descontento de los empresarios y una exigencia directa de la Iglesia de parar la violencia


The Cartel of the Suns today is a disparate network of traffickers, including both state and non-state actors, but all operating with the blessing and protection of senior figures in the Venezuelan government

Sooner rather than later, Venezuela’s government will face the reality that only austere economics — not spendthrift politics — can end hyperinflation

The process has been stacked against the opposition from the start

Mr. Falcón likes to argue that he is best positioned to lead the divided country because he came from the very party he aims to defeat

American Joshua Holt and several Venezuelan political dissidents made a desperate plea for help as inmates took control of a part of the Helicoide prison in Caracas

Western Hemisphere Regional

Even more threatening to the rule of law, though, has been selective prosecution — often unintentional on the part of anti-corruption crusaders

The judge did not simply rule against ICE. He accused the agency of lying to a court of law

Whether President Trump was referring to MS-13 gang members or all deportees is unclear. But he didn’t exactly hasten to clarify

Talking Colombian elections on WBEZ Worldview

Here’s an 11-minute interview from yesterday with Jerome McDonnell, the veteran and deeply knowledgeable host of Worldview on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. We look at Colombia’s upcoming elections and the state of peace accord implementation.

These interviews, especially live ones like this, are nerve-wracking, even when it’s a topic I follow closely. Time is very limited, but you have to break things down for a general audience, which takes time. A voice in your head screams “hurry up you only have 10 minutes” while the rest of your brain wants to explain the complicated context. I end up talking too fast, and I honestly have no idea which facts/arguments audiences will find most compelling or boring. People who do this well are in high demand, because it’s hard to do well.

The day ahead: May 17, 2018

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

I’ve completed a lot of the writing I’d hoped to do this week, with one big exception: the paper I’m to present next Wednesday at the Latin American Studies Association convention in Barcelona. Luckily I have a free schedule today and can spend several hours writing it. That’s what I’ll be doing until (and maybe after) dinnertime.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Bienvenido Velasco/EFE photo at Confidencial (Nicaragua). Caption: “Manifestación en Managua contra el régimen de Daniel Ortega.”

(Even more here)

May 16, 2018


A little like what was so often heard during the 2016 U.S. campaign about Donald Trump, the refrain “he says what I’m thinking but can’t say” comes up time and time again


Kate Gilmore, la alta comisionada adjunta de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos, habló sobre el proceso de paz en Colombia. Asegura que el caso Santrich pone a prueba la credibilidad de la justicia


In a strategic shift for the institution, the Guatemalan Army deployed troops to the borders and pulled patrols off the streets, beginning in early April

The next few days will be tense and determinant for President Morales


“Mexico talks but they do nothing for us, especially at the border. They certainly don’t help us much on trade, but especially at the border they do nothing for us”

La Organización no Gubernamental Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez analizó las sentencias de amparo

Officials from the Trump administration and the Mexican government will meet Thursday and Friday to discuss a possible “safe third country” agreement


El sondeo realizado a 1200 personas entre el 5 y 15 de mayo muestra que el 78% de los entrevistados opinan que el país va por mal camino. Una enorme diferencia en relación a la encuesta de enero, cuando el 35% opinaba lo mismo


De 32 ministros, 14 son militares y dirigen carteras como Defensa, Interior, Petróleo, Agricultura y Alimentación, además de la poderosa petrolera PDVSA

Here are seven arguments as to why we think Venezuela qualifies and what the implications are of this troubled Andean nation as a regional crime hub

For a leader so universally loathed to try to steal an election risks setting off a series of events that end with him out of power — perhaps even in jail

A flurry of videos that were posted on social media and could not be immediately verified purported to show El Helicoide’s inmates fleeing their cells and issuing pleas for outside help

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