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 2019

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Infobae. Caption: “Los oficiales de la Dgcim se mueven por la ciudad con máscaras truculentas para ocultar sus rostros”

(Even more here)

April 22, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The Trump administration’s declaration calls for $1 billion being diverted from military projects to build 57 miles of bollard barriers, with 46 of those miles in New Mexico’s Doña Ana and Luna counties

Mr. Hopkins was arrested on charges of firearms possession by a felon

The Trump administration’s approach to Latin America is a house of mirrors and contradictions as it emphasizes relations mainly through migration and crime


El Acuerdo de Paz creó una unidad especial para erradicar los grupos sucesores de los paramilitares. Casi dos años después de su creación no parece haber avances ni resultados contundentes

La injerencia del Tío Sam está comenzando a preocupar a algunos y a incomodar a otros. Desde hace mucho tiempo no había tantas decisiones tan estructurales bajo la lupa de Estados Unidos


Leaving for the United States is seen as a last choice, propelled by a cycle of debt that only fuels more migration. And while it’s too soon to predict the long-term impact of family migration, some of these villages are losing their future

As migration from Central America surges, a school funded by the U.S. government in a Guatemalan village aims to give youth the job skills to be successful in their own country. Will it keep them from heading north?

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

The most recent caravan left the bus station in San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras on April 10, and journalists from The Associated Press have been following various online migrant chats since late March

Central America Regional, Mexico

The outpouring of aid that once greeted Central American migrants as they trekked in caravans through southern Mexico has been drying up


The towns here in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas have long been a common stop on the migratory route for people heading north. But something began to change last October with the arrival of thousands of migrants traveling en masse

En enero, febrero y marzo de 2019 fueron asesinadas 8,493 personas en México, se trata del primer trimestre más violento del que haya registro (un 9 % arriba del arranque de 2018 que fue récord en su momento)


En semanas recientes, varias casas de Diriamba han amanecido con pintas en las que se lee: “¡Plomo!”, “¡Te estamos esperando!”, “¡Aquí vive un golpista!”

El poeta y sacerdote nicaragüense Ernesto Cardenal, recuperado tras 16 días hospitalizado con 94 años, celebra la figura del papa Francisco y lamenta la deriva de Ortega


  • Mario Vargas Llosa, Alan Garcia (El Pais (Spain), April 22, 2019).

¿Fue un político honesto, comparable a un José Luis Bustamante y Rivero o a Fernando Belaúnde Terry, dos presidentes que salieron de Palacio de Gobierno más pobres de lo que entraron? Yo creo sinceramente que no


Infobae conversó con un oficial del ejército que estuvo preso 45 días en la Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar de Caracas

Scott has spoken with President Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence about military options

The day ahead: April 22, 2019

I’ll be reachable for much of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

This morning I’m guest-teaching a class at American University and participating in WOLA’s weekly staff meeting. Other than a couple of phone calls in the early afternoon, I plan to be in the office writing; I now have a few active projects running and would like to finish one.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Thursday, April 25

  • 8:30–10:30 at the Notre Dame University Keogh School: Venezuela: Humanitarian Crisis and Struggle for Democracy (RSVP required).
  • 9:00 at the Atlantic Council: Venezuela After Maduro: A Vision for the Country’s Future (RSVP required).

Friday, April 26

  • 8:30–10:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Institutions for Productivity: Towards a Better Business Environment in Latin America (RSVP required).
  • 9:00-10:30 at the Council of the Americas: Beyond Silk and Silver: China’s New Road in the Americas (RSVP required).

The trashing of a once useful State Department report

Every March, the State Department publishes an annual report, required by law, providing a global survey of what countries around the world are doing to reduce supply and demand for illicit drugs. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) is a bit of a drug-war relic, but it contains a lot of information unavailable elsewhere, such as how much drugs countries seized, and what U.S. aid to their counter-drug forces looks like.

The INCSR gets rewritten every year. While a lot of the same phrasing reappears, you can tell a lot about the U.S. government’s posture by looking at what has changed. A prime example is the report’s discussion of the growth in Colombia’s coca crop, which the U.S. government estimates as increasing from 80,500 hectares in 2013 to 209,000 hectares in 2017.

This paragraph, which appears each year, has undergone a radical metamorphosis from the Obama to the Trump administrations. Once a useful if partial analysis of the phenomenon, it is now hot garbage.

March 2016 report:

Several factors contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia in 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements have been urging coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that Colombian government post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, empirical evidence demonstrates that counter-eradication tactics have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To hamper aerial eradication efforts coca growers: (1) shift fields to areas off limits to aerial eradication, including national parks and indigenous reserves; (2) plant smaller fields in areas where aerial eradication is permitted, to impede coca detection and aerial eradication; and (3) prune coca plants after being sprayed to prevent full absorption of the herbicide and save the plant for future harvests. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and significantly slow eradication operations by requiring extensive counter-IED detection efforts; and (3) plant fields in remote areas, requiring increased effort to detect, access, and eradicate fields. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2015 as compared to 2008. In mid-2015, however, the Colombian government announced a plan to dramatically increase the number of Colombian National Police (CNP) personnel devoted to manual eradication operations by about 100 percent to approximately 2,650, and to increase the number of manual eradicators by about 40 percent to approximately 1,050.

Here, State posits four reasons for the increase in coca-growing. (1) The peace accord, whose draft pointed to rewards for coca growers; (2) coca-growers’ resistance to aerial eradication; (3) coca-growers’ resistance to manual eradication; and (4) cuts to Colombia’s manual eradication budget.

As noted in a 2017 report, I would add a drop in the price of gold, which caused a big switch from illicit gold-mining to illicit coca-growing; a big weakening of the Colombian peso against the dollar, which made it look like coca’s farm-gate price was jumping; and declining Colombian spending on alternative development.

March 2017 report:

Several factors have contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements urged coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that the Colombian government’s post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, the Colombian government reduced eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lower the risk of armed conflict as the parties negotiated a final peace accord. Third, counter- eradication tactics employed by coca growers have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and (3) plant fields in areas less accessible to eradication efforts, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote areas. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2016 as compared to 2008.

In 2017 the “resistance to aerial eradication” argument goes away, which makes sense since the glyphosate-spraying program was suspended, due to health concerns, in October 2015. The recently signed peace accord gets blamed for a second phenomenon: the government soft-pedaling forced eradication to avoid disrupting the Havana dialogues. (I’ve talked to people in the Santos government who deny this, though the 2016 eradication figure, 18,000 hectares, was historically low.) The rest remains the same.

March 2018 report:

Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including the end of aerial spraying and indications that FARC elements urged farmers to plant coca, purportedly to take advantage of the Colombian government’s peace accord coca crop substitution program. Furthermore, counter-eradication tactics employed by coca growers have impeded the government’s manual eradication efforts, including blocking eradicators from accessing fields; placing improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and planting fields in inaccessible areas, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote regions.

Colombia’s suspension of aerial fumigation gets blamed in this year’s report, even though the report two years earlier detailed several ways that coca-growers had acted to make spraying less effective. The peace accord is again blamed for creating a perverse incentive, but the report doesn’t repeat the charge that the Santos government abstained from eradication to avoid harming the negotiations. The “reduced eradication budget” argument disappears because Colombia ramped up manual eradication in 2017.

March 2019 report:

Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including: the end of aerial spray of glyphosate on coca; a crop substitution program that created perverse incentives for coca growers to grow more coca; and the failure of the FARC to comply with the illicit drug provisions of the peace agreement. Drug traffickers employ effective counter- eradication tactics such as protests and the use of improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and to slow eradication operations.

This is the most contentious and poorly documented—we could say, “the Trumpiest”—edition of the report. It blames the peace accord’s entire crop substitution program for incentivizing coca-growing, even though the program caused the UN-verified voluntary eradication of 35,000 hectares of coca by the end of 2018. It claims that coca increased because the FARC cheated on its peace accord commitments: this is an explosive charge, but the report neglects to specify what commitments the FARC reneged on, or whether it is referring to all demobilized guerrillas or to the 10-20 percent who have retaken arms as “dissidents.”

Finally—and ominously, if you care about good analysis—it’s no longer “coca-growers” who take measures to resist manual eradication: it’s “drug traffickers.” At least 119,500 Colombian families live off the coca crop right now. For the State Department, these people are now drug traffickers. Language matters.

Over the course of the Trump administration, we’re seeing a relatively credible and careful report morph into a political document that we can no longer rely on as an accurate depiction of what is happening.

This change in the INCSR report’s language dovetails with President Trump’s and Ambassador Kevin Whitaker’s verbal attacks on the Colombian government this month for “not doing enough” about drugs. It raises the likelihood that, in September, President Trump will “decertify” Colombia as a partner in the drug war, placing Colombia on a small list of uncooperative countries that includes Venezuela and Bolivia.

That was once unthinkable because it would be so counter-productively stupid, given Colombia’s demonstrated willingness to do nearly everything the U.S. government asks on drug policy, trade policy, and Venezuela. But we live in counter-productively stupid times. At the rate we’re going, by next year this discussion of Colombia’s coca crop will probably just be 280 characters ending with “Sad!”

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 19, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Since January 2009, the bodies or skeletal remains of 642 migrants have been discovered in Brooks County

Members of the group, which calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots, filmed several of their actions in recent days, including the detention this week of a group of about 200 migrants who had recently crossed the border


In Rio de Janeiro state, which Bolsonaro represented as a federal congressman for nearly three decades, the number of people killed in confrontations with security officials rose 18 percent to 434 in the first three months of this year


The Trump administration has declared the most severe new sanctions against Cuba since President John F. Kennedy imposed an economic embargo banning all trade with the communist island in 1962


Amid pressure from Washington, Mexico is backpedaling on promises of better treatment for Central American migrants, leaving hundreds stranded in unsanitary camps near its southern border


Tres nicaragüenses cuentan, desde distintas trincheras, cómo han vivido el horror


Critics say prosecutors are abusing the use of preventive detention, a legal mechanism that allows suspects to be jailed for as long as three years without being charged as investigations are completed


Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA has started passing invoices from its oil sales to Rosneft

In his first interview since fleeing arrest and taking refuge in the Chilean diplomatic compound in Caracas, the former deputy head of the National Assembly discusses his country’s autocratic turn

The day ahead: April 19, 2019

I’m off today. (How to contact me)

As the child of a mixed marriage with two religious traditions, it’s always nice when Passover and Easter coincide. Even better when it’s on a weekend. I’ve got family showing up this afternoon, and will not be available for work-related stuff today. Have a good holiday.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Gregory Bull/AP photo at Mother Jones.

(Even more here)

April 18, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

U.S. Border Patrol agents released nearly 1,300 migrants in Yuma, which has a population of about 100,000, in the past three weeks

The ruling won’t address the heart of the current border crisis. Families make up a majority of people crossing into the US without papers


The group of 12 politicians asked Donald Trump to use Washington’s influence within the Organization of American States to prevent Bolivian President Evo Morales from running for another term


President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is at war with itself, and the president is increasingly unable to control the factions close to him jockeying for influence

Colombia, Venezuela

The report explores how these recruits are funnelled into numerous lines of illegal work, including drug trafficking, micro-trafficking, fuel smuggling, illegal mining of gold, coltan and copper, or being employed as “gariteros”


El presidente rechazó el atentado que sufrió la familia del excombatiente de las extintas Farc y en el que perdió la vida el menor de 7 meses

Los congresistas se refieren, sin duda, a la reunión que sostuvo el embajador estadounidense con senadores y representantes en días previos a la votación de las objeciones presidenciales a la ley estatutaria de la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz

They agreed with the Secretary-General’s assessment that the peace process stands today at a critical juncture

El representante Kevin McCarthy anunció que estarán este jueves en la frontera colombo-venezolana


U.S. citizens will now be allowed to sue any entity or person found to be “trafficking” in property that was expropriated from U.S. citizens after the 1959 revolution

The re-tightened restrictions also could impact air travel because of a reduction of passengers


As alleged, Estrada and Gonzalez conspired to solicit Sinaloa Cartel money to finance a corrupt scheme to elect Estrada president of Guatemala

Colombia, Mexico

Una organización campesina del sureño municipio colombiano de Piamonte denunció este miércoles que grupos armados, entre los cuales se menciona al Cártel de Sinaloa, amenazaron de muerte a varios dirigentes sociales de la zona


“No nos oponemos a eso, pero que lo hagan por tierra, y que además nos traigan proyectos productivos”, dijo uno de los comisarios

Miles de cubanos, congoleños, angoleños, haitianos y centroamericanos se acumulan en la frontera sur de México tras la orden del Gobierno de López Obrador de suspender en Tapachula los trámites migratorios para quienes se dirigen a EE UU

When their names were finally called, they were detained for three days in extremely cold cells and then released back into Tijuana as part of the Trump policy known as Remain in Mexico

Ambas organizaciones, “La Línea” y “Gente Nueva”, han protagonizado sanguinarios enfrentamientos que ha aumentado la violencia principalmente en Chihuahua


Alan García, the former two-time president of Peru, died Wednesday morning after shooting himself as police attempted to arrest him in the wide-ranging corruption scandal that has implicated scores of leaders

When the authorities arrived at the home of the former president, Alan García, with an arrest warrant, he locked himself into his bedroom, shot himself and was rushed to a hospital


The U.S. strategy of sanctions and isolation has yet to show any concrete wins — and in some ways, may even be backfiring

The day ahead: April 18, 2019

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

I’m in the office, and will be finishing a big-picture article, for a Latin American publication, about current U.S. policy toward the region. Also adding new information to my database. I’m off tomorrow, Good Friday/Passover.

Updated border and migration graphics are always here

I keep up-to-date a big PDF file full of stats and graphics about security and migration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border. Right now, it’s 2.2 megabytes and 36 pages long, and you can download it here or, more memorably, at the shortcut

It covers migration, Border Patrol staffing, the immigration court backlog, and security measures like terrorism, drugs, and so-called “spillover” violence (which doesn’t happen).

I just updated it again, with the March migration data that CBP released last week, while I was traveling at the border. Incidentally, I’ve screenshot every instance of that monthly report since it was first released in May 2014.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

Paul Ratje / AFP / Getty Images photo at The Los Angeles Times. Caption: “Internal memos say Trump officials to resume forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.”

April 17, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Mr. Barr’s decision does not affect unaccompanied children or families who cross into the United States illegally. A longstanding settlement in a previous court case says that the government cannot detain children or families for longer than 20 days

After the President left the room, agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not giving them that direction and if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told


El 15 de agosto se acaba la figura que creó los espacios territoriales en los que viven casi 3.500 excombatientes

Ni los jefes de las antiguas Farc se sienten seguros en los llanos, donde tuvieron su fortín. Al escenario, dominado por las disidencias de Gentil Duarte, se suman grupos posparamilitares y se asoman los elenos

Esta conversación, registrada el 3 de febrero de 2018, es una de las pruebas que tiene la Fiscalía en el proceso penal por terrorismo y concierto para delinquir en contra del cubano

Colombia, Venezuela

In the Casablanca of the Andes, seemingly everyone’s plotting—or counterplotting—for control of neighboring Venezuela


El ataque a una comisión de la Unidad de Restitución de Tierras, el pasado 11 de abril, habría sido perpetrado por una organización cuyo objetivo es “exterminar” a todo campesino que reclame tierra o verdad

Resulta desconcertante que aun cuando los capturaron cometiendo el delito, el 95 por ciento de ellos quedaron en libertad, según cifras de la Fiscalía y la Policía

Leiner Palacios, líder social de ese territorio chocoano y sobreviviente de la masacre de Bojayá, aseguró a EL COLOMBIANO que puede presentarse no solo una masacre como la que el presenció, sino otras incluso más fuertes


The major policy shift, which will be announced on Wednesday, could expose U.S., European and Canadian companies to legal action and deal a blow to Cuba’s efforts to attract more foreign investment


Under the policy, which then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced in December, authorities have forcibly returned more than 1,000 asylum seekers

La Presidencia informó a Animal Político que el gobierno buscará dar marcha atrás a su propia propuesta y que este requisito se elimine

Rodríguez Bucio se pregunta: ¿cuáles fueron los principales problemas externos e internos que enfrentaron las Fuerzas Armadas Mexicanas (FAMs) con motivo de su participación en la estrategia mencionada?

El gobierno de Andrés Manuel López Obrador pretende dotar a la Guardia Nacional de facultades para revisar documentos y arrestar a migrantes que transiten por territorio mexicano y custodiar los centros de detención migratoria

Este semanario revela los pormenores de esos acuerdos, que son trastocados una y otra vez por la ira de Trump

López Obrador ha utilizado sistemáticamente ese espacio para desacreditar a reporteros, columnistas y a medios de comunicación que lo critican


Opposition calls for a return to the streets as talks between government and civil society leaders stall


Some express anger at what they see as ineffectual U.S. bluster and are calling colleagues still inside, telling them to stay put

Colombia, Honduras, Venezuela

US and other regional officials say it’s Venezuela’s own military and political elite who are facilitating the passage of drugs in and out of the country on hundreds of tiny, unmarked planes


After denying for years that Venezuelans were suffering a humanitarian crisis, the government allowed the Red Cross to send in 24 tons of medical equipment

Several Pentagon officials continue to say there is no appetite at the Department of Defense for using US military force against the Venezuelan regime to try to force it from power

The day ahead: April 17, 2019

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

Holy week is setting in, with Congress out of session and much of Latin America on vacation. Other than a long-ish phone interview with a reporter, I’m going to be in the office all day, catching up on tasks left undone because of last week’s travels, including updating my security database and our border statistics.

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