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

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.

WOLA Podcast—The Transition: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tone

I thought it would be a good idea to record a few podcasts with colleagues at WOLA to talk about what this U.S. presidential transition means for Washington’s relations with Latin America. Here’s the first of what should be a series of four: more of an overall view of what Biden can do in a context of diminished U.S. standing and credibility in the region.

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 the transition period between the Biden and Trump 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.

The shift will be sharp in some ways, at least—but not across the board: even amid a changed tone, there may be some surprising continuities. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.

It’s a complex moment. Discussing it in this episode are WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristin Martinez-Gugerli.

This is the first of a few discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. In coming weeks we plan to cover migration and border security; anti-corruption; and the state of human rights and democracy.

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

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org / versión en español)

On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.

What is an “SFAB?”

On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country. 

Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”

Is this a big deployment? Is it new?

A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.

While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations. 

Is this about Venezuela?

U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.” 

The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.

If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.

The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?

The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.

The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:

  • Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
  • The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
  • The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
  • The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
  • The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.

Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.

Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers. 

That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.

The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.

We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.

Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?

The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.

The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up. 

If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.

The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.

Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”

Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.

It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.

This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.

WOLA Podcast: “How do we define success?” Jonathan Rosen on governments’ approaches to organized crime

I had a fun conversation yesterday with Jonathan Rosen. Here’s the description from WOLA’s site:

Jonathan Rosen, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has published a large body of books, articles, and edited volumes in the past several years on drug policy, organized crime, corruption, state failure, and violence in the Americas.

Here, Dr. Rosen shares a strong critique of “mano dura” approaches to crime and violence, the disjointed and short-term nature of U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, and the persistence of counter-drug strategies that simply don’t work.

He also discusses his experience as an expert witness in about 100 asylum cases involving threatened Latin American citizens in immigration courts around the country.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.

Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

Like the title says: not only is Colombia going full-throttle on manual eradication operations—U.S.-funded, U.S.-pressured manual eradication operations—in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.

The second killing happened yesterday (Wednesday), and we put together this WOLA statement.

Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.

At wola.org: Putting U.S. Counterdrug Operations in the Caribbean in Context

Hours after Wednesday’s White House announcement of a big military deployment to Latin America, ostensibly to stop drugs, I got together (virtually) with Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde from WOLA’s Venezuela program. We came up with a list of questions, then started typing what we know, and what we need to know, into a Google Doc.

The result is a memo where we come up with some fact-filled, and pretty skeptical, answers to the following questions. Read the memo here. It’s a good read, I promise.

  • Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”
  • Is this tied to the coronavirus outbreak?
  • Is this deployment linked to Venezuela’s crisis?
  • How important is Venezuela to the transnational drug trade?
  • How have other countries reacted to the news of the U.S. deployment?
  • How is geopolitics involved?
  • Is the U.S. government preparing for an invasion like in Panama 1989?
  • What are the risks associated with this policy?

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in March

  • The State Department’s annual report on other countries’ counter-drug efforts, with some information about U.S. aid.
    2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (Washington: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, March 2, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/2020-international-narcotics-control-strategy-report/>.
  • Intricately detailed tables of the status of aid to Central America between 2013 and 2018, from a GAO performance audit.
    U.S. Assistance to Central America: Status of Funding (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 4, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-163R>.
  • Two GAO reports about the Homeland Security Department’s processing—and cruel separating—of apprehended migrant families.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS’s Processes for Apprehended Family Members (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-274>.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHS (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-245>.

Colombia podcast with Toby Muse

Here’s today’s WOLA Podcast. We should have some going up tomorrow and Friday as well.

Toby Muse spent almost two decades as a foreign correspondent in Colombia, where he traveled to dozens of places affected by the war on drugs and recorded innumerable conversations with people—participants in the drug trade, officials, reformers, and victims caught in the middle. His new book, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels – From the Jungles to the Streets, draws heavily from all of his conversations. It comes out on March 24, 2020.

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 here.

Here Come the WOLA Podcasts

Everybody we know is home and on the internet, being “socially distant” for the good of society. Why not start recording conversations with them?

I usually put WOLA’s podcast out 1-2 times per month because my schedule is full and so are those of anyone I’d want to interview. I often spend as much time on the e-mail back-and-forth arranging the episodes as I do recording them.

Not so now. I recorded two today, and have two more scheduled just this week. Here’s the first one:

WOLA Senior Fellow Coletta Youngers and Senior Program Associate Teresa García Castro discuss their February 28 report about women coca and poppy growers in Bolivia and Colombia. It was published with three other organizations from around the region: the International Drug Policy ConsortiumDejusticia, and the Andean Information Network.

The roles played by women in coca and opium poppy producing zones get little attention: they’re often portrayed as passive victims. As Youngers and García Castro explain, women who grow these crops are in fact subjects who lead community organizing, fight for access to land titles, carry out much unpaid labor, and must contend with violence. Development won’t happen without them as partners.

Listen up top, download the mp3 here, and subscribe to the WOLA Podcast wherever you find your podcasts.

Why fumigation isn’t the solution, in 2 minutes

In response to the White House’s announcement yesterday that Colombian coca cultivation crept upward in 2019, I worked with WOLA colleagues to put out a good press release.

I wanted to do a bit more, and it seemed like a good moment to try something new: a rapid-response “explainer” video.

So here’s a quick explanation of Colombia’s coca phenomenon, and what hasn’t been tried (like, say, implementing the peace accord).

It turns out that, at least the first time one attempts this, it takes 2 and a half hours, between scripting and at least a dozen takes, to produce something reasonably coherent that fits within Twitter’s 2 minute, 20 second time limit for videos.

1,500 views on Twitter in 2 hours is pretty cool though.

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