At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Discusses Kidnappings in Haiti, Ongoing Drug Crisis in United States
WASHINGTON, DC – During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) spoke with Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, on his involvement in the ongoing attempt to recover 17 U.S. missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries, an Ohio-based group who were kidnapped in Haiti six weeks ago. Two missionaries were recently released but 15, including small children, are still being held captive.
The two also discussed the ongoing addiction and overdose crisis in this country, and how the massive increase in fentanyl shipments across our southern border is a significant contributing factor. Senator Portman recently took part in a congressional delegation visit to South and Central America, where he learned more about how transnational criminal organizations, particularly in Mexico, have been transporting illegal narcotics into the U.S. at extraordinary rates. On the Senate floor last evening, Portman spoke about the record number of overdose deaths that have devastated families and communities across America. He also highlighted the supply and demand factors that have contributed to this spike as well as solutions to help stem this tide.
A transcript of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found below and video can be found here.
Senator Portman: “Thank you, Madam Chair. And let me just say to both of you, thank you for your service and I appreciate your comments today. Secretary Nichols, you and I have had some good conversations regarding the kidnappings in Haiti. And I want to dig a little deeper into that today and find out where we are. I do appreciate your personal involvement in this. For those who don’t follow this closely, there is an Ohio-based group, my home state of Ohio, called Christian Aid Ministries that had 17 people kidnapped in Haiti. It happened six weeks ago. And typically, as I understand it, these kidnappings result in some resolution prior to that time, so I’m very concerned about it. Two hostages have been released, so I guess that’s encouraging. But of the remaining hostages, the 15, there are children, as well. One very young child. So, again, I appreciate our conversations about it.
“This Committee has expressed its concern on this. We actually passed an amendment last month requiring the State Department to work better on an interagency basis to coordinate efforts on kidnappings in Haiti and to address the broader issue of violence. This criminal gang, the 400 Mawozo gang, is responsible. And I’ve also spoken to the FBI Director about this and made sure that we’re doing everything we can, from the law enforcement point of view, to resolve this issue. Can you give me the status today, what is being done by the State Department and by the U.S. government generally to rescue these missionaries?”
The Honorable Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: “So thank you, Senator. The issue of kidnapping for ransom in Haiti is a grave one. I believe 41 U.S. persons, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, have been kidnapped for ransom in Haiti in 2021. The embassy country team, including U.S. law enforcement agencies, are cooperating with Haitian police authorities to support a resolution of this case. It is one of deep concern. We saw the release of two U.S. citizens who had been kidnapped in connection with that case, and we hope that there will be a rapid resolution and favorable resolution for the remainder of those who have been kidnapped.”
Senator Portman: “So Secretary Nichols, are you saying you are personally involved in this?”
Assistant Secretary Nichols: “I’m personally involved in it and I’m in contact with our embassy in Port-au-Prince on the situation every day.”
Senator Portman: “I appreciate that. And is there anything you think we should be doing that we are not doing? I would ask you to let me know. And we will continue to help however we can in terms of expressing our deep concern, but we have to rely on people on the ground doing the right thing and making sure this is a priority. So I thank you for that.
“Let me change to another topic, which is the drug issue. We have a crisis right now and a couple charts here have arrived just in time, that I took to the floor of the Senate last night. But I recently was on a congressional delegation with Senator Kaine, who’s here with us today, and we went to various countries in the region, including Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Met with the President of Mexico and, of course, raised this issue. I think it should be the top issue in our bilateral relationship with Mexico today. Senator Murphy just mentioned a gun issue totally related to this issue. These transnational criminal organizations are selling drugs in the United States, making a tremendous profit and yeah, cash and guns are coming back into Mexico. That means it’s an issue for both Mexico and for us, in a very significant way.
“So here’s the crisis and it’s pretty extraordinary: we’ve got 100,000 people who died in America of drug overdoses during the most recent 12-month period for which we have data, which would be April to April. It’s probably worse than that now. That’s a record. You know, that’s more people died from gunshot wounds and traffic accidents combined. Here’s what’s happening. The blue line is the number of overdose deaths related to fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid produced primarily now in Mexico. You can see we’ve gone from 2015, the blue line keeps going up to 2020 and in 2020, well over half of the overdose deaths in this country were from one drug and that’s fentanyl. Also, crystal meth plays a role here, cocaine plays a role, other drugs that originate in Mexico as well. But this fentanyl issue is just overwhelming.
“Let’s look at this next chart. You can see what’s happening right now on the U.S. border. We were told that last month there was a 42 percent increase in one month of fentanyl seizures. And what the Border Patrol agents will tell you privately is that they’re not catching the vast majority of it. Here it is, seeing it from 2016 up to 2021. You can see the increase in fentanyl seizures. So, we have a huge crisis. This is a killer drug, and it’s not slowing down. People have supply chain issues in this country right now. The transnational criminal organizations do not have a supply chain issue. They’re figuring out a way to do it. What specific steps Mr. Nichols have you asked the government of Mexico to take under the bicentennial framework for security to stop the flow of fentanyl and other illicit drugs in the United States?”
Assistant Secretary Nichols: “If I could, I’d like to ask my colleague Todd Robinson.”
Senator Portman: “I’m going to ask him a question in a minute too, if I have time, which I don’t.”
Assistant Secretary Nichols: “So, together we met with Mexican authorities and stressed the importance of coordinated intelligence-driven operations to take down drug trafficking networks, move away from going after the capo-led approach to one that takes down the entire networks, better intelligence sharing, better cooperation between Mexican authorities and U.S. law enforcement. We’ve already seen progress in that area in terms of closer cooperation, better access for our law enforcement officials. As you know, fentanyl is smaller in size, cheaper to produce, and easier to smuggle. It’s a very tough nut to crack. Todd and I worked together on this issue when we were both in INL and we continue to work shoulder-to-shoulder with our Mexican colleagues to try and defeat this problem.”
Senator Portman: “Well my time is expired. I appreciate the indulgence and Secretary Robinson I’ll follow up with you on what INL specifically is doing and whether it’s a high enough priority. And Secretary Nichols, again, thanks to your personal involvement on the kidnapping issue, and I’m sorry to take so much time.”