WOLA launched a series of e-mail updates to supporters in which they profile staff members. Mine was the first to go—this went out a couple of days ago. Regular visitors to this site are already familiar with the musical recommendations near the bottom:
This week, we would like to introduce you to Adam Isacson, WOLA Director for Defense Oversight
What do you do here at WOLA?
The core of my work has been the same since the ’90s. I keep track of the U.S. relationship with Latin America’s militaries and police forces. Historically, this relationship has been incredibly close, under-scrutinized, and troubled. I do research and advocacy on anything around the region involving U.S. policy toward people who wear uniforms and carry guns.
That’s taken me in a lot of directions, from drug policy to migration response to peace processes. Some of it is closely overseeing U.S. military aid, digging through documents and interviewing people who are in charge of the programs. Some of it is going to some of the places where that aid is spent and, working with partners, talking to communities on the receiving end.
Those communities can be farmers fumigated with herbicides by coca eradication planes, social leaders threatened by military-tied paramilitaries, migrants turned back from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, or reformers worried that the power balance between civilians and soldiers is swinging back to the military. The countries I’ve gotten to know most over the years are the ones that get the most aid: Colombia, Mexico, and Central America’s Northern Triangle.
What led you to this work?
Growing up in New Jersey’s New York suburbs in a half-Jewish, half-Scots-Irish household, I have no family or childhood ties to Latin America. I’ve been interested in it, though, because I first became aware of the rest of the world as a kid in the 1980s. Central America was a front-page, lead the evening-news story almost every day when I was in junior high. I was bored in New Jersey, wanted to travel a lot when I grew up, and really upset that the United States-which I’d learned in elementary school stood for freedom and rights-was propping up these vicious dictators.
That all stuck with me. When I started college in 1988 and met my advisor for the first time, I said “I want to work on U.S. policy toward Latin America.” I never changed my mind.
Why are you proud to work at WOLA?
There’s nowhere else in the United States where you can share a workspace with 30 people who have such deep knowledge, curiosity, and love for Latin America. There are places where you can find 30 people who are experts about Latin America-government, for instance-but the curiosity and love aren’t quite there.
My colleagues try to view the region through the eyes of partners there who want to make their countries fairer, more sustainable places to live. Too many other U.S. institutions view the region through the lens of U.S. interests (however they define it) or the investment climate.
What should people be on the lookout for in the coming months in your area of expertise?
Watch Latin America’s militaries. Even before the coronavirus hit, they were starting to play roles we hadn’t seen them playing since the democratic transitions of 30-plus years ago. More soldiers on the streets acting like police, a greater role in putting down social protest, more presidents seeking their political support so they could do questionable things.
Now, the region is facing a crisis that’s sort of like a natural disaster. In a natural disaster, it’s normal to see the armed forces playing emergency roles like logistics, delivering food, search-and-rescue, or keeping order. But this is no normal natural disaster. It’s a disaster that’s happening everywhere at once, for an indefinite period of time.
It’s going to become normal for heavily armed, combat-trained, camouflage-wearing soldiers to be out in the streets, among the citizens, for several months or more, playing a host of roles that normally correspond to civilians. Once you ratchet up that kind of militarization, it’s hard to ratchet it back down. Especially when economies are in free fall and all but the top 10% aren’t even sure how they’re going to be feeding themselves.
I don’t think Latin America is headed back to 1970s-style military junta governments. But I’m deeply worried about a future in which elected civilians are forced to share power with the generals, who keep them on a tight leash and restrict civil society’s freedoms in the name of order and security. And I’m also worried that the default response of the United States-regardless of who is president in 2021-will be to act in ways that prop up these military roles in the name of stability and investor confidence. That’s why we have to keep monitoring these issues and pressing our concerns.
There’s a lot more to worry about with coronavirus, obviously. At the border, the Trump administration is using the emergency as a pretext to implement a deadly agenda, ignoring generations of immigration law and turning Mexican border cities, U.S. detention centers, and deportation flights into COVID-19 vectors. In Colombia, it’s going to be very, very hard to keep directing resources and political will into implementing the peace accord and halting the slow-motion massacre of social leaders. That was hard enough even without a global pandemic.
What are some of the best things you’ve read or seen during this period of self-isolation?
This is lame, but I’ve watched zero new movies during our social isolation so far. I’ve spent about half an hour a day watching TV, and that’s usually been an old episode of Arrested Development, Silicon Valley or The Simpsons after dinner with the family. I just finished slogging through the same fiction book I’d taken out of the library in early March, and it kept putting me to sleep. I did order 15 books from a local bookstore, but they were still on the floor in their shrink wrap 2 weeks after they were delivered.
I know this is a terribly type-A Washington thing to say, but I’ve been finding diversion in my work. (Remember, I’m a weirdo who has been into this since I was in junior high.) Social isolation has vastly increased the portion of the day I get to spend doing the part of the job that’s fun for me, where I get to do research and make stuff, rather than sit in meetings, talk on the phone, and answer endless emails. I’ve been writing a lot, coding a lot, making new web pages like components of our Colombia Peace site. I’ve done 16 audio podcasts where I interview smart people. I have piles of saved reports, analysis, official documents, and testimonies that I finally have some time to read and add to my geeky data system. I guess this is what’s fun for me, what gets the dopamine flowing in the brain.
While doing all this, I do listen to a lot of music, most of it the sort of indie pop that middle-aged dads like me listen to. I recommend the latest records by Waxahatchee, Christine and the Queens, Beach Slang, Soccer Mommy, Caroline Polachek, Caribou, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Jenny Lewis, and Grimes.
If you were a baseball player, what would be your walk-up song?
Probably some 80s spandex-pants hair metal like Guns N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some,” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Total crowd-pleasers. Then I’d strike out on 3 pitches.
Noah Lanard reproduces testimonies from several women and their relatives as he reconstructs a late March episode of vicious cruelty in a corporate-run migrant detention center in Louisiana. Keep Stephen Miller’s smirking face in your mind as you read about these women’s experience in the system, and what happened the day they were locked for an hour in a room full of pepper spray.
A similarly excellent Tierra de Resistentespiece at Contra Corriente does the same for indigenous communities opposing power generation projects in Yoro, Honduras—work that has cost 40 lives in the past 20 years.
Verdad Abiertatakes you to Colombia’s Naya River valley, a stunningly beautiful wilderness (I visited in 2018) whose Afro-descendant and indigenous communities describe a paradisiacal communitarian past—until about 20 years ago, when it became a trafficking corridor fought over between guerrilla and paramilitary factions.
Verdad Abierta also produced a similarly important report from nearby Cauca, the department of Colombia that has seen the most murders of social leaders since the FARC conflict ended in 2016.
Brazil’s government plunged into disarray Friday after Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, who became popular as a crusader against corruption, resigned and alleged political interference in the federal police force
La Fuerza Pública no debe descuidar la atención de sus misiones constitucionales, ya que ellas siguen presentando un escenario preocupante, especialmente en lo relacionado con la seguridad en los territorios
Un informe de la Unidad de Investigación y Acusación (UIA), de la Justicia Especial para la Paz, JEP, dejó en evidencia como los grupos armados ilegales siguen con sus operaciones militares y, bajo amenazas, confinaron a poblaciones completas
The United States plans to begin testing some migrants in detention for COVID-19 before deporting them, an official familiar with the effort said on Thursday, after infections among deportees in Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico
Human rights organization COFADEH documented that 45 human rights defenders suffered attacks, harassment, or reprisals for their work during the crisis and 7 journalists were assaulted, detained, and/or had their equipment taken and camera footage deleted
The drop in exports has left some Mexican drug producers with less access to needed chemicals. Simultaneously, cartels have encountered another colossal challenge: new restrictions on entry to the United States
According to the decision from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Esteban Manzanares, a Border Patrol agent who took his own life as law enforcement officers raided his apartment after the assaults, was not acting within his official capacity when he attacked the three migrants
I’ve added a fifth “explainer” feature to our Colombia Peace website: an overview of the armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who either rejected the 2016 peace accord, or demobilized in 2017 and then re-armed.
There are about 23 such armed groups around the country. What I hadn’t realized when I set out to write this was the extent to which they are consolidating into two national networks. One of those networks is tied to the first set of FARC dissidents, the 1st and 7th Front structure headed (loosely) by alias Gentil Duarte. The other is the organization begun by former FARC chief negotiator Iván Márquez, who abandoned the process with an August 2019 video message. I thought Márquez’s group was proving to be a dud, but it has in fact convinced dissident bands to align themselves in Nariño, Antioquia, probably Arauca, and possibly elsewhere.
Anyway, since I was lower on the learning curve than I thought, this took a long time to write. Many thanks to my program assistant Matt Bocanumenth for helping with early research and drafting to put it together.
Yesterday World Politics Review—which uses a paywall but I think will let you read it if you give them an e-mail address—ran my column about what’s happening at the border right now. It identifies the four virus hotspot vectors that the Trump administration is creating by insisting on the hardest line approach to migration in response to the pandemic. Those are Mexican border towns where people are being summarily expelled; ICE detention centers; places where ICE deportations are still going on; and the sites where itinerant construction workers are still building the border wall.
I did a lot of writing yesterday, some of which will appear today, and I’ll post links when it does. I’m trying to finish an “Explainer” for the Colombia website about the FARC dissident groups, and I’m not even going to look at the news until I do so. Anyway, I’ve got no meetings on the calendar and was unable to book any podcast interviews until next week, so I’ll be spending this rainy Friday at home, writing and adding to my research database.
Like the title says: not only is Colombia going full-throttle on manual eradication operations—U.S.-funded, U.S.-pressured manual eradication operations—in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.
Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.
Uno de cada dos episodios de violencia contra defensores ambientales en América Latina había sido denunciado previamente a las autoridades, sin embargo, estas no actuaron a tiempo. Ni siquiera cuando la Corte y la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos urgieron a los gobiernos protegerlos
Officials from GEO Group at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s LaSalle detention center had assured that they were safe from the new coronavirus. Things went awry, and soon 79 women found themselves trapped in a room filled with pepper spray
La presidenta de la Cámara de Senadores, Eva Copa (MAS), señaló este martes que debe haber elecciones generales en el país “lo antes posible”, una vez se supere la crisis por la pandemia del coronavirus
For their culture to survive, they need to maintain their connection to ancestral land. But that land can no longer support them, opening them up to charges of neglect from agencies of a government that would prefer they just assimilate
With hundreds of environmental enforcement agents sidelined by the pandemic, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon has increased to its fastest pace in years—and the season when clearing typically accelerates hasn’t even begun yet
El líder social hizo parte de la Junta de Acción Comunal en Río Mina, región del Naya, donde lideró el retorno de quiénes fueron desplazados forzadamente. Además, fue presidente de ASOCOMUNAL Alto Naya
Se concentraron de forma pacífica buscando un diálogo con la fuerza pública, la cual respondió con disparos de ráfagas de fusil, dejando como consecuencia la muerte de Ángel Artemio Nastacuas Villareal y un herido de gravedad
Ángel Artemio Nastacuas Villareal, indígena Awá, murió este miércoles en zona rural de ese municipio, según denuncia la comunidad, como consecuencia de un disparo de la Policía en medio de las protestas de indígenas y campesinos que se oponen a la erradicación
Ninguna política pública que se asuma desde el lado colombiano para combatir y disminuir las rentas ilícitas y la presencia de actores armados ilegales tendrá efectos positivos si desde el lado venezolano no hay un correlato
Cynthia Viteri told the Guardian she believed thousands had probably lost their lives in the Ecuadorian port city in recent weeks and compared Covid-19’s deadly impact there to “an unexpected bomb falling on a peaceful town”
Un grupo de 16 organizaciones humanitarias de El Salvador pidió este miércoles al secretario general de las Naciones Unidas, Antonio Guterres, activar mecanismos de este ente para “preservar” la democracia en el país ante una serie de medidas gubernamentales que consideran “autoritarias”
The virus has been slow to hit the country. But as laid-off Haitians return from hard-hit areas, doctors are preparing furiously for an outbreak they fear will strain the nation’s threadbare health care system
The Tolupan San Francisco de Locomapa Tribe, in Yoro, Honduras, has suffered murders, judicial harassment and attacks due to its opposition to the power generation projects in the territory where they have always lived
Los planes de despliegue territorial, anunció, se mantienen y confió en que, para el cierre de año se tengan construidos 200 centros o coordinaciones del nuevo cuerpo de seguridad, de las 266 que se tienen programadas
La organización no gubernamental Una Ventana a la Libertad (UVL) reveló que la Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar (Dgcim) ha sistematizados la tortura hacia los presos dentro de sus centros de detención preventivos, una práctica de la que ha «alejado» el Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional
En conversación con Efecto Cocuyo, Abrams también dejó claro a sectores de la oposición que cuestionan a Guaidó, que el presidente de la Asamblea Nacional, “ es el hombre central del movimiento democrático de Venezuela”
I’ve got 2 NGO coalition calls today, and am joining a class at the University of Texas in the late afternoon. In between, writing an explainer for the Colombia website, which I’d hoped to finish yesterday.
President Trump said on Tuesday that he would order a temporary halt in issuing green cards to prevent people from immigrating to the United States, but he backed away from plans to suspend guest worker programs
Ecuador took early aggressive measures to stop the coronavirus, but ended up becoming an epicenter of the pandemic in Latin America. How? We revisit the first confirmed case and what led to the disease’s spread
El Gobierno ha ignorado reiteradas resoluciones de la Sala de lo Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de abstenerse de implementar medidas para hacer cumplir la cuarentena domiciliaria sin una ley debidamente adoptada por la Asamblea Legislativa
Why, exactly, the president went out of his way to comfort the mother of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera in Badiraguato, Sinaloa — a town known as the birthplace of the Sinaloa drug cartel — remains a mystery to many and an insult to some
“Vamos a demostrar que hay otra forma de enfrentar la crisis”, expresó el Presidente y expuso el blindaje de los programas de la Secretaría de Bienestar, el apoyo a la Sedena, Semar, Secretaría de Salud y la Guardia Nacional
La Guardia Nacional no solo adolece del perfil civil, también ha sido opaca en temas como la evaluación y certificación de sus nuevos reclutas o la construcción de cuarteles; su despliegue está por debajo de lo pronosticado originalmente y la violencia no ha disminuido
A new program for in-country refugee processing could be established that would be open to everyone in participating countries, and it wouldn’t have to be limited to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 21, 2019 CONTACT: Edward Sifuentes, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, 619-501-3408, firstname.lastname@example.org SAN DIEGO – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) filed a class-action lawsuit
Chevron is the last major U.S. oil company to do business in crisis-wracked Venezuela, investing in the South American nation’s oil fields and machinery over the last century with an estimated value of $2.6 billion
I’ve got a couple of calls scheduled, a late afternoon “meeting” of groups working on Colombia, I’ll sit in on WOLA’s Brazil webinar, and I’m nearly done writing a new item for our Colombia website. I should be reachable intermittently until mid-afternoon.