US President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. John Kelly to lead the US Department of Homeland Security. InSight Crime analyzes what positive and negative effects his appointment may have on the region.
President-elect Trump will nominate Marine veteran John Kelly to take charge of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), people close to the presidential transition team confirmed to the Associated Press on December 7. The Senate would have to vote to confirm Kelly’s appointment.
Kelly’s possible future position would have a key role in executing US national security decisions that directly affect Latin America. It is fitting that his last military post — which he held from November 2012 until he retired in January 2016 — was head of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which leads US military operations in Latin America.
As head of the DHS, Kelly would be responsible for counter-terrorism and national security, border management, enforcing immigration laws, and reacting to cyber threats and natural disasters. Among the department’s many branches are Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.
InSight Crime Analysis
Kelly’s lead role in US national security could — especially given the president-elect’s emphasis on the threat posed by United States’ southern neighbors — significantly impact the US approach to the region. Firstly, Kelly would have a big say in implementing one of Trump’s signature campaign promises: cracking down on unauthorized migration to the United States.
Trump has pledged to combat this issue by building a wall on the US-Mexico border and deporting large numbers of “criminals” residing in the country without proper documentation. The mass deportation of immigrants could have dangerous consequences if executed, exacerbating security risks and damaging economic stability in the migrants’ home countries. Many undocumented migrants in the United States have fled gang-related violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). Today, 10 to 18 percent of these countries’ gross domestic product depends on remittances. A sharp reduction in these transfers could worsen the socio-economic conditions that make these countries fertile ground for criminal groups.
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But Kelly has until now adopted a somewhat different stance to the national threat posed by the influx of migrants, placing more importance on the economic development of Latin American countries over toughening border security.
In his address to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2015 (pdf), Kelly said he was convinced that “homeland defense does not begin at the ‘one yard line’ of our Southwest border.” Regarding Trump’s proposed security policies, he has stressed that a wall alone is not a sufficient solution.
“If the countries where these migrants come from have reasonable levels of violence and reasonable levels of economic opportunity, then the people won’t leave to come here,” Kelly told the Military Times earlier this year. Indeed, when discussing his priorities in fighting organized crime in the Northern Triangle in 2015, he stated: “95 percent of my efforts are not military. It’s economic development.”
Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Adam Isacson told InSight Crime that “Kelly understands that violence is a big driver of migration,” and that he doubts the retired general will share Trump’s support for aggressive deportation.
Kelly’s stance therefore suggests that he would be keener to tackle root causes of migration than aggressively tackle its consequences. Now that he has Trump’s ear, he could try to moderate the future president’s approach to regional migration. Alternatively, he may clash with Trump along with numerous other hardliners set to occupy top government positions.
Nevertheless, Kelly’s opinion on other matters may be a cause for concern. The retired general has warned on multiple occasions that Latin America could be a gateway for terrorists to infiltrate the United States.
“I am also troubled by the financial and operational overlap between criminal and terrorist networks in the region,” Kelly told the Senate in 2015. While recognizing that the extent of this crime-terrorism nexus is “unclear,” he warned that terrorist groups — like the Lebanese Hezbollah — are involved in criminal activities in Latin America.
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Furthermore, Kelly explained that given the “relative ease with which human smugglers” bring thousands of people to the country’s southern border, terrorist organizations could use the same routes to move in dangerous operators “or even bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
But Kelly has been accused of overhyping a terrorist threat that has little foundation in reality. As InSight Crime has pointed out in the past, claims of a terrorist-crime nexus in Latin America are often based on one-off cases of criminal cooperation, and do not represent working relationships between such groups.
Conflating terrorism and organized crime based on dubious theories is a potentially dangerous political tool that could be used to justify budget requests or controversial policy decisions — such as who can or cannot enter the country — while overlooking the real security risks facing Latin America.
Other key policy decisions that could be swayed by Kelly’s appointment include funding for the region. There are worries that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric will mean handing out less foreign aid. This could have a significant impact on the Northern Triangle and on Colombia, which is currently preparing to set in motion a number of costly “post-conflict” projects in the wake of a peace deal with its largest guerrilla organization.
However, Kelly’s views on regional development and his gleaming praise of Colombia’s “phenomenal” security turnaround suggest he will continue to advocate for financial support to Latin America. Kelly strongly endorsed a $750 million aid package to Central America approved in December 2015, and told the Senate last year that, “We must sustain US support throughout [the Colombian peace] process and during the post-conflict phase as our closest partner works to end a decades-long insurgency.”
Isacson agreed that the retired general may exert some positive influence in this regard.
“If Kelly hears concerns about Trump from defense and military colleagues in countries he admires (like Colombia), the result could be some moderation of the Trump administration’s overall approach to the region,” he said.