Defense Media Network

Transnational Organized Crime: The 21st Century Threat

“And the area that I’m most concerned about is transnational organized crime (TOC). TOC is impacting most in Central America right now, evidenced by the current rates of violence….”

Gen. Douglas Fraser, USAF, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, June 1, 2012

Transnational organized crime (TOC) is hardly a new phenomenon, dating back to when mankind first tried to regulate or ban illicit activities, products, or commerce. In Biblical times, this often involved spices, precious metals, and other difficult-to-get goods. Today’s TOC, however, tends to deal in more criminal goods, such as illegal drugs, banned/endangered animal products, and intellectual property materials. Even more sinister are the trafficking in human beings (slaves) and illegal financial services like money laundering. Amazingly, in a time filled with civil wars, radical religious extremism, and growing regional superpower confrontations, many military and political leaders believe TOC is the genuine, long-term threat to worldwide stability and national safety. And nowhere is the TOC threat more pronounced than in Latin America, where the lack of any significant conventional military confrontations has made TOC the number one threat U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is presently dealing with.

A number of factors have made the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility (AOR) vulnerable to TOC, including:

  • Immature/weak national governance and widespread corruption
  • Unequal wealth distribution/general poverty
  • Upper/ruling class impunity
  • Social class rigidity (lack of upward social mobility)
  • Unemployment/underemployment/ poverty
  • Porous borders across entire region

These issues are a direct result of two decades of generally positive developments in Latin America since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. However, the transition from Cold War “banana republics” to working democracies is a messy process as best, and there are dozens of countries in the SOUTHCOM AOR. This has meant that the clear benefits of self-determined governments that have made Latin America a place of relative peace over the past two decades has also made them a fertile breeding ground for TOC, the results of which have been:

  • Multinational criminal cartels/urban gangs
  • Violent terrorist/extremist organizations
  • Trafficking in narcotics, stolen/forged intellectual property/human slaves
  • Illicit financial services/products

While some might consider TOC to be a minor annoyance, worldwide it is a major issue and is growing. Current estimates have TOC worldwide valued at US $2.1 billion, with US $400 million of that as profits for those involved.

A good example of this kind of TOC network is found in the flow of illicit narcotics, mainly cocaine and heroin, from Northern South America to the target markets in North America. The key elements of such a network include:

  • Product source – This includes the growers, processing labs, and brokers, along with the necessary government officials to allow the source contractors to operate safely. These are mostly based in Northern South America.
  • Transit elements – These are composed of the various contractors, corrupt border control agencies and personnel, sub-brokers, and transport personnel. These primarily are based and operate in Central America, especially along the Pacific and Gulf Coasts. In fact, more than 80 percent of this trafficking is maritime in nature.
  • Arrival elements – The so-called “arrival elements” comprise the distribution system at the end of the production/transit chain. At the top of these elements are the multiple Mexican cartels, which have been battling each other for control of the transportation routes into North America. Downstream of the Cartels are a vast network of gangs, wholesalers, retailers, and couriers, transportation and accounting personnel, and, of course, the requisite corrupt government and/or law enforcement personnel.

This three-part chain is responsible for moving as much of the 800+ metric tons of cocaine (plus heroin) produced in Northern South America every year as is possible into the prime markets in the United States and Canada, along with moving product into Europe and Asia through West Africa. It is highly interconnected, taking full advantage of every state-of-the-art technology available.

Cooperative Training

Law enforcement and defense personnel from partner nations fire pistols at Barbados Defence Force Base Paragon, Christ Church, Barbados, June 16, 2012, during Exercise Tradewinds 2012. Tradewinds is a USSOUTHCOM-sponsored exercise supporting the Theater Security Cooperation plan, and involves security forces from 17 partner nations, primarily from the Caribbean Basin AOR from Canada and the U.S. DoD photo by Cpl. Nana Dannsaappiah

The consequences of this drug-related TOC are many and huge, starting with the cost in lives, money, property, and productivity. In the SOUTHCOM AOR between 2007 and 2010, over 120,000 civilians were killed in drug-related murders in Mexico and Central America alone. This in an area with a population of only 155 million people, with an appalling murder rate of 323 per million per year average.

Closer to home here in the United States, the consequences of the South American drug trade are also serious. At present, the major drug cartels are operating in more than 1,200 U.S. cities, with the cost of domestic drug use estimated at $193 million annually. By comparison, the U.S. budget for counter-drug operations is only $26 billion, funding a mere 155 drug task forces nationwide. To say that U.S. counterdrug officials are outnumbered, outspent, and outgunned is an understatement.

One way to help even the odds is to use the military overseas to augment the efforts of law enforcement domestically, per the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. In the case of SOUTHCOM, Gen. Douglas Fraser and his staff have engaged the drug trafficking in their AOR with the following strategy:

  • Training with partner nations: In conjunction with the U.S. Department of State (DoS) and Homeland Security (DHS), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and SOUTHCOM partner nations. This includes foreign internal defense (FID) training, joint operations against TOC elements, and providing support and intelligence data fusion, to help set up engagements with TOC criminal components.
  • Humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) training: One of the best ways to develop capacity and versatility in regional allied government agencies/military units is to train them in high capacity/OPTEMPO operations like HA/DR. HA/DR operations happen every year in the SOUTHCOM AOR, and range from dealing with the consequences of the annual hurricane season to earthquake relief – which has been a growing regional trend over the past few years. This particular mission partners SOUTHCOM with DoS, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and our regional partner nations.
  • Support the disruption of TOC networks: SOUTHCOM and its allied partnered nations have a vast array of intelligence/information gathering networks and agencies, which are “upstream” from the continental U.S. marketplace for TOC narcotics. Designed to provide information detection and monitoring of coordinated TOC operation, this effort is conducted in conjunction with the Department of the Treasury, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), DHS, DEA, and our partner nations, this effort provides actionable intelligence in the both the SOUTHCOM AOR, and inside the United States itself.
  • Support elimination of TOC networks: Because SOUTHCOM and its partner nations have information-gathering resources so much closer to the TOC points of origin, they are ideally placed to provide information sharing and analysis on TOC operations and activities. Working with the DEA, FBI, DHS (including the Coast Guard), and partner nations, SOUTHCOM helps provide data across a wide spectrum of counter-TOC mission, from setting up intercept engagements of drug shipments to order-of-battle information for partner nations in counter-terrorism/TOC raids and other operations.

These approaches toward TOC may seem unusual for a military command like SOUTHCOM, but are likely to be emulated by other regional combatant commands as their regions move toward greater stability and fewer nation-to-nation conflicts.


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