U.S. officials have neglected the rise of drug trafficking and transnational criminal groups in Latin America for so long that the problem has now reached America’s southern border, creating a humanitarian crisis and raising the costs of any U.S. response, a leading U.S lawmaker and experts said on Tuesday.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that the United States "has been AWOL in the hemisphere all together, not just in the war on drugs." The most recent indication is the surge in young immigrant children crossing the U.S. border, where between 60,000 and 80,000 children are expected to seek safe haven this year.
Parents who entered the country illegally are now encouraging their children to join them and flee an epidemic of gang and drug violence in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, according to reports.
"We have to do everything we possibly can to stabilize these countries through trade, security, fighting against narcotraffickers," Salmon said.
"They love their countries," he added. "They’re leaving because they’re frightened or they can’t put food on the table, or both."
Salmon said he recently visited a detention center in Nogales, Ariz., at the center of what he called an "epic humanitarian crisis" and a "total makeshift situation." About 140 border patrol agents have volunteered to leave their posts and tend to undocumented children at the center. They are separated by sex and age and kept in chain-link cages under razor wire.
"Coyote" smugglers arrange their passage across the border for $5,000 to $8,000 per person. Some do not make it and die from dehydration, some are sold into sex slavery, and some are murdered.
"I Iay this at [President Barack Obama’s] doorstep," Salmon said, pointing to administration policies such as deferred action that offer deportation relief for some undocumented immigrants who arrive as children. "It is because of his failed policies that this is happening."
Salmon and Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) have introduced legislation that would create an independent commission to evaluate U.S. drug programs and make future recommendations for counternarcotics policy.
Roger Noriega, an AEI fellow and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration, noted that the White House has now asked Congress for $2.3 billion in total to house, feed, and transport the children to shelters or reunite them with relatives already in America. That total would be significantly more than the $60 million the State Department requested next year for helping to combat drug and gang violence through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).
"We can either pay $2 billion to house these people for six to eight months, or think of the good we can do with the right kind of coordination of policies that get back to economic growth" and security, Noriega said.
He added that U.S. demand for illicit narcotics continues to fuel violence south of the border, contributing to sharp increases in drug-induced deaths among Americans and more than $80 billion in annual global cocaine sales.
"This is our fault, folks," Noriega said. "We’re talking about a U.S. drug war that Mexicans and Central Americans are fighting."
Transnational criminal groups have now begun to infiltrate corrupt governments and police forces in Central America and partner with gangs to traffic drugs, such as Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in El Salvador. Honduras and El Salvador have some of the world’s highest murder rates—largely due to organized crime and gang-related violence.
However, U.S. military resources in the region have declined in recent years due to budget cuts known as sequestration. Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, told lawmakers at committee hearings earlier this year that he lacks the assets to interdict about three-fourths of "suspected maritime drug smuggling" into America.
"This shows us the lack of priority and focus that our government has given the scourge of drug trafficking right here in our own hemisphere," Salmon said. "Violence near our shores poses a direct threat to our national security and destabilizes our region."
The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah has also made inroads into the region in recent years, revealing the transnational nature of the threat. Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese drug kingpin, was indicted in 2011 and remains at large for trafficking Colombian cocaine into America and laundering hundreds of millions in profits back to Lebanon through front companies.
Noriega pointed to the recent elections in El Salvador as another example of U.S. neglect toward the region.
The State Department remained neutral during the election won by Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former rebel guerilla group during El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s. Reports linked Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN to drug trafficking deals involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Venezuelan government.
Recent reports from the country have also been troubling. Several high-level military officials are under investigation for allegedly providing hundreds of assault rifles to MS-13, which additionally operates in more than 40 U.S. states.
"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.
Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Sanchez Ceren this week as part of his trip to Latin America. Biden’s office did not respond to a request for comment.