Clear and Present Danger: Transnational Crime

Existing state policies are inadequate to fight criminal organizations that ignore borders.

In the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger, based on the Tom Clancy novel by the same name, the president of the United States announces that drug cartels present a national security threat. In the 1990s it was not hard to imagine that the next threat would come from a nonstate actor since the Soviet Union, the United States’ and their allies’ only state threat, did not exist anymore. However, the attacks of September 11, 2001 shifted the world’s focus to terrorism. But threats from transnational criminal organizations, including drug cartels, are still a major threat to global security and is a threat that has not got a lot of attention.

As of 2011, transnational crime is estimated to cost 3.6 percent of total global GDP. 2 percent of that is from money laundering. The scope of transnational crime covers a wide range of activities from drug and human trafficking, to environmental crimes (illegal logging, dumping and poaching), money laundering, counterfeit medicines and cyber crimes. All of these represent a variety of dangers to populations and states.

Cyber attacks can bring down government systems or steal people’s identities. Counterfeit medications have led to drug resistant strains of viruses. Drug violence in Mexico alone has killed at least 50,000 in the last six years. Illegal dumping has led to environmental degradation. Criminal activities are not just issues by themselves either.

Increasingly, criminal activities are also linked to other security issues, such as global health and terrorism. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, for instance, raises funds through drug smuggling in the triborder region of South America and ran a counterfeit cigarette operation in the United States.

Currently, states still tend to view security through the lens of borders. While states like the United States may operate abroad to secure their interests, law enforcement ends at state borders. However, transnational criminal organizations operate across borders and are utilizing the same technology and tools that make our lives easier to further their illicit activities.

Furthermore, laws and policies for fighting such groups are not uniform across all states and some serve as tax havens, which in addition to providing places for companies to register so they can avoid taxes, also end up being havens for money laundering.

Finally, recognizing transnational crime as a growing threat in 2000, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. So far, 147 countries have signed onto it. It includes protocols on human trafficking, smuggling migrants and arms trafficking.

While the treaty allows the United Nations to act as a source of information on criminal networks and best practices for fighting crime, it lacks funding and sufficient mechanisms for implementation, especially for weak states that are not capable of fighting criminal networks on their own.

In 2011, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon established a task force on drug trafficking and transnational crime to develop a global strategy and further policy coordination. Interpol is the only international organization fighting crime. It has 190 member countries and works to coordinate and foster communication between various states’ agencies. However, it has no power to conduct independent investigations or arrest suspects and is vastly underfunded.

Countries have implemented a variety of regional specific initiatives to fight crime, such as the Merida Initiative for Colombia and Europol’s criminal threat assessment but there is no global strategy for fighting crime and linking activities in one region with another. While countries have signed onto a variety of conventions and initiatives to fight crime, implementation has been inconsistent.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s former executive director Antonio Maria Costa criticized states in 2010 for not living up to their responsibilities in the treaty claiming criminal networks have “transformed themselves into a well armed, transnational superpower.”

Coordinating policies for fighting transnational crime runs into another wall because of corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, two-thirds of the world’s countries received a score of five or lower, meaning they are significantly corrupt. Politicians from Eastern Europe to West Africa to Latin America benefit from turning a blind eye to criminal activities.

While countries like the United States continue to focus on terrorism and strategic threats like the rise of China, transnational criminal activities may prove to be the biggest threat to state security. Current state based policies are inadequate to fight transnational criminal organizations that ignore borders and like the fear that weak states could become havens for terrorist groups, they can also be havens for criminal organizations. In order to fight these networks, international policies need to be coordinated and agencies like Interpol need to be strengthened and be better funded.

This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.