- · Liberal purveyors of the transnational crime threat assessments.
- · Historical amnesia on the border.
- · Counterproductive policy prescriptions to combat illicit globalization.
- · The Obama brand of border security.
Yet with its strategies and policies, the Obama administration officials assert that we can effectively control illegal immigration, illegal drugs, and the border itself. Border security operations, they say, will redefine the border and stop transnational crime in its tracks.
Regional and national politics combined with news reports about the horrifically violent course of the Mexico’s drug war are the immediate drivers of border security policy. They are the political background to the new emphasis of the Obama administration on targeting transnational threats and transnational criminal organizations.
But it is useful (and necessary) to step back from the latest news and policy developments to gain a more penetrating perspective about transnational crime and the border.
A forthcoming essay by border scholar Peter Andreas offers such a perspective.
Andreas, author of the excellent book Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, examines the myths and fears about transnational crime and globalization in “Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Historical Lessons,” an eye-opening essay in the fall issue of Political Science Quarterly.
Globalization’s Birthing of Transnational Crime
Andreas wastes no time in shattering this myth and calling out its purveyors.
In the essay’s first two paragraphs Andreas names names – of the scholars, politicians, journalists, and pundits who have promoted dire threat assessments about the spread of transnational crime in the globalization era. Among those named are John Kerry, Jessica Mathews, Moises Naim, Misha Glenny, Susan Strange, Robert Mandel, Phil Williams, and James Mittelman –not the usual right-wing fear-mongers who traffic in exaggerated threat assessments but mostly liberals.
Andreas takes them to task for contributing to the dangerous albeit “conventional wisdom about illicit globalization.” According to Andreas, “the popular claims of loss of state control are overly alarmist and misleading and suffer from historical amnesia.”
More than the bad history and lack of scholarship typical of warnings about loss of state power in the face of mounting illicit globalization, Andreas is bothered by the consequences of alarmist threat assessments about transnational crime and porous borders.
The standard narrative of illicit economic globalization is not only exaggerated and misleading but can lead to counterproductive policy prescriptions. Urgent calls to “do something” about the illicit side of globalization can provide ammunition for politicians and bureaucrats to justify costly high-profile crackdowns that may be politically popular but that ultimately fail. It can also contribute to growing calls to further securitize and militarize policing efforts regardless of the effectiveness of using military resources for law enforcement tasks.
Alarmist accounts of illicit economic globalization, observes Andreas, “echo the old familiar arguments in the globalization literature about the withering away of the state in the face of increasingly globalized markets—but in this case, the market actors and forces are considered particularly threatening and sinister.”
Furthermore, “In this narrative, global crime groups, not global corporations, are the growing threats. But while the old “sovereignty-at-bay”- types of arguments have been countered by more-skeptical and -nuanced accounts in the globalization literature, there has not been a similar corrective in the illicit globalization debate.”
Andreas argues that “state capacities to detect, deter, and detain transnational crime have substantially increased since the heyday of smuggling several centuries ago. The number of safe havens for criminals across the world has dramatically shrunk over time as the law enforcement reach of the state has expanded, including through international policing cooperation…”
Counterproductive Consequences of Exaggerating Transnational Crime
The essay examines the ways that “states shape and even exploit the illicit global economy.” He concludes that the standard story about illicit globalization or transnational crime is “not only overblown but can have counterproductive policy consequences.”
Counterproductive consequences such as: the violence currently sweeping Mexico, reinforced drug-prohibition policies, and a fortified border.
What is transnational crime?
Andreas notes the problematic of propagating threat assessments without any clear definition of exactly what the threat is. He wryly observes: At base, much of what makes organized crime transnational involves some form of profit-driven smuggling across borders. Transnational organized crime is therefore simply a new term for an old economic practice.”
How can national governments best meet an increase in transnational crime and its threat to national and international stability? For DHS and for the border hawks, the answer is clear: border security and more border security.
Globalization has certainly facilitated the flow of illicit goods and services along with legal ones. Yet, there is scant evidence that transnational crime has increased with globalization.
[I] is important to remember that states define what economic activities are illicit in the first place. States monopolize the power to criminalize: laws precede and define criminality. Through their law-making and law-enforcing authority, states set the rules of the game even if they cannot entirely control the play.
This isn’t simply political theory. As Andreas reminds us:
Indeed, a century ago, much of what today is considered transnational crime (most notably drug trafficking) was not even criminalized by most states—and hence by definition not a crime problem. In fact, some of today’s illicit economic activities were only criminalized a few decades ago, including trade prohibitions on toxic waste, antiquities, endangered species, and money laundering. Illicit globalization is thus not only about more-expansive transnational crime but also about more-ambitious global prohibitions….
At the same time, we should recall that some of today’s licit economic activities were previously criminalized and considered a serious transnational crime threat.
For instance, alcohol smuggling networks linking the United States to suppliers in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean created a formidable policing challenge during the Prohibition Era—and were eliminated with the stroke of a pen with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933.
As Andreas notes, as he also did in Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts, such transnational crimes as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling are so very profitable because governments impose costly consequences and prohibitions.
Economically speaking, “prohibitions function as price supports—which, in turn, help to attract new market entrants willing to accept the occupational hazards.”
Migrants as Transnational Criminals
DHS now routinely characterizes all illegal border crossings as instances of transnational crime. The DHS-led Alliance to Combat Transnational Crime (ACTC) in Arizona counts the number of illegal immigrant apprehensions as the principal indicator of success, along with drugs seized (mainly marijuana).
The buildup in border security is a prime example of how certain government policies often beget problems that other national policies aim to solve. As Andreas observes:
Migrant smuggling across the border has become a much more sophisticated and organized business since the early 1990s, not because of the weakening of the state but precisely because of the strengthening of the state: migrants used to be able to self-smuggle themselves across the border (and go back and forth with relative ease), but with the tightening of state controls, they now have to hire the services of professional smugglers. The border remains highly porous, but is far more difficult for migrants to cross than ever before (with hundreds dying every year as a consequence).
National policy – or the lack thereof – also contributes to the so-called transnational crime of illegal immigration by facilitating and even encouraging out-migration. Historically, this has been the case in Mexico where the government and the economy have become dependent on emigration.
Unauthorized migration, for instance, can provide a crucial “safety valve,” helping governments in many labor-exporting countries cope with their unemployment problems, while the remittances sent home from migrants abroad provide a major source of revenue.
Transnational Crime Not Necessarily Violent
Within the U.S. border region, the entry point for smuggled goods and illegal immigrants (as well as the destination of many immigrants), the activities now categorized as transnational crime haven’t traditionally been associated with above-average rates of crime and violence.
Since 2006, however, with the border security buildup and Mexico’s drug war, the crossborder scenario has devolved, as drug-related violence intensifies in Mexico and as illegal border crossings have come under the control of criminal gangs.
Andreas offers a helpful analytical context for the transnational crime-violence nexus, while also underscoring how policy changes in both the United States and Mexico are shaking up the steady state of the transnational crime/violence dynamic.
Lacking the protections of the law, illicit market actors must rely on informal forms of control to resolve their disputes, punish those who impede their livelihood, and deter those who might otherwise interfere. Violence is one such form, a time-honored form of self-help. Nevertheless, actors in the illicit global economy are defined more by stealth than by violence.
Part of the reason that violence and illicit markets are so closely linked in conventional accounts is that episodes of violence draw the most attention and provoke the most concern. Thus, the analysis is distorted by selection bias. Such selection bias privileges the most-violent sectors of the illicit economy—most notably the illicit drug trade, though even drug markets are less violent than is commonly perceived.
Yet as the crackdown on drug flows intensifies, so does the violence, as is dramatically illustrated in Mexico’s ongoing drug war.
High-profile police crackdowns, meanwhile, can unintentionally fuel more market-related violence; as some illicit actors are removed, new ones emerge to fill the void and to claim market share through violent competition. This exacerbating effect can occur in response to substitution of both organizations and individuals. Mexico is the most-dramatic contemporary case of spikes in violence resulting from the unsettling of established relations between crime groups and state authorities.
New Wars, Border Wars
The linking of illegal drugs to terrorism and insurgencies is part of the official threat assessments purveyed by the U.S. government – and by those calling for more border security and more U.S. military intervention.
Announcing the new border counternarcotics strategy, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano didn’t just warn about the crime and violence associated with drug trafficking, she raised the threat assessment by asserting that the administration’s new strategy would also disrupt the traffickers’ “links to terrorism.”
The association of drug trafficking with political threats -- in the form of terrorism and guerrilla insurgencies -- is common to post-Cold War alarmism about the transnational crime threat. Not only does transnational crime, particularly drug trafficking, constitute a threat to economic and social stability, transnational crime also, it is argued, spurs and supports political wars and terrorism.
Commonly this takes the form of “new wars,” according to the transnational crime literature. As Andreas describes it:
Illicit global trade has also been increasingly blamed for fueling armed conflicts, and vice versa. Indeed, links between the illicit global economy and conflict are considered a defining attribute of so-called new wars.
Certainly, such wars can and do occur, but are neither inevitable nor endemic.
With respect to Latin America, Andreas writes:
Contrast Colombia (relatively high levels of violence) to Bolivia (relatively much lower levels of violence)—both countries that are deeply enmeshed in the coca/cocaine trade, yet Colombia receives far more attention.
[Furthermore], Bolivia has long been a major coca producer (the raw material used for cocaine) and has gone through many bouts of political instability—but so far without turning to armed conflict. In Colombia, the drug trade has been a key factor in extending the armed conflict, providing a major source of financing for both leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries, but it should also be remembered that the conflict long predates the rise of the Colombia drug trade.
And in one particularly prominent case, Mexico (a major heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine producer and the main transshipment point for U.S.-bound cocaine), the country’s large drug trade and small and isolated insurgencies have been strikingly disconnected.
This new essay on the myths and consequences of threat assessments about transnational crime is extremely timely.
Rather than distancing itself from the ideological excesses of the Bush administration with respect to border security, the Obama administration has adopted and reinforced its predecessor’s border security imperative. But it has attempted to mark border security policies, along with the drug war in Mexico, with its own brand.
At first glance, the framing of these policy challenges as transnational crime, transnational criminal organizations, and transnational threats may appears to be less ideological, less vindictive, and more conceptually grounded.
But a closer look, as provided in this new Andreas essay, shows that the new Obama administration rhetoric about transnational threats -- from Mexico, at the border, and in the heartland -- is equally spurious and doubly dangerous.