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.


Get a weekly update in your email

September 2019

The day ahead: September 6, 2019

I should be reachable mid-day, not much otherwise. (How to contact me)

I’m back in Washington, and have a day interspersed with meetings and calls, especially in the afternoon. Otherwise, I’ll be in the office, advancing a draft report on Mexico’s southern border.

The day ahead: September 4, 2019

I’m reachable, but have a long train ride in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m boarding a train to New Haven this afternoon. There tomorrow, I’ll be leading a workshop about the border/migration crisis at Yale’s law school. Before that, late this morning, I’ll be recording a WOLA podcast that I hope to post tomorrow morning.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

September 3, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

It appears that the Administration expects Congress to be satisfied with receiving agency tours of facilities—in some cases without the ability to photograph conditions or interview detainees—and not to question the policies or decisions that agency officials make. That is not the way effective oversight works


Lo que en general encontramos en esos sitios es que los reincorporados en medio de todo siguen intentando echar raíces y no manifiestan querer volver a las armas

How to address these crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace? Are ordinary courts better suited? How to convince FARC members to come forward and take responsibility?

U.N. figures show just 10% of ex-guerrillas have been granted credit for farming and development projects meant to provide jobs for them in civilian life


El Alto Comisionado para la Paz, Miguel Ceballos, atribuyó el ataque a disidencias de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia que actúan en zona

Estas conversaciones no han dado frutos. Una muestra es que ninguno de los comandantes de las disidencias existentes apareció en el video

Colombia, Venezuela

U.S. officials reiterated accusations that Maduro’s government has been actively conspiring with Colombian rebels, especially the more radical National Liberation Army, or ELN

Cuba, Mexico

In the first seven months of this year, 4,604 Cubans applied for asylum in Mexico, representing 10% of all applicants. In 2018, 218 Cubans sought asylum, representing 1% of total applicants

El Salvador

Esos números convierten el mes recién finalizado en el menos violento en lo que va de siglo XXI


“Creo que mis principales logros tienen que ver con haber generado una conciencia ciudadana. Que la lucha contra la corrupción sí era posible, que sí se puede adelantar investigaciones serias y profundas independientemente de quien sea la persona a la que se esté investigando”

Jimmy Morales’s fear of the CICIG was a recognition of its efficacy. His success in driving the commission away offers a cautionary tale

“Es una persecución política”, dijo Torres en su llegada a la Torre de Tribunales y señaló al presidente electo Alejandro Giammattei

Guatemala, Mexico

Cientos de migrantes están varados en las fronteras guatemaltecas debido al cerco de seguridad del gobierno mexicano. México cedió ante las presiones estadounidenses y desde hace unos meses generó un cordón de policías, militares y agentes migratorios en el sur


Algunas de las pruebas, testimonios de otros detenidos, habrían sido obtenidas mediante tortura, otras por detención arbitraria

More than 40,000 people have disappeared since 2006. Now, in a first-ever tally, officials are providing details on burial sites

At the federal level, ending the importation of high-powered assault weapons into the United States would help restrict the flow of such weapons into Mexico

Today, officials say the majority is smuggled from Mexico, where it is remaking the drug trade as traffickers embrace it over heroin, which is more difficult and expensive to produce

In cartel-dominated Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a gateway to the United States, demanding ransoms for migrants sent back by U.S. officials is a lucrative racket


El jefe del Ejército de Nicaragua, general Julio César Avilés Castillo, por primera vez dejó clara públicamente su posición al considerar las protestas civiles un intento de golpe de Estado contra el régimen


Asked when the talks will resume, Gonzalez responded “that question should be asked of the regime, if they’re prepared or not to discuss the important issues.”

Dijo que Estados Unidos seguirá presionando hasta lograr elecciones libres y democráticas en Venezuela

  • Michael J. Camilleri, Plan B in Venezuela (Inter-American Dialogue, Foreign Affairs, September 3, 2019).

Rather than clinging to the fading hope that pressure alone will topple Maduro, Washington should reorient both its sanctions policy and its diplomatic engagement around the search for a negotiated pathway to elections

The day ahead: September 3, 2019

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

I’ve got internal WOLA meetings all morning, and a border-related call in the mid-afternoon. Otherwise I should be in the office, writing: I’m close to completing an ugly first draft of a report on our visit to Mexico’s southern border.

The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year

Here’s an English translation of a column I wrote for the Colombian political analysis website Razón Pública, which it posted today. It voices strong concerns about Colombia’s military, especially its army, which has been showing signs of institutional backsliding all year.

The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

The ties between the U.S. government and Colombia’s armed forces “are like the heart of this [bilateral]  relationship,” said outgoing U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker, in his last interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo. “They are very dear to us and very professional. There are elements of the Police and the Armed Forces that have a 21st-century character and are among the best in the world.”

Let’s leave aside how troubling it is that an ambassador in any country might say that the military relationship is more central than the diplomatic, commercial, or cultural relationships. Is the latter part of Whitaker’s statement true? Have Colombia’s armed forces—especially its army, which makes up 84 percent of all military personnel—become a professional twenty-first century force, among the world’s elite?

For much of this decade, Colombia’s military seemed to be headed in that direction. Accusations of extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations plummeted after 2008. High-ranking officers participated honorably in the peace talks with the FARC, and about 2,000 current and former soldiers agreed to participate in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The armed forces developed a forward-looking new doctrine as they sought to adapt to a future, for the first time in decades, without a large-scale national-level insurgency. NATO agreed to include Colombia as a “global partner.” A new, post-“false positives” generation of mid-level officers, with years of training in much-improved military colleges, appeared to place a much higher value on human rights, international humanitarian law, and measuring results through territorial legitimacy. While some concerns persisted, especially allegations of espionage against participants in the peace process, the overall trajectory had been positive. 

Then came 2019, which has been an annus horribilis for Colombia’s Army. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place came under immediate attack from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” killings a decade earlier. The ultraconservative new defense minister made repeated statements minimizing the severity of killings of social leaders and calling for crackdowns on social protests. And then, scandals started to hit.

On May 18, the New York Times revealed that, at the beginning of the year, the Army’s new high command had taken a leap backward in time, bringing back “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. After years of seeking to measure progress by measures of security and state presence in territories from which government had long been absent, the new commanders decided to seek something simpler. Unit commanders were instead required to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. While this signaled a return to a long-discredited territorial stabilization strategy, it also raised major human rights concerns about creating incentives for “false positives.” Already, Colombian media had been gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel in 2019.

July saw the Army buffeted by corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. The scandals, mostly revealed by Semana magazine, have so far led to the firing of five Army generals, one of them imprisoned, and the jailing of nine more soldiers. One of the generals fired under a cloud of corruption allegations was the Army’s number-two commander, Gen. Adelmo Fajardo. Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, meanwhile, revealed that Gen. Fajardo allegedly arranged to have his favored staff sergeants approved for officer training, even though they were not the most qualified candidates.

Non-commissioned officers, “the base of the Army, are furious,” Duzán reported. “There is a sense that too many generals are occupied more with benefiting from the perks of power than with serving the country, and that good soldiers and good officers are being left without power in the hierarchy, defeated not by a strategic enemy, but because they don’t want to participate in the feast of corruption.”

Duzán reveals something important here. The scandals that have buffeted Colombia’s Army this year have not originated from the work of human rights defenders or reporters. In all cases, the source of the information has been outraged members of the Army. That is new. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the Army stood accused of working with paramilitary groups or committing extrajudicial executions, the sources were almost always victims, witnesses, or prosecutorial investigators. Now, the chief source is whistleblowers from within the institution: officers and soldiers who love the Army, believe that it has made important progress, and are deeply worried about the direction it is taking under current leadership.

On the other side is the “old guard,” at times allied with powerful retired officers, who opposed peace negotiations, resisted recent reforms, and who apparently believe that the key to victory is to lift commanders from the apparent burdens of accountability. Emblematic of that attitude is a January quote, revealed by Semana, and attributed to Gen. Diego Villegas, the commander of the military task force responsible for the conflictive Catatumbo region:

The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over. What we have to do here is takedowns. And if we have to ally ourselves with the Pelusos [the EPL guerrillas] we will ally with them—we already talk to them—in order to fight the ELN. If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.

We must hope that this quote is false, or at least that the number of “old guard” officers who really think this way is small. We must also hope that the high command—Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez—is not inclined toward the “old guard.” If they are, and if this faction is large, then Ambassador Whitaker’s sunny portrayal of today’s Colombian military is a sad caricature.

The high command’s handling of these scandals gives us even greater reason for worry. Instead of pledging to clean house, protect whistleblowers, and demand the most honorable behavior of all officers, the Army’s counter-intelligence apparatus has been deployed on an internal campaign of polygraphs, surveillance, and interrogations to identify those who have leaked to the press. Gen. Martínez, the army chief, has denied knowledge of what Semana calls “Operación Silencio,” but the Procuraduría has unearthed evidence that his denials are false: that the General in fact ordered the witch hunt. The Army’s botched damage control effort has done harm to the institution’s credibility at a critical moment.

And this is a critical moment. The number of armed groups, and armed group members, continues to proliferate in regions of former FARC influence. Homicides increased for the first time in six years in 2018, and if they are slightly down in 2019, as a new report from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation points out, it is only because criminal groups have secured dominance in some zones, or made accords with competitors in other zones. If Colombia’s security forces were achieving important security gains, it is likely that public opinion would overlook some of these scandals. But they are not making gains. “We see a paralysis of the military forces with regard to security at the territorial level,” the Foundation’s Ariel Ávila noted, citing ongoing scandals and strategic drift under President Duque and Defense Minister Botero.

Much can be done about this, immediately. While the Duque/Uribe government will always have a conservative high command, it is possible for that high command to be simultaneously conservative, competent, and institutionally forward-looking. Such officers must be identified and promoted.

It is meanwhile imperative that whistleblowers within the armed forces be given maximum protections. They are our best source of “early warning” about the institution’s direction. Colombia’s Congress, courts, and Public Ministry must maintain their protection from retaliation as a high priority.

And finally, the U.S. government, the Colombian Army’s most important international counterpart, must do more than just sing the Army’s praises. It must keep its eyes wide open and voice concerns about backsliding, whether publicly or privately, in strong terms. The U.S. Congress must maintain conditions in foreign aid law that freeze some assistance pending progress on human rights. These are the best ways to ensure that Colombia’s armed forces can once again move toward Ambassador Whitaker’s idealistic description of them.

Newer Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.