Defense Media Network

Interview With Gen. John F. Kelly, USMC, Commander, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)

Gen. John F. Kelly assumed command of U.S. Southern Command in October 2012. Kelly enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970, and was discharged as a sergeant in 1972, after serving in an infantry company with the 2nd Marine Division. Following graduation from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, he was commissioned and returned to the 2nd Marine Division, where he served as a rifle and weapons platoon commander, company executive officer, assistant operations officer, and infantry company commander. He next served aboard the aircraft carriers USS Forrestal and USS Independence before attending the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Advanced Course. After graduation, he served from 1981-84 as an assignment monitor at Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. Kelly next commanded a rifle and weapons company in the 2nd Marine Division. Promoted to major in 1987, he served as the battalion’s operations officer, and later transferred to the Basic School, Quantico, Va., serving first as the head of the Offensive Tactics Section, Tactics Group, and later as Director of the Infantry Officer Course. After three years of instructing young officers, he attended the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the School for Advanced Warfare. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he took command of 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Kelly returned to the East Coast in 1994 to attend the National War College in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1995, and was selected to serve as the Commandant’s Liaison Officer to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Democracy has taken over, economies have done well, and the vast majority of the countries here [in SOUTHCOM], I find, want to be friends with the United States, partners with the United States.

In 1999, Col. Kelly transferred to joint duty and served as the Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Returning to the United States in 2001, he served as the Assistant Chief of Staff G-3 with the 2nd Marine Division. In 2002, selected to the rank of brigadier general, Kelly served for two years as the Assistant Division Commander with the 1st Marine Division, much of that time spent deployed in Iraq. He then returned to Headquarters Marine Corps as the Legislative Assistant to the Commandant from 2004 to 2007. Promoted to major general, he returned to Camp Pendleton as the Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). The command deployed to Iraq in early 2008 for a yearlong mission, replacing II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) as Multinational Force-West in Al Anbar and western Ninewa provinces. Kelly commanded Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North from October 2009 to March 2011. Kelly comes to United States Southern Command from his previous position as the Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense from March 2011 to October 2012.

Gen. John F. Kelly

SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. John F. Kelly. U.S. Marine Corps photo


John D. Gresham: Can you talk about Southern Command as you see it right now, and the unique aspects of the area of responsibility (AOR) that most people wouldn’t know?

Gen. John F. Kelly: The first thing I would say is, and this is a very positive comment, to the best of my analysis, there’s almost no possibility of a military conflict down here, certainly of any size. You know, we’re not teetering on the edge of the abyss as is the Middle East, CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command]. We’re not confronting a big pushy country as they are out in the Pacific. I don’t have an awful lot of terrorism, as is the case increasingly with AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command]. And certainly I don’t have to worry about strained relations as in the European context. So, no real chance for military action, certainly of anything large. So that’s one issue. That’s a positive issue.

Another issue is that most of the countries in Latin America, interestingly enough, their economies are doing pretty well. Of course, they are huge trading partners both ways with the United States, which is good. You know, capitalism unleashed will normally find the right markets for the right manufacturers. So the economies generally are pretty good.

Interestingly enough, those places that have not grown to be democratic have got the worst economies. Imagine that. You know, there are some countries in the Western Hemisphere down south that just didn’t get the memo about democracy, open societies, free press, treating your people decently – and because of that, they struggle with trying to control their economies and with unbelievable levels of corruption.

But everywhere else – I mean Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Isthmus – very, very successful countries. Colombia is a miracle in terms of its now having dealt with its internal FARC [translated as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] problem, and no doubt about it, the FARC is not some type of a Maoist, “Robin Hood” type of organization. They are the biggest human rights violators on the planet, and they have been for 25 years. Unfortunately, that never gets any reporting. Brazil – the fifth- or sixth-largest economy in the world –  good friends with the United States. Chile and Peru also. And many, many, many countries across the Caribbean, obviously small island countries.

Another, probably the final, thing: Democracy has taken over, economies have done well, and the vast majority of the countries here [in SOUTHCOM], I find, want to be friends with the United States, partners with the United States. They are, however, all different. Again, the partnership that Brazil enjoys with the United States and wants with the United States is different than the partnership that we have with Panama. It also is different than the partnership that we have with two countries struggling against crime and narco-terrorism – Honduras and Guatemala. To say the least, our relationship, our partnership, with Colombia is long, successful, and at this point, as they emerge under President [Juan Manuel] Santos from their nearly 50-year nightmare with dealing with the FARC, our relationship with them is [evolving] in the most positive ways imaginable. So, those are my impressions certainly.


As you look at SOUTHCOM, what do you see in the way of human terrain from the chop line with NORTHCOM down to Tierra del Fuego?

Well, I think that human beings have unlimited potential to do good, and unfortunately, as history has shown, an unlimited potential to do bad. But Latin America is obviously European-based, and Judeo-Christian in its outlook on life. It’s got internal problems like every country, or every continent, has. They are still working out the relationship between the “haves” and the “have nots,” just like the United States is. I know there’s an increasing number of “haves” [in Latin America] and people who enjoy the rule of law and political freedom. There are some places that need work in terms of the treatment of women. Some countries are doing very well, but still dealing with the treatment of their indigenous cultures. But I do believe that once you commit to democracy, human rights, open societies, freedom of the press, capitalism – once you commit to that – the sky’s the limit. If you continue to try to control your economy, control your people, not allow freedom of the press as we understand it in the West – if you want to do that, you are going in the wrong direction. And there are still countries that, as we say, still have the demagogues and the ideologues. They still have leaders who are using the past reputation of some countries to keep their people down.

What are your views on the way that you are resourced and staffed? What is your view of how, as a combatant commander, you are supplied and manned?

That’s a great question. A couple points: First of all, the United States, through SOUTHCOM, stands ready to assist countries here in a partnership way. As I mentioned previously, we are a partner in the Western Hemisphere. And we are not the dominant partner, or at least we try not to be. So, we’re not forcing or pushing our way on anyone. That said, an awful lot of people come and ask us for help.

Right now, as an example, I see one of our primary missions is to assist, if asked, in the case of a major natural disaster. And as you know, hurricanes are always a threat. Earthquakes are always a threat. Chile [recently] had a significant one, and handled it very well, by the way. And that’s kind of the point. Most of these countries have come a long way in their own ability to deal with their problems, including natural disasters.

I’m very, very confident – based upon my predecessor and his efforts, what’s in place – that we could break the back of the cocaine flow if I had more assets. And I don’t. I understand that. That’s a conscious decision. You know, the U.S. military is downsizing in an extreme way.

Haiti is on the other end of the spectrum, of course. It had a devastating earthquake and needed a lot of help, as in a lot of help! I think if another catastrophe happened today, they’d need just as much help.

There are volcanoes down here, any number of things that could happen at any minute. But most of these countries have got very good and functioning militaries, reasonably functioning police departments and governments. And more and more are looking to care for their entire population, not just a small group. And that’s a real trend here, and it’s been the trend like this now for over a decade.

The one thing that does come up from the south and enters America in a way that is very, very detrimental to our country is drugs. You know, virtually all of the cocaine in the world is grown in three countries: Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. And, by the way, two of the three are doing exactly the right thing, in their own homelands, to deal with the production of cocaine by eradicating the coca fields and working with the farmers to give them alternative ways to make a living, generally speaking, get them on other crops.

They seek out every day and destroy large numbers of the jungle labs that make the cocaine. They’re always after, in Peru, certainly, the Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path], and up in Colombia the FARC, who are no longer in any way ideologically driven and are now entirely narco-terrorists. And so they’ve got those guys on the run. There were some very, very big kills [recently] in both Peru and Colombia by their own armed forces and police that have continued to decapitate those two organizations. And just the amount of cocaine that’s already been produced that never leaves their countries because they stop it is becoming more impressive.

That cocaine, of course, moves in two directions: one direction toward the United States in very, very large tonnages, and the other direction – Africa and Europe and Asia. Most of the cocaine that comes our way comes from Colombia. As I say, they’ve done just a heroic job in eradicating, destroying labs and in working with us hand in glove, day in and day out, 24 hours a day to help us with the drug problem. Heroin and methamphetamine are almost entirely now produced in Mexico, which is outside my zone. And all of it then – cocaine, meth, and heroin – comes up – primarily, overwhelmingly – comes up through Mexico and crosses the U.S. border into the United States.


And one of the big reasons for that, of course, is SOUTHCOM’s own very successful interdiction efforts, both maritime and airborne, on either side of Central America.

And that’s kind of the point. Most of these drugs, cocaine especially, now travel out of Colombia and make landfall – overwhelmingly in terms of tonnages – by boat into Honduras and Guatemala, and at that point, very little is taken off the market. It gets right into the United States for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into.

We [intercepted] a huge amount the last couple of years on the high seas, as you pointed out, at the Isthmus [of Panama]. Huge amounts of cocaine. And that’s kind of where I don’t have enough assets. I’d certainly argue for more naval and airborne assets.

I’m very, very confident – based upon my predecessor and his efforts, what’s in place – that we could break the back of the cocaine flow if I had more assets. And I don’t. I understand that. That’s a conscious decision. You know, the U.S. military is downsizing in an extreme way. Fundamentally, we are going to be a different force in the future than we have been in the past. You have to make decisions – the administration’s made decisions that the Middle East and a swing to the Pacific is the strategy, and when you have a much smaller Navy than we did even several years ago and you’re pivoting to the Pacific, well, even the Pacific, which is the priority, is getting a lot fewer assets.

So, we partner big-time down here. Our great friends – the Canadians, the Dutch – oftentimes have a warship or a coast guard-type ship in the Caribbean. The French occasionally do also, and the British. And once they sign up to our drug interdiction efforts, we’re very, very good at tasking them, telling them where to go. Our intel, by the way, our understanding of the drug flow, is very detailed. So, it’s pretty easy, if you have the naval and Coast Guard assets, to interdict more. But you just need the assets. I can’t give enough credit to our allies – I would say the Colombians, the Canadians, the Dutch, the French, and the British – in this endeavor.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...