Adam Isacson

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

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Finding a Way Out of Ecuador’s Crisis: A New Commentary and Podcast at wola.org

We just launched two resources about Ecuador that have been in the works all month: a mini-report and a podcast.

First, the report: Why Ecuador Should Not Replicate the ‘Bukele Model’.

Among several reasons:

  • Ecuador is 13 times larger than El Salvador.
  • If Ecuador were to imprison as much of its population as Bukele has, it’d be like locking up the entire city of Manta.
  • Thanks to drug prohibition and so much cocaine passing through the country, Ecuador’s criminal groups are much wealthier.

“Here are some numbers that explain why Ecuador should not replicate El Salvador’s model of mass incarceration. If Noboa were to emulate what El Salvador has done over the past two years, the human and financial costs would be enormous, and the results in terms of public safety would be middling at best.”

Read the whole thing here.


Second, the podcast: From Under the Radar to State of Exception: Getting Beyond Stopgap Solutions to Ecuador’s Violence

From WOLA’s podcast landing page:

While this isn’t the first time Ecuador’s government has declared a state of exception, the prominence of organized crime and the consequential rise in insecurity is a new reality for the country. Ecuador has seen a six-fold homicide rate increase in three years; it is now South America’s worst, and Ecuadorians are the second nationality, behind Venezuelans, fleeing through the Darién Gap.

How did this happen? How can Ecuador’s government, civil society, and the international community address it?

This episode features International Crisis Group Fellow and author of the recent report Ecuador’s Descent Into Chaos, Glaeldys Gonzalez Calanche, and John Walsh, WOLA’s director for drug policy and the Andes. The discussion covers how Ecuador suddenly reached such high levels of insecurity, the implications of President Daniel Noboa’s state of emergency and “state of internal armed conflict” declarations, an evaluation of international drug markets and state responses, and a look at U.S. policy.

Gonzalez attributes the lead-up to Ecuador’s violent new reality to three factors:

  • Ecuador’s gradual transition into a position of high importance in the international drug trade.
  • The prison system crisis and the government’s incapacity to address it.
  • The fragmentation of Ecuadorian criminal groups after the demobilization of Colombia’s FARC and the decline of Los Choneros, a criminal group with former hegemonic control.

Gonzalez describes the state of emergency as “a band-aid solution to control the situation now, but not looking really to tackle these structural problems.”

Walsh describes Ecuador’s case as a “wake up call” to the consequences of the drug war prohibitionist approach: “This isn’t just a drug policy question. This is a question about democracies delivering on the basic needs of their citizens, which is security. And I think prohibition in the drug war doesn’t support security. It tends to undermine it.” John calls on the international community to recognize this as a humanitarian issue as well, indicating that “people are basically held hostage. Not in their house, but in their whole community.

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

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Ecuador has been in a diplomatic dispute with Russia over a reported deal to send used Russian-made military equipment to the United States, in exchange for a U.S. government transfer of U.S. equipment worth $200 million. U.S. State Department official Kevin Sullivan told an Ecuadorian television interviewer that the used Russian equipment was to be transferred to Ukraine. The government of President Daniel Noboa may be backing down from the deal after Russia suspended five Ecuadorian banana exporting companies.

Beyond the possible Russian equipment exchange, U.S. aid to Ecuador announced in the past month includes:

  • construction of a new Ecuadorian Coast Guard Academy,
  • renovation of a canine veterinary clinic,
  • a renovated office for the corruption prosecution unit,
  • eight mobile border units to support an elite border task force
  • a joint National Police-Coast Guard operational unit in Guayaquil
  • digital forensics support to identify, map, and target criminal networks
  • a team to train 175 Ecuador migration officers on the use of biometrics collection
  • training of 35 members from the Ecuadorian Presidential and Vice-Presidential protective details
  • an increase in FBI advisors in-country
  • a C-130H military plane to be delivered by the end of March
  • more than 20,000 bullet proof vests
  • more than $1 million worth of critical security and emergency response equipment
  • $13 million in equipment to protect the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense computer networks
  • $2.4 million in additional vehicles and security equipment for Ecuador’s police
  • 6 Navistar Defense 7000-MV trucks

Peru is completing an approximately US$50 million overhaul of eight Russian-built helicopters used by its army and air force and first acquired in the 1990s.

Peru‘s $27 million purchase of 10,000 Israeli Arad 7 rifles has come under scrutiny from the government’s comptroller because “a guarantee of only two years has been given, when the technical requirements demand 12 years,” La República reported.

In the waning days of Alejandro Giammattei’s administration in Guatemala, on December 12, 2023, the country’s air force received a Bell 429 GlobalRanger helicopter purchased from the U.S. government. Guatemala and the United States are discussing the purchase of two Bell 407 helicopters.

The U.S. government is donating 14 Osprea Mamba MK7 vehicles to Uruguay, which is also purchasing some additional vehicles. The announcement follows a visit to the country from U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. Laura Richardson.

U.S. officials said that transfers to Guyana, which faces a territorial claim from Venezuela, will include aircraft, helicopters, a fleet of drones, and radar technology.

WOLA Podcast: A Tumultuous Presidential Inauguration Heralds a New Chapter in Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Struggle

Here’s a podcast about Guatemala’s new president and the challenges he faces. I recorded it yesterday with Ana María and Jo-Marie from WOLA. This is a lively one, and I think I’m definitely getting better at sound editing. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

After relentless attempts to block his inauguration and a nine-hour delay, Bernardo Arévalo, who ran for Guatemala’s presidency on an anti-corruption platform, was sworn into office minutes after midnight on January 14.

In this highly educational episode, WOLA Director for Central America Ana María Méndez Dardón is joined by WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt. Both were in Guatemala witnessing the high-tension event that was Arévalo’s inauguration. They cover the frustration, excitement, and symbolism that characterized the day, while also diving into a host of topics surrounding the state of Guatemala’s democracy.

They assess the main threats to Arevalo’s leadership and the goals of his party, Movimiento Semilla, particularly those related to addressing corruption and impunity. Ana Maria and Jo-Marie touch on the distinct roles of Guatemalan indigenous communities, the United States, and the private sector. They describe the hope that Arevalo represents for the Guatemalan people in terms of security, justice, and the rule of law, while identifying the harsh realities of deeply embedded corruption a recalcitrant high court and attorney general.

Read Ana María’s January 9 commentary, Ushering in a New Period: Bernardo Arévalo’s Opportunities and Challenges to Restoring Democracy in Guatemala, for a readable, in-depth analysis of these topics.

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

At the Border Chronicle: Fight Corruption and Invest in Asylum: A Q&A with Adam Isacson

I enjoyed this conversation last week with journalist Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle, a newsletter and outlet she runs with fellow border-based author Todd Miller. She did an amazing job of condensing and simplifying what was a much longer conversation full of policy-nerd-speak.

I would invest a lot more in our asylum system. And I’d get rid of the 1990-era caps on who can come from which country to get residency here. I’d also vastly expand the temporary work permits. So, people can come work, and not just for farm labor but also for other skilled work. I’d also end corruption, which is a huge part of why people migrate. If I were doing foreign policy, we can certainly do more to uphold and give resources to the people fighting corruption and fighting impunity, and justice systems and NGOs and even the reformers inside the military. They should have our most high-profile backing, but so often they don’t.

Read the whole thing here.

Senate Border Deal Language Incoming

Going to be a busy weekend for border and migration policy.

After more than two months of internal discussions, we’re about to see the text of the “asylum restrictions for Ukraine aid” deal that Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators have drawn up.

From Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:

Next, as I said, discussions are going well, so I want members to be aware that we plan to post the full text of the national security supplemental as early as tomorrow, no later than Sunday.

That will give members plenty of time to read the bill before voting on it.

As for the timing of the vote, I plan to file cloture on the motion to proceed to the vehicle on Monday, leading to the first vote on the national security supplemental no later than Wednesday.

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from January

Steven Dudley, ‘Operation Polanco’: How the Dea Investigated Amlo’s 2006-Presidential Campaign (InsightCrime, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).
Tim Golden, Did Drug Traffickers Funnel Millions of Dollars to Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s First Campaign? (ProPublica, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).

Investigations from ProPublica and InsightCrime, citing DEA information, allege that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign took money from narcotraffickers in exchange for assurances that, if elected, López Obrador would not impede their illicit business.

Jonathan Blitzer, “Do I Have to Come Here Injured or Dead?” (The New Yorker, Sunday, January 28, 2024).

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer tells the story of Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga, a Honduran migrant mother whom Border Patrol separated from her sons in 2017, when the Trump administration was still just piloting its family separation policy. “The cruelty she suffered in the United States was matched only by what she was forced to flee in Honduras.”

Maria Jose Longo Bautista, Lo Que Dejo la Fiebre de la Amapola en San Marcos (Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), Monday, January 22, 2024).

In Guatemala’s southwestern department of San Marcos, “poppy crops left more Mexico border trade and better living conditions. But also violence, weapons, and displaced people.”

Jhoan Sebastian Cote, Caqueta en Epoca de Paz Total: Refugio de Disidentes y Ruta de Marihuana (El Espectador (Colombia), Monday, January 22, 2024).

A graphics-heavy survey of the drug trade, violence, and politics in Colombia’s south-central department of Caquetá, much of which is under the influence of a FARC dissident network currently negotiating with the Petro government.

New Report Calls for Major Investments and Reforms to Build a U.S. Border Control System That Can Address Present and Future Challenges (Migration Policy Institute, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

This Migration Policy Institute report is a goldmine of data and hard-to-find information about border infrastructure, processing capacity, and other needs at a time of record arrivals of protection-seeking migrants.

At WOLA: Five Questions and Answers About the Senate Border Deal

Last October, the Biden administration asked Congress for a package of funding for Ukraine, Israel, border security, and other priorities. In the Democratic-majority Senate, where it takes 60 votes to move legislation forward, Republicans refused to support this request unless it included changes to U.S. law that would restrict the right to asylum, and perhaps other migration pathways, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A small group of senators has been negotiating those changes since November. A bill may now be forthcoming.

At WOLA’s website, we’ve just posted a quick (less than 1,200 word) explainer looking at:

  1. What do we know about what’s in the deal?
  2. What is the human cost of this bill’s provisions?
  3. Would this actually deter migration?
  4. Republican hard-liners are opposing this agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to restrict migration. What do they want?
  5. What would a better policy look like?

Read it here.

Organized Crime-Tied Corruption in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

A key detonating factor in Ecuador‘s January outbreak of violence was “Operation Metastasis,” a December 2023 campaign by the national prosecutor’s office targeting government and judicial officials tied to the country’s organized crime groups. Among 30 people charged, the New York Times reported, “were judges accused of granting gang leaders favorable rulings, police officials who were said to have altered evidence and delivered weapons to prisons, and the former director of the prison authority himself.”

This corruption worsened after a 2018 shakeup and reduction of the central government’s security administration, forced by economic austerity measures, that reduced some agencies and eliminated others.

“The state and law enforcement entities cannot control the situation of criminality and violence,” Felipe Botero of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime told Vox, because “they are involved with organized crime in the country.”

Recent attacks on members of Tijuana‘s municipal police, following an alleged November theft of drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel structure, “arise from the need of drug traffickers to buy police officers in order to remain in power” and this is because “the judiciary is rotten,” said Jesús Alejandro Ruiz Uribe, the Mexican federal government’s delegate for the state of Baja California. “The judicial power is currently a revolving door, the good police put the criminals in jail and the bad judges take them out again.”

To the east of Tijuana, surveillance videos taken on January 12 showed Mexican soldiers allegedly assisting a theft of synthetic drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel-run laboratory on a ranch in Tecate, Baja California, not far from the U.S. border.

SinEmbargo columnist Adela Navarro Bello wrote about this case, concluding, “Although these cases are isolated, they are increasingly frequent. Elements of the Mexican Army, the Armed Forces, and the National Guard collaborate with organized crime and drug trafficking cells in different parts of the country.”

In south-central Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, rural communities are forcibly displacing after confronting Mexican Army soldiers who they say were working with the Jalisco Cartel. Violence has flared up in parts of Chiapas in the past year as Jalisco and Sinaloa have entered into a bitter fight over trafficking routes, aggressively pushing out rural residents.

Hugo Aguilar, the governor of Santander, Colombia‘s fifth-most-populous department, from 2004 to 2007, admitted that he received support from the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group during his election campaign. Aguilar, a former police colonel who commanded the unit that killed Pablo Escobar in 1993, told the post-conflict transitional justice system (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) that he did not receive money from the AUC. “They told the people that they should vote for Colonel Aguilar” in the zones they controlled, he said.

Colombia‘s Supreme Court has opened an investigation of the president of Colombia’s Senate, Green Party Senator Iván Name Vásquez. A former head of Los Rastrojos Costeños, a splinter group of Colombia’s North Valle Cartel active in the 1990s and early 2000s, alleged that Sen. Name was linked to his group.

“Alliances between criminal networks and individuals who hold positions within state institutions have even created hybrid economies, such as scrap metal trafficking or fuel smuggling, where legal and illegal business intersect,” reported InsightCrime’s Venezuela Investigative Unit. “With corrupt state elements continuing to profit from informal mining,” the security forces’ raids on illicit precious-metals mines “may work to guarantee those elements a more favorable share of those profits, rather than stamping out the practice.”

“Organized crime can’t grow without state protection, and Latin American mafias have long made it a mission to capture parts of the state,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations’ Will Freeman at the Los Angeles Times. “They have had at least as much success amassing political power as any of the region’s political parties.”

Podcast: ¿Dejará De Ser Una Democracia Estados Unidos Si Donald Trump Gana Las Elecciones?

I joined Colombian journalist María Jimena Duzán and former U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley on the latest episode of Duzán’s popular Spanish-language podcast.

The episode was a scene-setter for the 2024 U.S. election campaign. Neither John nor I get called on to do a lot of this “election horserace” sort of punditry, but that may have made this a more engaging attempt to explain the current U.S. political moment to a non-U.S. audience.

WOLA Podcast: Understanding Regional Migration in an Election Year

Here’s a podcast about current regional migration trends that I recorded last Friday with Maureen and Stephanie from WOLA. They were brilliant. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

As congressional negotiations place asylum and other legal protection pathways at risk, and as we approach a 2024 election year with migration becoming a higher priority for voters in the United States, we found it important to discuss the current moment’s complexities.

WOLA’s vice president for Programs, Maureen Meyer, former director for WOLA’s Mexico Program and co-founder of WOLA’s migration and border work, is joined by Mexico Program Director Stephanie Brewer, whose work on defense of human rights and demilitarization in Mexico has focused often on the rights of migrants, including a visit to the Arizona-Sonora border at the end of 2023.

This episode highlights some of the main migration trends and issues that we should all keep an eye on this year, including:

  • Deterrence efforts will never reduce migration as long as the reasons people are fleeing remain unaddressed (the long-standing “root causes” approach). Such policies will only force people into more danger and fuel organized crime. “The question is not, are people going to migrate? The question is, where, how, and with who?”, explains Brewer.
  • For this reason, maintaining consistent and reliable legal pathways is more important than ever, and the ongoing assaults on these pathways—including the right to seek asylum and humanitarian parole—are harmful and counterproductive.
  • There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of populations currently in movement, and the focus should no longer be on ineffective policies of deterrence and enforcement. “It’s a long term game that certainly doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker for political campaigns,” Meyer points out.
  • Organized crime is a huge factor in regional migration—both as a driver of migration and as a facilitator. Official corruption and impunity enable these systems, a point that migration policies often fail to address. Brewer notes that during her trip to Arizona’s southern border in December 2023, the vast majority of migrants she spoke to were Mexican, and among them, the vast majority cited violence and organized crime as the driving factor. In recent months, Mexican families have been the number one nationality coming to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum.
  • It is a regional issue, not just a U.S. issue, as people are seeking asylum and integration in many different countries. Mexico, for instance, received 140,000 asylum applications in 2023. This makes integration efforts extremely important: many people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border had attempted to resettle elsewhere first. “It’s a twofold of the legal status itself, but then real integration efforts that are both economic and educational, but also addressing xenophobia and not creating resentment in local communities,” explains Meyer.

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

On Cannabis Policy, “The Federal Government Is Recognizing the Reality That Several States Have Already Recognized”

I’m in today’s edition of Y Esto No Es Todo, the Spanish-language podcast of Georgetown University’s Americas Institute, talking with host Juan Carlos Iragorri about the U.S. federal government’s movement toward reclassifying marijuana as a lower-risk drug. Here are my comments in English:

Well, it’s pretty important that the U.S. federal government is following in the footsteps of the states and softening its standards on marijuana a bit. And it’s happening for a number of reasons.

First, because the boomer generation, those who were born after World War II, almost all of them lived or experimented with marijuana as young people and they know it didn’t do them much harm. And that has really changed attitudes quite a bit in the last 20, 30 years about marijuana laws.

Also the fact that marijuana is less addictive than other drugs that are lower, in fact, in the scheme that the DEA uses to classify drugs, like cocaine. Cocaine is much more addictive. Alcohol is legal and it’s more addictive. Then marijuana is seen as maybe something that carries less social harm, health harm, than some of the others. And now the fact that more and more medicinal uses are being discovered is quite important.

The third is simply that enforcing anti-marijuana laws is draining the resources of police across the country. Instead of having to catch those who are using or selling marijuana, they can focus on drugs and much more serious criminal phenomena. And that’s freeing up a lot more resources. And you see that in states where marijuana has been legalized or regulated, there are no increases in violent crime in recent years.

So all of that is changing attitudes. And finally the federal government is recognizing the reality that several states have already recognized.

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Ecuador President Daniel Noboa said that his government will turn over used Russian and Ukrainian military equipment to the United States, and receive about $200 million in U.S. equipment in return.

Video from recent military exercises showed that Venezuela possesses Iranian-made Zolfaghar naval patrol boats. “Aside from the Zolfaghar boats, Iran has also provided Venezuela with drones, rockets and missiles,” France24 noted in a report listing some of the models.

“We did not manage to finalize a deal, neither with the French nor with the Swedes” by the end of the year to purchase fighter jets to replace an aging fleet of 12 Israeli-made Kfir planes, said Colombia‘s defense minister, Iván Velásquez. In a long-planned purchase that will total well into the billions of dollars, Colombia is choosing between Sweden’s Saab Gripen, France’s Dassault Rafale, and the United States’ Lockheed Martin F-16.

Peru‘s armed forces placed a $664,000 order for 540 South Korean-made anti-riot grenade launchers. “The acquisition seeks to provide the Armed Forces with anti-riot material for the National Police Support Operations in case of possible demonstrations in Lima and nationwide,” reported Defensa.com.

The right-leaning Bolivian daily El Deber reported that Bolivia‘s left-of-center government has purchased over $31 million in crowd control or anti-riot equipment for its police in the past year. The Interior Ministry stated, “The equipment delivered should not be understood as a synonym of confrontation, much less as a preparation for a ‘war’, this type of assertions are not consistent with reality.”

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.

Tomorrow Morning in Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”

Tune in tomorrow morning (or on YouTube later) for what will be a really interesting discussion of how governments can protect their citizens and their institutions from organized crime, without violating human rights.

It’s unusual to have two people from one organization in these hearings. I’m a substitute for someone who just had to cancel. I’ll be talking mainly about Colombia.

OK, time to work on my testimony.

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