Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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WOLA Podcast: reflecting on 40 years of Latin America human rights advocacy with Geoff Thale

WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, retired this week. Geoff has been doing citizen advocacy for human rights in Latin America, full time, since the early 80s—before this sort of work was even a “thing.”

The work looks vastly different today. We go over how the region, work in Washington, and the role of places like WOLA have changed in a reflective new podcast episode.


Here’s the language from WOLA’s website:

Geoff Thale has been with the Washington Office on Latin America since 1995, and has served as its president since 2019. Much has changed about advocacy and foreign policy since the beginning of his time in Washington. In this conversation, Adam and Geoff discuss the evolution of human rights advocacy towards Latin America, WOLA, and the opportunities and challenges for human rights advocates working on the region.

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

Remain in Mexico plus Title 42 would mean a vicious two-tiered system of asylum denial at the U.S.-Mexico border

With Trump-appointed judges and the Supreme court forcing the Biden administration to re-start the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program at the border, watch what happens to migrants according to their nationality.

If Remain in Mexico gets implemented at even some of the intensity that it was during the Trump years, and if the Biden administration at the same time continues expelling many migrants—including asylum seekers—under the Title 42 pandemic authority, then something ugly might happen.

Basically, we can group affected migrants into three types of nationalities.

First, citizens of Mexico have always had a hard time making asylum cases in the United States. They weren’t subject to “Remain in Mexico” but were massively expelled back to Mexico after the pandemic measures went into effect in March 2020. Here’s all Mexican citizens encountered at the border, and then those traveling as families (parents with children):

Second, citizens of the “Northern Triangle” countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were massively placed into “Remain in Mexico.” Then, after March 2020—because Mexico agreed to take most of them—they’ve been massively expelled under Title 42, also. No matter what happens, they’ve had a slim chance at due process when they ask for protection in the United States.

Attorneys who work with expelled migrants tell me that they hear constant horror stories from parents with kids stuck in Mexican border cities about what happens to them at the hands of criminal groups after they’re expelled.

Third, citizens of several other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries were subject to “Remain in Mexico,” and many ended up in Mexican border towns. But they haven’t been expelled in large numbers under Title 42 for logistical or consular reasons.

Mexico won’t take them as expulsions across the land border. It’s expensive to fly them back to their countries of origin, and some of their governments (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela) have poor relations with the United States.

They’re not as much part of this story, but it’s worth mentioning that there are a few other countries, particularly Haiti, whose citizens didn’t have to remain in Mexico, but in some cases have been expelled by air.

In July, 23 percent of migrants—and 31 percent of families—encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries whose citizens weren’t being massively expelled, but would have had to “remain in Mexico” when Trump was president. Right now, few are being expelled.

72 percent of migrants—63 percent of families—were from Mexico and Central America, and still often subject to expulsion under the Title 42 pandemic order.

If they get carried out together right now, Remain in Mexico combined with Title 42 would create a very ugly two-tiered system.

Keep in mind that Title 42 is even worse than Remain in Mexico because it doesn’t even give asylum seekers a court date in the United States. So if the courts force a true restart of Remain in Mexico, nearly one-third of families might get shoved into Mexico with a court date, while most of the rest wouldn’t even get that. That’s a new level of malice.

Very bad year for border deaths

“Through July,” Simon Romero reports at the New York Times,” Border Patrol officials found 383 dead migrants, the highest toll in nearly a decade, and one already far surpassing 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.”

Here’s that number in the context of the past 24 years:

Migrants trying to avoid apprehension die in shockingly high numbers, usually of dehydration or exposure, on U.S. soil. Local NGOs usually find much higher numbers of remains than Border Patrol does in the areas where they operate.

This is an especially bad year. It’s been a summer of record-high heat. The pandemic “Title 42” policy, which instantly expels most apprehended migrants—even many asylum-seekers—gives some migrants an extra incentive to avoid apprehension, but also eases repeat attempts to cross.

It’s so bizarre how little attention this gets. Somebody dies a painful death on U.S. soil every day—yet stories like Romero’s Times piece today are remarkably rare.

ChinaCom

Whenever a senior military officer is nominated to head the U.S. Southern Command, the Senate Armed Services Committee requires that officer to answer a list of advance questions. The responses are in a public document that accompany the officer’s nomination testimony before the Committee.

In December 2015, Adm. Kurt Tidd appeared before the Committee. His responses document mentioned China three times.

Yesterday (August 3, 2021), Gen. Laura Richardson appeared before the Committee. Her responses document mentions China 33 times.

The war on leftist insurgencies gave way to the war on drugs, which gave way to the war on terror, which became a focus on transnational criminal groups. But now, “great power” or “near-peer” rivalry looks like the main mission for the U.S. defense apparatus in Latin America.

Since mid-July, a really big jump in migration

Valerie González at Texas’ Rio Grande Valley Monitor has a big scoop this afternoon:

Title 42, a federal public health code used to expel a large portion of migrants seeking asylum, is as of late this week no longer in effect for migrant families across the country, according to a federal Mexican source, and the implications of which may have already been seen in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the source, they were made aware of the changes since Wednesday, but said no official communication had been released by Mexico’s office of Foreign Relations and the National Institute of Immigration, also known as SRE and INM. 

…By the end of the week, the practice was no longer applied to migrant families when Mexico began to decline accepting them. 

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to expel as many migrants as possible shortly after encountering them at the U.S.-Mexico border, without affording them a chance to petition for asylum. The Biden administration hasn’t applied this “Title 42” expulsions policy to unaccompanied children, but it expelled 65,920 family members between February and June. WOLA and a host of other organizations have bitterly opposed Title 42.

Mexico was made to agree to accept expelled families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It started making exceptions to that in late January, refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families with small children to the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas:

That is the sector where most Central American families arrive. As a result of the Tamaulipas limitation, Border Patrol has expelled families much less often from the Rio Grande Valley sector than elsewhere. See the rightmost set of columns here:

Now, Mexico’s ban on using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican families appears to be in place border-wide, even if the Mexican government hasn’t acknowledged it. (Why don’t they acknowledge these things? It’s not as though U.S. border authorities wouldn’t find out immediately.)

This is happening amid a jump in migration that appeared to start sometime after the July 4 holiday. González, who has been doing some excellent reporting from the Rio Grande Valley, has documented steady increases in the past two and a half weeks in the number of migrants—families, adults, unaccompanied children—stuck unprocessed in Border Patrol custody, just in this sector alone:

  • July 14: 3,500 in custody
  • July 19: 5,000 in custody
  • July 25: 7,000 in custody
  • July 31 (this morning): 10,000 in custody

Border Patrol’s rustic, jail-like Rio Grande Valley facilities have a capacity of only about 3,000.

You can see the post-July 4 increase in migration by charting out numbers of unaccompanied children whom Border Patrol is encountering at the border. Since their numbers jumped to record levels in March, the government has been providing daily (weekday, non-holiday) reports. (Get them all in a zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.) Here’s what that looks like:

You can see that on an average day, roughly 100 or more kids are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied now than were in late June and early July. If adults and families are following a similar pattern, we’re seeing an unprecedented July increase over already very high levels of undocumented migration. And as COVID travel restrictions ease worldwide, the numbers are likely to grow further.

The likely impact of Mexico’s shutdown of Title 42 family expulsions will be an increase in arrivals of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the border. This may not be a tremendous increase, since—as the first chart above shows—70 percent of families from those countries arriving in the Rio Grande Valley were already being processed in the United States instead of expelled. But still, an increase is most likely.

If families face no danger of expulsion, though, we may see a decrease in arrivals of unaccompanied children. In a painfully large but unknown number of cases, families have been separating on the Mexican side of the border, with parents sending children across unaccompanied because they won’t be expelled. Without Title 42, families can attempt to petition for asylum while staying intact.

However, families who don’t ask “correctly,” or who fail “credible fear” interviews, may be flown home under the “expedited removal” policy that the Biden administration revived this week. Those deportation flights back to Central America restarted a couple of days ago.

Mentioning fumigation without mentioning fumigation

Colombian President Iván Duque spoke twice yesterday at events relevant to U.S.-Colombian relations. At both, he referred to aerial eradication of coca with the herbicide glyphosate, a program that the United States supported between the early 1990s and 2015, when Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, suspended the program out of concern for public health.

I say Duque “referred to” fumigation, because he managed to talk about it without using the words “aerial,” “spray,” “herbicide,” or “glyphosate,” much less “fumigation.” Instead, he used oblique references:

At a seminar about “urban terrorism” organized in Bogotá by the U.S. National Defense University’s Perry Center:

With regard to drug trafficking, we have to continue reducing the area planted with illicit crops, and we have to do it by combining all the tools.

One, manual eradication, for which our country reached the highest figure last year.

Two, alternative development and substitution, but also appealing to the precision mechanisms required in the complex areas of our territory.

At the swearing-in of Colombia’s next ambassador to the United States, former ambassador and former defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón:

We all know that after you left the Ministry of Defense around 2014-2015 one of the effective methods of fighting illicit crops was suspended. We then saw an exponential jump.

From the beginning of Plan Colombia, when we had 188,000 hectares, until 2014, when we were below 50,000 hectares of coca, the world could see the comprehensive combination of policies. Unfortunately, when that comprehensiveness was fractured and one of the most effective mechanisms was rejected, we saw an exponential jump.

Weird that Duque not only uses such indirect language, but also doesn’t say “we’re going to restart the spray program.” Perhaps drug-policy expert Daniel Rico, who favors fumigation, was correct when he told El Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda that Duque, with just over a year left in his presidency, has run out of time:

The political, budgetary and technical fight was lost. The President did not realize that within the government itself they were carrying out a turtle operation [deliberate slowdown], and that was what ended the opportunity he had to incorporate aerial spraying.

Q: Who was carrying out the turtle operation?

The National Health Institute, mainly; that is why there will be no aerial spraying in this government. Not as a consequence of a legal problem, because there was always a legal green light to spray, but because there was no leadership to articulate different positions, budgets and interests.

The President was very poorly surrounded on this issue; on the one hand, there was the inexperience of his vice-ministers and, on the other hand, there were obstacles to its implementation.

Human rights conditions and Colombia’s “institutional architecture”

On July 7 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report about the weeks of social protest that began in Colombia on April 28. The report extensively documents the Colombian security forces’ harsh and abusive response.

That same day, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry—less than delighted with the Commission’s report—published its response. That document claims:

the Colombian State has a solid democratic, participatory and pluralistic institutional framework, with a balanced institutional architecture between public authorities and autonomous bodies, with specific control functions and with the capacity to deal with events related to protests.

The country’s human rights community certainly disputes this, since Colombia’s institutions have usually had a hard time bringing serious abusers to justice, even when prosecutors and investigators have made good-faith efforts. But if it’s true, then recent moves in the U.S. Congress should be of no concern to the Colombian government.

The House of Representatives’ version of the 2022 foreign aid appropriations bill, which goes before the full House this week, would freeze 30 percent of aid to Colombia’s police through the largest police aid account, until the State Department certifies that the force is punishing serious human rights abusers among its ranks. This is the first time Colombia-specific human rights conditions have applied to police aid in many years.

If what the Foreign Ministry says here is true, then Colombia’s government should have no problem with this. If the country’s well-functioning, autonomous “institutional framework” punishes those responsible for massive abuses committed during the 2021 Paro Nacional protests, then the U.S. conditions will be met. They should be a non-issue, and the Colombian government should have no complaints here in Washington.

Let’s see what happens.

Can the United States “do much about” Nicaragua?

Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.

This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.

Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.

Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)

I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.

Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.

Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.

Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.

All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.

U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.

“Just idiotic”

This guy’s book was self-aggrandizing, boring and repetitive, and taught me very little about what it was like to grow up in poverty in Appalachia. And bald-faced lies like this cruel tweet make me wonder if anything he wrote was true at all.

But you see, J.D. Vance wants to be the next Republican senator from Ohio, now that Rob Portman is retiring—which apparently requires him to go full Trump.

While I doubt that anyone planning to vote for him cares, let the record show: 89 percent of fentanyl is seized at land ports of entry (official border crossings). If any fentanyl was ever seized on the body of one of the 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers whom the Trump administration forced to remain in Mexico, I’ve never heard about it.

But research by Human Rights First tells us that at least 1,544 asylum seekers were kidnapped, raped, extorted, or otherwise assaulted since 2019, after the U.S. government dumped them, homeless and vulnerable, in organized crime-heavy Mexican border cities.

From WOLA: Violence in Colombia Requires Bold Response from Biden Administration

We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.

officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.

This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.

To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.

Read the whole thing at wola.org.

If I were a more cynical person…

…I’d see this headline from the U.S. military’s Honduras-based “Joint Task Force Bravo” component, and think “this should at least make up for a fraction of what corrupt officials in the Hernández government have probably stolen from the Health Ministry’s budget.”

The supplies, valued at approximately $39,000, under the U.S. Southern Command’s Humanitarian Assistance Program, will increase the local clinics ability to care for COVID-19 patients.

I wonder what size fraction of what’s been lost to corruption since March 2020 that $39,000 adds up to, and how much more effective Defense Department humanitarian aid would be if the U.S. government offered more aid and diplomatic pressure to help people in Honduras who are trying to target that corruption.

…I mean, I would wonder that, if I were a more cynical person.

At Razón Pública: How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

Here is an English translation of a piece that ran in Colombia’s Razón Pública on Monday.

How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

Written by Adam Isacson May 24, 2021

Although many U.S. congressmen have rejected police violence in Colombia, the Biden administration continues to remain silent. Why?

Biden’s silence

Four weeks of the national strike have passed and the administration of Joe Biden has not said much about the current situation in Colombia.

The silence is partly explained by the fact that the U.S. government has other priorities and that politicians and diplomats do not like to speak publicly about the behavior of their allies when they disagree with them. The unfortunate consequence is that silence is misinterpreted as indifference or as an act of support for the security forces in Colombia.

But what is happening in Colombia has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A large number of progressive members of Congress, moved by videos of police brutality, has expressed outrage at the human rights violations, mostly committed by government forces. A small number of conservative voices have repeated some of the Duque government’s arguments: that the protests are the work of organized agitators.

More moderate legislators have either said nothing or taken a Solomonic position: “both sides are to blame.” For now, it appears that the Biden administration’s response follows the line of the moderates, who remain silent.

The progressives

Some of the U.S. voices calling on the Duque administration to curb police violence are already well known in Colombia.

Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern was the first to speak out on the issue. McGovern has visited Colombia repeatedly over the past twenty years and now heads the powerful House Rules Committee.

On May 3, he tweeted, “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend. U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”

The “Leahy Law” prohibits military assistance (though not the sale of military equipment) to foreign security forces with a pattern of serious human rights violations, without effective state action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although ESMAD does not receive U.S. assistance, the tear gas they use is made in the United States. But the Colombian state buys these and other equipment with its own funds.

On May 11, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who gives the law its name, tweeted, “It is shocking to see the violent police response by the Colombian govt of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. Legitimate grievances, while no excuse for violence or vandalism, should be a cause for dialogue, not excessive force. If the Colombian govt has solid evidence that protests are being orchestrated by terrorists, as alleged, produce the evidence and arrest the perpetrators. If not then law abiding Colombians will understandably lose patience with their leaders.” Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and a veteran Colombia watcher.

Another high-level Democrat who strongly criticized the Colombian government was New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who has championed the rights of Colombian Afro-descendants and now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On May 4, Meeks tweeted, “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”

Other progressives, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Texas Democratic Representative Joaquín Castro and New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also expressed their concern on social media and in press releases.

On May 14, 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they asked the State Department to:

  • more forcefully denounce police brutality;
  • suspend all aid to the Colombian police;
  • stop the sale of riot control equipment;
  • publicly reject statements by Colombian officials linking protesters to terrorist groups; and
  • urge and even facilitate dialogue.

The conservatives

While progressives have been notably active, U.S. right-wing figures have been rather quiet.

On May 6, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”

If this sounds vaguely like the rhetoric of “molecular revolution dissipated” it is because many of Senator Rubio’s Colombian constituents are aligned with Uribismo. In South Florida, the Colombian protests are a frequent topic of conversation on Spanish-language radio, where commentators view the demonstrations as the result of a “hybrid warfare” strategy by the left.

Rubio’s tweet is the only statement on the strike that I have seen from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress. But that doesn’t mean the right is staying silent: a conservative Washington think tank called the Center for a Secure Free Society released a report on May 17 entitled “Asymmetric Assault on Colombia,” in which it argued that “the Colombian people, especially the peaceful protestors, are not the culprits in the crisis—they are the victims.”

They claim that the protesters, who lack agency, have been misled by international agitators. The report continues: “As some of the most vulnerable in society, the poor and middle class in Colombia are targeted as tools of asymmetric warfare by foreign and domestic adversaries to the Colombian state”.

The moderates and the Biden administration

As vocal as progressives are, and will continue to be, they alone will not get the Biden administration to act decisively against police violence in Colombia.

Much depends on what moderates in the Democratic Party, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, do or say. Both have so far remained silent.

These and other lawmakers, who are heard by Biden, do not dismiss the progressives’ arguments, although they may not share some recommendations, such as freezing police aid. And they are more likely to be in touch with the Colombian embassy and business community.

For its part, the Biden administration has expressed only mild concern. On May 4, Juan Gonzalez, White House National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” Two days later Gonzalez told The Hill: “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”

The State Department issued a statement on May 4 with a message to both sides: “All over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights.”

A long-standing relationship

The Biden administration wants to be cautious for a primarily geopolitical reason: it does not want to clash with one of its few strong allies in the region, one that shares borders with Venezuela, while Chinese and Russian influence appears to be growing. At the same time, the Biden administration doesn’t ignore the long and deep relationship the United States has maintained with the Colombian police, forged since before the fight against the Medellin and Cali cartels.

I estimate that U.S. cooperation with the Colombian Police will amount to about $150 to $160 million in 2021 (out of a total police and military aid package of about $250 million, which in turn is part of a $520 million aid package). The purposes of this cooperation include:

  • coca eradication;
  • cocaine interdiction;
  • cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in operations against drug traffickers;
  • intelligence sharing with police Special Investigation Units (SIU);
  • assistance in increasing the presence of rural police (Carabineros) and police posts in conflictive territories;
  • cooperation on extraditions and Interpol cases; and
  • cooperation on training other countries’ forces.

The relationship between the U.S. government and the Colombian police runs deep: you can see it in the large number of olive green uniforms circulating in the corridors and on the sidewalks if you visit the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

So it is not hard to understand why Biden administration officials are reluctant to talk about freezing aid or sales to the police, and why their public statements have been far softer than those of the UN, the European Union and the OAS mission.

At El Espectador: “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”

Here’s an English translation of my interview with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Espectador.

“People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”
Politics 22 May 2021 – 10:00 p. m.

By: Cecilia Orozco Tascón

A conversation with Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an influential think tank in the U.S. capital. Isacson discusses the law and order situation in Colombia, its impact on the Biden administration, the international impact of allegations of police abuse, and the possibility of “authoritarian populism” winning the 2022 elections.

You have been an analyst of the political situation in Colombia for more than 20 years from the research centers where you have worked. To what do you attribute the social explosion of April and May 2021, outside the moment created by the pandemic and by a tax reform bill that was – to say the least – inopportune?

This could be the same social explosion that began in November 2019. If the year-end holidays and then the pandemic had not interrupted it, we would probably be talking about 18 months of continuous social unrest. The economic despair did not disappear; the anger at the government’s lack of empathy did not disappear; the pain for the lack of implementation of the Peace Agreement and the massacre of social leaders in remote territories did not disappear. On the contrary, all of the above were aggravated during the pandemic.

The country has not been, like other Latin American countries, a country of massive and sustained protests for days and weeks. Nor has it usually overthrown presidents. But this time, peaceful demonstrations and violent acts after them have been going on for almost a month continuously. What changed from its past, so that people decided to go out constantly despite the risk of COVID contagion and the danger of being injured or killed in the riots?

The big change came with the 2016 Peace Accord, because it reduced people’s fear of exercising their freedom of expression. The demobilization of the FARC removed the stigma attached to public protest. Prior to 2016, Colombia had a very large, violent, nationwide guerrilla group that was perceived as an existential threat. It was easy to label anyone who went out to protest as a “guerrilla” in order to delegitimize them, and many people did not dare to demonstrate because of that association. After the accord, the stigma disappeared or is much weaker. The Duque government still tries to present some protesters as linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents. However, these are regional groups that do not represent a great danger to the cities and it is not so convincing. In short, there is more political space for people to take to the streets and they are no longer afraid to express what they feel.

So, could it be said that although citizens knew they could demand their rights, they repressed themselves?

Yes. There was fear of expressing themselves publicly because of the stigmatization of being labeled as “guerrillas” and also because of the social contempt with which the demonstrators were viewed.

People from the governing party and those in uniform maintain that there is a systematic process: first, the massive, peaceful, daytime marches. Then, the nighttime ones that turn into riots produced by individuals who destroy public and private property. Do you think there is a “terrorist” plan of forces opposed to the Duque administration?

Something similar was seen in the United States during the protests that erupted after the assassination of George Floyd. In the daytime, they were peaceful, massive, disciplined, and inspiring. At night, especially in the first two weeks, a small number of people would break windows, set fire to property and clash with the police. On some occasions, these were young people who had become politically radicalized and were filled with hatred for the police, whose aggressive response then inflamed them even further. In others, they were criminals seeking economic gain, almost always through looting. In both cases, the fringe of late-night agitators gave the Trump administration the pretext to use rhetoric delegitimizing Black Lives Matter protesters and their demands. Trump focused his attacks against the demonstrations on something called “antifa” – short for “anti-fascist” – which is more a political posture than an actual group. There has no coordination of violence in the United States. A similar position now appears in Colombia: there is very little evidence of a national movement of violence, but the government tries to blame that activity on armed groups and even international agitators.

Regarding your mention of the “antifa” (supposed leftist extremists who would go, city by city, exporting vandals and vandalism), is the Trump strategy and that of the Colombian government when it blames the “castrochavistas” for vandalism and looting, is it the same and does it intend the same effects?

The term “castrochavista” is the closest thing there is to “antifa”: it means almost the same thing and is the same pretext to justify a violent official response and to disqualify the demonstrators.

But what would the government get out of lying? In any case, gaining time while the social order deteriorates does not seem to be beneficial for the administration nor for its party in the medium or long term when it is discovered that it was only trying to hide its inability to solve a problem?

It is a distraction that serves to avoid facing conversations with protesters, for example, about inequality, just as Trump did not want to talk about racism. It’s a way to put off decisions you don’t want to make by inventing phantoms that distort reality.

The electoral period will soon begin in the country. A scenario of street vandalism, looting and public disorder would be favorable to those who have traditionally fed on voters’ fear. Would this strategy of the ruling party, successful in the past, work in today’s Colombia?

The Democratic Center will use the scenes of violent disorder in the streets to mobilize its electoral base, that is, the roughly one third of Colombians who are hardcore Uribistas. The governing party needs that third of the country to vote massively, but what about the more moderate voters, who seem to share many of the protesters’ demands? They are unhappy with the violence of the protests, but they are also shocked by videos of police brutality. As long as the non-Uribista candidates do not propose anything that scares moderates – just as the slogan “defund the police” scared some moderates in the United States – the appeal of the Democratic Center may be limited to its most rabid base.

Taking into account the situation of permanent social unrest in the country, which does not seem likely to subside immediately, and according to your office’s analysis, do you see the possibility that democracy could be interrupted in Colombia?

It seems very unlikely to me that there will be a rupture of the constitutional order in Colombia. For that to happen, it would require a broad consensus on an opposition candidate or party, or the security forces declaring their lack of confidence in the president. But the picture is different: the opposition is divided, all institutions continue to support the current democratic rules, very few people are seriously calling for Duque’s resignation and most political actors are focused on the impending election campaign.

And what would be the attitude of the United States if there were a total rupture of democracy, for example, declaring and extending the figure of internal commotion [state of siege] or suspending next year’s elections?

In the case of a declaration of internal commotion, as it is a constitutional mechanism, perhaps the U.S. government would keep silent. But if an unconstitutional maneuver is made, such as postponing the elections or extending the current presidential term, I think the Biden administration would speak out because, at that point, the credibility of the United States would be at stake: it cannot criticize Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador for what is happening in each of those countries, and remain silent if its best friend in the region does the same.

The Duque government and his party have been conducting a prolonged fear campaign against the supposed possibility of Colombia becoming “another Venezuela”. In the analysis of Washington officials, is there also this fear of the popularity and high vote of political figures who are opposed to Duque and Uribe and would oppose a leftist triumph?

My perception is that Joe Biden sees himself as one of the few “post-populist” presidents in the world, who managed to remove an authoritarian from power by winning an election. His administration has distanced itself from or opposed populists on the left (Maduro), center (Bukele), and right (Bolsonaro). It could be expected to show the same discomfort with a candidate in Colombia, right or left, Uribista or socialist, who seeks to weaken institutions or collapse democratic checks and balances. At the same time, I do not believe that the Biden administration would oppose a leftist candidate who respects institutions and works within the framework of democratic rules.

U.S. Congressional leaders have called for suspending or not renewing aid to the Colombian police force because of evidence and reports of abuses of power in riot control, and because of protesters killed and injured by ESMAD intervention. How likely is it that the Biden administration will suspend its aid?

We have confirmed that the ESMAD does not receive aid, although it buys equipment manufactured in the United States. As for the institution, unless the human rights situation continues to worsen, it is unlikely that there will be a total suspension of aid to the National Police because the relationship with the United States is very close. It extends from eradication to drug interdiction, to DEA operations, to the establishment of Carabineros units, to the training of forces from other countries. However, there may be some important changes. Since Police General (r) Rosso Jose Serrano fired thousands of officers [in the 1990s], the institution was believed to be less corrupt, more respectful of human rights and more professional. Videos and accounts of abuses in the current protests and the aggressive words of the directors of the Colombian Police and Defense Ministry have alerted U.S. policymakers to the fact that the institution is now badly troubled. The United States is wrestling with its own need to implement police reform, and policy actors in Washington will be examining the situation in Colombia from that perspective.

From several think tanks there are proposals for dialogue to find a solution to the national crisis. Among these proposals, there are two directed to the United States: a. To demand an immediate reform of the Police. b. That while the ESMAD’s protocols are being reviewed, the sale to Colombia of “crowd control” material (dissuasion weapons, gases, tanks) be suspended. Could these requests be well received in Washington?

I believe that both proposals enjoy sympathy among Biden administration officials. But again, because of the long and close relationship with the Colombian police, they will prefer to speak privately. U.S. government officials should be aware that publicly expressing concern about unacceptable behavior by a partner does not mean breaking with that partner.

Does it mean that they privately scold and ask them to correct or else they will receive a financial or arms ban reprimand?

Yes. In some cases, if, for example, a military unit is prohibited from receiving aid by the Leahy Law (the U.S. will not provide foreign military assistance to human rights violators), such a prohibition will be communicated privately to the state. Where such lists [of banned units] exist, they are also kept in reserve. Uniformed personnel who have not been cleared or whose names are in the database of suspected human rights violators may not receive training in the U.S. or enter the country. [Note: “enter the country” was added by editors. Visa denial does not automatically accompany Leahy Law disapproval.]

In one of your articles, recently published by El Espectador, you state that if the Biden administration pushes the Duque administration to opt for the path of dialogue to face the current crisis, “it would be developing a framework” for all Latin America where several countries are facing “authoritarian populism”. What do you mean by this term and to which political phenomena are you referring to?

Worldwide, democracy is in retreat as leaders are being elected who ignore institutional controls, constantly lie, attack the media, call their opponents “terrorists” or worse, and seek to stay in power by any means. Venezuela and Russia were the pioneers, but it also happened in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries. The United States just had such a president for four years, and he is leading one of our two main political parties. What is happening in Colombia today is a big test: whether democratic institutions can channel desperate social demands, stemming from generations of inequality, or not. The Peace Accord was a great vote of confidence in these institutions. Can Colombia resolve this crisis through dialogue without violence and without resorting to a populist figure? If so, Colombia would be an astonishing example for the rest of the world in this troubled beginning of the 21st century.

Or else, could “authoritarian populism” win in the 2022 election?

It is quite possible that an authoritarian populist candidate could win, yes. At both ideological extremes there may be candidates who see institutions as obstacles or who see themselves as the saviors of the country.

You are not only an expert in security matters but also in human rights. Could the Colombian state be subject to sanctions promoted by Washington, the United Nations and other organizations for the violation of the rights of demonstrators, in addition to the fact that it already has a negative record for the assassination of defenders, social leaders, and former combatants?

This really depends on the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and the Colombian justice system. We know that human rights violations are occurring at an unacceptable level. Will Colombian institutions identify those responsible and hold them accountable? Will they do so in an efficient manner so that the victims don’t have to wait 10 years for a result? If so, it would be a hopeful break from a very bitter history of impunity in Colombia. If not, then, yes, there will be sanctions. U.S. law, for example, prohibits aid to units (police or military) that commit abuses with impunity. And the Inter-American System and the International Criminal Court are also there for cases in which a country’s judicial system proves unwilling or unable to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights violations.

It has been seen that the Duque government’s response to protests has been violent repression, even of peaceful demonstrations. While the official language is partially conciliatory, the shock troops (ESMAD and others) are authorized to attack, reduce, and capture. How can the Biden administration call out the national administration for its handling of street grievances?

Although the Biden administration values human rights much more than the Trump administration, it also thinks about stability and the geopolitical reality of the continent. It is concerned about any symptom of instability in a country considered a close ally, in a region facing challenges from Russia and China, sometimes through Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States has a longstanding relationship with the Colombian police and doesn’t want to risk it with public criticism. That said, U.S. officials can’t possibly support the brutal tactics of units such as ESMAD, because they know that such tactics prolong and escalate protests unnecessarily. They must be aware that such practices continue to worsen the instability they are so concerned about.

WOLA Podcast: Understanding Colombia’s Latest Wave of Social Protest

I recorded a very good conversation with my colleague Gimena Sánchez, who I don’t think has slept since Colombia’s protests—and the government’s crackdown—began on April 28. She does a masterful job explaining what’s going on. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.

Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.

This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

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