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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Wearing this until Wednesday

On Thursday I had a metal plate screwed into the broken radius bone of my right wrist. Today (Saturday) I’m in only modest pain, but I’ll have this cast on my right arm until Wednesday.

I’m right handed, so don’t expect much from me that requires a keyboard for the next few days. On Wednesday, I should be going back to a brace that lets me use my fingers.

Thanks to the folks at Georgetown University Hospital who made it look easy on Thursday. I was in and out in less than 6 hours, 2 of them spent totally unconscious.

On the disabled list

You can barely see it in the picture, but I’ve slightly broken my wrist in two places while being an idiot in the park on Sunday, trying to jump from a tree stump to a high branch.

I’m not in horrible pain, which is why it took me three days to even schedule a doctor visit. But now I’ve got a fiberglass cast immobilizing my wrist and much of my right hand (I’m right-handed).

My output on this website is likely to slow down for a few weeks, because I can’t type anywhere nearly as fast as I’m used to typing. Bummer!

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After many years of accumulating home office-type gadgets, working at home is tolerable.

In the frame: Mac Mini with dual monitors, MacBook Air, sheet-fed scanner, podcasting mic, HD camera, blu-ray burner, printer, mechanical keyboard, mouse, Hue lamp, amp, LED lighting, speakers, turntable, headphones.

If you find this horrifying, I totally understand. If it’s any consolation, there’s a washer/dryer and a litterbox behind me.

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Can I afford it? Barely. But a 2014 laptop with a busted trackpad connected to a big monitor just wasn’t working as my main work machine.

This fully loaded Mac Mini arrived two days earlier than expected. You may hear a bit less from me over the next day or two while I set it up.

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While looking for a photo of coca bushes, I came across this shot from Putumayo, Colombia in 2016. Isn’t that cute.

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Washington DC’s MacMillan Reservoir this morning.

As an urban runner, I always notice the air quality difference when I get a chance to run in a forest or a rural setting.

On this morning’s solo run in Washington DC, that’s what the air felt like. The air really is noticeably cleaner.

Cleaned out

After seeing that Italy closed all stores except groceries and pharmacies due to the coronavirus outbreak, I said to the family, “Maybe we should go to Costco tonight.”

Virtually everyone else in DC had the same idea; the place was jammed on a Wednesday night. Here’s the “organic brown rice” display.

Betelgeuse, the rapidly fainting star

I just went outside here in Florida, where I’m visiting relatives, and yes, Betelgeuse, one of the most familiar stars in the northern night sky (it’s in Orion’s shoulder), is way dimmer than it used to be.

I took this shot with my phone. Betelgeuse used to be about as bright as Rigel, the star at the very bottom of the photo:

This all happened quickly: before October, Betelgeuse was near the top ten brightest stars in the sky. Now it’s lower than 20th. Some speculate that the red giant, 600 light-years away, might go supernova. But the dimming has slowed over the past week. Here’s a good explanation in the New York Times.

A few photos from El Paso and Juárez

From Tuesday and Wednesday.

Outside the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.
Mount Cristo Rey, west of El Paso in the New Mexico desert, viewed at night.

The Rio Grande, seen from the Paso del Norte border bridge.
These tents on the Ciudad Juárez side of the border denote the area where asylum-seeking migrants get returned when subjected to the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires them to await their hearing dates on Mexican soil. Kidnappers who prey on migrants often operate just outside this tent area, making them very vulnerable here.
Caribe Queen, a Cuban restaurant in downtown Ciudad Juárez, founded within the past year by Cuban asylum seekers forced to “Remain in Mexico” pending their hearing dates in the United States.
Mexican National Guardsmen in a playground along the Rio Grande (the area of green brush behind them). The border fence is in the background, set far back from the actual borderline—the elevated highway is actually in the United States, between the fence and the river.
A Mexican National Guardsman reads his phone near the border fence.
Graffiti on the fence in Anapra, west of Juárez.
Central American children forced to “remain in Mexico” play at the Pan de Vida shelter in western Juárez.
Only five of twelve lanes open at the Paso del Norte port of entry, where the wait to get back into the United States was about 45 minutes.

Here’s a big new report about last week’s trip to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

My visit to the border last week went well: logistics were flawless, the people we encountered were amazing, and we learned a lot. But I came home feeling disturbed. Even more than after my four visits this year to San Diego/Tijuana and to Mexico’s southern border.

Maybe it was the relentlessness of the Trump administration’s non-stop assault on some very weak people. Maybe it was the grinding fatigue that the cities’ activists and service providers exuded. But when I got home late Saturday I was having trouble relating to family and friends. I was only happy with my butt in a chair, typing up my notes and my thoughts about what I’d just seen at this part of the border.

I figured I’d write a memo about my trip. But I typed and typed. There was so much to talk about, as you can see from the table of contents below. I worked a late night Monday night, slept a lot Tuesday night (had to give a talk in Spanish on Wednesday), and last (Wednesday) night, I didn’t sleep at all: I pulled my first true all-nighter, not even a break to lie down, in many, many years.

I just wanted to get it done. So much that I saw and heard was so out of balance and awful, the holidays are nearly here, and the writing became like a form of therapy.

12,000 words, some graphics and several photos later, I posted this memo to WOLA’s website late today. It’s sprawling, and honestly I’m in no condition to judge whether it’s easy to follow. But I feel at least somewhat better for having written it.

I hope it helps you to understand what’s going on at the U.S.-Mexico border after a very trying year, and what is at stake there in the next year, for all of us whether we live at the border or not.

Hope you get something out of it too. The memo is here.

“I Can’t Believe What’s Happening—What We’re Becoming”: A memo from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

  • The big 2019 Increase and Decline in Family Asylum Seekers
  • Box: a Terrible 2019 in el Paso and Ciudad Juárez
  • The Decimation of the U.S. Asylum System
    • Remain in Mexico
    • Metering
    • Conditions during the wait in Juárez
    • Conditions for Cubans
    • The July 16 asylum ban
    • GACA: Sending people to Guatemala
    • “PACR” and “HARP”
  • Rights Issues
    • Processing
    • Migrant deaths
    • Use of force and community relations
  • Wall Construction
  • Security in Ciudad Juárez
  • The Helpers are Exhausted

This morning in Ciudad Juarez

By a drainage ditch on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, a soldier with a “National Guard” armband buys what looks like cigarettes from a vendor.

Back at the border

CBP officers “metering” border-crossers last night outside the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Diego River, very early this morning.

I’m here at the U.S.-Mexico border again. This is my fourth visit to San Diego and Tijuana this year. I’m spending most of this visit at a gathering of migration attorneys and experts from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The situation is grim right now, but there’s a lot of talk of solutions.

Street scene in Arauca, Colombia

Going over my photos from our early October visit to Colombia, I found this one, taken on October 3 from our car window, while driving through the hamlet of La Esmeralda, between Arauquita and Saravena, Arauca. This area is heavily under the influence of the ELN guerrilla group.

An unremarkable photo of a tidy small-town street. Until you zoom in:

You’ve got a mom and 2 cute kids, some street-sweeping equipment—and, below the window on the right, some stenciled ELN graffiti.

“Duque, president, don’t fool the people. ELN is present.”

A tranquil scene, marred by a message from a group responsible for, by all accounts we heard, the largest share of Arauca’s 130-plus homicides so far this year.

Notes from Chocó, Colombia

After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.

Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.

The green line shows the routes we took in Chocó. It also shows how few roads (the red lines) exist in a department the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.

Quibdó, Chocó’s capital.

Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.

The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.

In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.

Boats parked by the Malecón, on the Atrato River in central Quibdó.

As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.

In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.

The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.

A riverine checkpoint manned by Colombian Marines near Vigía del Fuerte and Bojayá.

Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”

For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.

A boat’s-eye view of Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, across the Atrato River from Bojayá.

The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.

Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.

Interior of Bojayá’s rebuilt church, site of a 2002 FARC indiscriminate bombing that killed 79 civilians who had sought refuge there.

Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.

Abandoned classroom next to the church in old Bojayá.

Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.

Bojayá’s basketball court reverts to jungle.

Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.

Mural in the “new” Bojayá, just upriver from the old Bojayá.

I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.

Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.

These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.

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