Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12, 2015, on the posture of his area of responsibility in advance of the committee’s review of the Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2016.
In response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kelly described the effects sequestration – severe spending cuts scheduled to continue in 2016, based on the Budget Control Act – would have on his command unless Congress takes steps to modify or stop it.
“In Latin America, in Southern Command, [sequestration] will be, simply put, a catastrophe. It will essentially put me out of business,” Kelly told the panel.
“I have very little to work with now. We do most of our work partnering with small groups of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, even law enforcement [officers] who go down and spend short periods of time advising and assisting,” he said, noting that if sequestration occurs it will critically limit Southcom’s partnering with nations the command works with every day.
Kelly testified on the posture of Southcom in advance of the committee’s review of the Defense Authorization request for fiscal year 2016.
Addressing concerns in his area of responsibility, Kelly said narcoterrorism, human smuggling, and the spreading influence of criminal networks are threats to Latin America, the Caribbean and to the United States itself.
“The drug trade, exacerbated by U.S. drug consumption, has wrought devastating consequences in many of our partner nations, degrading their civilian police and justice systems, corrupting their institutions, and contributing to a breakdown in citizen safety,” Kelly said in written testimony.
Spreading Influence of Criminal Networks
The tentacles of global networks involved in narcotics and arms trafficking, human smuggling, illicit finance and other unlawful activities reach across Latin America and the Caribbean and into the United States, Kelly added.
The United States underestimates the threat of transnational organized crime at significant risk to its own national security and that of partner nations, the general said.
“Unless confronted by an immediate, visible or uncomfortable crisis, our nation’s tendency is to take the security of the Western Hemisphere for granted. I believe this is a mistake,” Kelly told the panel.
In 2014, nearly 500,000 Central American and Mexican migrants were apprehended on the U.S. border, he said, many fleeing violence, poverty and the spreading influence of criminal networks and gangs.
The Nation’s Doorstep
“In my opinion,” Kelly said, “the relative ease with which human smugglers moved tens of thousands of people to our nation’s doorstep [serves as a warning sign] these smuggling routes are a potential vulnerability to our homeland.”
Terrorist organizations could try to leverage the same smuggling routes to move operatives who intend to harm U.S. citizens or bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States, he added.
“Addressing the root causes of insecurity and instability is not just in the region’s interests,” the general said, “but ours as well, which is why I support President Obama’s commitment to increase assistance to Central America.”
Regarding the flow of drugs within the region, he said the DoD and partner agencies got 158 metric tons of cocaine last year, without violence, before the drug reached Central America.
“I do that with very few ships,” Kelly explained. “I know that if sequestration happens I will be down to one or maybe two Coast Guard cutters.”
Human Smuggling Networks
That means, he added, “of the 158 tons I would expect to get this year, if I’m lucky I probably will get 20 tons, and all the rest comes into the United States along this incredibly efficient network.”
Asked about the seriousness of the threat of foreign nationals entering the United States via the region’s human smuggling networks, Kelly said that kind of illegal movement of people presents a threat to the United States.
“This network … is so efficient that if a terrorist, or almost anyone, wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare. No one checks their passports. They don’t go through metal detectors. No one cares why they’re coming. They just ride this network,” Kelly responded.
Others could use the same network to bring weapons of mass destruction into the country across the southern border, he added.
Southcom’s Strong Partnerships
Southcom doesn’t carry out its mission alone, the general added.
Kelly cited strong partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and the departments of Treasury and State. Those interagency relationships are integral to Southcom’s efforts to ensure the forward defense of the U.S. homeland, he said.
Southcom also has strong, capable partners like Colombia, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador and Panama — regional leaders and outstanding contributors to hemispheric and international security, the general said.
“Given our limited intelligence assets,” Kelly added, “interagency relationships and bilateral cooperation are critical to identifying and monitoring threats to U.S. national security and regional stability.”
The United States has a special relationship with a handful of countries around the world, the general said, countries that the nation relies on as regional stabilizers.
“These countries are our strongest friends and most steadfast allies. They look at life and live their lives in the same way we do. Colombia clearly plays that role in Latin America,” Kelly said.
Colombia’s ‘National Will’
He called Colombia a model for winning the fight against violent insurgencies and criminal networks.
“Colombia has shown us that the key to defeating terrorists and criminal groups is by upholding and defending the very values that these groups threaten: freedom, democracy, and the protection of human rights,” Kelly said.
Colombia has shown that security and economic prosperity do go hand in hand, the general said. And at a great sacrifice of Colombian blood and national treasure, the he added, “they’ve shown us what the term ‘national will’ really means. In over 30 years in uniform, I’ve never seen a better success story than what I see every day in Colombia.”
Kelly added, “Colombia is one place I believe we got it right — where our support, coupled with a committed partner, brought a country back from the brink, and where our engagement in Latin America made a real and lasting difference that’s plain to see.”
Today Colombia is stable, thriving and taking on greater responsibilities to improve international security in Latin America and the Caribbean and overseas as well, he said.
“In an uncertain and turbulent world,” the general told the panel, “we’re lucky to have partners like Colombia.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)