US Reverses Course in CentAm with Heavy-Handed ‘Drug War’ Approach

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In a meeting held with the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries of Central America last week in Miami, 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. 

US Vice President Mike Pence was in charge of making this message clear to the Central American officials who participated last week in the June 15 and 16 Miami meeting.

“President Trump has already taken decisive action to protect the American people from the harshest consequences of illegal immigration and the transnational drug trade,” Pence said during his address to the Central American officials, in keeping with the rhetoric of the Trump administration, which has striven to equate undocumented migration with drug trafficking and organized crime.

Pence said that Washington assigns a large part of the responsibility regarding the war on drugs to Central America, and that such remedies are needed to strengthen public order.

“To further stem the flow of illegal immigration and illegal drugs into the United States, President Trump knows, as do all of you, that we must confront these problems at their source,” Pence said. “We must meet them — and we must solve them — in Central and South America.”

Prior to the conference, Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield had outlined the bilateral agenda in a conference call with reporters.

“The agenda for the discussions focuses on three basic areas: transnational organized crime and regional cooperation; citizen security; and rule of law and justice institutions,” Brownfield said.

Combatting drug trafficking and the migration of undocumented persons are the priorities for Washington.

“The United States’ partnership with the Northern Triangle is built to accomplish this vital mission. It is what brings us here today,” Pence said, referring to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Pence bragged to the Northern Triangle leaders that the Trump administration had reduced the passage of undocumented migrants through the Mexican border by 70 percent, and he congratulated Mexican officials for cracking down on Central American migrants. 

Officials in Miami also brought up the possibility that the White House would not renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 250,000 Hondurans and Salvadorans, despite the natural disasters occurring in both countries. If this occurs, these individuals will no longer have legal protection in the United States and will be more vulnerable to deportation.

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Along the same lines of making US priorities clear, the vice president dedicated a significant part of his address to blaming Central American gangs for crimes like drug trafficking and illegal migration, comparing them to the large drug cartels in the region — despite the fact that the State Department itself has, on various occasions, stated that these gangs are not the ones primarily responsible for the large-scale drug trafficking occurring in Central America. Rather it is organized crime groups that have tended to act with the collusion and complicity of public forces in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Such is the case, for example, of Guatemala’s former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who was indicted in the United States on charges of involvement in drug trafficking and having ties with Mexico’s Zetas cartel. Similarly, there is the case of Salvadoran Vice President Óscar Ortiz, who has been indicated by the Attorney General’s Office in his country for allegedly having ties with José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” accused of being one of the main money launderers in El Salvador. Ortiz, in fact, was the top representative from El Salvador in the Miami conference, in light of the absence of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who was sick. 

Following the messaging of the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, Pence did not hesitate to remind Central Americans that corruption is one of the major ongoing problems in the region. But he also did not hesitate to congratulate Ortiz, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for advances made in anti-corruption efforts, despite the fact that both Morales and Hernández have been singled out in their respective countries for having personal or familial ties to corruption networks and possibly even to drug traffickers.

Vice President Pence notably left out of his speech the original focus of the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity for Central America,” which had prioritized addressing the causes of illegal migration, such as the marginalization of youth, lack of economic opportunities, and impunity, as the only way to combat the issue.

Instead, Pence reiterated something that Central American countries already knew: US financial assistance to the region will continue to decline. Pence announced in Miami that the following year the White House would ask Congress for $460 million in aid, a considerable further reduction compared to the $650 million designated to the region this year. 

According to an analysis by the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), a large part of the money cut from the funding was dedicated to social programs in “problem” areas of Central America, many of which had been implemented by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Pence also took the opportunity to make clear that one of the fundamental pivots of US foreign policy towards Latin America would be the situation in Venezuela.

Also in Miami, although not in the meetings with Central American officials, was President Donald Trump, who announced a reversal in the normalization of relations with Cuba that was begun by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2014. 

InSight Crime Analysis

In a nutshell, US policies in the region are going backwards. Washington has done nothing more than return to its outdated foreign policy doctrines, first used in Central America following the Cold War; those involving combatting drug trafficking via the one-size-fits-all approach of police and military intervention and the deportation of undocumented persons as a US national security strategy.

The benefits these policies have had on the ground, however, have been few, especially in Central America. And, given the current trends in ever-growing cocaine seizures and the continuing profitability of drug consumer markets in the United States or Europe, these policies cannot be said to have been successful in the North either.   

The war on drugs has entailed, among other things, almost unconditional support from Washington towards governments, police forces, and militaries that for decades had been identified, even by the State Department, as corrupt and inefficient institutions prone to human rights violations. Even today, many of the representatives of the Central American governments that met with the Trump administration are at the center of serious corruption allegations.

SEE ALSO: Trump’s Cuba U-Turn Could Impact Anti-Narcotic Efforts

On top of this is the vision — originally conceived during the George W. Bush administration, but taken to its extreme today by the Trump government — that the main threats to US national security come from impoverished migrants, the majority of whom have no ties to the organized crime groups, gangs, or drug traffickers that safely operate under state protection in Central America. 

In this particular vision of fighting gangs, Washington has, yet again, prioritized an already failed approach, that of heavy-handed policies based merely on police intervention, which works to the detriment of strong cooperation between communities and police forces to banish gang members, as pointed out by one police force to the Trump administration in the Senate less than a month ago.

Mike Pence did not leave much room for doubt: What the United States is willing to offer now is more heavy-handed policies and fewer guarantees of success in combatting the root causes of violence and crime in Central America.

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