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

  • At Nexos, scholar Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo offers a devastating assessment of civil-military relations in Mexico, as the López Obrador government further increases the armed forces’ role in Mexicans’ daily lives. “We had a parenthesis of civilian rule that lasted about 50 or 60 years. That parenthesis has closed.”
  • At Mexico’s SinEmbargo, veteran crime journalist Ricardo Ravelo offers a sweeping who’s-who of the country’s current constellation of cartels and regional organized crime structures. Pair this with Ravelo’s January 1 look at the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which may be eclipsing Sinaloa as Mexico’s largest and deadliest.
  • The UN Verification Mission in Colombia released its latest report on the peace process. With a lot of new statistics, it puts front-and-center concerns about rampant killings of social leaders and ex-combatants.
  • OpenDemocracy provides a grim point-by-point evaluation of Colombia’s compliance—or lack thereof—with each chapter of the 2016 peace accord.
  • DHS’s Office of Immigration Statistics is an island of seriousness at the troubled agency. Its latest Enforcement Lifecycle Report has a wealth of information, including detailed appendix tables, illustrating what happens to undocumented migrants after DHS apprehends them, including those who make claims of fear.

5 links from the past week

  • In part 5 of a 5-part series, The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan takes an in-depth look at the increasing power and unaccountability of Mexico’s military. Few countries in Latin America have handed over so many roles to the armed forces, and it happened fast.
  • Pair that with J. Weston Phippen’s investigation in Politico Magazine of a U.S.-aided Mexican Marine Special Forces unit that went on a rampage in the border city of Nuevo Laredo in 2018, disappearing dozens of people—including a U.S. citizen—without a peep from the Trump administration.
  • Pair that with what is probably longtime New York Times bureau chief Azam Ahmed’s last piece before departing Mexico: the story of Miriam Rodríguez, the mother of one of tens of thousands of Mexican victims of kidnapping and murder, who got almost no help from law enforcement and captured her daughter’s killers down on her own until she, too, was murdered in her home in San Fernando, Tamaulipas.
  • Communities in Colombia’s ill-governed coca-growing territories are bracing for a possible holiday announcement that U.S.-funded spray planes are to resume spraying glyphosate after a 2015 suspension. Two analysts at DeJusticia—an NGO at the vanguard of the legal fight against fumigation—decry the policy and the process being used to restart it.
  • The International Crisis Group and the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published reports warning of a deteriorating security situation along the Colombia-Venezuela border. It is formally closed due to the pandemic, but armed and criminal groups operate numerous illicit crossings. Both reports find the ELN gaining strength, at times abetted by the Venezuelan government, while paramilitaries, FARC dissidents, EPL guerrilla remnants, Venezuelan gangs, and Mexican cartel middlemen all add to the complexity.

5 links from the past week

  • Reporters from several outlets around the world, calling themselves “The Cartel Project,” published an investigation into the 2012 murder of Veracruz, Mexico journalist Regina Martínez, which they portray as the template that organized crime-tied politicians have since used to silence the press. They aim to finish the work Martínez was doing—investigating the corrupt links between Veracruz’s state governors and organized crime—when assassins killed her in her home. Stories appear concurrently in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Spain’s El País, Mexico’s Proceso, and OCCRP.
  • An unsealed whistleblower complaint from a border wall construction site in California has some remarkable allegations, summarized by The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs. Among them, contractors brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile show that between October 2019 and March 2020, migrants breached the border wall in California and Arizona more than 320 times.
  • Two new Colombian online investigative outlets, Vorágine and La Liga Contra el Silencio, collaborated to tell the story of Juana Perea, a Bogotá-raised beachfront hotel owner and defiant activist in the town of Nuquí, Chocó. In October, Perea became one of many social leaders murdered in northwest Colombia by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group. Pair this with Verdad Abierta’s thoroughly reported and vividly photographed story about William Castillo, a social leader in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region whom Gulf Clan hitmen murdered in 2016.
  • “Since 2007, the U.S. government has relied on a small coterie of Mexican officials to implement the Mérida Initiative,” begins an account presenting a trove of U.S. documents that the National Security Archive obtained via a FOIA request. It’s hard not to cringe reading U.S. officials’ words of praise for Mexican counterparts who now face criminal charges for links to organized crime.
  • Honduras’s ContraCorriente finds that, after years of corruption undermining public-private infrastructure projects, the public almost completely distrusts the government’s announced bipartisan rebuilding effort following hurricanes Eta and Iota.

5 links from the past week

  • The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, a bipartisan body created in 2017, came out with a thoughtful report based on a year and a half of work. Lots of recommendations that sound like common sense and leave you wondering why they weren’t implemented already—unless you’ve been mired in the politics of drug policy.
  • The fourth of a five-part Washington Post series about “how criminal groups are transforming Mexico” focuses on the arduous search for the disappeared, spurred far more by mothers than by the authorities, amid a profusion of mass graves. The Post has put a lot of resources into this series, and it’s worth your time. Pair it with this profile of the Madres Coraje, who are using drones and other tech to locate remains in Nuevo León, by the Camino a encontrarles project.
  • Santa Marta is a beautiful Caribbean city whose environs, during the 1990s and 2000s, were under the brutal sway of the AUC paramilitary blocs led by “Jorge 40” and Hernán Giraldo. Colombia’s La Liga Contra el Silencio finds that paramilitaries, most of whom can trace their DNA to the old AUC, are making a comeback in the city just as 40 and Giraldo are being returned from U.S. prison.
  • Guatemala’s Agencia Ocote profiles Anatasia Mejía Tiriquiz, the director of Xolabaj Radio and TV, an independent media outlet in conflict-battered Quiché department. Mejía has just returned from 37 days in prison, a case that alarmed press freedom watchdogs about the state of free speech in Guatemala.
  • The International Crisis Group’s Elizabeth Dickinson profiles Luz Mary, a social leader in the Altos de Cazucá slum on Bogotá’s far outskirts. Most striking about the story is how completely abandoned she is by the government, even in a densely populated area near the center of Colombia’s political life, and even as she tries to maintain a program to help at-risk youth.

5 links from the past week

  • The U.S. Department of Justice ordered the arrest (and then the release) of former Mexican Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos because it believed the General was tied to a regional drug trafficking group based in Mexico’s Pacific state of Nayarit. At the Mexico Violence Resource Project, Nathaniel Morris tells the recent story of drug trafficking in Nayarit, a principal source of illegal opioids, and the extreme complicity of local government.
  • On a related topic, Dolia Estévez at Mexico’s SinEmbargo talks to Craig Deare, a defense academic who specializes in Mexico, about the Cienfuegos case. Deare finds it unlikely that the General would throw so much away just for a relationship with a minor narco group. The article also includes a long transcript of a 2018 interview Gen. Cienfuegos gave to Deare. Cienfuegos says much that I disagree with, but it’s a rare glimpse into the worldview of Mexico’s top-level military.
  • The quarterly “metering updates” from the University of Texas’s Robert Strauss Center have become an essential document for understanding what’s happening to asylum-seeking migrants at the border. The latest edition finds that, eight months into the pandemic, 15,690 asylum seekers are STILL on waitlists in nine Mexican border cities, hoping to present at U.S. ports of entry.
  • A long, fascinating, but ultimately inconclusive investigation by Israel’s Ha’aretz reveals a host of details about the Mexico operations of NSO, the Israeli company that makes and sells the super-controversial Pegasus phone-hacking software.
  • One link that’s not about Mexico: Fernando Silva at ContraCorriente details how even in the capital, Tegucigalpa, the Honduran government’s response to victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota has been improvised, politicized, and far from sufficient.

5 links from the past week

  • A country that won’t take dramatic action after 250,000 people die from a pandemic also won’t take dramatic action after 2.5 million weapons are smuggled from its legal gun dealers across the border into Mexico, just over the past 10 years.
  • 5,400 words in English about Colombia’s false positives scandal, the ups and downs of the country’s armed forces, and the struggle of the victims? Yes, please. The Guardian’s latest “long read” is a great piece by Mariana Palau.
  • Two of the profession’s most trusted and cited border and migration reporters, Alfredo Corchado and Dianne Solís at The Dallas Morning News, dig into the likelihood that the Biden administration will truly undo the Trump administration’s hardline policies. This analysis will lower your expectations.
  • It’s more than just climate change. Writing between two brutal hurricanes, El Faro’s Carlos Martínez draws a direct parallel between Honduras’s endemic corruption and the amount of damage that a storm can do. Pair that with this analysis of Honduras’s “murky” police reform and pervasive mistrust of government, by Marna Shorack, Elizabeth G. Kennedy, and Amelia Frank-Vitale at NACLA.
  • In an excellent four-part series, Nicaragua’s Expediente Público talks to experts and social movement leaders to figure out what it would take to reimagine and reform the country’s police force in an eventual post-Ortega context.

Five links from the past week

  • USA Today’s Alan Gomez and Daniel Gonzalez do a deep dive into what the Biden administration would have to do, procedurally, to undo the Trump administration’s hardline border and migration policies.
  • An International Crisis Group report explains how eight months of life under COVID-19 have largely failed to alter organized crime patterns in Mexico and Central America. After a brief disruption, gangs and traffickers swiftly adapted.
  • The second in what will be a five-part Washington Postseries about Mexico’s out-of-control organized crime situation looks at how criminal groups have become enmeshed in local government, focusing on a mayor in Morelos who continued to govern his town from a faraway prison cell.
  • Colombia’s Verdad Abierta published a series of articles about the south-central department of Guaviare, which is under the heavy influence of FARC dissident groups: the security situation, the environmental damage especially deforestation, and the perilous situation of environmental defenders.
  • At Univision, Jennifer Ávila and Danielle Mackey find that “Nucor Corporation, the chief steel producer in the United States, was a powerful hidden partner” behind a much-protested iron mining project in a national park in Honduras. “Nucor was an important donor to Donald Trump’s last two presidential campaigns.”

5 links from the past week

  • Prosecutors’ investigations indicate that an elite Mexican Marine Special Forces unit forcibly disappeared 47 people in the border city of Nuevo Laredo during the first half of 2018. Alberto Pradilla and Arturo Ángel reveal it at Mexico’s Animal Político. This is of particular concern because Mexico’s Navy/Marines tend to work more closely with U.S. military counterparts than does Mexico’s Army.
  • At Politico (without the “Animal,” the U.S. publication), a very good 3,000-word overview of the current state of affairs as Colombia closes in on renewing an aerial herbicide fumigation program in coca-growing areas. There’s a lack of clarity about what a Biden administration would do with the controversial U.S.-backed program.
  • Also in the category of very good election-week overviews is this analysis of the floundering U.S. policy toward Venezuela by Nicholas Confessore, Anatoly Kurmanaev, and Kenneth P. Vogel in the New York Times.
  • The Colombian non-governmental organization Somos Defensores, which performs careful documentation of attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, found that 95 defenders and leaders were killed during the first six months of 2020. The group’s latest report finds a big increase in acts of aggression attributed to Colombia’s security forces.
  • At The Intercept, Ryan Deveraux narrates the trauma generated by the Trump administration’s border wall construction drive in south Texas.

5 links from the past week

  • Ian Gordon, who has reported for years about immigration at Mother Jones, commemorates the end of Donald Trump’s first (only?) term with a sweeping overview of the rise and fall of the right to seek asylum in the United States. He starts with World War II, then goes through the cold war and the 1980 Refugee Act, the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 “surge” of unaccompanied Central American kids, and the Trump administration’s total obliteration of asylum. Though nothing since the end of World War II resembles what we’ve seen since 2017, Gordon finds a lot of continuities in the United States’ reluctance to open its doors to people who need protection.
  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind similarly covers the Trump administration’s dismantling of asylum at the border, but with a different angle: whether and how a possible Biden administration would dismantle what Trump and Stephen Miller have put in place. Lind identifies the divisions about asylum policy during the Obama administration, which may persist if Biden moves into the White House, especially during its first year or two. “An advocate who’s conferred with Biden’s team put it this way: ‘Long term, putting in place a refugee program for the Western Hemisphere has to be the goal. And I believe that is where they’re going, which is great.’ ‘Short term,’ the advocate continued, ‘I’m not going to like the things they’re doing.’”
  • In the first of what will be a five-part Washington Post series on organized crime in Mexico, Mary Beth Sheridan gives an overview of how bad things have gotten in the past few years: there are now more than 200 significant violent criminal groups, and “In a classified study produced in 2018 but not previously reported, CIA analysts concluded that drug-trafficking groups had gained effective control over about 20 percent of Mexico.”
  • Also at ProPublica, together with The Texas Tribune, Perla Trevizo and Jeremy Schwartz dig through the Trump administration’s wall-building contracts. They happened without competitive bidding, appear to reward Republican donors in “pay to play” fashion, and renegotiations and additions have eaten up $2.9 billion over their original cost.
  • This La Silla Vacía article requires some detailed knowledge of Colombia’s peace process, but it’s a really revealing look at how and why the government of Juan Manuel Santos, which negotiated the peace accord, failed to implement its land and rural provisions during its final two years. It’s based on a book by Andrés García Trujillo, who was on Santos’s negotiating team and has no problem pointing fingers and naming names about how politics stood in the way of the accord afterward. (It’s a shame, though, that the book, published by Routledge, costs a whopping $154.15.)

Five links from the past week

  • There had been some doubt cast about the real extent of non-consensual surgeries performed on female migrants held at ICE’s Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. There’s less doubt now., as the Los Angeles Times’s Molly O’Toole reports that 19 women have now come forward. Some of the testimonies here are hard to read.
  • A team of reporters from Colombia’s La Silla Vacía did months of follow-up, and has confirmed that 222 social leaders were assassinated in the 602 days between President Iván Duque’s August 2018 inauguration and the end of March 2020. They profile the victims by geography, age, gender, ethnicity, and type of activism, finding a significant correlation with claims involving land tenure or coca.
  • Guatemala’s CICIG is gone, but an office called the Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau (FECI) is hanging on amid a full-on backlash by corrupt elites. At El Faro, Sandra Cuffe details the FECI’s latest big case: the minister of Communications, Infrastructure and Housing had more than US$15 million stuffed into 22 suitcases.
  • Pablo Solón, who heads the Fundación Solón in La Paz and is the son of noted Bolivian artist Walter Solón, served as Bolivia’s UN ambassador during Evo Morales’s government, but later distanced himself from Morales. His “supportive of MAS but not in the tank for Evo” perspective on Bolivia’s landslide presidential election outcome is a nuanced must-read. “MAS did not win because of Evo, but in spite of Evo.”
  • At the Huffington Post, three reporters talk to former diplomats, members of Congress, and others who should know—and they conclude that if Joe Biden wins on November 3, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro “could find himself quickly isolated on the global stage” if he doesn’t change course on climate change.

5 links from the past week

  • The New York Timesmultimedia presentation about the pandemic’s sweep through Brazil’s Amazon is unspeakably sad but a necessary historical marker, thanks to Tyler Hicks’s remarkable photos. What would be different, one wonders, if Brazilians had different leadership.
  • Six organizations (including WOLA), convened by the Latin America Working Group, published a “roadmap for transforming” U.S. relations with Central America’s Northern Triangle. It could hardly be more urgently needed. May the next administration take heed. (May there be a “next administration.”)
  • Bolivia’s unelected interim government suspended elections again this week, citing the coronavirus. Also this week, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights published a strong report on “gross human rights abuses” committed by the U.S.-backed interim government, starting with what it calls “Black November.”
  • Colombia’s U.S.-backed (a compound adjective I use a lot) forced coca eradication campaign is going full speed during the pandemic. With about six farmers/protesters killed since COVID-19 hit, the security forces accompanying eradicators appear to be more inclined to rough people up, to escalate situations, and to resort quickly to lethal force. I say “appear” because we don’t have a comprehensive picture yet, but read this account from the Guayabero River region of south-central Colombia, by La Liga Contra el Silencio, and draw your own conclusions.
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime published its full report on coca cultivation in Colombia in 2019, finding a modest decrease in acreage but consistent cocaine production. (I guess the remaining plants are getting taller.) Interestingly, the epicenter of cultivation has shifted from Tumaco in the far southwest to Catatumbo in the far northeast. (UNODC also released its 2019 Bolivia report this week.)

5 Links from the Past Week

  • Here’s Protect Colombia’s Peace, a thorough snapshot of the current moment in Colombia’s peace process, and a series of perfectly reasonable recommendations for U.S. policy toward Latin America’s third most-populous nation. I wrote bits of this collaboration between more than 20 organizations. (While I’m linking to things I wrote last week, don’t miss last Monday’s analysis of what the pandemic is doing to the region’s already precarious civil-military relations.)
  • Almost nobody in Laredo, Texas wants a border wall obstructing the city’s riverfront. At The Texas Observer, Gus Bova surveys a wide variety of residents’ views of this incredibly unpopular project.
  • A collaboration between Mexico’s SinEmbargo and DemocraciaAbierta seeks to put a human face on some of the 133 journalists murdered in the country so far this century.
  • Texas Public Radio, meanwhile, brings in reports from journalists in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, and Mexico City to detail the miserable human cost of the Trump administration’s assault on the right to asylum.
  • From Vanda Felbab-Brown at the Brookings Institution, a very clear-headed exploration of “policy options for responding to the supply of heroin and synthetic opioids from Mexico to the United States.”

5 links from the past week

  • Two New York Times reporters and a photographer traveled 1,000 miles across Colombia to find out how badly people are hurting as the pandemic approaches (but hasn’t yet reached) it’s height. People are hurting really f***ing badly, they found.
  • Colombia’s La Silla Vacía ran an interesting interview with psychologist Sandra Trujillo, whose work has focused on the mindset of military personnel and other combatants. What explains the lack of empathy, of humanity, that has been evident from Colombia to Minneapolis to the U.S.-Mexico border? A few clues here.
  • Brookings’s Vanda Felbab-Brown examines eight occasions since 1990 when Latin American governments negotiated with violent criminal (not insurgent, not political) groups. She highlights several preliminary findings, much of them reasons why this is a lot more difficult than a political negotiation.
  • Spain’s El País accompanies one of very few mothers in Mexico whose missing son’s remains are identified and handed over to her. To me, anyway, her story says so much about daily life for the majority in Mexico today.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine reveals something that many of us suspected: teams carrying out (often U.S.-backed) coca eradication systematically inflate their numbers. It’s hard to blame them, given the conditions under which they work.

5 links from the past week

  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff published a photo-heavy look at how drug traffickers, often flying and abandoning expensive jets from Venezuela, have penetrated an ecologically fragile national park in Guatemala’s Petén region.
  • The Cruel Road North” is the result of a collaboration among numerous media outlets in several countries, under the umbrella of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The multi-part, multimedia presentation explores the journey of extra-continental migrants across Latin America to the United States, and the attendant criminal, smuggling, and corruption networks.
  • Another multi-part, multimedia presentation comes from the Colombian Commission of Jurists and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective. “The Silence of the Flutes” lays bare the Colombian military’s responsibility for historically brutal paramilitary massacres that took place in the northern Montes de María region in 2000 and 2001.
  • The International Crisis Group looks at El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s curious success in curbing gang violence. “While the public celebrates” the authoritarian-trending leader’s “well-known ‘iron fist’ policies, the reasons for success might lie in quiet, informal understandings between gangs and the government.”
  • Back to Guatemala: at Boston Review, Kirsten Weld tells the story of the police archive that became a crucial source of information about human rights abuses committed during the country’s 36-year civil war. Amid a hardline backlash and the Trump administration’s silence, access to the archive is now impossible.

5 links from the past week

  • In late May the U.S. State Department quietly certified that the Bukele government in El Salvador, the Giammattei government in Guatemala, and the Juan Orlando Hernandez government in Honduras met all human rights and anti-corruption requirements that Congress put in place as conditions for receiving aid. El Faro reports on everything the State Department had to ignore in order to “certify” El Salvador.
  • The Project on Government Oversight compiles border wall contract data and finds that 38 construction contracts have been signed with 22 companies for a total of $6.1 billion, “which is already more than what Congress appropriated for the wall since Trump took office.”
  • While FARC members are participating in Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system, their former kidnap victims are increasingly angry at the ex-guerrillas’ efforts to downplay the barbarity of how they were treated while in custody. Andrés Bermúdez Liévano reports for justiceinfo.net.
  • InsightCrime published a great interview with Nina Lakhani, a journalist who published a book this week about murdered activist Berta Cáceres, and the struggle of indigenous and environmental defenders in Honduras. (Also listen to my podcast interview.)
  • Lima’s El Comercio visits Madre De Dios, a region of Peru’s Amazon basin that has been ravaged for several years by widespread illicit gold mining. Reporter Francesca García Delgado finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to slow the damage.
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