Adam Isacson

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


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Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Links from the Past Month

Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group completed a sixth round of peace talks in Cuba on February 6. They agreed to renew a six-month-old ceasefire for another six months, through August 4.

The ceasefire is to include a halt in guerrilla kidnappings. As of February 7, according to lead government negotiator Vera Grabe, the ELN had released 23 of 26 people it had been holding. On February 18 the group released a dentist whom it had kidnapped in Magdalena.

Negotiators also agreed to create an international multi-color fund to support peace activities. The next round of talks is to take place in Venezuela.

Despite the ceasefire, ELN units in the southern region of the northwestern department of Chocó declared an “armed strike,” prohibiting people from transiting on roads and rivers for about a week in mid-February. It was the ELN’s third armed strike in this area in seven months. The ELN and the Gulf Clan have been fighting in southern Chocó for years, and the humanitarian crisis—especially forced displacements and confinements—is worsening for communities along the San Juan and Baudó rivers, which are busy smuggling corridors.

The ceasefire, which is limited to stopping fighting between the ELN and the government, is “incomplete” and does not specifically prohibit confinements of populations, said negotiating team member Sen. Iván Cepeda.

ELN negotiators announced on February 20 that they are putting the dialogues on hold. They were reportedly unhappy with the government’s approval of separate dialogues between a single ELN structure and the government of the southwestern department of Nariño (which shares a party affiliation with President Gustavo Petro). The ELN is contesting territory in Nariño with the Central General Staff (EMC) ex-FARC dissident network.

The ELN’s Comuneros del Sur front appears to be more disposed to a faster-paced dialogue; conversations began informally in September 2023. While the Petro government supports the idea of “regional dialogues,” ELN’s national leadership prefers that it negotiate with the group as a whole.

The government has a strong incentive to seek talks with individual ELN units, as the guerrilla group has a loose central command structure with very autonomous units. “The Eastern and Western War fronts, due to their operability and lethality, represent more or less 70 percent of the ELN and these structures are not at the table,” Carlos Velandia, a former ELN leader who is now a frequently cited analyst, told El Tiempo.

The EMC staged a 27-day “armed strike” in parts of southern Caquetá department.

Following recent ELN and EMC armed actions against civilians in Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, and elsewhere, High Commissioner for Peace Otty Patiño warned that “The ceasefire is not a permit to commit crimes.” Analysts viewed this as a hardening of the Petro government’s tone toward armed groups participating in negotiations, and a break with the approach of former High Commissioner Danilo Rueda.

Peace talks officially launched between the government and the Segunda Marquetalia ex-FARC dissident network. Nominally headed by Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator for the 2016 peace accord who rearmed in 2019, the Segunda Marquetalia is mainly active in Putumayo and Nariño departments in southwest Colombia.

This is the only negotiation with a group led by people who had already agreed to an earlier peace accord. Along with the ELN and EMC, the Petro government is now in active peace talks with three national groups.

Representatives of the 15 UN Security Council member states visited Colombia on February 7-11. The Council is considering expanding the scope of the UN Verification Mission’s mandate to include the Petro government’s new peace negotiations with additional armed groups; the U.S. government has been reluctant to approve a quick mandate expansion. In a press conference with Council members, President Petro acknowledged that aspects of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation, like land distribution, are running behind.

During their visit, UN diplomats traveled to Buenaventura and Cartagena, and to the former FARC demobilization and reincorporation site in La Montañita, Caquetá, which is now a fair-sized rural town.

Twenty-four of these reincorporation sites, in thirteen departments, continue to exist. As of October 31, the government recognized 11,269 people as ex-FARC, down from 13,394 in 2020, according to El Espectador.

Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office noted that the Petro government has increased budgets and resources for implementing the 2016 peace accord, especially its provisions on land and rural reform. In a new monitoring report, though, the Office voiced strong concern about how these resources are being allocated, and about armed groups’ continuing power to undermine people’s access to land, especially when landholders are women.

Of the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET), a big peace accord commitment to bring state services to long-abandoned areas, less than 50 percent have even been launched, 7 years after accord implementation began.

Former FARC leaders sent an angry letter to President Petro complaining that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal currently trying their war crimes cases is “moving away from the spirit and letter of the peace accord.” They are upset that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), in their view, is resolving cases separately instead of all together, moving slow on amnesties for political crimes, and focusing too much on mid-level ex-commanders. The JEP appeared to resolve the amnesty issue on February 21.

68 bills before Colombia’s Congress whose passage is necessary to comply with 2016 peace accord commitments are in danger of failing because they must be approved in the legislative session that ends on June 20, according to the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP).

A FIP report found that Colombia’s armed groups increased their strength and reach in 2023, even as some negotiated with the government and some humanitarian indicators improved. “Disputes between the groups for territorial control increased 54% in 2023. Total armed actions by the groups also increased 11%. Disputed zones between groups increased from five to nine,” said FIP Director María Victoria Llorente.

FIP cited data from Colombia’s security forces pointing to an increase in the combined membership of the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan in 2023: from about 15,000 to about 16,700.

Daily Border Links: February 23, 2024

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Yesterday saw few new developments after Wednesday’s multiple media reports indicating that the Biden administration is considering drastic limits, via executive order, on the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (See yesterday’s Daily Border Links.) According to some reporting, these limits could include expulsions of asylum seekers when daily migrant encounters reach a certain level.

Progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) voiced firm opposition to the proposal: “Doing Trump impressions isn’t how we beat Trump,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) wrote that a Biden executive order or similar actions would be “election year gimmicks.”

The El Paso Times covered the Texas government’s legal attack on the city’s Annunciation House migrant shelter. “Annunciation House isn’t a place, per se. It’s a community of like-minded people, driven by their faith to help the most vulnerable regardless of circumstance,” wrote reporter Lauren Villagrán.

“We are now witnessing an escalating campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the state of Texas,” Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso wrote in a statement. Further support for the shelter came from a group of Catholic and El Paso and Ciudad Juárez-based humanitarian and human rights groups.

A U.S. deportation flight brought 51 Cuban citizens to Havana yesterday. This is the 11th removal flight to Cuba since they resumed last April: 1 each month.

The Wall Street Journal confirmed that deportation flights to Venezuela stopped in late January. Between October and then, 15 planes had sent 1,800 Venezuelan migrants back to Caracas.

The director of Mexico‘s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) in Baja California called for the provision of bulletproof vests for agents in the face of attacks from smugglers. INM agents don’t carry lethal weapons, “but that could change,” though not soon, David Tejada Padilla told Border Report.

13,101 pounds of methamphetamine aboard a tractor trailer at Laredo’s Camino Real bridge on February 18 were CBP’s largest-ever meth seizure at a port of entry.

Analyses and Feature Stories

“I went through dozens of reports, scores of articles, on the discussion of this migration bill, and the reporters talked to zero migrants and zero migrant rights groups. At all. None. Zero,” media analyst Adam Johnson told Todd Miller at the Border Chronicle.

At the Washington Post, Philip Bump tried to envision Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s plan to use “red-state” National Guard soldiers to round up undocumented immigrants in Democratic-majority states. Bump’s conclusion: “It’s cosplay.”

By busing migrants to Democratic-governed cities, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has “played into the idea of pitting immigrants against the American people in general and against immigrants who have been here for years,” a Democratic political strategist told CNN, noting that “it’s working” politically.

On the Right

Daily Border Links: February 22, 2024

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Several media outlets reported that the Biden administration is considering an executive order to adopt asylum restrictions at the border. Some of those restrictions may resemble measures agreed by Senate negotiators in a deal that fell to Republican opposition earlier this month.

Actions could include expelling asylum seekers when migrant encounters reach a certain daily threshold, or increasing standards of credible fear that asylum seekers would have to meet when subjected to initial screening interviews.

However, existing law does not allow expulsions of asylum seekers for reasons of volume, and Mexico’s reception of expelled people is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, the administration’s May 2023 asylum “transit ban” rule has already raised the credible fear standard for most asylum seekers apprehended between ports of entry.

The measures could invoke Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which empowers the President to refuse entry to broad classes of migrants. Courts have ruled, however, that this statute does not allow blocking asylum to people already on U.S. soil and requesting it.

In their opposition to the Senate “border deal,” some congressional Republicans had argued that the changes were unnecessary because President Biden already has the authority to “shut the border.” While President Biden would appear to be upholding the Republicans’ argument if he used executive authority, a very likely outcome is that courts would again strike down any blanket refusal of asylum.

The State Department broadened a policy of canceling or refusing U.S. visas to owners and senior managers of companies “providing transportation services designed for use primarily by persons intending to migrate irregularly to the United States.” State first announced this policy in November for charter flight operators taking migrants to Nicaragua, which does not require visas of most nationalities and has become an important route for U.S.-bound migrants. Officials are considering extending the visa ban to social media influencers who encourage migrants to pursue irregular travel.

The Mexican magazine Proceso revealed that the country’s migration authority, the National Migration Institute (INM), awarded irregular contracts to private detention center operators with few employees and little track record.

A 24-year-old man from Jamaica died of hypothermia just south of the border in Tecate, Baja California. “He died within an eighth of a mile of jackets and blankets and mittens and water left out by Border Kindness as part of their humanitarian aid mission,” tweeted journalist Wendy Fry.

CBP reported that a tractor-trailer driver detained at a Laredo, Texas checkpoint died in his holding cell on February 17. While the agency’s account points to a possible suicide, “the video recording system at the Border Patrol checkpoint was not fully functioning at the time of the incident”—a chronic problem noted in CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility reports.

Texas nonprofits and political leaders are rallying around Annunciation House, a longtime Catholic migrant shelter network in El Paso that Texas’s state government is accusing of “alien harboring, human smuggling and operating a stash house.” For many years Annunciation House has received busloads of released asylum seekers from CBP and Border Patrol, cooperating closely with the agencies.

Guatemala’s congress may increase the budget and activities of its national commission for migrants (Conamigua), which assists Guatemalan migrants abroad and deportees. The agency does not have history of spending out even its small annual budgets.

Analyses and Feature Stories

The National Immigrant Justice Center published a list of 10 actions that the Biden administration could take now, through executive action, to “reclaim the narrative” on immigration. They include a White House role in coordinating processing, adjudication, and work authorizations; a steep reduction in migrant detention; and dismantling Texas’s “Operation Lone Star.”

On the Right

Daily Border Links: February 21, 2024

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In a new escalation against humanitarian workers, Texas’s attorney-general, Ken Paxton (R), is seeking to revoke the license of a 47-year-old Catholic non-profit migrant shelter in El Paso. Annunciation House works with CBP and El Paso’s city government to receive asylum seekers released from federal custody, helping migrants to avoid being left on the city’s streets and to connect to destinations in the U.S. interior. Paxton accuses the shelter of facilitating human smuggling, and demanded that it hand over a large trove of client records with no advance notice.

Annunciation House will hold a press conference on Friday.

Texas has spent over $148 million to bus 102,000 migrants to Democratic Party-governed cities elsewhere in the United States. That is $1,451 per bus ride. The figure comes from public records obtained by The Texas Newsroom, a public radio journalism outlet.

“Let him put as many as he wants,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in response to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) plan to install a state military base near Eagle Pass. “Supposedly this is how he is going to detain the migrants. Pure politicking! It is not serious.”

Mexico’s army killed two people from Venezuela, and captured three others, in a confrontation in rural Michoacán. Those killed and arrested were reportedly migrants recruited by organized crime.

NBC News identified the reason why Border Patrol’s acting deputy chief, Joel Martinez, was suspended from his post: an investigation into multiple claims of sexual misconduct and harassment on the job. The Washington Post had broken the Martinez story last week without identifying the reason for his suspension. The case recalls late 2022 allegations against Tony Barker, then Border Patrol’s number-three official.

Analyses and Feature Stories

The Washington Post detailed the Trump campaign’s unprecedented plan for large-scale migrant deportations if the former president is re-elected. Proposals include challenging birthright citizenship, using the military to remove people, and building mass pre-deportation camps.

“We documented a handful of cases where people ended up in the emergency room” because Border Patrol confiscated asylum seekers’ prescription medications and did not return them, Noah Schramm of ACLU Arizona, a principal author of a mid-February report on confiscation of belongings, told the Border Chronicle.

The National Immigration Forum published an overview of the “Defending Borders, Defending Democracies Act” (H.R. 7372), legislation sponsored by moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats that would allow some U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel while enabling expulsions, a renewed “Remain in Mexico” program, and other limits on the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Recent poll data do not show any improvement in the Biden administration’s approval rating on border and migration issues after Republicans scuttled the Senate “border deal,” according to the Washington Post.

A fact-check from the Colombian outlet La Silla Vacía pointed out that while broad-based U.S. sanctions exacerbated Venezuela’s economic crisis, large-scale migration from the country had already begun, for other reasons, before the Trump administration imposed them.

On the Right

Daily Border Links: February 20, 2024

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Axios reported that as President Joe Biden prepares for his March 7 State of the Union address, “one bold move” he has considered “is an executive order that would dramatically stanch the record flow of migrants into the Southwest. This could even happen in the two weeks before the address.” The article offered no further details about what such an executive order might contain, nor is it clear what Biden could do within existing law to “stanch” arrivals of asylum seekers.

54,547 people have crossed the Darién Gap into Panama so far this year, according to a statement from the country’s security ministry. Minister Juan Manuel Pino predicts that migration through the Darién in 2024 will exceed the 520,000 who passed through the treacherous region last year.

Pino estimated that criminal organizations in the Darién made about $820 million from smuggling migrants last year.

Panama has extended through July its so-called “Shield” campaign, the statement reads, “with a greater number of land, naval and air troops to create a greater blockade on the border with Colombia.”

A February 18 tweet from the Ministry records a larger Darién Gap figure: 59,521 migrants year-to-date. Of that total, 38,108 are citizens of Venezuela; 4,777 are from China, 4,532 are from Ecuador, and 4,033 are citizens of Haiti.

The first six weeks of 2024 saw “an important increase in the number of people irregularly entering Honduras,” most with the goal of reaching the United States, reported the UN Refugee Agency. Between January 1 and February 11, 57,202 people had entered Honduras’s southeastern border, more than double the number during the same period in 2023.

The death toll is now three from a February 15 armed attack on two vehicles carrying migrants in rural Sonora, Mexico, near the Arizona border. The victims are a child from Ecuador and two adult women, likely from Peru and Honduras.

A University of Texas at Austin poll found that 59 percent of Texas voters, including 48 percent of those identifying as Democrats, “favor making it harder for migrants to seek asylum in the United States.” Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) approval rating was 53 percent, up from 48 percent in December.

Analyses and Feature Stories

BBC Mundo told the story of a family of Venezuelan asylum seekers who flew to the organized crime-controlled border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for a CBP One appointment at the Laredo port of entry. They missed their appointment because they ended up among thousands whom organized crime groups have kidnapped for ransom in Mexico’s violent border state of Tamaulipas. Now free, they haven’t been able to secure a new appointment using the app.

“There’s a lot of people in this community that are upset with how the governor is using our community as a political staging area to have this narrative that we’re being invaded,” Jessie Fuentes, who runs a Rio Grande kayak tour business in Eagle Pass, Texas, told the Border Chronicle in an audio interview.

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Ecuador has been in a diplomatic dispute with Russia over a reported deal to send used Russian-made military equipment to the United States, in exchange for a U.S. government transfer of U.S. equipment worth $200 million. U.S. State Department official Kevin Sullivan told an Ecuadorian television interviewer that the used Russian equipment was to be transferred to Ukraine. The government of President Daniel Noboa may be backing down from the deal after Russia suspended five Ecuadorian banana exporting companies.

Beyond the possible Russian equipment exchange, U.S. aid to Ecuador announced in the past month includes:

  • construction of a new Ecuadorian Coast Guard Academy,
  • renovation of a canine veterinary clinic,
  • a renovated office for the corruption prosecution unit,
  • eight mobile border units to support an elite border task force
  • a joint National Police-Coast Guard operational unit in Guayaquil
  • digital forensics support to identify, map, and target criminal networks
  • a team to train 175 Ecuador migration officers on the use of biometrics collection
  • training of 35 members from the Ecuadorian Presidential and Vice-Presidential protective details
  • an increase in FBI advisors in-country
  • a C-130H military plane to be delivered by the end of March
  • more than 20,000 bullet proof vests
  • more than $1 million worth of critical security and emergency response equipment
  • $13 million in equipment to protect the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense computer networks
  • $2.4 million in additional vehicles and security equipment for Ecuador’s police
  • 6 Navistar Defense 7000-MV trucks

Peru is completing an approximately US$50 million overhaul of eight Russian-built helicopters used by its army and air force and first acquired in the 1990s.

Peru‘s $27 million purchase of 10,000 Israeli Arad 7 rifles has come under scrutiny from the government’s comptroller because “a guarantee of only two years has been given, when the technical requirements demand 12 years,” La República reported.

In the waning days of Alejandro Giammattei’s administration in Guatemala, on December 12, 2023, the country’s air force received a Bell 429 GlobalRanger helicopter purchased from the U.S. government. Guatemala and the United States are discussing the purchase of two Bell 407 helicopters.

The U.S. government is donating 14 Osprea Mamba MK7 vehicles to Uruguay, which is also purchasing some additional vehicles. The announcement follows a visit to the country from U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. Laura Richardson.

U.S. officials said that transfers to Guyana, which faces a territorial claim from Venezuela, will include aircraft, helicopters, a fleet of drones, and radar technology.

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

As part of Ecuador’s crackdown on organized crime, the armed forces have intervened in 17 prisons, with troops still present in 10 of them.

Troops are also stationed along highways, at airports, and at 10 Pacific seaports.

In coming months, Ecuadorians will vote on this referendum question: “Do you agree with allowing the complementary support of the Armed Forces in the functions of the National Police to combat organized crime, partially reforming the Constitution?”

After his tumultuous January 14 swearing-in, Guatemala’s reformist president, Bernardo Arévalo, swore in a new high command and paid respectful visits to the country’s Army and Navy. Arévalo, who as an academic had published at least seven books about security and Guatemala’s army, said that the Army will continue in its role of supporting civilian security forces against organized crime.

The Arévalo government promoted four female army officers to command positions in non-combat units.

In Argentina, new president Javier Milei followed the December firing of 22 Army generals with the forced retirement of 16 Navy admirals—more than half of all officers of that rank.

Milei’s budget cuts include nonpayment of installments of a previously promised raise for military officers. Under current pay scales, Pagina12 reported, an army general earns about US$350 per month less than a police commissioner.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that the Milei government is working on a plan to deepen the armed forces’ support for police in border security and fighting organized crime. Since its transition to democracy, Argentina has been reluctant to give the military new internal civilian security roles.

Mexico’s Supreme Court had ruled last year that, contrary to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s wishes, the country’s new National Guard must not remain under the command of its defense ministry (SEDENA). López Obrador called two of the justices “traitors.”

As of January 1, the Guard was to come under the security ministry (SSPC). A January 6, 2024 document circulated to guardsmen challenged the Court, stating that while the National Guard is under the SSPC’s “operational” command, it remains under SEDENA’s “administrative” command.

On February 5 President López Obrador submitted a series of proposed legal reforms, among them a constitutional amendment that would place the National Guard under SEDENA’s control.

A military court has now released from pre-trial detention 13 of 16 Mexican Army soldiers who allegedly carried out an extrajudicial execution of five civilians in May 2023 in Nuevo Laredo. The incident was caught on video.

Eight of thirteen Mexican military personnel allegedly linked to the 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero will be released, as a federal judge lifted their pre-trial detention.

A hard-hitting report from the Guerrero-based NGO Tlachinollan documents how President López Obrador has sought to exonerate the military of the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa teacher’s college students, adopting and promoting the armed forces’ version of events.

Armed with sticks, stones, and machetes, residents of rural Chicomuselo, Chiapas, blocked Mexico’s military from entering their communities, demanding that the armed forces first evict organized crime from nearby areas that they already occupy. Communities in the region have been forcibly displacing to escape violent competition between Jalisco and Sinaloa cartel fighters.

In late January, the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano called on the government to modify a 9-year-old decree authorizing the military to use deadly force to control demonstrations. The organization also called for due process after the late-January demotion and expulsion of 33 military personnel on allegations of “conspiracy.”

On February 9, authorities detained the organization’s director, Rocío San Miguel, in the Caracas airport. As of this writing, her whereabouts are unknown.

A judge in Colombia ruled that retired Army Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita is guilty of ordering the murder of a demobilized FARC guerrilla, Dímar Pérez, in the Catatumbo region, in a high-profile 2019 case.

Colombia’s Marines swore in their first 60 female members following three months of training.

The former commander of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Ricardo Martínez, voiced gratitude to ex-president Sebastián Piñera for having listened to his advice and abstained from sending the military into the streets to confront protesters in 2019. “I will always be grateful to him for not having taken the Armed Forces out of it, because we were not in favor of it.” Piñera died in a helicopter crash on February 6.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, federal Border Patrol agents have had their access to part of the border blocked by National Guardsmen—trained soldiers whose patches say “U.S. Army” on them, but currently at the command of Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Some are calling on President Joe Biden to “federalize” the Texas National Guard, taking them out of Abbott’s command. In an analysis, Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice acknowledged that doing so “would certainly pass legal muster” but should be an absolute last resort.

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from January

Steven Dudley, ‘Operation Polanco’: How the Dea Investigated Amlo’s 2006-Presidential Campaign (InsightCrime, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).
Tim Golden, Did Drug Traffickers Funnel Millions of Dollars to Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s First Campaign? (ProPublica, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).

Investigations from ProPublica and InsightCrime, citing DEA information, allege that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign took money from narcotraffickers in exchange for assurances that, if elected, López Obrador would not impede their illicit business.

Jonathan Blitzer, “Do I Have to Come Here Injured or Dead?” (The New Yorker, Sunday, January 28, 2024).

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer tells the story of Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga, a Honduran migrant mother whom Border Patrol separated from her sons in 2017, when the Trump administration was still just piloting its family separation policy. “The cruelty she suffered in the United States was matched only by what she was forced to flee in Honduras.”

Maria Jose Longo Bautista, Lo Que Dejo la Fiebre de la Amapola en San Marcos (Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), Monday, January 22, 2024).

In Guatemala’s southwestern department of San Marcos, “poppy crops left more Mexico border trade and better living conditions. But also violence, weapons, and displaced people.”

Jhoan Sebastian Cote, Caqueta en Epoca de Paz Total: Refugio de Disidentes y Ruta de Marihuana (El Espectador (Colombia), Monday, January 22, 2024).

A graphics-heavy survey of the drug trade, violence, and politics in Colombia’s south-central department of Caquetá, much of which is under the influence of a FARC dissident network currently negotiating with the Petro government.

New Report Calls for Major Investments and Reforms to Build a U.S. Border Control System That Can Address Present and Future Challenges (Migration Policy Institute, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

This Migration Policy Institute report is a goldmine of data and hard-to-find information about border infrastructure, processing capacity, and other needs at a time of record arrivals of protection-seeking migrants.

Organized Crime-Tied Corruption in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

A key detonating factor in Ecuador‘s January outbreak of violence was “Operation Metastasis,” a December 2023 campaign by the national prosecutor’s office targeting government and judicial officials tied to the country’s organized crime groups. Among 30 people charged, the New York Times reported, “were judges accused of granting gang leaders favorable rulings, police officials who were said to have altered evidence and delivered weapons to prisons, and the former director of the prison authority himself.”

This corruption worsened after a 2018 shakeup and reduction of the central government’s security administration, forced by economic austerity measures, that reduced some agencies and eliminated others.

“The state and law enforcement entities cannot control the situation of criminality and violence,” Felipe Botero of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime told Vox, because “they are involved with organized crime in the country.”

Recent attacks on members of Tijuana‘s municipal police, following an alleged November theft of drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel structure, “arise from the need of drug traffickers to buy police officers in order to remain in power” and this is because “the judiciary is rotten,” said Jesús Alejandro Ruiz Uribe, the Mexican federal government’s delegate for the state of Baja California. “The judicial power is currently a revolving door, the good police put the criminals in jail and the bad judges take them out again.”

To the east of Tijuana, surveillance videos taken on January 12 showed Mexican soldiers allegedly assisting a theft of synthetic drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel-run laboratory on a ranch in Tecate, Baja California, not far from the U.S. border.

SinEmbargo columnist Adela Navarro Bello wrote about this case, concluding, “Although these cases are isolated, they are increasingly frequent. Elements of the Mexican Army, the Armed Forces, and the National Guard collaborate with organized crime and drug trafficking cells in different parts of the country.”

In south-central Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, rural communities are forcibly displacing after confronting Mexican Army soldiers who they say were working with the Jalisco Cartel. Violence has flared up in parts of Chiapas in the past year as Jalisco and Sinaloa have entered into a bitter fight over trafficking routes, aggressively pushing out rural residents.

Hugo Aguilar, the governor of Santander, Colombia‘s fifth-most-populous department, from 2004 to 2007, admitted that he received support from the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group during his election campaign. Aguilar, a former police colonel who commanded the unit that killed Pablo Escobar in 1993, told the post-conflict transitional justice system (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) that he did not receive money from the AUC. “They told the people that they should vote for Colonel Aguilar” in the zones they controlled, he said.

Colombia‘s Supreme Court has opened an investigation of the president of Colombia’s Senate, Green Party Senator Iván Name Vásquez. A former head of Los Rastrojos Costeños, a splinter group of Colombia’s North Valle Cartel active in the 1990s and early 2000s, alleged that Sen. Name was linked to his group.

“Alliances between criminal networks and individuals who hold positions within state institutions have even created hybrid economies, such as scrap metal trafficking or fuel smuggling, where legal and illegal business intersect,” reported InsightCrime’s Venezuela Investigative Unit. “With corrupt state elements continuing to profit from informal mining,” the security forces’ raids on illicit precious-metals mines “may work to guarantee those elements a more favorable share of those profits, rather than stamping out the practice.”

“Organized crime can’t grow without state protection, and Latin American mafias have long made it a mission to capture parts of the state,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations’ Will Freeman at the Los Angeles Times. “They have had at least as much success amassing political power as any of the region’s political parties.”

Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Links from the Past Month

Negotiators from the government and the “Central General Staff” (EMC)—the group of FARC dissidents that rejected the peace accord before its 2016 signing—completed a third, ten-day round of negotiations on January 18. Commitments included a dissident pledge to cease recruiting minors, a government pledge to evaluate the situation of jailed EMC members, and steps toward a negotiating agenda that will include environmental issues. They also ratified earlier agreements to halt EMC kidnappings and to extend a bilateral ceasefire through July 15.

With support from the UN and OAS peace missions, four out of five regional offices for verification of the EMC ceasefire have now been established: in Arauca, Santander, Meta, and Putumayo.

At the UN Security Council’s quarterly review of peace accord implementation in Colombia, on January 11, the U.S. representative withheld—for now—U.S. government support for including EMC ceasefire verification within the UN peace mission’s mandate. “These agreements still lack maturity,” said U.S. Acting Deputy Permanent Representative Elisabeth Millard.

Citing “intelligence reports,” El Tiempo estimated that the EMC “has, counting all its structures, 3,480 people in arms.”

Representatives of the Security Council will visit Colombia in February, the UN body announced during its January 11 quarterly review of Colombia’s peace efforts.

Government and ELN negotiators are to hold a sixth round of talks in Cuba from January 22 to February 6. High Commissioner for Peace Otty Patiño repeated the government’s insistence that the current ceasefire, which must be renewed by January 29, include an end to ELN kidnappings and the release of all remaining guerrilla captives.

The government reportedly gave the ELN a list of 26 kidnapped people whose release it demands. Army Sgt. Libey Danilo Bravo, whose the ELN kidnapped in Arauca for three weeks last February and March, told La Silla Vacía that the guerrillas took him to a makeshift prison across the border in Venezuela that they called “Alcatraz,” where they were holding ten other people.

ELN leader Antonio García said that the group would require government financing to sustain itself if it were to suspend ransom kidnappings while peace talks continue. Patiño said that the government would only seriously consider financing if the ELN committed to the conflict’s end “in a decisive and clear way.”

Between December 4 and January 3, the think-tank CERAC counted three ELN offensive actions considered to be ceasefire violations: a homicide, a kidnapping, and an armed attack on a vehicle.

President Gustavo Petro met with Pope Francis on January 19; he requested that a future round of ELN peace talks take place at the Vatican.

Otty Patiño expanded his staff at the High Commissioner for Peace office from 13 to 149 people, a number closer to the staffing strength that existed during the government of Iván Duque (2018-2022).

On January 14 in Pitalito, Huila, José Enrique Roa Cruz became the third FARC ex-combatant to be killed in 2024 and at least the 411th since the former guerrilla group’s 2017 demobilization. The UN Verification mission counted 47 killings in 2023, the fewest since 2017.

The Petro government transferred 363 billion pesos (US$93 million) to the Presidency’s Implementation Unit, where it will go toward ex-combatant reintegration programs and the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET) foreseen in chapter 1 of the 2016 peace accord.

In addition to moving the ELN and EMC peace processes forward, in 2024 the Petro administration has big decisions to make about the future of talks with regional gangs, with the Segunda Marquetalia FARC dissident group, and with the Gulf Clan paramilitary structure, wrote Camilo Pardo and Cindy Morales at El Espectador. The Catholic Church’s representative to the peace process, Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao, told El Espectador that no roadmap currently exists for eventual talks with the Segunda Marquetalia and the Gulf Clan.

“Colombia’s quest for ‘total peace’…has become a thorny path, with some progress, but slower than President Gustavo Petro had anticipated,” according to an Associated Press analysis.

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Ecuador President Daniel Noboa said that his government will turn over used Russian and Ukrainian military equipment to the United States, and receive about $200 million in U.S. equipment in return.

Video from recent military exercises showed that Venezuela possesses Iranian-made Zolfaghar naval patrol boats. “Aside from the Zolfaghar boats, Iran has also provided Venezuela with drones, rockets and missiles,” France24 noted in a report listing some of the models.

“We did not manage to finalize a deal, neither with the French nor with the Swedes” by the end of the year to purchase fighter jets to replace an aging fleet of 12 Israeli-made Kfir planes, said Colombia‘s defense minister, Iván Velásquez. In a long-planned purchase that will total well into the billions of dollars, Colombia is choosing between Sweden’s Saab Gripen, France’s Dassault Rafale, and the United States’ Lockheed Martin F-16.

Peru‘s armed forces placed a $664,000 order for 540 South Korean-made anti-riot grenade launchers. “The acquisition seeks to provide the Armed Forces with anti-riot material for the National Police Support Operations in case of possible demonstrations in Lima and nationwide,” reported

The right-leaning Bolivian daily El Deber reported that Bolivia‘s left-of-center government has purchased over $31 million in crowd control or anti-riot equipment for its police in the past year. The Interior Ministry stated, “The equipment delivered should not be understood as a synonym of confrontation, much less as a preparation for a ‘war’, this type of assertions are not consistent with reality.”

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Following the January 9 wave of criminal attacks and violence throughout Ecuador, President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of “internal conflict” and has deployed soldiers throughout the nation’s streets. Some experts warn that using soldiers as police on a long-term or semi-permanent basis threatens human rights, weakens democratic civil-military relations, and hasn’t worked against organized crime in most places that it has been tried. Noboa’s move, though, is popular as citizens deal with the shock of the January 9 attacks.

Argentina‘s new president, Javier Milei, forced at least 23 of the country’s 35 active generals into retirement, the largest purge since the country’s 1983 transition to democracy. Milei is moving fast to move the armed forces into policing and public security roles, which would reverse reforms of the country’s democratic transition and of the Kirchner presidency of the 2000s. Milei and his security minister, Patricia Bullrich, are pointing to the violence in Ecuador to justify their push to militarize policing.

Mexico‘s Proceso magazine found that military personnel assigned to the country’s new National Guard have been embroiled in many cases of indiscipline, including attacks on fellow personnel and alcohol and drug use. Morale appears to be low among soldiers whom the López Obrador government has assigned to be super-policemen: army and navy sources say that “there is excessive stress in the National Guard because the elements are forced to perform functions that are not theirs, and for which they are not prepared, since they only received four weeks’ training, which is insufficient to be in charge of public security. In addition, most of them have junior high school or high school as their highest level of education.” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to seek legislative ways to place the National Guard under the military’s command, despite a Supreme Court decision stopping that from happening.

Mexico relaunched Mexicana Airlines on December 26 with a flight from Mexico City to Tulum. The airline is now fully controlled by the country’s armed forces.

A team of researchers from Mexico City’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana published a book contending that the National Guard is being deployed to put down community protests against extractive economic projects like logging and mining.

Peruvian President Dina Boluarte named a new armed forces chief. When he headed Peru‘s army, Gen. David Ojeda repeatedly sought to avoid testifying before prosecutors investigating abuses committed during a wave of protests against Boluarte’s late 2022 arrival in power. Gen. Ojeda reportedly referred to the protests as “subversive social violence.”

The head of Honduras‘s Military Public Order Police (PMOP), which has been tasked with managing prisons, called for a purge of the institution after a military prison director in El Paraíso was caught trying to bring in cash to hand out to inmates who belong to the Barrio 18 gang.

Reporteros de Investigación profiled retired Honduran colonel Elías Melgar Urbina, who “has held several hats in Xiomara Castro’s government,” including some related to the military and human rights, despite serious allegations of past involvement in human rights abuse.

Eight judges in Colombia‘s military justice system have been fired in just over a year due to alleged corruption.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro left generals confused by several last-minute changes to end-of-year promotion lists and unit assignments.

Bolivia‘s Congress was once again unable to approve a list of senior military and police promotions. Opposition legislators claim that the list is politicized.

La Tercera interviewed Gen. Paula Carrasco, an air force officer who is now the first woman to reach the rank of general in Chile‘s armed forces.

“Latin America’s armed forces are no longer irrelevant,” which increases the still mostly remote possibility of inter-state conflict in the Americas, the Economist contended.

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from December

David Tarazona, Jose Guarnizo, Coltan, Oro y Pistas Clandestinas: El Botin Con el Que Grupos Armados Desangran al Guainia (Voragine (Colombia), Monday, December 11, 2023).

In environmentally fragile Guainía, Colombia, the ELN and FARC dissidents dominate illicit mining of coltan, “an essential component in the production of the electronic devices we use every day.”

Sarah Kinosian, How a Factory City in Wisconsin Fed Military-Grade Weapons to a Mexican Cartel (Reuters, Reuters, Saturday, December 9, 2023).

How Racine, Wisconsin, a small industrial city between Chicago and Milwaukee, became a major vector for supplying high-caliber weapons to Mexico’s hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Hector Silva Avalos, El Asunto Chino: Nayib Bukele Negocia Red 5g Con Estados Unidos y Obtiene Silencio por la Reeleccion (Primera Parte) (Prensa Comunitaria (Guatemala), Wednesday, December 6, 2023).

How the U.S. State Department “gave up on its eagerness to publicly complain about” El Salvador’s increasingly authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele. “This is a capitulation,” a former diplomat said.

The Moskitia: The Honduran Jungle Drowning in Cocaine (InsightCrime, Friday, December 1, 2023).

“The region’s Indigenous Miskito people have been left trapped in desperate poverty, and are caught between the traffickers and an indifferent state. But some are now preparing to fight back.”

Lauren Villagran, ‘Where Is the Humanity?’ Migrant Deaths Soaring at el Paso-Juarez Border With Few Ways to Document Them (The El Paso Times, Thursday, November 30, 2023).

“One hundred and forty-nine migrants died in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector in the 12 months through Sept. 30, soaring from six migrant deaths recorded six years ago.” And CBP is late on its 2022 and 2023 reports documenting migrant deaths.

Latin America Security-Related News: January 25, 2023

(Even more here)

January 25, 2023

Western Hemisphere Regional

A blow-by-blow account of controversies at the CELAC summit in Argentina. The body will next be presided by St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Bolivia, Colombia

As Colombia’s government moves away from forced coca eradication, Bolivia’s experience carries some “replicatable” lessons

Bolivia, Colombia, Peru

Peru sends Colombia a protest note after Gustavo Petro condemns the security forces’ raid on a Lima university


“Well armed gold miners” have kept food and medical care from reaching the Yanomami reservation in Brazil’s Amazon. An official calls for military intervention


“The shift away from crop eradication means that the success of Petro’s anti-narcotic efforts now hinges on other measures, of which there are few details.” Cites WOLA

Gustavo Petro and Chris Dodd meet at the CELAC summit. Drug policy and extradition of armed-group leaders engaged in negotiations appear to be on the agenda

The Petro government extends the UN Human Rights office’s mandate for nine more years


This year’s elections process will determine whether Guatemala can still be called a democracy


The killing of a young man in Cortés highlights the need for police reform in Honduras


The military’s internal security role is supposed to “support” police. But now they don’t even have to notify the police about arrests

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