Smuggling cartels are now a major threat to the fabric of American society, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly declared Tuesday, saying the international crime syndicates have shown an incredible ability to sneak drugs and people — and potentially terrorists and dirty bombs — into the U.S.
Mr. Kelly, a former Marine Corps general who is three months into his tenure as secretary, said among all the other dangers facing Americans, the threat from the cartels, known in the security world as “transnational criminal organizations” is what keeps him up at night.
He said the Trump administration has already notched some victories over the criminal networks, including cutting the level of illegal immigration across the southwestern border by a staggering 70 percent. But he said the amount of drugs has increased and that the smuggling cartels share ties with the terrorist networks that the U.S. is fighting overseas.
“We know, as an example, that the money-laundering of massive amounts of profit from the U.S. drug demand — there are terrorist organizations that make money from that money-laundering process,” he said. “It’s an incredibly lucrative way to raise money. They’re not doing it in huge amounts yet, I don’t believe. But to me, it would be a next step. So the nexus between criminal networks and terrorist networks is real, and, I would predict, will get more sophisticated.”
Mr. Kelly was laying out his early-tenure priorities in a speech at George Washington University, while across town, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a similar message to his organized crime council, saying criminal gangs such as MS-13 “represent one of the gravest threats to our American safety.”
“If you are a gang member, we will find you. We will devastate your networks. We will starve your revenue sources, deplete your ranks and seize your profits,” Mr. Sessions said. “We will not concede a single block or a street corner to your vicious tactics.”
Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kelly were describing criminal syndicates that reach from Latin America deep into U.S. communities.
Smuggling cartels in Mexico control an increasing portion of illegal drug trafficking into the U.S., while more traditional street gangs such as MS-13 span most of the country and count more than 10,000 members.
President Trump weighed in on the issue Tuesday, saying on Twitter: “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!”
The Obama administration did mount criminal cases against MS-13 members in the U.S. and did try to crack down on the smuggling networks in Latin America — though it regularly downplayed the dangers of those organizations to homeland security.
One network managed to sneak four men from a U.S.-designated Kurdish terrorist organization into the U.S. in 2014, and another network based in Brazil helped more than 80 migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan jump the southwestern border.
The ringleader of that network pleaded guilty in federal court in the District of Columbia last week, admitting to charging up to $15,000 per illegal immigrant.
At least one of the men smuggled in by that network showed up on U.S. watch lists as having family ties to a member of the Taliban, and having been involved in a terrorist plot to strike in either the U.S. or Canada, The Washington Times reported.
Mr. Kelly said that when he was a Marine Corps general in charge of American forces in most of Latin America, the previous administration told him that the cartels wouldn’t let their networks be hijacked by terrorists.
According to Obama administration officials, the cartels were worried that those kinds of ties would be “bad for business,” Mr. Kelly recalled.
He said he has come to a different conclusion — that the U.S. faces “real threats” of terrorists being smuggled in by networks.
He said that if there had been another terrorist attack in the U.S., his first expectation would have been that the attacker sneaked in across the southwestern border. Under Mr. Trump, he said, that’s less likely but is still a danger.
“I’m staying up late at night every night trying to prevent that from happening,” he said. “So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Sessions said the income from drugs helps keep the smuggling networks afloat and urged the U.S. to do more to cut down on the demand side of the equation.
“It is a financial moneymaker for them,” Mr. Sessions said. “I returned from the border last week, and they told me that quite a number of the people they arrest are hauling marijuana across the border.”
Mr. Kelly, meanwhile, said his law enforcement agencies will continue to target marijuana for enforcement, including travelers returning to the U.S. at air, sea and land ports of entry, dashing hopes of legalization advocates who had pleaded for a more lenient federal policy.
“It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” Mr. Kelly said.
“Beyond that, however, its use and possession is against federal law, and until the law is changed by the United States Congress, we in DHS, along with the rest of the federal government, are sworn to uphold all the laws that are on the books,” he said.
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