From his perch on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took part at an event on Monday hosted by the America Enterprise Institute (AEI) as it showcases its new report “Kingpins and Corruption: Targeting Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas.” Rubio offered opening remarks at the event which are included below:
Thank you very much. Thank you Danielle, thank you all for your kind introduction. I want to thank Ambassador Noriega and the other members of the Working Group for inviting me here today. And your new report is timely. And your recommendations are important for policymakers in the administration and for lawmakers such as myself in Congress to weigh and to consider. Transnational organized crime isn’t a new threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but it is an increasingly dangerous one.
‘Transnational organized crime,’ as the new report warns, ‘resides at the heart of nearly every major threat confronting the Americas today, whether it is the deadly opioid crisis hurting U.S. communities, the catastrophic collapse of oil-rich Venezuela, or debilitating gang violence throughout Central America, which spills over into the streets of American cities.’
And AEI’s report continues, “these crises can be traced to criminal networks that garner billions from the production of illicit drugs, human trafficking, and extortion.”
While the U.S. government has long acknowledged the threats posed by transnational organized crime, for too many years it has not done enough to deal with these threats. Such neglect has led to the death and suffering of far too many people, both in nations throughout our hemisphere and of course here at home.
We begin with Venezuela, where the Maduro regime has completely undermined that country’s democratic constitution. It’s imprisoned and tortured its opposition members, it’s killed protesters with impunity, it’s destroyed the nation’s economy.
One of the richest countries in the region, one of the richest countries in the world in terms of its resources. Venezuela is an oil state that is also rich in farmland, by the way, yet its corrupt and dictatorial government is running out of money and can’t afford to feed its own people.
As that nation continues to melt down, the regime’s growing transnational criminal networks are getting exposed. We see the Maduro government is not just a dictatorship—it’s also a criminal enterprise.
For example, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President El-Aissami on the 13th of February of this year, naming him a ‘Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker’ under the Kingpin Act for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. El Aissami’s main frontman, Venezuelan national Samark Jose Lopez-Bello, was also sanctioned.
Last November, a federal court here in the United States convicted two of President Maduro’s nephews— Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and his cousin Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas—for conspiring to ship 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States.
Two years ago, the U.S. Justice Department officials told the Wall Street Journal they believe that Diosdado Cabello, a Chavista and former President of the National Assembly, was a head of a drug cartel.
So think about that—in Venezuela, the Vice President, the President’s nephews, the former president of the National Assembly, are involved or have been accused of being involved in transnational organized crime.
In Colombia, we are seeing growing concerns with the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC. Many FARC weapons remain unaccounted for and too many FARC members are joining remnant groups and continuing to profit on illegal narcotics trafficking.
America’s foreign assistance and military and law enforcement relationship with Colombia must continue. Between fiscal year 2000 and fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than $10 billion in aid under Plan Colombia and successive strategies.
Peace in Colombia cannot come at any cost. FARC members who have committed atrocities must be held accountable by Colombia’s judicial system, and Colombia should extradite FARC members indicted in the United States. They should face justice here, too.
Yet beyond the FARC—and in large part because of the FARC’s decision to come in from the jungle—the explosion of coca cultivation in Colombia is another major concern feeding skepticism about the peace deal. Colombia’s coca production numbers have consistently risen during the peace negotiations, increasing by more than 141 percent from 2012 to 2016, including a sharp rise beginning in 2015.
These developments are likely the direct result of the government’s 2015 decision to end the aerial eradication of coca plants. I personally believe it was a mistake, in part, as a concession to the FARC to achieve a peace agreement in Colombia.
Now, the Gulf Clan, Colombia’s largest drug gang, the ELN, another FARC-like group that deals in Marxist terrorism and drug trafficking, and paramilitary groups known as bandas criminales or ‘Bacrim’—have emerged as the main beneficiaries of Colombia’s renewed coca production. That Gulf Clan controls 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine production, according to Colombia’s own police. And the ELN has an estimated 1,500 fighters, making it roughly one-fifth the size of the FARC’s pre-mobilization paramilitary force.
In Mexico, we have had a transnational organized crime as a problem on a staggering scale. Since 2006, when Mexico began its big push against those cartels, some estimate that 130,000 people have been killed. That is roughly equal to the population of Gainesville, Florida. The Mexican cartels are fighting to bring drugs into our country that poison and kill people. A record high number of Americans, nearly 60,000, died last year from drug-related deaths.
Of particular concern is the increase in Mexican heroin, methamphetamine, production and the trafficking of fentanyl that is manufactured in China. But unlike in Venezuela, we have a willing partner in the government of Mexico. Since 2008, United States Congress has appropriated $2.8 billion towards efforts to combat the cartels.
The fight, however, cannot be won only with money and guns. We must also provide assistance to Mexican courts, and law enforcement, and public officials. The report released by AEI today notes that at least 12 former Mexican governors are accused of corruption, money laundering, or narcotics trafficking. And it also notes that an astounding 7 of 10 crimes in Mexico are not even reported.
If the people do not trust their institutions, from the local police in their neighborhoods to the prosecutors and elected officials, the Mexican government is going to struggle to win this fight. Which is one of the reasons why I continue to work to ensure that we keep foreign assistance strong. These funds are not just going to the world’s poor, they are going to programs that work with other countries to bolster law enforcement, and the rule of law, and the promotion of stability and democracy. These funds have a direct impact on our safety and security and they are essential this year.
So, what are some of the solutions? And I hope we’ll get into some today. The first is continue the funding development aid and security programs integral to countering transnational criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere.
In Venezuela, the Chavistas and those in power are the root problem. And I hope that we can build international pressure in every possible forum, including the OAS and the U.N. In addition to ratcheting up sanctions on anyone in Venezuela who is oppressing the people, and not just at the lower levels.
We also support the Venezuelan people in their struggle for freedom. Which is why as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am asking for funding for democracy promotion programs. And hopefully for transitional funds so that when Maduro and his cronies are removed, there will be funds available to assist Venezuela in recovering from this long nightmare
In Colombia, we need to reassure the Colombian people that the United States supports the implementation of all those elements of security, but that it will come with conditions. The Colombian people will have democratic elections next year, and we will need to work with the new Colombian government to ensure that the crimes committed by the FARC don’t go unpunished and that the victims of the FARC are adequately compensated.
We need to encourage our allies in Colombia to resume aerial eradication of coca plants. The threat of heroin is also on the rise, with poppy cultivation now present in Colombia, in Guatemala, and increasingly in Mexico. We hope to work with them to aggressively target that as well. Bad actors in transnational criminal networks must be brought to justice by fully utilizing all legal tools to target narcotic traffickers and their assets, including the Kingpin Act.
In Mexico, as I said earlier, we continue to support the fight against the cartels while working with our partners in the Mexican government on improving its legal system, its law enforcement, and respect for human rights.
The tide will only begin to swing against the cartels when ordinary Mexicans feel like their government is there for them and has the ability to keep them safe. And here at home, we must confront directly, discourage of drug abuse and dependence and the demand pressure that it creates, which is a major contributor to all of these problems that I’ve just outlined.
In conclusion let me just say that, as I said at the beginning, I feel that our hemisphere has for far too long received too little attention. Our security here at home relies, in part, on the countries in our region sharing our values and creating free, stable, and democratic societies that protect their people and reward their citizens with opportunities for their hard work and their entrepreneurship.
In Colombia, we’ve seen how our assistance dollars combined with the courage, the dignity, and the hard work and sacrifice of the Colombian people yielded a return on our foreign assistance investment. And an excellent starting point for ensuring that the Americas remains a priority I believe is found in this report today.
As the report makes clear in its strong recommendations, we have a lot of work to do. But these are all things that given the proper motivation, we can do, we must do, and I believe we will do. And we must do so, both for our neighbors and for ourselves. And so I thank you for the chance to make these introductory remarks and I look forward to this session of answering questions and hopefully learning more about the way forward both from you and hopefully I’ll have some insight to offer in that regard as well. Thank you.