Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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February 2020

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Adrees Latif/Reuters photo at The New York Times. Caption: “An agent with the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, an elite group that functions essentially as the SWAT of Border Patrol.”

(Even more here)

February 17, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

Agents from a special tactical team that normally confronts smugglers on the border are being sent to sanctuary cities across the country

The deployment, which will send 100 agents from Border Patrol’s highly trained BORTAC teams to embed with ICE agents, comes as the Trump administration has threatened to retaliate against states and jurisdictions


His recent travels from Argentina to Cuba for “health reasons,” as well as his effort to run for a seat in congress from outside the country, have also kept him front and center in the run-up to May’s vote


Families of men killed in ‘false positives’ scandal accuse Mario Montoya of withholding information in JEP hearing

Rafael Pardo acaba de lanzar su libro La guerra sin fin, en el que explica cuál debería ser la política antidrogas. En diálogo con SEMANA, dijo que estrategias como el Plan Colombia no han logrado acabar con este flagelo

Arauca y Norte de Santander, que es donde se encuentran los frentes de guerra oriental y nororiental de esa organización ilegal, fueron los departamentos que más sintieron el accionar delictivo

Emilio Dauqui fue tiroteado en la noche del sábado en el resguardo de Las Delicias, en el municipio de Buenos Aires

Por lo menos cuatro episodios ocurridos en su conjunto residencial y en su propia casa tienen en alerta al jurista, quien en los próximos meses deberá presentar una ponencia para definir si la Corte Suprema dicta o no medida de aseguramiento en contra del expresidente

SEMANA estuvo en las selvas y costas chocoanas, corazón de la disputa entre el ELN y el Clan del Golfo

La frustración y molestia fue generalizada, tanto, que se pidió formalmente su exclusión ante la falta de compromiso con la verdad

Colombia, Venezuela

Calles vacías fueron la constante en el retrato que dejó este viernes 14 de febrero la localidad de El Nula, ubicada en la parroquia fronteriza San Camilo, del estado Apure, en el inicio del paro armado

El Salvador

Let me be clear: I respect the separation of powers, and anyone who suggested I was using our security forces for anything other than to protect the safety and integrity of the National Assembly is misreporting the truth


La Comisión Mexicana para la Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos elabora un informe que evidencia la impunidad de los torturadores

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday appeared to blame the murder of a seven-year-old girl on the neoliberal economic model, angering critics

El presidente inauguró la nueva instalación y sostuvo que los 69 cuarteles construidos y los próximos a edificarse contribuirán al buen desempeño de sus integrantes

U.S.-Mexico Border

Smugglers in Juárez have engineered camouflage hook-and-ladders made of rebar that blend in so well with the border wall that it can be hard to detect, according to U.S. Border Patrol

Once Mr. Trump was elected, the talking point that became his signature campaign promise then became the signature obsession of his presidency

A CBP officer said in a deposition that supervisors instructed them to lie about not having space to process asylum-seekers at the border

Misery should not be a public policy goal. But, it certainly seems to be if one looks at the experience


Venezuela’s armed forces and civilian militias took the streets in cities, beaches and border regions on Saturday for drills ordered by President Nicolás Maduro

Betelgeuse, the rapidly fainting star

I just went outside here in Florida, where I’m visiting relatives, and yes, Betelgeuse, one of the most familiar stars in the northern night sky (it’s in Orion’s shoulder), is way dimmer than it used to be.

I took this shot with my phone. Betelgeuse used to be about as bright as Rigel, the star at the very bottom of the photo:

This all happened quickly: before October, Betelgeuse was near the top ten brightest stars in the sky. Now it’s lower than 20th. Some speculate that the red giant, 600 light-years away, might go supernova. But the dimming has slowed over the past week. Here’s a good explanation in the New York Times.

The day ahead: February 17, 2020

I’m off Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (How to contact me)

Today is a holiday in the United States, and I’m out of Washington, visiting relatives through Wednesday. I’ll be hard to contact until Thursday.

5 links from the past week

  • Some Latin American militaries have a particular clique, usually an academy graduating class, that rises to leadership and leaves a mark on the institution—often for the worse. At ProPublica, Melissa del Bosque identifies a ”tanda” in the U.S. Border Patrol: a group of agents who served in Douglas, Arizona in the 1990s and rose to top management, “leaving corruption, misconduct and a toxic culture in their wake.”
  • In El Salvador last Sunday, popular populist President Nayib Bukele shocked the region by sending helmeted, rifle-bearing soldiers into the National Assembly’s chambers because legislators weren’t approving a loan fast enough. The best commentary I’ve seen on this huge step back for civil-military relations comes in an editorial from El Faro, in English and Spanish.
  • Keegan Hamilton at Vice looks at the state of Mexican organized crime a year after “Chapo” Guzmán’s guilty verdict in a New York court. For me, the most interesting part is in the article’s second half, where we get a glimpse into the mindset of a veteran narcotics prosecutor who insists on staying the course with a policy that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. “Is there futility in what we do? Are we playing whack-a-mole?” she asked rhetorically. “I think it’s showing the strength of what our system does; there’s a purpose for it.”
  • At Nieman Reports, Tim Rogers talks to independent journalists from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Chile about how they’re staying a step ahead in this era of authoritarians, populists, Twitter warriors, and street protests.
  • This exploration of the current state of democracy and civil-military relations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, by Otto Argueta and Knut Walter at Contra Corriente, could use a bit of editorial tightening up—but it strikes some important and timely notes. “The greatest risk for democracy in these countries is the paradoxical combination of democratically elected governments that lack legitimacy, and the existence of powerful armed forces.…That combination in our contexts can wake the sleeping dragon, the one that leads to authoritarian and undemocratic solutions.”

WOLA Podcast: How Corruption Continues to Erode Citizen Security in Central America

Here’s a podcast recorded last Friday with Adriana Beltran and Austin Robles from WOLA’s Central America / Citizen Security program. We talk mostly about setbacks to the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala and Honduras. Good thing we didn’t talk about El Salvador too much, because two days after this conversation, President Nayib Bukele set everything on fire there by bringing armed soldiers into the legislative chamber with an aggressive display.

I learned a lot about what’s happening just by hosting this. Here’s a direct download link.

Here’s the blurb on WOLA’s website.

Adriana Beltrán and Austin Robles of WOLA’s Citizen Security Program discuss the beleaguered fight against corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their Central America Monitor tracks progress on eight indicators and closely watches over U.S. aid.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Patrick Tombola/laif/Redux photo at Nieman Reports. Caption: “A special anti-gang police member patrols the streets in Herradura, El Salvador. El Faro’s Sala Negra was created as a specialized newsroom project to cover gang violence”

(Even more here)

February 14, 2020

Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Western Hemisphere Regional

Across the hemisphere, the combination of weak democracies, authoritarian creep, struggling economies, government retaliation against advertisers, and worsening levels of political and social violence are pinching journalists from all sides

Brazil, Paraguay

Léo Veras lived in the Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero and ran a local news website. He had recently been receiving threats for his investigative work into smuggling at the border


The appointment of Braga, the second active-duty general in the Cabinet, raises to seven the number of military men in the 20-member Cabinet, not counting Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired general


La Sala estudiará la solicitud, por parte de las víctimas, de activar el procedimiento adversarial y enviar a Montoya Uribe a la Unidad de Investigación y Acusación (UIA) o de excluir al compareciente de la jurisdicción

Su afirmación de que el Acuerdo de Paz de La Habana era “semifallido” preocupa a las organizaciones de víctimas, pues será ella quien coordine la política integral de derechos humanos en el país donde asesinan a líderes todos los días

Hay una información que circula en Putumayo que tiene que ver con que las disidencias de las FARC se unirían al paro armado decretado por el ELN en los departamentos de Putumayo, Nariño y Cauca

Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela

UNHCR released a campaign last year called “Somos panas” (“We’re mates”) to remind Colombians they were helped by Venezuela when thousands fled the other way during Colombia’s 50-year civil war

El Salvador

To make sense of these events, and the possibility of further contagion, I recently spoke with two of the United States’ most seasoned observers of Latin American affairs

El presidente Nayib Bukele violó al menos tres disposiciones constitucionales y varias leyes secundarias, según constitucionalistas

It was the most overt display of brute force since the end of the civil war in 1992. Yet the United States and the European Union have only issued mild rebukes

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Despierta una preocupación histórica en los tres países y que parece ser el despertar centroamericano del dragón dormido: la participación de los militares en la política


También están en riesgo la autonomía personal, la universitaria, la intimidad, y son los primeros pasos hacia un Estado policial

Guatemalan lawmakers approved changes to laws on non-governmental organizations that would give the executive branch the authority to allow such groups to operate or shut them down if they are deemed disruptive


Heavily armed men dressed in military fatigues and police uniforms stormed a court building in north-west Honduras and freed a senior leader of the powerful MS-13 gang

Según documentos judiciales, Mauricio Hernández Pineda está acusado de conspiración para traficar cocaína junto con Tony Hernández, el hermano del presidente de Honduras


Con el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, no se logrará dejar en prisión a nadie por el delito de comercio de drogas al menudeo

Official figures show that 3,142 women and girls were killed in 2019, and only 726 of those cases are being investigated as femicides. But women’s rights activists say that number is way too low

U.S.-Mexico Border

President Trump will host dozens of Border Patrol agents at the White House Friday afternoon in what is expected to be a celebration of union President Brandon Judd’s reelection

This year, a significant chunk of those dollars will be funneled from a war account known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, according to a Feb. 13 reprogramming action

Arizona Democrats said that President Donald Trump is “trying to steal money” from the military to “pay for his vanity wall,” while the ACLU said it would continue to pursue a lawsuit

According to budget documents reviewed by The Washington Post, the Pentagon is pulling the funding from two F-35 fighter jets and two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for the Marine Corps; one P-8A reconnaissance aircraft for the Navy; and four C-130J transport planes and eight MQ-9 Reaper drones for the Air Force

On March 14, according to one daily snapshot, 672 people were in custody at all 24 crossings, a 57% occupancy rate


La Fuerza Armada Nacional (FAN), por instrucciones de Nicolás Maduro, realizará los días 15 y 16 de febrero las primeras maniobras militares de este año, bautizadas como “Escudo Bolivariano 2020”

Unos grandes vehículos lanzamisiles aparecieron estacionados en la carretera que conecta Caracas con su aeropuerto, bloqueada por efectivos militares coincidiendo con el regreso del líder opositor Juan Guaidó al país

“He’s no fan of foreign deployments,” said a senior administration official. “It’s absolutely clear that he has a very different view of our hemisphere”

Border walls, military aid, and more: the Defense Department’s all-purpose counter-drug budget

The Trump administration will be taking $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget this year to pay for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Very little of that money will get spent if he loses in November.) He’s been able to move some of that money into his wall—even though Congress never approved it—by declaring a “national emergency” and outlasting congressional efforts to disapprove that emergency (they need a two-thirds majority and only muster a simple majority).

Much of the Defense fund transfers, though, don’t even require an emergency declaration. The money can be moved under existing law. That’s what’s happening with the $3.8 billion that the Pentagon notified Congress this week would be moved from Defense into wall-building.

Here’s the notification PDF. The Trump administration is taking money out of the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft and weapons programs to pay for the wall, something that has even Republicans on the Armed Services Committee unhappy.

How can Trump do this? First, the Defense appropriations law allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year from one account to another. That’s Section 8005 of the annual appropriation. Here, he’s moving money from these weapons programs to the Pentagon’s counter-drug account. This vector was also used in 2019, applied to $2.5 billion in wall-building money. It shows up in yellow on this flowchart.

Second, now that it is “counter-drug” money, Trump can transfer it to the Homeland Security department to build a “counter-drug” wall. This is thanks to the nearly magical flexibility of the Defense Department’s counter-drug account, the product of a 1990 law. Let’s look at this law for a moment.

It was created at the height of the crack plague and the war on drugs. The George H.W. Bush administration and a Democratic-majority Congress had just made the U.S. military the “single lead agency” for interdicting cocaine overseas, and were clarifying what that meant. They agreed to give the Pentagon a bunch of new powers, including the ability to support U.S. law enforcement on U.S. soil if it was for the drug war. (The original law was Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It had to be renewed every few years. But the 2017 NDAA made the law permanent, as Section 284 of Title 10, U.S. Code.)

  • Ever since, a military component called Joint Task Force-North, operating from Fort Bliss outside El Paso, has been carrying out domestic support missions, mainly for CBP.
  • It gave the Defense Department the legal authority to spend its giant budget to build border barriers—as long as such barriers can be justified as “counter-drug.”
  • This same provision also allows the Defense Department to provide several types of counter-drug assistance to “foreign law enforcement agencies.” As a result, for the last 30 years, Latin American militaries and police forces have received billions of dollars in equipment upgrades, base facilities construction, training, and “intelligence analysis” services from the Defense Department.

This Defense Department’s counter-drug account—listed at the Security Assistance Monitor as “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance”—quickly became the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It was a big component of Plan Colombia and of the Mérida Initiative in Mexico.

The Special Forces teams that trained many thousands of Colombian troops at the outset of Plan Colombia? The maritime bases built along Honduras’s northern coast? The drone imagery shared with Mexican forces hunting for drug kingpins? The “Interagency Task Forces” operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, with the jeeps famously used to intimidate the CICIG? That’s been largely Defense money, not foreign aid budget money.

It flows independently of the State Department and foreign aid budget, with poor visibility over how it’s spent. We always have a very hard time learning how much Defense counter-drug money went as aid to which countries’ security forces in the previous year.

Now, that same legal provision is authorizing the building of border walls. Money gets taken from weapons systems, transferred to the counter-drug budget, then transferred to the Homeland Security Department budget to be used for wall-building. And there’s little Congress can do about it.

The process is under challenge in the courts. Last July, though, the Supreme Court allowed this “counter-drug” money to keep flowing while lower courts slowly deliberated.

Meanwhile, this move pits the military-industrial complex (all those fighter jets, Osprey aircraft, Humvees and other equipment being cut) against the border security-industrial complex (wall construction and related technology). These are mostly different contracting companies, bringing money and employment to different congressional districts. While I don’t have a dog in this fight at all, it’ll be interesting to watch the wrangling.

The day ahead: February 14, 2020

I should be reachable from late morning to end of day. (How to contact me)

This morning I’ll be recording an episode of “Foro Interamericano” at the Voice of America. Then I’ll be in the office the rest of the day. I’ll be working on our Colombia website overhaul—the first feature is nearly ready to be added, though the site will continue to have the same “look and feel” for a while. Other than a few check-ins with staff, I should be reachable.

This will be my last day in the office until next Thursday; Monday is a holiday and we’re taking a couple of extra days to visit relatives in Florida.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Pu Ying Huang/Al Jazeera photo. Caption: “Migrants and asylum seekers living in the Matamoros encampment pause from their midday swim to watch US Border Patrol guards steer their boat down the Rio Grande”

(Even more here)

February 13, 2020


Persiste el riesgo en las actividades políticas, pese a una sustancial reducción en las muertes por violencia política en 2019

Tanto el general (r) como su defensor dejaron saber que contestarían solo de manera general y sin afectar el derecho del oficial en retiro a no autoincriminarse

La batalla que emprendieron decenas de familias para evitar que el caso del excomandante del Ejército terminara en manos de la JEP volvió a tomar forma

He is focusing on Tibu, heart of the remote, notoriously lawless Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela where Buffett accompanied President Iván Duque

El Salvador

Es el momento más ominoso de una jornada marcada ya en la historia nacional: 9 de febrero de 2020


Desde 2018 ha recibido amenazas, llamadas, vigilancia, ha sido víctima de allanamientos ilegales y más recientemente, de un intento de robo en su residencia

Varias organizaciones sociales y Acción Ciudadana (AC) presentaron ayer ante la Corte de Constitucionalidad (CC) un amparo en contra de las reformas a la Ley de Organizaciones no Gubernamentales (ONG) aprobadas el martes pasado de forma apresurada en el Congreso


Entre esas violaciones destaca la aplicación de descargas eléctricas por parte de efectivos de la Guardia Nacional y la Policía Federal

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Ebrard aseguró que la Guardia Nacional no ha recibido ni una sola recomendación de la Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH) por su actuación para detener los flujos migratorios


Beto Carmona, reportero de El Piñero de la Cuenca que cubrió el enfrentamiento entre pobladores de Isla y Loma Bonita con la Fuerza Civil y la Policía Federal, expuso que fue amenazado por policías estatales, mientras estuvo retenido por varias horas

Bernardino Sánchez, the founder of the local vigilante force, said the children were enlisted in part to draw public attention to the violence and helplessness of their communities

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

This policy has led to multiple human and civil rights violations at our border, while also causing the mass suffering of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers

Mexico’s foreign ministry said about 2,000 migrants were sent to Mexico under the program in January, down from a peak of around 12,000 in August last year

Los funcionarios del gobierno federal que decidieron cortar el presupuesto para las organizaciones civiles deberían ir a los albergues por unos días, despertar a las 5:00 de la mañana para darles un café y un pan a los migrantes que se van a trabajar

In Mexico’s Matamoros, thousands of asylum seekers wait in an encampment for their asylum cases to be heard in the US

With little to no support from the federal government, nonprofits and migrant aid groups in Nogales like the Kino Border Initiative are doing the bulk of the work but are still struggling to care for migrants sent back under the program


“He’s detained, not forcibly disappeared, he’s detained for bringing prohibited substances onto a flight,” said Cabello

The day ahead: February 13, 2020

I’ll be reachable in the middle and the very end of the day, and that’s about it. (How to contact me)

I’ll have an eye on this morning’s House hearing about security assistance to Mexico, but can’t attend because we’re interviewing candidates for a new assistant today. I’ll also be on calls with groups working on the border, and with a colleague from a rights organization expanding its Latin America work. Otherwise I’ll be in the office continuing work on a website-building project.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ed Vulliamy photo at The Guardian. Caption: “Graffiti and a pink bicycle at the scene of Isabel’s murder, Calle Ochoa, Ciudad Juárez.”

(Even more here)

February 12, 2020


From drones to facial recognition, police across the region are adopting digital tools. But some worry about abuse


De acuerdo con el Observatorio de Niñez y Conflicto Armado (ONCA), en el primer semestre de 2019 se registraron 33 eventos de reclutamiento de niños y adolescentes por grupos posdesmovilización

La versión, que se llevará acabo entre el 12 y el 14 de febrero, será reservada y contará con la participación y presencia de 41 víctimas y 15 representantes judiciales

EL COLOMBIANO analiza los cinco logros y los cinco asuntos pendientes de la Operación Agamenón, el esfuerzo institucional más grande contra el crimen organizado en los últimos tiempos

Instead of aerial spraying, a better mix of policies would rely on building state presence, promoting equitable economic development that allows small farmers to develop other sources of income, and putting more effort into drug interdiction and curbing illicit financial flows

El Salvador, Western Hemisphere Regional

In a region that long suffered from military dictatorships, the assertiveness by the armed forces is raising fears that democracy is taking a step backward

El Salvador

Tanto la Fuerza Armada como la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) —ambas instituciones claves en un país que apenas en 1992 estaba en guerra civil— se prestaron a seguir el juego al presidente de turno, sentando un peligroso precedente

Mr Bukele has dismissed the criticism saying that “if I was a dictator, I would have taken control of everything”

Además de diputado y directivo de la Asamblea Legislativa, Reynaldo López Cardoza es el encargado de seguridad del recinto que ocupa este poder del Estado. En esta entrevista revela cómo perdió el control de la seguridad durante siete horas

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico

The high levels of violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) is comparable to that in war zones where MSF has been working for decades—and is a major factor fueling migration north to Mexico and the US


“In a machista city, she was occupying the streets with art, she was riding her bicycle home alone at night, she was subversive of patriarchal culture. She joined us to fight patriarchal violence in our own ways, her own way”

Alrededor de 200 habitantes de diversos municipios veracruzanos realizaron una protesta frente a cuarteles de la Guardia Civil, Policía Federal y la Guardia Nacional en reclamo por presuntos abusos de autoridad cometidos por uniformados

Ray Donovan, who oversaw the hunt for Chapo as the former chief of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, told me the botched Ovidio arrest is “indicative of the fact that the Sinaloa cartel is still there


Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas Tuesday after he slipped out of the country last month in defiance of a travel ban

Among those affected are an estimated 1,400 soldiers who defected from Venezuela’s military last year. Most now stay in Colombia, where they struggle to make a living

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