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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U.S. Aid

Current table of aid to Colombia

The Trump administration has issued its 2021 State Department and foreign aid budget request to Congress. It calls for a big increase in counter-drug aid to Colombia’s police and military, along with cuts in economic aid and non-drug military aid.

Congress will reverse this, but in the meantime, here are the numbers from the past few years, since before the Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect in 2017.

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? New analysis at WOLA’s website

Here’s a short analysis posted to WOLA’s website (Español). It jumps off from last Friday’s Washington Post finding that dozens of CBP and ICE officers may be sent to Guatemala to work as “advisors” at the country’s border with Mexico.

The piece is built around a listing of Homeland Security and Defense Department deployments to Guatemala in recent years, collected from my database. Those have had names like “Operation Citadel,” “Operation Regional Shield,” “Operation Hornet,” “Operation Together Forward,” and several others.

The point is that even if the past deployments brought some results, they made no difference in migrant and drug-smuggling out of Guatemala. And nor will any new 80-person mission.

They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. 

Read the whole thing here (Español).

On Colombia’s peace process, the U.S. government has moved from “support” to “opposition”

On March 10, Colombian President Iván Duque sent a shock wave through the country’s delicate peace process with the former FARC guerrillas. He sent several objections to Congress—sort of a line-item veto—about the law underlying the transitional justice system at the heart of the accord, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

All governments that have supported Colombia’s peace process, along with the United Nations, voiced concern—except for one: U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker went on national radio in support of Duque’s objections, saying they were necessary for the U.S. government’s ability to extradite former combatants who may have committed crimes after the November 2016 peace accord signing.

This week, Colombia’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected Duque’s objections, in a thunderous and embarrassing defeat for the president. Meanwhile, news began to leak out about Ambassador Whitaker’s quiet lobbying for the objections with members of Colombia’s Congress in early April.

Here is a full English translation of the most thorough account of the Ambassador’s meetings to appear so far in Colombian media, which was posted last night to the Bogotá daily El Espectador. It shows Kevin Whitaker, a career diplomat now completing his fifth year as ambassador, sounding unhinged, gone “full Trump.”

In the accounts of legislators who leaked the meetings’ contents, Whitaker hints that all U.S. aid to Colombia will be cut if Congress defeats the objections. He indicates that the Obama administration kept him distant from the 2012-2016 peace negotiations because of his personal distaste for them. He doesn’t rule out President Trump “decertifying” Colombia in September for being a poor partner in the drug war. And he is personally rude to those who disagree with him.

If even half of what is reported here is accurate, then April 2019 is the month when the U.S. government moved officially from support of Colombia’s peace process to open opposition. Read on:

Details of the Breakfast between Whitaker and Congress

By Lorena Arboleda Zárate and Alfredo Molano Jimeno

El Espectador (Colombia), April 13, 2019 (boldface items are from El Espectador)

This is an account of meetings the U.S. diplomat held with senators and representatives of the House, to seek to prevent the government’s defeat in the legislature on the objections to the Statutory Law of the JEP.

This week will go down in history as one of the most difficult for the government of Ivan Duque. To the defeat in the House of Representatives, which rejected, with a vote of 110 against 44, the presidential objections to the Statutory Law of the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP), is added the hard complaint from the president of the United States, Donald Trump, about the increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to their country. An episode that attracted attention, since in recent days the American ambassador in Bogota, Kevin Whitaker, has moved quietly to prevent Congress from definitively sinking Duque’s objections to the norm.

After the vote on Monday of this week in the plenary of the House, information emerged about the content of a series of meetings that ambassador Whitaker convened, with the presence of senators and representatives, in his diplomatic residence. Although confidentiality of the meetings was requested—and there was even a pact not to disclose details until after the objections had been voted—El Espectador was able to reconstruct the conversations Whitaker may have had with the legislators, and also with the former president and current director of the Liberal Party, César Gaviria, a group that has led the bloc in defense of the Peace Agreement.

On Monday, April 1, Whitaker invited the senators managing the objections legislation to a breakfast. At 7:00 in the morning, José David Name (Party of the U), Iván Marulanda (Green Alliance), Paloma Valencia (Centro Democrático), John Milton Rodríguez (Colombia Justa-Libres), Antonio Zabaraín (Cambio Radical), and David Barguil (Conservative Party) arrived at the ambassador’s house in the exclusive Rosales neighborhood, in the north of Bogotá. The appetizer was eggs with bacon and, to drink, Whitaker’s favorite: Don Pedro coffee. But the main dish was the objections [to the JEP law] and, particularly, his concern about the effects of the Peace Agreement on the extradition treaty between the two countries.

“The first thing to note is that the meetings with the Senate and the House were very different. In ours almost everyone was in favor of objections, except Senator Marulanda. Therefore, the atmosphere was not tense, as it was with the representatives, and the ambassador spoke with greater ease,” detailed one of the guests at breakfast. The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half, and according to five of the six attendees, the conversation revolved around three issues: the impact that the Santrich case might have on judicial cooperation between both countries; the reprisals that the United States could take; and the displeasure with the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and with the management that the current one, Iván Duque’s, is giving to anti-drug policy.

“He said that Santos, Jaramillo (Sergio [Santos’s high commissioner for peace]) and (Humberto) De la Calle [Santos’s chief negotiator in Havana] were liars, who had deceived Barack Obama’s government with the Peace Agreement, that Santos always said that, with the Agreement, the FARC would turn over its drug trafficking routes and that it would be easier to fight narcotrafficking, but what happened was the opposite,” said another attendee. And although some guests said that the Cambio Radical senator, Antonio Zabaraín, suggested that the ambassador go to microphones and openly say that his country felt cheated, Whitaker said it was not appropriate, among other things, because in the Obama administration a special delegate, Bernard Aronson, had been sent to accompany the dialogue table. In fact, people close to the Havana dialogues commented that ambassador’s strong position is explained because Obama always kept him apart from the peace process, given his rejection of it.

Some members of the negotiating table in Cuba we consulted explained that one of the red lines of the Santos government was not to affect the extradition treaty, to such an extent that in the Peace Agreement it was very clear that the judicial cooperation mechanism remained intact . That is, the concerns of the United States today are the product of the modulations of the laws derived from the agreement in Havana, which included a series of requirements before accepting the sending of a former member of the Farc to that country. And that of everything that happened in Cuba, Aronson was a rigorous witness. In the opinion of one of the former government negotiators, it was precisely the Jesus Santrich entrapment operation, “with a vengeful spirit,” that raised the volume of the extradition issue and put the need to shield the process within the sights of the Constitutional Court.

Those consulted agreed that the ambassador gave a brief explanation of the issues that concerned them, which were reflected in the objections, and that then each of the senators intervened explaining their political interpretation. “He also said that if Congress didn’t approve the objections relating to extradition, the United States could take measures, such as stop sending the US$500 million in aid to the country, and he foresaw this week’s Trump onslaught against President Duque,” recounted another of the guests. However, he also narrated that Whitaker had clarified that he was aware that Duque “had received a complicated inheritance.”

They also say that although the atmosphere was one of detente, [uribista senator] Paloma Valencia was uncomfortable with Whitaker’s statements about the effects of the extradition and took the opportunity to complain about the support that the U.S. government had given to the Havana table and the Peace Agreement. They relate that she even said that in that same house [ambassadorial residence], during the renegotiation after the triumph of the no [in the October 2016 plebiscite], her side warned the United States that this was going to happen. “Paloma asked him directly about the possibility of a decertification and the ambassador did not answer, but he did say that the consequences could be those that have been applied in Central America, withdrawing aid resources. Regarding Trump’s first statement this week, he said that we shouldn’t take it personally,” said one of the witnesses.

The only dissonant voice of the Senate group invited to the ambassador’s residence was that of Iván Marulanda, of the Green Alliance, an opposition party. His companions say that his discomfort was visible, that unlike his colleagues he found the ambassador’s words intimidating and rude, even more so when the diplomat spoke ill of Santos and each senator contributed some comment criticizing the former president. “The ambassador said that his government was Colombia’s largest aid donor and that since 2016, when the Agreement was signed, they had contributed US$1 billion, which would be at risk if the main interest of the United States in Colombia was affected: extradition. Marulanda replied that Colombians care more about the peace of the country than American money.

Regarding the Santrich case, Whitaker was insistent that his government was not going to give any evidence to the JEP, that U.S. authorities were going to demand him from Colombia and that this case was a “point of honor” for the United States. “Not so much for Santrich , but for the future of the extradition treaty. He also told us he had information that other members of the FARC were trafficking drugs, although he did not give us names,” a legislator said. He added that the diplomat warned them that if the country did not hand over Santrich, Colombia would be targeted by a possible intervention, specifically by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The senators’ meeting with the ambassador ended with a curious anecdote. Out in the parking lot, some told, Senator Zabaraín said that “the fault of all this is with (former president) Álvaro Uribe who, after winning the plebiscite, went to talk with Santos and accepted his invitation to the presidential palace.” Paloma Valencia immediately recalled that “I told him not to go.” In the end, they concluded that the presidential objections to the Statutory Law of the JEP will have the same fate in the Senate as in the House of Representatives, so for the objections’ supporters it is absolutely clear that “President Duque is going to file constitutional reforms around the special jurisdiction in the Congress of the Republic, “said one legislator.

The second meeting

Little of that encounter made it into the media, but what alerted about the ambassador’s movements in the Congress was the meeting that he maintained on Tuesday, April 2 (the following day), with the House representatives. Also at 7:00 in the morning, and with the same American breakfast, Whitaker received six of the seven legislators in charge of studying the objections in the lower house. Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance), John Jairo Cárdenas (U), David Racero (Decentes), Carlos Ardila (Liberal Party), José Daniel López (Cambio Radical), and Álvaro Hernán Prada (Centro Democrático) attended. A composition very different from that of the pro-government majorities that visited the ambassador’s house the previous day.

El Espectador consulted five of the six attendees and, as in the Senate, they agreed on the purpose and the manner with which the meeting was held. For all, except the uribista representative, the ambassador’s exposition was intimidating, undiplomatic, and tense. They also agreed on the three positions presented by the ambassador. He told them, for example, that Congress should act as an autonomous power without attending to the decisions of the Constitutional Court, as it “could also be wrong.” He also repeated that the United States is not going to send any proof against Santrich [because the extradition agreement only requires probable cause], and will do everything possible to take him away. And, finally, he reiterated that the economic aid to Colombia could be at risk if the objections are defeated.

Whitaker said that he expected total confidentiality of the meeting because he wanted to speak with total frankness. That his government was very worried, and he detailed his country’s central priorities. Then, Representative Cardenas explained the reasons why he opposed the objections, arguing legal and not political reasons. From that moment on, the atmosphere became tense and even, with a gesture of arrogance, he questioned Cárdenas saying: ‘I don’t understand those inanities.’ Then José Daniel (López) spoke and pointed to the principle of separation of powers and the ambassador went after him, saying: ‘Don’t come at me with legalisms’. Then he added the idea that the United States’ affection towards its friends expresses itself with money. ‘Love is money’, was the phrase he used [in English],” said a representative.

But Prada, who was representing uribismo, said that the phrase used by the ambassador should be contextualized. He noted that, from his perspective, that expression was not used in a blackmail tone but “to express to us that the United States has affection for Colombia, that bilateral relations are excellent and that they are willing to continue helping us,” he said. In addition, he criticized that the confidentiality the ambassador requested for the meeting has been broken, “taking advantage of the fact that this year we have [local] elections, making it look like the ambassador had been pressuring, and it wasn’t like that. And in addition, the ambassador has the right to know what is happening with a peace process that we are trying to remedy on some issues.”

In the second intervention the ambassador made, another lawmaker told, he said: “In my government we have invested US$1 billion since the agreement was signed, and it doesn’t seem fair if we can’t suggest anything and not be heard”; He added that Whitaker was especially rude in his treatment of representative Carlos Ardila. “He interrupted him when he was explaining his reasons and, as he was with his arms folded, he said ‘do something for your country instead of going around with your arms folded. That’s why they elected you.’ He said he did not understand how it was possible for the Court to be above Congress and spoke about the well-known Dred Scott decision.”

The representatives said that Juanita Goebertus at that time asked to speak, replied to the ambassador and told him that she knew that sentence very well, which was from 1857, and that it had cost the United States a civil war and two constitutional amendments. The ambassador looked at her haughtily and said: “I see you know a lot about us.” Juanita replied that she had studied in his country. “During the meeting, Whitaker repeated several times that he was not a lawyer, but that he did not doubt that the president’s objections were correctly presented. On extradition, he reiterated that the treaty was clear and that they were not going to provide evidence, period. He never asked for our vote, but he did say that Congress should accept the objections.” The Congresswoman of the Green Alliance concluded by telling the ambassador that, from her experience in the United States, she could say that she admired the separation of powers in that country and that she had never been in a meeting “so far out of diplomatic tone” as the one he had summoned.

The reading that some representatives gave to the meeting with Whitaker is that, according to what they said, it left in evidence a “flawed” relationship between the U.S. government and President Iván Duque: ” They do not see him with enough capacity to move his commitments forward. They see him as weak,” said one representative. Undoubtedly, the meeting with those of the House was highly tense, and that explains that why it leaked a few hours after it happened. That same day the bill rejecting Duque’s objections was filed in the chamber, and news also filtered of an ambassadorial dinner invitation to the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, which the justices rejected as highly inappropriate.

Whitaker closed the week by visiting former President Gaviria at his home to ask for a political concept on the objections. However, the government’s defeat in the House was inevitable, as was Trump’s scolding of President Duque. An epilogue of the week that shows that the United States is moving strongly in domestic politics, as in the times of Plan Colombia.

Can Trump really stop all aid to Central America? Yes, but not really.

The New York Times reports:

The State Department issued a statement late on Friday saying: “At the secretary’s instruction, we are carrying out the president’s direction and ending FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle. We will be engaging Congress as part of this process.”

I’m not a lawyer, and not a foreign aid appropriator. I’ve asked a couple of people, but don’t know if I’ll get responses over the weekend. If I do, I’ll edit this post if necessary in blue text. But here’s why I don’t think President Trump’s “canceling” of aid to Central America’s Northern Triangle will succeed, except perhaps during the remainder of this fiscal year. It may be up to the judicial branch to sort this out.

1. The Constitution gives Congress “the power of the purse.”

Appropriations aren’t just suggestions. When Congress has specifically appropriated aid to a country, foreign aid law provides specific reasons why it can be canceled. These include military coups, gross human rights violations, drug decertifications, and others. “The president’s mad” isn’t one of those reasons.

Giving money that was prohibited from being appropriated was at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. Not giving money that was specifically appropriated? Similar, with some exceptions noted below.

2. The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 specifically prohibits the president from withholding appropriated funds.

Under this law, rescinding funds requires congressional approval. Wikipedia explains: “The Act was passed in response to feelings in Congress that President Nixon was abusing his power of impoundment by withholding funding of programs he opposed.” Sound familiar?

3. Trump could abuse his reprogramming authority, but it would cost him.

Here’s where it gets tricker. What if the White House proposes not to withhold money, but to transfer the Central America aid to another country? There must still be nearly a billion dollars in the pipeline for 2017 and 2018. What if Trump wants to give it to, say, Israel instead?

He can do that—but there will be consequences. Section 634A of the Foreign Assistance Act only requires that Congress be notified in detail of any “reprogramming” of assistance, 15 days in advance.

But the president would pay a huge price if the reprogramming were to happen despite congressional opposition. Under longstanding custom, if the chairman of the responsible congressional committee receiving the notification disagrees with it, he/she can place a “hold” on it and keep it from happening. Negotiations usually ensue. If the president ignores the hold, it’s assumed that the committee chairman would retaliate against the president’s priorities in the next year’s funding bill. The “notification” requirement has teeth because you don’t want to piss off appropriators or authorizers who have power over your budget.

A similar episode is happening right now with the House defense committees. They were notified this week of a reprogramming of $1 billion from Defense Department personnel accounts into the Defense counter-drug account, which allows spending on barriers—Trump’s “border wall”—for counter-drug purposes. House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) responded to the notification with a letter refusing the reprogramming. Smith probably doesn’t have the power to do that, but the Pentagon may pay a big price in future budgets for defying him.

These two cases of massive reprogrammings in the face of strong congressional opposition are setting us up for a constitutional crisis. Why bother having an appropriations process at all if the executive branch can just go ahead and defy it anytime it wants by checking a “notification” box?

4. There’s some fuzzy “up to” language in the appropriation.

A potential minefield is in the 2018 appropriations law, which tells the State Department that “up to $615,000,000 may be made available for assistance for countries in Central America.” That “up to” language could be a problem: isn’t “zero dollars” technically an amount “up to $615 million?” But probably not, because of the next point.

5. But Central America aid must be spent as laid out in the bill’s report language.

The foreign aid bill comes with an explanatory statement that, for some countries, includes a table specifying exactly, line by line, how Congress intends the aid money to be spent for that country. Every year’s foreign aid appropriation law has included such a table for Central America in its explanatory statement.

Section 7019 of the 2018 foreign aid bill states plainly, “funds appropriated by this Act under titles III through V shall be made available in the amounts specifically designated in the respective tables included in the explanatory statement.” So never mind the “up to” language: Congress has required Central America to get specific amounts of funds according to a line-by-line table.

However: subsection (b) of Section 7019 does allow “deviations” from that table. But only “to respond to significant, exigent, or unforeseen events, or to address other exceptional circumstances directly related to the national interest.” The White House could seek to drive through that loophole by claiming that an “exceptional circumstance” calls for moving all aid away from Central America. However, 7019(b) also requires “prior consultation with, and the regular notification procedures of, the Committees on Appropriations” before any “deviation.” Consultation is more than just notification, so using the 7019(b) loophole would involve a big battle between the Trump administration and appropriators.

6. Some government-to-government aid could be reprogrammed through “decertification.”

The aid for the central governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras came with conditions. 25 percent of it stays “in the freezer” until the Secretary of State certifies that those countries are doing more to discourage migration and combat smuggling. Another 50 percent is held up until the Secretary certifies that those countries are making improvements on twelve measures regarding human rights, citizen security, anti-corruption, and similar values.

If those countries are determined not to be making progress, that 75 percent can be reprogrammed away to other countries.

Note, though, that this condition only applies to aid to the central governments of those countries. Aid to provincial or municipal governments, judicial branches, or non-governmental entities is not affected by this certification requirement. So this is probably not the vehicle the administration would choose if it wants to attempt a total cutoff of aid to Central America.

It’s going to be a battle.

No matter what, it could take a few months for Congress—and who knows, maybe the courts—to resolve this. In the meantime, if you’re Russia or China, or even Iran, and you want to spend a little money filling a vacuum of diplomatic and economic engagement deep in the United States’ backyard, then this is your moment to write some checks and strike up some new relationships.

President Trump’s 2020 Budget Request Proposes a Dark but Unlikely Future for Aid to Latin America

The Trump White House sent Congress its 2020 foreign aid request on Monday, and boy is it grim. It’s never going to become law—the steep cuts it proposes will be opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. But it’s still terrifying to see such destructive radicalism coming from an entire branch of the U.S. government.

Adeline Hite and I wrote an overview of the highlights for Latin America, with some colorful charts like this one. We just posted it to WOLA’s website, so go read it there.

This isn’t an aid package

Today the U.S. and Mexican governments announced what looks like a bombshell: a monster $10.6 billion package of new U.S. aid to address the root causes of migration. $5.8 billion of it for Central America, $4.8 billion for Mexico. “US pledges $10.6B aid for Central America, southern Mexico,” an AP headline gushes.

Not so fast. There’s almost nothing new here. And there’s no new grant aid here. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff and Mary Beth Sheridan get it right:

Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC. That money would facilitate private-sector activity and would be repaid, unlike traditional development assistance through USAID

“OPIC” is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that provides loans and loan guarantees to private enterprises seeking to make investments in developing countries. The additional money is loans, not aid. It all has to be paid back.

And they’re loans to the private sector—which are not going to address root causes of mass migration from Central America. They won’t reform police, fight corruption, fix justice systems, or anything else that makes threatened people safer from gangs. Private sector loans are hugely unlikely to help struggling small farmers in the Northern Triangle’s countryside. (Unless they choose to leave the countryside and get low-wage jobs in OPIC-financed factories.) These loans will mainly help a tiny elite get wealthier in one of the most unequal regions on the planet.

Here’s how it breaks down:

The $2.1 billion in grant aid listed here is all old money, already committed for 2015 through 2018. Except for $180 million, which is what the Trump administration proposes here in grant aid to Central America for 2019. If approved, that would be a two-thirds cut in 2015-18 aid levels!

It won’t be: for 2019 the House approved $595 million for Central America, and the Senate $515.5 million. If Congress ever passes a 2019 foreign aid budget, it’ll end up giving Central America a multiple of the $180 million proposed here, to help address the causes of migration.

So this is an aid cut and a repackaging of already-given aid and loans, masquerading as a historically generous “Marshall Plan.” Don’t fall for it. And resist this level of cynicism.

Last Month’s U.S. Government Reports Relevant to Latin America

A huge setback for civil-military relations in Guatemala

Reuters photo in The Guardian (UK). Caption: “Jimmy Morales addresses the media flanked by military and police.”

I was disappointed to see Guatemala’s military—which had briefly taken a reformist direction—aggressively, enthusiastically supporting President Jimmy Morales’s crackdown on the CICIG anti-corruption body. WOLA has just posted a piece I wrote about that. What’s happened with Guatemala’s army since August 31 obliterates a few halting steps that it had taken toward being a credible, accountable institution. It brings back the bad old days.

Here’s an excerpt. The whole thing is here.

In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.

Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.

These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.

…Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.

It goes on like that.

The Army’s Role in the Anti-CICIG Backlash is a Severe Setback for Guatemala’s Civil-Military Relations

Snapshot of U.S. aid to Colombia right now

Thought I’d share a table of current aid to Colombia. Click it to expand it in a new window. In sum, it looks like Congress will once again refuse the deep aid cuts the Trump White House had requested for 2019. Aid will continue to follow the “Peace Colombia” framework that guided assistance in 2017 and 2018.

In a nutshell:

  • Economic Support Funds are economic aid administered by USAID. The table shows some ESF earmarked for specific purposes. The rest funds efforts to increase non-military state presence in post-conflict areas, aid to vulnerable populations, crop substitution, human rights, and similar priorities. The Trump administration sought to cut this from $187 million to $100 million; Congress disagreed.
  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, administered by the State Department’s bureau of the same name, pays for “hard side” programs like coca eradication and drug interdiction, and for “soft side” programs, mostly assistance to Colombia’s judicial system.
  • The Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs account, in Colombia, is devoted entirely to demining programs.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the State Department’s main non-drug military assistance program, is funding counternarcotics battalions, aviation support, and especially the Colombian armed forces’ involvement in post-conflict construction projects.
  • Defense Department Counter-Drug Support, from the Pentagon’s budget, pays for training, boats, mostly non-lethal equipment upgrades, computers and software, and much intelligence and reconnaissance support.
  • The additional assistance for Venezuelans in Colombia figures come from a July 18 State Department fact sheet. and an August 8 USAID press release.

What it takes to answer a simple question about U.S. military aid

This week, two people—a journalist and a congressional staffer—wrote me with variations on the same question:

“How much aid is the United States giving the military and police in Honduras this year?”

Seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Because U.S. government reporting to Congress is so poor, all I can give is a ballpark estimate. That estimate is “about $55 million.”

Here’s how I derive that. And stay with me—this is byzantine:

1. Nearly all security assistance comes from two budgets: the State Department-run Foreign Operations budget, and the Defense Department’s budget. Let’s do the State Department first.

2. For 2018 State Department aid to Honduras, normally we could consult the State Department’s 2019 foreign aid request, issued in February, which gives estimates of what the Department expects to spend on aid in the current year (2018). But this year, this document leaves 2018 blank. The State Department left the current year out because as of February 2018, when the aid request went to press, our dysfunctional Congress still hadn’t passed a budget for 2018. (That didn’t happen until March 23.) The Department couldn’t make an estimate without first knowing how much money Congress was giving it. So this document contains no useful 2018 aid numbers (it’s still a good source, though, for what was spent in 2017). Toss it aside.

3. For most countries, that leaves you with no source for 2018 State Department / Foreign Operations aid numbers. However, Honduras is one of a few countries that Congress cares about so much that it specifies the amounts of aid the State Department should provide. (Other Latin American countries this applies to are Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and to some extent Costa Rica, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.) We can look at the 2018 appropriations law, passed in March, to get Congress’s directions for Honduras.

Well, not exactly the text of the law, which is an 878-page beast cramming together 12 aspects of the federal budget. Instead, you have to look at the narrative “explanatory statement” that Congress included with the bill. That unhelpfully exists as “Book III of the Congressional Record for March 22, 2018.” Go all the way to page H2851 of that document (or search for “Honduras” to save your sanity), and you find this table:

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The last four programs listed here provide military or police aid, and there’s some mention of Honduras. Let’s go from the bottom upward.

Honduran security forces are getting $4 million this year from the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, it mainly pays for weapons and equipment. Under some circumstances, it can also aid police.

Honduran security forces are getting $800,000 this year from the International Military Education and Training program (IMET). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military training program. Under some circumstances, it can also train police.

That would seem to be it: $4.8 million. But there’s more: a lot more, but we don’t know exactly how much. Here’s where it gets even uglier.

The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE) is the biggest single source of military and police aid to Latin America, and Honduras gets a lot of it. Like FMF and IMET, INCLE can aid and train militaries and police. But it can also pay for non-military/police programs like judicial reform. As you see in the table above, for instance, it contributes $6 million for the CICIG in Guatemala. So only some INCLE aid is military or police aid. The trouble is, we don’t know how much—despite repeated requests for a number. So we have to estimate.

But it’s even worse. See that line for “Central American Regional Security Initiative,” $215 million? That goes to all of Central America, and we don’t know how much goes to each Central American country (except Costa Rica, for which Congress specified $25 million). We have to estimate still further. So let’s try:

Congress added $41 million in earmarks to the $215 million Central American Regional Security Initiative. None of these appear to go to Honduran security forces. Take them away and you get $174 million.

The bulk of that $174 million goes to the three “northern triangle” countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Let’s say, then, that Honduras gets just under one-third of it—perhaps 30 percent, or $52.2 million.

Let’s ballpark further and say two-thirds of that $52.2 million is military and police aid, with the rest going to judicial reform and similar priorities. That would be $34.8 million. Let’s round up and say:

Honduran security forces are getting $35 million this year from the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE).

Now we’re up to $39.8 million in military and police aid to Honduras from State Department sources. That was awfully messy. But we’re not done yet.

4. Some aid to Honduras also comes from the Defense Department’s budget. The principal source, by far, is the Department’s “Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime” program, which (after INCLE) is the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It pays for training, construction, boats, some equipment upgrades, intelligence analysis, and a few other things.

Reporting about how this program gets used is also poor. The Defense Department is not required to report how much it expects to spend in each country during the current year—only what it spent the previous year. So we have to estimate 2018 aid by just repeating the 2017 figure—imprecise, but it’s all we can do.

That requires getting our hands on a Defense Department report to Congress covering last year, which is difficult to obtain. Our Freedom of Information Act request to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the report covering 2017 has not yet received a response.

Luckily, our colleagues at the Security Assistance Monitor have secured a copy, although they haven’t yet posted a PDF of it (come on guys!). Using that report, their Honduras page shows that Honduras got $13,768,000 in 2017 assistance through “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance” (what the Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program used to be called before a 2017 rearrangement of Defense Department security assistance authorities). So let’s repeat that figure for our 2018 estimate, rounding up:

Honduran security forces are getting $14 million this year from the Defense Department Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program.

5. That brings us up to $53.8 million. Now, the Defense Department has many other programs with which it could aid Honduras. Most of these don’t get used, though, in Honduras—they’re more focused on the Middle East and NATO. However, Honduras gets some aid to participate in exercises and engagement activities. We don’t know how much, though page 31 of this helpful Congressional Research Service report on Colombia shows that (much larger) country getting about $2 million to $5 million per year from these “other” Defense Department aid sources. For Honduras, let’s estimate something smaller—perhaps just over $1 million.

Honduras is getting just over $1 million this year from other Defense Department aid sources.

OK. Add that rough amount and we get $55 million in military and police aid to Honduras in 2018. A rough estimate, derived through very messy means. But one I feel comfortable enough to use.

This number probably raises more questions than it answers. How much of it is military aid, and how much is police aid? How much is weapons and equipment, and how much is training? What kinds of weapons and equipment? How many are lethal? What units are getting this aid? What skills does the training teach? What parts of the country are getting the most focus? How much training happens on U.S. soil? How much training is performed by Colombian soldiers and police? By private contractors? How do we know that human rights protections are being enforced rigorously?

We have at least partial answers to many of those questions, but for many others we still lack a lot of basic information. Those are subjects for another post, another day. But hopefully this all gives a sense of why the “defense oversight” work we do here at WOLA is so important. And why it’s often so frustrating.

USAID Colombia evaluation is out

I’m very happy that the U.S. Agency for International Development has posted our independent evaluation (PDF) of its “Colombia Transforma” program, which through 2018 has supported $43 million in “rapid response” efforts to implement Colombia’s peace accord. I worked on this evaluation earlier this year; regular visitors to this site know that this work had me in Colombia for the whole month of February.

In general, we found that the program made important progress in empowering civil society and responding rapidly to some immediate post-conflict needs in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, and Putumayo. They worked in areas where neither the Colombian government nor foreign donors had much prior presence, and they worked with many civil-society organizations that, due to prior experience with “Plan Colombia,” were quite distrustful of the United States. The program, though, did bump up against the frustrations of working with a central Colombian government whose “rapid response” capacity has been abysmal: hidebound by bureaucracy, lack of resources, and unclear leadership.

I’m glad that the evaluation preserves our recommendation that the U.S. government rethink its enforcement of “material support” statutes that make it a federal crime even to buy a cup of coffee for a demobilized FARC member, because the FARC remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.

Now that 14,000 ex-FARC members are at large—many in communities where Colombia Transforma seeks to improve rapid response—the likelihood of inadvertently conferring a benefit upon them has increased. This threatens to paralyze some activities in an absence of clarity about the statute’s applicability to low-rank individual ex-combatants.

…[Recommendation:] Raise awareness within the U.S. interagency about the need for common-sense guidelines for interpreting material support provisions so that they are congruent with Colombia’s current context. Trust that USAID and its implementing partners know not to strengthen a group on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. These guidelines should permit low-level engagement with ex-FARC who are (1) not top leaders; (2) not awaiting war crimes trials in the transitional justice system; (3) not facing U.S. indictments or extradition requests; and (4) reasonably determined to have abandoned violence. Keep a database of supported events with FARC presence for reporting and monitoring purposes. Only halt an activity if it violates the four criteria above, or if the database detects a pattern indicating an attempt to take over the space. Continue to support activities with non-FARC citizens around demobilization sites.

View the whole document here on USAID’s “Development Experience Clearinghouse” site (which is a super useful resource in general, lots to read here).

We’d asked for information about U.S. police aid to El Salvador. We apparently didn’t get a full answer.

CNN published a devastating report this week about U.S. assistance to El Salvador’s security forces:

One police unit that killed 43 alleged gang members in the first six months of last year received significant US funding, CNN can reveal. Several of those deaths have been investigated as murders by Salvadoran police.

While the unit — known as the Special Reaction Forces (FES) — was disbanded earlier this year, many of its officers have joined a new elite force that currently receives US funding.

These abuses were revealed in August 2017 by El Salvador’s Revista Factum investigative journalism website. At the time, we wanted to know whether the FES had received U.S. assistance. We had two three thorough recent written sources:

  • We had worked with a congressional office on a request to the Defense Department for “a list of Central American military and police units that received more than $50,000 in U.S. assistance in FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, or are likely to receive that amount or more in FY 2017.” The April 2017 response names four Salvadoran units, none of which is the FES (the four are Naval Task Force Trident, Joint Group Cuscatlán, Air Force, and Navy). So either the Defense Department deliberately omitted the FES, or the unit’s funding came entirely from the State Department’s aid budget (which seems unlikely but is possible).
  • We had obtained a copy of a very detailed report of worldwide police assistance in 2015 and 2016, which is supposed to report on both State Department and Defense Department aid. Though the entire “National Civilian Police” often gets named as a recipient unit, the FES does not appear.
  • (Update 11:15am—I actually forgot about this one) A May 2016 response to “questions for the record” from legislative staff listed 10 Salvadoran police units. The FES is not one of them.

It appears that the Obama and Trump administrations omitted critical information relevant to human rights from congressional requests for information. We’ll be following up on this.

U.S.-Aided Units in Honduras

As a likely election theft proceeds in Honduras, the country’s security forces are playing a central role in putting down protest. Since the U.S. government has closely supported the Honduran military and police since the cold war, we need to know whether U.S.-aided units are backing authoritarian behavior and abusing protesters’ rights.

Here is a list of security-force units that we know have received U.S. assistance since 2015.

Units in red have been actively confronting protesters demanding a fair and transparent vote count, according to media reports and communications with sources inside Honduras. (Others may be equally involved, but information hasn’t confirmed it.) Source documents for the recipient unit list are linked at the bottom of this post.

Update 12:00 December 5: media are reporting that the U.S.-aided TIGRES and COBRAS units are refusing to participate in further suppression of protest. While I don’t know whether this is a nationwide phenomenon or how long it will last, for now I’m switching those units from red to black in the list below.

Recipients of U.S. Assistance

  • Honduran National Police
    • National Police Special Forces (TIGRES)
    • National Police Special Operations Command (COBRAS)
    • National Police NAGU (National Anti-Gang Unit)
    • National Police Tactical Special Operations Group (GOET)
    • National Police Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU)
    • National Police Intelligence Unit (SERCAA)
    • Special Investigations Unit (SIU)
    • Distrito Policial 6-1
    • Chamelcon, Cortés Unit
    • Unidad Metropolitana Prevención (UMEP-5)
    • Policía Preventiva (UMEP-6)
    • Policía Preventiva (UMEP-7)
    • Dirección Nacional de Policia Preventiva, San Pedro Sula Unit
  • Honduran Navy
    • Naval Special Forces (FEN)
  • Honduran Air Force
  • Public Ministry Technical Criminal Investigative Agency (ATIC)

Not Recipients of U.S. Assistance

  • Military Public Order Police
  • Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA) —though some units assigned to FUSINA are in the above “aid recipients” list
  • Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (TESON)

 An April 2017 Defense Department response to a congressional inquiry reads, “No support provided has been provided to Military Police for the Public Order (PMOP), Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (Teson). No support has been provided to Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA). FUSINA may request support from any unit within the Honduran Military, National Police, Attorney General’s office, and other investigative and law enforcement agencies. Therefore, any unit within the Honduran Military could feasibly be called upon to participate in FUSINA.”

Source Documents

Special Forces trainings in Latin America aren’t declining, despite the reported numbers

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we obtained (heavily redacted) reports detailing U.S. Special Operations Forces’ training deployments around the world. (Reports since 2014 are here; earlier ones are at Security Assistance Monitor.)

This allowed me to update a table that ran in an August 2016 WOLA commentary about these trainings in Latin America. That piece voiced some of our concerns about this Defense Department-run training program, known as Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCET.

JCET, carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces (elite units like Green Berets or Navy SEALs), is secretive. It barely seems to involve U.S. diplomats. It seems to lack much consideration of its impact on human rights, its effect on host-countries’ civil-military relations, or its congruence with the recipient security forces’ actual needs. (Many of us learned about JCETs for the first time in a groundbreaking 1998 Washington Post series, which spelled out these concerns.)

Our updated table of JCET training deployments in Latin America is at the top (click it for a more readable spreadsheet). I was surprised to find a sharp drop in these trainings in 2015 and 2016. Both years were below the 2007-2016 average, and 2016 saw the second-fewest JCET deployments of the past 10 years.

But this doesn’t mean that Special Operations Forces are visiting Latin America less often. The 2016 Defense Department report makes that clear (my emphasis):

“The total number of events executed in FY 2016 represented a 22 percent decrease from those executed the previous year. Despite this, the overall level of SOF [Special Operations Forces] engagements in the USSOUTHCOM AOR [U.S. Southern Command Area of Operations] increased due to other SOF training and operational support.”

What is this “other training and operational support”? Probably Defense Department counter-drug aid. JCETs, which usually pay for training in non-drug-related skills, may be getting less emphasis in favor of an aid program that the Defense Department may employ if the training’s mission can be construed as combating drug trafficking or transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

If a “counter-drug” or “counter-TCO” nexus exists, the Defense Department can pay for Special Forces training that is very similar to JCET—but it may do so using its much larger budget for counter-drug and counter-transnational organized crime assistance. This account provides roughly US$300 million in assistance to the Western Hemisphere each year. Right now, Congress does not require that the Pentagon report on this program in the same way: while we can see dollar amounts by country and category, there is no unclassified listing of Special Forces trainings.

The JCET report, then, isn’t capturing everything or even explaining the trends properly. If U.S. Special Forces teams are spending more time in Latin America—as the report’s text asserts—you can’t tell where they’re visiting if they’re not paying for it with the JCET program.

The table above, meanwhile, seems to show some abrupt shifts in priorities. El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia, the top three countries between 2007 and 2014, saw no JCETs in 2016. The Defense Department report notes:

“In FY 2016, in response to changes in the operational environment, U.S. SOF shifted the focus of a significant portion of the JCET program from Central America to partner nations in the Caribbean—primarily the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.”

But it doesn’t explain what those environmental changes were (at a time when Central America was becoming, if anything, less secure), or why Colombia fell off.

Again, the shift might not be as abrupt as it looks. It’s possible that the Defense Department is now funding Special Operations Forces training in Colombia and Central America through its counter-drug account instead of JCET. The trainers may be there in similar or larger numbers, but we can’t say right now how often that is happening.

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