Adam Isacson

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


Sadness (and hope)

We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.

Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.

We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.

It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.

2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.

There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.

Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.

Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.

The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.

The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.

Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.

The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.

The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.

That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.

Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.

Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.

Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.

But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.

Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.

Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.

Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.

Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.

As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.

So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.

Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.

After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.

Let’s have a happy new year.

An off-topic rant

Time for some off-topic venting. Bear with me, it’s just 353 words. But I need to rant.

It’s been 21 months since everything first closed down, and it’s still hard to get a COVID test here in the US. Wherever there’s a test site in DC, there’s dozens of people in line. Even hundreds. Some of them coughing. Pharmacies are mostly sold out of tests.

It’s December 2021.

And it seems worse elsewhere.

Think about how incredible that is. What a failure of leadership. We thought this would get better without Trump, but it didn’t. It just didn’t.

Perhaps the “free market will sort this out” myth took hold. Well, the free market didn’t foresee this.

Our family got boosters, but the online appointment system (with for-profit pharmacies, no government involved) made us wait nearly 3 weeks. For our kid, we had to drive for miles—and then the pharmacy screwed up the vax record and my wife spent an hour on hold trying to fix it.

We’re OK: we can deal with that kind of hassle. We have desk-at-home jobs and an older child.

But we’re the minority. What about those in worse shape than us? Elderly? Single parents? Low income? Low information? They’re struggling enough as it is.

What to us is added friction, to them means missing out on boosters and tests.

Getting tested and vaccinated should be effortless by now, especially for people trying to hold down jobs, raise kids, and stay afloat. People who don’t get the latest updates from NPR, NYT, or CDC.

That it isn’t effortless—that there are still so many shortages, so many friction points, and so little specific, current information from credible government sources, leaving so many instead just to share experts’ tweets? That’s a failure, and it will kill people this winter.

OK, end of rant.

I don’t initiate conversations about this in real life, because every time it comes up, I get so mad that whoever I’m talking with starts looking concerned. Even as I write this, I should probably go breathe into a paper bag.

I like cicadas actually

Here in the northeastern United States there’s a big insect called a cicada, which makes very loud noise and moves very slowly. The most common ones here spend 17 years underground, then emerge each spring. Every year, their numbers are different, but the largest “brood” by far, last seen in 2004, is out now.

I live in central Washington, which is heavily paved and has few cicadas. My wife and I went for a walk yesterday in a park about 9 miles south of here, along the Potomac River, and there were clouds of them. They’re everywhere. They’re so dumb and clunky that they just fly into you:

And they’re loud. Their collective sound is like a sine wave, at the volume of a car alarm going off down the block:

I’m sure if the area around my house sounded like this, I’d be sick of them. But since I only hear them when I get to take a walk in the woods—and it makes the experience eerie and bizarre—I’m a big fan of the cicadas.

Oh also, we saw some bald eagles. This is the best I could do with my phone camera:


The view from my seat while hosting yesterday’s virtual event on coca and eradication in Colombia.

Friday afternoon

My wife took this photo of me working at home today. Why would I ever want to go back to the office? To have more mousepad space, I guess.

The microphone is for podcasting—got it 9 years ago for $100. I’m not sure what the cat is for—got it 17 1/2 years ago for free.

“Important Numbers”: a New Section at the Revived Site

When trying to understand peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we have to rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.

In response to that need, a new section of our “” site—which I’ve been updating and improving over the past two weeks—just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.

Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:

  • Attacks on Social Leaders
  • Child Combatants
  • Coca and Eradication
  • Crop Substitution
  • Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
  • Displacement
  • Dissident Groups
  • ELN
  • FARC Political Future
  • Protection of Ex-Combatants
  • Public Security
  • Stabilization and Rural Governance
  • Transitional Justice

This page will never be “done.” It’ll need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to the list above. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.

Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.

  • As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
  • Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
  • In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
  • More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
  • “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
  • The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
  • The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
  • INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
  • On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
  • As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).

Tips and Tricks: how I gather information every morning

Doing my job properly means reading a lot. Even before “reading,” though, it means scanning and gathering from a wide variety of sources, both here and in Latin America: news, journalism, analysis, scholarly and think-tank research, NGO reports, government documents, and my own fieldwork, meeting, and interview notes.

This “gathering” exercise is, for me, a well-worn morning ritual. It happens very early, and usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes. It’s a solitary task, usually performed with a smart playlist of mostly new, unheard music shuffled into my headphones. (I use Apple Music for this; if I hear a song I like, I give it a “star” rating and it goes into another playlist where I can hear it more often.)

At this point, I’m trying to figure out what’s happened and what’s relevant for my work. I’m not doing close reading, I’m saving things for later. I save the most important things in a database that I coded myself. You probably don’t need to do that. But I do recommend two “buckets” to put things in:

  1. A “read later” service that quickly cleans the HTML cruft away from, and archives, every article that I find of interest and seriously intend to read closely once I’m out of “gathering” mode. These services have apps that let you read saved articles on your phone or tablet, keeping everything in sync. I use Instapaper, which costs $30 per year, and it works fine for me. Pocket, its main competitor, may be just as good.
Instapaper version of an article from Colombia’s El Espectador.
  1. Since those “read later” services can’t handle PDFs, you need a separate place to put PDFs to read later (in my case, these are mostly government reports, NGO reports, scholarly articles, hearing testimonies, and the like). Saving them to a folder that syncs with the cloud, like in Dropbox or iCloud, is fine. Some people like to use an archiving app like Evernote or DevonThink, which is fine too. The important thing is to be able to get to them easily when you’re in “reading” mode.

For me, “gathering” means consulting, in as fast and automated a way as possible, the websites of about 300 news outlets, NGOs, think tanks, blogs, and other sources of interest throughout the hemisphere. I’ve found it possible to do this in less than 90 minutes by relying on two tools: RSS and Nuzzel.


Did you know that almost every website that posts articles regularly has a “back end” that lists the articles in reverse chronological order? And that you can subscribe to dozens of these “back ends” at once, and read them all together like one big e-mail inbox?

RSS stands for “Real Simple Syndication,” and it was a big deal during the early 2000s. Google even had a service called “Google Reader” that was hugely popular and dominated the market, but then Google discontinued it when they couldn’t figure out how to make money from it.

The popularity of RSS never recovered—but most sites still have RSS feeds. Here’s mine. Here’s the New York Times’s “Americas” feed. Here are the feeds of Colombia’s El Tiempo. Here’s The Onion’s feed.

If you clicked one of those links, you may have seen a lot of XML code that was hard to read. That’s because you need to use a website or app called an RSS reader. These show you all the feeds you’ve subscribed to, as a giant list of articles. Most keep track of articles that you’ve read already, so you don’t have to see them again, you just see what’s new.

There are some good RSS readers out there: FeedWrangler, Feedly, Reeder, FeedBin, NewsBlur and NetNewsWire are probably the most common. On iOS, Unread and Reeder are great. I use FeedWrangler on my computer ($19 per year) because it has two key features. (Others may have these now too, but they didn’t years ago, the last time I was shopping around.) They are:

  1. “Smart streams.” I subscribe to over 300 feeds. That’s something like 4,000 articles per day, many of which are totally irrelevant to me. I can’t read through all that. I work on defense and security in Latin America, so I have a “smart stream” called “Military,” in which FeedWrangler looks through everything and just gives me articles that include the word roots <<“Armed Forces” OR “Fuerzas Armadas” OR military OR militar OR army OR ejercito OR “FF.AA.” OR FFAA OR “Guardia Nacional”>>. That gives me a much more manageable list that looks like this:
Not every resulting article is relevant, but most of them are.
  1. Navigation without taking your hands off the keyboard. If you use Gmail and get hundreds of messages a day, hopefully you use the keyboard shortcuts that process your mail without you having to reach for your mouse, or even your arrow keys. (“J” for previous message, “K” for next message, “E” to archive the message, “R” to reply, etc.). It’s such a time-saver. FeedWrangler lets me navigate similarly through hundreds of articles each morning. J and K to go up and down; “I” to send it to Instapaper. I do have to reach for my mouse, though, if I want to open the article in another browser tab, which is usually necessary to read it more fully or to put it in my database.

That’s RSS, and I don’t know what I’d do without it. Also, when adding feeds to your RSS reader, be sure to mix in a few feeds from sites that you visit for fun: in my case, I’ve got feeds from many music, humor, culture, and politics sites, local neighborhood blogs, and tech and baseball news. Thanks to RSS, I usually find out about newly released music, upcoming concerts, or new gadgets on sale at 5:30 AM while gathering Latin America news and analysis.

Twitter and Nuzzel

Twitter now rivals RSS as a source of news and analysis. I follow over 1,000 colleagues, scholars, journalists, officials, and enthusiasts covering aspects of Latin American politics, security, human rights, or U.S. policy. And many of them are actively posting links to relevant stuff every day, much of it stuff that I would miss otherwise.

It’s impossible, though, to scroll through 1,000-plus people’s postings from the past 24 hours looking for links to click on. That’s where Nuzzel comes in. This free site looks at the accounts of everyone you follow, and spits out a web page with all of their most-linked-to pages over the past 24 hours (or other time period). That’s all it does, and it’s a huge help. I usually check Nuzzel first every morning, before wading into RSS.

My Nuzzel home page this morning.

If you want to go all in

RSS and Nuzzel give me 90-95 percent of what I gather every day, and they’re both very quick to navigate. But I check a few other things, as time allows, when I want to be complete.

  1. I keep a page with links to a few sites that don’t have RSS feeds, or have unreliable RSS feeds. Here is mine: it’s not a long list, and I only click on a few of these every day, if in the mood. You don’t need to have a website to make a page like this, even a Google Doc will do.
  2. At a higher but not insurmountable skill level, I use a command-line tool called youtube-dl to grab audio or video of think-tank events, congressional hearings, and official speeches or press conferences that might have interesting information. That way, even if I don’t have internet access, I can view or hear those resources later. Thanks to youtube-dl, for instance, I have a whole playlist of congressional hearing audios saved on my phone.
  3. I sign up for any relevant e-mailing lists, such as think-tanks and human rights groups announcing releases of reports. A small but hopefully growing number of people are also putting out newsletters, like James Bosworth’s Latin America Risk Report or the Perry Center’s Daily News Roundup.

Reading what you’ve gathered: still working on that

So that’s how I’m finding most of my information these days, and it works really well. This exercise, though, is the easy part: you’re sort of on autopilot, scanning through a firehose of sources for what’s important. Later, you have to dedicate separate time for reading (or watching, or listening to) whatever you’ve saved to “read later.” And ideally, while doing that reading you have some system for filing away the facts or other bits of information that you’d want to be able to refer back to later.

This is still an unsolved problem for me. I’ve now got a big pile of Instapaper files, a bursting folder of PDF documents, a stack of recently published books, and a long playlist of hearing and event audios. Closely reading them, and putting the important bits in a place where I can find them later, requires more time than I’ll ever have, and I haven’t figured out how to delegate much of it to others.

My database of saved information falls behind a lot, especially when I enter seasons of heavy travel, meetings, or publication deadlines. For now, I’m just doing my best. And even if I never catch up, I’ve still got a high level of “situational awareness” just from performing that daily “gathering” exercise every morning.

Tuesday in Bogotá

A day of meetings in the capital city doesn’t lend itself to magical photography. But here are a few quick snapshots.

Calle 26

By the Palacio de Nariño (presidential palace)

Carrera 9

Whoa I’ve been libeled! (and really sloppily too)

Here’s an English translation of a note I just dashed off to Roberto Pombo, director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. 

(Other than a conversation or two with lawyers, this is the last thing I want to do about this today—there are more important things to do. But I’m looking forward to pursuing this as far as it goes. Enough of this lying crap.)

Dear Dr. Pombo,

In his column today, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza [prominent author and right-wing columnist] says the following about me:

While Col. Mejía is denied conditional liberty, Guzmán lives today in Maryland, where he was brought by Adam Isacson, a FARC-protecting lawyer.

It would be hard for you to publish something more false.

  • I’m not a lawyer.
  • I didn’t bring anyone to the United States. Edwin Guzmán’s lawyers asked me to serve as an expert witness in his asylum case. I wrote an affidavit and appeared before an immigration judge, working pro bono. And that’s it. I still believe that Edwin Guzmán acted with courage by denouncing the criminal acts of his boss, Col. Hernán Mejía (now in prison). For this act, he received strong threats.
    [Note: Guzmán accused Col. Mejía, one of Colombia’s most decorated army officers, of conspiring with paramilitaries to boost his unit’s body count. Here’s what I wrote about the case when the news broke in 2007.]
  • I haven’t had contact with anyone identifying him or herself as a FARC member since 1999 and 2001, when I participated in meetings, with the full knowledge of the Colombian government, to discuss the peace process that was active at that moment. On those occasions, I voiced many complaints and disagreements about issues like kidnapping, coca, and the need to respect international humanitarian law.

What is certain is: El Tiempo just published in its pages a piece tying a private citizen with a group on his country’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And it did so without any effort to verify what was written. This is very serious.

I request a published rectification, done in a fast, clear, and prominent manner.

In both of our countries, we’re living through a special moment. In this moment, many participants in public life are slandering and libeling with impunity. You, as journalists, are frequent victims of this phenomenon. Whether it comes from Uribe or from Trump, it’s important to resist this wherever it appears. And for that reason, I’m prepared to bring this issue to its legal consequences if necessary.


Adam Isacson

(Proud Dad post)

With Spelling Bee week now over, I just want to take a moment here to congratulate my brilliant daughter Margaret, who—amid a pile of extracurricular activities and her dad’s frequent travels—managed to win the Washington DC Spelling Bee in March and finish 41st in the National Bee this week.

Screen grab of Margaret from USA Today.

It was a great experience for her. Check her out on our local CBS and FOX affiliates. And thanks to the great folks at the Washington Informer who sponsored DC’s Spelling Bee and made it all possible.

(This week’s festivities are why I’ve been less active in maintaining this site during the past week. And with a family gathering this weekend, and WOLA’s annual planning retreat this Wednesday and Thursday, posting here will continue to be light. After that, though, I will resume the pace.)

Newer Posts
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.