Adam Isacson

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


Links and Announcements

New Report: Migrants in Colombia: Between government absence and criminal control

WOLA has just published a report about migration to, through, and from Colombia, based largely on fieldwork that colleagues and I did in the Colombia-Ecuador and Colombia-Panama border regions in October and November 2023.

(Did I have to go on work sabbatical to find the time to finish this report and get it out the door? No comment.)

I think it turned out great: it’s loaded with facts and images, and had a lot of reasonable policy recommendations for a situation that promises to remain extremely challenging for quite some time.

The text of the Executive Summary is below. Read the whole thing as a web page, a PDF, or un resumen en español.


For this report, WOLA staff paid a two-week research visit to Colombia’s borders with Panama and Ecuador in late October and early November 2023. Here are 5 key findings:

1. Organized crime controls the migrant route through Colombia. From the informal crossings or trochas at the Ecuador border to every step of the way through the Darién jungle border with Panama, violent criminal groups are in control. That control is dispersed among many groups near Ecuador, and concentrated in a single, powerful group—the Gulf Clan—in Colombia’s Darién region. Their profits from migrants now sit alongside cocaine and illicit precious-metals mining as a principal income stream for Colombia’s armed and criminal groups, some of which the International Committee of the Red Cross considers parties to armed conflicts. [1]

2. The Colombian state is absent from both border zones, although this is a reality that we have observed in past fieldwork in many of Colombia’s zones of armed conflict and illicit crop cultivation. The national government is not doing enough to manage flows, determine who is passing through, or protect people at risk. At all levels of government, responsible agencies are poorly coordinated and rarely present. Checkpoints, patrols, and detentions are uncommon, but so are humanitarian services and access to protection. Despite ambitious plans to “introduce the state” to conflictive areas—most recently, Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—key points along the migration route are vacuums of governance that get filled by armed and criminal groups.

3. Colombia faces challenges in integrating Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Amid Venezuela’s collapse, Colombia’s humanitarian response to fleeing Venezuelans remains more complete and generous than those of much of South America. However, the Colombian government’s recent trajectory is troubling. It is now harder for Venezuelans—especially more recent arrivals—to get documentation and to access services in Colombia. Pathways to permanent residency, including asylum, barely exist. As those efforts lag and people fail to integrate, more are joining in-transit migrants, attempting the dangerous journey north.

This reality has a differentiated and more severe impact on the more than a quarter of people transiting Colombia, or seeking to settle in Colombia, who are adult women—especially women heads of migrant households—and the nearly a quarter who are children. The risk of physical harm including sexual violence, or of enduring hunger or lack of access to health care, is much more challenging for women, Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ migrants.

4. At the same time, U.S. supported initiatives to help Colombia integrate migrants, to open up legal migration pathways for some who wish to come to the United States, and to encourage greater cooperation and collaboration between states seeking to manage this moment of heavy migration are promising. However, we note that at the same time, the U.S government orients much of its diplomatic energy and security programs toward minimizing the flow and discouraging Colombia and other states from making the journey more orderly, for fear that it might encourage more to travel. As a result, governments and migrants receive a muddled, unclear message from Washington that, for migrants, can be drowned out by poor-quality information gleaned from social media.

5. Resources to help Colombia and other nations along the migrant route are scarce, meeting only a fraction of projected needs—and they are shrinking as wars elsewhere in the world draw humanitarian resources away.

Countries like Colombia that are experiencing large amounts of U.S.-bound migration have a very difficult needle to thread. Blocking migrants is a geographic impossibility and would violate the rights of those with protection needs. Providing a managed “safe conduct” and an orderly transit pathway with robust state presence would prevent today’s immense harms and loss of life while cutting organized crime out of the picture—but the impression of “green-lighting” migration alarms the U.S. government. While some states do something in between: some measure of blocking, detaining, and deporting that dissuades few migrants but creates robust opportunities for organized crime, human traffickers, and corrupt officials who enable them, Colombia is leaning into an additional option: do little to nothing, with minimal state presence, leaving a vacuum that armed and criminal groups are filling.

This poor menu of options for managing in-transit migration leads WOLA to recommend some version of “safe conduct,” even a humanitarian corridor—but with an end to Colombia’s hands-off, stateless approach. Creating a safe pathway through Colombia must come with vastly increased state presence, far greater implementation of migration policies from a protection and human rights approach, dramatically improved cooperation between governments, and strongly stepped-up investment in integrating people who would rather stay in Latin America.

Until it expands legal migration pathways and vastly improves its immigration court system’s capacity, much migration will be forced into the shadows. This situation will worsen further as the Biden administration implements a June 5, 2024 ban on most asylum applications between the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry. In that context, the United States must be more tolerant of efforts to provide safe conduct to migrants. U.S. tolerance of such approaches, though, would hinge on big changes to the “neglect migrants in transit,” “de-emphasize integration,” and “cooperate minimally with neighbors” status quo in Colombia and elsewhere.

Read the whole thing as a web page, a PDF, or un resumen en español.

From WOLA: “The Futility of ‘Shutting Down Asylum’ by Executive Action at the U.S.-Mexico Border”

Past generations granted new rights. We’re living in an era when government is taking those rights away. Roe v. Wade (1973) got perforated two years ago by Republican judicial nominees. Now the right to asylum, enshrined in the Refugee Act of 1980, no longer applies to threatened people who came to the border to ask for protection “the wrong way” and at a time judged “too busy.”

Here’s a Q&A I wrote for WOLA explaining the basics of what just happened:

  • What does the executive action do?
  • Doesn’t this violate U.S. law?
  • Is this a new “Title 42?”
  • The Senate failed twice to pass a law trying to do this. How is this executive action legal?
  • Doesn’t this rely heavily on Mexico’s cooperation?
  • Will this, in fact, deter migrants?
  • Instead of “shutting down” asylum, is there a better way to manage large numbers of arriving asylum seekers?

Read the whole thing here.

Brave New World

I keep a little webpage that generates tables of data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, using CBP’s regularly updated dataset.

For weeks, I’ve wanted to have the ability to sort the tables by clicking on their column headers. It seemed like a big job, though, especially figuring out how to keep the columns’ totals at the bottom, not included in the sort.

This evening, though, I thought to ask ChatGPT—and it gave me exactly what I wanted, with only a couple of dozen lines of code. Here’s what the tables can do now:

Animated GIF of the table being resorted, in descending and ascending order, when column headers are clicked.

The whole process took less than 20 minutes: two queries and me copy-pasting the code into the page. It works flawlessly, which is very cool, and perhaps a bit creepy.

Try it out here.

New at WOLA: “Why Is Migration Declining at the U.S.-Mexico Border in Early 2024?”

Here’s an analysis we published yesterday about this year’s unusual springtime decline in the number of migrants making it to the U.S.-Mexico border. As migration levels drop to some of the lowest of the Biden administration, this piece notes that:

  • Texas’s “Operation Lone Star” doesn’t explain it.
  • The main factor appears to be Mexico’s government bottling people up, even as large numbers continue arriving in the country’s south.
  • “Shutting down” asylum, as President Biden is considering trying to do by executive order, could bring numbers down in the short term but—as we saw with Title 42—won’t have a lasting effect.
  • Crackdowns will always fail. The way to a solution runs through overhauling the creaky U.S. asylum system.

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday Evening Book Event

If you’re in Washington, join me on Thursday evening at a very good bookstore, for a discussion of a very good book. I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ieva Jusionyte, whose book Exit Wounds was just released today, at the original Politics and Prose store up on Connecticut Avenue.

Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border is a series of vignettes and character sketches about gun trafficking, organized crime, and migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Jusionyte makes the point that Mexico is not inherently a violent place, that the United States’ approach to firearms plays a role too.

I’ve given the book a very close read and am completely over-prepared. Looking forward to Thursday.

I liked this part:

I began following American guns south in order to understand what they were doing to Mexican society. From the stories migrants and refugees told me I already knew I would find communities scarred by gun violence and people who were living in fear, some of whom were choosing to leave their homes in search of safety and better lives. I knew that this journey would eventually take me back to the border, right to where I had started, that the plight of migrants and refugees running away from threats would only lead to further militarization and fortification of the barrier separating “us” from “them.” After all, the desire to prevent migrants from crossing is a strong political potion that reliably wins elections in the United States. And yet I was surprised by how few people recognize that it’s a circle. Even the language we use to talk about violence south of the border, using such terms as “narcos” and “cartels,” only reinforces the idea that Mexico is a dangerous country and we need to build a barrier lest those people coming from over there—not only Mexico, but also Honduras and Guatemala, Haiti and Venezuela, and many other places—would bring violence here.

Somehow, we fail to connect the dots: that the violence people are fleeing, the violence we are afraid they would spread in the United States is, in large part, of our own making—that the tools come from the factories in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Tennessee, some smuggled across the borders, others legally exported to foreign military and police forces with records of abuse. Even more: these guns come from the same regions where addiction to opioids has created demand for drugs that continue to enrich smugglers in Mexico; that the money Americans spend on fentanyl, heroin, or meth will be used to buy guns to arm those who supply this contraband. Nor do we realize that the US government’s pursuit of most prominent Mexican traffickers and their extraditions to face trials on this side of the border—the list that includes several leaders of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas—have deprived communities that have suffered their brutality most directly from recourse to justice, further fraying the social fabric of the Mexican society.

WOLA Podcast: A Groundbreaking Win at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs

I share an office with John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program. In late March, he came back from a trip to Vienna very amped up about what had happened at a big UN meeting there. I needed some context to understand why it was a big deal that a UN body passed a resolution with the words “harm reduction” in it, but once he told me the story, yes, it was a big deal.

Here’s a podcast conversation about what happened last month, with John, Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and Lisa Sánchez of México Unido Contra la Delincuencia. Even if, like me, you’re not a close follower of drug policy diplomacy, you’re going to find this episode interesting because three experts with decades of experience at this are telling what turns out to be an inspiring story.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

On March 14-22, 2024, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) held its 67th annual session in Vienna, Austria. The session saw a landmark vote that may have important repercussions for drug policy, in Latin America and elsewhere.

The Commission approved a U.S.-led resolution encouraging countries to implement “harm reduction” measures to respond to drug overdoses and to protect public health.

The vote marks a major breakthrough in civil society’s decades-long advocacy to center harm reduction, especially since the U.S. government has a history of blocking all such resolutions, and since the Commission has a longstanding tradition of enactment by a “Vienna Consensus” without votes.

This episode features three guests who helped lead civil society’s robust participation at the CND:

The three experts underscore that while the vote on this resolution was a major win in the civil society-led harm reduction fight, it is just one milestone along a longer journey. The fight must continue to ensure this sets the foundation for an international drug policy that truly prioritizes protecting people, views drug addiction as a public health and not a national security issue, and moves away from the normative framework of achieving a “drug free society” through punitive measures and prohibition.

“The prohibition regime has tried to make itself inevitable and ‘forever,’ and that’s not the case… There’s no reason to think that it needs to last forever. In fact, as we said, it was a misfit from the very beginning,” says John Walsh. “Drug use has always existed, it always will. To suggest that we’re going to create a ‘drug-free world’ is not only futile, but it’s downright dangerous because of its consequences… I think this is an opening to think more broadly about not just the UN drug policy space, but what governments need to do for the health, safety, and well-being of their populations.”

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.

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from March

The Unsolved Crime in “Total Peace”: Dealing With Colombia’s Gaitanistas (International Crisis Group, Tuesday, March 19, 2024).

The Gaitanistas, Colombia’s largest and richest armed and criminal group, remain outside the government’s initiative for dialogue with all the country’s armed organisations. To avoid jeopardising other peace processes and to protect civilians, Bogotá should seek gradual talks with the Gaitanistas, while maintaining security pressure

Blanca Carmona, Cindy Ramirez, Gabriela Minjares, Jack Sapoch, Melissa del Bosque, Monica C. Camacho, Rocio Gallegos, Death Trap: Juarez Migrant Detention Center Fire a Year Later (El Paso Matters, La Verdad (Ciudad Juarez Mexico), Lighthouse Media, El Paso Matters, Tuesday, March 19, 2024).

Previously undisclosed security camera footage – as well as court documents and exclusive interviews with survivors – show a number of safety failures and oversights that created a death trap at a Juárez migrant detention center fire a year ago this month

Cindy A. Morales Castillo, Viaje a las Entranas del Canon del Micay: Asi se Vive en el Mayor Fortin de la Disidencia de Mordisco (El Espectador (Colombia), Sunday, March 17, 2024).

El control de este punto se ha consolidado como el talón de Aquiles de la negociación de paz entre el Estado Mayor Central y el Gobierno Petro

Megan Janetsky, Rodrigo Abd, Victor R. Caivano, Native groups sit on a treasure trove of lithium. Now mines threaten their water, culture and wealth (Associated Press, Associated Press, Wednesday, March 13, 2024).

In the “lithium triangle” – a region spanning Argentina, Chile and Bolivia – native communities sit upon an estimated trillion dollars in lithium

Alma Guillermoprieto, Forty-Three Mexican Students Went Missing. What Really Happened to Them? (The New Yorker, Monday, March 4, 2024).

One night in 2014, a group of young men from a rural teachers’ college vanished. Since then, their families have fought for answers

CBP Data Through February Added to “”

At the end of the day Friday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border through February. Within minutes, I added the migration data to my online tool that helps you search it, I’m glad this is so easy to do now.

Here’s what you get when you search for border authorities’ encounters with migrants during the first five months of the U.S. government’s 2024 fiscal year, listed by nationality. (This is everything: both migrants apprehended by Border Patrol between the ports of entry, and migrants—mostly “CBP One” appointments—who arrived at the ports of entry.) You can see an increase over January, but still well below late last year.

Visit the “cpbdata” tool to view migration data by country, by demographic category, by geographic area, and to see years going back to 2020. I’ll be updating our collection of infographics over the next several days.

A New Tool for Migration Data

I’ve been posting a bit less this week because I’ve moved my site and domain to a new service provider. (You may have noticed that this page loaded a few milliseconds faster? Probably not.)

I’m now using a virtual server that can host not just this site, but other little projects as sub-domains of

One of those little projects is live now: It’s a tool that lets you search Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) migration data since 2020.

Every month, CBP updates and publishes a dataset of its encounters with migrants since fiscal year 2020 (October 2019). We may get February’s data any moment now.

But that data is basically a table that right now has 58,866 rows. This site makes it usable.

(CBP has a “dashboard” that shows this data since 2021, and unlike mine, it includes encounters beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Canada border and airports. But it doesn’t let you, for instance, just see how many people came from every country—you have to select each country one by one—and it’s really hard to get data out of it.)

I think the page is self-explanatory. If you visit it, do nothing, and click “Show the Data,” you’ll get a table showing how many migrants CBP encountered—both Border Patrol and ports of entry combined—by country for each year since 2020.

Hover your mouse over any number in the table, and a pop-up will show you the percentage of the total (so in the picture, 27% of 2024’s migrants so far have come from Mexico).

Click the “select table” button, and the entire thing is selected, letting you copy-and-paste it into a spreadsheet or anywhere else.

I encourage you to play around with the options on the main page letting you refine your search. Checking the various boxes lets you see, for instance, “How many family members and accompanied/unaccompanied children from Cuba and Haiti arrived in Texas’s five Border Patrol sectors and two CBP field offices, by month since 2023, listed by whether they came to ports of entry or to areas between them.” Just to give an idea of all the variables.

Search result: Monthly Migration at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Presented by “Whether Encountered At or Between Ports of Entry” at “Big Bend Sector, Del Rio Sector, El Paso Sector, Laredo Sector, and Rio Grande Valley Sector” at “El Paso Field Office and Laredo Field Office” for migrants from “Cuba and Haiti” who are “Accompanied Minors, Family Unit Members, and Unaccompanied Children / Single Minors” Between 2023 and 2024
Whether Encountered At or Between Ports of Entry	Oct 2022	Nov 2022	Dec 2022	Jan 2023	Feb 2023	Mar 2023	Apr 2023	May 2023	Jun 2023	Jul 2023	Aug 2023	Sep 2023	Oct 2023	Nov 2023	Dec 2023	Jan 2024	Total
At the Ports of Entry (CBP Office of Field Operations)	2,085	1,699	1,845	1,055	1,551	1,804	2,288	2,110	3,413	4,366	3,607	2,806	2,943	3,372	3,979	4,627	43,550
Between the Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	4,085	6,001	7,786	1,351	17	109	180	408	79	122	124	174	220	397	1,464	314	22,831
Total	6,170	7,700	9,631	2,406	1,568	1,913	2,468	2,518	3,492	4,488	3,731	2,980	3,163	3,769	5,443	4,941	66,381

Also, every search result, including a really long one like that example, has its own unique link.

I hope you find it useful. I’m using it constantly. When CBP releases its February data, I’ll be able to update this within about 10 minutes of obtaining it.

And finally: all the source code is on GitHub if you want to see how it works or have the skills to improve it.

WOLA Podcast: Flooding the Zone—the “Bukele Model,” Security and Democracy in El Salvador

It’s been too long since I’ve done a podcast focused on El Salvador. Nayib Bukele’s re-election made it even more timely. Here’s a fast-moving and hard-hitting conversation with Douglas Farah, a veteran journalist and consultant who has been following the situation closely and gives us a lot to worry about. Not just about El Salvador, but about what the so-called “Bukele Model” means for democracy region-wide.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at

It has been almost a month since Nayib Bukele was reelected as President of El Salvador by a very wide margin, despite a constitutional prohibition on reelection. While security gains and a constant communications blitz have made Bukele popular, our guest, Douglas Farah of IBI Consultants, highlights some grave concerns about the “Bukele Model” and where it is headed.

Among these: pursuit of an “authoritarian playbook” common to many 21st century political movements, with eroding checks and balances; vastly weakened transparency over government activities; a complicated relationship with gangs and their integration into the political structure; an unsustainable reliance on mass incarceration; and erosion of the independence and professionalism of the police, military, and judiciary.

In this episode, Farah argues:

  • The success of Bukele’s security model may not be as pronounced as is publicly accepted.
  • The human rights cost is very high, with about 75,000 people arrested, far more than earlier estimates of gang membership.
  • Bukele’s model uses elements from the “authoritarian playbook,” including undoing public access laws, eliminating accountability for government spending, consolidating media control, threatening independent media, and relying on armies of social media accounts and traditional media outlets to dominate the political conversation.
  • Toleration of human rights abuse and corruption have undone a police reform that was a key element of the country’s 1992 peace accords.
  • MS-13 is not defeated: its leaders avoid extradition while maintaining close relationships with authorities, while some of its affiliates serve as legislative “alternates.”
  • The influence of China is real but probably overstated, as the country offers few resources and little overall strategic value.
  • While it does not make strategic sense to criticize the popular president frontally, the Biden administration needs to be more consistent and less timid in its critique of specific policies and anti-democratic trends.

Douglas Farah is President of IBI Consultants, a research consultancy that offers many of its products online. He was formerly bureau chief of United Press International in El Salvador, a staff correspondent for The Washington Post, and a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research. He is a 1995 recipient of the Columbia Journalism School’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding coverage of Latin America.

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.

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

The drug-trafficking trial of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández began on February 20 in New York. The prosecution’s witnesses, a series of Honduran drug traffickers, gang members. and corrupt politicians, have given extensive testimony about the former president’s relationships to the criminal underworld in Honduras and Mexico.

During his time in office (2013-2021), officials in the Obama and Trump administrations praised Hernández as a partner in counter-drug and counter-migration efforts. Meanwhile, Hernández was taking bribe money, often as campaign contributions, from traffickers. Some of the bribes were documented in a trafficker’s notebook ledgers. A witness alleged that the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, contributed $1 million.

Hernández is being tried alongside a former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, another official whom U.S. officials had considered a partner despite lingering human rights abuse allegations. “The United States’ record of working with unsavory characters” may “offer foreign leaders and officials a false sense of security,” the Economist observed.

“The narco-state was consolidated in the midst of the polarization left by the [2009] coup d’état, and it happened over a history of violent polarization between traditional political parties, landowners, and opportunist politicians,” wrote Jennifer Ávila, director of the Honduran investigative outlet ContraCorriente. “A history of fratricidal confrontation that has only benefited the political elites who renew themselves in power over and over again.”

In the violent trafficking-hub city of Tocoa, along Honduras’s Caribbean coast near the conflictive Bajo Aguán region, longtime mayor Adán Fúnez stands accused of numerous drug trafficking crimes and human rights abuses, ContraCorriente reported. He remains solidly in power.

At journalist Ioan Grillo’s CrashOut, an essay from historian Benjamin T. Smith looked at Mexico’s three-stage transition, since the 1980s, from corrupt government “protection rackets” shaking down criminals, to today’s reality in which organized crime, having taken control of these “rackets,” now applies them to legitimate businesses and local governments.

The New York Times reported that the DEA had investigated possible contributions from narcotraffickers to the 2018 campaign of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and possible meetings with traffickers after López Obrador took office. This came on the heels of January allegations, revealed by ProPublica, that drug money may have gone into the President’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign.

Upon receiving word that the Times was working on the story, López Obrador retaliated by revealing the mobile phone number of the newspaper’s Mexico City bureau chief during his morning press conference. The White House stated that the U.S. government is not currently investigating López Obrador.

The U.S. Treasury Department alleged that politicians in San Marcos, Guatemala, near the Mexico border, have taken payments, via an organized crime structure called “Los Pochos,” from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel to allow them to store drugs in border areas.

As Colombia awaits its Supreme Court’s approval of a new nominee to be the country’s chief prosecutor, the acting prosecutor, Martha Mancera, is under a cloud of allegations that she helped shield a former head of the judicial police (CTI) in Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port, from drug trafficking and arms trafficking charges.

The Colombian media outlet Vorágine reported on evidence that a former mayor of Buenavista, Córdoba, Félix Gutiérrez, has done business with the Gulf Clan, the country’s largest organized crime network. Gutiérrez is married to Representative Ana Paola García, a member of “La U,” one of Colombia’s “traditional” (less-ideological, machine-based) political parties.

Wiretaps revealed that Eberson Páucar Sacha alias “Padrino,” a top cocaine trafficker in Peru’s conflictive VRAEM (Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys) region, maintains close relations with police and prosecutors. This allowed him to spring relatives and accomplices from jail.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

Hearing Testimonies from Yesterday

Here are links to the testimonies I submitted for yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration.

WOLA has created a page with video excerpts and links.

I’m now catching up on work that has fallen behind, including this week’s delayed Border Update. Testifying in the full committee was a great experience, but it did poke a 20-hour hole in the week.

Testifying Thursday the 30th

Posting to this site could be a bit infrequent or erratic over the next couple of days, because I’ve just been added as a witness to Thursday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration. Wish me luck, or come by the Capitol Visitors’ Center at 2:00PM Thursday and send good energy.

(You don’t have to do that. It will always be on YouTube.)

At the Latin America Advisor: “Can Ecuador’s Next President Make the Country Safer?”

Thanks to the Inter-American Dialogue for the opportunity to contribute to their Latin America Advisor publication, in which they seek input from a few people about a current question.

The question this week was about Ecuador: “Ecuadorean President-elect Daniel Noboa, who takes office next Thursday, has raised the possibility of using the military to fight drug traffickers and has said he would call for a referendum on the subject within his first 100 days in office. Noboa is taking office in the midst of a surge in narcotrafficking and violence, which has led the homicide rate to soar. Why has outgoing President Guillermo Lasso been unable to curb violence and the homicide rate, and what must Noboa do differently? Will voters approve using the military to fight drug traffickers? What challenges will Noboa face in improving security given that his term lasts only 18 months?”

My response:

“It’s hard to think of other jurisdictions where violent crime rates increased sixfold in just four years, but that is what has happened in once-peaceful Ecuador. Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, who governed during the pandemic and a chaotic post-FARC realignment of Colombia’s trafficking networks, lacked the institutional tools to respond to criminal violence, which originated in prisons and along trafficking routes but has since metastasized. Like Lasso, Daniel Noboa now must address the challenge while able to employ only his government’s weak, neglected, corruption-riven security sector. Under those circumstances, sending in the military to fight crime may seem like an attractive option. But there are very few examples in the hemisphere of violent crime declining significantly after troop deployments, and many examples of such deployments increasing human rights abuses. Unlike insurgencies, organized crime is an ‘enemy’ that prefers not to fight the government. It operates by penetrating and corrupting the same state institutions that are supposed to be fighting it. That makes organized crime a far more challenging adversary, requiring a smarter approach than brute force. Instead of troops, Ecuador needs the capacity to identify criminal masterminds, track financial flows, respond to violence ‘hotspots,’ improve response times, support community-level violence initiatives, weed out corrupt officials and many other duties that an adequately resourced civilian security sector performs. Noboa has issued vague proposals to fill some of those long-term institutional needs. The concern is that he may neglect these—which do not yield short-term results—in favor of a military response, which offers the illusion of action and carries big human rights risks.”

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