Transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking


Transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking


The major transnational criminal organizations
Environmental factors and the rise of transnational criminal organizations
Emergence of transnational criminal organizations
National opportunities
Global pressures and incentives
National pressures and incentives
Global resources
National resources


Pages: 9 to 24
Creation Date: 1994/01/01

Transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking *

P. WILLIAMS Director, The Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies and Professor of International Security, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States of America
C. FLOREZ Chief, Intelligence Operations, National Drug Intelligence Center, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, United States of America


In the last two decades, drug traffickers as well as many other criminal groups, have moved from domestic-based enterprises into large-scale criminal organizations that "treat national borders as nothing more than minor inconveniences to their criminal enterprises" [ 1] . The transnational criminal organizations have a home base in one State but operate across national borders and engage in criminal activities in one or more host States. They have many similarities to transnational corporations, and like transnational corporations they vary considerably in structure, strength, size, geographical range and the scope or diversity of their operations. Some are global in reach and organized hierarchically; others are more limited in the scope of their operations and more fluid instructure. Their common feature is that they engage in unregulated forms of capitalist enterprise, involving either illicit products or the illicit smuggling of licit products, or both. The distinction between licit economic activity and illicit cannot be ignored, but the market mechanisms and the resulting accumulation of capital do not depend on such a distinction. In effect, gangster capitalism is simply unregulated capitalism taken to excess.

Perhaps the most obvious and fundamental difference between transnational corporations and transnational criminal organizations is the means whereby they obtain market access. Licit corporations negotiate with Governments for permission to conduct operations on sovereign territory; transnational criminal organizations obtain access through circumvention rather than consent, and systematically evade efforts to detect, monitor, intercept and disrupt their activities [ 2] . Yet, if this gets transnational criminal organizations apart from transnational corporations, the two kinds of organization share a desire to minimize national control. In that sense, the struggle of Governments against the drug trafficking industry is part of the wider struggle between what James Rosenau has termed sovereignty-bound and sovereignty-free actors [ 3] . In the search for global markets, their antipathy towards national boundaries, and their quest for autonomy, transnational criminal organizations differ in degree but not in kind from transnational corporations.

Understanding transnational criminal organizations and their role in drug trafficking has been hindered by two different tendencies. The first is the growing journalistic focus on the global Mafia or what is sometimes termed global organized crime. Although there are linkages and alliances of convenience among some transnational criminal groups, there is no monolithic global criminal organization. There are many organizations that engage in cross-border criminal activities and sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete with each other. Treating these groups as an amorphous but unified entity is a form of distorted sensationalism that hinders a differentiated assessment of transnational criminal organizations, an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and an evaluation of the linkages among them. In practice, these linkages range from simple exchanges of drugs for money to fully fledged strategic alliances, joint ventures and partnerships. To acknowledge such connections, how- ever, is a far cry from embracing a concept of global organized crime that is helpful neither at the analytical nor the policy level.

A second obstacle to understanding transnational criminal organizations is that organized crime has traditionally been a domestic phenomenon to be examined and understood at the local and national levels. Moreover, some criminologists dismiss the transnational emphasis as reminiscent of discredited alien conspiracy theories that explained organized crime in the United States as a transplanted rather than indigenous phenomenon. Underestimating the importance of transnational criminal organizations, however, is as damaging as treating these organizations as a global monolith, and ignores the new opportunities for criminal activity. As economic enterprises increasingly operate across national borders, it is only natural that criminal enterprises do the same thing. Such organizations are parasitic, are imitative of licit corporations, and are attracted by the availability of markets. In some ways, transnational crime can be understood as a rational response to economic opportunities (and often to economic needs). Accordingly, the present paper sets out to identify the major transnational criminal organizations, to delineate their major features, and to explain their emergence.

The major transnational criminal organizations

Among the criminal organizations that operate across national borders are the Sicilian Mafia, Chinese Triads, Japanese yakuza, Colombian cartels, Nigerian drug-trafficking groups, Jamaican posses, and criminal organizations in the Russian Federation. Some of these groups, especially the Asian criminal organizations, have a long history, but have become increasingly transnational in the scope of their operations. Others have emerged more recently in response to a range of economic and political pressures and opportunities - especially those associated with the emergence of the global narcotics industry. That industry encompasses producing countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar and Peru, transit countries such as Mexico, Thailand and Turkey, processing countries such as Colombia or Pakistan, and service countries such as Panama. Major cities or territories such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Houston, Istanbul or New York, act as both consumer and distribution centres. The various components of the industry, however, are linked together by transnational criminal organizations.

This is not to suggest that the drug-trafficking industry and the activities of transnational criminal organizations are synonymous. In fact, transnational criminal organizations vary in several important ways, including the extent of their involvement in drug trafficking. They come in various shapes and sizes and with their own skills and specializations; they operate in different geographical domains and different product markets; they use a variety of tactics and mechanisms for circumventing restrictions and avoiding law enforcement; and they vary considerably in the scope of their activities.

Transnational criminal organizations range from highly structured organizations to more fluid and dynamic networks. In business terms, they extend from IBM to local franchises. The Cali Cartel is perhaps the nearest to a formal corporate structure based on a clear hierarchy, functional specialization and forward integration of activities. It is also a fairly large organization - albeit involving many separate and distinct subgroups - with extensive global operations. At the other end of the spectrum are the small, highly fluid Nigerian organizations that act as couriers and engage in only the trafficking stages of the drug industry.

Another way in which transnational criminal organizations differ is in the scope of their activities. Nigerian organizations, for example, engage in an extensive range of criminal activities including credit card fraud and business fraud. Criminal organizations in the Russian Federation have an even wider repertoire of operations, and seem indifferent to whether the product they traffic in is drugs, arms, industrial metals or nuclear material. Their activities also include bank fraud and embezzlement, extortion, prostitution, car theft and kidnapping. Asian criminal organizations, such as the yakuza and the triads', also operate across the whole spectrum of illegal activities. The Colombian cartels, in contrast, are in the drug industry, and everything else is subordinate to that. They engage in corruption, violence and money-laundering only to promote their business.

Although transnational criminal organizations are the quintessential sovereign free actors, they do make alliances - with other criminal organizations, with terrorist and insurgency groups, and sometimes even with Governments. The nature, purpose, scope and robustness of these alliances are not well understood. Nevertheless, they reflect the fact that transnational criminal organizations have become sophisticated in their operations and act as rational actors to enhance their business opportunities and to minimize their vulnerabilities. Moreover, the organizations are often characterized by a very good business sense, by an efficient and effective management system based on generous financial inducements and severe penalties, by effective intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities, and by considerable resilience. It is clear from all this that transnational criminal organizations present a challenge to national and international law enforcement that is both serious and persistent. What remains to be explained, however, is the rise of those organizations.

Environmental factors and the rise of transnational criminal organizations

The emergence of transnational criminal organizations can be understood as a result of a confluence of opportunities, pressures and incentives, and resources at the global and national levels. The key environmental factors relevant to the emergence of transnational criminal organizations are summarized in the table.

Emergence of transnational criminal organizations

Opportunities at the global level stem from long-term secular trends in global politics and economics that have encouraged the development of a myriad of transnational organizations. The evolution of the global village has fundamentally changed the context in which both legitimate and illegitimate businesses operate, and opened up unprecedented opportunities for transnational crime. Increased interdependence among countries, the ease of international travel and communications, the permeability of national boundaries and the globalization of financial networks have created global markets for both licit and illicit commodities.

The speed and ease of international transport has greatly increased the ability of people and products to cross national boundaries. In 1992, for example, passenger volume on international commercial flights was somewhere between 600 billion and 700 billion passenger miles, a fourfold increase from 1974. Similarly, there has been a vast increase in the import and export of goods and services. As the use of containerized shipments has grown, so has their use to smuggle large volumes of cocaine into the United States of America and Europe - a development that illustrates the ability of transnational criminal organizations to exploit licit trade. This is also evident in the fact that a country such as Venezuela, which has traditionally played a crucial role in transhipment of goods from South America to the United States, plays a similar role in regard to drug trafficking. Similarly the role of Hong Kong as an entrepôt centre is reflected in its role as a distribution point for heroin trafficking to the United States and western Europe.

The growth of global trade has been accompanied by the evolution of global financial networks that have made it enormously difficult for Governments to regulate and control monetary transactions across national boundaries. The key nodes in this global economic and financial system are cities that act as major facilitators of cross- border transactions and are connected by a variety of economic and social networks. Such cities are the successor to the port cities that, in the past, were often major incubators for the development of criminal organizations [ 4] .

All these developments offer new opportunities for transnational crime. The scale of global economic activity, for example, has made it possible to hide illicit transactions, products and movements within licit transactions, products and movements. As a result, national borders have become highly porous. At the same time, the growth of a global financial system has allowed criminal organizations to move the profits from their illegal transactions with speed, ease and relative impunity. Money- laundering is simply one subset of the much larger problem facing States in their efforts to restore control over a global financial network that operates according to the logic of a global market. The sheer volume of money in the financial system and the ease with which it can be moved electronically have made it possible to obscure, move, and "clean" the profits from illicit activities. The system itself has outrun the development of rules and regulations, and mechanisms of management and control. Moreover, there are so many points of access to the global financial system that making access more difficult in some areas does not eliminate laundering; it simply encourages its relocation.

Against that background, it is not surprising that transnational criminal organizations display considerable entrepreneurial flair, and rival transnational corporations in the scale and sophistication of their efforts to create and exploit global markets. Indeed, as suggested above, the provision of illicit goods and services often follows the pattern established for licit products.

National opportunities

At the national level, criminal organizations with the capacity for cross-border activities have flourished where the State has been weak, acquiescent, corrupt or collusive.

Governments that are lacking in legitimacy and authority or are not fully in control of the territory under their jurisdiction provide congenial environments for the emergence of transnational criminal organizations.

In South America, it was not coincidental that the major drug - trafficking organizations emerged in parts of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru that were not fully under government control. In that connection Francisco Thoumi has identified two factors that were crucial to the central role of Colombia as corporate headquarters and processing centre of the cocaine industry: the loss of government legitimacy and the concomitant weakening of the State; and the geographic make-up of Colombia, which meant that many regions had developed a high degree of autonomy from the Government [ 5] . Thoumi argues that Colombia was the country of lowest risk, and therefore came to dominate the cocaine industry [ 6] . Concomitantly, it was the country with maximum opportunity. The Medellin and Cali Cartels were able to take advantage of a highly congenial environment, and the Medellin Cartel's mistake was to initiate an assault on the institutions of the Colombian State that led to efforts to reduce those opportunities.

In that connection, there is an interesting link between insurgency and drug trafficking. Both are reflections of a lack of State legitimacy and authority. The very conditions that encourage the emergence of insurgency movements - lack of government control over certain rural areas, disaffected peasantry, limited opportunities for economic advancement - are also the conditions that facilitate the development and sustenance of the drug industry. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is sometimes a convergence of interest between insurgency groups and transnational criminal organizations engaged in drug trafficking. Insurgent groups may engage directly in drug trafficking to fund their political activities, or they may benefit indirectly by levying taxes on the traffickers. On occasion, they may also work for the traffickers as the M - 19 group did with the attack on the Colombian Palace of Justice.

The alliances between the two groups, however, are alliances of convenience rather than ideology. The ultimate objective of insurgents and terrorist groups is usually to overthrow the Government and State institutions. Transnational criminal organizations and drug traffickers, for the most part, are content to work within the framework of the existing Government, so long as they are allowed to engage in their illicit business activities.

The importance of weak Government is as evident in the heroin industry as in cocaine. Afghanistan and Myanmar, the two major opium producers, are both characterized by weak, unstable Government and a great deal of internal violence. The writ of the Government of Myanmar does not run in the Shan State, which is the most important opium- producing region in the world. Indeed, Myanmar has been characterized by persistent internecine warfare involving ethnic groups, revolutionary movements, the remnants of the Kuomintang armies that fled to Myanmar towards the end of the Chinese civil war, and opium warlords. Not only has much of the country remained outside government control, but opium has been the currency or medium of exchange, for ethnic and revolutionary groups, allowing them to create, equip and maintain armies.

Although Myanmar resembles Colombia in terms of the weakness of the State and the violence of its politics, it has become the major producer but not the corporate headquarters of the heroin trade. Chinese criminal organizations in Hong Kong and Thailand have been crucial in establishing the distribution routes facilitating the transportation of heroin to the outside world. Members of the Chiu Chao group have operated from Thailand, while Hong Kong's 14K Triad has traditionally dominated the heroin trade to the Netherlands. These more traditional criminal organizations have developed into transnational criminal organizations establishing Bangkok and Hong Kong as the corporate headquarters and the key links between the opium producers and the heroin-consuming countries.

Perhaps the most striking recent example of transnational criminal organizations thriving in an environment of political, social and economic upheaval, however, has occurred in the States that emerged from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Criminal organizations in the Russian Federation are not new, but the demise of the Communist Party, the disintegration of the USSR and the collapse of the criminal justice system clearly produced conditions that were highly conducive to the consolidation of existing criminal organizations and the emergence of new ones. Groups that had been limited in the scope and impact of their operations by the intrusiveness of the Communist Party have become much more active. The Georgian Mafia, for example, controlled much of the black market under the communist system, but has subsequently extended the range of its activities. Yet it is still only one of the many organizations that routinely and effectively engage in a wide range of entrepreneurial criminal activities in the Russian Federation and elsewhere. It has been estimated that there are now as many as 3,000 crime groups formed into about 150 confederations in the former USSR. These include the Chechens and Azerbaijani groups and others that help to account for a major upsurge in trafficking activities not only in drugs, but also in metals, weapons, nuclear materials and even body parts. Moreover, these organizations clearly operate with little regard for national boundaries. German law enforcement authorities have reported that in 1993 there were over 230 cases of smuggling of some kind of nuclear materials from the former USSR. Other metals such as magnesium have also been the focus of smuggling activity. In October 1993 a failed attempt was made to smuggle 300 tonnes of magnesium ingots from the Russian Federation to western Europe.

The implication of the example of the Russian Federation - and this conforms to the other cases - is that organized crime thrives amidst political and economic turbulence. Weak government, though, is only one of the several forms of government that allow drug trafficking and trans- national criminal organizations to operate with impunity. There are also acquiescent Governments that are unwilling (rather than unable) to take counter-action, either because of fear of the disruptive consequences or because they regard the net effect of transnational criminal activity as positive for the society. In Pakistan, for example, the Government does not impose any transportation restrictions on opium producers, and there is very little prosecution. In essence, the lack of aggressive government counter-drug activities translates into tacit support of production and trafficking activities. This type of permissive environment is ideal for the home base of transnational criminal organizations.

Corrupt Governments provide a third category and are, defined by the fact that the members themselves benefit too much from the activity to do anything to reduce or contain it. A fourth kind of government is what might be termed collusive - the Government itself is deeply involved in the narcotics trade and other forms of criminal activity. The narcocracy in Bolivia in the early 1980s provides perhaps the best example, directly linked as it was to the Roberto Suarez trafficking organization. It was impossible to disentangle the military Government from the drug traffickers. The difference between the collusive and the corrupt Government is in the degree of direct involvement in the drug- trafficking industry.

Some Governments, of course, will be characterized by both weakness and corruption. This is certainly the case in the Russian Federation, where the weakness of the post-Communist Government has gone hand in hand with corruption. As a result, the State, the criminal and the commercial spheres have become increasingly enmeshed and entangled. The greater the symbiosis, the more the transnational criminal organization is able to function without hindrance or impediment. Establishing what is, in effect, an autonomous base, the transnational criminal organization can then engage in its illicit business, knowing that although some of its activities are likely to be disrupted, the core of the organization is unlikely to be seriously threatened. In addition, the sovereignty of the home State - as well as nationalist sentiment - provides an effective sanctuary against the efforts of one or more host States to go beyond the disruption of illicit activities and the dismantling of the subsidiaries, and strike at the centre of gravity of the organization.

Symbiotic relationships can be established with Governments other than that in the home State of the transnational criminal organization. The Colombian cartels in particular have focused their corruption activities on entire countries such as the Bahamas (a transit country) and Panama (a service country). In both cases, the symbiotic relationship facilitated the trafficking of drugs into the United States.

It is thus clear that, both at the global and the national level, there are many opportunities for the emergence of transnational criminal organizations. Yet the rise of transnational criminal organizations cannot be explained only in terms of opportunities; incentives and pressures, are also critical - and attention must now be given to them.

Global pressures and incentives

Global incentives and pressures that lead to the rise of transnational criminal organizations are very diverse. Perhaps the most important of them, however, is demand for illicit products. The rise of the Colombian cocaine trafficking organizations in the early 1980s was related in part to the new opportunities provided by what was seen in the United States as a relatively innocuous drug. The incentives for moving into the drug- trafficking business were considerable; low entry barriers and high pay-offs provided an almost irresistible combination.

Yet responding to demand is not the only factor leading to transnational criminal organizations. Continued global inequalities among countries and the biases of the international trade system against developing countries, together with the transparency of the wealth that exists in the advanced industrialized countries, accentuates the gap between aspirations for economic advancement and the opportunities available through the licit economics. Thus, illicit roads to economic advancement become an attractive alternative to continued poverty and desperation. For the peasants of Bolivia, Myanmar and Peru, if the only choice is between starvation, on the one hand, and production of coca and opium, on the other, then abstention from the drug industry is not a serious option. Moreover, the weakness and traditional instability of agricultural commodity markets make coca and opium - both of which have relatively inelastic demand - look like attractive crops.

A global trading system that emphasizes free trade rather than fair trade is one that encourages the rise of drug production and the emergence of transnational criminal organizations in developing countries. In spite of the rise of licit transnational corporations in developing countries, the Cali Cartel remains, in effect, the developing countries' most successful transnational corporation. That is not only a comment about the importance of the drug- trafficking industry, but is also a reflection of the continued economic problems that face developing countries. In that connection, some researchers credit the Colombian cartels and their huge monetary base with providing much of the economic stability and even prosperity that Colombia enjoyed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

National pressures and incentives

At the national level, economic collapse or dislocation is an important underlying cause of the rise of transnational criminal organizations. Economic depression in licit industries can lead to those involved moving into illicit industries and bringing with them all the skills of the traditional entrepreneur. It may also provide the trigger that takes an organization into a new phase of activity. Moreover, economic disruption almost certainly adds to the recruitment pool for the organizations, and provides conditions in which those organizations can very easily appear as a positive rather than negative force.

In that connection, it is interesting that the rise of Medellin as one of the main centres of the cocaine trafficking industry was coterminous with its decline as a major textile producer. The Colombian drug traffickers provided alternative employment, with the result that they obtained the sympathy of at least the local population. Such loyalty is an important asset for the group, not least because it helps to strengthen counter-intelligence capabilities and makes it more difficult for the Government to engage in effective action against the organizations. In the battle for hearts and minds, the employer has a distinct advantage.

Perhaps an even more striking example of economic pressure contributing to the rise of transnational criminal organizations concerns Nigeria in the aftermath of the fall in oil prices. The oil wealth of Nigeria had provided a basis for education abroad of many young Nigerians. With the oil glut of the early 1980s and the subsequent collapse in prices, many Nigerians both in the country and overseas suddenly found themselves either lacking an income altogether or facing a rapid contraction. The rise of Nigerian criminal organizations can be understood in large part, therefore, as a response to straitened economic circumstances.

On some occasions, of course, economic pressures and incentives may be less important than political pressures for engaging in transnational criminal activity. Political instability and unrest, as well as allowing groups to engage in criminal activities with relative impunity, can also encourage activities such as drug trafficking as a means of obtaining the resources necessary to advance political objectives. Indeed, the turbulence that has arisen with the end of the cold war, the decline of existing structures of authority and legitimacy, the resurgence of ethnic and regional conflicts, and the rise of subnational groups means that criminal activity has become attractive not only for the accumulation of personal wealth, but as a means of furthering political objectives. The most obvious examples are cases where the trafficking of drugs or other materials provides a source of funding for weapons to help prosecute ethnic or nationalist conflict. That is an opportunist mode of criminal activity in which profit as such is simply a means to an end. Nevertheless, it is likely to intensify in the future.

The availability of opportunities and the push of economic deprivation, on the one side, and political chaos or ethnic ambition, on the other, may be necessary conditions for the emergence of transnational criminal organizations, but they are not sufficient to account for what are often quite sophisticated activities. It is also necessary to examine the groups themselves and, in particular, to highlight the resources that enable them to engage in an extensive range of criminal activities with considerable flair and entrepreneurial skill.

Global resources

One of the major resources available to transnational criminal organizations outside their home base has been the existence of ethnic populations in other countries. The increase in migration and the growth of ethnic networks has been enormously valuable to the operations of criminal organizations. While it is clear that most immigrants are law-abiding citizens, it is also clear that Colombians in the United States, Turks in western Europe, Pakistanis in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Nigerians dispersed throughout South-East Asia, western Europe and the United States, have greatly facilitated the creation of network structures for the supply of illicit goods.

The ethnic enclaves can be understood as a resource in several ways. They provide a basis for recruitment by transnational criminal organizations that have a national base and can evoke ethnic loyalties. That is especially so when the immigrant groups have not been fully integrated into their adopted society. As one analyst observed: "Many immigrant groups have been totally marginalized in Europe, some live in cultural ghettos. They readily provide some of the personnel for international organized crime" [ 7] . The low status of Turkish guest workers in Germany, for example, means that the opportunities and rewards offered by Turkish criminal organizations, smuggling heroin from South-West Asia into western Europe, appear very attractive. Even casual participation or involvement on the margins can yield greater rewards than can be obtained through the licit economy.

The leadership, however, tends to come from immigrant communities that are successful rather than those that are marginalized. Many immigrant communities such as the Chinese and the Pakistanis are very resourceful and engage in a wide range of commercial and trading activities. They provide excellent coverage for illicit activities. Moreover, occasionally businessmen in those communities will engage in criminal activity on a one-time only basis as the opportunity or need presents itself. Hence, the associates of the core criminal organizations tend to be highly fluid and a constantly moving target. Moreover, in the host State as well as the home base, the support of the local populace makes it much easier for the transnational criminal organizations to evade law enforcement.

Another important feature of ethnic networks is that they are very difficult to penetrate. The barriers of language and culture provide in- built defence mechanisms that are strengthened by ties of kinship and inherent suspicion of authority. Nigerian criminal groups, for example, have a variety of dialects that reduce the usefulness of wire-tapping and other electronic surveillance devices. In essence, they have a non- technological way of circumventing high-technology law enforcement. An additional consideration in some countries concerns the sensitivity of law enforcement to the rights of minority communities. This can have an inhibiting effect on efforts to counter drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

National resources

The other major resource for many transnational criminal organizations is that they have an entrepreneurial culture and tradition. Nigerians, for example, grew up in an atmosphere - stemming from its days as a British colony - fostering trade and international travel and communications. The oil boom of the 1970s expanded the trade reach of Nigeria into countries throughout the world. With the collapse of oil prices a portion of the young, aggressive and experienced entrepreneurs and traders in Nigeria shifted to criminal opportunities. Much of the energy and resourcefulness that had been dedicated to licit business activities was transferred to widespread fraudulent business activities and other activities such as heroin smuggling.

Much the same is true of Colombians. Medellin and Cali were both centres of entrepreneurial activity. They also had a long tradition of smuggling and trading in contraband goods: smuggling as a way of life in Colombia dates back to the Spanish colonial days. In a sense, all that happened in the 1980s was that the product changed and the trafficking process was industrialized to include large-scale smuggling by boats, planes and containers. If the Medellin Cartel took the lead, its confrontation with the Government of Colombia left the way open for the Cali Cartel to become dominant. And the genius of the Cali Cartel has been the way in which it has amalgamated the corporate and the criminal.

Another important resource stems from cultural norms that encourage upward mobility by whatever means available. Transnational criminal organizations arise and flourish in societies where rules are poorly enforced by Government and where there is little social stigma associated with activities that are outside the law. Success is defined in terms of wealth accrued, and the means are less important than the results. The other side of this, of course, is that survival in many societies in the developing world depends upon an ability to "beat the system". The result is that leading members of transnational criminal organizations tend to be very resourceful in finding means to circumvent law enforcement. Cross- border crime and particularly drug trafficking is simply a more lucrative, better-organized, and more extensive form of what many members of transnational criminal organizations have been doing most of their lives. They have had extensive on-the-job training.

Another factor that has been important for the rise of some trans- national criminal organizations and drug trafficking groups is that they come from cultures with a high tolerance for the use of violence. That was particularly true of Colombian drug-trafficking organizations that used violence to take over the trade from the Cubans. Jamaican organizations too were more than willing to use violent tactics to take control of the crack trade in the United States. Historically, violence has played a very important role in Jamaican politics, and the Jamaican posses were initially used by political parties to enforce political control at Kingston and elsewhere. After a backlash against the posses led to their expulsion and transfer to the United States, they brought their culture of violence into the drug-trafficking industry.

The other cultural factor concerns corruption. There are many definitions of corruption, but it generally involves undermining the integrity of public institutions and the functions of public officials through bribery. Societies that have become important in the drug- trafficking industry and transnational crime are generally societies in which corruption was widespread. What is perhaps most interesting about transnational criminal organizations is that they have been able to transplant the corruption and ensure that Governments in transshipment States are also willing to acquiesce or collude in their activities. In the 1980s, for example, the corruption of public officials by Colombian drug- trafficking groups permeated the political structure of the Bahamas.

Corruption can also become a factor in the consumer countries. In the United States, one of the greatest problems for law enforcement has been the vast amounts of money generated by the Colombian cartels. That money has led to corruption of federal agents, state and local police officers, judges and prosecutors, politicians and others.

Two other less important but still significant assets or resources for transnational criminal organizations have been geography and language. Geography continues to have some influence on the rise of transnational criminal organizations even though international air travel, shipping and communications have diminished it as a primary influence. The Nigerian role in heroin trafficking best exemplifies that factor. Nigeria is not geographically close to either producer or consumer countries, yet Nigerian heroin organizations continue to grow in strength and impact. More traditionally, countries such as Jamaica or Mexico, because of their geographical location, have become natural transshipment points for cocaine.

The other asset is language. Two good examples of this are the Colombians and Nigerians. Not only have Colombians been able to infiltrate Hispanic businesses in the United States, particularly at Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, but the common language has enabled them to establish Spain as the major gateway for their cocaine smuggling operations in Europe. Similarly, Nigerian criminal organizations have been able to operate effectively in the United States and the United Kingdom because of the fluency in English, while also being able to use their own dialects for cover.

The three factors-opportunities, pressures and incentives, and resources - provide a "package" that helps to explain the rise of transnational criminal organizations, especially when combined with some kind of trigger mechanism. A major change in either the opportunities or incentives and pressures can act as the trigger for the development of transnational criminal organizations. The sudden collapse of repressive government and the chaos involved in moving towards a market system without interim regulatory control, for example, can present both opportunities and pressures. Not only do the traditional black-market organizations become more important, but talented people with limited economic opportunities in the new system will bring their talents to criminal organizations. Other triggers may include: the outbreak of ethnic conflict and the resulting demand for resources to provide the arms; economic reverses that encourage movement from licit to illicit activity; and the collapse or removal of border controls in ways that enable criminal organizations to move from national to transnational activities.


Transnational criminal organizations can be understood as both a contributor to and a consequence of upheavals in political and economic arrangement both globally and nationally. Inequalities, instability and the disintegration of authority structures provide conditions that help to explain the rise of those organizations. Yet transnational criminal organizations also have a serious exacerbating effect on instability and negative consequences for their home State and their host States. They can threaten the integrity of government institutions, increase the level of violence and corruption in the society, undermine the democratization process, and discourage foreign investment in societies that badly need it. Moreover, their capacity to circumvent national regulations and restrictions on the provision of illicit goods and to traffic in people, arms and drugs across national borders is a threat to the capacity of States to exercise the traditional prerogatives of sovereignty.

Yet those organizations, pernicious as they are, also have some positive effects. Drug trafficking, for example, contributes to foreign exchange for States such as Bolivia and Colombia, something that has been especially important in a period of debt and failing commodity prices. Moreover, transnational criminal organizations are often important employers providing job opportunities that would not otherwise be available. Transnational crime also provides an important safety net in the event that there is a downturn in the licit economy, especially when multiplier effects are considered. Indeed, the argument about dislocation outlined above suggests that the growth of the illicit economy is a function of weaknesses, shortcomings and shocks in the licit economy. If the economy was functioning effectively, the pressures for transnational criminal activity would be much less. In some cases, the black market can be understood as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, poorly functioning licit markets.

In considering how to deal with those organizations, it is necessary to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their origins and their consequences. The above analysis also suggests that a comprehensive strategy is required in which efforts are made to reduce opportunities, minimize pressures and incentives, and diminish resources. While it is important to attack the organizations themselves, undermining their strengths and capitalizing on their weaknesses, the implication of the analysis is that it is essential to do something about the conditions that have not only given rise to transnational criminal organizations, but that help to sustain them.



Senator Roth, quoted in The New International Criminal and Asian Organized Crime Report by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session (December 1992), p. 2.


S. Huntington, "Transnational organizations in world politics", World Politics, vol. 25, No. 3 (April 1973), pp. 333-368.


J. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1991).


P. Lupsha, "Organized crime: rational choice not ethnic group behavior: a macro perspective", Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysis Digest, winter 1986, pp. 1-7.


F. E. Thoumi, "Why the illegal psychoactive drugs industry grew in Colombia", Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 34, No. 3 (autumn 1992), pp. 37-64.


F. E. Thoumi, loc. cit., p. 55.


F. Bovenkerk, "Crime and the multi-ethnic society: a view from Europe", Crime, Law and Social Change, vol. 19, 1973, p. 271-280.