Marine Corps General John F. Kelly was appointed commander of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in November 2012, replacing Air Force General Douglas Fraser. As head of U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, Kelly has already made declarations regarding his objectives for his tenure in Florida, and has taken trips to meet with U.S. allies in the region in recent months.
Unsurprisingly,illegal narcotic traffickinghas taken a prominent role in the General’s first declarations. With Senator John Kerry (D-MA) confirmed as President Obama’s new Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel most likely to be the next Secretary of Defense, General Kelly should hopefully receive the resources and support he requires to carry out his objectives in the hemisphere and to improve defense relations between the U.S. and the region in the coming years.
Initial impressions of General Kelly
General Kelly boasts a strong career record, which includes serving on the USS Forrestal and the USS Independence, as well as having served as the Commandant’s Liaison Officer to the U.S. House of Representatives.His biographyalso details his deployment as the Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, as well as his time in Iraq. However, it’s unclear if he ever worked in Latin America prior to being appointed to head SOUTHCOM. (As a side note, a SOUTHCOM public affairs official confirmed to this author that the general does not speak Spanish, Portuguese or Creole, a potential obstacle for better communication with regional officials).
Some of General Kelly’s first declarations as SOUTHCOM commander have been diplomatically neutral. Most notable,he has praised the ongoing peace processbetween the Colombian government and the FARC insurgent rebels. On the other hand, he withheld comment on the future of the controversial detention center at the U.S. naval facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This was a wise decision considering how politically divisive the detention center has proven to be, though President Obama has declared that he still intends to close it during his second presidential term.
A focus on combating drug trafficking
During his time as the leader of SOUTCHOM, General Kelly has already traveled to Latin America. During a recent trip, to Peru, he met with President Ollanta Humala. Humala, a former military officer himself, has proven to be a fairly reliable U.S. partner, and appears interested in greater cooperation with Washington to combat drug trafficking. After the meetinga Peruvian Defense Ministry official announcedthat U.S. military personnel will carry out humanitarian operations in the northern Peruvian city of Talara this coming May. Last month, Kelly also travelled to Central America, where the U.S. has military facilities—at the Comalapa base in El Salvador and the Joint Task Force Bravo at the Soto Cano air base in Honduras.
A SOUTHCOM press release on the general’s Central America trip explained that during his visits, “discussions in both countries centered on cooperation in combating transnational threats like organized crime and drug trafficking, response to natural disasters and joint military training.” Moreover, Kelly met with numerous Caribbean leaders and security officials during the recent 2012 Caribbean Nations Security Conference. At the conference, General Kelly stated that “I’m very concerned about the Caribbean vulnerability. [In response] to shifts in any illicit trafficking that could be on the horizon and likely is, I’m confident we can take steps now to ensure continued regional security.”
As evidenced by his many statements,General Kelly has stressed the need for multinational cooperationto best combat drug trafficking. For example he has also stated that “[nations within the region] have already been shouldering tremendous burdens in terms of drugs and narcoterrorism. Those are things that we want to help them get after.”
During General Kelly’s brief tenure at SOUTHCOM, there has already been a notable degree of success. As part of the anti-drug trafficking operation with Central American partners known as Operacion Martillo, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Gary recently intercepted a drug trafficking boat and confiscated more than 600 pounds of cocaine (valued at $22 million). At a time when Washington is increasing the funding and resources for its “war on drugs” in Latin America, it will be critical to see what priorities, in terms of areas and types of operations, General Kelly will want to see carried out.
Finally, it is noteworthy that during his nomination hearing this past July, Kelly, while acknowledging the necessity to fight drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean, did not shy away from stating his personal position on the subject. At the time,the decorated marine stated that“the real problem, in my estimation, and if you ask almost anyone in South America or Central America they’ll tell you the same thing. The real problem is in the United States. It’s the demand problem.”
What to expect from General Kelly
With Kerry confirmed for his position in the State Department and Hagel close to being the head at the Department of Defense (DOD), General Kelly will soon have a clear understanding of who his civilian superiors will be. Once the new head at the DOD is confirmed, hopefully a new Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for the Western Hemisphere will be selected soon to fill Frank Mora’s recent departure (he is now pursuing an academic career at Florida International University). This is a key position and will be the SOUTHCOM commander’s chief ally in the DOD.
General Kelly is an experienced military officer, with knowledge not only of combat situations but also of Washington politics. Additionally, he possesses political skills, a critical skill for a military commander, as evidenced by his lack of comment regarding Guantanamo Bay.
Nevertheless, it is unclear how much experience regarding Latin American and Caribbean security issues he had before he took his post in November. His initial declarations focus on combating drug trafficking, while his trips to visit U.S. ally countries like Peru and El Salvador are a good way to get a grip of the geopolitics of the hemisphere. Given the region’s security challenges, he will have to be a quick learner.