Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


March 2017

11 Latin America longreads from March

Photo credit “Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux” from the Bloomberg piece listed below. Caption: “An illegal mine in Peru. The primary tools in this type of mining are fire hoses and mercury.”

Everything here is at least 3,000 words long, but worth your time.

March 31, 2017


Traveling back through his family’s history, a reporter struggles with whether to return to the land of his birth, now that the Communist government wants to reclaim those who left


Tensions between the two countries could undermine the close law enforcement and security cooperation achieved under the administrations of presidents George W. Bush (2000-2008) and Barack Obama (2008-2016)

March 30, 2017


Mexico has a deeply flawed judicial system, and its flaws become most apparent when cases are brought against the powerful and the wealthy

March 20, 2017


Plantaciones extensivas de esta mata, la guerra y la violencia sexual han pasado por Putumayo con más que sangre para las organizaciones femeninas


In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala’s President

March 15, 2017


Chocó, Tumaco, Cauca, Buenaventura, el Bajo Cauca antioqueño, el eje Llanos Orientales-Orinoquia y Catatumbo se enfrentan a diversos tipos de violencias tras la salida de las FARC


The facts have become clear. Venezuela is in violation of every article in the Inter-American Democratic Charter

March 10, 2017


Unlike many parts of Arizona, New Mexico and California, where the border is an unseen straight line on the desert floor, the natural barrier of the Rio Grande made wall-building a frustrating experience

Chile, Western Hemisphere Regional

*Harold Vilches, a 23-year-old Chilean, exported $80 million in contraband gold. It all started with a Google search

March 3, 2017


The so-called “Tropical Spring” erupted, grabbed the attention of the world – and then disappeared (Or did it?). An in-depth look, nearly four years on

March 1, 2017


Most of those who attempt to climb the wall into the US will be arrested and sent back. If they survive, they will keep trying

New report: “Throwing Money at the Wall”

Report cover graphic

Here’s a 350-word summary of my 3,000-word report on what’s up with Trump’s border wall, which we just posted to WOLA’s website. But you should really ignore this and read the longer one: it’s better and has graphics and links to lots of sources.

How much would Trump’s proposed border wall cost? We’ve seen estimates ranging from $8 billion to $66.9 billion.

What would the wall look like? There are requests for proposals for two designs: concrete and “other.” The concrete one calls for something 18-30 feet high, going 6 feet underground. Nobody has any idea how many miles of wall might be built, though Customs and Border Protection staff gave Senate staff a figure of 1,827 miles. This amount would require some very difficult and costly wall-building along the winding Rio Grande in Texas.

What’s in the 2017 budget request? The White House wants $999 million in new 2017 budget money to get wall-building started and construct 62 miles. Right now, it only has $20 million on hand for this year, which doesn’t pay for much.

Will the 2017 money pass? For now, it looks like no, there won’t be any new border-wall money for 2017. The $999 million would go on a budget bill that has to pass by April 28th. Congressional Democrats, who have the power to block the bill in the Senate, are threatening to shut down the government rather than approve this money. Republican legislators, too, are either skeptical or want more information about the wall-building plan before they approve such a large amount. Polls meanwhile are also consistently showing 60-plus percent of respondents opposed to the border wall proposal.

What about 2018 funds? Information is vague, but the administration wants $2.6 billion to build about 75 miles next year. So the most intense debate on this may start mid-year.

Why is this such a bad idea? To build a wall would be to throw away a lot of money and a lot of international goodwill for nothing. A wall only slows a border-crosser for several minutes, which makes little difference in remote areas. Illegal migration is at nearly 45-year lows, while most drugs that cross the border (except marijuana) are low-volume substances that travel through ports of entry, not through areas where walls would be built. There are better ways to address remaining border security challenges.

Read “Throwing Money at the Wall” here.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 31, 2017


Cunha, who drove the successful impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, was forced from his position as speaker in July and arrested in October


The government’s ability to turn the 2016 peace accords struck in Havana into a reality could now hinge on Colombia’s capacity to reign in the coca trade

Sólo faltaba la llegada de Mujica y González para que la Comisión de Implementación pudiera marchar a todo vapor

Los dos generales firmaron el acta de compromiso este miércoles. El exfuncionario de Álvaro Uribe lo hizo este mismo jueves

En los próximos días espera recibir alrededor de mil armas, que tendrá bajo custodia en sus contenedores

El Eln tiene que abandonar la guerra para tener a toda la sociedad civil participando en la negociación. El paso hay que darlo ya, quitando todo estorbo que demore

La evidencia, según el ente investigador, es que sus marchas fomentan el “cambio social”


U.S. agents, acting on a federal indictment, said they arrested Edgar Veytia, nicknamed “Diablo” in court documents, as he crossed Monday into San Diego

Tensions between the two countries could undermine the close law enforcement and security cooperation achieved under the administrations of presidents George W. Bush (2000-2008) and Barack Obama (2008-2016)

There’s the world, there’s America, there’s Texas, there’s the border town and finally, within the town, there’s still another world, waiting to get in


A pro-Cartes senator seized a microphone, proclaimed himself senate president, and steam-rolled through the changes with a show of hands


With few protesters in the streets of Caracas on Thursday, it was unclear what popular support the opposition might get from the public

There was swift and widespread international condemnation of the de facto annulment of the National Assembly, where the opposition won a majority in late 2015

Supone un mazazo institucional de una gravedad extrema, sin parangón desde que comenzara la crisis institucional en Venezuela

The Secretary General calls for the urgent convocation of the Permanent Council under Article 20 of the Democratic Charter

Venezuela has little chance of slowing the crime wave anytime soon. It is next to impossible to make effective public policy without reliable data

This sounds familiar

Washington Post on Rex Tillerson: "Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact."

From an article in today’s Washington Post about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

This brings back memories of the late ’90s and early ’00s, when we lived in an apartment next to the National Zoo.

I would work some weekends as a volunteer in the Great Ape House, where zookeepers gave us this exact same instruction for interacting with the big male silverback gorillas.

The day ahead: March 31, 2017

I should be reachable for a while late morning and early afternoon, but that’s about it. (How to contact me)

I’m about to do a final edit on what, with added graphics and interactive visuals from the great staff at WOLA, has become almost a full-fledged report on Trump’s border wall. And I hadn’t even started working on it 48 hours ago. (I say “almost” a report because it relies heavily on secondary sources, there’s not a lot of primary research like interviews and new data points. But it did make a lot of use of official government data and statements in my database, which you can see by going here and, on the left, clicking “Tags,” then “Border Security.”)

That report should go out in the morning. After that, I plan to drop in on a regular meeting of human rights NGOs. In the afternoon, I’ve got a meeting to discuss the workplan for our border security and migration work. And I hope to leave at or before 5:00 because DC public schools are closed today (“records day” whatever that means) and I have a request to go to the movies. So there won’t be a lot of time sitting at my desk today.

The best songs I washed dishes to in March

I’ve posted 14 musical results of my evening multitasking since starting this blog mid-month. Tomorrow is the last day of March, but I don’t plan to wash dishes on a Friday night, so here’s this month’s songs as Apple Music and Spotify playlists.

(Now my blog can play music to me at work tomorrow.)

The past week in U.S. border security

  • CNN got some details about the initial $999 million that the Trump administration’s Homeland Security Department is requesting from Congress to begin work on a border wall during the 2017 fiscal year, which ends September 30. That amount would pay for “14 miles of new border wall in San Diego, 28 miles of new levee wall barriers and six miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley region and 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego.”
  • Congress seems unlikely to say “yes” to any wall-building money for 2017, though. Congress never passed a 2017 budget last year, and the government is operating near 2016 levels until April 28. By that date, Congress must pass a budget for the remainder of fiscal 2017, or the government will shut down. Democrats are threatening to force a shutdown over the Trump administration’s request for wall-building money, while leading Republicans want more details about the overall plan. So the big legislative debate over wall-building money may be put off for the 2018 budget, which committees will start considering in a few months.
  • This all means that there’s a general retreat away from President Trump’s oft-repeated promise that Mexico will “pay for” wall construction. CNN looks at three ways Mexico might be indirectly induced to pay the cost after the fact, but none of them look feasible or desirable.
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, put out a press release Tuesday estimating that the cost of building a border wall could reach $66.9 billion. The Senator’s estimate is extrapolated from information her staff gleaned from a briefing with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. On Wednesday, CBP released a brief statement warning that “any estimates of the total border wall cost are premature as there are many variables that are currently unknown.”
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have suggested building a border wall on Mexico’s side of the Rio Grande rather than “cede the river to Mexico”, but he was probably just trying to discuss how difficult it is to build any fences or walls at all along the winding, flood-prone river.
  • More than 200” or “roughly 850” companies have expressed interest in the Trump administration’s requests for proposals on border wall designs. Amid confusion about some of the requests’ language, the application deadline has been extended, but CPB expects to build 10-by–10-foot prototypes in San Diego in June or July.
  • The New York Times and the Associated Press took separate looks at the Border Patrol’s union and “The Green Line,” its Hannity-esque podcast.
  • Two Arizona Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Martha McSally (chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security) introduced legislation to increase penalties for “cartel spotters,” which they define as individuals who engage in “transmitting information about the position or surveillance efforts of Border Patrol or destroying United States border controls.”
  • I’m enjoying “Tales from the Border,” a series of dispatches from the Associated Press’s Christopher Sherman and Rodrigo Abd, who are driving the entire border from Brownsville west.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 30, 2017


U.S. President Donald Trump invited Temer for a visit during a March 18 phone call, when the two leaders discussed deepening commercial and business ties

Central America Regional, Honduras

*JTF-Bravo, located at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, is one of the task forces under U.S. Southern Command *


Son la mayor expresión de la degradación que tuvieron algunos frentes fruto del narcotráfico y que no son afines a los objetivos políticos de las Farc

Según Jean Arnault, jefe de la Misión de las Naciones Unidas en Colombia, el proceso de registro e identificación del armamento con el que los guerrilleros de las Farc ingresaron a las zonas veredales y puntos de normalización, “avanza en un 85 %”

Según los afectados, el ‘Clan Úsuga’ los señala de ser miembros activos de la guerrilla de las Farc y los declara objetivo militar

Con estos nombres ya son 1.074 casos de miembros de las Fuerzas Armadas que serán analizados para que se les otorgue este beneficio


Lasso’s use of the mining card exploits a key issue that has separated Correa from his indigenous support base and highlights the biggest policy U-turn of his presidency

El Salvador

The law sets a powerful example to communities that oppose large mining projects and bolsters the case against mining in environmentally delicate areas

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

La aprobación unánime de la resolución resalta una vez más el firme apoyo bipartidista a la lucha contra la corrupción y al liderazgo de la Fiscal General Aldana y el Comisionado Velásquez


“Nosotros hemos tomado la política de no trabajar con la Policía Militar porque para nosotros es mucho mejor enfocarnos en la reforma de la Policía Nacional”


La “donación” que pedía la Sedena era a cambio de una concesión de taxis para los dueños de los terrenos que ocuparía, pero la asamblea comunitaria de Macuilxóchitl lo analizó y decidió rechazar la propuesta

Mexico has a deeply flawed judicial system, and its flaws become most apparent when cases are brought against the powerful and the wealthy

“U.S. security and economic prosperity hinges on a strong relationship with our neighbor Mexico,” said Sen. McCain

Zinke’s suggestion? We build it on the Mexican side of the river so we don’t “cede” that territory to our southern neighbors. There are a few problems with that idea

Assuming no more deadline extensions, construction of border-wall prototypes in San Diego will begin in June or July

Let’s crunch the numbers on a few possible options that have made the rounds in Washington


The statements from Mexico and others suggest that there could still be some resolution and “good offices” diplomacy with regards to Venezuela, as laid out in the Inter-American Democratic Charter

Tuesday’s hearing at the Organization of American States did not result in a clear plan to address Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis. But the fact it was held at all was deeply embarrassing to Venezuela

There were a number of proposals that were floated yesterday, but that one in particular seemed to have gotten a lot of traction from member-states

The day ahead: March 30, 2017

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

I have a light meeting schedule today. I should’ve set up a meeting or two on Capitol Hill, but was reluctant because there’s plenty of program work to do in the six days before I go to Colombia with WOLA’s Board of Directors. Yesterday, I didn’t finish the introduction to our big military and police aid programs publication, because we had to get a memo to Armed Services committee members, and because I decided it was more urgent to produce an overview of where things stand with Trump’s border wall. (Yesterday’s list of border wall cost estimates comes out of the draft.)

By mid-morning, that border-wall piece should be drafted and being edited. Then I’ll polish off our giant publication and start moving the entire defense oversight database to, like I said I’d do yesterday.

My growing collection of Trump border wall cost estimates

(I put these together as part of a still-unfinished piece that WOLA will publish online… sometime after I finish it.)

What might it cost to fulfill Donald Trump’s promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border? Estimates of construction cost vary wildly. Here is a range culled from U.S. media:

  • $8 billion, says the National Precast Concrete Association, whose estimate doesn’t take into account the cost of acquiring land.
  • $12 billion, Trump has said.
  • $12 billion to $15 billion, say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin).
  • “Republicans expect the final price tag for the wall could be more than $20 billion,” according to Politico.
  • An internal Homeland Security Department report acquired by Reuters “estimated that fully walling off or fencing the entire southern border would cost $21.6 billion—$9.3 million per mile of fence and $17.8 million per mile of wall.”
  • “I’ve got, I don’t know, six or seven different papers on my desk,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. “I’ve got one that goes, starts at $8 million per mile. It goes up to about $25 million per mile. So again, it just depends on, when you’re talking about across 2,000 miles or so, what you decide to build in what areas.” The U.S.-Mexico border is just under 2,000 miles, but using that ballpark figure and that per-mile amount yields a border-wide cost of $16 billion to $50 billion.
  • After receiving a briefing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, extrapolates the $36.6 million per-mile cost of the administration’s request for 2018, and comes up with $66.9 billion.

Seen any others?

The past week in U.S. policy toward Latin America

  • The OAS Permanent Council met on March 28 to discuss Venezuela for three highly contentious hours. The meeting, supported by the U.S. and other governments, did not end up invoking the OAS Democratic Charter to suspend Venezuela, as Secretary-General Luis Almagro has been urging. (The United States had been one of 14 governments to sign a letter calling on Venezuela to free political prisoners, respect the opposition-run legislature, and call local elections.) Before the meeting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) warned Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador that they might face U.S. aid cuts if they opposed the diplomatic effort against Venezuela; all three ignored Rubio and voted for Venezuela’s unsuccessful motion to cancel the OAS meeting altogether.
  • A Bloomberg editorial recommended that the U.S. government “lead from behind” on Venezuela, working with the region to push for a solution to the country’s political crisis. “Filling empty ambassadorial slots at the OAS and Argentina wouldn’t hurt,” Bloomberg notes.
  • Speaking of empty seats, both a New York Times editorial and a column from the Miami Herald’s Andrés Oppenheimer excoriated the Trump administration’s decision to boycott March 21 sessions of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission examining U.S. migration policies. “The failure to send representatives puts the United States in ignominious company,” the Times wrote. “During the commission’s most recent session, only the governments of Cuba and Nicaragua chose not to face their critics.”
  • The commander of the U.S. Southern Command’s Marine component said that, for the third straight year, a contingent of about 300 U.S. Marines will spend the summer in Central America, working out of the U.S. facility at a Honduran military base in Palmerola.
  • The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, was in Washington last week. A Homeland Security Department press release about Hernández’s meeting with Secretary John Kelly gushed about Honduras’s “recent successes,” maintaining the admiring tone that Gen. Kelly adopted when he commanded U.S. Southern Command between 2012 and 2016. When Hernández visited the U.S. Congress, he was confronted by protesters, including friends and relatives of murdered human rights defender Berta Cáceres, chanting “murderer.” In November, Hernández will be on Honduras’s presidential ballot seeking re-election, although eight years ago he supported a coup that purportedly intended to prevent then-President Manuel Zelaya from seeking re-election.
  • The world’s fastest-strengthening currency since January 20, 2017 is the Mexican peso. “[T]he foreign exchange rates may be telling us that the Trump administration’s policies are no longer being viewed as quite so harmful to Mexico — and to other emerging markets,” Jeff Sommer explains in the New York Times.
  • The Economist explores policy options for dealing with Colombia’s booming coca crop, including the longtime U.S. government favorite, aerial herbicide fumigation. For now, though, “the Americans are not publicly advocating a return to spraying—not least because proposed cuts to foreign aid would make it hard to pay for.”
  • A Washington Post column by three historians compares Donald Trump to Argentine strongman Juan Perón. “By representing himself as the embodiment of the American spirit and its everyday people (despite the fact that he lost the popular vote), Trump has invented himself a popular mandate to turn the country upside down.” This is not encouraging since, 62 years after Perón’s first and longest period in power, Argentina still hasn’t gotten out from under his legacy.
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