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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The day ahead: June 6, 2019

I’m in meetings until late afternoon. (How to contact me)

After a day at home writing, I’m back in the working world today. A meeting with congressional staff, lunch with a new intern, interviewing a candidate for a senior position at WOLA, and a meeting at USAID. I should be back in the office near the end of the day.

Graphics: border numbers through May

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just released new border migration numbers through May. Border Patrol apprehended more migrants in May 2019 than in any month since March 2006 (monthly data here).But back then, something like 95% of migrants were single adults. In May, only 27% were single adults.

In what is becoming a monthly ritual, here are the numbers in graphical form. You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

Two-thirds of migrants apprehended this year are kids or parents. That is unprecedented, and was absolutely unimaginable only a few years ago.
In May, 73 percent of all migrants apprehended at the border were children or parents. Nearly three out of four.
Apprehensions of single adults are up, but not even as high as they were in 2014 and earlier years. Child and family migration accounts for nearly all of the current increase.
It’s not just the United States. #Mexico is on the way to another vertiginous increase in asylum-seekers this year. In 5 months, Mexico has almost equaled its 2018 applicants figure, which was a huge increase at the time.
Assuming maybe 8,000 single adults, about 1 out of every 205 people in Honduras was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in May alone. Honduras saw the biggest child and parent apprehensions increase over October-May ’18: 433%.
About 1 in 350 Guatemalans was apprehended at the border in May. Guatemala is the number-one nationality of migrants apprehended at the border. Followed by Honduras, and then Mexico—the actual bordering country.
El Salvador is in third place in border apprehensions among the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries, but its growth rate is not far behind Honduras.
Border apprehensions of children and families from outside the Northern Triangle and Mexico are also way up. Are they Cuban? Venezuelan? Nicaraguan? From Asia or Africa? Probably all of the above, but CBP doesn’t report other nationalities monthly.
Look at this increase in Cubans arriving at border ports of entry. The January 2017 drop was the Obama administration’s revocation of the “wet foot dry foot” policy granting admittance to any Cuban who could touch U.S. soil. Numbers are recovering fast.
At ports of entry, CBP’s “metering” practice continues to restrict, severely, the number of people who can ask for asylum. All of the growth in child-family migration is happening between ports of entry. This means smugglers get more money, and Border Patrol gets nearly all processing duty.
Here’s the above “metering” graph, zoomed in and just showing kids and families. They’re about 4,500 per month, rarely over.

Finally, some charts showing border drug seizures through May. Note how nearly all drugs are overwhelmingly seized at the official land ports of entry. The action is not in the areas between the ports, where Border Patrol operates.

Border marijuana seizures have dropped precipitously since several US states legalized/regulated cannabis.

You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

June 5, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Command officials are in the midst of an investigation into claims an active-duty Marine fired his sidearm after a physical confrontation with three unknown individuals during a surveillance operation near the El Centro Border Patrol station

Defense Department spokesman Major Chris Mitchell said that HHS would soon be touring Fort Benning with defense officials

Across most of Latin America a higher proportion of women than men are awaiting trial behind bars


The world’s greatest rainforest – which is a vital provider of oxygen and carbon sequestration – lost 739sq km during the 31 days, equivalent to two football pitches every minute

Colombia, Venezuela

A voluntary program called Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP) would allow them to live and work legally in the country. Another option offers the defectors a three-month stipend to help get them on their feet

Every day, hundreds of Venezuelans cross the Arauca river into Colombia in search of a better life — but first, they must run a gauntlet of rebels, drug runners and land mines


At least 23 of the cases under scrutiny date back to the period when the general was second-in-command of the 10 Brigade

We urge the Colombian government to cease inciting violence against demobilised individuals of the FARC-EP and to meet the guarantees that were made to them during the negotiations in Havana

Since WOLA’s last update on April 29, at least a dozen more Colombian activists or members of vulnerable Afro-Colombian, indigenous and rural communities were murdered


The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular forms of U.S. travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel

The move is likely to have a major economic impact in Cuba, whose economy is already reeling from decreased economic aid from Havana’s main ally, Venezuela


El Secretario de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana resaltó que este gasto implica el paso de los elementos de las Fuerzas Armadas y la Policía Federal a la nueva corporación

Imposition of tariffs on all Mexican goods requires a legal justification, and administration officials say the existing emergency declaration could provide the basis for that, although it’s also possible Trump would declare a new emergency

59 por ciento cree que México debería considerar dejar a Estados Unidos y buscar otros socios comerciales, como China

Defensores de derechos humanos consideraron “preocupante” y “desalentador” que el jefe del Ejecutivo se negara a escuchar lo que la Comisión tiene que decirle sobre la situación de los derechos humanos

Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security have said they want Mexico to strengthen security on its border with Guatemala and intensify its investigation of smuggling rings that transport most migrants across Mexican territory


Venezuela has overtaken China to become the No. 1 country of origin for those claiming asylum in the U.S. upon arrival or shortly after, with nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applying for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2018

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? New analysis at WOLA’s website

Here’s a short analysis posted to WOLA’s website (Español). It jumps off from last Friday’s Washington Post finding that dozens of CBP and ICE officers may be sent to Guatemala to work as “advisors” at the country’s border with Mexico.

The piece is built around a listing of Homeland Security and Defense Department deployments to Guatemala in recent years, collected from my database. Those have had names like “Operation Citadel,” “Operation Regional Shield,” “Operation Hornet,” “Operation Together Forward,” and several others.

The point is that even if the past deployments brought some results, they made no difference in migrant and drug-smuggling out of Guatemala. And nor will any new 80-person mission.

They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. 

Read the whole thing here (Español).

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ben K. Navratil / U.S. Army photo at Stars and Stripes. Caption: “A team of soldiers with 610th Engineer Support Company attach a string of concertina wire to the border fence at San Luis, Ariz., on March 14, 2019.”

(Even more here)

June 4, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

The military, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI are investigating circumstances surrounding the death, though foul play is not suspected

The decision is at odds with a May 24 ruling by a federal judge in California that temporarily blocked part of the plan because it was using money Congress never appropriated for that purpose

No More Deaths, founded in 2004, generally has operated without penalties, but its relations with the Border Patrol have not always been smooth

CBP said in a statement later Monday that the woman collapsed about 25 minutes after being apprehended, and that agents “quickly initiated emergency medical care.”

Brazil, Venezuela

In the past 12 months, the government spent more than $67 million from state funds to support military activities associated with Operation Shelter (Operação Acolhida) in the state of Roraima

Colombia, Venezuela

Esta es la historia de cómo las autoridades descubrieron una organización señalada de traficar armas de Venezuela para los combos de Medellín. Cinco detenidos se declararon inocentes

Al término del encuentro, Lavrov reconoció que había hablado con su colega colombiano sobre posibles nuevos suministros de equipos militares


Pese a los tropiezos jurídicos y los incumplimientos en torno a los acuerdos del proceso de paz, la mayoría de los excombatientes se mantienen en su promesa de abandonar las armas y apostarle a la reincorporación a la vida civil

Across rural Colombia, six out of 10 plots of land do not have a formal title or are not registered, according to USAID

Según las denuncias de la comunidad, el Escuadron Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD, agredió indiscriminadamente a los manifestantes, dejando un número indeterminado de afectaciones


Honduras’ most powerful drug trafficking organization, Los Cachiros, bribed the country’s former president and opened a line of communication to current President Juan Orlando Hernández, documents recently unsealed in a New York federal court show


On a given day, three of San Diego’s seven judges generally have afternoons full of MPP cases. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 82 people were scheduled to appear before three judges

According to the raftsmen, the recent crackdown by the Mexican authorities has not affected their illegal traffic

Hemos recibido 24,541 solicitudes de refugio, así como 8,835 migrantes retornados de Estados Unidos que realizan su proceso migratorio ante tribunales estadounidenses mientras aguardan en territorio mexicano

Each fissure redraws the front lines, ushering in fresh spates of killings. And each split carries the conflict deeper into society


Recently concluded talks in Norway and separate discussions between Europe and both sides of the Venezuelan divide have effectively pushed the U.S. to the margins

Peskov said he had no idea what Trump’s tweet was referring to

There is speculation in Washington that sealed indictments of members of Mr. Maduro’s inner circle already exist and that the Justice Department is waiting for the right moment to release them

Some articles I found interesting this morning

AFP/Getty Images photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “This image released by U.S. Border and Custom Protection [sic.] shows a group of migrants apprehended after crossing the border from Mexico on Wednesday.”

(Even more here)

June 3, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

From 2009 to 2014, at least 214 complaints were filed against federal agents for abusing or mistreating migrant children. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s records, only one employee was disciplined

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sent a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security complaining about the treatment of gay and transgender detainees at the Otero County Processing Center


Su triunfo momentáneo dejó a la rama judicial –con excepción de la Fiscalía– en posición contraria al Gobierno, que reaccionó ante la libertad del exguerrillero en forma categórica

SEMANA fue hasta el lugar en el que un cabo del Ejército asesinó a este desmovilizado, que se había acogido al proceso de paz. Lo quiso hacer pasar por guerrillero del ELN, como en las más cruentas épocas de los falsos positivos

Desde diciembre de 2018 hasta la semana pasada 13 precandidatos han sido atacados, amenazados o asesinados en la región, lo que la confirma como una de las regiones más peligrosas en época electoral

El Salvador

Un viejo reclamo de las víctimas de la Guerra Civil en El Salvador fue finalmente escuchado

Horas después, sin embargo, tomó una decisión que el gobierno anterior evadió por 10 años: ordenó a la Fuerza Armada que retire honores a Domingo Monterrosa, señalado como responsable de la masacre en El Mozote


En 2013, cuando la Cicig anunció que investigaría el financiamiento ilícito de las campañas políticas, pocos imaginaban que en 2019 tantos candidatos o funcionarios serían vinculados al narcotráfico. Sin embargo, el nexo crimen organizado/política, por medio de las Redes Político Económicas Ilícitas, cumple al menos medio siglo


En 122 días que van del año 2019 se ha producido una masacre cada 3.9 días, lo que demuestra que los “asesinatos múltiples”, como les llama el gobierno, van en galopante aumento


It’s the first time since 1997 that a Mexican leader has had such a broad mandate

There has also been some expert trolling

La carta enviada a Trump por López Obrador contrasta con lo que sucede en la frontera sur de México, donde ONG denuncian hostigamiento de las autoridades migratorias para detener y deportar personas sin documentos

“So, there’s no specific target, there’s no specific percentage, but things have to get better,” Mulvaney said. “They have to get dramatically better and they have to get better quickly”

He emphasized that Mexico’s main proposal to stop migration is to invest in Central America and that its immigration policy was bound by international treaties on migration, Mexico’s constitution “and its own dignity”


The country has been caught in a seesawing conflict between two Presidents—one spuriously elected but backed by the armed forces, the other self-proclaimed but endorsed by much of the Western world

Russian state defense contractor Rostec, which has trained Venezuelan troops and advised on securing arms contracts, has cut its staff in Venezuela to just a few dozen, from about 1,000 at the height of cooperation between Moscow and Caracas several years ago

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Monday, June 3

  • 3:30–5:00 at WOLA: New Research on Human Rights Trials in Latin America (RSVP required).

Tuesday, June 4

  • 10:00–11:00 at Brookings: How security cooperation advances US interests (RSVP required).
  • 1:00–2:30 at the Wilson Center: Trump, Tariffs, and U.S.-Mexico Relations: Finding a Path Forward (RSVP required).

Wednesday, June 5

The day ahead: June 3, 2019

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

I have a weekly staff meeting that promises to run long this morning, and a meeting with colleagues to plan a southern Mexico research trip for August. Otherwise I’ll be around, writing, every moment I get.

Colombia’s return to the discredited “body count” strategy

Image of the form described in the caption.

Leer en español

A May 18 New York Times article revealed an alarming shift in how Colombia’s army, under leadership that took over last December, is measuring “success” in its operations.

The article got a lot of attention because of the human rights angle, especially the possibility of a return to “false positive” extrajudicial killings. And indeed, in the runup to the Times piece, Colombian media outlets had begun relaying reports of military personnel being more aggressive with civilians.

But the danger, and the counterproductivity, of this new policy go beyond human rights. The changes at the top indicate a return to “body counts” as the Colombian military’s main measure of success.

That’s a failed and discredited approach, which most of us thought had long been buried. But the right-wing government of President Iván Duque has dug it up. With a new cohort of commanders who rose during the “false positives” period, the old ways have come roaring back. Times reporter Nick Casey relayed what he heard from military officers who came forward to voice concern:

[A] major shift took place, they say, when [Army Commander] General [Nicacio] Martínez called a meeting of his top officers in January, a month after assuming command of the army.

… After a break, the commanders returned to tables where they found a form waiting for each one of them, the officers said. The form had the title “Goal Setting 2019” at the top and a place for each commander to sign at the bottom.

The form asked commanders to list the “arithmetic sum of surrenders, captures and deaths” of various armed groups for the previous year in one column, and then provide a goal for the following year.

Some of the commanders seemed confused — until they were instructed to double their numbers this year, the officers said.

In the post-peace accord period, Colombia’s military has identified several internal enemies as national security threats: the ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, the “Gulf Clan” paramilitary network, and smaller, regional groups. Together, they total over 10,000 fighters, plus support networks.

But when Colombia’s forces take out a leader, kill several fighters in combat, or convince some to demobilize, nothing really happens. The territories where these groups operate continue to be ungoverned.

Roads are scarce, and paved roads are unheard of. So are land titles. There is probably no connection to the electrical grid. Post-primary schools are distant. Residents report going months or years without seeing a non-uniformed representative of national or local government. The idea of going to the judicial system to resolve a dispute is beyond laughable: many municipalities (counties) have neither judges nor prosecutors.

In that environment, a military unit that comes in seeking high body counts comes away with two results. First, a terrorized population whose distrust of government is greater than before. And second, new armed groups—or other elements of the same armed groups—filling in the vacuum and taking over the territory’s illicit economy. Within weeks, a new commander, a new group or groups, or several warring factions are profiting the same as before from drug production and transshipment, illegal mining, fuel trafficking, extortion, and other income streams. A high “body count” changes little on the ground.

Militaries have known this for a while. For situations like rural Colombia’s, they’ve discarded “body counts” some time ago, and developed a whole field called “stability operations.” Here’s what the U.S. Army’s Stability Operations manual says about how security forces should measure “success”:

Throughout U.S. history, the Army has learned that military force alone cannot secure sustainable peace. A comprehensive approach is required, as well as in-depth understanding of an operational environment. Stability ultimately aims to establish conditions the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stabilization is a process in which personnel identify and mitigate underlying sources of instability to establish the conditions for long-term stability. Therefore, stability tasks focus on identifying and targeting the root causes of instability and building the capacity of local institutions.

Instead of asking “how many enemies did we take out,” then, the question is more like “can the government do what a government is supposed to do in the territory, and does the population feel that this is a good thing that is making their lives better?”

For too long, Colombia’s military measured its success with body counts. This culminated, most tragically, in the “false positives” scandal that broke in 2008. It turned out that soldiers, seeking to earn rewards and be viewed as successful in a “body count” climate, ended up killing thousands of innocent civilians, at times buying the cadavers from paramilitaries and criminals.

The measures of success started changing in the late ‘00s, near the end of then-President Álvaro Uribe’s second term. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Vice-Minister Sergio Jaramillo, working with David Petraeus-era U.S. military officers who’d been burned by the failures of the Iraq war, moved toward the second way of measuring success. They developed “territorial consolidation” metrics based on violence indicators, government presence, and the population’s access to basic goods. “Consolidation of territorial control,” read a 2007 Defense Ministry document,

shall be understood as a scenario in which the security provided by the security forces guarantees that the state may make public order prevail, and allow all institutions to function freely and permanently, so that citizens may fully exercise their rights.

They didn’t quite succeed at that: after some notable initial gains, the “Consolidation” effort petered out by 2013 or so for lack of political support, and the civilian part of the government usually failed to show up behind the soldiers. Still, as president, Santos named armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía, who developed a new military doctrine putting many of these new success measures at its core, including in the Army’s 2017 “stabilization” manual:

The objective of stability is to reduce the level of violence; toward that goal the military forces carry out operations mainly characterized by supporting the functioning of government, economic, and social institutions, and general adherence to local law as, rules, and norms of behavior.

Then, together with Jaramillo as peace commissioner, Santos negotiated a peace accord committing the government, once again, to try to “enter” the countryside, often for the first time. This comes through most strongly in the 2016 FARC peace accords’ first chapter on “rural reform.”

[N]ational plans financed and promoted by the state must be set up with a view to achieving the comprehensive rural development that will provide public services and goods, such as for education, health, recreation, infrastructure, technical assistance, food and nutrition, inter alia, which promote well-being and a dignified way of life for the rural population – girls, boys, men and women.

A military commander seeking success metrics like these would be measuring miles of road paved, children able to attend school, hectares of land titled, and poll data showing perceptions that the government has become more responsive and accountable. The commander would NOT be asked to fill in forms indicating how many fighters the unit would kill or otherwise “neutralize” in the coming year.

It’s not at all clear why Colombia’s Defense Ministry would want to take such a big step backward. A partial explanation could be Colombia now having a right-populist government that, because it represents large landholders’ interests, doesn’t place a priority on reforming rural areas. Perhaps, too, the Colombian military’s Southern Command counterparts have stopped communicating the “stability operations” vision, as the U.S. Defense Department’s current strategy now emphasizes great-power conflict over “small wars.”

But that’s not enough to explain this misstep. It could be something much simpler. Maybe the new high command just lacks imagination, and wants to go back to doing what they know—whether it works or not.

The day ahead: May 31, 2019

I’m off today. (How to contact me)

I’m taking the day off, the first one in weeks after a lot of travel. I look forward to catching up on sleep, laundry, and perhaps even this website. I’ll be back at work on Monday.

The day ahead: May 30, 2019

I’m around in the early afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got four meetings on the schedule today—a journalist, an internal management meeting, a former executive-branch official and a new legislative-branch staffer. When not in those meetings—mainly, during lunch hour and just afterward—I’ll be in the office trying to respond to communications that went unanswered, and commitments made, during my two weeks of travel.

In a few more days, I expect to be able to start updating this site more regularly. But not today.

The day ahead: May 28, 2019

I’m around in the early afternoon. (How to contact me)

After 15 days in Colombia, at an off-site office retreat, in Mexico City, and in Boston, I’m back in Washington. Got home at 9:00 last night, missing the holiday weekend. Today, I’m in the office with a staff meeting, a dentist appointment, and 322 e-mails to go through. It may take a day or two to get caught up.

It’s possible that 15% of the FARC have re-armed

From La Silla Vacía (Colombia).

Note as of June 5: Kyle Johnson at the International Crisis Group reminds me that several hundred of the FARC dissidents never demobilized in the first place: they “went dissident” even before the peace accord was signed. So although this is all very inexact, my estimate here should probably be closer to 10 percent of demobilized FARC who have rearmed.

Leer en español

A very good New York Times analysis by Nick Casey, which ran on May 17, looked at the Colombian government’s failures to honor commitments made in the 2016 FARC peace accord. It included this troubling finding:

Experts estimate that as many as 3,000 militants have taken up arms again — a figure equal to more than 40 percent of those who initially demobilized. It includes new recruits.

That’s correct, as written. However, more than one reader probably saw that and came away with the notion that “40% of the FARC have already rearmed.”

Some rearmament happens after nearly all peace accords, as dissident or residual groups form. But a recidivism rate of 40 percent would be disastrous. It would make it very hard to defend the notion that the government should honor its accord commitments.

Colombia’s past demobilizations saw much recidivism—but not 40 percent. Between 2002 and 2013, about 55,000 guerrillas and paramilitaries demobilized. About 20 percent went on to commit crimes, according to the official estimate.

How does the FARC process compare so far?

  • Let’s accept that figure of 3,000 members of FARC dissident groups, large and small, scattered around the country. That sounds right, even though the commander of Colombia’s army reported 2,000 members in March. The dissidences are growing fast, attracting some disillusioned fighters and recruiting from a large pool of underemployed rural youth.
  • Let’s say that 2,000 of them were once FARC members who demobilized. I think this estimate is a bit high, but we have no way to know: it’s impossible to do a survey of dissident fighters.
  • 6,804 FARC fighters reported to demobilization sites in 2017, where they turned in a larger number of weapons to a UN mission, and remained for several months.
  • But that is not the entire universe of demobilized FARC fighters. One must add FARC members who were released from prison, and FARC militia members: part time, mostly urban guerrillas who had only to report to the demobilization zones for a few days.
  • That yields an entire universe of 13,061 former FARC members, the number that had been accredited by Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace as of late March, according to the UN Verification Mission.

2,000 recidivist fighters out of a universe of 13,061 would be 15 percent of all who demobilized. That’s bad, but not unusually high for a peace process, especially one in which the accord has been implemented so slowly and partially.

Because of that slow, partial implementation, and the evident lack of political support the accord has from Colombia’s current government, this percentage is bound to get worse. Every day right now, ex-guerrillas, tired of uncertainty and poor economic prospects, may be accepting the dissidents’ offers.

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