Foreign Policy Blogs

Better Questions About Transnational Crime?

When I arrived at US Customs, more than twenty years ago, I was told that the agency’s mission included the investigation of any trespass or trafficking that involved U.S. borders. Before that, I’d thought the only thing “Customs guys” did was rifle through suitcases at the airport. My first week on the job, I did notice a tall, aluminum column next to my desk, the crown filled with sand, and concluded it must be an ashtray left over from the days of WPA – the Commissioner’s office, across the hall from mine, used to belong to the Secretary of Labor during the Roosevelt Administration.


The assumption disappeared when an agent stood very close to the edge of my workstation, and emptied the shells from his weapon into the sandy pool on the top of the canister. This was law enforcement.

For the next thirteen years, until 911, my attention and my work led me through the good guy/bad guy maze of ‘drugs, guns, and money.’ My job was to translate managerial euphemisms and street-guy vernacular into plain English, to ‘tell it like it was’ to the public, to the Congress and to the folks who appropriated funds and provided access to people, places and things the agency needed to get closer to making a case.

“Operation Greenback” went after dirty money, a multi-agency seize-and-freeze initiative out of Miami.

“Operation Casablanca” represented the largest drug trafficking takedown in US history, tracing cartel influence into the highest echelons of Mexico’s government.

“Operation Cheshire Cat” targeted and bagged dozens of cyber-creeps peddling kiddy porn across the worldwide net.

“Wiredrill” was the name of a task force operation in New York: armies of “smurfs” wiring more money per day back to Colombia than the Colombian migrant population in Jackson Heights took in per month—agents busting open bowling balls, in one case, and pulling tens and twenties out like stuffing from a holiday turkey.

We had port-runners, and inspectors killed when they lost their grip on the handles of speeding trucks scraping past concrete bollards.

There was a young agent on the southern border, new to the job, who was killed after he saved a Chinese teenager foundering in the Rio Grande and then took off after her male accomplices—the next day, his partners found him standing bolt upright, still holding his flashlight and wearing his Customs cap, under the deep water further downstream.

We had people undercover in Colombia and Mexico, and agents spending months working in close quarters with arms traffickers ready to kill anyone who crossed their eyes wrong, or with informers wrapped up tight in safe houses until they could testify in court that there are people evil enough to kill anyone for almost any reason if there’s enough money to be made.

Customs called itself “America’s Frontline,” and any criminal endeavor that involved trans-border violations, even when a case led agents beyond those borders, set off an alarm. My agency was doing its job. And the thousands of people who actually did the work often went beyond the call of duty to make sure of it.

Increasingly, however, the trouble that belonged to the agency, trafficking in drugs, guns, and dirty money, seemed to lead investigators to larger drawing boards, to blueprints that spoke to bigger challenges than we could imagine.

A favorite sound bite: “What do you get with disorganized law enforcement?”

Answer: “Organized crime.”

What we didn’t see, perhaps, was that law enforcement wasn’t disorganized, but simply outpaced by criminal reinvention, by illegal operations that were busy appropriating the tools of global trade and enjoying similar operational leaps.

But that was before 911, prior to the morning when the World Trade Center fell, and the Pentagon burned, and counter-terrorism became everyone’s top priority.

At that point, organized crime became more than a problem in itself—it turned into the means (until you absolutely proved it wasn’t) to a much darker end. And that is when a more compelling question shook the US enforcement and intelligence community: is there a connection between organized crime and terrorism, between criminal revenue and terrorist financing?

The game, for US law enforcement, had become vertical as well as horizontal, and like embattled chess players, Customs, now one of dozens of agencies incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, understood that US law enforcement could not win without the ability to think many moves ahead.

Of course, that vertical and horizontal game, that ability to see much further down the road remains the mission of the Department of Homeland Security.

Whether DHS has succeeded in integrating resources and turf has been a matter of discussion since the new agency officially stood up in 2003, but the link between global crime and terrorist financing, both in nature and in scope, is still on the screen. And given the redefinition of ‘global crime’ as ‘transnational organized crime’ (criminal activity that travels through an ‘open economy’ with the same freedom, flexibility, and velocity that propels transnational trade), the question as to whether that link exists, and how frequently it is accessed, becomes even more pressing.

The answer, when I’ve posed the question, has seemed founded less on fact than it has been on politics, ideology, and culture. Much as been written about the smug undercurrent of feeling, the schadenfreude, emanating from EU states and other nations that felt the 911 attacks on the US were, at least in part, responses to US policies that disregarded the needs and counsel of allies and poorer nations. By that time, I was working overseas, for the United Nations, privy to the no-holds-barred opinions of foreign officials whose governments were not eager to spend their money to shelter the US from the kind of unfortunate deserts we’d suffered on 911.

A few years into the US ‘war on terror,’ an airport security official at the Frankfurt airport told me that any delay I might experience was a result of “my government’s war on terror,” its exaggerated response to what this official saw as a criminal, not a terrorist act. He also made it clear that Germany was paying, in the form of increased security costs at its borders and ports, much more than was necessary to assuage US over-reaction to an attack that ‘the rest of the world’ might have told us was likely, given ‘our ill-conceived foreign policy.’

At the United Nations, there were several takes on the possibility of links between criminal financing and terrorist activities: again, representatives of Member States uncomfortable with the ‘hard power’ they believed synonymous with the Bush Administrations, underplayed both the idea of any concerted terrorist campaign against the US (the attacks were ‘criminal acts’ perpetrated by non-state actors) and any necessary links between criminal revenue and terrorist funding.

At the same time, states and international organizations pursuing US support for initiatives and programs tied to various aspects of security, development and the like, understood that even a grudging admission of ‘possible links’ between organized crime and terrorism was key to cooperation.

So while Member States might not endorse a certain or even probable link between terrorist attacks and criminal financing, in some cases, a diplomatic hedge-better would reach out, like a gracious host placating a drunken party-crasher, to concede the ‘possible’ connection (in some cases) between global crime and international terrorism. And there were a few, believe it or not, whose logic told them that, when the need arose, terrorist organizations would migrate to the nearest and least complicated source of financing, and criminal activity, particularly when it lived side-by-side with civil unrest, filled the bill.

The new distinction posed by the UNODC between “global organized crime” and “transnational organized crime” (The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment, 2010) may not describe a hard-and-fast intimacy between transnational criminal schemes and terrorist attacks on nations, their institutions and economies, but the portrayal of ‘international criminal flows’ moving in high-velocity tandem with international trade—criminal activity conducted by much smaller, more flexible, adaptive groups of smart, high-tech gangs—argues even more forcibly that, in the current criminal universe, the bedfellows made by money and ideology (or ideology and money) are not so strange after all.

When questioned at a June 23rd press conference about the likelihood of criminal revenues funding terrorist attacks, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa characterized the criminal/terrorist universe as a shifting landscape, a ‘continuum’ where operations and objectives may, at certain points, intersect.

Costa also redefined ‘organized crime groups’ as entities composed of three or more individuals ‘perpetrating serious transnational offence…with the aim of material gain,” a distinction with a real difference for law enforcement, since it shifts the focus from “multi-crime groups of career criminals” to flexible, unconventional, and in some cases, ad hoc alliances that defy traditional jurisdictional responses.

These are good answers, and absolutely true.

But perhaps we need better questions—ones that no longer ask whether transnational criminal activities provide financing to terrorist organizations, but how often and in what circumstances such reciprocity occurs.

What precipitates, enables, or disables this kind of cooperation?

And how, in a world where borders no longer impede trade, transnational organized crime, or concomitant terrorist entry into any market or State, can we sort, separate, and stop what have clearly become commingled threats?



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.