A recent visit by top US officials to Mexico and a meeting between the presidents of Colombia and the United States in Washington, DC have provided further evidence that the US security strategy in Latin America under the new administration has yet to find its footing.
On May 18, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly met with Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray Caso and Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong to discuss future collaboration against organized crime and drug trafficking.
The officials recognized the need to tackle the drug trade on both sides of their shared border, and for the United States to focus more heavily on reducing drug consumption within the country.
The United States “must also confront the reality that we are the market,” Tillerson said.
“But for the seemingly endless demand by addicted users and the successful recruitment of young and vulnerable new users, there would be no market … We Americans must own this problem. It is ours,” he added.
However, Tillerson did not propose a domestic addiction treatment strategy. Rather, he proceeded to affirm that tackling drug violence and consumption required “stopping the cross-border flow of drugs” and “aggressively confronting the cartels operating in the United States and Mexico.”
He also said that the two parties had “identified fresh strategies to attack the business model of these multi-billion dollar criminal organizations with particular emphasis on cash flow and the flow of weapons.”
Mexico’s Videgaray echoed Tillerson’s point about shared responsibilities, stating, “We need to overcome the blame game … The time has come for us to dare think in a different way.”
However, Videgaray noted that the meeting did not conclude with any new agreements or strategies, but rather with “an understanding that we need to tackle jointly all of the elements” in the criminal chain, from production to demand.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Yet even as the top US officials took this seemingly progressive stance with their Mexican counterparts, a different anti-drug rhetoric was emanating from the White House that same day.
At a joint press conference between US President Donald Trump and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Trump explicitly called on the South American nation to target the production aspect of the cocaine trade, without any mention of US domestic efforts to curb drug addiction.
“Recently, we have seen an alarmed — and I mean really a very highly alarmed and alarming trend. Last year, Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record high, which, hopefully, will be remedied very quickly by the President,” Trump said, referring to Santos.
Trump seemed to belie his lack of familiarity with the details of this issue by repeatedly referring during the meeting to Colombia’s production of “cocoa” — the plant from which chocolate is made — rather than the cocaine-producing coca plant, both of which are grown in large quantities in Colombia.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
In addition to pledging US support to Colombia in its efforts to undercut cocaine production, Trump once again assured that expanding the wall along the US-Mexico border would help fight “the drug epidemic poisoning too many American lives.”
For his part, Santos highlighted the importance of bilateral cooperation and also mentioned the role of drug demand in driving organized crime.
“We are working with your administration to take advantage of the unique opportunity peace offers so as to reduce permanently the production of coca leaf in Colombia and fight more effectively the other links in drug trafficking, including consumption,” Santos said, making reference to the peace deal his government signed in November 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
InSight Crime Analysis
The seemingly contradictory messages presented by Trump and his top cabinet officials suggest that the new administration has yet to chart a clear course on how to tackle problems of organized crime and drug trafficking in Latin America.
While Tillerson’s comments in Mexico seem to acknowledge the reality that US demand for substances like cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine drives much of the corruption and violence associated with organized crime in the region, the administration’s policy proposals could actually exacerbate this problem.
Trump’s proposal for reforming the country’s healthcare system could negatively impact the estimated 2.8 million Americans with a substance use disorder — 222,000 opioid-related — who rely on government assistance under a healthcare law passed under the previous administration. The new healthcare bill, already approved by the lower house of Congress, gives states the option to not make drug addiction treatment mandatory for insurance providers to cover, sparking fears that the move could exacerbate the already deadly US opioid epidemic.
The new administration’s dedication to treating drug abuse has also been called into question by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ reported intention to stiffen guidelines for prosecuting drug offenders. Critics say that this approach could actually be more costly and less effective at reducing drug demand than providing greater resources for addiction treatment, an approach that surveys show most Americans support.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
While Trump did not mention US demand reduction in his public comments, he did pledge support for Colombia’s drug interdiction and eradication efforts, just as the US officials in Mexico advocated “stopping the cross-border flow of drugs” and “aggressively confronting the cartels.”
However, years of US bilateral cooperation with Mexico and Colombia in the “war on drugs” have not obtained the desired results. Heroin production is rising in Mexico, generating violent conflict between crime groups for control of the lucrative illicit trade. Recent reports also suggest that methamphetamine production in Mexico may be ramping up, perhaps in response to growing US demand for the drug.
Similarly, Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever, a development that is feeding growing consumption markets in the United States and Latin America, as well as fueling clashes between crime groups scrambling to fill the criminal vaccuum left by the demobilizing FARC.
Tillerson’s comments about placing “particular emphasis on cash flow and the flow of weapons” are encouraging, as substantial evidence suggests that the United States could do more to stop illicit financial activities and cross-border arms trafficking.
But as noted above, the Trump administration has not presented concrete proposals for how to accomplish these objectives. And the signs so far seem to suggest that US policies regarding drugs and crime in Latin America will continue to follow an enforcement-centric approach to these issues, despite the rhetorical nods toward more progressive strategies.