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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Venezuela

Mexico’s suspicious aircraft detections point to Venezuela

This is from the Mexican Presidency’s latest security report (October 20, page 61). It looks like Zulia, Venezuela has been the main jumping-off point for aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs toward Mexico.

Venezuela meanwhile claims to have destroyed 37 suspect aircraft so far this year:

Darién Gap: 1,606 migrants per day

Panama just posted data about migration through the treacherous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungles that straddle eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. Once regarded as an impenetrable barrier, this region of old-growth jungle is becoming a superhighway.

The data are mind-boggling. 1,606 migrants per day walked through the Darién in September. 1,280 were citizens of Venezuela, who have begun migrating in large numbers to the United States.

The chart below shows migration through the Darién Gap over the past 13 years. 2021’s record number of Haitian migrants, which seemed unthinkable at the time, has been surpassed by the exodus of 107,692 Venezuelans in 9 months. (Only 219 Venezuelans walked the Darién in all 11 years from 2010 to 2020.)

6.8 million Venezuelans (out of about 30 million) have left their country since the mid-2010s. Many of those coming through the Darién have already lived for years elsewhere in South America, and they’re giving up on trying to survive there.

There is potential for this exodus of Venezuelan migrants to multiply still further in the Darién. This has quickly become the number-one displacement and migration challenge in the hemisphere.

Venezuelan migration through Panama’s Darién gap

23,000 Venezuelan migrants arriving in a month at the US-Mexico border would be big news: it only happened once before, last December.

But in August, 23,632 migrants from Venezuela (green on the below chart) walked through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungle.

8 months into 2022, Panama has exceeded 100,000 migrants through the Darién Gap, and seems certain to break its annual record. That number (133,726) seemed unimaginable last year when tens of thousands of Haitian people (blue on the below chart) came up from South America.

737 migrants per day in the Darién Gap last month

Panama’s government published data on the number of people whom its migration authorities registered coming through the dangerous Darién Gap migration route, in the country’s far east along the Colombia border.

The 22,582 migrants who came through the Darién in July (737 per day) were the fourth-largest monthly total that Panama has ever measured. The top three were in August-October 2021, when a large number of Haitian migrants took this very dangerous route.

This year, migration of Haitian citizens is reduced, but a stunning number of Venezuelans are now passing through the Darién. Three-quarters of July’s migrants in this region (16,864, or 544 per day) came from Venezuela.

In January, at strong U.S. suggestion, Mexico established a visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens arriving in the country, which sharply reduced the number of Venezuelans arriving by air, many of whom were traveling to the U.S. border to seek asylum. U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelans fell in February, but is now recovering as migrants take the far more dangerous land route.

In the first 7 months of 2021, Panama registered 45,029 migrants in the Darién. The total for the first 7 months of 2022 is 71,012.

Big increase in Venezuelans coming through Panama’s Darién Gap

The Panamanian Migration Service’s latest data show a 145 percent increase, from April to May, in migrants coming through the dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungles. 13,894 people took this several-day walk in May, risking drowning, disease, and assault, theft, and rape from criminal groups that operate with total impunity.

That’s not a record—more migrants passed through the Darién in July-October of last year, a period when Haitians who had been living in South America massively migrated toward the United States.

This year, most migrants are Venezuelan: 71 percent in May, and 51 percent in January-May. Venezuelan migration through the Darién was 43 percent greater in May than in the first four months of the year combined. Migration of Colombian and Ecuadorian citizens in May was also nearly double the January-April total.

Until recently, Venezuelans seeking to migrate toward the United States would mostly arrive by air to Mexico, which did not require visas of visiting Venezuelan tourists. That route got shut down on January 21 when Mexico, at very strong U.S. suggestion, began imposing visa requirements for visiting Venezuelans.

Venezuelans are now taking to the treacherous land route. Once they make it through Panama, most are ending up in the Mexican southern-border zone city of Tapachula, where they are stranded. Venezuelans made up most of the attempted migrant “caravan” that left Tapachula a week ago. That caravan made headlines but is now mostly dispersed, as Mexican migration authorities have been providing visas allowing migrants to leave Tapachula.

The Cheetos are one of many perplexing details about yesterday’s Venezuelan military captive release

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the eight Venezuelan soldiers who got released on May 31, after 38 days as captives of an ex-FARC dissident group. The “10th Front” dissident group captured them during combat on April 23 near the Colombian border, in Venezuela’s Apure state. There, fighting between Venezuelan forces and the 10th Front, which broke out on March 21, has displaced about 7,000 Venezuelan residents.

What we don’t know, besides whether a bag of Cheetos is really a great way to welcome someone back to freedom, is laid out in a good overview by Sofía Nederr at Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

  • Do three soldiers remain in captivity, as the director of Venezuela’s FundaRedes, Javier Tarazona, claims? (Tarazona gets a lot right, but he also claims that the ex-FARC leaders who are committed to the peace process, like Rodrigo Londoño, are aiding the dissidents, and there’s no proof of that at all.)
  • FundaRedes says that on May 30, there may have been a “truce” during which Venezuelan forces pulled out of territory in order to make possible the captives’ release, possibly to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • Tarazona says the dissidents—or some Colombian armed groups, anyway—maintain five “safe houses” in four Venezuelan states.
  • Tarazona claims the Venezuelan armed forces’ leadership has ordered the ex-captives not to talk about what happened or how they were freed.
  • It’s still not clear why Venezuelan forces are fighting the 10th Front dissidents, and leaving unmolested Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” dissident group, which both operate in Apure.

The FARC dissidents, whose leadership has years of experience as guerrillas (though much of the membership is probably new recruits), has hit the Venezuelan military hard, killing at least 16 of them.

ICE’s Removals of Cubans and Venezuelans Have Spiked Under Trump

This week DHS released its latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, offering data through 2019. It includes a table (Table 41, use the Excel version to get all years) of how many citizens ICE sent back to each country.

Look what happened to removals of Cubans and Venezuelans since Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant administration took office in 2017. Note that this doesn’t count Venezuelans whom the administration, we’ve now learned, has been stealthily sending back to Caracas via third countries.

Recall that despite this, fuzzy initial data show Trump beating Joe Biden among Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American early voters in Miami-Dade, Florida, where much of this community lives.

Why? Because in a dirty social-media-heavy campaign reminiscent of Colombia’s 2016 peace plebiscite, the Trump campaign and its surrogates have successfully implanted the idea that Joe Biden is a communist who would support the regimes that they fled. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten away with this while spiking deportations back to those same regimes.

2 videos in which I talk about U.S. troops in Colombia

Earlier today I joined Colombian Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino on Ariel Ávila’s El Poder program, on the YouTube channel of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. The subject was the recently announced deployment of a contingent of U.S. military trainers.

Later, I joined Daniel García Pena and Laura Gil for a discussion of the same subject hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz.

I cringe watching myself speak Spanish, but the subject matter is important. And my high-def webcam has turned out to be a good pre-quarantine investment.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

It’s great to have two Venezuela experts on staff to explain what’s happening there. With great nuance, rare clarity, and zero shouting.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. The text from the WOLA landing page is below.

This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)

This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.

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

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

At wola.org: Putting U.S. Counterdrug Operations in the Caribbean in Context

Hours after Wednesday’s White House announcement of a big military deployment to Latin America, ostensibly to stop drugs, I got together (virtually) with Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde from WOLA’s Venezuela program. We came up with a list of questions, then started typing what we know, and what we need to know, into a Google Doc.

The result is a memo where we come up with some fact-filled, and pretty skeptical, answers to the following questions. Read the memo here. It’s a good read, I promise.

  • Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”
  • Is this tied to the coronavirus outbreak?
  • Is this deployment linked to Venezuela’s crisis?
  • How important is Venezuela to the transnational drug trade?
  • How have other countries reacted to the news of the U.S. deployment?
  • How is geopolitics involved?
  • Is the U.S. government preparing for an invasion like in Panama 1989?
  • What are the risks associated with this policy?

WOLA Podcast: “I Wish I Did More Positive Reporting About Colombia Because I Love the Place”

I got a kick out of recording this one with John Otis, from his home outside Bogotá. Since 1997, John has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).

Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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.

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.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela: New Year, New Political Tumult

For Venezuela, 2020 began with new political turmoil, as the Maduro government maneuvered to take over the presidency of the opposition-majority National Assembly.

Will this backfire for Maduro? Can the opposition maintain unity? Are negotiations toward new elections feasible? Is the U.S. government sending a coherent message? What about other international actors, like the EU and Russia? Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, explains this moment and potential solutions.

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