Sunday, June 26, 2011

Drug Cartels, Drug Trafficking Organizations, Organized Crime, Terrorists, Narcoterrorists, Criminal Insurgents, Transnational Criminal Organizations: What’s in a Name?

Seized bundles of marijuana from Mexico/Border Patrol
The increasing use of the term Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) by the federal government and the U.S. military avoids many of the problems associated with the other terms that are variously used to refer to Mexican criminal groups whose business is largely focused on the U.S. market.

The term transnational criminal organization has much to recommend it, including:

  • Underscores these groups are criminal not political – not insurgents, not terrorists with a political agenda.
  • Points to crossborder reach of these groups.
  • Signals that these organizations and their members have other criminal operations besides drug trafficking.
  • Indicates that they are more like transnational corporations than cartels, which (unlike businesses in a competitive market) formally set prices among producers, manufacturers, and distributors.

It’s worrisome, however, that, in their new promotion of the term TCOs, U.S. officials have not bothered to define exactly what they mean by transnational criminal organizations.

One result is that Department of Homeland Security officials now use TCOs to refer a wide range of groups involved in illegal border crossings – from the smuggling operations coordinated by the Sinaloa Cartel to coyotes that charge immigrants to guide them across the border. 

The DHS-organized Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT) on the Arizona border operates, for example, using this broad characterization of transnational threats and TCOs.

The implications of the increasingly common usage of TCOs and “transnational threats” by the U.S. government – and to some extent by drug war analysts and the homeland security industry – are not clear.

Certainly, it’s preferable and more accurate than calling them terrorists, narcoterrorsts, and criminal insurgents – a rhetoric common especially among conservatives and anti-immigrant activists, although also used by Pentagon, U.S. military, and State Department officials.

Transnational Threats Emerge after Cold War

If we are to adopt the TCO terminology – complete with the ever-associated “transnational threats” – it would be helpful to know what we are talking about.  While an interesting discussion -- semantically, academically – there is more at stake than scholarly precision. As the term TCOs is inserted into the lexicon of policy, budgeting, and threat assessments, care is needed to define what we are talking about.

While it is unclear what is meant exactly when TCO is used, the provenance of the term is easily identified: in the globalizing economy after World War II and particularly in the post-Cold War policy environment of  the 1990s, when policymakers and scholars began looking at the changing security environment – one no longer dominated by bipolar power dynamics and increasingly shaped by the globalization of the economies and communication. The term transnational corporation or TNC was already in common use, often substituting for multinational corporation or MNC.

As the scope of national sovereignty became increasingly battered by the speed and facility of international economic transactions, transportation, and communications, there was rising concern not only about the global power of TNCs and MNCs but also about organized crime with its increasing global reach.

Accelerating global trade, travel, and outsourcing also gave rise to new concerns about the security and public safety threats – terrorism by nonstate actors, contamination, trade in illegal goods, pandemics, biological contagion, resource scarcity, cyber-attacks – that were increasingly regarded as global in character or transnational.

Within the national security community, there emerged a strong consensus in the 1990s that transnational threats would constitute the central security preoccupation of the coming century – rather than inter-state conflicts or national challenges to U.S. realms of regional and international power projection.

The U.S. war on drugs, officially launched in 1971 by President Nixon, was the main precedent to the new thinking about nonmilitary threats. President Reagan had in the mid-1980s declared in a national security directive that illegal drugs constituted a threat to U.S. national security.

The description of the international drug trade as a threat to U.S. security did open up space for U.S. military involvement in drug eradication, interdiction and counterinsurgency in drug-producing nations, as well as new military presence along the U.S.-Mexico border. But before the end of the Cold War, inter-national rather than trans-national was the dominant security paradigm.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 affirmed the transnational threat paradigm. But rather than focusing on hunting down, arresting, or killing the nonstate actors threatening the United States and its allies, the Bush administration primarily resorted to the inter-national framework of war against nations – Iraq and Afghanistan.

The failure of those wars and the diminishing fear of foreign terrorist attacks have dampened enthusiasm for the “global war on terrorism” and direct military interventions against other nations.  This evolving policy environment has created new political room for a return of the national security paradigm – nation facing an array of transnational threats -- that was consolidating in the 1990s.

Whatever the reasons for the reemergence of discussion of transnational threats to U.S. national security, the more relevant questions are:

If indeed the Mexican drug organizations do constitute a transnational threat to U.S. national security?

Are they truly transnational organizations in the sense that they have, as the name implies, an organizational structure that transcends the U.S.-Mexico border?

Are they diversified organizations that no longer can be accurately described as drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) or drug cartels?

Finally, once we know if they are primarily transnational or national and if they are a threat to U.S. national security or primarily a public safety and drug policy issue, we can better address the threat or problem.  Different questions and different responses must certainly be considered by the people and governments of Mexico and Central America.

Next: In Search of a Definition of Transnational Criminal Organization

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