Updates from Adam Isacson (December 23, 2023)

Hi, this is Adam. If you're receiving this message, it means you signed up on my website to receive regular updates. If you'd like to stop getting these, just follow the instructions further down.

I know I said in last week's email that it was the last email of the year. But it turns out that there are a few items to share from this past week. So this is the last email of the year.

This one has the weekly Border Update, more new migration numbers, a panoramic WOLA podcast episode, some written congressional testimony about Colombia, and the usual links. Have a great holiday and see you next year.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 21, 2023

Read the whole update at WOLA's website. This one is getting heavy website traffic because so much is going on. Also, at this time of many fast-moving border events, see our archive of daily updates.

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This will be the last Weekly Border Update until January 19. Best wishes for a happy holiday.


More than 10,000 migrants per day, mostly asylum seekers, have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. ​​Border Patrol sectors seeing the most arrivals are Del Rio and El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego, California. Some of the rush is likely the product of false rumors and misinformation. Notably, it is happening even though U.S.-bound migration through Panama and Honduras has been dropping sharply since October.

The U.S. Congress has adjourned for 2023 with no agreement on Republicans’ demands for new restrictions on asylum and other migration pathways—their main condition for supporting a $110.5 billion package of aid to Ukraine and Israel, new border spending, and other priorities. A small group of senators and senior Biden administration officials has been meeting regularly, but has produced neither legislative language nor a basic framework. They will resume consideration of the spending bill after Congress returns on January 8, amid a growing outcry from progressive legislators and migrants’ rights defense groups.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law S.B.4, which makes irregular border crossings into Texas a state crime. Upon arrest, migrants will be jailed if they do not agree to be returned to Mexico—but Mexico is refusing to accept returnees from the Texas state government. The ACLU, El Paso County, and El Paso-based rights groups quickly filed suit in federal court to block the law.

Read the rest here.

The Number-One Nationality of Migrants Apprehended in each Border Patrol Sector in November

CBP pushed out November migration numbers at the end of the day Friday the 22nd. I've updated a few charts from them so far, and at GitHub I've pushed the updated data to a tool that you can use to make tables from CBP's dataset, if you know how to run a web server on your computer (it's free and not too hard).

I used that tool this morning because I wanted to see who was coming to each of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. I found a remarkable variation, in both nationalities and overall numbers. Here are sectors and number-one nationalities:

  • Tucson, Arizona: Mexico (30,201 of 64,638)
  • Del Rio, Texas: Venezuela (12,932 of 42,952)
  • San Diego, California: “Other Countries” (7,174 of 31,164)
  • El Paso, Texas-New Mexico: Mexico (6,209 of 22,403)
  • Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Venezuela (4,199 of 18,774)
  • Yuma, Arizona-California: Peru (1,742 of 6,159)
  • Laredo, Texas: Mexico (1,650 of 2,809)
  • El Centro, California: Mexico (876 of 1,787)
  • Big Bend, Texas: Mexico (330 of 427)

Total: Mexico (50,967 of 191,113)

At CBP’s U.S.-Mexico border ports of entry (official border crossings):

  • Laredo, Texas: Mexico (6,735 of 24,224)
  • San Diego, California: Cuba (5,074 of 15,432)
  • El Paso, Texas-New Mexico: Venezuela (2,163 of 7,617)
  • Tucson, Arizona: Mexico (1,646 of 4,032)

Total: Mexico (13,844 of 51,305)

WOLA Podcast: A Review Of 2023 in the Americas with WOLA President Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

The last WOLA Podcast episode of the year is with my boss and our president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval. We talk about what’s happened in Latin America in 2023 and what our plans are for 2024, WOLA’s 50th anniversary year, in four areas: democracy, migration, climate, and gender and racial justice.

Here’s the text of WOLA’s podcast landing page.

As WOLA approaches its 50th anniversary, four areas are orienting our work alongside partners in the Americas: democracy, migration, climate, as well as gender and racial justice. It is a challenging moment for all four. Several democracies are under assault, forced migration is at historic levels, climate impacts are a bigger part of everyday life, and progress on gender and racial equity is fragile.

In this 2023 year-end podcast episode, WOLA’s President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, takes stock of trends and concerns in all four of these areas. There is much to do in 2024, and Jiménez explains how, as it enters its next 50 years, WOLA is aligning its research, advocacy, communications, and relationships to fight for human rights.

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

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

OK, enough here—I won't make you read the whole thing in this e-mail. Click this link to read the whole written testimony, endnotes and all.

Mexico Encountered a Record 97,969 Migrants in November

Mexico's government also dumped its November data this week, showing that it recorded 97,969 “events of people in irregular migratory situation” during November 2023. That’s 5 percent more migrant encounters than October, and sets a new record for the most that Mexico has ever recorded in a month:

Mexico’s Apprehensions of All Migrants,
January 2001-November 2023

Jan-01	14061
Feb-01	17965
Mar-01	20613
Apr-01	15770
May-01	17368
Jun-01	13947
Jul-01	13283
Aug-01	12731
Sep-01	9740
Oct-01	5423
Nov-01	4727
Dec-01	4902
Jan-02	8968
Feb-02	10722
Mar-02	11443
Apr-02	13930
May-02	15040
Jun-02	12784
Jul-02	13415
Aug-02	11996
Sep-02	11781
Oct-02	10607
Nov-02	9686
Dec-02	7689
Jan-03	11556
Feb-03	14945
Mar-03	16998
Apr-03	11558
May-03	20391
Jun-03	19253
Jul-03	18046
Aug-03	18027
Sep-03	16409
Oct-03	16480
Nov-03	14302
Dec-03	9649
Jan-04	15242
Feb-04	19095
Mar-04	21434
Apr-04	20526
May-04	20726
Jun-04	18204
Jul-04	19715
Aug-04	17936
Sep-04	17999
Oct-04	18240
Nov-04	16559
Dec-04	10019
Jan-05	17673
Feb-05	22118
Mar-05	24267
Apr-05	24509
May-05	20592
Jun-05	19922
Jul-05	19657
Aug-05	20376
Sep-05	20630
Oct-05	16208
Nov-05	20545
Dec-05	13772
Jan-06	21867
Feb-06	24547
Mar-06	24892
Apr-06	19234
May-06	16870
Jun-06	12926
Jul-06	11487
Aug-06	12183
Sep-06	12480
Oct-06	10601
Nov-06	10109
Dec-06	5509
Jan-07	11215
Feb-07	11910
Mar-07	12473
Apr-07	11796
May-07	12004
Jun-07	11095
Jul-07	10846
Aug-07	12520
Sep-07	9047
Oct-07	7292
Nov-07	6431
Dec-07	3826
Jan-08	8970
Feb-08	10787
Mar-08	9305
Apr-08	11031
May-08	9747
Jun-08	8394
Jul-08	7585
Aug-08	6705
Sep-08	6521
Oct-08	6894
Nov-08	5506
Dec-08	3278
Jan-09	5943
Feb-09	6246
Mar-09	6884
Apr-09	6742
May-09	5701
Jun-09	6872
Jul-09	5718
Aug-09	5789
Sep-09	6039
Oct-09	5450
Nov-09	4388
Dec-09	3261
Jan-10	4759
Feb-10	5796
Mar-10	7336
Apr-10	6695
May-10	7075
Jun-10	6378
Jul-10	6760
Aug-10	6755
Sep-10	5098
Oct-10	4714
Nov-10	5077
Dec-10	3659
Jan-11	4430
Feb-11	5087
Mar-11	6695
Apr-11	6471
May-11	7852
Jun-11	5717
Jul-11	5215
Aug-11	5299
Sep-11	5586
Oct-11	5453
Nov-11	5267
Dec-11	3511
Jan-12	6343
Feb-12	7442
Mar-12	9291
Apr-12	8732
May-12	8874
Jun-12	8082
Jul-12	6860
Aug-12	6496
Sep-12	8746
Oct-12	7879
Nov-12	6364
Dec-12	3397
Jan-13	6699
Feb-13	7407
Mar-13	8290
Apr-13	7951
May-13	7718
Jun-13	7370
Jul-13	7471
Aug-13	7443
Sep-13	6657
Oct-13	7549
Nov-13	7300
Dec-13	4443
Jan-14	6295
Feb-14	8317
Mar-14	10502
Apr-14	8621
May-14	10132
Jun-14	12515
Jul-14	11005
Aug-14	11618
Sep-14	11111
Oct-14	13700
Nov-14	13671
Dec-14	9662
Jan-15	18299
Feb-15	14885
Mar-15	16569
Apr-15	17085
May-15	19402
Jun-15	17152
Jul-15	17195
Aug-15	17088
Sep-15	15450
Oct-15	18232
Nov-15	14755
Dec-15	12029
Jan-16	11218
Feb-16	11420
Mar-16	14253
Apr-16	16700
May-16	16454
Jun-16	14850
Jul-16	13604
Aug-16	16502
Sep-16	19811
Oct-16	20494
Nov-16	17579
Dec-16	13331
Jan-17	10553
Feb-17	7275
Mar-17	5905
Apr-17	5243
May-17	7071
Jun-17	7471
Jul-17	7863
Aug-17	9171
Sep-17	7757
Oct-17	9678
Nov-17	9227
Dec-17	6632
Jan-18	9248
Feb-18	11549
Mar-18	11779
Apr-18	11486
May-18	10350
Jun-18	9577
Jul-18	8965
Aug-18	13560
Sep-18	13903
Oct-18	18895
Nov-18	12663
Dec-18	6637
Jan-19	8521
Feb-19	10194
Mar-19	13508
Apr-19	21197
May-19	23241
Jun-19	31396
Jul-19	19822
Aug-19	16066
Sep-19	13517
Oct-19	12256
Nov-19	9727
Dec-19	7305
Jan-20	14119
Feb-20	8377
Mar-20	8421
Apr-20	2628
May-20	2251
Jun-20	2304
Jul-20	4737
Aug-20	7445
Sep-20	8831
Oct-20	12253
Nov-20	9557
Dec-20	6337
Jan-21	9564
Feb-21	12893
Mar-21	18548
Apr-21	22968
May-21	20091
Jun-21	19249
Jul-21	25830
Aug-21	43031
Sep-21	46370
Oct-21	41580
Nov-21	29264
Dec-21	18291
Jan-22	23382
Feb-22	24304
Mar-22	30753
Apr-22	31206
May-22	33290
Jun-22	30423
Jul-22	33902
Aug-22	42719
Sep-22	43792
Oct-22	52201
Nov-22	49485
Dec-22	48982
Jan-23	37360
Feb-23	38041
Mar-23	44628
Apr-23	24993
May-23	40024
Jun-23	58265
Jul-23	73515
Aug-23	82350
Sep-23	96542
Oct-23	93045
Nov-23	97969

Data table

Migrants came from 111 countries. Of nationalities with more than 1,000 migrant encounters, those that increased the most from October to November were Mauritania (119%), the Dominican Republic (92%), and Honduras (65%). Those that declined the most from October to November were Cuba (-52%), Senegal (-28%), and Guinea (-11%). Venezuela, the number-one nationality, declined 8 percent.

Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 27%, Honduras 15%, Haiti 10%, Guatemala 9%, Ecuador 8%, All Others <4%

Since January 2022: Venezuela 26%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 13%, Ecuador 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5%, All Others <5%

Data table

Even as Mexico measured an increase in migration in November, two countries to the south, Panama and Honduras, reported double-digit percentage decreases.

Here’s Panama: a 24 percent decline in migration through the Darién Gap from October to November, and a 50 percent decline in migration from September to November. So, fewer people departing the South American continent.

Monthly Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

November 2023: Venezuela 61%, China 11%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 9%, Ecuador 8%, Colombia 5%, all others <1%

Since January 2020: Venezuela 53%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 21%, Ecuador 9%, all others <3%

Data table

Here’s Honduras: down 41 percent from October to November. So, fewer people coming from South America and through the increasingly used aerial entry point in Nicaragua.

Honduras’s “Irregular” Migrant Encounters (Since August 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 44%, Cuba 20%, Haiti 9%, Ecuador 6%, Guinea 5%, China 4%, All Others <4%

Since August 2022: Venezuela 41%, Cuba 18%, Haiti 14%, Ecuador 10%, Colombia 2.2%, All Others <2% 

	Venezuela	Cuba	Haiti	Ecuador	Colombia	China	Guinea	Senegal	Mauritania	Other Countries
22-Aug	10769	6899	836	1583	314	42	19	118	18	2278
22-Sep	11325	5144	863	1685	379	45	23	135	14	2220
22-Oct	14027	5290	1856	5793	723	99	30	185	18	3037
22-Nov	3756	9219	2858	5130	400	186	34	158	38	3857
22-Dec	1923	7225	2518	6557	231	405	22	87	63	4034
23-Jan	1866	2079	5365	4562	296	415	72	202	31	4054
23-Feb	4462	629	4092	5010	449	688	97	159	71	4449
23-Mar	9112	776	2991	2493	624	719	90	191	88	4576
23-Apr	10883	1301	2392	1692	682	985	87	472	87	4350
23-May	11809	2397	1629	2147	654	801	277	831	427	4398
23-Jun	12698	3254	1305	2817	488	1045	118	390	1801	2870
23-Jul	25050	6721	1558	6116	954	980	389	1398	2036	3769
23-Aug	35669	11343	4051	5789	1330	654	1005	1629	1036	3020
23-Sep	42550	19288	14898	4830	2174	570	1762	1066	48	3453
23-Oct	34547	17513	35529	3581	2021	1006	2304	1235	75	4198
23-Nov	26440	11671	5438	3725	2003	2200	3143	685	87	4395

Data table

Julie Turkewitz, Live From the Jungle: Migrants Become Influencers on Social Media (The New York Times, Wednesday, December 20, 2023).

TikTok, Facebook and YouTube are transforming global migration, becoming tools of migrants and smugglers alike

Alex Bare, Mariakarla Nodarse Venancio, Five Key Trends in Cuban Migration in 2023 (Washington Office on Latin America, Wednesday, December 20, 2023).

Reforms in Cuba have failed to improve living conditions, and there is little political resolve in the U.S. to reassess policies exacerbating Cuba’s economic hardship

Informe Revela Que Sacar a Policia del Mindefensa No Es Prioridad para el Gobierno (El Espectador (Colombia), Wednesday, December 20, 2023).

La Fundación Alfredo Molano Bravo y la ONG Temblores presentan el informe “No basta”, una investigación que le pone la lupa a lo que han hecho el Estado y la Alcaldía de Bogotá para garantizar el derecho a la protesta

Las Americas v. Mccraw Complaint (American Civil Liberties Union, Tuesday, December 19, 2023).

This action challenges Senate Bill 4 (88th Leg. (4th special session)) (“S.B. 4”), which purports to give Texas state officials the unprecedented power to arrest, detain, and deportnoncitizens in the State of Texas

And Finally

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Jamie Larson