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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Drug Policy

Video en español de hoy

Tuve una muy interesante discusión hoy, aquí en Washington en el programa Foro Interamericano de la Voz de América, con Néstor Osuna, el ministro de justicia de #Colombia. Hablamos sobre la política antidrogas y la política exterior de EEUU.

Coca in Mexico

During the López Obrador government (since December 2018), Mexican forces have eradicated 33.6 hectares of coca, according to the country’s presidency.

(Colombia, the most energetic eradicator, reported destroying 103,000 hectares in 2021 and nearly 60,000 in 2022 through October.)

Coca is taking off in Guatemala

It has long been taken for granted that nearly all coca—the illicit bush whose leaves can be used to make cocaine—is grown in three Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. If coca bushes pop up elsewhere, local security forces tend to eradicate them quickly.

That may be becoming less true. If you search Twitter for “coca @Ejercito_GT,” you can find a surprising number of official tweets about Guatemalan security-force personnel eradicating coca bushes.

In the past two weeks alone, tweets from Guatemala’s army and government show soldiers and police eradicating coca bushes in four of the country’s twenty-two departments. In some cases, the plants are quite tall, indicating that they’ve been thriving for a while.

Alta Verapaz, November 16.
Izabal, November 12, although the photos are identical to the Alta Verapaz tweet immediately above.
Petén, November 21.
Zacapa, November 9.

This isn’t a consequence of coca becoming scarcer in the Andes and forcing new growing locations. U.S. government estimates indicate that the leaf has never been more plentiful in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It may be a consequence of farmers in Guatemala’s neglected countryside searching for an income-generating crop during a COVID-battered economic moment. It may also be a result of traffickers seeking to do a bit of “nearshoring,” trying to produce cocaine closer to U.S. markets without having to ship it over oceans or through the Central American isthmus.

If it catches on, Guatemala could join the three Andean countries as one of the world’s main coca and cocaine producers, not just a transit country. The elements for coca to catch on are all in place. Proximity to a big market. Vast ungoverned rural spaces with smallholding farmers on the edge of hunger. Widespread, chronic state corruption being abetted by the current government and judicial system. A robust existing network of traffickers who are already doing great damage to fragile ecosystems.

Keep an eye on this.

Fentanyl seizures continue to increase at the U.S.-Mexico border

Heroin seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted 72% since 2018, but seizures of a more potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl, jumped by 641 percent during the same period. Like heroin, 90 percent of fentanyl is seized at official border crossings (ports of entry) or Border Patrol interior road checkpoints.

Mexico’s suspicious aircraft detections point to Venezuela

This is from the Mexican Presidency’s latest security report (October 20, page 61). It looks like Zulia, Venezuela has been the main jumping-off point for aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs toward Mexico.

Venezuela meanwhile claims to have destroyed 37 suspect aircraft so far this year:

Supply and demand

Here’s what it looks like when you chart out Table 8.3 in the just-released 2022 UNODC World Drug Report. This is the average price of a gram of cocaine sold on U.S. streets over the 31 years between 1990 and 2020, in 2020 inflation-adjusted dollars, adjusted for purity.

Two things stand out:

  • If the purpose of “supply side” drug policy is to make cocaine scarcer, it has largely failed to do so. The only moment when cocaine prices were a bit higher than usual—indicating some relative scarcity—was the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s. That was a time when aerial fumigation was declining in Colombia, and manual eradication and territorial governance efforts were increasing.
  • The White House’s last update on Andean cocaine showed the region’s total potential production of the drug increasing from 1,521 tons in 2016 to 2,132 tons in 2020. That’s a 40% potential supply increase. But this chart shows almost no decrease in price over those four years, just $6, or 3 percent. That probably tells us that the Andes’ big increase in coca and cocaine production is going to other countries’ drug markets, not to the United States, where there’s some balance between supply and demand.

Video of today’s event on militaries and the war on drugs

Congratulations to my colleagues in WOLA’s Drug Policy Program for organizing this successful October 29 event to discuss how nearly 40 years of counter-drug missions have distorted civil-military relations in the region. I was honored to be able to participate on this panel, covering U.S. military assistance.

Video of this morning’s Colombia coca event

Many thanks to our longtime friends and colleagues at the International Crisis group for joining us at this event. Though the topic is complex and often frustrating to teach, everybody explained well what they’ve been learning in the field, and the points that they wanted to get across. The moderation, interpretation, and technical aspects were all spot-on. We had well over 150 live viewers—I was glad to see the number not dropping as we passed the one-hour mark—and at least 200 more since then.

And don’t miss the February 26 ICG report on coca in Colombia, “Deeply Rooted,” on which this discussion centers.

Rethinking drug policy

Here’s a 250-word comment in yesterday’s edition of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor newsletter.

Q: U.S. Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on Dec. 1 released the final report of the congressionally mandated Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, which includes recommendations to improve U.S. drug policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Does the United States need a renewed blueprint for counternarcotics policies, as the report suggests? What are the most significant changes in drug policy that the commission recommends, and are they the right ones? In what ways would the proposed policies affect anti-drug cooperation between the United States and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean?

A: Adam Isacson, senior associate for the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America: “For four decades, U.S. administrations have sought to address illicit drugs as a problem somehow separate from Latin America’s other challenges, as though a country wracked with impunity, poverty and weak governance could somehow eliminate drug trafficking. Washington encouraged the region to pursue coercive strategies with short-term success measures and punished countries that failed to ‘cooperate fully.’ It hasn’t worked. Today, the United States is at a moment of record overdoses from illicit drugs produced in the region, while seizures and price data indicate burgeoning supplies. Organized crime, which gets much of its revenue from the drug trade, is thriving and spurring alarming levels of violence in many countries. Overall, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s most important contribution is its encouragement of a long- term time frame and a more equal, consultative approach. It would replace the unilateral ‘certification’ process with agreed-upon ‘compacts.’ It would place badly needed emphasis on illicit financial flows, which too often benefit corrupt officials and economic interests. In Colombia, it would de-emphasize forced eradication in favor of implementing the peace accords’ rural governance provisions. In Mexico and Central America, it prefers criminal justice reform and citizen security to endless ‘kingpin’ operations. The commission’s less threat-based, more equal approach might take longer to yield results and will require unaccustomed patience. These results, however, would hold much more promise of being permanent. A more consultative posture, meanwhile, would do far more to improve cooperation regionwide than the asymmetric relationship we’ve seen for so long.”

Video of yesterday’s discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia

That was a great discussion yesterday. As you could see if you “attended,” our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.

I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.

We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

A few important border graphics

Late Thursday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a pile of data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border in October.

Here are some key trends. Click on any graphic to expand in a new window. You can download a PDF packet of more than 30 of these infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The Trump administration has been around for 46 months (yes I know). Of those 46, October 2020 saw the 7th largest number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. And now they can’t blame it on “loopholes” or agents being constrained. They’re implementing some of the hardest-line anti-migration tactics ever, express-expelling most everybody, including asylum seekers, under a March 2020 CDC quarantine order.
Under the CDC border closure, US authorities have now express-expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times. (The actual number of individual people is fewer, because some have been caught more than once.) At least 13,000 of those expelled were children who arrived unaccompanied, and were pushed back to their home countries unaccompanied.
Border Patrol is apprehending more single adults than at any time in the past decade. While there’s double-counting here because “expelled” migrants often make a second or third attempt quickly, this is a dramatic change in the profile of migrants. Many of them may be deportees seeking to reunite with spouses, children, or other family members. Nearly all seek to avoid apprehension, which means it’s likely that more will die of dehydration or exposure in deserts and other wilderness areas.
For much of the 2010s, a large number—often a majority—of apprehended migrants were children and families, usually seeking to be apprehended in order to petition for asylum or other protection. Draconian Trump policies like “Remain in Mexico” reduced child and family asylum-seeking migration—but it has been slowly recovering in recent months.
Expulsions mean it’s virtually impossible for a parent or child who needs protection to do so by approaching a port of entry (official border crossing).
Mexico’s migrant apprehensions recovered in September to pre-pandemic levels. The overwhelming majority are from Central America.
After a pandemic lull, applications for asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR recovered to early 2020 levels in October.
Something is up with drug seizures. I had to increase the y-axis on three of these charts because of a big jump from September to October. Nearly all seizures occurred at ports of entry where CBP officers inspect vehicles, not between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

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