Adam Isacson's Latin America Blog

Apr 19

“Mr. García Márquez mythologized the history of an entire continent, while at the same time creating a Rabelaisian portrait of the human condition as a febrile dream in which love and suffering and redemption endlessly cycle back on themselves on a Möbius strip in time.” — I still haven’t finished reading yesterday’s New York Times cover story about Gabriel García Márquez, because of sentences like this one.

Apr 16

Detail of a rather terrifying “Risk Map For the Central American Migrant,” prepared by several Mexican and Central American human rights groups.

The black crosses represent zones of “frequent deaths.” The circles with the female silhouette are zones of “sexual exploitation.” The orange states have “the largest incidence of aggressions.” The purple silhouettes are zones of “accidents and mutilations.” The red spots are official migrant detention centers.

(I’m writing my sections of our report covering our February trip to the Mexico-Guatemala border zone. Aiming for late May release. We’ve got to include at least part of this illustration.)

Detail of a rather terrifying “Risk Map For the Central American Migrant,” prepared by several Mexican and Central American human rights groups.

The black crosses represent zones of “frequent deaths.” The circles with the female silhouette are zones of “sexual exploitation.” The orange states have “the largest incidence of aggressions.” The purple silhouettes are zones of “accidents and mutilations.” The red spots are official migrant detention centers.

(I’m writing my sections of our report covering our February trip to the Mexico-Guatemala border zone. Aiming for late May release. We’ve got to include at least part of this illustration.)

[video]

Argentine soldiers carrying out construction projects this week in a Buenos Aires slum (photo from La Nación).

This is a new role for Argentina’s army, which has played almost no internal role in the country since the last military government left power in 1983. Many Argentines view the military’s near-total exclusion from policing and public works projects as crucial to the last 30 years’ consolidation of democracy.

Now, though, under the powerful current Army chief, Gen. César Milani—who has won strong support from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—soldiers are starting to participate more in development and security projects.

The latest project, in the La Carbonilla neighborood, involves a series of public works, but not policing, the daily La Nacion explains.


  "Equipped with picks, shovels, and a backhoe, they are going to open streets, finish installing sewers, and build community spaces like a plaza and a sports field. The neighbors say they are concerned about the existence of there or four houses from which paco [a cocaine derivative somewhat similar to crack] is sold. But the soldiers are prohibited from involving themselves in security questions, in order not to violate the interior security law. For that reason, they will only be in the neighborhood by day: Monday to Friday, from 8:00 to 3:00."


As they carry out these projects, the Army is being accompanied by two civil-society groups closely aligned with President Fernández: La Cámpora, a youth organization founded by the President’s son; and the more politically radical wing of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group founded by mothers of people disappeared by the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Opponents of the Fernández government are worried about what this project means for civil-military relations in Argentina where, under Gen. Milani, the Army has begun to play a more political role. Today in the opposition-leaning La Nación, columnist Joaquín Morales Solá pens a dire warning about these public-works projects’ implications.


  "The Army is doing jobs that could easily be done by other state bodies, unless the state admits that it has lost all of its abilities during the decade of greatest statism since 1983. It is harder to explain why the military, which was formed to defend national borders, has ended up working as masons, plumbers, or electricians. The underlying message is that the army ceased to be professional, in order to become a political faction of the current administration."

Argentine soldiers carrying out construction projects this week in a Buenos Aires slum (photo from La Nación).

This is a new role for Argentina’s army, which has played almost no internal role in the country since the last military government left power in 1983. Many Argentines view the military’s near-total exclusion from policing and public works projects as crucial to the last 30 years’ consolidation of democracy.

Now, though, under the powerful current Army chief, Gen. César Milani—who has won strong support from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—soldiers are starting to participate more in development and security projects.

The latest project, in the La Carbonilla neighborood, involves a series of public works, but not policing, the daily La Nacion explains.

"Equipped with picks, shovels, and a backhoe, they are going to open streets, finish installing sewers, and build community spaces like a plaza and a sports field. The neighbors say they are concerned about the existence of there or four houses from which paco [a cocaine derivative somewhat similar to crack] is sold. But the soldiers are prohibited from involving themselves in security questions, in order not to violate the interior security law. For that reason, they will only be in the neighborhood by day: Monday to Friday, from 8:00 to 3:00."

As they carry out these projects, the Army is being accompanied by two civil-society groups closely aligned with President Fernández: La Cámpora, a youth organization founded by the President’s son; and the more politically radical wing of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group founded by mothers of people disappeared by the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Opponents of the Fernández government are worried about what this project means for civil-military relations in Argentina where, under Gen. Milani, the Army has begun to play a more political role. Today in the opposition-leaning La Nación, columnist Joaquín Morales Solá pens a dire warning about these public-works projects’ implications.

"The Army is doing jobs that could easily be done by other state bodies, unless the state admits that it has lost all of its abilities during the decade of greatest statism since 1983. It is harder to explain why the military, which was formed to defend national borders, has ended up working as masons, plumbers, or electricians. The underlying message is that the army ceased to be professional, in order to become a political faction of the current administration."

Great piece by the BBC about smartphones’ spread, and scarce Internet access, in Cuba.


  "There are now some 300 public internet-access centres across the country, but they are expensive: one hour costs the equivalent of a week’s wage for a state worker."
  
  "Email costs the equivalent of $2.50 (£1.50) an hour; the internet is $4.50."
  
  "The growing number of Cuban smartphone owners use unlicensed traders to transfer dozens of offline apps to their handsets for a few dollars. You can buy 100 GB of films and popular TV series for around $3, copied straight to your hard drive, or fill up a flash disc with e-books and magazines."


I found it very difficult to access Internet when I visited Cuba last December. Of course, U.S. embargo restrictions made it even harder: I couldn’t use the country’s 3G network because, as a U.S. citizen, I had no way to pay for it.

Great piece by the BBC about smartphones’ spread, and scarce Internet access, in Cuba.

"There are now some 300 public internet-access centres across the country, but they are expensive: one hour costs the equivalent of a week’s wage for a state worker."

"Email costs the equivalent of $2.50 (£1.50) an hour; the internet is $4.50."

"The growing number of Cuban smartphone owners use unlicensed traders to transfer dozens of offline apps to their handsets for a few dollars. You can buy 100 GB of films and popular TV series for around $3, copied straight to your hard drive, or fill up a flash disc with e-books and magazines."

I found it very difficult to access Internet when I visited Cuba last December. Of course, U.S. embargo restrictions made it even harder: I couldn’t use the country’s 3G network because, as a U.S. citizen, I had no way to pay for it.

Apr 15

“When our first book, Just the Facts: A civilian’s guide to US defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean, was published in 1998, we knew that we had made something useful. It was being used, not just by our target audience – the NGO sector – but by academics, journalists, congressional staffers, and even the Defense Department. The day the book was released, we got an order for 40 copies from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. They told me that they didn’t have this information compiled in one place.” —

From the valedictory blog post written by my boss, WOLA director Joy Olson, at the website of “Just the Facts,” the project we founded in the 1990s to monitor U.S. military aid in Latin America.

Tomorrow, the “Just the Facts” brand-name (a lousy one but we could never think of anything better) disappears. From now on, you can find the same data and analysis in the Latin America section of Security Assistance Monitor, a new, global military aid-monitoring site coordinated by the Center for International Policy. Once it’s fully up and running, the new site is going to be a greatly improved resource.

Update as of April 16th: today, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) also put out an excellent statement condemning Carlos Mejía’s murder. It reads, “My prayers go out to Carlos’s friends and family in the  El Progreso community that welcomed me as a young student in the 1980s.

Statement by U.S. Representatives James P. Mcgovern (D-Massachusetts), Sam Farr (D-California) and Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Illinois) on the Murder in Honduras of Carlos Mejia Orellana With Radio Progreso


  We are shocked and saddened by the news of the murder of Carlos Mejia Orellana, journalist and marketing director of Radio Progreso in Honduras. We extend our deepest condolences to his family members, friends and colleagues. Our thoughts and prayers are with them in this difficult time.
  
  We are very familiar with the important work of Radio Progreso, a community-based radio station that is a work of the Jesuits of the Central American Province. We note that the Director of Radio Progreso, Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno, testified before the U.S. Congress at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and described the constant death threats and attacks perpetrated with impunity against journalists in Honduras, including against Radio Progreso, its employees and its research arm, ERIC.
  
  Given the level of threats and violence, including assassination, targeted against journalists, the media and freedom of expression in Honduras, we are dismayed that the Government of Honduras has failed to implement protective measures for the employees of Radio Progreso, as called for by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights when, on four separate occasions over the past five years, it issued precautionary measures on behalf of 16 staff members, including Carlos Mejia Orellana, of Radio Progreso and ERIC.
  
  We are further troubled by news reports that the police had announced the murder was carried out by someone close to Sr. Mejia Orellana before any investigation had yet begun. We call upon the Honduran authorities to immediately implement protective measures for Radio Progreso and ERIC employees and to carry out a thorough investigation of the murder of Carlos Mejia Orellana to determine both material and intellectual authors of this heinous act and to bring them to justice in a timely manner.


Excellent statement. Shameful initial police response.

Update as of April 16th: today, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) also put out an excellent statement condemning Carlos Mejía’s murder. It reads, “My prayers go out to Carlos’s friends and family in the El Progreso community that welcomed me as a young student in the 1980s.

Statement by U.S. Representatives James P. Mcgovern (D-Massachusetts), Sam Farr (D-California) and Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Illinois) on the Murder in Honduras of Carlos Mejia Orellana With Radio Progreso

We are shocked and saddened by the news of the murder of Carlos Mejia Orellana, journalist and marketing director of Radio Progreso in Honduras. We extend our deepest condolences to his family members, friends and colleagues. Our thoughts and prayers are with them in this difficult time.

We are very familiar with the important work of Radio Progreso, a community-based radio station that is a work of the Jesuits of the Central American Province. We note that the Director of Radio Progreso, Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno, testified before the U.S. Congress at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and described the constant death threats and attacks perpetrated with impunity against journalists in Honduras, including against Radio Progreso, its employees and its research arm, ERIC.

Given the level of threats and violence, including assassination, targeted against journalists, the media and freedom of expression in Honduras, we are dismayed that the Government of Honduras has failed to implement protective measures for the employees of Radio Progreso, as called for by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights when, on four separate occasions over the past five years, it issued precautionary measures on behalf of 16 staff members, including Carlos Mejia Orellana, of Radio Progreso and ERIC.

We are further troubled by news reports that the police had announced the murder was carried out by someone close to Sr. Mejia Orellana before any investigation had yet begun. We call upon the Honduran authorities to immediately implement protective measures for Radio Progreso and ERIC employees and to carry out a thorough investigation of the murder of Carlos Mejia Orellana to determine both material and intellectual authors of this heinous act and to bring them to justice in a timely manner.

Excellent statement. Shameful initial police response.

From the Instagram account of Brazil-based New York Times reporter Simon Romero:


  "Squatter-occupied building un Sao Paulo’s old center. My piece in today’s NYT describes the surge in immigration in the area.”

From the Instagram account of Brazil-based New York Times reporter Simon Romero:

"Squatter-occupied building un Sao Paulo’s old center. My piece in today’s NYT describes the surge in immigration in the area.”

“With [captured Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “Chapo”] Guzmán out of the way, the Zetas appear to have regained their brash form. Last week the group allegedly used Twitter and Facebook to warn Tampico residents of an imminent “gunbattle to the death” of what’s left of the Gulf cartel. The message warned residents to stay away from public areas. “We’re warning you now so you don’t whine later that you were caught in the crossfire,” it said.” —

Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News pieces together why violence is spiking upward in the northeastern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.

As in the past several years, the fighting is taking place mainly between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel (which initially spawned the Zetas). Mexico’s biggest cartel, the Sinaloa organization, has less of a presence in Tamaulipas, but had been propping up the Gulf cartel to aid its nationwide battle against the Zetas.

Apparently the February capture of Sinaloa leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has curtailed the flow of Sinaloa support to the Gulf cartel. As a result, the Gulf organization is weakened and splintering. The Zetas—still strong despite last year’s capture of its top leader—have responded by launching a bloody offensive.

Mexico’s security forces, it appears, are once again almost completely absent from this story.

Apr 14

[video]

Release for Our New Report on Colombia Peace

As Possibility for Peace Grows in Colombia, a New WOLA Report Analyzes the Challenges Ahead

The U.S. has an important role to play and should start planning now to help Colombia consolidate peace

By Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy

It looks ever more likely that sometime in the next year, Colombia may reach a landmark peace accord promising to end a half-century of armed conflict. As this likelihood increases, the United States—which provided billions for Colombia’s war effort—must prepare now to help Colombia consolidate peace.   

The new WOLA report, Ending 50 Years of Conflict in Colombia, strikes an optimistic note. Talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, Latin America’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, “are beginning to stick,” the report explains. “Negotiators in Havana, Cuba have gotten significantly further than ever before. It is not unreasonable to expect an accord by the end of 2014.”

With 30 graphics and videos helping to tell the story, WOLA’s latest report walks the reader through the challenges that remain at the negotiating table: finding a dignified solution for millions of conflict victims, devising transitional justice to hold the worst human rights abusers accountable, and overcoming objections from the negotiations’ political opponents.

Once an accord is reached, a new series of challenges awaits: implementing the commitments agreed upon at the table, demobilizing and reintegrating all ex-combatants, and getting a functioning government presence into territories long abandoned to illegal armed groups.

The U.S. role will be crucial, the report contends. Since 2000, the United States has provided Colombia with over US$600 million per year in mostly military aid. In the years following a peace accord, this aid should not only continue, it should increase and reorient toward civilian institution-building and economic needs.

Colombia will need help bringing government into lawless areas; demobilizing and reintegrating combatants; assisting displaced populations’ return; protecting rights defenders; helping to fulfill accords on land, political participation, and victims; supporting transitional justice and a truth commission; and guaranteeing a strong international verification and monitoring presence. The United States can leverage the strong relationship it has built with Colombia’s powerful armed forces to help them weather a difficult transition to a smaller post-conflict role.

As negotiations proceed, the Obama administration must continue voicing its support for the process. It must do so even if negotiators agree to changes in counter-drug policy—such as suspending crop eradication through aerial herbicide spraying—that parts of the U.S. government would prefer not to implement.

The time to help Colombia prepare for the post-conflict is fast approaching. The United States and other international donors must begin planning now, not on the day an accord is actually signed. Ending 50 Years of Conflict in Colombia urges that this planning begin as soon as possible, while offering a roadmap to help guide it.

Click here for a printer-friendly PDF of the full report.

The latest data from SIPRI (Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) find Latin American military budgets up slightly between 2012 and 2013, led by huge increases in Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia.

Four countries in the region have more than doubled their military spending in the past 10 years: Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, and Paraguay.

The latest data from SIPRI (Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) find Latin American military budgets up slightly between 2012 and 2013, led by huge increases in Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia.

Four countries in the region have more than doubled their military spending in the past 10 years: Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, and Paraguay.

From the online layout of “Ending 50 Years of Conflict,” our new, graphically dense report on Colombia’s peace process.

It’s going live… right now.

(I’ll post our “official” release shortly.)

From the online layout of “Ending 50 Years of Conflict,” our new, graphically dense report on Colombia’s peace process.

It’s going live… right now.

(I’ll post our “official” release shortly.)

Apr 13

Five Links from the Past Week

David Smilde evenhandedly narrates Venezuela’s vaunted, televised “dialogue” between the Maduro government and opposition leaders. After reading this, most other coverage of the negotiations seems either redundant or polarized.

Dudley offers a firm, reasoned takedown of alarmist claims that global terrorist groups are allying with Latin American organized crime groups to threaten the United States. When cooperation happens, he says, it’s more of a “one-night stand.”

Miroff travels to Mexico’s drug-producing heartland in Sinaloa where, as marijuana prices crater, growers are turning to poppies for the heroin trade. Cartels are aggressively marketing heroin in smaller U.S. cities as a cheaper alternative to synthetics like OxyContin.

A good overview of the U.S. Border Patrol’s confused, circle-the-wagons reaction to incidents in which agents injure or kill migrants.

Amid some maddening generalizations and blind spots (“the United States Government, jointly with the Government of Colombia, actually did this the right way”), the Assistant Secretary—nearing the end of his fourth year at this post—recognizes some past drug-policy errors and offers some very sound recommendations for the future.

Apr 12

"I’d Think Twice"

Colombia’s peace negotiations are happening without a cease-fire in place. This means a constant possibility that the FARC guerrilla group’s top leaders could be killed in battle.

An interviewer on Colombia’s La FM radio asked President Juan Manuel Santos this week about maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias “Timochenko.” Santos said, “We know more or less where he is.”  But even if he had exact information about Timochenko’s whereabouts, the President might not order the military to kill him: “I’m not going to say I would take the decision or not take it, but I think that at this stage of the process I’d think twice.”

Since this sounds “soft on the FARC,” it won’t play well with mainstream, and especially right-of-mainstream, public opinion in Colombia. That’s a potential problem for Santos seven weeks before voters decide whether to re-elect him.

But when you think about it, what the President said makes sense. And not just because of the risk that the FARC might get up from the negotiating table if their leader is killed.

The even greater risk is triggering centrifugal forces that could make the FARC far harder to demobilize, much less negotiate with. Colombia’s government has refused a cease-fire because it wants to put military pressure on the FARC to make them more compliant at the negotiating table. But the kind of military pressure that disrupts the guerrillas’ command and control could be counterproductive.

Having a functioning peace process places a real tension between the military goal and the political goal. Disrupting command and control is a central military goal. But a successful negotiation requires that there be some command and control between leader/negotiators and their rank-and-file.

Without it, there’s far less chance that the leaders at the negotiating table will be able to deliver the rest of the group when it comes time to demobilize, post-accord. It hastens a splintering that could make an accord impossible, or at least could make the post-conflict period far more violent than it would otherwise be.

Already, Colombia’s government might be paying a price for the November 2011 operation that killed Timochenko’s predecessor at the top of the FARC, Alfonso Cano. At the time Cano died in a bombing raid, the Santos government had already extended quiet contacts with the FARC, and Cano had given the green light for talks to advance.

In a recent column, Rafael Colón, a retired Colombian Marine general and much-cited security analyst, cites one of Cano’s last messages to the FARC leadership, as pieced together from demobilized guerrillas’ testimonies.


  “‘The FARC’s errors [Cano said] took them off of the path of their philosophy; they lost the war when the Colombian state managed to multiply its military capacity through air superiority and joint operations. … That they lost their insurgent legitimacy, because Colombians and the international community began calling the FARC narcotraffickers and terrorists.’”


"Faced with these realities," Gen. Colón writes, "Cano’s FARC had no other option except to negotiate," and that is why he green-lighted the peace talks.

If this is accurate, then Cano’s killing may have given the peace talks a body-blow before they even began. We can only imagine how much closer to an accord the negotiators might be today with Cano alive, committed to talks, and directing the group’s actions. Probably closer than where they are now: on the third of five substantive agenda points, 18 months into the process.

If command and control is important to negotiations, Colombia’s U.S.-backed strategy of hunting down and killing the FARC’s top leaders must be put on hold. (In fact, it already may have been.)

Instead, while talks are going on, and no cease-fire is in place, it makes more sense for Colombia’s armed forces to focus on protecting people from illegal armed groups of all stripes. Where the FARC is concerned, the focus should be on fronts and columns that are endangering or extorting Colombians the most. And especially on those that, because of their current illicit income streams, may be least likely to demobilize for real if a peace accord is signed. It is they, and not the top leadership with the greatest hope of delivering the group, who need to feel the most pressure.

"I’d Think Twice"

Colombia’s peace negotiations are happening without a cease-fire in place. This means a constant possibility that the FARC guerrilla group’s top leaders could be killed in battle.

An interviewer on Colombia’s La FM radio asked President Juan Manuel Santos this week about maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias “Timochenko.” Santos said, “We know more or less where he is.” But even if he had exact information about Timochenko’s whereabouts, the President might not order the military to kill him: “I’m not going to say I would take the decision or not take it, but I think that at this stage of the process I’d think twice.”

Since this sounds “soft on the FARC,” it won’t play well with mainstream, and especially right-of-mainstream, public opinion in Colombia. That’s a potential problem for Santos seven weeks before voters decide whether to re-elect him.

But when you think about it, what the President said makes sense. And not just because of the risk that the FARC might get up from the negotiating table if their leader is killed.

The even greater risk is triggering centrifugal forces that could make the FARC far harder to demobilize, much less negotiate with. Colombia’s government has refused a cease-fire because it wants to put military pressure on the FARC to make them more compliant at the negotiating table. But the kind of military pressure that disrupts the guerrillas’ command and control could be counterproductive.

Having a functioning peace process places a real tension between the military goal and the political goal. Disrupting command and control is a central military goal. But a successful negotiation requires that there be some command and control between leader/negotiators and their rank-and-file.

Without it, there’s far less chance that the leaders at the negotiating table will be able to deliver the rest of the group when it comes time to demobilize, post-accord. It hastens a splintering that could make an accord impossible, or at least could make the post-conflict period far more violent than it would otherwise be.

Already, Colombia’s government might be paying a price for the November 2011 operation that killed Timochenko’s predecessor at the top of the FARC, Alfonso Cano. At the time Cano died in a bombing raid, the Santos government had already extended quiet contacts with the FARC, and Cano had given the green light for talks to advance.

In a recent column, Rafael Colón, a retired Colombian Marine general and much-cited security analyst, cites one of Cano’s last messages to the FARC leadership, as pieced together from demobilized guerrillas’ testimonies.

“‘The FARC’s errors [Cano said] took them off of the path of their philosophy; they lost the war when the Colombian state managed to multiply its military capacity through air superiority and joint operations. … That they lost their insurgent legitimacy, because Colombians and the international community began calling the FARC narcotraffickers and terrorists.’”

"Faced with these realities," Gen. Colón writes, "Cano’s FARC had no other option except to negotiate," and that is why he green-lighted the peace talks.

If this is accurate, then Cano’s killing may have given the peace talks a body-blow before they even began. We can only imagine how much closer to an accord the negotiators might be today with Cano alive, committed to talks, and directing the group’s actions. Probably closer than where they are now: on the third of five substantive agenda points, 18 months into the process.

If command and control is important to negotiations, Colombia’s U.S.-backed strategy of hunting down and killing the FARC’s top leaders must be put on hold. (In fact, it already may have been.)

Instead, while talks are going on, and no cease-fire is in place, it makes more sense for Colombia’s armed forces to focus on protecting people from illegal armed groups of all stripes. Where the FARC is concerned, the focus should be on fronts and columns that are endangering or extorting Colombians the most. And especially on those that, because of their current illicit income streams, may be least likely to demobilize for real if a peace accord is signed. It is they, and not the top leadership with the greatest hope of delivering the group, who need to feel the most pressure.