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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5 links

5 links from the past week

  • I haven’t gotten through all of this yet, but a coalition of media outlets from 14 countries, from Mexico to Colombia to Cameroon to Nepal, has put together a remarkable series of multimedia reports about migrants from far corners of the world transiting Latin America en route to the United States. It’s called Migrants from Another World, it’s bilingual, and I command you to visit it.
  • El Salvador’s El Faro visited the dangerous border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where thousands of asylum-seeking migrants remain trapped, vulnerable to crime and disease, unable to make their case on the U.S. side of the border. It’s poignant to read this through the eyes of a Central American reporter, as most of those trapped in Matamoros are Central American.
  • Researchers at the University of Texas’s Strauss Center dug through 30 years of data and found that more migrants have died in the state (3,253 in 22 years), mostly of dehydration, exposure, or drowning, than Border Patrol counts in the entire four-state border region.
    – Also on migration, and given honorable mention here because it’s audio, not text: National Public Radio’s Latino USA program created a 2-part series about the Trump administration’s crackdown on people seeking protection in the United States. Part one of The Moving Border reports from the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juárez; part two reports from the Mexico-Guatemala border in Tapachula.
  • The Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA published an infuriating report about persecution and harassment of civil society during the first two months of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. It’s in English and Spanish.
  • Somos Defensores, the coalition of Colombian groups that performs careful documentation of attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders, published its annual report covering 2019. It found a decrease in murders of social leaders in 2019—though not as deep a reduction as the government claims—but an increase in other forms of attack and intimidation. One suspects, tragically, that the organization’s 2020 interim reports will show a renewed increase in murders.

5 links from the past week

  • A team of reporters at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project looks at the state of the global cocaine trade during the coronavirus lockdown. They find an uneven picture: some big disruptions, but “a frenetic pace” of trafficking in many places.
  • At InsightCrime, Héctor Silva Ávalos, Ángela Olaya, and Seth Robbins document the sloppy official cover-up of the murder of Sherill Hernández, the head of a police anti-corruption unit. It “fits into a pattern in Honduras in which high-profile death inquiries are slow-walked, riddled with errors and then dismissed without much explanation.” The article points to serious trouble within the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (ATIC), a unit that has received a lot of U.S. aid.
  • The New York Times digs into some of the data and finds that police in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil—never models for proper use of force—are committing an orgy of violence against civilians right now in those cities’ favelas, with a green light from authorities. Amazing photos from Dado Galdieri.
  • My WOLA colleagues David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey have immersed themselves in the literature on negotiation, and apply it to Venezuela in a piece for the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. “Negotiations between the United States, Russia, China, and Cuba are probably the only way to make progress in Venezuela,” they conclude, but with the Trump administration in power, “it is difficult to imagine this happening in the near future.”
  • Rachel Schmidtke and Yael Schacher of Refugees International, and Ariana Sawyer of Human Rights Watch, have done a lot of fieldwork in Guatemala documenting implementation of a so-called “safe third country” or “asylum cooperation” agreement. Between November and March, U.S. authorities shipped to Guatemala 939 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers who had been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, instructing them to go ask for asylum in Guatemala’s system. This report offers a very grim look at what happened to them afterward.

5 links from the past week

  • In a report titled, in Spanish, “They Call Us the Crazy Women With the Shovels,” the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center shines a light on Mexico’s forced disappearance crisis by telling the stories of nine mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters searching for their loved ones.
  • Colombia is still contending with revelations that Army intelligence has been spying and building detailed dossiers on reporters, judges, politicians, human rights defenders, and other law-abiding civilians. La Silla Vacía bravely profiles some of the generals and colonels involved in the scandal, and what their involvement probably looked like.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree this week giving the military a leading role in policing for the remainder of his government (through 2024). SinEmbargo looks at some of the things that the vaguely worded decree now allows the armed forces to do, with unclear civilian supervision.
  • A detailed report by Human Rights First offers the best current overview of how the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, including blanket expulsions of asylum-seeking Mexicans and Central Americans—including unaccompanied children, is worsening the humanitarian situation along the border.
  • At The New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer points out two vectors by which the Trump administration’s immigration hard line is spreading the coronavirus right now: via deportations and in ICE detention centers. Guatemala’s health minister tells Blitzer that the United States has become “the Wuhan of the Americas.” An unnamed U.S. official tells him, “The White House doesn’t have time for Guatemala’s bullsh*t. Deportations must continue.”

5 links from the past week

  • In Colombia, the newsmagazine Semana has had a series of scoops about illegal activity in the powerful Army’s intelligence apparatus. The latest reveals bits of 130 files that Army spies have been keeping on people who pose no threat at all to Colombia: reporters (including U.S. reporters), politicians, human rights defenders, and even other members of the military and government. (I posted an English explanation of the scandals this week.)
  • AP’s Josh Goodman first reported on a group of mercenaries’ clumsy, underfunded, improvised plan to infiltrate Venezuela and capture Nicolás Maduro. Days later at The Washington Post, Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung, and Ana Vanessa Herrero dig into the story leading up to the failure, with lots of atmospherics and more information about main characters like Special Forces vet Jordan Goudreau and J.J. Rendón, an ethically challenged strategist who electoral campaigns around the region have hired for years.
  • Struggling towns like Natchez, Mississippi and Lumpkin, Georgia have come to depend economically on ICE detention centers run by for-profit corporations. Politico visits these towns and raises concerns about what could happen if (when) coronavirus cases multiply inside the facilities.
  • In Guerrero—long one of Mexico’s poorest and most violent states—criminal groups are fragmenting, “self-defense” groups are confederating, and “the line separating state and armed groups is thin to non-existent,” explains a report by the International Crisis Group.
  • Colombia’s El Espectador published a special report on the embattled region of Catatumbo, in the northeast near the Venezuelan border. While it focuses on the struggle of the region’s social leaders, the report also includes some remarkably detailed maps of armed actors, coca, fuel theft, threats and attacks, and “tensions with the security forces” in 10 of the region’s municipalities.

5 links from the past week

  • Congressional Research Service posted a new update to its report on Mexican politics and U.S.-Mexican relations. A masterful overview by longtime researcher Clare Ribando Seelke. (Also recommended: CRS’s report on Honduras, also updated this week. Both reports are excellent sources of U.S. aid numbers.)
  • Spain’s El País published a series of essays about how COVID-19 is affecting Latin America, with contributions from noted reporters in El Salvador, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Nicaragua, Mexico, and at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s anchored by a great piece by Alma Guillermoprieto.
  • At El Faro, Carlos Martínez, Óscar Martínez, and Efren Lemus try to get at the reasons why gang-related homicides jumped in El Salvador in late April after spending much of the Bukele government’s months in office near longtime lows. It’s apparent that the gangs, especially MS-13, can turn violence on and off like a switch. It’s likely that they’re contesting control of the streets with the armed forces during the COVID lockdown.
  • At Animal Político, Cecilia Farfán of USCD’s U.S.-Mexico Center reflects on underlying causes of Mexico’s persistently high violent crime. She suggests looking beyond “illegality versus illegality” or “social fabric” narratives, going more local to look at the semi-legal origins of the barrios currently suffering the worst violence.
  • Marta Ruiz, a veteran investigative journalist at Semana magazine who is now a commissioner on Colombia’s Truth Commission, “reflects from quarantine” on the country (and world) that may emerge after the current crisis ends.

5 links from the past week

  • Noah Lanard reproduces testimonies from several women and their relatives as he reconstructs a late March episode of vicious cruelty in a corporate-run migrant detention center in Louisiana. Keep Stephen Miller’s smirking face in your mind as you read about these women’s experience in the system, and what happened the day they were locked for an hour in a room full of pepper spray.
  • In a contribution to the multinational Tierra de Resistentes project on environmental defenders, La Liga Contra el Silencio profiles brave indigenous activists resisting big mining projects in southern Córdoba department, one of the most conflictive parts of Colombia right now.
  • A similarly excellent Tierra de Resistentes piece at Contra Corriente does the same for indigenous communities opposing power generation projects in Yoro, Honduras—work that has cost 40 lives in the past 20 years.
  • Verdad Abierta takes you to Colombia’s Naya River valley, a stunningly beautiful wilderness (I visited in 2018) whose Afro-descendant and indigenous communities describe a paradisiacal communitarian past—until about 20 years ago, when it became a trafficking corridor fought over between guerrilla and paramilitary factions.
  • Verdad Abierta also produced a similarly important report from nearby Cauca, the department of Colombia that has seen the most murders of social leaders since the FARC conflict ended in 2016.

5 links from the past week

  • Why does Venezuela’s military remain so loyal to the Maduro regime? Some give credit to a Cuban-managed counter-intelligence capability that sniffs out dissident officers. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a network of investigative journalists, finds another explanation: a cache of internal military documents shows how top commanders benefit from massive corruption. State contracts get channeled through private corporations connected to generals. The report profiles 35 of the generals.
  • The International Crisis Group published a very current situation report on conditions along the Colombia-Venezuela border, where the effects of coronavirus are just starting to be felt.
  • At La Silla Vacía Kyle Johnson, who works for the Kroc Institute’s Colombia team but does a lot of independent writing, recounts a recent visit to rural Tumaco, Nariño, where he meets with the head of a FARC dissident faction, which splintered last November from a dissident faction whose founder was killed in late 2018. The story portrays life in an ungoverned zone along what may be Colombia’s busiest cocaine route, where narcotraffickers have undisputed authority.
  • At The El Paso Times, Lauren Villagrán visits Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s busiest border crossing with Guatemala. There, she talks to Haitian migrants who are adjusting to the idea of settling in Mexico rather than the United States. A common destination is Mexicali, a city bordering southeast California with a growing Haitian population.
  • El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has responded to coronavirus by dramatically curtailing civil liberties, even ignoring unanimous Constitutional Court rulings striking down his edicts. Bukele has ordered Salvadorans to open their homes to warrantless security-force raids. El Faro alarmingly documents soldiers carrying out such raids in a slum on San Salvador’s outskirts.

5 links from the past week

  • Colombia’s Semana investigates how Mexican drug trafficking organizations are altering both the country’s drug trade and its armed conflict. The analysis is spread across five articles published April 9 and 10: an overview; reports from the conflictive Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, and coastal Nariño regions; and an analysis of the changing coca trade by Daniel Rico.
  • At the Christian Science Monitor, Sara Miller Llana writes about the state of democracy in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. As is happening elsewhere in the world, she finds, democracy is threatened by rising authoritarianism and polarization, but resistance remains robust as the hardline President’s poll numbers drop.
  • At Nueva Sociedad, four noted South American analysts take stock of the “South American Geopolitics of Coronavirus,” with updates from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
  • A team of researchers at Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation does something similar, but more detailed, for Colombia, exploring what COVID-19 might mean for the balance between armed and criminal groups; the humanitarian situation; migration and borders; social protest; the security forces; and implementation of the 2016 peace accord.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission published its annual report on the state of human rights in the hemisphere. It’s a bit of a slog to read through—very long, and nobody would call the Commission’s writing style “direct” or “hard-hitting”—but it is deeply thorough and very well researched.

5 links from the past week

  • Writing in the California Sunday Magazine, Nadja Drost reports from coastal Colombia and Panama’s densely jungled Darién Gap, where she finds migrants from Cameroon, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere. This is the most dangerous, and one of the least reported-on, stages of the journey that many “extra-continental” migrants take to the United States.
  • Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime led an investigation that appears as a multi-part narrative about alias “Memo Fantasma,” a Colombian paramilitary drug trafficker who has a low profile, friends in high places, and a remarkable ability to get away with it: he now lives in Spain.
  • The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has published its latest quarterly report on the country’s peace process. Among the many facts and statistics is an especially troubling one: in the first 84 days of 2020, the UN Human Rights office “received 56 complaints regarding killings of social leaders and human rights defenders, 6 of which have been verified.” That’s exactly one reported murder every one and a half days. (The NGO INDEPAZ counts 71 in 87 days.)
  • Víctor Mijares and Alejandro Cardozo Uzcátegui write about civil-military relations in Venezuela, where civilians have gained supremacy over the military through “the disarticulation of the military nucleus by means of de-professionalization, degradation of operative ranks, and politicization of all its spaces.” (The article appears in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, which has generously made its entire current issue available free of charge. Several articles are worth a read, though their authors are overwhelmingly male and they unavoidably offer a snapshot of the pre-COVID-19 reality.)
  • At El Faro, Valeria Guzmán documents what happens after populist President Nayib Bukele offers a $300 handout to 1.5 million of El Salvador’s neediest citizens, who cannot work because of the coronavirus emergency. People end up forced to throng chaotically outside closed offices, in dangerously close quarters, as they wait to get paid.

5 links from the past week

  • If coronavirus wasn’t putting a halt to such things, this week the U.S. government would’ve sent back to Colombia one of the maximum leaders of the AUC paramilitary group, Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited to face drug trafficking charges in 2008. In a detailed piece at Canada’s National Post, Brian Fitzpatrick tells the story of Mancuso, the AUC, and its “Justice and Peace” demobilization process. He also talks to AUC victims exiled in Canada. (Also noteworthy this week: an El Espectador profile of Carlos Mario Jiménez alias “Macaco,” a much-feared AUC leader who the U.S. government sent back to Colombia last July.)
  • The Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s security program published a brilliant overview of security, defense, U.S. policy, great-power influence, multilateralism, globalism, and the crisis of democracy in Latin America, by Argentine-Spanish analyst Mariano Aguirre, former Obama administration defense official Rebecca Bill Chavez, and former Bachelet administration defense official Marcos Robledo. (The paper is dated January 2020, but was just released this week.)
  • In the New York Review of Books, veteran Brazil correspondent Vincent Bevins portrays the country’s politics, economy, and human rights situation just over a year into the Bolsonaro administration—within the context of the archconservative president’s unhinged coronavirus denialism.
  • Another populist president in the region, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also come under fire for his slow response to the virus. Alex Ward at Vox wrote a nuanced but dire explanation of what’s happening there.
  • At the New York Times, Nathaniel Popper and Ana Vanessa Herrero profile Gabriel Jiménez, the twentysomething coder whose belief in the liberating power of cryptocurrencies led him to create the Maduro government’s “Petro.” Jiménez now lives in exile in the United States; his account is rich with details about the Maduro regime. Don’t miss the part where Maduro asks Vice President Tareck El Aissami to fix his air conditioner by banging on it.

5 Links from the Past Week

  • The Americas Society / Council of the Americas has been keeping an updated record, using the Johns Hopkins database and other sources, of how coronavirus is affecting 19 Latin American countries plus Puerto Rico, and how governments are responding.
  • At The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson interviews Evo Morales, Jeanine Añez, and many others for a detailed report on the complexities of an increasingly tense Bolivia.
  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office put out a report on family separations at the border that, under normal circumstances, would have been a bombshell: even now, “it is unclear whether Border Patrol has accurate records of all separated parents and children in its automated data system.”
  • At Nicaragua’s La Prensa, Eduardo Cruz recounts the history of the country’s national police force, which underwent post-conflict reforms that the current government has almost fully reversed. Today, the police are “the guardians of the Ortega-Murillo dynasty.”
  • At Oxford American, Emily Gogolak spends time in Dilley, Texas, home to one of two large ICE-managed, privately-run detention centers for migrant families.

5 links from the past week

  • “Death and the Maiden” author Ariel Dorfman, now in his late 70s, has a reflection in the New York Review of Books about Chile’s recent wave of protest. The Argentine-Chilean novelist, playwright, and activist weaves first-person reporting in with his long own experience of hope and disenchantment.
  • At El Faro, Efren Lemus, Óscar Martínez, and Carlos Martínez offer a behind-the-scenes look at all of the back-and-forth last February 9 in El Salvador, when President Nayib Bukele invited himself into the Congress along with a retinue of heavily armed soldiers. Really interesting discussion of the role of foreign ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson.
  • At Animal Político, Mexican security expert Raúl Benitez looks at how civil-military relations are developing during the López Obrador government, with particular focus on the new National Guard, which which Mexico “passes from two armed forces to three.”
  • At WOLA, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde analyze some previously unreleased U.S. Southern Command data on drug trafficking patterns and determine that the “narco-state” narrative—which some use to argue against a negotiated end to the crisis—is overblown. Also on Venezuela, the International Crisis Group thoroughly unpacks what would be needed to get negotiations on track, and what should be on the table.
  • Amazon Watch released a report about increasing oil investments in the ecologically fragile western Amazon, and points the finger at five U.S.-based banks and asset managers.

5 links from the past week

  • Every few months, a team of researchers at the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and the University of Texas’s Strauss Center surveys U.S.-Mexico border crossings and summarizes the “metering” situation at each one: how many people are waiting, who runs the list, how many people CBP typically takes in a day. In their latest “Metering Update,” they count 15,000 people waiting—a big drop from the past, due to the near impossibility of winning asylum at the border. Most are now Mexican.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Colombia released its annual report, and it is grim. They emphasize increases in landmine victims, confinement of communities, and attacks on medical personnel.
  • As Mexican women prepare for a day of nationwide protest on March 9 against targeted violence, Valeria Durán and Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad published an incredible report and multimedia presentation documenting how badly the country’s justice system has failed women who are victims of violence.
  • It seems like a no-brainer that demobilized FARC fighters would be excellent mine clearance personnel. Their group laid most of the mines. A key obstacle, though: no matter how committed they are to the peace process, they can’t get a dime in U.S. aid money—not even to attend a U.S.-funded conference—because the FARC is still on the U.S. list of terrorist groups. Andrés Bermúdez Liévano reports at justiceinfo.net.
  • At Honduras’s ContraCorriente, Fernando Silva discusses the torturous route of the country’s recent police reform efforts, which have really been thousands of politicized mass firings instead of institutional reform. “Since Juan Orlando Hernández hasn’t managed to give the Military Police constitutional status [as a permanent branch of the armed forces], he’s doing away with the civilian police so that the Military Police may occupy its space,” a former police commissioner tells Silva.

5 links from the past week

  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released its annual report on Colombia, and it’s really good. It’s in English and Spanish, and it angered Colombian officials. I posted highlights of the report elsewhere.
  • Writing for the International Crisis Group, Bram Ebus produced a vivid and alarming look at life in Venezuelan refugee communities on the Colombian side of the northern part of the binational border.
  • Physicians for Human Rights carried out psychological evaluations of 17 adults and 9 children who had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and “found pervasive symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma.”
  • Amnesty International produced its annual country-by-country overview of the human rights situation in Latin America, putting particular emphasis on government repression of social protest. It has a great cover.
  • A team of reporters from Colombia’s La Silla Vacía profiles demobilized FARC guerrillas who have been resisting “dissident” groups’ calls on them to re-arm. Richly detailed, with an accompanying podcast episode.

5 links from the past week

  • The National Security Archive reveals documents showing that the CIA was the true co-owner of a supposedly Swiss cryptography company, whose equipment encrypted the communications of Latin American military regimes participating in “Operation Condor” in the 1970s. This means that the U.S. intelligence community had knowledge about the human rights abuses these regimes were committing—including a notorious 1976 car bombing in Washington—but did and said nearly nothing.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine produced a detailed, richly photographed and videoed report about the humanitarian situation in Chocó. This predominantly Afro-Colombian and indigenous department in the country’s far northwest is convulsed by fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan paramilitary groups, with thousands of vulnerable community members caught in the middle and the armed forces largely at the margins. I was in Chocó in October and this report aligns with what I saw and heard.
  • The International Crisis Group produced a good report about the proliferation of armed groups throughout Venezuela. Outside of Caracas, the dominion of irregular groups now rivals that of rural Colombia. Except unlike Colombia, nearly all of these groups have tacit or explicit state support.
  • Also in Venezuela, Sarah Kinosian and Angus Berwick at Reuters zoom in on an extrajudicial execution in Miranda and find that the Maduro government’s most feared enforcer, the FAES police unit, has taken ex-convicts into its ranks to carry out brutal acts with impunity.
  • The Washington Post offers an on-the-ground update about what the Trump administration’s denial of the right to asylum at the border looks like right now. Arelis R. Hernández and Kevin Sieff find that the cruel “Remain in Mexico” program is being eclipsed by cruel flights to Guatemala and fast-track, zero due-process immigration hearings. The account of the Honduran man who felt compelled to send his 3-year-old son across the border bridge alone is heartbreaking.
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