How big a security threat are Latin America's problems? US general weighs in.

Gen. John Kelly, at a Senate hearing Thursday, called for a focus on stamping out the root causes of human and narco-trafficking in Latin America, so terrorists can't access smuggling routes.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Migrants walk along the rail tracks after getting off a train during their journey toward the US-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico, July 12, 2014. The surge in unaccompanied minors and women with children migrating from Central America has put new attention on decades-old smuggling organizations.

In striking remarks this week, the US general in charge of the Pentagon’s Southern Command – which keeps an eye on security threats emanating from Latin America and the Caribbean – issued some rather dire warnings.

Terrorists would like nothing more than to make use of networks established by human and narco-traffickers to attack the US, perhaps bringing dirty bombs, Gen. John Kelly told lawmakers Thursday.

“Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens – or even bring weapons of mass destruction to the United States,” he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There were roughly half a million migrants from Central America, including more than 50,000 unaccompanied children, apprehended last year on the border, by General Kelly’s estimates. Although a surge in Central Americans crossing illegally into the US has subsided since last summer, there are concerns that the impending warmer weather could bring another rise in illegal immigration.

Kelly also acknowledges – for better or worse – that it’s hard to judge whether the security threats might actually become realities, since the US military’s “limited intelligence capabilities make it difficult to fully assess the amount of terrorist financing generated in Latin America, or [to] understand the scope of possible criminal-terrorist collaboration.”

And so the safe bet is to focus on the poverty and demand that drive these human and narco-networks, which are “exacerbated by US drug consumption,” he said.

Indeed, the challenges posed by transnational crime syndicates are great, Kelly indicated.

“Powerful and well-resourced, these groups traffic in drugs – including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine – small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, illegally mined gold, counterfeit goods, people, and other contraband,” he warned. “They engage in money laundering, bribery, intimidation, and assassinations.”

These activities, in turn, have “wrought devastating consequences in many of our partner nations, degrading their civilian police and justice systems, corrupting their institutions, and contributing to a breakdown in citizen safety.”

Yet these problems tend to be eclipsed by other concerns in the US, Kelly acknowledged. “Frankly,” he said, “I believe we are overlooking a significant security threat.”

The Islamic State last year posted discussions on social media calling for the infiltration of the US southern border, Kelly noted.

What’s more, “in addition to thousands of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, foreign nationals from countries like Somalia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Pakistan” would like to use human smuggling networks to enter the US.

There is some good news, however, he told lawmakers: “Thankfully,” he said, “we have not yet seen evidence of this occurring.”

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