- General testifies before Senate committee
- He's worried about impact of Pentagon budget cuts
- Navy operations will cease in some areas, he says
Pentagon budget cuts will severely reduce U.S. military efforts to stop the illegal trafficking of drugs and people into the United States from South and Central America, according to the top American commander in that region.
Gen. John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said mandatory budget cuts to the Defense Department will cut the number of ships that patrol the waters of the Caribbean and Pacific along Latin America, traditional trafficking routes into the United States.
Kelly on Wednesday said that Navy and U.S. Coast Guard ships seized between 150 to 200 tons of cocaine during drug interdiction operations last year.
He told a Senate panel that the budget cuts could wipe out those successes.
"Next year all of that (drugs) will make its way ashore and into the United States," Gen. Kelly said.
"Navy ops in my area of operations will essentially stop -- go to zero, I believe," Kelly said of the sequestration cuts. "With a little luck we might see a Coast Guard cutter down there, but we're gonna lose airborne ISR (aircraft surveillance) in the counter-drug fight, we'll lose the Navy assets," he said.
Kelly said he worries the sophisticated network that moves the drugs and people into the Unites States would also open up.
"We watch individuals come into the network from as far away as the Middle East," Kelly said.
He cited examples of individuals from Pakistan and Iran paying a lot of money to take advantage of the complicated network and quietly slip into the United States.
"Whatever they're up to, they're not coming here to drive a cab in Washington, D.C. and they're paying a lot of money to get here," he said.
Kelly would not elaborate what these people did when they reached the United States.
Under the mandatory budget cuts, the Pentagon's share of cuts would be $500 billion -- about half the government total -- over the next decade. Between now and September, the Pentagon must slash about $50 billion across the board, with little ability to move money between accounts.
Kelly said Colombia used to be the top cocaine producing country in the region, but has fallen to number three behind Peru and Bolivia, and as much as 20% of the cocaine moving through South America ends up in the United States.
He said large amounts of drugs also travel through Brazil and are moved to Africa -- providing funding for insurgents and drug traffickers -- and then up into Europe.
But as the United States and partner countries have solved much of the ship and fast-boat systems used move drugs, traffickers have invented more sophisticated submarine-like vehicles with even longer range and the ability to hold up to 10 tons of cocaine.
The new generation of subs are able to elude sea and land surveillance much more easily, according to Kelly.