Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a group of Latin American leaders Friday that the United States’ insatiable demand for illegal drugs has fueled the violence in Central America that’s driving migrants to the United States.
Kelly blamed the United States’ doing “almost nothing” about drug demand and he described the networks that serve that demand as a source of many of the region’s economic and security problems.
“Yes, we try to rehabilitate drug addicts,” Kelly said. “Yes, we try to arrest our way out of this, but we do very little in our country, my country, the United States of America, to try to get at this incredible drug demand . . . that as a direct result is what is happening in Central America: a breakdown of societies, lack of police effectiveness and a lot of other things.”
Kelly identified three problem drugs as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. He made no mention of marijuana, the second time in a month that he has left pot out of his denunciation of drug smugglers.
He did not suggest what steps the United States should take to cut the demand.
Central America has long been a bridge that links drug producers in South America to their consumers in the United States. Transnational criminal organizations purchase illegal drugs from suppliers in Colombia, Peru and other South American countries and take care of transporting and packaging the drugs until their arrival in the United States.
Kelly made the remarks Friday during a keynote address at the launch of the Washington-based Atlantic Council report on security and economic challenges facing the Northern Triangle of Central America.
For a leading member of the president’s Cabinet to lay responsibility on the United States for problems in another part of the world was a rarity, though nothing new for Kelly, who as commander of the military’s U.S. Southern Command spent significant time working on violence issues in Central America.
Kelly once wrote in a column for the military newspaper Army Times that blamed U.S. demand for the creation of an incredibly efficient criminal network that transports drugs, people, terrorists and potentially weapons of mass destruction.
“There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is,” Kelly wrote.
The Atlantic Council report, which Kelly did not take part in, found that 10 percent of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras’ 30 million residents have fled their countries because of a lack of economic opportunity, weak governance and criminality.
“Without a major recalibration of both U.S. strategy and that of the three countries, the challenges faced in the region today will increasingly lead to bleak long-term national prospects and a more direct effect on U.S. national security interests,” the report found.
Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, a member of the Northern Triangle Security and Economic Opportunity Task Force, echoed Kelly’s remarks, saying the U.S. drug problem is a strong link to the insecurity in Central America. She warned that smuggling routes could one day be exploited by terrorist organizations.
“If we do not do something different in the following years, the violence will continue,” Chinchilla said. “And the illegal groups will continue working. And that means an important threat to the United States security.”
Kelly said that in his current post he hoped to focus on economic development and security in Central America as a way to cut illegal immigration across the southern border. He said his plan had received the approval of President Donald Trump.
One of the first things he’s done, Kelly said, is partner with Mexico and several other countries in the region on an economic and security conference in Miami, tentatively scheduled for June, to look at these issues.
Vice President Mike Pence and the secretaries of commerce and treasury are expected to attend. The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador also will be there.
“The point of all this is to raise the awareness so we can start to make a difference in Central America,” Kelly said.