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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U.S. Policy

WOLA Podcast: “There are 15,000 people waiting without access to asylum”

Savitri Arvey of the University of California at San Diego’s U.S.-Mexico Center has co-written a series of reports documenting U.S. authorities’ two-year-old practice of “metering” asylum seekers along the Mexico border, forcing them in precarious conditions in dangerous Mexican border towns for weeks or months at a time.

The quarterly reports that Arvey and colleagues at the University of Texas’s Strauss Center produce are an essential source for understanding the number of people waiting, the number whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection allow to cross and petition for asylum, who is running the “waiting lists” on the Mexican side of the border, and what risks asylum-seeking families face wile they wait.

With the current COVID-19 border closure, Arvey says, U.S. authorities aren’t letting anybody cross to ask for asylum, which is a violation of the United States’ international law commitments, and probably of U.S. law.

Listen above, or download the mp3 here.

WOLA Podcast: “Beyond the ‘Narco-State’ Narrative”

I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.

In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file here.

“Guerrilla Marketing” in Colombia

Here, at the WOLA Podcast, is a conversation with Alex Fattal, whose 2018 book “Guerrilla Marketing” tells the story of the Colombian military’s employment of advertising campaigns to convince guerrillas to demobilize during the country’s armed conflict. His work explores the overlap between national security, global capitalism, and “branding.”

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 here.

An outdated interpretation of counter-terror law has painted U.S. Colombia programming into a corner. The way out is simple.

The Humanicemos website uses a lot of the same mission language as U.S. government documents. But U.S. officials can’t even buy its members a cup of coffee.

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org. Español)

Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.

This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.

In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.

But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.

“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.

At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.

The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).

This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff 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 had a sandwich or drink 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 FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity. 

“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.

But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.

If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.

That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:

  • The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
  • Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
  • Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
  • Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.

The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.

Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.

Why fumigation isn’t the solution, in 2 minutes

In response to the White House’s announcement yesterday that Colombian coca cultivation crept upward in 2019, I worked with WOLA colleagues to put out a good press release.

I wanted to do a bit more, and it seemed like a good moment to try something new: a rapid-response “explainer” video.

So here’s a quick explanation of Colombia’s coca phenomenon, and what hasn’t been tried (like, say, implementing the peace accord).

It turns out that, at least the first time one attempts this, it takes 2 and a half hours, between scripting and at least a dozen takes, to produce something reasonably coherent that fits within Twitter’s 2 minute, 20 second time limit for videos.

1,500 views on Twitter in 2 hours is pretty cool though.

“Infographics” section added to colombiapeace.org

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

We’ve just added a page with nine visualizations of data regarding peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. We’ll update these, and add more, as we make them.

At the bottom of each are shortened links to the documents from which we drew the information. The current collection of infographics covers the demobilized FARC population, U.S. aid, registered victims, U.S. cocaine prices, coca cultivation and eradication, cocaine seizures, homicides, kidnappings, and forced displacement.

We hope you find these useful. Like everything produced by WOLA on this site, you’re free to use them with proper attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in February

  • The State Department’s 2021 foreign aid request to Congress, with much 2019 aid numbers.
    Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Fiscal Year 2021 (Washington: U.S. Department of State, February 11, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/fy-2021-international-affairs-budget/>.
  • The annual report to Congress from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the successor to the old U.S. Army School of the Americas).
    WHINSEC Fiscal Year 2019 Report (Fort Benning: Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, January 29, 2020) <PDF at https://fliphtml5.com/vdwkj/eyga/basic>.
  • Customs and Border Protection’s annual data dump of the previous year’s statistics on migrant apprehensions, staffing, migrant deaths, and a few other items.
    Fiscal Year 2019 Stats and Summaries (Washington: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, February 11, 2020) <Combined PDF file I assembled from documents at https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/media-resources/stats>.
  • The Defense Department’s explanation of how it will move $3.8 billion out of its budget to pay for border-wall building because Trump declared an “emergency” last year.
    Support for DHS Counter-Drug Activity Reprogramming Action (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense Comptroller, February 13, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/execution/reprogramming/fy2020/reprogramming_action/20-01_RA_Support_for_DHS_Counter_Drug_Activity.pdf>.
  • Customs and Border Protection’s 2021 budget request to Congress.
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/6_u.s._customs_and_border_protection.pdf>. See also the Acting Commissioner’s February 27 testimony to House appropriators.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 2021 budget request to Congress.
    U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/7_u.s._immigration_and_customs_enforcement.pdf>.
  • The Defense Department’s modestly useful, but mostly indecipherable, presentation of its overseas security assistance programs.
    Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 President’s Budget Justification for Security Cooperation Program and Activity Funding (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense, February 4, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2021/fy2021_Security_Cooperation_Book_FINAL.pdf>.
  • The White House’s vague, brief “Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy.”
    National Drug Control Strategy Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy 2020 (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-Southwest-Border-Counternarcotics-Strategy.pdf>.
  • The White House’s vague, brief “National Interdiction Command and Control Plan.”
    National Interdiction Command and Control Plan (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-National-Interdiction-Command-and-Control-Plan.pdf>.

Border walls, military aid, and more: the Defense Department’s all-purpose counter-drug budget

The Trump administration will be taking $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget this year to pay for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Very little of that money will get spent if he loses in November.) He’s been able to move some of that money into his wall—even though Congress never approved it—by declaring a “national emergency” and outlasting congressional efforts to disapprove that emergency (they need a two-thirds majority and only muster a simple majority).

Much of the Defense fund transfers, though, don’t even require an emergency declaration. The money can be moved under existing law. That’s what’s happening with the $3.8 billion that the Pentagon notified Congress this week would be moved from Defense into wall-building.

Here’s the notification PDF. The Trump administration is taking money out of the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft and weapons programs to pay for the wall, something that has even Republicans on the Armed Services Committee unhappy.

How can Trump do this? First, the Defense appropriations law allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year from one account to another. That’s Section 8005 of the annual appropriation. Here, he’s moving money from these weapons programs to the Pentagon’s counter-drug account. This vector was also used in 2019, applied to $2.5 billion in wall-building money. It shows up in yellow on this flowchart.

Second, now that it is “counter-drug” money, Trump can transfer it to the Homeland Security department to build a “counter-drug” wall. This is thanks to the nearly magical flexibility of the Defense Department’s counter-drug account, the product of a 1990 law. Let’s look at this law for a moment.

It was created at the height of the crack plague and the war on drugs. The George H.W. Bush administration and a Democratic-majority Congress had just made the U.S. military the “single lead agency” for interdicting cocaine overseas, and were clarifying what that meant. They agreed to give the Pentagon a bunch of new powers, including the ability to support U.S. law enforcement on U.S. soil if it was for the drug war. (The original law was Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It had to be renewed every few years. But the 2017 NDAA made the law permanent, as Section 284 of Title 10, U.S. Code.)

  • Ever since, a military component called Joint Task Force-North, operating from Fort Bliss outside El Paso, has been carrying out domestic support missions, mainly for CBP.
  • It gave the Defense Department the legal authority to spend its giant budget to build border barriers—as long as such barriers can be justified as “counter-drug.”
  • This same provision also allows the Defense Department to provide several types of counter-drug assistance to “foreign law enforcement agencies.” As a result, for the last 30 years, Latin American militaries and police forces have received billions of dollars in equipment upgrades, base facilities construction, training, and “intelligence analysis” services from the Defense Department.

This Defense Department’s counter-drug account—listed at the Security Assistance Monitor as “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance”—quickly became the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It was a big component of Plan Colombia and of the Mérida Initiative in Mexico.

The Special Forces teams that trained many thousands of Colombian troops at the outset of Plan Colombia? The maritime bases built along Honduras’s northern coast? The drone imagery shared with Mexican forces hunting for drug kingpins? The “Interagency Task Forces” operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, with the jeeps famously used to intimidate the CICIG? That’s been largely Defense money, not foreign aid budget money.

It flows independently of the State Department and foreign aid budget, with poor visibility over how it’s spent. We always have a very hard time learning how much Defense counter-drug money went as aid to which countries’ security forces in the previous year.

Now, that same legal provision is authorizing the building of border walls. Money gets taken from weapons systems, transferred to the counter-drug budget, then transferred to the Homeland Security Department budget to be used for wall-building. And there’s little Congress can do about it.

The process is under challenge in the courts. Last July, though, the Supreme Court allowed this “counter-drug” money to keep flowing while lower courts slowly deliberated.

Meanwhile, this move pits the military-industrial complex (all those fighter jets, Osprey aircraft, Humvees and other equipment being cut) against the border security-industrial complex (wall construction and related technology). These are mostly different contracting companies, bringing money and employment to different congressional districts. While I don’t have a dog in this fight at all, it’ll be interesting to watch the wrangling.

New at wola.org: The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia

Sometime this year, Colombia is likely to reverse 5 years of policy progress and restore a program that sprays herbicides, from aircraft, over many of the more than 119,500 rural households that live in areas so neglected and abandoned that people grow coca to earn a modest living.

This makes me sad and angry, because Colombia’s 2016 peace accord held so much promise of bringing government, for the the first time, into these forgotten territories that I’ve visited—and been moved by—on many visits to the country. Instead of governing, Iván Duque’s government will be sending contract pilots and police helicopter escorts to fly overhead, spraying the highly questioned chemical glyphosate, with the U.S. government footing much of the bill.

Here’s my latest writing about this, based on a contribution I added to documents submitted by Colombian organizations seeking to challenge the policy in the country’s judicial system. It points out that fumigation may bring short-term reductions in coca growing, but does nothing in the long term but bring high costs, environmental and health risks, a high likelihood of social unrest, and danger to the pilots and other personnel.

I wish they wouldn’t do this: there’s no substitute for governing your own territory and serving your own people.

Read “The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia” at WOLA’s website.

Current table of aid to Colombia

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

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

WOLA Podcast: What the State of the Union Means for Latin America

It’s great to have a new digital communications person on staff: podcasts are now starting to come out quickly, without me having to initiate and edit them. Yesterday, the morning after Trump’s State of the Union, Lizette Alvarez sat three of us down to talk about the president’s several mentions of issues we work on.

The podcast mp3 file is here. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s page:

Our team recorded a roundtable discussion at WOLA the morning after this year’s State of the Union, focused on what the president’s words and actions mean for human rights and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Adam Isacson (Director for Defense Oversight), Maureen Meyer (Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights), Geoff Ramsey (Director for Venezuela) and Marguerite Rose Jiménez (Director for Cuba) discuss the appearance of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president’s comments on Cuba, and the toxic business-as-usual attitude towards migrants and immigration policy.

32 years of coca cultivation estimates in the Andes

I just graphed this out for a talk I’m giving later today. It combines data from six U.S. government sources listed at the bottom of the graphic.

There’s no need to comment further, is there. The image tells its own story about the wisdom of relying so heavily on forced crop eradication.

Trump to Seize More Border Wall Money Through Brute Force

We learned in Monday evening’s Washington Post that our president plans to take another $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget and put it into the border wall that he couldn’t convince Congress to pay for. If he gets his way, more than three out of every four dollars in border-wall money will have gone without congressional approval.

This sort of rule by decree is what we’ve seen in Latin America when democracies start giving way to dictatorship.

A new commentary at WOLA’s website breaks down what’s happening: the amounts involved, the convoluted way Trump is wresting the money from defense and avoiding Congress’s constitutional checks, and the situation in the courts, where our only hope lies.

Here are two graphics I made for that piece.

Read the whole thing here.

At the Forum on the Arms Trade’s 2020 Annual Conference

A great conference today hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade at the Stimson Center, “Beyond the Headlines: Redefining Responsibility in the Arms Trade.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) gave great opening remarks, and then the panels were really timely and action-oriented.

I gave the overview of Latin America. I come on at around the 1 hour and 5 minute mark in this video.

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