Adam Isacson

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

June 2019

The day ahead: June 7, 2019

I’m in the office in the morning, writing at home in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m deep into working on a report about the border. Available, though replies may be delayed.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Marco Ugarte/Associated Press photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “Mexican authorities stop a migrant caravan that had earlier crossed the Mexico – Guatemala border, near Metapa, Chiapas state, Mexico, Wednesday, June 5, 2019.”

(Even more here)

June 6, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

A disgraceful misuse of taxpayer $$,” Durbin said on Twitter. “Our military has more important work to do than making Trump’s wall beautiful”

“At the end of the day, as a medical provider, as a physician, we take an oath to first do no harm. And taking somebody’s medications seems like it’s causing harm”

It was by far the largest one-month arrest total since President Trump took office, and it was the highest monthly figure in 13 years

There really is something unprecedented — and deadly — happening at the US/Mexico border right now. But the threat is to migrants themselves

Health and Human Services, which is responsible for caring for children under 18 years old until they can be given to an adult relative, stated it has taken about 40,900 children into custody through April 30. That’s a 57% increase from last year

In an email obtained by The Washington Post, U.S. officials say program for sheltering minors who crossed the border is running out of money, must focus on “essential” services


Varios senadores se sorprendieron cuando escucharon al senador Lozada pronunciando palabras de elogio a las Fuerzas Armadas y la Policía

Con una votación de 58 contra 19 se negó la proposición de la oposición de votar por separado el ascenso de este oficial y eso dio vía libre para su promoción a la mayor dignidad de las Fuerzas Militares

The internal report puts the number of combatants belonging to dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) groups at around 2,300, a sharp increase from about 300 at the time of the controversial peace agreement

Entre los agentes acusados figuran Brian Witek, quien dirigió un operativo de “entrampamiento” (incitación al delito, lo que es ilegal en Colombia) contra el exguerrillero de las FARC Jesús Santrich

El resultado es preocupante, a cuatro meses de las elecciones, el pico de violencia, secuestros y asesinatos contra líderes políticos va a alcanzar su punto más alto

Según Barbosa, en lo corrido de este año están verificados 22 asesinatos. claro que la ONU ya ha recibido reportes de 57 posibles casos de líderes y defensores asesinados, que están en proceso de documentación

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

English Map on Guatemala and 4 other countries about Food and Nutrition, Protection and Human Rights, Refugees and Drought; published on 03 Jun 2019 by ECHO

El Salvador

Las probabilidades de que la gestión de Nayib Bukele resulte ser la continuación de la corrupción sistémica, el nepotismo, la preferencia por el autoritarismo y la ineficiencia en las instituciones, son perturbadoramente altas


Plans to renegotiate a regional open-borders agreement, break up migrant caravans and subject families to DNA testing


Juan Orlando Hernández, the US government’s top ally in Central America, is under increasing pressure amid public anger over crumbling public services, dismal approval ratings – and explosive revelations that he was the subject of a US Drug Enforcement Administration trafficking investigation


President López Obrador has few cards to play. But any alternative is preferable to continuing to kowtow to Washington

Unarmed agents wrestled some migrants who resisted to the ground, but the vast majority complied and boarded buses or immigration agency vans

Este fuerte operativo ocurrió en medio de las negociaciones que el gobierno mexicano emprende en Washington con la administración del presidente Donald Trump para evitar que éste imponga aranceles

As in previous crackdowns, migrants will be forced to take longer, more risky routes – such as the Beast – to avoid immigration checkpoints

Both countries early this year set the target, which the people said was as many as 800 detainees per day

Deportations from Mexico have been on the rise in recent months, and the country has launched several new efforts in response to the situation


‘The moment Maduro leaves, everybody’s going to raise their hands and [say], “Take me, I’m the next president of Venezuela,” ’ Pompeo said in an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post

More processing capacity, now, would make a big difference at the border

This is a personal view. I’m not an expert on immigration policy or asylum law, nor do I plan to be. But I’ve done lots of work on border security, and this is my strong impression after having lots of conversations, visiting a few processing facilities, and volunteering in a respite center. Am I missing something? Comments are open.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is saying that 4,500 people per day, most of them children and parents, are arriving at the border right now. Most are released shortly afterward, with a date to appear before an asylum officer. 

Before that happens, they spend a few days or more packed into small, austere holding facilities designed for what until recently was the profile of nearly all migrants at the border: single males. A Homeland Security Department Inspector-General alert published May 30 shows horrific photos of adults packed into the small holding facility next to the Paso del Norte bridge in El Paso, the bridge under which CBP held hundreds of Central American families behind a fence for four days in March. (I’ve been to that facility twice, it has less than a dozen holding spaces, each about the size of an above-average office.) The report shows dozens of children and parents continuing to be held outdoors in the Paso del Norte facility’s parking lot.

From the Homeland Security Inspector-General’s May 30 alert.

This is unacceptable and heartbreaking. But it’s not a national-security threat, and it’s fixable. Ultimately, it’s an administrative issue: a big and complex one, but nothing the U.S. government can’t handle. Any short-term solution depends on short-term processing capacity.

I know, that sounds boring and bureaucratic. I know, it involves giving resources to CBP, an agency with big problems. And I now, it’s only a small component of a larger solution that must run from Central American neighborhoods to U.S. immigration courts. (See the five-part proposal that WOLA colleagues and I wrote up in early April.)

But I insist: the most pressing need right now is for more short-term processing capacity. Even countries with the world’s most generous asylum systems need to receive and process people when they arrive asking for protection. During processing, officials determine whether arriving individuals have communicable diseases or otherwise need medical attention. They verify family relationships. They do criminal background checks. For those who express fear of return, they start the asylum paperwork and schedule their first appearance before an asylum officer or a court.

During this time, officials must also give the arrivals access to bathing and clothing, a dignified place to sleep, food, hydration, medicine, and childcare.

CBP’s processing facilities are meant to be temporary way stations where migrants spend two or three days, and they should stay that way. But they are severely inadequate for attending to the new profile of migrant—kids and parents—whose numbers began to increase back in 2012-13. This year so far, 66 percent of apprehended migrants are children and families. We are now in the third, and largest, big wave of children and families fleeing Central America since 2014. This is normal now. Numbers may decline during the hot summer months, but they’ll go up again.

Current facilities include holding cells in Border Patrol stations, a warehouse-sized building in McAllen, Texas (and another to be built soon in El Paso), small numbers of cells at ports of entry, and right now, some temporary structures where migrants are kept in tents. They are staffed almost entirely by CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, and the agencies complain that they’re losing large percentages of staff time to asylum paperwork, changing diapers, feeding people, and similar non-law enforcement tasks.

Amid the current wave, short-term holding and processing capacity is beyond overwhelmed. It’s overcrowded because of the large number of arrivals, and staffing challenges mean processing times are routinely exceeding two or three days.

Here’s what has to happen:

  1. There’s an urgent need for more space to accommodate and process people upon arrival. Every one of CBP’s border sectors needs a large, permanent short-term processing facility. I say “permanent” because large-scale, protection-seeking migration is very likely to continue, in ebbs and flows, in coming years.
  2. The facilities need to be far less austere than what exists today. The warehouse-sized McAllen “central processing facility,” built to deal with the 2014 child migrant wave, became famous during last year’s family separation crisis as the site of the “cages”: the media and visiting members of Congress discovered that children were being kept in chain-link fence enclosures, with mylar blankets to keep warm. The same conditions prevailed during the Obama administration. Less austere conditions cost money, and the 2019 Homeland Security budget appropriation includes some funds for that. Though it’s probably impossible to provide individual quarters to thousands of arriving families per day, the short-term processing experience needs to be more dignified than it has been.
  3. The additional short-term capacity should be linked to ports of entry. The goal should be for CBP to have enough space and personnel to ensure that everyone who presents themselves and requests asylum at official land ports of entry can quickly be taken to a processing center. Right now, claiming a lack of holding space and personnel, CBP is “metering” arrivals at the official border crossings. This has forced nearly 19,000 people onto precarious waitlists in Mexican border towns. It has caused many times more people to jump the fence or cross the Rio Grande to await Border Patrol apprehension, which guarantees them immediate processing even though it’s technically against the law. With sufficient processing capacity, none of this would be necessary: asylum-seekers could present themselves to CBP officers at the ports of entry, express fear of return, and be taken to the nearest processing facility that same day. It would be orderly.
  4. The additional short-term capacity need not be staffed with armed, uniformed CBP and Border Patrol agents. Most tasks in the short-term processing facilities do not require agents’ law-enforcement training and could be contracted out. Many of those contract employees should be civilians experienced in working with children, and with survivors of trauma.
  5. After a maximum of 72 hours in a processing facility, asylum-seekers, including most adults, could be released with a requirement to appear before an immigration judge, as families are now. Assistance could go to non-profit respite centers that place migrants in contact with relatives and arrange transportation to their destination cities.
  6. Complaints about people failing to show up for court dates could be assuaged by expanded family case management programs. These, which have undergone very successful pilot testing, involve frequent check-ins and monitoring with caseworkers who ensure attendance at immigration hearings. They cost a fraction of what detention costs.
  7. Also necessary would be to increase the number of immigration judges beyond the current 400 or so, in order to reduce asylum case backlogs. The goal should be to have the capacity to adjudicate asylum cases within a year or so—not the three or four years, with minimal monitoring, that it’s taking now. The chance of being adjudicated and sent back within a year, with regular check-ins with caseworkers, would likely convince those with less-solid asylum cases not to bother selling their belongings and paying many thousands of dollars to smugglers. (Though this isn’t a short-term response, these expanded immigration courts should also be moved out of the executive branch—they’re part of the Justice Department right now. The American Bar Association has proposed making them independent “Article 1” courts, part of the legislative branch.)

In meetings this year with people on both sides of the issue, I haven’t received much pushback when I bring up the need for more short-term processing capacity. The details probably would complicate things, and this would carry a price tag over $1 billion (though far below what a border wall and expanded detentions would cost). But right now, very little seems to be happening on the “short-term processing” front despite the evident overwhelm.

In early May, the Trump administration sent Congress a request for an additional $4.5 billion to deal with the spike in migrant arrivals. That request included some “poison pills” that would never get through the Democratic-majority House of Representatives, like funding for additional ICE detention, the National Guard deployment at the border, and more money for criminal prosecutions of migrants. It does, however, include $530 million for additional short-term processing capacity. 

The description in the request hints at somewhat better conditions—blankets, showers, meals. But it relies on “tent cities”—it calls them “soft-sided facilities”—rather than a more permanent solution. While it includes money for non-law enforcement personnel to staff the facilities, they would be employees of other federal agencies on temporary duty. While that may be the only way to build capacity right now, this summer, it also tells us that DHS still assumes that the asylum-seeker flow is a temporary problem that might go away. The experience since 2014 indicates otherwise.

While the $530 million plan may cover some temporary processing needs for the next few months, the border needs a short-term processing-space and personnel solution that is more permanent. Congress must ask CBP what it would cost to build permanent short-term processing facilities in each border sector—with enough capacity to make it possible for asylum-seekers just to show up at ports of entry, and be taken there. That cost estimate should include paying non-law enforcement personnel to handle processing and care while the asylum-seekers are in this short-term custody. It should also include the cost of treating arriving people with human dignity during their time in processing. Congress should then fund the amount that CBP comes up with.

The day ahead: June 6, 2019

I’m in meetings until late afternoon. (How to contact me)

After a day at home writing, I’m back in the working world today. A meeting with congressional staff, lunch with a new intern, interviewing a candidate for a senior position at WOLA, and a meeting at USAID. I should be back in the office near the end of the day.

Graphics: border numbers through May

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just released new border migration numbers through May. Border Patrol apprehended more migrants in May 2019 than in any month since March 2006 (monthly data here).But back then, something like 95% of migrants were single adults. In May, only 27% were single adults.

In what is becoming a monthly ritual, here are the numbers in graphical form. You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

Two-thirds of migrants apprehended this year are kids or parents. That is unprecedented, and was absolutely unimaginable only a few years ago.
In May, 73 percent of all migrants apprehended at the border were children or parents. Nearly three out of four.
Apprehensions of single adults are up, but not even as high as they were in 2014 and earlier years. Child and family migration accounts for nearly all of the current increase.
It’s not just the United States. #Mexico is on the way to another vertiginous increase in asylum-seekers this year. In 5 months, Mexico has almost equaled its 2018 applicants figure, which was a huge increase at the time.
Assuming maybe 8,000 single adults, about 1 out of every 205 people in Honduras was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in May alone. Honduras saw the biggest child and parent apprehensions increase over October-May ’18: 433%.
About 1 in 350 Guatemalans was apprehended at the border in May. Guatemala is the number-one nationality of migrants apprehended at the border. Followed by Honduras, and then Mexico—the actual bordering country.
El Salvador is in third place in border apprehensions among the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries, but its growth rate is not far behind Honduras.
Border apprehensions of children and families from outside the Northern Triangle and Mexico are also way up. Are they Cuban? Venezuelan? Nicaraguan? From Asia or Africa? Probably all of the above, but CBP doesn’t report other nationalities monthly.
Look at this increase in Cubans arriving at border ports of entry. The January 2017 drop was the Obama administration’s revocation of the “wet foot dry foot” policy granting admittance to any Cuban who could touch U.S. soil. Numbers are recovering fast.
At ports of entry, CBP’s “metering” practice continues to restrict, severely, the number of people who can ask for asylum. All of the growth in child-family migration is happening between ports of entry. This means smugglers get more money, and Border Patrol gets nearly all processing duty.
Here’s the above “metering” graph, zoomed in and just showing kids and families. They’re about 4,500 per month, rarely over.

Finally, some charts showing border drug seizures through May. Note how nearly all drugs are overwhelmingly seized at the official land ports of entry. The action is not in the areas between the ports, where Border Patrol operates.

Border marijuana seizures have dropped precipitously since several US states legalized/regulated cannabis.

You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

June 5, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Command officials are in the midst of an investigation into claims an active-duty Marine fired his sidearm after a physical confrontation with three unknown individuals during a surveillance operation near the El Centro Border Patrol station

Defense Department spokesman Major Chris Mitchell said that HHS would soon be touring Fort Benning with defense officials

Across most of Latin America a higher proportion of women than men are awaiting trial behind bars


The world’s greatest rainforest – which is a vital provider of oxygen and carbon sequestration – lost 739sq km during the 31 days, equivalent to two football pitches every minute

Colombia, Venezuela

A voluntary program called Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP) would allow them to live and work legally in the country. Another option offers the defectors a three-month stipend to help get them on their feet

Every day, hundreds of Venezuelans cross the Arauca river into Colombia in search of a better life — but first, they must run a gauntlet of rebels, drug runners and land mines


At least 23 of the cases under scrutiny date back to the period when the general was second-in-command of the 10 Brigade

We urge the Colombian government to cease inciting violence against demobilised individuals of the FARC-EP and to meet the guarantees that were made to them during the negotiations in Havana

Since WOLA’s last update on April 29, at least a dozen more Colombian activists or members of vulnerable Afro-Colombian, indigenous and rural communities were murdered


The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular forms of U.S. travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel

The move is likely to have a major economic impact in Cuba, whose economy is already reeling from decreased economic aid from Havana’s main ally, Venezuela


El Secretario de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana resaltó que este gasto implica el paso de los elementos de las Fuerzas Armadas y la Policía Federal a la nueva corporación

Imposition of tariffs on all Mexican goods requires a legal justification, and administration officials say the existing emergency declaration could provide the basis for that, although it’s also possible Trump would declare a new emergency

59 por ciento cree que México debería considerar dejar a Estados Unidos y buscar otros socios comerciales, como China

Defensores de derechos humanos consideraron “preocupante” y “desalentador” que el jefe del Ejecutivo se negara a escuchar lo que la Comisión tiene que decirle sobre la situación de los derechos humanos

Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security have said they want Mexico to strengthen security on its border with Guatemala and intensify its investigation of smuggling rings that transport most migrants across Mexican territory


Venezuela has overtaken China to become the No. 1 country of origin for those claiming asylum in the U.S. upon arrival or shortly after, with nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applying for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2018

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? New analysis at WOLA’s website

Here’s a short analysis posted to WOLA’s website (Español). It jumps off from last Friday’s Washington Post finding that dozens of CBP and ICE officers may be sent to Guatemala to work as “advisors” at the country’s border with Mexico.

The piece is built around a listing of Homeland Security and Defense Department deployments to Guatemala in recent years, collected from my database. Those have had names like “Operation Citadel,” “Operation Regional Shield,” “Operation Hornet,” “Operation Together Forward,” and several others.

The point is that even if the past deployments brought some results, they made no difference in migrant and drug-smuggling out of Guatemala. And nor will any new 80-person mission.

They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. 

Read the whole thing here (Español).

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ben K. Navratil / U.S. Army photo at Stars and Stripes. Caption: “A team of soldiers with 610th Engineer Support Company attach a string of concertina wire to the border fence at San Luis, Ariz., on March 14, 2019.”

(Even more here)

June 4, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The military, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI are investigating circumstances surrounding the death, though foul play is not suspected

The decision is at odds with a May 24 ruling by a federal judge in California that temporarily blocked part of the plan because it was using money Congress never appropriated for that purpose

No More Deaths, founded in 2004, generally has operated without penalties, but its relations with the Border Patrol have not always been smooth

CBP said in a statement later Monday that the woman collapsed about 25 minutes after being apprehended, and that agents “quickly initiated emergency medical care.”

Brazil, Venezuela

In the past 12 months, the government spent more than $67 million from state funds to support military activities associated with Operation Shelter (Operação Acolhida) in the state of Roraima

Colombia, Venezuela

Esta es la historia de cómo las autoridades descubrieron una organización señalada de traficar armas de Venezuela para los combos de Medellín. Cinco detenidos se declararon inocentes

Al término del encuentro, Lavrov reconoció que había hablado con su colega colombiano sobre posibles nuevos suministros de equipos militares


Pese a los tropiezos jurídicos y los incumplimientos en torno a los acuerdos del proceso de paz, la mayoría de los excombatientes se mantienen en su promesa de abandonar las armas y apostarle a la reincorporación a la vida civil

Across rural Colombia, six out of 10 plots of land do not have a formal title or are not registered, according to USAID

Según las denuncias de la comunidad, el Escuadron Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD, agredió indiscriminadamente a los manifestantes, dejando un número indeterminado de afectaciones


Honduras’ most powerful drug trafficking organization, Los Cachiros, bribed the country’s former president and opened a line of communication to current President Juan Orlando Hernández, documents recently unsealed in a New York federal court show


On a given day, three of San Diego’s seven judges generally have afternoons full of MPP cases. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 82 people were scheduled to appear before three judges

According to the raftsmen, the recent crackdown by the Mexican authorities has not affected their illegal traffic

Hemos recibido 24,541 solicitudes de refugio, así como 8,835 migrantes retornados de Estados Unidos que realizan su proceso migratorio ante tribunales estadounidenses mientras aguardan en territorio mexicano

Each fissure redraws the front lines, ushering in fresh spates of killings. And each split carries the conflict deeper into society


Recently concluded talks in Norway and separate discussions between Europe and both sides of the Venezuelan divide have effectively pushed the U.S. to the margins

Peskov said he had no idea what Trump’s tweet was referring to

There is speculation in Washington that sealed indictments of members of Mr. Maduro’s inner circle already exist and that the Justice Department is waiting for the right moment to release them

Some articles I found interesting this morning

AFP/Getty Images photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “This image released by U.S. Border and Custom Protection [sic.] shows a group of migrants apprehended after crossing the border from Mexico on Wednesday.”

(Even more here)

June 3, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

From 2009 to 2014, at least 214 complaints were filed against federal agents for abusing or mistreating migrant children. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s records, only one employee was disciplined

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sent a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security complaining about the treatment of gay and transgender detainees at the Otero County Processing Center


Su triunfo momentáneo dejó a la rama judicial –con excepción de la Fiscalía– en posición contraria al Gobierno, que reaccionó ante la libertad del exguerrillero en forma categórica

SEMANA fue hasta el lugar en el que un cabo del Ejército asesinó a este desmovilizado, que se había acogido al proceso de paz. Lo quiso hacer pasar por guerrillero del ELN, como en las más cruentas épocas de los falsos positivos

Desde diciembre de 2018 hasta la semana pasada 13 precandidatos han sido atacados, amenazados o asesinados en la región, lo que la confirma como una de las regiones más peligrosas en época electoral

El Salvador

Un viejo reclamo de las víctimas de la Guerra Civil en El Salvador fue finalmente escuchado

Horas después, sin embargo, tomó una decisión que el gobierno anterior evadió por 10 años: ordenó a la Fuerza Armada que retire honores a Domingo Monterrosa, señalado como responsable de la masacre en El Mozote


En 2013, cuando la Cicig anunció que investigaría el financiamiento ilícito de las campañas políticas, pocos imaginaban que en 2019 tantos candidatos o funcionarios serían vinculados al narcotráfico. Sin embargo, el nexo crimen organizado/política, por medio de las Redes Político Económicas Ilícitas, cumple al menos medio siglo


En 122 días que van del año 2019 se ha producido una masacre cada 3.9 días, lo que demuestra que los “asesinatos múltiples”, como les llama el gobierno, van en galopante aumento


It’s the first time since 1997 that a Mexican leader has had such a broad mandate

There has also been some expert trolling

La carta enviada a Trump por López Obrador contrasta con lo que sucede en la frontera sur de México, donde ONG denuncian hostigamiento de las autoridades migratorias para detener y deportar personas sin documentos

“So, there’s no specific target, there’s no specific percentage, but things have to get better,” Mulvaney said. “They have to get dramatically better and they have to get better quickly”

He emphasized that Mexico’s main proposal to stop migration is to invest in Central America and that its immigration policy was bound by international treaties on migration, Mexico’s constitution “and its own dignity”


The country has been caught in a seesawing conflict between two Presidents—one spuriously elected but backed by the armed forces, the other self-proclaimed but endorsed by much of the Western world

Russian state defense contractor Rostec, which has trained Venezuelan troops and advised on securing arms contracts, has cut its staff in Venezuela to just a few dozen, from about 1,000 at the height of cooperation between Moscow and Caracas several years ago

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, June 3

  • 3:30–5:00 at WOLA: New Research on Human Rights Trials in Latin America (RSVP required).

Tuesday, June 4

  • 10:00–11:00 at Brookings: How security cooperation advances US interests (RSVP required).
  • 1:00–2:30 at the Wilson Center: Trump, Tariffs, and U.S.-Mexico Relations: Finding a Path Forward (RSVP required).

Wednesday, June 5

The day ahead: June 3, 2019

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

I have a weekly staff meeting that promises to run long this morning, and a meeting with colleagues to plan a southern Mexico research trip for August. Otherwise I’ll be around, writing, every moment I get.

Colombia’s return to the discredited “body count” strategy

Image of the form described in the caption.

Leer en español

A May 18 New York Times article revealed an alarming shift in how Colombia’s army, under leadership that took over last December, is measuring “success” in its operations.

The article got a lot of attention because of the human rights angle, especially the possibility of a return to “false positive” extrajudicial killings. And indeed, in the runup to the Times piece, Colombian media outlets had begun relaying reports of military personnel being more aggressive with civilians.

But the danger, and the counterproductivity, of this new policy go beyond human rights. The changes at the top indicate a return to “body counts” as the Colombian military’s main measure of success.

That’s a failed and discredited approach, which most of us thought had long been buried. But the right-wing government of President Iván Duque has dug it up. With a new cohort of commanders who rose during the “false positives” period, the old ways have come roaring back. Times reporter Nick Casey relayed what he heard from military officers who came forward to voice concern:

[A] major shift took place, they say, when [Army Commander] General [Nicacio] Martínez called a meeting of his top officers in January, a month after assuming command of the army.

… After a break, the commanders returned to tables where they found a form waiting for each one of them, the officers said. The form had the title “Goal Setting 2019” at the top and a place for each commander to sign at the bottom.

The form asked commanders to list the “arithmetic sum of surrenders, captures and deaths” of various armed groups for the previous year in one column, and then provide a goal for the following year.

Some of the commanders seemed confused — until they were instructed to double their numbers this year, the officers said.

In the post-peace accord period, Colombia’s military has identified several internal enemies as national security threats: the ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, the “Gulf Clan” paramilitary network, and smaller, regional groups. Together, they total over 10,000 fighters, plus support networks.

But when Colombia’s forces take out a leader, kill several fighters in combat, or convince some to demobilize, nothing really happens. The territories where these groups operate continue to be ungoverned.

Roads are scarce, and paved roads are unheard of. So are land titles. There is probably no connection to the electrical grid. Post-primary schools are distant. Residents report going months or years without seeing a non-uniformed representative of national or local government. The idea of going to the judicial system to resolve a dispute is beyond laughable: many municipalities (counties) have neither judges nor prosecutors.

In that environment, a military unit that comes in seeking high body counts comes away with two results. First, a terrorized population whose distrust of government is greater than before. And second, new armed groups—or other elements of the same armed groups—filling in the vacuum and taking over the territory’s illicit economy. Within weeks, a new commander, a new group or groups, or several warring factions are profiting the same as before from drug production and transshipment, illegal mining, fuel trafficking, extortion, and other income streams. A high “body count” changes little on the ground.

Militaries have known this for a while. For situations like rural Colombia’s, they’ve discarded “body counts” some time ago, and developed a whole field called “stability operations.” Here’s what the U.S. Army’s Stability Operations manual says about how security forces should measure “success”:

Throughout U.S. history, the Army has learned that military force alone cannot secure sustainable peace. A comprehensive approach is required, as well as in-depth understanding of an operational environment. Stability ultimately aims to establish conditions the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stabilization is a process in which personnel identify and mitigate underlying sources of instability to establish the conditions for long-term stability. Therefore, stability tasks focus on identifying and targeting the root causes of instability and building the capacity of local institutions.

Instead of asking “how many enemies did we take out,” then, the question is more like “can the government do what a government is supposed to do in the territory, and does the population feel that this is a good thing that is making their lives better?”

For too long, Colombia’s military measured its success with body counts. This culminated, most tragically, in the “false positives” scandal that broke in 2008. It turned out that soldiers, seeking to earn rewards and be viewed as successful in a “body count” climate, ended up killing thousands of innocent civilians, at times buying the cadavers from paramilitaries and criminals.

The measures of success started changing in the late ‘00s, near the end of then-President Álvaro Uribe’s second term. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Vice-Minister Sergio Jaramillo, working with David Petraeus-era U.S. military officers who’d been burned by the failures of the Iraq war, moved toward the second way of measuring success. They developed “territorial consolidation” metrics based on violence indicators, government presence, and the population’s access to basic goods. “Consolidation of territorial control,” read a 2007 Defense Ministry document,

shall be understood as a scenario in which the security provided by the security forces guarantees that the state may make public order prevail, and allow all institutions to function freely and permanently, so that citizens may fully exercise their rights.

They didn’t quite succeed at that: after some notable initial gains, the “Consolidation” effort petered out by 2013 or so for lack of political support, and the civilian part of the government usually failed to show up behind the soldiers. Still, as president, Santos named armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía, who developed a new military doctrine putting many of these new success measures at its core, including in the Army’s 2017 “stabilization” manual:

The objective of stability is to reduce the level of violence; toward that goal the military forces carry out operations mainly characterized by supporting the functioning of government, economic, and social institutions, and general adherence to local law as, rules, and norms of behavior.

Then, together with Jaramillo as peace commissioner, Santos negotiated a peace accord committing the government, once again, to try to “enter” the countryside, often for the first time. This comes through most strongly in the 2016 FARC peace accords’ first chapter on “rural reform.”

[N]ational plans financed and promoted by the state must be set up with a view to achieving the comprehensive rural development that will provide public services and goods, such as for education, health, recreation, infrastructure, technical assistance, food and nutrition, inter alia, which promote well-being and a dignified way of life for the rural population – girls, boys, men and women.

A military commander seeking success metrics like these would be measuring miles of road paved, children able to attend school, hectares of land titled, and poll data showing perceptions that the government has become more responsive and accountable. The commander would NOT be asked to fill in forms indicating how many fighters the unit would kill or otherwise “neutralize” in the coming year.

It’s not at all clear why Colombia’s Defense Ministry would want to take such a big step backward. A partial explanation could be Colombia now having a right-populist government that, because it represents large landholders’ interests, doesn’t place a priority on reforming rural areas. Perhaps, too, the Colombian military’s Southern Command counterparts have stopped communicating the “stability operations” vision, as the U.S. Defense Department’s current strategy now emphasizes great-power conflict over “small wars.”

But that’s not enough to explain this misstep. It could be something much simpler. Maybe the new high command just lacks imagination, and wants to go back to doing what they know—whether it works or not.

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