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 U.S. policy toward Latin America

Photo from Costa Rica’s Public Security Ministry, reproduced in a March 18 TruthOut piece about U.S. Southern Command projects in southeast Costa Rica.

  • The U.S. government skipped two hearings of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the Trump administration’s migration policies, including the controversial executive orders halting refugee arrivals and travelers from six Islamic nations. The hearings, taking place only 6 blocks from the State Department, went ahead with a row of empty chairs where U.S. government representatives would sit. The Los Angeles Times notes that the no-show was the second this week, after the administration boycotted a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
  • The Washington Post speculates that the Trump administration’s treatment of Mexico may undo military and police cooperation that was “at a historic high.” President Obama’s last NSC director for the Western Hemisphere, Mark Feierstein, tells the Post’s Josh Partlow that “The Obama White House was in ‘pretty advanced conversations’ with Mexico on plans to increase cooperation on eradicating poppy plants and helping farmers to cultivate alternative crops.”
  • Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte obtained a copy of a 1992 book by Gen. Rick Waddell, the official now in his second full week occupying Feierstein’s old NSC position in the Trump administration. On his Two Weeks Notice blog, Weeks doesn’t hold back: “Waddell’s intelligence comes through. He’s a really smart individual. But he reveals a rigid vision of the political world that seems untouched by counter-evidence and is accompanied by quite open contempt for those who disagree. This might make him an excellent Trump official.”
  • “[President Trump] presented to me his worries about the situation in Venezuela,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said of a March 19 phone conversation.
  • WOLA is not the only observer publishing concerns about the impact on Latin America of the Trump administration’s proposed aid cuts. Longtime Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer worries that slashing aid to the OAS will undercut regional efforts—such as they are—to help Venezuela get through its crisis and restore democracy.
  • Unnamed Colombian officials interviewed by Mexico’s newsweekly Proceso say “they expect, of course, more pressure from the United States to go back to spraying coca leaves with glyphosate.… But those same sources think that… Trump’s isolationist policies won’t make the task easy.” They cite in particular the Trump administration’s proposed foreign aid cuts: “The United States still has a lot of capacity to exert pressure, but a reduction in economic aid would also reduce that capacity.”
  • On coca-growing, analyst Daniel Rico tells El Tiempo that he is seeing a new phenomenon in Colombia: “clusters” of small coca fields all owned and worked by the same “criminal businessman.” Rico says that to an outside observer, these “macro-cultivators” look just like the “micro-cultivators,” or small family coca farmers: both are groups of small coca plots. Nobody’s planting a single field all the way to the horizon.
  • Two profiles this week of former Latin American leaders living in the United States to escape corruption charges, while U.S. authorities consider extradition requests from their governments. Panama’s last president Ricardo Martinelli is profiled by Bloomberg. Colombia’s former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, who was so close to ex-president Álvaro Uribe that his nickname was “Uribito,” is the subject of a Miami Herald article. Both are in south Florida.

Colombia’s New Transitional Justice Law Violates the Spirit of the Peace Accords

Colombia’s New Transitional Justice Law Violates the Spirit of the Peace Accords

I just co-wrote, and WOLA just posted, a statement about a wrong turn for post-conflict Colombia.

The hardest part of Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas—it took 19 months to get there—was “transitional justice.” How do you hold human rights abusers accountable to their victims while still convincing them to turn in their weapons?

The peace accords came up with a formula that got more concessions out of the guerrillas than I expected, but left some things vague or to be defined later. We at WOLA had concerns about those vague areas, but didn’t oppose the accord, like some of our colleagues in the human rights community. We have taken a “wait and see” attitude, since so much was put off until later.

Well, “later” is now, as Colombia’s Congress is passing a law to establish the transitional justice system that the peace accord laid out. To our alarm, legislators, likely acting on behalf of powerful ex-military and wealthy allies, made two changes that undermine the accords’ intent.

First, they watered down the definition of “command responsibility” so that former military commanders can avoid justice by claiming there was nothing they could do to stop their subordinates. Second, they made it harder for the new justice system to punish civilians—landowners, political bosses, corporations—who may have aided and abetted serious human rights crimes.

This isn’t the final word. Colombia’s Constitutional Court will have a chance to make changes, and the International Criminal Court may weigh in at some point. But we can’t take a “wait and see” attitude toward this bill, which is a big step in the wrong direction.

Read our statement here.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 22, 2017


Land Rights Activist Shot Dead in Brazilian Amazon Hospital (Reuters, The Guardian (Uk), March 22, 2017).

Waldomiro Costa Pereira, an activist with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) was killed on Monday when gunmen stormed the hospital in Parauapebas in north-eastern Brazil’s Pará state


Por Lo Menos 310 Organizaciones Estan en Situacion de Riesgo en Todo el Pais (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), March 22, 2017).

Así lo establece un documento no publicado del Sistema de Alertas Tempranas de la Defensoría del Pueblo

Mas de 280 Organizaciones Sociales Solicitan Que Todd Howland se Quede en Colombia (El Espectador (Colombia), March 22, 2017).

Argumentan que el actual Alto Comisionado de Nacionales Unidas para los Derechos Humanos es una figura garante para la implementación eficaz de los acuerdos con las Farc

Tatiana Duque, Asi se Resolvieron los Pulsos Alrededor de la Jep (Actualizacion) (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), March 22, 2017).

Pese a las críticas de la ONG Human Rights Watch y la propia Fiscal de la Corte Penal Internacional, el Congreso aprobó la versión que defendían los militares y el Gobierno

Armando Neira, Mitos y Verdades de la Bonanza de la Coca en Colombia (El Tiempo (Colombia), March 22, 2017).

Son contados los profesionales que se dedican a estudiarla en el escritorio y en el terreno. Uno de ellos es Daniel Mauricio Rico Valencia, exasesor de políticas antinarcóticos del Ministerio de Defensa

El Salvador

Hector Silva Avalos, Mimi Yagoub, Colombian Cocaine Seizure Puts Texis Cartel on Central American Drug Trafficking Map (InsightCrime, March 22, 2017).

The connection between the Texis Cartel and El Fantasma’s organization could also imply that Salvadoran transporters have never stopped acting as middlemen in drug trafficking between Colombian suppliers and larger groups


Steven Dudley, Another Day, Another Damning Testimony of Elites by Honduras Trafficker (InsightCrime, March 22, 2017).

A confessed drug trafficker from Honduras implicated the brother of current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in his criminal enterprise, the latest in a series of accusations


Meghan Keneally, Jessica Hopper, Trump’s Us-Mexico Border Wall Gives Arizona Town a Sense of Worry and Hope (ABC News, March 22, 2017).

The fact that security problems along the border are getting attention at all is enough to garner Ladd’s support, even if he doesn’t love the solutions that Trump proposes

Gloria Leticia DÍaz, Familiares de Victimas Exigen Que se Apruebe Ley de Desaparicion Forzada (Proceso (Mexico), March 22, 2017).

Se manifestaron para demandar que se les brinde “el derecho a la verdad” para reconocer la actual situación de crisis humanitaria por la que atraviesa el país

Jesús Aranda, La Jornada: Fuerzas Armadas No Violan Derechos Humanos: Sedena (La Jornada (Mexico), March 22, 2017).

Retó a los ‘‘actores sociales’’ que tengan pruebas en contra de soldados que hayan vulnerado las garantías fundamentales a que las presenten para que sean investigadas, porque son ‘‘injurias y ofensas’’

Joshua Partlow, U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation Is at a Historic High. Will That Change Under Trump? (The Washington Post, March 22, 2017).

While existing programs have not stopped, the Mexican government is reviewing how security cooperation could change in the event that President Trump pushes forward with policies that harm this country

Rep. Martha Mcsally (R-Arizona), Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Reps. Mcsally and Hurd Call on Dhs to Substantiate Funding Request for Border Wall (U.S. House of Representatives, March 22, 2017).

The two lawmakers, whose districts collectively represent 880 miles— nearly half— of the U.S-Mexico border, seek specific details of the location of the proposed wall, definitions of adequate natural barriers, and a breakdown of the investments


Luis Eduardo Martinez, Ejercito Mata al Rearmado Santiago Palacios en Ayapal (La Prensa (Nicaragua), March 22, 2017).

El líder de una agrupación presuntamente alzada en armas contra el inconstitucional gobierno de Daniel Ortega, murió este lunes en un intercambio de disparos


Report Charts Evolution and Militarization of Venezuela’s Drug Trade (InsightCrime, March 22, 2017).

Along with other incidents of military involvement, these suspicions have strengthened the notion that Venezuela’s armed forces have deepened their role in the drug trade beyond being simple facilitators

Fabiola Sanchez , Venezuela’s Socialist Leaders Seize Bakeries in ‘Bread War’ (Associated Press , March 22, 2017).

Within hours of the takeover, new young, dreadlocked and tattooed shopkeepers took down the Mansion’s Bakery sign outside and hung up photos of President Nicolas Maduro

Western Hemisphere Regional

Tracy Wilkinson, U.S. Skips Regional Human Rights Panel Examining Reports of Abuse by U.S. Officials (The Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2017).

*No U.S. official attended Tuesday’s hearing, which examined Trump’s executive actions to restrict the admission of refugees and restrict travel *

The day ahead: March 22, 2017

Today I should be out of meetings in the afternoon, but trying to write as quickly as possible. (How to contact me)

The Human Rights Caucus hearing on Colombia, originally scheduled for Thursday, has been postponed. (Thanks, “Trumpcare” bill.) So I won’t be spending today preparing testimony.

Instead, I have a mandatory staff training all morning (lawyers talking to us about how to operate when, as has happened in Ecuador or Venezuela, your government might be looking for reasons to sue you for what you say or write). This afternoon, the schedule is clear to finish a near-final draft—everything but a final copy edit—of our giant report on all 109 existing U.S. programs that aid foreign militaries and police forces. And if things are quiet enough, to begin producing a new podcast.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process


“There is now an inventory of 14,000 FARC weapons that will soon pass into the UN Mission’s hands,” President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted shortly after Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced that figure. Villegas added that around 11,000 of the arms that the FARC will “leave aside” are rifles. The UN verification and monitoring mission has so far received 507 arms, most of them from FARC members who have been authorized to act as the organization’s representatives outside the disarmament zones. The FARC has also turned over to the UN the coordinates of its arms caches and stockpiles. A new overview (in Spanish) of how the “laying aside” of weapons is to occur, produced by the Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz, points out that the process is likely to take more than the originally planned 180 days.

Construction continues to go painfully slowly at the 26 zones where 7,200 FARC members are gathered to turn in weapons over six months. The UN mission reported [PDF] March 14 that no zone has reached 90 percent completion, and 13 are still at less than 10 percent. “Despite months of planning,” the Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss reported, “many of the camps don’t have adequate potable water, bathrooms, cafeterias, recreational facilities and other amenities that the guerrillas say they were promised,” which is hurting morale at the sites. Poor conditions at the zones appear to be causing a trickle of guerrilla desertions, which is in danger of becoming a flood.

“There is still time to correct the government’s inability to implement the accords,” Sen. Claudia López said. “There seems to be no problem introducing legislation, but to carry something out 200 kilometeres away from Bogotá seems to be too much to ask.”

Uncertainty meanwhile surrounds how the demobilization process will incorporate somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 FARC militias—part-time support personnel—whom the revised peace accord expects to report to the 26 concentration sites for up to a week of registration. About 700 have already done so. The actual number of militia members is unknown, and as most live in cities, it is unlikely that many will bother to emerge from clandestinity and journey to the FARC’s remote rural sites.

Transitional Justice

Defense Minster Villegas announced that he has signed a list of 817 imprisoned members of the security forces who are to request parole under the transitional justice system foreseen in the FARC-government peace accord. Contagio Radio obtained a list of 150 of them that includes some generals and colonels notorious for high-profile cases of human rights abuse.

Much press coverage during the week surrounded the 72 changes that Colombia’s Senate made to a bill creating a transitional justice system to judge guerrillas, military personnel, and civilians who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Reaching agreement on this topic was the most difficult part of the four-year negotiation between the government and the FARC.

The Senate did a favor to civilians accused of contributing to war crimes by making their participation in transitional justice “voluntary” and raising the threshold of evidence needed to bring cases. The Senate did a favor to retired military officers by redefining commanders’ responsibility for their units’ behavior in a way that might allow many to avoid punishment. And it upended the accord on political participation by banning ex-FARC members from politics until they get a sort of certificate stating that they have complied with their peace accord commitments.

Because of these changes, two prominent Green Party senators who are strong negotiation supporters—Claudia López and Antonio Navarro Wolff—voted against the Senate measure. The bill must now go to reconciliation with the House version, then it becomes law, then the Constitutional Court must review it. Meanwhile, Congress must pass a separate law to establish the new justice system’s operational procedures. The International Criminal Court may also choose to review the law, and if the Senate language on “command responsibility” is still in it, the ICC may decide that Colombia is not complying with its international human rights commitments.

(Sources: Semana magazine, El Espectador editorial, Verdad Abierta)

Human Rights

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) annual report on Colombia (EnglishSpanish – summarized in an earlier blog post) expressed concerns about legislative efforts to water down transitional justice, attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, and the slow pace of the government’s peace accord implementation so far.

For the first time, a FARC leader was a panelist at the report’s launch press conference at a Bogotá five-star hotel. Julián Gallo, until recently known as “Carlos Antonio Lozada,” sat two spots from Police General Carlos Mena at the panelists’ table.

Interviewed by the daily El Espectador, Todd Howland, the longtime director of the OHCHR office in Colombia, did not hide his anger at the changes Colombia’s Senate wrought to the transitional justice bill.

At the dialogue table we worked hard to comply with international standards. In the end something was obtained that isn’t perfect, but isn’t bad. That took years of work. It was too big an effort for the Congress not to take it seriously afterward. That effort was based on an interest in victims’ rights, but now the congresspeople acted as though nothing had happened in Cuba.

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