Adam Isacson

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


April 2017

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, May 1

  • 10:00–11:30 at the Brookings Institution: Drugs and peace in Colombia: Which way forward (RSVP required).

Wednesday, May 3

  • 8:30–10:00 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Environmental Policy in Post-Conflict Colombia (RSVP required).
  • 9:00–10:00 at the Atlantic Council: A Conversation with Julio Borges, President of Venezuela’s National Assembly (RSVP required).
  • 2:00–3:00 at the Wilson Center: Book Launch: “The Corruption Cure: How Citizens and Leaders Can Combat Graft” (RSVP required).

Thursday, May 4

  • 9:00–10:30 at the Atlantic Council: A New Strategy for US Engagement in Central America (RSVP required).
  • 9:30–11:00 at the Migration Policy Institute: Recognizing Changing Enforcement and Crossing Trends at the U.S.-Mexico Border (RSVP required).

Friday, May 5

  • 8:45–10:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: The Outlook for Oil and Gas in Brazil (RSVP required).
  • 11:00–12:00 at the Wilson Center: Changing Political Discourse in Mexico: A conversation with Senator Armando Rios Piter (RSVP required).
  • 6:00–7:30 at WOLA: Reception for the 2016 WOLA/Duke Human Rights Book Award Winner (RSVP required).

The WOLA firehose: April 2017

My colleagues at WOLA and I put out a lot of really good content this month. Check these out, share them, and if you want to make sure this work continues, please leave us a tip.

5 tweets that made me laugh this week

Five links from the past week

Central America Regional, Mexico

Planas looks at the vastly increased use of the federal criminal justice system to punish undocumented migrants who have been apprehended more than once. Fully a quarter of apprehended migrants now face criminal prosecution, in which they are tried en masse in procedures that fail to meet the definition of “due process.”


Anderson, one of the best writers covering Latin America, explores the complexities of the FARC peace process by profiling guerrilla leader Carlos Antonio Lozada.


A profile of Nemesio Oceguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” the leader of Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation cartel who has probably replaced El Chapo as the most powerful crime boss in the country. However, the article also hints that “El Mencho” may be more of a figurehead, with real power residing among the González Valencia brothers who run a Michoacán-based trafficking group called Los Cuinis.

“The nexus between organized crime and the authorities means that any effort to silence newspapers by one actor may work to the benefit of others,” Malkin writes, discussing the brave labor of journalists at local media outlets in the regions of Mexico hardest hit by violence.


“The MUD [opposition coalition] may not have succeeded in stopping the government’s march toward authoritarianism and militarization. But to its credit, the MUD has made this march costlier than Chávez or Maduro ever imagined.” I would’ve liked more discussion of how the elite-heavy MUD is trying to reach out to poor Venezuelans, a key part of the story that’s only mentioned in a paragraph here. But this is a solid argument.

Brookings post about coca and peace in Colombia

Screen shot of the Brookings blog post.

This just went up on the Brookings Institution’s “Order from Chaos” foreign policy blog. I’ll be talking about “drugs and peace” in post-conflict Colombia at a Brookings panel on Monday morning.

Colombia’s peace accords point the way to a solution. But will they be implemented?

The “illicit crops” part of the peace accord is more transactional than the “rural reform” part of the accord. Instead of addressing state weakness or absence, it says: “eradicate this much, and you’ll receive this benefit.” That its text has been public since 2014 has created a perverse incentive for farmers around the country to plant coca in order to qualify for cash benefits.

Read the whole thing at the Brookings website.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images photo at The Guardian (UK). Caption: “The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo march against the military commanders who had planned the systematic murder of thousands.”

(Even more here)

April 28, 2017


Decades after the military murdered thousands, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo warn that the current era of alternative facts poses a new threat

Argentina, Venezuela

Argentine President Mauricio says the governments of the region need to keep demanding elections and the release of prisoners in Venezuela


Nationwide strikes led by Brazilian unions to protest President Michel Temer’s austerity measures crippled public transport in several major cities


Lucy Lamble visits the rural Pacific coast in the west of Colombia, and the two biggest cities in the interior, Bogotá and Medellín, to explore the possible steps to a lasting peace

Restrepo se declaró “decepcionando” con este tipo de acciones y aseguró que “le ponen un freno muy grave y muy delicado” a la mesa de diálogo

The proper question for analysts and commentators is: Why do the poor do what they do? The forbidden question is: Why are they so poor?

De 4.410 exparamilitares que se presentaron al proceso solo continúan 1.943 postulados

Desde septiembre de 2015, ese grupo armado ilegal comenzó a copar diversas áreas pese a las alertas lanzadas por la Defensoría del Pueblo, organizaciones no gubernamentales y líderes de las comunidades

Colombia, Venezuela

As a peace deal helps end a long war in Colombia, Venezuela is descending into violence. What can Colombia teach its neighbor about healing and reconciliation?

Costa Rica, Nicaragua

Nicaragua hace bien en preocuparse por impedir el paso de las maras y otras formas de delincuencia desde el triángulo norte de Centroamérica, pero los tanques rusos no son un medio útil para lograr esa contención

Dominican Republic, Haiti

El alto mando militar manifestó que en los últimos días los soldados que se encuentran en la frontera han devuelto a cientos de haitianos que intentaron cruzar a territorio dominicano de manera clandestina


En pocos años, El Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación creó todo un feudo

The resilience of residents who have learned to survive?—?and coexist?—?despite outsiders’ efforts at division can be seen everywhere you travel in the borderlands

The secretary’s comments raise several questions about the threat of terrorists sneaking across the border with the aid of cartels, the connection between drug smuggling and the recent surge in overdoses, and marijuana as a “gateway drug”


If these demonstrations die down without Maduro backing down, he likely emerges stronger even if the country emerges more broken

“Suddenly, it was as if the people were no longer afraid to step out to the street and protest. Before, it would have been crazy to do so in this part of the city. I was shocked”

After 28 years…

The Simpsons can still make me laugh so hard my morning coffee comes out of my nose. (Trump’s hair did it to me here.)

The day ahead: April 28, 2017

I should be reachable in the late morning and early afternoon. (How to contact me)

Yesterday WOLA published two things that I co-authored: a huge resource about U.S. military and police aid around the world, and a brief analysis of the White House’s proposal to hire a lot more Border Patrol and ICE agents.

I’m going to spend much of today making sure that the right “audiences” are aware that these two products exist. This phase, which involves a lot of social media messages and handwritten, non-bulk e-mail, can be as important as the research and writing itself.

I’ll also be trying to nail down meetings for our upcoming research trip to the U.S.-Mexico border (week of May 8). And my e-mail inbox is full to bursting and needs to be cut back.

I’ll have about 5 hours to do all of this between a phone meeting with some Colombia scholars in the morning, and having to leave work early to chaperone an event with my daughter’s 7th grade class.

White House proposes 38.9 percent cut in economic aid to Latin America

Screenshot of aid table

On Monday, Foreign Policy reporters Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer, and Emily Tamkin shared a draft 2018 budget document (PDF) that they somehow obtained from the Trump administration. It’s a printout of a table showing how the White House would cut economic aid to the world in its 2018 budget request for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

(The White House has not yet sent to Congress a full 2018 budget request in any detail, so this is a preview of what we expect to be released during the second half of May.)

This leaked information shows only economic aid through USAID’s three principal economic and development aid accounts. (These are Economic Support Funds or ESF, Development Assistance or DA, and Global Health Programs.) It doesn’t include some economic and institution-building aid that comes through the State Department’s large International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account. We have no idea yet whether the budget request would seek similar cuts to that aid.

For these USAID programs, every country in Latin America would see a double-digit-percentage cut from 2016 levels next year, if Congress were to grant the Trump administration what it wants. The region-wide cut would be a breathtaking 38.9 percent.

Congress will undo this radioactive budget request—somewhat. But even if the actual cuts end up being half of what is shown here, the impact on U.S. goals, on humanitarian situations, and on specific outcomes—peace accord implementation in Colombia, reducing migration from Central America—will be severe. These cuts are an astonishingly bad idea.

The table shows the economic-aid cut that the draft Trump budget would foresee for each country in Latin America. I suppose we can assume that the countries whose cuts are lower than the regional average are “priority” countries.

Economic aid in 2016 was: The request for 2018 is: That’s a reduction of:
Western Hemisphere $1,083,580,000 $662,081,000 -38.9%
Haiti $177,630,000 $149,200,000 -16.0%
Colombia $133,000,000 $105,000,000 -21.1%
Honduras $93,000,000 $67,100,000 -27.8%
El Salvador $65,000,000 $45,500,000 -30.0%
Guatemala $125,000,000 $79,900,000 -36.1%
Peru $37,300,000 $22,191,000 -40.5%
Barbados and Eastern Caribbean $25,713,000 $15,000,000 -41.7%
State Department Western Hemisphere Regional $209,177,000 $121,390,000 -42.0%
Mexico $49,500,000 $25,000,000 -49.5%
Dominican Republic $20,988,000 $10,000,000 -52.4%
USAID Latin America and Caribbean Regional $28,360,000 $11,800,000 -58.4%
USAID Central America Regional $39,761,000 $10,000,000 -74.8%
Brazil $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Cuba (democracy programs) $20,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Ecuador $2,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Jamaica $4,500,000 $0 -100.0%
Nicaragua $10,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Paraguay $8,151,000 $0 -100.0%
Venezuela (democracy programs) $6,500,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID Caribbean $4,000,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID South America Regional $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%

Launched! “Putting the Pieces Together”

Screencast from "Putting the Pieces Together"

I’m delighted to announce that WOLA has just launched “Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs.” This is an epic, sprawling, deep-in-the-weeds attempt to get a handle on all the ways that the U.S. government can work with, give weapons to, train, advise, or otherwise support about 160 countries’ militaries and police forces around the world.

We call it “Putting the Pieces Together” because figuring out how the U.S. government aids foreign militaries is a lot like trying to put together an intricate jigsaw puzzle. The big contribution of this project is that it gives you all the pieces in a nice neat box, even if we don’t yet have the big picture in detail.

I hate to admit it, but this is the product of more than four years of work. (Although this project spent a lot of time on the back burner between late 2012 and now.) The original plan was to document the way these aid programs were migrating out of State Department / civilian control and into the U.S. military’s threat-based, un-transparent management. I thought we’d be producing a guide to 30, maybe 40 programs. But as we intensified our research, it became clear that the scale and the scope were increasing way beyond what we had planned to work with.

In the end, we found 107 programs. Of these, only 14 are managed by, and funded by, the civilian diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Nearly all of the rest—87, plus two that are jointly managed—are part of the U.S. Defense Department’s mammoth budget. The Pentagon is calling most of the shots, now managing 57 percent of military and police aid funds, often with programs it is very hard to get information about.

To manage this huge body of programs, we made a database that allows you to sort and filter them, to see the laws that govern them, and to find out how to learn more about them. (I think this database is the coolest part—and we can quickly update it whenever programs change.) We also wrote a 2,600-word report with some nifty graphics, highlighting the trends that we found while compiling all of this.

Put the report and the database together, make a single publication out of them, and you get a 188-page PDF. (I find this terrifying: I can’t believe we wrote this much over the last few years without really noticing.)

Here’s the text of the landing page for “Putting the Pieces Together,” which explains what this report-plus-database does. (If you prefer the landing page in Spanish, está aquí.) Bookmark it if you care about the U.S. relationship with the world’s militaries, I think you’ll find yourself referring back to it.

Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs

Since the “Global War on Terror” began, the Defense Department has been driving assistance to militaries and police forces worldwide. WOLA’s new guide explains how that happened and what it looks like.

The Trump administration is proposing to cut funding for U.S. diplomacy, and foreign aid programs run by diplomats, by an incredible 29 percent in 2018. But since it promises to grow defense spending, it may not end up cutting military aid. The result could be a giant leap toward the Pentagon shaping U.S foreign policy.

A major part of how U.S. foreign policy gets carried out is through security assistance programs, which aim to further U.S. interests and bolster national security goals by providing aid to military and police forces in around 160 countries.

There are now so many of these programs carrying out this type of assistance, with so little public reporting, that nobody really has a full picture of what the U.S. government is doing with the world’s military and police forces. No public, authoritative, regularly updated list of all U.S. military and police aid programs even exists.

Not until now, that is.

WOLA is pleased to launch a new resource to fill this big gap in our knowledge: a searchable online database listing all 107 programs that currently provide military or police aid across the globe, accompanied by a short report laying out what we found and why it matters. We also have an analysis of U.S. security assistance over the past 15 years to Latin America.


Of these programs, 87 are run by the Defense Department. 14 are run by the State Department. 2 are run jointly, and 4 are managed by other cabinet departments. More than half of the Defense programs are less than 15 years old.

We explain what each program can do, who runs it, who oversees it, how much the military can spend on it, and how researchers and oversight professionals can find more information about it. The online version also includes the complete, amended text of the law governing each program, links to official reports, and links to yearly aid amounts at the Security Assistance Monitor database.

WOLA’s new tool doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of transparency over military aid. It is unclear exactly which programs the Trump administration will support and which ones it will cut. There is not even a precise dollar total of worldwide U.S. military assistance.

But we hope that this guide provides congressional staff, journalists, analysts, and activists with an easy-to-use tool as we work to improve oversight over a high-risk government function, and to turn the tide of militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

Why did a research and advocacy organization focusing on Latin America make this?

WOLA first got to know the “patchwork” of Defense Department-run aid programs in Latin America in the 1990s, when it was far smaller. The War on Drugs brought about the first time the Pentagon got primacy over a big foreign aid program. Twenty years ago, we were surprised to learn that, suddenly, the second-largest military aid program in Latin America wasn’t even in the foreign aid budget. We have followed this issue closely ever since.

How do I use the database?

Go to You’ll see all 107 active programs listed in alphabetical order, spread out over six pages.

  • To read more about an aid program, click “Show Additional Information” under each program’s name. Or to see all of them, click the checkbox at the top of the page that says “Show the Full Program Descriptions.”
  • Viewing the entire program description yields another button you can click to reveal all laws governing that program, with current law at the top.
  • Use the search box at the top to find matching programs.
  • You can sort the list alphabetically, by the year the programs were created, by their expiration date (if any), and by the maximum authorized amount.
  • You can list only active programs, only programs that can operate in Latin America, only programs with or without reporting to Congress, only programs that do or do not involve the State Department, and 15 more categories.
  • Use the column on the left to find programs by Latin American country, by category of aid, or by the agencies that carry them out.

Will the database be updated?

Yes, we intend to update the aid programs and reports whenever relevant legislation passes.

How can I find government reports about these programs?

If the programs are relevant to Latin America, they are in this database’s Reports Library at If we have obtained the report, it is there as a PDF. If we have not yet obtained the report, it is listed alongside the date it was due.

It’s not just the wall: the 2017 budget has other bad ideas on border security

David McNew / Getty photo at Newsweek. Caption: “U.S. Border Patrol agents carry out special operations near the U.S.-Mexico border fence.”

Even though Donald Trump has put off, for now, his push for a border wall, the budget request that Congress is considering this week includes money to start hiring 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 ICE agents.

This is as unnecessary as a border wall, and we just posted a new commentary at WOLA’s website explaining why.

I wrote the Border Patrol section. I lay out two big reasons why it makes no sense to increase the agency’s size by another 25 percent.

  1. Undocumented migration across the U.S.-Mexico border was at 40-year lows even before it plummeted further after Trump’s inauguration. This hardly warrants a wave of new hires.
  2. Another round of fast hires could compound Border Patrol’s management issues and further erode protections against corruption and rights abuses.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s site.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 27, 2017


Brazilian Senators, two dozen of whom are being investigated for corruption, pushed through a bill on Wednesday that many prosecutors and judges say curbs their ability to carry out probes, mainly those targeting the politicians themselves

Um estudo da Polícia Militar revela que, em cinco anos, os confrontos em áreas com Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs), como o Complexo do Alemão, aumentaram 13.746%


La denominada Caravana de la muerte, fue la comitiva militar que recorrió el país tras el golpe de Estado de septiembre de 1973


Análisis y recomendaciones sobre la forma en la cual se está avanzado en la implementación del acuerdo de paz sobre “solución al problema de las drogas ilícitas” y, en particular, sobre el plan de sustitución de cultivos

En menos de dos meses han sido asesinados un guerrillero indultado, un miliciano y cinco familiares de guerrilleros de las Farc que se han acogido al proceso de Paz

Cuba, Venezuela

A near-constant refrain is that Cubans can tolerate deep deprivation, but would not stand for a repeat of the Special Period


The crime has become such a central part of life in this region of Puebla that it has been celebrated in song, much as drug traffickers and their exploits have been lionized in narcocorridos

The White House announcement came hours after administration officials said Trump was considering a draft executive order to withdraw the U.S. from the deal

Under other circumstances, the United States could be a force for the rule of law, human rights and civilian control over the military in Mexico

Central America Regional, Mexico

“It’s going to break the bank in terms of paying for the jail and prison beds that these people are going to occupy if they are prosecuted”


In order to withdraw, the country would have to wait two years and pay a debt of $8.7 million under O.A.S. rules

The move comes after OAS member states voted Wednesday to convene an emergency meeting of their top diplomats to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis and deadly political violence

Withdrawing from the OAS is a two-year process, but Rodriguez said Venezuela would immediately stop participating

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