Southcom Gen. John Kelly, other officials discuss drug challenge

Southcom Gen. John Kelly, other officials discuss drug challenge

By Dialogo
May 30, 2014



The unprecedented expansion of criminal networks and violent gangs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean makes the mission of the U.S. Southern Command more urgent than ever, Southcom Commander Gen. John F. Kelly told a congressional hearing.
The entry of illicit drugs into the United States constitutes Southcom’s single biggest challenge, Kelly said — despite the success of programs such as Operation Martillo, which in fiscal 2013 confiscated 132.2 metric tons of cocaine, 41,232 pounds of marijuana and $3.5 million.
“Now entering its third year, Operation Martillo continues to demonstrate commitment by the United States, our partner nations and European allies to counter the spread of transnational criminal organizations and protect citizens in Central America from the violence, harm and exploitation wrought by criminal networks,” Kelly said in prepared testimony.
The Marine Corps general appeared at the April 29 hearing with U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. and Ambassador Luís Arreaga, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.


House subcommitee hearing targets drug smuggling


The leaders attended the hearing, “Confronting Transnational Drug Smuggling: An Assessment of Regional Partnerships,” hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
In 2013, Southcom redirected its focus to Central American security institutions involved in appropriate defense missions such as border and maritime security, Kelly said.
“We are prioritizing our support to interagency counter-threat finance efforts and expanding our focus on converging threats, including illicit trafficking via commercial shipping containers, which could be exploited to move weapons of mass destruction into the United States. By supporting the targeting of key illicit financial nodes and commercial linkages, we aim to help degrade the capacities of both criminal and terrorist groups.”
Kelly discussed Southcom’s efforts in Colombia and Peru to combat terrorism and the drug trade.
“The Colombians have fought heroically for a peaceful, democratic Colombia, which will be a powerful symbol of hope and prosperity, but it is far too soon to declare victory,” he said. “It is absolutely imperative that we remain engaged as one of our strongest allies works to consolidate its hard-won success. To that end, Southcom is providing advice and assistance to the Colombian military’s transformation efforts, as it works to improve interoperability and transition to an appropriate role in post-conflict Colombia,” Kelly said.
Southcom and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are working together in Peru to fight the Shining Path — an effort Kelly says is beginning to yield significant operational success.
“An investment of six U.S. personnel, who trained combat medical instructors from Peru and El Salvador, resulted in the training of over 2,000 members of the Peruvian and Salvadoran military, including Salvadoran soldiers destined for stability operations in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Haiti,” he said. “We are also working with Chile on capacity-building efforts in Central America, and exploring possible future engagements in the Pacific.”





Coast Guard leader outlines interdiction efforts

Since 1995, the Coast Guard has interdicted more than 500 vessels transporting cocaine shipments from South America and has arrested or detained nearly 2,000 smugglers, Papp said. In the last five years, he said, Coast Guard cutters and law enforcement detachments have confiscated more than 500 metric tons of cocaine with a wholesale value of nearly $17 billion.
“Coast Guard efforts include removing illegal drugs as close to their origins in South America as possible, where drug shipments are in their most concentrated, bulk form,” he said. “Moreover, these illicit cargoes are most vulnerable when they are being moved at sea. This is where the interdiction community has the highest visibility of, and best opportunity to interdict drug movements. When bulk loads reach shore — typically in Central America — they are continually broken down, cut and smuggled on land in smaller loads.”
Arreaga focused on Central America and the Caribbean, which he said is the conduit for most of the drugs arriving on U.S. shores. In 2011, cocaine from the Caribbean totaled 5 percent of the drugs smuggled to the United States, a figure that increased to 9 percent by 2012. By the end of 2013, he said, cocaine flowing within the Western Hemisphere transit zone increased to 16 percent of the total cocaine flowing in the Caribbean.
That is why the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) are so important, he said.

CARSI remains high on priority list

“Under CARSI, the United States is implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach to stem illegal trafficking,” Arreaga said. “Make no mistake; it will take many more years to see the fruits of our efforts in Central America due to the magnitude of threats to rule of law and credible government institutions. But we’re making progress. Model police precincts have brought increased security to some communities and excellent new vetted units are seizing drugs and illicit assets and making critical arrests.”
In Honduras, for example, a regional aviation program financed by CARSI aims to curb drug trafficking routes.
In early February, Costa Rica’s DEA-mentored Maritime Interdiction Vetted Unit launched its first successful interdiction operation, seizing more than 900 kilograms of cocaine and apprehending three suspects, Arreaga said.
“The Vetted Unit combines Coast Guard interdiction capacities with investigative police personnel to effectively prosecute traffickers operating off of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast,” he said. “And in the Caribbean, we are partnering with the U.S. Coast Guard to support three efforts that promote maritime security: an annual maritime exercise to validate the interoperability of U.S.-funded and donated boats; regular Counter Drug Maritime Summits to bring together maritime security and law enforcement and justice sector officials, and a Technical Assistance Field Team that includes U.S. Coast Guard and military personnel.”




Without a doubt, the cooperation with the U.S. government is the only solution for our country in order to achieve significant blows to the international drug trafficking; although our government has invested more in equipment and staff in the past years, we still fall short before the economical and logistic power of the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. I hope our new governors understand the importance of cooperating with the U.S. government, and also make the necessary decisions responsibly, so that our Coast Guard or National Coast Guard Service of Costa Rica can have the necessary equipment, prompt maintenance for it and the required training. During 2012 I was able to witness, with great sadness, how the two best vessels they owned were stranded due to lack of maintenance, and have been in such condition for several months. I hope this all changes for the sake of our country and our democracy and we don't turn into an easy operation base for drug trafficking, as it's unfortunately already been happening.
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