Adam Isacson

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


March 2020

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in March

  • The State Department’s annual report on other countries’ counter-drug efforts, with some information about U.S. aid.
    2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (Washington: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, March 2, 2020) <PDF from>.
  • Intricately detailed tables of the status of aid to Central America between 2013 and 2018, from a GAO performance audit.
    U.S. Assistance to Central America: Status of Funding (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 4, 2020) <PDF at>.
  • Two GAO reports about the Homeland Security Department’s processing—and cruel separating—of apprehended migrant families.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS’s Processes for Apprehended Family Members (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at>.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHS (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at>.

WOLA Podcast: “I Wish I Did More Positive Reporting About Colombia Because I Love the Place”

I got a kick out of recording this one with John Otis, from his home outside Bogotá. Since 1997, John has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).

Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Alejandro Prieto photo at National Geographic. Caption: “Aerial view of wall construction at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in November, 2019, from the Mexican side of the border. The Department of Homeland Security has waived dozens of laws to allow this wall to be built, including the Endangered Species Act.”

(Even more here)

March 31, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

Many of the wealthy are already recovering, but experts warn that the virus could kill scores of the poorest people


Según una fuente que militó en dicha guerrilla, el acercamiento entre Galán y Uribe se dio gracias al padre Francisco De Roux, hoy presidente de la Comisión de la Verdad, quien, a su vez, contactó a la esposa del expresidente Álvaro Uribe

La decisión del Eln obedece, en gran parte, a un silencioso trabajo, según pudo confirmar EL TIEMPO con fuentes de entero crédito, de miembros de la comunidad internacional y de la Iglesia Católica

This is the story of “Memo Fantasma” or “Will the Ghost,” who started life in the Medellín Cartel, funded the bloody rise of the paramilitary army, and today lives the high life in Madrid. He has helped move hundreds of tons of cocaine, yet has no arrest warrants and nobody is looking for him

Citando las palabras del Secretario General de Naciones Unidas, ONU, António Guterres, el covid-19 es “el enemigo común al que se enfrenta todo el pla

Caught in the middle of the war are former FARC combatants and social leaders. Since the signing of the peace accord, over 191 disarmed FARC and 323 social leaders have been assassinated nationwide

Colombia, Venezuela

The Colombian criminal group Los Rastrojos is fighting a two-front war: against ELN guerrillas looking to usurp the group’s highly profitable operations along the border with Venezuela, and against Venezuelan security forces that have been targeting them

La situación se ha vuelto tan recurrente que incluso el diario regional –La Opinión, ya tiene una sección dedicada a Muertos en trochas

El Salvador

La extorsión impuesta por las pandillas también ha sido modificada por la crisis del coronavirus. En zonas concretas, dicen, han perdonado el cobro criminal a algunos vendedores informales. El otras zonas, simplemente no han podido recogerlo debido a la presencia masiva de fuerzas del Estado

Miles de personas siguieron las indicaciones que el presidente Bukele había dado y se movilizaron hacia oficinas estatales para preguntar por un subsidio de $300 destinado a las familias afectadas económicamente por el COVID-19. Así, las aglomerarciones rompieron la cuarentena


The man began showing symptoms of COVID-19 over the weekend while in quarantine in his family’s home


Honduras’s healthcare system has reached the edge of collapse in recent years after chronic underfunding from the government and a series of corruption scandals that have drained what little public funds do exist

Mexico, Western Hemisphere Regional

Many workers in Latin America labor without protections, surviving day to day, making them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus


La información disponible permite presumir la tortura y la desaparición forzada contra un número indeterminado de migrantes, a manos de la Guardia Nacional

Luego de difundirse un video en el que aparece el Presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador saludando a la madre de Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, dirigentes del PAN y PRI reprobaron el encuentro y exigieron al mandatario dar una explicación

U.S.-Mexico Border

With the world focused on coronavirus, the federal government paves way for 175 miles of new walls along U.S.-Mexico border, through prime wildlife corridors

The intensification of construction during the pandemic is raising fears among residents of Ajo, Ariz., and other nearby border communities that the growing influx of workers increases their risk of exposure

In the tightly packed Matamoros camp, social distancing is impossible, and high-level health care is inaccessible. The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) require asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims are processed

The pandemic has allowed the U.S. Border Patrol to implement the kind of rapid-fire deportation system President Trump has long extolled as his preferred approach to immigration enforcement

On Sunday, just four unaccompanied minors were referred to ORR shelters. DHS averaged 14 referrals a day over the past week, a drop of 78% from the previous month

DHS has the ability and capacity to protect both these children and the public. We request that DHS stop this practice immediately


Los civiles dependen de militares para abastecerse de combustible. Productores agrícolas denuncian que están «en manos» del Comando Estratégico Operacional

9.089 personas siguen sujetas a procesos penales políticos bajo medidas cautelares

Los funcionarios rechazaron las acciones registradas el pasado fin de semana, además de este mismo lunes, por parte de cuerpos de seguridad contra diputados e integrantes de sus equipos de trabajo

The proposal, to be released on Tuesday in Washington, offers to ease American sanctions intended to pressure President Nicolás Maduro and his loyalists over the past year. But it also demands that Mr. Maduro relinquish power

The day ahead: March 31, 2020

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

This morning I’m talking to a researcher and then recording a podcast. I should be at my desk writing about Colombia and doing research on the border all afternoon.

WOLA Podcast: Soldiers and Civilians in Latin America Today

Here’s a conversation we recorded late Friday over a beer.

After nearly 30 years of movement away from military rule and toward civilian democracy, Latin America’s armed forces are again playing larger, more political roles. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the trend, with the danger that having soldiers on the streets may again become “normalized” throughout the region.

Joining me to talk about this is Gregory Weeks, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Weeks doesn’t see a return to 1970s-style military regimes anytime soon—but he is not optimistic about civil-military relations in the region.

A political scientist, Weeks is the author of two volumes that appear very often in university Latin American studies curricula: Understanding Latin American Politics (available as a free PDF and for sale) and U.S. and Latin American Relations. He is one of the first Latin America bloggers, posting to Two Weeks Notice almost daily since 2006. And his Understanding Latin American Politics podcast is one of few other Latin America podcasts in English.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Morena Perez Joachin photo at the Los Angeles Times. Caption: “Military security guards the bus taking returnees from the United States to their towns in Guatemala.”

(Even more here)

March 30, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

Imported by the wealthy, the virus is now reaching into impoverished communities, at times through domestic employment, infecting people with fewer resources to combat the disease

Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico

To reduce crime, it is critical to boost local government’s resources in high-risk crime areas. Crime in these countries is very context-specific and requires nuanced and flexible policies


El Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) decidió declarar un cese unilateral activo al fuego durante un mes, a partir del 1 hasta el 30 de abril, a causa de la emergencia que vive el país por el el nuevo coronavirus

Desde el 5 de marzo pasado, cuando el país estaba alerta por la llegada del nuevo coronavirus, hasta la fecha, cuatro de los exguerrilleros que firmaron el Acuerdo de Paz murieron en confusos hechos en Bogotá, Caquetá y Meta

El Espectador reconstruyó buena parte de lo ocurrido el pasado 21 de marzo en el penal. Una noche que inició con un “cacerolazo”, exigiendo medidas para enfrentar el COVID-19, y terminó con 23 internos muertos

Denuncian amenazas por parte del Ejército Nacional de abrir fuego contra quienes se encontraran en asentamientos campesinos, oponiéndose a la erradicación manual forzada

En Cauca hubo seis hostigamientos, en Chocó y Nariño hay cerca de 800 familias confinadas y en el Valle del Cauca siguen asesinando a comuneros indígenas

Quizá su principal reto será comunicar a la ciudadanía los alcances de una justicia basada en un esquema institucional único en su especie


Just over a week ago, with assurances from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that health protocols had been established, Guatemalan authorities allowed flights to resume


“Mexico’s response was late, wrong and slow, and many people are going to die”

El promedio de homicidios en marzo supera los 82 casos diarios, el promedio más alto desde junio de 2019

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

The urgent call comes just days before the April 5-12 Holy Week vacation period begins, a time when cross-border traffic traditionally spikes

South America Regional

Indigenous groups across South America are blockading their villages and retreating into their traditional forest and mountain homes in a bid to escape the potentially cataclysmic threat of coronavirus


Militares consultados no creen que, por ahora, Maduro cambie su anillo de seguridad. Aunque no pueden predecir el comportamiento castrense, vislumbran más acciones de inteligencia a lo interno

Guaidó, who is recognized as Venezuela’s lawful leader by the U.S. and almost other 60 countries, said opponents of Maduro need to be “realistic” and be prepared to share power

The sanctions, which have hurt the company’s business elsewhere in the world, were cited by a Rosneft spokesman Saturday in describing the sale

Podrían cohesionar el entorno de Nicolás Maduro e impedir una salida pacífica a la crisis política del país, en momentos donde se vive una situación delicada por la propagación de la covid-19

The day ahead: March 30, 2020

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

Other than a long morning staff meeting and check-ins with colleagues at WOLA, I should be reachable today. Other than some brief writing about Colombia, my main goal is to make big progress on a project, involving creation of a web resource, that will focus and strengthen my work on the border.

Email newsletter

My streak of sending out weekly e-mail newsletters now stands at 13. Here’s the latest one. I resolved at the new year to be more regular at these. So that means this horrible year is already 13 weeks old.

You can read it and subscribe there, or just subscribe at the bottom of this very page.

Tweets that made me laugh the most this week

Latin America-related online events this week

Tuesday, March 31

  • 4:00 at Impact of the oil market crash on the major producers in Latin America: A closer look at Brazil and Mexico (RSVP required).

Wednesday, April 1

  • 12:00–1:00 at Price War Meets Pandemic – Energy’s Perfect Storm in Latin America (RSVP required).

Thursday, April 2

  • 9:00–10:30 at Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Migrants and Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean (RSVP required).
  • 11:00 at COVID-19 in Latin America: Tackling Health Care & Other Impacts for Vulnerable Migrant Populations (RSVP required).

5 links from the past week

  • If coronavirus wasn’t putting a halt to such things, this week the U.S. government would’ve sent back to Colombia one of the maximum leaders of the AUC paramilitary group, Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited to face drug trafficking charges in 2008. In a detailed piece at Canada’s National Post, Brian Fitzpatrick tells the story of Mancuso, the AUC, and its “Justice and Peace” demobilization process. He also talks to AUC victims exiled in Canada. (Also noteworthy this week: an El Espectador profile of Carlos Mario Jiménez alias “Macaco,” a much-feared AUC leader who the U.S. government sent back to Colombia last July.)
  • The Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s security program published a brilliant overview of security, defense, U.S. policy, great-power influence, multilateralism, globalism, and the crisis of democracy in Latin America, by Argentine-Spanish analyst Mariano Aguirre, former Obama administration defense official Rebecca Bill Chavez, and former Bachelet administration defense official Marcos Robledo. (The paper is dated January 2020, but was just released this week.)
  • In the New York Review of Books, veteran Brazil correspondent Vincent Bevins portrays the country’s politics, economy, and human rights situation just over a year into the Bolsonaro administration—within the context of the archconservative president’s unhinged coronavirus denialism.
  • Another populist president in the region, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also come under fire for his slow response to the virus. Alex Ward at Vox wrote a nuanced but dire explanation of what’s happening there.
  • At the New York Times, Nathaniel Popper and Ana Vanessa Herrero profile Gabriel Jiménez, the twentysomething coder whose belief in the liberating power of cryptocurrencies led him to create the Maduro government’s “Petro.” Jiménez now lives in exile in the United States; his account is rich with details about the Maduro regime. Don’t miss the part where Maduro asks Vice President Tareck El Aissami to fix his air conditioner by banging on it.
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