4 reasons Trump's frustration about cocaine may make him pick a fight with one of the US's best friends

Donald Trump Ivan Duque Colombia UN General AssemblyPresident Donald Trump with Colombian President Ivan Duque during the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, September 25, 2018.REUTERS/Carlos Barria

  • Colombia has been one of the US's closest allies in Latin America and the world, but Colombia has also struggled to meet US demands about reining in cocaine production.
  • President Donald Trump's dismay about the latter issue may soon override considerations about the two countries' relationship, according to political-risk analyst Sergio Guzmán.
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President Donald Trump has on repeated occasions suggested that the Colombian government is not doing enough to curb the flow of drugs to the US.

In 2017, Trump was quoted as saying that he "seriously" considered decertifying Colombia over its surge in coca cultivation and cocaine production.

The situation on the ground in Colombia did not improve in 2018, but, as the South American country was in the midst of an election, the US hesitated to move forward with decertification - a move that the president considered, according to sources at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

FILE PHOTO: A peasant holds up coca leaves collected from his crops in Cauca, Colombia, January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime SaldarriagaFILE PHOTO: A peasant holds up coca leaves collected from his crops in CaucaReuters

It seemed that the election of Iván Duque as president of Colombia would be a step in the right direction in terms of drug production and eradication; however, almost a year after Duque's swearing-in, the situation has not changed according to expectations.

This was reflected in Trump's posture in March, when he complained to reporters that, "I'll tell you something: Colombia, you have your new president of Colombia, really good guy. I've met him, we had him at the White House. He said how he was going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president - so he has done nothing for us."

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 requires the president every year to submit to Congress a list of those countries he has determined to be major illicit drug-producing and/or drug-transit countries. The same law mandates that a large portion of US foreign assistance to any country be withheld until the president determines whether the country should be "certified."

Despite Trump's good personal relationship with Duque, decertification - or the threat of decertification - is more of a possibility now than it has ever been for the following four reasons:

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Drug numbers haven’t significantly declined

Drug numbers haven’t significantly declined

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDP), the executive-branch office charged with tracking drug production and trafficking globally, released on June 26 its estimates for coca cultivation in Colombia for 2018.

Sadly, coca production fell a meager 1,000 hectares, which, compared to the 208,000 hectares the ONDP estimates Colombia still cultivates a year, is but a drop in the bucket.

The same office estimates that 90% of the cocaine that enters the US originates from Colombia.

Duque and many of his cabinet members have argued that Colombia has done quite a bit, but their numbers are confusing.

In February, Duque said that Colombia had eradicated close to 60,000 hectares, while Defense Minister Guillermo Botero clarified that they had in fact eradicated 30,435 hectares (which rises to 39,000 hectares if they include the 8,549 hectares that were voluntarily substituted under government programs).

Then in March, Duque suggested that the government had successfully eradicated 80,000 hectares, and again the defense minister suggested the figure had in fact been 61,737 hectares. In June, Duque lowered his estimate and said that the government had eradicated 60,000 hectares.

The bottom line is that coca numbers aren't falling at the rate the US is expecting, which will likely draw ire from Trump when the time to "certify" Colombia comes.

Colombia cannot widely use glyphosate

Colombia cannot widely use glyphosate

Among the reasons credited for Colombia's surge in coca production is a 2015 policy decision by former President Juan Manuel Santos, in office from 2010 to 2018, to suspend aerial eradication with chemical herbicide glyphosate — also sold commercially as Roundup.

The Colombian government insists that this decision resulted in the sudden rise in coca production between 2015 and 2018 and is urging to reinstate the policy. However, Santos did not suspend aerial fumigation on a whim. In 2015, the World Health Organization's International Center for Cancer Research said glyphosate is considered a "probable carcinogen" — an opinion with which the US Environmental Protection Agency disagrees.

In 2017, Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that the use of glyphosate was permissible but only under certain conditions, the most strenuous of which asked the government to "present evidence to the Court that the herbicide will not cause harm to health."

This is something currently in dispute not only in Colombia, but in the US, where Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, has been ordered to pay more than $2 billion in damages to people who claim that the company did not do enough to warn about the health risks posed by the use of the chemical herbicide.

The Constitutional Court ruled Thursday on the glyphosate matter, upholding their 2017 restrictions on the use of the chemical and delivering a blow to the Duque administration, as it can no longer employ what it touts as the most useful weapon to quickly reduce crop numbers.

This will give further arguments to Trump and US drug-enforcement authorities to suggest that the government of Colombia, and especially its courts, are not fully cooperating on the anti-narcotics front.

The US is frustrated over extradition

The US is frustrated over extradition

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the country's transitional justice tribunal, ruled in May that it would not approve the extradition to the US of former FARC leader Seuxis Paucias Hernández, otherwise known as Jesús Santrich, on charges of conspiring to traffic drugs.

Despite slam-dunk evidence — including a video taken by undercover agents — Santrich's extradition was not green-lit by authorities (there are complex legal reasons, described here) and instead he was let go.

The US State Department expressed its disagreement over the Court's decision to release Santrich, which became yet another example of how Colombia was uncooperative with the US in the fight against drug trafficking and the groups allegedly behind it.

In a disastrous turn of events, Santrich later disappeared from his security detail, and his whereabouts are currently unknown. It is suspected that he may be in Venezuela, but ultimately Colombian authorities blinked.

Trump is Trump

Trump is Trump

Finally, Trump's temperament is a factor to consider.

Trump has been adamant on expressing his disdain with allies in the form of threats and direct action. He has issued ultimatums to NATO over defense spending, threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican goods over immigration, and the list goes on.

The decertification would be a hard blow to confidence in the Duque administration and would mean a cut to the funds that Colombia receives from the US, damaging its fiscal situation.

The threat of additional tariffs on Colombian products could have a destabilizing effect on trade and the economy.

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

Decertifying Colombia would be a punch in the gut to the most reliable ally the US has in the Western Hemisphere — an ally crucial to supporting US strategy against embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

If Trump can manage to scare Duque into pushing further against the courts and the peace agreement to accommodate US interests on the war on drugs, Trump can claim a win.

It would not be surprising, therefore, if Trump uses "decertification" as a strategic threat on Colombia, only to backtrack a few days or a few weeks later.

Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political-risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk

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