|Substance abuse rehabilitation center in Agua Prieta/Barry|
When speaking about Mexico and the border, federal officials and the U.S. military are increasingly referring to the threat of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) – but without offering a definition or explaining the purported transnational structure of the drug-trafficking organizations.
In 2003 the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Transnational Crime. Then, in 2004 the UN’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change identified transnational organized crime as one of “six clusters of threats with which the world must be concerned now and in the decades ahead.”
Last year, on February 24, the UN Security Council, adopting a statement by the French mission, noted “with concern the serious threat posed in some cases by drug trafficking transnational organized crime to international security in different regions of the world.”
Without a definition of TCOs from DHS, State, DOD, or the U.S. armed forces, a common starting point in defining TCOs comes from the United Nations. In the transnational crime convention, organized crime is defined broadly as:
[A] structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offenses established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.
When does crime become transnational? According to the convention, an offense is transnational if:
(a) It is committed in more than one State;
(b) It is committed in one State but a substantial part of its preparation, planning, direction or control takes place in another State;
(c) It is committed in one State but involves an organized criminal group that engages in criminal activities in more than one State; or
(d) It is committed in one State but has substantial effects in another State.
In other words, just about any group, even if only a few people, can be considered an “organized crime” group -- if structured to commit crimes. An organized crime organization, even if situated in one nation, can be considered transnational if its criminal operations substantially affect another nation, even if it is not actually located in that foreign nation.
While somewhat useful as a base definition of organized crime and transnational, the UN convention and associated convention documentation offer little help in describing how organized crime, national or transnational, is structured. Nor does the UN Security Council, in its February 2010 declaration about the threat of drug trafficking organizations, offer any definition or explanation of what exactly is a transnational criminal organization, and when it is no longer just a DTO.
Academic literature examining the phenomenon of organized crime is more helpful in providing some perspective about what constitutes transnational crime and how it is structured.
Unlike the U.S. government, which includes terrorist organizations among the types of TCOs, most academics describe organized crime groups, both national and transnational, as entrepreneurial – exclusively interested in profit maximization with no driving political ideology.
One of the first scholars to address the emergence of transnational organizations was Samuel Huntington. The conservative scholar, writing in the World Politics journal (April 1973) argued (as summarized by Phil Williams) that transnational organizations conduct centrally directed operations in the territory of two or more nation states, mobilized resources and pursue optimizing strategies across national boundaries, are functionally specific, and seek to penetrate and not acquire new territories.
If we were to accept that definition, Mexican drug cartels could be accurately described as TCOs because of their presence in Mexico and Central America, where their operations do appear to be centrally directed unlike in the United States, where drugs are marketed through U.S. crime networks and gangs that aren’t centrally directed.
Writing in the Washington Quarterly (1994), Phil Williams observed:
Most transnational criminal organizations are concerned about profit rather than politics, and are unlikely to want to undermine a system that they are able to exploit and abuse for their own purposes. A few other groups, especially those linked to "pariah states" may have more disruptive goals. Treating these very different organizations as part of a single global challenge is not only misleading conceptually, but could encourage a policy response that is as ineffective as it is undifferentiated.
Besides the wide agreement about the profit-seeking character of TCOs, there is also broad agreement that TCOs rely on “strategic alliances” in their cross-border operations. This means that instead of extending their organization structure into other nations or territories, TCOs form alliances with other crime networks and organizations.
Naming the Problem
The horrific drug-related violence in Mexico – and in Central America – merits the close attention of the U.S. government and the U.S. public as good neighbors, irrespective of assessments about spillover violence and about U.S. national security.
The U.S. government has, of course, demonstrated its concern through its drug war assistance programs (through an array of federal agencies, including DOD, State, DOJ, DHS, military commands, and the intelligence apparatus). Clearly, U.S. assistance and collaboration have not only supported the drug war unleashed by President Calderón) but have also helped Mexico successfully target the top drug cartel bosses.
It is unclear, however, if Washington recognizes the adverse impacts of Mexico’s drug war, especially what it often described in military terms as the “collateral damage.” What is clear, though, is that the U.S. government is not publicly acknowledging this, at least not adequately given the scope of the related violence and crime in Mexico.
For the State Department, as articulated in its most recent Mexico travel advisory, TCOs It is estimated that 35,000-40,000 people have died in Mexico in the past four years as the result of the drug war, and the State Department says that most of these, including the 15,000 or more killed in 2010, belong to the TCOs.
No doubt that inter-organizational violence constitutes the most vivid manifestation of this violence.
But how does the State Department really know that most of the victims of this four-year drug war are TCO members.
Is it relying on assertions by the Mexican government that nine of ten deaths are criminal-on-criminal violence? How does the Mexican government know this, given that only 5% of the cases are investigated and only 1% result in convictions?
The State Department does tell U.S. travelers that there are also deaths of “innocent people” and of members of the security forces, implying, by simplification of what’s occurring in Mexico, that murders of criminals are murders of TCO members.
The narrow focus on TCOs implies that a drug war that targets the TCOs will resolve the violence, when in fact there is little hard information about: the number of TCO members, number of drug-related deaths involving TCO members, the extent of direct involvement of Mexican security forces in drug trafficking, or TCO affiliation if any of gang members and others who earn income from local drug markets.
The State Department asserts that TCOs “engage in a wide range of criminal activities” besides drug trafficking. The federal government, however, does not offer any assessment about the impact of the drug war on this diversification of TCO operations.
Nor does the State Department in its linking of TCOs and most violence in Mexico assess to what degree the increased spread of non-drug criminal operations, -- such as kidnapping, car theft, extortion – are the product of the drug war and the work of individuals (usually teenage and young adult males) not directly affiliated with the TCOs.
(Next: Assessing Transnational Threat of Mexico’s Drug War)