Adam Isacson

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


December 2023

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from December

David Tarazona, Jose Guarnizo, Coltan, Oro y Pistas Clandestinas: El Botin Con el Que Grupos Armados Desangran al Guainia (Voragine (Colombia), Monday, December 11, 2023).

In environmentally fragile Guainía, Colombia, the ELN and FARC dissidents dominate illicit mining of coltan, “an essential component in the production of the electronic devices we use every day.”

Sarah Kinosian, How a Factory City in Wisconsin Fed Military-Grade Weapons to a Mexican Cartel (Reuters, Reuters, Saturday, December 9, 2023).

How Racine, Wisconsin, a small industrial city between Chicago and Milwaukee, became a major vector for supplying high-caliber weapons to Mexico’s hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Hector Silva Avalos, El Asunto Chino: Nayib Bukele Negocia Red 5g Con Estados Unidos y Obtiene Silencio por la Reeleccion (Primera Parte) (Prensa Comunitaria (Guatemala), Wednesday, December 6, 2023).

How the U.S. State Department “gave up on its eagerness to publicly complain about” El Salvador’s increasingly authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele. “This is a capitulation,” a former diplomat said.

The Moskitia: The Honduran Jungle Drowning in Cocaine (InsightCrime, Friday, December 1, 2023).

“The region’s Indigenous Miskito people have been left trapped in desperate poverty, and are caught between the traffickers and an indifferent state. But some are now preparing to fight back.”

Lauren Villagran, ‘Where Is the Humanity?’ Migrant Deaths Soaring at el Paso-Juarez Border With Few Ways to Document Them (The El Paso Times, Thursday, November 30, 2023).

“One hundred and forty-nine migrants died in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector in the 12 months through Sept. 30, soaring from six migrant deaths recorded six years ago.” And CBP is late on its 2022 and 2023 reports documenting migrant deaths.

December 2023 Set a New U.S.-Mexico Border Monthly Migration Record

Update January 29, 2024: CBP has released final December 2023 data. Read an updated post with nine charts illustrating migration trends.

Border Patrol shares monthly data about its apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border since October 1999. As this chart shows, during that time, the number of migrant apprehensions in a single month has never exceeded 225,000. (224,370 in May 2022, 222,018 in December 2022, 220,063 in March 2000.)

Data table

That threshold has now been passed. CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Galvez reported yesterday, “U.S. Border Patrol agents took into custody more than 225,000 migrants who crossed the southern border—in between official crossings—during the first 27 days of December, according to the preliminary Department of Homeland Security [DHS] statistics.”

(This number does not include approximately 50,000 more migrants who come each month to ports of entry—official border crossings—usually with appointments.)

Montoya-Galvez shared Border Patrol’s daily averages, showing modest decline in migrant arrivals over the past week:

The current spike in migration peaked before Christmas, during the week starting on Dec. 14 and ending on Dec. 20, when Border Patrol averaged 9,773 daily apprehensions, according to the data. On several days that week, the agency processed more than 10,000 migrants in 24 hours.

Unlawful crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border have decreased this week, but remain at historically high levels. On Wednesday, Border Patrol processed 7,759 migrants, the statistics show.

In his morning press conference yesterday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shared this slide of data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency), depicting CBP’s monthly migrant encounters through the first 17 days of December. This slide appears to combine Border Patrol apprehensions with CBP’s port-of-entry encounters, so the numbers are a bit higher.

Combining encounters with migrants at the ports of entry and between them, the chart shows a daily average of 9,787 people per day over December 1-17, increasing to 10,187 per day over December 1-21.

The chart shows a sharp increase in daily arrivals of Venezuelan citizens, whose numbers dropped in October and November after the Biden administration’s October 5 announcement that it was resuming deportation flights to Caracas.

There have since been 11 such flights, DHS reported on December 27. It appears that despite the (not huge) risk of being on one of these roughly one-per-week flights, Venezuelan asylum seekers are again coming in greater numbers.

Daily Border Links: December 28, 2023

This will be the last Daily Border Links post until January 2, unless events demand otherwise. Best wishes for a happy holiday.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a U.S. government delegation that met with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador yesterday for two and a half hours in Mexico City. The main topic was the large number of migrants currently crossing Mexico and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Mayorkas called the meeting “productive.” Neither country’s officials announced resulting policy changes, though López Obrador made a vague reference to “important agreements.” An unnamed senior administration official told CNN that there was agreement on “the need to really crack down on the smugglers that are putting migrants on buses, putting migrants on trains. We’ve seen that really contribute to the increase that we’ve seen at the border and just in recent weeks.” The Wall Street Journal observed that “The U.S. has spent months trying to persuade Mexico to allow the State Department to process refugees in Mexico” and that Mexico may be willing to accept expelled migrants “if it ultimately lowers the number of migrants attempting the journey.”

“We were really impressed by some of the new actions that Mexico is taking, and we have seen in recent days a pretty significant reduction in border crossings,” the official said, according to Agénce France Presse. U.S. authorities apprehended about 6,000 migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border on December 26, down from an average of 9,600 per day earlier this month. Despite the recent drop, it appears likely that December will break Border Patrol’s record for most migrant apprehensions in a month.

With very little advance warning, officials in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across from Brownsville, Texas, forcibly dismantled a year-old tent encampment that was still housing about 200 migrants, many of them awaiting CBP One appointments. The city’s shelters are already saturated. “About 70 migrants flung themselves into the river Tuesday night and crossed into the U.S.,” the Associated Press reported. “They remained trapped for hours along the riverbank beneath the layers of concertina wire set up by orders of the Texas governor.”

A “migrant caravan” that began near the Mexico-Guatemala border on Christmas Eve has covered about 50 miles of Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. The “caravan’s” numbers are dwindling as exhaustion sets in: from at least 7,500 from about 24 nationalities, to about 3,000 now. Rather than attempt to walk all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, participants are mainly petitioning Mexican migratory authorities to give them “a document with which we can remain in the country,” one of the caravan’s principal organizers said.

Though Congress is out of session until January 8, the small group of senators negotiating a possible Ukraine aid-for-asylum-restrictions deal has resumed meeting, virtually, as of December 27.

Guatemala’s migration agency reported having expelled 23,711 northbound irregular migrants back into Honduras between January 1 and December 25, including at least 16,931 Venezuelans, 1,644 Ecuadorians, 1,558 Haitians, 907 Colombians, and 907 Hondurans.

New York Mayor Eric Adams issued an executive order that would issue criminal misdemeanor charges against bus companies—especially those contracted by Texas’s state government—that deliver migrants at non-approved hours and without giving city authorities at least 32 hours of advance notice. The measure “comes after 14 busloads of migrants arrived from Texas in a single night last week, the highest total recorded since the spring of 2022,” the New York Times reported.

Analyses and Feature Stories

According to Colombia’s attorney-general’s office, the BBC reported, migrants are avoiding the Darién Gap by paying “between $1,500 and $5,000 for ‘tourist packages’ that include permission to enter the island and transportation in clandestine boats from San Andres to the port of Bluefields in Nicaragua.” The trip is at least as deadly as the Darién.

The Associated Press pointed out that the Texas state government’s campaign of arresting thousands of migrants, among other border security measures, has not deterred people from crossing the border irregularly into the state.

Lengthy analyses in two principal U.K. papers, the Financial Times and the Guardian, looked at the border and migration situation’s political impact as the 2024 election campaign year begins.

On the Right

Email 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.

I’d said in the previous email that it was the last email of the year. But it turns out that there are were few additional items to share from this past week. So this is the last email of the year. It has the weekly Border Update, more new migration numbers, a panoramic WOLA podcast episode, some written congressional testimony about Colombia, and the usual links.

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.

The Number-One Nationality of Migrants Apprehended in each Border Patrol Sector in November

A remarkable variation, in both nationalities and overall numbers. From data CBP released late yesterday:

  • Tucson, Arizona: Mexico (30,201 of 64,638)
  • Del Rio, Texas: Venezuela (12,932 of 42,952)
  • San Diego, California: “Other Countries” (7,174 of 31,164)
  • El Paso, Texas-New Mexico: Mexico (6,209 of 22,403)
  • Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Venezuela (4,199 of 18,774)
  • Yuma, Arizona-California: Peru (1,742 of 6,159)
  • Laredo, Texas: Mexico (1,650 of 2,809)
  • El Centro, California: Mexico (876 of 1,787)
  • Big Bend, Texas: Mexico (330 of 427)

Total: Mexico (50,967 of 191,113)

At CBP’s U.S.-Mexico border ports of entry (official border crossings):

  • Laredo, Texas: Mexico (6,735 of 24,224)
  • San Diego, California: Cuba (5,074 of 15,432)
  • El Paso, Texas-New Mexico: Venezuela (2,163 of 7,617)
  • Tucson, Arizona: Mexico (1,646 of 4,032)

Total: Mexico (13,844 of 51,305)

Mexico Encountered a Record 97,969 Migrants in November

The Mexican government just released new data showing that it recorded 97,969 “events of people in irregular migratory situation” during November 2023. That’s 5 percent more than October, and sets a new record for the most migrant encounters that Mexico has ever recorded in a month:

Mexico’s Apprehensions of All Migrants,
January 2001-November 2023

Jan-01	14061
Feb-01	17965
Mar-01	20613
Apr-01	15770
May-01	17368
Jun-01	13947
Jul-01	13283
Aug-01	12731
Sep-01	9740
Oct-01	5423
Nov-01	4727
Dec-01	4902
Jan-02	8968
Feb-02	10722
Mar-02	11443
Apr-02	13930
May-02	15040
Jun-02	12784
Jul-02	13415
Aug-02	11996
Sep-02	11781
Oct-02	10607
Nov-02	9686
Dec-02	7689
Jan-03	11556
Feb-03	14945
Mar-03	16998
Apr-03	11558
May-03	20391
Jun-03	19253
Jul-03	18046
Aug-03	18027
Sep-03	16409
Oct-03	16480
Nov-03	14302
Dec-03	9649
Jan-04	15242
Feb-04	19095
Mar-04	21434
Apr-04	20526
May-04	20726
Jun-04	18204
Jul-04	19715
Aug-04	17936
Sep-04	17999
Oct-04	18240
Nov-04	16559
Dec-04	10019
Jan-05	17673
Feb-05	22118
Mar-05	24267
Apr-05	24509
May-05	20592
Jun-05	19922
Jul-05	19657
Aug-05	20376
Sep-05	20630
Oct-05	16208
Nov-05	20545
Dec-05	13772
Jan-06	21867
Feb-06	24547
Mar-06	24892
Apr-06	19234
May-06	16870
Jun-06	12926
Jul-06	11487
Aug-06	12183
Sep-06	12480
Oct-06	10601
Nov-06	10109
Dec-06	5509
Jan-07	11215
Feb-07	11910
Mar-07	12473
Apr-07	11796
May-07	12004
Jun-07	11095
Jul-07	10846
Aug-07	12520
Sep-07	9047
Oct-07	7292
Nov-07	6431
Dec-07	3826
Jan-08	8970
Feb-08	10787
Mar-08	9305
Apr-08	11031
May-08	9747
Jun-08	8394
Jul-08	7585
Aug-08	6705
Sep-08	6521
Oct-08	6894
Nov-08	5506
Dec-08	3278
Jan-09	5943
Feb-09	6246
Mar-09	6884
Apr-09	6742
May-09	5701
Jun-09	6872
Jul-09	5718
Aug-09	5789
Sep-09	6039
Oct-09	5450
Nov-09	4388
Dec-09	3261
Jan-10	4759
Feb-10	5796
Mar-10	7336
Apr-10	6695
May-10	7075
Jun-10	6378
Jul-10	6760
Aug-10	6755
Sep-10	5098
Oct-10	4714
Nov-10	5077
Dec-10	3659
Jan-11	4430
Feb-11	5087
Mar-11	6695
Apr-11	6471
May-11	7852
Jun-11	5717
Jul-11	5215
Aug-11	5299
Sep-11	5586
Oct-11	5453
Nov-11	5267
Dec-11	3511
Jan-12	6343
Feb-12	7442
Mar-12	9291
Apr-12	8732
May-12	8874
Jun-12	8082
Jul-12	6860
Aug-12	6496
Sep-12	8746
Oct-12	7879
Nov-12	6364
Dec-12	3397
Jan-13	6699
Feb-13	7407
Mar-13	8290
Apr-13	7951
May-13	7718
Jun-13	7370
Jul-13	7471
Aug-13	7443
Sep-13	6657
Oct-13	7549
Nov-13	7300
Dec-13	4443
Jan-14	6295
Feb-14	8317
Mar-14	10502
Apr-14	8621
May-14	10132
Jun-14	12515
Jul-14	11005
Aug-14	11618
Sep-14	11111
Oct-14	13700
Nov-14	13671
Dec-14	9662
Jan-15	18299
Feb-15	14885
Mar-15	16569
Apr-15	17085
May-15	19402
Jun-15	17152
Jul-15	17195
Aug-15	17088
Sep-15	15450
Oct-15	18232
Nov-15	14755
Dec-15	12029
Jan-16	11218
Feb-16	11420
Mar-16	14253
Apr-16	16700
May-16	16454
Jun-16	14850
Jul-16	13604
Aug-16	16502
Sep-16	19811
Oct-16	20494
Nov-16	17579
Dec-16	13331
Jan-17	10553
Feb-17	7275
Mar-17	5905
Apr-17	5243
May-17	7071
Jun-17	7471
Jul-17	7863
Aug-17	9171
Sep-17	7757
Oct-17	9678
Nov-17	9227
Dec-17	6632
Jan-18	9248
Feb-18	11549
Mar-18	11779
Apr-18	11486
May-18	10350
Jun-18	9577
Jul-18	8965
Aug-18	13560
Sep-18	13903
Oct-18	18895
Nov-18	12663
Dec-18	6637
Jan-19	8521
Feb-19	10194
Mar-19	13508
Apr-19	21197
May-19	23241
Jun-19	31396
Jul-19	19822
Aug-19	16066
Sep-19	13517
Oct-19	12256
Nov-19	9727
Dec-19	7305
Jan-20	14119
Feb-20	8377
Mar-20	8421
Apr-20	2628
May-20	2251
Jun-20	2304
Jul-20	4737
Aug-20	7445
Sep-20	8831
Oct-20	12253
Nov-20	9557
Dec-20	6337
Jan-21	9564
Feb-21	12893
Mar-21	18548
Apr-21	22968
May-21	20091
Jun-21	19249
Jul-21	25830
Aug-21	43031
Sep-21	46370
Oct-21	41580
Nov-21	29264
Dec-21	18291
Jan-22	23382
Feb-22	24304
Mar-22	30753
Apr-22	31206
May-22	33290
Jun-22	30423
Jul-22	33902
Aug-22	42719
Sep-22	43792
Oct-22	52201
Nov-22	49485
Dec-22	48982
Jan-23	37360
Feb-23	38041
Mar-23	44628
Apr-23	24993
May-23	40024
Jun-23	58265
Jul-23	73515
Aug-23	82350
Sep-23	96542
Oct-23	93045
Nov-23	97969

Data table

Migrants came from 111 countries. Of nationalities with more than 1,000 migrant encounters, those that increased the most from October to November were Mauritania (119%), the Dominican Republic (92%), and Honduras (65%). Those that declined the most from October to November were Cuba (-52%), Senegal (-28%), and Guinea (-11%). Venezuela, the number-one nationality, declined 8 percent.

Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 27%, Honduras 15%, Haiti 10%, Guatemala 9%, Ecuador 8%, All Others <4%

Since January 2022: Venezuela 26%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 13%, Ecuador 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5%, All Others <5%

Data table

Even as Mexico measured an increase in migration in November, two countries to the south, Panama and Honduras, reported double-digit percentage decreases.

Daily Border Links: December 22, 2023

This will be the last Daily Border Links post until January 2, unless events demand otherwise. Best wishes for a happy holiday.


“Border Patrol made about 10,500 apprehensions along the southwest border on Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the data,” ABC News reported. “Agents made roughly 10,600 migrant apprehensions along the southwest border on Wednesday. That was only a slight decline from Monday, and still high.” NBC News reported, “approximately 27,000 migrants were in CBP custody as of Wednesday night, another record.”

President Biden called Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador yesterday to discuss measures to manage very heavy current arrivals of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. They agreed that “additional enforcement actions are urgently needed,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. It is not clear what those actions might be. Biden is sending a delegation to Mexico, probably on December 27, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and White House Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall.

Large numbers of people continue to cross from Piedras Negras, Coahuila into Eagle Pass, Texas. “They were telling me that there are about six thousand just today (yesterday) and last week about five thousand every day, thousands of people are crossing the river with their families and children,” the sheriff of Maverick County (which includes Eagle Pass), Tom Schmerber, told Mexico’s Milenio.

Visiting El Paso, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) tweeted that Border Patrol has about 4,500 migrants in custody in that sector, and claimed “a rise in Venezuelan gang activity in these U.S. processing centers. Venezuela’s largest criminal organization – Tren de Aragua has assaulted Border Patrol agents and harasses other illegal aliens.”

The head of Mexico’s migration authority reported that its migrant encounters have “increased considerably in the final stretch of the year.”

International aid agencies are warning that thousands of migrants could become stranded in Honduras if the country’s congress fails to prolong a suspension of a $261 fine charged to every irregular in-transit migrant. Honduras suspended the fine in May 2022 and has to renew the “amnesty” periodically; the next time is in January.

Analyses and Feature Stories

In Arizona’s borderlands, “the percentage of human-smuggling and drug-trafficking crimes committed by undocumented immigrants has gone down, whereas the number committed by U.S. citizens or others with lawful status has gone up,” Geraldo Cadava reported at the New Yorker.

On the Right

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 21, 2023

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.

This will be the last Weekly Border Update until January 19. Best wishes for a happy holiday.


More than 10,000 migrants per day, mostly asylum seekers, have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. ​​Border Patrol sectors seeing the most arrivals are Del Rio and El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego, California. Some of the rush is likely the product of false rumors and misinformation. Notably, it is happening even though U.S.-bound migration through Panama and Honduras has been dropping sharply since October.

The U.S. Congress has adjourned for 2023 with no agreement on Republicans’ demands for new restrictions on asylum and other migration pathways—their main condition for supporting a $110.5 billion package of aid to Ukraine and Israel, new border spending, and other priorities. A small group of senators and senior Biden administration officials has been meeting regularly, but has produced neither legislative language nor a basic framework. They will resume consideration of the spending bill after Congress returns on January 8, amid a growing outcry from progressive legislators and migrants’ rights defense groups.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law S.B.4, which makes irregular border crossings into Texas a state crime. Upon arrest, migrants will be jailed if they do not agree to be returned to Mexico—but Mexico is refusing to accept returnees from the Texas state government. The ACLU, El Paso County, and El Paso-based rights groups quickly filed suit in federal court to block the law.


Read More

Daily Border Links: December 21, 2023

This will be the last Daily Border Links post until January 2, unless events demand otherwise. Best wishes for a happy holiday.


Border Patrol processed about 10,500 migrants on Tuesday (December 19). The number for Monday (December 18) was 10,800, about 40 percent of them families or unaccompanied children. Including people who came to ports of entry, the Washington Examiner reported, the totals were 14,509 on Monday and 12,242 on Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, CBP had 27,159 migrants in custody nationwide. With most days topping 10,000 in recent weeks, the system is at a “breaking point,” CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez reported.

About 4,400 of Tuesday’s 10,500 migrants crossed in Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector in mid-Texas. There, in Eagle Pass, “I visited a (holding) facility with a maximum capacity of 1,000. There were nearly 6,000. I’ve never seen it this high,” Rep. Tony Gonzales (R), who represents this area and much of the Texas-Mexico border, told Fox News.

Though CBP has not yet published November migration numbers, Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens told CNN that the agency apprehended about 192,000 migrants in November, a 2 percent increase over 188,000 in October.

Acting CBP chief Troy Miller told CNN that unscrupulous travel agencies in some countries, like Senegal, are offering travel packages to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexican business associations are protesting CBP’s temporary closures of railroad bridges in Eagle Pass and El Paso, which account for about 36 percent of train cargo entering the United States from Mexico. Trains allegedly are crossing with migrants aboard, though railroad companies dispute that. In Chihuahua, Mexico, “We thought that the arrival of migrants had dropped significantly, but since last week it increased to about a thousand people on each freight train trip,” said state official Óscar Ibáñez Hernández, who cited criminal groups misinforming migrants about the need to travel now.

President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are expected to speak this week about migration.

Near Lukeville, Arizona, where a large-scale arrival of migrants has led CBP to temporarily close the port of entry, smugglers have sawed through one segment of Trump-era border wall 41 times to let migrants pass through and turn themselves in to Border Patrol, the Washington Post reported.

Congress has gone home without a package of Ukraine and Israel aid, amid Republican demands that it come with restrictions to asylum and other migrant protections. “Talks between the White House and key senators have not veered widely from three main areas of discussion,” the Associated Press reported. Those are “toughening asylum protocols for migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border; bolstering border enforcement with more personnel and high-tech systems; and deterring migrants from making the journey in the first place.”

Analyses and Feature Stories

“Our country steps into humanitarian crises all over the world. Why would we not do it inside our own boundaries?” asked a forensic anthropologist in New Mexico, where migrant deaths in the desert have been increasing drastically, High Country News reported.

Since 2022, four percent of Cuba’s population has migrated to the U.S.-Mexico border. That is one of five key trends in Cuban migration documented in a new WOLA analysis.

On the Right

WOLA Podcast: A Review Of 2023 in the Americas with WOLA President Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

The last WOLA Podcast episode of the year is with my boss and our president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval. We talk about what’s happened in Latin America in 2023 and what our plans are for 2024, WOLA’s 50th anniversary year, in four areas: democracy, migration, climate, and gender and racial justice.

Here’s the text of WOLA’s podcast landing page.

As WOLA approaches its 50th anniversary, four areas are orienting our work alongside partners in the Americas: democracy, migration, climate, as well as gender and racial justice. It is a challenging moment for all four. Several democracies are under assault, forced migration is at historic levels, climate impacts are a bigger part of everyday life, and progress on gender and racial equity is fragile.

In this 2023 year-end podcast episode, WOLA’s President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, takes stock of trends and concerns in all four of these areas. There is much to do in 2024, and Jiménez explains how, as it enters its next 50 years, WOLA is aligning its research, advocacy, communications, and relationships to fight for human rights.

Download the podcast episode’s .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, SpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022),

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

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Daily Border Links: December 20, 2023


The U.S. Senate is wrapping up business today and will shortly adjourn for 2023, with no deal on a $110.5 billion “national security supplemental” spending package, requested by the Biden administration, to aid Ukraine and Israel and to fund border operations. Republicans continue to demand restrictions on asylum and other migration pathways, and a small group of Senate negotiators has been unable to come up with either a framework compromise or legislative language. The group pledges to keep trying, even “in the time remaining this year.” Congress returns on January 8.

The ACLU filed litigation, on behalf of El Paso County, Texas the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, and American Gateways, challenging the radical immigration law that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed on December 18. SB4 allows Texas police to arrest people on charges of irregularly crossing the border from Mexico, and to jail them if they don’t go back to Mexico. Statements from the governments of Mexico and Guatemala reject the new law.

A video shared by Texas Public Radio shows Texas National Guardsmen ignoring a migrant woman and baby crying for help in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass. “Eyewitnesses attested that both mother and child ‘went under for a while’ after several minutes of struggling, before resurfacing again.” A federal CBP airboat speeds by, a few feet away from the woman and child, offering no assistance.

According to data that the Washington Examiner obtained from CBP personnel, U.S. authorities encountered 14,509 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border on December 18. That’s probably about 13,000 Border Patrol apprehensions between ports of entry (official border crossings) and about 1,500 people reporting to the ports of entry, nearly always with CBP One appointments. It was the largest number of migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border in any day since at least 2000, and it may owe to rumors circulating in Mexico that the U.S. government is about to close the border and shut down CBP One. The past few weeks’ increases in migration are unusual because they come after sharp decreases in migration transiting the Darién Gap and Honduras in November.

Arizona’s senators, Mark Kelly (D) and Kyrsten Sinema (I), wrote a letter to DHS officials calling for new Shelter and Services Program funding for humanitarian services amid large-scale arrivals at remote parts of the state’s border.

Two children from Guinea (Africa), aged 10 and 13, spent days on their own in the Bogotá, Colombia airport after being abandoned there. Bogotá is one of a few airports where migrants from Africa change planes along an emerging route that leads to Nicaragua, which does not require visas of most of the continent’s nationalities. From Managua, they travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum.

Analyses and Feature Stories

Reporting mainly from the Darién Gap, the New York Times’s Julie Turkewitz found that “as migrants stream their struggles and successes to millions back home, some are becoming small-time celebrities and influencers in their own right.”

Following a visit to the Darién Gap’s gateway in northwestern Colombia, Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress recommended greater emphasis on “host community solutions” and “development finance tools” to integrate migrants in Latin American countries.

An increasing amount of punditry predicts that public perceptions of the border situation might provide the Trump campaign with the momentum it needs to win the 2024 election, even as the ex-president repeats “poison the blood” rhetoric paraphrasing Mein Kampf.

On the Right

Unusual: Even as Migration Drops Along the U.S.-Bound Route, It Jumps at the Border

According to leaked CBP data, U.S. authorities encountered 14,509 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border yesterday (December 18). That’s probably about 13,000 Border Patrol apprehensions between ports of entry (official border crossings) and about 1,500 people reporting to the ports of entry, nearly always with appointments made using the “CBP One” app.

That’s almost certainly the largest number of migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border in any day since at least 2000.

Aaron at the American Immigration Council says this increase, which seems to have begun in November, “is driven partly by rumors that the border will close soon and the CBP One app will be shut down.” That may explain it. A funding crisis at Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) could also be a factor.

This is really unusual, though, because migration data further south along the U.S.-bound migration route would lead one to expect the numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border to be declining. Panama, Honduras, and Mexico have been reporting fewer people coming after record-breaking levels in late summer and early fall.

Here’s Panama: a 24 percent decline in migration through the Darién Gap from October to November, and a 50 percent decline in migration from September to November. So, fewer people departing the South American continent.

Monthly Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

November 2023: Venezuela 61%, China 11%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 9%, Ecuador 8%, Colombia 5%, all others <1%

Since January 2020: Venezuela 53%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 21%, Ecuador 9%, all others <3%

Data table

Here’s Honduras: down 41 percent from October to November. So, fewer people coming from South America and through the increasingly used aerial entry point in Nicaragua.

Honduras’s “Irregular” Migrant Encounters (Since August 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 44%, Cuba 20%, Haiti 9%, Ecuador 6%, Guinea 5%, China 4%, All Others <4%

Since August 2022: Venezuela 41%, Cuba 18%, Haiti 14%, Ecuador 10%, Colombia 2.2%, All Others <2% 

	Venezuela	Cuba	Haiti	Ecuador	Colombia	China	Guinea	Senegal	Mauritania	Other Countries
22-Aug	10769	6899	836	1583	314	42	19	118	18	2278
22-Sep	11325	5144	863	1685	379	45	23	135	14	2220
22-Oct	14027	5290	1856	5793	723	99	30	185	18	3037
22-Nov	3756	9219	2858	5130	400	186	34	158	38	3857
22-Dec	1923	7225	2518	6557	231	405	22	87	63	4034
23-Jan	1866	2079	5365	4562	296	415	72	202	31	4054
23-Feb	4462	629	4092	5010	449	688	97	159	71	4449
23-Mar	9112	776	2991	2493	624	719	90	191	88	4576
23-Apr	10883	1301	2392	1692	682	985	87	472	87	4350
23-May	11809	2397	1629	2147	654	801	277	831	427	4398
23-Jun	12698	3254	1305	2817	488	1045	118	390	1801	2870
23-Jul	25050	6721	1558	6116	954	980	389	1398	2036	3769
23-Aug	35669	11343	4051	5789	1330	654	1005	1629	1036	3020
23-Sep	42550	19288	14898	4830	2174	570	1762	1066	48	3453
23-Oct	34547	17513	35529	3581	2021	1006	2304	1235	75	4198
23-Nov	26440	11671	5438	3725	2003	2200	3143	685	87	4395

Data table

And here’s Mexico: down 4 percent from September to October (Mexico, like the United States, has not reported November yet).

Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

October 2023: Venezuela 30%, Haiti 11%, Honduras 10%, Cuba 8%, Ecuador 7.5%, Guatemala 7.1%, All Others <4%

Since January 2022: Venezuela 26%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 13%, Ecuador 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5.2%, All Others <5%

	Venezuela	Honduras	Guatemala	Ecuador	Cuba	Nicaragua	Colombia	El Salvador	Haiti	Other Countries
22-Jan	2733	5841	6304	246	2214	2234	503	1565	368	1374
22-Feb	1120	5929	5191	202	3384	1843	2986	1721	254	1674
22-Mar	1209	6390	6075	276	6333	2701	3375	2338	205	1851
22-Apr	1960	6457	6920	513	6103	2854	1746	2579	304	1770
22-May	1640	7544	7222	780	3191	3474	3031	3307	246	2855
22-Jun	3919	6507	7010	668	2481	1561	2840	1990	110	3337
22-Jul	6431	7461	6578	719	2550	2182	2169	2936	145	2731
22-Aug	16885	5741	4927	1185	2159	2327	2479	2544	174	4298
22-Sep	15381	5309	4932	1528	3244	4062	2704	2471	223	3938
22-Oct	21781	5475	4632	3266	3247	5711	2179	2144	308	3458
22-Nov	12298	5895	5380	4459	3318	7329	2225	2379	505	5697
22-Dec	11721	4379	4344	8314	3251	4547	2041	1271	1605	7509
23-Jan	5329	3911	4015	6081	2919	2200	964	1234	2319	8388
23-Feb	6721	5202	4249	7003	384	408	1435	1234	2971	8434
23-Mar	9119	6053	6025	3126	237	205	3170	1793	3769	11131
23-Apr	6725	3759	3303	1018	156	164	1369	1118	1658	5723
23-May	17258	5034	3259	2187	472	225	1258	834	1496	8001
23-Jun	18480	11162	6952	4559	1021	883	1313	1474	1573	10848
23-Jul	24236	15450	7484	6115	1837	1762	1756	1854	1951	11070
23-Aug	21936	20139	12673	7328	1320	1939	2450	2533	1258	10774
23-Sep	30560	12059	9146	8199	5022	2829	3905	2603	4079	18140
23-Oct	28275	8954	6600	6937	7202	1887	3055	2656	10646	16696

Data table

Why are the numbers up so much at the U.S. border when they’re down everywhere else along the route? The answer probably has to do with:

  • A jump in migration from citizens of Mexico and Central American, and/or
  • Crossings of Venezuelans and others who had arrived in Mexico more than 1-2 months ago, and perhaps are now giving up on waiting for CBP One.

Also, If recent Decembers are a guide, the U.S. border numbers could be on the verge of dropping. The first halves of December 2021 and December 2022 saw very heavy migration, capping off growth that accelerated all fall (as did the fall of 2023). Numbers dropped during the second halves of those Decembers, as the holidays approached.

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

October 2023: Mexico 26%, Venezuela 16%, Guatemala 12%, Honduras 10%, Colombia 7%, Ecuador 6%, El Salvador 3%, All Others <3% 

Since October 2020: Mexico 33%, Guatemala 12.2%, Honduras 11.6%, Venezuela 8%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5.2%, All Others <5%

Data table

Email 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 is almost certainly my last e-mail of the year, and it’s packed with links to stuff we’ve made, all of which has already been linked from this page. It’s got a great video from Colombia, this week’s Border Update, another congressional testimony, some charts, links to stuff to read, and more. There are no links to Latin America-related events, because I couldn’t find any announcements for events during the week before Christmas.

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.

Daily Border Links: December 19, 2023


Only 61 of 100 senators were present for a nominations vote yesterday, indicating that much of the body has already followed the already-adjourned House of Representatives and left Washington for the holidays. The probability is now virtually zero that the Senate might, before 2024, approve the Biden administration’s request for $110.5 billion in assistance for Ukraine and Israel, border items, and other priorities. Republican legislators are demanding restrictions on asylum and other migrant protections as the price for their support, and negotiations between a small group of senators continue to drag on. (See yesterday’s links for a list of the Republican proposals likely under negotiation.) While negotiators insist that they are making progress, they appear to be nowhere near an agreement.

Panama published November data showing a decline, for the third straight month, in migration through the treacherous Darién Gap. Darién Gap migration in November was 24 percent lighter than October, though the total for 2023 stood at a previously unimaginable 495,459 people as of November 30. Migration from Venezuela declined 35 percent from October—a possible short-term reaction to the United States’ resumption of deportation flights, plus end-of-year seasonal patterns—while migration from China increased 39 percent. During the first 10 months of 2023, Doctors Without Borders reported treating 397 migrants in the Darién Gap who survived sexual violence: “last month alone, there were 107 cases.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law S.B.4, which makes unauthorized border crossings into Texas a state crime. Civil rights groups pledge to challenge what they’re calling a racial profiling or “show me your papers” law. Judges may now jail migrants who decline to return immediately to Mexico. “When asked what Texas would do if Mexico does not accept migrants deported by the state,” the Texas Tribune reported, Abbott replied, “We’re going to send them right back to Mexico.”

Large numbers of asylum seekers—2,583 on Sunday alone, nearly half of them Venezuelan—continue to turn themselves in to Border Patrol in Eagle Pass, Texas, even though that town is at the epicenter of Gov. Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” border security buildup.

TRAC Immigration reported that U.S. immigration courts’ backlog has now reached 3 million cases—4,500 pending cases per judge. It broke 2 million cases in November 2022. (The Justice Department reported 2,464,021 cases as of October 12.)

The Secure Mobility Program, a pilot effort of small offices set up this year in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala, has now channeled 11,000 people to legal U.S. migration pathways, including 3,200 entries into the U.S. refugee program, EFE reported. Secure Mobility has channeled another 281 people to Spain’s refugee program.

The state government of Michoacán, Mexico estimates that 2,500 residents of the state, displaced by organized crime-tied violence, are currently residing in shelters in Mexican border cities.

Analyses and Feature Stories

WOLA yesterday released a brief report-back from a Mexico Program staff visit to the Arizona-Sonora border, where they found a large number of Mexican people fleeing organized crime violence and humanitarian workers assisting large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers. WOLA also published a brief video narrating what we saw during a late October visit to Necoclí, Colombia, the gateway to the Darién Gap.

The New Yorker reported about the impact that the temporary closure of the remote Lukeville, Arizona port of entry—officers have been pulled away to help Border Patrol process asylum seekers—is having on tourism a short drive south, in Arizonans’ popular beachside vacation spot of Puerto Peñasco, Sonora.

In El Paso, Politico found that the city’s Mexican-American population is getting fatigued with migrant arrivals. “Trump, he started rough. But now that you see it, when Biden came in, he messed everything up,” a Juárez-born chef told reporter David Siders.

What makes Venezuelan migration different than previous nationalities’ arrivals in the United States, Charles Larratt-Smith and Howard Campbell wrote at Small Wars Journal, is their frequent lack of “a clearly defined destination, plan, or network to help enable this difficult transition.”

On the Right

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