Adam Isacson

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


U.S. Aid

Top Senate Republican on foreign aid cuts: “it’s not what is going to occur”

We’ve been voicing alarm about the incredibly deep cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid that the Trump administration has proposed for 2018. When we talk to people in the House of Representatives, they tend to share our alarm about the cuts, which would slash aid to Latin America by 35 percent from last year’s levels.

But when we talk to Senate staff, they generally wave their hands and say “don’t worry about it.”

You can see that here, in this opening statement by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at Tuesday’s committee hearing on the budget with Secretary of State Tillerson. After heaping praise on Tillerson, Corker, with his usual laconic delivery, lets him have it on the proposed budget cuts.

We sat down yesterday in the middle of the Russia negotiations. I took some time out to sit down with my staff, and we began going through the budget that you’re presenting today. And after about five minutes, I said, “This is a total waste of time, I don’t want to do this anymore.”

And the reason it’s wasted time is, I think you know that the budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.

And, I mean, the fact is that Congress has a tremendous respect for the diplomatic efforts that are underway, the aid that we provide in emergency situations, and it’s likely and– and by the way, this happens with every presidential budget, every presidential budget. This one in particular, though, it’s likely that what comes out of Congress is likely not going to resemble what is being presented today.

And so I felt it was a total waste of time to go through the line items and even discuss them, because it’s not what is going to occur.

2 articles since Friday

Screenshot of Razón Pública piece

One is in English, but paywalled; one is in Spanish. Both are about Colombia:

Despite record coca production in Colombia, the peace accord presents a gigantic opportunity to achieve permanent reductions in the crop—unless Colombia’s ruling elite drops the ball and unless impatient Washington policymakers insist on a hasty return to failed hardline policies.

A look at the cuts in the Trump administration’s potentially devastating 2018 aid package for Colombia, and ways that Congress can (and hopefully will) undo the damage.

At Trump’s 2018 Foreign Aid Budget Would Deal a Devastating Blow to Latin America

Here’s a new post at WOLA’s site in which I perform serious analysis on something I should normally be poking fun at: the Trump administration’s proposal to cut Latin America’s foreign assistance by 35 percent next year.

Map showing which countries get cut the most

Some observations:

  • Assistance to Central America would drop by 39 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Colombia would drop by 16 percent from 2016 to 2018, and by 36 percent from 2017 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Mexico in the foreign aid bill would drop by 45 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Homeland Security appropriation calls for new fencing at a cost of $21.2 million per mile.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the main military aid program in the foreign aid budget, would fall to zero throughout Latin America.
  • The military aid cuts may get a boost from Defense Department budget aid accounts.
  • The request devastates independent development agencies.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: The Trump Administration Wants to Slash U.S. Aid

WOLA’s website will shortly post a written/graphical overview of the Trump administration’s dumpster-fire of a foreign aid budget request. But for now, here’s a very fact-filled conversation about it between WOLA’s program director, Geoff Thale, and me.

Hopefully this 2018 foreign aid budget request is dead on arrival in Congress

The Trump administration issued its 2018 budget request to Congress today. We’ll have a proper memo out about this tomorrow. For now, here’s a crude graphic that shows pretty clearly how radical and irresponsible the foreign aid part of the request is.

Chart of U.S. aid to Latin America since 1996 showing 2018 request dropping to levels not seen since 2001.

The Homeland Security request, meanwhile, proposes to build 74 miles of border wall at a cost of over $21 million per mile. That’s about three times the cost of the border fencing built in the years after passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

More analysis—and probably a better-looking graphic—will come to tomorrow.

U.S. Aid to Colombia in 2017

Here’s a graphic, and the appendix, of a piece I co-authored with WOLA’s Colombia senior associate, Gimena Sánchez, in advance of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s May 17-19 visit to Washington.

Read the whole thing here.

Chart of U.S. aid to Colombia since 1996

Appendix: U.S. Aid to Colombia in 2017

The 2017 omnibus appropriation for Colombia approves approximately $450 million in assistance. It would go through the following aid programs.

Economic Support Fund (ESF): $187.328 million: This is the main economic aid program in the Colombia aid package. The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from the 2016 level of $141 million. ESF pays for increased civilian government presence in rural zones of Colombia, crop substitution programs in coca-growing zones, and assistance to conflict victims. Congress mandates that $20 million assist Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities; $9 million support human rights programs, and $4 million support biodiversity programs.

International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE): $143 million: This program funds both military and police assistance and some civilian institution-building aid. The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from the 2016 level of $117 million.  It pays for manual eradication of illicit crops, drug interdiction efforts, support for Colombia’s National Police, and judicial reform efforts. Congress specifies that $10 million be set aside for the human rights unit of Colombia’s prosecutor-general’s office (Fiscalía). In addition to this amount, $10 million supports Colombian forces’ training of counterparts in other countries

Defense Department Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime: $44.6 million: This account, estimated at $52 million in 2016, pays for training, intelligence support, equipment upgrades, some construction, and other services for Colombia’s armed forces and police. This authority is the largest source of funding for U.S. training, with 1,593 Colombian students supported in 2015. These funds come from the Department of Defense budget, not the State Department budget.

Foreign Military Financing: $38.525 million: This is the largest non-drug military aid program in the State Department / Foreign Operations budget.  The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from a 2016 level of $25 million. The additional money will go to Colombian military “engineering” units that carry out construction projects in poorly governed rural areas, focusing on roads, police stations, and military bases.

Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR): $21 million: this new outlay, increasing a program that provided only $4 million in 2016, will fund military-led efforts to clear landmines from formerly conflictive zones. The United States and Norway are leading a group of countries, the Global Demining Initiative, contributing to this effort in the country that has the highest number of landmine victims after Afghanistan.

Other “Function 150”: $14 million: A February 2016 State Department document indicates that this funding would pay for “Public Diplomacy, Voice of America, and Trade and Development Agency” activities in Colombia—three programs that normally are not considered to be foreign assistance.

International Military Education and Training (IMET): $1.4 million: The main non-drug training program in the State Department / Foreign Operations budget, IMET tends to support professional development courses for senior Colombian officers at U.S. facilities. (IMET trained 78 Colombian personnel in 2015.) Most low-level technical training on the ground in Colombia comes from the Defense Department counter-drug budget.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: The Central America Monitor

Congress appropriated $750 million in aid for Central America for 2016, and $655 million more for 2017. What’s in these aid packages? Which countries are getting what? What do U.S.-funded programs propose to do? Are they achieving their goals?

Next Wednesday (May 17) my colleague Adriana Beltrán, who runs WOLA’s Citizen Security program will join some partners from the region to launch the “Central America Monitor,” an effort to answer these questions.

This looks like a very cool project, collecting a lot of data both to document aid and to try to measure its results in the region. I talk to her about it here.

“Peace Colombia” aid is still in the 2017 appropriation

The table of aid to Colombia following this paragraph comes from the explanatory statement for the State Department and foreign aid part of the 2017 budget bill (PDF). It reflects the deal struck in Congress on Sunday to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, averting a government shutdown.

Screenshot of budget totaling $391.253 million

And here is what the Obama administration had asked Congress for back in February 2016. This table came from an exchange with congressional staff that month.

Screenshot of aid totaling $391.253 million

The aid accounts are listed in different order, but they make clear Congress did not change or cut the Obama White House’s so-called “Peace Colombia” request for post-conflict Colombia in 2017. This is good news.

Since “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” pays for some judicial programs, it is probably a majority non-military package—depending perhaps on how you count the $21 million for de-mining. That is the first time I’ve seen Colombia get a majority non-military / non-police aid package in the 22 years since I started keeping track in 1996.

You may have heard that this was a $450 million aid package. That’s right. The same exchange with legislative staff pointed out that an additional $44.6 million is estimated to come through the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, and $14.7 million comes through non-aid State Department accounts: “Public Diplomacy,” “Voice of America,” and “Trade and Development Agency.” (I dispute whether that extra $14.7 million should actually count as aid—but whatever.)

White House proposes 38.9 percent cut in economic aid to Latin America

Screenshot of aid table

On Monday, Foreign Policy reporters Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer, and Emily Tamkin shared a draft 2018 budget document (PDF) that they somehow obtained from the Trump administration. It’s a printout of a table showing how the White House would cut economic aid to the world in its 2018 budget request for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

(The White House has not yet sent to Congress a full 2018 budget request in any detail, so this is a preview of what we expect to be released during the second half of May.)

This leaked information shows only economic aid through USAID’s three principal economic and development aid accounts. (These are Economic Support Funds or ESF, Development Assistance or DA, and Global Health Programs.) It doesn’t include some economic and institution-building aid that comes through the State Department’s large International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account. We have no idea yet whether the budget request would seek similar cuts to that aid.

For these USAID programs, every country in Latin America would see a double-digit-percentage cut from 2016 levels next year, if Congress were to grant the Trump administration what it wants. The region-wide cut would be a breathtaking 38.9 percent.

Congress will undo this radioactive budget request—somewhat. But even if the actual cuts end up being half of what is shown here, the impact on U.S. goals, on humanitarian situations, and on specific outcomes—peace accord implementation in Colombia, reducing migration from Central America—will be severe. These cuts are an astonishingly bad idea.

The table shows the economic-aid cut that the draft Trump budget would foresee for each country in Latin America. I suppose we can assume that the countries whose cuts are lower than the regional average are “priority” countries.

Economic aid in 2016 was: The request for 2018 is: That’s a reduction of:
Western Hemisphere $1,083,580,000 $662,081,000 -38.9%
Haiti $177,630,000 $149,200,000 -16.0%
Colombia $133,000,000 $105,000,000 -21.1%
Honduras $93,000,000 $67,100,000 -27.8%
El Salvador $65,000,000 $45,500,000 -30.0%
Guatemala $125,000,000 $79,900,000 -36.1%
Peru $37,300,000 $22,191,000 -40.5%
Barbados and Eastern Caribbean $25,713,000 $15,000,000 -41.7%
State Department Western Hemisphere Regional $209,177,000 $121,390,000 -42.0%
Mexico $49,500,000 $25,000,000 -49.5%
Dominican Republic $20,988,000 $10,000,000 -52.4%
USAID Latin America and Caribbean Regional $28,360,000 $11,800,000 -58.4%
USAID Central America Regional $39,761,000 $10,000,000 -74.8%
Brazil $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Cuba (democracy programs) $20,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Ecuador $2,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Jamaica $4,500,000 $0 -100.0%
Nicaragua $10,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Paraguay $8,151,000 $0 -100.0%
Venezuela (democracy programs) $6,500,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID Caribbean $4,000,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID South America Regional $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%

Launched! “Putting the Pieces Together”

Screencast from "Putting the Pieces Together"

I’m delighted to announce that WOLA has just launched “Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs.” This is an epic, sprawling, deep-in-the-weeds attempt to get a handle on all the ways that the U.S. government can work with, give weapons to, train, advise, or otherwise support about 160 countries’ militaries and police forces around the world.

We call it “Putting the Pieces Together” because figuring out how the U.S. government aids foreign militaries is a lot like trying to put together an intricate jigsaw puzzle. The big contribution of this project is that it gives you all the pieces in a nice neat box, even if we don’t yet have the big picture in detail.

I hate to admit it, but this is the product of more than four years of work. (Although this project spent a lot of time on the back burner between late 2012 and now.) The original plan was to document the way these aid programs were migrating out of State Department / civilian control and into the U.S. military’s threat-based, un-transparent management. I thought we’d be producing a guide to 30, maybe 40 programs. But as we intensified our research, it became clear that the scale and the scope were increasing way beyond what we had planned to work with.

In the end, we found 107 programs. Of these, only 14 are managed by, and funded by, the civilian diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Nearly all of the rest—87, plus two that are jointly managed—are part of the U.S. Defense Department’s mammoth budget. The Pentagon is calling most of the shots, now managing 57 percent of military and police aid funds, often with programs it is very hard to get information about.

To manage this huge body of programs, we made a database that allows you to sort and filter them, to see the laws that govern them, and to find out how to learn more about them. (I think this database is the coolest part—and we can quickly update it whenever programs change.) We also wrote a 2,600-word report with some nifty graphics, highlighting the trends that we found while compiling all of this.

Put the report and the database together, make a single publication out of them, and you get a 188-page PDF. (I find this terrifying: I can’t believe we wrote this much over the last few years without really noticing.)

Here’s the text of the landing page for “Putting the Pieces Together,” which explains what this report-plus-database does. (If you prefer the landing page in Spanish, está aquí.) Bookmark it if you care about the U.S. relationship with the world’s militaries, I think you’ll find yourself referring back to it.

Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs

Since the “Global War on Terror” began, the Defense Department has been driving assistance to militaries and police forces worldwide. WOLA’s new guide explains how that happened and what it looks like.

The Trump administration is proposing to cut funding for U.S. diplomacy, and foreign aid programs run by diplomats, by an incredible 29 percent in 2018. But since it promises to grow defense spending, it may not end up cutting military aid. The result could be a giant leap toward the Pentagon shaping U.S foreign policy.

A major part of how U.S. foreign policy gets carried out is through security assistance programs, which aim to further U.S. interests and bolster national security goals by providing aid to military and police forces in around 160 countries.

There are now so many of these programs carrying out this type of assistance, with so little public reporting, that nobody really has a full picture of what the U.S. government is doing with the world’s military and police forces. No public, authoritative, regularly updated list of all U.S. military and police aid programs even exists.

Not until now, that is.

WOLA is pleased to launch a new resource to fill this big gap in our knowledge: a searchable online database listing all 107 programs that currently provide military or police aid across the globe, accompanied by a short report laying out what we found and why it matters. We also have an analysis of U.S. security assistance over the past 15 years to Latin America.


Of these programs, 87 are run by the Defense Department. 14 are run by the State Department. 2 are run jointly, and 4 are managed by other cabinet departments. More than half of the Defense programs are less than 15 years old.

We explain what each program can do, who runs it, who oversees it, how much the military can spend on it, and how researchers and oversight professionals can find more information about it. The online version also includes the complete, amended text of the law governing each program, links to official reports, and links to yearly aid amounts at the Security Assistance Monitor database.

WOLA’s new tool doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of transparency over military aid. It is unclear exactly which programs the Trump administration will support and which ones it will cut. There is not even a precise dollar total of worldwide U.S. military assistance.

But we hope that this guide provides congressional staff, journalists, analysts, and activists with an easy-to-use tool as we work to improve oversight over a high-risk government function, and to turn the tide of militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

Why did a research and advocacy organization focusing on Latin America make this?

WOLA first got to know the “patchwork” of Defense Department-run aid programs in Latin America in the 1990s, when it was far smaller. The War on Drugs brought about the first time the Pentagon got primacy over a big foreign aid program. Twenty years ago, we were surprised to learn that, suddenly, the second-largest military aid program in Latin America wasn’t even in the foreign aid budget. We have followed this issue closely ever since.

How do I use the database?

Go to You’ll see all 107 active programs listed in alphabetical order, spread out over six pages.

  • To read more about an aid program, click “Show Additional Information” under each program’s name. Or to see all of them, click the checkbox at the top of the page that says “Show the Full Program Descriptions.”
  • Viewing the entire program description yields another button you can click to reveal all laws governing that program, with current law at the top.
  • Use the search box at the top to find matching programs.
  • You can sort the list alphabetically, by the year the programs were created, by their expiration date (if any), and by the maximum authorized amount.
  • You can list only active programs, only programs that can operate in Latin America, only programs with or without reporting to Congress, only programs that do or do not involve the State Department, and 15 more categories.
  • Use the column on the left to find programs by Latin American country, by category of aid, or by the agencies that carry them out.

Will the database be updated?

Yes, we intend to update the aid programs and reports whenever relevant legislation passes.

How can I find government reports about these programs?

If the programs are relevant to Latin America, they are in this database’s Reports Library at If we have obtained the report, it is there as a PDF. If we have not yet obtained the report, it is listed alongside the date it was due.

A huge archive of U.S. policy toward Colombia—as it stood 10 years ago

Screenshot of my old Colombia site as it stood in August 2007. Click to visit.

Between 1999 and 2007, when I worked at the Center for International Policy (CIP), I made and maintained a huge online archive about Colombia.

I was pretty intense about keeping a thorough record of what was happening. My Colombia page had copies of every report or document we wrote, everything I saw that a public U.S. official said about Colombia, every bit of legislation, every official report, aid tables, overviews of congressional debates and votes, links to other NGOs’ reports, the text of “Plan Colombia,” documents from the failed 1999-2002 peace process, and a lot more.

I left CIP for WOLA in 2010. Sometime after that, when CIP re-did their website, the Colombia archive disappeared. The only way to see it has been to go to the Internet Archive and hope that their snapshots of the site had what you were looking for.

No longer. I just looked on an old external backup drive and found the contents of the site, including 2,029 HTML files and 251 PDF documents. I’ve uploaded all of it here:

Click on that link, and you’re transported back in time to 2007.

Obviously, most external links are probably broken. But if you ever need to explore this period of the history of U.S. policy toward Colombia, you should definitely start here.

Podcast: “The Thing”

Here I talk about a new tool we’ve made for monitoring military aid programs, and why it’s important.

Did you know that the U.S. government now has 107 programs that it can use to aid foreign militaries and police forces? Neither did I, before we started working on what turned out to be a huge report, or project, or “thing,” that’s now nearly complete.

This podcast’s sound is acceptable, but not great. I’m traveling right now, so had to record it on my telephone in a hotel room in Bogotá.

The new resource I discuss here doesn’t have a name yet, but you can check it out in draft form at (In mid-April this will move to

I also discuss the Security Assistance Monitor program, which I highly recommend you visit at

(Here’s the mp3 file. And here’s the podcast feed.)

WOLA on the Trump budget proposal

Trump Budget Plan Prioritizes Militarization Over Investing in Smart Diplomacy

WOLA put out a good statement this morning about the Trump administration’s dumpster fire of a budget proposal.

“This budget plan, if enacted, would have disastrous results. By increasing military spending by $54 billion while cutting spending on civilian diplomacy and assistance, the Trump administration is militarizing foreign aid,” said Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate on Defense Oversight. “The risk is that our relations with Latin America and the world will be based on military priorities, on threatsnot on shared values, human rights, economic ties, or other vital U.S. interests. Alongside an already militarized approach to border security, this plan will worsen U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere at a fragile moment for democracy,” said Isacson.

As WOLA will detail in a forthcoming report, the post-9/11 security climate has already fueled a dramatic shift in responsibilities, with more and more foreign aid programs being managed by the Department of Defense rather than Department of State. This shift has serious implications for transparency and democratic oversight. This proposal would further accelerate that trend.

Read the whole thing here.

How would you even begin to cut foreign aid by 29 percent?

USIP headquarters building.

The Trump budget would completely zero out funding for the U.S. Institute for Peace, contributing a whopping $35 million to its $15.2 billion in proposed cuts. (Wikipedia photo)

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget request is out. Though the next year’s budget request to Congress is normally due the first Monday in February, a new administration is traditionally given a few months (usually until sometime in April) to come up with the whole thing.

The document that came out today is called the “skinny budget,” because it contains very little detail. We don’t know yet what worldwide programs would be cut by how much—much less which countries would get what.

What we can see today is skinny, but it’s horrifying. It proposes cutting all diplomacy and foreign assistance by 29 percent in one year: from $52.8 billion in 2016 to $37.6 billion in 2018.

Imagine that: trying to slice nearly one out of every three dollars from all embassies and all assistance, both military and economic, worldwide. Abruptly, for a fiscal year that starts on October 1.

By the time this gets through Congress, there will probably be cuts, though they won’t be this deep. Leading Republican appropriators, especially Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), chairman of the subcommittee that drafts the foreign aid bill, have already objected. (The phrase Graham used was “dead on arrival.”)

But for now, imagine that it was your job to cut this key government function by nearly one-third, as the White House proposes. Here are the diplomacy and foreign aid accounts, as they appeared in the 2016 State and Foreign Operations budget appropriation [PDF]. (That’s the last time Congress passed a budget bill; we currently continue at 2016 levels.) What on earth would you cut to get down to $37.6 billion?

Item (including “overseas contingency” funds) Amount, millions of US$
All administration of foreign affairs (diplomacy, embassy security, cultural programs, etc.) 11,439
Global Health Programs 8,503
Foreign Military Financing 6,026
($3.1 billion of the above account goes to Israel, and the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal won’t cut it.)
Economic Support Fund 4,318
Migration and Refugee Assistance 3,059
International Disaster Assistance 2,794
Development Assistance 2,781
Contributions to international peacekeeping missions 2,461
USAID administration 1,517
Contributions to all international organizations (UN, OAS, etc.) 1,446
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement 1,267
World Bank International Development Association 1,197
(Everything below this row makes up only 13 percent of the total)
Assistance for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia 930
Millennium Challenge Corporation 901
Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs 885
International broadcasting 750
Peacekeeping Operations 600
Peace Corps 410
Assistance through international organizations 339
African Development Bank 210
World Bank International Bank for Reconstruction and Development 187
World Bank Clean Technology Fund 171
National Endowment for Democracy 170
World Bank Global Environment Facility 168
Democracy Fund 151
International commissions 123
International Military Education and Training 108
Asian Development Fund 105
Inter-American Development Bank 102
U.S.-Mexico Boundary and Water Commission 74
Transition Initiatives 67
Trade and Development Agency 60
Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund 50
World Bank Strategic Climate Fund 50
Global Agriculture and Food Security Program 43
United States Institute of Peace 35
International Fund for Agricultural Development 32
U.S. African Development Foundation 30
USAID Complex Crises Fund 30
International Affairs Technical Assistance 24
Inter-American Foundation 23
Asia Foundation 17
East-West Center 17
North American Development Bank 10
Development Credit Authority 8
Asian Development Bank 6
Commission on International Religious Freedom 4
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission 4
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 3
Congressional-Executive Commission on the People’s Republic of China 2
Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad 1
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