WASHINGTON, July 19, 2012 – Latin America and the Caribbean hold nontraditional security challenges for the United States, but each challenge offers a chance to work with countries in the region, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly
told a Senate panel today.
Kelly testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. Southern Command. He has served as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s senior military assistant since March 2011.
In the Southcom area of responsibility, Kelly said, “there are any number of threats to our security, not the least of which are illicit trafficking, particularly in drugs and their precursors, and the spreading, growing sophistication of transnational organized crime syndicates.”
Cyber and energy security, natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and malign influences inside and outside the region are also challenges, he added.
But each challenge allows DOD to engage, cooperate and partner with countries in the region, the general said.
“If confirmed, I look forward to working with the men and women of U.S. Southern Command as well as the dozens of civilian interagency partners,” Kelly said, “to continue the important mission and [ensure] the forward defense of the United States by building strong, capable partners who share in the cost [and] responsibility of safeguarding the hemisphere.”
Southcom is the region’s hub for Defense Department activities to counter the destabilizing impact of transnational organized crime, Sen. Carl Levin, the committee’s chairman, noted. The command, he added, is critical for supporting federal law enforcement agencies in the region.
The Southcom commander oversees U.S.-Colombian military relations, including training and equipping the Colombian military to support the Colombian unified campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other terrorist and transnational criminal organizations.
The success of Southcom support operations in Colombia has pushed illegal narcotics trafficking into Central America, and a focus of Kelly’s command would be support to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other nations there.
“Most of the drugs that come into America from the south come out of production fields, mostly in Colombia and increasingly [from] places like Bolivia and Peru,” Kelly said, adding that Peru has just overtaken Colombia as the No. 1 source of cocaine production.
Each year about 1,000 metric tons of cocaine begins a journey north to the United States, mostly from Venezuela, he said.
“Most of it makes its way to Guatemala or Honduras and is then transshipped up through Mexico and across the Texas-Arizona borders,” the general explained.
“The real problem, in my estimation, and if you ask almost anyone in South America or Central America they’ll tell you the same thing. The real problem is in the United States. It’s the demand problem,” Kelly said, one that costs the United States nearly $200 billion a year.
“The demand is where the problem starts and, frankly, I think that’s where the solution is,” he added.
In the Southcom region, corruption is another problem that affects the militaries in those countries.
“As has been pointed out to me many times,” Kelly said, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador have reluctantly begun to use their militaries “to deal with the drug scourge because of the amount of corruption in their police departments and, frankly, in their state houses and capitals.”
The department’s new defense strategy, Kelly said in written testimony, emphasizes DOD’s emphasizing security collaboration with key partners, including the Americas.
“A cooperative, partnered approach not only helps ensure U.S. national security interests,” Kelly added, “it also helps contribute to U.S. economic security by promoting capable partners willing and able to help the United States confront security challenges in the hemisphere.”