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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The Border Patrol Union’s Latest “Green Line” Podcast

Art Del Cueto is president of the Tucson Sector chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, the union whose membership includes about 75 percent of all Border Patrol agents. He was the solo host of the latest episode of the union’s weekly “Green Line” podcast, embedded here:

Entitled “Not Guilty!” the episode begins with a discussion of last week’s court verdict in Tucson, Arizona, in which a jury acquitted agent Lonnie Swartz of second-degree murder charges. The jury could not agree on lesser manslaughter charges, and prosecutors are considering whether to seek a new trial. In a 2012 incident, Swartz fired his service weapon through the fence that divides Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, aiming at a group of people throwing rocks at agents and local police. Swartz killed a 16-year-old Mexican boy, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, who was hit with 10 bullets.

Del Cueto, who was present at the trial, had much to say about the case, and about other topics. Here are a few things he said that deserve a response.

  • At 10:15, on a photo of the victim, Elena Rodríguez: “He actually looks like a thug, to be honest.”

He’s talking about a dead 16-year-old boy. If the goal here was to cede the moral high ground, then mission accomplished within the first 10 minutes.

Let’s juxtapose that with what the boy’s mother said last October:

“People will say many things about Jose Antonio, but as his mother I can say one thing: He wasn’t a criminal,” Araceli Rodriguez said.
“Even if he was throwing rocks, that person had no right to kill him,” she said, pointing to the border fence standing about 18 feet high atop a nearly 30-foot cliff on the other side of the street from where her son was killed, a demonstration that he could not have posed a reasonable threat to anyone on the other side. “And I will fight for him and defend him forever.”

  • At 14:22: “Lonnie took the extra initiative to use his firearm to defend his life and the life of fellow agents. I honestly think Lonnie is a hero. We don’t need to attack Lonnie. We need to hold Lonnie up as a hero, that’s what I think.”

As I detailed in a post last week, what Swartz did was a very poor example of how and when law enforcement personnel might use deadly force in a tense situation. No agent or policeman should emulate it. But by repeatedly calling him a “hero,” Del Cueto is urging agents to act the same way in similar situations.

Instead of rushing to “hero” status, we need to know what led an agent to fire his gun through the border fence 16 times in a span of 34 seconds, while no other agent or police officer on the scene felt a need to shoot even once. Was it faulty training? Was Swartz under mental or emotional stress? Did he truly see no other option at the moment?

  • At 20:40, Del Cueto seems confused about protesters using the slogan “no justice, no peace”: “‘No justice, no peace?’ What is the opposite of peace? It’s war. That’s the opposite of peace. …What does that mean? …Are you declaring war on our Border Patrol agents? …If you guys are declaring war, that’s not something you need to take lightly. And agents need to be aware of that, be a lot more cautious when you’re making certain stops because, you know, a war cry has been sent out.”

The opposite of “peace” is also discord, outrage, nonviolent resistance, and “no tranquility” in general. Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil-rights activist, says he helped coin the phrase after a 1986 racial violence incident in Howard Beach, Queens. He wrote in The Guardian in 2014:

Many at the time, and even to this day, wrongly equate the slogan to mean that we are somehow promoting violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. “No justice, no peace” means that, until we see fairness and accountability, we will not remain silent. Those who never want to see progress or change would love it if we remained quiet—that’s exactly why we don’t.

  • At 26:58, Del Cueto says a seizure of $81,000 in methamphetamine and “over $76,000” of cocaine off a bus in Laredo is “a huge huge dent to the cartels.”

If they’re using street value to estimate that, $76,000 worth of cocaine would be very roughly 760 grams at the most. That’s about three quarters of a kilogram. Colombia’s armed forces and police alone seized 432,000 kilograms of cocaine in 2018.

  • At 39:00: “I heard one ignorant idiot reporter on CNN—yes, I mentioned it—say that ‘this caravan has been going on for many years, and they’ve been doing it.’ Well, I hadn’t heard of it, so I think it’s B.S., I don’t think it’s just a good-time caravan.”

The group Pueblo Sin Fronteras has organized the “Viacrucis Migrante” (Migrant Stations of the Cross, as it coincides with Easter) every year since about 2010 or 2011. Its purpose has been to draw attention to abuse and lack of protection faced by Central American migrants inside Mexico.

An agent working at the U.S.-Mexico border probably wouldn’t have known much about it, because past caravans didn’t arrive there en masse—they tended to disperse even before reaching Mexico City. This year’s caravan also shed most of its participants by the time it reached the border and began petitioning for asylum. But approximately 200 did make it. What’s different this time? First, the event was larger, fed in part by a sharp increase in Honduran families. Second, it drew President Trump’s attention thanks to a Buzzfeed story that got picked up by Fox News. The increased international attention probably helped keep it together.

  • At 40:30: “If they really wanted asylum, though, why don’t they go to the port of entry and do it the right way? Why do they choose to enter without inspection between the ports? Why do they EWI? Because, I don’t know, let’s think about it. Maybe their intentions are not good? Just a thought, throwing it out there.”

Days after Del Cueto made this observation, 200 Caravan members are now in Tijuana, outside the San Ysidro port of entry, waiting their turns to have their asylum claims processed. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel charged with evaluating credible fear claims are already overwhelmed.

The Trump administration is promising to start fully enforcing existing law, which would require criminal prosecutions, fines and even jail time for every single person—even an asylum-seeking family—who crosses the border between ports of entry. 303,916 people were apprehended while crossing that way in 2017, and that was the lowest number in 47 years. Processing all of them would badly clog the courts. Many protection-seeking Central American children and families go this route, either because they don’t know the proper procedure, or because their smugglers force them to cross between the ports—as a National Border Patrol Council representative told a Senate committee in 2015.

117,300 children and family-unit members from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries were apprehended between ports of entry last year. If a similar number instead gets routed to seek asylum at the 44 ports of entry, CBP officers stationed there will not come close to meeting the demand to be processed. The agency already has a shortfall of over 1,000 officers, and many are being forced to work double shifts. Add that many more asylum applicants, and our border crossings will collapse.

A fatal dose is smaller than Abe Lincoln’s head

From DEA’s December 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. From GAO’s April 2018 report on synthetic opioids.

Here are similar photos from U.S. government reports, the left from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2016 and the right from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2018. They show estimates of a lethal dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that contributed to more than 19,000 U.S. overdose deaths in 2016.

The 2018 photo appears to show even less of the drug (2 milligrams), I don’t know whether that was deliberate. But the point is, it’s incredibly potent: 50 times stronger than heroin. First responders saving victims, and law enforcement agents and their dogs seizing smuggled fentanyl, must wear protective gear to keep from touching it.

It’s mostly produced in China, but Mexico is a major trafficking corridor, as GAO explains.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations act as the country’s primary conduit for Chinese fentanyl destined for the United States, purchasing bulk shipments and trafficking it—either alone or mixed with other drugs like heroin—across the U.S. border along established drug routes.… The illicit nature of these smuggling operations makes it difficult to quantify the volume of fentanyl flowing from Mexico to the United States. U.S. law enforcement agencies suggest that fentanyl may also be produced in Mexico with precursor chemicals sourced from China.

Like all other drugs smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border except for marijuana (which is declining), fentanyl is overwhelmingly taken via the ports of entry: the legal openings in the border through which vehicles, cargo, and pedestrians pass under the scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The drug is small in volume and crosses hidden in vehicles or carried by pedestrians. Building a border wall would make no difference in fentanyl trafficking patterns.

Snapshots from the border

I’m just back from a quick 3-day trip to the very farthest southern part of Texas, known as the Rio Grande Valley region.

This is by far the “busiest” of all sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. It has the most undocumented migration, the largest number of Central American migrants seeking protection from violence, and (according to local Border Patrol, measured by weight) the most illegal drug seizures. It’s where the Trump administration, in its 2018 budget request, wants to build 60 miles of new border wall.

Looking across the Rio Grande at Reynosa, Mexico on Monday morning at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas. This is pretty much the last densely populated area of the U.S.-Mexico border that doesn’t have a fence.

Families from Central America on Monday evening. They were just released from Border Patrol custody with notices to appear before immigration courts to hear their requests for asylum or protected status in the United States. After getting bus tickets to their destination cities, many stop at Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. The Center was so full—more than 100 people on site—that many sitting here out back, where a volunteer distributed bag dinners.

Tuesday in Falfurrias, Texas, the seat of Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway near here. Migrants walk through the surrounding ranchland to avoid it. Dozens die every year trying to do that, of dehydration, hypothermia, and exposure. Of all nine U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol sectors, Rio Grande Valley is first in the number of migrant remains encountered. And most are found near here, far from the border itself.

In an effort to prevent migrant deaths, Eddie Canales (red shirt) of the South Texas Human Rights Center puts out water stations like this one in the countryside around Falfurrias.

The Catholic Church-run migrant shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, on Wednesday. Shelter staff say they have been very full lately. Most occupants are deported Mexican citizens, most of them ICE deportees from the eastern United States. A minority are Central American families headed northward. Migrants are encouraged not to stay too long here, as the organized-crime groups that dominate Matamoros seek to kidnap or recruit them.

Looking west at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros.

Looking east at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville.

12 points about the “Border Security for America Act of 2017”

The House Homeland Security Committee meets tomorrow to mark up (draft and vote on) H.R. 3548, the “Border Security for America Act of 2017.” It calls for $14 billion in new border-security spending, mostly at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The legislation might not go anywhere, but it’s still teachable. It includes a few items that are worth support, though much of it is terrible.

Here’s a summary table of those items. But read the whole thing at WOLA’s website.

A not-too-distant mirror

In yesterday’s New York Times, a portrayal of Mexico’s worsening social divide between rich and poor:

For the people within those invisible walls, government is responsive and crime low. Those outside face rising murder rates, corruption and, activists say, police brutality.

Reading about this stark kind of inequality and injustice got me interested in Latin America when I was young. Now, though, I feel like I’m looking into my own country’s near future.

The past week in U.S. border security

Nick Oza photo at The Arizona Republic. Caption: “Hundreds of people came to attend the Mass held on Oct. 8, 2016, by Bishop José Leopoldo González González, during an anniversary vigil for José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, who was shot and killed by the Border Patrol on Internacional Street in Nogales, Sonora, in 2012.”

  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security has drafted its piece of the 2018 budget. The subcommittee’s draft version grants the Trump administration’s full $1.6 billion request (PDF) to build or replace 74 miles of border wall. It also grants the White House request of $100 million to hire new agents.
  • House Republican hard-liners are already threatening to vote against any budget that doesn’t include the border wall money. Democrats have vowed to oppose it. This could set the stage for a government shutdown after the fiscal year ends on September 30. More likely, though, would be a “continuing resolution” keeping the budget at 2017 levels (with no wall funding) through 2018, Bloomberg speculates.
  • Mexico has received 5,464 asylum applications between January and May, outpacing the record 8,794 applications filed in 2016. Nearly all applicants are people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. “Belize, Costa Rica and Panama also saw a rise to more than 4,300 refugee applications last year,” the AP reports.
  • The Kino Border Initiative (KBI), based in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, is a Jesuit-run organization that advocates for migrants’ rights. It files complaints with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on behalf of migrants who say they were mistreated or denied rights while in the agency’s custody. The CBP complaints system is badly broken, KBI documents in a new report. Of 49 complaints filed over an 18-month period, only 13 have resulted in a “finding.”
  • The murder trial of Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz continues. Prosecutors accuse Swartz of firing 16 shots through the Nogales border fence into Mexico, killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. They are conceding that Elena Rodriguez was probably throwing rocks at the agents before the shooting. (At the site, which I have visited, Elena would have been throwing the rocks over an 18-foot fence that sits atop a ridge at least 10 feet high.) Video shows Swartz firing 13 of the 16 shots after Elena was already on the ground.
  • A new Texas law requires police to inquire about the immigration status of everyone they arrest, and to report undocumented people to federal authorities. The law may harm relations with Mexico, a Washington Post story reports.

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.”


  • 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.”


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.”


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Just released: our latest report on the Mexico-Guatemala border

Report cover

Maureen Meyer, Hannah Smith, and I spent the third week of February in and around Tenosique, Mexico. We were in Mexico’s far south, by the border with Petén, Guatemala. We visited migrant shelters, which were busy, though emptier than before Trump’s inauguration. We heard grim accounts of the violence Central Americans were fleeing. We spoke to authorities about security, attacks on migrants, and U.S. aid programs.
And we published this big report today. It is our third deep-dive since 2014 on conditions at Mexico’s southern border. (See 2014 and 2015.)

Three years later, the La 72 shelter we saw in February 2017 was much different. Not only is it larger—with the support of donations and the UNHCR, Fray Tomás and his staff have built new dormitories, a health post, and other facilities to meet demand—it looked like a day-care center.
Children raced around paved courtyards and walkways, playing tag and make-believe. (As they ran past, a six-year-old confronted by a smaller child waving a stick like a saber conjured a “wall of Donald Trump” as an imaginary shield.) Babies and toddlers sat on their mothers’ laps. Teenagers played basketball, flirted, and stood around a muralsized map of Mexico and its train lines. (Three of them told us that they were going to try entering the United States via Mexicali, one of the farthest possible routes, on the unfounded belief that they faced a lower risk of being robbed or kidnapped.) Entire families, some with elderly relatives, sat at tables, talking and fanning themselves in the shade. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of children (both accompanied and unaccompanied) apprehended by INM agents in the state of Tabasco increased by 60 percent.

At 4 Common Misconceptions about U.S.-bound Drug Flows through Mexico and Central America

Graph of cocaine seizures showing Mexico far down the list.

This brief piece at wola’s website is for anyone who seems to think that you can fight opioids by aiding Central America, that a border wall can stop drugs, that gangs like MS-13 ship drugs to the United States, or that Mexico stops a lot of northbound cocaine.

I leaned heavily on my database to cite facts that aren’t, but should be, well known about how the drug trade works in the Mexico-Central America “transit zone.”

View it here.

Links from the last month about: civil-military relations in Latin America

Municipality of Jocotán photo at Southern Command’s Diálogo website. Caption: “Students from a rural school in the municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula, thank the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers for the desks they donated to their school.”


A pro-military group posted a list of journalists and others who have testified in human rights cases against leaders of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, calling them “subversive terrorists from the 1970s.”


A brief and ill-advised use of soldiers against protestors “shocked a capital already shaken by the day’s violence” and brought back memories of the 1964-85 military government. See also: Eduardo Goncalves, Forcas Armadas Sao Usadas Contra Protestos Pela 2ª Vez (Veja (Brazil), May 25, 2017).


Gen. Luis Felipe Montoya, an active-duty officer, has been training with foreign “friends of the process” to take a more active role in the Colombian government’s stalled peace talks with the ELN guerrilla group.


The Southern Command-run publication asks the chief of Guatemala’s joint staff, “When will the Armed Forces stop supporting the National Civil Police?” The answer: “In the coming year, if not sooner.”

Guatemala’s army is fulfilling a presidential order “to restore 8,000 kilometers of roads within the shortest possible time.”

An active-duty colonel wrote a book recognizing some of the Guatemalan military’s civil war-era crimes and alignment with the country’s small elite. The author speculates that this could be a step toward cracking open the armed forces’ “pact of silence.”


Soldiers in the state of Tamaulipas, where Mexico’s Army and Navy are in frequent firefights with criminal groups, write a letter asking to be pulled off the streets because “we’ve had enough of killing hitmen.” It voices rage at human rights NGOs and the government because “nobody says anything” when their comrades are killed.

Mexico’s Defense Ministry (headed by an active-duty general) has begun freezing out La Jornada, a left-leaning Mexico City daily, leaving it off its mailing list for press releases and events.


A few glimpses into one of Venezuela’s main “black boxes”: attitudes in the military. “Soldiers’ families suffers along with protesters who skip meals while watching their money become worthless. Some are unsure whether to blame the government or the opposition for the crisis, and what soldiers decide in the coming months could decide the country’s fate.” See also: Venezuela’s Defense Chief Warns Guardsmen on Excessive Force (Associated Press, June 8, 2017) and Girish Gupta, Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela Jailed 14 Army Officers for Dissent at Start of Protests: Documents (Reuters, June 6, 2017).

Human rights defenders are denouncing Venezuela’s new practice of trying civilians in military courts for their role in political protests.

Lo ocurrido en Palmarito no debe repetirse porque independientemente de la violación de derechos humanos y la urgente redefinición de la política de seguridad interna, polariza a nuestra sociedad

May 15, 2017


El Ejército debe respetar el marco legal. Si no lo hace, si no respeta las leyes, si ignora la Constitución, se convierte en un Ejército asesino. Punto

The past week in U.S. border security

Doug Mills photo at The New York Times. Caption: “United States Border Patrol agents listened to President Trump at the Department of Homeland Security in January. Mr. Trump plans to increase the number of agents along the Mexican border.”

  • The Trump administration’s 2018 budget request for Homeland Security includes $1.57 billion to build 74 miles of new border wall/fence in south Texas and near San Diego, California. (That’s $21.2 million per mile.) It would also fund the hiring of 500 new Border Patrol agents (toward an eventual goal of 5,000, expanding the force to 25,000) and 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforcement and removal agents (toward an eventual goal of 10,000, expanding the deportation force to about 15,000).
  • Acapulco, Mexico-based journalist Martín Méndez Piñeda had to leave Mexico after receiving repeated death threats in a country where six journalists have been murdered in early March. Méndez made the mistake of trying to seek asylum in Donald Trump’s United States, where ICE officials decided he was a flight risk and shipped him to await a ruling in a filthy, overcrowded private detention facility in Sierra Blanca. Méndez ultimately gave up his claim and went back to Mexico, where he says he fears for his life.
  • ICE’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants in the U.S. interior shot up 38 percent in the first three months of the Trump administration, compared with the same period in 2016. This owes to less focus on undocumented people with criminal record. The 41,318 people detained, or 400 people per day, is still a lower rate than ICE detentions during Barack Obama’s first term. (They declined afterward.)
  • At Vox, Dara Lind and Tara Golshan have updated their encyclopedic overview of “How Donald Trump Could Actually Build the Wall — and Who Would Pay the Price.”
  • The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow explores the reduction in migration to the United States after Trump’s inauguration. He finds that many would-be migrants from Central America, including those fleeing violence, are putting their plans on hold to see how Trump’s hard-line approach plays out. Others are coming, but no longer seeking out U.S. border authorities once they arrive on U.S. soil.
  • The New York Times’s Ron Nixon looks at corruption in U.S. Border Patrol, a phenomenon that could worsen if hiring standards are loosened to speed an expansion of the force. Nixon discusses the well-known case case of Texas-based agent Joel Luna, an emblematic example of the corruption risk.

Point that saber somewhere else

From The Washington Post, reporting on a May 17 Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony:

During the commencement, Trump was presented with a ceremonial saber. After accepting it to applause, he returned to his seat next to Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John F. Kelly.

Smiling, Kelly leaned over the president and said, of the saber, “You can use that on the press.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Trump, as Kelly laughed.

And then, the very next day, Gen. Kelly met with the foreign minister and interior minister of Mexico, where at least six journalists have been murdered since early March.

Podcast: “The Border Wall and the Budget”

The Trump White House came dangerously close to shutting down the U.S. government over funding for its proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Here I explain the budget process, what we know of the administration’s wall-building plans, and why it’s a bad idea.

I think this one came out pretty well.

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