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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The “WOLA firehose” for September 2018

Here’s everything my colleagues and I published last month.

The WOLA Firehose for August 2018

Here’s everything I know of that my colleagues at WOLA and I published this month.



Articles Elsewhere

Press Releases

At 23 Amazing Things You Can Do for the Cost of a Few Miles of Border Wall

Last week, the Trump administration let drop at least a vague idea of how much it would cost to build its big border wall: 722 miles at $18 billion over 10 years.

That comes out to a very expensive $25 million per mile. Which gave me an idea: what do other items—whether government spending or features of everyday life—cost when expressed as a number of border-wall miles?

We came up with a list of 23, which is here. Some examples:

  1. Jordan Peele made the 2017 smash-hit movie Get Out for a total budget of 0.18 Border-Wall Miles. It grossed over 10 Border-Wall Miles at the box office.
  2. Fully implementing the entire “Illicit Cultivation” chapter of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—which would do away with most of the country’s coca crop—would cost about 52 Border-Wall Miles.
  3. At the Chipotle franchise nearest to WOLA’s offices, a single Border-Wall Mile could buy 3,125,000 chicken burritos, including sales tax. Laid end-to-end, these burritos would stretch for nearly 400 miles, longer than Arizona’s entire border with Mexico. (Guacamole is extra.)
  4. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.
  5. For budget reasons, the U.S. Navy hasn’t patrolled the Caribbean, or Central America’s Pacific coast, for suspect cocaine shipments since 2015. The Coast Guard has been doing this on its own, with six to ten cutters, that are only able to interdict about thirty percent of known suspected smugglers. It would cost the Navy 17 Border-Wall Miles to deploy a refitted Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate for ten years, as the Navy Secretary has recommended.
  6. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.

See them all here.

New Report: Lessons from San Diego’s Border Wall

This is just a blurb. The full report is here: HTML / PDF. I set about writing it at the beginning of the month after we returned from our Texas border trip. This was meant to be just a quick memo about the border-wall prototypes that got built outside San Diego, but blossomed into a full-scale report about the current state of the border in that area.

Border wall prototypes under construction at a CBP site near San Diego, October 21, 2017. (Credit: Mani Albrecht, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs Visual Communications Division)

Right now, on a site near existing border wall outside San Diego, California, eight concrete-and-metal slabs sit awaiting judgment. They are prototypes for the Trump administration’s vision for a border wall that could cost between US$20 billion and US$60 billion to build.

In a new report (HTML / PDF), the Washington Office on Latin America points out that the section of the border where the prototypes sit—Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego sector—is a perfect example of how limited walls, fences, and barriers can be. This sector has 60 miles of border, and 46 of them are already fenced off.

Here, fence-building has revealed a new set of border challenges that a wall can’t fix. The San Diego sector shows that:

  • Fences or walls can reduce migration in urban areas, but make no difference in rural areas. In densely populated border areas, border-crossers can quickly mix in to the population. But nearly all densely populated sections of the U.S.-Mexico border have long since been walled off. In rural areas, where crossers must travel miles of terrain, having to climb a wall first is not much of a deterrent. A wall would be a waste of scarce budget resources.
  • People who seek protected status aren’t deterred by walls. Some asylum-seekers even climbed existing fence at the prototype site while construction was occurring. In San Diego, they include growing numbers of Central American children and families. Last year in the sector, arrivals included thousands of Haitians who journeyed from Brazil, many of whom now live in Tijuana. The presence or absence of a fence made no difference in their decision to seek out U.S. authorities to petition for protection.
  • Fences are irrelevant to drug flows. Of all nine border sectors, San Diego leads in seizures of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and probably fentanyl. Authorities find the vast majority of these drugs at legal border crossings—not in the spaces between where walls would be built. Interdicting more drugs at the border would require generous investment in modern, well-staffed ports of entry—but instead, the Trump administration is asking Congress to pay for a wall.

The border doesn’t need a wall. It needs better-equipped ports of entry, investigative capacity, technology, and far more ability to deal with humanitarian flows. In its current form, the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill is pursuing a wrong and wasteful approach. The experience of San Diego makes that clear.

Read the report: HTML / PDF.

What 2017’s Migration Statistics Tell Us About Border Security

Cross-posted from 1,045 words (4 min, 21 sec read).

Last week, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released new information telling us what happened at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. The data came in two reports: new statistics about apprehensions of migrants, and CBP’s annual Border Security Report.

This information, plus an annual DEA “threat assessment” report released in October, tells us four things that matter greatly for Congress as it considers the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. That bill would build 74 miles of border wall for $1.6 billion, while adding 500 Border Patrol agents and 1,000 ICE agents.

  1. The president’s promises of a crackdown accelerated a decline in cross-border migration that’s been happening since the beginning of the 21st century.

Border Patrol apprehended 303,916 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2017. That was the lowest annual total since 1972. This is part of a long-term trend of declining apprehensions at the border. In 13 of the last 16 years (and 9 of the last 10), the annual number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol has consistently ranked lower than the previous three-year average. And according to CBP’s best estimates, the number of migrants who evade apprehension has also been shrinking.

This year saw 26 percent fewer migrants than 2016. The drop began after Donald Trump’s inauguration: February, March, and April saw the fewest monthly apprehensions since at least 2000, when Border Patrol makes monthly records available, and probably since the 1970s.

Analysts have called this the “Trump effect.” Word of mouth about aggressive enforcement and terrorized communities traveled fast. For a few months, smugglers went into “wait and see mode.” Migrants “don’t understand…what’s going on right now in terms of the enforcement and what we’re doing on the border,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in May. “That’s caused them to delay their departure, if you will.”

  1. People who fear for their lives will keep coming. Central America is producing large numbers of such people.

After April 2017, monthly totals of migrant apprehensions stopped dropping. Though the “Trump effect” hasn’t totally faded, the number of apprehensions in September 2017 resembles the number in September 2014, and may continue to increase. WOLA saw over 100 children and families arriving on a late November evening in south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector. Migrant smugglers haven’t gone out of business, and fear continues to drive people from Central America.

The profile of migration has changed. Of those apprehended in 2017, an unprecedented 39 percent were children and members of family units, up from less than 2 percent between 2003 and 2009. The vast majority of these kids and families were from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, and most were asking U.S. authorities for protection from threats back home.

Statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are stark: they report a 20 percent increase in citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras requesting asylum at the border in 2017, compared to 2016. In a year that saw a one-quarter overall drop in migrants, more Central Americans came to request asylum.

Violent crime remains severe in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which had the second, fourth, and seventeenth highest murder rates on earth in 2016. Gangs continue to threaten tens of thousands. Political turmoil, corruption scandals, and human rights crimes intensified in 2017, reducing hope that next year might see improvements.

Central Americans will continue to come to the United States seeking protection next year, no matter what tough measures are in the Homeland Security bill. Instead, legislation should include more resources to process and adjudicate their claims.

  1. Border Patrol agents have less to do. Hiring 5,000 more is harder to justify.

The average Border Patrol agent apprehended 18 migrants this year—one every 20 days, tying a low set in 2011. But unlike in 2011, 39 percent were kids and families. Agents are spending much of their time processing and caring for that population.

With 19,437 agents at the end of fiscal year 2017, Border Patrol staffing shrank for the sixth straight year. This is not due to budget cuts: with 65 percent of applicants failing polygraph tests (nearly double the average for law enforcement agencies), the force has had difficulty replacing those who leave.

The White House has called for hiring 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, starting with 500 in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriation. Rather than growth at a time of vastly reduced migration, the agency should focus on meeting its funded target: that is, hiring approximately 1,600 additional agents to meet the goal of 21,070 agents total. This can only happen if Border Patrol uses  improved screening capacity to speed up the hiring process,while keeping the past few years’ tough screening standards in place.

  1. DEA drug seizure numbers show the importance of ports of entry for drug trafficking groups.

Data on border drug seizures take a while to become public. The Drug Enforcement Administration publicly reported 2016 seizure data in October of this year. It found big increases in border-area seizures of all drugs except cannabis.

This is a problem—but it isn’t a wall-building or Border Patrol issue. As the DEA report explains, all drugs except cannabis primarily cross the border through ports of entry: the legal border crossings. Much less heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, or fentanyl crosses through the rural, isolated areas  between the ports of entry, which is where the White House proposes to build costly walls.

The ports of entry are beleaguered. Wait times are long. The CBP estimates at least another 2,000 officers are needed to best handle the workload at these crossings. Facilities need $5 billion in improvements. Why, then, did the White House’s 2018 budget request specify no increased funding for ports of entry?

In conclusion…

The 2017 numbers are indicative of vastly reduced migration, much greater numbers of children and families requesting protection, and the growing challenge of detecting drug smuggling at ports of entry. None of these trends call for solutions like the building of walls or the hiring of additional Border Patrol agents. Data from the border does not support the new border security measures in the 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations bill. The problems revealed by these statistics demand a different, smarter approach.

WOLA: Migrant Apprehensions Along U.S.-Mexico Border at 46-year Low

This reaction to CBP’s 2017 migration statistics went up on WOLA’s website this afternoon.

New Data Shows Migrant Apprehensions Along U.S.-Mexico Border at 46-year Low, Despite Trump Administration’s Demands for “Massive” Security Buildup

Washington, DC — Data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on December 5 showed that the past fiscal year saw the lowest number of migrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1971. The agency reported apprehending 303,916 individuals between ports of entry along the southwest border during FY2017 (October 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017). Of those apprehended, 39 percent were either families or unaccompanied children, statistics show. Some 53.5 percent of those apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with another 42 percent from Mexico. The 127,938 Mexican nationals apprehended was the smallest annual total since at least 1969.

Based on these apprehension numbers and the current number of active Border Patrol agents, the average Border Patrol agent captured just 18 migrants during FY2017, or one every 20 days. Despite migration levels hitting a 46-year low, the Senate is currently debating spending $100 million to hire 500 new Border Patrol agents next year, who would be stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border. The 500 agents would be a downpayment on 5,000 additional Border Patrol hires requested by the White House. (Border Patrol currently has just under 20,000 agents.) These apprehension statistics suggest that, in contrast to Trump administration rhetoric emphasizing the urgent need for a “massive” border security buildup, proposals such as the Border Patrol expansion and the White House’s $1.6 billion request for a border wall are unnecessary and wasteful, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy group that has carried out extensive field work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“These numbers show that Border Patrol agents are stopping, on average, one or two people per month along the U.S.-Mexico border. Where’s the urgent need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on further expanding this agency? If Congress approves the wall-building and agent-hiring in the 2018 Homeland Security Bill, they’re wasting taxpayer money without actually addressing very real challenges that do need attention along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson.

Read WOLA’s arguments for a common-sense border security policy — one that does not involve an across-the-board increase in Border Patrol staffing — in an op-ed published by The Hill.

The WOLA firehose: June 2017

My colleagues at WOLA and I put out a lot of really good content last month. Check these out, share them, and if you want to make sure this work continues, please leave us a tip.

The WOLA firehose: May 2017

My colleagues at WOLA and I put out a lot of really good content last month. Check these out, share them, and if you want to make sure this work continues, please leave us a tip.

The WOLA firehose: April 2017

My colleagues at WOLA and I put out a lot of really good content this month. Check these out, share them, and if you want to make sure this work continues, please leave us a tip.

Launched! “Putting the Pieces Together”

Screencast from "Putting the Pieces Together"

I’m delighted to announce that WOLA has just launched “Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs.” This is an epic, sprawling, deep-in-the-weeds attempt to get a handle on all the ways that the U.S. government can work with, give weapons to, train, advise, or otherwise support about 160 countries’ militaries and police forces around the world.

We call it “Putting the Pieces Together” because figuring out how the U.S. government aids foreign militaries is a lot like trying to put together an intricate jigsaw puzzle. The big contribution of this project is that it gives you all the pieces in a nice neat box, even if we don’t yet have the big picture in detail.

I hate to admit it, but this is the product of more than four years of work. (Although this project spent a lot of time on the back burner between late 2012 and now.) The original plan was to document the way these aid programs were migrating out of State Department / civilian control and into the U.S. military’s threat-based, un-transparent management. I thought we’d be producing a guide to 30, maybe 40 programs. But as we intensified our research, it became clear that the scale and the scope were increasing way beyond what we had planned to work with.

In the end, we found 107 programs. Of these, only 14 are managed by, and funded by, the civilian diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Nearly all of the rest—87, plus two that are jointly managed—are part of the U.S. Defense Department’s mammoth budget. The Pentagon is calling most of the shots, now managing 57 percent of military and police aid funds, often with programs it is very hard to get information about.

To manage this huge body of programs, we made a database that allows you to sort and filter them, to see the laws that govern them, and to find out how to learn more about them. (I think this database is the coolest part—and we can quickly update it whenever programs change.) We also wrote a 2,600-word report with some nifty graphics, highlighting the trends that we found while compiling all of this.

Put the report and the database together, make a single publication out of them, and you get a 188-page PDF. (I find this terrifying: I can’t believe we wrote this much over the last few years without really noticing.)

Here’s the text of the landing page for “Putting the Pieces Together,” which explains what this report-plus-database does. (If you prefer the landing page in Spanish, está aquí.) Bookmark it if you care about the U.S. relationship with the world’s militaries, I think you’ll find yourself referring back to it.

Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs

Since the “Global War on Terror” began, the Defense Department has been driving assistance to militaries and police forces worldwide. WOLA’s new guide explains how that happened and what it looks like.

The Trump administration is proposing to cut funding for U.S. diplomacy, and foreign aid programs run by diplomats, by an incredible 29 percent in 2018. But since it promises to grow defense spending, it may not end up cutting military aid. The result could be a giant leap toward the Pentagon shaping U.S foreign policy.

A major part of how U.S. foreign policy gets carried out is through security assistance programs, which aim to further U.S. interests and bolster national security goals by providing aid to military and police forces in around 160 countries.

There are now so many of these programs carrying out this type of assistance, with so little public reporting, that nobody really has a full picture of what the U.S. government is doing with the world’s military and police forces. No public, authoritative, regularly updated list of all U.S. military and police aid programs even exists.

Not until now, that is.

WOLA is pleased to launch a new resource to fill this big gap in our knowledge: a searchable online database listing all 107 programs that currently provide military or police aid across the globe, accompanied by a short report laying out what we found and why it matters. We also have an analysis of U.S. security assistance over the past 15 years to Latin America.


Of these programs, 87 are run by the Defense Department. 14 are run by the State Department. 2 are run jointly, and 4 are managed by other cabinet departments. More than half of the Defense programs are less than 15 years old.

We explain what each program can do, who runs it, who oversees it, how much the military can spend on it, and how researchers and oversight professionals can find more information about it. The online version also includes the complete, amended text of the law governing each program, links to official reports, and links to yearly aid amounts at the Security Assistance Monitor database.

WOLA’s new tool doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of transparency over military aid. It is unclear exactly which programs the Trump administration will support and which ones it will cut. There is not even a precise dollar total of worldwide U.S. military assistance.

But we hope that this guide provides congressional staff, journalists, analysts, and activists with an easy-to-use tool as we work to improve oversight over a high-risk government function, and to turn the tide of militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

Why did a research and advocacy organization focusing on Latin America make this?

WOLA first got to know the “patchwork” of Defense Department-run aid programs in Latin America in the 1990s, when it was far smaller. The War on Drugs brought about the first time the Pentagon got primacy over a big foreign aid program. Twenty years ago, we were surprised to learn that, suddenly, the second-largest military aid program in Latin America wasn’t even in the foreign aid budget. We have followed this issue closely ever since.

How do I use the database?

Go to You’ll see all 107 active programs listed in alphabetical order, spread out over six pages.

  • To read more about an aid program, click “Show Additional Information” under each program’s name. Or to see all of them, click the checkbox at the top of the page that says “Show the Full Program Descriptions.”
  • Viewing the entire program description yields another button you can click to reveal all laws governing that program, with current law at the top.
  • Use the search box at the top to find matching programs.
  • You can sort the list alphabetically, by the year the programs were created, by their expiration date (if any), and by the maximum authorized amount.
  • You can list only active programs, only programs that can operate in Latin America, only programs with or without reporting to Congress, only programs that do or do not involve the State Department, and 15 more categories.
  • Use the column on the left to find programs by Latin American country, by category of aid, or by the agencies that carry them out.

Will the database be updated?

Yes, we intend to update the aid programs and reports whenever relevant legislation passes.

How can I find government reports about these programs?

If the programs are relevant to Latin America, they are in this database’s Reports Library at If we have obtained the report, it is there as a PDF. If we have not yet obtained the report, it is listed alongside the date it was due.

It’s not just the wall: the 2017 budget has other bad ideas on border security

David McNew / Getty photo at Newsweek. Caption: “U.S. Border Patrol agents carry out special operations near the U.S.-Mexico border fence.”

Even though Donald Trump has put off, for now, his push for a border wall, the budget request that Congress is considering this week includes money to start hiring 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 ICE agents.

This is as unnecessary as a border wall, and we just posted a new commentary at WOLA’s website explaining why.

I wrote the Border Patrol section. I lay out two big reasons why it makes no sense to increase the agency’s size by another 25 percent.

  1. Undocumented migration across the U.S.-Mexico border was at 40-year lows even before it plummeted further after Trump’s inauguration. This hardly warrants a wave of new hires.
  2. Another round of fast hires could compound Border Patrol’s management issues and further erode protections against corruption and rights abuses.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s site.

WOLA Podcast: “Human Rights Trials in Guatemala”

Here’s a conversation with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, a professor of political science at George Mason University. Since 2012 Jo-Marie has closely monitored Guatemala’s judicial effort to hold military personnel accountable for crimes against humanity that they committed or ordered during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war. Despite some often severe pushback, prosecutors, investigators, and civil society are making progress.

Jo-Marie posts frequent updates about Guatemala’s human rights trials to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s International Justice Monitor website at

What is the “Trump Effect” on Migration? It’s Too Early to Draw Conclusions

WOLA just posted a new commentary that I drafted, which seeks to put into context the shocking recent U.S.-Mexico border migration statistics.

February and March saw the fewest migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since available records began in 1999. The arrival of Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric clearly has something to do with that.

But Trump’s rhetoric also probably explains why there was a big surge of migrants, especially Central American families and children, in the months between the election and the inauguration. In this article, I predict that migration levels are likely to increase again, to some level that is higher than the current low, but lower than the late-2016 high. To see the reasons why, read the article.

The WOLA firehose: March 2017

My colleagues at WOLA and I were on a productive tear this past month. Check these out, share them, and if you want to make sure this work continues, please leave us a tip.

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