Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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Day 7 in Colombia

Good morning from Bogotá. It’s day seven of our visit, and we’ve finished the field-work portion of the trip. Nothing left but two days of meetings here with experts, activists, government and UN personnel.

This 90-100 mile boat journey, out in to the ocean and then up the Naya River, appears to have killed the trackpad on my laptop. It was really painful just now trying to draw that arrow using an app that (sort of) makes my phone act like a mouse.


We spent Saturday through Tuesday in Colombia’s Pacific coast region, in the city of Buenaventura and then way up the Naya River, which serves as the border between Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments. This is a huge corridor for drug trafficking. The FARC’s exit from these areas has led to a proliferation of armed groups and organized crime. They are not fighting each other very frequently right now—something seems to be maintaining the peace—and many measures of violence are down for the moment.

There is absolutely no peace, however, if you are a community leader. If you’re active in your local Community Action Board, Afro-Colombian Community Council, coca substitution program, indigenous reserve, labor union, or other structure, you have seen a sharp increase in death threats. The national wave of social-leader murders has not spared this area. Four leaders along the Naya river were disappeared by an unidentified armed group in April and May.

We’ll turn this fieldwork into a full report within a few weeks. I already have a 30-page matrix roughed out based on most of my notes so far. (Sometime when things slow down, I’ll write a post about the method I’m using.) In the meantime, here are some photos from the past few days.

Our first stop was a meeting with a community of Wounaan indigenous people on the outskirts of Buenaventura, the largest city on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The community had been displaced several years ago by fighting between ELN guerrillas and paramilitaries near the San Juan River in Chocó department, to the north. For four years, dozens of people have been subsisting on about an acre of land.


Our boat leaves Buenaventura.


Puerto Merizalde, near the mouth of the Naya River, was the last place to have mobile phone signal as we went upriver.


Many of the 64 towns along the Naya River have, with the support of non-governmental organizations and social movements, declared themselves “refuge zones” open only to the civilian population. All armed groups are meant to stay out.


Though towns have declared themselves “refuge zones” open only to the civilian population, within the past year and a half the military (in this case, the Army) has begun setting up camp in some of them.


The Naya River gets shallow as you go upstream, and ceases to be navigable not far from Concepción, where we spent the night. A couple of times, our boat’s propeller hit the rocky bottom, and we had to get out and push, or walk along the bank until the boat got past the shallows.


The riverside community of Concepción, where we spent a night.


Low-quality selfie with Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Andes director, just before meeting with dozens of community members in Concepción, on the Naya River. We met in the evening in the schoolhouse, which was not wired for electricity, by the light of a single CFL bulb on a very long extension cord.


Going downriver with WOLA colleagues and several Naya River and Buenaventura community leaders.


Meeting with human rights defenders at the offices of NOMADESC in Cali.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Gui Christ photo at the Washington Post. Caption: “Venezuelans at the Rondon refugee center in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, Brazil.”

(Even more here)

August 31, 2018


The I.M.F.’s $50 billion deal with Argentina is one of the largest in the fund’s history. In order to secure the release of the money, Argentina must agree to deep cuts in government spending


En ambas alertas tempranas se destaca como principal causal del riesgo de la población civil las estrategias de expansión hacia territorios dejados por la extinta guerrilla de las Farc luego de negociar con el gobierno nacional su reintegración a la vida legal

La casi segura ausencia de Márquez puede cambiar el panorama interno del partido, pues representa la línea más dura y crítica a los Acuerdos y a la implementación, distante de la que lidera Rodrigo Londoño

Colombia’s new President Ivan Duque, who is evaluating whether to continue the peace talks, said in a joint news conference with Sanchez that he will happily consider Spain’s offer if rebels stop all violence and criminal activity

Procedían de países como Camerún, Bangladesh, Cuba, Gambia, India y Pakistán

Costa Rica, Nicaragua

Ortega dijo que depurará el listado para determinar quiénes cometieron “actos terroristas” y someterlos a un “proceso judicial”


Even though the crime took place in Florida, it would be the Cuban judges who decided Yanes’ fate

The Trump administration is expected to name Mauricio Claver-Carone, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, as the new senior director of the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Affairs

El Salvador

Liduvina Magarin, deputy foreign relations minister for Salvadorans overseas, said authorities had received reports of the abuse of the children ages 12 to 17 by workers at unnamed shelters


For these deportees, home is a neighborhood ruled by murderous gangs who extort money and demand that young men join their ranks — killing those who refuse to obey.


Neither the current Congress nor the next one, which will vote on any trade agreement the administration signs, will accept a US-Mexico trade agreement that excludes Canada

Any migration policy that adds layers of enforcement and bureaucracy; requires extensive cross-border coordination across multiple agencies; and does not address the broader forces at play is unlikely to achieve its objectives


The four-month rebellion and the government’s suppression of it have wrecked Nicaragua’s economy but left the autocrat firmly in power, at least for now

On Jan. 5, roughly 5,300 Nicaraguans who have lived in the US since at least that date in 1999 will lose their protected status

Had a White House official not had that “discussion” with acting Secretary Duke, it seems, 5,000 people would now have six more months to prepare their return to Nicaragua


The sound of Caracas slang is now ubiquitous in some Miami neighborhoods. Thousands of miles to the south, the scent of Caribbean cooking wafts through streets in Santiago, Chile

El senador estadounidense Marco Rubio evocó la opción militar en Venezuela al decir que “las circunstancias han cambiado” y que existen argumentos para considerar que el gobierno de Nicolás Maduro amenaza la seguridad nacional de Estados Unidos

The WOLA Firehose for August 2018

Here’s everything I know of that my colleagues at WOLA and I published this month.



Articles Elsewhere

Press Releases

18 Latin America longreads from August

(I leave for Colombia in the morning, so I’m churning out a bunch of end-of-month posts tonight. It’s more fun than packing.)

Todd Wiseman photo at The Texas Tribune. Caption: “A raft loaded with undocumented immigrants navigates the Mexican side of the Rio Grande across from Ruperto Escobar’s ranch in April 2016. The ranch sits along the Rio Grande, the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, in Starr County in South Texas. For generations smugglers have used the ranch to move people and product across the border, and Escobar doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

The Border Patrol shooting of a young Guatemalan immigrant remains a mystery three months later. A phone video provides the only clue about what happened

“You can be in a neighborhood where kids are playing in the streets, and there could be a stash house next door”

The conclusions listed in the report point to serious challenges in building some, if not all, of the prototypes as they were erected in San Diego, because of structural issues in their design or with construction

Crossing the Rio Grande has had certain procedural advantages. Immigrants who enter the country illegally are generally eligible to be released on bond, while those who present themselves at the bridges stay in detention

NPR recently spent time on both sides of the border, where immigration is part of everyday life


After clashes with native groups over development, and controversial maneuvers to stay in office, indigenous voters are now turning against him


En entrevista, habla un vocero autorizado de la organización delictiva más poderosa de Colombia

El discurso del nuevo presidente terminó con una invitación a todos los colombianos a hacer un Pacto por el futuro de Colombia. Y la pregunta del millón, es cómo se hará ese pacto y con quiénes y si eso incluye a Macías y a los que piensan como él


The circle is nearly closed. Jimmy Morales, who won power precisely because of his predecessor’s corruption, is now facing down accusations that he committed some of the same transgressions. It was a biblical lesson he apparently missed


The bungling of the investigation in Haiti didn’t even come to light until two veteran DEA agents filed whistleblower complaints that have triggered a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the effectiveness of the DEA’s drug-fighting efforts


Las madres agraviadas manifiestan su desconcierto sobre el tema de la amnistía y el perdón a los criminales. Así lo expresaron en los dos primeros foros realizados la semana pasada

AMLO and his advisers have proposed sending drug war-fighting soldiers back to their barracks, pardoning nonviolent drug offenders, and boosting social programs


In April, their fiction of a prosperous and politically stable Nicaragua collapsed like a house of cards

A senior U.S. official whom I spoke to feared that Ortega was using death squads to silence his opposition. “We’ve moved from a climate of fear to one of terror”

Cuatro estudiantes nicaragüenses que la semana pasada estuvieron en Guatemala participando de una actividad académica, explican desde sus posiciones en resistencia, los orígenes de la crisis política que vive Nicaragua desde abril pasado

There is already a sense that order is fragile, and that an anarchic slide has already begun


La reciente muerte de un suboficial de la FAP en el Vraem revela la intensa disputa territorial entre las Fuerzas Armadas y Sendero Luminoso. Cabecilla terrorista ‘Antonio’ busca posicionarse en zonas de producción de droga

Links from the past month about “Soldiers As Police” in Latin America

Photo from El Heraldo (Honduras). Caption: “A partir de septiembre la Policía Militar y la Policía Nacional con sus fuerzas especiales van a trabajar de manera coordinada con la nueva unidad de Anti Maras y Pandillas.”

Western Hemisphere Regional

the administration has an opening this week to demonstrate commitment to our core principles by stating its opposition to the militarization of law enforcement, which represents a challenge to liberal democracy across much of Latin America


El acto, realizado en la localidad de Huacalera, Jujuy, ofició como inicio formal del operativo Fronteras Protegidas y fue una oportunidad para que el mandatario exhiba la nueva doctrina de seguridad


“Isso não é uma profecia. É uma conclusão. Ao se defrontar com o criminoso, a tendência da polícia, por falta de meios, era se omitir”

Those allegations included killing and leaving the bodies of several young men in a forest atop the complex of slums

The action lasted over 14 hours, leaving one dead, dozens of injured and thousands of angry citizens

Human rights groups have criticized the intervention, saying it’s disproportionately impacting people, particularly blacks, in poor neighborhoods

The measure put thousands of soldiers in the streets and increased operations against drug-trafficking gangs that largely operate in poor areas. But some say it has not helped to address underlying issues

Brazil, Venezuela

Between January and June, there were 27.7 homicides for every 100,000 people in Roraima, a poor state in northern Brazil on the border with Venezuela


El presidente Juan Orlando Hernández anunció que en septiembre próximo se iniciarán operativos conjuntos de la Policía Militar del Orden Público (PMOP), la Policía Nacional y la Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas (FNAMP)


Lo que debería ser el foco de atención no es lo que dijo López Obrador sobre los militares, sino lo que no dijo sobre las policías

Sobre la presencia de las fuerzas armadas en las calles, dijo que el próximo secretario de Seguridad, Alfonso Durazo, ya había anunciado que “en tres años vamos a proceder a retirar al Ejército”

La declaración que hizo el presidente electo, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, de dejar intacta la estrategia de seguridad, generó preocupación en el colectivo #SeguridadSinGuerra

AMLO se pronunció, por un lado, con ambigüedad (no usar la ley para reprimir movimientos sociales) respecto de las amplias atribuciones militares con la aprobación y vigencia de la LSI

Recomendó “tener un plan cierto, conocido por la población para que esa transitoriedad sea eso y no permanencia”

Advirtieron que si no hay un plan de retiro paulatino de las fuerzas castrenses, se repetirían los graves abusos y violaciones que han ocurrido en los últimos dos sexenios

El tabasqueño sostuvo que su gobierno cuidará que marinos y militares respeten los derechos humanos del pueblo y no reprimirlo

Colombia’s New President Wants to Modify the FARC Peace Accord. His Proposals Aren’t Dealbreakers.

President Duque’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos (left), meets with Joaquín Gómez (center), the now-demobilized former head of the FARC’s Southern Bloc. Office of the High Commissioner for Peace photo.

Along with his conservative political party, Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, fiercely opposed the peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group negotiated by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. On the campaign trail during the first half of 2018, he pledged to make “adjustments” to the November 2016 accord, which had taken more than four difficult years to negotiate. Since he was inaugurated on August 7, the peace accord’s supporters have been wondering which of Duque’s “adjustments” might prove to be dealbreakers that cause the FARC deal to fall apart.

In an August 27 interview with El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, Duque’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, laid out four proposed modifications.

Publicly, President Duque has raised four issues. First, in the future there must be no connection between rebellion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. Second, that in the face of continued crimes [committed after the accord’s signing] such as arms trafficking, money laundering and drug trafficking, the people who continue committing them will lose their benefits. Third, that those who have committed crimes against humanity can not assume political office, and this not only refers to the Congress because local elections are coming, and fourth, that the eradication of crops will be mandatory from now on, respecting the pacts of voluntary eradication signed until the day the new government took office.

While there are reasons for concern, Ceballos’s comment has led most peace accord proponents to breathe a sigh of relief. These “adjustments” either barely affect the FARC accord, are already in the accord, or will only become law with difficulty. Colombia’s La Silla Vacía journalism website headlined them as “more symbolic than real.” If this is all that the Duque government is contemplating, the FARC accord will survive. Let’s look at all four:

  1. in the future there must be no connection between rebellion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking

In just about every peace process in the world, the state party forgives the non-state party for the crime of “rebellion,” or sedition or treason—nobody goes to prison for the crime of rising up against the government. In Colombia, though, it’s a bit more complicated, as the non-state parties often break other criminal laws in order to fund themselves. They traffic drugs and other contraband. They kidnap for ransom. They extort. They degrade the environment.

In the past, members of the FARC, and of the AUC paramilitaries before them, could get their past drug-trafficking and similar crimes amnestied as “connected” political crimes—as long as a judge decides that all the financial proceeds went into the group’s war effort and nobody enriched himself or herself personally.

Here, Ceballos says that the Duque government will try to change that: in the future, any armed group that practices drug trafficking will have to pay a criminal penalty—no amnesty—no matter what.

That doesn’t affect the FARC accord, which Ceballos and Duque don’t propose to revisit. It may, however, complicate any future accord with the ELN guerrillas, with which the Santos government has left behind an unfinished negotiation process. Members of the ELN participate in narcotrafficking, and it’s safe to assume many are not personally enriching themselves. ELN guerrillas may be less willing to turn in their weapons if they face years in prison—or even extradition to the United States—for past drug trafficking.

The government’s lead negotiator in the FARC talks, Humberto de la Calle, raised this point in an August 12 El Espectador column:

The ELN has mixed itself with drug trafficking. Does this close the door for an agreement with that group? If peace with that organization comes to be around the corner, will it be necessary to repeal the offer being made today?

Ceballos mentions undoing a connection between sedition and kidnapping. No such connection exists. Kidnapping non-combatants is a war crime, and cannot be amnestied. Former FARC members who led or participated in kidnappings must answer to the transitional justice system, the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), which will require that they spend up to eight years under “restricted liberty,” issue complete confessions, and make reparations to their victims. A proposal to undo a “connection” between kidnapping and sedition would change nothing, as this describes the status quo.

  1. in the face of continued crimes [committed after the accord’s signing] such as arms trafficking, money laundering and drug trafficking, the people who continue committing them will lose their benefits

This changes nothing. Any former FARC fighter found to have committed a crime after December 2016, when the peace accord was ratified, must answer to it in the regular criminal justice system and would lose the right to lighter penalties in the JEP. This is what may happen to FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich, whom U.S. authorities accuse of conspiring to ship cocaine to the United States in 2017 and 2018. Santrich is under arrest while Colombian authorities consider a U.S. extradition request. Here too, Ceballos is describing the status quo.

  1. those who have committed crimes against humanity can not assume political office, and this not only refers to the Congress because local elections are coming

Colombia’s highest judicial review body, its Constitutional Court, just ruled on this in mid-August, when it decided on the basic law underlying the JEP, the new transitional justice system. It found that war criminals may hold political office as long as they have submitted to the JEP, are recognizing and confessing the full truth of their crimes, and are making reparations to victims. Those who do this serve sentences of “restricted liberty,” but not prison, lasting up to eight years. It is not yet clear whether these sentences—which are up to the judge in each case—might interfere with an individual’s ability to hold office.

To change this ruling, President Duque and his congressional supporters would have to amend Colombia’s constitution. If they succeeded in doing that and end up disqualifying many FARC members from holding office, it’s possible that some of them—who agreed to demobilize specifically so that they could participate in peaceful politics—would abandon the peace process, remobilize, and add to the growing ranks of armed guerrilla “dissident” groups. It’s far from certain, though, that Duque and his allies would have the votes necessary for such a constitutional amendment.

  1. the eradication of crops will be mandatory from now on, respecting the pacts of voluntary eradication signed until the day the new government took office

This means that the voluntary coca eradication program begun under Chapter 4 of the peace accord would continue for the families who are already participating in it—but the program will not sign up any new families. Any coca grower who has not yet been reached by the Chapter 4 program, known as the National Integral Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS), will be shut out and, most likely, will face forcible eradication and no assistance.

For smallholding coca-growers unlucky enough to live in a municipality where the PNIS didn’t get started before Santos left office, this may be a violation of the peace accord’s terms. Colombia’s courts may have to decide that.

We also need to be vigilant about what happens to the 124,745 coca-growing families covered by the framework PNIS agreements the Santos government signed, including individual accords with 77,659 of them. The Colombian government has promised them two years of stipends, technical support, and other assistance to help them integrate into the legal rural economy. The Duque government must uphold this commitment. To break a promise to so many would destroy the Colombian government’s credibility in some of the most precarious parts of the country. The effect on coca cultivation and insecurity could be worse than never attempting either eradication or substitution in the first place.

Accord commitments aside, what Ceballos proposes sounds like bad policy. For decades now, Colombia—with U.S. support—has subjected smallholding coca-growers to forced eradication, while leaving no government presence behind in their communities. No basic services (usually, not even security), no land titles, no farm-to-market roads. The result has been quick and repeated recoveries of coca-growing. Nearly all of Colombia’s current coca boom is taking place in municipalities that had coca when “Plan Colombia” began ramping up forced eradication in 2000. Very little coca is showing up in new areas. If by “mandatory eradication” Ceballos means eradication without any governance or assistance, as in the past, we can expect Colombia’s coca problem to remain severe and unsolved.

The upshot here: these four proposals could bring some problems if the Duque government manages to implement them. But they would not shake the FARC peace process to its foundations.

Iván Duque and Miguel Ceballos would do better, though, if they made other “modifications” to the peace accord’s implementation:

  • By making a small amount of land available to demobilized FARC members to work collectively, they could do much to slow the flow of ex-fighters into the ranks of the “dissidents.” Though a large number of ex-FARC fighters want to become farmers, the peace accord said nothing about making land available to them. An effort to do so is afoot, but moving slowly.
  • By reinvigorating and fully funding the national government’s new Territorial Renovation Agency (ART), local governments, and other agencies carrying out Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) in 170 municipalities, they could take a large leap toward addressing the severe lack of government presence and services that underlies so much illegality—armed-group activity, drug trafficking, illicit mining—in abandoned rural areas. The peace accord’s first chapter on rural development offers a blueprint for the government’s “entry” into historically conflictive territories. It also accounts for 85 percent of the anticipated cost of implementing the entire accord. Chapter 1 is moribund right now; making it work would be a tremendously important “adjustment.”
  • They could improve the peace accord’s promise of allowing Colombians to practice politics without fear of being murdered. This would mean increasing protection for threatened social leaders around the country, and dismantling—through careful but aggressive investigative work—the networks of landowners, drug traffickers, businesses, rogue government actors, and organized criminals behind many of the 343 social-leader murders committed between 2016 and late August. President Duque signed a “pact” promising to do more to protect social leaders at an event on August 23. As the killings mount, it’s past time to move from promises to action.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

I’m traveling in Colombia between tomorrow and September 8. During that time, I’ll be posting news links sporadically, if at all.

Laura Aguilera / CICR photo at El Tiempo (Colombia). Caption: “Ramona Del Carmen Jaime, desde El Tarra, Norte De Santander, también busca un ser querido desaparecido en la guerra.”

(Even more here)

August 30, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

The ruling threatens to upend all deportation cases in which ICE issued incomplete notices to appear,including hundreds of thousands of pending cases and thousands more already decided

Under President Trump, the passport denials and revocations appear to be surging, becoming part of a broader interrogation into the citizenship of people who have lived, voted and worked in the United States for their entire lives


“If he kills 10, 15 or 20 with 10 or 30 bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted”

Brazil, South America Regional, Venezuela

In a much-needed move, the Ecuadorean government has called for a regional summit in September to discuss the situation with heads of state from around Latin America


La manera como Colombia y sus vecinos han hecho frente a la situación de seguridad en la frontera ha sido –por lo general– bilateral y reactiva, con problemas para generar confianza y establecer relaciones recíprocas

“En mi experiencia como agricultor, no he conocido un mejor herbicida que el glifosato”, insistió

Cuando Iván Duque era el candidato de Uribe, ninguno de sus partidarios se imaginaba verlo sentado con Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, ni siquiera en su nueva condición de jefe del partido Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común

Basta mirar los mapas satelitales en Google Earth de algunos tramos de importantes ríos del país como el Sambingo (fotos) o Micay en el Cauca, el Atrato en Chocó, el Cauca en Antioquia, para darse cuenta del efecto que ha traído la minería ilegal

Nuestro gobierno tarda en desembolsar los recursos necesarios para así multiplicar los esfuerzos que en territorio se vienen haciendo para buscar a los ausentes

Colombia, Venezuela

Affording legal status to the Venezuelans who did not benefit from the registration process would reduce the grave risk of statelessness. Colombia could also resume the issuance of special border cards


Travel by Americans, excluding the Cuban diaspora who are counted separately, fell by more than 23 percent in the first six months of 2018


Lo que debería ser el foco de atención no es lo que dijo López Obrador sobre los militares, sino lo que no dijo sobre las policías

The same experts will meet next month with President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s team to discuss a possible resumption of work on the case

It isn’t that the prior reforms, or those proposed by López Obrador, are necessarily bad ideas. Rather, they have little to do with the root causes of the government’s inability to respond to security crises


En el informe figuran el uso desproporcionado de la fuerza por parte de la policía, que a veces se tradujo en ejecuciones extrajudiciales, las desapariciones forzadas, las detenciones arbitrarias y generalizadas, las torturas y los malos tratos, y las violaciones del derecho a la libertad de opinión, expresión y reunión pacífica


As of June, there were about 2.3 million Venezuelans living abroad. Nine out of 10 have sought refuge in countries within Latin America

Does Nicolas Maduro’s government feel any pressure to try and make life better in the country? Nick Schifrin talks with Javier Corrales of Amherst College

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of August 19-25)

ELN Still Hasn’t Released Captives and Hostages

The ELN’s release of four soldiers, three police, and two civilians in its custody, believed imminent, still hasn’t happened yet. Guerrilla fronts in Chocó and Arauca captured the nine on August 3rd and 8th, and President Iván Duque (who was inaugurated August 7th) has demanded their unconditional release before deciding whether to continue peace talks begun by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

A week ago, Colombia’s Defense Ministry stated that it had agreed with the ELN on a protocol for freeing the captives, with the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In Havana, chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán told The New York Times that “the nine captives would be released ‘within the next week.’ But two days later, a recording from the ELN’s Western War Front, its hard-line bloc, which has released pictures of some of the hostages, said no agreement had been reached.”

The situation remains unclear. The Defense Ministry has refused to recognize the liberation as part of the peace negotiation, which the Duque government still hasn’t committed to continuing. The ELN has meanwhile reportedly sent members of its negotiating team to Colombia to work out handover details, but it is not known whether they have yet been in touch with the government.

“Uriel,” the commander of the ELN’s Western War Front, “complained about military pressure in the zone,” according to El Tiempo, which in his judgment is reducing the kidnap victims’ [security] guarantees.”

Interviewed by The New York Times, negotiator Beltrán insisted that the ELN wants to continue dialogue with the new Duque government, and promised reasonable terms. “‘We’re not asking for socialism, he said, adding that his rebels are mainly looking for basic protections for peasants and a way that the rebels can lay down arms.” Beltrán noted that guerrillas he has spoken with, after viewing the sluggish implementation of the FARC peace accord, are concerned that the government won’t honor an agreement. “We have an example that has us scared,” he told the Times, referring to the FARC process.

Murders of Social Leaders Are Not Slowing

On August 23 President Duque, accompanied by the internal-affairs chief (Procurador), human rights ombudsman (Defensor), the U.S. ambassador, the ministers of Defense and Interior, and other officials, presided over an event to lay out a policy for protecting threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. The “Second Table for the Protection of Life” took place in Apartadó, in the troubled Urabá region of northwest Colombia, a zone of drug transshipment, much stolen landholding, and frequent attacks on social leaders. About 90 social organizations were in attendance.

Those present signed a “pact for life and protection of social leaders and human rights defenders,” which El Nuevo Siglo described as “an immediate roadmap to ‘rebuild trust in justice and to judge the material and intellectual authors of this criminal phenomenon.’”

The phenomenon remains intense. Ombudsman Carlos Negret announced that the August 22 murder of Luis Henry Verá Gamboa, a 51-year-old Community Action Board leader in Cesar department, was the 343rd killing of a social leader in Colombia since January 2016: one every 2.8 days. At least 123 killings—two every three days—took place during the first six months of 2018, The Guardian reported.

Deputy Chief Prosecutor (Vicefiscal) María Paulina Riveros, who attended the Apartadó event, said that her office has arrested 150 people and identified 200 suspects tied to the killings of social leaders; she did not say how many are suspected trigger-pullers versus those believed to have planned or ordered killings. In Urabá and northern Antioquia department, she added, businesses and landowners who resist restitution of stolen landholdings are heavily involved in killings of land claimants.

Procurador Fernando Carrillo said that his office will pressure mayors and governors to take more actions against killings of human rights defenders, adding that 30 officials are currently under investigation for failing to prevent the murders.

“If we want to guarantee the life and integrity of our social leaders, we have to dismantle the structures of organized crime that are attacking them,” Duque said. He added, “What we want is to seek an integral response of preventive actions and investigative speed to guarantee freedom of expression to all the people who are exercising the defense of human rights.”

Some social leaders, while glad to see a high-profile commitment, voiced concern about follow-through. “It’s not enough to draw up a lot of norms and mechanisms, if they don’t end up being effective instruments in their application, if they’re handed down from above but get lost on their way to the regions,” said Marino Córdoba of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.

New Peace Commissioner Meets Senior FARC Leader

The Duque government’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, toured some of the sites (“Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation”) where many demobilized FARC members are still living. Accompanied by UN Verification Mission chief Jean Arnault at the site in Pondores, La Guajira, Ceballos met with former FARC Secretariat member Joaquín Gómez of the former Southern Bloc. Ceballos’s message was that the new government intends to respect the Santos government’s commitments for the reintegration of demobilized guerrillas.

Two of the most prominent demobilized FARC leaders, however, are still unaccounted for. Former Secretariat member Iván Márquez, a hardliner who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana, has not been heard from in about a month. The same is true of Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero Column. Both Márquez and Velásquez had been staying at a demobilization site in Caquetá; Márquez moved there in April, after renouncing his assigned Senate seat in the wake of the arrest, on narcotrafficking charges, of his close associate and fellow FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich.

FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada told Colombian media that he doesn’t know where Márquez and Velásquez are and hasn’t heard from them. He said he hoped to see Márquez at a late August meeting of FARC political party leaders. Ariel Ávila, an analyst at the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told El Colombiano, “there are many rumors about what they could be doing, that they’re in Venezuela, that they’re in hiding, that they’ve joined the dissident groups.”

FARC Dissidents Expanding in Catatumbo Region

Catatumbo, a poorly governed region of smallholding farmers in Norte de Santander department near the Venezuelan border, has already been suffering a wave of violence between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small guerrilla group that is almost exclusively active there. Now, reports La Silla Vacía, the largest FARC dissident group has arrived in Catatumbo, especially in areas that had previously been the dominion of the FARC’s disbanded 33rd Front.

Basing itself mainly on military intelligence sources, La Silla claims that dissidents from the FARC’s 7th Front, active in south-central Colombia, are branching out. 7th Front leader “Gentil Duarte” has sent one of his most notorious deputies, “John 40”—a FARC leader with a long history in the cocaine trade—to Catatumbo to build up recruitment and recover control of trafficking routes.

According to Army Intelligence information, his appearance in the area occurred between four and five months ago, when it was already known in the region that several ex-FARC members had decided to return to arms, and those who were not organizing on their own in small groups were dividing themselves between the ranks of the ELN and the EPL. What is clear is that John 40 came to organize them to prevent the new reorganizations from being dispersed or ending up simply strengthening the other two guerrilla groups, at a time when the coca market in Catatumbo is skyrocketing.

Wilfredo Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar think-tank in nearby Cúcuta told La Silla that Catatumbo may now have as many as 30,000 hectares of coca, at least 6,000 more than were measured in 2016.

Duarte and John 40 both abandoned the FARC in 2016, objecting to the peace accord the guerrillas were signing with the government. They are now part of the largest dissident group in the country, beginning to coordinate well beyond their center of operations in Meta and Guaviare departments. While La Silla’s military intelligence source said that the group has only about 33 men in the Catatumbo region, “seven sources we talked to in Catatumbo, among them local authorities and social leaders, said that the number could be between four and seven times larger.”

The 7th Front has avoided drawing attention to itself in Catatumbo, even as ELN-EPL fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. However, some of La Silla’s sources say the dissidents may have been behind a massacre three weeks ago in the central Catatumbo municipality of El Tarra.

Two sources in El Tarra told us that with the passing of days, the hypothesis that has grown strongest is that it was a dispute between dissidences. “Everything points to the dissidence of John 40 being the one that ordered the massacre, because the dissidents who died did not want to align with him and the model he came to put together,” one of those sources told La Silla.

Citing a human rights defender, an Army source, a social leader, and two local authorities, the report adds that the presence in Catatumbo of middlemen from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is adding fuel to the fire. Three sources told La Silla Vacía that, while Sinaloa’s representatives aren’t behaving like an armed group in the region, they have a great deal of money, and as a result are under the protection of both guerrillas and corrupt members of the Army and Police.

Displacement Has Already Surpassed 2017 Levels

Speaking at a Cali event organized by El Espectador’s Colombia 2020 program, Jozef Merkx, the Colombia country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, drew attention with a grim piece of data: “in August 2018 Colombia has surpassed the number of internally displaced people that was measured in all of 2017.” That makes more than 20,000 Colombians forced from their homes by violence so far this year.

Merkx added that displacement is most severe along the Pacific Coast, in Catatumbo, and in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region. Mass displacements have also occurred in Meta, Arauca, and Córdoba departments. All of these zones have seen intense fighting this year between still-existing guerrillas like the ELN and EPL, armed organized crime groups like the Urabeños, or FARC dissidents.

The UNHCR official noted that 60 percent of the displaced have settled in 29 cities, where they often continue face severe security challenges. The same neighborhoods are also seeing a large flow of Venezuelans, a migration emergency that is much larger in number and has been getting much more attention. A UN Secretary-General spokesman said in mid-August that 2.3 million Venezuelans—7 percent of the neighboring country’s population—had abandoned the country as of June. Of those, 1.3 million were “suffering from malnourishment.”

WSJ Report Reveals New Details About Drone Coca Eradication Plan

An August 19 Wall Street Journal report gave some new information about Colombia’s plan to start eradicating the country’s still-increasing coca crop by spraying herbicides from low-flying drones. The herbicide would continue to be glyphosate, which Colombia stopped spraying from higher-flying aircraft in 2015, after a World Health Organization study pointed to some probability that the commonly used herbicide is carcinogenic.

Colombian police, along with a company called Fumi Drone, have been testing the new method using 10 drones in Nariño, the department with Colombia’s highest concentration of coca. Fully loaded with herbicide, each drone weighs 50 pounds and must be recharged after about a dozen minutes. “The small, remotely guided aircraft destroyed hundreds of acres of coca in a first round of tests,” police and Fumi Drone told the Journal.

The United States backed an aircraft-based glyphosate spraying program for more than 20 years. It proved capable of achieving short-term reductions in coca cultivation, in specific areas—but in an on-the-ground context of absent government and no basic services, growers tended to replant quickly. Because spraying from dozens or hundreds of feet in the air is very imprecise, farmers also alleged health and environmental damage—which U.S. officials denied—and the destruction of legal food crops.

Since 2015, Colombia’s forcible coca eradication has mainly involved individual eradicators either pulling the plants out of the ground or directly applying glyphosate. This is dangerous work, and hundreds of eradicators or security-force accompaniers have been killed or wounded since the mid-2000s by ambushes, snipers, landmines, and booby traps.

Critics warn that, while drones are safer for eradicators and less likely to spray people and legal crops, they do not solve the fundamental problem: coca-growing areas are abandoned by the government, and those who live there have shaky property rights, no farm-to-market roads, and few economic options. Spraying from the air and leaving no presence on the ground, then, virtually guarantees that coca cultivation will recur. “It’s a short-term solution,” Richard Lapper of the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told the BBC. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of international demand for cocaine.”

U.S. government officials told the Wall Street Journal that they’re not completely sold on the drone idea. “[T]hey are open to using drones but need to learn more about their capabilities once Colombia’s police complete tests, which could run until January.” As he has in the past, Ambassador Kevin Whitaker made clear that the door remains open to using spray aircraft.

Seven or eight of the crop dusters that had worked the coca fields here remain in Colombia. [There were 14.] In a few months, U.S. officials say, they could become operational again. “I told embassy personnel and the Colombians the same thing: We need to be ready for a restart,” said the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Whitaker.

Meanwhile, participants in the voluntary crop substitution program begun under Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord remain uncertain about whether Iván Duque’s government will continue the effort, known as the National Integral Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS). Defense Minister Guillermo Botero raised concerns when he announced: “Voluntary eradication is over, and it will become obligatory… the fumigations will surely have to take place… we’re going to dedicate ourselves tenaciously to the eradication of illicit crops.”

Ten social and coca-grower organizations that have served as intermediaries for the PNIS program responded with a letter to President Duque asking him to keep the program in place. As laid out in the accord, the Santos Presidency’s crop substitution program has already promised two years of financial and technical assistance to 124,745 coca-growing households, signing individual accords with 77,659 of them. About 47,910 have eradicated about 22,000 hectares of coca in exchange for promised support, which has been arriving slowly.

In other bad drug-trade news, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant, Daniel Gould, was arrested after DEA agents found 90 pounds of cocaine inside two backpacks aboard a military transport plane in Colombia. The plane was bound for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A Defense Department spokesman confirmed the allegations, which were revealed by NBC News, but did not elaborate, citing “the integrity of the investigation and the rights of the individual.”

In-Depth Reading

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

August 29, 2018


His pledge to protect life and property resonates deeply with those in rural areas who feel neglected as well as those city-dwellers grown desperate amid spiraling crime

Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela

Top immigration officials from Peru, Colombia and Brazil met in Colombian capital Bogota for a summit to discuss how to cope with the influx

Brazil, Venezuela

Between January and June, there were 27.7 homicides for every 100,000 people in Roraima, a poor state in northern Brazil on the border with Venezuela


Una alerta de inteligencia militar de Ecuador en abril de este año los delató

El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru

This report seeks to identify the factors that have allowed for successful transitional justice processes as well as those that have hindered or undermined these processes in Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador

Guatemala, Western Hemisphere Regional

The Border Patrol shooting of a young Guatemalan immigrant remains a mystery three months later. A phone video provides the only clue about what happened


La captura de seis policías activos en los últimos dos meses es una muestra de que en la institución siguen las “manzanas podridas” a pesar del proceso de depuración


Sobre la presencia de las fuerzas armadas en las calles, dijo que el próximo secretario de Seguridad, Alfonso Durazo, ya había anunciado que “en tres años vamos a proceder a retirar al Ejército”

La declaración que hizo el presidente electo, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, de dejar intacta la estrategia de seguridad, generó preocupación en el colectivo #SeguridadSinGuerra

AMLO se pronunció, por un lado, con ambigüedad (no usar la ley para reprimir movimientos sociales) respecto de las amplias atribuciones militares con la aprobación y vigencia de la LSI

With Donald Trump again in trouble heading into an election, the Mexican president has come to the rescue, once more granting Trump a completely gratuitous political victory


Amenazas de muerte, violaciones sexuales, extracción de uñas, azotes con madera en las plantas de los pies, son parte de los hallazgos encontrados por la Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos

In April, their fiction of a prosperous and politically stable Nicaragua collapsed like a house of cards


Desde el juzgamiento a los miembros de la cúpula militar que formaron parte de la organización criminal que dirigió Vladimiro Montesinos durante el gobierno de Alberto Fujimori, hacía tiempo que no se condenaba por actos de corrupción a tantos oficiales de alta graduación


New details emerge on how the Maduro regime is storing its stolen loot in Florida properties

Diosdado Cabello implied that photos of refugees are fake as the UN warns the situation is nearing a ‘crisis moment’

Last year, at least 250 Venezuelans were deported, up 36 percent from a year earlier. At least 258 were deported in the first half of this year. Another 265 are detained

New Report: “A National Shame”

This is part three of a three-part WOLA series on the horror that the Trump administration and its “zero tolerance” policy unleashed at the U.S.-Mexico border this spring and summer—and what may come next. (Here is part one, on “zero tolerance” itself, and part two, on what happened at ports of entry.) All three are based on extensive documentary research and the fieldwork we did in Arizona back in June.

Tiny excerpt from the new one:

Incredibly, the agencies holding the parents (ICE, Bureau of Prisons, or U.S. Marshals) have very little interface with the agency managing the children (ORR), and made little effort to track family members in each other’s custody. Still more incredibly, in nearly all cases, CBP kept no record of the link between the parents and children at the moment it separated them.

Parents being charged with “improper entry” were given no receipt, claim check, or any other document establishing their link to their children. No database maintained a record of the parent-child relationship. Parents, and the agencies holding the parents, were given no information about their children’s whereabouts, as ORR moved them to shelters and homes all around the country.

I hope you find this work useful. Read on:

  1. The Zero Tolerance Policy, published July 16.
  2. “Come Back Later”: Challenges for Asylum Seekers Waiting at Ports of Entry, published August 2.
  3. A National Shame: The Trump Administration’s Separation and Detention of Migrant Families, published August 28.
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