Three months after the Trump administration warned Colombia it could be decertified as a partner in the drug war over a record spike in cocaine production, Bogota announced it had significantly lowered its coca-eradication goals.
The decision to roll back eradication targets—and the U.S. ambassador's apparent complicity—has conservative critics saying the Trump administration is once again sending mixed signals about the effort to curb Colombia's surging cocaine exports.
Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said on Tuesday the country planned to lower next year's target for forced eradication to 40,000 hectares, or 80 percent of the goal for this year.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, a holdover from the Obama administration, appeared to back the more lenient targets for next year.
"Everything that has been announced is a product of the work of the United States and Colombia, and we are very proud of that," he said, according to a report in Colombia Vanguardia.com, a regional newspaper.
Whitaker was referring primarily to the Colombian government successful removal of 50,000 hectares ahead of a deadline agreed to by the United States. Whitaker also noted that there is still "a lot of coca," but pointedly did not take issue with the more lenient eradication goals announced at the same time as the success in meeting one of this year's deadlines early.
Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to requests for comment about the lowered eradication goals.
"It's truly sad to see what’s going on in Colombia today after so many years of great successes in stabilizing the security situation there," said Jose Cardenas, who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.
"In order to placate the left and buttress the peace process, President Santos is now adopting many of the same policies they have been agitating for, such as the dangerous and inadequate manual eradication policies, even as the country made such great strides on security in past years by doing the exact opposite," he said.
Cardenas and other GOP critics cited ongoing policy conflicts at between the White House and the State Department, whose western hemisphere bureau remains rudderless without a Trump nominee to lead it.
Paco Palmieri, a career foreign service officer, has served as the acting assistant secretary for the region for most of the year, and Trump has yet to name a nominee to head the bureau.
"Frankly, the Santos government is at sea right now, and the Trump administration hasn't nominated his Latin America team as of yet to right this ship," he said.
The backsliding on coca eradication is threatening to undermine nearly $10 billion in U.S. assistance to Colombia over the past two decades, the critics warned.
Others said the Trump team is not following up tough talk with action.
Three GOP senators—Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah—have threatened to hold up Trump's choice of Joseph MacManus to become the next ambassador to Colombia.
The senators have voiced concerns, first reported by the Free Beacon, that MacManus was too close to Clinton during her tenure and does not share Trump's "America First" agenda and other foreign-policy goals.
One expert on U.S.-Colombia relations who requested anonymity blamed Tom Shannon, under secretary of State for political affairs, and other "career bureaucrats at the State Department" for the MacManus nomination and other bad decisions on Colombia.
"At a time when Colombia is producing a record amount of cocaine the U.S. State Department is now apparently fine with significantly reducing the amount of cocaine fields that Colombia aims to eradicate in 2018?" the source asked.
The source said he blames Shannon and other "career bureaucrats" for at best showing poor judgment and at worst engaging in "serious malpractice."
"I want to see the leadership in the State Department and the White House have to answer to the many American families that will be devastated when these illicit crops find their way to U.S. shores," the source said, referring to coca crops that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will allow next year. "So much for getting serious with the war on drugs from the White House."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) predicted in August that the United States would likely experience the highest cocaine supply and usage levels in a decade next year.
The DEA cited a decision by Santos's administration to halt aerial spraying as the main reason for the surge in cocaine exports.
William Brownfield, the former assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, in testimony to Congress in September lamented the sharp increase in coca cultivation in Colombia after years of progress in reducing it.
From 2013 to 2016, Brownfield said, coca cultivation in Colombia increased by more than 130 percent and pure potential cocaine production surged by more than 200 percent in the same period.
A steady increase in cocaine-related deaths have accompanied the increased supply, reaching 6,798 cocaine-involved deaths in 2015, the highest level since 2006, Brownfield said.
Brownfield, who served as ambassador to Colombia in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said Bogota's decision in 2015 to end the U.S.-supported aerial coca eradication program is one of the main causes for the supply spike.
He also said narco-terrorist FARC leaders have pushed for coca growers to plant more in the belief that the government would focus more of its resources on areas where coca cultivation was on the rise.
Santos's critics argue that the increased coca cultivation was a direct result of concessions made with the FARC in his government's efforts to reach a peace agreement last year. According to the DEA, the Colombian government "eased eradication operations controlled by the FARC to lessen the risk of armed conflict during peace negotiations."