U.S. maritime forces are unable to seize almost three-quarters of drug shipments smuggled into America due to declining resources, according to recent comments by the commander of U.S. Southern Command.
Marine Gen. John Kelly on Thursday told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and reporters at the Pentagon that his command does not have the assets to interdict 74 percent of "suspected maritime drug smuggling" into the United States. Kelly leads Southern Command (SouthCom), which covers Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.
"I simply sit and watch it go by," he said.
"I can see the flow," he added, referring to U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance in the region. "I just don't have end-game assets."
Kelly said one Navy ship and four Coast Guard cutters are assigned to SouthCom. However, he said he needs 16 ships with helicopter pads to fulfill President Barack Obama’s mandate of reducing drug trafficking from Latin America by 40 percent.
Kelly added that he has only about 5 percent of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment required to monitor drug smuggling and human trafficking in the region. That prompted an immediate response from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.).
"I would say 5 percent is jaw-dropping, frankly, in terms of the threats that you've just talked about," Ayotte said. "I think this is something that we better address as a committee."
Ayotte expressed concerns about a "heroin epidemic" in her home state of New Hampshire. An influx of heroin produced in Colombia and Mexico has led to an increase in overdoses and overdose deaths across the United States in recent years.
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that Kelly’s testimony was a "wake-up call" for lawmakers. Combatant commanders are typically not this candid at congressional hearings.
"That kind of straight talk is really what is required to get Congress to focus on this and get the resources needed close to our shores," Noriega said.
Kelly acknowledged that his command has the "least priority" out of the five overseas command regions for U.S. forces. Cuts to SouthCom assets are part of larger reductions in military funding that will drain almost $1 trillion from defense budgets in the next decade unless sequestration is repealed.
Cocaine trafficking remains the most profitable activity for transnational criminal groups in Latin America with about $84 billion in annual global sales, according to Kelly’s testimony. Bulk amounts of cocaine are sent to Central America and then broken down into smaller shipments to evade capture at the U.S. border with Mexico.
"If bulk shipments are not interdicted before making landfall, there is almost no stopping the majority of this cocaine as it moves through Central America and Mexico and eventually lands on street corners across America, placing significant strain on our nation’s health care and criminal justice systems and costing American taxpayers an estimated $193 billion in 2007 alone, the most recent year for which data is available," Kelly said.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has earned more than $500 million from the drug trade, and violent gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in El Salvador help to facilitate the shipments as well as human trafficking.
Noriega criticized the role of Venezuela’s government in harboring the FARC and abetting cocaine trafficking. Top government and military officials in Venezuela have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for their alleged links to the drug trade.
"Why is the FARC able to use Venezuelan territory as an aircraft carrier essentially to export cocaine unnoticed?" Noriega said. "It’s a real serious hole in our strategy to realize the central role the Venezuelan government plays in narco-trafficking."
Noriega noted that Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group sponsored by Iran, has established cells in Latin America and participated in drug trafficking. Kelly called this "crime-terror convergence" and said Islamic extremists visit the region to recruit new members and establish business ventures.
"I remain concerned … that U.S. Southern Command’s limited intelligence assets may prevent full awareness of the activities of Iranian and terrorist support networks in the region," Kelly said.
Additionally, Kelly expressed concerns about an increase in cocaine and heroin trafficking from Caribbean islands, such as Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican authorities arrested 63 people last week who are accused of running a $10 million drug trafficking ring in the island’s second largest city.