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By: Glen Garvin
Neither the United States nor its Latin American neighbors can have peace or prosperity until they get control of the illegal drugs that flow among them, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told regional leaders as the second day of the Conference on Security and Prosperity in Central America got under way Friday.
“Security and prosperity go hand in hand,” Kelly said, addressing top leaders of Mexico and Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “You cannot do one without the other.”
Kelly, a former U.S. Marine general who spent years as the head of the U.S. Southern Command in the same Doral building where the conference is being held, said the experience gave him a first-hand look at the immensity — and savagery — of the violence wrought by the region’s narcotraffickers and street gangs, who are often one and the same.
He called it “devastating” and recalled a conversation with a Central American woman he met in a refugee camp who told him that she was “lucky” to have been merely sexually assaulted and not killed as she fled north toward the United States.
But Kelly also acknowledged that the mammoth U.S. appetite is the engine that drives the narcotrafficking train.
“Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50” in the United States, Kelly said, adding that more Americans die from drug abuse each year than the entire U.S. death tolls of its wars in Korea or Vietnam.
For all its gravity, though, Kelly said the violence can be overcome.
“Look at the miracle of Colombia, look at where they were 20 years ago and look at where they are now,” Kelly said, referring to a country once wracked by a cocaine-fueled civil war that’s now on the verge of a comprehensive peace agreement.
He also applied the word “miracle” to the crime-fighting efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “Five years ago, they were the most dangerous countries on the planet, the countries with the highest rates of violence,” Kelly said. Since then, he said, they’ve all reduced violent crime by 20 to 40 percent.
If anything, the Latin America leaders saw the crime problem with even more urgency than Kelly. “We must act here and now” to shut down the violence, said Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong at the opening session. “We must work together to end the inertias that have prevailed in the past.”