President Donald Trump’s approach to US security policy in Latin America has flailed during his first year in office, with his administration alienating key international allies, backing flawed anti-crime strategies throughout the region, and pursuing counterproductive domestic policies.
Trump has complicated relations with Colombia and Mexico, two of the most important US partners when it comes to counternarcotics efforts, while also supporting heavy-handed policing strategies that have shown limited success in Central America.
Trump's administration has stayed virtually silent with respect to corruption in most of the region, but it has ramped up pressure on top members of the government of Venezuela suspected of ties to organized crime.
In addition, Trump has implemented domestic migration policies that could hinder efforts to disrupt gang activities, while his approach to combat a deepening opioid drug crisis has fallen short in various ways.
Before Trump entered office, much remained uncertain with regard to his policy leanings in the realm of security in Latin America. A number of observers predicted that he would pay little attention to the region, and that his penchant for making inflammatory remarks would be an obstacle to international cooperation.
Early on, Trump fulfilled the latter expectation. As a candidate, he had repeatedly called for Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall along the US border, despite widespread criticism about the potential cost and likely inefficacy of such a project. Then in February, just a month after Trump took office, top officials had to scramble to Mexico to contain the fallout from comments by the new president likening his immigration policies to a "military operation."
During another trip to Mexico in May, US officials once again tried to mend the bilateral ties frayed by Trump's controversial rhetoric. But as we noted at the time, their comments about "shared responsibilities" contrasted with the administration's policy preferences. These included a proposed overhaul of the US healthcare system that "could exacerbate the already deadly US opioid epidemic," and a heavy focus on forcibly eradicating illicit opium poppy crops in Mexico.
Trump took a similarly alienating stance toward Colombia, where the government is struggling to contain booming cocaine production at the same time as it implements a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Trump's administration ratcheted up pressure on the Colombian government to pursue forced coca eradication. But as we noted in May, "It is unlikely that even the most intense eradication efforts will be enough to stop coca cultivation. The areas where coca is grown are simply too vast, too remote, and the coca crop -- which can yield three harvests a year -- simply remains the most economically viable option for a large number of poor Colombian farmers."
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Moreover, we wrote, "the priority placed by Colombia’s government on reaching eradication goals has put enormous pressure on security forces to destroy as much coca as possible. Coupled with the lack of implementation of crop substitution programs outlined in the peace agreement, this forceful eradication campaign is fueling tensions and leading to outbreaks of violence between coca farmers and the state."
These concerns did not seem to sway Trump, who went so far as to threaten to "decertify" Colombia's counternarcotics efforts in September. One analyst called it a "huge mistake" and a "slap at an ally trying to deal [with] the problem."
At the same time, Trump was not alone in putting pressure on Colombia to do more in the fight against drugs. In a congressional hearing the day before Trump's decertification threat, several senators questioned Colombia's commitment to dealing with the cocaine issue, and Democrat Dianne Feinstein even proposed making US aid to Colombia "conditioned on extradition when the US requests it.”
While the Trump administration has strained relations with Colombia and Mexico, it has found common ground with governments in Central America's "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, backing their heavy-handed anti-gang policies.
“In a meeting held with the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries … the administration of US President Donald Trump reiterated that henceforth the focus of bilateral relations will be prioritizing heavy-handed approaches to the so-called ‘drug war’ and illegal migration to the United States stemming from the region, with little significance being given to the allocation of development funds,” we reported following a high-level summit in June.
In July, we reported on US Attorney General Jeff Sessions' visit to El Salvador, where he met with top Salvadoran officials to discuss anti-gang efforts.
"There is no doubt gangs and the MS13 represent a huge security challenge in both the United States and El Salvador, and improving transnational cooperation and coordination is usually a welcome move toward tackling such challenges," we wrote. "However, huge question marks remain over both the motives and the efficacy of the plans being hatched by both countries’ governments."
In addition to explicitly endorsing and cooperating with the heavy-handed crime fighting approaches of US partners in Central America, the Trump administration has maintained a studied silence on reports of serious human rights abuses associated with these strategies.
Moreover, mirroring the priorities of Central American governments, the Trump administration has focused on gangs much more than the elite corruption that continues to plague the region.
When a political crisis erupted in August in Guatemala over President Jimmy Morales' move to oust the head of an internationally backed anti-corruption body, the decision was denounced by top diplomats from the United States and other countries, as well as members of the US congress.
But, as we wrote, "the voice that really matters is that of Trump, who is, of course, facing down investigators of his own campaign by similarly dedicated public servants and prosecutors, one of whom he fired in a manner not too different from what Morales is doing now. There is little question that Trump administration officials will continue to denounce Morales’ act as undermining democracy and the rule of law, as they should, but their protests carry little weight while their boss carries out a campaign against his own would-be prosecutors in their investigation of Russia’s meddling in the US elections."
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In contrast to the administration's seeming lack of concern about corruption in Central America, the United States under Trump has intensified efforts to call attention to criminality within the government of Venezuela.
Barely a month after Trump’s January inauguration, the United States sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of involvement in drug trafficking. By the end of July, more than a dozen current and former high-ranking officials were sanctioned for “undermining democracy.” And in early August, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro himself was targeted.
We wrote at the time that these moves "will likely serve to further isolate the regime, consolidating international pressure upon it and offering moral support to Venezuela’s opposition." But, we noted, "they are unlikely to significantly weaken Maduro’s grip on power, and could even prompt him and his allies to dig in further."
Trump placed immigration policy at the center of his campaign, and as president, he has relentlessly sought to tie issue to crime. However, as we noted in May, law enforcement experts say that the demonization of migrant communities is unwarranted and could complicate important efforts to gather intelligence on gangs.
Republican allies in congress have backed Trump's moves to toughen immigration enforcement, emboldening him to take steps that could actually prove detrimental to security in Latin America.
On the other hand, the administration's policies with regard to the opioid drug crisis have been lacking in substance.
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"Trump has learned that he can score public relations coups with repeated, blustering announcements of reform, as well as by blaming foreign nations for their ostensible responsibility in what is mostly a homegrown drug crisis," we wrote in December. "At the same time, good public relations without effective public policy is a fundamentally flawed approach. In order to adequately handle this important, transnational security threat, the Trump administration must dedicate the human and financial resources needed to meaningfully address its causes."
Trump's go-it-alone approach to regional security issues seems unlikely to change during the remainder of his time in office. And similarly, there is little indication that he will reverse course on the questionable security policies he has pursued both at home and abroad.
Amid shake-ups in top policymaking positions, it remains unclear exactly what shape Trump's approach to Latin America security will take. But the evidence so far suggests his administration will continue with policies that could end up benefiting organized crime in a variety of ways.
Top photo by Associated Press/Susan Walsh