Pompeo Monitoring Drug War in China, Latin America

Secretary of State reviews progress, challenges in drug war at Senate hearing

Mike Pompeo / Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the United States is making progress in an increasingly global drug war, although Chinese drug gangs and the "Maduro mafia" are posing major barriers to success.

Pompeo appeared before the first hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control for the new Congress. The caucus, now chaired by Sens. John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), is responsible for overseeing programs and private initiatives that encourage international cooperation on fighting the threat of drugs.

The work done by the INC caucus has grown particularly important in recent years as America’s drug crisis has developed international roots. While earlier rises in overdose deaths were attributable to domestically produced prescription opioids, in recent years heroin and subsequently fentanyl have become the major cause of tens of thousands of overdose deaths annually.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, most heroin is sourced from Mexico and smuggled over the porous southwestern border, while most fentanyl is made in China and then trafficked over the border or through the mail. As such, curbing the explosion in overdose deaths now requires international enforcement efforts. A meeting of the INC caucus last year explored China’s role as what then Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) called "the number one problem when it comes to illegal fentanyl coming into the United States."

In his remarks, Pompeo stressed that in his time as Secretary of State, China has been a major focus of drug-control efforts. These efforts, he noted, have led to the official scheduling of fentanyl and its analogs by the PRC, thanks in large part to trade pressure exerted by the Trump administration.

"We need to work closely with them to follow up on these encouraging signs," Pompeo said. "There should be new criminal penalties—I'm convinced that they will do that—and I'm convinced that this will shut down labs inside China and save lives here in the United States."

However, China is not the only international player in the drug business. Pompeo pointed to the United States’s southern neighbor, Mexico, as a hotspot for drug trafficking: not only the opioid crisis, but the rising scourge of methamphetamine and cocaine. He believes that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his new government are still "getting their feet underneath them," but understands the urgency of fighting the narco threat on both sides of the border.

Specifically, Pompeo noted that Mexico has signed a joint declaration promising to crack down on drug trafficking organizations. The United States, for its part, has donated equipment to Mexican law enforcement and trained officers in drug interdiction and eradication.

"As recently as last week, as part of our conversation on migration, we touched on how we can work more closely together," he said. "The joint declaration we signed was mostly focused on migration, but a good deal of the conversation … was about the traffickers’ desire to move whatever product will bring a market price that causes them to have an incentive to continue to do the things that disrupt so many lives in the United States."

Another nation is less likely to be compliant: Venezuela.

Since the rise of the Maduro regime, CNN has reported, "corruption … has created a cocaine superhighway to the US." Among those active in the Venezuela drug game, Pompeo revealed Tuesday, is the terror group Hezbollah, engaging in what he characterized as a "money-making enterprise."

"Venezuela is a narcostate, controlled by the Maduro mafia," Pompeo said in his prepared remarks. "Its porous borders, broken judicial system, almost nonexistent cooperation on international drug controls, and institutionalized corruption makes it hard for us to stem the flow of drugs to the United States. We’ll have a much better chance to solve that problem by supporting the Venezuelan people’s quest to restore democracy and good governance."

Elsewhere in Latin America, Pompeo cited slow progress. According to him, the Colombian government has renewed its coca eradication program, destroying 60 percent more coca in the first four months of 2019 than in the first four months of 2018. Much of Central America and the Carribean have also made "significant strides," according to Pompeo’s written remarks.

Still, more work is needed. Roger F. Noriega—former ambassador to the Organization of American States, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a panelist who appeared after Pompeo’s remarks—emphasized that the United States needs to cope with "state-sponsored" drug crime, especially as supported by the Maduro regime.

"The Venezuelan state—most senior officials, state-run enterprises, police and security forces, etc.—is complicit directly in transnational organized crime," Noriega noted in his prepared remarks. "Elements of the national government directly manage and support drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism financing, support for guerrilla movements, and international corruption."