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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Weekly Update

Weekly e-mail update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • The latest WOLA podcast, on Mexico;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • A piece about politicized security forces, which I wrote for a Brazilian think tank newsletter;
  • Video of a fun TV appearance with a Colombian panel on January 20;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • Latin America-related online events for this week;
  • And, finally, several funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • Two off-topic end-of-Trump-era posts—photos from downtown Washington right now and some comments on that “thin blue line” flag;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • A small number of Latin America-related online events for this week;
  • And, finally,
  • An extra helping of funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Weekly e-mail update: reason for optimism

Here’s a 600-word introduction I wrote to open my most recent e-mail newsletter. That edition also includes a collection of things I posted here over the past week—Colombia and Border updates, selected links—plus a collection of tweets that made me laugh.

Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

The last thing you want to read is another take on the horror that took place 1.5 miles from my house last Wednesday. I’ll make mine quick, and it may surprise you. I’m feeling optimistic.

All around the world, illiberal elected leaders—”authoritarian populists”—are dismantling democratic institutions and persuading millions to live in their alternate truth-free realities. Look around, and it’s hard to find an example of one of these leaders being defeated at the ballot box before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. (Ecuador? The Gambia? Sort of.) As checks and balances crumble and lies proliferate, nobody seems to know what to do. Neither street protests nor recall votes nor comprehensive fact-checking dislodge or even affect the popularity of the world’s Orbans, Dutertes, Modis, Maduros, Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros.

In the United States, though, we’re doing it. It’s working. Our authoritarian populist is out in nine days, maybe less. Congress reconvened amid smashed glass and after 3:00AM, despite Republican dead-enders’ cynical efforts, it confirmed the truth that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.

Getting rid of an authoritarian populist is really freaking hard. Here in America, we’re not doing it at all gracefully. It’s so ugly. Wednesday was as ugly as we’ve seen in our national politics in generations. But we’re doing it. It’s working.

Right now, the U.S. brand as “example of democracy for the world” is garbage. But if we can come back from this—if our battered institutions can peacefully break the authoritarians’ back and re-cage our historic demon, racism—then the United States will be an even stronger example than before. It will hold up a light for countries unable to break the spell of 21st century post-truth authoritarian populism.

We’re not out of the woods. The 2022 miderms and the 2024 presidential elections could go badly. There’s just a narrow window open for the majority of Americans who at least somewhat value truth and reason. By forcing everyone to stare consequences in the face, last Wednesday opened that window further. The outcome in Georgia on Tuesday—more reason for optimism!—opens it still further. But there’s a lot of work ahead in the next two to four years.

And as Wednesday made plain, a lot of that work involves our security forces. 

Our legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. Wednesday’s insurrection shows how important that norm is. There must be accountability for violating it.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Some Capitol Police were amazingly brave, and at least one paid the ultimate price. But others appeared to be sympathetic with the rioters. Their small numbers and lack of backup sent a strong message too. The force’s management—and especially the Trump appointees at DHS and DOD who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent. This is utterly inviable. It must never happen again.

Nearly everywhere in the world, security forces tend to be made up of conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader is a common challenge. If the United States is going to be a “democratic example” again, we need to show we’re up to that challenge. That means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies right away, starting with the highest levels of their chain of command.

Weekly email update: why updating all my contacts over break was less boring than it sounds

Here’s the text of my most recent e-mail newsletter. I don’t usually put the full text here, but this time the format is different, and shorter, because I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks. Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Happy new year! Let’s hope it truly is. This e-mail is a shorter, “coming back from vacation” edition.

I spent the past two weeks largely unplugged, though I couldn’t stop reading the news in Latin America and put dozens of articles in my database. I didn’t do anything, though, beyond read them. And also, a project that I’ll talk about in a minute.

I spent the break home with the immediate family, as we were all supposed to do. For the first time ever, due to the pandemic, we did not spend this period traveling around the northeastern United States visiting relatives. My wife, daughter, and I had never before been at home during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. While we missed our parents and other relatives, it was very peaceful, just this once, to stay off the highways and to sleep in our own beds.

While I tried to “reflect” more than work during the break, I did take on a big project that was a bit of both. Going back to the 1990s, I have always done a disastrous job of managing my contacts. Like you, probably, I get a steady stream of business cards, emails, whatsapps, and social media contacts. And over the years, layer upon layer, I’ve made a total mess of them.

It’s a privilege to get to know so many people, but—like you, probably—I never found a good way to keep their contact information organized and easy to find with minimal hassle. I captured some of it digitally, sometimes by hand and sometimes via automated apps that never really worked right. By mid-December, I had about 4,500 people’s names and at least some information about them stored on various accounts. Just a huge disorganized mass of address book cruft. Worse, a lot of people I’m in touch with the most weren’t even in there.

So—and I know this is boring, but in a few paragraphs I’ll talk about what I learned doing it—I set about cleaning up my digital address book, once and for all.

  • I threw together those 4,500 contacts in one app (I went with Apple’s iCloud).
  • About 1,000 were plainly incomplete or duplicates, so I deleted them or merged them together.
  • Then, I went over the remaining 3,500 or so one by one. Could I say where that person is now? (Sadly, a few dozen were no longer alive. Others had just fallen completely off my radar.) If I couldn’t, I deleted that contact, which was hard every time. If yes, I added all I could find to update them, from past emails, texts, whatsaapps, social media, and via Google.

This took about a minute per person—easily 50 hours over the past two weeks. It was weirdly addictive, though: I really wanted to know what had happened to everyone. So many stories! I had to stop and write notes to some. I started following many on Twitter. That actually improved the holiday a lot for me.

Everybody got tags (categories, like “colombia” or “press”). I added their Twitter account names. I added photos, if I could find them, because it was fun (and now my email inbox has lots of little portraits in it).

The upshot is: while I’ve still got a few hundred more people to add, I’m now just under 1,700 razor-sharp, up-to-date contacts.

As a result of all this, for instance, I can pull up a list of people I’ve tagged “colombia” and “academic” in just a few seconds, and find 94 people. I’ve never ever been able to do this before. Stupid, but true.

Doing this taught me a few things.

The mid-2000s were really a long time ago. Someone who was in their mid-20s when I entered their contact circa 2005 is now in their early 40s. Someone who was in their mid-50s in 2005 is now in their early 70s. Lots of professors in my list are now “emeritus.”

There’s a real career dichotomy between “transients” and “lifers.” Some people were really hard to update because they constantly switch jobs, every couple of years. Others were really easy: for some, not a single phone number had changed since the Bush administration. Almost everyone was one or the other: two very different career models, not much middle ground.

As someone who has worked in two organizations since 1995, I’m in the “lifer” category. I feel fortunate to work where I do—and there are so many books and knick-knacks in my office, it would take a few days and a van to move me out. I never understood the “transient” job-switchers, I guess because my goals, the changes I’m working for, require a slow, long march.

I don’t mean to say that “my way” is better: the chain of short tenures makes sense if your objectives are short-term, like running a campaign or something that ends with “mission accomplished.” You may also decide you’re on the wrong path—and hopefully you figured that out while you were still young. Too many switches in the same field, though, leaves an impression of restlessness.

Or it means that you work in a turbulent field. Reporters have it rough: as major media outlets have shrunk, my database lists a much higher proportion as freelancers than it did 15 or so years ago. The overall number of reporters remains large, though—maybe larger than back then. I still see only a handful of podcasters and SubStack-ers, but they’re growing too.

Meanwhile, the community of English-language journalists in Colombia is very strong. It’s strong at the U.S.-Mexico border, too, but I knew that before I started this project. Before getting my contacts organized, though, I had a misplaced sense that the number of reporters for English-language outlets in Colombia had shrunk from a “golden age” in the early 2000s when many flocked to the country for the onset of Plan Colombia—seen then, pre-9/11, as a “new U.S. war.”

I was wrong. There is a terrific and surprisingly large community of journalists reporting in English from, or on, Colombia right now. Here are the 31(!) in my database right now, with their Twitter handles if they have them. (This is still a hugely male list, as it would’ve been 20 years ago. Also, apologies if you’re a Colombia-based journalist not listed here. Either we haven’t been in touch in a while, or I don’t have your contact information.)

Dylan Baddour @DylanBaddour; Andrés Bermúdez Liévano @bermudezlievano; Matthew Bristow @mjbristow; Mike Ceaser; Steven Cohen @SD_Cohen; Joshua Collins @InvisiblesMuros; Joe Parkin Daniels @joeparkdan; Stephen Ferry; Ezra Fieser @ezrafieser; Juan Forero @WSJForero; Genevieve Glatsky @thegreatglatsky; Joshua Goodman @APjoshgoodman; Oliver Griffin @OliGGriffin; David Hill @DavidHillTweets; Megan Janetsky @meganjanetsky; Mark Kennedy @MarkKennedy721; Chris Kraul; Tom Laffay @tlaffay; Richard McColl @CasaAmarilla; Jeremy McDermott @jerrymcdermott; Oscar Medina @omedinacruz; Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota; Christina Noriega @c_mnoriega; John Otis @JohnOtis; Stefano Pozzebon @StePozzebon; Alessandro Rampietti @rampietti; Manuel Rueda @ruedareport; Luke Taylor @LukeStTaylor; Wesley Tomaselli @wesleytomaselli; Julie Turkewitz @julieturkewitz; and Kejal Vyas @kejalvyas.

Edit: I see I left off Gideon Long, the Financial Times‘ Colombia-based correspondent (@gideon_long). So make that 32 reporters.

That list leaves out many excellent reporters for Spanish-language outlets; they would’ve made it several times longer. My point is, thanks to my little vacation project, it took me less than 10 minutes to make it.

Here’s an added bonus: in order to see whom I might be missing, I queried my nearly six-year-old news database for the names of the reporters or authors whose work appears most frequently in it. Here’s whose bylines I’ve bookmarked most often.

I should make clear this isn’t a list of the “best” reporters; lots of big names are missing here, and some outlets omit bylines. It’s just those who most frequently wrote stories I saw and found relevant to “security in Latin America” during the entire six-year span between 2015 and 2020. For that, hats off to the heavily represented conflict reporters at Medellín’s El Colombiano, who’ve been cranking out near-daily dispatches for many years.

Redoing my contacts also convinced me to update my long-dormant LinkedIn page and maybe restart Facebook, which I exited after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. I wouldn’t do so in order to spend much time at either service, I don’t see either as a venue for interactions. (A new “inbox” where I don’t have control over how the data is used? No thanks.) But while updating, I found that many people prefer to get their information at those sites, and because I’m not there, my program is missing them. It takes very little extra effort to cross-post something to Facebook or Linkedin so that they’ll see it. Still, I wouldn’t post anything to either that’s not already available somewhere else, because of data privacy concerns.

And that’s it for now. Next week I’ll go back to the usual format for these e-mails, and talk about something that, I hope, is more interesting than updating contacts. Let’s get this year started.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s a bit shorter because I’ve been off, but it has:

  • Information about a good bill that actually passed Congress about missing migrants at the border;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • A brief comment about drug policy; and, finally,
  • An extra helping of funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • A link to our latest border policy commentary (a good one);
  • Our four-part podcast miniseries on the U.S. transition and Latin America;
  • Video of last Wednesday’s discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia;
  • Video of last Friday’s discussion of civil-military relations in Latin America, along with that of a companion event we hosted in September;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • Links to 4 government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in November;
  • Links to Latin America-related events this coming week; and, finally,
  • Some funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. I left a trail of content last week, and it’s all captured here: a podcast, a newspaper interview, a brief Colombia peace update, a brief border update, video of a great panel discussion, alerts about events I’m putting together on the 9th and 11th, some recommended “longreads,” links to online events that I know about this week, and a few funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address.

For the rest of their lives, these people will think about what they did this week

This is from my weekly e-mail newsletter, in which I vent about how worried I am about COVID-19’s potential to kill a lot of people stuck in ICE’s network of immigrant detention centers.

People are going to die. It is going to be bad. And it’s totally preventable: alternatives to detention programs have good records of keeping people on the outside from slipping through the cracks.

WOLA and other organizations are making a lot of noise. Members of Congress—though no Republicans I’m aware of—are making a lot of noise too. But the top levels at ICE, DHS, and the White House are immovable.

I can’t stop wondering what’s going through the minds of the people directly managing these detention centers right now. Most of them are employees of private corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group. They’ve got to know what’s about to happen. Many of them were raised to value human life—in their churches, in their upbringings, in their educations.

What are they doing now? If detention centers get hit by a wave of COVID-19 deaths, what will the record show that they were doing—right now, this week—to prevent it? Are they frantically making phone calls, sending e-mails, leaking to reporters, making their CEOs and boards miserable, contacting their local mayors, governors, and congressional representatives?

Email newsletter

My streak of sending out weekly e-mail newsletters now stands at 13. Here’s the latest one. I resolved at the new year to be more regular at these. So that means this horrible year is already 13 weeks old.

You can read it and subscribe there, or just subscribe at the bottom of this very page.

Weekly Update #8 is out

Here’s the latest. A conference announcement and lots of other events in town. A Colombia peace update. Links about what’s been going on with Latin American civil-military relations. Music recommendations, and links to some great writing by others.

To get these in your e-mail, just add your name and e-mail here, and look for the confirmation e-mail in your inbox. I promise never to share your e-mail address with anyone.




Weekly Update #7 is out

Here’s the latest. It’s got links to three analyses of Colombia I published last week. A conference announcement. Event announcements, music, and links to some great writing by others.

To get these in your e-mail, just add your name and e-mail here, and look for the confirmation e-mail in your inbox. I promise never to share your e-mail address with anyone.




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