U.S. Southern Command: Diminished Resources Affect Mission

By CLALS Staff 

General John F. Kelly Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

General John F. Kelly
Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

In an annual posture statement to Congress and a press conference, SouthCom Commander John Kelly played up the successes of his command’s counternarcotics mission – particularly its “engagements” throughout Latin America – but emphasized that his effectiveness is threatened by budget cuts.  The General said that cooperation with Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and others was “very, very valuable,” and he boasted that the United States has trained over 5,000 Mexican soldiers over the past year.  But he warned that “severe budget constraints” are limiting the Command’s ability to build on the progress.  On Capitol Hill, he said, “Let me be frank: reduced engagement risks the deterioration of U.S. leadership and influence in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.”

Kelly had lots of praise for individual counternarcotics operations – specifically Colombia’s “unbelievable heroic efforts” with crop eradication and attacks on processing labs – and cited the effectiveness of his Command’s drug interdiction programs (capturing about 132 tons of cocaine in 2013) despite funding cutbacks.  But the General reported that his Command failed to intercept 80 percent of the drugs flowing out of Colombia and about 74 percent of all maritime flows.  Despite his praise for Colombia, his statements confirmed that it is still a major producer (reportedly third, after Peru and Bolivia) and the major exporter of cocaine to the United States.  SouthCom estimates that the cocaine industry is still worth $85 billion a year and has “franchises” in 1,200 U.S. cities.  Kelly also reported that heroin consumption in the United States is up 65 to 80 percent in the last several years – “and it all comes up through Latin America.”  He said that SouthCom has been directed to reduce the amount of drugs reaching the United States from Latin America by at least 40 percent – a goal he said he cannot achieve because of cutbacks.

Policymakers and program-managers always face a balancing act when speaking in Washington.  They understandably tout their successes; cite resource constraints as the reason for failure to attain mission objectives; and make a pitch for resources.  SouthCom, having a budget that dwarfs that of any other agency, traditionally has been primus inter pares in Latin America, but Kelly portrayed his Command as merely one of many in the U.S. interagency.  His praise of Colombia as a “regional security exporter” also hints at the unwillingness or inability of the Command to continue its investment in such operations.  When the best-funded U.S. agency operating in Latin America projects itself in this fashion, admitting that the vast majority of illegal narcotics still reach U.S. territory, it’s natural for U.S. taxpayers to wonder what they are getting for their many millions of dollars.  If the Obama administration cannot make a better case, U.S. counternarcotics policy would appear to lack direction and, absent a systematic review, will continue essentially on autopilot.

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