National Strategy Forum Review

Tackling Transnational Crime: Adapting U.S. National Security Policy

The absence of traditional security threats to the United States in Latin America and the post-9-11 focus on state weakness and terrorism have elevated crime to the top of the US national security agenda in the Southern Hemisphere. Specifically, the United States has focused on suppressing transnational crime that generates "bads" that penetrate the US such as drugs, illegal aliens, smuggled humans, and youth gangs (maras), and on suppressing crime that funds belligerent groups in the region (once again drugs). Beyond the transnational illegal trade that directly affects the United States, crime in the Southern Hemisphere also threatens the state in Latin American countries as well as the human security of large segments of the population. Compared with the United States or Western Europe, crime’s ability to eviscerate the state is far more pronounced in Latin America because the state is critically weak to begin with. The significant growth of crime below the transnational level in the Hemisphere over the past two decades – at the level of the state and the "street" – undermines efforts to combat transnational crime. The United States policy toward the "bads" emanating from the Hemisphere will be improved if the United States also undertakes addressing crime at the state and street levels in Latin America, and does so by placing a far greater emphasis on socio-economic issues in the region.

Along with growing economic inequality and the decades-long economic stagnation of vast poor segments of the Latin American population, crime and the lack of public security have become a key social issue for a majority of people in the Hemisphere. With the exception of Colombia, which since 2002 has experienced a drop in homicides, kidnapping, and violent robberies, albeit from some of the highest rates in the world, criminal activity throughout the region has exploded. Homicide rates in Latin America are among the highest in the world. To an unprecedented degree, ordinary people in the region complain about living in fear. At the same time, national governments have failed by and large to adequately tackle crime and provide for public security, even while satisfying the demands of the United States to cooperate in counternarcotics policies. Both the police and courts have proven ineffective at combating the type of crime that is of most concern to the population and have frequently been deeply corrupted by criminal elements.

Most U.S. attention has been focused on crime at the transnational level in Latin America. At this level, trafficking organizations facilitate the transfer of illicit commodities and services between source and demand countries. Such illicit flows transfer narcotics produced in the Andean region via Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States and via Brazil and Argentina to Europe; illegal aliens from Central America and humans smuggled for sexual exploitation and slavery from Asia and Eastern Europe to the United States; and illegally-trafficked arms from the United States to the Southern Hemisphere. Apart from the concern about the intrinsic social bads for the United States, such illicit economies have also attracted attention from U.S. policymakers as potential sources of funding for anti-US terrorists since they globally generate hundreds of billions of dollars. Regarding the potential threat of Islamist terrorists in Latin America, the U.S. focus has centered on the Triborder region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, a decades-old smuggling hub of various kinds and an area with minimal state oversight and law enforcement plus a fairly large community of Middle Eastern immigrants. Although no public evidence ever has linked al Qaeda to profiting from the smuggling in the Triborder region or to other illicit operations there, such as counterfeiting of documents, some evidence suggests that Hezbollah, and possibly also Hamas, have profited from the illicit trade in the area.

Illicit economies, however, also generate various social bads for the source and transit countries. First, criminal organizations both at the production and smuggling segments of the trade seek to corrupt the state so that they can operate with ease and impunity. They bribe police and Customs officers and members of the judiciary, inevitably accompanying their financial inducements with threats of physical elimination of those who oppose them. Law enforcement, investigation, and prosecution of criminals collapse. The weaker the state, the more corrosive the effect of crime-related corruption. The public security apparatus can become paralyzed. In Mexico, for example, entire police units have stopped performing their official role and have come onto the payroll of the traffickers. In extreme cases, such as the Zetas in Mexico, the counternarcotics policemen themselves have defected to provide violent protection to the traffickers against the state and against rival traffickers. The state thus fails both in the provision of security and in the dispensation of justice. Such crime-related corruption can also undermine the political process itself, making a mockery of democracy and basic accountability. In a way too uncomfortably reminiscent of Carlos Ledher’s and Pablo Escobar’s schemes in Colombia during the 1980s, criminal networks in Guatemala, for example, blatantly interfered with its 2007 elections, bribing politicians and participating in the murder of more than 50 candidates and their supporters. The more the state becomes corrupted, the more difficult it becomes for it to tackle crime either at the transnational or at the street level as well.

The Guatemala case also shows that state-crime relationship is not simply one of crime penetrating the state, but also one of the state coopting crime. The Guatemalan military, for example, had a long history of utilizing contraband profits to support its institutional budget and clandestine operations and to provide income for its senior officials. During the civil war, the military incorporated criminal organizations into its counterinsurgency operations. In the post-war period, many members of the security apparatus of the state set up and morphed with criminal networks, frequently in collaboration with traditional elites. El Salvador has seen the rise of a similar collusion of state and crime. In Peru, during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, his intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos utilized the state and its counternarcotics resources to eliminate drug competition and build himself up as a, if not the, principal trafficker in the country.

Second, burgeoning crime also threatens the state in the economic sphere. Intense crime-related violence -- the result of both state efforts to repress crime and of turf battles among criminal organizations -- prevents local economic development, undermines human capital, and deters foreign investment. Large-scale illicit economies, such as widespread cultivation and production of illegal drugs, also have various pernicious macroeconomic effects, by contributing to inflation and real estate speculation, undermining currency stability, and displacing legal production. Yet labor-intensive illicit economies, such as the cultivation of illicit crops, also provide economically superior livelihoods to large segments of the population in Latin America, many of whom do not have access to licit livelihoods and live in acute poverty.

Finally, crime and illicit economies threaten the state in the security realm, by strengthening anti-state belligerent groups both physically, and frequently also politically. Belligerent groups, such as the Shining Path in Peru in the 1980s or the FARC, the ELN, and paramilitaries in Colombia, have derived very large financial profits from illicit economies such as extortion, kidnapping, and the drug trade. With these vast financial resources, frequently on the order of tens of millions of dollars a year, belligerent groups have been able to grow in size, hire more combatants, greatly improve their arms procurement, and simplify logistics. But when such groups protect labor-intensive illicit economies, such as drug cultivation, they also obtain political capital from the population, since they provide for the population’s basic and frequently sole livelihood. This political capital, critically manifested in the unwillingness of the population to provide intelligence on the belligerents to the government, is all the more pronounced, if the government attempts to suppress the illicit economy without providing legal economic alternatives to the population. Under such circumstances, the primary manifestation of the state is the destruction of the population’s livelihood, and hence of fundamental alienation of the population from the state. Then belligerents can step in and offer themselves as protectors and economic providers for the marginalized population.

Perhaps ironically, belligerents also provide a modicum of order, by suppressing "street" level crime, adjudicating disputes, and providing courts. Although the belligerents are themselves brutal and capricious, the population nonetheless welcomes even such minimal and warped provisions of public security and law and order if the alternative is state absence. Such political capital accrues not only to insurgents, but also to the crime organizations themselves. Moreover, this popular alienation from the state in Latin America is no longer simply a phenomenon of remote rural peripheries, but also of the poor and underprivileged urban areas. In Brazil’s favelas (slums), for example, the population frequently rejects the presence of state agencies. In fact, traffickers’ gangs themselves mitigate street-level crime, such as murder, rape, and robbery that the state has failed to address. As long as their presence does not generate turf wars in which bystanders get caught, the population prefers the traffickers’ forms of law provision and enforcement to that of the police, which are widely seen as brutal and corrupt. Similarly in Haiti, with its pervasive state failure, local gangs of thugs not only participate in drug smuggling and other crime, but also establish local zones of control where they enforce security and order. Although such chimeres and organisations populaires inflict brutality on the population and extract rents, in the absence of a legitimate state (many of these gangs, in fact, overlap with the state), they become the only providers of minimal security amidst the otherwise pervasive chaos and violence. Youth gangs (maras) that have proliferated throughout Central America and increasingly grown more organized and violent, are yet another manifestation of the hollowing out of the state in Latin America and of social organization outside and against the state. Indeed, the provision of security and order has become differentiated and "privatized" throughout Latin America: the affluent ones who can participate in the currently booming legal economies in the region can hire private protection (both legal and extralegal), whereas the poor marginalized population frequently need to rely on the provision of minimal security and order through belligerent groups, criminal organizations, and gangs.

The dominant focus of U.S. anti-crime and national security policies in Latin America has been directed at stopping the transnational bads through interdiction and eradication. Interdiction operations both on land and on sea seek to disrupt illicit flows through direct U.S. operations as well as through the provision of interdiction assistance to national governments. Even when successful in particular locales, such interdiction efforts have frequently only redirected illicit traffic to other areas. Successes in Jamaica in the 1970s, for example, moved cultivation of and traffic in illicit drugs to the Andean region. Beefed-up efforts in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s shifted smuggling to Mexico. Although in some instances interdiction operations have had very positive effects on strengthening the state by weakening criminal organizations, such as by destroying the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia in the early 1990s, they have failed to substantially reduce the in-flows of drugs, illegal immigrants, and smuggled humans into the United States.

Eradication operations, such as under Plan Colombia, later renamed the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, seek to destroy the global bad, in this case, illicit crops so that no drugs enter the system. Eradication promises to accomplish two objectives: reduce consumption of drugs in the U.S. and critically weaken belligerents, such as the FARC, by depriving them of financial resources. Although eradication has not reduced drug consumption in the US nor substantially weakened belligerent groups – the FARC has been weakened since 2002 as a result of direct operations by the Colombian military funded with US counterinsurgency money, not by eradication of illicit crops – and has little resonance with local populations, the U.S. has nonetheless demanded that Latin American governments make eradication and counternarcotics policies their top anti-crime and national security policies.

Efforts to strengthen the state in the Southern Hemisphere so that local governments can tackle crime are crucial. An indispensible component of state strength is its law-and-order apparatus – the police and military – so that the state can provide security for all of its population. But states in Latin America will be more effective in cooperating with the US in combating transnational crime if the governments in Latin America become more effective in addressing the socio-economic issues that are the primary interest of the population. In the security sphere, that means that the national governments and the U.S. should focus to a far greater degree on providing security to the population -- from belligerents, yes, but also from criminal gangs, and, crucially, ordinary street crime. Such a policy involves expanding police presence and reforming the police so that they themselves are not brutal corrupt thugs. It also means directing greater attention to community policing and undertaking very careful vetting of to whom the United States provides aid, such as under the planned Merida Initiative for Mexico. Far greater attention needs to be given to improving the judicial system throughout Latin America and making it accessible to the entire population.

But efforts to secure more effective cooperation from Latin American governments in tackling transnational crime should also include encouraging and helping them bring economic and social development to underprivileged marginalized populations. If the manifestation of the state becomes benevolent by providing legal economic opportunities for social development and legitimate and reliable security and justice, many root causes of transnational crime, such as illegal immigration will be addressed and belligerent and crime organizations delegitimized. The populations will become both far less interested in participating in illicit economies such as the cultivation of illicit crops and far more willing to participate with the state in tackling transnational crime.