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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At wola.org: Fixing a Culture that Protects and Rewards Abuse at U.S. Border Agencies

This was a hard one to write, it took about two and a half weeks to crank out 3,000 words, even though nearly all the research was already in my database.

The main reason is in the middle of it: the bulleted list of CBP and Border Patrol offenses that have happened so far in 2020, which I copy below.

It was just so damn grim and painful to point out the horrors being committed on U.S. soil, by a U.S. agency, by people who—for the most part—we’d probably genuinely like if we met them at a bar or on line at a supermarket.

Beyond this list, the commentary is about the big challenges that lie ahead in changing the organizational culture of our border and migration agencies. Please read it.

While past abuses like “family separation” and “kids in cages” shocked much of the nation, evidence of a perverse institutional culture persists in the 2020 calendar year.


  • In January, CBP and ICE agents assigned to serve as advisors in Guatemala ended up packing hundreds of Honduran migrants into rented, unmarked vans and shipping them back to Honduras, without even an opportunity to seek asylum. An October report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff found that DHS lied to the State Department, which was funding the CBP and ICE presence in Guatemala, about the bizarre operational role its agents were playing.
  • In February, a Guatemalan woman reported that while she was in Border Patrol custody, agents ignored her requests for medical attention. As a result, she had to give birth with her pants on, while standing and clutching the side of a trash can in the Chula Vista, California Border Patrol station. She was sent to a nearby hospital, then returned to the Border Patrol station where she spent a night “without an adequate blanket for the baby.”
  • Since March, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers summarily expelled more than 150,000 Mexican and Central American migrants back into Mexico, usually in about 90 minutes or less, with no real opportunity to request asylum if they were fleeing lethal threats. This has been done in the name of COVID-19 protections, but we now know—thanks to AP and Wall Street Journal investigators—that the Centers for Disease Control had recommended against closing the border, only to be overruled by Vice President Mike Pence. 
  • That number includes 8,800 children apprehended while unaccompanied by an adult, then swiftly returned to their home countries while unaccompanied, between March and August. (September data are still pending.) Border agencies made zero effort to ensure these children’s safety upon expulsion or even track their whereabouts. Those to be flown back were warehoused in border-city hotels, guarded by an ICE contractor not certified for childcare, while awaiting their expulsion.
  • In June the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that CBP had broken the law. A year earlier, Congress had appropriated money for the agency to improve its care of children and families in its custody, paying for items like blankets, food, and medicine. Instead, CBP spent much of the humanitarian appropriation on items like computer network upgrades, vaccines for CBP personnel, dog food, and dirt bikes.
  • In June, elite Border Patrol agents were among DHS personnel sent to Portland, Oregon—against the wishes of the mayor and governor—to confront protesters following the killing of George Floyd. While some protesters were violent, the agents’ crowd control tactics—which included grabbing people off of sidewalks into unmarked vans—did nothing to de-escalate the situation, nor did they incorporate best practices for de-escalation. If anything, their aggressive tactics prolonged the confrontations.
  • In July in El Paso, a Border Patrol agent ran over a 29-year-old Mexican man while pursuing him in his vehicle. Though injured, the migrant was deported within 48 hours. Border Patrol refuses to make public its vehicle pursuit policy.
  • In July, Maria Cristina Vargas Espinosa, a 38-year-old mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, died after falling from the border wall west of El Paso. She was at least the second person to die of such a fall this year: a pregnant Guatemalan woman and her unborn baby died of a fall in Clint, Texas, in March. Neither Border Patrol nor other local authorities disclosed Ms. Vargas’s death or bothered to investigate it; her relatives in Mexico only learned of her fate from her smuggler. Asked by El Paso Matters how often such incidents happen, a Border Patrol agent said that “a large number of people…get major injuries.” His main concern, though, was that “those hospital bills are ridiculous.”
  • In July in Arizona, dozens of rifle-bearing Border Patrol agents, accompanied by an armored vehicle and helicopters, raided a desert camp run on private land by No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in an area where thousands of migrants have died in this century of dehydration and exposure. Agents arrested migrants receiving medical attention, seized phones, photos, and records, and “trashed” No More Deaths’ camp.
  • In July, the libertarian publication Reason revealed a 2012 internal affairs report indicating that a CBP instructor had told “a room full of supervisors” that “if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should ‘beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out.’” This was yet another appearance of the word “tonk” or “tonc,” Border Patrol slang for an undocumented migrant. Former agents say that the word originates from the sound a human skull makes when clubbed with an agent’s heavy Maglite flashlight. When an agent uses a weapon, he or she must file a memo about the incident; no paperwork is required for flashlights.
  • By August, only four Border Patrol agents, of unknown rank, had been fired for their involvement in a graphically offensive Facebook group. The group, “I’m 10-15,” whose members included 9,500 current and former agents, was revealed to exist a full year earlier. Twelve months after launching an investigation, “CBP has provided little new information about” the group “or its efforts to address toxic attitudes within the ranks,” reported ProPublica, the outlet that revealed the group’s existence.
  • In August Tianna Spears, a Black U.S. diplomat who had been assigned to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, published a lengthy account in Politico about the blatant racial profiling to which CBP officers subjected her whenever she crossed back into El Paso. “[O]fficers in primary inspection still made sarcastic comments, cruel jokes and belittling jabs implying I was not a U.S. diplomat, not a U.S. citizen and had stolen my own car.”
  • In September Border Patrol used taxpayer money to produce a video depicting a fictionalized Spanish-speaking migrant whose first action after eluding agents is to kill a man in a dark alley. With evidence pointing to lower crime rates among undocumented migrants than among the general population, “The Gotawayvideo reinforces racist stereotypes to which, we hope, most Border Patrol personnel do not actually subscribe.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, local media in El Paso and Arizona have reported about CBP officers and Border Patrol agents going unmasked in their interactions with the public, from checkpoint encounters to the July raid on No More Deaths.
  • CBP’s rapid border wall construction is doing permanent environmental damage: gouging at mountains, draining a fragile desert oasis to mix cement, and sealing animals’ migratory routes. Members of Indigenous communities have been arrested for carrying out civil disobedience against the construction in California and Arizona. But the building continues, with no meaningful engagement with affected communities.
  • While ICE is not the focus of this analysis, any discussion of this year would be incomplete without recalling allegations of non-consensual surgeries performed on women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia; the deportation of a woman alleging sexual abuse at the El Paso detention facility while investigations were ongoing; the storing of children and families in border-town hotel rooms under questionable supervision; a slipshod, hardline response to COVID-19 that has led to a cumulative total of 6,541 cases in detention, deportations of COVID-19-positive individuals to countries with weak public health systems; and a sharp increase this year in the use of pepper spray and other force against the agency’s detainees.

Beyond all of this are the everyday allegations of racial profiling, roughing up (called “tuning up”) of apprehended migrants, abusive language, maintenance of hieleras and other deliberately uncomfortable custody conditions, and a view that people exercising their legal right to seek asylum are, in President Trump’s words, “scammers” gaming the system.


Read the whole thing here.

“Collapse” is unevenly distributed

I was eating a quick between-meeting lunch in a cheap Bogotá restaurant one afternoon in the early 2000s, probably during Álvaro Uribe’s first term. The TV under which I was sitting started playing a treacly theme song, and on came the opening sequence of Padres e Hijos, a long-running soap opera that was dominating Colombia’s daytime ratings at the time. It looked like this 2004 version posted to YouTube:

I stared at this sequence, open-mouthed. I found it so jarring that I remember it today. I’d just sat through several meetings with security experts and human rights activists, hearing of untold horror in Colombia’s countryside, and I would be hearing more before my day’s agenda wrapped up. Did the cultural artifact on the screen above me really come from the same country? A country that, at that moment, was grinding through the most intense period of one of Latin America’s longest armed conflicts?

As the intro indicates, Padres e Hijos focused on an upper-middle-class, dominant-ethnicity Bogotá family. Though they undergo soap-opera tribulations, the Franco family is an Uribe-era Colombian take on the American Dream, and the country’s armed conflict doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in their lives.

I dwelled on this memory while reading this very good, much-shared September 26 essay by Indi Samarajiva, a wealthy young Sri Lankan who lived alongside the brutal denouement of his country’s long civil war.

I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

Samarajiva is writing for a U.S. audience fearful that America as we know it is about to disintegrate. His message is: it’s already happening, but most people are lucky enough not to feel it.

Even as he turned out lights for air raids, waited on gas lines, and saw smoke rising from bombing sites in Colombo, Samarajiva went to concerts, went out dancing, and played Scrabble with friends. There is no moment at which the conflict defined his life. What he calls “collapse” (also the name of a grim but very popular Reddit group) is always there in the background, a steady horror, but he can tune it out.

Samarajiva argues that the United States in 2020 has collapsed, though many of us haven’t noticed it yet. COVID-19 is killing 1,000 people per day. There are mass shootings and protests, crackdowns on dissent, and very long lines at food pantries.

A thousand families are grieving tonight. A thousand more join them every day. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand homes. But that’s exactly how collapse feels. This is how I felt. This is how millions of people have felt, including many immigrants in your midst. We’re trying to tell you as loud as we can. You can get out of it, but you have to understand where you are to even turn around. This, I fear, is one of many things Americans do not understand. You tell yourself American collapse is impossible. Meanwhile, look around.

The science-fiction writer William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same goes for armed conflict or social collapse.

Are you a U.S. resident with the free time to be reading this? Do you have the means to do so over a broadband connection? Are you reading the screen of one of a few internet-capable devices in your home? If so, then it’s likely that you—like the Franco family in Bogotá—aren’t bearing the brunt of the breakdown already underway here at home.

But first, back to Colombia. The late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was gaping over my sandwich at Padres e Hijos, was the most intense period of Colombia’s conflict. The data show it: this plotting of massacres, kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, and displacements, from the 2013 report of the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, illustrates how badly the country was going off the rails at the turn of the century. That’s when everything peaks:

This was a bloody period, punctuated by paramilitary massacres and guerrilla mass kidnappings that still haunt the country today. About 1 percent of the population was being forcibly displaced each year. A peace process limped along for three years then failed. U.S. intelligence analysts were worrying about Colombia becoming a failed state.

For many Colombians, though—probably the majority, especially in cities—life went on. Even as displaced families begged at busy intersections and the possibility of visiting other cities by land grew too risky, life was, by and large, pretty normal.

Colombia’s economy, which rarely goes into recession, grew at a sluggish 0.6 percent rate in 1998 and dipped into a -4.2 percent slump in 1999. But then it recovered to 2.9 percent growth in 2000 and remained in positive territory; by 2004 it, and the local stock index, were booming. Cars had to be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs at shopping malls’ entrances, but the malls had lots of customers and few empty storefronts. In Bogotá, where mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa were building parks and opening (in December 2000) the TransMilenio rapid transit system, homicide rates fell sharply. Mockus deployed an army of mimes to busy intersections to shame traffic violators and jaywalkers.

Bogotá’s Carrera Séptima in 2002.

Even as paramilitaries massacred communities in Tibú, the Alto Naya, Chengue, and El Salado, Yo Soy Betty la Fea—which ABC would later adapt for a U.S. audience as Ugly Betty—ran on RCN from 1999 to 2001. Even as the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt and 12 local legislators in Cali, Juanes released his debut album, Fíjate Bien (2000), and followed it up with Un Día Normal (2002). Even as Plan Colombia vastly expanded aerial herbicide fumigation, Shakira released Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998) and her first English album, Laundry Service (2001), while Aterciopelados produced Caribe Atómico (1998) and Gozo Poderoso (2000). Even as peace talks with the FARC veered toward collapse, Colombia successfully hosted, and won, the 2001 Copa América soccer tournament.

Here in the United States, we’re not going to have a traditional armed conflict or civil war, with organized armed groups controlling territory and fighting pitched battles against the security forces. Instead, as a 2017 New Yorker overview put it after the Charlottesville violence, we may face “low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. [Diplomat Keith] Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it.”

“Collapse” is even less dramatic than that. Right now, I can step out my front door in central Washington DC and, within a few blocks, see the boarded-up fronts of shops that existed before March, a growing number of tents sheltering homeless people in a park, anti-police graffiti, lines of people at public kitchens during mealtime, and a construction project to counter chronic flooding. Turn on the television or Twitter and it’s lone gunmen, police killings, and protests with some violent elements seeking confrontations that the police are quick to escalate. Out-of-control open-carry militias. Profiles of people, some of them insured, forced into bankruptcy by medical bills. Evictions, cruel immigration detentions, and parents unable to feed their families. Climate events exacerbating all of it.

All of this will keep happening, even if Donald Trump loses on or after November 3, and even if the transfer of power is peaceful. Desperation won’t ease right away, and polarization won’t stop giving way to violence. But the violence won’t be everywhere. As was the case even during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict, for most of us it will only be something we see on TV or in our social feeds.

We’ll still have hundreds of new hit streaming shows, reality shows, and movies each year. Especially after the virus fades, there will be thriving hipper-than-thou music scenes. People will obsess over college football, new social apps, and celebrity gossip. Books about how to declutter your house and lose weight will remain on bestseller lists. Art galleries, theaters, and opera houses will be open. There will still be pumpkin spice at Starbucks.

Many of us will be outraged at “collapse” and its causes, and will dedicate our lives to fixing it. We may even succeed. But many of us—perhaps most—won’t bother. As societies all around the world have done, we’ll go through our reasonably prosperous lives while tuning out the human suffering in our vicinity.

How so many of us manage to do that—to tune it out and stay comfortable—is a mystery of human nature that I find baffling, just as I was perplexed by Padres e Hijos during my brief early-2000s Bogotá lunch. Whatever it is, it’s not resilience, and it’s not quite apathy, either. It may, I suspect, be a form of grieving.

What’s New About Trump’s New “Strategic Framework?”

In mid-August the Trump National Security Council published a “Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework.” (You’re forgiven if you missed it—it got a super-low-profile launch.) Here’s an English translation of an analysis that I published about it last week for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung en Colombia.

Three and a half years in, the Trump administration has published a “Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework.” It didn’t launch it with much publicity, nor is it a document of transcendental importance.

The document (or at least its declassified summary) says few truly new things. This shouldn’t surprise us from an administration that has said little about policy toward Latin America beyond Cuba, Venezuela, and immigration. But there are a few notable nuances.

The framework makes clear who the enemies are. Within the region it identifies Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, “repressive dictatorial regimes [that] threaten regional security.” Other regimes that have shown authoritarian characteristics but are more aligned with Washington, like Bolivia, El Salvador, or Honduras, escape this label.

Extra-regional powers, and their “malign influence,” are also adversaries. The document only mentions China, although documents from Southern Command, among others, also warn about Russia and Iran. That desire to exclude other powers from the hemisphere recalls the Monroe Doctrine (according to which the United States reserves the right to keep other powers from having a presence in the American continent), something that according to the last national security advisor, John Bolton, is “alive and well.”

In reality, this focus on external powers has more to do with an effort to stay relevant to the National Defense Strategy that the Defense Department published in 2018, under then-Secretary James Mattis. That strategy says a lot about the threat of “great powers,” but hardly mentions the threats that have most oriented policy toward Latin America in recent years. In its public summary, it doesn’t even mention the words “organized crime” or “cartel.”

While none of these documents discusses in detail transnational organized crime—the issue that was most discussed during the Obama years—it’s worth noting that it was the Trump administration, in April 2020, that launched the largest naval deployment to the region in decades, justifying it as an anti-organized crime effort.

Another new nuance are the document’s sections about immigration, the Trump administration’s banner issue. The first objective that the Framework discusses is the protection of the homeland, with the first sub-objective to “Prevent illegal and uncontrolled human migration, smuggling, and trafficking.”

It’s also notable that “Align asylum policies and harmonize visa and immigration regulations” appears as another sub-objective in the section about strengthening democracies: it’s not clear what one has to do with the other.

In 2012, during the Obama administration, the Defense Department published a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Statement. That document focused on institutional strengthening, fighting organized crime and terrorism, peacekeeping missions, and humanitarian assistance. The new Trump administration document leaves all those issues aside.

These abrupt changes in emphasis not unusual for U.S. policy toward Latin America, whose central paradigm has shifted several times over the past 30 years. From Cold War anti-communism, it morphed into the War on Drugs, and later the War on Terror, from there to “transnational organized crime” and, now, to “countering external influence” with a bit of anti-immigration. There’s no reason to think that the priorities expressed in this new document might be any more long-lasting.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

In Latin America, COVID-19 Risks Permanently Disturbing Civil-Military Relations

“Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives,” reads an analysis from me that was just posted to WOLA’s website. “At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.”

In many Latin American democracies that have spent decades trying to leave military dictatorships behind, COVID-19 has put soldiers back on the streets playing roles ranging from handing out food to enforcing curfews. Once this is over, will the region be able to put this toothpaste back into the tube? Read on.

In the meantime, here’s a text box that appears in the piece that I think even non-Latin Americanists will find useful.

Key differences between militaries and police forces

Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.

Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.

Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.

Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.

Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.

Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.

Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.

Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.

Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:

  • Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
  • Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
  • Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.

For more, see WOLA’s 2010 report Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Police and Military Roles in the Americas.

Official June data from the border: single adults are migrating in the desert heat

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did its monthly data dump yesterday, reporting on how many people the agency, which includes Border Patrol, apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border last month. As the Washington Post noted, the most notable trend was a 40% increase, over May, in the number of undocumented migrants that Border Patrol encountered—even as the border is mostly shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year ago, the big story at the border was children and families from Central America seeking asylum. The Trump administration has illegally ended asylum at the border for nearly everyone, so numbers of kids and parents have dropped sharply.

Instead, graphing the data out shows that all of the increase is in single adults, mainly from Mexico. Adults are blue in the charts below.

Keep in mind that adults are less likely to be seeking asylum. This means they’re probably trying to avoid being apprehended by Border Patrol. That in turn means many are probably migrating through some of the remotest, most treacherous parts of the border—at the very height of summer, when the desert heat is at its worst. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there may be a spike in migrant deaths on U.S. soil, from dehydration and exposure, as a result of the COVID-19 border crackdown. Already, official Border Patrol Twitter feeds are full of accounts of rescues.

These graphics, and a few dozen others, are always available as a big PDF file at http://bit.ly/wola_border. Also of interest there are the ones showing a pretty big June jump in drug seizures, again “despite the pandemic.”

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

Every couple of weeks, we get another alert that someone has been killed in Colombia by security forces carrying out coca eradication operations. Those operations are happening under U.S. pressure to go faster, and with lots of U.S. funding, even in the pandemic. And they’re getting more aggressive and violent.

Last Friday, someone else was killed in Putumayo. That appears to be the sixth civilian death since the COVID-19 lockdown began. So I wrote and distributed this commentary on WOLA’s Colombia Peace site.

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

Read the whole thing there.

Migration will increase at the border again. Don’t freak out.

Here’s a new, forward-looking analysis that I wrote with several of my colleagues at WOLA, working on it bit by bit over the past month.

The target audience for this are people who will be in policymaking positions after Election Day, and after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Most of these people won’t want to keep the cruel and illegal Trump border and migration policies in place. But some of them might be tempted to leave them in place for a while, for fear of facing a “tsunami” of migration at the border.

That’s not necessary, we argue here. Through inexpensive, low-drama strategies that don’t fit on a bumper sticker, the U.S. government can manage migration at its southern border in an orderly, humane way.

It’s about ports of entry and processing, alternatives to detention, functioning immigration courts, rule of law assistance in Central America, and asylum capacity in Mexico.

Read more here. We’ll be slicing-and-dicing these arguments in order to get them in front of audiences that don’t have time to read more than a single page of bullet points.

COVID-19 Border Closure Could Lead to Jump in Migrant Deaths in Summer Months

While going through the latest border numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), I found something alarming.

  • Even though the U.S.-Mexico border is effectively closed, with U.S. authorities expelling nearly all Mexicans and Central Americans right back into Mexico, apprehensions of migrants jumped from April to May.
  • The increase in migration is entirely single adults, mostly from Mexico.
  • For the most part, single adults are not seeking asylum. Instead of trying to be apprehended, they’re trying to evade Border Patrol.
  • “Trying to evade” means migrating through some of the most dangerous parts of the border area, where a lot of migrants die of dehydration and exposure.
  • The numbers of single adults are rising just as we hit the hottest and deadliest months of the summer in the borderlands’ deserts.

I wrote this up as a brief, graphical analysis on WOLA’s website. Look at the overlap between the border sectors seeing the most single adult migrants, and the sectors that have been deadliest since 1998. People are going to die.

Read more here.

A story of what’s at stake in social movement struggle that goes well beyond Honduras

A review of Who Killed Berta Caceres by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020). Listen to my WOLA podcast with the author.

Why did 1 in every 37 citizens of Honduras end up detained at the US-Mexico border in 2019, after fleeing all the way across Mexico? Why did 30,000 more Hondurans petition for asylum in Mexico that same year?

During the 2010s, as a correspondent for The Guardian, Nina Lakhani covered the brutal drivers of this migration out of Central America. Her reporting was essential reading. Now she has published a book, Who Killed Berta Caceres, that digs into the pathology of Honduras: a nation that, while never prosperous nor just, has suffered accelerated rot during the 21st century, under the dominion of a kleptocratic and organized crime-tied—but stolidly U.S.-supported—regime.

Berta Cáceres was a prominent indigenous and environmental leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was murdered in March 2016, in her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her death poignantly anchors Lakhani’s story of a country badly out of control. Though she only talked to her once—an hourlong interview in 2013—Lakhani puts together a vivid biographical portrait of the co-founder of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Cáceres was a rarely dynamic individual with great energy and creativity, a natural leader. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes clear how much Honduras’s vibrant but beleaguered social movements lost upon her death.

In telling Cáceres’s life story, Lakhani is also telling the story of how activism in defense of marginalized people has changed, in Honduras and elsewhere, since the Cold War. The old narrative of class conflict, with radicals opting for violent struggle while elites’ enforcers massacre thousands in the name of “anti-communism,” has faded. Now, social movement work is non-violent, in countries that mostly maintain at least a facade of democracy. People organize around identity—as indigenous communities, as women—more than they do around socioeconomic class, though there is strong overlap. Ethnic and environmental struggles are now paramount, particularly opposition to outside elites’ “projects,” like roads, dams, agribusiness, and mines, that threaten to dispossess people, destroy natural wealth, and shatter longstanding ways of life.

In telling Berta Cáceres’ story, Lakhani explores the strategies to which a group like COPINH recurs in this 21st century context, the extent to which these “work”, and how the organizing and media landscape have changed. Lakhani’s account also places in sharp relief what the threats from those in power have come to look like, and how social leaders are kept off balance by relentless intimidation, attacks, and manipulation of the legal system.

Lakhani cogently discusses the challenges Cáceres faced as a woman leading a Latin American social movement. She faced opprobrium for perceptions of neglecting her children. Meetings were tense. “It was uncomfortable. At times, men stormed out, others insulted her, but this motivated her to do more.”

Everything got worse in Honduras, the book forcefully argues, after Honduras’s 2009 coup, in which business elites and the military deposed a left-leaning elected president. Not enough analysts and policymakers realize what a turning point this was not just for Honduras, but for Latin America. Elected leftists have since been had their terms cut short, with tacit military support, in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia (the latter amid allegations of electoral fraud). After Honduras’s coup came a deluge of land grabs, an acceleration of infrastructure projects like the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres lost her life trying to oppose. Had the coup and the subsequent orgy of corruption and repression not happened, it’s possible that the flow of migrants from Honduras would be far smaller today.

Lakhani is sharply critical of the United States’ role. The Obama administration, then in its first year, initially opposed the 2009 coup, but quickly lost its resolve. Lakhani puts much of the blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoting passages from Clinton’s later book. The blame, of course, is more widely spread: the coup plotters spent lavishly on a lobbying campaign that convinced far-right senators to hold up key diplomatic nominations, a form of pressure that proved effective. U.S. NGOs, unable or unwilling to drop everything else on their agendas, couldn’t match that lobbying effort’s energy. While Clinton is clearly a main character for so quickly acquiescing to the coup, neither her book nor Lakhani’s explores the role of Lanny Davis, the Clinton family friend (he was Bill Clinton’s special counsel during his presidency) whom the coup government hired to lead its Washington lobby campaign.

We meet a lot of dreadful characters in Lakhani’s story, most of them men with past military experience who serve as enforcers for DESA, the company seeking the build the dam that would destroy an entire indigenous community’s way of life. Some of them are defendants when Cáceres’s murder finally goes to court. We also meet paramilitary figures in the Bajo Aguán region near the Caribbean coast, doing the dirty work for large estate owners making land grabs to plant oil palms for biodiesel projects. These men are rough, cruel, and corrupt. They are employed by Honduras’s elite, but they aren’t of the elite. They’re on the make, and have found a rare path to social mobility in Honduras, beyond gang membership and drug trafficking.

Peripheral characters in this book are gangs and narcotraffickers, the “badguys” that get the most focus from U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and Pentagon strategists when they make plans for Honduras. In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the gangs appear mainly as a symptom of the country’s misrule, and the narcotraffickers overlap so completely with the state and the “legitimate” economy that it’s hard to tell them apart.

In one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, Lakhani presents the elite in a nuanced way. Unlike its Central American neighbors, Honduras didn’t inherit its most powerful families from the colonial period or the 19th century coffee boom. The lack of a singularly murderous elite explains in part why human rights abuses in the country during the Cold War, though shocking, were comparatively modest. Those who run Honduras today arose more recently; many are the descendants of emigrants from Christian Palestine. With some key exceptions, they don’t profit from large-scale agricultural landholdings as much as from capital-intensive projects, collusion with organized crime, and corruption. They tend to have a super-capitalist, almost libertarian mindset—the construction of autonomous Ayn Randian “model cities” keeps getting proposed—which endears them to many U.S. policymakers despite their symbiotic relationship with criminality.

This elite functions in close collaboration with Honduras’s U.S.-backed military. Lakhani profiles some of the specialized units that get deployed in social conflicts like COPINH’s struggle. Her portrait of an institution entirely given over to the country’s elites, at the expense of a vast population with few options other than to migrate, shows how infuriatingly little progress Honduran civil-military relations have made since the 1980s transition to formal democracy. It is particularly galling when one sees U.S. diplomatic and military officials heap praise on top Honduran military leaders.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres especially shines in its discussion of the investigation and trial of Cáceres’s murder. Though the reader may need a “dramatis personae” list to keep track of the various middlemen and thugs involved in the murder plot, Lakhani’s narrative is an unflinching look at how impunity works, in Honduras and in much of Latin America. The process drags on. Key witnesses don’t get called. Evidence pointing to higher-ups goes unexplored. Lakhani has difficulty accessing supposedly public documents.

Lakhani meets nearly all of the crime’s material authors in prison, and concludes that they, for the most part, are just trigger-pullers, mid-level planners, or scapegoats. Most of these individuals get sentenced. But who actually ordered Cáceres’s killing, and who were they benefiting? We still don’t know.

“The judges curtailed evidence which threatened to expose a wider conspiracy and criminal network,” Lakhani writes. In the end, even when an internationally renowned social leader is killed, the crime’s masterminds or “intellectual authors” remain, at least for now, out of reach.

“They tried but couldn’t jail her, so they killed her,” Cáceres’s daughter says. “We know it was [the dam-building company] DESA but the question is, who in DESA? It’s going to be down to us to find out.”

Today, in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is a paragon of elite impunity. He won re-election in 2017, which used to be unconstitutional: the president’s consideration of the mere possibility of re-election was a pretext behind the 2009 coup. The 2017 election results occurred under very credible allegations of fraud: the OAS couldn’t certify the result. Hernández’s military, including a newly created military police branch, has systematically put down dissent; Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist, a human rights defender, or an environmental activist. The president’s brother, an ex-congressman, is in U.S. prison for narcotrafficking. Even as U.S. Justice Department documents in the case name President Hernández as a co-conspirator, the Trump administration lavishes praise on him as a partner against migration. The State Department said hardly a word when Honduras ejected an OAS anti-corruption mission last year. Meanwhile, the movement of which Berta Cáceres was a key part remains very active, but is under constant threat and is arguably weaker than it was in 2016.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres tells an old story, but updates it for a 21st century context. It’s the story of a leader who makes the ultimate sacrifice after being branded an “internal enemy” for struggling, nonviolently, to defend her people. “If Berta had been killed in the 1980s,” Lakhani writes, “it would have been considered a political murder mandated by state policy. Today, security forces are still deployed to protect foreign and national business interests, but belligerent community leaders are tarnished as anti-development criminals and terrorists, rather than as leftist guerillas.”

It’s not called counter-insurgency anymore—at least not in Honduras—but it’s the same fight, only the battlefield has shifted. Those who fight nonviolently are the heroes here, and that’s why getting at the masterminds of Berta’s killing is so important. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes apparent that, if one pulls hard enough on that particular thread of the “intellectual authors,” one might just unravel the entire political-criminal apparatus that has overtaken Honduras.

Until that happens, though, the United States, Mexico, and other countries can expect more waves of Honduran migrants. They’ll be fleeing a country that has become unlivable for all who aren’t part of that apparatus.

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org / versión en español)

On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.

What is an “SFAB?”

On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country. 

Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”

Is this a big deployment? Is it new?

A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.

While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations. 

Is this about Venezuela?

U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.” 

The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.

If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.

The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?

The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.

The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:

  • Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
  • The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
  • The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
  • The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
  • The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.

Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.

Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers. 

That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.

The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.

We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.

Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?

The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.

The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up. 

If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.

The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.

Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”

Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.

It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.

This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.

At wola.org: A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.

Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.

Here’s what I came up with. The whole 4,000-word (but not boring!) commentary is at WOLA’s website.

Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.

The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.

Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.

What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.

Continue reading at WOLA’s website.

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. 

WOLA comment on the CDC border ban

Under something called an “Interim Final Rule,” the Trump administration has sealed the U.S.-Mexico border since March 20 to all “inessential” travel. This means those without proper travel documents are getting expelled in as little as 90 minutes.

These expulsions are happening even to people asking for asylum or protection in the United States. Right now our government is sending hundreds of people directly back to danger.

This rule comes with a public comment process, and last Thursday was the deadline for getting in comments. With the text linked here and as a PDF here, WOLA was among dozens of organizations to submit comments. While I doubt it will get the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services to alter the rule, the collection of comments from organizations, taken together, is a remarkable document.

“What do you do here at WOLA?”

WOLA launched a series of e-mail updates to supporters in which they profile staff members. Mine was the first to go—this went out a couple of days ago. Regular visitors to this site are already familiar with the musical recommendations near the bottom:

This week, we would like to introduce you to Adam Isacson, WOLA Director for Defense Oversight

What do you do here at WOLA?

The core of my work has been the same since the ’90s. I keep track of the U.S. relationship with Latin America’s militaries and police forces. Historically, this relationship has been incredibly close, under-scrutinized, and troubled. I do research and advocacy on anything around the region involving U.S. policy toward people who wear uniforms and carry guns.

That’s taken me in a lot of directions, from drug policy to migration response to peace processes. Some of it is closely overseeing U.S. military aid, digging through documents and interviewing people who are in charge of the programs. Some of it is going to some of the places where that aid is spent and, working with partners, talking to communities on the receiving end.

Those communities can be farmers fumigated with herbicides by coca eradication planes, social leaders threatened by military-tied paramilitaries, migrants turned back from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, or reformers worried that the power balance between civilians and soldiers is swinging back to the military. The countries I’ve gotten to know most over the years are the ones that get the most aid: Colombia, Mexico, and Central America’s Northern Triangle.

What led you to this work?

Growing up in New Jersey’s New York suburbs in a half-Jewish, half-Scots-Irish household, I have no family or childhood ties to Latin America. I’ve been interested in it, though, because I first became aware of the rest of the world as a kid in the 1980s. Central America was a front-page, lead the evening-news story almost every day when I was in junior high. I was bored in New Jersey, wanted to travel a lot when I grew up, and really upset that the United States-which I’d learned in elementary school stood for freedom and rights-was propping up these vicious dictators.

That all stuck with me. When I started college in 1988 and met my advisor for the first time, I said “I want to work on U.S. policy toward Latin America.” I never changed my mind.

Why are you proud to work at WOLA?

There’s nowhere else in the United States where you can share a workspace with 30 people who have such deep knowledge, curiosity, and love for Latin America. There are places where you can find 30 people who are experts about Latin America-government, for instance-but the curiosity and love aren’t quite there.

My colleagues try to view the region through the eyes of partners there who want to make their countries fairer, more sustainable places to live. Too many other U.S. institutions view the region through the lens of U.S. interests (however they define it) or the investment climate.

What should people be on the lookout for in the coming months in your area of expertise?

Watch Latin America’s militaries. Even before the coronavirus hit, they were starting to play roles we hadn’t seen them playing since the democratic transitions of 30-plus years ago. More soldiers on the streets acting like police, a greater role in putting down social protest, more presidents seeking their political support so they could do questionable things.

Now, the region is facing a crisis that’s sort of like a natural disaster. In a natural disaster, it’s normal to see the armed forces playing emergency roles like logistics, delivering food, search-and-rescue, or keeping order. But this is no normal natural disaster. It’s a disaster that’s happening everywhere at once, for an indefinite period of time.

It’s going to become normal for heavily armed, combat-trained, camouflage-wearing soldiers to be out in the streets, among the citizens, for several months or more, playing a host of roles that normally correspond to civilians. Once you ratchet up that kind of militarization, it’s hard to ratchet it back down. Especially when economies are in free fall and all but the top 10% aren’t even sure how they’re going to be feeding themselves.

I don’t think Latin America is headed back to 1970s-style military junta governments. But I’m deeply worried about a future in which elected civilians are forced to share power with the generals, who keep them on a tight leash and restrict civil society’s freedoms in the name of order and security. And I’m also worried that the default response of the United States-regardless of who is president in 2021-will be to act in ways that prop up these military roles in the name of stability and investor confidence. That’s why we have to keep monitoring these issues and pressing our concerns.

There’s a lot more to worry about with coronavirus, obviously. At the border, the Trump administration is using the emergency as a pretext to implement a deadly agenda, ignoring generations of immigration law and turning Mexican border cities, U.S. detention centers, and deportation flights into COVID-19 vectors. In Colombia, it’s going to be very, very hard to keep directing resources and political will into implementing the peace accord and halting the slow-motion massacre of social leaders. That was hard enough even without a global pandemic.

What are some of the best things you’ve read or seen during this period of self-isolation?

This is lame, but I’ve watched zero new movies during our social isolation so far. I’ve spent about half an hour a day watching TV, and that’s usually been an old episode of Arrested Development, Silicon Valley or The Simpsons after dinner with the family. I just finished slogging through the same fiction book I’d taken out of the library in early March, and it kept putting me to sleep. I did order 15 books from a local bookstore, but they were still on the floor in their shrink wrap 2 weeks after they were delivered.


I know this is a terribly type-A Washington thing to say, but I’ve been finding diversion in my work. (Remember, I’m a weirdo who has been into this since I was in junior high.) Social isolation has vastly increased the portion of the day I get to spend doing the part of the job that’s fun for me, where I get to do research and make stuff, rather than sit in meetings, talk on the phone, and answer endless emails. I’ve been writing a lot, coding a lot, making new web pages like components of our Colombia Peace site. I’ve done 16 audio podcasts where I interview smart people. I have piles of saved reports, analysis, official documents, and testimonies that I finally have some time to read and add to my geeky data system. I guess this is what’s fun for me, what gets the dopamine flowing in the brain.

While doing all this, I do listen to a lot of music, most of it the sort of indie pop that middle-aged dads like me listen to. I recommend the latest records by Waxahatchee, Christine and the Queens, Beach Slang, Soccer Mommy, Caroline Polachek, Caribou, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Jenny Lewis, and Grimes.

If you were a baseball player, what would be your walk-up song?

Probably some 80s spandex-pants hair metal like Guns N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some,” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Total crowd-pleasers. Then I’d strike out on 3 pitches.

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