Adam Isacson

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

September 2018

Ouch, this statement did not age well.

This is William Brownfield, then the assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement affairs, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 2, 2017:

Tranche one in this four-stage Colombian strategy was the southwest. Down in Tumaco and the province of Nariño. We are unable to support that because the FARC has, in a sense, captured the alternative development part of that. The next step is going to be up in Antioquia. That’s further to the north and slightly to the west, but still central Colombia.

There, we are trying to work specifically an arrangement whereby the government will work directly with the campesinos themselves, the individual farmers. And we have told the government we will support alternative development. We will provide INCLE funding—generously provided by the United States Congress to the Department of State and INL—and we will support alternative development there.

We will then, ladies and gentlemen, have a test. We’ll see how it worked in the southwest [Tumaco], with the FARC largely running the process, and how it works up in Antioquia with the FARC out of the process. And then we’ll reach some conclusions. What works best?

Brownfield throws down the gauntlet. Within the framework of the peace accords, the Colombian government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos can carry out its own coca strategy in Nariño. The Americans will do things their own way up north in Antioquia. And we’ll see what works best.

On September 19, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its department-by-department estimates of coca growing in Colombia. And Nariño comes off looking a lot better than Antioquia. Here are the numbers:

  • Colombia, nationally, saw a 17 percent increase in coca cultivation.
  • Nariño, which the U.S. government avoided, saw a 7 percent increase: less than the national average. In Tumaco, Nariño, the municipality (county) that has more coca than any other—and thus a key focus of the Santos government’s efforts—coca declined by 16 percent.
  • Antioquia, on the other hand, saw a 55 percent increase.

Assistant secretary Brownfield’s “test” was not off to a good start in 2017. Who knows, maybe 2018 will be different; the so-called “Plan Antioquia” was also just getting going. But the UN’s 2017 numbers show that coca really did stop increasing, or even start reducing, in the areas where the Colombian government managed to get it together enough to implement crop substitution, in line with Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord.

In those areas, the UNODC reports, the peace accords’ National Substitution Program (PNIS) managed to enroll 54,027 families in voluntary coca substitution by the end of 2017. By June 2018, this had risen to 77,659 families. In areas where the PNIS got going, covering 14 percent of coca-growing territory, 2017 saw an 11 percent reduction in crops.

The UN data, troubling as they are, show that things are far more complicated than “let’s have a test.” They especially underscore the importance of keeping commitments made to the tens of thousands of families who signed up to eradicate their coca voluntarily. UNODC Colombia Director Bo Mathiasen adds that there are currently 119,500 families growing coca in Colombia: about half a million people in a country of 50 million. A successful coca-control strategy, then, would measure success in number of families instead of number of hectares.

Latin America-related events in Washington next week

(A strange week ahead: after scanning Congress, the think tanks, and the universities, I see only one relevant event scheduled for next week.)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

  • 12:30–2:00 at the Georgetown University Intercultural Center: Ecuador & U.S. Bilateral Relations: Insights from Ambassador Francisco Carrión Mena (RSVP required).

Five links from the past week

Western Hemisphere Regional

The violence in Acapulco has created a dystopia where social norms have broken down

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Though a vast majority of these respondents were aware of the stricter US immigration policy regime, this awareness had no effect on their consideration of emigration as a viable strategy


Hoy, Chichi (170 000 habitantes) es una de las ciudades menos homicidas en la región más homicida del mundo –el Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica–, con una tasa de asesinatos inferior a la de Chile, Bélgica o Canadá. ¿Quiere saber por qué?


How prosecutors tied a brazen murder in an upscale Dallas suburb to one of Mexico’s most violent criminal organizations

Las corporaciones policiales y el mismo Ejército forman parte de los ejecutores de estas acciones violentas que tienen como móvil destruir un proyecto educativo que ha sido la cuna de la conciencia social

Some articles I found interesting Tuesday, September 25

Oscar Naverrete photo at La Prensa (Nicaragua). Caption: “Managua, Nicaragua. 23/09/2018. La manifestación convocada por familiares de presos políticos, el Movimiento Campesino, médicos, maestros, estudiantes, movimiento sociales y sociedad civil fue atacada por policias antimotines y paramilitares del regimen Ortega-Murillo. El enfrentamiento dejo un saldo de una persona fallecida y varios heridos quienes se refugiaron en una iglesia catolica para protejerse de las balas.”

(Catching up after a busy week… Even more here)

September 25, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

Many of the non-signatories view the U.S.-led document as too narrow compared with previously agreed upon U.N. provisions on drugs and are concerned that it left out considerations about human rights and appropriate punishments for drug offenders

They recommended “Option 3” — prosecuting every adult who crossed the border illegally, including those who came with their children — because it would “have the greatest impact on current flows”

As a matter of principle, domestic law enforcement should be the role of civilian law enforcement institutions


Signatories include Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, a trio of politically engaged composers who all spent time in European exile during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship


La comisionada de la Verdad explica qué hace el grupo de género de esta entidad y resalta la importancia de incluir la mirada de las mujeres, niñas y personas LGBT en el informe final

Lo cierto es que la impunidad en los casos de amenazas, y especialmente de amenazas de las Águilas Negras es del 100 por ciento

Se identificaron como integrantes de las disidencias del frente 36 de las Farc aunque varios de ellos, por lo menos cuatro, aseguraron ser de la guerrilla del Eln


It’s deeply disappointing to see that Guatemala’s armed forces have unambiguously supported President Morales’ rollback of anti-corruption reforms

The ongoing constitutional crisis in Guatemala underscores concerns that corruption continues to permeate high levels of the government. Under these conditions, U.S. strategic interests can only be addressed if CICIG is allowed to fulfill its mission

Los uniformados no generan confianza en un país como Guatemala. Menos aún, cuando algunos activistas se convierten en el principal contrapeso contra el Gobierno

Guatemala está ante un peligro muy serio. Todas y todos tenemos la obligación de entenderlo y de actuar. El momento es hoy


López Obrador’s willingness to meet with the students’ families is a promising step forward

The incident offered a perfect symbol for a crisis which affords no dignity to its victims – and which provokes indifference from the population, and mere expediency from the authorities

El 77% ha sido objeto de acoso; el 65% sufrió amenazas, el 34% padeció violencia física, y el 29% fue privado de su libertad

Mexico, Nicaragua

Normally, it’s people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who pass through Tapachula, seeking an escape from gang violence and extreme poverty. But shelter workers here say they have seen a record number of Nicaraguans in recent months


Este domingo en Managua las fuerzas paramilitares armadas y organizadas por el régimen de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo atacaron a balazos otra manifestación pacífica, donde mataron a un adolescente


“We are not doing anything other than normal prudent planning that a combatant command would do to prepare for a range of contingencies,” Faller said

“Treasury will continue to impose a financial toll on those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline, and the networks and front-men they use to mask their illicit wealth”

Some articles I found interesting Thursday, September 27

Octavio Gómez photo at Proceso (Mexico). Caption: “Protesta de familiares de normalistas desparecidos en Iguala.”

(Catching up after a busy week… Even more here)

September 27, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

The fact that CBP regularly uses drones in American airspace might be news to some people who think that aerial surveillance is only being used in war zones. But the war always comes home

Neither party wants a shutdown, but Trump has made clear his frustration at the lack of additional money for the border wall


“Las salas especiales”, explicó a su turno la senadora Paloma Valencia, son para que los “miembros de la Fuerza Pública sean juzgados con garantías

El Estado ha sido incapaz de actuar con velocidad y contundencia para cumplir los pactos con las familias cocaleras y llegar con oportunidades a las zonas de influencia de los narcotraficantes


Rodríguez Sánchez está libre. Los responsables del genocidio han muerto


La comisión especial recién anunciada para investigar la desaparición de los 43 estudiantes de la normal de Ayotzinapa no tiene como línea de investigación al ejército mexicano, anticipó hoy Alejandro Encinas, anunciado como próximo subsecretario de Gobernación

Las corporaciones policiales y el mismo Ejército forman parte de los ejecutores de estas acciones violentas que tienen como móvil destruir un proyecto educativo que ha sido la cuna de la conciencia social

Federal officials say it is a last-ditch effort to bring peace to Acapulco, once a glamorous resort favored by Hollywood celebrities that has become one of the most murderous cities on Earth

El final fue precipitado por el propio exgobernador que, a cambio de una pena reducida, dijo ser responsable de los hechos de los que se le acusaba

With time already served and the potential for parole, Duarte could be free in four years

Mexico’s president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promised Wednesday to investigate the disappearance four years ago of the 43 rural teachers college students


Jaentschke alega en la entrevista a EFE que “nuestra policía, que era una policía muy tranquila y que caminaba en las calles sin mucho armamento, tiene que ajustarse a los embates del crimen organizado que se han mostrado en estas protestas”


The situation regarding crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the Court, as defined in article 7 of the Statute, which would have been committed since February 12, 2014 in Venezuela, State Party to the Statute since its entry into force on July 1, 2002.

Maduro spoke for well over the allotted time and said that the United States “wants to continue giving orders to the world as though the world were its own property.”

Some articles I found interesting Wednesday, September 26

Carlos Jasso/Reuters photo at The New York Times. Caption: “Imágenes de los 43 estudiantes de Ayotzinapa desaparecidos en septiembre en 2014”

(Catching up after a busy week… Even more here)

September 26, 2018


Desde este viernes, con la firma del decreto, si la Policía sorprende a un ciudadano en espacio público con las dosis señaladas, se destruirá la droga y se impondrá una multa de 208.000 pesos, aunque si se asiste a un curso se puede obtener una rebaja

La Inspección General del Ejército investigará si, como se ha denunciado, las tropas de la institución se retiraron de la zona

“Ahora, si le va bien, fabuloso, pero si no le va bien será un presidente más de Colombia”, dijo el mandatario estadounidense

Colombia, Venezuela

El alto mando del ejército informó que se trata de “Unidades de Despliegue Rápido para combatir amenazas transfronterizas”. Sin embargo, aún no se conoce con exactitud la cantidad de tropas

Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest. If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another President of Colombia


Aquí presento dos hipótesis para lograr que un 15% de guatemaltecos crean que la CICIG es la causa de nuestros problemas y que Jimmy Morales es la solución

Los ministros de Exteriores y Gobernación podrían ser apartados de sus cargos y el presidente investigado por el Ministerio Público por desobedecer una sentencia de la Corte de Constitucionalidad. El Tribunal debe resolver esto

The comedian turned politician dedicated more than half his speech at the United Nations to condemning the CICIG, accusing it of abuses of power, violations of human rights and politicizing justice


Mexico is no closer to creating the effective local police forces that experts agree will be crucial to any effort to control soaring levels of violence

On the fourth anniversary of the students’ disappearance, we recognize the families of the victims and the human rights organizations accompanying them for not giving up on this fight

Proceso publicó el reportaje titulado “Tamaulipas: tres meses de terror bajo el yugo de la Marina” que documentó severos casos de violaciones a derechos humanos en Nuevo Laredo

La pregunta aún irresuelta sobre el destino de los jóvenes ha convertido el caso en “un símbolo de las decenas de miles de inocentes que también han desaparecido” en los últimos años en México


Adding to a sense that Washington may be warming to intervention, security hawks with an interest in Latin America are taking positions in the administration

In a region where leaders tend to avoid criticizing one another publicly, the step by Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru represented an extraordinary rebuke

Upon arrival, Maduro held meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

“Ojo, que nuestra Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, que nuestro pueblo, nuestras milicias sabrían resistir, sabrían cómo defenderse”, aseguró Arreaza

Navy Vice Admiral Craig Faller, who is the president’s nominee to lead U.S. military operations in Latin America, has said no military action against the South American nation is currently in the works

The latest targeted sanctions effectively put the elites of Maduro’s inner circle in the same camp, suggesting that the Trump Administration has ruled out the possibility of such a fracture

“…If he’s here, if he wants to meet, I don’t know. It was not on my mind, it is not on my plate. But If I can help people, that’s what I’m here for.”

Some articles I found interesting this morning

CBP photo at The Tucson Sentinel. Caption: “A group of immigrants who surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol on Sunday.”

(Even more here)

September 28, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

The measure requires lawmakers to revisit other contentious measures in just two months, including whether to devote billions of dollars toward the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border

More than 1,200 people in “similar group sizes” have been apprehended in the past three months “all within the same general area”


Bolsonaro seems to be paving the way, directly or indirectly, for a coup d’état or an authoritarian regime backed by the military. He enjoys ample support among the military’s rank and file

While polls vary, support for Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre and across Brazil’s south remains higher than anywhere else in the country


Three armed forces sources told Reuters that manufacturers from the United States, France and Israel were in the running to provide the system

El fiscal general de la Nación, Néstor Humberto Martínez, aseguró en una misiva que estas evidencias no están en poder del ente investigador sino de las autoridades de EE. UU.

Actually, the ones who might be letting this fall apart are the FARC kingpins, who have not given up all their weapons or assets and are simply returning to criminal activities

Todos estos delitos fueron cometidos cuando era guerrillera de las Farc, y como ninguno es atroz ni de lesa humanidad y ella se acogió al proceso de paz, tiene derecho a su libertad

It draws on the belief that communities themselves have the ability to regulate and moderate delinquent behavior, while reinforcing positive behavior

Colombia, Venezuela

“Un país que ha auspiciado al Eln en su territorio, que lo ha protegido, que ha permitido que desde su territorio se fragüen actos criminales contra el pueblo colombiano, pues está lejos de ser garante”

The World Bank will release a report on the fiscal and social impact of the crisis on Colombia in the coming weeks

Cuba, Venezuela

One event official later read from a list, drafted by organizers, of journalists who could return inside


“This sentence will be studied 20 or 30 years from now as a decisive moment in Guatemalan history”


López Obrador afirmó que el 1 de diciembre, cuando asuma el cargo, emitirá un decreto para crear la Comisión para la Verdad

How prosecutors tied a brazen murder in an upscale Dallas suburb to one of Mexico’s most violent criminal organizations


The amended version of the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act of 2018 (S. 3233) includes restrictions on lending to the Ortega government by international financial institutions, as proposed in the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act, H.R. 1918)

October 16 Colombia conference announcement

This is open to the public and runs all day. I’m happy to say that almost everyone we invited to be a panelist has agreed to join us. It’s an incredible lineup. Join us if you’re around.

Staying on Course: Security, Coca, Justice, and Accord Implementation in Colombia

Tuesday, October 16, 2018, 8:30am-4:00pm
Root Room, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC

Light lunch, coffee, and simultaneous translation will be provided. Video will be available at WOLA’s website ( after the event.

Two years after Colombia signed a historic peace accord with the FARC, Latin America’s largest guerrilla group, much is uncertain. Amid uneven implementation of the accord, armed and criminal groups—some made up of demobilized guerrillas—are filling territorial vacuums and encroaching on ethnic-minority communities. Murders of independent social leaders have reached epidemic proportions. A new president who had led opposition to the accord seeks to make adjustments. Complex transitional-justice cases are just getting started. Coca cultivation has reached new records. Negotiations with the ELN guerrilla group are stalled. Meanwhile, most messages from the U.S. government are about coca and the crisis in neighboring Venezuela—not consolidation of peace.

WOLA is pleased to bring to Washington a remarkable group of leaders, practitioners, and experts from Colombia. They will dive deeply into these and other current challenges in an all-day event, open to the public.

Agenda (subject to adjustment)

8:30-9:00 Registration and Coffee

9:00-9:15 Introductory Remarks

9:15-11:00 Panel: Colombia’s Transitional Justice System

  • Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll, president, Chamber for Recognition of Truth, Responsibility, and Determination of Acts and Conducts, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Patricia Tobón, commissioner, Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, Bogotá, Colombia
  • María Camila Moreno, director, International Center for Transitional Justice, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Moderator: Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, director, Colombia Program, Washington Office on Latin America

11:00-11:15 Break

11:15-1:00 Panel: Coca, Eradication, and Substitution

  • Pedro Arenas, coordinator, Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Ariel Ávila, deputy director, Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Invited Speaker from cocalero organization, via Skype, Colombia
  • Moderator: Adam Isacson, director, Defense Oversight Program, Washington Office on Latin America

1:00-2:00 Lunch

2:00-3:45 Panel: Security Dynamics, Peace Accord Implementation, and the ELN

  • Claudia López, spokesperson, Anti-Corruption Consultation; program manager, Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Danilo Rueda, human rights defender, Inter-Ecclesiastical Committee for Justice and Peace, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Kyle Johnson, Senior Analyst for Colombia, International Crisis Group, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Moderator: Mariano Aguirre Ernst, peacebuilding senior advisor, Office of the Resident Coordinator, United Nations, Bogotá, Colombia

3:45-4:00 Closing Remarks

The day ahead: September 28, 2018

I’m in the office, but trying to catch up on overdue projects. (How to contact me)

My calendar is clear today—I arranged that deliberately—and I should be in the office all day. However, I may have the door closed and the phone on mute as I try to catch up on what’s happened this week (UNGA, Colombia-Venezuela disputes, Southcom hearings, recent government report releases), write a Colombia peace update, write a column for the Colombian publication Razón Pública, and continue writing the conclusions and recommendations for a report based on our early-September trip to Colombia. This work will all carry into the weekend.

The day ahead: September 27, 2018

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

The calendar clears up today, and for the first time all week I should have a few consecutive hours at a computer keyboard. I plan to do a lot of writing about Colombia.

“They’re Killing Us”: Short Video on Social Leaders in Post-Accord Colombia

Filmmakers Tom Laffay, Emily Wright, and Daniel Bustos were in town this evening to screen their 20-minute documentary, “They’re Killing Us,” with lots of footage from Cauca, Colombia in the months after the FARC guerrillas disarmed. The film debuted on the website of The Atlantic at the end of May.

The video states that one social leader is being killed every four days in post-conflict Colombia. In the last few months, though, it’s more like one every day and a half to two days.

I’m pleased, at least, that the film drew a capacity crowd in the Busboys and Poets restaurant’s event space, in Washington’s U Street neighborhood, on a rainy Wednesday night. They had to turn people away for lack of space.

The day ahead: September 26, 2018

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

I haven’t spent much time at my desk or at a keyboard at all this week, and this morning won’t be an exception. I’ll be having breakfast with a European diplomat, then a mid-morning meeting with a grad student doing thesis work on border and migration issues. WOLA is having a welcoming lunch for the fall interns. At 6:00 we’re helping put on a screening of a short film about human rights defenders in Colombia.

In between, I’ll be at my desk trying to keep up—perhaps getting some writing in, but I doubt it.

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