BOGOTA, Colombia — Promising the drug crackdown demanded by President Trump, a young, conservative and unusually pro-Trump leader took power in Colombia on Tuesday, as Washington celebrated an ally against leftists including the anti-American president of next-door Venezuela.
Standing in rain and a stiff wind before a wall of roses and other flowers in historic Bolivar Plaza, newly elected President Iván Duque listed the expansion of coca production, corruption and the terror of drug cartels among the problems he will address. He also pointed to a rise in killings of social-movement leaders as one of the threats to the country’s fragile peace pact that ended five decades of war.
“The time has come for us all to unite to confront illegalities,” including drug production and trafficking, Duque said in an inaugural address focused on issues of justice and security.
Duque, 42, has advocated a more aggressive approach to the drug war, positioning him as a leading ally of the Trump administration.
“We will be effective in the eradication and substitution of illegal crops, accompanied by productive opportunities” for farmers and a crackdown on drug traffickers, Duque promised.
He pledged a law enforcement “principle that whoever does it, pays for it,” and said he will immediately present a bill to strengthen laws that target drug trafficking and kidnapping.
“Building peace, Colombians, means to defeat the drug cartels,” he said.
Duque thanked the United States for its support but did not mention President Trump by name.
Security for the open-air inauguration here included 10,000 police officers in the city and thousands more on alert, as well as a radar-enforced ban on drones.
Estimates showed Colombian coca production at a record high in 2017, and the top White House drug official pronounced it “unacceptable” in June. Although a new United Nations report on coca growth has yet to be released, analysts are expecting it to show a historic high in cultivation.
Washington is now turning to Duque to do something about it.
“We’re very excited about President Duque and his plans for Colombia, the way that we’re going to be partnering with him,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Trump’s representative at Duque’s inauguration.
“I think he’s got a very aggressive vision of where he sees the situation going,” Haley said, including making what she called needed improvements to the historic 2016 peace agreement with rebels.
Haley said she issued no warnings or ultimatums about coca production in a private meeting with Duque on Tuesday, although Trump’s expectations and his threat last year to decertify Colombia as a U.S. partner against drugs hang over the new relationship.
Trump has said that drugs grown in Colombia and other Latin American nations primarily for the U.S. market are a deadly assault on Americans. His administration has slowly rebuilt much of the old “war on drugs” approach to tougher prosecution that the Obama administration considered ineffectual.
Trump’s sudden threat to Colombia last fall — which stunned and offended the government of Juan Manuel Santos — came amid frustration that the United States had spent about $10 billion to fight drugs and promote security in Colombia only to see coca production increase, a U.S. official said.
Among the reasons for the coca surge, observers say, is a crop-substitution program tied to Colombia’s peace deal that offered incentives to coca farmers to switch to legal crops. Those incentives were so lucrative that some rural dwellers planted more coca to earn more cash. In addition, Colombia in 2015 banned aerial spraying of coca crops after a determination that the herbicide being used could cause cancer in humans.
Colombia analysts said Duque is likely to rely less on passive solutions like crop substitution while bringing back some form of forced eradication through aerial spraying.
Duque and Haley discussed aerial eradication as an option, she said, and the United States is expected to support it. Trump had urged Santos to resume the practice last year.
Duque’s ceremony included disparaging references to Santos from the Senate president, a member of Duque’s political party. The party also took out a full-page newspaper ad Tuesday listing what it called the failed legacy of the outgoing president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Duque is also set to become a significant ally in Washington’s push for change in Venezuela, Colombia’s rapidly collapsing neighbor. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has charged Colombia with being behind an apparent assassination attempt against him Saturday using drones — a charge Colombia has dismissed as ludicrous.
Haley has been among the Trump administration’s most vocal critics of the Maduro government, especially on human rights grounds. She plans to visit the Colombia-Venezuela border Wednesday to see where thousands of refugees and day laborers cross into Colombia.
Late Tuesday, a visibly agitated Maduro took to national television to issue his most detailed account of Saturday’s apparent assassination attempt and the culprits who Venezuelan authorities believe were behind it. He aired a dramatic video, complete with images of exploding drones allegedly used in the attack and the seeming confessions of captured suspects.
He named a Florida-based Venezuelan exile as the “mastermind” of the operation, and aired an audio recording of him supposedly directing the operation. The attack, Maduro said, had been carried out with the aid of “Colombian oligarchs” and involved the “Grupo Bravo” — an organization he described as Venezuelan civilians and former military men allegedly trained by paramilitary groups in Colombia.
He said his government will review the evidence with the governments of the United States and Colombia and would request the extradition of alleged plot members. “I trust that Trump won’t permit people to prepare an assassination against civilian leaders and soldiers in a country like Venezuela from U.S. soil,” he said.
Faiola reported from Miami. Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.