The international dimension of organized crime: an elusive threat

In the third essay of our Junior Ambassadors Melina Meneguin-Layerenza makes the case for treating transnational organized crime as a serious threat to international security.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden at last year's MSC (Photo: Plitt).

In the past decade, the international community has become deeply familiar with the manifestations of state-failure and the attendant challenges of state-building, including dealing with the emergence of organized criminality and its complex, often symbiotic relationship with weak governance structures.

Naturally, these issues have been the province of the regional desk officer and of the bleary-eyed rule of law professional, except to the extent that they cross the line into the territory of the hot issues of the day: we talk about the drug trade connections of al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb or the funding structure of the Taliban with a sense of urgency that is largely absent in our discussions of the activities of, say, the cartel La Familia in Mexico. The opportunistic terror-organized crime connection largely dictates whether a criminal network will land in the spotlight or whether it will be relegated to the relative obscurity of every-day law enforcement efforts. Such prioritization strikes as a precondition for sanity: with the 2010 Consolidated Priority Organization Targets list of the US Justice Department reporting that 29 of the 63 drug trafficking organizations listed are associated with terrorist groups, our hands are pretty full – and a staggering number of agencies across affected countries have to offer piecemeal solutions to specific manifestations of the transnational organized crime threat.

Unsurprisingly, one hand hardly knows what the other one is doing, and systematic discussion of transnational crime from an international security perspective is lacking. This in part arises from intrinsic definitional issues: the US National Security strategy on the matter helpfully defines transnational organized crime as "self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and/ or violence, or while protecting their illegal activities through a transnational organizational structure and the exploitation of transnational commerce or communication mechanisms." Such a definition could potentially cover everything and anything, offering minimal guidance as to what one should call a national security concern. Depending on the strategic interests implicated in the environment of operation of such an organization, one could draw some lines and yet offer no definitive framework to assess when a transnational organized crime problem rises to the level of threat to international security.

The easy answer is that the trigger for heightened surveillance should be ties with terrorism, which could arguably be dealt with using the structures currently in place, but that approach construes the strategic objective of security in an extremely narrow way. One need only watch the magnitude of financial flows through illegal channels and estimate the impact on legitimate markets to arrive at the conclusion that vital state interests are regularly affected by transnational criminal activity. The reality and expanding probability of criminal control or leverage in exploitative industries should ring alarm bells, and fortunately it has started to prompt state action in a more coordinated fashion. The critical take-message that has begun to resonate, but not nearly enough as of yet, is that the threat of transnational organized crime should be a singular focus of the international security agenda, not as a subsidiary concern connected to other assessments, but as an urgent and complex problem of international scope in its own right.

Despite an uptick of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in this arena in the last couple of years, much more needs to be done. In January 2010, the US government published comprehensive strategy to combat transnational organized crime, which was notably the first of its kind since 1965. It hardly comes as a surprise that the conclusions of the review pointed to a dramatic increase in size, scope and influence of criminal networks in the intervening decades, and the last thing we want is to be encircled while catching up, or to witness the proliferation of piecemeal approaches when so much could be learned from exchange of ideas and best practices. In recognition of this intuition, the national security advisors of 44 nations convened in Sochi, Russia, in October 2010 to chart a multilateral effort to combat organized criminality. Since then, the United States and the United Kingdom established an Organized Crime Contact Group, and there has been progress in several multilateral fronts. Such steps are certainly encouraging, but the discussion needs to move from the pure inter-governmental level to a more inclusive forum that can take incorporate the insights of all implicated constituencies, from academics to the NGOs that have struggled with the effects of this phenomenon on the ground, to the private sector analysts that have special insight into the political risk dimensions of the issue at hand.

As such, the Munich Security Conference would be the ideal backdrop for a rigorous inaugural debate of transnational organized crime and its role in the international security agenda. In particular, it is imperative that underlying debates be resolved before a coordinated multilateral action plan can emerge. For instance, can criminal networks play a stabilizing role as informal providers of security that should not be compromised early on in a state-building effort lest all constituencies and potential sources of spoilers align against the objective, as some academics have posited for West Africa? What are the different regional manifestations of organized criminality, and is there any one-size-fits-all approach that could serve as a starting point in light of geographic variance? Without an enlightened and comprehensive international debate that extends beyond inter-agency communications plagued by divergence of institutional culture and objectives among a dozen law enforcement and intelligence offices within any one country, the fight against transnational organized crime is as good as lost.


Melina Meneguin-Layerenza (24) is a Graduate Student in International Security at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. She is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 2013 Munich Security Conference.

23 January 2013, by Melina Meneguin-Layerenza