Updates from Adam Isacson (April 23, 2024)

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Sorry to have missed two weeks of "weekly" messages. It's been busy and all, but mainly—and I'm not proud of this—it's a consequence of me wanting to see what would happen if I stopped drinking coffee in the afternoons in April. (I'm not a caffeine fiend, but it seemed like a healthy thing to do.) I usually put these e-mails together in the evening hours, when I'm done with the day's WOLA work, but cutting out the afternoon coffee… made those evening hours go away.

Three weeks later, I feel no different, and now I'm looking forward to a mid-afternoon espresso. 🤷🏼‍♂️ ☕️

Anyway. This week's edition includes a Weekly Border Update, an analysis of why migration is unexpectedly declining at the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year, a look at the link between cocaine trafficking and violence in Ecuador, and a podcast about international drug policy.

Also, links to some really good readings, and to 11 Latin America-related events that I know of in Washington or online this week. (I really need to send these out earlier in the week than Tuesday to give more advance notice about the events.) I look forward to more regular correspondence in coming weeks.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 19, 2024

  • Read the whole thing here. See past weekly updates here.
  • For 2024 - read our daily border links posts here. You can subscribe to the daily border links list here.


  • CBP releases March migration data

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed in an April 12 data release that migration at the border declined from February to March for only the second time this century. The drop owes largely to the Mexican government’s stepped-up efforts to interdict migrants so far this year. San Diego may be surpassing Tucson as migrants’ number-one destination along the border.

  • Mayorkas impeachment thwarted, House considers another hard-line bill

On a party-line vote, the Democratic-majority U.S. Senate dismissed impeachment charges that the House’s Republican majority brought against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The Republicans had alleged that Mayorkas’s management of the border and migration merited the first impeachment of a cabinet secretary since 1876. The House may meanwhile consider a hardline border and migration bill, echoing provisions in H.R. 2, in coming days.

  • Leading Panama candidate vows to “close” the Darién Gap

José Raúl Mulino, a conservative populist leading polls for Panama’s May presidential election, is promising to “close” the Darién Gap and repatriate migrants. This week a UNHCR survey (with a small sample), found one in five Darién migrants intending to settle somewhere other than the United States.

  • A Guardsman fires his weapon, again, in El Paso

An Indiana National Guardsman serving under the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star” fired his weapon at an individual in El Paso who allegedly stabbed two people on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande riverbank. It was the third known event since January 2023 in which a National Guardsman working under Texas state authority has fired a weapon at, or in the presence of, migrants at the border.

Read the whole thing here.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

At WOLA: “Why Is Migration Declining at the U.S.-Mexico Border in Early 2024?”

Here’s an analysis we published April 18 about this year’s unusual springtime decline in the number of migrants making it to the U.S.-Mexico border. As arrivals drop to some of the lowest levels of the Biden administration, this piece notes that:

  • Texas’s “Operation Lone Star” doesn’t explain it.
  • The main factor appears to be Mexico’s government bottling people up, even as large numbers continue arriving in the country’s south.
  • “Shutting down” asylum, as President Biden is considering trying to do by executive order, could bring numbers down in the short term but—as we saw with Title 42—won’t have a lasting effect.
  • Crackdowns will always fail. The way to a solution runs through overhauling the creaky U.S. asylum system.

Read the whole thing here. It has lots of graphics.

Ecuador Didn’t Suddenly Become a Cocaine Transshipment Corridor

This narrative to explain Ecuador’s sharp escalation of organized-crime violence—repeated by a BBC report two weeks ago is… kind of correct, sort of?

Between 2020 and 2021 alone, cocaine production shot up by nearly a third and international drug cartels began looking for new routes through which to smuggle the cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru.

Ecuador, which is sandwiched between Peru and Colombia and whose authorities lacked experience in fighting trafficking, was seen as the perfect option.

I don’t mean to single out the BBC: you see this “cocaine surged, then homicide rates multiplied” idea repeated a lot. There’s something to it. But it misses a lot.

Cocaine seizures (from the UNODC World Drug Report) point to trends. That data, for Ecuador, does show a big jump in the amount of cocaine transiting the country from 2020 to 2021.

Tons of Cocaine Seized by Ecuadorian Forces

1990	1.25
1991	1.16
1992	3.89
1993	1.2
1994	1.79
1995	4.28
1996	9.53
1997	3.7
1998	3.85
1999	10.16
2000	3.31
2001	12.24
2002	11.21
2003	6.85
2004	4.78
2005	43.36
2006	34.25
2007	32.97
2008	29.07
2009	66.18
2010	15.47
2011	21.34
2012	31.98
2013	48.91
2014	53.49
2015	65.58
2016	97.78
2017	83.57
2018	79.4
2019	33.78
2020	92.16
2021	176.66
2022 (through October 31)	154
2023 (through October 6)	155

However, the numbers also show that there was already a lot of cocaine flowing through Ecuador during the 2010s, when the country was regarded to be among the least violent in the Americas.

The correlation between narcotrafficking and violence exists, but its strength often gets overestimated. A larger part of the story seems to have to do with the structure of organized crime in Ecuador.

Peaceful arrangements among criminal groups, which involved corrupt people high up in government (as prosecutors are uncovering), fell apart sometime around the turn of this decade. The river of cocaine that was already flowing through Ecuador fell into bitter dispute as past equilibria shattered.

The demobilization of Colombia’s FARC probably contributed to that. An early indicator of trouble was an extreme wave of prison violence between fast-growing gangs in the late 2010s and early 2020s, signaling a big shake-out among the country’s organized crime groups. There may have been a perfect storm of factors within the criminal underworlds of Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, and perhaps elsewhere.

No matter what, the explanation rests on more than just a jump in the flow of cocaine. That flow was already quite robust, and quite tolerated by corrupt people in Ecuador’s security forces, judiciary, and government institutions.

WOLA Podcast: A Groundbreaking Win at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs

I share an office with John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program. In late March, he came back from a trip to Vienna very amped up about what had happened at a big UN meeting there. I needed some context to understand why it was a big deal that a UN body passed a resolution with the words “harm reduction” in it, but once he told me the story, yes, it was a big deal.

Here’s a podcast conversation about what happened last month, with John, Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and Lisa Sánchez of México Unido Contra la Delincuencia. Even if, like me, you’re not a close follower of drug policy diplomacy, you’re going to find this episode interesting because three experts with decades of experience at this are telling what turns out to be an inspiring story.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

On March 14-22, 2024, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) held its 67th annual session in Vienna, Austria. The session saw a landmark vote that may have important repercussions for drug policy, in Latin America and elsewhere.

The Commission approved a U.S.-led resolution encouraging countries to implement “harm reduction” measures to respond to drug overdoses and to protect public health.

The vote marks a major breakthrough in civil society’s decades-long advocacy to center harm reduction, especially since the U.S. government has a history of blocking all such resolutions, and since the Commission has a longstanding tradition of enactment by a “Vienna Consensus” without votes.

This episode features three guests who helped lead civil society’s robust participation at the CND:

The three experts underscore that while the vote on this resolution was a major win in the civil society-led harm reduction fight, it is just one milestone along a longer journey. The fight must continue to ensure this sets the foundation for an international drug policy that truly prioritizes protecting people, views drug addiction as a public health and not a national security issue, and moves away from the normative framework of achieving a “drug free society” through punitive measures and prohibition.

“The prohibition regime has tried to make itself inevitable and ‘forever,’ and that’s not the case… There’s no reason to think that it needs to last forever. In fact, as we said, it was a misfit from the very beginning,” says John Walsh. “Drug use has always existed, it always will. To suggest that we’re going to create a ‘drug-free world’ is not only futile, but it’s downright dangerous because of its consequences… I think this is an opening to think more broadly about not just the UN drug policy space, but what governments need to do for the health, safety, and well-being of their populations.”

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Carlos Martinez, Daniel Ortega and His Sinister Time Machine (El Faro (El Salvador), Wednesday, April 17, 2024).

In Nicaragua there are no barricades left. There are no more cobblestone walls, nor universities that have been taken over

Andruss Avila S., Cristian Garay C., Jeronimo Castillo, Manuela Suarez R., Xiomara Giraldo, Retos del Uso de la Fuerza Letal en America Latina y el Caribe. Tercer Informe (Fundacion Ideas por la Paz (Colombia), Tuesday, April 16, 2024).

¿Cuál es la relación que tienen los miembros de la Fuerza Pública con el uso de la fuerza letal contra civiles y de los civiles contra los agentes? Conozca los indicadores comparativos entre nueve países de la región, incluido Colombia

Arelis R. Hernandez, Daniele Volpe, Marina Dias, Texas County at Center of Border Fight Is Overwhelmed by Migrant Deaths (The Washington Post, Sunday, April 14, 2024).

A Texas county that is ground zero in the feud between Gov. Greg Abbott and the Biden administration over the border has been overwhelmed responding to migrant deaths

Alejandro Santos Cid, Beatriz Guillen, Pablo Ferri, Chiapas, Territorio Tomado (El Pais (Spain), Sunday, April 14, 2024).

De Tapachula a la selva Lacandona pasando por Comalapa y Chicomuselo, esta historia ilustra la pelea entre carteles, el abandono del Estado y su rastro de asesinatos, desplazamientos, secuestros y extorsiones, pero también los intentos de la población local y la migrante por sobrevivir

Arturo Torres, Samantha Schmidt, A Narco Revolt Takes a Once-Peaceful Nation to the Brink (The Washington Post, Friday, April 12, 2024).

Ecuador’s young president declared war on the country’s powerful drug gangs after they sparked a wave of violence, including killings, kidnapping and car bombs

(Events that I know of, anyway. All times are U.S. Eastern.)

Monday, April 22, 2024

  • 1:00-5:00 at George Washington University: Strengthening Ties: A Reflection On 200 Years of U.S.-Brazil Relations (RSVP required).

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Thursday, April 25, 2024

  • 10:00 at MPI Zoom: Mapping Global Human Mobility in an Increasingly Complex World (RSVP required).
  • 11:00 at Canning House Zoom: Opinion In Focus (RSVP required).
  • 11:00-12:30 at Wilson Center Zoom: Mexico Election Series | Foreign Policy for the Future: Opportunities and Challenges (RSVP required).
  • 1:00 at worldrelief.org: What Can Christians Do About the Border Crisis? (RSVP required).
  • 1:00-2:30 at the Wilson Center and online: RAFDI Working Group Report Launch | US Leadership Matters in Addressing Forced Displacement Crisis (RSVP required).
  • 2:30-3:30 at the Inter-American Dialogue: Security Challenges in Ecuador – A Conversation with Interior Minister Mónica Palencia (RSVP required).

Friday, April 26, 2024

  • 11:15-12:30 at Wilson Center Zoom: Climate Resilience and Democratic Governance in Central America’s Northern Triangle (RSVP required).

And finally

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Jamie Larson