Recent declarations by the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense, along with the U.S. military, routinely characterize the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations as Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), warning about associated “transnational threats” and endangered U.S. national security.
Neither the government nor the military offers an explanation for the wholesale adoption of the TCO designation. Nor do they provide any definition of transnational criminal organization, or explain why the previously common usage of drug cartels, organized crime organizations, and drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) no longer suffice.
The use of TCOs clearly represents a higher threat assessment – with respect to U.S. national security and public safety -- of the Mexican crime groups. By using TCO, they imply that these violent criminal organizations are no longer national actors but have a transnational presence and command structure, much like a transnational corporation (TNC).
Washington and the U.S. armed forces have, however, resisted (and rightly so) demands – raised recently by Cong. Michael McCaul (R-Tex) – that these Mexican drug organizations be classified as “foreign terrorist organizations” given their horrific violence and assault on the institutions of governance in Mexico.
While their violence can certainly be described as terrorizing, the Mexican cartels don’t have – in marked contrast to most groups categorized as terrorist organizations – any political ideology or ambition. Rather, following the usual patterns of traditional organized crime organizations, the Mexican organizations seek income from illegal activities, mainly from those that require an extensive organizational infrastructure.
At a time when post-9/11 fear levels about foreign threats are dropping, the federal government is reconfiguring its description of the main perpetrators of drug-related violence in Mexico, stressing their transnational identity and the associated threats to the United States.
Before examining the origins of the term, its implications, and why the U.S. government has recently adopted TCOs as its preferred term designation for the Mexican drug-trafficking groups, it is helpful to review the ways the federal government and the military have lately employing the TCO terminology.
Advising Travelers about TCO Operations
The State Department has been issuing severe travel advisories for Mexico over the past few years, warning U.S. travelers of the dangers of the DTOs in various regions, especially the northern border.
In its annual human rights reports, such as those in 2007 and 2008, the State Department has also warned of the violence issuing from the DTOs – until its last report which inexplicably changed its terminology, referring instead to TCOs. Despite the abrupt switch in terms, the State Department has not offered an explanation for the change or even a definition of TCOs.
In its most recent Mexico travel advisory (April 22, 2011), the State Department describes the country’s pattern of violence as follows:
Since 2006, the Mexican government has engaged in an extensive effort to combat transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). The TCOs, meanwhile, have been engaged in a vicious struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. According to Government of Mexico figures, 34,612 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico since December 2006. More than 15,000 narcotics-related homicides occurred in 2010, an increase of almost two-thirds compared to 2009. Most of those killed in narcotics-related violence since 2006 have been members of TCOs. However, innocent persons have also been killed as have Mexican law enforcement and military personnel.
The travel advisory warns: “TCOs, meanwhile, engage in a wide-range of criminal activities that can directly impact U.S. citizens, including kidnapping, armed car-jacking, and extortion that can directly impact U.S. citizens.”
U.S. Military Focused on TCOs
The Pentagon is also now routinely pointing to transnational threats and the power of TCOs. Although the DOD and the military have previously used the term, it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that they used TCO instead of, or interchangeably with, the term drug trafficking organizations. In recent briefings and congressional testimony, officials from the Pentagon, U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), and U.S. Northern Command (Northcom) are using TCOs instead of DTOs.
On April 12 William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter-narcotics and global threats, warned the Senate Committee on Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee:
"TCOs are becoming increasingly networked as they form relationships with each other and at times with insurgent or terrorist groups,” and that “these relationships range from tactical, episodic interactions at one end of the spectrum, to full narcoterrorism on the other.”
According to Wechsler, “It is important to recognize that when we discuss the transnational nature of this threat, this includes criminal activities that take place outside as well as within the United States. For instance, the influence of Mexican TCOs extends well beyond the Southwest border to cities across the country such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit.”
The Pentagon official told lawmakers that his office is directly assisting Mexico’s military to carry out "counter-narcoterrorism missions." In 2011 DOD provided $51 million in related funding to the Mexican armed forces – up from about $3 million in 2009:
The Department of Defense’s counternarcotics support to Mexico is implemented primarily through U.S. Northern Command and includes training, equipment, and information sharing as well as indirect support to units of the Mexican armed forces with counter-narcoterrorism missions. We are also working with U.S. Southern Command and USNORTHCOM to develop a joint security effort in the border region of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
In a March 30 briefing, General Douglas Fraser, commander of Southcom, also underscored the transnational threats of the TCOs, saying:
These transnational criminal organizations (TCO) are engaged in illicit trafficking -- illicit trafficking in drugs, arms, money and people -- through the porous borders throughout the regions, to the United States and abroad to Europe and into Africa.
They don't respect national sovereignty, laws, governments or human life. Nowhere in my mind is this more evident than in Central America and in Mexico, which are besieged by gangs, transnational criminal organizations and drug traffickers who operate with near impunity.
While adopting the TCO usage, General Fraser was careful to note that TCO operations are primarily a law enforcement not a military issue. At the same time, however, the U.S. military provides training to the region’s armies to help combat TCO presence.
Combating TCOs is now listed as one of the core missions of Northcom.
In his March 11, 2010 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Northcom commander General Victor Renuart, Jr, said that the command’s Joint Task Force-North, based at Ft. Bliss outside El Paso, supports the newly created Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT), a multiagency task force in Arizona organized by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
General Renaurt said:
JTF-North facilitated intelligence and operational planning, and provided sensor capabilities during execution of this intelligence-driven operation…. USNORTHCOM’s CN [Counternarcotics] Program is an integral part of the defense and security of our nation.
It was not, however, until this year that Northcom itself began to routinely call Mexican drug trafficking organizations TCOs.
The new emphasis on targeting TCOs in Mexico and the United States was evident in the first joint U.S.-Mexico declaration on transnational criminal organizations, issued on April 29 by a Merida Initiative consultative group on the issue. According to the joint statement:
The criminality and violence associated with the actions of transnational criminal organizations continue to threaten the security and prosperity of both our nations, and therefore multi-faceted, cooperative efforts to combat and reduce that violence are a priority for both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
For related discussion, see:
Review: Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, at
Rhetorical Rise of TCOs
(Next: What is a TCO?)