Syndicate content Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How we got here

This blog was written by Joy Olson, the Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, who founded Just the Facts with WOLA's Adam Isacson.

Please note that this is the last day we will be updating! We are excited to announce that starting tomorrow, Just the Facts will become the Latin America section of Security Assistance Monitor, a website that expands the scope of the project to include data on U.S. military and police aid worldwide. See here for more information.

As the Just the Facts project goes global in the form of the Security Assistance Monitor, it seems like a good time to reflect on how this all started and what we have achieved.

We started this project in 1997 because we wanted the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) coalition to have informed opinions about U.S. security policy and programs in Latin America.

To build this picture, we gathered all of the publicly available information we could find on US military programs with the region. As we researched, it became clear that security programs were funded out of many different parts of the budget. For political reasons, State Department-funded programs had to justify their existence to Congress and had congressionally-mandated reporting requirements, so there was information with which we could work. Defense Department-funded programs had no such reporting requirements. We held numerous interviews with military officials, congressional staffers, and Defense and State officials.

While this was all public information, some of it was incredibly hard to find, and even harder to put together to create a full picture. We did not submit Freedom of Information Act requests, but asked congressional offices to submit requests for information. In the early years, this was a remarkably effective technique for acquiring information.

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.

After a couple of years, the annual Just the Facts books were curtailed and replaced by an online tool. Back then, that was a cutting edge move. The government didn’t have any of its congressional presentation documents or other mandated reports accessible online. To get the government’s information, you had to go to Today, there are about 9,000 visitors a month to this site.

In the policy advocacy realm, there are few times when you can draw a direct line between your work and concrete change. However, I am confident that there are both direct and indirect ways in which Just the Facts has made a difference. Our grousing to congressional staffers about how there wasn’t any information about Defense Department-funded training coincided with House appropriators learning that foreign military training that they had prohibited through State’s budget was being funded through Defense. Out of that intersection, what is now the annual Foreign Military Training Report (FMTR) was born. That report puts together all forms of military training funded through State and Defense. The FTMR is now available online, and it is not just for Latin America--it covers the world.

Just the Facts helped congressional oversight committees do their jobs. These important committees are understaffed, and we shared our research with them and let them know where information was missing and where their attention might be needed.

As new Defense Department counter-drug or counter-terror legal authorities arose, Congress increasingly made sure to include reporting requirements so that at least some information was available to the public. This is in part because we followed these laws closely and advocated for transparency.

Transparency over military training and aid programs is also essential if there are to be any human rights conditions or requirements related to aid. You can’t implement human rights conditions like the Leahy Law if you don’t know who is being trained with U.S. tax dollars.

Prior to Just the Facts, few people outside of the Pentagon understood the extent of the Defense Department’s involvement in counter-drug aid to other countries. For example, we learned that DOD had provided large-scale counter-drug training to the Colombian military prior to the Clinton administration’s request to Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars in helicopters and other “Plan Colombia” aid. The U.S. military trained the Colombians on the quiet and then, when they needed to equip them, went to Congress for approval.

After a few years of research, we realized that we had become experts on what the U.S. military had already done, because data was produced after implementation. But we wanted to have input on current programs and future plans. That required talking with the Southern Command (Southcom).

The first times we requested meetings with Southcom and the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South, there was skepticism on both sides. Dialogue between our sectors was not at all common. I would say that mutual respect grew over time. We knew how to speak defense language, and could ask informed questions. Over time they began asking us questions as well.

While I have critiqued many a US military program in Latin America, I must say that there has been continual useful dialogue between the Just the Facts project and Southcom. We meet with the Commander at least once a year. I think that this has been a constructive dynamic, especially about the importance of human rights to successful military engagement.

My biggest concern has always been about what I don’t know. This project is about transparency. When we began, less information was restricted, but it was very hard to access. Now, the government puts more information online, but it is harder to get access to new information. More things are classified as “for official use only,” meaning they are not really classified, but congressional staff can’t share them with us. We know from past experience that information from the Special Operations Command is hard to come by. As this Command becomes more active in Latin America, we are likely to know less about what has been done in the region, and the direction that work is headed. That is, unless Congress pushes for more public reporting on Special Operations.

Finally, this is a good moment to say thank you. Adam Isacson and I started this project when he was at the Center for International Policy and I was at the Latin America Working Group. It was my idea, but his capacity and imagination made it happen and sustained it for years. When I came to WOLA, Lisa Haugaard took over this work for the LAWG. George Withers, who brought unprecedented experience and expertise to the project, has been a vital collaborator for almost ten years. Abigail Poe, who was trained by Adam at CIP, has now become the driving force behind the Security Assistance Monitor. This has truly been a group effort.

None of this would have been possible without foundation support. I want to thank Cristina Eguizábal, the Program Officer at the Ford Foundation who first supported Just the Facts, when it was only an idea. Over the years this work has been supported by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, and by the Open Society Foundation. Open Society, which is dedicated to transparency and accountability in government, is taking this project global. That is a very important and timely choice. Thank you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Week in Review

Please note that this is the last week this blog will be found at We are excited to announce that next Tuesday, Just the Facts will become the Latin America section of Security Assistance Monitor, a project that expands the scope of Just the Facts to include data on U.S. military and police aid worldwide. See here for more information

  • Mexican traffickers are "turning away from cannabis" and growing opium poppies, due to the falling price of marijuana and rising demand for heroin in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Mexican traffickers are now targeting U.S. areas with the worst prescription pill abuse to sell heroin, as efforts to curb prescription drug use has increased cost of pills and inhibited users’ access, expanding the U.S. heroin market.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of one of the drug cartel's top leaders, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, has become a U.S. informant. “El Mayo” is a top contender, along with Guzman's sons, to take the reins of the organization since the capture of Sinaloa boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán. As the Washington Post noted, the news of Zambada Niebla’s plea deal could worsen the power struggle within Mexico's most powerful cartel. See here for the Associated Press’ cheat sheet on Sinaloa’s leaders.
  • U.S. Special Forces and elite Colombian police commandos are training 300 members of Honduras' specialized "Tigres" police unit. The Tigres police are a key part of President Juan Orlando Hernández's militarized approach to security as they have a military structure, are housed in army barracks and can be placed in military units.
  • During an Air Force ceremony, President Hernández called for more U.S. counternarcotics support and criticized the United States’ decision to stop sharing radar intelligence with the country over a recently passed law that allows authorities to shoot down aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.
  • As peace talks between the government and FARC advance, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Luis Carlos Villegas, told reporters Monday that a reduction in U.S. military assistance should be met with an increase in aid to strengthen the country's judicial system. Villegas also noted that the Colombian government is still mulling over a U.S. request to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
  • There were a couple of relevant hearings on Latin America this week, which we will cover in more detail next week. There were a few key points, including during Tuesday's hearing on the "National Security and Foreign Policy Priorities in the FY 2015 International Affairs Budget" during which Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would hold off on imposing sanctions on Venezuela as long as third-party mediated dialogue was continuing in the country.

    Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobsen re-emphasized this point during a House subcommittee hearing on “Advancing U.S. Interests in the Western Hemisphere: The FY 2015 Foreign Affairs Budget.” During Thursday’s Senate hearing on “International Development Priorities in the FY 2015 Budget,” Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said it was "dumb, dumb and even dumber" to suggest that Cuban people "don't deserve the same freedom" as other citizens around the world in reference to criticisms of the “Cuban Twitter” program.

  • A letter signed by 82 Democrats in the House of Representatives calls for President Obama to renew enforcement of a ban on imported military-style guns. According to Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), who led the effort, "enforcing this ban would serve the dual purpose of improving public safety in the U.S. and reducing drug-related violence in Mexico."
  • An article in the New York Times looking at shifts in immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border noted a surge in border crossings in southern Texas and highlighted that most migrants are now Central Americans, as opposed to Mexican laborers. The investigation also found that U.S. agents are now speeding deportations to combat the impression that "that those who make it to American soil have a good chance of staying," given the amount of migrants that have been released while their cases are being proceeded.
  • Also on border security this week: Vox published a disturbing look at U.S. Border Patrol's "big problem with excessive force," the House's Homeland Security Committee held a hearing, "Authorizing Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement," Politico posted an interesting photo essay, and NPR published a special multimedia project on its trip along the U.S.-Mexico border, which included a collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting to create "the most complete map of the U.S.-Mexico border fence that is publicly available."
  • This week marked the third anniversary of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP), a joint agenda for Colombian labor reform put in place before the 2012 Free Trade Agreement to improve workers' rights given Colombia’s dark history of anti-union violence.

    The AFL-CIO and Colombia's National Union School (ENS) released reports identifying key areas where the LAP has fallen short, noting that violence against unionists rose again in 2013, with 26 union members killed. To learn more about the labor rights situation in Colombia, you can read an excellent article by Latin American Working Group here, the House Committee on Workforce and Education's release here and read Sen. Robert Menendez' (D-NJ) remarks on the LAP here.

  • The UN's latest homicide report found that the Americas have replaced Africa as the world's most violent region, with Honduras and Venezuela leading the globe in murder rates. According to 2012 statistics, about 30 percent of murders are connected to organized crime and impunity for murder runs at 76 percent. The report’s website has a series of informative infographics and graphs.
  • Also of note this week: an article in Defense One argued for the pullback of U.S. military assistance to corrupt regimes; Bogotá's interim mayor announced plans to send 300 soldiers to the streets, a move the army called 'not militarization;'and WOLA and Caracas Chronicles covered a live, televised dialogue between Venezuela's opposition and the government.
  • Tuesday, April 8, 2014

    The FARC's "Manuals"

    We are pleased to reproduce this commentary from Colombian human rights defender and security expert Nancy Sánchez, who has worked for 20 years in the department of Putumayo, the zone along the Ecuadorian border where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began in 2000. The guerrilla “manual” to which her article refers is here.

    The FARC’s Manuals

    Nancy Sánchez

    In August 1998, along the main highway between Putumayo’s largest city (Puerto Asís) and its capital (Mocoa), I came across this poster at a gas station. Made by the FARC’s 32nd Front, it described “the rules for living in an honest and dignified community: punishments and fines.”

    During this time, the 32nd Front, part of the FARC’s Southern Bloc, implemented some interesting regulations. It exerted control over many functions that should have been the state’s responsibility, such as environmental protection, avoiding deforestation and riverine pollution, and limiting residues of chemicals from coca paste production. Similarly, it set in place various regulations to control individual behavior in the community, such as curtailing “gossip,” maintaining cleanliness, and even avoiding fistfights at parties.

    Beyond social and community regulation, however, it was evident that behavior that would risk the FARC’s territorial control carried stricter punishments and fines. For example, inviting the entry of unknown individuals (resulting in a fine of US$1,000), buying and selling properties to individuals without FARC authorization, transporting people and vehicles outside of certain hours, or bringing in prostitutes.

    In this context, “the entry of prostitutes” referred to “new” prostitutes: women who had not previously lived in the area. This group of women, who were co-opted through this war, were used and regulated not only by the guerrillas but later on by the paramilitaries and the military to fulfill their “sexual needs.” Occasionally, they acted as sources of information about the enemy.

    With the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, amid the paramilitaries’ actions and the FARC’s response, thousands of innocent civilians were assassinated, disappeared, or forcibly displaced in Putumayo. About half of the population—150,000 people from a population of 350,000—was forcibly displaced.

    After 13 years of various stages of Plan Colombia, most recently the “Territorial Consolidation Plan,” the situation remains basically the same, or even worse. There have been cruel humanitarian consequences as the rural population continues to be subjected to strict social control by illegal armed actors.

    The most recent “FARC Rule Book” (Manual de Convivencia de los FARC) was published at the end of 2013, as reported by the Catholic Church of Putumayo, after the FARC prohibited the performance of Mass in rural zones. This warning and threat was the most notable of the 46 points making up the current “Manual for Coexistence for the good functioning of communities” that now is not a poster, but an actual three-page bulletin that was distributed to rural communities.

    I found the physical document this month, in Puerto Asís municipality, amid the anguish of some women who told me that they had to abandon their farms and villages because their sons had been forced into obligatory military service. Their children were recruited by the armed forces in surprise raids that military members carried out every year, and the young people had to comply.

    Other people did not know what to do before the FARC’s strict order to “establish themselves” either in the rural zone or the town center. The thing is, this manual—unlike the last one—dedicates the majority of its points to carefully regulating all sorts of situations of transit and mobility between town centers and the rural zones, where they have control.

    A few examples. If you are a farmer and have children studying in town, you can only bring them home during their vacations. This creates a dilemma for the parents: whether to take them out of school or pay for their room and board, because the school does not provide it. (It is worth noting that the majority of schools offering education up to 11th grade are located in town centers.) If you are new in the area and decide to settle there, you may not leave the zone for a year--the time period it supposedly takes to gain the FARC’s trust—at which time the FARC will decide whether you may stay or not. If you live in town and have a farm in the rural zone, which is very common in these regions, you have to choose to live in one or the other, or pay someone else whom you trust to take care of the land for life, while paying all community taxes.

    Several points, like the fines, did not change much between one manual and the next. For example, the prohibitions on state-run social assistance programs and on the unauthorized entry of unknown individuals remain the same. Transit continues to be regulated, for both people and animals, at permitted hours that change along with the context: when combat is happening, it is stricter. No matter what, one may not move or leave without permission, not even for health reasons (the hospitals are in the town centers). Property rights are also strictly controlled in the new manual. Now even a cow cannot be sold without prior authorization, requested in person.

    The rest of the points are similar to what was found in the earlier manual, except for one ordering better control of dogs in towns, and two new ones. The first refers to the population’s food security and the other regulates communications.

    Under penalty of forced “social labor” and expulsion, the planting of yucca, plantain, corn, and home-grown vegetables is ordered. This reminds me of the year 1994, when the guerrillas ordered that the massive planting of coca crops be combined with subsistence crops, in a four-to-one ratio (if I recall correctly) because the region lacked food and even chickens had to be imported from Ecuador. This issue is taken up again in a commentary that I found in Puerto Guzmán, referring to the manual. “This time, the coca is going to go away, because the guerrillas are making us plant food,” some residents told me. Actually, there is not much coca in the area today, compared with the 1990s. The problem is that it is still the only crop from which the people make a living. Are the guerrillas really going to be able to do away with this crop if their manuals order them to do so? That’s a point for Havana.

    The entry of mobile phones brings their regulation: the right to private communications is lost in these war territories. With the excuse of security, cell phones’ use is limited to two per person per family—these must be noted in a census—and they must not have cameras.

    Finally, despite some interesting items about environmental protection, controlling common crime, regulation of parties and flea markets, this manual raises three concerns in particular:

    1. Immediately, what is now being experienced: forced displacement or silent confinement of farmer populations, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. People who live in rural areas but require services in the town centers. To travel “to town” is not just entertainment. It means going to a hospital, to study, to pick up basic foods like grains or salt, to buy gasoline for electric generators, or to get in a long line to speak with the mayor, meet with a judge, communicate with relatives elsewhere, pay back loans from the Banco Agrario, to buy medicines for livestock,etc.

    2. Meanwhile, this manual exposes members of the Community Action Boards [Juntas de Acción Comunal, legally established local advisory commissions] to a serious security threat. According to the manual, it is these leaders who are charged with monitoring and guaranteeing compliance with its 46 points. They must do so in a context in which, on one hand, the paramilitary groups—under new names—dominate Puerto Asís and the town centers of Bajo Putumayo, and on the other hand, the “Territorial Consolidation Plan” gives U.S. resources to the Colombian military to carry out public works projects in these zones (medical brigades, bridge construction, etc.). Projects that—again—require the coordination and collaboration of Community Action Boards. So between the “FARC Manual” and the “Consolidation Plan,” the civilian population has few options. It can be the object of armed or judicial repression from one side or the other. A point for Havana: if there is no hope for a cease-fire during talks, at least it would be important to consider a cessation of these strategies of territorial control that involve the civilian population. That way, finally, the people might truly feel the sensation that something is changing as a result of the peace talks.

    3. In the long term, the manual gives us strong doubts about the model of life that the FARC are proposing for us in an eventual post-conflict.

    March 2014

    Tuesday, April 8, 2014

    Accounts that Pay for U.S. Drug War Aid to Latin America

    This post is cross-posted with Adam Isacson's personal blog. The original can be read here.

    I wrote the text below in a follow-up email to some congressional staff with whom I’d met last week. It occurred to me, though, that it might be helpful to share it more widely than that.

    There are only three U.S. programs that specifically pay for counter-drug aid in Latin America. Together, though, they make up about 81% of all U.S. military/police aid to the region over the last 10 years. (And 12% of economic/civilian aid.) They are:

    1. International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE): the biggest single aid program to Latin America by far. The only program I know of in the U.S. foreign aid budget that can pay for both military aid (helicopters etc.) and economic aid (alternative development programs etc.)

  • Administered by the State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
  • Funded through annual State / Foreign Operations budget appropriation.
  • Authorized by Sections 481-489 of Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 USC, Chapter 32, Subchapter I, Part VIII )
  • Total aid to Latin America 2005-2014 $7.01 billion ($5.11 billion military/police, $1.90 billion economic/civilian.)
  • Best official report breaking down aid: INL Program and Budget Guide
  • 2. Section 1004 Counternarcotics: the Defense Department’s non-permanent, but regularly renewed, authorization to use its own budget for several specific kinds of military and police aid to other countries (and to US civilian law enforcement). After INCLE, the second-largest source of military/police aid to Latin America.

  • Administered by Defense Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics (under Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.)
  • Funded through annual Defense budget appropriation.
  • Authorized by Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act, as amended.
  • Total aid to Latin America 2005-2014 $3.47 billion.
  • Best official report breaking down aid: reporting is poor. Armed Services Committees sometimes require reports, sometimes don’t. All reports we’ve obtained are at
  • 3. Section 1033 Counternarcotics: another Defense Department counter-drug military aid program, which pays for a few additional kinds of aid that 1004 doesn’t. Begun in 1998 for Colombia and Peru, since expanded to 39 countries worldwide.

  • Administered by Defense Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics (under Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.)
  • Funded through annual Defense appropriation.
  • Authorized by Section 1033 of the 1998 National Defense Authorization Act, as amended.
  • Total aid to Latin America 2007-2014 $192 million. (In our estimates, some earlier years’ aid is probably included in “1004” above.)
  • Best official report breaking down aid: reporting is poor. Armed Services Committees sometimes require reports, sometimes don’t. All reports we’ve obtained are at
  • Friday, April 4, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week the Associated Press uncovered that USAID tried to "trigger a Cuban Spring" through a secretly-established social media platform, the DEA said Mexican cartels were setting up shop in Colorado and Washington to cash in on black market marijuana, and the United States stopped sharing radar intelligence with Honduras. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • The Associated Press published an incendiary investigation this week revealing that USAID used front companies to secretly establish a now defunct Twitter-like social media platform in Cuba in 2010, with the intended purpose of stirring social unrest that might "trigger a Cuban Spring." The platform was also used to collect private data from its 40,000 users.

    On Thursday USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said that while the program was not covert, "parts of it were done discreetly." The White House echoed those claims, saying the program was debated in Congress and reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

    The Pan-American Post posted an excellent piece outlining the key points of the length AP report, while political analysts Greg Weeks, James Bosworth and Marc Hanson of the Washington Office on Latin America also provided helpful commentary.

  • During a hearing on U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation on Tuesday, James Dinkins, executive associate director for homeland security at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told the Committee on Homeland Security that "We have the best relationship with our Mexican counterparts that we've ever had." He pointed to the coordination between U.S. and Mexican agencies involved in the capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera as evidence of the strengthening relationship.

    The head of U.S. Northern Command, General Charles Jacoby, emphasized this same point several weeks ago in the wake of reports claiming U.S.-Mexico cooperation had suffered since Mexican President Peña Nieto mandated all contact with U.S. law enforcement go through the Ministry of the Interior.

  • During a budget hearing for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the House’s Committee on Appropriations Tuesday, DEA head Michele Leonhart criticized marijuana legalization measures in Washington and Colorado. She claimed Mexican drug traffickers were "setting up shop" and "are ready to come and sell cheaper" marijuana on the black market in the two states. She also accused many marijuana shops of being supplied by cartel-controlled growing operations. Leonhart's formal testimony can be found here.
  • United States Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske testified during a budget hearing for the agency on Tuesday. His testimony and a webcast of the hearing can be found here.
  • The United States confirmed this week that it stopped sharing radar intelligence with Honduran authorities on March 23 in response to a recently-passed law that permits the military to shoot down aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs. A U.S. embassy spokesperson said the move is unlikely to grossly disrupt either interdiction efforts or cocaine flows, as “80 to 90 percent of illegal drugs that enter Honduras (do so) via maritime routes,” and not by air.
  • In an interview with El Universal Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández noted that increased security cooperation with Colombia and Mexico would be key following the United States' decision to end sharing radar information, as both are equipped with better intelligence technology.
  • Uruguay President Jose Mujica will meet with President Obama at the White House May 12. On the agenda will be Uruguay's recent decision to receive six Guantanamo Bay detainees as well as the country’s recent decision to regulate the sale of marijuana.
  • Colombia’s top court halted U.S.-backed coca crop fumigation in national parks, although as WOLA’s Adam Isacson asserted, crops sprayed in these areas did not account for much of the total acreage affected by the practice. He also described the "quiet but intense" debate over aerial eradication in the country.
  • U.S. Southern Command head General John Kelly, discussed regional counternarcotics strategies with military and civilian leaders from 14 nations in Guatemala City April 1-3 at the annual Central American Regional Security Conference. The participants discussed lessons learned from Operation Martillo, the U.S.-led and funded counternarcotics surge operation in Central America's coastal waters.
  • Some reports this week on U.S. training security forces in the region:
    • The AFP reported 42 members of Guatemala's National Police would be trained in Miami through funding from the Central American Regional Security Initiative April 5 to May 4 and August 30 to September 28. The Guatemalan officers will replicate the trainings for 400 of their counterparts when they return to their country.
    • The Georgia Army National Guard trained members of Guatemala's counternarcotics task force as part of the Defense Department's Regionally Aligned Forces program. According to Southcom, members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Border Patrol and DEA were involved in the trainings.
    • Green Berets assigned to an airborne Special Forces Group trained with Dominican Republic Special Operations Forces (SOF) as part of a month-long training program that focused on medical skills, marksmanship, and airborne operations.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández this week, the first visit in six years of a Mexican leader to the Central American country. The two leaders announced they would be forming a "regional front against organized crime" and would re-launch high-level bilateral security talks.
  • Also of note this week: an InSight Crime investigation on violence and the flow of drugs at the tri-border area of Brazil, Colombia and Peru; an informative article in the New Republic about increased migrant deaths on U.S. soil as a result of the crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border; and an analysis of the five major shortcomings of Brazil's pacification program, which has kicked up in recent weeks, written by Americas Society/Council of the Americas's researcher Rachel Glickhouse for her RioGringa blog. Both Al Jazeera and Rio on Watch published excellent photo essays of the favela occupation.
  • Thursday, April 3, 2014

    Latin America Security by the Numbers

    This post was drafted by CIP interns Matt LaLime and Sebastian Belloni

  • Each day between three and six narco-flights arrive in Bolivia from Peru’s VRAE region, according to a recent report from Peruvian investigative magazine IDL-Reporteros. That’s more than 20 per week or 80 per month. A kilo of coca paste in the VRAE costs about $900. In Bolivia that same kilo goes for $1500. So while a flight taking off in Peru with 300 kilos of cocaine is worth $270,000, when lands in Bolivia it is worth $450,000.

    The cost of transporting cocaine from Peru to Bolivia:

    • $10,000 - $15,000 for renting the clandestine airstrip
    • An experienced pilot costs $25,000 while a new pilot receives $10,000
    • Renting a plane costs around $70,000

    So, at most, that would mean a cost of around $110,000 and a profit of about $340,000.

  • Honduras purchased three radar systems from Israel at a cost of $30 million, which have been delivered in recent weeks. With the passage of a new law that allows for the shoot down of drug plans, the new systems will help authorities track and possibly attack suspect aircraft. In response to the law, Washington has halted radar intelligence sharing, however a U.S. embassy spokesperson said this decision was unlikely to affect cocaine flows, as “80 to 90 percent of illegal drugs that enter Honduras (do so) via maritime routes,” and not by air.
  • About two thirds of all public security policies in Latin America are aimed primarily at seven countries in the region, according to a new data visualization called Mapping Citizen Security created by Brazil’s Igarapé Insitute, which collected data from over 1,300 Latin American security policies implemented since 1990.
  • Colombia’s Valle del Cauca department has become the most violent state in the country, with over 250 homicides occurring since 2013. The department’s capital, Cali, has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a murder rate of 85 per 100,000 residents. Of the 848 crimes that have occurred throughout the country, 29.5 percent have been in this region.
  • In the past five years, Colombian security forces have trained, with some degree of U.S. support, almost 22,000 security forces from 47 countries. According to a new WOLA report, 87 percent of the training was carried out by the National Police and focused mainly on aerial, maritime, and fluvial interdiction, handling of explosives, intelligence operations, and the U.S.-designed JUNGLA elite counternarcotics police program. Mexico accounted for nearly half of the total number of trainees.
  • On Saturday Mexican officials said that 370 migrant children had been caught in one week in 14 states, after apparently being abandoned by traffickers paid to take them to the United States. The youngest child to be rescued was 9 years old. According to the children, the traffickers abandoned them after being paid between $3,000 and $5,000.
  • Over 1,400 Brazilian Marines and police officers have been deployed to Rio de Janeiro's Mare favela complex ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, as part of the city’s “pacification” program that began in 2008. Around 174 communities have been "pacified" so far.
  • Brazil continues to expand the size and strength of its military. The South American country recently added 23, BAE Systems designed, Amphibious Armored Vehicles (AAV-7A) to its existing arsenal of 26 AAV’s of a similar model for about $118 million. reported that the country is planning to purchase 30 additional amphibious military vehicles in the near future. On March 27 the Brazilian Navy also received the first 6 of its 13 CFN Astros 2020 mobile SAMs, made by Brazilian weapons company Avibras Batallón de Artillería del Cuerpo.
  • Thursday, April 3, 2014

    The Twilight Struggle over Fumigation in Colombia

    The U.S. government has spent billions since 1994 on a program that eradicates coca—the plant used to make cocaine—by having Colombian police and contractors fly over it spraying herbicides.

    This “fumigation” program has been controversial. The spraying destroys legal crops, and restitution is very hard to obtain. It has generated many health and environmental complaints. It sends a terrible message to people in poorly governed parts of Colombia: “we will spray you overhead, but will not provide you basic services.” And it has done little to reduce coca-growing.

    After 20 years, the fumigation program could be coming to an end. Its termination is a main demand of the FARC guerrillas, who are negotiating a peace accord with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba. Since November, the negotiations have been discussing drug policy.

    The Colombian government appears likely to concede on fumigation. Colombian officials have begun to break to U.S. officials the news that it is preparing to end or cut back the program—a step that newly confirmed Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said would be “a great mistake” during his December confirmation hearing.

    • Two non-governmental Colombian sources who have met with President Juan Manuel Santos say that when Santos visited Washington in early December, he raised with U.S. officials the possibility that Colombia might stop the spray program.
    • On a mid-March visit to Washington, where he met with Attorney-General Eric Holder, Colombia’s minister of justice, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, proposed that funds used for the spray program be applied for other purposes. “As we need less spraying, it would be ideal if these resources could be directed toward what we call attacking the causes of illicit crops,” Gómez Méndez explained in an interview. “That proposal was accepted for review.”

    U.S. officials may be a bit confused, though, by mixed messages from the Colombian government. The country’s powerful Defense Ministry appears to be set against ending the spraying program, which it administers through the National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate.

    • When Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón visited Washington in February, his staff accidentally leaked a briefing book to press. According to this document, among Pinzón’s talking points with U.S. officials was “State the importance of continuing the Counternarcotic programs as aerial spraying.” (The document was written in English.)
    • In an interview Sunday with Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, the chief of Colombia’s National Police, Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, emphatically opposed the Justice Minister’s proposal to curtail U.S. aid for fumigation. “Fumigation is fundamental because while there’s pressure from illegal armed groups, especially the guerrillas, to stimulate and force illicit crops, we have to keep hitting hard, counteracting it with full rigor. And that implies continuing with fumigation.”

    Meanwhile, inside the Obama administration, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), which runs the fumigation program, is planning to forge ahead with spray operations. The program was halted after guerrillas shot down two spray planes shot down, for the first time in a decade, in September and October. This resulted in a more than 50 percent reduction in spraying last year, to 47,000 hectares—the lowest spray acreage since 2000.

    (Data Table)

    The fumigations began again in February, though, and last week the long-serving assistant secretary for INL, William Brownfield, had his picture taken (above) visiting the Air Tractor, Inc. plant in Olney, Texas where the spray planes are produced and maintained. “The people who work for Air Tractor here in Olney have played an important role in forcing this repulsive, repugnant, violent, homicidal terrorist organization to come to the table,” Brownfield said, referring to the FARC.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2014 is going global!

    Due to the success of Just the Facts, the Center for International Policy and its partners are expanding the scope of the project to include data on U.S. military and police aid worldwide.

    Just the Facts will soon become the Latin America section of Security Assistance Monitor, a new website that tracks U.S. security assistance to the rest of the world. will offer all the same resources as Just the Facts, but with better usability.

    Aside from being more aesthetically pleasing than our current site, Security Assistance Monitor will include some new features:

  • A database that allows visitors to interact with and view the data in a way that was not possible before. will feature interactive data sets that allow users to automatically create downloadable trend graphs, tailored to the exact programs, countries or regions for which they want data.
  • Data will now be downloadable in Excel and .pdf formats.
  • Key sections of the site translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
  • Country pages will have interactive trend charts for military and police aid, trainees and arms sales.
  • Easier ways to search and sort the wealth of other resources (besides the data) that we offer, including: daily news links, relevant legislation, U.S. government policy statements, events, other governments’ policy statements, and official government reports.
  • Detailed FAQs and screencasts to walk you through how to filter the site and its data to get to the information you want.
  • The goal of Security Assistance Monitor is to provide a comprehensive, comparative look at the United States’ security assistance to different regions of the world. While the new site will house data for U.S. assistance globally, it will provide “Just the Facts”-style analysis and resources for Africa, the Middle East, Central Eurasia and of course, Latin America and the Caribbean.

    But don’t worry; we aren’t going to make you sift through heaps of global information to get to the data, news and policy information about Latin America and the Caribbean currently offered on Just the Facts.

    Users only interested in Latin America and the Caribbean will be able to filter the site to show only information relevant to the region, so your current user experience won’t be lost – just enhanced.

    An example of how data visualizations will appear on the new site:

    Here's a trend graph showing U.S. assistance to counternarcotics programs in Colombia from 1996-2014:

    And another showing economic aid to Colombia from 1996-2014:

    We will use SAM as we’ve used Just the Facts – as a tool to highlight troubling trends, high-priority issues and promising alternatives. We hope that you will find the new site useful and provide feedback of how we can make it even better.

    As we have created our new website site with you in mind, we want to hear from you about your experience. Please email with any questions, concerns or feedback.

    Friday, March 28, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week Honduras made plans to double the number of military police in its most violent city, federal troops were deployed to one of Rio's largest slums and the Venezuelan military reaffirmed its support for the government after three air force officers were arrested for allegedly planning a coup. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s administration “is in diplomatic talks” to reschedule her official visit to meet with President Obama after canceling her previous visit in September following revelations of NSA espionage. According to Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, it is unlikely that this visit would occur before October’s presidential elections in Brazil.
  • Today marks the conclusion of the week long 150th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in which cases relating to a range of issues – from freedom of speech in Ecuador, to the ousting of Bogotá’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, to the justice system in Peru or indigenous rights in Nicaragua – were heard. On Tuesday, the commission held its first-ever hearing on drug policy and human rights abuses in the Americas at the request of 17 human rights organizations, which argued that the fight against drug trafficking justifies repression and abuse in the region. Animal Politico laid out several of the presenters’ arguments and has a video of the hearing.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Caracas announced Sunday that it would suspend issuing visas to first-time applicants. The embassy said it did not have enough staff to process the paperwork after three consular officers were kicked out of the country by the Venezuelan government, which has also delayed authorizing new personnel.
  • On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced three air force generals had been arrested for allegedly planning a coup after supposedly meeting with members of the opposition. Hours after the announcement the military issued a statement pledging its “monolithic” support, saying it would continue "protecting our people, guarding our homeland's sovereignty and supporting the constitutionally elected president and commander in chief." Also on Tuesday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court sentenced opposition mayor Marina Corina Machado to one year in jail for “inciting violence.”
  • President Maduro has agreed to enter talks with the opposition with the help of an outside facilitator, a move proposed by a visiting delegation from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). According to the Pan-American Post, it has been suggested foreign ministers from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador would take the lead on creating conditions for the talks, while the Associated Press noted Maduro has agreed to create a human rights commission to investigate abuses committed by the security forces.
  • Honduras’ military police chief, Coronel German Alfaro, announced plans to double the number of officers on the streets of San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in the country, from 1,000 to 2,000. According to Alfaro, the military police force has been a success in the country’s most violent city and the government will continue to roll out its plan to deploy 5,000 officers throughout the country. In an update on the national police reform process, Honduran newspaper La Prensa reported 536 police were fired after failing vetting tests and another 221 resigned.
  • On Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing, “newspaper U.S. disengagement from Latin America: Compromised Security and Economic Interests.” While much of the discussion focused on Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Russia, Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter did note that the U.S. is not disengaged and, on the contrary, has been positively and heavily engaged in the region.
  • In addition to Uruguay, the United States also askedBrazil and Colombia to take in inmates from Guantanamo Bay. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said the government was analyzing the request, while Uruguay agreed to take five inmates earlier this week.
  • Federal troops were sent to one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums and will stay there until the kickoff of the World Cup in 76 days. The military deployment comes after a serious of bombing, murders and attacks on police bases. InSight Crime published an on-the-ground perspective of one of these pacification operations in one of Rio’s most violent favelas, Vila Kennedy.
  • Locals in a major coca-producing region in Bolivia clashedwith police over the construction of a military base. According to the Associated Press, the counterdrug base is being built with $1.3 million in European Union funding.
  • On Tuesday, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announcedthat FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Céren would officially be the country’s next president, after the body formally rejected the ARENA party’s petition for a ballot-by-ballot recount on Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) releaseda statement Tuesday congratulating Sanchez Céren that noted a “calm and orderly” election but recognized there were “pending legal matters.”
  • Brazilian think-tank Igarapé, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, launched an impressive interactive online database of citizen security programs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. As Spanish news agency EFE noted, 66 percent of security policies in Latin America have been concentrated in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
  • Also of note this week: an article by Ander Izagirre in El Pais on Colombia’s false positives, a piece on the massacre of 260 Central American migrants in 2010 and 2011 by Oscar Martinez in El Faro, in Vice on violence against local communities involved in mining conflicts in Guatemala, and an investigation published by El Faro, in Inside Costa Rica on the effectiveness of panic buttons in busses in San Salvador, El Salvador.
  • Thursday, March 27, 2014

    United States Counternarcotics Assistance in Central America from the 2013 INCSR

    This post was drafted by CIP intern Elijah Stevens

    The U.S. State Department’s recently released International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) identified all seven countries in Central America as major transit countries for drug trafficking. While there are serious efforts to combat drug trafficking in these countries, many of which are backed by various forms of U.S. assistance through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the report found that 80 percent of illegal drugs destined for the United States are still trafficked through Central America.
    Countries throughout this region are plagued, to varying degrees, by limited funds for improving capabilities and resources, problematic and weak judiciary systems, corruption at various levels of security institutions, and lack of professionalization in their security forces.

    The INCSR explains some of the initiatives the United States has supported and continues to support, the majority of them through CARSI:


  • Trained and supported the Coast Guard to establish Belize’s first Sea, Air and Land Team (SEAL).
  • Established a Mobile Interdiction Team in December 2012 whose mission is to interdict narcotics at ports of entry throughout border regions. This is in addition to the provision of training and equipment to the country’s police force.
  • A maritime counternarcotics bilateral agreement, and a U.S.-sponsored Multilateral Counterdrug Summit with 11 other participants from Central and South America
  • Currently, Belize’s government is exploring the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana in small quantities as an alternative strategy in combatting narcotrafficking and crime.

    Costa Rica

  • Updated police academy curriculum and continued implemention of the COMPSTAT crime-tracking system.
  • Providing training and equipment for Costa Rica’s police to perform anti-gang law enforcement and also support for community policing with equipment, vehicles and training.
  • A maritime counternarcotics bilateral agreement to target offshore narcotrafficking. Although the U.S.’ antidrug surge mission in Central America’s coastal waters, Operation Martillo, has been constrained by Costa Rica’s reluctance to allow other countries’ military ships into its waters, an uptick in drug trafficking in the country has meant the government has been more open to granting permission.
  • Helped create, train and support the newly established Border Police, including building a critical checkpoint in southern Costa Rica to monitor traffic from Panama.
  • There has been an increasing presence of transnational criminal organizations in Costa Rica, which has grown hand-in-hand with continued perceptions of corruption in the police, judiciary and government. Although violence is relatively low in Costa Rica, homicide rates held steady in 2013 and assaults increased nearly 19 percent.

    El Salvador

  • Providing equipment and training for law enforcement agencies to interdict narcotics shipments, combat money laundering and public corruption, and enforce the anti-gang law.
  • Helped establish a joint Interagency Task Force “Grupo Conjunto Cuscatlán” (Cuscatlán Joint Group or GCC) in 2012 to better integrate the National Civil Police (PNC), customs and port authorities, and local military
  • Donation of three helicopters and six boats to the GCC, which is made up of the PNC, the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the Attorney General’s Office (FGR)
  • Initiated and sponsored two large polygraph sessions in 2013 administered by U.S-trained Colombian polygraphists
  • A number of reforms were also launched in El Salvador to address issues within the legal system. The Anti-Narcotics Division (DAN) of National Civilian Police was organized to confront retention issues, staffing shortages and leadership problems. According to the report, “The vetted counternarcotics unit (GEAN) within the DAN is responsible for conducting sensitive counternarcotics investigations, but few operational results have been achieved since 2012.”


  • The transfer of title and operational control of six UH-1H II helicopters, effectively nationalizing the aviation interdiction program
  • Collaboration with the National Police (PNC) to form a 38-man land interdiction unit for mobile check points along with additional efforts to modernize and expand the PNC force
  • Financial and technical support to three special prosecutorial units for criminal cases, and a special task force for investigation and preparation of high-impact narcotics cases.
  • The report noted that narcotics traffickers might be attempting to increase the domestic market in Guatemala by paying local couriers in drugs rather than cash. President Pérez Molina has increased cooperation between the police and military to combat crime and drug trafficking.


  • The United States has provided training to Honduran police, prosecutors and judges:
    • Directly trained 1,200 individuals
    • Helped establish a Criminal Investigative School
    • Funded Colombian trainers through the U.S.-Colombian Bilateral Action Plan for several trainings with government officials and security forces
    • Funded Chilean trainers to train Honduran police
  • Helped create the Inter-Institutional Task Force to improve investigative capacity, protect human rights and reduce impunity.
  • U.S. support for several counternarcotics operations, including Operation Armadillo, a mission in the major drug trafficking corridor of the Gracias a Dios region and another joint DEA-Honduran Navy interdiction operation.
  • Helped the government design several police reforms, none of which have passed into law.
  • While drug-related violence remains extremely high in Honduras, a blow was struck against narcotics trafficking with a major law enforcement operation against the Los Cachiros drug trafficking organization in September in which over $500 million in assets was seized. The country has immensely weak institutions and in 2013, several high-ranking security officials resigned or were fired. The government established a new police unit and two military police battalions in 2013 to combat the soaring crime and violence. Honduras has counternarcotics agreements with the United States, Belize, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Venezuela and Spain.


    The U.S. State Department ceased providing funds to certain Nicaraguan government agencies in 2013 due to ongoing concerns over fiscal transparency. This phased out several bilateral programs and prompted some counternarcotics funds to be redirected towards drug eradication and non-governmental drug demand reduction programs. The United States does continue to assist Nicaragua’s counternarcotic efforts in some ways:

  • Using funds from 2012, donated four Mobile Tracers narcotics detectors valued at $168,000 to the Nicaraguan National Police’s (NNP) Drug Unit, and provided associated training to 15 anti-narcotics police officers.
  • Donated interdiction equipment and two boats with the capacity to intercept offshore speedboats, constructed an anti-drugs operation center, storage warehouse and boat ramp valued at $5.4 million.
  • Also using funding from 2012, donated four drug detector units valued at $87,000 and provided interdiction training to 12 naval officers.
  • Panama

  • Established an asset-forfeiture sharing agreement that will provide $36 million from past investigations to the Panamanian government.
  • Supported prison reform and anti-corruption classes, which will continue as several security-service members were detained for narcotrafficking in 2013.
  • Provided support to modernize and maintain Panama’s Air Naval Service (SENAN), Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT), Panamanian National Police (PNP) vessels and facilities for interdiction, including funding Colombian trainers to work with SENAN and SENAFRONT. Members of SENAFRONT are now training security forces in Costa Rica, Belize and Honduras.
  • According to the INCSR, through strong U.S. support, Panama was able to achieve some successes in combating narcotrafficking, especially with the use of the Panamanian National Border Front (SENAFRONT) to end the FARC’s permanent presence in the remote Darien Gap region.