A Road Map for Beating Latin America's Transnational Criminal Organizations

By Andersen, Martin Edwin | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

A Road Map for Beating Latin America's Transnational Criminal Organizations


Andersen, Martin Edwin, Joint Force Quarterly


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The brotherhood of the well-intentioned exists even though it is impossible to organize it anywhere.

--ALBERT EINSTEIN, 1934

The challenges posed by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)--networks that meld international syndicates with domestic gangs for greater and deeper illegal reach--today cut a searing path through Latin America's political, social, and economic landscape, morphing what once seemed strictly law enforcement problems into national security threats. At the same time, throughout the region, a fierce debate has arisen about the efficacy and appropriateness of military versus law enforcement responses, and combinations of the two, thrust into this violent chasm. In an extensive survey of people's sense of trust in national police forces around the Americas, the respected Americas Barometer found--not surprisingly given the region's racial and ethnic stratification--a "positive correlation between self-identifying as white (compared to all other groups) and trust in the police." Other factors, it reported, "such as a history of crime victimization, fear of crime, and victimization by corruption contribute negatively to people's perceptions." (1) Add the fact that in most countries of the region police forces are dramatically underpaid and underresourced, while facing criminal groups of sophisticated organization and high-octane lethality, and it is clear that much has to be done.

To combat TCOs, criminals, terrorists, and their quasi-legal facilitators need to be confronted by an integrated law enforcement, intelligence, and military effort as part of a "whole-of-government" approach. As such, desired state objectives are pursued through the government's use of formal and/or informal networks across the different agencies under its control to coordinate the design and implementation of the range of interventions that those agencies can and will make to increase effectiveness. This new emphasis, in which the police and military are integral parts of a larger effort, would foster collaboration and reinforce (and--where needed--create) communities of interest at national, regional, and international levels. The whole-of-government approach needs to be accompanied by a whole-of-learning model in which U.S. strengths and weaknesses can be shared and frankly discussed for the benefit of tomorrow's security and defense policies within a democratic framework.

For many in Latin America, state power has historically cast a shadow on both personal security and human rights. The debate about its ultimate ownership, purposes, and outcomes continues. The legacy of state security forces in most countries is one in which political rights and civil liberties were severely conditioned or were perhaps the object of full-scale assault for some of the population--a painful inheritance that mobilizes citizens to demand greater respect for democratic practices. At the same time, the globalization of crime brings with it an enhanced potential for lethality and reach that demands increases in the capabilities of state institutions. In Mexico, where some 150,000 people are involved in a narcotics business that has spilled over into about 230 U.S. cities, the challenge has become so acute that the government has had no alternative but to call in the military, particularly given a level of police corruption and institutional deficiencies that may take a decade or more to overcome, if it ever is. (2)

From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, the wide range of irregular and asymmetric challenges includes nonstate actors competing for territorial control or advancing their illicit agendas by providing public goods in the absence of weak or ineffective national and local governments. The multidimensional TCOs' threats include narcotics trafficking, financial crimes, cybercrimes, corruption and extortion, counterfeiting, and trafficking in humans and arms. …

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