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

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.

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.
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