When it comes to combating organized crime and drug trafficking, US President Donald Trump has chosen to strongarm his Latin American counterparts rather than engage in diplomacy, threatening them and pushing unilateral policies that largely backfired.
The mercurial approach by his administration during the past four years has left anti-drug allies unmoored, provided political capital to presidents who undermined anti-corruption initiatives and squandered efforts to improve regional security by throwing resources at an ineffective border wall.
Below, InSight Crime highlights five Trump administration decisions that have impacted organized crime in the region:
In his first White House memorandum to the US Secretary of State in late 2017, President Trump broke with decades of precedent and threatened to label Colombia as having “failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements” as a result of the “extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production” in the Andean nation. The warning paved the way for Colombia’s counter-drug policy to be based solely on cultivation and interdiction figures.
At a 2018 event, President Trump traveled to Long Island, New York, to discuss the “menace of MS13.” He railed that the street gang had “violated our borders and transformed our neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” making use of “glaring loopholes” to “enter the country as unaccompanied minors.” He used the MS13, in part, to justify hard-line policies on immigration, though the gang’s expansion within the United States is due to a wide range of social and economic factors. The Justice Department under his administration has continued to scale up efforts to “disrupt, dismantle and destroy” the gang despite a full understanding of its criminal capacity.
SEE ALSO: MS13 in the Americas Investigation
The misrepresentation of the MS13 continued when gang leader Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue” or “Clipper,” was indicted on eight “terrorism-related offenses” in July 2020, although authorities fell short in justifying the striking criminal charges.
A defining moment in President Trump’s immigration policy came from a 2018 executive order that separated families who crossed into the United States illegally. His crackdown at the border — a policy known as “zero tolerance” — further pushed people into the illegal market and the hands of criminal groups, helped raise the price for criminal services like human smuggling, increased the risk that deportees would enter the ranks of criminal groups and eroded trust between authorities and migrant communities exploited by criminal groups.
In September 2020, after threatening to label Mexico’s organized crime groups as terrorist organizations, President Trump used the annual White House memorandum on drug production and trafficking to urge Mexican officials to act. He demanded the government “clearly demonstrate its commitment to dismantling the cartels and their criminal enterprises.” Otherwise, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador would run the risk of being found to have “failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments.”
A brief golden era when local and international forces came together to fight public and private corruption in Central America, primarily in Guatemala, came to end as the Trump administration’s commitment to combatting graft in the region evaporated. US congressmen held hearings to undermine corruption investigations and stood by as the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) was eventually booted from the country after more than a decade of work.