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

  • 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.

5 links from the past week

  • Some Latin American militaries have a particular clique, usually an academy graduating class, that rises to leadership and leaves a mark on the institution—often for the worse. At ProPublica, Melissa del Bosque identifies a ”tanda” in the U.S. Border Patrol: a group of agents who served in Douglas, Arizona in the 1990s and rose to top management, “leaving corruption, misconduct and a toxic culture in their wake.”
  • In El Salvador last Sunday, popular populist President Nayib Bukele shocked the region by sending helmeted, rifle-bearing soldiers into the National Assembly’s chambers because legislators weren’t approving a loan fast enough. The best commentary I’ve seen on this huge step back for civil-military relations comes in an editorial from El Faro, in English and Spanish.
  • Keegan Hamilton at Vice looks at the state of Mexican organized crime a year after “Chapo” Guzmán’s guilty verdict in a New York court. For me, the most interesting part is in the article’s second half, where we get a glimpse into the mindset of a veteran narcotics prosecutor who insists on staying the course with a policy that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. “Is there futility in what we do? Are we playing whack-a-mole?” she asked rhetorically. “I think it’s showing the strength of what our system does; there’s a purpose for it.”
  • At Nieman Reports, Tim Rogers talks to independent journalists from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Chile about how they’re staying a step ahead in this era of authoritarians, populists, Twitter warriors, and street protests.
  • This exploration of the current state of democracy and civil-military relations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, by Otto Argueta and Knut Walter at Contra Corriente, could use a bit of editorial tightening up—but it strikes some important and timely notes. “The greatest risk for democracy in these countries is the paradoxical combination of democratically elected governments that lack legitimacy, and the existence of powerful armed forces.…That combination in our contexts can wake the sleeping dragon, the one that leads to authoritarian and undemocratic solutions.”

5 links from the past week

  • The Washington Post produced the most thorough mapping you’ll ever see of where, when, and how all sections of Trump’s border wall would be built.
  • Several reporters at Colombia’s La Silla Vacía produced a deep dive into the more than 180 demobilized FARC combatants who have been murdered since the 2016 peace accord. The ex-guerrillas interviewed place a surprising amount of blame on the security forces, who are directly alleged to be the perpetrators of only a handful of cases.
  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind reported on the slapdash, disorganized, and shockingly dehumanizing way that CBP and Border Patrol are carrying out the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle asylum. Border Patrol agents “wield nearly unchecked power over the fate of migrants” because the whole system is a mess.
  • The Fronteras Desk reported on security conditions in Sonora, Mexico. Sonora had been relatively less violent than other border states, but in the post-“Chapo” era, the Sinaloa cartel’s dominance over criminality is slipping and homicides are surging.
  • A Human Rights Watch report identified 138 people who were murdered in El Salvador after being deported from the United States, just since 2013. (HRW also produced shorter research this week on abuses in Venezuela’s illegal gold mines and evidence tampering in a 2019 police massacre in Rio de Janeiro.)

5 links from the past week

  • Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank published a useful analysis of the ELN guerrilla group: its increased strength, territorial gains following the FARC’s demobilization, its activity in Venezuela, and its sources of financing. The authors note that it would be very difficult to defeat the ELN militarily, as it is decentralized and has deep roots in the regions where it is active. They recommend against giving up on renewed peace talks.
  • InsightCrime posted its annual “Homicide Round-Up,” looking at murder rate data in 2019 from Venezuela (60.3 homicides per 100,000 residents) to Chile (2.6). Honduras saw an increase in murders for the first time since 2017, while El Salvador saw an “unprecedented” drop. Mexico’s rate is now worse than Colombia’s and Guatemala’s.
  • A thoroughly reported Wall Street Journal piece depicts an easily distracted Trump administration losing ground to Russia all of last year as it sought to prop up Venezuela’s political opposition and unseat Nicolás Maduro.
  • Colombia’s Bajo Cauca region, a couple of hours’ drive north of Medellín, right now is one of the most violent parts of the country. The ELN and FARC dissidents are there, but the most intense violence has been between the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries and a regional splinter group called the “Caparrapos.” Medellín’s El Colombiano interviews a Caparrapo commander for the first time. The article does a good job of mapping the zone and questions the government’s security strategy there. It doesn’t mention that the Bajo Cauca, and its coca fields, has been a major target of U.S. assistance in recent years.
  • A year ago in December, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, a Guatemalan migrant who’d been apprehended with her father in New Mexico, died of a bacterial infection while in Border Patrol custody. At Texas Monthly, Anna-Catherine Brigida reports from Caal’s rural Guatemalan hometown, where much of her family remains (her father is in Philadelphia trying to send money home). “When I visited in September, nine months later, Jakelin’s death still hung over the community like a shroud.”

5 links from the past week

Because of my travels this week, I no doubt missed a lot of important analysis and coverage. But from what I managed to see, here are five recommended reads.

  • Alberto Pradilla, a journalist for Mexico’s Animal Político who wrote a well-received book about migrant caravans last year, was on hand in Chiapas this week for the Mexican National Guard’s heavy-handed breakup of a new caravan attempted by thousands of fleeing Hondurans.
  • A reporter for Colombia’s main newsmagazine who had uncovered scandals in the U.S.-backed military learned—luckily—that hitmen had been dispatched to murder him. This is part of a pattern of daily threats suffered by reporters who’ve dared to report on Colombia’s army, and by some of the military whistleblowers themselves. El Espectador reports.
  • Kendrick Foster, ”From Selfies to Progress in El Salvador”: in the Harvard Political Review, a nuanced look at El Salvador’s hard-to-pin-down, social media-obsessed young president, Nayib Bukele. Is he really going after corruption? Is he really approaching gangs in a new way?
  • “The Guerrillas Are the Police” is the title of a new Human Rights Watch report on the disastrous security and human rights situation in Arauca, Colombia (where I was last October) and across the border in Apure, Venezuela.
  • Russian disinformation campaigns and bots are not responsible for the surge of popular protests in Latin America recently, but Moscow has definitely worked to encourage them, according to State Department analyses obtained by the New York Times.

5 links from the past week

  • Colombia’s Semana magazine started the week with a bombshell scoop. The country’s army has been spying on, and hacking into the communications of, opposition politicians, high court judges, reporters (including Semana’s), human rights groups, and even other officers. The magazine claims that a mid-December Supreme Court search of an army installation where the hacking was happening is what precipitated the Army chief’s post-Christmas resignation. Over the past year, the magazine notes, officers concerned about this and other scandals have been forced out and replaced by others whose records are so questionable that they are already facing investigations.
  • Alex Cuadros spent a lot of time with former and current gang members who have adopted evangelical Christianity in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The result is a good long read in Harper’s. My favorite is the gang-tied pastor who told Harper’s fact-checkers that Cuadros’s “account was ‘all lies’ and that [Cuadros] was possessed by the devil.”
  • U.S. authorities have sent more than 143 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers—including families—to Guatemala, to go seek asylum there. Kevin Sieff reports in the Washington Post from Guatemala City that they’re often not even being told which country they’re going to. And once they arrive, “The Guatemalan government is completely absent in this whole process.”
  • Colombia’s coca-growers are better organized than they were before the FARC peace process. But when huge nationwide protests broke out in November, the cocaleros’ participation was minimal. With Iván Duque’s government starting the year with a draft decree to restart aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, that’s about to change. The growers are now starting to mobilize, Juanita Vélez reports in La Silla Vacía.
  • On Friday Honduras’s government failed to reach an agreement with the OAS and will shut down the MACCIH, an anti-corruption body similar to (though always weaker than) Guatemala’s defunct CICIG. Days earlier, my WOLA colleagues Elyssa Pachico, Adriana Beltrán, and Adeline Hite wrote a useful explanation of MACCIH’s accomplishments, the disastrous record of President Juan Orlando Hernández, and how the Trump administration basically gave a green light to corruption in exchange for Hernández making concessions on migration, like taking other countries’ asylum seekers.

Five links from the past week

  • PBS’s Frontline program ran a very good episode on how the Trump administration’s migrant crackdown has affected the twin border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. As I noted after returning from a trip there last month, the situation is very grim there. Still, it was good to see a few people I met with there in the video.
  • Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake happened 10 years ago this week. The Miami Herald’s veteran journalist Jacqueline Charles reports from a country where many of the disaster’s victims still live in shantytowns and billions of dollars in donor funds are unaccounted for.
  • Year One of AMLO’s Mexico” is a balanced, thorough overview of the populist’s successes and failures, by Humberto Beck, Carlos Bravo Regidor and Patrick Iber in Dissent. “One year in, there is a growing sense of unease that the Fourth Transformation is not delivering the changes that Mexicans so desperately need.”
  • Jack Herrera in Politico magazine on Tijuana: “How Trump Created a New Global Capital of Exiles.” The city has a growing population of non-Spanish speaking foreigners stranded there by the Trump administration’s restrictions on asylum. Herrera profiles some of them as they weigh their options.
  • At OpenDemocracy, Mariano Aguirre reviews The State Is Always Late, a new book by a scholar who is now a senior magistrate in Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system. It’s a great reflection on the overlap between government and organized crime, and how a country with functioning institutions in some areas can be a “failed state” in others.
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