Aside from near constant talk of building “a wall” along the Mexican border and sporadic mention of Mexico’s heroin distribution networks, candidates for the US presidency have paid little attention to how they would deal with organized crime and security issues in Latin America and the Caribbean, so InSight Crime scanned their records and their statements to try to get a better idea.
There are six major issues that the candidates from the two major political parties in the United States — Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Party nominee Donald Trump — have addressed either at length or partially as it relates to security policy in Latin America and the Caribbean: US security assistance to the region, domestic drug policy, multilateral cooperation on issues of security and organized crime, gun control, and migration.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime agreed that a Clinton presidency would be unlikely to result in any major changes in trends for US security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.
The United States provides substantial security assistance to many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. During the administration of current President Barack Obama, the United States has allocated more than $7.4 billion in security aid to the region. According to government data compiled by Security Assistance Monitor, most of that amount has been directed through the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, which “provides equipment and training to foreign countries for counternarcotics and anti-crime efforts.”
In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, respectively, the Obama administration’s State Department requested $568.7 million and $610.8 million in security aid to the region. Again, most of those amounts would be directed through INCLE. (See InSight Crime’s graphic below)
The United States has also trained a large number of Latin American security officials in recent years. According to Security Assistance Monitor’s data, the United States during the Obama administration has conducted more than 76,000 security trainings for the region. (See InSight Crime’s graphic below)
“The aid packages are sort of an agreed-upon strategy,” said Sarah Kinosian, a program officer at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “So, for all intents and purposes, I don’t think you’re going to see that much of a departure.”
In December 2015, the US Congress approved a major aid package to Central America totaling $750 million, which is weighted mostly toward economic development and civilian institution-building initiatives. As president, Clinton would likely support the implementation of that package and has expressed support for implementing something along the lines of Plan Colombia — a controversial initiative begun during the late stages of her husband Bill Clinton’s 1993 to 2001 term as president that focused largely on providing support for Colombia’s military and police. This has raised concerns among some observers that Hillary Clinton would advocate for Central American countries to pursue a militarized approach to security, despite the numerous shortcomings of such strategies.
However, Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter said he believes that Clinton is using Plan Colombia “as a shorthand to refer to a more wide-ranging cooperation” between the United States and its Central American partners. And Kinosian said she believes Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s approach, which has emphasized tackling corruption and strengthening institutions over promoting heavy-handed strategies on crime and security issues.
It is less clear what Trump would do as president, but he has previously expressed skepticism about the usefulness of US security assistance abroad — even aid directed to some of the United States’ closest allies. This suggests that Trump would support reducing security aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. However, there is relatively little he could do to reverse the Central America aid package, since it has already been signed into law, the State Department has already certified the recipients of the aid and multi-year strategies have been established.
The sale of military and police equipment to Latin America and the Caribbean represents another significant area of US security assistance to the region. During the Obama administration, the United States has delivered more than $5.5 billion worth of such equipment. (See InSight Crime’s graphic below)
In global terms, the Obama administration has approved more arms sales that any other administration in decades. As secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, Clinton oversaw and had a part in approving a sizeable portion of that increased amount. This suggests that she is likely to support continuing, or perhaps increasing, sales of military and police equipment to Latin America and the Caribbean if she becomes president.
Again, it is more difficult to predict how Trump would handle this issue. But given that he has advocated for more countries to obtain nuclear weapons, it is highly unlikely that he would move to reduce US arms sales to foreign countries, including those in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As the world’s top consumer of illicit narcotics, US drug policy has major impacts on criminal dynamics in Latin American and Caribbean countries that produce these substances or serve as transshipment points for them. For example, recent state-level measures in the United States to decriminalize and even legalize the production and sale of marijuana have put a dent in the profits of Mexican marijuana farmers and the criminal organizations responsible for trafficking that drug across the border.
For her part, Clinton has said that she would allow states to move forward with marijuana decriminalization and legalization initiatives, and she has expressed support for changes to federal law that would expand opportunities for research into possible medical benefits of the drug.
Trump, meanwhile, has similarly expressed an openness to allowing states to decriminalize or legalize the drug, though he does not personally support the idea. He has also said he supports allowing adults to access the drug for medical purposes.
On a state level, legalization may be a fait accompli. In addition to the four US states that have already legalized recreational marijuana, five more will vote on November 8 to decide whether or not to legalize the drug. Those states include Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona and most significantly California — the most populous and economically powerful state in the nation. As the New York Times points out, a vote in favor of legalization in California could “blow the door open” to nationwide, federal legalization of the drug.
Repealing the current federal ban on recreational marijuana would likely require action by Congress, and political realities make this unlikely, at least in the near term. However, presidents have the authority to decide how to enforce federal law, and can choose — as the Obama administration did in 2013 — not to attempt to interfere with state-level efforts to relax marijuana restrictions.
One of the few issues both candidates engaged on during the campaign was the growing use of heroin. Both Clinton and Trump have made proposals for how they would deal with the ongoing opioid drug abuse crisis. Clinton has proposed tackling the issue by increasing access to addiction treatment services and reforming drug laws in order to “appropriately divert people to treatment instead of the criminal justice system.” Trump has put forth a plan that focuses more heavily on reducing the supply rather than the demand for such drugs, through increased interdiction efforts and “aggressively prosecut[ing] drug traffickers.”
While looser marijuana laws could take a bite out of the finances of criminal groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, increasing heroin use in the United States — linked to years of over-prescription of opioid painkiller drugs — has sparked violence in Mexico as powerful criminal groups compete for access to the lucrative, expanding US market. And unlike marijuana, there is virtually no public support in the United States for legalizing heroin.
Notwithstanding these positions, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that supply-side approaches to drug control are counter-productive from both a public health perspective, as well as in terms of their effects on organized crime. Somewhat paradoxically, supply reduction efforts actually make the drug trade more profitable for criminal organizations, whereas reducing demand for illegal drugs simultaneously reduces the amount of money crime groups can make from them. In fact, many Latin American leaders in recent years have called for the United States to decriminalize drug use, arguing that the so-called “war on drugs” has exacerbated the negative consequences of drug use rather than ameliorating them. Neither candidate, however, appears interested in engaging in this debate at this level.
Aside from drug policy, one of the most important areas of multilateral concern between the United States and its Latin American neighbors is the issue of gun control. As Kinosian put it, “Lax US gun laws definitely contribute to violence in Latin America, so any headway toward making gun laws a little bit stricter would help.”
Clinton has expressed support for tightening US gun laws, which the Forum on Arms Trade has predicted “may thus reduce the number of available small arms and therefore their illicit flow to Latin America.”
Trump, on the other hand, has positioned himself as an opponent of stricter gun regulations. As the Forum on Arms Trade wrote, “It is doubtful whether this approach would impact the illicit flow of small arms to Latin America.”
Migration (Gang Truces and Peace Talks)
Many migrants to the United States are fleeing criminal violence in Central America, and many pay smuggling organizations to assist them in reaching the US border.
Trump, of course, has made immigration a central issue of his campaign, infamously promising to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and force Mexico to pay for it. Although this plan is laughably unrealistic, it can be viewed as a call for increased enforcement at the border. As is the case with illegal drugs, however, increasing controls on migration at the border is likely to make smuggling more lucrative for criminal groups and strengthen them.
Clinton, on the other hand, has said she supports reforming the US immigration system, but it is likely that she would continue the Obama administration’s policy of outsourcing to Mexico’s government the job of cracking down on Central American migration — a policy that, as InSight Crime has noted, also benefits criminal groups and corrupt officials while putting migrants at risk.
A Clinton administration would also probably not support any talk of truces with or between street gangs who are some of the main drivers of violence and migration in the region. During her time as Secretary of State, the State Department made it clear that it wanted nothing to do with a controversial gang truce in El Salvador, even though the truce lowered homicides by half.
Another major security-related issue that will be on the next US president’s agenda is the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Clinton has promised to support the peace agreement and its implementation. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a leading opponent of the peace process, publicly asked both Clinton and Trump to oppose the peace deal. However, Trump has not clearly defined how he would handle this issue if he were elected president.
What Went Unsaid
Obviously, changing circumstances in Latin America and the Caribbean will mean that whoever becomes the next US president will have not only the issues discussed here, but many others to deal with, most of which went unsaid. And many of these issues will require the president to work with his or her counterparts in the region to develop shared solutions to common problems.
Two problems will be on the president’s desk on day one: 1) The deterioration of Venezuela’s security situation, and 2) Corruption and organized crime of the type InSight Crime has chronicled in the Northern Triangle. Neither candidate has spoken publicly about these topics during the campaign, but they are issues that will play out in the immediate future with huge ramifications for bilateral relations.
Clinton would be able to draw on her experience as secretary of state when interacting with leaders from the region, and she would also be able to count on her running mate Senator Tim Kaine — who speaks fluent Spanish and spent a year during his youth as a volunteer in Honduras — as a reliable surrogate.
“By all accounts, if Hillary Clinton is elected, then Tim Kaine is going to play an important role in Latin America,” Shifter told InSight Crime. “He’s going to have an important say in shaping an approach to the region.”
For Trump, however, building positive and productive relationships with partners in Latin America and the Caribbean would likely be more of an uphill climb. Trump is widely reviled in many countries in the region, in large part due to the tone he set during the opening speech of his campaign, in which he implied that most Mexican migrants to the United States are “rapists” and criminals.
“I think there’s going to be enormous mistrust that will be hard to overcome, based on what he’s already said during the campaign,” Shifter said. “What he’s said about Mexicans particularly has been very offensive throughout the region, and I think it will make cooperation very, very difficult.”