Adam Isacson

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


Shameless Self-Promotion

Thursday Evening Book Event

If you’re in Washington, join me on Thursday evening at a very good bookstore, for a discussion of a very good book. I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ieva Jusionyte, whose book Exit Wounds was just released today, at the original Politics and Prose store up on Connecticut Avenue.

Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border is a series of vignettes and character sketches about gun trafficking, organized crime, and migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Jusionyte makes the point that Mexico is not inherently a violent place, that the United States’ approach to firearms plays a role too.

I’ve given the book a very close read and am completely over-prepared. Looking forward to Thursday.

I liked this part:

I began following American guns south in order to understand what they were doing to Mexican society. From the stories migrants and refugees told me I already knew I would find communities scarred by gun violence and people who were living in fear, some of whom were choosing to leave their homes in search of safety and better lives. I knew that this journey would eventually take me back to the border, right to where I had started, that the plight of migrants and refugees running away from threats would only lead to further militarization and fortification of the barrier separating “us” from “them.” After all, the desire to prevent migrants from crossing is a strong political potion that reliably wins elections in the United States. And yet I was surprised by how few people recognize that it’s a circle. Even the language we use to talk about violence south of the border, using such terms as “narcos” and “cartels,” only reinforces the idea that Mexico is a dangerous country and we need to build a barrier lest those people coming from over there—not only Mexico, but also Honduras and Guatemala, Haiti and Venezuela, and many other places—would bring violence here.

Somehow, we fail to connect the dots: that the violence people are fleeing, the violence we are afraid they would spread in the United States is, in large part, of our own making—that the tools come from the factories in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Tennessee, some smuggled across the borders, others legally exported to foreign military and police forces with records of abuse. Even more: these guns come from the same regions where addiction to opioids has created demand for drugs that continue to enrich smugglers in Mexico; that the money Americans spend on fentanyl, heroin, or meth will be used to buy guns to arm those who supply this contraband. Nor do we realize that the US government’s pursuit of most prominent Mexican traffickers and their extraditions to face trials on this side of the border—the list that includes several leaders of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas—have deprived communities that have suffered their brutality most directly from recourse to justice, further fraying the social fabric of the Mexican society.

A New Tool for Migration Data

I’ve been posting a bit less this week because I’ve moved my site and domain to a new service provider. (You may have noticed that this page loaded a few milliseconds faster? Probably not.)

I’m now using a virtual server that can host not just this site, but other little projects as sub-domains of

One of those little projects is live now: It’s a tool that lets you search Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) migration data since 2020.

Every month, CBP updates and publishes a dataset of its encounters with migrants since fiscal year 2020 (October 2019). We may get February’s data any moment now.

But that data is basically a table that right now has 58,866 rows. This site makes it usable.

(CBP has a “dashboard” that shows this data since 2021, and unlike mine, it includes encounters beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Canada border and airports. But it doesn’t let you, for instance, just see how many people came from every country—you have to select each country one by one—and it’s really hard to get data out of it.)

I think the page is self-explanatory. If you visit it, do nothing, and click “Show the Data,” you’ll get a table showing how many migrants CBP encountered—both Border Patrol and ports of entry combined—by country for each year since 2020.

Hover your mouse over any number in the table, and a pop-up will show you the percentage of the total (so in the picture, 27% of 2024’s migrants so far have come from Mexico).

Click the “select table” button, and the entire thing is selected, letting you copy-and-paste it into a spreadsheet or anywhere else.

I encourage you to play around with the options on the main page letting you refine your search. Checking the various boxes lets you see, for instance, “How many family members and accompanied/unaccompanied children from Cuba and Haiti arrived in Texas’s five Border Patrol sectors and two CBP field offices, by month since 2023, listed by whether they came to ports of entry or to areas between them.” Just to give an idea of all the variables.

Search result: Monthly Migration at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Presented by “Whether Encountered At or Between Ports of Entry” at “Big Bend Sector, Del Rio Sector, El Paso Sector, Laredo Sector, and Rio Grande Valley Sector” at “El Paso Field Office and Laredo Field Office” for migrants from “Cuba and Haiti” who are “Accompanied Minors, Family Unit Members, and Unaccompanied Children / Single Minors” Between 2023 and 2024
Whether Encountered At or Between Ports of Entry	Oct 2022	Nov 2022	Dec 2022	Jan 2023	Feb 2023	Mar 2023	Apr 2023	May 2023	Jun 2023	Jul 2023	Aug 2023	Sep 2023	Oct 2023	Nov 2023	Dec 2023	Jan 2024	Total
At the Ports of Entry (CBP Office of Field Operations)	2,085	1,699	1,845	1,055	1,551	1,804	2,288	2,110	3,413	4,366	3,607	2,806	2,943	3,372	3,979	4,627	43,550
Between the Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	4,085	6,001	7,786	1,351	17	109	180	408	79	122	124	174	220	397	1,464	314	22,831
Total	6,170	7,700	9,631	2,406	1,568	1,913	2,468	2,518	3,492	4,488	3,731	2,980	3,163	3,769	5,443	4,941	66,381

Also, every search result, including a really long one like that example, has its own unique link.

I hope you find it useful. I’m using it constantly. When CBP releases its February data, I’ll be able to update this within about 10 minutes of obtaining it.

And finally: all the source code is on GitHub if you want to see how it works or have the skills to improve it.

At the Border Chronicle: Fight Corruption and Invest in Asylum: A Q&A with Adam Isacson

I enjoyed this conversation last week with journalist Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle, a newsletter and outlet she runs with fellow border-based author Todd Miller. She did an amazing job of condensing and simplifying what was a much longer conversation full of policy-nerd-speak.

I would invest a lot more in our asylum system. And I’d get rid of the 1990-era caps on who can come from which country to get residency here. I’d also vastly expand the temporary work permits. So, people can come work, and not just for farm labor but also for other skilled work. I’d also end corruption, which is a huge part of why people migrate. If I were doing foreign policy, we can certainly do more to uphold and give resources to the people fighting corruption and fighting impunity, and justice systems and NGOs and even the reformers inside the military. They should have our most high-profile backing, but so often they don’t.

Read the whole thing here.

On PRX’s “The World”: Who’s in control of the US-Mexico border?

Click here for audio of a 5:40 segment on PRX’s The World program, recorded Friday. Host Carol Hills and I talk about the very troubling standoff in Texas between federal and state border forces. “You have this very strange tableau now,” I point out, “of armed National Guard—their patches say ‘U.S. Army’ on them—telling Border Patrol that they cannot enter an area that is actually within the U.S. border on U.S. territory.”

At VOA’s Foro Interamericano: El Salvador define su futuro político

Here (en español) is a panel discussion, recorded Friday, on Voice of America. I joined Salvadoran analyst Napoleón Campos to talk about the implications of authoritarian-trending leader Nayib Bukele’s likely blowout re-election victory in today’s election in El Salvador.

Podcast: ¿Dejará De Ser Una Democracia Estados Unidos Si Donald Trump Gana Las Elecciones?

I joined Colombian journalist María Jimena Duzán and former U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley on the latest episode of Duzán’s popular Spanish-language podcast.

The episode was a scene-setter for the 2024 U.S. election campaign. Neither John nor I get called on to do a lot of this “election horserace” sort of punditry, but that may have made this a more engaging attempt to explain the current U.S. political moment to a non-U.S. audience.

Video: Migration Dynamics: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Northern Triangle

(Not sure why I’m making that facial expression.)

Many thanks to New York-based Network 20/20, an organization “that bridges the gap between the private sector and foreign policy worlds,” for inviting me to participate in a virtual panel last Thursday. With Elizabeth Oglesby of the University of Arizona and Diego de Sola of Glasswing International, we talked about the causes of migration away from Central America, and the good and bad of U.S. policies, past and present.

On Cannabis Policy, “The Federal Government Is Recognizing the Reality That Several States Have Already Recognized”

I’m in today’s edition of Y Esto No Es Todo, the Spanish-language podcast of Georgetown University’s Americas Institute, talking with host Juan Carlos Iragorri about the U.S. federal government’s movement toward reclassifying marijuana as a lower-risk drug. Here are my comments in English:

Well, it’s pretty important that the U.S. federal government is following in the footsteps of the states and softening its standards on marijuana a bit. And it’s happening for a number of reasons.

First, because the boomer generation, those who were born after World War II, almost all of them lived or experimented with marijuana as young people and they know it didn’t do them much harm. And that has really changed attitudes quite a bit in the last 20, 30 years about marijuana laws.

Also the fact that marijuana is less addictive than other drugs that are lower, in fact, in the scheme that the DEA uses to classify drugs, like cocaine. Cocaine is much more addictive. Alcohol is legal and it’s more addictive. Then marijuana is seen as maybe something that carries less social harm, health harm, than some of the others. And now the fact that more and more medicinal uses are being discovered is quite important.

The third is simply that enforcing anti-marijuana laws is draining the resources of police across the country. Instead of having to catch those who are using or selling marijuana, they can focus on drugs and much more serious criminal phenomena. And that’s freeing up a lot more resources. And you see that in states where marijuana has been legalized or regulated, there are no increases in violent crime in recent years.

So all of that is changing attitudes. And finally the federal government is recognizing the reality that several states have already recognized.

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022),

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

Read More

Tomorrow Morning in Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”

Tune in tomorrow morning (or on YouTube later) for what will be a really interesting discussion of how governments can protect their citizens and their institutions from organized crime, without violating human rights.

It’s unusual to have two people from one organization in these hearings. I’m a substitute for someone who just had to cancel. I’ll be talking mainly about Colombia.

OK, time to work on my testimony.

Countries’ Options for Migrants Passing Through

I like this Washington Post editorial (not only because I’m mentioned) because it wrestles with one of the thorniest questions facing Latin America.

When large numbers of migrants are passing through your territory, how do you manage it in a way that’s not so “zero tolerance” that it strands thousands and creates a bonanza for organized crime, but that’s not so tolerant that the U.S. government comes down hard on you for “green-lighting” migrants passing through?

I struggled with those options a bit in a post here a couple of months ago, and it makes up much of the “recommendations” section of a report I’m writing right now about my recent research trip to Colombia (first draft complete this weekend even if it kills me). I appreciate the way the Post editorial lays out these lousy choices and what countries can do (integration of migrants, coordination with each other) to “make the U.S. government OK with it” if they legalize and manage in-transit migration instead of pushing it into the shadows.

Hearing Testimonies from Yesterday

Here are links to the testimonies I submitted for yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration.

WOLA has created a page with video excerpts and links.

I’m now catching up on work that has fallen behind, including this week’s delayed Border Update. Testifying in the full committee was a great experience, but it did poke a 20-hour hole in the week.

Testifying Thursday the 30th

Posting to this site could be a bit infrequent or erratic over the next couple of days, because I’ve just been added as a witness to Thursday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration. Wish me luck, or come by the Capitol Visitors’ Center at 2:00PM Thursday and send good energy.

(You don’t have to do that. It will always be on YouTube.)

Last Week Tonight: “Biden and the Border”

Don’t miss the latest “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode, about Title 42 and what’s coming next.

It’s a super informative report, with some delightfully vicious humor. And as you can see, they’ve got the best footnotes.

Screenshot from report, with John Oliver and a graphic of text from a recent WOLA Border Update.

Video en español de hoy

Tuve una muy interesante discusión hoy, aquí en Washington en el programa Foro Interamericano de la Voz de América, con Néstor Osuna, el ministro de justicia de #Colombia. Hablamos sobre la política antidrogas y la política exterior de EEUU.

Recent writing…

You may be wondering what’s the point of maintaining a personal website, if you don’t even use it to post links to things you’ve created at the moment they go public. You’d have a good point.

My only defense is something along the lines of “deadlines meetings too much happening in the news when do I sleep.” That’s a poor defense, though, because it only takes a couple of minutes to post things here, I enjoy maintaining this space, and I want it to be a useful resource.

So here’s what’s come out lately:

The Tragedy in Texas Was Avoidable, Just Like Hundreds of Other Migrant Deaths on U.S. Soil This Year: (posted June 28) As we absorbed the horror of the mass death of migrants in a cargo container in Texas, we published this commentary explaining the larger context: 2022 was already on its way to being a record year for grisly and preventable deaths of migrants on U.S. soil along the border. It’s a result of policies put in place by people in our federal government who have—I don’t know how else to put it—a really cavalier attitude about the deaths of people who’ve committed no crimes.

From rebel to president: Colombia’s new leftist leader: An hourlong English unpacking of Colombia’s election result on BBC’s “Real Story” program, with journalist Catalina Lobo-Guerrero and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck, University of London.

Migration and the Summit of the Americas: (posted June 23) a podcast I hosted with three WOLA colleagues. Between myself, VP for Programs Maureen Meyer, Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer, and Program Assistant Lesly Tejada, since March we’ve done field research in four of the nine sectors into which the U.S. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, we’ve been to the Mexico-Guatemala border, and we’ve attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where migration was a big topic. Here, we talk about all of that.

A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy? (posted to the Quincy Institute Responsible Statecraft site June 22) In the wake of Gustavo Petro’s presidential election victory in Colombia, a preview of areas where the U.S. government could work with him (peace implementation, environment, ethnic and women’s rights, anticorruption) and where there may be a collision course (drugs, Venezuela, trade, the military “special relationship”).

Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too. (posted June 16) Posted in the runup to Colombia’s momentous presidential election, a look at what the implications might be for U.S. policy toward a country President Biden views as a “keystone.”

OK, in the end, this post actually took me a while to write, especially on a Saturday afternoon when there’s a lot going on around the house. Still, I resolve to do a better job of sharing recent work when it comes out.

Video: “New Militarism in Latin America?”

(In Spanish) This was a very good 2-panel seminar, recorded on April 21 and hosted by Spain’s Fundación Carolina.

Some of Latin America’s smartest analysts of the current moment in civil-military relations. And also me, talking about the U.S. role over a slideshow, with my New Jersey Spanish accent.

A New Resource About Border Abuse and Accountability

In our work at the U.S.-Mexico border, we regularly hear about abuses or improper law enforcement behavior by U.S. security agencies. But so often, whatever happens gets overtaken by the next events, forgotten.

I wanted to start damming up this steady, alarming stream going by us all the time. So, many months ago, I set up a new WordPress install, and my staff and I started throwing into it everything we’ve seen and heard since 2020 about abuses committed at the border.

The result is a database that we’re hosting at It has more than 220 entries so far, fully cited. We’ve captured these events and allegations, and organized them by category, place, agency, victim, and “accountability status.”

I’m not exactly “proud” of what we’ve created here. Actually, trying to read through it is a monstrous experience. There’s only so many use-of-force incidents, high-speed vehicle pursuits, spied-on U.S. citizens, Facebook slurs, non-return of belongings, dangerous deportations, and timid oversight that one can take in a single sitting. The picture is grim.

I don’t want this to be viewed, though, as an attack on the individuals who’ve chosen to build a career as a Border Patrol agent or CBP officer. I have met many agents and officers, and found nearly all to be decent and honorable people. But take CBP and Border Patrol as a whole, and something changes. Organizational cultures are powerful.

Our maintenance of will be continuous: a database is never “done,” but we’ll use it to spin off a lot of other materials and carry out further work on what’s causing this problem and how to reform it.

I hope you find it useful as we work for greater accountability and cultural change at these agencies.

Here are some resources:

  • We added a page with links to reports about the border: from WOLA, from the U.S. and other governments, from non-governmental colleagues, and from the media. Organized by category. More than 270 of them so far are at

And here’s a quick video explaining this work:

On NPR talking about the ICE nominee

The Biden administration has named reformist border-state sheriffs to head CBP and ICE—two agencies in serious need of reform. If confirmed, they may face real friction with management and rank-and-file. Great conversation about this today with Michel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Two interviews from last Thursday

I enjoyed talking about the border for an hour, on DC poet and all-around-brilliant person Ethelbert Miller’s radio show, on November 19.

And later that same day I was pleased that Cuestión de Poder, on the NTN24 cable network, wanted to dig into the COVID-era expansion of Latin America’s militaries’ roles. We’ll be wrestling with this for a while.

Also, the plants in my home office are thriving right now.

Some Things That I Wrote in 2017

Even before Election Day 2016, I knew 2017 was going to be an intense year at work. Still, it exceeded expectations. This year I traveled to Colombia three times, to the U.S.-Mexico border twice, and the Mexico-Guatemala border once. I met with about fifty congressional offices. I co-hosted a big conference and led a congressional delegation. I spoke to at least 15 audiences. I coded two websites. And I wrote a lot: at least 40 publicly available articles and reports.

Of all that writing, here’s the 20 pieces I’m proudest of at the end of the year. Many of these have co-authors who deserve most of the credit.

(And remember that I’m just one of several people working just as intensely at WOLA right now. Please support us with a donation so we can keep it up in 2018.)

  1. Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs,” with Sarah Kinosian at WOLA’s website, April 27, 2017.
    It took a couple of years, but I built a huge database of 107 programs that the U.S. government uses to aid foreign militaries and police forces. This report highlights the main findings. And in 188 pages (!) it describes each program and how to find out more about it.
  2. ‘Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face,’in English at this site and in Spanish at El Espectador, October 28, 2017.
    A wide-ranging interview about U.S. policy toward Colombia, conducted over e-mail, with journalist Cecilia Orozco at the country’s second-most-circulated daily.
  3. Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System,” at WOLA’s website, November 29, 2017.
    An explanation of seven big concerns with Colombia’s post-conflict system for dealing with the worst human rights abusers. As a non-lawyer trying to explain this in plain English, this was hard for me to write but I think it turned out well.
  4. Mexico’s Southern Border – Security, Central American Migration, and U.S. Policy,” with Maureen Meyer and Hannah Smith at WOLA’s website, June 29, 2017.
    We visited the Mexico-Guatemala border, where Tabasco abuts the Petén, in February. Here is what we learned.
  5. We’re Not Binge-Watching Netflix.” At this site, July 31, 2017.
    A heartfelt objection to the notion, voiced by Gen. John Kelly and other Trump officials, that American citizens have no standing to question what their military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are doing.
  6. Confronting Colombia’s Coca Boom Requires Patience and a Commitment to the Peace Accords,” at WOLA’s website, March 13, 2017.
    Written in anticipation a U.S. announcement that Colombian coca-growing had jumped again in 2016. The message here is “the reasons for this are complicated—don’t blame it on the peace process and don’t insist on a return to spraying herbicides over places where people live.”
  7. Lessons from San Diego’s Border Wall,” with Maureen Meyer at WOLA’s website, December 14, 2017.
    I started writing this as a brief memo about the ridiculousness of the border-wall prototypes the Trump administration was building outside San Diego. But by drawing on things we learned during a May visit to San Diego and Tijuana, I ended up ballooning it into a good report.
  8. Why What’s Happening in Honduras Matters,” at this site, December 16, 2017.
    Why it’s so tragic that the U.S. government failed to take a stand against “illiberal democracy” after Honduras’s botched election.
  9. The Most Important Trends in Colombia’s Drug Policy, Explained,” at WOLA’s website, September 12, 2017.
    I wrote this as a memo to Senate staff before a hearing on Colombia’s drug policy. Maybe because it’s so brief, it was the piece about which I heard the most positive feedback all year.
  10. Four Common Misconceptions about U.S.-bound Drug Flows through Mexico and Central America,” at WOLA’s website, June 20, 2017.
    This brief compilation of data about how drugs are actually getting to the United States also got a lot of positive comments and web traffic.
  11. President Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda: Tracking Where Things Stand in Congress,” at WOLA’s website, first posted September 13, 2017 and last updated December 20, 2017.
    One day I had a bright idea: “why don’t we make a web resource with the most up-to-date information about current legislation on the border wall, Border Patrol and ICE increases, and DACA?” Many, many hours later, we published this resource, which I’ve since updated several times to reflect the latest changes on Capitol Hill.
  12. Senate Reverses Most of Trump Administration’s Proposed Cuts in Latin America Assistance,” at WOLA’s website, October 5, 2017.
    Goes over U.S. aid to Colombia, Central America, and Mexico in 2016, 2017, and, for 2018, the Trump White House proposal, the House bill, and the Senate bill. As there’s no 2018 budget yet, this is still current.
  13. Colombia’s peace accords point the way to a solution. But will they be implemented?” at the Brookings Institution Order From Chaos blog, April 28, 2017.
    In which I worry about the short-term, quick-fix nature of Colombia’s post-conflict approach to coca cultivation.
  14. Throwing Money at the Wall: An Overview of the Trump Administration’s Border Wall Funding Requests,” at WOLA’s website, March 31, 2017.
    A one-stop compendium of everything we knew at the time about Trump’s border-wall plans, how much they’d cost, and why they were a big waste of money.
  15. Menos plata de Trump para la paz de Colombia: ¿qué tanto hay que preocuparse?” at Colombia’s Razón Pública, June 5, 2017.
    In discussing the Trump White House’s proposed 2018 aid cut and why it probably won’t succeed, I give a thorough rundown of what’s actually in U.S. aid to Colombia right now.
  16. How to Protect DACA While Actually Securing the Border,” at WOLA’s website, September 13, 2017.
    In which I say, “OK, you want to look tough on securing the U.S.-Mexico border? Here are some smart things you can do.”
  17. Four Common Misconceptions about Increasing the Size of the U.S. Border Patrol,” at WOLA’s website, September 13, 2017.
    So much coverage of Trump’s border proposals have focused on the “wall.” But he also wants to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. This shows why that’s a lousy idea.
  18. Some of the Many Reasons Why the United States Should Keep Supporting Colombia’s Peace Accord,” at WOLA’s website, January 27, 2017.
    I couldn’t believe I was finding myself having to explain why “a war stopping is good.” But we were in the first week of the Trump administration, and the new Secretary of State was voicing doubts about whether Colombia’s peace process was something the U.S. government should “continue to support.”
  19. What is the ‘Trump Effect’ on Migration? It’s Too Early to Draw Conclusions,” at WOLA’s website, April 17, 2017.
    Notable mainly because I correctly predicted that, after plummeting following Trump’s inauguration, U.S.-bound migration would “return to a level that is a rough average of the current extremely low amount and late 2016’s extreme highs.” That’s where we are now.
  20. Priorities for 2018,” at this site, December 22, 2017.
    I just posted this yesterday: a reflection on the issues that will probably dominate work on defense and security in Latin America next year.

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”

Here’s an English translation of a long and wide-ranging exchange with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper this morning. It was a good opportunity to explain (and vent about) the current state of U.S.-Colombian relations.

If you prefer Spanish, haga clic aquí.

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”: Adam Isacson

October 28, 2017 – 9:00 PM
Cecilia Orozco Tascón

Interview with Adam Isacson, a senior official at WOLA, an influential civil-society organization in Washington that promotes human rights on the continent. Isacson, a scholar of Colombian conflicts, talks about the United States’ “hostile tone” with Colombia since Trump’s arrival in the White House, the way the domestic right wing influences that government against Santos’s administration, and that false information it spreads to discredit the peace agreement.

Q: Despite the friendly letter Trump sent President Santos in recent hours, several signs from Washington would indicate that relations between the United States and Colombia are not, today, so sincere and in solidarity. Do you agree with this perception?

I would go further and say that the bilateral relationship has reached its worst moment since the government of Ernesto Samper. It’s not as serious as 1998—nobody’s going to revoke the visa of any top government official—but after almost 19 years of hardly any U.S. public criticism of Colombia, today there is a steady stream of scoldings, expressions of impatience, and of public distancing from the peace policy. The disagreements have ideological roots: a hard-line government has come to power in Washington, one very much in tune with the Colombian right. But the hostile tone comes from the President himself, who is also disrespecting allies elsewhere around the world, from NATO to Australia to Mexico.

Q: Do you think President Trump’s change of tone is sincere when he writes President Santos, in the last hours, in the following terms: “The United States is ready to support you in your counternarcotics efforts (and) simultaneously I am working diligently to combat internal consumption”?

I imagine that letter was written after several weeks of witnessing the negative result of the quasi-decertification language of September 13. It must have been obvious to them that the binational relationship was damaged and, perhaps, the words of the now-retired Bill Brownfield were the last straw. Diplomats must have insisted on making a conciliatory gesture. It’s important that it reaffirmed co-responsibility in drug policy, but Colombia does not know which Donald Trump it will have to face at any time. He can easily go on the attack again the next time he talks about the country.

Q: The most frustrating episode for the Santos government with respect to Trump was the quasi-decertification of the country due to the growth of hectares cultivated with coca leaf. He didn’t flunk Colombia, but he threatened to. Is that report a preamble to decisions that Washington may make soon, or is it pressure designed for the medium and long term?

Beyond a group of officials close to Trump, that statement was frustrating for everyone. Saying “we almost put Colombia in the same category as Venezuela” is a slap in the face and a serious strategic error. I was happy to read that, in a recent interview with El Tiempo, the former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador in Colombia Bill Brownfield shared this assessment. That interview indicates that the hostile language came directly from the White House and not from the State Department. But from whom in the White House, if General Kelly (chief of staff, former commander of the Southern Command) knows and admires Colombia? It may be, rather, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), with whom Trump consults U.S. policy regarding Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Senator Rubio, in turn, frequently consults with Álvaro Uribe. Anyway, ultimately nobody believes that he will decertify Colombia. It’s another empty threat, like the “military option” for Venezuela, forcing Mexico to finance a wall or throwing “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Q: As you mention it, the Trump government may be close to the most conservative Colombian politicians. Since this group is the opponent of the Santos administration and the peace accord, is it possible that the American officials who make decisions in Washington are influenced by these domestic figures?

Yes. There is a sector of the Republican Party (and some Democrats too) that receives much of its information about Colombia via the opposition. But sometimes these critical perspectives also come from the Colombian community in the United States, which, like many diasporas, is more conservative than the population that lives in the country. That’s normal, it always happens. The problem arises when this information includes false information such as “the transitional justice mechanism is composed of people from the FARC who will submit the military to kangaroo courts” or that “stopping the fumigation of illicit crops was agreed in the peace accord.”

Q: After that first “barely scraping by” certification warning, the DEA published another report on the same subject: coca crops. Does that insistence imply that the United States is pressuring Colombia to abandon manual eradication and instead reactivate aerial spraying?

The DEA report is annual and its purpose is to report its production and trafficking estimates, which follow the same trendline as those of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But at least the DEA report doesn’t blame the crop increase on the peace agreement—a distortion of reality that’s heard a lot in Washington—and reports on other serious factors that affect the phenomenon, such as the Gulf Clan [Colombia’s largest organized crime group]. Both the Obama administration—less noisily—and the Trump administration have said they would prefer aerial fumigation in Colombia: despite the evidence, many officials view this method as an “indispensable tool.” But they’re not seriously pressing the Santos administration to start it again. The real pressure may fall on the next administration [which takes power in August 2018].

Q: Colombian officials are between a rock and a hard place: on one hand, Washington demanding results on decreasing crops. And on the other, the peasant populations who want to collaborate with eradication but only if they’re offered an alternative means of subsistence. Is there a third way that respects the rights of peasants and that simultaneously makes eradication effective?

No solution exists that, first, manages to reduce crops in the short term and, second, maintains those reductions permanently. It’s either the first or the second: choose one. Obviously, the Trump administration is much more interested in the first: short-term reduction. But if eradication happens without establishing a government presence that can provide basic services, what will happen? There will be replanting almost immediately. The National Comprehensive Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), from the fourth chapter of the peace agreement, is also short-term if it is carried out without that basic state presence. Substituting crops for two years is fine, but what happens when those two years expire, but governance and services aren’t in place? The result would be the same: replanting. A long-term strategy is urgent. However, I believe—as former assistant-secretary Brownfield has said—that this year’s eradication will lead to a reduction in next year’s coca measures. I hope that this gives Colombia space to work on longer-lasting strategies free from constant scolding.

Q: What could be a sustainable strategy over time? It seems impossible…

A long-term strategy means that the government arrives in areas so abandoned that inhabitants go months or years without seeing any non-uniformed state representatives. Disarming the FARC was a good first step, because the government can now arrive in those areas without having to conquer territory. Reintegrating the FARC is crucial to maintaining this security, but that effort is lagging badly behind. The second step is to initiate large investments in the countryside, investments foreseen in the first chapter of the Agreement and in the programs of the Territorial Renewal Agency (ART). This implementation is also moving at a snail’s pace, and with very little budget. Once there is progress in these areas, eradication and substitution of crops can be done with some hope of long-lasting effects. But unfortunately, due to the pressures generated by the coca bonanza and Washington’s messages, Colombia is starting out with the last step.

Q: Do the increase in the use of police force against the civilian population and, despite this, the continuous increase in the number of hectares, show the failure of manual eradication and, along with that, of the pacts foreseen in the peace agreement?

It’s too early to judge the performance of the peace agreement pacts, whose implementation has barely begun. But the use-of-force episodes are symptomatic of what happens when forced eradication happens without the government offering even basic services to the population. People tend to resist going hungry. The most notorious example of this happened in Bolivia at the beginning of the century. There, the so-called Dignity Plan, supported by the United States, drastically increased forced eradication. And yes, there was a temporary reduction in coca. But also a movement of rejection that brought Evo Morales to national notoriety and then to the Presidency. Without the Dignity Plan, who would Evo Morales be today? Probably the head of a cocalero union, leading a social movement with little influence outside the far-off Chapare region.

Q: The United States also intends to reduce its economic assistance to Colombia, and if it is consistent with the general policies of the Trump administration, there will also be cuts in technical assistance, logistics, etc. Do these purposes indicate that the U.S. government might gradually withdraw its support for the peace accord and for the Santos government beyond the diplomatic words it sends?

The Trump government has sought to cut off both military and economic assistance to the entire world. For Colombia, its request to Congress for 2018, released in May, sought to reduce it from US$391 to US$251 million. (Approximately US$50 million more goes through the Defense budget). But the Republican majority in Congress has rejected that proposal, since they’re not completely following the “America First” slogan. The House decided to give US$336 million, and the Senate held the “Peace Colombia” package at 2017 levels, at US$391 million. Congress has not finished working on the aid budget for 2018, but the figures make clear that it is more interested in the peace accord’s success than the White House is.

Q: It has been reported in several media that Ambassador [Kevin] Whitaker’s replacement may be Joseph MacManus. If this appointment happens, would it be a demonstration that the United States is going to be more or less cooperative with Colombia and its peace accord?

Joseph MacManus has been a career diplomat since 1986, and diplomats usually conceal their personal political beliefs and serve the incumbent president. I don’t know him, because he has only spent a few years of his career working on Latin American issues. To some extent, his appointment is a relief: it had been rumored that the White House intended to appoint a “political” ambassador, that is, an ally from outside the professional diplomatic corps, someone who is a true believer in Trumpism. It may turn out that MacManus has such personal proclivities, but on the other hand, he was also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they led the State Department in the Obama administration. That’s why some right-wing media outlets have reported opposition to MacManus from the most conservative quarters of the administration. We’ll see.

Q: But on the other hand, El Espectador reported what the web site The New American* described this as a “scandalous push to install MacManus as U.S. ambassador to Bogota…”

The New American is a small digital publication with a strong pro-Trump line, one of the right-wing outlets that seeks to block MacManus for being, in their opinion, too attached to the Obama administration. That group is pushing for Trump to name someone more “pure” in “America First” ideology. But in fact, the appointment of a hardliner is not likely to succeed because it would need Senate approval. And there, although the Republicans have 52 of 100 seats, a number of senators are now anti-Trump—among them the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker—and they would never vote for an ambassador with those attributes.

“Nobody should lose their life”

Q: The conflicts between peasants and the security forces are happening repeatedly. The situation in Tumaco, where there were several deaths, is symptomatic. Are Colombia and the United States responsible for this tension, whose pressure to reduce crops may have caused a rush to show results?

There’s a pattern here that I find extremely serious. In March, the United States and Colombia agreed on a six-point plan to reduce crops. The fifth point was “a strategy to deal with the political realities of coca growers’ protests driving away eradicators.” Since then, in public forums, former Secretary Brownfield complained several times about eradication being frustrated by protests. “This is absurd,” he said in mid-September. “The government must give the Police and Army clear authorities and rules of engagement.” I imagine that, privately, the messages were stronger. My suspicion is that these pressures created an environment conducive to episodes like that of Tumaco. Instead of “you have to clarify your procedures for the use of force,” the message that was heard seems to have been “you have to hit the protesters harder.” No one, neither a coca-grower nor a security-force member, should lose his life to the pursuit of an ephemeral statistic of fewer hectares.

“The Colombian right has a semi-direct line to the White House”

Q: A few months ago there occurred a social incident that was minor but not unimportant: the ex-presidents Uribe and Pastrana, opponents of Santos and the peace accord, may have cordially greeted Trump at Mar-a-Lago days before the latter received a visit from the Colombian head of state. What does that meeting mean to you?

Media reports indicate that Senator Rubio played a role in arranging that meeting. It’s a good example of how the Colombian right has established a semi-direct line to the White House to be heard on policy issues regarding their country.

Q: If the Trump administration were to withdraw its support for the peace accord altogether, how much do you think that would affect the success of the process in Colombia?

It would be very serious. The United States financed Colombia’s war a hundred times more generously than any other country. That’s why its political support for peace is so important. Withdrawing that support would take away an important source of legitimacy from the accord. Even now, the absence of a special envoy to Colombia (of the Trump government for accord-related matters) has left an important vacuum.

Things from the past two weeks

I mean to post a link or some other notice to this site whenever I publish something elsewhere. But it has been such a fertile time at work lately, things have gotten away from me and I’ve neglected this space.

In order to catch up a bit, here’s everything I’ve been up to since September 11.




Another resource

Media Quotes

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