Presidential elections in the two countries at the heart of Latin America's drug trade both brought significant change in 2018: Colombians voted for a return to hard-line security policies, while Mexicans voted to take the "war" out of the “war on drugs.”
But with both new administrations offering deeply flawed security plans and the United States now a foreign policy wildcard rather than a reliable security partner, these divergent political paths could coalesce into regional instability that may open more doors for organized crime.
Colombia was the first to go to the polls, electing Iván Duque from the hard-right Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party in mid-June 2018. The new president inherits a precarious security situation, with record cocaine production coinciding with the violent evolution of an ever more volatile underworld.
The scale of the challenge Duque is facing was reinforced just days after his victory with the publication of US estimates showing coca cultivation in Colombia rose 11 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. Figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published in September showed an even greater increase of 17 percent, with estimated cocaine production reaching a historic high of nearly 1,400 metric tons.
In order to address the seemingly inexorable expansion of coca cultivation, Duque has proposed bringing back aerial fumigation of coca crops. Aerial spraying was a mainstay of anti-narcotics policy during the 2002 to 2010 presidency of Duque's political patron, Álvaro Uribe, but the practice was suspended in 2015 over public health concerns.
Duque has also pledged to make illicit crop substitution mandatory, not voluntary. But Colombian history has shown that large-scale forced drug crop eradication offers short-term gains at best. In the medium-term it leads to a dispersal rather than an end of coca plantations, while in the long-term it is unsustainable, as it does nothing to address the conditions that incentivize coca cultivation.
In addition to the coca boom, Duque will have to contend with the deterioration of the country’s divisive 2016 peace agreement with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). As more ex-FARC combatants abandon the demobilization process and the former guerrilla leadership splinters, ex-FARC mafia groups have exploded across the country.
During his election campaign, Duque laid the blame for these crises on then-President Juan Manuel Santos, and pledged to tackle them with tough policies that owed much to former President Uribe, who set Colombia down the path of militarizing the fight against organized crime in the early 2000s.
Duque also campaigned hard on modifying the FARC accords, which Uribe and his Democratic Center party have bitterly opposed since peace talks began. However, this could prove hugely counter-productive. Undermining the deal with the FARC will likely exacerbate the already alarming rates at which former combatants are abandoning the peace process, in turn fueling the expansion of the ex-FARC mafia as many former fighters return to their criminal activities.
The FARC peace process is not the only one in Duque’s sights. He also announced that he would redefine the terms of the negotiation with the country’s last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
The president's uncompromising stance toward the ELN could backfire, pushing regional guerrilla factions to break away. At a time when the guerrillas are capitalizing on the departure of the FARC and the Venezuelan crisis to expand territorially and within the drug trade, a disrupted peace process could leave Colombia facing the prospect of an increasingly powerful and wealthy insurgency that feels the road to peace has been blocked off.
Mexico at a Crossroads
Two weeks after Duque’s election, Mexico voted for perennial leftist presidential candidate and populist upstart Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known by his initials, AMLO. The election results seemingly set Mexico down the opposite path to Colombia.
AMLO inherited a security situation that represents one of the most damning failures of the still largely dominant war on drugs. For more than a decade, Mexico has dramatically expanded the military's role in fighting crime. The grand capos of the Mexican underworld have been taken down and most of the powerful cartels that once dominated the drug trade are shadows of their former selves. But the drugs continue to flow and violence is reaching new highs, as new, more disperse and fragmented contenders have taken over the business of the old cartels.
During the election campaign, AMLO proposed a range of crime-fighting policies that represent a stark break from those of the recent past. The incoming Mexican president's security vision is far more progressive than that of Colombia's Duque, but it is no less flawed. Serious doubts remain over whether AMLO can muster the resources and political will to actually implement his preferred policies.
These include pulling back the military from the fight against organized crime. He has also proposed pardoning low-level drug trade offenders, and is considering decriminalizing drugs as part of a move towards treating drug consumption as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.
Since taking over as president, AMLO seems to have reversed his position on the military’s role in public safety operations. His proposed 2019 budget sharply increases military spending, foresees the creation of a new National Guard and slashes resources for local and state security. This places the army at the core of AMLO’s plans to fight organized crime, especially given that Mexican state and municipal police are generally ill-equipped (not to mention too corrupted) to take on violent criminal groups without support from the armed forces. Indeed, Mexico’s marines have carried out many of the most high-profile arrests in recent years.
Other proposals, such as a shift toward decriminalizing drug consumption and giving amnesty to low-level drug offenders, will demand considerable political will and public support. And while AMLO is known as a populist, he has proven time and again that he has a pragmatic streak that could show itself, especially when it comes to a flashpoint issue like security. What’s more, his party is operating in a relatively fragile coalition that may not want to spend political capital on this perennial policy loser.
Questions also persist over AMLO's commitment to another campaign platform: tackling corruption. He has begun a public spat with prosecutors and judges, seeking to cut their wages and budgets. The new president has also rejected calls for the next attorney general to be selected impartially, reportedly planning to hand pick the country's next top prosecutor. Independent experts say such an appointment often results in an attorney general who lacks the independence to pursue corruption probes wherever they may lead, casting doubt on AMLO's promises to clean up Mexico's notoriously dirty political scene.
Opposite Directions, Same Roadblock
As Colombia brings back previously tried security policies to address its organized crime problems, Mexico seems poised to experiment with new approaches. But both will face the challenge of cooperating — or not — with the mercurial administration of US President Donald Trump.
Colombia's relationship with the United States was strained during the final years of the Santos presidency. Tensions peaked last year when Trump threatened to label Colombia as a state failing to live up to its international anti-narcotics obligations.
So far, though, things are looking more positive for Duque. Shortly after his election, the president-elect visited Washington, holding meetings with senior White House officials to discuss security issues like the drug boom and the crisis in neighboring Venezuela.
The US government under Trump seems inclined to support Duque's security policies — at least rhetorically. But it will be much more difficult to convince Trump and his allies to lobby for the massive financial and logistical backing that will be needed to support key security initiatives. Trump has already voiced his discontent with Colombia’s ongoing cocaine boom, and the US president has advocated severe cuts in US aid to Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
Unlike Duque's agenda, many of AMLO's progressive stances clash with Trump's worldview. But that hasn't stopped the incoming Mexican president from seeking out US support. In July, for example, AMLO published a letter he had sent to Trump calling for closer cooperation in key areas, including security.
But these signs of sympathy between the two populist politicians might be superficial. Trump's volatility and AMLO's unflinching personality could make for a conflictive bilateral relationship —especially when it comes to security, which will likely be debated as intensely as other hot button issues like migration and trade.
Managing relations with the US president will be a difficult, long-term task for both Duque and AMLO. But securing consistency in daily security and diplomatic exchanges from the Trump administration may prove harder, as Trump’s presidency has left foreign policy institutions adrift.
The administration’s chaotic overhaul and willful neglect of the US State Department has caused a mass exodus of experienced personnel, leaving the institution at the heart of US foreign policy rudderless. Such paralysis could severely undermine bilateral security cooperation.
As Colombia seeks to contain the cocaine bonanza with flawed policies from the past, and Mexico opens a new chapter in its long-running conflicts with cartels, both countries will have to contend with an important but erratic partner that could derail even the best-laid plans. This dynamic is likely to fuel a lack of regional coordination that could prove to be a boon for organized crime.
Photo Illustration/Credit: AP Images