President-elect Joe Biden has a chance to reset the table on US-Latin American relations, but the Trump administration’s schizophrenic, transactional approach may leave some lasting scars that will be hard to cover.
Trump was sometimes bellicose, sending warships to the Caribbean in a clear bid to intimidate Venezuela and demanding that Mexico and Colombia continue hard-line measures against drug trafficking in spite of little evidence this approach was working. In fact, cocaine production continued to soar in Colombia, overall security in Mexico deteriorated into unprecedented violence and Venezuela did not flinch.
He was sometimes transactional, forcing the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to acquiesce to his demands on immigration, his principal and arguably only concern as it relates to the region. They agreed, perhaps because in return they got diplomatic cover as they flouted anti-corruption efforts.
Trump was nearly always incoherent. US federal prosecutors indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on narcoterrorism and drug trafficking charges, but Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández retained his status as a key partner in US counter-drug missions, despite being an unnamed co-conspirator in his brother's cocaine trafficking ring in a US courtroom.
But above all, the US president remained stubborn, tethered to his domestic political base more than reality. Along the US-Mexico border, at least 640 kilometers of fencing was constructed, even as traffickers continue to smuggle the vast majority of drugs through legal ports of entry.
Into this chaotic panorama enters President-elect Biden. He will likely bring a return to broad diplomacy with a focus on going after corruption and using various traditional forms of drug interdiction in a region he knows well from his years as a senator and vice president. But he may have a hard time rebuilding a State Department that Trump gutted, and he will not rock any diplomatic boats.
In other words, Biden is a return to the status quo, with all the good and bad that comes with it.
Doubling Down on Immigration
When it came to Trump and Latin America, he really only cared about one policy: immigration. And in 2020, Trump continued to press this issue, forcing, for example, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to use the National Guard as an anti-immigration fighting force, while neglecting broader security concerns that the unit could help address.
After threatening to cut aid to the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, President Trump eventually reversed his position only when all three presidents agreed to "safe third country" agreements to deter asylum-seekers fleeing those countries for the United States.
The agreements forced migrants who passed through the Northern Triangle countries to first apply for asylum there -- the same violent and dangerous region many were seeking to escape.
In return for their cooperation on immigration issues, the United States sat back while then-Guatemala President Jimmy Morales dismantled the heralded United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), the anti-graft unit that mounted one of the most successful high-level anti-corruption drives in the Americas.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, President Hernández shut down the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), a similar effort spearheaded by the Organization of American States (OAS). The MACCIH had also helped prosecute corrupt elites and strengthen the justice system at the United States’ behest and with millions in US assistance.
Both countries eased back towards the status quo when elites systematically pillaged the government or used it for their ends and faced no consequences. Guatemala's lone anti-impunity body (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad - FECI) in the Attorney General's Office is the last vestige of that effort and has been left to confront attacks from government and business elites. The same is true in Honduras, and aside from a few isolated comments from US officials, support for anti-corruption initiatives in the region all but dried up under the Trump administration.
Even when Trump turned his attention to drug trafficking, it was more an opportunity for him to thump his chest and please his base in the United States than for the US government to advance its interests or those of its partners. The US government, for example, threatened to label Mexican crime groups as terrorist organizations, suggesting the possibility of more hands-on US involvement south of the border.
"Unless the Mexican government demonstrates substantial progress in the coming year backed by verifiable data, Mexico will be at serious risk of being found to have failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments," Trump said in a White House memorandum.
It was an empty threat, but it serviced Trump’s need to bolster his strongman bona fides.
The relationship between the two countries further fractured after US federal prosecutors charged Mexico’s former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda with drug trafficking and corruption. The Justice Department subsequently dropped the charges, telling a judge that “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution.”
But the damage had been done. Lawmakers in Mexico recently passed reforms to its national security law reining in US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents’ ability to operate in the country.
Trump even harangued Colombia, the most reliable US ally for decades. At a September 2020 campaign event, the US president chastised the administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos and its historic 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC). The agreement had ended a half-century of war and earned Santos a Nobel Peace Prize.
However, for Trump, the agreement comprised a "terrible treaty with the Colombian drug cartels." The rhetoric, combined with advocacy for controversial anti-drug measures like the aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate, emboldened Colombian President Iván Duque to clamp down and jeopardize a faltering peace deal unpopular in his right-wing party.
US Military Creep in Latin America
Throughout 2020, the specter of conflict hovered between the United States and Venezuela. In March, the US Justice Department took the extraordinary step of indicting Maduro. The last time the department indicted a sitting president was in February 1988, when it accused then-Panama President Manuel Noriega of drug trafficking crimes. A few months later, the United States invaded Panama and arrested Noriega.
In April, President Trump and a phalanx of top defense officials deployed US Navy warships to the Caribbean. During a press conference, the president and then-US Defense Secretary Mark Esper portrayed the deployment as an effort to stop traffickers from using COVID-19 to smuggle drugs into the United States. Admiral Craig Faller, head of the US Southern Command, reiterated this stance.
However, Latin America watchers were quick to call the move saber-rattling. Brian Fonseca, the director of the Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University (FIU), said that drug interdiction, partner-building with allies and a “show of force” that the United States still has the “muscle to move around the Caribbean” were all packaged into the deployment.
The message to the region was clear: The US military had turned its attention back to Latin America after years of neglect. The military's return is complicated by a long and dark history of US intervention in Latin America. Its involvement in combating drug trafficking in the region has also been fraught: Weapons and training provided by the United States have often produced violent results and systematic human rights abuses.
So it was of little surprise that the recent US naval buildup in South America made waves. According to the US Naval Institute's online news site, the US Navy had an average of six warships operating in the Caribbean and Pacific, the most seen in the last five years.
The ships racked up maritime drug seizures. But the naval destroyers and other vessels -- built for warfare -- were also very expensive to operate.
Besides counter-drug operations, the destroyers skirted the Venezuelan coast on two separate "freedom of navigation" operations, provoking outrage from Maduro officials, who notably did not alter their policies in any meaningful way.
Allies and Foes: A Conflicting Approach
No two countries exemplified the Trump administration’s contradictory anti-crime approach in Latin America better than Honduras and Venezuela.
The heads of state of both countries have been accused of widespread corruption and colluding with transnational criminal organizations. Yet Venezuela President Maduro and his closest allies face narcoterrorism and drug trafficking charges, while US officials consistently call Honduran President Hernández a strategic US partner in the region.
Criminal allegations have dogged Hernández since he took office in 2014. US prosecutors convicted his brother, the former congressman Tony Hernández, on international drug charges in 2019. Throughout that trial, the president himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the drug conspiracy. Prosecutors also alleged President Hernández protected a drug lab producing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine per month and accepted a million-dollar bribe from Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."
Despite all this, the Trump administration continued to boast about its "strong and collaborative relationship" with the embattled leader, who has vehemently denied all criminal allegations against him.
Maduro, of course, remains a pariah. The United States slapped heavy sanctions against his government, indicted his closest allies, and formally charged him with conspiring with Colombia's FARC rebels and later dissident fighters to "flood the United States with cocaine."
In the indictment, US prosecutors said Maduro "negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and provided the rebels with "military-grade weapons." He is also accused of "coordinating" with Honduras and other countries to "facilitate large-scale drug trafficking."
But there is little hard evidence in the court documents to support the criminal allegations.
Honduras and Venezuela both play essential roles as transshipment points to facilitate international drug trafficking. The Trump administration, however, saw in Honduras a key ally in the fight against organized crime -- important enough to share sensitive counter-narcotics intelligence. Across the Caribbean in Venezuela, the US government saw a president it could cajole to leave office.
With Friends Like These…
In a Biden presidency, expect a return to former President Barack Obama-era policies -- ones marked by efforts to crack down on corruption, as well as to provide a more holistic series of programs to address immigration, organized crime and gangs. In the plan Biden released for Central America, for instance, the president-elect has already signaled to these countries a return to broader diplomacy, which includes anti-corruption efforts, improvements in local policing and reducing gang recruitment.
Biden calls corruption "a cancer," and he suggests creating a regional commission modeled on Guatemala's defunct CICIG to build up local institutions and help local prosecutors. The change is likely to rankle these Central American presidents, whose commitment to combating corruption rings hollow at best given the rollbacks in recent years.
Biden also says he would provide a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to take on migration's root causes. These push factors include unemployment and corruption, as well as crime and violence.
Biden's proposed aid package calls for investment in everything from security forces to job training and youth behavioral therapy. It mirrors the $750 million in aid approved in 2015 during the Obama administration after a significant uptick in migration of unaccompanied minors to the United States in 2014 (aid that was referred to as “Biden’s Billion” since the then-vice president spearheaded that effort).
The incoming Biden administration has promised a softer approach to Central American migrants seeking asylum. It is likely to be tested quickly. Border lockdowns because of COVID-19 have eased. Smugglers are ready, as migrants tend to move in larger numbers during the spring months, said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“Just the fact that the hard-line president is leaving will be a part of smugglers’ sales pitches,” he told InSight Crime.
The pressure may force Biden to quickly return to the status quo on immigration. To be sure, it was Obama, not Trump, who was the first “deporter-in-chief,” expelling more people than any president in history. And it was the Obama administration that first encouraged -- immigrant advocates say pressured -- Mexico to tighten security on its southern border and ramp up the number of checkpoints and raids on routes favored by migrants.
Other pitfalls face Biden's aid plan for the Northern Triangle as well. The strings attached to such aid are often not fully enforced by the United States, and money often winds up with governments credibly accused of graft and other wrongdoing.
Back in 2012, for example, then-Vice President Biden held a joint meeting with US-backed Central American presidents to discuss citizen security, organized crime and drug trafficking. Attending were El Salvador’s then-President Mauricio Funes, who later escaped to Nicaragua after being accused of embezzling hundreds of millions in state funds; then-President Otto Peréz Molina in Guatemala, who is in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges; and Honduras’ then-President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa, who is accused of receiving bribes from the country's most powerful drug gang.
Breaking Down the Wall
There is perhaps no greater reminder of the divide that the Trump administration sought to build between the United States and the rest of the region than the infamous wall he proposed along the US-Mexico border. The wall was ostensibly for stopping migrants and Mexico's powerful organized crime groups from smuggling drugs into the United States, and the Trump administration secured about $15 billion for 738 miles of border wall by tapping Defense Department funds for military construction projects and counter-drug operations.
In the end, it was more bluster than reality. Some 400 miles of construction was completed, mostly swapping existing vehicle barriers for new steel fencing that is up to 10 meters high. In Otay Mesa, outside of San Diego, Trump told reporters that "the concrete goes very deep," to stop tunneling underneath. The bulwarks prevent drugs from being “catapulted over” and young people from “climbing the wall with drugs on their back,” he said.
Biden has promised to stop building that wall, even while the Trump administration scrambles to build as much wall as it can before leaving office. Instead, he has said his administration will invest in better technology, including large-scale x-ray machines, and improve aging infrastructure.
It is important to recognize that most drugs smuggled from Mexico into the United States come through 25 legal ports of entry, where, in high-traffic spots like California's San Ysidro, more than 10 million cars pass each year. In 2018 alone, more than two million trucks crossed from Mexico into Laredo, Texas. Stopping such trafficking requires filling gaps in manpower and technology.
Other parts of the region also face perennial problems, most notably Colombia, where striking a balance between anti-crime work and economic development has proven tricky. As a senator and vice president, Biden worked closely with "every Colombian leader in the past 20 years," he said in an editorial this year in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in which he described Colombia as the “keystone" of US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Biden touted his championing of Plan Colombia -- the multibillion-dollar US assistance program to battle drug trafficking insurgents and paramilitary groups. The plan, launched in 2000, allowed the country's US-backed military to make some gains against the FARC in the mid-2000s.
But Plan Colombia was a double-edged sword. It became a vehicle for human rights abuses, including the extrajudicial killing of thousands of civilians.
What’s more, its success in repressing cocaine production was fleeting. Pre-empting expected criticism, Biden has promised to "create alternatives to coca cultivation," a project left in limbo by Colombian President Duque. Meanwhile, Colombia continues to produce and export record amounts of cocaine, suggesting new success measures are needed beyond coca eradication and cocaine interdiction figures, or the capture and killing of a revolving door of traffickers.
“I think one lesson that the Biden people and moderate democrats took from Plan Colombia is that just spraying and shooting your way out of this just doesn’t really work,” Isacson said.
Still, pushing the United States away from its traditional approach of focusing its resources on supply-side repression will not be easy, and Biden may not be the best candidate for the job. While the president-elect has acknowledged Latin American leaders' frustration over violence tied to the drug trade -- especially when the United States remains the world's largest market for illegal drugs -- he firmly opposes any widespread legalization.
Nonetheless, FIU’s Fonseca says it will be substantially different from Trump’s approach. He said the Biden administration will look to collaborate with Latin American nations, favoring diplomacy, multilateralism and institution building. The military will have a “light footprint,” he said, and officials are likely to make inroads in the region through security efforts that draw easy consensus, such as combating human trafficking and illegal fishing.
“You are going to see far more diplomacy and far less coercive diplomacy,” he said, drawing a contrast with the outgoing administration.
When it comes to combating organized crime and drug trafficking in Latin America under a Biden administration, the past may be the prologue.
(Top Photo: AP)