More cocaine and heroin is flowing into the United States because of declining military assets, fueling violence in Latin America and on U.S. streets, military commanders said on Tuesday.
The influx of illicit narcotics produced in Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American nations contributes to more than 40,000 drug-induced deaths annually in the United States and almost $200 billion in health care and criminal justice costs. Military commanders say the most efficient way to cut off the supply is to stop it before it reaches the shores of Central American countries, where bulk shipments are broken into smaller packages to evade capture at the U.S. border with Mexico.
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However, the U.S. military increasingly has fewer assets to interdict the illegal drug trade.
Marine Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), said at a congressional hearing that he only has about 5 percent of the airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets he needs to seize shipments.
U.S. forces attempt to monitor smugglers with airborne surveillance before dispatching Coast Guard boats or helicopters to capture them in the "Transit Zone." The zone is a seven million square mile area about twice the size of the continental United States that includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
"The efficient part of the fight is before it gets ashore in Central America," Kelly said. "We focused this war on drugs for 30 years on the streets of America, which is the last place you want to put our main effort."
Kelly said he needs more Coast Guard cutters and Navy frigates to assist with the interdiction efforts. However, his command has become another casualty of the budget cuts known as sequestration. The "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East leaves "almost nothing for SouthCom" as a result, he said.
SouthCom’s joint inter-agency task force interdicted 20 fewer metric tons of cocaine last year, or 13 percent less than 2012, according to documents from the House Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. The overall removal rate for cocaine trafficking to the United States dropped to 23 percent in 2012, much lower than the Obama administration’s target of 40 percent.
"Because the dead are dead and the people [in America] are struggling under this, people living under bridges and selling their bodies for a hit, it keeps me up at night," Kelly said.
The drug trade has also led to rising homicide rates in Central and South America, where countries such as Honduras are swarmed by gangs and transnational criminal groups that traffic narcotics. Latin America is now the world’s most violent region, according to a recent United Nations report.
"The top six most murderous countries per capita are all right here in our hemisphere," said Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
"Transnational criminal and narcotics trafficking organizations are becoming more sophisticated in evading law enforcement, and, as the UN report suggests, increasingly more violent. This violence along our border and near our shores poses a threat to our national security and destabilizes our region."
Kelly said the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington states prompted some bemused responses from foreign ministers of defense in the region.
"The word hypocrite comes into the conversation," he said. "They wonder frankly what the hell we’re doing."
The United States must do more to reassure its regional partners that it remains committed to fighting the drug trade, Kelly said. He noted that Colombia, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region, has seized hundreds of tons of cocaine in recent years.
"If they stop what they’re doing in terms of our drug fight, then we are really screwed," he said.