President-elect Donald Trump is reported to have named the former chief of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly, as his choice for secretary of Homeland Security. As SouthCom chief, Kelly oversaw counter-narcotics operations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean from late 2012 until his retirement in January 2016. He was a notorious hardliner, which resulted in policy clashes with President Obama, the Washington Post tells us. As Homeland Security chief, he will oversee the 20,000-strong Border Patrol, with responsibility for drug interceptions along the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico.
In May 2015, Kelly personally visited the coca-producing guerilla hotbed of the Apurímac-Ene Valley in Peru, where he was deploying Marines to train Peruvian troops in jungle warfare. He explicitly boasted that his leathernecks would bring expertise gained in Iraq and Afghanistan to share with Peruvian forces fighting insurgents and drug traffickers in the jungle valley. The deployment met with angry protests in Lima.
Kelly’s bitterest clash with Obama was over his opposition to the president’s plan to close the Pentagon’s prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In a 2014 interview, he told the Washington Post that criticism of treatment of detainees at the camp by human rights groups was “foolishness.”
Just this year, he said in reference to the Gitmo detainees: “We’re the good guys—they’re not. We can quibble over what they were doing on the battlefield when we took them, but every one of them is a bad guy.”
There are currently some 60 detainees remaining at Gitmo, 20 of whom have been cleared for release by the Pentagon—but Republicans on Capitol Hill seek to block further transfers of the detainees to third countries, and prevent Obama from following through on his pledge to close the facility under his presidency. These intransigent Republican lawmakers definitely had a friend in Kelly, who in 2013 actually requested funds from Congress to expand the facility, on the argument that it would be open permanently. A total of 779 have been held at Gitmo since the facility was opened in the aftermath of 9-11, according to the Close Guantanmo website.
And prefiguring his Homeland Security appointment, Kelly made much about border security in Congressional testimony last year, the New York Times recalls. He waxed lurid about smuggling rings in Mexico and Central America that bring “tens of thousands of people,” including unaccompanied children, “to our nation’s doorstep.”
“Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States,” Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee. There has been endless speculation about collaboration between Middle Eastern terrorists and Latin American drug cartels to infiltrate the US homeland—but very little actual evidence.
So far, the emerging Trump cabinet is dominated by military figures. Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a veteran Iraq and Afghanistan commander, for defense secretary. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, another ultra-hardliner and former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is named as the incoming national security adviser. Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was mired in plenty of controversy as CIA director, is said to be under consideration for secretary of state.