Adam Isacson

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


November 2017

Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System

Semana archive photo at Verdad Abierta (Colombia). Caption: “Aún no ha comenzado a operar el nuevo sistema de justicia transicional y diversos sectores ya encuentran reparos, principalmente en cuanto a la participación procesal de las víctimas se refiere.”

Remember back when Colombian officials said that the FARC peace negotiations sought to “put victims at the center” of the process?

Colombia’s Congress just finished work on the legislation that would implement transitional justice, the process of punishing the worst human rights violators and making them provide reparations to victims. They did serious damage, putting together a system that benefits the powerful and deforms the spirit of the peace accords. It will be up to Colombia’s top courts, or the International Criminal Court, to minimize the harm.

Here are seven flaws that I’ve identified in a piece that WOLA posted to its website this morning. Follow the link to read the whole thing: I tried to explain this in plain English, not human rights legalese.

  1. The choices of judges and magistrates for the new justice system were excellent. But the law would undo these by disqualifying anybody who has done human rights work or accompanied victims during the past five years.
  2. The law does not define how austere the conditions of “restricted liberty” will be for those sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  3. The law includes a watered-down standard of “command responsibility,” which could allow dozens of top military commanders to avoid accountability. It may also make Colombia a top priority for the International Criminal Court.
  4. The law stripped key language from the peace accord which would have compelled civilian third parties to appear and confess. There is now little hope of holding accountable landowners, narcotraffickers, local officials and other politically influential individuals who sponsored armed groups or even planned killings.
  5. The law leaves unclear whether “false positive” killings will be tried within the JEP, even though most were unrelated to the armed conflict.
  6. War criminals may still be able to hold office. Or maybe not.
  7. The timeline for setting up the JEP is excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, thousands of guerrillas and soldiers are in a legal limbo.

Read the whole thing here.

Snapshots from the border

I’m just back from a quick 3-day trip to the very farthest southern part of Texas, known as the Rio Grande Valley region.

This is by far the “busiest” of all sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. It has the most undocumented migration, the largest number of Central American migrants seeking protection from violence, and (according to local Border Patrol, measured by weight) the most illegal drug seizures. It’s where the Trump administration, in its 2018 budget request, wants to build 60 miles of new border wall.

Looking across the Rio Grande at Reynosa, Mexico on Monday morning at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas. This is pretty much the last densely populated area of the U.S.-Mexico border that doesn’t have a fence.

Families from Central America on Monday evening. They were just released from Border Patrol custody with notices to appear before immigration courts to hear their requests for asylum or protected status in the United States. After getting bus tickets to their destination cities, many stop at Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. The Center was so full—more than 100 people on site—that many sitting here out back, where a volunteer distributed bag dinners.

Tuesday in Falfurrias, Texas, the seat of Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway near here. Migrants walk through the surrounding ranchland to avoid it. Dozens die every year trying to do that, of dehydration, hypothermia, and exposure. Of all nine U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol sectors, Rio Grande Valley is first in the number of migrant remains encountered. And most are found near here, far from the border itself.

In an effort to prevent migrant deaths, Eddie Canales (red shirt) of the South Texas Human Rights Center puts out water stations like this one in the countryside around Falfurrias.

The Catholic Church-run migrant shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, on Wednesday. Shelter staff say they have been very full lately. Most occupants are deported Mexican citizens, most of them ICE deportees from the eastern United States. A minority are Central American families headed northward. Migrants are encouraged not to stay too long here, as the organized-crime groups that dominate Matamoros seek to kidnap or recruit them.

Looking west at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros.

Looking east at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville.

The day ahead: November 30, 2017

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

After 3 days at the Texas-Mexico border, I got home at 11:30 last night. I’m working and unpacking at home this morning. I’ll be in the office and reachable in the afternoon.

The day ahead: November 27, 2017

I will be out of contact today. (How to contact me)

Good morning from McAllen, Texas. I’ll be here all day: along with a few WOLA colleagues, I’ve got a full agenda of meetings with authorities, experts, humanitarian workers, and advocates. We’re doing some border and migration research.

This is my first visit in two years to south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. This is where the largest number of migrants are arriving lately and where the Trump administration wants to build 60 miles of wall next year if Congress appropriates the money.

The week ahead

I flew to south Texas on Sunday, where a few of us from WOLA will be until Wednesday evening. It’s a quick trip to do some more field research on border security.

I’ll be back in Washington, in the office, on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully by then, we’ll have posted a long piece taking the pulse of Colombia’s transitional justice system, which I drafted on the plane.

7 links from the past week

Wessler reveals and details a very disturbing practice that intensified with the U.S. Southern Command’s post–2012 “Operation Martillo” drug-interdiction surge. When the U.S. Coast Guard captures someone trafficking drugs in international waters—often, impoverished fishermen at the low end of the drug business—it confines them on board for weeks or months at a time without charges, usually in shackles and incomunicado.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans have disappeared, either at the hands of criminal groups or the security forces themselves. Mexico’s government is either overwhelmed or just doesn’t care. Ahmed profiles some of the families who are organizing, both to press the government and to find their missing loved ones on their own.

This is the best overview I’ve seen of the Trump administration’s reckless and cruel decision to force 60,000 Haitians to return en masse within 18 months. It goes into the political calculation behind it, splits in the Republican party, especially in Florida, the potential impact on Haiti, the families that will be separated, and the lives that will be forever disrupted.

A year after the signing of Colombia’s FARC peace accord, an in-depth look at persistent violence in several regions. Draws heavily from good reporting by the national human rights ombudsman’s office and the OAS.

The complicated story of Nestora Salgado, who led a community self-defense “police” force in Olinalá, Guerrero. She ran afoul of corrupt Guerrero officials. Her force abused its own power and she spent time in prison. And she is something of a folk hero—with many critics—back home.

“While greater US engagement removed one of the main impediments to Cuba’s moving toward greater openness and freedom,” the former Human Rights Watch and Obama administration official recognizes, “it could not by itself bring about that change.” However, he holds out the possibility that Trump’s misguided walk-back of Obama’s reforms could “gavaniz[e] a coalition to lift the embargo altogether.”

A snapshot of Honduras on the eve of voting likely to re-elect an authoritarian-leaning president. What happens when violent crime goes down, but corruption remains as rampant as ever?

Ex-FARC reintegration is flailing in Colombia, a would-be OECD member state

Reuters photo at El Tiempo (Colombia). Caption: “Las zonas veredales están hechas para que las Farc se desarmen y hagan el tránsito a la vida civil.”

The chief of the UN mission verifying parts of Colombia’s peace accord implementation has had a rare public disagreement with the Colombian government.

On Tuesday, Jean Arnault urged officials to do more to keep former FARC fighters from slipping through the cracks. He pointed out some alarming things:

“A very high percentage of ex-FARC members are not in the ETCRs [Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation, the former cantonment zones where FARC demobilized, but from where they are now free to leave]. The phenomenon calls for attention. The ex-guerrillas were about 8,000 on May 20 in the Village Zones [the cantonment zones] when the storage of FARC weapons concluded. As of August 15 [the day when ex-FARC members were allowed to leave], 70 percent remained. Today we estimate at 45 percent the number that still remain at the ETCRs.

“…[T]he greatest determining factor for these departures is effectively, according to the interviews the Mission has carried out, the loss of confidence in the perspectives that the ETCRs offer. Many expectations unmet for a long time. The El Gallo ETCR and the Policarpa ETCR have been almost totally abandoned, and their residents have moved to places that seem more favorable to them. Of other ETCRs, which weren’t abandoned, groups of 20 to 50 ex-guerrillas are leaving for the same purpose.”

Why would so many ex-guerrillas be disappearing without a trace? Arnault’s response defies belief:

“[A]s of today, a framework plan for reincorporation [of ex-combatants] still doesn’t exist. That was the central mandate of the National Reincorporation Council established a little less than a year ago.”

Faced with such a dire warning couched in diplomatic language, Colombian officials struck a wounded tone. Here’s the high commissioner for peace, Rodrigo Rivera:

“We’re surprised by Mr. Arnault’s declarations. Diplomatic channels exist to propose the sort of reservations that he proposes, and I see they weren’t sufficient. This sows the notion that there’s a sort of diaspora of FARC ex-combatants from the Territorial Spaces. …The purpose of the spaces was that they be temporary, they aren’t confined there and the UN knows it.”

Rivera is mistaken. The time for quietly routing things through diplomatic channels is over.

A core element of any peace process is the careful reintegration of ex-combatants. Thousands of unemployed, under-educated people with combat skills are being set loose in a country already challenged by organized crime, narcotrafficking, and ungoverned territory. That no plan is in place to occupy them, or even to keep track of them, is a failure at the most elemental level.

It’s worth noting that the day before Arnault and Rivera were exchanging words in Bogotá, Colombia’s foreign minister was in Washington. One of the things María Ángela Holguín brought up with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the government’s oft-expressed desire to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based club of 35 wealthy nations.

Note the incongruity between Colombia’s first-world aspirations and the UN’s very basic warnings.

Granted, Colombia is in a budget crunch triggered by the drop in oil prices. And yes, the President’s governing coalition is fragile, and public opinion toward the peace accord is tepid as the March legislative and May presidential elections approach.

But it should not be too taxing for Colombia to fund a collective reintegration plan for the former FARC, right now, before thousands of seasoned fighters melt away and join the ranks of organized crime. The cost is not prohibitive. At least, not prohibitive for a country knocking on the OECD’s door.

We’re talking about 12,000 people. How much would that cost? Let’s ballpark it.

  • Each one receives 10 million Colombian pesos—a “normalization” payment plus seed money for a productive project—plus a stipend of about 663,000 pesos per month for 24 months. That all adds up to about 26 million pesos, or US$8,730 per ex-guerrilla. For 12,000 guerrillas, the price tag here would be about US$105 million.
  • Perhaps 70-75 percent of the 12,000 would like to work land, through cooperatives. That land would need to be purchased. Let’s say 4 hectares each (10 acres) times 9,000 people: 36,000 hectares, the size of a single cattle ranch in the country’s eastern plains. Even at a steep price like US$2,000 per hectare, that would add US$72 million to give land to ex-FARC cooperatives.
  • Many of the demobilized would need basic education and vocational training. Say, US$3,000 per person for 6,000 people. US$18 million.
  • All need psychosocial support, medical attention, and just basic monitoring. Assume US$5,000 per person times 12,000 — US$60 million.
  • That brings us to a total reintegration price tag of US$255 million. I’m sure this estimate is missing a lot—and there are some items in the peace accord, like support to ECOMÚN, a FARC cooperative, that don’t have specific price tags. So let’s add another 50 percent, and another 10 percent for administrative costs, and call it US$408 million.

US$408 million over, say, two years. Colombia’s one-year GDP is about US$285 billion. Colombia is currently collecting about US$80 billion per year of that as taxes. The cost of reintegration would be about 0.26 percent of that annual budget. Money can’t be what’s stopping the ex-FARC from being reintegrated.

Why Colombia hasn’t been able to reach up and grab even this “low-hanging fruit” is a mystery bedeviling most of us. As Colombia’s OECD aspirations make clear, the problem isn’t money.

It seems more like an ossified bureaucratic culture rendering the government almost inoperable. Combined with that familiar bugbear, “a lack of political will.” This term gets thrown around a lot but is really a “black box” obscuring deeper, structural problems like social power relations, corruption and criminality, and economic inequality.

These are poor reasons to risk a slide back into violence and victimhood in what, for now at least, are post-conflict regions of the country. The UN’s warnings about reintegration are on the mark. If anything, they’re too muted.

The day ahead: November 23, 2017

I will be out of contact today. (How to contact me)

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in, or from, the United States. I’ll be spending the day with family, and I hope you get to do that too.

Everyone else, have a nice regular working Thursday.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Orlando Sierra / AFP photo at La Prensa (Nicaragua). Caption: “Military Police members patrol a street of Tegucigalpa on November 21, 2017. Honduras will hold elections next November 26 to choose president, three vicepresidents, 128 deputies for the local congress an 20 for the Central American (Parlacen) and 128 mayoralties.”

(Even more here)

November 22, 2017


Chileans did not follow other Latin Americans in making a right-wing turn in the presidential election, and instead voted to stay the course on the ambitious reform agenda that Bachelet put in place


La Mesa Regional de Organizaciones de Putumayo, Meros, que fueron los que lideraron la negociación, lograron apancalarse electoralmente con miras a las circunscripciones de paz del año entrante

Después de que el jefe de la Misión de Verificación de la ONU en Colombia, Jean Arnault, dijera que en las zonas de desarme queda sólo el 45 % de los excombatientes de las Farc, el Gobierno puso el grito en el cielo

Investment in the development of rural areas will determine whether the peace agreement succeeds or fails. It is time for the candidates to address that issue


The administration’s decision to rescind the humanitarian status that allowed so many Haitians to live in the United States amounts to an act of cruelty


Honduras elige este próximo domingo un nuevo presidente con pronósticos de una crisis política por el empeño del mandatario Juan Orlando Hernández de conseguir una cuestionada reelección


It happened after dark in an area that’s known for drug activity and where agents often look for drugs in culverts

Nationwide, 2017 is on track to be the deadliest year in recent Mexican history

Esta es la cuarta vez en el año que se rompe el récord mensual de homicidios y es también el mes más violento en la administración del presidente Enrique Peña Nieto


La poetisa y escritora nicaragüense Gioconda Belli pidió hoy al Ejército de Nicaragua aclarar la muerte de 6 civiles, de ellos 2 menores, la semana pasada durante un incidente armado


“One of the biggest lessons and benefits we’re experiencing is that the most serious, responsible, and rigorous journalism is being recognized by audiences”

Western Hemisphere Regional

The administration has moved to slash the number of refugees, accelerate deportations and terminate the provisional residency of more than a million people, among other measures

“Good to be here”

The deconstruction of the State Department continues in real time.

On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Colombia’s foreign minister. On Tuesday, he met with Peru’s foreign minister.

Why the flurry of activity? You’re not going to learn anything from the State Department.

Here’s the entirety of what the Secretary’s office had the gall to post about the Peruvian visit. What an insult to transparency. What a waste of hard drive space.

The day ahead: November 22, 2017

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

It’s the day before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, so it should be quiet in the office. I’ll be finishing a long draft memo about Colombia’s transitional justice legislation, and updating our border legislation tracker because the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday released its version of the 2018 Homeland Security budget bill, which would fund Trump’s border wall.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Proceso (Mexico). Caption: “La movilización indígena en Chiapas.”

(Even more here)

November 21, 2017


Among the issues discussed: Brazil’s Integrated Border Monitoring System (SISFRON, per its Portuguese acronym) stood out


En 36 de los 42 municipios de Cauca hay cultivos de marihuana tipo cripa. Los traficantes de Medellín prefieren la que crece en la zona norte

Para afianzar la reincorporación frente a los desafíos de las economías ilegales, agilizar el acceso a la tierra es una prioridad

Significan oportunidades de transformación positiva en muchos asuntos y en particular en lo que se refiere al narcotráfico y sus impactos en la sociedad

Comunidades cercanas al municipio de Riosucio, Chocó, denuncian que el conflicto armado sigue a pesar de la salida de las Farc y el cese el fuego bilateral entre el Gobierno y el Eln

Lo que hace un año fue una ilusión para lograr una rendición de cuentas de todos los perpetradores, y de las responsabilidades que tenemos como sociedad en la creación de una democracia con desigualdad, donde hay más de 8 millones de víctimas, ha quedado hoy en un cadáver insepulto

La ministra de Relaciones Exteriores de Colombia, María Ángela Holguín y el secretario de Estados Unidos, Rex Tillerson, se reunieron para confirmar y fortalecer las alianzas


El momento de la sorpresiva visita del diplomático norcoreano, que no ha sido reflejada en los principales medios oficiales de la isla, ha sorprendido a los analistas

With a return to Cold War-era policies, it is the Cuban people — not their government — who will suffer


Earlier this month, with his approval ratings touching 80 percent, Moreno announced plans for a constitutional plebiscite that will include a proposal to limit presidential re-election – a move that would bar Correa


The protection will permanently terminate July 22, 2019, allowing Haitians living in the U.S. under TPS an 18-month window to return to their struggling homeland

Honduras, Venezuela

Así reaccionó el presidente Juan Orlando Hernández a la advertencia del exsubsecretario de Estado para Asuntos del Hemisferio, Otto J. Reich, sobre la llegada de ciudadanos de Venezuela infiltrados en Honduras


Union officials say Rogelio Martinez was attacked. The FBI isn’t saying

Details were thin, but the episode in a remote stretch of Texas quickly made its way into the national conversation on immigration and border security

Until recently, the Mexican government had only insinuated that security cooperation was on the table. It’s time for Americans to take the warning seriously

Western Hemisphere Regional

In an expansion of the war on drugs, the U.S. Coast Guard is targeting low-level smugglers in international waters — shackling them on ships for weeks or even months before arraignment in American courts

Older Posts
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.