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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Corruption

“They convinced a number of Republican legislators that transparency equalled leftism”

Here’s some synchronicity. Both of these screenshots about Guatemala are from items published April 29.

  • On the left: a must-read article about Guatemala’s exiled anti-corruption investigators, by Jonathan Blitzer in the New Yorker.
  • On the right: a statement published by Republican Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Mike Lee (Utah), inadvertently emphasizing the point Blitzer’s source was making.

Colombia’s prisons still coddle powerful inmates

Kiko Gómez is serving a 55-year sentence in Bogotá’s La Picota maximum-security prison for ordering the 2012 murder of a former mayor in Colombia’s department of La Guajira. Between 2011 and 2013, Gómez was the governor of La Guajira which, because it’s on the Caribbean and borders Venezuela, is hugely strategic for smugglers.

Kiko Gómez was a close ally of Marquitos Figueroa, a major drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Colombia. He and Figueroa repeatedly threatened the lives of journalists and NGO investigators, including some whom I consider friends.

So it’s really frustrating that a video circulating on Twitter shows Kiko Gómez ringing in the New Year with a whisky and beer party in his prison cell, while video-chatting with a noted vallenato musician on his mobile phone.

Colombia’s prisons have been notoriously gentle on wealthy or powerful inmates. Unlike poorer, more vulnerable prisoners, their incarceration conditions are far from austere. This is sometimes a matter of policy, but it’s often the result of endemic corruption in the prison system.

The classic example is El Catedral, the luxurious one-man prison compound overlooking Medellín where Pablo Escobar was briefly held in 1991-92. Even captured guerrilla leaders tend to have large spaces with access to communications and entertainment. I once interviewed some who had phones (in part because they were serving as intermediaries), video games, hundreds of books, pet cats, a pool table, even a maid to clean up.

The U.S. government has spent millions assisting Colombia’s prison system. The U.S. Embassy website describes the State Department International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement “corrections reform program” as “aiding prisons to operate in a safe, secure, humane, and transparent fashion. The primary focus of INL’s assistance includes basic training, international accreditation, and implementation of systems and processes to improve operations.”

Kiko Gómez’s little New Year’s fest shows that this U.S. program has failed even to make a dent in some very key areas, like among high-profile prisoners in one of Bogotá’s most important prisons.

If I were a more cynical person…

…I’d see this headline from the U.S. military’s Honduras-based “Joint Task Force Bravo” component, and think “this should at least make up for a fraction of what corrupt officials in the Hernández government have probably stolen from the Health Ministry’s budget.”

The supplies, valued at approximately $39,000, under the U.S. Southern Command’s Humanitarian Assistance Program, will increase the local clinics ability to care for COVID-19 patients.

I wonder what size fraction of what’s been lost to corruption since March 2020 that $39,000 adds up to, and how much more effective Defense Department humanitarian aid would be if the U.S. government offered more aid and diplomatic pressure to help people in Honduras who are trying to target that corruption.

…I mean, I would wonder that, if I were a more cynical person.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: A Crucial Moment for Guatemala’s Fight Against Impunity

Guatemala is selecting new supreme court justices. The stakes are very high: fighting the corruption that drives so much migration will be much harder if the country gets this wrong. Here, my colleague Adriana Beltran and I talk to three people who are leading the fight from civil society.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Last year at the US-Mexico border, authorities apprehended more undocumented migrants from Guatemala than from any other country. That’s mostly because of a combination of poverty and violence. That in turn is exacerbated by corruption, which drains national wealth and benefits networks of political and economic power that, too often, are above the law.

People in Guatemala are trying to change that. They’re the ones who made important justice improvements alongside the CICIG, the international commission against impunity in Guatemala, which was ejected from the country last year. They’re still fighting, and this podcast talks to three of them. They are:

  • Helen Mack, the president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. A longtime leader in Guatemala’s fight for human rights, Helen founded her organization in 1993, three years after the army killed her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack. Helen is one of Guatemala’s principal experts on judicial and police reform.
  • Harald Waxenecker is a sociologist who investigates networks of power and criminality in Guatemala and El Salvador, which is dangerous but necessary work.
  • Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of Guatemala’s court of appeals who played a central role in some of the country’s most high-profile corruption investigations during the mid-2010s.

They’re together with Adriana Beltran, the principal host of this podcast episode. Beltran is WOLA’s director for citizen security, has worked for many years in Guatemala, and played an instrumental role in building international support for the CICIG.

Guatemala has hit a key turning point for the fight against impunity the Congress is selecting a new slate of supreme court justices. There’s a real danger that some of the country’s most corrupt elements might choose those who will judge them for the next five years. Much is in the balance here: further erosion of the rule of law will mean more misery in Guatemala, and more migration away from Guatemala.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: “If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders

I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).

The book is out today. Pick up a copy, listen above or by downloading the .mp3 file, and read my review.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast website:

Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.

In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.

Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: “Beyond the ‘Narco-State’ Narrative”

I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.

In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file here.

Podcast: Peru’s Anti-Corruption Reform Drive

Four podcasts in four days. I don’t know if I’ll keep up the pace, but I’ll stay close. Hopefully these are making life a bit more tolerable for some people out there.

In today’s conversation, Cynthia McClintock of George Washington University gives an overview of the current political moment in Peru, where an ongoing anti-corruption drive, spurred by the good work of investigative reporters and prosecutors, has been a relative good news story. The discussion also covers recent legislative elections, voters’ move, and the possible impact of COVID-19.

Dr. McClintock is the author of many books and articles, including Electoral Rules and Democracy in Latin America, published in 2018 by Oxford University Press and the subject of a November 2018 podcast.

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 directly.

WOLA Podcast: How Corruption Continues to Erode Citizen Security in Central America

Here’s a podcast recorded last Friday with Adriana Beltran and Austin Robles from WOLA’s Central America / Citizen Security program. We talk mostly about setbacks to the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala and Honduras. Good thing we didn’t talk about El Salvador too much, because two days after this conversation, President Nayib Bukele set everything on fire there by bringing armed soldiers into the legislative chamber with an aggressive display.

I learned a lot about what’s happening just by hosting this. Here’s a direct download link.

Here’s the blurb on WOLA’s website.

Adriana Beltrán and Austin Robles of WOLA’s Citizen Security Program discuss the beleaguered fight against corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their Central America Monitor tracks progress on eight indicators and closely watches over U.S. aid.

WOLA Podcast: Alan García’s legacy in Peru

Here’s a great conversation with two colleagues who really know Peru, about where the country is today after the suicide of a two-time president facing accountability for corruption.

Facing arrest in a corruption scandal, Peru’s two-time president Alan García shot himself to death on April 17. WOLA Senior Fellows Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta Youngers discuss the personal journey of a politician who loomed over Peruvian political life for the past 35 years.

Garcia started out as a leftist, ruled amid some serious human rights crimes and economic crises, and later became a seemingly untouchable power broker—until the Odebrecht corruption investigation.

Burt and Youngers explain Peru’s current judicial drive against corruption, reasons for hope, and the difficulty of predicting anything in Peruvian politics.

WOLA Podcast on Guatemala’s “backlash of the corrupt”

Only a few years ago, Guatemala was making historic gains in its fight against corruption and human rights abuse. Since then, the country has suffered a severe backlash. A “pact of the corrupt” in Guatemala’s ruling elite keeps pushing legislation that would terminate trials and investigations for war crimes and corruption. A U.S.-backed UN prosecutorial body, the CICIG, has been weakened. High-court rulings are being ignored. Things have gotten so bad that the U.S. government has suspended military aid.

And today, Guatemala has incredibly surpassed Mexico as the number-one nationality of undocumented migrants being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As a new presidential election looms, Adam talks about the situation with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, just returned from one of her frequent visits to the country. See more of Jo-Marie’s recent analysis at:

Download the podcast mp3 file directly

Corruption in Latin America: Links from the past month

Brazil

Central America Regional

  • Victoria Sanford, ‘Criminals?’ Hardly. That’s Who the Caravan Flees. (The New York Times, November 9, 2018).

    Cruelty won’t solve the current refugee crisis. Neither will buddying up with authoritarian leaders in Central America. Instead, those two strategies only deepen the crisis

Colombia

  • Cecilia Orozco Tascón, El “Testamento” del Testigo Pizano en Caso Odebrecht (El Espectador (Colombia), November 14, 2018).

    Hoy creo que es mi deber ético transcribir —aunque parcialmente— las reflexiones que, a modo de testamento, Jorge Enrique Pizano dejó en mi teléfono, probablemente sabiendo que yo las publicaría. Estas son algunas

  • Joshua Goodman, New Allegations That Colombia Prosecutor Covered Up Bribes (Associated Press, The Washington Post, November 14, 2018).

    U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker in September called Colombia’s handling of the Odebrecht case “the best in the world, by far” and attributed its success to the dedication of Martinez’s office

  • Los Secretos del Escandalo de las Chuzadas (Semana (Colombia), November 6, 2018).

    SEMANA tuvo acceso a más de 200 folios con las declaraciones de dos de los principales protagonistas del tema. Su contenido revela la impresionante dimensión de esta red de espionaje ilegal

  • Adriana Puentes, Julian Amorocho Becerra, 2.488 Policias Investigados en el Pais ¿Que Delitos Cometen? (El Colombiano (Medellin Colombia), November 6, 2018).

    En los últimos dos años, de agosto de 2016 a la fecha, la Fiscalía General de la Nación involucró a 2.488 miembros de la Policía en investigaciones criminales

Ecuador

  • Ministerio de Defensa Intenta Depuracion en Fuerzas Armadas a Traves de Leyes (El Universo (Ecuador), November 14, 2018).

    El ministro de Defensa Oswaldo Jarrín anunció el envío de nuevas leyes a la Asamblea Nacional para volver más estrictos los requisitos de ingreso a las Fuerzas Armadas, dados los últimos acontecimientos de militares vinculados a narcotráfico y tráfico de municiones

Guatemala

  • La Crisis Politica y el Retroceso Democratico (Plaza Publica (Guatemala), November 9, 2018).

    El análisis persigue identificar algunas relaciones causales de la crisis democrática que tiene lugar en Guatemala y sus implicaciones en las aspiraciones de bienestar humano

Honduras

Mexico

  • Ricardo Ravelo, ¿y las Finanzas del Crimen? (SinEmbargo (Mexico), November 16, 2018).

    En realidad las policías, en su mayoría, están “cartelizadas”, es decir, al servicio de los grupos criminales

Peru

Corruption in Latin America: links from the past month

Jeff Abbott photo at Al Jazeera. Caption: “An indigenous woman holds a sign in front of the Ministry of the Interior offices in Santa Cruz del Quiche, calling for an end to corruption in Guatemala”

Argentina

  • Former Argentine President Acquitted of Arms Smuggling (Associated Press, The New York Times, October 4, 2018).

    “The same judicial branch that processed the case for 22 years without a firm sentence, now declares Menem innocent because too much time has passed”

Colombia

  • Jim Mustian, Joshua Goodman, Dea’s Colombia Post Roiled by Misconduct Probes (Associated Press, The Washington Post, October 3, 2018).

    Prior to Bogota, Dobrich oversaw the DEA’s military-style FAST teams that battled drug traffickers in Afghanistan and Latin America, and were criticized for a series of fatal shootings in Honduras in 2012

Guatemala

  • Hector Silva Avalos, 4 Consequences of Morales’ War With the Cicig in Guatemala (InsightCrime, September 21, 2018).

    On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event

  • Francisco Goldman, Why Is Trump Tacitly Supporting Corruption in Guatemala? (The New York Times, September 21, 2018).

    His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos”

Honduras

Mexico

  • Maria Verza, Mark Stevenson, Mexican Students Massacred by Army in 1968, by Gangs Today (Associated Press, The Washington Post, October 1, 2018).

    Today’s student activists — and even the graying veterans of the 1968 democracy movement — acknowledge they now have free speech, something the ‘68 generation fought for. But they say the impunity remains the same

U.S.-Mexico Border

Venezuela

A huge setback for civil-military relations in Guatemala

Reuters photo in The Guardian (UK). Caption: “Jimmy Morales addresses the media flanked by military and police.”

I was disappointed to see Guatemala’s military—which had briefly taken a reformist direction—aggressively, enthusiastically supporting President Jimmy Morales’s crackdown on the CICIG anti-corruption body. WOLA has just posted a piece I wrote about that. What’s happened with Guatemala’s army since August 31 obliterates a few halting steps that it had taken toward being a credible, accountable institution. It brings back the bad old days.

Here’s an excerpt. The whole thing is here.

In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.

Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.

These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.

…Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.

It goes on like that.

The Army’s Role in the Anti-CICIG Backlash is a Severe Setback for Guatemala’s Civil-Military Relations

Links from the past month about organized crime-related corruption

Colombia

Para el alto tribunal, los homicidios de la exalcaldesa del municipio de Barrancas, Yandra Brito, su esposo y su escolta no tienen relación con el conflicto armado

Un senador involucrado, un general encarcelado y decenas de empresarios y compañías en la mira forman parte del nuevo capítulo, que no será el último

Desde los narcocasetes de 1994 al último capítulo que tiene en aprietos al general (r) Humberto Guatibonza y otros exoficiales de la Policía

La Fiscalía tiene interceptaciones en las que los supuestos protagonistas del entramado de chuzadas hablan del secuestro de los periodistas ecuatorianos, de bloqueos de cuentas bancarias y hasta de casos de infidelidad

Guatemala

On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event

His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos”

Acompañado por el alto mando militar y solo tres ministros de su gabinete (Gobernación, Defensa y Exteriores), en una imagen que recordaba a las épocas más represivas de la guerra civil, Morales dijo que había notificado a la ONU que no renovaría el mandato

Honduras

Valladares —who was a regional commander of the special criminal investigations unit (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal – DNIC) in San Pedro Sula— committed murder for the once powerful Cachiros drug trafficking organization

La captura de seis policías activos en los últimos dos meses es una muestra de que en la institución siguen las “manzanas podridas” a pesar del proceso de depuración

Mexico

ProPublica’s reporting detailed that the Mexican SIU had a yearslong, documented record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers

State authorities and military personnel took control of security in the municipality of Tehuacán in central Puebla state, disarming 205 municipal police officers on the force

Nicaragua

Authorities in Costa Rica arrested an alleged leader of an international drug trafficking organization while he was dining with the son of a Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate

U.S.-Mexico Border

A Texas National Guard soldier who is part of the state’s border protection buildup has been accused of stealing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection methamphetamine that federal agents had seized

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