Adam Isacson

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

October 2023

E-mail Update Is Out

Here’s a new “weekly” e-mail about stuff I’ve been working on, for those who’ve signed up to receive them.

This one’s very short, as I’m on the road, in Colombia, and shouldn’t be posting about the region that I’m currently in. So it’s mainly just my October 27 post about the Darién region.

If you visit this site a lot, you probably don’t need an e-mail, too. But if you’d like to get more-or-less regular e-mail updates, scroll to the bottom of this page or click here.

Back From Urabá, Colombia

I spent the past few days in and around Necoclí, Colombia, an area through which tens of thousands of migrants, from dozens of countries, pass. Here, they take boats across the Gulf of Urabá to the Darién region straddling Colombia and Panama, where they undergo a treacherous several-day journey through dense jungle.

Here are a few photos. I’m in another zone of Colombia now, as research continues, so there’s no time to write much yet. We had our photographer Sergio with us, who took much better photos than the ones here.

The Darién region, viewed from across the Gulf of Urabá.

Carrying provisions, people prepare to board boats. Most people we spoke with were from Venezuela, but we also spoke with people from Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba, and saw some migrants from China.

Migrants who can’t pay the boat fare, and fees charged by organized crime, sleep on the beach until they can get enough money together. There are no migrant shelters in Necoclí.

A smaller number of migrants lacking boat fare waits in tents near the dock in Turbo, south of Necoclí.

Water purification tablets and mosquito spray for the jungle journey.

Armed-group tag in Turbo.

E-mail Update Is Out

Here’s a new “weekly” e-mail about stuff I’ve been working on, for those who’ve signed up to receive them.

This one’s shorter because I’m somewhere in Colombia right now, at the beginning of a two-week research trip to a few regions. That’s keeping me from “generating content” like the weekly border updates. But there’s still some good stuff here, and I’ll aim to keep posting these from the road.

If you visit this site a lot, you probably don’t need an e-mail, too. But if you’d like to get more-or-less regular e-mail updates, scroll to the bottom of this page or click here.

Venezuela Was the Number-One Nationality of Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border in September

For the first month since August 2019, Mexico is not the number-one nationality of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Venezuela, for the first time, was number one.

Chart: All CBP (Border Patrol Plus Port of Entry) Migrant Encounters
by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

September 2023: Venezuela 25%, Mexico 20%, Guatemala 13%, Honduras 10%, Ecuador 6%, Colombia 5%, Cuba 4%, El Salvador 3%, All Others <3%
Since October 2020: Mexico 33%, Honduras 11.3%, Guatemala 11.1%, Venezuela 8%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5%, Colombia 4.4%, All Others <4%

Data table

Just-released data show that Border Patrol apprehended 54,833 citizens of Venezuela in the areas between the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry in September, a record for countries other than Mexico, and far more than its apprehensions of 39,773 Mexican citizens in September.

Chart: Border Patrol Apprehensions by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

September 2023: Venezuela 25%, Mexico 18%, Guatemala 15%, Honduras 11%, Ecuador 7%, Colombia 6%, El Salvador 3%, All Others <2% 
Since October 2020: Mexico 33%, Guatemala 12.2%, Honduras 11.7%, Venezuela 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5.3%, Colombia 4.8%, El Salvador 4.1%, All Others <4%

Data table

At the ports of entry (official border crossings), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered 11,751 more Venezuelan citizens, most of them asylum seekers who had made appointments using the CBP One smartphone app. (In September, of 50,972 people who made it onto U.S. soil at ports of entry, CBP reports that about 43,000—84 percent—had CBP One appointments.) Mexico, with 13,523 citizens encountered, was still the number-one nationality at the ports of entry.

Chart: CBP Port of Entry Migrant Encounters by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

September 2023: Mexico 27%, Venezuela 23%, Cuba 19%, Haiti 9%, Honduras 7%, Russia 3%, Colombia 2%, All Others <2% 
Since October 2020: Mexico 38%, Haiti 15%, Venezuela 10%, Honduras 8.4%, Russia 8.3%, Cuba 4%, All Others <4%

Data Table

Add together the ports of entry and the areas between them, and Venezuela was the number-one nationality in September with 66,584 migrant encounters. Mexico was the number-two nationality, with 53,296. No other nationality came close; Guatemala was in third place with 34,537.

September marked the end of the U.S. government’s 2023 fiscal year. For decades, CBP has reported its migrant encounters by fiscal year, so we now have a “year-end” comparison, at least for Border Patrol apprehensions between the ports of entry. Using this metric—which may include some double-counting, with the same migrant being apprehended two or more times—we find that 2023 was the number-two year ever for Border Patrol migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border. Only 2022 was higher.

Data table

Only 28 percent of migrants apprehended at the Mexico border in fiscal 2023 were citizens of Mexico. Since 2000, 67 percent of migrants apprehended at the border have been Mexican citizens.

(Note: at GitHub, I’ve updated the tool I use to make these and many other migration charts, with data going back to October 2019. I use it all the time, feel free to run a version of your own. It does require you to know how to run a free web server on your computer; I don’t make it public because generating a table with 48 months and 20 countries makes a web server work very hard.)

Traveling October 21-November 4

I’m leaving today for a 2-week research trip to a region where a lot of migration is happening. I plan to post about where I’ve been after I leave each territory.

Posts here will be less frequent, because the schedule is packed, but I look forward to sharing.

A Political Stunt Falls Flat at the Border

In July, the Republican governor of Virginia, a swing state far from the U.S.-Mexico border, sent a contingent of 100 state National Guard troops to Texas to support Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border-security clampdown known as “Operation Lone Star.” The troops went, Youngkin said, to combat the “fentanyl crisis.”

Anybody who looks at data could have told Youngkin that 89 percent of fentanyl along the border gets seized at the official border crossings, not in the wide-open areas between the crossings, where his guardsmen were on duty. We also could have told Youngkin that the overwhelming majority of fentanyl is crossing in California and Arizona, not Texas.

But the Governor sent the troops, and off they went to Eagle Pass, at a cost of $2 million over 3 weeks.

And unsurprisingly, over the course of their deployment, they encountered exactly zero shipments of fentanyl.

That’s a finding of the news team at the local Washington, DC NBC TV affiliate. Reporters filed an open-records request with the state of Virginia and obtained daily “situation reports” and other documents from the deployment.

The guardsmen did see 6,717 people they described as “illegal immigrants” and referred 1,834 to the federal Border Patrol. This isn’t surprising, as several hundred migrants per day have been crossing in Eagle Pass, seeking to turn themselves in to apply for asylum. You can stand by the riverbank there and see migrants, too.

After several days, a “commander’s assessment” document noted “a weakening of the deterrent effect of our Soldiers and Airmen.” Migrants, seeking to turn themselves in anyway, were ignoring commands to turn back.

Troublingly, NBC reported that the internal reports showed “conflict over Virginia’s policy to withhold water to migrants.” Texas has ordered Operation Lone Star guardsmen not only to block and turn back asylum seekers already on U.S. soil, which violates federal law and the Refugee Convention. It also has ordered them to refuse water and other assistance to migrants on the riverbank, held back by Texas’s concertina wire and troops, even in 100-degree heat, even when those migrants are families with children. The reports reveal some “conflict” over Virginia’s enforcement of this inhumane policy.

The tactical impact of Virginia’s National Guard deployment was zero. The impact on morale and readiness was likely negative. But Governor Youngkin got to travel to downtown Eagle Pass for a photo op (his office provides a page of media-ready high-res photos), so there’s that.

We Should Reflect and Discuss Events in a Way That Will Not Increase the Despair and the Anger in People.

The row began one day after Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attacks when Petro used his official X account to denounce what he called “neo-Nazi” efforts to destroy the Palestinian people, freedom and culture.

The World Jewish Congress accused Colombia’s leftwing president of completely ignoring the hundreds of Israeli civilian victims and called Petro’s statement “an insult to the six million victims of the Holocaust and to the Jewish people”.

The next day Petro returned to social media to comment on claims by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Galant, that his troops were fighting “human animals” in Gaza. “This is what the Nazis said about the Jews,” tweeted Petro. “All this hate speech will do, if it continues, is lead to a Holocaust.”

Over the coming days, Petro – who has declined to strongly condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas – repeatedly used social media to criticize Israel’s military response.

“I’ve been to the Auschwitz concentration camp and now I see it being copied in Gaza,” Petro said in one post, drawing a polite rebuke from Israel’s ambassador in Bogotá, Gali Dagan, who offered to take him to the kibbutzim in southern Israel that Hamas attacked “and where many Latinos live”.
From the Guardian.

I’m deeply saddened by Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s decision to respond to a man-made calamity, on the brink of a calamitous reprisal, by taking to Twitter and using inflammatory language that does nothing to bring peace closer.

The world needs to hear wisdom right now, especially from the leader of a country that’s struggling to heal the wounds of its own generations of man-made calamity. The Colombian people need to hear wisdom.

That’s all. Except for this Thich Nhat Hanh quote.

If one terrorist group is violently destroyed, another will emerge; it’s endless. So I told the editors, “When you report on terrorist acts, use your compassion and deep understanding. Explain the story in such a way that the reader doesn’t become enraged and perhaps become another terrorist.”

We can tell the truth, but we must help people understand. When people understand, their anger will lessen. They don’t lose hope, they know what to do and what not to do, what to consume and what not to consume in order not to continue this kind of suffering. So my message that morning was that we should reflect and discuss events in a way that will not increase the despair and the anger in people. Instead, we can help them to understand why things happen, so their insight and compassion increase. We can make a big difference with the practice of looking deeply. The solution isn’t to hide the truth.

E-mail Update Is Out

screenshot of this week's update

Here’s a new “weekly” e-mail about stuff I’ve been working on, for those who’ve signed up to receive them.

This one features the border update; a statement about basic values at a time of record protection-seeking migration; current migration numbers from the U.S. border and the Darién Gap; links to a few recommended articles; and some upcoming events.

E-mails may be shorter and more irregular for the next three weeks, as I’m planning some work travel that will disrupt regular “content generation”—on this site, also.

If you visit this site a lot, you probably don’t need an e-mail, too. But if you’d like to get more-or-less regular e-mail updates, scroll to the bottom of this page or click here.

Latin America-Related Events in Washington and Online This Week

(Events that I know of, anyway. All times are U.S. Eastern.)

I’ll soon be traveling for work for a couple of weeks. These “events posts will resume again on November 5.

Tuesday, October 17

  • 2:00-5:00 at the Wilson Center and online: Building a High Quality US-Mexico Pharmaceutical Supply Chain (RSVP required).
  • 5:00 at CINEP Facebook Live: Entre la continuidad y el cambio: creencias y comportamientos sociales que condicionan el derecho a la tierra y el territorio de las mujeres (RSVP required).
  • 7:00-8:30 at IPS and online: The Rising Latin American Left: México and Beyond (RSVP required).

Wednesday, October 18

  • 2:00-3:15 online: Organized crime in Latin America (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:00 at Fordham University Zoom: The FERM Program: A Three-Month Assessment Highlighting the Need for a More Family-Centered Approach (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-5:00 at American University Washington College of Law: Book Conversation: Mexico, A Challenging Assignment.
  • 4:30-5:15 at the Atlantic Council and online: Addressing inequality in Colombia: A conversation with Vice President Francia Márquez (RSVP required).

Thursday, October 19

  • 1:00-6:00 at Georgetown University: Brazil in Transition Conference (RSVP required).
  • 6:00 at the National Press Club: In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Conversation about Press Freedom in Mexico (RSVP required).

Friday, October 20

  • 9:00-6:00 at Georgetown University: Brazil in Transition Conference (RSVP required).
  • 10:00-11:15 at the University of Chicago and online: Disparity: Origin and Consequence of the Latin American Pre-Development Trap (RSVP required).
  • 10:30-11:30 at Georgetown University: Frontlines of Freedom: Conversations on Democracy, Activism, and Anti-Authoritarian Efforts (RSVP required).

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: October 13, 2023

Due to staff travel, WOLA will not produce Border Updates during the next three weeks. Updates will resume on November 10.

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.


The Biden administration’s October 5 announcements of new border wall construction and renewed deportations to Venezuela reverberated at the border, along the migration route, and in policy discussions. Many Democratic Party political leaders and non-governmental organizations voiced criticism. Analysts suggested that the moves pointed to a grim political reality for the administration at a time of near-record migrant arrivals at the border.

After three months of sharp growth, migration may be leveling off or even declining since mid-September, according to partial data and anecdotal evidence. September data show a very slight August-to-September reduction in near-record migration through Panama’s Darién Gap Region, and a sharp rise in the number of people traveling through Honduras.

Videos show asylum seekers forced to get past a gauntlet of Texas state police, soldiers, and razor wire in order to access Border Patrol agents further from the river’s edge. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has snarled cargo traffic in northern Mexican border cities by ordering “safety” checkpoints for trucks exiting border bridges. An appeals court heard arguments about Gov. Abbott’s “buoy wall” in Eagle Pass.

Read More

At WOLA: Migration Can’t and Shouldn’t Be Blocked. But it Can be Managed.

Here’s an 1,100-word statement recalling and highlighting some of the basic principles underlying our border and migration work. Backed up with lots of numbers and data, of course.

The main points:

  1. Most migrants arriving in the United States are exercising their right to seek asylum
  2. The United States needs to invest in managing, in a humane and timely manner, migrants and asylum seekers—NOT in more border security
  3. Legislative proposals from “border hawks,” like the “Secure the Border Act” (H.R2), would endanger thousands of lives

Read it here. It comes with an embedded video:

Sketchy Data Indicate that Migration May Be Leveling Off, or Even Decreasing, at the Border Since September

It’s hard to tell for sure, because reporting is very partial. But it seems like the rapid July-September increase in the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has leveled off, or could even be receding slightly.

That is the murky picture that emerges when gleaning data from Border Patrol sector chiefs’ social media accounts and from the City of El Paso. See for yourself below.

If accurate, this may owe more to Mexico cracking down on in-transit migration than to any important change in migration along the U.S.-bound route. September numbers were steady in Panama and grew sharply in Honduras.

Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector (Texas):

Tucson Sector (Arizona):

El Paso Sector (Texas-New Mexico); all data from El Paso municipal dashboard

  • Week 37 of 2023 (September 11-17): 1,170/day
  • Week 38 of 2023 (September 18-24): 1,637/day
  • Week 39 of 2023 (September 25-October 1): 1,333/day
  • Week 40 of 2023 (October 2-8): 1,162/day
  • Week 41 of 2023 (October 9-15): 909/day

San Diego Sector (California):

Yuma Sector (Arizona-California):

Not reporting on social media:

Darién Gap Migration Through September

September was the 2nd busiest month ever (after August) for migration through the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, according to data just published by Panama’s government.

Blue is Venezuela, green is Haiti, brown is Ecuador.

Data table

Here is the same information, except zoomed out annually since 2010.

Data table

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