Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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December 2017

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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