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.


Get a weekly update in your email


Video: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America after Six Months of the Pandemic

On September 11 I helped put together an event with experts from six Latin American countries to discuss the worsening imbalance of civil-military relations throughout the region, and how COVID-19 is complicating things further.

Military officers are occupying civilian government agencies, keeping order, handing out food, enforcing curfews, and just generally becoming a daily part of people’s lives to an extent unseen since the military dictatorships of a decade ago.

This is mainly happening at the behest of civilian presidents, but there is real cause for alarm here, and our presenters made the case very clearly. They did so in Spanish, without translation, as seen in the video at the bottom of this post.

The video at the top of this post, though, is new. My excellent intern Elissa Prieto took highlights from that event and added English subtitles, giving you a fast-moving, 14-minute pulse-taking of this increasingly worrisome trend.

Here is the original 2-hour video in Spanish:

Illegal Surveillance by Colombia’s Military is Unacceptable

Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.

In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. 

Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.

The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation. 

Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.

Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.

In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.  

While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists. 

Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.” 

That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.

Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership. 

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

Like the title says: not only is Colombia going full-throttle on manual eradication operations—U.S.-funded, U.S.-pressured manual eradication operations—in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.

The second killing happened yesterday (Wednesday), and we put together this WOLA statement.

Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.

At The Trump Administration’s COVID-19 Response at the Border Puts Us All At Risk

So, imagine that Donald Trump were to win re-election in November, and also win supermajorities in the House and Senate. What would U.S. border and migration policy look like?

It would look pretty much like it does today. The White House has seized on the COVID-19 emergency to ram through most of its border-security and immigration agenda by fiat. And it’s doing it in ways that threaten to spread the virus: at home, in Mexican border towns, and in Central America.

Read all about it at WOLA’s website, where a new commentary by me went up today. In a nutshell, the following are all happening, all at once:

  • Border wall construction is still proceeding
  • The Pentagon is sending more troops
  • The end of the right to asylum
  • Turning back unaccompanied children
  • Deportations haven’t stopped
  • Repatriation agreements suspended
  • “Remain in Mexico” hearings delayed
  • Crowded detention centers
  • Mexico’s migration crackdown continues

This is all happening at once. We need to stare it in the face, so we can then make a hell of a lot of noise about it.

At 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?

At Key Questions About How the U.S.-Mexico Border Shutdown Will Impact Vulnerable Asylum Seekers and Migrants

Here’s an analysis we posted yesterday in response to the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to “inessential” travel. As noted in yesterday’s podcast, such travelers apparently include threatened people seeking asylum or protection in the United States, who are being turned away.

The result is a potential death sentence, once COVID-19 really hits, for people confined in crowded shelters, encampments, and substandard housing in Mexican border towns. This could get really ugly.

Read the piece at WOLA’s website.

Big new report: “The ‘Wall’ Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border”

This map of the Mexico-Guatemala border region displays all locations mentioned in the report. We were present at those in blue during our August 2019 field research visit.

It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.

It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.

Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure

* Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border
* U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows
* Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border
Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone
Migration Patterns and Smuggling

* Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends
* Extra-Continental Migrants
* Shifts in Migration Routes
* Trends in Corridors
The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown
* Detention Facilities
* Crimes against Migrants
* Migrants and the Local Population
Asylum and Detention
* Why Migrants are Fleeing
* Mexico’s Asylum System
* COMAR on the Brink
* Exit visas
* Buses from the Northern Border
Official Corruption in the Border Zone
U.S. Assistance in the Border Region

President Trump’s 2020 Budget Request Proposes a Dark but Unlikely Future for Aid to Latin America

The Trump White House sent Congress its 2020 foreign aid request on Monday, and boy is it grim. It’s never going to become law—the steep cuts it proposes will be opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. But it’s still terrifying to see such destructive radicalism coming from an entire branch of the U.S. government.

Adeline Hite and I wrote an overview of the highlights for Latin America, with some colorful charts like this one. We just posted it to WOLA’s website, so go read it there.

WOLA Podcast: A Humanitarian Crisis, Not a National Emergency

Here’s a conversation with my WOLA colleague Maureen Meyer about the border, which we recorded last Thursday afternoon and posted last Friday morning.

U.S. and Mexican border communities are contending with a surge of asylum-seeking children and parents, arriving by the thousands each day. The Trump administration portrays it as a “national emergency” and is sending troops, turning asylum-seekers away, and circumventing Congress to build walls.

Adam Isacson (WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight) and Maureen Meyer (WOLA’s Director for Mexico and Migration) discuss why the crisis is happening, and the Trump administration’s cruel efforts to “deter” migrants. Adam talks about what he’s seen over two weeks in San Diego and Tijuana so far this year. Then both outline a vision of what the process for asylum-seekers would look like if the U.S. and Mexican governments adjusted from a “security emergency” to a “humanitarian crisis” response.

Resources cited in the podcast include:

  • WOLA’s graphical overview of the February migrant data, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection released on March 5.
  • A December 2018 “snapshot” report, and February 2019 update, detailing current asylum waitlists at ports of entry across the U.S.-Mexico border, by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego, and the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute.
  • WOLA’s Central America Monitor, which tracks U.S. aid to the region and evaluates its progress.
  • WOLA’s new Asylum Resources for Attorneys, compiled with the Temple University Beasley School of Law to provide resources for lawyers representing Central American asylum seekers.

Restarting Aerial Fumigation of Drug Crops in Colombia is a Mistake

Colombia’s Constitutional Court met today to discuss the government’s plans to reinstate aerial spraying of coca. President Iván Duque was the first to address the high court; he asked the justices to “modulate” their past rulings to allow more spraying.

I just posted an analysis of this to WOLA’s website. It addresses a series of questions:

  • Why did coca cultivation increase so much?
  • Is glyphosate dangerous?
  • What restrictions did Colombia’s Constitutional Court put in place in 2017?
  • What do the peace accords call for?
  • What do US officials say?
  • Is aerial spraying effective?
  • What other options are there?
  • How else could we measure success?
  • Is crop eradication effective in any form?

Read the whole thing here.

Forcing Asylum Seekers to Wait in Mexico Will Worsen Humanitarian Challenges on Both Sides of the Border

After the Trump administration announced a deal with Mexico that could force Central American asylum-seekers to spend years there, my colleague Elyssa Pachico and I quickly knocked out this statement. I seriously have no idea how Mexico plans to absorb what it has just committed to.

Forcing Asylum Seekers to Wait in Mexico Will Worsen Humanitarian Challenges on Both Sides of the Border
By Adam Isacson and Elyssa Pachico

Today, the Department of Homeland Security and the Mexican government announced that under a new policy, non-Mexican asylum seekers will be required to wait in Mexico while their case moves through U.S. immigration courts. This applies to all applicants who pass initial “credible fear” interviews, regardless of whether they entered the United States at or between ports of entry.

The Trump administration is shirking its responsibilities under U.S. and international law by forcing people seeking asylum to wait in potentially dangerous and extremely over-crowded conditions along the border in Mexico, a country which just had its most violent year on record. Many asylum-seekers will face conditions similar to those that drove them to flee their homes.

This is not the way to create a more efficient and orderly migration process at the border. All this does is create a bureaucratic, legal and humanitarian nightmare for the U.S. and Mexican governments, and for vulnerable people seeking protection.

Someone who passes a credible fear interview today routinely faces a wait of three years or more for an asylum hearing. Because the U.S. Justice Department employs only 395 immigration judges, the current backlog in U.S. immigration courts has reached 800,000 cases. Asylum-seeking families will end up waiting in Mexico for years. At least 93,000 people claimed credible fear at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018: under the new system, Mexico would have had to absorb nearly all of them. Yet right now, Mexico’s government doesn’t even fund short-term migrant shelters, which are all run by private and religious charities (with some support from states and municipalities). How is Mexico suddenly going to support hundreds of thousands of non-Mexicans for years?

It’s highly likely that this new policy will end up getting challenged in U.S. courts. Not only does it go against U.S. and international law, it violates due process rights. How are asylum seekers supposed to access U.S.-based immigration lawyers to argue their cases before a U.S. judge, if they’re sleeping in shelters in Mexico? There’s no indication that either the U.S. or Mexico is prepared to create a system that ensures asylum seekers can access legal counsel. Asylum seekers who don’t have lawyers representing them are significantly less likely to win their cases, regardless of the legitimacy of their claims. This policy could very well see more people who otherwise qualify for asylum get deported to their deaths.

Today’s announcement leaves some other important questions unanswered:

  • Has the U.S. government committed to any steps to reduce asylum-seekers’ wait times? We see nothing in today’s announcement.
  • Has the U.S. government committed any funds to help Mexico defray asylum-seekers’ housing, medical, and other humanitarian costs? We see nothing in today’s announcement.
  • Will asylum-seekers from outside Latin America—including thousands of Chinese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalese—also be forced to wait in Mexico, where they don’t speak the language?
  • What will happen to asylum seekers who tell U.S. authorities and credible-fear interviewers, “I fear for my life inside Mexico?” (An official told Vox that those who “demonstrated to a U.S. official that they feared persecution in Mexico” won’t be sent to Mexico; Voxnotes that “It is not yet clear whether those claims would be held to the same standard that’s generally used to screen asylum seekers — a ‘credible fear’ of persecution.”)

Video and Audio of “Uncertain Times: What Lies Ahead for Colombia?”

Last week I sat down with my WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez and with Lisa Haugaard, director of the Latin America Working Group, to talk about the state of Colombia’s peace accord implementation. All three of us had done recent fieldwork there.

WOLA has posted the video to YouTube, here and embedded below.

If you prefer things offline, you can download the video from my Vimeo page, or grab just the audio as an mp3 file.

(I had an earlier speaking engagement across town, and come into this more than half an hour after it begins. I’m seeing that bit for the first time now, too.)

Downloadable video and audio of our October 16 conference

Last week, WOLA posted to YouTube the five-plus-hour video of our October 16 conference, “Staying on Course: Security, Coca, Justice, and Accord Implementation in Colombia.” There, you can see the entirety of the outstanding panels in which visiting experts from Colombia talked about transitional justice, coca, and the security situation. Note that it’s in both English and Spanish—we didn’t have the capability to record and dub in the interpreter’s feed.

If you prefer offline viewing, as I often do (those long airplane trips), I’ve also posted the video to Vimeo with a download link. Or you can hear just the audio as a monster (250-plus-megabyte) mp3 file here.

But again, you need to be comfortable in both English and Spanish. Sorry about that.

Here’s the YouTube stream:

9 Questions (and Answers) About the Central American Migrant Caravan

A new resource at WOLA’s website provides quick, fact-filled, documented and cited answers to these questions:

  1. Why are people leaving? And why are they leaving now? (Short answer: violence, corruption, climate, domestic violence, and economics.)
  2. Can Trump cut aid to Central America? (Short answer: no.)
  3. Why are people traveling as a caravan? (Short answer: safety in numbers.)
  4. What happened to the migrant caravan that attracted so much vitriol from President Trump earlier this year? (Short answer: it dwindled to almost nothing.)
  5. President Trump has threatened to shut down the entire U.S.-Mexico border to forestall anyone from the migrant caravan turning themselves into U.S. authorities to seek asylum, or to cross the border. What would happen if the U.S.-Mexico border is shut down? (Short answer: you’d probably see the effect in the Dow and S&P 500.)
  6. What is Mexico’s policy towards the migrant caravan? (Short answer: lots of cops and a request for UN help.)
  7. Will threats mitigate migration flows from Central America? (Short answer: no.)
  8. Why are Central American countries not stopping caravans? (Short answer: freedom of assembly and movement.)
  9. What should the U.S. government do if members of the caravan reach the U.S.-Mexico border? (Short answer: it’s a humanitarian and logistical problem, not an “invasion.”)

Read the whole thing here.

Big Colombia conference is 9 days away: Tuesday the 16th

I’m really looking forward to having this group here. RSVP here, at WOLA’s website.

Staying on Course: Security, Coca, Justice, and Accord Implementation in Colombia

Tuesday, October 16, 2018, 8:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
 Root Room, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
 1779 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC

Two years after Colombia signed a historic peace accord with the FARC, Latin America’s largest guerrilla group, much is uncertain. Amid uneven implementation of the accord, armed and criminal groups—some made up of demobilized guerrillas—are filling territorial vacuums and encroaching on ethnic-minority communities. Murders of independent social leaders have reached epidemic proportions. A new president who had led opposition to the accord seeks to make adjustments. Complex transitional-justice cases are just getting started. Coca cultivation has reached new records. Negotiations with the ELN guerrilla group are stalled. Meanwhile, most messages from the U.S. government are about coca and the crisis in neighboring Venezuela—not consolidation of peace.

WOLA is pleased to bring to Washington a remarkable group of leaders, practitioners, and experts from Colombia. They will dive deeply into these and other current challenges in an all-day event, open to the public.

Light lunch, coffee, and simultaneous translation will be provided. Video will be available at WOLA’s website ( after the event.

Tentative Agenda 

8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. 
Registration and Coffee

9:00 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.
Introductory Remarks

9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. 
Panel: Colombia’s Transitional Justice System

  • Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll, president, Chamber for Recognition of Truth, Responsibility, and Determination of Acts and Conducts, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Patricia Tobón, commissioner, Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, Bogotá, Colombia
  • María Camila Moreno, director, International Center for Transitional Justice, Bogotá, Colombia
  • ModeratorGimena Sanchez-Garzoli, director, Colombia Program, Washington Office on Latin America

11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. 

11:15 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. 
Panel: Coca, Eradication, Substitution

  • Pedro Arenas, coordinator, Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Ariel Ávila, deputy director, Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Invited Speaker from coca growers’ organization, via Skype, Colombia
  • ModeratorAdam Isacson, director, Defense Oversight Program, Washington Office on Latin America

1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. 

2:00 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. 
Panel: Security Dynamics, Peace Accord Implementation, and the ELN

  • Claudia López, former Senator and vice-presidential candidate now spokesperson, Anti-Corruption Consultation; program manager, Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Danilo Rueda, human rights defender, Inter-Ecclesiastical Committee for Justice and Peace, Bogotá, Colombia
  • Kyle Johnson, senior analyst for Colombia, International Crisis Group, Bogotá, Colombia
  • ModeratorMariano Aguirre Ernst, peacebuilding senior advisor, Office of the Resident Coordinator, United Nations, Bogotá, Colombia

3:45 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Closing Remarks

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

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