Foreign Policy Blogs

Target the Markets!

Antonio Maria Costa, the UN Drug Czar, is a modest man, so when he stands up, as he did on June 23, and tells an audience at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, in Washington, DC, that we have to start thinking about transnational crime in an entirely different way—it’s news. Costa, whose degrees, from UC-Berkeley and the University of Moscow, are in economics, reiterated an idea authors like Moises Naim have already endorsed—that the key to combating transnational crime lies in disrupting markets, not in pursuing, apprehending and dismantling criminal groups or organizations.

On its face, the idea may not seem radical, but what it says about the transference of economic power, from nation-states to non-state actors in a global free market, demands our attention. The thesis is a simple one: that transnational crime is an evil twin to global trade, riding the same wave of deregulation, free trade zones, reduced tariffs, electronic filing, and just-in-time processing on which the world’s economies depend.

For global trade, borders no longer mean barriers, and the easy, almost instantaneous flow of cargo across oceans, continents, and what, on maps and in courts at least, still appear to be sovereign states, translates into the simultaneous and commingled transmission of licit and illicit goods—drugs, arms, weapons of mass destruction, human ‘slaves’ and illegal migrants, counterfeit products, stolen or ersatz pharmaceuticals, and natural resources, looted, packaged and processed by warlords turned criminal entrepreneurs.

This is the opening sally in the 2010 UNODC report, The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment, a call-to-arms for governments whose jurisdictional authority cannot cross national borders with the same ease or velocity that propels international trade. The same innovations that enable our “open economy,” free trade agreements like NAFTA, organizations like the World Trade Organization, the Internet and an international e-banking system, can also support the efforts of small groups of nimble, non-state criminal actors, ad hoc alliances able to coalesce and disassemble in rapid response to shifting market opportunities—anywhere, anytime crime. Eliminating criminal organizations only gives competitors, no longer limited by geography, better access to  markets—drugs, guns, counterfeit products, prostitution, pornography—created by demand, by existing appetite, and the money to satisfy it.

In our ‘open economy,’ in cyberspace, in a marketplace where licit and illicit trade are densely integrated and impervious to the border-bound efforts of national law enforcement agencies, criminals are not only able to conduct their ‘business’ openly and with impunity, but to use market penetration to dig into the fabric of legitimate society, to use criminal revenues to buy political power, and to set themselves up as viable alternatives—as providers of social welfare and security—to civil institutions unable to compete in terms of budgets and revenue.

This is the difference: in 2010, transnational trade not only affords criminals scope, but also breadth, an expanding portfolio of illegal opportunities that threaten civil society and global politics in unprecedented, sinister ways.

What’s important, and, yes, difficult to understand is that the ‘traditional’ gangs, mafias, and cartels we tend to envision as the root of transnational organized crime are rapidly giving way to flexible, non-hierarchical groups, unaligned, in many cases, with any particular state, region, or ideology, and committed to long-term strategic goals beyond criminal profit.

Hijacking the global economy, reasons the criminal mind, is tantamount to ruling the world.

A conclusion as dramatic as this one would, we assume, invite quick and equally dramatic responses. But this is not the case. Global law enforcement strategies lag behind transnational, state-of-the-art, criminal operations. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Crime (UNTOC), adopted in 2000, offers Member States an opportunity to review implementation, particularly in regard to information-sharing. Interpol, joint task forces, and international agreements between national law enforcement agencies also provide starting-points for recalibrating responses to a new and distinctive kind of criminal enterprise.

The challenge, of course, is legal, logistical, and political—whether states, whose boundaries continue to shape law enforcement responses, are prepared to create urgent, unified market-oriented solutions, or whether they will  continue to focus on the kinds of country-specific investigations and arrests that leave everyone’s boundaries intact.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.