Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Gangster's Paradise: The Untold History of the United States and International Crime

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Gangster's Paradise: The Untold History of the United States and International Crime

Article excerpt

The dark underside of the global economy is thriving. Globalization has been good not only for legitimate businesses but also for those who traffic in illegal drugs, evade sanctions or taxes, trade stolen goods and intellectual property on the black market, smuggle immigrants, and launder money. Some of these activities are merely policing headaches. But others pose major security challenges to governments around the world.

These various illegal activities are often lumped together and categorized as global or transnational organized crime. According to a 2011 White House report, such crime has "dire implications for public safety, public health, democratic institutions, and economic stability." That sentiment is shared by the un Office on Drugs and Crime, which in 2010 declared that "organized crime has globalized and turned into one of the world's foremost economic and armed powers." Illicit trade has become a source of tension between major powers, as well: U.S. officials berate China for not doing more to prevent intellectual piracy and counterfeiting. Pundits have also sounded the alarm, fretting over the potential for international crime to cause conflict between states and perhaps even erode the foundation of the modern state itself. The journalist Moisés Naím, for example, describes efforts to curb cross-border crime as "wars of globalization" and argues that governments are losing the battle.

This anxious rhetoric has spurred governments to tighten controls and plug leaky borders, with Washington leading the way. In recent decades, the United States has aggressively and successfully exported its crime-fighting agenda and promoted its favored antismuggling practices abroad through bilateral agreements and multilateral initiatives. The State Department even hands out annual report cards grading countries on how well they are doing in fighting human trafficking and the international drug trade, with many countries scrambling to at least project an image of progress and compliance.

As the world's leading antidrug campaigner, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars in recent decades trying to stop the smuggling of drugs into the country (even while doing relatively little to stop the flow of guns smuggled out). Reflecting the dramatic escalation of the drug war, the United States has become the world's leading jailer-with more people locked up for drug-law violations today than western Europe has in jail for all offenses combined.

To fight the perceived menace of illegal immigration, the U.S. government doubled the size of its border patrol in the 1990s and then doubled it again during the last decade. It has also erected hundreds of miles of formidable fencing and deployed new military-style surveillance technologies to monitor U.S. borders, including Predator drones that now fly over the U.S.-Mexican border. Last year, the Obama administration devoted more funds to immigration control- some $18 billion-than it did to all other federal law enforcement activities combined.

There is no doubt that cross-border crime and illicit trade harm individuals and communities and pose challenges to governments, including the United States. But the panicked discourse and frenzied law enforcement policies that define Washington's current approach are an alarmist overreaction. Pundits and policymakers in the United States have grossly distorted the threat and have neglected to place modern crime in historical perspective.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, much of today's cross-border crime problem is not new. In fact, states have struggled with this precise challenge for centuries. And far from being a passive victim, the United States has fostered as rich a tradition of illicit trade as any other country in the world. Since its founding, the United States has had an intimate relationship with clandestine commerce, and contraband capitalism was integral to the rise of the U.S. economy. …

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