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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Public Security

Soyapango, El Salvador

From El Salvador’s Gato Encerrado, reporting on the government’s encirclement of Soyapango, a poor San Salvador suburb, with 8,500 soldiers (about 1/3 of El Salvador’s military) and 1,500 police. The troops and cops are doing sweeps to arrest people whom they believe are gang members.

Translated caption of this photo, credited to Melissa Paises: “According to the human rights organization Cristosal, the majority of the more than 56,000 people detained under the emergency regime have been young men between the ages of 18 and 30, who were detained simply for their appearance or for living in stigmatized areas such as Soyapango.”

Coca is taking off in Guatemala

It has long been taken for granted that nearly all coca—the illicit bush whose leaves can be used to make cocaine—is grown in three Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. If coca bushes pop up elsewhere, local security forces tend to eradicate them quickly.

That may be becoming less true. If you search Twitter for “coca @Ejercito_GT,” you can find a surprising number of official tweets about Guatemalan security-force personnel eradicating coca bushes.

In the past two weeks alone, tweets from Guatemala’s army and government show soldiers and police eradicating coca bushes in four of the country’s twenty-two departments. In some cases, the plants are quite tall, indicating that they’ve been thriving for a while.

Alta Verapaz, November 16.
Izabal, November 12, although the photos are identical to the Alta Verapaz tweet immediately above.
Petén, November 21.
Zacapa, November 9.

This isn’t a consequence of coca becoming scarcer in the Andes and forcing new growing locations. U.S. government estimates indicate that the leaf has never been more plentiful in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It may be a consequence of farmers in Guatemala’s neglected countryside searching for an income-generating crop during a COVID-battered economic moment. It may also be a result of traffickers seeking to do a bit of “nearshoring,” trying to produce cocaine closer to U.S. markets without having to ship it over oceans or through the Central American isthmus.

If it catches on, Guatemala could join the three Andean countries as one of the world’s main coca and cocaine producers, not just a transit country. The elements for coca to catch on are all in place. Proximity to a big market. Vast ungoverned rural spaces with smallholding farmers on the edge of hunger. Widespread, chronic state corruption being abetted by the current government and judicial system. A robust existing network of traffickers who are already doing great damage to fragile ecosystems.

Keep an eye on this.

Mexico’s suspicious aircraft detections point to Venezuela

This is from the Mexican Presidency’s latest security report (October 20, page 61). It looks like Zulia, Venezuela has been the main jumping-off point for aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs toward Mexico.

Venezuela meanwhile claims to have destroyed 37 suspect aircraft so far this year:

Graphics on organized crime in Mexico

El Heraldo de Chihuahua published this map of organized crime dominance and territorial conflict along the U.S.-Mexico border in the state of Chihuahua, which extends from New Mexico to Texas’s Big Bend National Park. It names five criminal groups affiliated with two larger “cartels” (Sinaloa and the regional/local Juárez Cartel). The article’s text mentions seven local criminal groups. It does not mention the large and growing Jalisco Cartel.

Tijuana’s Revista Zeta, which has a long record of courageous reporting on organized crime in Mexico, published this table of “Cartels Recognized by the Attorney-General’s Office (FGR),” attempting to show which local criminal groups (“criminal cells”) are affiliated with which larger national cartels. Like the El Heraldo map, this table shows the Sinaloa (Pacífico) and Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes) cartels active in Chihuahua, naming four local criminal groups.

The table shows the remarkable fragmentation of criminal groups that has resulted from years of “mano dura” and “high-value targeting” strategies, which have weakened or divided cartel leaderships but done little to prevent vast territories from being fertile ground for organized crime.

Bukele’s gang crackdown has imprisoned nearly 1 percent of El Salvador’s population

In March, after a violent weekend likely caused by a secret truce’s breakdown, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared all-out war on the country’s MS-13 gang.

This isn’t the first time a Salvadoran president has announced a “mano dura” (iron fist) policy against MS-13, Barrio 18 and other gangs that have made daily life in El Salvador dangerous for a generation. But Bukele’s campaign is the broadest and most indiscriminate.

As of late August, over 51,800 people had been arrested and jailed since March 26 when, in a 3:00 AM meeting with security officials, Bukele gave an order for sweeping arrests. Every day, families surround one of the country’s main prisons, awaiting news about loved ones seized off the streets or even from their homes, as Jonathan Blitzer detailed in a September 5 New Yorker profile of Bukele.

A September 12 investigation by the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica includes new information about the draconian policy’s origins. “They told us to go that very day and capture all the MS gang members that were identified. They told us: you have to bring in the heads of the gang; you have to touch the gang’s finances. The order was to surround them, to surround their family members, their acquaintances,” an official present at the March 26 meeting said.

The police chiefs were told that they would not have to “worry about the Attorney General’s Office.” According to the sources, the instruction, which was later passed on to all active police officers in the country, was that “the Attorney General’s Office is going to receive the MS gang members that we send them. Without much proof.”

There was no officer or anyone in that room who did not know that they were asking us to go against the law, but that was the order: to bring this to an end,” said one of the sources.

“During the state of emergency, the military performs public security tasks, an assignment that the Salvadoran Constitution gives only to the police,” reads the caption of this image from La Prensa Gráfica photojournalist Luis Martínez.

This is not entirely a police operation. El Salvador’s military, a significant recipient of U.S. military aid, plays a robust role as well. The initial 3:00AM meeting “was not attended by Armed Forces commanders,” La Prensa Gráfica reported, but “military and police officials consulted said that they received orders at another meeting called by Minister Merino Monroy,” referring to the country’s defense minister, René Francis Merino Monroy, an active-duty vice-admiral.

A veteran police agent told La Prensa Gráfica:

This state of emergency has been the first time that he has seen, for example, soldiers patrolling on their own, soldiers detaining civilians, with the freedom to act as if they knew anything about public security tasks. The Minister of Defense has assured that some 18,000 military operatives are carrying out tasks that the Salvadoran Constitution entrusts to the PNC [Civilian National Police].

The newspaper’s investigation continues:

To date, human rights organizations in El Salvador have counted more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations for the same number of detainees under the state of emergency. The cases analyzed for this investigation confirm a common denominator: the Attorney General’s Office, more than 150 days later, is still unable to prove the gang membership of hundreds of detainees, and in dozens of cases the link between the detainees and these structures is based on informants, the “public voice,” or supposed police records of the detainees, about whom the same arrest records indicate that they had no criminal record or records in databases.

Today, “In El Salvador, having tattoos, being drunk, acting nervous or just looking suspicious are enough reason for police to arrest people.”

The Duque Presidency Limps to the Finish Line

Left, October 23, 2021: Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, proclaims “the end of the Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. (Also known as the “Úsuga Clan,” the “Urabeños,” and the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”)

Right, May 7, 2022: the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group declares an “armed strike” upon its onetime leader’s extradition to the United States. With threats and over 100 acts of violence, the group stops economic activity in at least part of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments.


Unsurprisingly, analysts of Colombia’s conflict—like Esteban Salazar of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation on October 25, 2021—understood what was going on:

Does this actually work?

A sound truck drives slowly through a neighborhood in a small city in west-central Colombia. A soldier aboard plays a recorded audio message, jacked in from his phone, encouraging members of armed groups to turn themselves in and demobilize.

This seems like an empty exercise. These messages, broadcast by radio, may sometimes work on homesick guerrilla recruits in remote jungle encampments, convincing them to disarm. But in the middle of a population center like Chaparral, Tolima, any armed-group members are likely to be un-uniformed and mixed in with the population. The promise of returning to one’s home and family, who are probably right there in town, doesn’t make particular sense.

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

“One of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me.”

One of several cases discussed in a La Silla Vacía article about people who’ve gone missing in the context of Colombia’s protests:

Valentina Smimmo Ramirez is a student at the Technological University of Pereira. She was a classmate of Lucas Villa, killed on May 5 by armed civilians in that city. Valentina was arrested on May 1 by ESMAD agents after participating in the protests.

It was near the San Nicolas CAI, which was burned down that day. Valentina told La Silla that she was running away from the gas and gunfire from the Police in that area that day when she was detained around 7:20 pm by ESMAD agents without visible identification.

“I fell down and when I got up I was surrounded by ESMAD agents and Police. One of the policemen told them to leave me alone, that they were looking for men, but one of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me,” she says.

She says that they did not take her to a CAI or a URI. “They put me in a black car and took me blindfolded to some warehouses near the fire station. Later I found out that’s where I was, when they released me. They had their implements there, like shields. There, they continued beating me. On the way, they turned off my cell phone, which was sending my location in real time. In the warehouse they discussed whether it would continue sending the location when it was turned off. They turned it on, saw that people were looking for me and got scared. Then they checked my wallet and found out that I am not a Colombian citizen, but Italian, and they released me.”

Valentina spent 5 hours in detention. According to her testimony, which La Silla could not independently verify, they did not respect her right to communicate, nor did they take her to a center to legalize her detention. She was also beaten and insulted, and then released without explanation. Two days later, Valentina says she was beaten again at a protest and had two ribs broken. She filed a formal complaint.

The Cheetos are one of many perplexing details about yesterday’s Venezuelan military captive release

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the eight Venezuelan soldiers who got released on May 31, after 38 days as captives of an ex-FARC dissident group. The “10th Front” dissident group captured them during combat on April 23 near the Colombian border, in Venezuela’s Apure state. There, fighting between Venezuelan forces and the 10th Front, which broke out on March 21, has displaced about 7,000 Venezuelan residents.

What we don’t know, besides whether a bag of Cheetos is really a great way to welcome someone back to freedom, is laid out in a good overview by Sofía Nederr at Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

  • Do three soldiers remain in captivity, as the director of Venezuela’s FundaRedes, Javier Tarazona, claims? (Tarazona gets a lot right, but he also claims that the ex-FARC leaders who are committed to the peace process, like Rodrigo Londoño, are aiding the dissidents, and there’s no proof of that at all.)
  • FundaRedes says that on May 30, there may have been a “truce” during which Venezuelan forces pulled out of territory in order to make possible the captives’ release, possibly to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • Tarazona says the dissidents—or some Colombian armed groups, anyway—maintain five “safe houses” in four Venezuelan states.
  • Tarazona claims the Venezuelan armed forces’ leadership has ordered the ex-captives not to talk about what happened or how they were freed.
  • It’s still not clear why Venezuelan forces are fighting the 10th Front dissidents, and leaving unmolested Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” dissident group, which both operate in Apure.

The FARC dissidents, whose leadership has years of experience as guerrillas (though much of the membership is probably new recruits), has hit the Venezuelan military hard, killing at least 16 of them.

What happened in the United States, and the danger of politicized security forces

Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.

On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?

A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.

The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.

The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.

But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.

That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.

The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?

We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.

The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.

In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.

It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.

It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.

Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?

Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.

There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

WOLA Podcast: “How do we define success?” Jonathan Rosen on governments’ approaches to organized crime

I had a fun conversation yesterday with Jonathan Rosen. Here’s the description from WOLA’s site:

Jonathan Rosen, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has published a large body of books, articles, and edited volumes in the past several years on drug policy, organized crime, corruption, state failure, and violence in the Americas.

Here, Dr. Rosen shares a strong critique of “mano dura” approaches to crime and violence, the disjointed and short-term nature of U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, and the persistence of counter-drug strategies that simply don’t work.

He also discusses his experience as an expert witness in about 100 asylum cases involving threatened Latin American citizens in immigration courts around the country.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file.

“Infographics” section added to colombiapeace.org

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

We’ve just added a page with nine visualizations of data regarding peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. We’ll update these, and add more, as we make them.

At the bottom of each are shortened links to the documents from which we drew the information. The current collection of infographics covers the demobilized FARC population, U.S. aid, registered victims, U.S. cocaine prices, coca cultivation and eradication, cocaine seizures, homicides, kidnappings, and forced displacement.

We hope you find these useful. Like everything produced by WOLA on this site, you’re free to use them with proper attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Why are homicides declining in Colombia this year?

An argument I included in Monday evening’s post, about the Colombian Defense Minister’s security performance, raised a few hackles on social media.

That post cited President Iván Duque’s crediting Defense Minister Guillermo Botero for a 2 percent reduction in homicides so far in 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. To refute it, I cited the work of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, whose big annual analysis of the conflict, published in August, looked at the data for the first half of 2019.

Much of the 2018-19 decrease in killings, that report concluded, owes to shifts in the landscape of armed groups and organized crime—not to the Duque government’s security policies. In Colombia’s historically conflictive regions, homicides rose in 2018—then shrank in 2019 so far, as armed groups achieved regional monopolies, entered into non-aggression pacts, or otherwise altered their behavior, making many territories less violently disputed.

Some on social media found this argument insulting. A few analysts, some of whom have carried out security policymaking for the Bogotá municipal government, called me out for failing to credit to the work of Colombia’s security sector, especially those in charge of security in the main cities, which have seen important drops in homicides. For them, this argument crediting organized crime realignments lacks “responsibility,” was “politicized,” and “doesn’t stand up to the most minimal empirical analysis.”

I’m sorry, but I need to push back a bit. Let’s unpack this further.

First, I’m not talking about the progress made since 2010, or since 2002. I’m talking about the 2018-19 timeframe, for which Colombia’s government claims a 2 percent reduction in homicides year-to-date, after a 6 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Between 2002 and 2008 or so, and again between 2013 and 2017, Colombia achieved some very important decreases in homicides, unlike anything seen elsewhere lately in Latin America. And I absolutely agree that much of it owed to government policies, especially in the larger cities.

But then there was a hiccup in 2018. After the FARC’s demobilization and exit from many areas, homicides increased last year amid a violent reordering of organized crime and armed-group activity and a continued absence of state presence.

Daniel Mejía of the University of the Andes, a former Bogotá municipal security secretary, tweeted violent crime data charts appearing to show an inflection point after August 2018, when President Iván Duque was inaugurated. Mejia sees this as evidence of the new Colombian government’s actions.

Why would that happen right after August 2018? Did Duque and Minister Botero offer a superior recipe for dealing with insecurity? Was Colombia in need of a conservative government’s more iron-fisted approach? Or have lots of other, parallel, things happened in Colombia since August 2018?

These 15 months saw, for instance, a non-aggression pact form between ex-FARC and other groups in the violent port city of Tumaco, and in surrounding Pacific coastal areas used heavily for cocaine trafficking. It saw the ELN all but vanquish the EPL guerrilla/criminal group in the Catatumbo region. It saw a group called “La Mafia” consolidate its presence, avoiding aggression with FARC dissidents, in Putumayo. In Arauca last month, I was told the ELN and FARC dissidents had entered into a non-aggression pact. I heard the same in Chocó about similar arrangements between the ELN and FARC dissidents and, in some parts of the department, between the ELN and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.

These are just a few examples. A proliferation of these “new equilibria,” most of which date to after August 2018, can’t be dismissed as a potential reason for this period’s drop in homicides.

Second, I’m hardly talking about Colombia’s main cities, most of which for years have had homicide rates well below those of Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and several other U.S. cities. There, talented security technocrats and honest cops have achieved strong gains.

In 2018, homicides continued to drop in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. But the country as a whole saw an increase. Something was seriously wrong in some smaller cities and rural areas where the drug trade and armed groups have thrived. But not the principal cities.

“In effect,” concludes the cited Peace and Reconciliation Foundation report, “the 2018 increase in violence took place in municipalities with the greatest institutional weakness, the presence of illegal markets, and low institutional capacity—that is, in rural areas that have historically been affected by violence. In the big cities and in coca-free municipalities, the violent homicide trend continues to diminish.”

But then in 2019, the trend reversed again: homicides are down nationwide. In its August report, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation crunches the national medical examiner’s data from January through June 2019, comparing it with the same period in 2018. It finds 497 fewer homicides across Colombia during that 6-month period, which in fact is more than a 2 percent decrease.

But it gets more interesting. The Foundation identifies 281 municipalities (counties; Colombia has 1,100) that are “priorities for the post-conflict”: places where government presence is scarce and there’s a history of armed-group activity. Those municipalities made up 30 percent of homicides in 2018. Colombia’s five largest cities made up 28 percent, and the rest of the country shared the other 42 percent.

During the first half of 2019, the medical examiner’s data show these 281 municipalities with a surprising 13 percent fewer homicides: 243 fewer people were killed here compared to the first half of 2018. As noted, nationwide over the same period, homicides declined by 497, so almost half of Colombia’s homicide reductions during January-June 2019 happened in the 281 most troubled municipalities. Colombia’s other 800-plus municipalities, including the major cities, shared the other half.

That is a remarkable result. What’s the miracle in these historically abandoned corners of the country? It’s not a big increase in government presence: the PDETs, “Zonas Futuro” and other post-conflict plans to introduce government into these territories are still just getting off the drawing board. It’s not the genius of urban security planners, whose writ hardly extends to the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities.

That’s where the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation’s hypothesis comes in. Something has happened, in many long-abandoned regions, among the armed groups themselves, without regard to government policy. This makes sense to me, as the most plausible explanation for why homicides have declined in conflictive rural areas. I’m actually surprised, when referring to what’s happening outside of the cities, that it would even be that controversial. Meanwhile, the contrary evidence presented to me doesn’t knock it down.

(A bigger project for another day—I’m traveling right now—would be to use the Colombian National Police’s homicide statistics, downloadable here as big Excel spreadsheets, code the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities, and view the year-to-date data to see whether it differs from Peace and Reconciliation’s number-crunching, and if so how.)

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