Adam Isacson

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


November 2019

What happens if Mexican cartels go on the terrorist list

It’s a waste of time to write something that concludes, “President Trump hasn’t thought this through.” Of course he hasn’t. But still, let’s think through Trump’s declaration this week that he plans to add Mexican criminal groups (“cartels”) to the U.S. government’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Here’s that list, covering the whole world. There are some pretty vicious groups listed on it: ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the ELN.

But there are a lot of vicious groups missing. You don’t see the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, Italy’s Cosa Nostra, Brazil’s PCC, Central America’s MS-13—or Mexican cartels. There aren’t any criminals or mobsters on the list. Which makes President Trump’s call to add Mexican organized crime groups look bizarre.

But it’s not that bizarre, because U.S. law about terrorism is pretty weird anyway. Just start with the term “terrorism”: the very good Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Terrorism” finds several different ones in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Defense Department guidances, and elsewhere. Those definitions aren’t in sync.

They differ on an important question: whether an act of violence has to be politically motivated to be considered “terrorism,” or whether it’s enough that the violence just seeks to influence a government’s actions. A drug cartel using violence to keep government out if its business fits the second definition, but “keep out of our business” doesn’t really count as a political motivation.

The law governing the State Department’s listing of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Title 22 U.S. Code Section 2656f(d)(2)) uses the first definition, requiring some political motivation in order for a violent group to be considered “terrorist”:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

So for the purposes of the “terrorist list,” there has to be a political motivation. Adding Mexican organized crime to that list would stretch the definition of “political motivation” so much that it would open the door to adding potentially dozens of worldwide criminal groups to the list.

It’s not hard to imagine why the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community would want to avoid doing that. Mixing criminal groups with terrorist groups means losing focus. In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a broad consensus that the U.S. government needed to concentrate its resources and assets on groups, like Al Qaeda, that had used terrorism to kill civilians for a “cause,” no matter how twisted. There was an assumption (usually borne out) that criminals would not be so radicalized or extremist that, for instance, they’d employ suicide bombers.

So there were no serious proposals to dilute the focus by adding organized crime to the terrorist list. The U.S. government already had—and still has—ample tools for dealing with drug-trafficking organized crime groups, going back to the drug war legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Kingpin Act designations. Lists of specially designated narcotics traffickers. Decertifications of states that collude with them. And billions of dollars in aid each year under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program and Defense budget authorities.

Meanwhile, perhaps because they lack political motivations, organized crime groups tend to be much more transient and shorter-lived than terrorist groups. They’re slippery. They fragment and change names, they lose and gain relevance, more quickly than the groups on the FTO list. Start adding organized crime groups to the list and get ready to update it constantly.

Look at the organized crime landscape in Mexico. In 2006, it was dominated by the Sinaloa cartel and some smaller ones: Gulf, Zetas, Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes), Tijuana (Arellano Félix), Familia Michoacana, Beltrán Leyva, and not many others. If your terrorist list included those today, it’d be irrelevant. Some of those are functionally defunct, you’d have to add splinter groups of some of them, and you’d have to consider adding groups that weren’t on the radar in 2006, like the Cuinis, the Viagras, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Nueva Plaza, Nueva Resistencia, Gente Nueva, Santa Rosa de Lima, Northeast Cartel, and many others—first among them, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, headed by Nemesio Oseguera alias “El Mencho.”

A decade ago, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo said that his country’s authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. When undergoing the thorough, deliberative process of listing a group, it hardly makes sense to keep up with all of these comings, goings, and schisms.

Some Mexican analysts have pointed out since Trump’s announcement that listing Mexican criminal groups as “terrorists” increases the likelihood of military action in Mexican territory. That may technically be true, though it’s still a very slim likelihood. It’s hard to imagine U.S. military personnel carrying out an operation on Mexican soil without Mexican consent just because a Mexican criminal group has been given a new status. Still, there’s always a scenario that goes something like: “President López Obrador, we have the coordinates where ‘El Mencho’ is right now. We have one hour. We don’t care what you say, a drone is on its way.”

Short of military operations, listing Mexican criminal groups would mean a heavier U.S. hand in Mexico because it would cast a wide net across Mexican society. Organized crime survives everywhere through its deep roots in the state and civil society. (Terrorist groups also do, to some extent, but tend to be more “off the grid” because their relations with states are more adversarial.) People who live in legality are quiet “nodes” on the organized-crime network. If Mexican groups end up on the FTO list, the U.S. government’s list of Mexican citizens offering “material support to terrorism” (in the eyes of the law, the same as raising money for Al Qaeda) could explode, and could include officials at all levels of Mexican government. It could also include people who make extortion payments under duress. Mary Beth Sheridan explained it well in the Washington Post:

Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.

This might not be a totally bad consequence, because it would mean more accountability for corruption. But it could gum up travel, trade, and overall relations pretty badly.

But the crackdown wouldn’t just happen in Mexico. Listing Mexican groups as terrorists could also cast a wide net across U.S. society. It’s “possible Trump’s move could see U.S. drug dealers labeled and treated as terrorist supporters,” Alex Ward wrote in Vox. The same, one assumes, would go for U.S. bankers or realtors who facilitate cartels’ money-laundering: no more fines, they’d be looking at jail time for terrorist financing. And it would come down hard on all the U.S. citizen “ant traffickers” who take advantage of America’s lax gun laws by buying a few AR-15s at gun shows and stores, driving them south across the border in their cars’ trunks, and selling them to criminals for robust profits. The banking and gun lobbies will be unhappy with this new counter-terrorist scrutiny.

Another interesting outcome would be that Mexican victims’ asylum claims might get a boost in U.S. immigration courts. Their cases wouldn’t become “slam dunks,” necessarily, but it’d certainly help them. If you’ve been threatened by a group on the FTO list, your claim is going to be stronger than it would be if you were just threatened by a criminal organization.

If a group is seen as so active and threatening that it makes the terrorist list, it’s easier to argue that the group has national reach, so the asylum seeker isn’t safe anywhere in her country’s territory. Also, it’s easier to argue that the asylum-seeker’s government isn’t capable of protecting her. That latter argument is even stronger because of corruption. Several years ago it was nearly impossible to argue that Colombia’s government couldn’t protect people from the FARC because the FARC had corrupted Colombia’s government: the FARC didn’t work that way, they fought the government. But Mexican organized crime does work that way: the victims of the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre—to take one example among very many—were the victims not just of Guerreros Unidos, but of local security forces that had become the criminals’ virtual allies.

Would victims of these groups automatically get asylum? No, not at a time when the Trump administration has raised the bar for asylum to nearly impossible, and certainly illegal, levels. But if asylum-seekers’ lawyers (if they have them) can say their clients are threatened by groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, they will be sure to feature that very prominently in their clients’ applications.

From U.S. bankers being labeled “terrorist supporters” to asylum-seekers having a big new argument, a lot of unintentional outcomes could come from the Trump administration “crossing the streams” and adding Mexican criminal groups to the terrorist list. Clearly, President Trump hasn’t thought them through.

The day ahead: November 27, 2019

I’m working until mid-afternoon, then on holiday with family for the rest of the week. (How to contact me)

It’s been quite a time here in Washington, monitoring the protests in Colombia while pushing two massive research reports out the door. Those reports, one on Mexico’s southern border and one on our October trip to Arauca and Chocó, Colombia, are almost completely out of my hands at this point.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States: like Christmas, a day when the entire country grinds to a total halt. I plan to leave work early and spend the rest of the week with family here in the Washington area. I will be monitoring the region while I’m off, though.

Colombia may never be the same

“Wow. It just keeps going,” I said out loud upon leaving Medellín several years ago. Our car was taking us to the airport via the city’s southeast, through El Poblado, its wealthiest sector. And as we drove, the luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, and manicured parks kept passing by my window for what seemed like miles. They didn’t stop. I’d only been to Medellín a few times, but the fancy part of town was much larger than I’d thought.

It’s the same in Bogotá. Following the eastern mountains 100 blocks north from the financial district around 72nd street—but actually starting below, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Chapinero and La Soledad—through El Chicó, El Retiro, Santa Bárbara, Usaquén, and others, there’s a profusion of gleaming shopping malls and condominiums, creative restaurants, arty hotels, brewpubs, espresso bars, armored SUVs, and uniformed security guards. These neighborhoods are mostly affordable if you live on a U.S. wage scale, but even then, many are too pricey. Most of these amenities didn’t exist when I started visiting Colombia in the late 90s. And now, they just keep going.

There is a lot of money in Colombia. Development economists call it an “upper middle income” country.

But there’s even more lack of money in Colombia.

Go to an upper floor of one of Bogota’s condo towers or bank skyscrapers, and you can see vast neighborhoods of self-built brick houses hugging the hillsides, in Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Bosa, Soacha, Kennedy. The people who live there are Bogotá’s poorest, and they number perhaps three million, maybe more. Many make do in the informal economy, at or below the US$250 monthly minimum wage.

Closer in, you can see thousands of florescent-lit, cramped apartment complexes and housing projects where a similar number of people live. Those are the lower middle class, with enough to eat and their kids in school, probably, but barely making it.

Back on the street, look at all the blue SITP buses and TransMilenio vehicles stuffed with people, packed until they’re pressed up against the windows during rush hour. The sub-compact yellow taxis looking for passengers. The uniformed guards, waiters, maintenance workers, maids, and domestics, just off work and hoping not to have their cash or cellphones robbed during their long journeys home.

The people in those neighborhoods and buses—the “sectores populares”—they see the shopping malls and restaurants, too. (They’re not shopping or eating there, of course.) They see the condos and social clubs. It’s all in plain view, and it just keeps going.

Do they admire and aspire to join those who live there? Or do they tell each other that much of the wealth they see is ill-gotten? Do they believe that most of the “estrato seis” neighborhoods’ inhabitants are simply the most skilled thieves—or those thieves’ descendants? It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion given Colombia’s decades of drug-trafficking wealth, money-laundering wealth, and incessant corruption scandals.

Either way, the majority who ride the bus and make a living rebuscando (barely getting by) probably don’t believe that the people in those well-to-do neighborhoods are paying their fair share. There’s a lot of money in Colombia. If the tax burden were just, and the resources managed cleanly, surely the rest of the city would have better schools, safer conditions, reliable healthcare, fewer potholes, and yes, a modern subway.

Most of the time, the barely-scraping-by majority will tolerate much from the wealthy minority. Especially when a media-savvy populist leader cracks down on petty crime or rallies behind socially conservative causes. Or especially when there’s a commodities boom, and all sectors see their incomes and services improve for a while. Or especially when an armed conflict is raging, and all who complain too loudly get tarred as supporters of radical and unpopular guerrillas—and thus threatened, spied upon, or worse.

But eventually, the populists’ messages wear out, and tepid technocrats take over. The commodities boom ends, and government budgets shrink to what can be collected through taxation. The armed conflict—or at least the worst of it—ends at the negotiating table. What then?

What then, especially, when a belt-tightening government takes measures—or even considers measures—that hit the already-stretched budgets of the poorest and lower-middle? A pensions cut, a fare hike, a regressive sales tax?

What happens is probably what Colombia is seeing now. A labor union confederation calls for a day of work stoppages and protest—something that’s happened, regularly, since pretty much forever. But this time, dozens of other organizations, representing many sectors, join in. This time, word spreads on social media, and within weeks the whole country is bracing for a national event, an inchoate spasm of protests without a unifying demand but with a generalized anger at those who benefit from the status quo.

I’m surely overstating some of this. The protests that began on November 21 in Colombia aren’t quite a “class conflict.” Many of those out on the streets are from the middle class, not the poorest—although the middle also feels financially stretched, uncertain, and unhappy about what they’re getting from government and from Colombia’s economic arrangement. The poorer neighborhoods, though, are also among those ringing with the nightly cacerolazos, where people go out to their windows, roofs, and balconies to bang empty pots and chant slogans.

Still, nobody is marching on the Centro Andino mall or the Zona Gastronómica restaurants, or raiding the mountainside condo complexes of El Chicó. Other than President Iván Duque’s residence, protesters aren’t massed outside the homes of senators or CEOs. People aren’t directing their anger at those neighborhoods that “just keep going.”

At least not yet.

One way to move the anger in that direction is for President Duque and his unpopular ruling party to behave the way that they have during the protests’ first few days. They’ve issued messages conflating peaceful protesters with masked “vandals.” They’ve sent riot police to attack peaceful protests without warning or provocation, blanketing plazas and intersections with tear gas, killing an 18-year-old, and filling social media with shocking cellphone videos. They’ve deigned to meet only with business leaders and elected officials.

The Duque government’s tone may be changing now, and I hope it does. When a government finds itself this out of touch with the mood of the country, its only real hope is dialogue with its opponents. Iván Duque won only 39 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election, his party just got trounced in October 2019 local elections, and now his approval rating is in the mid-20s. To pretend he can govern without dialogue, and without some pretty fundamental concessions about the country’s political and economic model, is folly.

Let’s hope the dialogue that may—may—be getting underway soon is genuine. Colombia has just entered a 29-month stretch with no elections, with the past few days’ protests as a major turning point. The next two and a half years could be a time of difficult but necessary conversations, or they could be a time of intense strife between two very different Colombias, as traumatic as—though fundamentally unlike—what the country endured during 40 years of cartel violence and armed conflict.

It’s President Duque’s call.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

November 22, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The stop at the half-mile stretch of crowdfunded steel bollard fencing, which was built without permits this spring on private land in Sunland Park, N.M., was not mentioned in a media advisory sent by the DHS press office ahead of Wolf’s trip

A jury has found Scott Warren not guilty on two federal felony counts of harboring illegal immigrants. Warren works with a group that leaves food and water for migrants in Arizona deserts

Not only are the non-Spanish speaking families from countries far from the United States, they carry their own cash and credit cards and appear much better educated


When I asked Morales what he would do if his exile became permanent, he seemed taken aback

At least 36 people have been killed in clashes since Morales resigned on Nov. 10

“If he would have respected that referendum, he would have finished his third term as probably the best president in Bolivia,” he said. “But he didn’t do that”

La presidenta interina de Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez, lamentó las muertes ocurridas en la ciudad de El Alto durante un operativo militar y policial y ofreció dialogar “inmediatamente”


Estos ataques han dejado hasta el momento un saldo de cinco muertos y miles de personas torturadas, maltratadas o gravemente lesionadas

In retrospect Ms Bachelet was right on the big things. For the past month, because of the discontents she identified, Chile has been seared by a social conflagration


Las manifestaciones, en su mayoría pacíficas y rematadas por un cacerolazo, suponen la mayor ola de protestas contra el presidente


“Imagine sending back one person – the remedy proves to be more expensive than the disease,” Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei said at an event Thursday afternoon

El anexo con el que se podría determinar si es o no legal la implementación del mismo no se ha dado a conocer


The military’s public show of support for Lopez Obrador comes amid heightened concern from Latin America’s left about the role that pressure from the armed forces played in the resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales

En la lista de quienes fueron ascendidos hay tres miembros del Ejército relacionados con escándalos de la pasada administración federal

“Nos sumamos al llamado de organizaciones aliadas hacia el gobierno mexicano para que deje de colaborar con el gobierno del presidente (Donald) Trump en la implementación de políticas inhumanas como el ‘Quédate en México’”

Los municipios del Estado de México “se han vuelto tierra de nadie”, donde por años ha imperado la colusión de las autoridades con la delincuencia, lo que ahora complica el combate a la inseguridad

La cifra mensual de crímenes se ha estabilizado desde que arrancó el segundo semestre de este 2019, frenándose así la tendencia al alza registrada en la primera parte del año

Much of the killing today has little to do with drugs. Organized crime has diversified

Las acciones violentas que está realizando el Cártel del Noreste (CDN) y su brazo armado autodenominado “Tropa del Infierno” en Nuevo Laredo son actos de narcoterrorismo y se tiene que actuar en consecuencia, aseguró el gobernador

De aprobarse, las inspecciones arrancarán en cinco puntos estratégicos: San Diego-Tijuana, El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, McAllen-Ciudad Reynosa y Brownsville-Matamoros

Tucson was one of the last major areas on the southern border that has not been diverting asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings


Con la prolongación de la jefatura del Ejército en manos del general Julio César Avilés, por tercer período consecutivo, y con esto la cancelación de toda posibilidad de renovación en el alto mando militar, el dictador Daniel Ortega ha reafirmado la desinstitucionalización de las fuerzas armadas

Analysts have called the government’s strategy risky, saying inflamed tensions can fuel unrest

The OAS recommended a special session of its general assembly be convened immediately to review affairs in the country

The day ahead: November 21, 2019

I’m off today. (How to contact me)

Using vacation time at home, I spent much of the past three days closed off from the world, finishing drafts of two giant reports based on fieldwork done at the Mexico-Guatemala border in August and in Colombia in October. And I mean “giant”: a combined 37,000 words (which will need to be cut back).

I know, I’m not very clear on the concept of “vacation,” but I had a lot of unused vacation time and desperately needed a polite way to shut down the daily torrent of meetings, calls, emails, and chats. I don’t recommend doing this, but I feel much less stressed now, with two giant projects behind me.

While I hope to slow the pace of work here at home today, I still need to continue preparing for a visit to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in three weeks, and to prepare my talk for a public panel discussion this evening at George Mason University. I’ll also have an eye on the massive national protests planned for today in Colombia.

The day ahead: November 18, 2019

I’m on vacation this week, so be cool. (How to contact me)

I’m taking the week off. I’m spending a lot of it at the computer keyboard, finishing a lot of writing. Still, I’m calling it “vacation” because I can actually be at the keyboard: for a week, I’m under no obligation to attend meetings or answer e-mails or phone calls. I’ll be back on duty next week.

Twitter thread of border and migration graphics

I updated my collection of data about security and migration at the border to reflect some new data releases from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from Mexico’s Migration Policy Unit. From those, I have a collection of charts and graphics whose most current version is always downloadable as a PDF file at

I just posted a Twitter thread explaining the latest trends. Here it is embedded in one place.

WOLA Podcast: Bolivia’s Post-Evo Meltdown

Here’s a podcast recorded yesterday with Kathryn Ledebur, a longtime Bolivia expert and colleague who directs the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. We discuss:

  • The election process and the events leading up to Morales’s resignation.
  • The disorder and violence following the election, and missed opportunities to achieve an institutional solution to the crisis.
  • The role of the military and police.
  • The political opposition, which appears to be headed rapidly in an extreme direction.
  • The mistakes made by, and future of, Morales’s long-ruling MAS party.
  • The likelihood that Bolivia might be able to hold truly free and fair elections, with a level playing field.
  • What daily life is like in a place like Cochabamba right now.

Download the mp3 file

The day ahead: November 14, 2019

I’ll be hard to reach today and through the end of next week. (How to contact me)

Another day, another plane. I’m off this afternoon to Ohio, where I’ll be on a panel tomorrow at Kent State University, talking about the border wall. Before I go, I’m recording an in-the-moment podcast about Bolivia, which I hope to post before I get in a taxi.

Next week, I’m on “vacation.” I put that in quotes because I don’t have vacation-like plans. I’m going to be at home, avoiding the office, all meetings, and most communications, including e-mail, while I finish two big reports and do a lot of other planning and housekeeping. Mostly while keeping my own hours and wearing sweatpants.

I underused my vacation time this year and now, after 7 trips and hosting a big conference over the past three months, I need to catch up on a long list of loose ends, both personal and professional.

I expect to post items to this site while all that’s happening next week.

The day ahead: November 13, 2019

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

I’m back in Washington, having returned from the border over the weekend—but I have a very heavy schedule (12 hours of meetings and events on the calendar today) and won’t be adding updates to this site. Which is too bad because, from Bolivia to Colombia to the border, there is a lot to talk about.

Tomorrow evening, I fly to Ohio to give a talk about the “border wall” at Kent State University. After that, I’ll be in Washington for a few weeks before traveling again, and hope to be posting here regularly.

Why are homicides declining in Colombia this year?

An argument I included in Monday evening’s post, about the Colombian Defense Minister’s security performance, raised a few hackles on social media.

That post cited President Iván Duque’s crediting Defense Minister Guillermo Botero for a 2 percent reduction in homicides so far in 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. To refute it, I cited the work of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, whose big annual analysis of the conflict, published in August, looked at the data for the first half of 2019.

Much of the 2018-19 decrease in killings, that report concluded, owes to shifts in the landscape of armed groups and organized crime—not to the Duque government’s security policies. In Colombia’s historically conflictive regions, homicides rose in 2018—then shrank in 2019 so far, as armed groups achieved regional monopolies, entered into non-aggression pacts, or otherwise altered their behavior, making many territories less violently disputed.

Some on social media found this argument insulting. A few analysts, some of whom have carried out security policymaking for the Bogotá municipal government, called me out for failing to credit to the work of Colombia’s security sector, especially those in charge of security in the main cities, which have seen important drops in homicides. For them, this argument crediting organized crime realignments lacks “responsibility,” was “politicized,” and “doesn’t stand up to the most minimal empirical analysis.”

I’m sorry, but I need to push back a bit. Let’s unpack this further.

First, I’m not talking about the progress made since 2010, or since 2002. I’m talking about the 2018-19 timeframe, for which Colombia’s government claims a 2 percent reduction in homicides year-to-date, after a 6 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Between 2002 and 2008 or so, and again between 2013 and 2017, Colombia achieved some very important decreases in homicides, unlike anything seen elsewhere lately in Latin America. And I absolutely agree that much of it owed to government policies, especially in the larger cities.

But then there was a hiccup in 2018. After the FARC’s demobilization and exit from many areas, homicides increased last year amid a violent reordering of organized crime and armed-group activity and a continued absence of state presence.

Daniel Mejía of the University of the Andes, a former Bogotá municipal security secretary, tweeted violent crime data charts appearing to show an inflection point after August 2018, when President Iván Duque was inaugurated. Mejia sees this as evidence of the new Colombian government’s actions.

Why would that happen right after August 2018? Did Duque and Minister Botero offer a superior recipe for dealing with insecurity? Was Colombia in need of a conservative government’s more iron-fisted approach? Or have lots of other, parallel, things happened in Colombia since August 2018?

These 15 months saw, for instance, a non-aggression pact form between ex-FARC and other groups in the violent port city of Tumaco, and in surrounding Pacific coastal areas used heavily for cocaine trafficking. It saw the ELN all but vanquish the EPL guerrilla/criminal group in the Catatumbo region. It saw a group called “La Mafia” consolidate its presence, avoiding aggression with FARC dissidents, in Putumayo. In Arauca last month, I was told the ELN and FARC dissidents had entered into a non-aggression pact. I heard the same in Chocó about similar arrangements between the ELN and FARC dissidents and, in some parts of the department, between the ELN and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.

These are just a few examples. A proliferation of these “new equilibria,” most of which date to after August 2018, can’t be dismissed as a potential reason for this period’s drop in homicides.

Second, I’m hardly talking about Colombia’s main cities, most of which for years have had homicide rates well below those of Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and several other U.S. cities. There, talented security technocrats and honest cops have achieved strong gains.

In 2018, homicides continued to drop in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. But the country as a whole saw an increase. Something was seriously wrong in some smaller cities and rural areas where the drug trade and armed groups have thrived. But not the principal cities.

“In effect,” concludes the cited Peace and Reconciliation Foundation report, “the 2018 increase in violence took place in municipalities with the greatest institutional weakness, the presence of illegal markets, and low institutional capacity—that is, in rural areas that have historically been affected by violence. In the big cities and in coca-free municipalities, the violent homicide trend continues to diminish.”

But then in 2019, the trend reversed again: homicides are down nationwide. In its August report, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation crunches the national medical examiner’s data from January through June 2019, comparing it with the same period in 2018. It finds 497 fewer homicides across Colombia during that 6-month period, which in fact is more than a 2 percent decrease.

But it gets more interesting. The Foundation identifies 281 municipalities (counties; Colombia has 1,100) that are “priorities for the post-conflict”: places where government presence is scarce and there’s a history of armed-group activity. Those municipalities made up 30 percent of homicides in 2018. Colombia’s five largest cities made up 28 percent, and the rest of the country shared the other 42 percent.

During the first half of 2019, the medical examiner’s data show these 281 municipalities with a surprising 13 percent fewer homicides: 243 fewer people were killed here compared to the first half of 2018. As noted, nationwide over the same period, homicides declined by 497, so almost half of Colombia’s homicide reductions during January-June 2019 happened in the 281 most troubled municipalities. Colombia’s other 800-plus municipalities, including the major cities, shared the other half.

That is a remarkable result. What’s the miracle in these historically abandoned corners of the country? It’s not a big increase in government presence: the PDETs, “Zonas Futuro” and other post-conflict plans to introduce government into these territories are still just getting off the drawing board. It’s not the genius of urban security planners, whose writ hardly extends to the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities.

That’s where the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation’s hypothesis comes in. Something has happened, in many long-abandoned regions, among the armed groups themselves, without regard to government policy. This makes sense to me, as the most plausible explanation for why homicides have declined in conflictive rural areas. I’m actually surprised, when referring to what’s happening outside of the cities, that it would even be that controversial. Meanwhile, the contrary evidence presented to me doesn’t knock it down.

(A bigger project for another day—I’m traveling right now—would be to use the Colombian National Police’s homicide statistics, downloadable here as big Excel spreadsheets, code the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities, and view the year-to-date data to see whether it differs from Peace and Reconciliation’s number-crunching, and if so how.)

Back at the border

CBP officers “metering” border-crossers last night outside the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Diego River, very early this morning.

I’m here at the U.S.-Mexico border again. This is my fourth visit to San Diego and Tijuana this year. I’m spending most of this visit at a gathering of migration attorneys and experts from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The situation is grim right now, but there’s a lot of talk of solutions.

At What’s at Stake in the Battle Over U.S. Homeland Security Funding

With a November 21 budget deadline looming, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives and Republican-majority Senate (and the Republican White House) seem far from agreement on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2020. They’re either going to have to seek another extension to keep the government open, or undergo at least a partial government shutdown.

As happened last year, much of the discord surrounds border security, especially Trump’s border wall.

Here, at WOLA’s website, is a new analysis of six of the most contentious issues in the 2020 budget bill, and where we stand on each.

  1. The Wall
  2. ICE detention of migrants
  3. “Remain in Mexico”
  4. CBP and Border Patrol staffing
  5. “Metering”
  6. Alternatives to Detention

Colombia’s Defense Minister’s indefensible record

From the legislature to the media, a lot of prominent Colombians are asking why, amid regular gaffes, human rights abuses, and evidence of deteriorating security, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero is still at his post.

In an article explaining that it’s basically “Botero is ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s man in his party’s government,” the online journalism outlet La Silla Vacía included this:

the President [Iván Duque, from Uribe’s party] supported him by saying that “it is not time to talk about a resignation of Minister Botero.”

The explanation of the Ministry is that under Botero’s guidance, between January 1 and September 12, 2019, kidnappings fell by 50 percent, homicides by 2 percent, and shoplifting by 15 percent. In addition to the 278 tons of cocaine that the security forces have seized and the 57,400 hectares of coca leaf that have been eradicated.

I don’t know about the kidnappings and the shoplifting. But on the 2 percent reduction in homicides, I’d note this explanation from one of Colombia’s main security think-tanks, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation:

Between 2012 and 2017 there was an incredible reduction in the indicators of violence. In 2018, some of these indicators increased, mainly homicide. In 2019 they are falling again, returning to 2017 levels. However, this good news brings a rather problematic diagnosis: much of this reduction is due to, in some areas, several criminal organizations reaching non-aggression pacts (Pacific coast of Nariño), in other cases some illegal structure won the local war (Catatumbo), or simply decided to lower levels of violence while strengthening itself (Putumayo). In any of the three scenarios the levels of violence would fall. In other words, violence levels are not proportional to the presence of criminal organizations.

So this very modest drop in homicides owes more to adjustments in the criminal underworld than it does to improved performance of the security forces under Minister Guillermo Botero.

And on the cocaine seizures: 278 tons of cocaine seized through September 12 is behind the pace of the past few years. At that rate, the security forces under Botero’s command would seize 398 tons of cocaine by the end of the year. That’s a lot—but fewer than in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup Poll shows 83 percent of Colombians believing that the problem of “insecurity” is worsening—holding steady from Juan Manuel Santos’s second term, but definitely not improving.

This is a very thin defense of Guillermo Botero’s record.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Luis Robayo/AFP photo at Al Jazeera. Caption: “An indigenous woman walks next to a Colombian Army armoured vehicle in Toribio, department of Cauca, Colombia”

(Even more here)

November 4, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Most Americans thought the policy detestable. It was far worse than they imagined


Este sábado en una multitudinaria concentración en la ciudad oriental de Santa Cruz el líder cívico Luis Fernando Camacho manifestó que Morales tiene 48 horas para renunciar a su cargo y envió una carta a las Fuerzas Armadas


Indigenous people and illegal miners are engaged in a fight that may help decide the future of the planet

The clash comes amid an increase in invasions of reservations by illegal loggers and miners since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office this year


After the crowds dissipate, marauding young men—numbering in the hundreds—take over

Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. In the chaos, they see a reckoning


Los PDET se asemejan a una hoja de ruta trascendental para cada una de las 16 subregiones y los 170 municipios que abarcan

De acuerdo con cifras del Partido Farc, desde el primero de diciembre de 2016, cuando entró en vigencia el Acuerdo de Paz, 168 firmantes de ese pacto han sido asesinados

Con este homicidio, que es el primero de un desmovilizado dentro de los antiguos Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación (ETCR), van 158 desde la firma del acuerdo de paz, según cifras de la ONU

Echaron del Ejército al subteniente que colaboró en el esclarecimiento del crimen de Dimar Torres. Su testimonio resultó clave para conocer buena parte del escabroso plan del asesinato, y ahora está desprotegido

Luis Acosta, coordinador nacional de la Guardia Indígena, asegura incluso que la llegada de fuerzas militares aumenta el riesgo para las comunidades y que lo que se requiere es una atención integral por parte del Estado

La ribera del río que pasa por la capital del departamento de Arauca, cuyo nombre es el mismo, recibe a miles de familias que llegan desde Venezuela

La masacre anterior fue otra respuesta de los grupos armados al control territorial que hacen los indígenas del Cauca


The actors that run these drug routes are a combination of Ecuadorean, Colombian, Mexican and European criminal networks


El exministro de Gobernación Francisco Rivas cuenta cómo el Ejército nunca fue muy útil en las tareas de seguridad ciudadana. Por ejemplo, de los cien soldados asignados para ello en Escuintla, la mitad se ocupaban en realidad de la finca de descanso del Presidente

More than 600 migrants have died in the Americas so far in 2019, about half of them on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of those bodies are likely to remain unidentified, leaving families without closure


The general’s speech created such a stir that López Obrador declared via Twitter on Saturday that his supporters “will not permit another coup” like the ones that rocked Mexico in the early 20th century

Tijuana has seen a methamphetamine-fuelled murder epidemic which produced a record 2,518 murders in 2018 and looks set to cause even more this year

The breaches have been made using a popular cordless household tool known as a reciprocating saw that retails at hardware stores for as little as $100

The day ahead: November 4, 2019

I’m around in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

This is my only full day in the office this week. I’m flying to the west coast tomorrow for a few days in San Diego and Tijuana, for a delegation and events sponsored by Hispanics in Philanthropy.

Today, other than some internal meetings in the morning, I should be spending the afternoon catching up on writing, as I constantly seem to be trying to do lately.

The Colombian military plotted to murder a demobilized guerrilla. Will there be accountability?

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.

Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.

Soldiers dig a grave in an illustration, by Angélica María Penagos, for Semana’s investigation of Dimar Torres’s murder.

The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)

At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”

(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)

The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”

Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”

And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.

The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.

At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.

Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).

Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.

Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.

On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.

Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.

The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.

Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.

Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.

Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.

That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero continues in his post. The photo is from a story in La Silla Vacía explaining why that is.

“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.

This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”

Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.

How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía contends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.

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