Adam Isacson

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

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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 adamisacson.com.

One of those little projects is live now: cbpdata.adamisacson.com. 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
– ELN
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

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.

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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.

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