WASHINGTON – Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) described transnational organized crime as an “increasingly dangerous” threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere.
“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,” he said last week during an American Enterprise Institute event, “Kingpins and corruption: Targeting transnational organized crime in the Americas.”
Rubio, who sits on key committees in the Senate including Appropriations, Foreign Relations and the Select Committee on Intelligence, cast a critical eye on the peace deal in Colombia between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“In Colombia, we are seeing growing concerns with the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC,” he said. “Many FARC weapons remain unaccounted for and too many FARC members are joining remnant groups and continuing to profit on illegal narcotics trafficking.”
Rubio mentioned that coca production is rising to record levels in Colombia. He criticized the Colombian government for ending aerial raids of coca fields.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
Rubio urged the U.S. government to encourage 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,” he said. “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.”
During a Q&A session moderated by Bush-era Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, now a visiting fellow at AEI, Rubio said the U.S. has an “obligation” to continue helping Colombia, which was “on the verge” of collapsing and being “a failed state” before the implementation of “Plan Colombia” began.
Rubio stressed that the U.S. should not allow any financial assistance to “somehow unfairly benefit the FARC” during the peace negotiations.
“We want to make sure that our funds are being used for things like ensuring that the systems are set up so victims are compensated, and not through American funds but through the FARC funds. We want to make sure that there isn’t a creation of these courts whereby the people who partnered with us to confront these groups are now being unfairly put on trial and treated like criminals themselves,” he said.
“And we certainly want to make sure that none of the funds of the American taxpayer wind up in the hands of a group that we still designate as a terrorist group – and many of those leaders are still wanted for extradition, I think upwards of 60 for crimes committed against the United States and against our citizens,” he added.
If U.S. funds are not used properly, Rubio said, America’s relationship with Colombia would not be the same.
“So I think as long we’re fair and frank and direct and to the point, we’ll have an opportunity to work with the Santos administration and with whatever succeeds this administration in Colombia,” he said. “In the absence of that, I think, unfortunately, if in fact our dollars are not producing results, there could be real challenges to continuing our partnership in this regard.”
In Venezuela, Rubio said President Nicolás Maduro’s regime has “completely undermined that country’s democratic constitution. It’s imprisoned and tortured its opposition members, it has killed protesters with impunity and it has destroyed the nation’s economy.”
“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,” the senator said.
“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,” he added.
Rubio mentioned that the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami in February and named him a specially designated narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act “for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
Rubio told Noriega that U.S. policy toward Cuba should “incentivize” economic freedom and not contribute to embedding Cuba’s “undemocratic” system of government and the military’s control of their economy.
“I think it behooves the Cuban government, even this repressive one, to cooperate with everyone when it comes to drug trafficking. The worst thing that could possibly happen for them is to once again be designated as a nation that cooperates with transnational criminal groups because I believe that it would further isolate them from the region and, ultimately, from the world,” he said.
Rubio criticized Cuba for its support of the Maduro regime.
“Maduro would not have remained in power had it not been for Cuban interference, direct interference, and not just through advice, but by embedding personnel within the security agency and apparatus. You see today that many of the key functions in the Venezuelan government are operated by Cuban operatives who came over from the island for that purpose and so it is a direct, basically, invasion of the institutions of Venezuela,” he said.
“Whether it’s the personal protection that surrounds Maduro, the Passports and Documentation Office or even how the National Guard is confronting protesters in the streets – all of these things are being directed by Cubans and Cubans, in many ways, are directly participating in these acts,” he added.
According to Rubio, the protesters in Venezuela want Maduro to follow the “Chavez Constitution” but they have refused. He said there should be “no doubt in the minds of people in the hemisphere that the Cuban government is the single biggest reason why” Maduro’s regime is still in power.
Rubio warned that Cuba is still “supporting” transnational criminal networks even though it is not a “direct” transit point for drugs at this time.
“There’s a reason why the Cuban government was the host for many of these negotiations with the Colombians and the relationship with the FARC that they knew was a narco-trafficking group,” he said. “And they’ve also provided support for them and, in many cases, asylum and/or protection for some of its key leaders.”