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 day ahead: March 15, 2018

I’m in meetings all day, and for some of it I may not even have my phone with me. (How to contact me)

I had only a few things on the schedule Tuesday and Wednesday, but spent them doing writing and catching up correspondence. I was in a bit of a sleepless haze, having devoted evenings and nights to finishing a solid draft of a big report about the USAID program that I’d spent the month of February in Colombia evaluating. That’s done now, and unless something goes terribly wrong, that project will no longer demand large blocks of my time.

Today I’ve got meetings with State Department in the morning and an “NGO working group” meeting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the afternoon. Lunch with a Colombian colleague in between. And in the late afternoon I board a train to New York, where a few of us from WOLA will be spending all of tomorrow meeting with journalists and, believe it or not, comedy writers.



Some articles I found interesting this morning

Reuters photo at The Guardian. Caption: “Pablo Catatumbo of the political party Farc deposits his vote during the legislative elections Monday in Bogota, Colombia.”

(Even more here)

March 12, 2018


Former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro and youthful rightwing senator Iván Duque confirmed the strength of their bids to be Colombia’s next president on Sunday in a historic day of voting

Once more, FARC will loom large in foreign-media accounts of the vote and small in Colombian ones

Los partidos Conservador, Centro Democrático y Cambio Radical, hoy en abierta oposición a lo pactado con las Farc, ostentan 133 de las 278 curules que lo integran

De los 70 candidatos cuestionados que la Fundación Paz y Reconciliación-Pares publicó, sólo 28 se quemaron

Según Santos, la agenda de Quito se retomará con dos puntos que se estaban discutiendo en simultánea: la participación ciudadana, y el de las acciones y gestos humanitarios que se deben dar

Colombia, Peru, Western Hemisphere Regional

Trump will attend the Summit of the Americas to be held in Lima, Peru, on April 14-15


As Trump inspects the prototypes and poses for photos along the border east of San Diego, he’ll be just yards away from a Tijuana slum where people have formulated their own ideas about them


The worse the economy gets, the more dependent some poor Venezuelans become on the state

The Maduro government is not the only government to preside over an economic disaster. What makes it different is that it has violated the people’s rights to choose their leadership

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process

Congressional Elections Are This Sunday

Colombians go to the polls on March 11 to elect new members of a 108-person Senate and a 172-person House of Representatives. All will serve four-year terms. Regardless of the result, at least five from each house will be members of the political party formed by the former FARC guerrillas. The peace accord gives the FARC ten automatic congressional seats for the next two four-year terms, until 2026.

Polling indicates that rightist parties, and traditional political families, will do well. The “Democratic Center” party of former President Álvaro Uribe led in a Guarumo/EcoAnalitica poll with 20.1 percent of intended Senate votes. (Despite its name, this party is the farthest to the right politically.) Of the next five parties, four are big political machines with blurred, but mostly conservative-leaning, political views (the Liberals, Cambio Radical, the Conservatives, and the “U” or Unity party). The fifth, the Green Party, trends center-left.

Much coverage of the campaign’s last stage focuses on the continued power of local family dynasties, whose members keep getting re-elected despite allegations of corruption or collusion with organized crime and paramilitarism.

In the Wall Street Journal, John Otis profiles Sucre Department candidate Juliana Escalante García.

“[I]t hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator Álvaro García, is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.”

Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation tells Otis that “about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.”

El Espectador mapped out the dominant political clans in Valle del Cauca (Toro), Santander (Aguilar), and the Atlantic (Char) and Pacific (Martínez Sinisterra) coastal regions. El Tiempo profiled 17 political families throughout the country. La Silla Vacía looked at how jailed politicians continue to manage their electoral machinery from their comfortable prison cells.

“Timochenko” Drops Out of Presidential Race

The former FARC are performing poorly in polls: the Guarumo/EcoAnalitica survey showed its 74 Senate and House candidates sharing the support of 0.6 percent of respondents. And the former guerrillas’ presidential campaign suffered a knockout blow this week as its candidate, former paramount FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko,” suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.

The 59-year-old Timochenko has been plagued by health problems. Following this medical event, he pulled out of the campaign completely. The FARC will not run a presidential candidate in the May 27 elections.

Timochenko’s campaign had not been going well. Most polls had him in the 1 percent range. And some of his campaign appearances had been met with angry mobs throwing objects at him. “Nothing has gone well for the party,” León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation told the New York Times. “The implementation of the peace accords going ahead will depend on their presence and political influence in the country and this is in question.”

Former FARC members continue to face attacks and threats around the country. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo told Verdad Abierta that since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord, 56 people tied to the FARC have been murdered, among them 42 ex-combatants, some relatives, and “a very small number, two or three people, tied to the new FARC political party who weren’t ex-combatants or relatives.”

Presidential Candidate Petro Claims He Was Shot At

Leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who narrowly leads polls for May’s first-round presidential vote, visited Washington to consult with the OAS about an attack that took place in Cúcuta on March 2. As his motorcade drove through the city, it was hit with a projectile so hard that it cracked the thick glass of Petro’s armored car. Petro claims it was a bullet. The investigative arm of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (the CTI) said the damage did not result from a bullet, but did not suggest an alternative.

Petro blamed the attack on the machine that dominates local politics in Cúcuta. The city’s current mayor is a close associate of former mayor Ramiro Suárez, who is currently imprisoned in Bogotá for working with paramilitary groups.

U.S. Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Next U.S. Ambassador

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met March 7 to hear testimony from four ambassadorial nominees, including Joseph MacManus, the State Department’s pick for Colombia.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) raised concerns with MacManus about whether human rights would be upheld in the FARC peace agreement, or would be sacrificed. MacManus replied that “the key word is accountability,” and human rights are a part of that. He added that while Colombia has made advances in protecting labor leaders and human rights defenders, there is a long way to go, and institutions need strengthening.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) called Colombia a “success story,” and endorsed the country’s bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). MacManus said that the OECD bid was helping Colombia to make progress on standards, but cited child labor as one of a few areas where Colombia still needs to do more.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) brought up what he characterized as “record supplies of cocaine,” along with a drop in prices and an increase in U.S. consumption. The timing of increased coca, Rubio said, “coincided with the peace deal,” which he says included a program “paying growers to stop growing coca,” which encouraged people to grow coca to qualify. Rubio said that MacManus would be ambassador at a time when cocaine may compete with opiates as the worst illegal drug plague in the United States. “I see it becoming a major irritant in the relationship.” MacManus replied, “That irritation is already there. It’s beyond an irritation,” citing President Trump’s September near-decertification of Colombia as a partner in the drug war. MacManus assured that the Colombian government is also concerned about coca: it interdicted about 500 tons in 2017, a record, and registered its highest numbers for manual and voluntary eradication in years. MacManus noted that the peace accords call for both rural reform and addressing illicit drugs. He recalled that, at an early March High Level Dialogue, Colombia committed to eradicating to 50 percent of the current area planted with coca within five years.

Sen. Rubio noted that the territorial space, and the role in the cocaine trade, that the FARC once occupied have been taken up by “cartels and the ELN.” He added that “It is indisputable that distribution of cocaine is assisted actively by elements in the Venezuelan government.” Rubio said that Venezuela is supportive of the ELN, and that aerial trafficking routes almost all begin in Venezuelan territory. MacManus did not dispute Rubio’s assessment.

Rubio concluded that between the unstable border and a flood of migrants, “Venezuela poses a national security threat to our strongest ally, Colombia.” McManus concurred that Venezuela is “a principal threat, a threat to Colombia” and “the principal problem of today, of right now,” in Latin America. He noted that Colombia is prepared to seek international assistance to attend to Venezuelan migrants, and that there have been discussions within U.S. agencies about how to provide that.

The Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on MacManus’s nomination. Conservative media outlets had attacked MacManus last year: though he is a career Foreign Service officer, they, and some far-right senators, perceive him as being too close to Hillary Clinton, on whose staff MacManus served when she was secretary of state. Sen. Rubio’s first line of questioning dealt with MacManus’s role in dealing with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which U.S. conservatives contend that Clinton mishandled.

Crop Substitution Plan is Lagging

The National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana (COCCAM) held a press conference to warn that the government’s crop substitution program, part of Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord, is not going well.

COCCAM members throughout the country have signed agreements with the Colombian government to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for a package of aid—mainly a stipend and help with productive projects and technical support—valued at about US$12,000 over two years. This National Integral Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), the growers warn, is on the brink of failure. Payments are arriving very late. Productive projects and technical support have not begun anywhere.

“The National government included 1 trillion pesos (about US$360 million) for the PNIS,” said COCCAM spokeswoman Luz Perly Córdoba. “If we count up how much it costs to attend to the 54,000 families signed up just for this year, the budget rises to 1.5 trillion pesos.”

Cristian Delgado, who manages human rights for COCCAM, counted 27 of its members killed since January 2017. Participants in crop-substitution efforts have been among a growing wave of social leaders killed in post-conflict Colombia.

10 ELN Killed in Bombing Raid

Colombia’s air force and army bombed a column of ELN fighters in Cáceres, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, on March 6. The raid killed 10 ELN members, and troops captured 3 more. It was the deadliest military attack on the ELN since January 9, when the government and guerrillas failed to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.

Among the dead was alias “Cachaco,” whom Medellín’s El Colombiano called “the ELN’s second most important man in Antioquia and southern Bolívar.” The military was able to locate him because “Cachaco” was attending a meeting at the site of the bombing raid to discuss logistics for transporting him to Quito, Ecuador, where he was to join the ELN’s negotiating team for peace talks with the government.

These peace talks remain suspended. After the ceasefire ended and the ELN carried out a wave of attacks, including a bombing at a Barranquilla police station, President Santos pulled back the government’s negotiating team and demanded a signal of goodwill from the guerrillas. The ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire from March 9-13 to coincide with congressional elections.

In-Depth Reading

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Brian van der Brug photo in the Los Angeles Times. Caption: “A drone view of the rusty ribbon of border fence that separates the Mexico town of Jacume and Jacumba Hot Springs, seen in background.”

(Even more here)

March 9, 2018


La arremetida de las Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, la presunta llegada de los ‘Caparrapos’, la consolidación de una disidencia del Frente 36 y el aumento del microtráfico, actividad controlada por mafias provenientes de Medellín, tienen hoy sumidos en la zozobra y el pesimismo a los habitantes

En los últimos años, se han registrado movimientos del ELN y las disidencias de las Farc hacia zonas de alto valor estratégico para su financiamiento, en la Orinoquía colombiana y la Guyana venezolana

“Here people are so poor that if you give them a bowl of soup they will vote for you”

Todas esas comodidades, sumadas a una generosa política de visitas, han convertido este pabellón en una suerte de centro de operaciones políticas que ha servido de punto de convergencia para que los caciques electorales más controvertidos del país sellen alianzas

Colombia, Venezuela

Migración Colombia reported in February that more than 600,000 Venezuelans have entered the country through official crossings. Estimates of the number of irregular entries differ but may be as many of the legal entrants

El Salvador

La dirección general de la PNC creó a mediados de 2016 un protocolo específico para que las mujeres denuncien a sus compañeros; se procesa una denuncia cada seis días. Pero es aún la punta del iceberg


I worry recent actions signal a move in the wrong direction, including the recent removal of Interior Minister, Francisco Rivas and the Chief of Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service, Juan Solorzano Foppa – both were key partners of the Public Ministry and the CICIG

El discurso incoherente de Lucas no logró desvanecer las certezas sobre su responsabilidad ante los hechos


This town in extreme southeastern San Diego County offers a glimpse into the ever-changing nature of the U.S.-Mexico border as President Trump visits California

En el crimen están vinculados el ex alcalde panista de Chínipas, Hugo Schultz Alcaraz y el vocero hasta hoy del Comité Directivo Estatal del Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), Alfredo Piñera Guevara

Western Hemisphere Regional

My goal is to create the conditions for respectful and nonconfrontational dialogue between supporters of the president’s immigration policy and the full panoply of migrants

The day ahead: March 9, 2018

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

It’s my third full day back, and I’m starting to feel caught up on work. I plan to post a new update here, and to work on, if not finish, a legislative update on the border and one on defense assistance programs. I’m in a meeting in the mid-afternoon.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters photo at The Huffington Post. Caption: “Weapons smuggled in hollowed-out pool water heaters are seized at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport on June 1, 2017.”

(Even more here)

March 8, 2018


Brazil’s Federal Police have seized more than 1,500 American-made guns, most of them from people the police say are drug traffickers and members of drug gangs


Brazil’s decision to send approximately 750 soldiers to Central Africa is one of the Temer administration’s more far-sighted foreign policy decisions


Decenas de mujeres vulnerables de ese departamento han estado o están detenidas en prisiones colombianas y ecuatorianas por tráfico o porte de estupefacientes

The campaigning did not go well. Mr. Londoño was attacked by protesters who pelted his motorcade with rocks, on one occasion doing severe damage to his vehicle

Implementation of the Peace Agreement has not progressed as quickly and as expected. Necesitamos un mayor nivel de compromiso y voluntad política para que se cumpla lo acordado. Greater commitment and political will is required if the Agreement is to be fulfilled

Macmanus dejó claro que a lo largo de estos últimos 12 meses tanto la administración como el Congreso han dejado claro la gran preocupación por el aumento de los cultivos de coca en el país

With candidates on both left and right facing voter ire, the electoral season is proving particularly poisonous, even for a nation with a notorious history of political violence

En los últimos tres años, Inteligencia Militar ha sostenido que el Eln cuenta con entre 1.500 y 2.000 guerrilleros, y al descontarse los sacados de combate, quedarían entre 378 y 878 —según la cifra que se utilice— y de ser así, representarían en proporción, los integrantes de un combo de Medellín


A critical number of those affected were members of the CIA station in Cuba

El Salvador

ARENA won 52 percent of the national vote to the FMLN’s 34 percent. The FMLN also lost most of the country’s department capitals, including the capital of San Salvador


Romero’s path to sainthood had stalled under two previous popes, reflecting concerns by some that he was overly political


Solo de diciembre de 2017 a enero de 2018 se registró un incremento en la deuda de la TSP de 660 millones de lempiras, recursos que se distribuyeron a varias instituciones


Opposition to Trump’s border wall has become a frequent talking point for California politicians eager to show their progressive state that they’re standing up to the Republican leader

The real issue, perhaps, is that Mexico’s greatest problems—massive inequality along with devastating crime and violence—cannot be fully resolved by its political system. In that, too, Mexico is hardly alone

“Tenemos los mejores protocolos, pero están empolvados y no se aplican”

Mexico, Western Hemisphere Regional

Mr. Kushner, who also met with Mexico’s foreign minister, did not invite the American ambassador — Roberta S. Jacobson, a diplomat with more than 30 years of experience in the region — to join him


Falcón acknowledges that he’s been under pressure to drop out of the race. But he denied recent accounts that the White House was also threatening him with sanctions for participating

The White House is meeting with foreign leaders in the hemisphere to discuss how the U.S. government and energy industry can provide them with fuel and infrastructure needs in the event the Maduro regime collapses

The day ahead: March 8, 2018

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

It’s a morning of emptying communications inboxes that built up while I was away. In the afternoon I plan to spend at least an hour each on several writing and coding projects that need to move ahead. I’ll be in the office all day.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

From Animal Político (Mexico). Caption: La Ley de Seguridad Interior “autoriza el uso de las fuerzas armadas en actividades de seguridad sin las adecuadas garantías ni supervisión”, señala ONU-DH.

(Even more here)

March 7, 2018


Nos Estados Unidos, por exemplo, o atual ministro da Defesa é um fuzileiro naval de carreira”

El dispositivo involucra a 900 hombres, apoyo de blindados, aeronaves y equipos pesados de ingeniería, para la “estabilización” y la “desobstrucción de calles” en la Comunidad Vila Kennedy, al oeste de Río


Aunque el exalcalde de Cúcuta está recluido hace seis años en la cárcel La Picota de Bogotá –a más de 700 kilómetros de la capital de Norte de Santander– se dice que su influencia es cotidiana y que César Rojas, el actual mandatario, acata fielmente sus instrucciones

Un operativo de las Fuerzas Armadas en zona rural de Cáceres, Antioquia, dejó 10 guerrilleros del Eln muertos, entre quienes se encuentra uno de sus principales cabecillas


The mystery of an alleged sonic attack still weighs heavily on U.S.-Cuba relations. Breaking the impasse will require concessions from both sides


Benedicto Lucas, el militar retirado, demostró que su memoria está intacta. Relató escenas, nombres y hechos del pasado para presentar su defensa. Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina, recapituló el 6 de octubre de 1981, el día que perdió a su hijo


“The arrests of Castillo Mejía and Rosa Bonilla de Lobo do not touch the deeper corruption and criminality” taking place in Honduras


Al Hussein señaló que la LSI “autoriza el uso de las fuerzas armadas en actividades de seguridad sin las adecuadas garantías ni supervisión

Lopez Obrador has 35 percent support ahead of the July 1 vote according to the survey by polling firm Parametria

Mr Kushner “will make a working visit … as an envoy of President Trump” and will be accompanied by State Department and US National Security Council officials

Mexico, Western Hemisphere Regional

Four powerful Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the Office of the Inspector General calling for the watchdog to investigate the SIU. But it appears that as recently as last summer, the DEA was still working to fix major issues the Inspector General flagged in 2007


Caleb McCarry, a Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to Caracas in February and met with Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores to discuss Holt’s imprisonment

Western Hemisphere Regional

U.S. efforts to undermine Latin American leaders make it hard for the United States to cry foul as Russia moves to ensure that countries have governments favorable to its interests

The day ahead: March 7, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day, but go easy as this is my first day back after a month away. (How to contact me)

It’s my first full day at WOLA’s offices since February 2. Other than an afternoon Skype conversation with a colleague in Colombia, I’ll be in all day. Catching up on this week’s news, emptying my email and other communications inboxes, sitting down with staff.

Also, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a nomination hearing for the next ambassador to Colombia this afternoon.

I’m back

I returned from Colombia over the weekend, then just spent a day and a half in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I gave a talk and guest-taught a class at Vassar College. I’ve been back in Washington for a few hours.

Normal work, and normal posting to this site, will resume tomorrow (Wednesday).

The day/week ahead, February 25, 2018

I’ll be very hard to reach all week. (How to contact me)

This is the last of four weeks in Colombia working on an evaluation team for a USAID project. I spent last week in Norte de Santander department, both the area near the Venezuela border and the Catatumbo region in the north.

Now I’m somewhere else in Colombia, where the internet access is pretty spotty. It took me a long time to upload this panoramic view of the city of Ocaña from last Thursday morning.

(Click to expand—but be warned it’s a 10MB image. You can see the old colonial core in the foreground, and in the background the hillside neighborhoods built by 21st century arrivals, many of them displaced by violence in the nearby Catatumbo region.)

I return to the United States next weekend. Though I’ll be giving a talk at a college in New York state on Monday March 5, I’ll be settling back into the work routine shortly afterward.

A full-on exodus

Hello from Cúcuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. I had full days of meetings here yesterday and today to talk about the security situation and to evaluate a big USAID program operating in the surrounding department of Norte de Santander.

Near the end of today, we took a 15-minute cab ride to the Simón Bolívar bridge, one of the main border crossings from Venezuela, just to see what was happening. Journalists take a lot of pictures here of large numbers of Venezuelans crossing, carrying their belongings in a few pieces of luggage.

That was exactly the scene we found. Those journalists are not exaggerating the situation at all.

It’s bad. I mean, it’s really bad. People are doing whatever they can to get out of Venezuela.

(This one isn’t by the bridge, it’s the crowd outside the Colombian civil registry office near Cúcuta’s Francisco de Paula Santander University. Taken after 5PM—closed for the day, or nearly so.)

Last time I visited this bridge—in July 2016, when President Maduro had closed the border—it was quieter. Right now it’s a chaotic scene with thousands of people either crossing, milling around, waiting in long immigration lines, or trying to sell food or other services, like hauling suitcases on carts.

Colombian authorities appear to be trying at least to channel the crowd and order the migration process. But they’re undermanned and overwhelmed. 

We stayed for about 10 minutes near the crossing but, feeling shocked, powerless, and unhelpful, we left.

While this is the briefest of impressions, there’s a full-on a humanitarian emergency here that deserves way more attention than it’s getting.

The day/week ahead: February 19, 2018

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

I’ve left Bogotá and am now in another part of Colombia, where I’ll be until Friday night. With a full schedule of meetings and some time in remote areas, I’ll be hard to reach all week.

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