By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2013 – A potential connection between crime syndicates and terrorists in Latin America would constitute a clear danger to the region, U.S. Southern Command’s senior leader told reporters at the Pentagon today.
Kelly, who took over U.S. Southern Command in November, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference that in the past six years Iran has tried to increase its influence in Central and South America. The Iranian government, he said, has built embassies and cultural centers in the region.
“The concern is that … they’re looking … for influence -- say for votes in the U.N. on sanctions,” he said. “But also, and I've … made mention to some of our friends in the region that these guys are very, very good at what they do, and very, very skilled at what they do, and that people should just be careful as to who they're dealing with.”
The general stressed he is not accusing Iran of sponsoring terrorism in Latin America, but he noted that Iran is involved in terrorism in other areas of the world.
“We do know that some terrorist organizations are able to skim off fairly substantial sums of money from the drug profits,” Kelly said. “And so there has to be kind of a network for that to happen.”
The criminal networks in Latin America are very sophisticated and very well financed, he said.
Drugs are the basis for this wealth and the drug-related money coming out of the United States “is astronomical,” Kelly said.
“I mean palettes of money,” he said. “For a buck, anything can get on the [drug transport] network.”
That network, Kelly said, transports tons of drugs into the United States and Europe and moves bales of money back out.
“The point of it all is the network is a very dangerous thing to have working as effectively as it does, because anything can get on it,” he said.
Kelly said his command is working to build military-to-military contacts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The good news about Latin America and my part of the world is that there are no wars,” he said.
And most Latin American countries, including Brazil -- the world’s fifth-largest economy -- want the United States as a partner, Kelly said.
The countries of the region don’t ask for much, the general said.
“When I go down and visit, they’re not asking for an awful [lot] -- they’re not asking for money,” Kelly said. “They’re willing to pay their own way.”
What the Latin American countries need is expertise, the general said. For example, Peru is asking for help in getting its separate military services to work together better. Colombia needs help in countering improvised explosive devices that the terror group FARC and criminal syndicates use to protect coca fields and factories. Other nations need medical expertise.
Turning to another topic, Kelly noted that sequestration will hit his command hard. He said there will be fewer vessels to interdict cocaine shipments, and fewer troops to operate with partner militaries.