Adam Isacson

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


A towering reading list from just the past two weeks

A lot of my work centers on Colombia, security, human rights, and borders. So for me, the past two weeks have just been a nonstop storm of new knowledge, a driving downpour of amazing things to read. Important new work and must-read documents have been coming nearly every day.

(This in addition to a wealth of live events and volumes of coverage of Colombia’s remarkable election outcome.)

Here are some links. Don’t even ask me to summarize these yet. I’m reading as fast as I can.




6 Latin America longreads from September

Western Hemisphere Regional

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras


  • Roberto Valencia, Ver, Oir y Linchar en Chichicastenango (El Faro (El Salvador), September 24, 2018).

    Hoy, Chichi (170 000 habitantes) es una de las ciudades menos homicidas en la región más homicida del mundo –el Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica–, con una tasa de asesinatos inferior a la de Chile, Bélgica o Canadá. ¿Quiere saber por qué?


18 Latin America longreads from August

(I leave for Colombia in the morning, so I’m churning out a bunch of end-of-month posts tonight. It’s more fun than packing.)

Todd Wiseman photo at The Texas Tribune. Caption: “A raft loaded with undocumented immigrants navigates the Mexican side of the Rio Grande across from Ruperto Escobar’s ranch in April 2016. The ranch sits along the Rio Grande, the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, in Starr County in South Texas. For generations smugglers have used the ranch to move people and product across the border, and Escobar doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

The Border Patrol shooting of a young Guatemalan immigrant remains a mystery three months later. A phone video provides the only clue about what happened

“You can be in a neighborhood where kids are playing in the streets, and there could be a stash house next door”

The conclusions listed in the report point to serious challenges in building some, if not all, of the prototypes as they were erected in San Diego, because of structural issues in their design or with construction

Crossing the Rio Grande has had certain procedural advantages. Immigrants who enter the country illegally are generally eligible to be released on bond, while those who present themselves at the bridges stay in detention

NPR recently spent time on both sides of the border, where immigration is part of everyday life


After clashes with native groups over development, and controversial maneuvers to stay in office, indigenous voters are now turning against him


En entrevista, habla un vocero autorizado de la organización delictiva más poderosa de Colombia

El discurso del nuevo presidente terminó con una invitación a todos los colombianos a hacer un Pacto por el futuro de Colombia. Y la pregunta del millón, es cómo se hará ese pacto y con quiénes y si eso incluye a Macías y a los que piensan como él


The circle is nearly closed. Jimmy Morales, who won power precisely because of his predecessor’s corruption, is now facing down accusations that he committed some of the same transgressions. It was a biblical lesson he apparently missed


The bungling of the investigation in Haiti didn’t even come to light until two veteran DEA agents filed whistleblower complaints that have triggered a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the effectiveness of the DEA’s drug-fighting efforts


Las madres agraviadas manifiestan su desconcierto sobre el tema de la amnistía y el perdón a los criminales. Así lo expresaron en los dos primeros foros realizados la semana pasada

AMLO and his advisers have proposed sending drug war-fighting soldiers back to their barracks, pardoning nonviolent drug offenders, and boosting social programs


In April, their fiction of a prosperous and politically stable Nicaragua collapsed like a house of cards

A senior U.S. official whom I spoke to feared that Ortega was using death squads to silence his opposition. “We’ve moved from a climate of fear to one of terror”

Cuatro estudiantes nicaragüenses que la semana pasada estuvieron en Guatemala participando de una actividad académica, explican desde sus posiciones en resistencia, los orígenes de la crisis política que vive Nicaragua desde abril pasado

There is already a sense that order is fragile, and that an anarchic slide has already begun


La reciente muerte de un suboficial de la FAP en el Vraem revela la intensa disputa territorial entre las Fuerzas Armadas y Sendero Luminoso. Cabecilla terrorista ‘Antonio’ busca posicionarse en zonas de producción de droga

17 Remarkable Latin America Reads From 2017

Corruption scandals, organized crime, democratic weakening, and an unhelpful new administration in Washington made this a tough year for Latin America. Through it all, journalists and non-governmental organizations were on top of their game.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and there’s a bias towards coverage of things I didn’t know before. But here are just 17 articles and reports that really stuck with me this year.

  1. Ginger Thompson at ProPublica and National Geographic: “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” June 12, 2017.
    A Mexican police unit working closely with the DEA leaked sensitive information to the Zetas in 2011. The Zetas used it to massacre dozens, possibly hundreds, in a town near the U.S. border. The DEA did nothing. With photos and recordings from many witnesses—including ex-Zetas and U.S. officials—Thompson reconstructs the horror and what U.S. drug warriors must learn from it. And today, she just published another account of a DEA-linked Zetas massacre, in Monterrey in 2010.
  2. Azam Ahmed and Nicole Perlroth at The New York Times: “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families,” June 19, 2017.
    The Times broke the story of the Peña Nieto government’s misuse of spyware to hack the mobile phones of human rights defenders and journalists, including the OAS team of international experts who were investigating the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre.
  3. Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson at Revista Factum: “En la Intimidad del Escuadrón de la Muerte de la Policía,” August 22, 2017.
    Given a presidential green light to use all means to combat gangs, some of El Salvador’s police have been acting like death squads, carrying out extrajudicial executions of people they believe are gang members. The investigation reveals pages of WhatsApp conversations between cops celebrating their killings.
  4. Sarah Chayes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “When Corruption Is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras,” May 30, 2017.
    Chayes puts Honduras’s kleptocratic networks under a microscope, showing how they penetrate all corners of political and economic power. Reading this makes the feeble U.S. response to its “ally” all the more maddening.
  5. Maye Primera at El Faro and Univisión: “El Salvador, a country sown with death,” October 29, 2017.
    Fourth in a remarkable four-part series about the migrant trail from Central America’s Northern Triangle to Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. Should dispel any doubt that a large portion of Central American migrants arriving in the United States right now are fleeing for their lives.
  6. Emma Graham-Harrison at The Guardian: “Downward Spiral: How Venezuela’s Symbol of Progress Became Political Prisoners’ Hell,” September 15, 2017.
    Caracas’s “Helicoide” building was a symbol of Venezuela’s 1950s optimism and modernism. It later became a torture center for political prisoners, and remains a prison today—as well as the decaying headquarters of the intelligence services. What a metaphor.
  7. Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, María Victoria Llorente, Andrés Cajiao, and Juan Carlos Garzón V. at Fundación Ideas para la Paz: “Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición: radiografía necesaria,” July 15, 2017.
    The most thorough exploration of Colombia’s post-conflict security challenges throughout the territory. The FIP packed this report with graphics, maps, and recent information based on field research.
  8. Ximena Suárez-Enríquez and Maureen Meyer at WOLA: “Overlooking Justice – Human Rights Violations Committed by Mexican Soldiers against Civilians are Met with Impunity,” November 7, 2017.
    As Mexico approves a law cementing in place the military’s role in internal policing, WOLA documents an ominous fact: according to judicial records, Mexican soldiers who violate human rights are almost never punished.
  9. Misha Glenny at The Intercept: “One of Rio de Janeiro’s Safest Favelas Descends Into Violence, the Latest Sign of a City in Chaos,” September 25, 2017.
    Rocinha, a giant favela looming over some of Rio’s wealthiest beachfront neighborhoods, is getting very violent again. Glenny, who wrote a book last year about Rocinha and its organized-crime boss Nem, documents the sad deterioration of Rio’s “favela pacification” program.
  10. Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk at Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego: “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016,” March 2017.
    The geography, the principal actors, and chronological trends in Mexico’s organized-crime violence. A detailed, graphical overview from people who’ve been following this for years.
  11. Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson and Steven Dudley at InsightCrime: “Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima,” January 26, 2017.
    A compelling story and an inside look at the late Guatemalan Army Captain, the corrupt, murderous military faction he represented, and how he used his ties to state power and the criminal underworld to thrive while serving a prison term for helping to murder a bishop.
  12. Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera at The New York Times: “As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” December 17, 2017.
    A difficult read—and even harder photos to view—illustrating the savage result of the Venezuelan government’s ineptitude, dictatorial misrule, and epic corruption.
  13. Alex Yablon at The Trace: “American Guns Drive the Migrant Crisis That Trump Wants to Fix With a Wall,” May 25, 2017.
    Thousands of guns sold legally in the United States are pouring into Central America, arming the criminal groups who, in turn, are forcing thousands of Central Americans to flee to the United States.
  14. Michael Smith, Sabrina Valle, and Blake Schmidt at Bloomberg Businessweek: “No One Has Ever Made a Corruption Machine Like This One,” June 8, 2017.
    “Follow the money” stories are often hard to read because they’re so complicated. Shell companies, offshore banking, and similar mechanisms are hard to understand. This one isn’t hard to read: it’s a well-told walkthrough of Brazil’s massive Odebrecht scandal.
  15. Héctor Silva Ávalos at InsightCrime: “Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade,” June 7, 2017.
    The coca and cocaine heartland of Colombia’s Pacific coast in the aftermath of the FARC peace accord, as seen through the sharp eyes of a highly regarded Salvadoran journalist .
  16. Alexis Okeowo at The New Yorker: “A Mexican Town Wages Its Own War on Drugs,” November 27, 2017.
    The story of Nestora Santiago, who organized a civilian “self-defense” force in a small town in the opium-poppy heartland of Guerrero, Mexico. Some residents defend her for making the town safer when corrupt police couldn’t. Others denounce her very real abuses of power, and of human rights.
  17. Lee Fang at The Intercept: “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians are Remaking Latin American Politics,” August 9, 2017.
    The Atlas Network has a lot of resources, and it’s been backing a growing network of small-government, free-market-fundamentalist think-tanks around Latin America, a region that already has the world’s most lopsided concentration of wealth.

9 Latin America longreads from June

Photo from InsightCrime. Caption: “ELN flag in Roberto Payán, Nariño”

Everything here is at least 2,500 words long, but worth your time.


Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges of a post-conflict Colombia more evident, and perhaps no other part of the world is more indicative of how an economy can be fueled by the production and trafficking of cocaine

El fenómeno SÍ es sistemático. Apabullantemente sistemático. Mirando desde tres perspectivas –semántica, jurídica y estadística– llegamos a la conclusión de que simplemente no es verosímil escamotearle su sistematicidad

A partir de ese día, las zonas se convertirán en Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación, donde los desde ahora exguerrilleros harán todas las actividades necesarias para reincorporase a la vida legal


Worried about bureaucratic pushback to preserve Obama’s normalization, the Florida senator went directly to the president with a plan in May


The DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed

The software has been used against some of the government’s most outspoken critics and their families, in what many view as an unprecedented effort to thwart the fight against the corruption infecting every limb of Mexican society

Hoy, una vez, más los periodistas saldrán a las calles paran exigir justicia no sólo para el periodista sinaloense sino por todos sus colegas asesinados

One perception among would-be border crossers is that under Trump the United States has gotten much tougher on migrants who are caught

Structured Operations doled out some $788 million in bribes in Brazil and 11 other countries, securing more than 100 contracts that generated $3.3 billion of profit

9 Latin America longreads from May

Semana archive photo from Verdad Abierta (Colombia). Caption: “Los ataques contra miembros de la Policía se han concentrado particularmente en Antioquia, Chocó, Córdoba, Sucre y Norte de Santander.”

Everything here is at least 2,500 words long, but worth your time.


The forces lined up against conservation have deep roots. The post-colonial history of Brazil is, to a large extent, the history of deforestation


Para doblegar a los ‘gaitanistas’ se requiere entender mejor esta amenaza. Aspecto en el que, por el momento, hay más sombras que luces

De un lado se está convirtiendo en uno de los polos de desarrollo mercantiles, financieros e inmobiliarios más importante del país; y de otro, el crimen organizado se consolida y le muestra sus colmillos a la institucionalidad

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Tens of thousands of firearms smuggled from the United States help to fuel extreme rates of violence


“Yes, I do have information from the grassroots about the bosses, but my work has been more about people who have had to suffer the narco”

Here, 38,000 vehicles and 18,900 pedestrians on average enter the U.S. daily as part of a constant ebb and flow of people

Desde agosto de 2016 hasta hoy, las mujeres que forman el Colectivo Solecito han encontrado y ayudado a exhumar 263 cuerpos en la que hoy se conoce como la fosa más grande de México

More than 140 Customs and Border Protection agents were arrested or convicted of corruption in recent years—and President Trump’s promise to hire 5,500 new agents could make the problem worse

More than 200 other migrants just like him died, their names unknown. Their bodies are part of a border-crossers’ morgue at a university lab

11 Latin America longreads from March

Photo credit “Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux” from the Bloomberg piece listed below. Caption: “An illegal mine in Peru. The primary tools in this type of mining are fire hoses and mercury.”

Everything here is at least 3,000 words long, but worth your time.

March 31, 2017


Traveling back through his family’s history, a reporter struggles with whether to return to the land of his birth, now that the Communist government wants to reclaim those who left


Tensions between the two countries could undermine the close law enforcement and security cooperation achieved under the administrations of presidents George W. Bush (2000-2008) and Barack Obama (2008-2016)

March 30, 2017


Mexico has a deeply flawed judicial system, and its flaws become most apparent when cases are brought against the powerful and the wealthy

March 20, 2017


Plantaciones extensivas de esta mata, la guerra y la violencia sexual han pasado por Putumayo con más que sangre para las organizaciones femeninas


In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala’s President

March 15, 2017


Chocó, Tumaco, Cauca, Buenaventura, el Bajo Cauca antioqueño, el eje Llanos Orientales-Orinoquia y Catatumbo se enfrentan a diversos tipos de violencias tras la salida de las FARC


The facts have become clear. Venezuela is in violation of every article in the Inter-American Democratic Charter

March 10, 2017


Unlike many parts of Arizona, New Mexico and California, where the border is an unseen straight line on the desert floor, the natural barrier of the Rio Grande made wall-building a frustrating experience

Chile, Western Hemisphere Regional

*Harold Vilches, a 23-year-old Chilean, exported $80 million in contraband gold. It all started with a Google search

March 3, 2017


The so-called “Tropical Spring” erupted, grabbed the attention of the world – and then disappeared (Or did it?). An in-depth look, nearly four years on

March 1, 2017


Most of those who attempt to climb the wall into the US will be arrested and sent back. If they survive, they will keep trying

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