Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

Archives

Guatemala

WOLA Podcast: A Tumultuous Presidential Inauguration Heralds a New Chapter in Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Struggle

Here’s a podcast about Guatemala’s new president and the challenges he faces. I recorded it yesterday with Ana María and Jo-Marie from WOLA. This is a lively one, and I think I’m definitely getting better at sound editing. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

After relentless attempts to block his inauguration and a nine-hour delay, Bernardo Arévalo, who ran for Guatemala’s presidency on an anti-corruption platform, was sworn into office minutes after midnight on January 14.

In this highly educational episode, WOLA Director for Central America Ana María Méndez Dardón is joined by WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt. Both were in Guatemala witnessing the high-tension event that was Arévalo’s inauguration. They cover the frustration, excitement, and symbolism that characterized the day, while also diving into a host of topics surrounding the state of Guatemala’s democracy.

They assess the main threats to Arevalo’s leadership and the goals of his party, Movimiento Semilla, particularly those related to addressing corruption and impunity. Ana Maria and Jo-Marie touch on the distinct roles of Guatemalan indigenous communities, the United States, and the private sector. They describe the hope that Arevalo represents for the Guatemalan people in terms of security, justice, and the rule of law, while identifying the harsh realities of deeply embedded corruption a recalcitrant high court and attorney general.

Read Ana María’s January 9 commentary, Ushering in a New Period: Bernardo Arévalo’s Opportunities and Challenges to Restoring Democracy in Guatemala, for a readable, in-depth analysis of these topics.

Download the podcast episode’s .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

1 in 300 Hondurans, in a Month

For about every 300 Honduran citizens living in Honduras, 1 was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in August 2023 alone. That’s 35,173 people out of a population of 10.6 million.

Chart: Citizens of Honduras: CBP Encounters At and Between Ports of Entry

	Between the Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	At the Ports of Entry (CBP Office of Field Operations)
19-Oct	5449	270
19-Nov	4479	295
19-Dec	4202	180
20-Jan	2567	211
20-Feb	2802	175
20-Mar	3226	124
20-Apr	1872	19
20-May	1712	34
20-Jun	2101	46
20-Jul	2880	25
20-Aug	3983	45
20-Sep	4818	28
20-Oct	7330	40
20-Nov	8146	53
20-Dec	10296	62
21-Jan	11162	70
21-Feb	20102	78
21-Mar	41989	127
21-Apr	37738	467
21-May	30624	1507
21-Jun	32620	2413
21-Jul	42594	2703
21-Aug	39532	2593
21-Sep	26798	280
21-Oct	21779	82
21-Nov	19917	188
21-Dec	17856	285
22-Jan	11726	285
22-Feb	13689	386
22-Mar	15709	504
22-Apr	14261	1473
22-May	17999	1731
22-Jun	22712	1465
22-Jul	18123	2217
22-Aug	13218	3001
22-Sep	12197	2220
22-Oct	10658	3445
22-Nov	10160	2990
22-Dec	10329	2947
23-Jan	8982	2048
23-Feb	10098	837
23-Mar	11524	1831
23-Apr	12112	1106
23-May	17813	3226
23-Jun	10660	4434
23-Jul	23091	2934
23-Aug	31747	3426

Data table

Even more citizens from Guatemala arrived at the border in August (37,937), but Guatemala’s population is larger (18.1 million). That is 1 of every 477 Guatemalan citizens living in Guatemala.

Citizens of Guatemala: CBP Encounters At and Between Ports of Entry

	Between the Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	At the Ports of Entry (CBP Office of Field Operations)
19-Oct	5788	121
19-Nov	6129	111
19-Dec	6396	94
20-Jan	4487	93
20-Feb	4802	83
20-Mar	4269	60
20-Apr	1340	17
20-May	702	22
20-Jun	997	67
20-Jul	2349	69
20-Aug	4106	40
20-Sep	5878	34
20-Oct	9225	67
20-Nov	10279	44
20-Dec	12394	60
21-Jan	13082	55
21-Feb	19029	125
21-Mar	33921	139
21-Apr	29782	271
21-May	25846	606
21-Jun	29423	823
21-Jul	35674	794
21-Aug	36216	892
21-Sep	24162	126
21-Oct	19301	73
21-Nov	20379	90
21-Dec	20908	101
22-Jan	13746	110
22-Feb	18081	134
22-Mar	21245	147
22-Apr	19453	457
22-May	21076	392
22-Jun	24219	429
22-Jul	19810	402
22-Aug	15092	589
22-Sep	14910	421
22-Oct	14254	593
22-Nov	13970	545
22-Dec	14247	639
23-Jan	11531	439
23-Feb	14016	204
23-Mar	14884	409
23-Apr	14310	273
23-May	14152	667
23-Jun	9548	814
23-Jul	21491	637
23-Aug	37204	733

Data table

Mixing messages

I know “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” or whatever, but it’s still jarring to see the U.S. government say, on the same day:

“We’re concerned about Guatemala criminalizing journalists” and

“We’re giving Guatemala’s ambassador a helicopter ride.”

WOLA Podcast: Guatemala: An Eroding Democracy Approaches New Elections

Guatemala’s presidential vote happens June 25. But candidates are being excluded, and anti-corruption leaders are being jailed and exiled. As gains made since a 1985 democratic transition face threats, I discuss ways forward with with Ana María Méndez Dardón, WOLA’s Director for Central America, and with Will Freeman, Fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s page for this episode.

As in much of Central America, Guatemala’s democracy has deteriorated recently. Progress on human rights and accountability, made since a 1985 transition to democracy and a 1996 peace accord, is either threatened or reversed. The judicial system has been turned against people who had fought during the 2010s to hold corrupt individuals accountable.

Elections are drawing near, with the first round scheduled for June 25. Candidates are being disqualified, while judicial workers and journalists continue to be imprisoned or exiled. U.S. policy upholds reformers at times, but is inconsistent and hard to pin down.

This episode discusses Guatemala’s current challenges with Ana María Méndez Dardón, WOLA’s Director for Central America, and with Will Freeman, Fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

See also:

Venezuelans stuck in Guatemala: “We all know that this is corruption”

Here’s a good podcast transcript, from Guatemala’s Agencia Ocote, about Venezuelan migrants stranded in Guatemala after passing through the dangers of Panama’s Darién Gap. They’re stranded, usually, because Guatemalan police shook them down and took all their money.

Osmary López: I was carrying 500 dollars too, and on the way here it’s crazy, because these police make everything a bargain. If you don’t have any, then they want to throw you out… Apart from the fact that they put you in the truck, they put you in the truck, they leave you there, you pay them… They take your money and you just walk away and that’s it.

Gabriel Ferrer: They know how to do things, because we came riding the bus. There were ten Venezuelans, 15 Venezuelans. First they ask for the Venezuelan ID card, they leave us on the bus. Then they take the Guatemalan people off the bus so they can’t see what they are doing to us. And after they take everything from us, they put the Guatemalan people back on the bus, and we all know that this is corruption.

Darío Rodríguez: You come with more or less enough money to get to the route or to the destination where you want to go, but when the police catch you and take the money they charge you and all that, then it’s hard for you to get to the destination.

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.

“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.

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.

Big new report: “The ‘Wall’ Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border”

This map of the Mexico-Guatemala border region displays all locations mentioned in the report. We were present at those in blue during our August 2019 field research visit.

It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.

It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.

Contents
Introduction
Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure

* Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border
* U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows
* Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border
Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone
Migration Patterns and Smuggling

* Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends
* Extra-Continental Migrants
* Shifts in Migration Routes
* Trends in Corridors
The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown
* Detention Facilities
* Crimes against Migrants
* Migrants and the Local Population
Asylum and Detention
* Why Migrants are Fleeing
* Mexico’s Asylum System
* COMAR on the Brink
* Exit visas
* Buses from the Northern Border
Official Corruption in the Border Zone
U.S. Assistance in the Border Region
Conclusions
Recommendations

Some Mexico-Guatemala Border Crossings

I’m back, as of a few hours ago, from a week along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. There’s a lot to talk about – but for now, some photos of border crossings.

Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Army wearing armbands of Mexico’s new National Guard at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Mexico is cracking down (under U.S. pressure) at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala. Fewer rafts are crossing.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? New analysis at WOLA’s website

Here’s a short analysis posted to WOLA’s website (Español). It jumps off from last Friday’s Washington Post finding that dozens of CBP and ICE officers may be sent to Guatemala to work as “advisors” at the country’s border with Mexico.

The piece is built around a listing of Homeland Security and Defense Department deployments to Guatemala in recent years, collected from my database. Those have had names like “Operation Citadel,” “Operation Regional Shield,” “Operation Hornet,” “Operation Together Forward,” and several others.

The point is that even if the past deployments brought some results, they made no difference in migrant and drug-smuggling out of Guatemala. And nor will any new 80-person mission.

They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. 

Read the whole thing here (Español).

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

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 Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Marco Bello photo for Reuters. Caption: “Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017.”

Argentina

  • Outgoing Defense Minister Julio Martínez alleged that the previous governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández so neglected the country’s air force that “over a hundred [aircraft] went out of service or were decommissioned.”

Brazil

  • Brazilian Army soldiers, long tasked with guarding the country’s 10,400-mile land border, are increasingly being used as police. “During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets—double the number from the previous nine years combined,” according to an Economist report with an interesting map.

Colombia

  • The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has notified Colombia that she has her eye on 23 active and retired generals, and 6 colonels, who may bear responsibility for extrajudicial executions. The list, based on cases in five regions, includes the current chief of the armed forces, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez.
  • The mayor of Antioquia, Colombia—the department (province) whose capital is Medellín—is moving forward with a proposal to install retired army colonels as “vice-mayors” of historically conflictive towns. Local human rights groups are opposing the idea.

Cuba

  • American University’s William Leogrande takes down the claim—repeated by proponents of the Trump administration’s tightening of commerce with Cuba—that the Cuban military controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. “Sectors in which the military has little or no participation easily comprise more than half of GDP, and in the other sectors, there are civilian as well as military-controlled firms.”

Ecuador

  • 3,000 members of Ecuador’s armed forces have been deployed to play an anti-crime role in the western provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Los Ríos. They are mostly searching vehicles at road checkpoints, looking for weapons or other signs of organized crime activity.

Guatemala

  • At NACLA, David Unger summarizes a surprising book by an active-duty Guatemalan colonel. Col. Edgar Rubio Castañeda’s “Desde el Cuartel” (From the Barracks) is a blistering critique of the country’s inequality, the oligarchy that benefits from it, and the military’s role in propping it up.

Mexico

  • Top brass in Mexico’s armed forces have been issuing pointed messages about ethics in politics. Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos called for more effort against corruption and impunity, which he said have “damaged our society.” Navy Minister Adm. Vidal Soberón said that human rights violations are “contrary to every definition of our reason for being” and “will never be tolerated.” However, the investigative website Animal Político reported that prosecutors failed to act on at least five anonymous tips that a local Army captain was tied to the drug-trafficking group (Guerreros Unidos) that massacred 43 students in Iguala, Mexico in September 2014.

Venezuela

  • At least 123 members of all branches of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since daily anti-government protests began in April. According to Reuters, “nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.” The majority are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison where opposition leader Leopoldo López was interned until this past weekend.
  • From his cell, López recorded a video urging military personnel to “rebel” against orders to repress protesters. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that “an air of change” can be felt within Venezuela’s armed forces, but not the National Guard. “A very important decision is coming from the components of our armed forces,” Capriles added.
Older Posts
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.