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.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




Politics and Security

WOLA Podcast: Understanding Colombia’s Latest Wave of Social Protest

I recorded a very good conversation with my colleague Gimena Sánchez, who I don’t think has slept since Colombia’s protests—and the government’s crackdown—began on April 28. She does a masterful job explaining what’s going on. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.

Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.

This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

At the New York Times: Colombia Is in Turmoil. Biden Must Push It Toward Dialogue.

Like many of you, I’m saddened and worried to see what Colombia is going through: only four years ago, the FARC were laying down their weapons and it felt much more like a time of possibility. The present crisis offers renewed possibility through real dialogue. The U.S. government can help by isolating some very powerful people in the country who oppose that, especially in the governing party. Read my just-published column at nytimes.com.

WOLA Podcast: A Critical Moment for El Salvador’s Democracy

With an assist from WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, I booked a fantastic but deeply troubling conversation with two fighters for democracy in El Salvador, Mauricio Silva and José Luis Sanz. This is a rough moment for a democracy born at a moment of hope, when El Salvador negotiated the end of its conflict in the early 90s.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

El Salvador’s citizens go to the polls on February 28 to elect a new legislature and mayors. Nuevas Ideas, the party of President Nayib Bukele, is expected to gain a strong majority. This raises concerns because Bukele, though quite popular, is eroding institutional checks and balances, blocking access to information, infringing on independent media and freedom of expression, and politicizing the armed forces.

The implications for U.S. policy are significant, as the new Biden administration proposes a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, along with similar priorities, in Central America.

We discuss this with two experts who give us a comprehensive view of what’s at stake:

  • Mauricio Silva, a member of WOLA’s Board of DIrectors, worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for 20 years, 10 of them as a member of the IDB’s Board as director for El Salvador and Central America.
  • José Luis Sanz, a veteran investigative journalist, was the director of the independent media outlet El Faro (The Beacon) between 2014 and late 2020. He is moving to Washington to serve as El Faro’s correspondent.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Mexico: Moving On from Military Cooperation

Here’s a quick analysis of where things stand with U.S. aid to Mexico’s military and police, which I wrote with WOLA’s Mexico director, Stephanie Brewer. The Mexico Violence Resource Project, a new initiative affiliated with the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, published it today as part of a really good collection of pieces about the future of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. (Which is going through a rough patch right now.)

Here’s an excerpt, but I just include it here in order to drive traffic over there.

Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.

* The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can pay for military and police aid as well as judicial or other civilian aid, is channeling $100 million in appropriations into Mexico aid in 2021. About one-third to one-half of that is likely to assist Mexican police forces and the INM, with a small amount probably benefiting military units. (Mexico’s new National Guard has not been getting U.S. aid, though conversations are ongoing.)

* The other main account is the Defense Department’s authority to train and equip foreign security forces, known as “Section 333.” This very untransparent funding source provided $55.3 million in aid to Mexican military and police units in 2019,according to the Congressional Research Service. This is the main channel for assisting SEMAR and SEDENA.

$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.

Nonetheless, despite all the distrust, there will always be a bilateral security relationship between countries that share a 1,970-mile land border that’s the world’s most frequently crossed. Mexico is the United States’ number-two trading partner. Most undocumented migrants, and most of the illicit drugs on which more than 70,000 Americans per year overdose, pass through Mexico’s territory. The two countries are going to work together no matter what.

The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation.

Read the whole article.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Can we talk about this flag?

I first saw a “thin blue line” flag in person in 2016 or 2017, on a drive through rural Virginia. It was flying outside someone’s home.

Since then, though, I keep seeing it—we all keep seeing it—in places where it really shouldn’t be.

It’s very popular with law enforcement, and with people who claim to support law enforcement. But it worries me. Its design, and the way it’s being instrumentalized, point toward one of the darker, more divisive paths that the United States might follow from here, if we don’t change course.

The flag’s origins are noble: a symbol to pay tribute to police personnel who died in the line of duty. But imagery gets perverted quickly, especially in this very online era.

Pepe the Frog was just a comic character. The Punisher was a Marvel antihero. Both of their creators have since voiced horror at what each has come to represent. The same is happening to this flag design, even as police associations and conservative politicians embrace it.

The problem isn’t whether it’s an emblem of white supremacy, although it sometimes gets used that way. It’s a more fundamental problem with the design. It evokes division, separateness, a country coming apart.

Take a close look:

First, the celebratory red, white, and blue are replaced by somber, forbidding black and white. That’s fitting if the goal is to commemorate fallen officers: it’s solemn and funereal. But it also gives the design a dark, menacing simplicity. The sort of thing set designers would use in a fantasy movie with fascist badguys, like The Last Jedi or V for Vendetta.

Second, though, and far more troubling, is that blue line. “The stars represent the citizenry who stand for justice and order,” reads a site tailored for police, the first Google result for “thin blue line flag.” “The darkness,” it continues, “represents chaos and anarchy.”

This is how many police see themselves, and where the phrase “thin blue line” comes from: a human barrier protecting “good” people from the others.

You can guess the danger, though, can’t you? Who gets to decide who the “good” citizens are? Who gets to be north of the flag’s blue line, with the orderly stars, and who is south of the line, to be kept out and pushed away? And in any case, why slash a dividing line across a flag, the ultimate symbol of national unity?

At the local level, line-drawing is bad policing. Police should be part of a community, and that community’s members—of all races and backgrounds—should feel comfortable working with their local police. A community is secure only when the line is very blurred.

At the national level, to draw a line separating people in a polarized country, between “us” and “them,” is toxic. Right now, “us and them” is the language of the day, voiced at every Trump rally and throughout social media. In unequal societies of Latin America where I’ve worked for years, you sometimes hear of “la gente de bien” and “los sectores populares.” Same thing: a line dividing us and them. It doesn’t work there, either.

Who is on the other side of that line? Because this flag started showing up as a retort to the first Black Lives Matter protests against police killings—during the Ferguson/Colin Kaepernick moment—Black Americans can be excused for thinking that it is they who are the undesirables on the other side of that line. The flag’s appearance at white supremacist gatherings reinforces that.

So can people with left-of-center political views, those who want to expand rights and rein in unbridled capitalism. Donald Trump and other extreme GOP candidates appropriated this image and indelibly associated it with their election campaigns. Those of all races, ethnicities, sexual preferences, and belief systems who don’t belong to what Trump supporters consider to be the “real” America are excused for thinking that they, too, are included among the undesirables south of that blue line.

We’re not going to make it if our society persists in drawing lines between us, glorifying them with flags, and guarding them with armed force. This is how you sleepwalk into an armed conflict.

Police have a very hard job, not least because we ask them to do too many things that they’re not trained or prepared to do. Some, like Capitol Policeman Brian Sicknick, pay the highest price. All Americans should want police to have a professional career path, a dignified income, the esteem of the population, and the accountability that makes that possible.

All Americans should feel pain when a law enforcement professional dies on the job. And it makes sense to have a flag to commemorate it.

But not this one. It’s time for a new design.

The big story from yesterday

I’ve worked on defense and security in Latin America for a long time, which colored my view of what happened in the Capitol yesterday.

As soon as we all saw rioters start calmly parading through the Capitol, I was immediately struck by our security forces’ slow and tolerant response. Starting with some of the Capitol Police (though others performed bravely), and continuing with the incredible lack of backup they received.

20 years after 9/11, of course the Capitol Police and other authorities have the resources, and off-the-shelf plans, for dealing with a situation just like this in a professional, efficient, rights-respecting way. I’m sure they’ve had drills and exercises. Why were those plans plainly ignored? Why did it all fall apart for a group of only a couple thousand people maximum?

Anybody who has paid attention to Latin America knows what a dangerous politicization of security forces looks like. We also saw it—in the other direction—with federal law enforcement in Portland and at Washington’s BLM protests.

Some cops at the Capitol yesterday seem to have felt some kinship with the pro-Trump mob, and treated them way differently than they do peaceful Trump critics and people of color. And their management was plainly politicized in its failure to prepare for a contingency we all saw coming, and its subsequent failure to rush help to the scene.

You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away, unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.

Let’s stare that directly in the face, then do our best after January 20 to get it investigated, punished, and reformed so it never happens again. Let’s find out if that’s even possible to do in America in 2021.

This non-response looked familiar to anyone who has studied Latin America’s militaries and police during times of transition to and from democracy. To me, it was the big story of yesterday, and it’s terrifying.

“The Transition”: a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

In the weeks after the U.S. election was called for Joe Biden, I asked my colleagues at WOLA to join me for a series of podcasts. Following the four topics of a series of panels that WOLA hosted over the summer, we looked at some of the main challenges the new administration is sure to face—and how it might break with history and handle them differently this time.

I’m really glad I did these, and that eight of my co-workers took the time to join me. Though I’m still learning about audio quality (these are perfectly listenable but you can see why NPR spends so much on fancy studios), I’m delighted that we now have more than two and a half hours of high-quality analysis from people who are really paying attention to what’s going on. These four .mp3 files form an amazing snapshot of U.S.-Latin America relations on the threshold between two very different U.S. presidencies.

Each of the podcast player widgets below has a little download button (the down-arrow) so you can save the .mp3s. You can always find all of WOLA’s podcasts, going back to 2011, here. Or subscribe using your podcast player, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen to podcasts. The main feed is here.


November 16: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tonewith WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristen Martinez-Gugerli.

Even as the Biden administration adopts a changed tone in its relations with the region, there may be some surprising continuities from the Trump years. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.


November 23: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migrationwith Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer.

Trump’s hardline on migration policy is giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.


December 1: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fightwith Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.


December 11: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Spacewith WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Space

Here’s a great episode closing out a four-part cycle in which we look at what confronts U.S. policy toward Latin America during this sharp break of a presidential transition. Thanks to Geoff Thale and Geoff Ramsey for joining me here.

I’m also happy that I finally figured out the “reduce noise” filter on the Audacity sound editing app. Makes a difference.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

This is part four of a four-part podcast miniseries looking at key issues facing U.S. policy toward Latin America, as Washington transitions from the Trump era to the Biden administration.

This episode focuses on the state of democracy and civic space in the region. For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

Host Adam Isacson talks about this with WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

Hear Geoff Ramsey’s and the Venezuela program’s new Venezuela Briefing podcast. And here, view the video of President Trump meeting with regional leaders that Ramsey mentions in this episode’s discussion.

Earlier episodes of this “transition” podcast series covered U.S. credibility (November 16), migration (November 23), and corruption (December 1).

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: Peru Abruptly Removes Its President

WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt is back on the podcast to explain—with striking clarity—what the hell just happened in Lima this week, with Peru’s Congress ejecting its president.

The .mp3 file is here. Here’s the narrative text from wola.org:

A supermajority of Peru’s Congress voted on November 9 to force out President Martín Viscarra on grounds of “moral incapacity.” In a country where nearly all presidents since the 1980s have run into serious legal trouble for corruption, Viscarra was seen as relatively cleaner, and enjoyed greater popularity than the Congress. Some analysts view this as an example of Latin America’s ongoing backlash against those who propose even modest anti-corruption reforms. Meanwhile, Peru is suffering one of the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rates, while elections approach next April.

As street protests gather momentum, the situation in Lima may be even more chaotic than the current post-election drama in Washington. We discuss all of this with Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at WOLA and associate professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Burt is the author of Silencing Civil Society: Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru (2007) and directed Rights Perú, a collaborative research project on human rights prosecutions in Peru.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Dangerous times in Colombia

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begetd them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

A succinct evaluation of Colombia’s President Duque at the midpoint of his presidency

On August 7, Iván Duque completes two years as president of Colombia, with two left to go. I’ve seen a lot of midterm evaluation analyses in Colombia’s press. Most are largely negative: Duque has had a bumpy ride, and he’s governing from the center-right with the support of a party dominated by the ultra, populist right.

Daniel Samper, writing at Los Danieles, gave what I think is the fairest, most succinct evaluation of Iván Duque and his “mediocre” presidency so far. Here’s an English excerpt.

The evaluations I have read of Duque’s mid-term mandate are mostly unfavorable. Mediocre commentator that I am, I declare myself incapable of delving into all government issues and efforts. That is why I choose an evaluation formula worthy of a waiting room magazine. Here goes:

The good. Duque is not rowdy, like Uribe, or a cheater, like Santos; he belongs to the category he’s-basically-a-good guy, something that cannot be said of the other two … He does a good job in sectors such as technology and infrastructure … He fosters interesting productive projects … He has had gestures of solidarity with Venezuelan exiles … He has faced up to the virus …

The bad. He torpedoes peace [accord implementation] … He has not been able to manage or clean up the Army … The environment and culture are absent from his concerns … He does not know the value of self-criticism … Cronyism and companionship are his misguided guide to choosing personnel, so he has empowered unprepared, vain, immature and insecure officials … He designed a tax reform for the wealthy … He brought his personal religious fervor into the public arena … He kneels before the United States on many issues including the failed war on drugs …

The terrible. The abandonment of social leaders and environmentalists, the everyday drumbeat of diverse murders … His disastrous international policy, managed through phantoms and mediocre people, which worsened the relationship with Venezuela, broke bridges with a loyal ally like Cuba and betrayed Latin American interests.

The bad news. Two years of his period still remain.

The good news. If Duque changes the course of his administration, gets out from under his perverse godfathers [a reference to Uribe and his circle], governs with the best, and really seeks peace—even with the ELN—he would take the first steps toward a better country. As the mute person said, we’ll talk in two years.

In Latin America, COVID-19 Risks Permanently Disturbing Civil-Military Relations

“Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives,” reads an analysis from me that was just posted to WOLA’s website. “At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.”

In many Latin American democracies that have spent decades trying to leave military dictatorships behind, COVID-19 has put soldiers back on the streets playing roles ranging from handing out food to enforcing curfews. Once this is over, will the region be able to put this toothpaste back into the tube? Read on.

In the meantime, here’s a text box that appears in the piece that I think even non-Latin Americanists will find useful.

Key differences between militaries and police forces

Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.

Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.

Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.

Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.

Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.

Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.

Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.

Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.

Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:

  • Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
  • Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
  • Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.

For more, see WOLA’s 2010 report Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Police and Military Roles in the Americas.

WOLA Podcast: A Crucial Moment for Guatemala’s Fight Against Impunity

Guatemala is selecting new supreme court justices. The stakes are very high: fighting the corruption that drives so much migration will be much harder if the country gets this wrong. Here, my colleague Adriana Beltran and I talk to three people who are leading the fight from civil society.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Last year at the US-Mexico border, authorities apprehended more undocumented migrants from Guatemala than from any other country. That’s mostly because of a combination of poverty and violence. That in turn is exacerbated by corruption, which drains national wealth and benefits networks of political and economic power that, too often, are above the law.

People in Guatemala are trying to change that. They’re the ones who made important justice improvements alongside the CICIG, the international commission against impunity in Guatemala, which was ejected from the country last year. They’re still fighting, and this podcast talks to three of them. They are:

  • Helen Mack, the president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. A longtime leader in Guatemala’s fight for human rights, Helen founded her organization in 1993, three years after the army killed her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack. Helen is one of Guatemala’s principal experts on judicial and police reform.
  • Harald Waxenecker is a sociologist who investigates networks of power and criminality in Guatemala and El Salvador, which is dangerous but necessary work.
  • Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of Guatemala’s court of appeals who played a central role in some of the country’s most high-profile corruption investigations during the mid-2010s.

They’re together with Adriana Beltran, the principal host of this podcast episode. Beltran is WOLA’s director for citizen security, has worked for many years in Guatemala, and played an instrumental role in building international support for the CICIG.

Guatemala has hit a key turning point for the fight against impunity the Congress is selecting a new slate of supreme court justices. There’s a real danger that some of the country’s most corrupt elements might choose those who will judge them for the next five years. Much is in the balance here: further erosion of the rule of law will mean more misery in Guatemala, and more migration away from Guatemala.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Newer Posts
Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




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