How the U.S. frames and describes its counternarcotics operations, home and abroad, is fundamentally important – measured by the tens of billions of U.S. government dollars spent in drug enforcement, the millions of Americans who have been arrested and incarcerated for drug violations, and the many lives lost in drug wars, including the more than 45,000 dead in Mexico in last four years.
The Obama administration has dropped the term “war on drugs” in official discourse, yet it still lends uncritical support – both financially and in its public diplomacy – to Mexico’s military-led drug war.
At the same time, however, the Obama administration has given new credence to exaggerated drug-driven threat assessments, which posit that U.S. national security and homeland security are threatened by Mexican drug trafficking and organized crime groups. Increasingly, U.S. government and military sources refer to the “transnational threats” to the homeland from the Mexico-based Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs).
It is unclear if U.S. government and military strategists have duly considered the meaning and implications of using the transnational threat terminology when referring to the illegal drug trade in the United States. Certainly, there is no publicly available documentation of this reevaluation of terminology and strategy.
Within the policy and academic communities, there has been little or no reflection or debate about the ongoing rhetorical transition from the previously dominant terms – cartels, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), or simply organized crime groups.
As “drug war analysts” like Sylvia Longmire (author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars) and Homeland Security officials increasingly popularize the concept of TCOs and transnational threats, the media, for the most part, is passively following suit.
TCOs Now Making Their Mark on American Home Entertainment
In an article in Homeland Security Today titled “Mexican TCOs Make Their Mark on American Media,” correspondent Longmire summarizes the transition in terminology, as she sees it:
Not too long ago, organized crime groups in Mexico—commonly (and inaccurately) known as cartels, were referred to as drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs. In the last couple of years, US government agencies have stopped using this moniker and switched to using transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to refer to the narcos because their portfolio of illegal activities has significantly expanded in scope and geographic area.
None of the main federal agencies that have counternarcotics operations (ICE, CBP, DEA, ONDCP, etc.) or the participating U.S. military commands (Northcom and SouthCom) have bothered to offer an explanation for the transition in terminology.
The term TCO is now used interchangeably with DTO, although TCO seems to be in ascendance in official pronouncements and strategy statements. The usage of “transnational threats, “when referring to drug flows through Mexico, is now commonly included in assessments of border security, national security, and homeland security.
It may be, as drug war analyst Longmire indicates, that the introduction of the terms “TCOs” and “transnational threats” stems from careful study and strategic reflection by Washington’s array of drug warriors.
However, there isn’t much of a paper trail to demonstrate this decision to shift nomenclature, or to explain this recent elevation in threat assessment. What is more, none of the civilian agencies or military commands spouting this terminology apparently believes there is any need to explain to Congress or the public just why they have switched drug war terminology.
When asked about the provenance of these terms and their incorporation into such new Border Patrol-led programs like the Arizona-based Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats, DHS officials say that they are “field-sourced” -- meaning that Border Patrol agents on the line initiated the new transnational nomenclature and DHS simply followed their lead.
DHS can’t point to any department-level explanation for the switch.
It could very well be that that there the switch that Longmire refers to was simply the product of a perceived need to attract attention and support with some new drug war language.
It is also quite possible that the emergence of the new threat terminology is nothing more than a national security version of games Follow the Leader or Simon Says.
One agency or military command merely follows the lead of another, copying their rhetoric and strategic formulations, and so on across the entire national security/homeland security/drug war apparatus.
Along the border, DHS now routinely characterizes all illegal drug and illegal immigrant crossings as “transnational crime” – noting that drug mules and immigrants are commonly part of business enterprises that involve fees, even if only involving small criminal bands that pay the security forces and larger criminal organizations for the right to work the border.
Straight Talk Absent in Obama Administration
Tens of thousands of Mexicans are being killed and the many millions of Mexican people live in fear. The Obama administration asserts that U.S. national security is acutely threatened by illegal drugs that cross the border and by the organizations that traffic them.
Given this horrific violence, one might expect that more care be given to describe and define the identity of the TCO enemy we are fighting on both sides of the border.
Straight talking that transcends drug war moralizing and boasts about drug seizures is desperately needed but is to be found nowhere in Obama administration pronouncements about border security and regional counternarcotics strategy.
It may be that one term – whether it be DTO, TCO, cartel, or organized crime – doesn’t adequately describe the constellation of actors in the drug trade.
The reckless use of such terms as “transnational threats” and TCOs to describe national security risks serves to feed the flames of politically motivated fear-mongering about immigration, drugs, and the border. It also serves to bolster the notion that the drug trade is essentially a national security not a public safety issue, more war than crime.
The lack of definition and nuance also turns these concepts into analytical mush, as when those involved in counterfeit DVDs and CDs are labeled transnational criminals.
(And why, by the way, as the Homeland Security Today article implies, is the “American media” the only sector adversely affected by this intellectual property theft. Or is it that, true to their nationalist and anti-imperialist convictions, these transnational criminals refrain from pirating Mexican music and films, or European or Latin American media products?)
In response to a New York Times op-ed by drug war consultant Longmire who argued that legalizing marijuana won’t “kill the cartels,” a close observer of the drug trade, Al Giordano of Narco News, argued that the drug market differs radically from normal criminal activity because of the extraordinary high level of profits and the organization needed to manage the production and trade.
What’s happening in Mexico and elsewhere is that cartel drug profits are underwriting conventional types of criminal activity. Were it not for drugs revenue, conventional criminal activity by cartels would have to support itself, and that would make things far too difficult to sustain a large operation.
Drug War Addiction
In Mexico and Central America, the violence and frightening reach of the drug trafficking organizations -- along with spread of extortion, kidnappings, and other crime not directly related to the DTOS -- raise pressing policy questions about the character of the crisis and most appropriate response.
By referring to illegal drug trafficking as an “acute threat to the security of the United States” as it did in the new Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy and through its careless (and undefined) warning about TCOs and transnational threats at home, the Obama administration seems intent on conflating the drug wars in Mexico and Central America with a reinvigorated drug war at home.
Alarmism and fear-mongering have proved effective tools of political mobilization by conservatives, immigration restrictionists, and border security hawks across the nation, and especially in the border states of Arizona and Texas.
To a large extent, the transnational threats and TCOs that President Obama, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and the U.S. military are warning us about are creations of Washington’s inability to break its addiction to drug-prohibition righteousness and $26 billion in annual injections of counternarcotics spending.