ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – When Washington wanted answers this summer about the hordes of unaccompanied kids illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Gen. John Kelly was thrust into the spotlight.
As the head of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly's purview includes 31 countries throughout the Caribbean, and South and Central Americas — a region plagued by drug trafficking, poverty and violence. The migration crisis, he told lawmakers, should come as no surprise. And while it has slowed some since then, Kelly said the problem is likely to resurface now that the summer is coming to an end.
"The real reason the kids stopped going to the United States," Kelly told Marine Corps Times, "was because it's too hot. Migration slows down significantly when it's hot because it's dangerous to walk across the southwest border in the summertime. But the expectation is that the kids will start again as soon as the cool weather comes."
The countries within SOUTHCOM face troubling challenges. Some have been overrun by cartels who use brutal violence to control the drug trade. Gangs rule neighborhoods, giving teenagers two choices for their future: join them or be killed. Local governments and law enforcement are unreliable, compromised by bribes, leaving families with few options. Many turn to smugglers — Kelly calls them "coyotes" or "travel agents" — to transport their children away from the danger. The destination of choice is the U.S. border.
Solutions require partnerships, Kelly said, an area in which SOUTHCOM continues to make steady progress. In mid-September, for instance, he hosted a regional security summit at the command's Miami headquarters, bringing together leaders from the U.S., Mexico and South and Central Americas. They addressed how other countries gripped by violence could apply lessons from the Colombia Action Plan, which many consider a successful effort to bring security and prosperity to a country once ruled by instability.
Three weeks prior, the general invited Marine Corps Times to accompany him on a flight from Miami to Lima, Peru, where he visited personnel aboard the Navy's newest amphibious assault ship, America, and discussed security cooperation with the Peruvians. In a wide-ranging interview, Kelly detailed SOUTHCOM's mission and challenges in this diverse, increasingly dangerous part of the world. Excerpts, edited for space and clarity:
Q. SOUTHCOM is sometimes overshadowed by the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific region. After the influx of migrants, what did people in Washington want to know about the challenges here?
A. They had questions like: "How are the kids getting up here? Why are they leaving?"
One of the things we deal with down here that I think is a particular threat to the U.S. is transnational organized crime. It's a very efficient and wide ranging network that plugs into others from all over the world. Most of the time the coyotes are moving drugs, sex slaves or migrants on the network. It's unstoppable, and when it became lucrative, they started moving children on it.
When the issue started with the kids, people wanted to know if it was a dangerous trip. And yes, anytime you let your nine-year-old on that kind of trip alone, it's dangerous. But the coyotes saw a lucrative market, so it's now part of the business so it's now in their interest to make sure the kids get there safely.
You and I wouldn't put our kids on that railroad, but then again things in our country are not that bad.
Q. What advice did you give to people in Washington?
A. The advice I gave was to take a regional view of Latin America, particularly Central America. What's causing the kids to leave and the parents to push the kids are unbelievably high rates of crime and violence, no access to economic development and not much access to education.
To me, the solution is to significantly reduce drug demand in the U.S., but that's never going to happen because we've given up. So you give these countries a break by deflecting drugs, then assist them by cleansing their police and finding ways to invest in them. We've had some real success in deflecting drugs from Central America over the past 18 months. The problem is they're going somewhere else, and they'll cause problems there.
Q. Where do you see things breaking down in Central America?
A. The conditions in Central America are some of the most violent in the world because of the drug trade. They're not consumer countries — 100 percent of the cocaine that comes to the U.S. comes through Central America and 100 percent of the heroin that's consumed in the U.S. is produced in Latin America. A huge amount of methamphetamines now. That manufacturing process has moved into Mexico and then of course it's shipped into the United States.
The narco-traffickers have gotten a hold of these countries and have just put them into production. In a very real sense, you can say their problems are our problems. The whole network is feeding our drug demand, so I think we bear some responsibility to help them.
Q. What do you hear from officials here about how the cartels try to infiltrate their institutions?
A. One of the interior ministers — I won't tell you which one — when I first took this job told me "I'm clean." And he is. He said "I won't take their money." And the bribes they're offered are astronomical. They are offered millions of dollars.
So this guy says: "I won't take their money and they know it. Then I get a CD in the mail and there are pictures of my two little girls leaving the house one morning, skipping to school."
Another showed him and his wife walking to Mass on a Sunday morning. And the third showed his little girls with their grandmother at a park, and the little girls are just about five and six years old. It's chilling, so what do you do?
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges the partner militaries down here face?
A. At the end of the day, they're really fighting our fight for us. People will criticize, but I'm fairly talkative about saying: "Hey, slow down a second. If we didn't have the consumption problem, they wouldn't have problems relating to the trafficking, and they wouldn't have the murders and lack of economic opportunity." All of that is drug-trafficking based.
Q. When you talk to military leaders from this part of the world, what kind of training do they want to conduct with U.S. troops?
A. The vast majority of the countries want to partner with us. If I had unlimited access to teams, I could send them out. Just about every country raises its hand and would like something from us. They want more of these kinds of engagements with U.S. forces, whether it's Marines and sailors aboard a ship, or training with the Army and Air Force. They like the partnership.
In many cases, unfortunately, countries like Colombia or Peru are very good in ground force fighting of insurgencies because they've been doing it so long.
Q. You talk a lot about partnership being vital in this part of the world. Aside from training, what are some examples of that?
A. I have tremendous relations with countries down here, even those politically standoffish.
We work closely with Nicaraguans, for example, and they're not politically friendly to the U.S. We work counter-drug with them and they're pretty responsive. I got a call from them several months ago when they had a small boat on an anti-drug run that capsized. We stopped everything we were doing in the Caribbean and every airplane I owned was sent to that location to look for those sailors. We looked all through the weekend and unfortunately never found them. But that's kind of an indicator of partnership here.
We have respectful relations with the Ecuadorian military. We have politically cold relations with Argentina, we have very good relations with their military.
Q. Are any countries off the table when it comes to partnership?
A. I don't have any regulation or restriction with the exception of Cuba. The Venezuelans are off the table. We have very, very politically cold relations right now with the Ecuadorians, which is their choice as they've chosen to align themselves with Venezuela. Same thing with Bolivia.
Q. In the midst of all you're trying to do out here, deep budget cuts have hit the military. What challenges does SOUTHCOM continue face in that?
A. We have a lot going on now. There's the pivot to the Pacific, a pretty decreased military to say the least, and I'm not so sure we've seen the bottom of that yet, things in the Middle East seem to be getting worse, not better. So what do you have left? Not very much. But we do alright with what we get.
Getting military crews down here while they're doing their workups is a game changer for me. For example, I was talking to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert recently and he has been very supportive. He is going to look at getting ships on their workups down here when crews are just coming together to train to deploy, because I can put them right into the counter-drug effort in the Caribbean.
Q. You don't normally see amphibious ready groups in this part of the world. What were the benefits to having about 1,500 Marines and sailors aboard the America down here?
A. In each one of these ports, Marines have gone ashore. But in every place, they've visited it has been this cross training, in Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Peru.
Peru and Colombia are doing heroic work trying to stop the production of cocaine because it's such a cancer for our country and those it moves through to get there. They are willing to fight the fight.
The Marines did some great things with Colombian and Peruvian marines and soldiers to help them with those fights.
Q. Aside from the international partnerships, what did the America transit bring to the Navy and Marine Corps team?
A. For about 75 percent of the crew, it was the first time they've ever been out. So you've got brand new sailors, and I suspect a fair number of new Marines.
That crew comes together as individuals but eventually becomes a team by having them work together and practice until eventually, in a given circumstance, they know what each other is going to do before they even do it. They start to learn each other's strengths and limitations.
Early in my career I was aboard a ship, and when we had to practice going into battle, sealing about 1,000 doors, the first time it took about five to six minutes. By the end of a three week workup, we were where we needed to be.
So by having this extended cruise, even though they're not even really christened yet and officially a Navy ship, they get some pretty darn good crew time.
Q. What did the partners want to know about the ship?
A. Most of my discussion were about the role it could play in humanitarian assistance. We talked about how it can produce a fresh water, the medical capabilities on board and the helicopters. They're prone to earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions out here, so all of that is important.■