Adam Isacson

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

July 2017

We’re Not Binge-Watching Netflix.

No Snuggies, either.

In an April speech, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly gave a pure distillation of a point of view that I find toxic. We hear this view from a tiny sliver of people in the military or law enforcement. More often, it comes from politicians who would “unshackle” soldiers, police, or spies.

This is a lengthy quote, and the boldface is mine:

While you’re having your morning coffee, the Coast Guard is pulling a fisherman aboard after his boat capsized in stormy seas. While you’re deciding what you want for lunch, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is teaching law enforcement officers how to respond to an active shooter. While you’re scrolling through Facebook, our Science and Technology Directorate is helping local bomb squads defeat IEDs. While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security Investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator. While you’re binge-watching Mad Men on Netflix, TSA is stopping an actual mad man with a loaded gun from boarding a flight to Disney World.

In his next paragraph (actually one very long sentence), Secretary Kelly went further. He used this “you have no idea what we really do” theme to go after watchdogs who investigate human rights abuse or corruption.

While some members of [C]ongress, or state and local politicians, or a member of an advocacy group read or listen to a partial or inaccurate media report on some alleged event at an airport, in a courthouse, or at a border crossing and assume the men and women or DHS are intentionally abusing innocent individuals while breaking or ignoring US law or court orders—instead of assuming as they should that the men and women of DHS are carrying out their assigned mission in accordance with the law—the professionals at DHS are protecting the homeland and in many cases putting their lives on the line for a population the vast majority of whom will never know they are protected by such dedicated and well trained public servants.

In February comments, Secretary Kelly aimed this same ire at the federal judges who struck down President Trump’s executive orders banning immigration from certain countries. He dismissed the judges as out-of-touch “academics.”

I have nothing but respect for judges, but in their world, it’s a very academic, very almost in a vacuum discussion. And of course in their courtrooms, they’re protected by people like me. So they can have those discussions and if something happens bad from letting people in, they don’t come to the judge to ask him about his ruling, they come to people like me.

Later in his April speech, Secretary Kelly had some advice for unnamed members of Congress whose criticisms, in his view, have damaged border and immigration agents’ morale: “shut up.”

If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.

Before I explain why this bothers me so much, let me emphasize what I hope comes through here: my profound respect for people who have dedicated their careers to protecting their fellow citizens. I try to talk to them often, and I hold many of them in awe. These are people who have decided to sacrifice wealth, time with their families, a regular schedule, and even their lives, for others.

Most military officers, Border Patrol agents, and intelligence agency personnel I’ve met over the years do so with no resentment. They are honorable, kind, thoughtful people. Our personal political views may diverge (not always), but most get it: when you’re dealing with the most troubled 10 percent of humanity, you’re dealing with complexity and can’t shoot your way out of the problem.

Very few people in uniform whom I’ve met even come close to the stereotype of grown-up high school locker room bullies. (A stereotype reinforced whenever an AM talk radio host talks about them.) They almost never tell me, face to face, that I “don’t get it” and should get out of their way and let them do their job.

Still, the military/law enforcement/intelligence “id” is real. It comes out in speeches by Trump and Kelly, in commentary on Fox News, or on the Border Patrol union’s podcast.

In this view, Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence forces are a sort of superhero caste, putting themselves in harm’s way for an ungrateful, oblivious, and “soft” mass of citizens. This superhero caste should be above criticism from the binge-watching, video game-addled, shopaholic public. How dare such people scrutinize or question people on the front lines?

This view is a threat to life in a free republic. For many reasons, but especially two.

First, regular citizens can be, and often are, at least as honorable as members of the armed forces and law enforcement. That goes for people in all walks of life. It includes many citizens whom I’ve gotten to know well in my work: those who investigate and oversee what the armed forces and law enforcement are doing.

The effective people in my community—the ones who’ve decided to make a life out of doing this—don’t binge-watch Netflix. Anyone who does will end up on another career path. People who work to reveal truth, propose evidence-based reforms, protect minorities, defend migrants, or safeguard freedoms? They’re a tough bunch.

They rarely have a spare moment, and get impatient if they lose 15 minutes on an activity whose strategic purpose is unclear. But they’re also patient teachers who’ll share everything they’ve learned. They feel bad about neglecting their families, missing anniversaries and school plays. You’ll get messages from them at crazy hours—but they respond to calls for help at weird hours, too. They closely guard their credibility, a crucial support when—as often happens—powerful people are angry with them. Their offices may be messy, but they work with strict discipline.

They’re driven by something. A sense of right and wrong. A zeal for truth. A definition of justice or fairness. A vision of a better world. Religious teachings. The work of past heroes like King, Murrow, or Romero. A desire to preserve what’s civilized about our civilization.

And they do it without a large bureaucracy or base of taxpayers to support them. No predictable hierarchy or chain of command. No clarity about promotions or even about clean “victories.” Few awards ceremonies, no guaranteed retirement, no guaranteed income security beyond the current grant period.

This is an honorable life. A good soldier maintains and defends his or her honor. So do good journalists, human rights advocates, legislative oversight staff, judges, and activists—though they may use words like “credibility,” “relevance,” or “rigor” instead of “honor.”

Second and more importantly: as brave as they are, our military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are among those who most need scrutiny and questioning in a democratic society. That goes double for their management.

They’re the ones we’ve entrusted with guns, with surveillance capabilities, and with the legal right to detain, to search, to seize, and to interrogate. They work in gray areas that make them susceptible to corruption, or tempted to “circle the wagons” to protect colleagues accused of abuse. They need to do the right thing if a leader gives them an illegal order. They deserve our admiration and our gratitude. But they also require our unblinking scrutiny.

Secretary Kelly said that “day in and day out,” critics call Homeland Security personnel “Nazis” and accuse his “foot soldiers” (they’re actually civilians) of “storm troop tactics.” I’m not sure what critics he’s talking about: Twitter trolls, perhaps? But this element, be it fringe or straw-man, can be safely ignored.

Those whom we must not ignore are judges, prosecutors, investigators, whistleblowers, victims, internal-affairs personnel, legislators, journalists and “advocacy groups” with long records of credibility. When they do their job well, these people ensure that the agencies they monitor are protecting more than just a land mass: they’re protecting a precious set of values.

Trying to wriggle out from oversight is something that all institutions do. Doing it in the name of honor or implied superiority is effective: it silences many in Congress and even in the media. But it’s dangerous. A sentence that starts with “You don’t appreciate that we put our lives on the line for you” can end in some very bad ways:

  • “And so we won’t respond to your information request.”
  • “And so you need to double our budget, even if it means cutting education and healthcare.”
  • “And so you’re doing the unwitting bidding of terrorists.”
  • “And so you’re an obstacle to law and order.”
  • “And so your newspaper is an ’enemy of the people.’”

Gen. John Kelly would never phrase a sentence this way. But he risks paving the way for future officials who might.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo by Meridith Kohut for The New York Times. Caption: “Street art made from local currency in Caracas, Venezuela. It translates to “Constituent Fraud,” referring to the election for a constituent assembly.”

(Even more here)

July 31, 2017


Militares patrulham as áreas mais violentas da cidade


El coronel Diego Luis Villegas empezó su curso de ascenso en la Escuela Superior de Guerra en enero de este año, un mes después de que un juzgado de Medellín ordenara su detención

Los ajustes en el cronograma que hicieron las partes, no alteró la fecha que se había fijado para la entrega del inventario. En las próximas horas el documento pasará a manos del Gobierno

Algo está cambiando en el ELN porque las cinco condiciones que publicaron no tienen ese tinte maximalista que han tenido sus pronunciamientos a lo largo de estas conversaciones


Customs and Border Protection indicates it will use its own funds to build 3-mile segment of wall amid one of the nation’s most cherished bird-watching locales

The ambassador isn’t the only Trump surrogate to break rhetorical ranks with the president over Mexico


A 100,000 bpd reduction in imported crude and products is seen by analysts and sources as the United States imposing light sanctions

Members of the opposition said they believed between 2 million and 3 million people voted and one well-respected independent analysis put the number at 3.6 million

The opposition made little headway in opposing the weekend of the vote. Leaders canceled a rally scheduled in the afternoon because of the clashes rocking the country

What you’ve just read is the broad outline of the news in Venezuela over the past 20 months

  • Luis Vicente Leon, ¿Constituyente? (ProDaVinci (Venezuela), July 31, 2017).

Después de todos los errores previos, veremos un país mucho más débil, primitivo y peligroso, que terminará haciendo después lo que antes hubiera evitado mucho dolor: negociar, pero en peores condiciones

An embargo on imports of Venezuelan oil is off table for now, but other options include a ban on sales of U.S. oil and refined products to the country

The day ahead: July 28, 2017

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

Like a lot of people, I’m getting a late start after spending too much time this morning reading about the stunning 1:30AM healthcare vote in the Senate.

I’ll be in the office this morning, working on a list of small tasks. Then I have lunch with a European diplomat, a visit to a colleague who’s hospitalized, and an event at my daughter’s summer camp.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Fernando Llano – AP photo at The Miami Herald. Caption: “A demonstrator waves a flag Monday in Caracas with the the crossed out image of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a tribute to those killed during protests against the government.”

(Even more here)

July 27, 2017


La ONU informó este miércoles que ya son 304 las caletas con armas de las Farc extraídas. El organismo, que verifica el desarme de la guerrilla en el marco de los acuerdos de paz, tiene ubicadas 779


Fueron encontradas 94 armas de fuego (pistolas de diversos calibres), 34 fusiles de asalto, entre ellos, AK-47, M16 y AR15, una subametralladora, 3 granaderos y 34 granadas entre otras


El presidente Enrique Peña Nieto señaló que la participación de marinos y militares en esas tareas ‘‘es temporal y subsidiaria’’


ations such as Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador could work together on a package that appeals to both sides

With meaningful hope for dialogue between the government and the opposition gone for now, it is particularly up to Brasília and Montevideo to allow for the advancement of regional efforts

To keep pressure on Maduro and his close supporters — and perhaps create rifts among them — more sanctions could be imposed even ahead of Sunday’s vote for a national constituent assembly

The following individuals have been added to OFAC’s SDN List

Instead of making vague statements that Maduro could use to feed his conspiracy theories, the CIA director should work on a way to release U.S. information about the massive corruption

The day ahead: July 27, 2017

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

Another day with few meetings. Today the House of Representatives is debating the bill that includes Trump’s border wall request. They wouldn’t have the votes if someone tried to cut the wall out of the bill with an amendment, so they used a parliamentary maneuver to prohibit a separate vote on the wall. While we expect some debate, there’s not much more to do at this point but monitor it.

So I’ll be in the office writing about Colombia, setting up an August trip there, and doing some research.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

July 26, 2017


El gobierno confirmó que “en breve” el presidente Michel Temer firmará el decreto para autorizar el despliegue de tropas

The invasions on Tuesday form part of a campaign called “Corrupt People! Give Us Back Our Land” launched by the Landless Workers Movement

Bolsonaro, who promises to appoint generals to his cabinet if elected, is greeted by cheering crowds at airports and rallies who chant his name and boast that he has never been linked to any corruption allegations


El ex comandante de las Farc, alias Romaña, está liderando una serie de proyectos productivos en Tumaco para que los desmovilizados de la guerrilla y los cocaleros afines a su proyecto político sustituyan la coca

Colombia, Venezuela

Según información de autoridades migratorias, 560.000 venezolanos han solicitado una Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronteriza

El Salvador

Cruz acaba de presentar ‘La nueva cara de las pandillas callejeras’, del que es primera firma y que lleva el sello de la Universidad Internacional de Florida


House Republicans are poised to fund $1.6 billion for President Donald Trump’s border wall through a procedural maneuver designed to avoid a floor vote that might fail

“If you have the same number of people dying at the same time that many fewer people are trying to cross the border,” Meade said, “that suggests to me that the border continues to get more and more dangerous”

El asentamiento de un cártel como el de Tláhuac solo puede ser posible en tres condiciones por parte del Estado: corrupción, impunidad y omisión

Some people dispute Mancera’s insistence that no cartels operate in Mexico City. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral of “El Ojos” on Monday, including associates openly packing heat


Un bloqueo petrolero daría la coartada perfecta al chavismo

The opposition has until Sunday before President Nicolas Maduro’s regime begins rewriting the constitution

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) today urged President Trump to sanction individuals in the Maduro regime responsible for human rights abuses ahead of the fraudulent July 30 vote to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution

The day ahead: July 26, 2017

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

Today I’m mostly in the office. Other than lunch with the interns and a bunch of planning for our end-of-August Colombia trip, I should be reachable. My goal is to start work today on a big ambitious “what happens now” report covering Colombia’s post-conflict challenges, which should be drafted, but still open to changes, when I go there in 5 weeks.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Tercero Díaz photo at SinEmbargo (Mexico). Caption: “Elementos de la Marina Armada de México resguardan las instalaciones de la Procuraduría General de la República en calle López en el centro de la ciudad. Esto debido a que ahí se encuentran algunos detenidos del operativo de ayer en la delegación Tláhuac.”

(Even more here)

July 25, 2017

Brazil, Colombia

Estados Unidos representa apenas el 30,8 por ciento del mercado, y por lo tanto es imposible tener claridad sobre lo que ocurre en Colombia si no se reconoce la importancia del resto del planeta


Qué hacer con los cultivadores que también son procesadores de la hoja y que, según el último informe del Sistema de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos de las Naciones Unidas, Simci, son el 40 por ciento de todos

Los tres escenarios libre de los cultivos catalogados por el Gobierno como ilícitos, son el Parque Nacional Natural de Los Katíos, la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, y la Serranía de Chribiquete

¿Qué debemos hacer para que la participación ciudadana derivada del Acuerdo no repita los errores del pasado?

El Salvador

Arrest warrants, the first of their kind, a surprise as overwhelming majority of war crimes during 1979-1992 war were attributed to US-backed armed forces


Honing in on the cost of President Donald Trump’s wall is difficult, primarily because he has offered shifting estimates and conflicting details

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), whose district includes the largest section of the Mexican border of any House member, has long said building the wall would be impractical and ineffective

Much was still unanswered on Monday, including exactly how many people had been in the truck, and how they managed to get to San Antonio undetected, since it was likely that the driver passed through a Border Patrol traffic checkpoint

They break into small groups or loads to get across the border, lessening the chances of getting caught by inspectors and minimizing losses if they are discovered. Once they clear the border, they regroup

Ustedes, CDMeXicas, no saben lo peligroso que es dejar que las fuerzas armadas se hagan cargo, poco a poco al comienzo y después totalmente, de la seguridad pública; en Juárez los sufrimos más de dos años

El Cártel de Tláhuac, una organización que logró afianzarse al sur de la ciudad de las únicas dos maneras posibles: a través de la violencia y con la protección de las autoridades


Caracas sees its investment in lobbyists as a way to fight possible sweeping sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil

Nicolás Maduro has convened a national vote on 30 July to elect a group to redraft the constitution – a move that his many opponents call a power grab

El artista urbano criticó no solo el uso sin permiso de la canción sino también las demás acciones del mandatario que afectan a la población venezolana

Western Hemisphere Regional

“We seem to be targeting the most vulnerable people, not the worst”

The day ahead: July 25, 2017

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

I’m in the office all day, monitoring what’s happening in Congress and mostly staying off social media in order to get real work done.

This morning I cranked out a 2,700-page mini-report taking on the arguments in favor of expanding Border Patrol by 5,000 agents. That will probably come out late this week or early next week, after the legislative battle over border-wall funding happens in the House (if it does).

Other goals for today are some updates here, some research using recently obtained government documents, and planning our late-August Colombia trip.

New WOLA Podcast on what’s up with Congress and the border

Here’s the blurb:

The House Appropriations Committee just passed a budget bill that gives the Trump administration much of what it is asking for: more border wall, more border agents, and more deportation capacity. Meanwhile migration, especially of people fleeing violence in Central America, is creeping upward after a sharp post-inauguration decline. Get an update from senior Associates Adam Isacson (Defense Oversight) and Maureen Meyer (Mexico and Migrant Rights).

Whoa I’ve been libeled! (and really sloppily too)

Here’s an English translation of a note I just dashed off to Roberto Pombo, director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. 

(Other than a conversation or two with lawyers, this is the last thing I want to do about this today—there are more important things to do. But I’m looking forward to pursuing this as far as it goes. Enough of this lying crap.)

Dear Dr. Pombo,

In his column today, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza [prominent author and right-wing columnist] says the following about me:

While Col. Mejía is denied conditional liberty, Guzmán lives today in Maryland, where he was brought by Adam Isacson, a FARC-protecting lawyer.

It would be hard for you to publish something more false.

  • I’m not a lawyer.
  • I didn’t bring anyone to the United States. Edwin Guzmán’s lawyers asked me to serve as an expert witness in his asylum case. I wrote an affidavit and appeared before an immigration judge, working pro bono. And that’s it. I still believe that Edwin Guzmán acted with courage by denouncing the criminal acts of his boss, Col. Hernán Mejía (now in prison). For this act, he received strong threats.
    [Note: Guzmán accused Col. Mejía, one of Colombia’s most decorated army officers, of conspiring with paramilitaries to boost his unit’s body count. Here’s what I wrote about the case when the news broke in 2007.]
  • I haven’t had contact with anyone identifying him or herself as a FARC member since 1999 and 2001, when I participated in meetings, with the full knowledge of the Colombian government, to discuss the peace process that was active at that moment. On those occasions, I voiced many complaints and disagreements about issues like kidnapping, coca, and the need to respect international humanitarian law.

What is certain is: El Tiempo just published in its pages a piece tying a private citizen with a group on his country’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And it did so without any effort to verify what was written. This is very serious.

I request a published rectification, done in a fast, clear, and prominent manner.

In both of our countries, we’re living through a special moment. In this moment, many participants in public life are slandering and libeling with impunity. You, as journalists, are frequent victims of this phenomenon. Whether it comes from Uribe or from Trump, it’s important to resist this wherever it appears. And for that reason, I’m prepared to bring this issue to its legal consequences if necessary.


Adam Isacson

The day ahead: July 21, 2017

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

I’ll be in the office and have a light meeting schedule. We’ll be recording a podcast, planning a late-August Colombia trip, finishing a quick memo about the foreign aid bill, and adding information to my database from a pile of backlogged government documents.

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