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

Special Forces trainings in Latin America aren’t declining, despite the reported numbers

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we obtained (heavily redacted) reports detailing U.S. Special Operations Forces’ training deployments around the world. (Reports since 2014 are here; earlier ones are at Security Assistance Monitor.)

This allowed me to update a table that ran in an August 2016 WOLA commentary about these trainings in Latin America. That piece voiced some of our concerns about this Defense Department-run training program, known as Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCET.

JCET, carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces (elite units like Green Berets or Navy SEALs), is secretive. It barely seems to involve U.S. diplomats. It seems to lack much consideration of its impact on human rights, its effect on host-countries’ civil-military relations, or its congruence with the recipient security forces’ actual needs. (Many of us learned about JCETs for the first time in a groundbreaking 1998 Washington Post series, which spelled out these concerns.)

Our updated table of JCET training deployments in Latin America is at the top (click it for a more readable spreadsheet). I was surprised to find a sharp drop in these trainings in 2015 and 2016. Both years were below the 2007-2016 average, and 2016 saw the second-fewest JCET deployments of the past 10 years.

But this doesn’t mean that Special Operations Forces are visiting Latin America less often. The 2016 Defense Department report makes that clear (my emphasis):

“The total number of events executed in FY 2016 represented a 22 percent decrease from those executed the previous year. Despite this, the overall level of SOF [Special Operations Forces] engagements in the USSOUTHCOM AOR [U.S. Southern Command Area of Operations] increased due to other SOF training and operational support.”

What is this “other training and operational support”? Probably Defense Department counter-drug aid. JCETs, which usually pay for training in non-drug-related skills, may be getting less emphasis in favor of an aid program that the Defense Department may employ if the training’s mission can be construed as combating drug trafficking or transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

If a “counter-drug” or “counter-TCO” nexus exists, the Defense Department can pay for Special Forces training that is very similar to JCET—but it may do so using its much larger budget for counter-drug and counter-transnational organized crime assistance. This account provides roughly US$300 million in assistance to the Western Hemisphere each year. Right now, Congress does not require that the Pentagon report on this program in the same way: while we can see dollar amounts by country and category, there is no unclassified listing of Special Forces trainings.

The JCET report, then, isn’t capturing everything or even explaining the trends properly. If U.S. Special Forces teams are spending more time in Latin America—as the report’s text asserts—you can’t tell where they’re visiting if they’re not paying for it with the JCET program.

The table above, meanwhile, seems to show some abrupt shifts in priorities. El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia, the top three countries between 2007 and 2014, saw no JCETs in 2016. The Defense Department report notes:

“In FY 2016, in response to changes in the operational environment, U.S. SOF shifted the focus of a significant portion of the JCET program from Central America to partner nations in the Caribbean—primarily the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.”

But it doesn’t explain what those environmental changes were (at a time when Central America was becoming, if anything, less secure), or why Colombia fell off.

Again, the shift might not be as abrupt as it looks. It’s possible that the Defense Department is now funding Special Operations Forces training in Colombia and Central America through its counter-drug account instead of JCET. The trainers may be there in similar or larger numbers, but we can’t say right now how often that is happening.

The day ahead: November 21, 2017

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

No meetings on the calendar today—the Thanksgiving slowdown is upon us. I’ll be in the office, writing about the border wall, writing about transitional justice in Colombia, and nailing down final details for next week’s research trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Andrea Moreno photo at El Tiempo (Colombia). Caption: “Los antiguos guerrilleros trabajan en Icononzo en mejoras a sus viviendas.”

(Even more here)

November 20, 2017


ARA San Juan went missing with 44 crew members on board four days ago, in vast potential search area


While the Olympics led to durable gains for Rio de Janeiro — most notably by upgrading its public transportation system — missed opportunities are evident in virtually every part of the city


Though she narrowly missed out on reaching the second round, Sánchez’s supporters could prove decisive

Con el 91,75% de los votos escrutados, el expresidente y candidato centroderechista tenía un 36,62% de los sufragios

The biggest surprise of the day was the surge of the left, representing a shift in Chile’s political map


Lo que el país está viendo hoy es que la reconciliación, principal objetivo de un proceso de paz, será una dura y larga tarea que requerirá de líderes políticos dispuestos a encabezarla

  • Rodrigo Uprimny, Inhabilidades (DeJusticia, El Espectador (Colombia), November 20, 2017).

Su constitucionalidad debe ser revisada por la Corte Constitucional (CC), que no tiene otra alternativa sino anular la inhabilidad, por ser groseramente inconstitucional, al menos por dos razones

El encuentro se produciría este viernes y la intención es evitar que las dudas de la ahora exguerrilla sobre el sistema de justicia transicional pueda golpear la implementación de la paz


By any reasonable measure, Haiti is not ready to take them back


In Mexico, where the drug war’s “disappeared” number in the tens of thousands, some families take up the search for loved ones on their own

When the authorities could no longer be trusted, Nestora Salgado organized a citizens’ police force. Did she go too far?


El defensor de derechos humanos Gonzalo Carrión, explica sobre las inconsistencias que existen en las muertes de campesinos en las montañas a manos del Ejército


A separate UNHCR document from July estimates that there are 300,000 Venezuelans in neighboring Colombia, 40,000 in Trinidad and Tobago and 30,000 in Brazil

Western Hemisphere Regional

Some observers think Mugabe’s overthrow by the Army might be a good thing for Zimbabwe. An Argentinean expert on Latin America’s bloody military dictatorships disagrees

The day ahead: November 20, 2017

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

I’m off to the State Department for a meeting with a human rights official with whom I haven’t spoken in a while. Then it’s back to the office for the rest of the day, where I’ll join the weekly staff meeting, check in with everyone, clear out my correspondence, and hopefully have about four hours to finish a memo explaining last week’s changes to Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system.

The week ahead

It’s Thanksgiving week in the United States. This is the second most widely celebrated holiday of the year here, after Christmas. Nearly everything will be closed Thursday, and—except for retail—also on Friday. I’ll be away for the holiday, though not traveling far this time.

Washington will be quiet all week. The House and Senate are out of session. I don’t see any Latin America-related events happening here during this truncated week.

It’s a week to focus on writing and research. We’ve got three drafts in semi-written state right now: a memo explaining what happened last week with Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system; a memo about the relevance of the border wall prototypes under construction in San Diego, California; and a big, slow-moving overview of Colombia’s post-conflict challenges.

I hope to finish at least two of those this week, and make progress on the third.

Then on Sunday, a few of us will be getting on a plane for McAllen, Texas. We’ll be spending the first three days of the week doing some research in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The day ahead: November 8, 2017

I’ll be unreachable most of the day. (How to contact me)

I’m flying to Colombia today, where I’ll be participating in a two-day off-the-record discussion of Colombia’s implementation of illicit crop substitution within the framework of the peace accord. I’ll try to post a bit from Bogotá.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Alexandre Cassiano photo in O Globo (Brazil). Caption: “Megaoperação das Forças Armadas em São Gonçalo”

(Even more here)

November 7, 2017


The investigation listed key evidence that wasn’t mentioned in previous reports: Nisman’s nasal septum was broken. He had suffered blows


The FARC would be left in a highly vulnerable limbo with no confidence in the guarantees for their judicial situation, security, reintegration into civilian life and political participation

Algunos sectores de las Farc le han planteado al Gobierno la necesidad de abrir esas listas, que se cerraron el pasado 15 de agosto, para incluir a más miembros. A esto el Gobierno se ha negado enfáticamente

En menos de una semana fueron asesinados dos labriegos que impulsaban los procesos de sustitución voluntaria de hoja de coca y que hacían parte del capítulo Antioquia de la Cocam

El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua

The Trump administration said it needs more time to determine the fate of some 57,000 Hondurans living in the United States with provisional residency status


The undated government report estimated that the drug trade, tax fraud and other crimes were worth at least 1.13 trillion pesos ($58.5 billion) a year in Mexico, with all of that money susceptible to money laundering

“It would be much more difficult to have the political will in Mexico to continue to further that collaboration which is very much needed”


Si le creemos a los resultados de las municipales que leyó entrando la madrugada de este lunes el cuestionado magistrado del Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE), Roberto Rivas, el FSLN barrió


We hope well-targeted sanctions of varying degrees combined with coordinated diplomatic efforts may prove effective in pressuring the Maduro regime to hold free and fair elections

Guevara es acusado de estos delitos por la Fiscalía, que le relaciona con su papel en las protestas antigubernamentales

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press photo in The Wall Street Journal. Caption: “Customers leave a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela, last month”

(Even more here)

November 6, 2017


Al parecer el ministro Aguad ha optado, hasta el momento, por no militarizar la política anti-drogas. Cuatro motivos parecen haberlo persuadido

Bolivia, Peru

Según autoridades, se da porque ya no circulan fácilmente grandes sumas de dinero en ese país, debido al control que ejercen los policías peruanos y brasileños en la frontera


Cuando empeora, vienen las Fuerzas Armadas, se quedan un ratito y se van. Y la gente de las favelas vuelve a su cotidiana opresión y miedo


En todo Tumaco, donde el desempleo y la desigualdad campean, los hombres jóvenes suelen dedicarse a solo dos oficios: o cultivan la hoja de coca o viajan como mulas para exportar la cocaína

SEMANA analiza la ponencia del magistrado Luis Guillermo Guerrero que asegura que el esquema de sanciones a responsables podría sustituir el deber del Estado

The peace accord that Santos finally bagged last year has been plagued with trouble and setbacks

Se anunció que la semana que comienza se darán las discusiones pendientes; ojalá así sea y los parlamentarios demuestren su compromiso genuino con construir una mejor Colombia

“Algunas de ellas ya han reconstruido su vida, pero su entorno familiar no conoce el contexto de la guerra por el cual fueron víctimas de estas conductas criminales”, dice la sentencia


La aeronave ha sido construida por estudiantes y personal de la Universidad de Defensa de Honduras (UDH) con apoyo del Ihcieti


66 cárceles en México son controladas por los internos, quienes extorsionan, cobran por los servicios básicos y hasta explotan sexualmente a otros reos

El capo mexicano estuvo 28 años en prisión. Esta semana, la DEA informó que recuperó el control del tráfico de drogas desde México a Estados Unidos


The differences between the Chinese and Russian approach to the Venezuelan crisis suggest that China’s support for Venezuela cannot be taken for granted

Stopping payments on debt threatens economy but could increase funds earmarked for needed imports

Prominent Venezuelan lawmaker Freddy Guevara has sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas amid fears he could be jailed, a development that leaves the ailing opposition with even fewer leaders

Western Hemisphere Regional

Los Paradise Papers revelan una serie de conexiones de prominentes miembros de la política latinoamericana con el mundo de las empresas offshore

The fight over undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children is emerging as the largest hurdle to avoiding a government shutdown after Dec. 8

The day ahead: November 6, 2017

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

It’s meetings all day, with virtually no space in between. A weekly staff meeting, lunch with the interns, a meeting with a House office, and two meetings with visiting researchers.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from El Heraldo (Honduras). Caption: “El moderno buque, denominado Gracias a Dios, este viernes llega a Honduras.”

(Even more here)

November 3, 2017


En pueblos como La Paz, que de alguna forma es la puerta para poder entrar a navegar ese afluente, la pasta de coca es la moneda principal

Colombia, Honduras

Durante 11 meses, la Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval, Marítima y Fluvial (Cotecmar) de Colombia trabajó en su construcción


Credit default swap traders placed the implied probability of a Venezuelan default at 97 percent over the next five years

Western Hemisphere Regional

It is seeking to restrict who qualifies for special protections granted to children crossing the border alone. And it is stepping up prosecutions of adults who paid smugglers to bring unaccompanied kids

Some articles I found interesting this morning

U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Melanie Kilcline photo at Diálogo (Southern Command). Caption: “U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Trai Pelletier, a welder with the Logistics Combat Element, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command, greets a child at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Taufick Bendeck Elementary School in Trujillo, Honduras, on July 27th.”

(Even more here)

November 2, 2017


The government will need to find ways to increase its earnings, which in turn will require a tax system that is both more progressive and better for competitiveness

El exguerillero precisó que están buscando “hacer gobierno y poder” y agregó que el país va a un gobierno de transición

A potential spanner in the works of the Farc’s political foray is that ex-commanders will probably face trial for human rights abuses and war crimes


The vote on the resolution in the 193-member General Assembly was 191 to 2. The United States and Israel, which often acts in concert with its American ally, were the lone dissenters


The US congress has yet to receive approval from the State Department to release the 75 percent of aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that is conditioned

In addition to the school projects in Trujillo, marines with SPMAGTF-SC completed engineering projects in Guatemala and Belize, as well as conducted security cooperation training with their counterparts in several Central American and Caribbean nations

Honduras, Nicaragua

If the Department of Homeland Security does not extend TPS for the two countries by November 6, permission to live and work in the U.S. will expire for thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans on January 5


One of the paper’s more obvious implications for future security policy is that officials should principally target not kingpins, but rather their armed wings

On TV, soap-opera characters break off from romantic intrigues to point out what a good job local authorities have done at improving the street-lighting


The sequence in El Casabe provides a rare look at how President Nicolás Maduro’s government is trying to ensure its political survival

The day ahead: November 2, 2017

I’m around, but will need some “do not disturb” time to get some new writing done. (How to contact me)

I’ve got a meeting this morning with some Latin American military officers posted to the OAS, and an event in the evening at a European embassy. In between, I plan to hunker down and write about either Colombia peace implementation or the “border wall prototypes” in San Diego. Both, if there’s time. (Which there never seems to be.)

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