What a Trump Presidency Means for Organized Crime in Latin America
We’re heading into uncharted waters
by MIMI YAGOUB
In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the U.S. presidential election, InSight Crime considers the impact his administration could have on security and organized crime in Latin America.
Trump will hold the top office alongside a Republican-dominated Congress, as the party maintained a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Aside from his common refrain of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump rarely touched on topics concerning Latin America during his campaign. This has created a great deal of uncertainty about his position on a host of issues related to the region, and his foreign policy more generally.
Nonetheless, he has indicated an interest in pulling back from U.S. engagements around the world. According to James Bosworth, a partner at Southern Pulse, this bodes well not only for Latin American organized crime, but also corrupt officials who could face less international pressure to create more transparent institutions.
“The Trump admin is likely to pay less attention & dedicate fewer resources to LatAm,” Bosworth told InSight Crime via Twitter. “Corruption & criminal groups will benefit.”
Below, InSight Crime breaks down what a Trump presidency could mean for security-related issues in the region.
Mexico and Central America
A pillar of Trump’s immigration rhetoric has been his promise to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico.
While the building of a wall would pose extreme logistical challenges, this kind of discourse suggests that Trump will bolster security measures at the border in an attempt to make the passage of illegal migrants, drugs and other contraband more difficult. Trump has claimed — falsely — that “drugs pour through our southern border at a record clip.”
One foreseeable outcome of this would be more criminal violence in northern Mexico. The reduced number of crossing points that remain available to criminal groups would become much more profitable, and therefore more dangerous, security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime.
“The conflict for taking control of [criminal turf], these routes, could get worse,” Hope explained. This could worsen the security situation in Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, which are already experiencing a rise in drug-related violence.
It’s also possible that Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Mexicans could damage security cooperation between the two nations. Hope said he believes the president-elect could get rid of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. assistance package aimed at helping its southern neighbor combat organized crime and corruption.
This would not represent a significant loss in terms of resources, Hope said, but could complicate extradition agreements and recent advances in joint counter-narcotics and migrant control strategies.
“These international gangs of thugs and drug cartels will be — I promise you, from the first day in office … we’re going to get rid of these people, day one,” Trump said last August.
Pres. Barack Obama has deported a record number of undocumented migrants, but Trump may choose to enact legal tools to expedite the process, which would be easier to do with a Republican-dominated congress, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Hope suggested that Trump could bypass current deportation norms by having a large number of Mexican migrants with criminal records dumped on the other side of the border, rather than returned to their place of origin. This risks creating a large pool of jobless deportees for criminal groups to recruit from, Hope added.
As for Central America, a great number of immigrants living under precarious legal conditions in the United States face the risk of being deported. Analysts fear that a flood of migrants returning to the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) could exacerbate the ongoing security crisis in the region.
Many of the migrants came to the United States fleeing rampant gang violence, and their safety would be in jeopardy if they were forced to return home.
Meanwhile, Central American migrants heading north will likely be even more reliant on human smugglers, or “coyotes,” to help them navigate the treacherous journey. The International Crisis Group has already documented how a crackdown on migrants at the U.S. border and in Mexico has inadvertently strengthened these smuggling networks.
Colombia and the United States have enjoyed a close diplomatic relationship for years, and the South American nation is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the hemisphere.
The Obama administration has been supportive of Colombia’s efforts to reach a peace agreement with rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and he recently requested that congress earmark $450 million for Colombia’s post-conflict development plans.
President Juan Manuel Santos appeared to remind Trump of that special relationship in a congratulatory tweet. “We celebrate the democratic spirit of the US on #ElectionNight,” Santos tweeted. “With Donald Trump we will continue to deepen our bilateral relations.”
Celebramos espíritu democrático de EE.UU. en #ElectionNight. Con @realDonaldTrump seguiremos profundizando relación bilateral.
But Trump may not be as enthusiastic as previous U.S. presidents to provide Colombia with material and/or diplomatic aid.
“For Colombia, an ‘America First’ approach would mean less assistance — probably including less military assistance — and far less diplomatic support, if any, to the Juan Manuel Santos government’s efforts to secure peace with guerrillas,” wrote Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
This could have major implications on the future of organized crime in Colombia. The United States has poured in billions of dollars over the last 15 years helping Colombia combat the transnational drug trade, as well as the FARC, which control up to 70 percent of all the country’s coca crops.
A significant decrease in U.S. aid would hurt the government’s chances of preventing a recycling of violence and criminal economies in a post-conflict phase.
The Venezuelan political and economic crisis is one that the Obama administration has approached with relative tact. The U.S. government has indeed been tough on occasion, sanctioning and indicting high-ranking government officials.
But it has refrained from more strong-armed tactics — such as tougher economic sanctions and a ban on certain bilateral trade — that would have risked politically antagonizing Venezuela to an even greater extent.
With Trump in office this softer stance may crumble. The president-elect has described Venezuela as a country “run into the ground by socialists,” stating that he would “stand with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”
The U.S. government is currently investigating several senior Venezuelan officials for their potential links to drug trafficking. It’s unclear whether a potential shift in the U.S. stance towards Venezuela would change how those investigations are handled.