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.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




U.S. Policy

Supply and demand

Here’s what it looks like when you chart out Table 8.3 in the just-released 2022 UNODC World Drug Report. This is the average price of a gram of cocaine sold on U.S. streets over the 31 years between 1990 and 2020, in 2020 inflation-adjusted dollars, adjusted for purity.

Two things stand out:

  • If the purpose of “supply side” drug policy is to make cocaine scarcer, it has largely failed to do so. The only moment when cocaine prices were a bit higher than usual—indicating some relative scarcity—was the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s. That was a time when aerial fumigation was declining in Colombia, and manual eradication and territorial governance efforts were increasing.
  • The White House’s last update on Andean cocaine showed the region’s total potential production of the drug increasing from 1,521 tons in 2016 to 2,132 tons in 2020. That’s a 40% potential supply increase. But this chart shows almost no decrease in price over those four years, just $6, or 3 percent. That probably tells us that the Andes’ big increase in coca and cocaine production is going to other countries’ drug markets, not to the United States, where there’s some balance between supply and demand.

Dysfunction

I just updated this slide for a talk I’m giving tomorrow, and… wow. The U.S. government has confirmed ambassadors serving in South American countries containing less than a quarter of South America’s population. (105 million out of 431 million people, according to WolframAlpha.)

There’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear a U.S. official, or U.S. senator whose job it is to confirm nominees, rending their garments about China’s growing influence in the hemisphere.

Don’t let the “caravan” in southern Mexico distract you

Media are reporting on a large number of migrants leaving Tapachula, the city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala where tens of thousands are stranded, because Mexico requires them to remain in the state where they first apply for asylum. (See an early June report on Tapachula from some of my colleagues at WOLA.)

Hungry and miserable while waiting for Mexico’s backlogged asylum system to move, many are packing up and leaving. This time, a large number are Venezuelan.

Reuters estimated on June 6 that “at least 6,000” people left Tapachula en masse. Fox News immediately took notice and started piping footage into their viewers’ eyeballs.

Three points about this:

  1. No “migrant caravan” has succeeded in reaching the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexican forces routinely break them up. A large one last fall dwindled, with just a few hundred walking all the way to Mexico City (very, very far from the U.S. border), as Mexican forces prohibited caravan participants from boarding vehicles. Caravans have become more of a negotiating tactic for migrants to press for permission to live in parts of Mexico where jobs are while awaiting asylum outcomes. (Tapachula is in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.)
  2. Even if the caravan did manage to arrive at the U.S. border, we’d hardly notice right now. In late May, Axios reported that “the administration’s internal data now counts about 8,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border each day.” So “at least 6,000” people is less than a day’s worth of migration at the border right now.
  3. Caravans are what migrants attempt when they can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars each to a smuggler to get them across Mexico. They attempt to band together as a form of “safety in numbers.” But as noted, caravans really don’t succeed anymore. Instead, most of those 8,000 people a day arriving at the U.S. border right now are paying smuggling networks. And most of them cross Mexico in a week or two, usually less, in vehicles. U.S. media outlets’ and anti-migrant politicians’ obsession over “caravans” benefits those smuggling networks by making them migrants’ only option.

And it totally lets off the hook the corrupt Mexican migration and security officials who enrich themselves by looking the other way, waving smugglers’ vehicles through their many road checkpoints. The need to pay those officials (and, in northern Mexico, organized crime) is why smugglers’ fees are so high in the first place. But corruption gets like one hundredth the attention that “caravan” footage gets. Stop being distracted by the caravans.

Military-to-Military Relations with Mexico on Twitter

Even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boycotts the Summit of the Americas, knocking the bilateral diplomatic relationship further sideways, the U.S.-Mexico military-to-military relationship seems to be all hugs and smiles—judging.

That’s the impression you get, at least, looking at these tweets posted over the past 3 weeks.

Spanish version of today’s “Responsible Statecraft” analysis of Colombia

I’m grateful to the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, for publishing my analysis of the current moment in Colombia’s elections. The first round was five days ago, and the second, between two very non-traditional candidates, is coming on June 19. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Read the English version there.

Here (with help from DeepL, and me giving that a non-native-speaker edit) is el contenido en español.

“Cómo un populista esquivó la vieja maquinaria de izquierda-derecha de Colombia”

Por Adam Isacson

Las elecciones presidenciales de Colombia se dirigen a una segunda vuelta el 19 de junio. Es imposible predecir quién gobernará de 2022 a 2026, pero es seguro que habrá un cambio sorprendente. Por primera vez en la historia moderna del tercer país más grande de América Latina, el candidato elegido por la arraigada élite política colombiana no es uno de los finalistas.

Los colombianos están agotados por la pandemia, el aumento de la pobreza y la desigualdad, el incremento de la delincuencia y la proliferación de grupos armados, y un gobierno en funciones que no ha sabido transmitir empatía. En la primera vuelta del 29 de mayo, el 40,3% apoyó a Gustavo Petro, el primer candidato viable de centro-izquierda en al menos 80 años, en un país donde los candidatos reformistas han sido asesinados con frecuencia.

Aunque estaba llenando plazas y recibiendo mucha cobertura de los medios de comunicación, las encuestas habían mostrado correctamente que era improbable que Petro, ex guerrillero y ex alcalde de Bogotá, alcanzara el umbral del 50 por ciento necesario para una victoria en la primera ronda. Las encuestas apuntaban a que Petro se enfrentaría en la segunda vuelta, y probablemente vencería, a Federico Gutiérrez, el candidato respaldado por el partido del actual presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, un conservador impopular.

Eso no fue lo que ocurrió: Gutiérrez quedó en tercer lugar, y Petro se enfrentará a otro candidato “outsider” a favor del cambio. Rodolfo Hernández, un irascible ex alcalde de la sexta ciudad más grande de Colombia, de 77 años, obtuvo el 28,2%. Hernández, un acaudalado empresario que se presenta sin partido político y que aparece más a menudo en Tik-Tok y otras plataformas que en persona, atrajo a los colombianos opuestos a la política de Petro pero descontentos con el statu quo. Se ha disparado en las últimas encuestas, impulsado por un estilo populista, campechano y propenso a las meteduras de pata, y por un mensaje anticorrupción de gran calado (aunque se están investigando algunas irregularidades en la contratación durante su gestión como alcalde).

La ventaja de Petro y el auge de Hernández supusieron un duro golpe para la maquinaria política tradicional de Colombia, incluida la del otrora dominante ex presidente Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), un conservador cuyo candidato elegido (incluido él mismo) había llegado a la ronda final de todas las elecciones desde 2002, perdiendo sólo una vez. Quien gane el 19 de junio no estará en deuda con los partidos mayoritarios de Colombia, aunque éstos sigan teniendo muchos escaños en el Congreso. Y muy notablemente, independientemente del resultado, la próxima vicepresidenta de Colombia será una mujer negra: la líder del movimiento social Francia Márquez (Petro) o la académica Marelén Castillo (Hernández).

La matemática ahora mismo favorece a Rodolfo Hernández. Su porcentaje de votos válidos el 29 de mayo, más los de Gutiérrez, arroja un voto de “cualquiera menos Petro” de hasta el 54 por ciento. Una primera encuesta, publicada el 1 de junio, mostraba a Petro y a Hernández dentro del margen de error, con Hernández ligeramente por delante, y un gran número de indecisos (14 por ciento). Un segundo sondeo, sin indecisos, daba a Hernández un margen de 52-45.

Aunque se trata de una votación entre dos candidatos del “cambio” con fuertes tendencias populistas, el 19 de junio no será una contienda entre la izquierda y la derecha: ver las elecciones de Colombia de esa manera es malinterpretarlas. Hernández, en un claro esfuerzo por despojarse de la etiqueta de “derecha”, expuso en un tuit el 30 de mayo un hilo de propuestas políticas tan centristas, incluso de izquierda en algunos temas, que Petro lo acusó de “regoger mis propuestas”.

  • Ambos prometen implementar el acuerdo de paz de 2016 con las FARC, al que Uribe y sus partidarios se opusieron. El programa de Petro discute en mayor detalle cómo lo implementaría, incluyendo las prioridades de género y étnicas.
  • Ambos prometen proseguir negociaciones con el grupo guerrillero que queda en Colombia, el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), de más de 50 años de antigüedad.
  • Ambos restablecerían las relaciones con el régimen de Nicolás Maduro en Venezuela, un probable golpe al gobierno alternativo opositor de Juan Guaidó, a quien tanto Bogotá como Washington reconocen actualmente como presidente de Venezuela.
  • Ambos son muy críticos con la política de drogas tal y como se ha practicado en el último medio siglo. Hernández le dijo al embajador estadounidense que estaba a favor de la legalización de las drogas, cuando se reunieron en enero. Ambos buscarían legalizar el cannabis recreativo, y no se reanudará la dura política de erradicación de la coca mediante la fumigación de herbicidas desde aviones, apoyada por Estados Unidos y suspendida por razones sanitarias desde 2015.
  • Ambos candidatos se oponen al fracking, apoyan el derecho al aborto (recientemente legalizado por una decisión de la Corte Constitucional), y apoyan los derechos del colectivo LGBTQ, el matrimonio gay, y la adopción por parte de parejas homosexuales.
  • Ambos dicen que apoyan el derecho a la protesta social, incluido el paro nacional que paralizó Colombia durante semanas en abril y mayo de 2021. Y ambos critican duramente a Uribe, el ex presidente de línea dura al que los colombianos asocian con importantes logros en materia de seguridad, pero también con violaciones de los derechos humanos y faltas de ética.

La lente izquierda-derecha, entonces, es de poca utilidad para entender lo que está sucediendo. Las posiciones de Gustavo Petro son tradicionalmente de izquierda, pero no está claro si Petro gobernaría como un socialdemócrata o como un “hombre fuerte” populista. Hernández es más amigable con el sector de las grandes empresas, pero las posiciones enumeradas muestran más flexibilidad ideológica que la que hemos visto en populistas de derecha como Jair Bolsonaro o Donald Trump. En lugar de llamarlo el “Trump colombiano“, tiene más sentido comparar a Hernández con populistas latinoamericanos semiautocráticos que no encajan fácilmente en los encasillamientos de izquierda-derecha, como el mexicano Andrés Manuel López Obrador o el salvadoreño Nayib Bukele.

Gane quien gane, el próximo presidente de Colombia será un líder que tratará de apelar directamente al pueblo, que se peleará a menudo con los medios de comunicación, y que probablemente no defenderá las normas establecidas y las frágiles instituciones. El próximo líder se resistirá a los controles y equilibrios democráticos; ambos han planteado la idea de utilizar poderes de emergencia. Se enfrentará a los enemigos: para Petro, son las élites tradicionales de Colombia; para Hernández, son los que considera corruptos, o, de forma alarmante, la población inmigrante venezolana, que ha sido objeto de algunos comentarios xenófobos.

Todos estos son elementos de lo que podríamos llamar el “libreto populista”, un elemento emblemático de las democracias en declive del siglo XXI en todo el mundo. El próximo presidente de Colombia podría ser popular y transformador, pero el país podría ser aún menos democrático que es.

Esto supone un reto para Estados Unidos. Tanto las administraciones demócratas como las republicanas han invertido 25 años, y más de 13.000 millones de dólares, en construir una “relación especial” con Colombia, especialmente con las fuerzas de seguridad colombianas. Al presidente Joe Biden le gusta llamar a Colombia “la piedra angular de la política estadounidense en América Latina y el Caribe”. A Washington le preocupa perder influencia en el hemisferio occidental en favor de China y otras grandes potencias rivales.

Washington está a punto de descubrir que sólo ha construido una “relación especial” con un pequeño segmento de Colombia -las élites urbanas, las fuerzas armadas, las asociaciones empresariales-, lo que le deja sin preparación para trabajar con un gobierno cuya base está en otra parte, en la sociedad civil organizada y entre las clases medias descontentas, los colombianos más pobres, y los afrodescendientes e indígenas. Independientemente de quién gane, es probable que la relación entre Estados Unidos y Colombia siga siendo cordial en general, pero el camino que queda por recorrer será muy accidentado.

Los puntos de vista de ambos candidatos sobre las relaciones con Venezuela y sobre la política antidroga -especialmente la erradicación de cultivos forzados y la extradición- podrían ponerlos en vías de colisión con la administración Biden y con los republicanos del Congreso. La visión crítica de Petro sobre el libre comercio y la inversión extranjera, y su probable deseo de relajar la asociación militar entre Estados Unidos y Colombia, provocaría hostilidad en algunos sectores de Washington. El resultado podría ser palabras desagradables, reducción de la presencia diplomática, reducción de la asistencia y, quizás, un abrazo aún más estrecho a las élites empresariales y políticas de Colombia ya fuera del poder.

La relación de Washington con Colombia podría llegar a parecerse a la que tiene ahora con otros gobiernos populistas o de tendencia autoritaria en la región (aparte de los de izquierda dura -Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela- con los que las relaciones son totalmente hostiles). Si es así, los funcionarios estadounidenses evitarán airear la mayoría de los desacuerdos en público. Preferirán enfatizar las áreas de cooperación, como hacen hoy en día en materia de migración con México y Centroamérica, o en los lazos militares con Brasil.

Los funcionarios estadounidenses tratarán de relacionarse con algunas instituciones aunque se mantengan al margen de los líderes políticos. En Brasil, El Salvador y Guatemala, por ejemplo, el Comando Sur de EE.UU. continúa con un programa intenso de compromisos militares incluso cuando las relaciones con los presidentes Bolsonaro, Bukele y Giammattei son distantes. Es fácil imaginar un escenario en el que la relación entre militares, en vez de entre civiles, se convierta en la interacción más estrecha del gobierno estadounidense con Colombia.

El próximo reto inmediato para la política estadounidense -y para la diplomacia internacional en general- se producirá el 19 de junio. Si, como parece probable, los candidatos están a pocos puntos porcentuales de distancia entre sí, la posibilidad es alta de que uno de ellos clame “fraude” y rechace el resultado. Si Hernández rechaza el resultado, podría contar con el apoyo de poderosos intereses empresariales y jefes políticos, y quizás incluso de facciones de las fuerzas de seguridad. Si Petro lo rechaza, las protestas callejeras podrían paralizar el país, y quizás volver a encontrarse con una respuesta policial violenta.

Si esto ocurre, el gobierno de Estados Unidos, junto con la OEA y todos los amigos de Colombia, deben trabajar para desactivar la violencia y canalizar las tensiones hacia el diálogo. Eso significa basar todas las declaraciones públicas en hechos establecidos, no en resultados deseados. Significa condenar el comportamiento que viola los derechos humanos, algo que la administración Biden tardó en hacer durante las protestas nacionales de 2021.

Como demuestra la elección de dos candidatos ajenos a la sociedad, los colombianos están con los ánimos crispados en este momento. El objetivo diplomático debe ser amplificar lo que es cierto y buscar desescalar rápidamente. Sólo entonces podremos pasar a preocuparnos por la política y el populismo.

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

Here’s highlights of a discussion Gimena Sánchez and I had with Héctor Silva at WOLA the other day.

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

“They convinced a number of Republican legislators that transparency equalled leftism”

Here’s some synchronicity. Both of these screenshots about Guatemala are from items published April 29.

  • On the left: a must-read article about Guatemala’s exiled anti-corruption investigators, by Jonathan Blitzer in the New Yorker.
  • On the right: a statement published by Republican Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Mike Lee (Utah), inadvertently emphasizing the point Blitzer’s source was making.

Southern Command’s “digital magazine” just stigmatized one of Colombia’s youth protest movements

U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.

Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.

To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.

The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.

Hold. Up.

The “Primera Línea” (“First Line”) is the name used by the groups of mostly poor young people who took to the frontlines in Cali’s “Paro Nacional” protests a year ago. They organized in response to the Cali police force’s initial, brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some of them were violent, but most were practicing civil disobedience. They engaged in constructive dialogues with Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina. And many were wounded or killed by police.

The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.

This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding up Primera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.

Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.

And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.

This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.

Video: “New Militarism in Latin America?”

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

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

Colombia analysis at “Responsible Statecraft”

The Quincy Institute posted an analysis by me about Colombia’s election campaign and its implications for U.S. policy. It went up last Friday on their very good Responsible Statecraft site.

Head-to-head second-round scenario polling shows a razor-thin margin between the two leading candidates, who represent dramatically different visions of government. Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former Medellín mayor, offers continuity with Duque’s conservative politics, which the Biden administration might find reassuring. It would, however, mean continuity with a model of which most Colombians appear to disapprove after four years of worsening violence and economic insecurity.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, offers radical change that could consolidate a 2016 peace accord and implement reforms to address one of the world’s worst records of income and land inequality. Petro leads in first-round polling by a comfortable margin. However, he carries a strong whiff of populism and appears open to cooperation with China and Russia, which worries the United States. U.S. diplomats have sounded alarms about Russian interference in Colombia’s campaign, mostly via social media, and they could only be referring to Petro.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: Is Mexico Prepared to be a Country of Refuge?

I MC’d a conversation between four very smart colleagues this afternoon, who helped make sense of a remarkable, and remarkably difficult, moment for migrants in Mexico. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Mexico had always been considered a source of migrants, or a country through which other countries’ citizens transited. Not anymore: so far in 2021, more than 120,000 migrants have applied for asylum or other protection in Mexico. And now, the U.S. government’s restart of the “Remain in Mexico” program means Mexico will be hosting even more people who’ve fled their countries.

Mexico’s transition to being a country of refuge has not been smooth. Its refugee agency, COMAR, is overwhelmed. The emphasis continues to be on deterrence and detention, in what has been a record-breaking year for Mexico’s migrant detentions. Mexico’s government has begun employing the military in a migration enforcement role, with serious human rights consequences. And U.S. pressure to curtail migrant flows continues to be intense.

We discuss Mexico’s difficult transition to being a country of refuge with a four-person panel of experts:

  • Gretchen Kuhner is the founder and director of the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMITwitter/Facebook), a civil society research, advocacy, and legal aid organization.
  • Daniel Berlin is the deputy director of Asylum Access Mexico (Twitter/Facebook), the largest refugee legal aid organization in Mexico, with offices in 7 parts of the country.
  • Maureen Meyer is WOLA’s vice president for programs. (Twitter)
  • Stephanie Brewer is WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights. (Twitter)

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

This article appears today at the Colombian analysis site Razón Pública as “¿Qué implica que las FARC ya no estén en la lista de terroristas de Estados Unidos? I last covered this issue on this site in March 2020.


The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

At least in the 20 years since “Plan Colombia,” it’s been rare to see the U.S. and Colombian governments disagree in public about something. Even during the worst days of police abuses during the Paro Nacional protests earlier this year, Washington’s expressions of concern were remarkably mild.

That’s why it was surprising to hear President Iván Duque express disagreement with a step that the Biden administration took to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. “We understand and respect this information from the United States, but we would have preferred a different decision,” he said on November 29, the day before the State Department removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The removal of the FARC, or rather the ex-FARC, should be uncontroversial. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the U.S. list doesn’t exist, and hasn’t since August 2017. Of its 13,600 members who underwent demobilization, more than 90 percent haven’t carried out an act of organized violence in more than five years. They are playing by the rules and integrating themselves into civilian life.

A few continue to engage in violence against civilians. These are mainly members of Colombia’s two main ex-FARC dissident networks, the one headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the one known as “Nueva Marquetalia,” which either refused to demobilize in 2016 or abandoned the process later. Most of these groups’ members are new recruits with no guerrilla background; many weren’t even adolescents yet when the peace accord was signed. The Biden administration added these groups to the State Department’s list, in the FARC’s place.

The step taken on November 30, then, was less a “removal” of the FARC than an updating of the terrorist list to reflect reality.

As the list was being interpreted, “Gentil Duarte” and “El Paisa” were in the same category as former fighters now raising children and going to schools, starting their own businesses, or participating in competitive rafting teams. That was absurd.

But that was the reality. Under the “material support for terrorism” provisions in U.S. law, as they were being interpreted, it has been a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any demobilized FARC members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

The U.S. government was interpreting this very strictly. It has literally been illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less include them in development meetings or—as in the case of Humanicemos, a group of ex-FARC deminers who were unable to get any U.S. aid—to instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have eaten a snack provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The delay in removing the FARC not only undermined U.S. programming, though. It made the U.S. government look out of date, unaware that the FARC on the list didn’t exist anymore. It even made the U.S. government appear actively hostile to the entire peace process, echoing the notion—expressed this year by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum and Defense Minister Diego Molano—that the Comunes party and the dissident groups (which, in fact, often target Comunes members) are somehow linked. Either way, the message Washington sent by keeping the FARC on the list was toxic.

It is great news that this step has finally been taken. But the Biden administration certainly could have rolled it out better. News of the impending decision leaked to the Wall Street Journal very early, on November 23, perhaps from an individual who opposed removing the FARC from the terrorist list. The explanation, with fuller context, did not come from the State Department and White House for days afterward, in part because November 25 was a major national holiday in the United States.

As a result, the initial reaction from many colleagues and journalists in Colombia was confused. Those of us who work on Colombia policy here in Washington got a lot of questions. Here are answers to a few of them.

Why did it take so long to take the FARC off the list, especially if it was causing so many problems for U.S. programming? There is no great answer to this, other than that while it is easy to add a group to the State Department’s list—all you need is a few attacks on civilian targets—it is hard to remove it. Revocation of a “terrorist” status requires a deliberative process within the State Department in which all interested actors have to reach consensus. The AUC formally demobilized in 2006 but remained on the list until 2014. Peru’s MRTA barely existed after the 1997 Japanese embassy fiasco, but was on the list until 2001. The Washington Post reported that each group’s terrorist designation usually gets reviewed every five years, and that the FARC had last been considered in April 2015. A fresh review of the FARC didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Does this mean FARC leaders are no longer wanted by U.S. justice? Nothing changes about extradition requests for FARC members. They are wanted in U.S. courts either for sending cocaine to the United States or for kidnapping or killing U.S. citizens. These are specific crimes, not the vague charge of “terrorism.” Those processes continue, so former FARC leaders wanted by U.S. justice still face risks if they travel internationally. Because he was arrested in Ecuador in 2004 while apparently serving as an intermediary for talks about three U.S. citizen defense contractors whom the FARC was holding at the time, Simón Trinidad remains imprisoned in the state of Colorado for his role in that specific case.

Is this an insult to the FARC’s victims? Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Party state senator in Florida, emigrated from Colombia when she was 17, after the FARC kidnapped her father. “For me and many of us, this is painful and very personal,” she tweeted. The FARC upended the lives of thousands of Colombians; many of them, and their loved ones, are no doubt outraged to see any sign of conciliation like a U.S. recognition that those leaders are no longer behaving as terrorists. The fact, though, is that the top non-dissident ex-FARC leadership appears truly to have renounced terrorism. They remain guilty of many things, and must answer to their victims and the transitional justice process. But the “terrorist” label no longer sticks.

What about Sen. Marco Rubio’s complaint that any U.S. money that benefits ex-FARC members should go through the Colombian government? The Colombian government “doesn’t want the delisting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida), who is close to Uribismo, told U.S. radio. “What they wanted was, to the extent that you’re going to provide assistance to these people who abandoned the guerrilla fight, laid down their weapons, become politically engaged, we want you to run that assistance through the democratically elected government of Colombia, not unilaterally.” This argument is confusing. Most US assistance with ex-combatants’ participation—reincorporation, rural development, demining—would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of Colombian government agencies. U.S. aid almost never goes to such agencies directly as cash payments.

Why is Cuba still on the list of state sponsors? Before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration re-added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The main reason cited was Cuba’s refusal to extradite ELN leaders who had been in the country for peace talks with the Colombian government, a move that would have violated those talks’ protocols. That the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps to remove Cuba, even as it removes the FARC, probably owes more to the politics around U.S.-Cuban relations. It would be very difficult to take Cuba off of the list—or perform any other act of engagement—in the weeks after Cuba’s government aggressively suppressed a citizen protest movement.

Why was the announcement rolled out this way? When we heard that the FARC were being taken off, why didn’t we know right away that the dissident groups would be added? There is no great answer to that. The impending decision was leaked, possibly by a hostile party. But for days, the Biden administration offered no new context, so many actors were left think that all of the FARC was being taken off of the list, and even that FARC leaders were no longer wanted by U.S. justice.

The rollout of this news was not graceful. In today’s climate, when a lie travels around the world before the truth can even get its running shoes on, that does damage. Still, there is only so much that the Biden administration could have done. Many sectors of our societies will always be determined to believe what they want, regardless of the facts we present to them.

There is a communications lesson here, though—one that recalls the plebiscite debacle of 2016. It is crucial to get out ahead of a story as much as possible, so that when it breaks, the response can be nimble, and people who are open to the truth—the majority of people, still—can get the context quickly.

Big new report—A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.

I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.

I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.

I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.

Read it here. Here’s a super-brief summary:

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

The United States’ Influence on Latin America’s New Militarism

At WOLA’s website, find the English version of an article I wrote for Spain’s Fundación Carolina, which published it on November 16, 2021 as Análisis Carolina no. 28: “Estados Unidos y su influencia en el nuevo militarismo latinoamericano” (https://doi.org/10.33960/AC_28.2021).

Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s website. O lea el español en el sitio de la Fundación Carolina.

Book chapter on U.S. policy and Latin American civil-military relations

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) just published a new book (free PDF in Spanish) about the current state of civil-military relations in Latin America. It’s edited by a longtime expert in the field, Wolf Grabendorff, and has a who’s-who of experts writing about how the civil-military balance has been shifting in the countries they cover.

I’m pleased to have contributed a region-wide chapter discussing how recent U.S. policy has impacted civil-military relations.

I find that, in fact, U.S. influence has been reduced: military aid is down, the Obama administration actually took steps to minimize harm, and the Trump administration left most things on autopilot for four years. Still, some U.S. agencies have continued to send inappropriate messages, and the United States remains by far the largest supplier of security assistance to the hemisphere.

I drafted the chapter in August-September 2020, when we didn’t know who would be elected president here. Despite that detail, the chapter holds up: it’s not like U.S. security policy toward the region has changed that drastically since January.

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.