Adam Isacson

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

April 2020

Latin America-related online events this week

Monday, April 27

Tuesday, April 28

  • 10:00–11:00 at Trends in Global Arms Transfers and Military Spending (RSVP required).
  • 10:30–11:45 at Confronting COVID-19 in Brazil: Safeguarding Public Health, Social Welfare, and Economic Policy Amid a Political Crisis (RSVP required).

Wednesday, April 29

  • 10:00–11:00 at Covid-19 and Human Rights in Latin America – A Conversation with Michelle Bachelet (RSVP required).
  • 11:30–1:00 at La primera infancia y el Covid-19 – Respuestas a la emergencia (RSVP required).

Thursday, April 30

“What do you do here at WOLA?”

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.

5 links from the past week

  • 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.
  • In a contribution to the multinational Tierra de Resistentes project on environmental defenders, La Liga Contra el Silencio profiles brave indigenous activists resisting big mining projects in southern Córdoba department, one of the most conflictive parts of Colombia right now.
  • A similarly excellent Tierra de Resistentes piece 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 Abierta takes 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.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Infobae. Caption: “La mayoría de los beneficiados de Santa Bárbara son adultos mayores”

(Even more here)

April 24, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

Governments worry that returned migrants could spark new waves of infections, overwhelming ill-equipped health-care systems


Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro suffered the heaviest blow to his presidency so far as his popular justice minister quit on Friday and accused him of potentially criminal meddling in law enforcement

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


Uno de los centros de pensamiento que le hacen seguimiento a lo pactado afirma que el Gobierno limitó el alcance que esos programas tenían y que no tienen una financiación asegurada

The situation in the Cauca department of Colombia, where at least 13 human rights defenders are reported to have been killed so far this year– including three in the past few days – is deeply worrying

Sospechosamente, a los pocos días, Llinás empezó a recibir llamadas de altos oficiales policiales en la que lo instaban a canalizar bien las denuncias y a dejar que ellos actuaran

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

¿Su respuesta? Ahora reparten mercados


A New York Times analysis suggests that Ecuador’s death toll is 15 times higher than its official tally of coronavirus deaths, highlighting the damage the virus can do in developing countries

Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico

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

Forma parte de una larga serie de agresiones en las que se han visto involucradas las fuerzas armadas en años recientes

Esas zonas, allí donde se manifiesta de manera abierta el poder ilegal armado, no son enclaves autónomos. Su existencia –y persistencia– se negocia, día a día, con diversos entes del Estado

Son presuntos integrantes de la organización Gente Nueva, brazo armado del cártel de Sinaloa, que dirigía Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán

Los datos muestran que aun con la reducción de la movilidad social y el aislamiento asumido como parte de la emergencia sanitaria para hacer frente a la pandemia de coronavirus, la violencia crece

U.S.-Mexico Border

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


At least 500 protests have been registered so far in April

Desde hace varios días, diversos focos de protestas se han registrado en varios estados de Venezuela en exigencia por comida, gasolina y servicios públicos

New “explainer” on FARC dissident groups in Colombia

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.

At World Politics Review: Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Crackdown Is Creating New Coronavirus Hotspots

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.

Read more here.

The day ahead: April 24, 2020

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

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.

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

The second killing happened yesterday (Wednesday), and we put together this WOLA statement.

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.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from La Liga Contra el Silencio. Caption: “Mina artesanal ‘El Alacrán’ ubicada en el corregimiento de San Juan, Municipio de Puerto Libertador.”

(Even more here)

April 23, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

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

350 detainees, whom the government has identified as being exposed to the illness are being quarantined together, a practice that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls “cohorting.”

Although Trump had said on Twitter earlier in the week that he was going to suspend all immigration during the pandemic, the order he signed was much less broad and carries several exemptions


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

Brazil, Peru

Prices for coca leaves sold to drug gangs have slumped 70% since Peru went on lockdown last month


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

False positives is the name given to the killings of young men – mainly from poor families in Bogotá and its surroundings – carried out by the Colombian army

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

En el sur del departamento de Córdoba se levantan proyectos mineros de gran alcance. Le resta al pueblo zenú que resiste en el territorio, a pesar de todo

La gran mayoría de indicadores de seguridad en todo el país han mejorado. Sin embargo, en ciertos territorios de interés para la JEP, se han prolongado

After a highly-publicised trial and appeal the Irishmen were sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2004 – only for it to emerge that they had already fled Colombia while on bail

Colombia, Venezuela

“A toda la comunidad de Boca de Grita le voy a pedir el favor que salgan del pueblo porque vamos a echar una arremetida, no respondemos por los civiles que mueran”

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”

El Salvador

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”

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

In some cases, desperate citizens have been met with repression and arbitrary detentions as police and military take the front line in a public health crisis


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

The men appear so chummy that the Mexican president, who has not traveled outside his country since taking office nearly 18 months ago, is talking about visiting his U.S. counterpart

U.S.-Mexico Border

Residents of Columbus contacted state and federal officials earlier in April over the “man camp,” concerned about adding congregate housing in the midst of a pandemic

The Department of Defense, at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, sent 60 mobile surveillance cameras and 540 additional troops to the southwest border this month


La cifra de presos políticos aumentó a 342 en toda Venezuela, lo que representa un incremento de ocho personas si se compara con el balance presentado a inicios de mes

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

“They are potentially weeks away from going into complete chaos,” Mr. Story said

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”

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Víctor Peña photo at El Faro (El Salvador). Caption: “Soldados custodian la entrada al Puerto de la Libertad. La Fuerza Armada montó un cordón alrededor del municipio a partir de la noche del viernes 17 de abril. Durante 48 horas toda la ciudad fue tomada. Negocios, habitantes y comerciantes tuvieron prohibido salir de sus casas, después que el presidente Bukele ordenara el cierre por Twitter, tras señalar a sus habitantes de haber violado la cuarentena domiciliar.”

(Even more here)

April 22, 2020

Western Hemisphere Regional

Weak law enforcement and overburdened justice systems across Latin America seldom deter those waging war on the environment and its defenders

Across Latin America and the Caribbean – where an estimated 113 million people live in low-income barrios, favelas or villas – families are struggling to adapt

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

Almost six out of every ten of these individuals—or 18,535—had never been convicted of even a minor petty offense


La Cámara Federal juzgó desde ese día a las tres primeras juntas militares de la dictadura cívico militar instaurada en 1976. El juicio no tenía antecedentes en el mundo


As Acari records its first coronavirus death, we follow Buba through a typical day fighting to help her community in the face of government inaction


Diálogo con Annette Idler, Kristian Herzbolheimer, Angelica Rettberg, Carlos Velandia, Luis Eduardo Celis, Juan Carlos Garzón y Steve Hege. Moderado por Andreí Gómez-Suárez

Desde hace 38 días CERAC no ha registrado acciones ofensivas atribuidas al ELN, por lo tanto no hay reporte de víctimas asociadas a la violencia de ese grupo guerrillero

Content is a multimedia presentation.

Ante la polémica que sucitó la medida entre ambientalistas, la medida fue derogada

Los registros de las autoridades indican que a los 15 años ingresó al frente 57 de las Farc, estructura en la que habría desempeñado varios roles ilegales hasta convertirse en cabecilla de escuadra

Norte de Santander tiene en su territorio 12 de estas estructuras

Martin John Mc Cauley, Niall Terrence Connolly y Séamus O’ Muineacháin fueron condenados a 17 años de prisión por falsedad en documento público y entrenamiento para actividades ilícitas


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 Salvador

El caso de este municipio es un buen resumen de la tensión entre los poderes legislativo y judicial, con un presidente que no está dispuesto a ceder terreno

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

Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico

In many instances, the screenings, which consist primarily of taking a person’s temperature, have failed to detect cases


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

De acuerdo con el reporte diario del gobierno federal, el 20 de abril superó al domingo pasado como el más violento; la mayoría de homicidios ocurrió en Guanajuato

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

Del primero de diciembre de 2018 al 22 de marzo de este año, las fuerzas armadas fueron objeto de 324 agresiones por parte de integrantes de la delincuencia organizada en operativos de seguridad

El nivel de violencia homicida en el primer año del actual gobierno es el peor del que haya registro reciente

“There are risks everywhere, but we don’t all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident,” Landau wrote

U.S.-Mexico Border

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, SAN DIEGO – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) filed a class-action lawsuit


The talks, which have no clear agenda, show that allies of both Maduro and Guaido remain unconvinced they can defeat the other amid a global pandemic and a broad U.S. sanctions program

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

The day ahead: April 22, 2020

I’ll be around in the morning and mid-day. (How to contact me)

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.

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