Tillerson to visit Peru and Colombia, dogged by Trump aid threat

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s call this week to cut aid for countries where drugs are produced or trafficked could cast a shadow on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s South America visit as he heads for top cocaine-producing nations Peru and Colombia.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks on during a joint news conference with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray in Mexico City, Mexico February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Tillerson already raised eyebrows on the eve of his five-nation tour of Latin America, when he suggested that Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro could be toppled by his own military, comments that overshadowed his first stop in Mexico.

Trump said on Friday that unnamed countries were “pouring drugs” into the United States.

“I won’t mention names right now ... but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them and we send them massive aid, and they are pouring drugs into our country and they are laughing at us,” Trump said at a televised round-table in Virginia.

“So I’m not a believer in that, I want to stop the aid,” Trump said after Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told him that cocaine was primarily coming from Colombia and Peru, and trafficked through Mexico and Central America.

Tillerson did not mention Trump’s comments in a news conference in Buenos Aires on Sunday but a senior state department official on the trip who declined to be identified said that they were “not helpful.”

Trump has at times contradicted Tillerson on foreign policy issues involving North Korea and Syria, and the administration has been criticized for sending mixed messages to Latin America, particularly on Venezuela.

Tillerson lands in Peruvian capital Lima on Monday and on Tuesday heads to Colombia, which received some $10 billion in funding between 2000 and 2015 for military and social programs through the so-called Plan Colombia.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama had approved $450 million in 2017 aid for Colombia, up 25 percent from 2016, to help support a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a former leftist rebel group.

Peru, which has seen cocaine output increase and trades the title of top producer with Colombia, has received less assistance from the United States. Tillerson ends his trip in Jamaica, a growing drug trafficking hub.

The U.S. is the world’s largest market for cocaine.

Trump has threatened to cut aid around the world, questioning what the United States gets in return for its support. Earlier this year, he promised to end assistance for Pakistan.

Additional reporting by Luc Cohen, Frank Jack Daniel and Helen Murphy, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien