The head of the Miami-based United States Southern Military Command, otherwise known as SOUTHCOM, warned that an Ebola outbreak in Central America or the Caribbean could trigger a mass migration to the U.S. of people fleeing the disease.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly also implied that established Central American illegal trafficking networks could introduce the infected into the U.S., according to the U.S. Naval Institute’s online news and analysis portal (USNI News).
“If it comes to the Western Hemisphere, the countries that we’re talking about have almost no ability to deal with it — particularly in Haiti and Central America,” said Kelly during remarks at a panel Tuesday on security issues in the Western Hemisphere at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
“It will make the 68,000 unaccompanied minors look like a small problem,” he added. “I think you’ve seen this so many times in the past, when in doubt, take off,” he said.
Though an ocean away from Ebola hotspots in West Africa, a growing numbers of West Africans are using the illicit trafficking routes through Central America to enter the U.S. illegally and could introduce the disease in the U.S., USNI News warned.
Kelly also stressed how effective the criminal transportation networks were at moving people and material into the U.S.
“We see a lot of West Africans moving in that network,” he said, relating a story from a border checkpoint in Costa Rica — told to him by an American embassy official — in which five or six men from Liberia were waiting to cross into Nicaragua.
The group had flown into Trinidad and then traveled to Costa Rica, hoping to travel up the Central American isthmus and into the U.S.
Given the length of the journey, “they could have been in New York City well within the incubation period for Ebola,” Kelly said.
The realities of a potential outbreak caused Kelly to ask his staff to start thinking about the affects to the SOUTHCOM area of operations (AO) and pay attention to the response of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
The U.S. has sent 4,000 troops to West Africa to assist countries in dealing with the Ebola outbreaks in the region.
“The five services of the U.S. military will get it done and be a large solution to this problem,” said Kelly, adding that SOUTHCOM is in regular contact with AFRICOM in the event of the worst-case outcome.
“We’re watching what AFRICOM is doing and their plan will be our plan,” he said. “The nightmare scenario, I think, is right around the corner.”