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SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a dire threat to U.S. national security

Jul. 8, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
SCT Guatemala MWM 20140604
Marines with a security cooperation team work with Guatemalan marines during a train-the-trainer session at the Brigada de Infantera de Marina base in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, on June 4. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly (Cpl. Tia Dufour/Marine Corps)

After observing the transnational organized crime network for 19 months as commander of U.S. Southern Command, I see the only viable approach is to work as closely as we can with as many nations in the region. Our vision is of an economically integrated region that offers reasons for its people to build their futures at home instead of risking the dangerous and ultimately futile journey north. A region that offers economic opportunity, effective democratic institutions and governance, and safe communities is the key to their future and to our national security.

Drug cartels and associated street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s number one, four and five highest homicide rates, have left near-broken societies in their wake. Although there are a number of other countries I work with in Latin America and the Caribbean that are going in the same direction, the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) is far and away the worst off.

By U.N. statistics, Honduras is the most violent nation on the planet with a rate of 90 murders per 100,000 citizens. Guatemala’s rate is 40. These figures become more shocking when compared to those of declared combat zones such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (28 in 2012). Profits earned via the illicit drug trade have corrupted and destroyed public institutions in these countries, and facilitated a culture of impunity — regardless of crime — that delegitimizes the state and erodes its sovereignty, not to mention what it does to human rights.

All this corruption and violence is directly or indirectly due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and now methamphetamines, all produced in Latin America and smuggled into the U.S. along an incredibly efficient network along which anything — hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children — can travel so long as they can pay the fare. There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is.

More to the point, however, it has been the malignant effects of immense drug trafficking through these nonconsumer nations that is responsible for accelerating the breakdown in their national institutions of human rights, law enforcement, courts, and eventually their entire society as evidenced today by the flow of children north and out of the conflictive transit zone. The human rights groups I deal with tell me young women and even the little girls sent north by hopeful parents are molested and raped by traffickers. Many in these same age groups join the 17,500 the U.N. reports come into the U.S. every year to work in the sex trade.

Clearly a region that is stable, safe and secure for its own citizens with a functioning legal justice system and police force, with an emerging middle class and real human rights opportunity, is what we want for these nations and is in our national security interests. Colombia is the present-day example of what should be and could be. If these nations were moving in this direction, they would be even stronger and more reliable partners. What is ironic to me is with all their problems they are still functioning democracies and appear to want to stay that way.

SOUTHCOM’s efforts in the region are in large part focused on stemming the flow of illegal narcotics, although we have remarkable relationships with all our interagency partners. Heroic and often underappreciated law enforcement professionals like the DEA, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol and Treasury Department have numerous efforts focused on countering transnational organized crime in SOUTHCOM’s assigned area of responsibility. We also have amazing relationships with every political and military official worthy of our attention, and very good mil-to-mil relationships even in nations that pull back from us politically.

The primary facilitator of this task is Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is responsible for fusing every intelligence source into a clear picture of detecting and monitoring the drug flow. Working with our closest ally in this effort, the Colombians, JIATF-South tracks the flow as it departs the source zone and moves by sea and air through the transit zone directly into the U.S.

Specific to Central America, JIATF-South orchestrates Operation Martillo, designed to interdict trafficking along the littorals on both sides of Central America. Even with few interdiction assets to speak of, the task force’s efforts are wildly successful in a relative sense, although much of the take last year was due to Canadian, Dutch, French and British assets. This help is expected to drop off significantly. Unfortunately, over the next few years we will see fewer and fewer assets to detect, monitor and interdict, and the very same reality confronts our Canadian and European allies. This means even more cocaine and heroin making landfall in Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Mexico, exacerbating — if that is even possible — the problems these nations face today.

I have found over my years of working with partner nations around the globe that nothing changes countries for the good like working alongside the U.S. military in a close and continuous relationship. Nothing. Our training, our advice, our tactics, techniques and procedures, and just as importantly our values and good example change them for the good.

Take, for instance, Colombia, an amazing success story of bringing a country back from the same kind of brink Honduras and other Central American nations are facing today. Colombia did all of its own fighting and paid the vast majority of the bill itself. All we provided was advice, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and encouragement.

Another example is human rights, which are along the road to improvement in these countries not because of criticism, lecturing and censure, but because of U.S.-led conferences, seminars and training modules embedded in everything we do with them, most of which is conducted by junior officers and noncommissioned officers who bring their American ideals to every engagement. I challenge anyone to argue differently, unless of course one does not trust U.S. intentions in the region and also does not have faith in the decency of our military men and women.

Given our current fiscal and asset limitations in working with these partners, and I want to include Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Peru as well, SOUTHCOM’s primary effort is working closely with them on human rights issues, sharing information and intelligence, as well as building capacity within their security forces. We do this by treating them as equals, encouraging them where they are having success, and most importantly working with them where they need help.

Where I can work with a partner nation, as with Honduras and Operation Morazon, a nationwide interagency citizen security initiative, the majority of my support is centered on assisting the Hondurans with securing their borders — particularly the north coast, where we have helped them develop a “maritime shield” against the influx of tons of drugs weekly. This effort includes identifying for them the now over 100 illicit rural dirt airstrips, which they destroy, again with our help.

This package of planning and advising assistance, combined with some other factors, including the strong commitment of Honduras’ new president and his national security team, has all but stopped airborne drug flights into Honduras. This effort is completely integrated into JIATF-South’s operations, and we have the Hondurans working with the Guatemalans and the Nicaraguans in attempts to better secure land borders among all three. While the maritime shield might reduce the amount of drugs entering the country, it does not attack the proximate cause of unaccompanied minor migration, but it is a first step in an overall package.

SOUTHCOM is also improving defense institutional capacity in Central America, with Guatemala as the most recent example. Over the past two years we have worked with the Defense Institutional Reform Initiative and the William Perry Center to support the Guatemalan defense ministry’s efforts to increase its defense sector governance capacity and transparency through development and promulgation of a new national security strategy, national defense strategy, and associated strategic planning and budgeting processes. This has already provided a return on investment: a finished Guatemalan national defense policy and an outcome-based 2014 budget built using a transparent, capabilities-based planning process.

We also conduct humanitarian-assistance/disaster-response activities designed to reduce widespread conditions such as human suffering, disease, hunger and privation. Our objectives are to improve basic living conditions in countries that have ungoverned spaces susceptible to exploitation.

These projects enhance the legitimacy of the host nation government by improving its capacity to provide its population with essential services. We want to erode the influence, control and support for transnational criminal organizations, drug trafficking organizations and violent extremist organizations. This would include denying, deterring and preventing these groups from exploiting ungoverned areas and vulnerable populations.

In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and illegal alien flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.

Transnational criminal organizations contribute to instability, breakdown of governance and lawlessness, not to mention the roughly 35,000 deaths and $200 billion that drug use (primarily heroin, coke and meth) costs America every year. I believe that the mass migration of children we are all of a sudden struggling with is a leading indicator of the negative second- and third-order impacts on our national interests that are now reality due to the nearly unimpeded flow of drugs up the isthmus, as well as the unbelievable levels of drug profits (approximately $85 billion) available to transnational criminal organizations to buy police departments, court systems and even governments.

Violent criminal organizations, including gangs and groups engaged in trafficking, take advantage of the region’s patchy development and fledgling democracies to threaten government operations and human security. The complex challenges facing Central America cannot be resolved by military means alone, but without appropriate application of U.S. military support it will remain fertile ground for every threat to regional security and stability.

There are solutions. And going forward we have to start with something akin to a new approach to Central America that balances prosperity, governance and security, and funding that has to involve every agency of the U.S. government.

Kelly is commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

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