Adam Isacson

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

April 2019

The day ahead: April 30, 2019

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

I’m in an all-day staff training at WOLA. The family are out of town for 2 days, though, so I hope to get some writing and research done at home tonight.

Big JEP vote today in Colombia’s Senate

(Cross-posted from WOLA’s blog)

On March 11 Colombian President Iván Duque threw the country’s peace process into semi-paralysis. He formally “objected” to parts of the law underlying the transitional justice system that the accords had set up for judging ex-combatants’ human rights crimes. The “objections,” essentially a line-item veto, sent back to Colombia’s Congress a law that originally passed in November 2017. Today, Colombia’s Senate is to vote on the objections, a major milestone in this labyrinthine process.

Without an underlying “Statutory Law,” the transitional-justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), can function but is badly hobbled. The JEP is a special tribunal, developed after 19 months of contentious negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Havana, to judge those on both sides who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. In exchange for full confessions and reparations to victims, the JEP sentences war criminals to up to eight years of “restricted liberty,” not quite prison. This was enough to convince 13,000 FARC guerrillas to demobilize, making the JEP the backbone of the 2016 peace accord. But the perception of leniency has made it unpopular and vulnerable to political attack.

For the 11,000 ex-guerrillas and 1,950 military personnel who have signed up to be tried in the JEP, President Duque’s “objections” cause more delay and more uncertainty. And more uncertainty—even the possibility that the JEP Statutory Law could collapse—raises concern among ex-combatants that they could be imprisoned or even extradited to the United States. That possibility could cause hundreds, or even thousands, of ex-combatants to take up arms again. This is serious.

What happened?

For readers coming to this story late, a bit of chronology is in order.

  • The government-FARC peace accord went into effect on December 1, 2016. That set in motion a 12-month countdown in which Colombia’s Congress had “fast track” authority to quickly pass legislation needed to implement the accord. Just before the “fast track” deadline, at the very end of November 2017, Congress finally passed the Statutory Law for the JEP. Legislators added some problematic provisions, but at least the JEP had a legal underpinning.
  • The law then passed to Colombia’s highest judicial review body, the Constitutional Court, to assess its constitutionality. In August 2018, the Court signed off on most of the law. In December 2018, the Constitutional Court published its 980-page decision.
  • That set off a three-month countdown for President Duque, who took office in August 2018, to sign the bill into law. Just before that deadline, on March 11, Duque sent the Statutory Law back to Congress with objections to six of its 159 articles. They mainly had to do with reparations, the definition of “maximum responsible” war criminals, and extradition procedures.

Duque’s objections drew an outcry from peace accord supporters, both within Colombia and in the international community. Opposition legislators, led by former government peace negotiator Juanita Goebertus, used a newly won “right of rebuttal” to broadcast a video laying out the dangers posed by Duque’s move.

The only international government to support Duque’s actions was the Trump administration, in the person of Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, who went on national radio and met with members of Congress to argue for the objections that would ease extradition to the United States.

What happens now?

The JEP Statutory Law went to Colombia’s Congress, which is charged with voting to accept or reject President Duque’s objections. Colombia’s House and Senate vote separately. As we understand it, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. If both houses of Congress uphold Duque’s objections, they go back to the Constitutional Court for review. That Court already approved the law’s provisions after exhaustive review in 2018, so it would be likely to overturn the objections again.
  2. If both houses reject the objections, Duque must sign the bill into law as is, which would be a huge political defeat for him.
  3. If the two houses of Congress split, it’s not clear what might happen, as this situation has never come up under Colombia’s 1991 constitution. Probably, the six objections would be “archived,” and the law would go to the Court’s review without them. But it’s possible that the whole JEP law could get “archived,” or shut down, which would be disastrous. The Constitutional Court will have to decide.

On April 8, Colombia’s House of Representatives dealt President Duque a blistering defeat, voting 110-44 against his objections, with moderate and centrist parties joining the left. (This owed partly to concern about torpedoing the peace process, and partly to an unwillingness to hand Duque’s party a big political victory six months before nationwide gubernatorial and mayoral elections.) That eliminated option 1 above.

It is now up to the Senate to decide whether option 2 or option 3 will prevail. The vote will probably be closer there, not least because a senator from Duque’s party currently holds the body’s presidency. Analyses in Colombia’s media, though, indicate a majority of senators is likely to reject Duque’s objections, which would preserve the Statutory Law as is and deal an embarrassing blow to Iván Duque.

Duque’s supporters know this, and they have used gambits and delaying tactics to delay the Senate vote. Opposition observers worry that the governing party has been using the extra time making promises of patronage, like party positions in ministries, in order to turn the votes of enough moderate senators to gain a majority.

The vote is scheduled for today, Monday, April 29. Unless there are further delays, by Tuesday we should know whether President Duque’s objections have succeeded in keeping the JEP, and the peace process, in a state of semi-paralysis. This is an important vote.

The day ahead: April 29, 2019

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

I’ve got a few internal WOLA meetings scattered through the day, a call with a congressional office, and a Colombia event to moderate at WOLA this evening. I’ll be sort of reachable in the late afternoon, but working head-down in the office to get some writing done.

Latin America-related events this week in Washington

Monday, April 29

Tuesday, April 30

Wednesday, May 1

Friday, May 3

  • 9:00–11:00 at USIP: Colombia at a Critical Juncture for Peace (RSVP required).

WOLA Podcast: Taking a Chainsaw to Cuba Policy

I posted this to on Thursday:

The Trump administration has gone full hard-line against Cuba, announcing severe new measures—including a once-unthinkable authority to allow owners of seized Cuban property to sue in U.S. courts.

WOLA’s vice president for programs, Geoff Thale, explains why these new punishments and restrictions won’t bring “regime change” to the island, and instead how they will hurt its struggling private sector. He and host Adam Isacson look at the politics underlying these steps, and whether they’re likely to be long-lasting.

Soldiers apparently caught digging a grave for a murdered ex-FARC member

At least 128 former members of the FARC guerrillas have been killed since Colombia signed its peace accord in November 2016. That’s not even counting 7-month-old Samuel David Gonzalez Pushaina, killed in an April 15 attack on his parents, both demobilized FARC members, in La Guajira.

But the case of Dimar Torres, a former FARC militia member killed in the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia, is even more serious because it involves the security forces. Colombia’s military is going on the offensive in Catatumbo, a region of smallholding farmers with lots of armed groups, coca, and proximity to Venezuela. Catatumbo has big security needs—but in the past, the armed forces have been complicit in serious human rights violations there. Those include aiding and abetting a paramilitary terror campaign, with multiple massacres, that was most intense there between 1999 and 2002.

So this account of what happened to Dimar Torres on April 22, recounted by Jineth Prieto in La Silla Vacía, is especially concerning:

His fellow campesinos from the village of Carrizal, in the district of Miraflores [in Convención municipality], noticed his absence after hearing shots. They went out to look for him when they realized that he was the only one not answering calls. They demanded that the Army [camped nearby] produce him. They entered into the camp and found him dead with three shots (one in the head), half naked and lying next to a road.

They realized that the soldiers were digging a hole that was big enough to bury him and his motorcycle, and they cordoned off the area after sending an alert on WhatsApp -with videos and audios- to request that media and authorities arrive at the village to verify what was happening.

Three big takeaways here:

  1. It’s encouraging that the residents of Carrizal, Convención—a remote area far from the nearest paved road—were bold enough to confront the Army about what had happened. We also have modern smartphones to thank for getting the word out. One wonders how the worst years of Colombia’s conflict (late 90s, early 00s) would have gone if campesinos had cameras and broadband back then.
  2. Right now, the Army’s campaign in Catatumbo, just getting underway, could go one of two ways: horrific scorched earth, or “hearts and minds.” The spectacle of soldiers digging a grave for an extrajudicially executed civilian is a big warning sign of the former. Prieto’s article discusses some other recent incidents involving military personnel. Colombia needs to bring the Dimar Torres case to justice swiftly and conspicuously, or the military can forget about winning the trust of Catatumbo’s population. Note added April 28: the commander of the military task force in Catatumbo has acknowledged the crime and asked forgiveness. This is no substitute for a judicial process, but it is a very good first step on the “hearts and minds” front.
  3. Almost exactly 1 percent of demobilized guerrillas have now been killed. (Not counting dissident guerrillas killed in combat.) Colombia needs to get a handle on this quickly, improving protection and punishing those responsible, or the gains of the 2016 accord will evaporate.

The day ahead: April 25, 2019

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

I’ll barely be in the office today: I’ve got a meeting to talk about the border with a congressional staffer, a long mid-day meeting to help choose a human rights award nominee, and an afternoon medical appointment for my daughter.

The day ahead: April 24, 2019

I’m in the office from late morning until end of day. (How to contact me)

I’m home in the morning, at my computer while repair work gets done on our house. Other than a lunch with the interns and a meeting with some Colombians brought up by a State Department visitors’ program, I’ll be in the office working on two different articles: one about Colombia and one a nearly-done analysis of U.S.-Latin American security relations right now.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 23, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The America they were told about was a lie. They were not welcomed with open arms

As President Trump renews threats to close the border outright, customs brokers tell me their partners — in cross-border supply chains for aerospace, medical devices and agriculture — are “panicked”


The Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Brazil’s dominant criminal group with an estimated 30,000 members, controls key territory in major cities and large swaths in rural areas, as well as parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and beyond

The drop in lethal violence started well before the election of the self-styled crime-fighter-in-chief, President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in October 2018. Despite his attempts to claim these successes as his own, there is little evidence that his administration has had anything to do with the drop

Central America Regional, Mexico

As migrants gathered under spots of shade in the burning heat outside the city of Pijijiapan, federal police and agents passed by in patrol trucks and vans and forcibly wrestled women, men and children into the vehicles


¿Está el Gobierno dispuesto a gastar más de 8 billones de pesos anuales en una guerra contra las poblaciones cocaleras o mejor debería aumentar los 1,3 billones de pesos que se están destinando al programa de sustitución?

Básicamente, en todos los ETCR los predios están en arriendo y el Gobierno paga ese monto. Esa situación irá hasta agosto, cuando se deberá resolver si se compran los terrenos o si los excombatientes deben trasladarse

Colombia, Venezuela

The $1.7 million facility opened March 8 with 60 family-sized tents and a lengthy waiting list


En su nuevo libro, el investigador derrumba afirmaciones que, dice, son erróneas sobre la violencia


A full resumption of normal ties between the U.S. and Cuba should indeed require the victims of expropriation to be compensated. A process that could have yielded this result was underway thanks to the warming of relations under President Obama


A un año del inicio de las protestas contra el gobierno de Daniel Ortega, las autoridades sandinistas se esfuerzan por presentar un país al que ha vuelto la calma y la normalidad. La realidad es muy distinta

El Gobierno de Estados Unidos ha designado sanciones para siete altos funcionarios del régimen de Daniel Ortega, y al Bancorp, relacionado con Albanisa, que administra los millonarios fondos del acuerdo petrolero con Venezuela


The Russian report was approvingly reproduced by Telesur, Maduro’s main international propaganda outlet

The day ahead: April 23, 2019

I’ll be around, but writing, in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got a call with an NGO colleague, a dentist appointment, and a mid-day interview on CNN Español to talk about border militias. Then about four hours at my desk this afternoon, where I hope to work on one of four different writing projects, and hopefully finish one today.

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