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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September 2018

Good discussion today about the origins of Central America’s violence

We covered a lot of ground in an hour and a half. To the extent that we left the audience with a conclusion: Central America has taken some initial steps to get at the causes of violence. These steps are fragile and risk reversal. This fight is going to be long and complicated, probably requiring fundamental institutional and even ethical changes.

Many thanks to Steve Hege and the U.S. Institute of Peace for inviting me to participate. Here’s just the audio:

The day ahead: September 25, 2018

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

I returned from yesterday’s panel discussion quite late, and am headed out the door now to return my rental car. Then I’ll go to USIP to speak on a panel about the origins of violence in Central America. I’ll be having lunch with an old friend who works at the State Department, then giving a European TV interview mid-afternoon. In between all of that, I’ll be happy just to keep up with e-mail. Not sure if I’ll be able to post anything here today.

A huge setback for civil-military relations in Guatemala

Reuters photo in The Guardian (UK). Caption: “Jimmy Morales addresses the media flanked by military and police.”

I was disappointed to see Guatemala’s military—which had briefly taken a reformist direction—aggressively, enthusiastically supporting President Jimmy Morales’s crackdown on the CICIG anti-corruption body. WOLA has just posted a piece I wrote about that. What’s happened with Guatemala’s army since August 31 obliterates a few halting steps that it had taken toward being a credible, accountable institution. It brings back the bad old days.

Here’s an excerpt. The whole thing is here.

In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.

Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.

These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.

…Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.

It goes on like that.

The Army’s Role in the Anti-CICIG Backlash is a Severe Setback for Guatemala’s Civil-Military Relations

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

September 24, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

Quite a few governments that have enacted progressive drug policy reforms have apparently decided to sign the U.S. “Call to Action”—not because they agree with it, but because they prefer not to risk antagonizing Trump


Los pocos recursos se han obtenido a través del Consejo Nacional de Reincorporación. Varias iniciativas han sido autofinanciadas y gestionadas por ellos mismos

Para Carlos Guevara, coordinador del Sistema de Información de Somos Defensores, esas escalofriantes cifras también son el reflejo de la transición y del cambio de tono que emergió durante el gobierno del anterior presidente de la República

Colombia, Venezuela

El lenguaje ligero con que piden la salida a la fuerza de Nicolás Maduro despierta muchos interrogantes. Según expertos, Colombia sería la más afectada

Costa Rica, Nicaragua

Thousands have applied for asylum in Costa Rica, overwhelming the government’s migration bureaucracy, while others have simply melted into the broader population


At that session, Cuba will present for the 27th year running a resolution calling for the end of the U.S. trade embargo on the island nation

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Border arrests of family members from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were at similar levels in 2017, but Guatemala’s numbers have soared this year as El Salvador’s have fallen


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?


La inseguridad, la erosión del tejido social y la impunidad han creado una espiral de violencia que ha hundido a la capital mexicana en el momento más sangriento de su historia

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


Critics say Maduro has essentially weaponized food, distributing the boxes primarily to government workers and supporters

The inept dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has unleashed a crisis that could rival the European migrant crisis of 2015. Like that crisis, this one may well alter the political dynamics of Latin America

The day ahead: September 24, 2018

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

I’m going to an event at the Wilson Center this morning, then it’s a weekly staff meeting and check-ins. In the early afternoon I’m renting a car and headed up to Chestertown, Maryland, to speak on a panel at Washington College about the border and human rights. I may be reachable in the middle of the day—though I’l be finishing a talk that I’m to give tomorrow morning at USIP.

I’m not sure that I’ll be posting anything else here today—not even news links.

The Week Ahead

This is going to be one of the busier weeks of the year. I’m speaking on two panels, Monday and Tuesday, about U.S. policy toward Mexico/border and about the origins of Central America’s violence. There’s a Colombia report to finish (or at least nearly finish), based on our field research earlier in the month. There’s a Southcom confirmation hearing on Tuesday. There may be a battle to cover over the border wall and budgets as the U.S. government’s fiscal year ends Sunday, with a potential shutdown (though I doubt it). And we need to move forward preparations for a big Colombia conference we’re holding October 16. (Happily, nearly all panelists we invited from Colombia are able to come.)

Links from the past month about organized crime-related corruption


Para el alto tribunal, los homicidios de la exalcaldesa del municipio de Barrancas, Yandra Brito, su esposo y su escolta no tienen relación con el conflicto armado

Un senador involucrado, un general encarcelado y decenas de empresarios y compañías en la mira forman parte del nuevo capítulo, que no será el último

Desde los narcocasetes de 1994 al último capítulo que tiene en aprietos al general (r) Humberto Guatibonza y otros exoficiales de la Policía

La Fiscalía tiene interceptaciones en las que los supuestos protagonistas del entramado de chuzadas hablan del secuestro de los periodistas ecuatorianos, de bloqueos de cuentas bancarias y hasta de casos de infidelidad


On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event

His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos”

Acompañado por el alto mando militar y solo tres ministros de su gabinete (Gobernación, Defensa y Exteriores), en una imagen que recordaba a las épocas más represivas de la guerra civil, Morales dijo que había notificado a la ONU que no renovaría el mandato


Valladares —who was a regional commander of the special criminal investigations unit (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal – DNIC) in San Pedro Sula— committed murder for the once powerful Cachiros drug trafficking organization

La captura de seis policías activos en los últimos dos meses es una muestra de que en la institución siguen las “manzanas podridas” a pesar del proceso de depuración


ProPublica’s reporting detailed that the Mexican SIU had a yearslong, documented record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers

State authorities and military personnel took control of security in the municipality of Tehuacán in central Puebla state, disarming 205 municipal police officers on the force


Authorities in Costa Rica arrested an alleged leader of an international drug trafficking organization while he was dining with the son of a Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate

U.S.-Mexico Border

A Texas National Guard soldier who is part of the state’s border protection buildup has been accused of stealing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection methamphetamine that federal agents had seized

Weekly Update #5 is out

Here’s the latest. Sort of a placeholder between a busy week and one that promises to be even crazier. Two Colombia peace updates, lots of events, news links, and good music. Also, a typo in the first sentence that it’s too late for me to fix now (should be easy to spot).

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Latin America-Related Events in Washington This Week

Monday, September 24, 2018

  • 9:00–10:30 at the Wilson Center: A View from the White House: Latin America Policy Under the Trump Administration (RSVP required).
  • 9:00–4:30 at the Wilson Center: The Scientific, Social, and Economic Dimensions of Development in the Amazon (RSVP required).
  • 2:30–4:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: A Conversation with Valdrack Jaentschke (RSVP required).

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

  • 8:30–10:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Brazilian Elections: Starting Over or More of the Same? (RSVP required).
  • 9:30 in Room SD-G50, Dirksen Senate Office Building: Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nominations – Abrams – Faller (Vice Adm. Craig Faller is the nominee for next commander of U.S. Southern Command).
  • 9:30–11:00 at USIP: What Drives Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle? (RSVP requiredI’m a panelist here, come by and say “hi.”).
  • 10:00–12:00 at the Wilson Center: Admiral Eduardo Bacellar Leal Ferreira on the Evolving Role of the Brazilian Navy (RSVP required).

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

  • 9:00–11:00 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Corruption, Crisis, and CICIG: What Next for the Rule of Law in Guatemala? (RSVP required).

Beto O’Rourke Would Be a Great Texas Senator

I first met Beto O’Rourke in October 2011 when we were both panelists at a conference at the University of Texas at El Paso. He was an El Paso city councilman with a lot of buzz around him (the next year, he would unseat his district’s sitting congressman and head to Washington). I was in the same job I’m in now. As he does now, Councilman Beto gave an impassioned appeal at the conference for reforming drug laws that hit poor and minority communities the hardest.

When he came to Washington in early 2013, his staff were instantly helpful to us on issues of human rights and foreign assistance in Latin America, seeking ideas for legislation and helping with requests for information.

Then, in July 2014, at the height of the crisis triggered by the first wave of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America, Beto called a few WOLA colleagues and me in for a meeting to brainstorm a response. The freshman congressman wanted to know why so many people were fleeing Central America. He wanted to know what was causing the exodus, whether past U.S. policies had played a role, and what we could to to address these “root causes” now.

Then he asked something I’ll always remember: “I don’t know enough about Central America. Could you recommend a few books I could read about U.S. policy toward Central America?”

Let me be clear: this never happens. A precious handful of members of Congress have become committed and energetic advocates of human rights in the Americas. But none ever even pretended to have the time to accept reading assignments from us.

Shocked, I couldn’t even come up with anything on the spot. As soon as I was back in the office, I dashed off the email whose text is copy-and-pasted below.

Not only did Congressman O’Rourke look at these recommendations: I know he invited at least one of the authors in for a couple of conversations.

Keep that in mind when you’re considering whom to vote for (if you’re in Texas), whom to volunteer for, and whom to donate money to in this crucially important election cycle. Beto is the real deal, it’s great to see his campaign has momentum, and I hope to call him “Senator O’Rourke” come January.

(Yes, I’m electioneering on this site. This site is unconnected to WOLA, my non-profit employer. I pay for it out of my own pocket, and I’m writing this in my free time, on a Saturday night. I’ll say “support Beto” as much as I want in this space.)

Here, if you’re interested, are the recommendations I sent over in 2014, pasted from my e-mail to his staff. Bonus: the Amazon links still work—

Dear [staffer],

It’s so rare to hear a member of Congress actually ask for book suggestions, I had to follow up. Here are some of my favorites about Central America.

* Bill LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992

(Bonus: Bill LeoGrande is here in town at American University and is a smart and terrific guy. He worked in the 80s on the staff of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Central America.)

* Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America –

* Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America –

* Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala –

* John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, Thomas Walker, Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change –

* (Not about US policy but a great read about Guatemala) Francisco Goldman, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? –

Unfortunately we’re still waiting for a compelling book about the gang phenomenon in Central America and the link to US policy. The latest edition of “Understanding Central America” goes into it a bit. Thanks to you and Mr. O’Rourke for your energy and interest.


Five links from the past week


Rather than a mandate for governing, elections held under these conditions produce the opening positions of a game played between the president and a fragmented congress, which Brazilians call presidencialismo de coalição


These dissident guerrillas invited The New York Times to their camp, hidden among mountains north of Medellín, to tell the story of why they abandoned the peace deal


El Cacif pagó US$135 mil (Q1 millón) a dos lobistas en Washington para tener acceso e influenciar acciones del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos. Está en duda si ha sido para desprestigiar a la CICIG


Corruption at the state level has been partly responsible for a lack of progress in prosecuting such deaths

U.S.-Mexico Border

For Mario, the encouragement to “operate in the gray” summed up the attitude of the Border Patrol — operating outside of the law. He described some of the actions of Border Patrol as “borderline inhumane”

Some articles I found interesting: Friday, September 21

(Posting this a bit late—I fell behind near the end of the week. Even more here)

September 21, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

Behind all the rationalizing lies a hardening reality: Many congressional Republicans just aren’t that into Trump’s wall

For Mario, the encouragement to “operate in the gray” summed up the attitude of the Border Patrol — operating outside of the law. He described some of the actions of Border Patrol as “borderline inhumane”


Rather than a mandate for governing, elections held under these conditions produce the opening positions of a game played between the president and a fragmented congress, which Brazilians call presidencialismo de coalição


Each year since 2013, land used to produce coca leaf has gone up, on average, about 45 percent, the report said. The crops now are also a third more productive than they were in 2012

Dentro de la política de drogas, los homólogos incluirán el tema de la erradicación de los cultivos ilícitos con glifosato

“Las Farc siguen siendo una Organización Terrorista Extranjera bajo la Ley de Inmigración y Nacionalidad. No obstante, el Gobierno colombiano clasifica a los disidentes de la guerrilla como criminales”

What concerns Carmenza the most is that if the JEP presides over the cases of those already convicted, they may receive shorter sentences and still not tell the entire truth

Las declaraciones de la ministra se dan luego de que la semana pasada el nuevo director de la Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP), Pablo Elías González, asegurara que buscará articular todas las instituciones del Estado para luchar contra el “exterminio”

El asesinato de tres geólogos en un tiroteo indiscriminado contra un campamento de exploración minera dice muchísimo de la grave situación de orden público en el Norte de Antioquia

Colombia, Venezuela

Duque fue enfático y aseguró que las fuerzas militares de su país “no se dejarán provocar” y que ante un posible conflicto, el único beneficiado sería el presidente llanero


The FBI initiative, harkening back to Castro-era stagecraft, is aimed at putting on notice potential Cuban spies who might operate under an official cover in the United States


El Gobierno no puede prohibir la entrada del comisionado Iván Velásquez. En caso contrario, incurrirá en las responsabilidades de ley. Por ahora, no se confirma si el comisionado regresará a Guatemala

Thursday’s protests were organised in small towns, as well as urban centres, including in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city

On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event

His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos”


La Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos concluyó que el Ejército Mexicano y la policía estatal de Puebla incurrieron en violaciones graves, con acciones como la siembra de pruebas en los cadáveres de dos inocentes, y el atropellamiento de dos civiles

Jóvenes encapuchados lanzaron bombas molotov y petardos a la sede del 27 Batallón de Infantería en la ciudad de Iguala en medio de protestas por el cuarto aniversario de la desaparición de los 43 normalistas de Ayotzinapa

Sin una sola mención a la defensa y protección de los derechos humanos de los mexicanos, el secretario de la Defensa Nacional, general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, recibió el premio William J. Perry 2018


El camarada “Basilio”, muerto al enfrentarse a las fuerzas del orden, era experto en el uso de lanzagranadas y estaba a las órdenes del camarada “José”

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