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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April 2018

Colombia’s Dumbest Trafficker

In mid-March Jeremy McDermott, a longtime investigator of organized crime in the Americas, published a study at the site of InsightCrime, the organization he co-directs. He profiled the thriving new cohort of Colombian drug traffickers, which he calls the “fourth generation” of narcos, or just “the invisibles.”

With the FARC’s and AUC’s exits from the criminal scene, narcotrafficking has been left more exposed than ever, with nowhere to hide. Once identified by national and international authorities, the useful life of an important capo is short, at least unless he is prepared to live as a guerrilla in the jungle, passing from one shack to another every night, and renouncing the comforts and opportunities that a great fortune might offer. That’s why today’s narcotrafficker prefers to hide behind the facade of a successful businessman, avoiding the ostentation and extreme violence that characterized earlier generations.

In an English summary, McDermott added:

Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). …Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle [Colombia’s equivalent of Men’s Wearhouse] than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman.

With Colombia producing record-high amounts of cocaine, there is much money to be made as a drug trafficker today. But unlike past generations, the last thing a trafficker wants to be is high profile. It attracts too much attention.

But that’s exactly what Wálter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” has chosen to do. In just a couple of months, this former FARC fighter has risen from obscurity to be possibly the most sought-after criminal in both Colombia and Ecuador. And it’s all due to his own actions.

Guacho gives a Colombian television interview, which is also a dumb move.

An Ecuadorian citizen from the border province of Esmeraldas, Arizala joined the FARC in 2007. He was a member of the group’s powerful Daniel Aldana Mobile Column, active in Nariño along the Colombia-Ecuador border. There, he specialized in explosives but was also found to be very good at math. He was promoted to management of the Column’s finances in a territory that today is the busiest cocaine superhighway in South America:

Guacho developed contacts with Mexican narcotraffickers who buy and transship cocaine in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. This makes him the classic example of the mid-level guerrilla leader whose demobilization was so important for the peace process to guarantee: someone with contacts in the criminal underworld who would be tempted to abandon the peace process at the first lucrative opportunity. And that’s what he did: when the FARC headed to its demobilization sites in early 2017, Guacho went on the lam.

His “Oliver Sinisterra Front,” named for a FARC colleague killed in 2015, grew very fast, a rapid rise documented by the International Crisis Group’s Kyle Johnson in a piece published this week to Razón Pública. Guacho may now be commanding as many as 450 people. Many of them are former FARC militias in the port city of Tumaco, and many are fresh recruits. His group reportedly controls cocaine labs capable of producing at least 10 tons per month. It is currently the largest in an ever-shifting patchwork of criminal groups fighting for control of Tumaco, whose surrounding municipality (county) has more coca than any other in Colombia.

Guacho and his “front” could have kept a low profile and become quite wealthy, had they followed McDermott’s suggestion to use “plata” much more than “plomo,” seeking to corrupt and penetrate institutions.

Instead, though, they have picked spectacular fights with authorities on both sides of the border.

  • In November 2017, Guacho’s group attacked a checkpoint of Ecuador’s Special Mobile Antinarcotics Group (GEMA) with grenades and gunfire, killing four.
  • In January, it set off a car bomb outside a police station in Guacho’s hometown of San Lorenzo, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. This was an apparent retaliation for an Ecuadorian police raid and search of his mother’s house.
  • In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties.
  • On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing four Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding ten.
  • On April 5, Guacho’s group knocked out an electric tower in Colombia, plunging Tumaco into darkness. This was an apparent retaliation for the Ecuadorian government arresting one of his brothers-in-law. Power lines again went down on April 18.

The most spectacular action, though, was the March 26 kidnapping of two reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, together with their driver. The captives’ plight became daily front page news in Ecuador. The #NosFaltan3 (“we’re missing 3”) hashtag continues to get constant use on social media. Sometime before April 13, Guacho’s group killed Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra on Colombia’s side of the border, under circumstances that have yet to be cleared up. Sometime last week, Guacho’s group kidnapped two more Ecuadorian citizens, Vanesa Velasco Pinargote and Oscar Efrén Villacís Gómez, who remain in custody.

Hostages Rivas, Ortega, and Segarra, murdered sometime before April 13.

From a drug trafficker’s perspective, these are incredibly stupid things to do. The message Guacho has sent is, “look at me, put a target on me, make me a top priority.” And indeed, Colombia and Ecuador have offered a combined reward of more than US$230,000 for information leading to his capture. Using McDermott’s frame, Wálter Arizara is a first or second-generation drug trafficker in a fourth-generation world.

Nine years ago Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo (now the Vice President) said that the authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. Today, a “well behaved” trafficker like one of McDermott’s “invisibles” may hang on for far longer. But for someone like Guacho, who has committed very grave errors, two years sounds like far too long an estimate.

The day ahead: April 25, 2018

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

I’ve tried to steer meetings away from today, so I’m in the office, writing, mostly with the door closed.

I’m getting my backlog of weekly Colombia updates posted—the first week of April went up this morning. These take about 3 hours each—and they’re a necessary exercise to maintain any semblance of being an “expert”on this—but some of my weeks lately haven’t had 3 extra hours, so it’s catch-up time. I hope to post at least one more today and be caught up tomorrow.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Catching up. This is the week of April 1-7.)

Concerns Emerge About Irregularities in Government Peace Fund

Prosecutor-General (Fiscal General) Néstor Humberto Martínez sent a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos alleging corruption and influence-peddling within government agencies administering projects to implement the FARC peace accord.

“According to evidence obtained through technical controls and legal surveillance, it is noted that there exists a network of intermediaries who may be interested in winning project contracts for certain businesspeople or contractors, in exchange for undue economic benefits like percentages of these contracts’ value,” the letter reads. El Tiempo reported that the prosecutor’s office has videos and audios of this network’s members requesting payment for help getting chosen to carry out lucrative infrastructure, agriculture, fish-farming and similar project contracts for ex-combatants or communities affected by the conflict. The same intermediaries, El Colombiano reported, then pay bribes to contracting officials. The corruption extends to firms that oversee and evaluate the contracts.

The Fiscal said he decided to make his office’s investigation public after El Tiempo revealed a letter from the ambassadors of Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland to a vice-minister of the Treasury Ministry. That letter voices concern about the slowness and lack of transparency of contracting for projects funded by the Sustainable Colombia Fund (FCS), a US$200 million “peace checkbook” to which the three governments have contributed.

The ambassadors asked the Treasury Ministry for a meeting to discuss the recent exit of Marcela Huertas, the head of the FCS Technical Consultative Unit, and “the qualifications required for an optimal functioning of the FCS.” It adds, “the experience of recent months has shown that it is necessary to reinforce the functioning of these bodies and compliance with regulations.”

El Tiempo mentions an earlier document from the ambassadors, a confidential memorandum, that is more strongly worded. It refers to a “general concern about the integral management of the Sustainable Colombia Fund.” It calls for “establishing a clear route so that the execution of these resources no longer suffers from delays and occurs in a completely transparent manner.”

The Foreign Ministry pointed out that the ambassadors’ concerns “cannot be interpreted as accusations of corruption in the management of this aid fund’s resources. The comments make reference to procedures, operations, functioning, and compliance with fundamental regulations.” President Santos echoed this point. This is true: only the Fiscal’s letter appears to allege corruption.

The government announced that it would carry out an audit of the Sustainable Colombia Fund as foreseen in the grant agreements with the donor countries. The Comptroller’s Office (Contraloría) and Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría) are also to increase their oversight of peace resources. “The only luxury that the country cannot allow itself is to let the peace process collapse due to poor administration of resources at the hour of its launch,” said Internal Affairs chief (Procurador) Fernando Carrillo, whose office is currently reviewing 1,800 contracts granted so far by the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

El Colombiano notes that the government announced plans to increase post-conflict spending this year by 31.5 percent over last year, to a total of COP$2.4 trillion (US$852 million). The paper cites an estimated 15-year accord implementation cost of COP$128.5 trillion (US$45.6 billion), 86 percent of it (COP$110 trillion) to implement the accord’s rural reform chapter. The rest would go to implementing:

  • The political participation chapter (COP$4.3 trillion / US$1.5 billion);
  • The “end of conflict” chapter, mainly ex-combatant reintegration (COP$1.9 trillion / US$680 million);
  • The illicit crops chapter (COP$8.3 trillion / US$2.9 billion); and
  • The victims chapter, which includes transitional justice (COP$4.3 trillion / US$1.5 billion).

Troubles With FARC Dissidents Continue at Ecuador Border

Two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver remained captive of a former FARC “dissident” armed group somewhere along the Colombia-Ecuador border. Reporter Javier Ortega and photographer Paul Rivas Bravo of Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, along with their driver Efraín Segarra, have been hostages of the so-called “Oliver Sinisterra Front” since March 26. Relatives received a brief proof-of-life video this week.

Many members of this “front” were FARC militia members in the troubled port of Tumaco, Nariño, whose municipality borders Ecuador. The ex-guerrilla group numbers from several dozen to up to 400 members who either failed to demobilize, abandoned the demobilization process, or are newly recruited. Nariño, and Ecuador’s coastal provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabí, comprise what are probably the busiest cocaine trafficking routes in South America. The Oliver Sinisterra group exists mainly to participate in the drug trade, and authorities allege that it is tightly linked to Mexican cartels.

It is headed by Walter Patricio Artízala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian citizen who joined the FARC in 2007. Under his command, the group has carried out high-profile attacks this year: a roadside bomb that killed four Ecuadorian soldiers in Mataje, Esmeraldas; a car bomb against an Ecuadorian police station in San Lorenzo; and an attack on power lines that left Tumaco in the dark for days.

The most dramatic action so far, though, is the kidnapping of the El Comercio group, which is dominating the news in Ecuador. The dissidents captured the reporters while they were working on a story near the border, and have since held them almost totally incommunicado. The reporter’s brother asked that the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments not attempt a rescue mission that might endanger the hostages’ lives. “They shouldn’t take such drastic measures, we prefer a negotiation to risking their lives. We haven’t discussed that with my parents. This is the first case like this in the country, this is something new for us.”

Ecuador is deploying more troops to the border region. Since January, the Colombian armed forces’ Joint Task Force Hercules has included 10,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen deployed in Nariño. Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas told reporters, “We have offered all all support in intelligence, mobility, special forces, and military coordination” to the effort to free the hostages, though he added, “so far we don’t have documentation indicating that the journalists are in Colombian territory.”

Local ELN Leader Killed Upon Crossing from Venezuela

The Colombian military ambushed and killed José Trinidad Chinchilla, a top commander of the ELN’s Luis Enrique León Guerra front in northeast Colombia, as he was passing from Venezuela to Colombia via an unofficial border crossing. The April 1 operation, in a rural part of Tibú, in Norte de Santander’s troubled Catatumbo region, came after “a long intelligence effort, which included four unsuccessful operations,” El Colombiano reported.

Chinchilla, alias “Breimar,” joined the ELN 22 years ago and had long been active in Catatumbo. He was considered the mastermind of a 2012 kidnapping of two German citizens, who were held for five months but eventually released.

“It concerns us that the ELN is planning and carrying out attacks in Colombian territory from Venezuela, both along the Norte de Santander and Arauca borders,” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said in February. The minister alleged that, except for those involved in negotiations in Ecuador, all top ELN leaders are taking refuge in Venezuela, including Gustavo Giraldo alias “Pablito,” the head of the ELN’s Northeastern War Front in Arauca, the guerrilla group’s largest structure. “Pablito” is probably the member of the ELN’s five-person Central Command who is least supportive of negotiations.

Two FARC Members Killed in Less than 48 Hours

Two members of the Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Common People (FARC), the party descended from the demobilized guerrilla group, were killed on April 3 and 4. Nelson Andrés Zapata Urrego, a 32-year-old who was known as “Willinton” during his time in the FARC’s 4th Front, was shot by two masked men who intercepted him in the rural zone of Remedios municipality, Antioquia. In Piamonte, Cauca, an assailant shot 34-year-old Darwin Londoño Bohórquez, once known as “El Loco,” six times while he was eating alone in a restaurant.

According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), 52 demobilized FARC members were killed between January 2017 and March 2018. About 13,000 former FARC members are currently at large throughout the country (including those who have re-armed as dissidents).

Some of those killings, including a multiple murder in Nariño in February, were committed by the ELN. This week, four FARC leaders traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the issue with ELN leaders who are in the city to participate in peace talks with the government. In a video posted to his Twitter account, one of the FARC leaders, Pastor Alape, said, “We agreed to carry out clarification activities and, most important, they guaranteed to us that there is no ELN policy against the FARC.”

Meanwhile in Quito, the fifth round of talks between the government and ELN continues, with the topic shifting to the details of a possible new bilateral ceasefire. “If the agenda is to advance, it requires that the ceasefire be indefinite,” without an end date like a 100-day truce that lasted from October to January, chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell told El Tiempo.

Government Cites Progress in De-Mining

President Santos announced that of 673 municipalities with a presence of landmines, 225 are now mine-free. (Colombia has about 1,100 municipalities, or counties.) “We have advanced to 33 percent of the total,” Santos said. That is the total of municipalities: in fact, de-miners have cleared about 6.08 million square meters (2.35 square miles) of a total of 52 million square meters (20 square miles) believed to be contaminated with mines, laid mostly by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

Sergio Bueno, the director of Colombia’s Department for Integrated Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines (DAICMA), celebrated “a very important reduction” in the number of landmine victims. In 2012, landmines killed or wounded 589 Colombians. That fell to 56 in 2017 and 14 so far in 2018.

The country has increased its de-mining personnel strength from 1,300 to 5,478 trained people. Support for this effort comes from the “Global Demining Initiative for Colombia,” a 23-donor, US$144.5 million fund (including US$42 million pledged so far from the United States).

In-Depth Reading

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 24, 2018

Central America Regional, Mexico

For those seeking asylum, all individuals may be detained while their claims are adjudicated efficiently and expeditiously, and those found not to have a claim will be promptly removed


El general Alberto José Mejía, comandante de las Fuerzas Militares, asegura que la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz será una oportunidad para resolver los procesos penales en contra de los miembros de la fuerza pública

Henry Acosta, quien facilitó los diálogos de paz, afirma que en la Farc hay dos bloques: Márquez- Santrich-Joaquín Gómez, y Timochenko- Alape- Lozada y Catatumbo


Mirian, a 29-year-old mother from Honduras, is currently detained in T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, while her toddler is kept in a facility in San Antonio, some 120 miles away


At the Kino Border Initiative, we have stood with his family in their grief and their persistent fight for justice. As such, we accompany them in their sorrow today given the jury’s decision to declare Lonnie Swartz not guilty of second-degree murder

The decision by U.S. District Judge Raner Collins means prosecutors could seek another trial for Agent Lonnie Swartz on the manslaughter charges in the 2012 death of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez

Ello, como parte del litigio contra el Estado mexicano por la desaparición forzada –el 29 de diciembre de 2009– de Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza, Rocío Irene Alvarado Reyes y José Ángel Alvarado Herrera en el municipio de Buenaventura, Chihuahua

About 600 men, women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras had been waiting on Monday in Hermosillo, Sonora to board a train or take buses for the remaining 432 miles

El Fiscal Especial para la Atención de Delitos cometidos contra la Libertad de Expresión? (FEADLE), Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, confirmó la detención de Heriberto “N”, alias el Koala


The student leaders stress that their cause is much bigger than the infamous social security reform that sparked the massive street protests last week


Many older Paraguayans remember Stroessner fondly, and the 60 percent of the population born since 1989 barely remembers him at all

Western Hemisphere Regional

According to conventional law enforcement accounting, this single incident should have been tallied as seven agents assaulted — not seven agents times six perpetrators times three projectiles

As the records POGO obtained show, drug-related charges are some of the most common reasons CBP employees are arrested

  • Nick Fortugno, Sisi Wei, The Waiting Game (Playmatics, WNYC, ProPublica, April 24, 2018).

The U.S. is supposed to be a safe haven for people fleeing persecution. But asylum-seekers face years of uncertainty when they arrive

The day ahead: April 24, 2018

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

I’m spending the morning at a Colombia conference that George Mason University is putting on. In the afternoon I have calls with congressional staff and some local university researchers. During the latter part of the afternoon I’ll be in the office writing.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 23, 2018

Central America Regional

New data reviewed by The New York Times shows that more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, including more than 100 children under the age of 4


Una de las noticias que más se repite en la cronología periodística de los últimos 60 años en Colombia, es que en los servicios de inteligencia del Estado hay escándalos y que para superarlos se ordenan medidas de reforma o disolución de unidades

La convicción de la Farc como partido político se reforzará si demuestran que superarán las dificultades en el camino, entre tanto, el Gobierno deberá respetar y dar garantías frente al Acuerdo

La gente que lo conoció bien en la Habana tenía la firme impresión de que ‘Santrich’ era un convencido político en la causa guerrillera y por eso es difícil creer que estuviera haciendo esa transacción para enriquecerse él mismo

Por lo menos 33 personas fueron detenidas durante el viernes pasado por las autoridades en una acción coordinada en varios municipios. Se les sindica de hacer parte de la guerrilla del Eln

Colombia, Ecuador

Muchos colombianos se preguntan, ¿cómo es posible que un disidente de menor rango de esa guerrilla y con unos 200 hombres se haya convertido en la prioridad número uno de las Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia y Ecuador?


Cadhac, dirigida por la hermana Consuelo Morales, es la primera organización del norte del país que arropó a las víctimas de la “guerra del narco”. También logró estructurar un sistema de búsqueda en colaboración con las Procuradurías, que se ha convertido en un modelo

El fenómeno es nacional, pero los focos más rojos siguen estando en el centro-occidente del país y en la península de Baja California


Cuadra insistió en la responsabilidad de una posible intervención militar. “Se ha rumorado de que se vaya a usar el Ejército para reprimir. Esa es una posibilidad muy remota. No la veo absolutamente. Sería un error histórico”

His announcement seemed to acknowledge that the protests, which started on Wednesday as a picket by college students against the social security overhaul, had become a serious challenge to his authority

My friends in Nicaragua think this one’s for real

Las banderas de esta rebelión popular también están demandando libertad, democracia, y participación política para terminar con la dictadura


Mr. Abdo Benítez’s presidential bid evoked memories of Paraguay’s dictatorship from 1954 to 1989 because his father was the personal secretary of Alfredo Stroessner

South America Regional

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru had decided to temporarily leave the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, given differences over choosing the secretary general of the group

The day ahead: April 23, 2018

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

Spent the weekend knocking out a “final final” draft of an evaluation of a USAID project in Colombia, responding to reviewers’ comments. The morning will be spent in internal meetings—the weekly staff meeting and a follow-on discussion of our communications strategy. In the afternoon, I’ll be in the office catching up on three weeks of overdue Colombia peace process updates.

The Week Ahead

Again, I’m in Washington all week, this time with a lighter meeting schedule. Which means it’s time to catch up for real on writing. First order of business is backlogged Colombia peace process updates for the month of April. Second is to pay more attention to this site.

I also expect to prepare a Colombia talk that I’ll be giving before a State Department audience late next week, and to start writing a paper about Colombia’s peace process that I’ll present at the Latin American Studies Association’s annual meeting at the end of May.

Later in the week we’ll be helping USIP host a group of victims’ advocates from the Medellín city government, who are brought here by George Mason University.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, April 23

Tuesday, April 24

Wednesday, April 25

Thursday, April 26

The day ahead: April 20, 2018

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

I’m talking to a border-area journalist in the late morning, then headed to a meeting with a Colombia-based international organization official in the early afternoon. Taking my excellent intern out to coffee in the mid-afternoon (it’s her last day, and she did a great job with our weekly border updates), then talking to some reporters about Mexico’s southern border at the end of the day.

The day ahead: April 19, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day, but trying to get some work done. (How to contact me)

Today’s a quieter day: for the first time all week, I’ll have more than a couple of minutes at a computer keyboard, without racing to meet a deadline. (Incidentally, today is only quiet because I’ve aggressively steered meetings away from this day on my calendar, having blocked it off early last week. I recommend this practice if you find that meetings and commitments keep you from getting “real” work done.)

I expect to close the door and catch up on research, reading, databasing, and some writing all day. I’m be available to talk, but would prefer not to get too diverted from program work.

The day ahead: April 18, 2018

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

This morning I’m finishing a brief article about Colombia for another publication, probably working at home. I’ll have a late-morning phone conversation with a journalist about Colombia, then I’m going to USCIS to brief a group of refugee officers, again about Colombia. Later in the afternoon I’m joining WOLA colleagues in a meeting about Mexico at the State Department. I’ll be hard to contact all day—and once again, probably not posting here.

The day ahead: April 17, 2018

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

This morning I’m working on a WOLA planning document, then headed to the US Institute of Peace for a discussion of how Colombia’s peace process is going. I then need to prepare a presentation I’ll be making tomorrow for USCIS refugee officers who work on Colombia. I have two internal meetings this afternoon and a sit-down with some researchers from a local university who are looking at organized crime. And I want to make progress on (and finish tomorrow morning) a brief piece on Colombia’s peace process for another publication. In the evening I hope to catch up on the news in the region, I’m a bit behind.

The Day Ahead: April 16, 2018

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

I’ve got a weekly staff meeting in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, two calls scheduled with journalists, a call with State Department officials about an upcoming Colombia talk, and a call with USAID about Colombia. That will consume most of the day.

The week ahead

I’m in Washington all five days this week, for a change. (Last week I spent Wednesday and Thursday in Orlando, at a very good workshop on military assistance hosted by the University of Central Florida. Then I spent the entire weekend in New York visiting family.)

As of now, I’ve got about 16 hours of meetings and calls on the calendar, which leaves at least some time for research, writing, and communicating.

Most of that will be about Colombia this week. I’ll have a short piece coming out about the current state of the peace process. And more updates posted here. And later in the week—hopefully, unless I run out of time—an update on the state of border-security spending and construction.

Over the weekend I’ll be completing final responses to comments on the USAID project evaluation for which I spent February in Colombia.

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