Adam Isacson

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

September 2019

A bad misreading of Colombia’s moment

“Fewer than three years after Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group signed a peace agreement with the government, the terror leaders have said never mind,” reads today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal’s influential and ultraconservative editorial page. For the Journal, the defection of former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez and a handful of other ex-leaders means that the peace accord is over: “[T]he country’s war on terrorism is back on. But the truth is that it was never off. The sooner everyone admits that the better.”

There are three things wrong with this analysis. (You can read my analysis of Márquez’s August 29 defection in the September 3 New York Times.) They are:

1. Assuming that today’s FARC is a monolith. The Journal doesn’t distinguish between re-armed “dissidents” like Márquez, and the 90-plus percent of ex-guerrillas and leaders who remain committed to the peace process. It’s hard to conclude otherwise from a paragraph like this:

It’s doubtful there was ever a FARC commitment to peace. A better read is that the guerrillas took a deal that included amnesty and 10 unelected FARC seats in Congress, but that they had no intention of giving up the lucrative cocaine business or their dream of bringing down Colombia’s democracy.

In fact, maximum leader Rodrigo Londoño and other FARC political party members have been outspokenly critical of Márquez and other dissidents. In Spain’s El País the other day, Londoño called them “a handful of deluded compañeros who, with a proclamation of armed struggle outdated in time and space, want to hide their own mistakes.” (Londoño seems to be more engaged these days going to spiritual reconciliation retreats with ex-paramilitaries and top recording artists.) Meanwhile, preliminary reports indicate that rank-and-file ex-guerrillas, who have long since begun new lives at peace, aren’t being tempted by Márquez’s call to arms. “Everyone saw the video [of Márquez’s August 29 announcement], nobody talked about it, not even the slightest comment. There were activities already scheduled and everyone went out to do their work, and that was it,” an ex-combatant told El Espectador. “I don’t know if they really thought we’d just throw everything aside.”

2. Assuming that Márquez’s group has huge convening power. “Mr. Márquez’s paramilitary will pull together thousands of FARC who abandoned the demobilization process,” the Journal warns. That’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.

After nearly three years, about 1,050 ex-guerrillas who demobilized, out of 13,000, are “whereabouts unknown.” Some of them are probably members of over 20 rearmed “dissident” groups around the country. Another 800 or so never demobilized in the first place, they’ve been dissident from the start. These dissidents have probably recruited several hundred more people with no FARC background.

Where does Márquez’s group—whose inaugural video showed only about 20 people, no more—fit in with them? If you’re one of the main dissident leaders, like “Gentil Duarte” or “Iván Mordisco,” it’s not clear what benefit you’d gain from an alliance with high-profile figures like Márquez, “El Paisa,” or “Romaña,” other than adding several commanders with long combat experience. Would you have to share resources with them? Would they challenge your command and your decisions? Would they compete with you internally?

While the FARC dissident phenomenon is a growing security challenge for Colombia (and Venezuela, and Ecuador, and Guyana, and Suriname), they are far from unified, and it’s far from clear that Márquez’s rearmed faction will be their center of gravity.

3. Assuming that “post-accord” really meant “post-conflict.” A sentence like “the country’s war on terrorism is back on” tells us that the Journal‘s editorial-writers haven’t been paying close attention. Violence indicators have been rising in many former conflict zones since at least early 2018. A social leader is killed about every two and a half days. The government failed to fill the vacuum of authority in formerly FARC-influenced territories. Instead, other groups have rushed in: the ELN, FARC dissidents, the Gulf Clan post-paramilitary network, and regional organized-crime militias (“La Constru”, the “Caparros,” the EPL, the “Puntilleros,” “La Empresa,” and many others).

The International Committee of the Red Cross identifies five distinct armed conflicts going on in post-accord Colombia. Of 281 municipalities (counties, of which Colombia has about 1,100) that the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation prioritized for post-conflict analysis, “there are 123 in which the FARC had previously operated and have since been taken over by illegal armed groups and criminal organizations.”

It is normal for an immediate post-accord period to be more violent than the last years of a conflict, as violent competition continues in ungoverned territories. But that’s where the problem lies: the Colombian government is not doing enough to fill the vacuum in these territories.

The Journal misses that completely. Its editorial-writers apparently have an axe to grind about Colombia’s peace accord, and are keen to declare it prematurely dead. But that analysis not only misses the greater security challenges Colombia faces today: it’s based on some glaring analytical flaws. Good policy will not be based on analyses like these.

Big Colombia conference tomorrow

WOLA s Colombia Peace Conference Protecting Peace

We’ve done this every year since 2012: organize a day-long, open-to-the-public event about Colombia. Mostly Colombia-based people, chosen because they’re good explainers, share their on-the-ground knowledge of security challenges, peace efforts, drug policy, and human rights.

The next edition is tomorrow, at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. The event announcement is here. Come join us.

We will also have a livestream at that site, though you’ll have to be familiar with both English and Spanish to follow it without an interpreter feed. If I can, I’ll embed that here too.

Some of the speakers on the agenda are can’t miss.

  • Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation is on TV constantly in Colombia because he’s a clear, analytical, and energetically opinionated explainer of the conflict, organized crime, corruption, and similar issues. Don’t miss the Foundation’s late-August annual report on the conflict (in Spanish, English summary).
  • Christoph Harnisch, the longtime head of the International Commission of the Red Cross office in Bogotá, is also a brilliant explainer of what is happening right now in Colombia. The ICRC’s alarming analysis finds “five conflicts” coinciding in this “post-accord” moment.
  • Xiomara Balanta is the vice president of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system set up by the 2016 peace accord.
  • Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Celis of REDPRODEPAZ knows more than nearly anybody about the ELN, and what it would take to make a peace process with them function.
  • Socorro Ramírez, who unfortunately will have to appear via Skype, has been studying the conflict for decades and I’ve learned a lot from her.
  • Jacqueline Castillo Peña lost a brother to the Colombian Army’s “false positive” killings a decade ago, and now heads a victims’ group, the Mothers of False Positives.
  • Father Sterlin Londoño is a longtime social leader from central Chocó department and member of the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council.
  • Marco Romero, a longtime colleague, heads CODHES, a human rights group that pioneered work on internal displacement in the 1990s and has grown in recent years.
  • I first knew Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno when she was Human Rights Watch’s Colombia person and, later, author of the excellent book There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia. Now, she’s the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Humberto Ohana/Zuma Press/PA Images photo at Open Democracy. Caption: “Jun 28, 2017 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Residents and children walk the street as Brazilian police forces wait in a local food shop prior to a raid on drug dealers in the favela Pavao Pavaozinho located in Copacabana.”

(Even more here)

September 17, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Democrats opposed the bill because it includes $12.2 billion to build new sections of the wall. Senate Democrats are threatening to filibuster the legislation over border funding

Since 2018, the United States has adopted a series of migration policies that have caused significant changes for the effective enjoyment of the human rights of migrant persons, asylum-seekers, and refugees in the country

At times, the judge seemed ill-informed about how MPP works. At one point, she turned to the government prosecutors in the room and asked whether the Mexican government was providing the migrants housing


Powered by murky sources of capital and rising demand for beef, a violent and corrupt frontier is now pushing into indigenous land, national parks and one of the most preserved parts of the jungle

Heavy-handed policing and sentencing may generate a temporary “chilling” effect on violent crime. But studies of mano dura-style interventions across Latin America indicate that these impacts tend to be transitory and short-lived


The country’s war on terrorism is back on. But the truth is that it was never off. The sooner everyone admits that the better

Este tipo de aseveraciones y de falsas acusaciones en 2003 fueron el inicio de una fase de montajes judiciales contra varios defensores de nuestra Comisión de Justicia y Paz, entre ellos Danilo Rueda

En 2019 las acciones se concentraron en el 15 por ciento de los municipios del país


Lo que hace el gobierno es definir un perfil de “hombre fuerte” —el “Don”, el cacique, el “mero mero”, en fin, una autoridad local— que se convierte en interlocutor legítimo


The top brass could ease or thwart a move away from President Nicolás Maduro. Sponsors of transition talks should include military representatives in the discussions sooner rather than later

Analysts say Monday’s deal paved the way for Mr. Maduro to call new congressional elections as early as January, despite boycott threats from the main opposition parties

A group of minority opposition parties is entering negotiations with President Nicolas Maduro’s government without the consent of the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó

The day ahead: September 17, 2019

I’ll be sporadically reachable all day. (How to contact me)

Our big Colombia conference is tomorrow, some of our panelists have arrived already, and I’ll be helping out with that over the course of the day, as well as finishing the talk I’ll be giving about coca eradication. If you’re in Washington, I hope you’ll stop by tomorrow.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Johnny Parra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “Venezuelan armed forces take part in military exercises near the Colombian border last week.”

(Even more here)

September 16, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Overwhelmed by desperate migrants and criticized for mistreating the people in their care, many agents have grown defensive, insular and bitter


In the first seven months of this year police caused 30% of all violent deaths in the state of Rio and killed a record 1,075 people – the highest number in more than two decades


Hay un debate en el país sobre cuál es la mejor manera de construir la memoria. La solución no está en deslegitimar el trabajo hecho hasta ahora

Ya van siete candidatos asesinados desde el 27 de julio, último día de inscripciones, hasta el 9 de septiembre

Un centenar de narcotraficantes que terminaron de pagar su condena en Estados Unidos regresaron a Colombia. ¿Qué tanto afectan la seguridad?

Colombia, Venezuela

At one meeting, Mr. Cabello described sea and land drug trafficking routes through Venezuela, the documents showed. At another, Mr. Carvajal said coordination with the “comrades,” meaning the FARC, was going well

Administration officials, while acknowledging that the treaty includes provisions for the use of military force, said their immediate goal was to escalate sanctions — including the possible interdiction at sea of ships carrying Venezuelan oil

El Salvador

Policías y oficiales de Migración salvadoreños patrullarán 154 puntos ciegos. La iniciativa surgió de reuniones con el secretario de Seguridad de Estados Unidos y es parcialmente financiada por el departamento de Estado


Más de 1,000 personas, según estimaciones de la prensa, caminaban al son de una pegajosa canción “JOH (por el presidente Juan Orlando Hernández) es pa’fuera que vas” y con pancartas como “Fuera el narcodictador”


Mediante el testimonio de vecinos y familiares de las víctimas, la organización civil reconstruyó la detención arbitraria de personas, la tortura a que las sometieron para vestirlas con ropas de camuflaje y su posterior asesinato a la luz del día

A judge ordered that 24 local police officers arrested in connection with the students’ disappearance should be freed immediately

The women then showed her paperwork from US immigration officials, directing them to show up to the Mexican side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry at 3:30 a.m.

Migrants hoping to cross legally into the United States wait along the Mexican border, where life is a mixture of instability, violence, and luck

The Trump administration calls the policy “Migrant Protection Protocols,” but far from offering protection, the policy has led to a brutal wave of kidnappings in some of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities


El organismo defensor de los derechos humanos en Nicaragua documentó los incidentes ocurridos en julio y agosto de este año


Despite the setback, Norwegian diplomats are still prepared to assist

Only a small percentage of the recently arrived Venezuelans are eligible to vote, but many Latin Americans in Florida see the Venezuelan government as the nexus of the region’s worst problems

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Highlighting that Colombia event that we’re putting on all day Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 17

  • 9:00–12:00 at the OAS (1889 F St.): “Challenges and Opportunities for Electric Mobility in the Americas” (RSVP required).

Wednesday, September 18

The day ahead: September 16, 2019

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

On Wednesday, we’re putting on our big annual conference taking the measure of Colombia’s peace process. Our speakers mostly arrive tomorrow. When not in morning staff meetings, I’ll be helping with that and doing some writing all afternoon.

Sunday morning run

It was a 20-mile race aimed at a population of slower runners like me (hence the name “Revenge of the Penguins”). Still, it was nice at my advanced age to finish 24th out of 117 people on a sunny late-summer morning in Washington. It was downright pleasant jogging along the canal that follows the Potomac River—except for the last four miles or so, as the temperature rose and my knees started to throb.

I’ve increased my running mileage this year (losing 20 pounds in the process), and am enjoying it. It has taken time away, though, from things like writing blog posts.

The day ahead: September 13, 2019

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

The WOLA human rights award gala last night went really well (and ran quite late as people stayed around for along time after the ceremonies ended). This morning, I’m sitting in on an event with some Colombian visitors. Then I’ll be in the office the rest of the day, doing writing and planning: we’re putting a big Colombia peace conference on next week, and will be hosting an amazing group of visitors. 

The day ahead: September 12, 2019

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

WOLA’s annual human rights award dinner is this evening, and I look forward to seeing lots of people in our community. Our board will also be meeting in our offices mid-day.

When not doing that, I’ll be reachable and dealing with a deluge of bad news, and bad decisions, about the disappearing right to seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Also, for my birthday yesterday I got a new laptop, which I’m almost done setting up. (I’m writing on it right now.) This ends a 10-month experiment with trying to use an iPad for most of my writing, research, and other work. It just didn’t work out and I’ll be selling it. I’ll write something soon about that experience, but the short version is that the iPad’s hardware is amazing, but the software, especially the operating system, remains badly hobbled and constrained.

The day ahead: September 11, 2019

I’m most reachable in the morning and the latter part of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

Today’s my 49th birthday! Really getting up there. But it’s also a busy Wednesday. I’ll be “celebrating” by participating in two meetings with groups that work on border and migration, and by drafting more of our report on Mexico’s southern border. Tomorrow is WOLA’s big annual human rights award gala, so there may be some prep involved there too.

Thread: new border and migration data graphics

Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released its August data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using that, along with data from Mexico’s government and recent non-governmental studies, I posted a 9-tweet thread to Twitter last night, with 17 graphics. Here is that thread, deconstructed.

(1/9) Let’s post a bunch of migration data using CBP and Mexico government numbers.

With 800,000+ apprehended in 11 months, this is the largest apprehensions total since 2007. But unlike 2007, 2 out of 3 are children and parents. In fact, single adults are still trending down.

(2/9) Trump’s June tariff threat caused Mexico to increase its own apprehensions, leading to a drop in US apprehensions at the border. But we’ve seen this before: there were drops after crackdowns and disruptions in 2014 and 2017, and migration recovered after a few months.

(3/9) The crackdown has further increased demand on Mexico’s overwhelmed, underfunded asylum system.

(4/9) After the crackdown, migration from Guatemala dropped more sharply than migration from Honduras. Honduras is now the number-one origin country for migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border, followed by Guatemala then Mexico.

(5/9) Add people on waitlists at ports of entry plus “Remain in Mexico” victims, and there were at least 52,000 asylum seekers stuck in Mexican border towns by the end of July. It’s probably somewhere around 65,000-70,000 now: a nightmare scenario.

(6/9) CBP seems to have eased “metering” ever-so-slightly in August. (6/9)

(7/9) 11 months into fiscal 2019, seizures of cocaine, meth, and fentanyl already exceed fiscal 2018. As usual, most seizures happen at ports of entry, not the areas in between where some would build more walls. Heroin is flat, perhaps because demand for fentanyl is greater.

(8/9) Marijuana seizures continue to decline sharply at the border, a likely outcome of states’ legalizations, and port-of-entry seizures are suddenly the majority.

(9/9) Download these graphics and more as a big PDF at

The day ahead: September 10, 2019

I’m reachable in the morning and early afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m working at home this morning: it occurs to me that I’ll be taking a long trip to Colombia in 2 1/2 weeks, and there’s a lot that has to get done here in Washington before then. In the afternoon I’m recording a podcast and have a call with a reporter, and hope to write a few more pages of our report on Mexico’s southern border.

The day ahead: September 9, 2019

I should be reachable mid-day. (How to contact me)

My schedule today includes a weekly staff meeting in the morning, a mid-afternoon call with a reporter, and a meeting with a visiting delegation of migrants’ rights advocates from Mexico and Central America.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

September 6, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in Schumer’s state is the most expensive project impacted in the United States with $95 million pulled from construction on its engineering center

This week, the families discovered that they would not get the new middle school they were expecting so that President Trump could build his border wall

About $488 million will be diverted from the 30 states that backed Trump and $588 million from the 20 that backed Hillary Clinton

MPP has grown rapidly and its cases increasingly are taking priority over those of the roughly 975,000 migrants living in the U.S. who await decisions

More than 16 months later, on August 10, members of the Armadillos went to place on a cross at the site, and discovered the remains were still there

Children separated during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” last year, many already distressed in their home countries or by their journey, showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms

Brazil, Chile

“If Pinochet’s people had not defeated the left in 1973 — among them, your father— today Chile would be a Cuba,” Bolsonaro told reporters


Ceballos advirtió que hay unos niveles de resiembra entre el 50 y 67 por ciento

La manifestacio?n pu?blica de Iva?n Ma?rquez de volver a las armas, junto con Santrich, El Paisa y Roman?a, genera todo tipo de dudas sobre la implementacio?n del Acuerdo de Paz y, particularmente, sobre el rol y las funciones de la Jurisdiccio?n Especial para la Paz (JEP)

SEMANA accedió al contenido de la primera declaración que rindió Diego Alexis Vega, el joven que salió con vida de una confusa operación militar que culminó con la muerte de un indígena

Colombia, Mexico

Las comunidades indígenas del norte del Cauca denunciaron una serie de amenazas contra la vida de los integrantes de la guardia por parte de un grupo de narcotraficantes, al parecer, el Cartel de Sinaloa

Colombia, Venezuela

El presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, aseguró este jueves, 5 de septiembre, que el régimen de Nicolás Maduro no debe salir con «bravuconadas» como la de anunciar que desplegará un sistema de misiles antiaéreos en la frontera

Hay quienes temen que una mayor actividad militar del lado venezolano les impida seguir pasando la frontera para suplir sus necesidades básicas en Cúcuta


Last Friday’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter flight from New Orleans to Havana was one of many to come, two federal sources say


The future of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala looks bleak

El gobierno de Jimmy Morales y su ejército, cuestionados por su cercanía con narcotraficantes, salieron a acusar a “seudo campesinos” y “seudo defensores de derechos humanos” y declararon Estado de Sitio en 22 municipios


Inicialmente se preveía que las obras militares en Honduras se verían afectadas por la construcción del muro fronterizo entre Estados Unidos y México, pero al final se determinó que la afectación solo se dará en proyectos previstos en instalaciones militares estadounidenses en Puerto Rico, Guantánamo (Cuba) y España


In the two years and five months since Miroslava Breach was murdered, 28 more journalists have been murdered in Mexico

Los migrantes africanos, haitianos y de otros países asiáticos, que exigen sus oficios de salida del país, forcejearon contra los elementos de la Guardia Nacional, Policía Militar y Policía Federal

This report highlights why investigating these deaths would have shed light on the murder of the respected La Jornada reporter

En el lugar hubo fuego cruzado, pero los disparos de los oficiales fueron más certeros y lograron eliminar a cinco hombres y tres mujeres

Instead, he might just be shifting the burden of dealing with the migrant crisis to Mexico, which is ill-equipped to offer humanitarian aid

“Esto es algo muy delicado, de algunos se llevaron todo, carteras, sus documentos oficiales, pasaportes, algunos son MPP”


General Avilés, si le preocupan tanto los golpes de Estado, le informo que la experiencia internacional demuestra que si su Ejército no existiera, tampoco existieran intentos de golpes de Estado en Nicaragua

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