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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At the New York Times: Colombia Is in Turmoil. Biden Must Push It Toward Dialogue.

Like many of you, I’m saddened and worried to see what Colombia is going through: only four years ago, the FARC were laying down their weapons and it felt much more like a time of possibility. The present crisis offers renewed possibility through real dialogue. The U.S. government can help by isolating some very powerful people in the country who oppose that, especially in the governing party. Read my just-published column at nytimes.com.

WOLA Podcast: The Complexity of Engaging with Central America

The birds in my backyard and I recorded a podcast with two WOLA colleagues who are longtime experts on Central America, just as the Biden administration goes into overdrive on a big new policy push to address the reasons why so many people migrate from the region. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page.

Top Biden administration officials, including Vice President Harris, are developing a new approach to Central America. The theme is familiar: addressing migration’s “root causes.” Violence and corruption, as well as relatively new factors such as climate change, have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes seeking a better life.

This week’s podcast focuses both on the factors displacing people as well as what the U.S. government’s plans to address the displacement. Our President, Geoff Thale, as well as our director for Citizen Security, Adriana Beltran, talk with Adam Isacson about the Biden administration’s short and long-term plans for the region, what can be done to implement an effective anti-corruption strategy, how to protect marginalized groups/human rights defenders, and the political considerations that come with legislating on an issue that will certainly last beyond Biden’s time in office.

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

25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org)

(Leer en español)

Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.

March 26, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Biden,

We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.  It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.

Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.

Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.

Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.

Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.

They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste. 

These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:

  • Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
  • Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
  • After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
  • Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
  • Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
  • Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
  • Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.

In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.

This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do. 

Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.

This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.

It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.

Sincerely,

  • Amazon Watch
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
  • Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
  • Colombia Human Rights Committee
  • Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
  • Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
  • Healing Bridges
  • ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
  • Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
  • Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Latin America Working Group
  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
  • Missionary Oblates
  • Oxfam America
  • Oxfam Colombia
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
  • Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
  • United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
  • Washington Office on Latin America
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

At wola.org: Putting the U.S.-Mexico ‘Border Crisis’ Narrative into Context

What’s happening at the border right now is concerning: there are bottlenecks in caring for unaccompanied minors. But it’s not a crisis. If anything, the crisis is in the large number of people who continue to be expelled, within hours, without a hearing.

Four of us at WOLA just published an explainer that I think is pretty good. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the whole thing, it’s got a lot of good graphics in it.

It may seem ironic, but even as it carried out the cruelest anti-migration policies in decades, the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s. 

This continued through Donald Trump’s last months in office, which saw migration rise sharply even as stringent pandemic measures made the pursuit of asylum impossible. This shows the futility of declaring war on asylum, and the inevitability of large migration flows at a time of overlapping security, economic, political, public health, and climate crises.

The jump in migration of Trump’s final months continued accelerating during Joe Biden’s first two months in office. This is happening even as Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps in place “Title 42,” a probably illegal Trump-era pandemic provision that expels most migrants within hours, regardless of their protection needs.

Is there a “crisis” of people attempting to cross the border? 

The increased numbers of people crossing the border right now is something that border experts have predicted for some time now. The roots of what is happening are in the Trump administration policies that caused massive numbers of people to be stuck on the Mexican side of the border—policies like “Remain in Mexico” (which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico border cities) and “metering,” a practice under which U.S. border authorities place severe limits on who is allowed to approach ports of entry and ask for asylum, in violation of U.S. and international law. 

The increased border crossings was predictable, not because of Biden administration policies like winding down “Remain with Mexico,” but because of the dangers put in place by Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence.

Of the 114 months since October 2011 for which WOLA has detailed monthly data, February 2021 saw the third-most Border Patrol encounters with migrants. (The actual number of people was probably much lower since, as noted below, many migrants expelled under Title 42 attempt to re-enter shortly afterward.)

While third-most sounds like a lot, the impact on border authorities’ workload is minimal because Title 42 persists. Of the 96,974 migrants whom Border Patrol “encountered” in February, it quickly expelled 72 percent—down only slightly from the end of the Trump administration, which expelled 85 percent in December and 83 percent in January. The remainder whom Border Patrol actually had to process last month—26,791 migrants—was the 77th most out of the past 114 months. Being in 77th place hardly constitutes a crisis.

There is a serious capacity issue right now, though, for one especially vulnerable category of migrant: children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. 

There’s more — read on at wola.org.

Video of this morning’s Colombia coca event

Many thanks to our longtime friends and colleagues at the International Crisis group for joining us at this event. Though the topic is complex and often frustrating to teach, everybody explained well what they’ve been learning in the field, and the points that they wanted to get across. The moderation, interpretation, and technical aspects were all spot-on. We had well over 150 live viewers—I was glad to see the number not dropping as we passed the one-hour mark—and at least 200 more since then.

And don’t miss the February 26 ICG report on coca in Colombia, “Deeply Rooted,” on which this discussion centers.

WPR Podcast: Biden Confronts Trump’s Disastrous Legacy on Immigration

I joined World Politics Review’s Elliot Waldman on Monday (February 8) to talk about the Biden administration’s plans for undoing the damage that the Trump administration did to the border and to the U.S. asylum system. The challenges are complicated, the situation in Central America is dire, migration is increasing—but it is absolutely imperative that the promise of last week’s executive orders be fulfilled.

We talk about all of that here. Many thanks to Elliot and World Politics Review for having me on the show, and for turning it around so quickly—this is a fast-moving story right now.

Note to self for future recordings: don’t have a big glass of orange juice just before recording. I sound a bit froggy at times here, and was muting myself to clear my throat when Elliot asked me questions. That was dumb.

Mexico: Moving On from Military Cooperation

Here’s a quick analysis of where things stand with U.S. aid to Mexico’s military and police, which I wrote with WOLA’s Mexico director, Stephanie Brewer. The Mexico Violence Resource Project, a new initiative affiliated with the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, published it today as part of a really good collection of pieces about the future of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. (Which is going through a rough patch right now.)

Here’s an excerpt, but I just include it here in order to drive traffic over there.

Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.

* The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can pay for military and police aid as well as judicial or other civilian aid, is channeling $100 million in appropriations into Mexico aid in 2021. About one-third to one-half of that is likely to assist Mexican police forces and the INM, with a small amount probably benefiting military units. (Mexico’s new National Guard has not been getting U.S. aid, though conversations are ongoing.)

* The other main account is the Defense Department’s authority to train and equip foreign security forces, known as “Section 333.” This very untransparent funding source provided $55.3 million in aid to Mexican military and police units in 2019,according to the Congressional Research Service. This is the main channel for assisting SEMAR and SEDENA.

$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.

Nonetheless, despite all the distrust, there will always be a bilateral security relationship between countries that share a 1,970-mile land border that’s the world’s most frequently crossed. Mexico is the United States’ number-two trading partner. Most undocumented migrants, and most of the illicit drugs on which more than 70,000 Americans per year overdose, pass through Mexico’s territory. The two countries are going to work together no matter what.

The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation.

Read the whole article.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

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 Transition”: a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

In the weeks after the U.S. election was called for Joe Biden, I asked my colleagues at WOLA to join me for a series of podcasts. Following the four topics of a series of panels that WOLA hosted over the summer, we looked at some of the main challenges the new administration is sure to face—and how it might break with history and handle them differently this time.

I’m really glad I did these, and that eight of my co-workers took the time to join me. Though I’m still learning about audio quality (these are perfectly listenable but you can see why NPR spends so much on fancy studios), I’m delighted that we now have more than two and a half hours of high-quality analysis from people who are really paying attention to what’s going on. These four .mp3 files form an amazing snapshot of U.S.-Latin America relations on the threshold between two very different U.S. presidencies.

Each of the podcast player widgets below has a little download button (the down-arrow) so you can save the .mp3s. You can always find all of WOLA’s podcasts, going back to 2011, here. Or subscribe using your podcast player, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen to podcasts. The main feed is here.


November 16: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tonewith WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristen Martinez-Gugerli.

Even as the Biden administration adopts a changed tone in its relations with the region, there may be some surprising continuities from the Trump years. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.


November 23: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migrationwith Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer.

Trump’s hardline on migration policy is giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.


December 1: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fightwith Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.


December 11: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Spacewith WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Space

Here’s a great episode closing out a four-part cycle in which we look at what confronts U.S. policy toward Latin America during this sharp break of a presidential transition. Thanks to Geoff Thale and Geoff Ramsey for joining me here.

I’m also happy that I finally figured out the “reduce noise” filter on the Audacity sound editing app. Makes a difference.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

This is part four of a four-part podcast miniseries looking at key issues facing U.S. policy toward Latin America, as Washington transitions from the Trump era to the Biden administration.

This episode focuses on the state of democracy and civic space in the region. For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

Host Adam Isacson talks about this with WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

Hear Geoff Ramsey’s and the Venezuela program’s new Venezuela Briefing podcast. And here, view the video of President Trump meeting with regional leaders that Ramsey mentions in this episode’s discussion.

Earlier episodes of this “transition” podcast series covered U.S. credibility (November 16), migration (November 23), and corruption (December 1).

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

Video of yesterday’s discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia

That was a great discussion yesterday. As you could see if you “attended,” our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.

I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.

We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

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

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migration

Here’s a second WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, Maureen Meyer and I talk about a huge topic: migration. In particular, how to adapt to the “new normal” and respond humanely.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

Nowhere is this shift likely to be as sharp as on migration policy, with Trump’s hardline giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.

Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer have collaborated for nine years on WOLA’s border security and migration efforts. Here, they take stock of the region’s “new normal” of heavy migration flows, and the administrative and policy shifts that the Biden administration—and governments and international organizations regionwide—must undergo in order to adapt.

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. In coming weeks we plan to cover anti-corruption, then the state of human rights and democracy.

A few important border graphics

Late Thursday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a pile of data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border in October.

Here are some key trends. Click on any graphic to expand in a new window. You can download a PDF packet of more than 30 of these infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The Trump administration has been around for 46 months (yes I know). Of those 46, October 2020 saw the 7th largest number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. And now they can’t blame it on “loopholes” or agents being constrained. They’re implementing some of the hardest-line anti-migration tactics ever, express-expelling most everybody, including asylum seekers, under a March 2020 CDC quarantine order.
Under the CDC border closure, US authorities have now express-expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times. (The actual number of individual people is fewer, because some have been caught more than once.) At least 13,000 of those expelled were children who arrived unaccompanied, and were pushed back to their home countries unaccompanied.
Border Patrol is apprehending more single adults than at any time in the past decade. While there’s double-counting here because “expelled” migrants often make a second or third attempt quickly, this is a dramatic change in the profile of migrants. Many of them may be deportees seeking to reunite with spouses, children, or other family members. Nearly all seek to avoid apprehension, which means it’s likely that more will die of dehydration or exposure in deserts and other wilderness areas.
For much of the 2010s, a large number—often a majority—of apprehended migrants were children and families, usually seeking to be apprehended in order to petition for asylum or other protection. Draconian Trump policies like “Remain in Mexico” reduced child and family asylum-seeking migration—but it has been slowly recovering in recent months.
Expulsions mean it’s virtually impossible for a parent or child who needs protection to do so by approaching a port of entry (official border crossing).
Mexico’s migrant apprehensions recovered in September to pre-pandemic levels. The overwhelming majority are from Central America.
After a pandemic lull, applications for asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR recovered to early 2020 levels in October.
Something is up with drug seizures. I had to increase the y-axis on three of these charts because of a big jump from September to October. Nearly all seizures occurred at ports of entry where CBP officers inspect vehicles, not between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

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