Marine Corps General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, asserted that the federal government’s lackadaisical approach to security on the U.S./Mexico border is an existential threat to the United States. Expressing concern over vulnerabilities in American border controls and defense, Kelly said "In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance," adding in an interview with Defense One. "Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree."
Kelly has requested increased Congressional funding to cope with the non-stop flow of narcotics, weapons, and illegal immigrants from Latin America. However, the federal budget for border security has already been curtailed.
Besides the more than 100,000 illegal immigrants from Central America crossing the U.S. border, who are mostly minors from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Kelly said his command could not adequately respond to nearly 75 percent of illegal trafficking incidents. "Last year, we had to cancel more than 200 very effective engagement activities and numerous multilateral exercises," Kelly told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, earlier this year. "I simply sit and watch it go by. And because of service cuts, I don't expect to get any immediate relief, in terms of assets, to work with in this region of the world.”
The U.S./Mexico border region, averred Kelly, has become a worsening "crime-terror convergence.” Speaking to DefenseOne, Kelly said "All this corruption and violence is directly or indirectly due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and now methamphetamines, all of which are produced in Latin America and smuggled into the U.S. along an incredibly efficient network along which anything — hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children — can travel, so long as they can pay the fare." Kelly said that now, more than ever, the military is needed to defend the U.S. southern border.
Kelly appeared to agree with some immigration advocates that it is poverty and criminal violence that is driving illegal immigrants to the U.S. and thus presenting a national security threat. The three countries most represented in the current surge of illegal immigrant children are: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Coincidently, these countries are ranked as having the first, fourth and fifth-highest homicide rates, respectively, in the world.
Following a visit with Central American presidents assembled in Guatemala City in June, Vice President Joe Biden announced $9.6 million in new assistance to Central American governments for repatriation of their citizens, improving security and preventing crime, as well as a series of USAID programs. Under USAID, $40 million dollars will go to Guatemala and $25 million to El Salvador. Under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, an additional $18.5 million will go to Honduras. For his part, President Barack Obama plans to request $2 billion for additional border security personnel, immigration judges, and detention and processing resources.
Kelly warned against a hands-off attitude to the Central American republics. "This region does not ask for much," said Kelly. "Some of my counterparts perceive that the United States is disengaging from the region and from the world in general. We should remember that our friends and allies are not the only ones watching our actions closely, and in the meantime, drug traffickers, criminal networks, and other actors, unburdened by budget cuts, cancelled activities, and employee furloughs, will have the opportunity to exploit the partnership vacuum left by reduced U.S. military engagement."
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.