America’s porous southern border and the recent surge in illegal immigration is more than just a “humanitarian crisis,” claims the top U.S. general in charge of Central and South America, it’s a threat to the United States’ very existence.
Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly is commander of the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, charged with responsibility for the Caribbean Sea and all lands south of Mexico.
Particularly in regards to the drug trade, murder rates and terrorist activity brewing in Central America, Kelly says, the waves of Latin Americans sweeping through Mexico and illegally into Texas presents a threat to the U.S. every bit as serious as Iran or North Korea.
“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in [this] hemisphere with the associated drug and [illegal immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance,” Kelly said in an interview with Defense One. “Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”
It isn’t the first time Kelly has sounded the alarm. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, Kelly complained that budget cuts in recent years have handcuffed the military’s ability to shut down many drug and human trafficking corridors.
“Last year, we had to cancel more than 200 very effective engagement activities and numerous multilateral exercises,” Kelly said, explaining that a full 74 percent of “actionable illicit trafficking events” simply go unanswered, because he doesn’t have the funds or resources to do anything about it.
“I simply sit and watch it go by,” he continued. “And because of service cuts, I don’t expect to get any immediate relief, in terms of assets, to work with in this region of the world.”
Worse yet, he continued, with smuggling routes wide open for business, it’s far more than cocaine or children seeking a better life getting a free pass across the border.
“Clearly, criminal networks can move just about anything on these smuggling pipelines,” Kelly said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in February. “Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even quite easily bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
SOUTHCOM’s intelligence assets reveal the possibility is far more than just crying wolf.
“Supporters and sympathizers of Lebanese Hezbollah are involved in both licit and illicit activities in the region,” Kelly told Congress. “Members, supporters, and adherents of Islamic extremist groups are present in Latin America. Islamic extremists visit the region to proselytize, recruit, establish business venues to generate funds, and expand their radical networks. Some Muslim communities in the Caribbean and South America are exhibiting increasingly extremist ideology and activities, mostly as a result from ideologues’ activities and external influence from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Mr. Chairman, we take all these activities seriously.”
Threat spreads through U.S.
As America’s top military eye on Central America, Kelly is also warning that the recent spike in illegal immigrants moving from countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras across the U.S. border presents another level of threat. Those three countries, he noted, are all among the Top 5 nations worldwide in homicide rates, in part because of their rampant gang activity.
“Although there are a number of other countries I work with in Latin America and the Caribbean that are going in the same direction,” Kelly told Defense One, “the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) is far and away the worst off.”
Since October, tens of thousands of migrants have made the dangerous journey north from Latin America to the United States border. Many are children, and statistics show the vast majority of the immigrants in the recent influx are unaccompanied minors who have traveled from Central America’s “Northern Triangle.”
And between rampant drug trafficking and human trafficking of Central American youngsters, Kelly warned Congress, cartels and gangs that have already spread throughout the U.S. will only grow more dangerous.
“Chairman, gone are the days of the ‘cocaine cowboys,’” Kelly testified. “Instead, we and our partners are confronted with cocaine corporations that have franchises all over the world, including 1,200 American cities, as well as criminal enterprises like the violent transnational gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, that specialize in extortion and human trafficking.
“The FBI has warned that MS-13 has a significant presence in California, North Carolina, New York, and northern Virginia, and is expanding into new areas of the United States, including Indian reservations in South Dakota,” he concluded.
Roger Noriega, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration, was quoted last month in the Washington Free Beacon putting a fine point on how gang activity and arms smuggling could create problems not just along the border, but anywhere in the country.
“There’s going to be a time when MS-13 fires an RPG into an Alexandria [Va.] police car, and [Americans] are going to say, ‘What the hell happened?’” Noriega said.
Kelly concluded his appeal before the House Armed Services Committee by arguing the U.S. needs to call upon and equip the military to protect our southern border, now more than ever.
“Some of my counterparts perceive that the United States is disengaging from the region and from the world in general,” Kelly said. “We should remember that our friends and allies are not the only ones watching our actions closely. … And in the meantime, drug traffickers, criminal networks, and other actors, unburdened by budget cuts, cancelled activities, and employee furloughs, will have the opportunity to exploit the partnership vacuum left by reduced U.S. military engagement.”
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