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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A brazen attack recalls Colombia’s worst years

A social leader is killed nearly every other day in Colombia. Notably, nearly all of the victims have been very local leaders or activists, with no national profile. This has spread terror among social leaders, sending the message that you’re not safe no matter how unknown you are.

While the most prominent national human rights and social leaders get constant death threats, they’ve seen few actual attacks lately. That’s why the May 4 attack on the Black Communities’ Process (PCN) leadership in northern Cauca is an alarming milestone.

Those who narrowly escaped a 15-minute barrage of rifle fire and grenades were top national leaders of the country’s Afro-Colombian movement, gathered for a strategy meeting. People widely known in Colombia like Francia Marquez, winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, Carlos Rosero, Víctor Moreno, and Clemencia Carabalí.

They were part of a group of 25 people, including children and international accompanies, gathered in a meeting space in the rural zone of Santander de Quilichao municipality, about an hour south of Cali. At 5:30 on Saturday—broad daylight—four unknown men showed up. Carlos Rosero told El Espectador that the leaders were in the rear of their building when they heard “a shootout,” and all threw themselves to the floor. Three of the unknown men began firing and throwing at least one grenade. Two of the leaders’ government-provided bodyguards were wounded.

Afterward, two assailants left by motorcycle, and two on foot, on the only road leading back to Santander de Quilichao’s town center. A PCN communiqué notes that there are three police or military road checkpoints nearby, one about 10 kilometers (6-miles) away.

President Iván Duque called the attack a “terrorist act” in a tweet, and promised to activate his government’s “Opportune Action Plan” for protecting social leaders. Still, the attack heightens a growing sense that Colombia’s post-peace accord security gains are eroding.

Assassinations of nationally prominent social leaders were brutally frequent in the 1990s and early 2000s, the darkest period of Colombia’s conflict. Government-aligned, landowner and drug trafficker-supported paramilitary groups and hitmen took the lives of human rights lawyers like Hector Abad Gómez, Jesús Maria Valle, and Josué Giraldo; researchers like Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado; academics like Jesús Bejarano and Alfredo Correa de Andreis; and satirists like Jaime Garzón, among dozens of others. But this hasn’t happened to nationally prominent activists in a while.

The May 4 attack may be a sign of trouble to come. The ELN, guerrilla dissidents, neo-paramilitary groups, and organized crime structures are all growing, as documented in a report issued last week by the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation. And according to 57 observers around the country interviewed by Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative journalism site, “there are more allegations of abuses by the security forces, including extrajudicial executions,” since Iván Duque took office last August.

How can Colombia stop the deterioration? The recommendation is not a new one: find out who ordered, planned, and paid for attacks like Saturday’s vicious assault in Cauca, and bring them swiftly to justice while respecting due process. As long as there’s little probability of that happening, brazen acts like this one may proliferate—and Colombians’ repeated claims that “this is a much different country than it was 20 years ago” will ring hollow.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

From Verdad Abierta (Colombia).

(Even more here)

May 6, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Thousands of migrants have died crossing the desert in Arizona. The U.S. government is prosecuting activists who try to save lives and recover bodies

Morgan had been the top official at Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration, but has been outspoken in favor of Trump’s signature proposal for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border

The measures that could actually deter migration are less bruising and physically obvious, veering off instead into a world that is legal, technical and bureaucratic — and could take months or years to show results


Esta líder social afrodescendiente, ganadora del premio ambiental Goldman, fue víctima este sábado de un atentado del que salió ilesa, pero que ratifica una vez más la fragilidad en la que se encuentra su vida

Lideres sociales y defensores de derechos humanos que hacen partes de la La Asociación de Consejos Comunitarios del Norte del Cauca, ACONC, se encontraban en una reunión comunitaria. El ataque, según Márquez, habría durado unos 15 minutos

  • Antonio Caballero, Extradicion (Semana (Colombia), May 6, 2019).

A la DEA no le interesa castigar a los grandes narcos, que son sus cómplices. Pero sí le interesa castigar a los guerrilleros, por comunistas

Cuarenta y siete voceros de comunidades que hacen parte del PDET Alto Patía y Norte del Cauca han sido asesinados desde 2016 en los 17 municipios que lo componen

El pasado 26 de abril se envió un documento al Ministerio del Interior advirtiendo que había cuatro alertas tempranas vigentes en Cauca, en donde desconocidos armados atentaron contra vario líderes sociales el sábado, entre ellos Francia Márquez

Las 57 fuentes con las que hablamos coincidieron en que desde la entrada del Gobierno de Duque se están presentando más denuncias contra fuerzas militares y policiales


From 2018 through early 2019, The New York Times followed the young men of Casa Blanca in this tiny corner of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the deadliest cities in the world, and witnessed firsthand as they tried to keep the gangs at bay


It is a doubt fed by a chronic lack of confidence in the Mexican government’s ability — or willingness — to bring the nation’s increasingly sophisticated criminal groups to their knees

Cuba, Mexico

More than 600 Cubans fled the center in late April, and Mexico flew 170 Cubans home last week

Colombia, Venezuela

National Liberation Army fighters were instructed in how to use the Russian-manufactured IGLA surface-to-air missile system, according to General Luis Navarro, Colombia’s top-ranking soldier


Under the plan, the country’s top court, the Supreme Justice Tribunal, was to recognize the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the last democratically elected body in Venezuela, as the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people

One clue to the military officers’ apparent reluctance to join any U.S.-backed plot may be found in the story of their past, failed dealings with senior American officials

Despite clarion calls for Venezuelan ‘freedom’ the US has resisted offering Temporary Protected Status to those fearing persecution

“Dear friend, ambassador John Bolton, thank you for all the help you have given to the just cause here. Thank you for the option, we will evaluate it, and will probably consider it in parliament to solve this crisis. If it’s necessary, maybe we will approve it”

Pompeo’s evasion of a direct question about the role of Congress — which is the body empowered to declare war under the Constitution — could strike a nerve with several Republicans

The day ahead: May 6, 2019

I’ll be reachable in the late afternoon. (How to contact me)

This is my last week in Washington for a while, I’ve got four different work-related trips between next Monday and May 27.

Today I’m at home in the morning while the gas company tears up our front yard to put in a new line. (“Buy a house” they said. “You can be your own landlord” they said.) I’ll be writing and researching when not calling in to WOLA’s weekly staff meeting.

Then, around noon, I’m off to the University of Maryland for a final meeting with the grad students I’ve been working with, who will be presenting their findings about Latin American civil-military relations at WOLA at noon Thursday. After that, I’ll be in the office for the remainder of the day.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, May 6

  • 9:30-11:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Is Haiti Back on the Brink? (RSVP required).
  • 10:00-11:30 at the Stimson Center: Growth in Global Arms Transfers and Military Spending (RSVP required).
  • 1:30-2:30 at AEI: The future of US-Colombia relations: A conversation with Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez (RSVP required).

Wednesday, May 8

Thursday, May 9

Friday, May 10

  • 9:15-11:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Prospects for Energy Resource Development in Latin America (RSVP required).
  • 10:00-11:30 at CSIS: The Path Forward in Venezuela: Insights from a New National Poll (RSVP required).
  • 10:30-12:00 at the Wilson Center: Present and Future of Argentina’s Economy: A Conversation with Axel Kicillof (RSVP required).

The day ahead: May 3, 2019

I’ll be reachable for much of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ll be at a Colombia event this morning, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Then a farewell lunch with my spring-semester intern, and a few hours of writing. I may be in the office late in order to pick up my daughter at an evening activity.

WOLA Podcast: Alan García’s legacy in Peru

Here’s a great conversation with two colleagues who really know Peru, about where the country is today after the suicide of a two-time president facing accountability for corruption.

Facing arrest in a corruption scandal, Peru’s two-time president Alan García shot himself to death on April 17. WOLA Senior Fellows Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta Youngers discuss the personal journey of a politician who loomed over Peruvian political life for the past 35 years.

Garcia started out as a leftist, ruled amid some serious human rights crimes and economic crises, and later became a seemingly untouchable power broker—until the Odebrecht corruption investigation.

Burt and Youngers explain Peru’s current judicial drive against corruption, reasons for hope, and the difficulty of predicting anything in Peruvian politics.

The day ahead: May 2, 2019

I’m around in the late morning and late afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m writing at home for a couple of hours, then sitting in on a mid-day event at WOLA. I have an early afternoon meeting with a philanthropic organization, then a couple more hours of writing—there’s a lot to respond to on the border—and an evening dinner with a group of visiting Colombian legislators.

The day ahead: May 1, 2019

I’m hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I’m working at home this morning, as more and more writing projects are in danger of becoming overdue. (It’s nice and quiet here.) I’ll be in the office mid-day, but in the afternoon recording a podcast with colleagues and then heading to Capitol Hill for a meeting with appropriations staff. This means I’m hard to contact today.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Reuters photo at El Tiempo (Colombia). Caption: “Las protestas en Caracas también tuvieron réplica en otras ciudades de Venezuela.”

(Even more here)

April 30, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Benvie and armed men in camouflage then remain on the scene with Border Patrol agents as they begin to process the migrants

At the end of March, the arrangement suddenly changed when the Border Patrol apparently began transferring fewer migrant families to ICE custody and instead began releasing large numbers of migrant families in Yuma

In December 2018, Cruz, Lee and seven other anti-abortion Senators asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cut off all US funding of the Commission, because of its support for women’s reproductive rights

Trump in recent weeks has increasingly mocked asylum seekers as fraudsters trying to game the system by making up stories about their hardships and fears of return to their native lands


The move is an attempt to address one of the most confounding aspects of the surge of Central American migrants — families seeking safe passage using long-standing protections

A esta hora no se sabe a ciencia cierta qué pasará con esa votación, clave para definir las reglas de Juego con las que arranca en firme la JEP y habrá que esperar hasta el miércoles qué sucede


Al carecer de una ley propia, de requisitos definidos de reclutamiento y, por ende, de elementos propios formados y capacitados, su despliegue solo puede llevarse a cabo con militares transferidos

El 25 de julio del año pasado se entregó la solicitud de la segunda alerta para los municipios referidos, donde el delito de desaparición forzada se ha disparado en años recientes y las autoridades no han enfrentado el problema

Migration from Mexico has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years; this year, for the first time ever, Guatemala and Honduras are on pace to surpass it

Yards from their intended destination, after long and dangerous journeys to the border, they find themselves stuck in a de facto system not officially recognized by either the United States or Mexico

The story listed López Obrador’s address. It was in the public domain anyway but the president publicly complained and an onslaught of threats and harassment followed against Reforma’s editor


Colectivos run entire apartment blocks and neighborhoods as criminal empires

The appearance of Mr. Guaidó and Mr. López, with the apparent support of some national guards officers, prompted immediate rumors in Caracas that the armed forces could be shifting loyalties

While the highest ranks of the military dig into their support for Mr. Maduro’s government, many rank-and-file soldiers appear willing to defy their commanders and come to the aid of the opposition

Bolton named three senior officials who he said had been negotiating with the opposition and accepted that the president had to be replaced

Erik Prince – the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater and a prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump – has been pushing a plan to deploy a private army to help topple Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro

Not everyone in public office here has been so openly itchy for injecting U.S. troops into the troubled nation’s constitutional crisis

The day ahead: April 30, 2019

I’ll be hard to contact today. (How to contact me)

I’m in an all-day staff training at WOLA. The family are out of town for 2 days, though, so I hope to get some writing and research done at home tonight.

Big JEP vote today in Colombia’s Senate

(Cross-posted from WOLA’s blog)

On March 11 Colombian President Iván Duque threw the country’s peace process into semi-paralysis. He formally “objected” to parts of the law underlying the transitional justice system that the accords had set up for judging ex-combatants’ human rights crimes. The “objections,” essentially a line-item veto, sent back to Colombia’s Congress a law that originally passed in November 2017. Today, Colombia’s Senate is to vote on the objections, a major milestone in this labyrinthine process.

Without an underlying “Statutory Law,” the transitional-justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), can function but is badly hobbled. The JEP is a special tribunal, developed after 19 months of contentious negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Havana, to judge those on both sides who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. In exchange for full confessions and reparations to victims, the JEP sentences war criminals to up to eight years of “restricted liberty,” not quite prison. This was enough to convince 13,000 FARC guerrillas to demobilize, making the JEP the backbone of the 2016 peace accord. But the perception of leniency has made it unpopular and vulnerable to political attack.

For the 11,000 ex-guerrillas and 1,950 military personnel who have signed up to be tried in the JEP, President Duque’s “objections” cause more delay and more uncertainty. And more uncertainty—even the possibility that the JEP Statutory Law could collapse—raises concern among ex-combatants that they could be imprisoned or even extradited to the United States. That possibility could cause hundreds, or even thousands, of ex-combatants to take up arms again. This is serious.

What happened?

For readers coming to this story late, a bit of chronology is in order.

  • The government-FARC peace accord went into effect on December 1, 2016. That set in motion a 12-month countdown in which Colombia’s Congress had “fast track” authority to quickly pass legislation needed to implement the accord. Just before the “fast track” deadline, at the very end of November 2017, Congress finally passed the Statutory Law for the JEP. Legislators added some problematic provisions, but at least the JEP had a legal underpinning.
  • The law then passed to Colombia’s highest judicial review body, the Constitutional Court, to assess its constitutionality. In August 2018, the Court signed off on most of the law. In December 2018, the Constitutional Court published its 980-page decision.
  • That set off a three-month countdown for President Duque, who took office in August 2018, to sign the bill into law. Just before that deadline, on March 11, Duque sent the Statutory Law back to Congress with objections to six of its 159 articles. They mainly had to do with reparations, the definition of “maximum responsible” war criminals, and extradition procedures.

Duque’s objections drew an outcry from peace accord supporters, both within Colombia and in the international community. Opposition legislators, led by former government peace negotiator Juanita Goebertus, used a newly won “right of rebuttal” to broadcast a video laying out the dangers posed by Duque’s move.

The only international government to support Duque’s actions was the Trump administration, in the person of Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, who went on national radio and met with members of Congress to argue for the objections that would ease extradition to the United States.

What happens now?

The JEP Statutory Law went to Colombia’s Congress, which is charged with voting to accept or reject President Duque’s objections. Colombia’s House and Senate vote separately. As we understand it, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. If both houses of Congress uphold Duque’s objections, they go back to the Constitutional Court for review. That Court already approved the law’s provisions after exhaustive review in 2018, so it would be likely to overturn the objections again.
  2. If both houses reject the objections, Duque must sign the bill into law as is, which would be a huge political defeat for him.
  3. If the two houses of Congress split, it’s not clear what might happen, as this situation has never come up under Colombia’s 1991 constitution. Probably, the six objections would be “archived,” and the law would go to the Court’s review without them. But it’s possible that the whole JEP law could get “archived,” or shut down, which would be disastrous. The Constitutional Court will have to decide.

On April 8, Colombia’s House of Representatives dealt President Duque a blistering defeat, voting 110-44 against his objections, with moderate and centrist parties joining the left. (This owed partly to concern about torpedoing the peace process, and partly to an unwillingness to hand Duque’s party a big political victory six months before nationwide gubernatorial and mayoral elections.) That eliminated option 1 above.

It is now up to the Senate to decide whether option 2 or option 3 will prevail. The vote will probably be closer there, not least because a senator from Duque’s party currently holds the body’s presidency. Analyses in Colombia’s media, though, indicate a majority of senators is likely to reject Duque’s objections, which would preserve the Statutory Law as is and deal an embarrassing blow to Iván Duque.

Duque’s supporters know this, and they have used gambits and delaying tactics to delay the Senate vote. Opposition observers worry that the governing party has been using the extra time making promises of patronage, like party positions in ministries, in order to turn the votes of enough moderate senators to gain a majority.

The vote is scheduled for today, Monday, April 29. Unless there are further delays, by Tuesday we should know whether President Duque’s objections have succeeded in keeping the JEP, and the peace process, in a state of semi-paralysis. This is an important vote.

The day ahead: April 29, 2019

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I’ve got a few internal WOLA meetings scattered through the day, a call with a congressional office, and a Colombia event to moderate at WOLA this evening. I’ll be sort of reachable in the late afternoon, but working head-down in the office to get some writing done.

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