Adam Isacson

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


December 2017

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

December 26, 2017

El Salvador

Many of the victims of MS-13 on Long Island are immigrants themselves, and a large number of them came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors


It’s rooted in corruption fed by the Honduran and international elite for generations. Atop this foundation, the 2017 electoral conflict rages


“You can’t compete with a government that pays $500 million a year to the media”


“I think PPK has considered using the pardon to divide Fujimorismo and make a pact with Kenji”

Mr. Kuczynski granted the pardon just after he narrowly escaped being impeached by Congress over accusations connecting him to a graft scandal extending across Latin America

Some Things That I Wrote in 2017

Even before Election Day 2016, I knew 2017 was going to be an intense year at work. Still, it exceeded expectations. This year I traveled to Colombia three times, to the U.S.-Mexico border twice, and the Mexico-Guatemala border once. I met with about fifty congressional offices. I co-hosted a big conference and led a congressional delegation. I spoke to at least 15 audiences. I coded two websites. And I wrote a lot: at least 40 publicly available articles and reports.

Of all that writing, here’s the 20 pieces I’m proudest of at the end of the year. Many of these have co-authors who deserve most of the credit.

(And remember that I’m just one of several people working just as intensely at WOLA right now. Please support us with a donation so we can keep it up in 2018.)

  1. Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs,” with Sarah Kinosian at WOLA’s website, April 27, 2017.
    It took a couple of years, but I built a huge database of 107 programs that the U.S. government uses to aid foreign militaries and police forces. This report highlights the main findings. And in 188 pages (!) it describes each program and how to find out more about it.
  2. ‘Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face,’in English at this site and in Spanish at El Espectador, October 28, 2017.
    A wide-ranging interview about U.S. policy toward Colombia, conducted over e-mail, with journalist Cecilia Orozco at the country’s second-most-circulated daily.
  3. Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System,” at WOLA’s website, November 29, 2017.
    An explanation of seven big concerns with Colombia’s post-conflict system for dealing with the worst human rights abusers. As a non-lawyer trying to explain this in plain English, this was hard for me to write but I think it turned out well.
  4. Mexico’s Southern Border – Security, Central American Migration, and U.S. Policy,” with Maureen Meyer and Hannah Smith at WOLA’s website, June 29, 2017.
    We visited the Mexico-Guatemala border, where Tabasco abuts the Petén, in February. Here is what we learned.
  5. We’re Not Binge-Watching Netflix.” At this site, July 31, 2017.
    A heartfelt objection to the notion, voiced by Gen. John Kelly and other Trump officials, that American citizens have no standing to question what their military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are doing.
  6. Confronting Colombia’s Coca Boom Requires Patience and a Commitment to the Peace Accords,” at WOLA’s website, March 13, 2017.
    Written in anticipation a U.S. announcement that Colombian coca-growing had jumped again in 2016. The message here is “the reasons for this are complicated—don’t blame it on the peace process and don’t insist on a return to spraying herbicides over places where people live.”
  7. Lessons from San Diego’s Border Wall,” with Maureen Meyer at WOLA’s website, December 14, 2017.
    I started writing this as a brief memo about the ridiculousness of the border-wall prototypes the Trump administration was building outside San Diego. But by drawing on things we learned during a May visit to San Diego and Tijuana, I ended up ballooning it into a good report.
  8. Why What’s Happening in Honduras Matters,” at this site, December 16, 2017.
    Why it’s so tragic that the U.S. government failed to take a stand against “illiberal democracy” after Honduras’s botched election.
  9. The Most Important Trends in Colombia’s Drug Policy, Explained,” at WOLA’s website, September 12, 2017.
    I wrote this as a memo to Senate staff before a hearing on Colombia’s drug policy. Maybe because it’s so brief, it was the piece about which I heard the most positive feedback all year.
  10. Four Common Misconceptions about U.S.-bound Drug Flows through Mexico and Central America,” at WOLA’s website, June 20, 2017.
    This brief compilation of data about how drugs are actually getting to the United States also got a lot of positive comments and web traffic.
  11. President Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda: Tracking Where Things Stand in Congress,” at WOLA’s website, first posted September 13, 2017 and last updated December 20, 2017.
    One day I had a bright idea: “why don’t we make a web resource with the most up-to-date information about current legislation on the border wall, Border Patrol and ICE increases, and DACA?” Many, many hours later, we published this resource, which I’ve since updated several times to reflect the latest changes on Capitol Hill.
  12. Senate Reverses Most of Trump Administration’s Proposed Cuts in Latin America Assistance,” at WOLA’s website, October 5, 2017.
    Goes over U.S. aid to Colombia, Central America, and Mexico in 2016, 2017, and, for 2018, the Trump White House proposal, the House bill, and the Senate bill. As there’s no 2018 budget yet, this is still current.
  13. Colombia’s peace accords point the way to a solution. But will they be implemented?” at the Brookings Institution Order From Chaos blog, April 28, 2017.
    In which I worry about the short-term, quick-fix nature of Colombia’s post-conflict approach to coca cultivation.
  14. Throwing Money at the Wall: An Overview of the Trump Administration’s Border Wall Funding Requests,” at WOLA’s website, March 31, 2017.
    A one-stop compendium of everything we knew at the time about Trump’s border-wall plans, how much they’d cost, and why they were a big waste of money.
  15. Menos plata de Trump para la paz de Colombia: ¿qué tanto hay que preocuparse?” at Colombia’s Razón Pública, June 5, 2017.
    In discussing the Trump White House’s proposed 2018 aid cut and why it probably won’t succeed, I give a thorough rundown of what’s actually in U.S. aid to Colombia right now.
  16. How to Protect DACA While Actually Securing the Border,” at WOLA’s website, September 13, 2017.
    In which I say, “OK, you want to look tough on securing the U.S.-Mexico border? Here are some smart things you can do.”
  17. Four Common Misconceptions about Increasing the Size of the U.S. Border Patrol,” at WOLA’s website, September 13, 2017.
    So much coverage of Trump’s border proposals have focused on the “wall.” But he also wants to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. This shows why that’s a lousy idea.
  18. Some of the Many Reasons Why the United States Should Keep Supporting Colombia’s Peace Accord,” at WOLA’s website, January 27, 2017.
    I couldn’t believe I was finding myself having to explain why “a war stopping is good.” But we were in the first week of the Trump administration, and the new Secretary of State was voicing doubts about whether Colombia’s peace process was something the U.S. government should “continue to support.”
  19. What is the ‘Trump Effect’ on Migration? It’s Too Early to Draw Conclusions,” at WOLA’s website, April 17, 2017.
    Notable mainly because I correctly predicted that, after plummeting following Trump’s inauguration, U.S.-bound migration would “return to a level that is a rough average of the current extremely low amount and late 2016’s extreme highs.” That’s where we are now.
  20. Priorities for 2018,” at this site, December 22, 2017.
    I just posted this yesterday: a reflection on the issues that will probably dominate work on defense and security in Latin America next year.

Priorities for 2018

(2,245 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 58 seconds)

At work, my title is “director for defense oversight.” Work is the Washington Office on Latin America, an effective, growing think-tank-advocacy-organization. It promotes human rights and democracy in U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere.

That means I pay attention to the whole region, not a single country. It means I focus on issues that concern the region’s security forces. This is a hemisphere of young democracies, many of them a generation out from military rule. These democracies all include institutions that carry guns and are authorized to use lethal force. I care about how these military, police, border, and intelligence forces get put to use. I care about what happens when they come in contact with populations. I care about how elected civilians manage to direct them, fund them, and hold them accountable. And I care about the role of the United States, by far the region’s number-one provider of military and police aid.

From that perspective, looking over the region from 30,000 feet as a new year approaches, here’s what I’m seeing.

Illiberal democracies

That’s the term (first coined by Fareed Zakaria 20 years ago) to describe populist leaders who maintain the forms of democracy, like regular elections, but are weakening checks and balances and eroding freedoms. Illiberal democrats are on the march in Latin America, and the U.S. role in countering them is uneven and uncertain. (And as countless commentators are pointing out, the United States itself is in a struggle to avoid becoming an illiberal democracy.)

Chávez-Maduro, Evo Morales, and Daniel Ortega are in that category, but so are non-leftists like Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández and candidates like Peru’s Keiko Fujimori or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. (I’m reserving judgment because he governed Mexico City in a technocratic fashion, but it’s easy to find analysts who’d add candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the list.)

Honduras, Chile, and Argentina just had recent presidential or legislative elections. Seven more countries are to have such elections next year, including four of the five largest (assuming Venezuela actually holds elections). Six more will hold presidential votes in 2019. Illiberal candidates will be prominent in some of these.

Honduras should have been a place to make an early stand against this wave of quasi-authoritarians. There, irregularities in voting benefited a pro-U.S. leader who has weakened checks and balances and created a personally loyal military police force. Here, the OAS got it. But the United States has dropped the ball in a big way.

Militaries as police

Throughout Latin America, armed forces play an internal role that would be unthinkable for the U.S. military at home, except in the worst of emergencies. Constitutions allow the armed forces to fight crime, supporting and even supplanting police. But because soldiers receive a different sort of training—the kind necessary to defeat an enemy with maximum force—countries have tended to use them sparingly on the streets.

That’s changing. Mexico’s passage of an internal security law reinforcing the military’s policing role was the most visible in a series of steps taken region-wide to give armed forces more internal security duties. 2017 saw moves in the same direction in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and I’ve got an eye on post-conflict Colombia. (Guatemala may be moving in the other direction.) Militaries behaving more like police are a “thing” in Latin America, and we have to start talking about it like the region-wide trend that it is.

At this rate, 20 years from now Latin America will be full of institutions that call themselves “armed forces”—and have military training and prerogatives—but in fact are national constabularies. De facto carabinieri or gendarmes. There are many risks associated with this. Soldiers, untrained to “protect and serve,” will use excessive force against populations who aren’t a military “enemy.” Soldiers will be just as susceptible to corruption, especially organized-crime corruption, as police. Governments will neglect crucial civilian police functions like community/hotspot policing, criminal investigations, non-abusive interrogation techniques, rules of evidence, and witness protection. And there will be politicization, especially by illiberal-populist leaders, of military hybrid forces mixed in with the population.

Along with policing, we’re also going to see more military involvement in crowd control. As armed forces play more internal roles, they’re going to be confronting more demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, road blockades, and similar. These will respond to corruption scandals, governments’ failures to fulfill promises, episodes of police brutality, land or resource disputes (especially around extractive industries), and disputed elections. Many of the most serious recent state abuses in the region come from tactics used by units charged with crowd control (Venezuela’s National Guard, Colombia’s police ESMAD, Honduras’s PMOP). Militaries’ training offers little guidance for maintaining the peace during these legitimate exercises of freedom of speech and association. Too often right now, forces engage protesters as though they were an enemy.

As the region’s main military aid provider, the United States must (breaking with a long history) discourage the increasing use of militaries as police. Posse comitatus, an 1878 law keeping the military out of internal security except in major emergencies, has served the United States well. We must maintain it at home, where some would give our military more border security, anti-drug, and counter-terror roles, and where some police units are coming to resemble militaries. And we should not aid military units carrying out policing in Latin America.

Confronting “legal” nodes on the transnational organized crime network

U.S. defense and security officials say that transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are the main security threat in Latin America today. And they usually describe TCOs as a loose “network,” which is probably right. This leaderless, amorphous criminal network crosses borders and includes drug traffickers, migrant smugglers, insurgent groups, street gangs, and others who extort and kidnap at home, and move drugs, migrants, and potentially—some officials speculate—terrorists toward the United States.

TCOs are responsible for most abuses committed against civilians right now. Governments have a duty to protect people from them. Human rights groups monitor and denounce abuses that state forces commit when they do that. This is dangerous work.

Even more dangerous, though, is monitoring and denouncing state forces’ collusion with TCOs. Rights groups contend that TCOs get much of their power from the tacit or active support of people in government and other “legitimate” power centers. That can be the security forces, usually at a local level. It can also be local politicians, landowners, judicial officials, extractive industries, and others operating within “legality.”

There are two kinds of corruption: graft, like the Car Wash and La Línea scandals; and collusion with organized crime, like the Ayotzinapa or “para-politics” affairs. The first is a historic stain on Latin America’s politics. The second contributes to the deaths of thousands of people per year.

We see this collusion or acquiescence with TCOs, for instance, all along the cocaine transshipment chain: drug seizures are curiously scarce on land in Colombia’s Pacific coast, in Honduras, or in Mexican border states like Tamaulipas. (Local human rights advocates could tell you why, if they haven’t been obliterated already.) We know Brazil’s PCC owes much of its existence to corruption in the São Paulo police and prison system.

There are many more examples, but denouncing and documenting them are dangerous. Whistleblowers, human rights defenders, and judicial officials trying to do so should be upheld as the vanguard in the fight against TCOs. Too often, though, “counter-TCO” forces’ relationship with them is adversarial.

Worse, when the U.S. government considers a country to be “friendly,” it rarely talks about this dangerous organized-crime corruption. But we need to be talking about it.

Proving that peace processes are worth pursuing

An international diplomat involved in global peacemaking recently commented to me that insurgent groups involved in armed conflicts around the world are watching Colombia closely right now. They ask, did it make sense for the FARC to disarm first? Is Colombia’s government going to honor its commitments to protect them, reintegrate them, and guarantee transitional justice, political participation, and investment in the countryside? Or is the government going to, in effect, dash out of the restaurant without paying the check? If this happens, what consequences might the government suffer? And if there aren’t any, is a negotiated end to conflict even worth pursuing in their own countries?

Peace processes are messy. None has worked so well that other countries should emulate it exactly. Still, every one that has “stuck”—ended fighting and demobilized combatants—has been superior to the alternative of slogging through a stalemated conflict.

The question of whether it’s wiser to negotiate or keep fighting everywhere doesn’t exactly hang on what happens in Colombia. But the Colombian case will heavily influence how peace processes are regarded from now on. The prognosis is cloudy: with legislative and presidential elections and a growing elite backlash against the FARC accord, 2018 is going to be a strange and difficult year for Colombia’s peace effort.

I have urgent concerns about Colombia’s accord implementation right now: the government is running badly behind in many areas, and failing to fill territorial vacuums in historically FARC-influenced regions. But these concerns are not an argument to abandon the process. Instead, I worry that without more resources and political will—in Washington as well as in Bogotá—the accord won’t “stick.”

Governing ungoverned territories

Colombia’s formerly-FARC-influenced zones need a state presence. So does Peru’s Apurimac Ene and Mantaro Valley (VRAEM), home to what’s left of the Shining Path. Same for Honduras’s far eastern coast, where tons of cocaine shipments easily make landfall. The poppy-growing highlands of Guerrero, Mexico. Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and other urban slums region-wide. Remote border zones. The rapidly deforesting Amazon basin.

Areas like these are where most of Latin America’s violence happens. They are the drug trafficking corridors. They’re havens for armed groups. They’re where migrants get assaulted, rivers get poisoned, and gangs terrorize populations. They produce most illicit crops, most illicitly mined precious metals, and most illicitly logged timber. They’re where most migrants leave from, and where most small farmers, indigenous people, and Afro-Latinos are displaced from.

They’re places that governments haven’t bothered to govern. And when they have, it’s mostly been though a sporadic presence of uniformed, armed personnel and the occasional corrupt local political boss.

What is it going to take to get a functioning government presence into these territories? Colombia’s “Consolidation” program and Rio’s “Favela Pacification” effort both stumbled because they ended up being largely military/police affairs. For the most part, the rest of the government—and the basic services it provides—failed to show up.

How can future approaches go beyond security to provide roads, land titles, clean water, education, health, and a safety net? How can politicians be made to care about these territories even though they have so few voters and donors? How can local communities best be included in the plan, so it’s not just handed down from the center? How can the justice system guarantee that government representatives, once present in these zones, don’t engage in corruption and abuse human rights with impunity? How to make sure that people who live there will have the skills and resources to govern without a constant need for “outside experts?”

Colombia right now is where these issues are immediate. The FARC are off the map, offering a historic window of opportunity to bring government into vast territories without a fight. And the peace accord offers at least a rough blueprint for establishing what some in the Santos government call “territorial peace.” Anyone interested in the “governing ungoverned territories” question should keep a close eye on post-accord Colombia.

Ending unnecessary and large-scale human suffering caused by deliberate policies

That’s the best way I can think to describe this. Four phenomena come immediately to mind, in which deliberate action by humans in power is causing great harm to other humans:

  1. The Trump administration’s current immigration and border security policies, and the even worse ones it’s proposing. These deliberately seek to tear parents away from children, to deny protection to people fleeing for their lives, and to pack corporate-run detention centers with human beings.
  2. The Venezuelan government’s corrupt misrule. Children dying. Police executing thousands. Hunger, blackouts, shortages, and inflation. And any efforts at peaceful change thwarted.
  3. A drug policy that continues to pack prisons with low-level offenders, to penalize impoverished farmers for growing certain plants, and to artificially jack up products’ prices. The high prices go on to enrich criminals, who come to power by being more brutal than their rivals, or by being more effective at corrupting and undermining institutions.
  4. Any list of “suffering caused by deliberate policies” should also include human-caused climate change, which isn’t quite a regional defense issue right now, but could become one soon.

That’s a full enough list. It promises to be a tough year for my “defense oversight” work in Latin America. The exercise of writing this was helpful for me, though. Addressing challenges sometimes requires climbing to a higher perch, looking down, and naming them. That’s done now, at least in the rough-draft form of this post.

17 Remarkable Latin America Reads From 2017

Corruption scandals, organized crime, democratic weakening, and an unhelpful new administration in Washington made this a tough year for Latin America. Through it all, journalists and non-governmental organizations were on top of their game.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and there’s a bias towards coverage of things I didn’t know before. But here are just 17 articles and reports that really stuck with me this year.

  1. Ginger Thompson at ProPublica and National Geographic: “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” June 12, 2017.
    A Mexican police unit working closely with the DEA leaked sensitive information to the Zetas in 2011. The Zetas used it to massacre dozens, possibly hundreds, in a town near the U.S. border. The DEA did nothing. With photos and recordings from many witnesses—including ex-Zetas and U.S. officials—Thompson reconstructs the horror and what U.S. drug warriors must learn from it. And today, she just published another account of a DEA-linked Zetas massacre, in Monterrey in 2010.
  2. Azam Ahmed and Nicole Perlroth at The New York Times: “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families,” June 19, 2017.
    The Times broke the story of the Peña Nieto government’s misuse of spyware to hack the mobile phones of human rights defenders and journalists, including the OAS team of international experts who were investigating the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre.
  3. Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson at Revista Factum: “En la Intimidad del Escuadrón de la Muerte de la Policía,” August 22, 2017.
    Given a presidential green light to use all means to combat gangs, some of El Salvador’s police have been acting like death squads, carrying out extrajudicial executions of people they believe are gang members. The investigation reveals pages of WhatsApp conversations between cops celebrating their killings.
  4. Sarah Chayes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “When Corruption Is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras,” May 30, 2017.
    Chayes puts Honduras’s kleptocratic networks under a microscope, showing how they penetrate all corners of political and economic power. Reading this makes the feeble U.S. response to its “ally” all the more maddening.
  5. Maye Primera at El Faro and Univisión: “El Salvador, a country sown with death,” October 29, 2017.
    Fourth in a remarkable four-part series about the migrant trail from Central America’s Northern Triangle to Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. Should dispel any doubt that a large portion of Central American migrants arriving in the United States right now are fleeing for their lives.
  6. Emma Graham-Harrison at The Guardian: “Downward Spiral: How Venezuela’s Symbol of Progress Became Political Prisoners’ Hell,” September 15, 2017.
    Caracas’s “Helicoide” building was a symbol of Venezuela’s 1950s optimism and modernism. It later became a torture center for political prisoners, and remains a prison today—as well as the decaying headquarters of the intelligence services. What a metaphor.
  7. Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, María Victoria Llorente, Andrés Cajiao, and Juan Carlos Garzón V. at Fundación Ideas para la Paz: “Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición: radiografía necesaria,” July 15, 2017.
    The most thorough exploration of Colombia’s post-conflict security challenges throughout the territory. The FIP packed this report with graphics, maps, and recent information based on field research.
  8. Ximena Suárez-Enríquez and Maureen Meyer at WOLA: “Overlooking Justice – Human Rights Violations Committed by Mexican Soldiers against Civilians are Met with Impunity,” November 7, 2017.
    As Mexico approves a law cementing in place the military’s role in internal policing, WOLA documents an ominous fact: according to judicial records, Mexican soldiers who violate human rights are almost never punished.
  9. Misha Glenny at The Intercept: “One of Rio de Janeiro’s Safest Favelas Descends Into Violence, the Latest Sign of a City in Chaos,” September 25, 2017.
    Rocinha, a giant favela looming over some of Rio’s wealthiest beachfront neighborhoods, is getting very violent again. Glenny, who wrote a book last year about Rocinha and its organized-crime boss Nem, documents the sad deterioration of Rio’s “favela pacification” program.
  10. Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk at Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego: “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016,” March 2017.
    The geography, the principal actors, and chronological trends in Mexico’s organized-crime violence. A detailed, graphical overview from people who’ve been following this for years.
  11. Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson and Steven Dudley at InsightCrime: “Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima,” January 26, 2017.
    A compelling story and an inside look at the late Guatemalan Army Captain, the corrupt, murderous military faction he represented, and how he used his ties to state power and the criminal underworld to thrive while serving a prison term for helping to murder a bishop.
  12. Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera at The New York Times: “As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” December 17, 2017.
    A difficult read—and even harder photos to view—illustrating the savage result of the Venezuelan government’s ineptitude, dictatorial misrule, and epic corruption.
  13. Alex Yablon at The Trace: “American Guns Drive the Migrant Crisis That Trump Wants to Fix With a Wall,” May 25, 2017.
    Thousands of guns sold legally in the United States are pouring into Central America, arming the criminal groups who, in turn, are forcing thousands of Central Americans to flee to the United States.
  14. Michael Smith, Sabrina Valle, and Blake Schmidt at Bloomberg Businessweek: “No One Has Ever Made a Corruption Machine Like This One,” June 8, 2017.
    “Follow the money” stories are often hard to read because they’re so complicated. Shell companies, offshore banking, and similar mechanisms are hard to understand. This one isn’t hard to read: it’s a well-told walkthrough of Brazil’s massive Odebrecht scandal.
  15. Héctor Silva Ávalos at InsightCrime: “Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade,” June 7, 2017.
    The coca and cocaine heartland of Colombia’s Pacific coast in the aftermath of the FARC peace accord, as seen through the sharp eyes of a highly regarded Salvadoran journalist .
  16. Alexis Okeowo at The New Yorker: “A Mexican Town Wages Its Own War on Drugs,” November 27, 2017.
    The story of Nestora Santiago, who organized a civilian “self-defense” force in a small town in the opium-poppy heartland of Guerrero, Mexico. Some residents defend her for making the town safer when corrupt police couldn’t. Others denounce her very real abuses of power, and of human rights.
  17. Lee Fang at The Intercept: “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians are Remaking Latin American Politics,” August 9, 2017.
    The Atlas Network has a lot of resources, and it’s been backing a growing network of small-government, free-market-fundamentalist think-tanks around Latin America, a region that already has the world’s most lopsided concentration of wealth.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Orlando Sierra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images photo at The New York Times. Caption: “The police used tear gas and a water cannon on Monday to disperse the supporters of Salvador Nasralla during protests in Tegucigalpa.”

(Even more here)

December 20, 2017


El embajador de China en Bolivia, Liang Yu y el ministro de Defensa Reymi Ferreira, firmaron el miércoles un protocolo de donación de material logístico a las Fuerzas Armadas (FF.AA.) por un valor de 50 millones de yuanes (equivalente a unos 7,6 millones de dólares)


El padre Francisco de Roux, presidente de la comisión, encabezó una reunión de esa instancia con el ministro de Defensa, Luis Carlos Villegas; el comandante de las Fuerzas Militares, general Alberto Mejía, y los comandantes

Cuando la Defensoría emita una alerta temprana de “riesgo de inminencia” el Gobierno tendrá que actuar en un plazo máximo de 48 horas. El decreto ya está siendo ejecutado

Estas son algunas cifras que vale la pena tener en mente de estos 81 días de tensa calma

La Oficina en Colombia del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos también manifestó su preocupación por las palabras del Ministro de Defensa y las calificó de peligrosas

De acuerdo con nuestro trabajo en terreno, la Oficina ha verificado durante este año y hasta hoy 20 de diciembre, en el caso de defensores de derechos humanos y líderes un total de 105 homicidios

Colombia, Venezuela

The flood of vendors is evidence of how a fourth year of recession – which has fomented malnutrition, disease and violent crime – is tearing Venezuela’s social fabric apart


“We are alarmed by the illegal and excessive use of force to disperse protests, which have resulted in the deaths of at least 12 protesters and left dozens injured. Hundreds of people have also been detained, many of whom have been transferred to military installations where they have been brutally beaten and subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment”

The United States appears to have thrown its weight behind President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras

“At this point … we have not seen anything that alters the final result,” the official told reporters, saying Washington may wait to make a definitive judgment in case the opposition presents additional evidence of fraud

Honduras, Mexico

Mexico’s announcement was brokered in coordination with the United States, two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said


The former deputy, Alejandro Gutiérrez, is one of several allies of Mexico’s president suspected of taking part in an embezzlement scheme to propel his party’s chances


Mr. Kuczynski has handled the Odebrecht affair poorly, but his removal would do only more damage to Peruvian democracy

On Thursday, Mr. Kuczynski will have 60 minutes to defend himself before the country’s Congress. His critics say they could oust him by the weekend — and that they have the votes

A joint operation of Peru’s military and security agencies neutralized and captured narcoterrorists in the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers Valley


Lawmakers adopted a decree declaring that political parties that want to participate in coming elections must have been active in previous ones

Her office recorded the slayings of 8,292 people by the police, the National Guard, the army and Venezuela’s version of the FBI, from 2015 through the first six months of this year

Oscar Perez, a rogue Venezuelan police pilot wanted for lobbing grenades and shooting at government buildings in June, claimed responsibility for the attack, which he called “Operation Genesis”

Some articles I found interesting this morning

AFP photo at BBC (UK). Caption: “Algunos voceros del oficialismo dicen que la violencia es generada por grupos minoritarios cercanos al kirchnerismo.”

(Even more here)

December 19, 2017


Hacia la mitad de la tarde, los enfrentamientos entre fuerzas de seguridad y manifestantes despejaron la protesta y convirtieron la Plaza del Congreso en un campo de batalla


Imagine if a single corruption investigation and its offshoots netted Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush and you begin to get the picture


“Chile is saved!” Mr. Piñera supporters chanted on the streets of Santiago, the capital, on Sunday night, where one man savored the moment by holding up a bust of the dictator Augusto Pinochet


Colombian military sources told InSight Crime that the forced eradication figures from this year may have been inflated to make the efforts seem more successful than they actually were

Además de la petición del Ministerio Público, organizaciones sociales que se reunieron ayer en el Ministerio del Interior también pidieron a los entes de control solicitar a Villegas que presente las pruebas

El Salvador

The deadlock between a tarnished set of security policies and a gang phenomenon that thrives on the ostracism and contempt of mainstream Salvadoran society can only now be resolved by recasting the way the country treats its security dilemmas


The story here isn’t the machinations President Hernández and his henchmen have used in this election. It’s the acceptance of those machinations by the State Department and the American Embassy

Orlando J. Pérez and Mitchell A. Seligson

Washington is caught in a characteristic tangle

The U.S. and OAS must quickly come together and act as the arbiters for this political standoff. There are few options that will be palatable to both sides, the most likely of which will be either a full recount or even a reelection


On Dec. 14 the Chamber of Deputies voted to make it illegal for citizens to publish corruption accusations online if the allegations could damage the target’s credibility – even if those allegations turn out to be true

A decade-long struggle by 11 women who were sexually attacked and tortured by officers in San Salvador Atenco has cast a shadow over Mexico’s president

Treinta y nueve periodistas fueron víctimas de homicidio, este año en todo el mundo, por hacer su labor, según un informe de Reporteros Sin Fronteras; casi un tercio de ellos –once reporteros– fueron asesinados en México

Perez, 34, covered crime for a number of local outlets, had founded the online news site La Voz del Sur and also worked for the local government in some capacity

Where some see a wave of terror, Colombia’s Defense Minister sees “skirts”

Throughout Colombia’s countryside, especially in areas of longtime influence of the former FARC guerrillas, leaders of social organizations are living in fear. Every few days, somewhere in the country, a land-rights claimant, a participant in a crop substitution program, a campesino organizer, or a leader of an ethnic community is murdered. It’s a huge threat to the viability of Colombia’s fragile peace.

On Saturday, Colombia’s Noticias Uno television program ran an interview with the country’s defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, who oversees both the military and the national police. An English transcript of his comments is below the video.

Villegas voiced doubt about whether social leaders’ killings are really a problem. He said that most of the murders have been about disputes between neighbors over property lines, or lovers’ quarrels (or as he put it, “skirts”).

Minister Villegas’ comments call into question his ability to do his job as a top protector of the Colombian people. His insistence on the lack of a single “organization” or entity that might be behind the killings reveals a basic misunderstanding of how organized crime works. Rather than a single body, it is a loose network, one that often includes individuals, like landowners or government officials, who operate from “legality.”

Villegas also reveals a lack of interest in protecting vulnerable people who, with the peace accord, now hope to practice politics free of fear. Instead, the implicit message here is, “you’re on your own.”

Noticias Uno: In dialogue with Noticias Uno, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas referred to the recent killings of social leaders in the country. The high official rejected that their deaths might be related to their claims.

Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas: I run the risk of generating many comments for what you’re about to hear from me.… There have been cases from [committed by] the ELN, and there have been cases from the FARC, I leave those apart. The rest have been, in their immense majority, the result of an issue with land boundaries, of an issue about skirts [women], of an issue with unmet demands, of an issue with a fight over illicit incomes.

NU: While he clarified that this issue is of concern to the national government, the Defense Minister affirmed that there is no armed group going after leaders.

LCV: One of every two killings today has a judicial explanation.… There is no organization behind this killing leaders.

NU: In addition, for Villegas, the government is convinced that there is no increase in murdered leaders out in the provinces.

LCV: It isn’t that the killings of social leaders suddenly appeared. It’s that perhaps what’s appeared is the measurement of this phenomenon.

NU: While social leaders count 104 leaders assassinated this year, Villegas affirms that the real total is about 50.

LCV: I would be the first to denounce a systematic pattern. If I had any information that there is an organization, a person, a body dedicated to killing leaders in Colombia, I would be the first to come out and say it.

NU: It’s calculated that this year, another 300 leaders have received death threats.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Colombian National Army photo at Diálogo (U.S. Southern Command). Caption: “The Colombian Armed Forces trigger controlled explosions to neutralize dredges used for illegal mining.”

(Even more here)

December 18, 2017


The decisive 9-point victory, which came as a surprise because recent polls had suggested the race was a tossup, showed that millions of Chileans saw Mr. Piñera as best suited to jump-start economic growth


No es menor este avance, pues durante años se consideró que los uniformados, en especial el Ejército, habían sido muy renuentes a ponerle punto final al conflicto con las Farc a través de un diálogo político

La Silla lo revisó y encontró que de los 61 políticos señalados (además de 12 candidatos de la Farc que vienen de ser guerrilleros), 2 no son hasta hoy candidatos al Congreso y en 34 casos la información es imprecisa

The Colombian Armed Forces conducted a coordinated operation against illegal mining along the Atrato, Quito, and San Pablo rivers, in the department of Chocó

El ministro de Defensa, Luis Carlos Villegas, sostiene que la “inmensa mayoría” de muertes de líderes sociales se deben a peleas de vecinos, faldas y por rentas ilícitas y que, si fueran homicidios sistemáticos, él sería el primero en denunciarlos


Some 15,410 Cuban nationals arrived to the United States in fiscal year 2017, and just 160 have been removed from the country


El Comisionado Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Honduras, que depende del gobierno, indicó que entre los fallecidos hay dos policías y que 1,675 personas han sido detenidas

Electoral observer OAS voices doubts about ‘low-quality’ election process that does little to clear up critics’ doubts

There are no conditions to affirm that the winner is one or the other, and this shows that this process has been affected by marked irregularities and deficiencies, by the violence of one side or the other before, during and after the election

The election result creates a dilemma for the Trump administration, which has pressed in public for a transparent vote count but said nothing about irregularities

La oposición ha rechazado los resultados argumentando que la revisión no se hizo de acuerdo con los estándares solicitados


Critics say the law could be abused easily for political purposes, while others working in human rights warn the law allows soldiers to stop peaceful protests

Mexico’s Congress hastily approved the Law of Internal Security, which gives the military broad new powers and solidifies its central role in the country’s drug war

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) may take legal action

Congress just slashed its budget by 300 million pesos ($16 million) — the largest cut in the agency’s history, right before the largest election in the nation’s history

Planteó este domingo un decálogo de 10 acciones básicas contra la inseguridad, como mejorar el sueldo de soldados, marinos y policías, además de insistir en el tema de la amnistía


Odebrecht paid $782,000 in advisory fees to Westfield Capital, a company Mr. Kuczynski owns. Most of the payments occurred between 2004 and 2007, while Mr. Kuczynski served as Peru’s economy minister


For five months, The New York Times tracked 21 public hospitals in Venezuela. Doctors are seeing record numbers of children with severe malnutrition. Hundreds have died

Why what’s happening in Honduras matters

State Department briefing: QUESTION: Honduras, please. MS NAUERT: Yes. QUESTION: Thank you. You guys haven’t really said much since the certification, and 14 people have been killed, and the violence continues, the elections results still not calculated. But your charge has been appearing in public with the government’s side and seems to have, in the eyes of many, taken the government’s side. Do you have anything to say about that? And you’re willing to criticize Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, but not Juan Orlando Hernandez, who’s been a good ally of the White House. MS NAUERT: Yeah, I -- QUESTION: There’s a lot of question about why you’ve not been more vocal about what’s going on in Honduras. MS NAUERT: I can tell you – well, first let me say I’m not aware of our charge’s schedule. So I don’t know and I can’t confirm if he had the -- QUESTION: She. MS NAUERT: -- she, pardon me; thank you – if she had the meetings or showed up at certain places that you mention. It’s obviously a post-election situation there. We know that monitors have covered it. The election observers are still evaluating that situation. So I think until we know more about the results of all that, we’re just going to refrain from commenting on it. QUESTION: Not about the violence or anything? MS NAUERT: Well, any time that there is violence from any side, we would always encourage people to not act violently. We would call for peaceful demonstrations, if people were to demonstrate; that is an area that is a huge concern of ours. But in terms of commenting on the elections and the results, we’re just going to hold off until we can get that better figured out. Okay?

What is even happening here?

(1,436 words, 5 minute 44 second reading time)

When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was already studying and following the U.S. role in Latin America. Back then, at the sunset of the Cold War and the Reagan presidency, the deal was clear. If you were a dictator in the hemisphere, the United States would support you as long as you were pro-free market and U.S-friendly. There was a period during the Carter administration when that wasn’t as true, but the Reagan years made it truer than ever.

During the years I was in school, that started to become less of an iron law. In 1988, Washington urged Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to respect the result of the plebiscite that removed him from power. In 1989, U.S. troops kicked out Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; while no big-stick invasion like this should ever be repeated, it was unusual to see the U.S. government act against a right-wing dictator—a former ally—after he denied an election result. The Clinton administration’s 1994 support for restoring deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a remarkable shift, as the coup government was more pliant to U.S. business interests than was Aristide.

Pro-U.S. leaders with authoritarian tendencies or bad human rights records still got a pass, to a point (Fujimori in Peru, Uribe in Colombia). But for a good twenty-plus years in Latin America, Washington’s support wasn’t guaranteed.

It’s heartbreaking to see that changing, fast, in our new era of “illiberal democracies” (a category that may now include our own). Once elected, illiberal leaders make populist appeals while undoing institutional checks and balances. It becomes very hard to remove them from office, and after a while the democracy loses even its forms and people lose basic freedoms. We see these tendencies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua (not to mention Turkey, Hungary, or the Philippines), but also among non-leftists like Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras and candidates like Peru’s Keiko Fujimori and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

In June 2009, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Washington. At the time, the ardently pro-U.S. leader was pushing hard to change Colombia’s constitution to allow him to pursue a third term in office, which would have disfigured the country’s democracy. By gently but firmly voicing disapproval at a White House appearance, President Barack Obama dealt a solid blow to Uribe’s aspirations. This was another milestone in the inconsistent, but real, trend of U.S. support for democracy over blind fealty.

It may have been its high-water mark, even: the trend was about to undergo a withering setback. Obama’s exchange with Uribe happened one day after a military-backed coup in Honduras deposed elected president Manuel Zelaya, the biggest single democratic reversal since the 2001 adoption of the OAS Democratic Charter. (Venezuela, too, suffered an unsuccessful coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, and a thousand tiny moves by Chávez himself to chip away at democracy. But the Honduran coup was a single, successful blow.)

President Obama opposed that coup for a few months. All U.S. security aid was cut off, though his administration would not trigger a law making the cutoff irreversible by calling it a “military” coup. By October 2009, though, his administration caved, saying it would respect the result of November elections that elected a Zelaya opponent who had backed the coup. This ended pressure for Zelaya’s removal and legitimized an election campaign carried out in a climate of post-coup fear and intimidation. The coup plotters won.

They won, to a significant degree, thanks to a well-funded lobbying campaign in Washington. Coup president Roberto Micheletti’s paid shills found a staunch ally in Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). The archconservative senator put holds on two of the new administration’s diplomatic nominations, leaving it without an assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere or an ambassador to Brazil.

By 2016, Jim DeMint was elsewhere: he had left the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, the giant conservative policy research organization that CNN and others called “Trump’s think tank.” The group DeMint headed (he left Heritage this year) drafted many of what would become the Trump administration’s policy proposals. In other words: the small but vocal sector of Washington that openly supported the 2009 Honduras coup is now running U.S. foreign policy.

Because of that, the idea of standing up to pro-U.S. authoritarians was already foundering after Trump’s inauguration. In May, Trump’s secretary of state even made explicit that human rights promotion is now a peripheral mission for U.S. foreign policy. “Those are our values. Those are not our policies,” Rex Tillerson told diplomats.

Right now, this reversal is reverberating through Washington’s tepid response to likely election fraud by a pro-U.S. illiberal leader in Honduras. Here are the facts:

  • After packing judicial and electoral bodies with supporters, President Juan Orlando Hernández achieved, in 2015, the right to run for re-election. This is what President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009 for attempting. The Obama administration said little or nothing about this. Honduras is a major source of migration to the United States and transshipment point for cocaine—two phenomena that get worsened by political instability—and Hernández was going along with U.S. plans to address those issues.
  • Initial results of the November 26 election confounded pollsters’ expectations. The election authority, dominated by President Hernández’s party, showed the President losing to center-left challenger Salvador Nasralla by a 5-point margin with 70 percent of the vote counted.
  • Then, counting mysteriously stopped. In a move reminiscent of the PRI’s theft of Mexico’s 1988 presidential vote, electoral authorities blamed a computer glitch. When the count resumed, President Hernández had taken the lead. Credible media outlets reported evidence of vote-rigging.
  • OAS and European Union observer missions would not go along with this. They issued strong statements cautioning the electoral tribunal against announcing a result prematurely, citing “irregularities, errors and systemic problems,” refusing to certify the result without a thorough count, and even holding up the possibility of organizing new elections that might be viewed as legitimate.

The U.S. government has lagged far behind this, taking pains to avoid questioning what has happened since the vote. From a decimated State Department (there is no Senate-approved ambassador or assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere) have come tepid, anodyne, and infrequent statements. Officials have urged calm and called for protesters to avoid violence. They’ve counseled patience with the electoral authorities’ count, and simply encouraged the electoral authority to “address concerns.”

On Wednesday, 17 days after the disputed election, the State Department’s spokeswoman had been given nothing at all to say about Honduras. Not even realizing that U.S. chargé d’affaires Heide Fulton wasn’t a “he,” she told reporters, “In terms of commenting on the elections and the results, we’re just going to hold off until we can get that better figured out. Okay?” Sources in both Honduras and Washington tell me that U.S. diplomats, noting that protests have not been widespread enough to shut down the country, are quietly pushing for a solution that guarantees stability: one that ends the current uncertainty as quickly as possible and cements Hernández’s lead.

It’s shameful to see the U.S. government lagging so far behind the OAS and the European Union in defense of democracy in Latin America. Honduras is a small, poor country of minor strategic importance. But the historical significance is huge. This is a big and sad shift in U.S. policy.

The Trump administration’s silence encourages autocrats and “illiberal democrats” everywhere. The recipe is simple: if you plan to erode democracy, just make some pro-U.S. noises first. The silence also undermines the credibility of any U.S. criticism of adversarial dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela. Charges of a double standard will stick. It’s easy to brush off criticism from a Washington that picks and chooses which authoritarian behavior to oppose and which to ignore.

When I was in college, this was the accepted reality of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Since then, that reality had crumbled, haltingly giving way to something far better, and contributing to 25 years of increased political freedom in the Americas. It’s really upsetting that the U.S. performance in Honduras this month is taking me all the way back to my college years.

The day ahead: December 15, 2017

I’ll be sporadically available all day. (How to contact me)

At 11:00 I’ll be doing a Facebook Live discussion about the U.S.-Mexico border, the first time WOLA has attempted this format. There’s a lot to talk about, so do tune in if you’re able. I have a mid-afternoon meeting with a reporter, and at some point I need an hour or two to write and an hour to review where all my work stands. I’ll be most available when not doing those things, but it’s hard to predict when.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Pablo Jacob photo in O Globo (Brazil). Caption: “Equipamentos para uso de policiais lotados em UPPs são precários”

(Even more here)

December 14, 2017


Se em 2017 a verba de manutenção das UPPs era de R$ 5,4 milhões, para o ano que vem as 38 unidades terão apenas R$ 10 mil. O total, irrisório, equivale a R$ 833 por mês ou R$21/mês para cada uma das UPPs


In the river basins of the Bajo Atrato, the ethnic communities accompanied by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Cijp) have lost two of their most two emblematic leaders in the past 12 days

Entre 1998 y 2005, el 70 por ciento de sus habitantes huyó. Después de años de masacres y desapariciones, los sancarlitanos se enfrentan hoy a la reconciliación en tiempos de paz

Esa declaración de alias ‘Otoniel’ pretende ‘vender’ ante los colombianos la idea de que su organización criminal tiene bases políticas y por ello anuncia una especie de “tregua”


Se sustentó en la acusación de la Fiscalía respecto a que Glas recibió unos U$13,5 millones en sobornos por parte de Odebrecht para adjudicar contratos de obra

El Salvador

Durante el estudio, un dato sorprendió a Cruz: muchos pandilleros dijeron que querían dejar la mara. Aunque el experto no es optimista acerca de cómo los gobiernos de la región contrarrestan a estos grupos, cree que ese detalle es una luz al final del túnel

Guatemala, Mexico

The administration’s cynical calculus is that it is less burdensome to “keep them over there.” Yet Trump’s policies may be exacerbating the global refugee crisis and unwittingly bringing it to his doorstep


When the presidential winner is announced, “there needs to be a big social pact, a national dialogue with outside mediation by an international actor”

The administration’s relative silence on last month’s disputed election in Honduras, where a right-wing incumbent and friend of the White House has been accused by opponents of stealing votes, is reminiscent of America’s ideologically driven Cold War policies

The question is whether the United States is willing to overlook a possibly fraudulent election


The White House directed DHS to deny requested pay raises for DHS law enforcement officials in FY 2019

A USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found federal authorities largely fail to count border crossers when their remains are recovered by local authorities, and even local counts are often incomplete

“We are concerned that the bill gives the armed forces a leadership and coordination role in certain circumstances, rather than limiting their role to aiding and assisting civilian authorities,” the experts said

Despite the president’s request, the Senate will likely vote on the bill tomorrow and send it to the lower house of Congress for its final approval by the end of the current legislative session on Friday, December 15

“Las fuerzas armadas en nuestro país erradican más de 94% de los plantíos (de amapola), es una cifra importante que se ha compartido con las autoridades americanas”, dijo

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled to preside but went to lunch instead at the White House with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis

Western Hemisphere Regional

  • Julián Aguilar, Kiah Collier, T. Christian Miller, The Taking (ProPublica, December 14, 2017).

The federal government’s boldest land grab in a generation produced the first border wall — and a trail of abuse, mistakes and unfairness

The contract with a division of Accenture, an international professional services corporation with $35 billion in revenues in 2017, comes at a time when the Border Patrol is struggling to meet minimum staffing levels

The result to date has been a lopsided playing field, where China takes the lead, controls the cash and writes the contracts, many of which are leonine

New Report: Lessons from San Diego’s Border Wall

This is just a blurb. The full report is here: HTML / PDF. I set about writing it at the beginning of the month after we returned from our Texas border trip. This was meant to be just a quick memo about the border-wall prototypes that got built outside San Diego, but blossomed into a full-scale report about the current state of the border in that area.

Border wall prototypes under construction at a CBP site near San Diego, October 21, 2017. (Credit: Mani Albrecht, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs Visual Communications Division)

Right now, on a site near existing border wall outside San Diego, California, eight concrete-and-metal slabs sit awaiting judgment. They are prototypes for the Trump administration’s vision for a border wall that could cost between US$20 billion and US$60 billion to build.

In a new report (HTML / PDF), the Washington Office on Latin America points out that the section of the border where the prototypes sit—Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego sector—is a perfect example of how limited walls, fences, and barriers can be. This sector has 60 miles of border, and 46 of them are already fenced off.

Here, fence-building has revealed a new set of border challenges that a wall can’t fix. The San Diego sector shows that:

  • Fences or walls can reduce migration in urban areas, but make no difference in rural areas. In densely populated border areas, border-crossers can quickly mix in to the population. But nearly all densely populated sections of the U.S.-Mexico border have long since been walled off. In rural areas, where crossers must travel miles of terrain, having to climb a wall first is not much of a deterrent. A wall would be a waste of scarce budget resources.
  • People who seek protected status aren’t deterred by walls. Some asylum-seekers even climbed existing fence at the prototype site while construction was occurring. In San Diego, they include growing numbers of Central American children and families. Last year in the sector, arrivals included thousands of Haitians who journeyed from Brazil, many of whom now live in Tijuana. The presence or absence of a fence made no difference in their decision to seek out U.S. authorities to petition for protection.
  • Fences are irrelevant to drug flows. Of all nine border sectors, San Diego leads in seizures of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and probably fentanyl. Authorities find the vast majority of these drugs at legal border crossings—not in the spaces between where walls would be built. Interdicting more drugs at the border would require generous investment in modern, well-staffed ports of entry—but instead, the Trump administration is asking Congress to pay for a wall.

The border doesn’t need a wall. It needs better-equipped ports of entry, investigative capacity, technology, and far more ability to deal with humanitarian flows. In its current form, the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill is pursuing a wrong and wasteful approach. The experience of San Diego makes that clear.

Read the report: HTML / PDF.

The day ahead: December 14, 2017

I’ll be most available mid-morning and mid-afternoon. (How to contact me)

After two solid days of “off-campus” meetings around Washington, I’ll be back in the office today. I’ve got an internal meeting, a mid-day discussion about Colombia, and a late-afternoon visit from a Mexico-based journalist. In between, I’ll be launching a mid-sized (4,000-word) report on border security, and catching up on correspondence and small tasks accumulated since Monday.

The day ahead: December 13, 2017

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

I’ll be out of the office and away from a keyboard all day today. There’s an NGO human rights roundtable with U.S. Southern Command in the morning and an NGO Colombia human rights consultation with the State Department in the afternoon. While at State, I’ll also drop in on an official who works on Central America. This all means not much access to my phone or computer, so this site won’t get updated.

What 2017’s Migration Statistics Tell Us About Border Security

Cross-posted from 1,045 words (4 min, 21 sec read).

Last week, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released new information telling us what happened at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. The data came in two reports: new statistics about apprehensions of migrants, and CBP’s annual Border Security Report.

This information, plus an annual DEA “threat assessment” report released in October, tells us four things that matter greatly for Congress as it considers the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. That bill would build 74 miles of border wall for $1.6 billion, while adding 500 Border Patrol agents and 1,000 ICE agents.

  1. The president’s promises of a crackdown accelerated a decline in cross-border migration that’s been happening since the beginning of the 21st century.

Border Patrol apprehended 303,916 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. That was the lowest annual total since 1972. This is part of a long-term trend of declining apprehensions at the border. In 13 of the last 16 years (and 9 of the last 10), the annual number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol has consistently ranked lower than the previous three-year average. And according to CBP’s best estimates, the number of migrants who evade apprehension has also been shrinking.

This year saw 26 percent fewer migrants than 2016. The drop began after Donald Trump’s inauguration: February, March, and April saw the fewest monthly apprehensions since at least 2000, when Border Patrol makes monthly records available, and probably since the 1970s.

Analysts have called this the “Trump effect.” Word of mouth about aggressive enforcement and terrorized communities traveled fast. For a few months, smugglers went into “wait and see mode.” Migrants “don’t understand…what’s going on right now in terms of the enforcement and what we’re doing on the border,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in May. “That’s caused them to delay their departure, if you will.”

  1. People who fear for their lives will keep coming. Central America is producing large numbers of such people.

After April 2017, monthly totals of migrant apprehensions stopped dropping. Though the “Trump effect” hasn’t totally faded, the number of apprehensions in September 2017 resembles the number in September 2014, and may continue to increase. WOLA saw over 100 children and families arriving on a late November evening in south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector. Migrant smugglers haven’t gone out of business, and fear continues to drive people from Central America.

The profile of migration has changed. Of those apprehended in 2017, an unprecedented 39 percent were children and members of family units, up from less than 2 percent between 2003 and 2009. The vast majority of these kids and families were from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, and most were asking U.S. authorities for protection from threats back home.

Statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are stark: they report a 20 percent increase in citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras requesting asylum at the border in 2017, compared to 2016. In a year that saw a one-quarter overall drop in migrants, more Central Americans came to request asylum.

Violent crime remains severe in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which had the second, fourth, and seventeenth highest murder rates on earth in 2016. Gangs continue to threaten tens of thousands. Political turmoil, corruption scandals, and human rights crimes intensified in 2017, reducing hope that next year might see improvements.

Central Americans will continue to come to the United States seeking protection next year, no matter what tough measures are in the Homeland Security bill. Instead, legislation should include more resources to process and adjudicate their claims.

  1. Border Patrol agents have less to do. Hiring 5,000 more is harder to justify.

The average Border Patrol agent apprehended 18 migrants this year—one every 20 days, tying a low set in 2011. But unlike in 2011, 39 percent were kids and families. Agents are spending much of their time processing and caring for that population.

With 19,437 agents at the end of fiscal year 2017, Border Patrol staffing shrank for the sixth straight year. This is not due to budget cuts: with 65 percent of applicants failing polygraph tests (nearly double the average for law enforcement agencies), the force has had difficulty replacing those who leave.

The White House has called for hiring 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, starting with 500 in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriation. Rather than growth at a time of vastly reduced migration, the agency should focus on meeting its funded target: that is, hiring approximately 1,600 additional agents to meet the goal of 21,070 agents total. This can only happen if Border Patrol uses  improved screening capacity to speed up the hiring process,while keeping the past few years’ tough screening standards in place.

  1. DEA drug seizure numbers show the importance of ports of entry for drug trafficking groups.

Data on border drug seizures take a while to become public. The Drug Enforcement Administration publicly reported 2016 seizure data in October of this year. It found big increases in border-area seizures of all drugs except cannabis.

This is a problem—but it isn’t a wall-building or Border Patrol issue. As the DEA report explains, all drugs except cannabis primarily cross the border through ports of entry: the legal border crossings. Much less heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, or fentanyl crosses through the rural, isolated areas  between the ports of entry, which is where the White House proposes to build costly walls.

The ports of entry are beleaguered. Wait times are long. The CBP estimates at least another 2,000 officers are needed to best handle the workload at these crossings. Facilities need $5 billion in improvements. Why, then, did the White House’s 2018 budget request specify no increased funding for ports of entry?

In conclusion…

The 2017 numbers are indicative of vastly reduced migration, much greater numbers of children and families requesting protection, and the growing challenge of detecting drug smuggling at ports of entry. None of these trends call for solutions like the building of walls or the hiring of additional Border Patrol agents. Data from the border does not support the new border security measures in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. The problems revealed by these statistics demand a different, smarter approach.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Rebecca Blackwell/AP photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “Mexican soldiers look up toward the president as they ride past the National Palace on Sept. 16, 2016, during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City’s main square, known as the Zocalo.”

(Even more here)

December 11, 2017

Brazil, Venezuela

With limited infrastructure, social services and jobs to offer migrants, Brazilian authorities fear a full-fledged humanitarian crisis


Así, inventando fuentes inexistentes, algunos oficiales consiguieron millonarios recursos

Según la Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, el asesinato hace parte de la operación “Septiembre Negro” de la brigada 17 y las estructuras armadas paramilitares de las AUC

El equipo negociador que designe Santos será fundamentalmente de transición

El enfrentamiento tiene lugar en el municipio de Carmen del Darién, en el departamento de Chocó, y se desarrolla actualmente


Protesters also linked their struggle to U.S. border security and immigration concerns, saying the spike in U.S.-bound migration since 2014 can be blamed on violence and impunity perpetuated by the Hernández administration and his National Party

“They know I won the election but they won’t accept it because they are afraid that my government will be a leftist one”

Honduras, Venezuela

To be credible, the Trump administration should understand that there is no such thing as a “good” dictator


The bill’s opponents also have assailed what they call its vagueness and the possibility that it will result in a lack of transparency about military operations

Emilio Gutierrez, 54, who in October received a press freedom award from the National Press Club in Washington, said he and his 24-year-old son, Oscar, were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Thursday

Puerto Rico

A review by The New York Times of daily mortality data from Puerto Rico’s vital statistics bureau indicates a significantly higher death toll


President Nicolás Maduro said his party won more than 300 of the country’s 335 counties, tightening his grip on Venezuela

Opposition leaders argued that participation in Sunday’s voting would have served only to legitimize Mr. Maduro’s administration

Western Hemisphere Regional

he Texas Highway Patrol, part of the state’s Department of Public Safety, or DPS, has developed a well-oiled deportation machine that scoops up drivers who’ve committed minor traffic infractions

The bigger question for the public is if the agents’ exaggerations in the Tadeo incident were an exception, or if the surging number of reported assaults on CBP officers stem from similar embellishments

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, December 11, 2017

  • 9:00-10:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: China’s Belt and Road: What Role for Latin America? (RSVP required).
  • 10:00-11:30 at CSIS: Beyond Trade: The Costs and Consequences of Exiting NAFTA (RSVP required).
  • 2:00-3:00 at the Council of the Americas: Fighting Corruption in the Western Hemisphere (RSVP required).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

  • 8:00-10:00 at the Wilson Center: North American Competitiveness and the Future of the NAFTA (RSVP required).
  • 10:30-11:30 at Room 2456, Rayburn House Office Building: Tackling Emerging Global Challenges in Mexico’s 2018 Elections: Cybersecurity, Disillusionment and Disinformation (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 at Room 2172, Rayburn House Office Building: Hearing on The Future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (RSVP required).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

  • 3:00-5:00 at the Wilson Center: Is Brazil’s Electronic Voting System Safe from Fraud and Manipulation? (RSVP required).

Thursday, December 14, 2017

  • 9:30-11:00 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Peruvian Politics Under Strain (RSVP required).
  • 12:30-1:30 at WOLA: Securing Peace: Colombia’s ELN Peace Talks (RSVP required).

Friday, December 15, 2017

  • 9:00-10:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: The Trump Administration, Latin America & Energy: Mexico, Natural Gas & LNG Exports (RSVP required).

The day ahead: December 11, 2017

I’ll be somewhat available, but trying to write, in the mid- and late afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got over 22 hours of meetings already on my schedule this week, and 4 1/2 of them are today. I’ll be in a Skype interview with some European investigators, a weekly staff meeting, a call with WOLA supporters to talk border security, and a few check-ins with colleagues.

I should be back in my chair by perhaps 2:00, at which point I’ll be racing to catch up on news and inboxes while writing a memo to Congress about border security.

The week ahead

It’s hard to believe there’s only two more weeks to go before the holidays effectively end 2017. (And, perhaps, before the federal government shuts down for lack of a budget deal—the current deadline is December 22.) I’ll be out visiting family between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so this is my second-to-last week of the year.

I’ll be spending it here in Washington, but with a very full schedule. Tuesday is an all-day human rights conference hosted by U.S. Southern Command. Wednesday is two NGO human rights “roundtables” with the federal government: one in the morning with Southcom, and one on Colombia in the afternoon with the State Department. There are several other meetings and events scattered across my calendar.

When not at those, I’ll be grabbing all available moments to:

  • Release a new report about the U.S. border at San Diego-Tijuana, where big challenges persist that cannot be solved by “the wall.”
  • Complete and distribute a shorter memo to Congress on the migration numbers that came out last week.
  • Make updates to our “tracker” of border and migration legislation.
  • Continue steady work on a big report on post-conflict Colombia.
  • Keep updating our database of military aid programs to reflect changes wrought by the new Defense Department authorization law.
  • Add a few posts to this site.

Five links from the past week

A commendably tough statement from the OAS on the Honduran election crisis, even raising “the possibility of recommending a new call for elections.” It’s a huge shame that the U.S. government hasn’t taken a similarly strong stance.

In laying out the risks associated with the public security law moving through Mexico’s Congress—which would give the military a permanent policing role—the UN office eviscerates arguments in the bill’s favor.

A well-done exploration of “the particular meaning” that coca has for woman-headed coca-growing households in Putumayo, “which is related to their experiences as women and to their link with the territory.”

Anderson gets an interview with Venezuela’s authoritarian leader. “As Maduro’s government loses its capacity to provide handouts, its popularity wanes, but it has developed few realistic options.”


A profile of Sigifredo Ochoa, a former military commander who—for now—remains unaccountable for past human rights violations.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

AP photo. Caption: “Immigrants suspected of crossing into the United States illegally along the Rio Grande near Granjeno, Texas, are held by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents.”

(Even more here)

December 8, 2017


En entrevista con BBC Mundo el mandatario hace un recorrido por todos sus cargos que ha ocupado


El general Ricardo Gómez asegura que reorganización de batallones permitirá fortalecer al Ejército

Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with his Colombian counterpart, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, and a delegation from Mexico in the Caribbean city of Cartagena Thursday

Fue hallado responsable de haber abusado de su cargo como oficial de la Fuerza Pública, de haber engañado a 12 civiles y de haber patrocinado su muerte

Según el Gobierno, esos congresistas están suspendidos bajo la figura de la “silla vacía” y no pueden ser reemplazados. Por tanto, el quórum debía ser calculado en 99 senadores, de los cuales 50 votaron a favor

Su imagen favorable es apenas del 6 por ciento, mientras que su desfavorable es del 63,8 por ciento. Y en intención de voto para las próximas elecciones apenas registró 2,1 por ciento

El Salvador

En una comunidad de San Salvador pandilleros del Barrio 18 obligan a un grupo de mujeres a cuidar a sus hijos mientras ellos, o sus parejas, están en prisión. Negarse implica la muerte

He didn’t look like an ex-colonel with a checkered past, or even like a politician spewing talking points; he had the alacrity of a retiree happy to have something to do

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Border Patrol agents interviewed by The Associated Press say they expect the numbers to keep rising, which they see as a sign that families in Central America are testing the Trump administration

The Northern Triangle’s recent rise in U.S. immigration diverges from the pattern for Mexico, the largest source of U.S. immigrants


The State Department took steps this week to allow Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid while praising the Juan Orlando Hernández administration for “fighting corruption and supporting human rights”

Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the CIA in Honduras, criticized Tillerson for the endorsement of a government that he said has not done enough to protect human rights and for making it during a political crisis


$1.25 million in U.S. security assistance will be withheld from Mexico


The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations paid $900,000 to the Atlantic Council in September with instructions to “promote non-violent conflict resolution” in Venezuela

Western Hemisphere Regional

Of the five countries with the highest death rates in 2016—Syria, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, and Afghanistan—only two had active armed conflicts

The day ahead: December 8, 2017

I’ll only be reachable during the mid-afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got three meetings evenly spaced on the schedule today: one with a visiting Colombian scholar, one with a researcher/activist colleague who is in town, and a small celebration for a longtime co-worker who’s about to have her first baby. In between, I’ll be catching up on smaller tasks, emptying out my inboxes, and putting things in place for some longer stretches of weekend writing about Colombia.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images photo at Univisión. Caption: “Members of Honduras National Police and police officers belonging to COBRA Special Riot Command stand outside the COBRA headquarters as they refuse to crack down on demonstrators in Tegucigalpa, on Dec. 5, 2017.”

(Even more here)

December 7, 2017


Russia has sent Argentina all the necessary materials for taking part in a tender for fighter jets with its Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft


Villegas anunció que para el 2018 la meta de erradicación será de 63.000 hectáreas, de las cuales 23.000 se lograrán a través de apoyo de la Fuerza Pública a la sustitución voluntaria, y 40.000 hectáreas a través de la erradicación forzosa

Tras una reunión de evaluación, señalaron que solo el 7 por ciento de las víctimas registradas y reconocidas como tales – que son cerca de 7 millones– han recibido la indemnización económica

Los jueces han determinado que las ejecuciones extrajudiciales son un crimen relacionado con la guerra, por lo que tiene todos los chances de que la JEP revise sus procesos

Colombia, Venezuela

Entre los otros datos de este fenómeno también llama la atención el número de venezolanos que ven en el país una opción de destino. Estas personas son cerca de 470.000


The Mission reserves the right to make any additional recommendations it deems pertinent on any aspect thereof, without ruling out the possibility of recommending a new call for elections

“I like to think that all the training had an effect. they seem to be acting in defense of the people”

The United States, which wields considerable influence in the country, shares some responsibility for creating the political landscape that laid the ground for the crisis


Zarate may have illegally entered the country on at least three occasions — in February 1998, 2003 and 2009 — using established border checkpoints

The Department of Homeland Security’s announced this week a near-record decline in the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally. Yet the Trump administration still wants to hire thousands of more border agents

The day ahead: December 7, 2017

I’ll be hard to reach today, except for the latter part of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

It was great to have a day to write yesterday. I completed what turned out to be a 4,000-word report on border security, with Trump’s border-wall prototypes and our May trip to San Diego/Tijuana as a jumping-off point. That will be in the WOLA editing process for the next couple of days, but will post it ASAP.

Today is not a writing day. I’ll be meeting with a visiting European diplomat and Skyping with a researcher, both to talk Colombia. I’ve got a dentist appointment (just a cleaning), an internal WOLA meeting, and an early-evening event at my kid’s school. So I may be harder to reach today.

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