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.

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.

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.

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.

Planning, Unity, and Discipline: Non-Violent Social Change in the Americas

I learned a lot recording this WOLA Podcast episode with two scholar-practitioners who work with non-violent activists around the Americas. I found the advice and insights that María Belén Garrido and Jeff Pugh offered are very relevant for a time when authoritarian populists are gaining power and controlling public conversations. Here’s the overview from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

Maria Belén Garrido of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and FLACSO Ecuador, and Jeffrey Pugh, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution of Conflict (CEMPROC), lead the Regional Institute for the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action in the Americas.

The Institute provides training, capacity building, and networking opportunities for nonviolent social change activists in Latin America. It teaches that the success of non-violent strategies depends on the crucial “trinity” of planning, unity, and discipline.

Garrido and Pugh provide numerous examples of nonviolent movements in Latin America at the local and national levels, from communities declaring themselves “peace zones” in Colombia to worker “slowdown” strikes in Chile under Pinochet. They emphasize being creative with tactics like strikes, boycotts, protests, using art and music, and leveraging media and communication.

An ongoing challenge is confronting the rise of authoritarian populism and leaders who try to control narratives and media. Maintaining nonviolent discipline is crucial to avoid playing into the hands of repressive regimes. Building diverse coalitions and identifying strategic pressure points instead of relying solely on mass messaging may be especially important today.

“When a great amount of people, especially a diversity of people, in ages and ethnicities, go to the streets, then probably the social distance from the members of the forces that will repress them is lower and narrower,” Garrido observes here. “And this will reduce the amount of repression.”

Resources from the Institute can be found at accionnoviolenta.org: the “Relatos de la Resistencia Noviolenta” podcast, blog posts by regional activists, and an online course, one edition of which just got underway in early October 2023.

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.

WOLA Podcast: Venezuela: “The Way out of This Situation Has to be Through a Democratic and Peaceful Solution”

I learned a lot about the current moment in Venezuela during this podcast conversation with one of my newest colleagues, Laura Dib, the recently arrived director of WOLA’s Venezuela Program. Here’s the overview text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

In this podcast, Laura Cristina Dib, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, discusses the daunting political situation in Venezuela with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

Venezuela is to hold presidential elections at some point in 2024. Whether they will be at least somewhat free and fair is unlikely but far from impossible. It is a goal that must guide the international community and Venezuelan civil society.

The episode covers the recent naming of a new National Electoral Council, a seemingly technical step with wide-ranging consequences; the need for a clear and transparent electoral timetable; and the importance of updating voter rolls and other crucial steps for the elections’ credibility.

Laura Dib notes a recent increase in repression, threats, and disqualification of candidates as the Maduro regime appears to grow uneasy. That makes the international role increasingly important—as it has been in Guatemala’s elections—starting with a stronger commitment to a humanitarian agreement, which resulted from the 2022 negotiations and has yet to be implemented. “International” includes Venezuela’s neighbors, like Brazil and Colombia.

“There’s always hope, I don’t think that everything is lost,” Dib concludes. “I think that there’s always opportunity, and I continue to work very closely with a civil society that is more knowledgeable than ever on how to advocate for their rights beyond their borders.”

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.

Podcast: Cartels on the terrorist list? Military intervention in Mexico?

I just sat and recorded an episode of the solo podcast that I created when I started this website six years ago. Apparently, this is the first episode I’ve recorded since July 2017.

There’s no good reason for that: it doesn’t take very long to do. (Perhaps it should—this recording is very unpolished.) But this is a good way to get thoughts together without having to crank out something essay-length.

This episode is a response to recent calls to add Mexican organized crime groups to the U.S. terrorist list, and to start carrying out U.S. military operations against these groups on Mexican soil.

As I say in the recording, both are dumb ideas that won’t make much difference and could be counter-productive. Confronting organized crime with the tools of counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency won’t eradicate organized crime. It may ensnare a lot of American drug dealers and bankers as “material supporters of terrorism,” and it may cause criminal groups to fragment and change names. But the territories were organized crime currently operates will remain territories where organized crime still operates.

Neither proposal gets at the problem of impunity for state collusion with organized crime. Unlike “terrorist” groups or insurgencies, Latin America’s organized crime groups thrive because of their corrupt links to people inside government, and inside security forces. As long as these links persist, “get-tough” efforts like the terrorist list or military strikes will have only marginal impact.

You can download the podcast episode here. The podcast’s page is here and the whole feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: Guatemala: An Eroding Democracy Approaches New Elections

Guatemala’s presidential vote happens June 25. But candidates are being excluded, and anti-corruption leaders are being jailed and exiled. As gains made since a 1985 democratic transition face threats, I discuss ways forward with with Ana María Méndez Dardón, WOLA’s Director for Central America, and with Will Freeman, Fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s page for this episode.

As in much of Central America, Guatemala’s democracy has deteriorated recently. Progress on human rights and accountability, made since a 1985 transition to democracy and a 1996 peace accord, is either threatened or reversed. The judicial system has been turned against people who had fought during the 2010s to hold corrupt individuals accountable.

Elections are drawing near, with the first round scheduled for June 25. Candidates are being disqualified, while judicial workers and journalists continue to be imprisoned or exiled. U.S. policy upholds reformers at times, but is inconsistent and hard to pin down.

This episode discusses Guatemala’s current challenges with Ana María Méndez Dardón, WOLA’s Director for Central America, and with Will Freeman, Fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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.

See also:

WOLA Podcast: Peru’s Turmoil and “the Danger of a Much Deeper Crisis”

Perhaps you’ve been focused on the crisis at the border, the gang crackdown in El Salvador, Brazil’s presidential transition, human rights violations in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Colombia’s peace talks, or something else. But Peru is having a moment that, if unaddressed, could quickly devolve into something much worse.

I spoke to Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at WOLA who closely follows Peru, to talk about what’s been happening. It’s very much worth a listen. Here’s the content of WOLA’s podcast landing page.

A deeply divided country with the world’s highest COVID death rate, Peru has suffered a series of political crises. After the latest, it is now governed by its seventh president in less than seven years.

December 2022 has seen a president’s failed attempt to dissolve Congress and subsequent jailing, and now large-scale protests met with a military crackdown. Divisions between the capital, Lima, and the rural, largely indigenous interior have been heightened by President Pedro Castillo’s exit. The military is playing a more active, openly political, role.

WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt explains how Peru got here, the political divisions, the role of the international community, and the dangerous—but avoidable—possible outcomes of the present crisis.

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: Is Mexico Prepared to be a Country of Refuge?

I MC’d a conversation between four very smart colleagues this afternoon, who helped make sense of a remarkable, and remarkably difficult, moment for migrants in Mexico. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Mexico had always been considered a source of migrants, or a country through which other countries’ citizens transited. Not anymore: so far in 2021, more than 120,000 migrants have applied for asylum or other protection in Mexico. And now, the U.S. government’s restart of the “Remain in Mexico” program means Mexico will be hosting even more people who’ve fled their countries.

Mexico’s transition to being a country of refuge has not been smooth. Its refugee agency, COMAR, is overwhelmed. The emphasis continues to be on deterrence and detention, in what has been a record-breaking year for Mexico’s migrant detentions. Mexico’s government has begun employing the military in a migration enforcement role, with serious human rights consequences. And U.S. pressure to curtail migrant flows continues to be intense.

We discuss Mexico’s difficult transition to being a country of refuge with a four-person panel of experts:

  • Gretchen Kuhner is the founder and director of the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMITwitter/Facebook), a civil society research, advocacy, and legal aid organization.
  • Daniel Berlin is the deputy director of Asylum Access Mexico (Twitter/Facebook), the largest refugee legal aid organization in Mexico, with offices in 7 parts of the country.
  • Maureen Meyer is WOLA’s vice president for programs. (Twitter)
  • Stephanie Brewer is WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights. (Twitter)

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: Colombia’s peace accord at five years

Today is the fifth anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord with the FARC. Gimena Sanchez, WOLA’s director for the Andes, and I recorded this conversation last Thursday about where things stand. Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Colombia’s government and largest guerrilla group signed a historic peace accord on November 24, 2016. The government took on many commitments which, if implemented, could guide Colombia away from cycles of violence that its people have suffered, especially in the countryside, for over a century.

Five years later, is the peace accord being implemented? The picture is complicated: the FARC remain demobilized and a transitional justice system is making real progress. But the countryside remains violent and ungoverned, and crucial peace accord commitments are going unmet. WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez joins host Adam Isacson for a walk through which aspects of accord implementation are going well, and which are urgently not.

Download the episode (.mp3)

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 Conversation with WOLA’s New President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.

Enjoy this one. Here’s the text at WOLA’s podcast landing page.

This week, Adam introduces WOLA’s new president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, to listeners.

The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.

They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.

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: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin: Justice for Disappeared Mexicans

A stunning 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. In a new WOLA podcast, our director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, Stephanie Brewer, emphasizes that the situation isn’t hopeless. She offers a really clear explanation of steps Mexico’s justice system can take, now.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

This week, Adam is talking with Stephanie Brewer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, about our latest campaign: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must BeginThe campaign addresses the more than 90,000 people disappeared in Mexico (mostly since 2006) and the challenges to stopping disappearances.

In this conversation, Adam and Stephanie discuss how the crisis grew to today’s tragic scale, what has worked and has not worked for investigations into disappearances in the country, and some of the major findings of the campaign. Please visit the campaign’s website to see the in-depth findings and learn what you can do to support victims and family members of the disappeared in Mexico.

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

WOLA Podcast: reflecting on 40 years of Latin America human rights advocacy with Geoff Thale

WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, retired this week. Geoff has been doing citizen advocacy for human rights in Latin America, full time, since the early 80s—before this sort of work was even a “thing.”

The work looks vastly different today. We go over how the region, work in Washington, and the role of places like WOLA have changed in a reflective new podcast episode.


Here’s the language from WOLA’s website:

Geoff Thale has been with the Washington Office on Latin America since 1995, and has served as its president since 2019. Much has changed about advocacy and foreign policy since the beginning of his time in Washington. In this conversation, Adam and Geoff discuss the evolution of human rights advocacy towards Latin America, WOLA, and the opportunities and challenges for human rights advocates working on the region.

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

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