|Marijuana is the cash cow of smuggling.|
Over the past few years the federal agencies involved in border and illegal-drug control operations, as well as participating state agencies, have increasingly adopted the term Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) to refer to Mexican groups involved in drug trafficking.
TCO is now used interchangeably with Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO). State Department travel advisories for Mexico have started warning of TCO operations. For its part, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT) in Arizona in September 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s border security initiative.
The increased use of TCOs instead of DTOs reflects increased alarm about the intensity and spread of drug-related violence in Mexico not any measurable increase of DTO presence in the United States.
Clearly, Mexican DTOs like Colombian DTOs seeks markets outside their own countries, primarily the United States. In this way, they are certainly transnational. What is more, in Mexico the criminal operations of the DTOs involve more than drug trafficking – and increasingly so as smuggling illegal drugs across the northern border has become more difficult and costly.
These are organized crime organizations that seek to maximize profits, and are seeking income, both for the organization itself and for its associates, through an array of illegal operations, including the extortion of migrants. Yet there is no doubt that drug trafficking remains their core focus.
Unlike many transnational corporations that are widely diversified, the DTOs remain entrenched in the illegal drug sector. Unlike TNCs that have established branch headquarters throughout the world, the DTOs of Mexico or the DTOs of Colombia remain based in their home countries.
With the launching of the Obama administration’s Southwest Border Initiative in March 2009, shortly after Obama took office and appointed Janet Napolitano to direct DHS, the United States began to acknowledge U.S. shared responsibility in the illegal drug trade, including U.S. consumption, southbound flow of weapons, cash flows, and money laundering.
The new preference the TCO nomenclature does have the virtue of better reflecting the cross-border character of the drug trade. TCO does also communicate that the DTOs are involved in a range of criminal activities and thus have a wide penetration of Mexican politics and economy.
But there are political and strategic dangers of adopting TCOs as the accepted designation for the DTOs, including:
· Deemphasizing of the centrality of drugs will have the effect of reducing the focus on drug prohibition as the central causal factor in drug-related crime and violence.
· Identifying the DTOs as transnational organizations may stoke the largely based alarmism – coming almost exclusively from the political right – that the same organizations, like the Zetas, that are responsible for the horrific violence in Mexico and Central America have a substantial organizational presence and command structure north of the border – rather than linked across the U.S.-Mexico border mostly by the smuggled product and distribution networks rather than by a defined hierarchy of command.
· The transition from DTO to TCO as the common descriptor tends to bolster the credibility of those who falsely claim that these organizations are strengthening and expanding their influence in the United States – although it is undoubtedly the case that the Mexican DTOs are doing just that in Central America.
· The new use of TCO is routinely accompanied by the phrase “transnational threat,” giving new weight to analysis that identifies the DTOs as constituting a national security threat to the United States – leading to unconstructive and misdirected responses that miss the essential criminal -- not political or ideological -- character of the drug trafficking groups.
Over the past several years, the federal government has variously described those organizations responsible for the spreading violence in Mexico as cartels, DTOs, and TCOs. They have also been likened to the type of insurgency that besets Colombia. Outside the federal government, there are some in Congress, as well as an array of state politicians and border security activists, who believe they should be officially classified as foreign terrorist organizations so as to increase the enforcement and intervention options.
The Obama administration must take some responsibility for the confusion about what’s going on in Mexico and in the borderlands. To its credit, the administration has shed the term drug war. Yet it has failed to create a new framework to describe the problem and solution. That is in large part due to its political cowardice when it comes to addressing the failures and consequences of drug prohibition.