Over the past two decades, the global impact of transnational crime has risen to unprecedented levels as criminal groups use new technologies and diversify their activities.

"Today, organized crime is killing more people, and more children, than all the dictatorial regimes combined in the world..." - Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico

Historical Precursors to Transnational Crime

Hand-colored engraving of a portrait of Peter the Great, Czar of Russia in 1717, by Jean-Marc Nattier (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images).

Smoking ban lifted in Russia

In 1676, a ban on smoking in Russia was lifted by the czar, Peter the Great, as a part of his move to modernize and make the country more like Western Europe. The original ban had been instituted in 1634 by Czar Mikhail Fyodorovich. But tobacco smuggling continued despite the ban, and those caught smoking faced severe penalties, including the cutting of smokers’ noses, deportation to Siberia, and potentially the death penalty for repeated offenses. After the ban was lifted, Russia attempted to prosper economically from legal cultivation and trade of tobacco and cigarettes. This included not only Russia’s leadership collecting taxes on tobacco imports, particularly from Great Britain, but also nurturing a domestic Russian tobacco cultivation industry.

Portolan Map of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Indian Subcontinent. Done in 1544 by the Italian cartographer Battista Agnese (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images).

Pirate round

The Pirate Round was a geographical route used by Anglo-American pirates from 1693 to 1700. It extended east from the Caribbean, around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, north to Madagascar, and finally to the Arabian Peninsula and, in some cases, as far as India. Both pirates and privateers—or pirates with a letter of marquee from a government essentially authorizing the grantee to carry out piracy—raided ships along the route to steal spices, gold, silver, and other commodities. As a result of the Pirate Round, the island of Madagascar quickly became an organized pirate haven, complete with an outpost to facilitate the trade and smuggling of illicit goods and slaves. The overall profitability of the Pirate Round trade route, however, began to erode when merchants began to use armed escorts.

A handcut engraving from the 1880s of a Chinese merchant weighing opium (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images).

China bans opium

In 1729, Chinese emperor Yung Cheng enacted a ban on the sale of opium—except for medicinal purposes. Addiction rates had surged after the Dutch and British empires began exporting vast amounts of opium to China in the early eighteenth century in response to a high trade deficit. (Europe and its colonies imported many Chinese luxury goods but European traders were unable to establish a market for European goods in China.)

Despite the ban, Britain continued to encourage opium smuggling into China indirectly through the British East India Company. Opium imports increased substantially, motivating the new emperor, Kia King, to ban opium altogether in 1799. After a Chinese maritime commissioner attempted to seize opium cargo in 1839, Great Britain launched a military expedition, later designated as the first Opium War. In 1842, China conceded and was forced to pay Britain a large indemnity, cede the territory of Hong Kong to the British, and grant certain European powers economic “spheres of influence” to operate freely in Chinese ports.

Woodcut from the 1850s of the steamship named "Arabia" of the Cunard Line (North Wind Pictures/AP Images).

Steam-powered ships

In January 1803, the Charlotte Dundas, widely regarded as the first functional steamboat, was launched on a canal in Scotland. In the decades that followed, steamboats were heavily used in global commerce, travel, and consequently, illicit transnational smuggling. In East Asia, for example, steamships enabled the British Empire to expand its operations in China in smuggling vast amounts of opium into the country despite a ban instated by Emperor Kia King in 1799. Steamboats were well suited to long-distance voyages because they had significant cargo space and could hold a large crew. By 1890, the increasing specialization and technological development of steamships, combined with the use of improved navigation charts and the development of the Suez Canal, led to an end of the era of sailing ships in commerce.

Chinese rioters burning British warehouses during the Second Opium War in the 1850s. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration (North Wind Pictures/AP Images).

Second Opium War

The Second Opium War began after a series of clashes between Chinese and British maritime authorities after Chinese customs officials boarded a British vessel, the Arrow, in early October 1856. Searching for opium, the Chinese claimed they had the right to search the ship because it was not registered properly under the British flag. British forces considered the incident an unprovoked and illegal search, and attacked the Chinese port of Canton. Ultimately, the British military—joined by French forces—entered Peking. China’s leadership was then forced to accept the Convention of Peking, which granted European authorities even more economic rights to operation in the country, allowed for the freedom of religion in China, and legalized the opium trade.

Chinese police parade forty-two convicted criminals who belong to the same underground Triad society during public sentencing at a stadium in Guangzhou, southern China, May 31, 2004 (China Photos/Courtesy Reuters).

Development of Chinese triads

Chinese gangs or secret societies, usually referred to as triads, emerged in the early twentieth century when Shaolin monks formed a group with the goal of ending the Qing Dynasty rule. Following the dynasty’s fall in 1911 and subsequent communist takeover, the triads underwent a major transition from revolutionary operations to more illicit criminal activity.

Today, they are active in drug and human trafficking, pirating of intellectual property, facilitation of prostitution, as well as money laundering and fraud, among other criminal enterprises. Tending to be ethnically homogenous, hierarchal in organization, and well connected with prominent police and political figures in Asia, some of the most powerful triads are based in Hong Kong. Triads, however, can also be found in Australia, Europe, Macau, North America, and South Africa. It is estimated that Chinese triads smuggle around one hundred thousand illegal Chinese aliens into the United States each year.

Workers destroy twelve million dollars worth of opium in Shanghai in January 1918 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Hague International Opium Convention

On January 23, 1912, representatives from China, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, the Netherlands, Persia (now Iran), Portugal, Russia, Siam (now Thailand), the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom’s maritime territories signed the Hague International Opium Convention. Broadly, the convention—which was the first international drug control treaty—called on parties to control “manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts.” Although its provisions were relatively vague and did not enter into force for a decade, the treaty became a powerful tool for those calling for expanded narcotics regulation and played a large role in influencing national-level drug control legislation at the time. It also laid the foundation for decades of drug control efforts that focused on the transport and production of drugs, rather than health-based strategies to reduce drug use.

Full-length portrait of Albert, Prince of Monaco, circa 1885 (Photo by Unidentified Author/Alinari via Getty Images).

First International Criminal Police Conference

Prince Albert of Monaco, frustrated by the inability to legally pursue a former lover who had robbed him and fled outside Monaco’s borders, in 1914 hosted the first International Criminal Police Conference to discuss enhancing international cooperation on crossborder crime. The meeting gathered police officers and other legal officials from twenty-three countries across North America, South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Delegates discussed the need for a more centralized body to facilitate police cooperation and pursuing criminals across national borders. In 1923, the group established the International Criminal Police Commission. Reconvening after World War II, the commission restarted its work and in 1956 was formally renamed Interpol (officially, the International Criminal Police Organization). Today, Interpol has 190 member states and is considered one of the preeminent global institutions in the fight against transnational crime.

A common Chinese jar that disguised 110 tales of raw opium, found by authorities in Hong Kong (AP Photo).

U.S. Harrison Narcotics Act

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 sought to bring the United States into compliance with international agreements regulating the distribution of opiates. Supporters of the bill argued that baseline regulation of opium was necessary, given its role in various social ills. The law did ban the use of opiates, but also mandated that certain licensed professionals could legally prescribe them. A controversial clause in the legislation blocked the distribution of opiates to addicts because addiction was not considered a disease to be treated. Many opium addicts therefore resorted to black market sales, smuggling, and other criminal activity to obtain the drug. Later, a government-sponsored commission concluded that the Harrison Act in fact increased the black market for narcotics and that the smuggling of opiates had increased around the Mexican and Canadian borders. Despite the controversy, the act was considered a pioneering piece of U.S. drug legislation in the twentieth century.

Chicago crime boss Al Capone, center, in the custody of U.S. marshals, leaves the courtroom of Federal Judge James H. Wilkerson in Chicago on October 24, 1931. He was tried for tax evasion (AP Photo).

Term organized crime emerges

The term organized crime is believed to have been first used in 1919 by the Chicago Crime Commission, an independent group of local business representatives. At the time, the expression did not refer [PDF] to formal criminal organizations, but to a more decentralized criminal class of individuals profiting from inefficiency and corruption of public institutions. Later, and largely as a result of the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, the term evolved [PDF] to refer to more formal organizations such as gangs or syndicates engaged in criminal activity on a cooperative, hierarchal basis. In the 1950s, the U.S. Senate Kefauver Committee explicitly linked organized crime to the rise of the Italian mafia and ethnically homogenous groups. More recently, the term has undergone yet another transition and refers also to complex transnational crime networks such as the Russian mafia, Chinese triads, and Latin American cartels. Experts continue to debate [PDF] the term’s definition.

Spectators gathered by the side of captured rum runner, Silver Spray, watch prohibition agents pour “white lightning” from the five-gallon bottles on the deck into the Elizabeth River, in Norfolk, Virginia in 1922 (Charles S. Borjes/AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot).

Thieves in Law thrive in Soviet camps

In the wake of the Revolution of 1917, which ended a centuries-old czarist government, Russia's new Soviet regime implemented a harsh policy of arresting and sending suspected criminal and political opponents to labor camps. In the camps, many of these individuals, particularly professional pickpockets, formed elaborate, hierarchical criminal secret societies. The most elite criminals were called vory v zakonei (vory), or thieves in law. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, vory members attempted to adapt to Russia's new economic and political system, but faced fresh challenges from other criminal groups—particularly those with formal educational backgrounds. Nevertheless, the vory remain popular in Russian culture today, and are still believed to be in operation within and across Russia's borders.

Spectators gathered by the side of captured rum runner, Silver Spray, watch prohibition agents pour “white lightning” from the five-gallon bottles on the deck into the Elizabeth River, in Norfolk, Virginia in 1922

U.S. Prohibition enacted

In January 1920, the U.S. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, restricting the import, export, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. Despite the ban, intricate illicit networks commonly smuggled alcohol from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other places. Secret bars, called speakeasies, sprouted up across the United States. At the same time, powerful criminal syndicates specializing in the illegal distribution of alcohol emerged. Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone made tens of millions of dollars from illegal alcohol sales and wielded substantial political and economic leverage, particularly in Chicago. The rise of criminal activity related to alcohol sales also led to intergang violence as organized criminal organizations sought to stake out territory for their operations. In 1933, after widespread abuse of the law across the country, even by President Harding, who allegedly kept a liquor stash in the White House, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition.

A Chinese coolie cuts white poppy, which furnishes China with opium, near Shanghai on September 21, 1936 (AP Photo).

Opium Advisory Committee

In May of 1921, the League of Nations Opium Advisory Committee began monitoring laws, regulations, and statistics related to narcotics. Early on, the committee focused on collecting data that would allow it to report measures taken by “governments to carry out the obligations of the (Hague International Opium) Convention, and upon the production, distribution and consumption of the substance with which the Convention deals.”

In 1930, the advisory committee revised its rules, specifically requesting that states report how much opium they had confiscated from illegal traffickers. Their work revealed trends such as a surge of opium cultivation in China, a rising amount of opium exported from the Middle East, and the increasing export of opium from India for nonmedicinal uses. After studying Chinese opium production, the committee referred the problem to the League of Nations’ Council for further consideration, a major step in international anti–drug trafficking monitoring.

U.S. Border Patrol inspectors locate fresh footprints in the desert along the border to Mexico, twelve miles west of Calexico, California on August 11, 1950. With Mt. Signal as a distinct directional point in the background, this area was frequently used by illegal immigrants to enter the United States (AP Photo).

U.S. conventions with Mexico and Canada

In 1924 and 1926, the United States concluded separate smuggling-related agreements with Mexico and Canada. Both accords symbolized an important evolution in the regulation of transnational commerce. The convention with Canada authorized both countries to inspect cargo crossing the U.S.-Canadian border for suspected illicit goods, supported the sharing of information to prevent smuggling, and called for the return of stolen goods.

The convention with Mexico was comparatively more comprehensive, and included measures to address the smuggling of narcotics, liquor, other commercial merchandise, and material related to fisheries, as well as the problem of illegal laborers crossing into the United States from Mexico. In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was also established, initially focusing on preventing illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Smoking opium valued at $25,000 was seized in a coal bunker on a ship in Brooklyn, New York by members of the Surveyors’ Searching Squad of New York on March 9, 1925. Photo shows members of the Searching Squad who made the haul (AP Photo).

International Opium Convention of 1925

The International Opium Convention of 1925 updated the Hague International Opium Convention of 1912. Specifically, the 1925 convention sought to focus more on international controls for narcotics as well as cannabis. In particular, the accord established import-export controls for the legitimate international trade of such substances, and established the League of Nations’ Permanent Central Opium Board (later absorbed by the United Nations) to gather country-specific statistics related to the narcotics trade. The International Opium Convention also supplemented the First Geneva Convention on Opium, agreed to the same year, which mandated that opium be produced only through state-run monopolies, and that the entire opium trade end within fifteen years.

Sap oozes from poppies after they are scratched, a process to get opium from poppies, in a village about 310 miles north of Kabul on May 6, 2006. Heroin and morphine are derived from opium, which comes from poppies (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy Reuters).

Narcotics Convention of 1931

Drafted in July 1931, the Narcotics Convention—officially the Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs—entered into force in July 1933 with forty state parties. It sought to improve on country-specific data collection for narcotics to establish worldwide trade and manufacturing controls, recognized the need to manufacture some narcotics for “medical and scientific purposes,” and called on parties to submit manufacturing estimates and import needs for a variety of narcotics to the League of Nations Permanent Central Opium Board. The board, in turn, was empowered to establish suggested limits for each country’s narcotics output, import, and production. It was also responsible for making projections for countries that failed to submit proper statistical data. Countries that did not control illicit drug traffic could be identified and publicly shamed through convention reports. The convention also stipulated that state parties could enact drug bans on noncompliant countries.

The vagrancy charges against Meyer Lansky was dismissed on February 26, 1958, after a short trial (AP Photo).

Meyer Lansky designs money laundering

Meyer Lansky, a powerful U.S. gambling baron, is widely credited for establishing the practice of money laundering—that is, transferring funds acquired from criminal activity through a variety of seemingly legitimate bank accounts and nonexistent companies—beginning in 1932. Popularly referred to as the "mob’s accountant," Lansky shifted millions of dollars through fake shell and holding companies to anonymous offshore bank accounts in Switzerland. Although Lansky flew to Israel in the 1970s to avoid tax evasion charges, he was eventually deported back to the United States. The case against him failed, however, and he was never charged. He died in 1983, allegedly with tens of millions of dollars still stashed away in hidden bank accounts outside the United States. Currently, the United Nations estimates that money laundering accounts for between $800 billion to $2 trillion (2 percent to 5 percent) of global domestic product.

Ships are anchored outside the Singapore harbor as a storm approaches on March 6, 2001, in Singapore. Singapore hosted an anti-piracy meeting on March 16, 2001, between high ranking International Maritime Organization officials and regional maritime authorities to come up with ways to combat the growing problem of piracy (Ed Wray/AP Photo).

International Maritime Organization established

In 1948, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), then called the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, was established to govern international maritime commerce. Other than a focus on creating baseline standards for maritime security, the IMO is also responsible for establishing universal regulations related to pollution, search and rescue, and legal adjudication of maritime disputes.

In December 2002, the IMO enacted amendments to the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which created the International Ship and Port Facility Code—an attempt to prevent smuggling, terrorism, and other forms of maritime transnational crime. In 2009, the IMO also convened a meeting in Djibouti to address the problem of piracy, armed robbery, and maritime security, especially in the Gulf of Aden. To date, the IMO has 170 members.

Modern Era of Narcotrafficking

A prime mover drives past stacks of containers at a container terminal in Singapore on December 22, 2007. Singapore is spending S$2 billion ($1.38 billion) to boost annual capacity at its container port by about 40 per cent to cope with the higher volumes expected from global trade, a newspaper said on Saturday (Tim Chong/Courtesy Reuters).

Shipping container invented

After years of observing dock workers unload and load goods from trucks to ships, Malcolm McLean, owner of a small trucking company, gambled on an invention intended to speed up the process: container shipping. On April 26, 1956, the first container ship set sail. His invention led to the creation of an entirely new transport system that transformed global trade and economies by making the movement of goods easier, cheaper, and more efficient. Although container shipping opened up critical markets around the world, it also created a new means of transporting illicit goods. Today, nearly 90 percent [PDF] of global manufactured goods are transported via container.

The first of the long range Boeing 707 intercontinental jet transport plane is shown during tests over Washington State in 1959 (AP Photo).

First commercial flight of Boeing 707

On October 26, 1958, the Boeing 707 took off on its first commercial flight from Paris to New York. After its maiden flight, similar jetliners were introduced around the world in rapid succession. The Boeing 707 revolutionized the transportation industry by cutting transatlantic travel from six days by ship to less than a single day, connecting countries, peoples, and markets like never before. Like the container revolution, the advent of the jet age opened new avenues for transnational criminal activity.

On March 17, 1947 officials seized 459 ounces of pure heroin valued at over one million dollars in the black market aboard the French freighter Saint Tropez after its arrival in New York City. Cesar Negro, Marseilles seaman,second from left, was arrested on charges of smuggling narcotics and Rene Bruchard (second from right), ship’s linen keeper, is being held for questioning (AP Photo).

UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

On March 25, 1961, to consolidate and synthesize the nine existing agreements on drug control, the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which entered into force in December 1964. The convention aimed to combat drug abuse through coordinated international action against trafficking. It created a list of prohibited substances and placed limits on the possession, distribution, and production of such drugs, as well as established the International Narcotics Control Board, a precursor to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the World Health Organization were subsequently granted the power to add or remove drugs from the list of banned substances.

Hidden behind stacks of plastic chairs are 3,084 pounds of marijuana seized by U.S. Customs Service on November 19, 1999, at the Port of Charleston. It was found in a cargo container brought in from Jamaica (U.S. Customs Service/AP Photo).

Jamaican posses and drug smuggling

Strategically located between drug producers in Latin America and consumers in the United States, Jamaica became a major transit point for drug trafficking in the early 1970s, supplying the 10 percent of marijuana imported to the United States that didn’t originate in Mexico. In response, U.S. and Jamaican authorities stepped up crop eradication, interdiction efforts, and security along the border. By 1980, marijuana trafficking through Jamaica had slowed to a crawl but U.S. demand for marijuana was quickly filled by Columbian criminal groups. Jamaican posses (gangs), however, simply resorted to selling cocaine instead of marijuana during the mid-1980s. After the crackdown on marijuana production and transit ended, gangs returned to the marijuana trade and in 2010, the nation remained the Caribbean’s largest producer and exporter [PDF] of marijuana.

A Los Angeles police officer searches members of the 18th Street gang during a 1987 sweep in the downtown on August 11, 1987 in Los Angeles (AP Photo).

Gang numbers rise sharply in the United States

Gang membership and activity sharply increased throughout the United States in the 1970s, as did associated gang-related violence. Many of the gangs are involved in the illicit drug trade, importing illegal drugs from around the world.

In Los Angeles, the number of youth gangs doubled in one decade from four hundred to eight hundred. Although gangs are predominantly associated with major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, rural areas, such as Mississippi, also witnessed a rise in gang activity as drug distribution widened. Today, gangs account for an estimated 80 percent of crimes across the country. Furthermore, many gangs that originated in the United States—particularly Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang (M-18)—are increasingly recruiting members in Mexico and Central America, adding a transnational dimension to the gang problem in the United States.

Commissioner of Narcotics Henry L. Giordano begins his testimony before a House Commerce Subcommittee, on February 27, 1968, backing administration proposals that would make LSD possession a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and would strengthen penalties against the manufacture, sales, and distribution of the hallucinogenic drug (Henry Griffin/AP Photo).

Convention on Psychotropic Substances

Throughout the 1960s, the use of recreational drugs proliferated in the United States and other developed countries. In response, the United Nations passed the Convention on Psychotropic Substances on February 21, 1971. The convention established an international control system for psychotropic substances—namely methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)—although it did not criminalize them as harshly as other so-called “organic” illicit drugs.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon addresses a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, in September 1971. Seated behind the president are U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew, left, and Speaker of the House Carl Albert (AP Photo).

Richard Nixon proclaims war on drugs

In the aftermath of a report produced by U.S. congressmen Robert Steele and Morgan Murphy that described high rates of heroin abuse among servicemen in Vietnam, the Nixon administration refocused government attention and resources to address the growing drug problem in the United States. At a press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon named drug abuse “public enemy number one,” setting into motion what is known today as the war on drugs. In 1973, Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to enforce federal drug laws and coordinate government efforts. In contrast with subsequent administrations, the majority of funding to combat drugs during the Nixon administration was allocated for treatment, rather than enforcement.

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer pours gasoline onto a heap of more than ten tons of elephant ivory and rhino horns which was burned to help stem illegal ivory trade on February 9, 2011. The ivory has a street value of over $1 million dollars (Corinne Dufka/Courtesy Reuters).

CITES established

On July 1, 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force to prevent overexploitation or extinction. Originally, CITES protected only a select number of plants and animals through international trade bans or restrictions. Today, CITES protects more than thirty thousand species and is the largest existing environmental agreement, with more than 170 state parties. In addition to plants and animals, CITES also limits trade in items made from its restricted species, such as food, medicine, and clothing. The convention remains a critical tool to stopping international environmental crime, which earns tens of billions [PDF] of dollars every year.

Portraits of Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and books of his sayings, were featured in most of the demonstrations held by Red Guards. This demonstration on September 14, 1966 in Beijing, was typical of those in other locations (AP Photo).

Gang legacy of the cultural revolution in China

The Big Circle Boys, known in Chinese as Tai Huen Jai, were originally members of the Red Guards, youth militants who terrorized academics, teachers, and capitalists according to the party line of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1965 to 1968. After Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Red Guards were disbanded and forced to attend reeducation camps, where they were reportedly starved and tortured. The Big Circle Boys initially engaged in petty and violent crime in China, acquiring a reputation for ruthlessness. Over time, the gang expanded beyond Chinese borders to the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States, where members became increasingly involved in drug, arms, and human trafficking.

Directors general of Customs from several South and Central American countries watch as U.S. Customs agents unload a ship container filled with about 3,200 lbs. of cocaine found hidden with cases of toilets from Colombia at the Port of Miami on March 3, 1997. Agents found the cocaine worth an estimated $24 million.

Colombia becomes leading exporter of cocaine

Following the major crackdown on drug production and trafficking in Mexico in the 1970s, Colombian cartels developed rapidly to meet the demand for new sources of marijuana and cocaine. In 1978 and 1979, major Colombian drug cartel leaders from Medellín, Colombia, embarked on a campaign to control wholesale distribution in the United States. As demand and profits increased exponentially, drug trafficking became increasingly sophisticated; cartels evolved to become transnational criminal organizations that transported large quantities of drugs by ship, airplane, and even submarine. Today, Colombia is the world's leading producer and exporter of cocaine. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 95 percent of cocaine seized in the United States originates in Colombia.

President Jimmy Carter reaches to shake hands with Representative William Harsha (R-Ohio) at the White House in Washington, DC on October 24, 1978, before Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

U.S. airline deregulation

When the Penn Central Railroad went bankrupt in 1970, the U.S. government was forced to evaluate its strict route and fare controls of transportation. Facing increasing pressure to relax the rigid regulation of the airline industry to prevent it too from collapsing, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act on October 24, 1978. The act removed government control over and regulation of flight routes, schedules, and fares, and opened the commercial market to new airline companies. Over the next twenty years, air travel doubled and fares dropped by 40 percent. Europe would deregulate its airlines in 1992, which would lead prices in that region also to drop. The deregulation of airfare, which made travel more affordable and accessible, is cited as one of the major contributors to globalization. Although globalization has fostered international licit trade, illegal markets have simultaneously benefited.

The ECOWAS/CEDEAO (Economic Community of West African States/Communaute economique des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest ) insignia pictured in 1992 (Photo by Erick-Christian AHOUNOU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images).

ECOWAS establishes free movement

On May 29, 1979, the Economic Community of West African States established the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Residence, and Establishment, which called on member states to ensure the free movement of people, services, and capital throughout the region. Aimed at strengthening economic and cultural integration among the member states in the hopes of enhancing regional stability and security, the treaty had a significant impact on West Africa as borders opened and large sectors of the population moved. In countries such as Nigeria, however, the immigrant surge created a new, cheap labor source, which jeopardized job security for Nigerians. Ultimately, many individuals turned to criminal activities to earn a living. In addition, the decreased controls across the region increased the difficulty of monitoring border shipments and identifying criminal operations transporting illicit goods among the nations in the region.

Men smoke at the Yakuza headquarters in Osaka, Japan in 1985 (Abbas/Magnum Photos).

Japanese construction boom empowers yakuza

Japanese gangs, known collectively as the yakuza, are a decentralized and widespread criminal organization. Gangs have historically deep ties to the construction industry, which they capitalized on as labor brokers and subcontractors during the Japanese construction boom of the 1980s. By 1990, the yakuza had ties to nearly nine hundred construction companies throughout Japan. In 1992, the Japanese government took action against the yakuza by passing an antigang law; since then, membership has declined by 14 percent, although the gangs still operate with relatively impunity and have expanded beyond Japan’s borders.

Today, the yakuza are the largest organized criminal group in the world. The three largest and most powerful syndicates are the Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, and Inagawa-kai, each further divided into hundreds of clans. In February 2012, the Obama administration froze the U.S.-based assets of yakuza leaders in response to their increased involvement in drug and human trafficking.

A razor blade is used to divide the contents of a five-dollar vile of crack, a smokable, purified form of cocaine, at a crack house in the South Bronx section of New York City in 1989 (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo).

Peak of crack cocaine epidemic

By the early 1980s, the increased availability of cocaine on the black market caused prices to plummet by as much as 80 percent. In response, cocaine dealers developed a new product known as crack cocaine, which is a smokeable version of the powder. Compared with its pure powder form, crack cocaine was relatively inexpensive, which opened up markets to less affluent communities. As use of the powerful, highly addictive drug spread throughout the major U.S. cities in the 1980s and 1990s, public panic ensued. In an effort to address the problem, on November 18, 1988, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which increased criminal penalties for drug trafficking and possession and strengthened drug control regulations. Although the market demand has declined [PDF] by nearly 50 percent since consumption peaked the 1980s, the United States remains the largest consumer of cocaine worldwide, fueling criminal violence around the world—and especially in Latin America.

Chemical precursors, used to manufacture synthetic drugs, are seen in the Guatemalan police’s warehouse in Guatemala City on January 18, 2012. According to local media, 2062 of such containers have been seized in 2012 so far, as compared to a total of 6671 seized by the Guatemalan police in 2011 (Jorge Lopez/AP Photo/).

Vienna Convention

In response to escalating drug use and trafficking worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, on December 19, 1988, the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Vienna Convention), which built upon the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The convention strengthened legal and enforcement mechanisms to combat drug trafficking with stipulations like the illegalization of diversion of precursor chemicals, and increased international cooperation for extradition and transfer of proceedings. For the first time, the convention also criminalized the laundering of drug trafficking profits, which was later expanded to apply to all money laundering by the UN General Assembly in 1998.

Members of a Contra force planning to march into Nicaragua Monday in defiance of a Central America peace plan cheer during a parade ground formation in Honduras on August 29, 1989. United Nations secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar said he would soon contact the U.S. backed Nicaraguan rebels to obtain their cooperation in the plan, which calls for their disarmament (Matias Recart/AP Photo).

Senate report on Iran-Contra affair

In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the Iran-Contra affair, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) investigated allegations of Nicaraguan contra involvement in drug trafficking in the United States, particularly of crack cocaine. The Reagan administration had supported the Nicaraguan contras, which were vying for power against the communist Sandanista regime. On April 13, 1989, the SFRC released its findings, known as the Kerry Committee report, which concluded that the U.S. Department of State had indirectly funded drug traffickers: “It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.”

Thai customs officials show seized ivory in Bangkok on September 30, 2004. The ivory was seized from a Thai Airways International flight from Singapore bound for Bangkok. Elephant is on the "Ten Most Wanted Species" - most at risk from unregulated international trade and their fate was discussed at the thirteenth CITES conference a week later in Bangkok (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters).

CITES adopts resolution banning trade in elephant products

Although elephants have been hunted for centuries, the 1970s witnessed hunting of an unprecedented scale as a result of rising demand for ivory. Following the slaughter of an estimated seven hundred thousand elephants in ten years, the Fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora imposed an international ban on elephant poaching and the ivory trade. Held from October 9 through October 20, 1989, the COP also established a specialized program, Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants, to track cases and monitor the ban’s implementation. In 2011, however, reports emerged of a spike in elephant poaching and seizures, raising concerns that elephants could again be on the brink of extinction.

Advent of Globalization

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Donald Tsang (2nd R) speaks at a meeting in Hong Kong held by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) on January 30, 2002. Over 300 delegates from over 55 jurisdictions take part in the three-day meeting to review how much governments and banks have done to stop terrorist funds since the September 11 attacks (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters).

Financial Action Task Force publishes recommendations

In 1989, the Group of Seven Summit founded the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to draft policies and best practices to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. In its first report, released in April 1990, FATF outlined forty recommendations to combat money laundering. The recommendations included updating legal systems, instituting protective measures at financial institutions and non-financial businesses, and enhancing international cooperation. In October 2001, FATF added [PDF] recommendations on terrorism financing in response to increasing global terror threats.

FATF has been effective in encouraging states to adopt anti-money laundering policies by listing noncooperative nations and jurisdictions publicly, which have in turn engendered international pressure and also prompted UN Security Council resolution requiring UN member states to implement the recommendations on both terrorism and anti-money laundering.

Bosnian Serb soldiers follow armoured vehicles during a battle with Muslim forces, some thirty kilometers from the northeastern Bosnian Muslim-controlled town of Tuzla, in an area called Teocak on February 10, 1993 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Yugoslav wars

On June 25, 1991, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, which led to a series of armed conflicts throughout the Balkan region from 1991 to 1995. As the region stabilized, nations were left with large, surplus weapons stockpiles, which corrupt military officers sold to local criminals and international arms traffickers. In addition, poor governance in the region persists, allowing crime to both hinder regional development and facilitate transnational illicit trade. For example, nearly 80 percent of the European heroin trade crosses through the Balkans, and more than 50 percent of the human trafficking victims in Europe originate in the Balkans.

A Russian soldier directs an APC to roll over a line of guns prepared for destruction in outskirts of the villge of Vedeno on August 27, 1995. Russian forces destroyed hundreds of weapons surrendered by Chechen rebels in what both sides said was the biggest disarmement act in the breakaway province (Dima Korotayev/Courtesy Reuters).

Surge in trafficking from Soviet arms stockpiles

In 1987, republics in the Baltic region of the Soviet Union began demanding autonomy. When Mikhail Gorbachev eventually resigned on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union officially collapsed. In post-Soviet Russia, rampant corruption, massive stockpiles of unused weapons, and established black market trading routes contributed to the growth in illicit arms trafficking out of Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, post-Soviet republics benefit considerably from the trade, and arms buildups in those nations continue to add to the supply of poorly monitored weapons stockpiles.

European Community president Jacques Delors tells a news conference on December 8, 1993 that the first phase of the European monetary union was a failure (Charles Platiau/Courtesy Reuters).

European Union established

On February 7, 1992, members of the European Community signed the Maastricht Treaty, or Treaty on the European Union (EU). The treaty, which established the euro as the single form of currency, also drastically reduced the restrictions and regulations on trade of goods and services among member nations. As a result, trade among the members surged, but illicit trade in the area rose in parallel. Three years later, in 1995, the Schengen Agreement took effect, abolishing border checks among its signatories. Twenty-five nations (including four non-EU members) now participate in the area. Some analysts believe that the elimination of internal border controls has allowed pan-European crime to grow and, in particular, has contributed to an increase in trafficking of women from eastern Europe to western Europe.

Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on top of a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, department of Cauca, on February 14, 2011. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport eight tons of cocaine illegally into Mexico (Jaime Saldarriaga/Courtesy Reuters).

Colombian Navy seizes cocaine on narcotrafficking submarine

In 1993, Colombian authorities first discovered that drug trafficking organizations were using semi-submersible watercraft to transport multiple tons of cocaine to the United States. The Colombian Navy seized a narco-submarine in the Caribbean Sea on May 22, 1993, and has since taken part in a joint venture with the U.S Coast Guard to monitor waterways for semi-submersible crafts. The submarines are difficult to spot because they are almost undetectable by radar and create little wake. Since the first semi-submersible craft was used, Colombian drug smugglers have altered the craft’s design, building fully submersible torpedoes that can be dragged behind fishing vessels undetected and submarines that are capable of submersing up to sixty-five feet below the surface. In the two decades since the cartels began using the vessels, security forces have seized between fifty and sixty-three narco-submarines.

Colombian vice president Humberto de la Calle Lombana with Colombian officials at the 1994 Naples Conference on international organised crime (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Naples Conference

In response to drastic increases in organized crime on both national and international levels, the World Ministerial Conference on Organized Transnational Crime met from November 21 through 23, 1994. The aims of the conference, which was held in Naples, Italy, were to examine the global problems associated with transnational crime and to discuss international policy options, including national and international legislation to combat the threat. In the Naples Political Declaration and Global Action Plan against Organized Transnational Crime, participating nations agreed that societies should protect themselves from transnational crime by enacting adequate legislation and jointly emphasized the need for increased, and more efficient, international cooperation to combat organized transnational crime. The UN General Assembly adopted the declaration the following month, in December 1994.

An employee of Pacific Internet, one of Singapore’s three Internet service providers amid some of the company’s networking machinery on March 19, 1996 (Jonathan Drake/Courtesy Reuters).

Internet fully commercialized

The National Science Foundation ended its support of the NSFNET (National Science Foundation Network), a precursor to the modern Internet platform, on April 30, 1995. With this decommissioning, the final restrictions on Internet usage were removed, paving the way for private Internet service providers (ISPs) and therefore commercial traffic on the Internet. After being made available for public use, the Internet soon evolved into a platform for people, news organizations, and private enterprises to communicate, share information, and conduct business. However, the current form of the Internet is generally unmonitored. Criminal organizations also use it to communicate, violate intellectual property laws, and hack into personal and financial information.

A worker at the New Delhi Navin Florine Industries prepares tanks of CFC gas on March 19, 1996. The U.S. Customs Service says that contraband chlorofluorocarbon-12, the air-conditioning gas commonly called Freon, smuggled from India has suddenly become its number two problem, behind illegal drugs. CFC gas from India, where it is still legal , seeped into the United States by the ton, allowing American motorists to stay cool for less but prolonging the threat to the Earth’s ozone shield (John Moore/AP Photo).

Expansive chlorofluorocarbons smuggled

The 1987 Montreal Protocol required developed countries to ban production and manufacturing of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by 1996 because of their strong contribution to ozone layer depletion. Developed in the 1930s, CFCs are compounds of carbon, fluoride, and chlorine used as coolants and propellants found in everyday products such as refrigerators and aerosol cans. Because of the high demand for CFCs, illegal smuggling rose significantly—especially because developing nations were required to phase out the product beginning only in 2000. As with many aspects of smuggling, high profit margins were compelling. A canister of CFCs that cost $42 in Mexico in 1997 could earn $550 in the United States. Smugglers used falsely labeled containers and falsified shipping documents to hide their activities. In the mid-1990s, as much as 15 percent of the chemicals produced worldwide were estimated to be smuggled into industrialized countries where they were illegal.

Swedish Queen Silvia makes the final speech at the world congress against the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Stockholm, August 31, 1996 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

First World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

The First World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children was held in Stockholm, Sweden, from August 27 to 31, 1996, the first meeting of its kind and aimed to design strategies and policies to help fight the sexual exploitation of children. The meeting focused on three main challenges: child prostitution (including international trafficking), child pornography, and the sale of children for sexual exploitation. The outcome document called for stronger national and international cooperation, better enforcement and review of laws currently in place to protect children, and criminalization of the sexual exploitation of children. The event marked an important step in the international effort to harmonize criminal policies to fight transnational crime, as well as fight crossborder exploitation of children.

An outside view of the UNODC headquarters headquarters, the Vienna International Centre (H. Heihsenberger/UNIS Vienna).

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime established

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was established on November 1, 1997 when the United Nations (UN) combined the existing Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention and the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division in Vienna. Since its creation, the UNODC has focused its resources on combating crime, drugs, and terrorism. UNODC conducts research about current global and regional drug production and usage, manages capacity-building programs to help countries combat crime, and runs alternative livelihood programs for impoverished individuals involved in illicit trade. UNODC also helps implement the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and advises the UN on anticrime policies. In addition, UNODC conducts programs to counter human trafficking, the sale and transportation of illicit firearms, and corruption.

Heads of State of the eight major industrialised democracies are seated at the table for the plenary session of their annual summit May 17, 1998 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Group of Eight summit focuses on transnational crime

The Group of Eight (G8) summit, held in the United Kingdom from May 15 to 18, 1998, determined that the growing trend of globalization had increased the amount of transnational criminal activity. The outcome document identified transnational crime as one of the world’s major challenges. In the document, G8 leaders also agreed that current criminal activity poses a threat to national and international security, as well as to global financial institutions by way of money laundering and corruption. Finally, G8 nations pledged to work together to explore new ways of fighting corruption, address the issue of human trafficking, promote joint law enforcement operations against perpetrators of transnational crime, and support the policy recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force.

Colombian Army General Mario Montoya (L) takes a cocaine pack confiscated by troops in Putumayo province, in this file photo taken on February 12, 2001.Plan Colombia began in December and has sent U.S.-contracted spray planes flying over dangerous jungle territory prowled by leftist guerrillas and outlawed paramilitaries (Eliana Aponte/Courtesy Reuters).

Plan Colombia

In 1999, Colombian president Andres Pastrana proposed Plan Colombia to promote the domestic peace process, tackle the nation’s narcotics trade, aid the economy, and strengthen the democratic system. In its support for the plan, the United States emphasized counter-smuggling operations and training and assistance for the Colombian military, but also supported development and institution-building programs.

Congress authorized [PDF] the initiative in 2000, and Colombia continues [PDF] to receive funding. By January 2012, the United States had provided over $8 billion in aid.

Plan Colombia has been credited with reducing coca cultivation by 65 percent in Colombia, though much of this was offset by a 40 percent increase in Peru, and a doubling in Bolivia. The plan was also faulted for focusing too much on military aid. In its first eight years, the program provided almost $5 billion to the Colombian military and national police, with only $1 billion allocated for “social, economic, and justice sector programs,” and alternative development programs were flawed. Critics also condemn controversial policies like aerial spraying of over one million hectares of crops between 2000 and 2008. The UN reports that roughly one million [PDF] people have been forced to flee and remain displaced as a direct result of counter-narcotic efforts.

Fighters of Liberian president Charles Taylor in Monrovia on July 22, 2003. Liberia said on Tuesday more than six hundred civilians had been killed and called for an arms embargo to be lifted so government troops could rebuff the attacks. Arms trafficker Leonid Minin was found to shipping arms to the country despite the embargo, contributing to escalating violence (Courtesy Reuters/Luc Gnago).

Leonid Minin arrested

On August 4, 2000, Italian authorities arrested Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian businessman and notorious arms trafficker, after eight years of surveillance by customs and intelligence agencies. Police uncovered fifteen hundred pages of documents that included falsified end-user certificates for weapons sales, money transfer receipts, faxes, and letters. The files exposed extensive illegal arms trafficking, including to Liberia despite a United Nations arms embargo. The case also exposed the holes and flaws in international criminal law and other global frameworks. In addition, Minin’s success and the ease with which he conducted his operations were attributed to dysfunctional political systems or weak governance in many former Soviet republics supplying the weapons as well as the lack of a coordinated response from international institutions.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan (L) and Italian Pino Arlacchi (C), the UN executive director for drug enforcement and crime prevention, stand as Austrian president Thomas Klestil signs the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime in Palermo on December 12, 2000 (Tony Gentile/Courtesy Reuters).

UN Convention against TOC adopted

On November 15, 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), or the Palermo Convention, which entered into force in 2003, and today has 124 state parties. It sought to break down silos between types of illicit crime—previously governed by sector-specific international anticrime initiatives. It defines an organized criminal group as three or more people working together to commit a serious crime for financial gain, and stipulates that a serious crime is any offense punishable by “maximum deprivation of liberty of at least four years or a more serious penalty.” It requires member states to enact domestic laws and policies to combat TOC. It has three voluntary protocols, against human trafficking, smuggling of migrants, and illegal manufacture and trafficking of firearms and ammunition. The treaty, however, has no monitoring mechanism and has failed to keep up with criminal groups. A recent review has led to discussion about updates and improvements.

Rise in Technology and Era of Criminal Networks

Vladimiro Montesinos arrives at a courtroom on February 2003 to be tried for influence peddling, money laundering, drug trafficking, and human rights violations (Pilar Olivares/Courtesy Reuters).

Vladimiro Montesinos arrested

In 2001, the United States and Peru investigated [PDF] Vladimiro Montesinos, the former head of Peru’s intelligence service, for extortion, bribery, drug and weapon trafficking, and money laundering. Allegations of his illegal activities with drug traffickers had begun to surface during the trial of a drug dealer, Demetrio Chavez Penaherrera, in 1996. Penaherrera testified that Montesinos took bribes in exchange for protection and allowed drug traffickers to operate freely without fear of persecution. The discovery of Montesinos’s involvement in illegal arms sales to the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces , and videotapes of his bribing political and officials eventually led to his arrest in Venezuela and extradition to Peru on June 24, 2001. His trial in 2003 highlighted the link between corruption by public officials and transnational crime.

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower as the north tower burns following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City September 11, 2001 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Terrorist attacks on the United States

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four planes: two flew into the World Trade Center in New York City, one hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the fourth crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before reaching its target. The terrorist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks. Since the attacks, evidence has emerged about sporadic and increasing cooperation between criminal networks and terrorist groups, and investigations have also revealed that groups share tactics online or by email. For example, the Dubai-based Indian criminal, Aftab Ansari, is believed to have used ransom money he earned from kidnappings to help fund the September 11 attacks. In addition, terrorist groups increasingly rely on organized crime networks to provide them with weapons.

Interpol employees work in the control room of the Infra-Red operation in Lyon,France on Monday, July 5, 2010. Interpol has been leading an international operation,called Infra-Red, since May aimed at tracking down 450 particularly dangerous fugitives, and has arrested 39 people as a result (Laurent Cipriani/AP Photo).

Interpol launches information exchange system

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Interpol agents were available only Monday through Friday, red notices (requests for the arrest of wanted persons) were issued with alarming slowness, and only thirty countries shared information about suspected terrorists. After 9/11, however, nations determined to strengthen Interpol. As a result, the organization launched a web-based information exchange system, I-24/7, in 2002. The new structure provided methods for safe communication, sharing information, and enhanced cooperation among law enforcement officers in all member countries. A nation’s law enforcement can access the database, search for suspected or wanted criminals, and find links between criminals. Through this program, Interpol also grants access to its databases, specifically those on what is termed nominal data, which include more than 150,000 records on international criminals (as well as deceased and missing persons). Today, over one hundred countries share information, contributing to the identification of more than ten thousand suspected terrorists.

Naik Bakhat (R), a thirty-five-year-old woman, smokes opium as her daughter watches in Eshkashem district of Badakhshan province, northeast of Kabul April 23, 2008. Traditionally, people in rural Afghanistan have had a casual attitude towards opium, using it as a panacea for all ailments due to the lack of medicines. Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer and exporter as well as a huge narcotics consumer. Heroin, opium, and other drugs are a scourge on the streets of Kabul (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy Reuters).

Paris Pact

In 2003, fifty-five countries signed the Paris Pact Initiative, pledging to coordinate a response to the societal harm of addiction to opium and its derivatives by reducing production and transportation of opium originating in Afghanistan. The Group of Eight and the UN Security Council endorsed the pact the same year. More than seventy countries and international organizations now participate in the Paris Pact Initiative, which seeks to provide expert advice to policymakers in the region, improve data collection and analysis capabilities of authorities in Afghanistan and its neighbors, and help countries along the Afghan opium trafficking route “coordinate counter narcotics technical assistance.”

A.Q. Khan pictured in Islamabad on December 24, 2003. He has admitted transferring nuclear technology to Iran and Libya (Mian Kursheed/Courtesy Reuters).

A. Q. Khan admits selling nuclear technology on black market

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed [PDF] on February 4, 2004 to facilitating the smuggling of illegal nuclear intelligence and machinery, such as centrifuges, after one of his shipments was intercepted en route to Libya. Khan is also suspected of selling nuclear centrifuge technology to North Korea and Iran. In a 2004 International Atomic Energy Agency  symposium, experts concluded that, despite Khan’s apprehension and confession, little had been achieved in ending the “threat posed by transnational, privatized nuclear proliferation [PDF].”

Khan’s success in smuggling parts and intelligence to countries seeking nuclear weapons revealed the flaws in international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and thwart a terrorist group from attaining the necessary parts to assemble an improvised nuclear weapon.

A Chinese man looks through former United States President Bill Clinton’s autobiography at a bookstore in Shanghai on July 15, 2004. Clinton’s original English edition autobiography " My Life" is on sale in China’s business capital for 270 yuan (US$33) (Claro Cortes IV/Courtesy Reuters).

Fake version of Bill Clinton's 'My Life'

Fake copies of President Bill Clinton’s autobiography began appearing in China in July 2004. In addition to violating intellectual property laws, the counterfeit copies included many edits and inaccurate assertions about the president’s life, such as childhood conversations praising China. The incident highlighted a large problem for Western publishers, which lose tens of millions of dollars every year as Chinese forgeries sell bootlegged versions of their texts. Not long before the book appeared, the American Chamber of Commerce had criticized China’s failure to enforce intellectual property rights.

Edvard Munch’s masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna" are displayed at Munch Museum in Oslo September 26, 2006. The art pieces were recovered by the police two years after they were stolen by two masked gunmen (Cornelius Poppe/Courtesy Reuters/Scanpix).

Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' and 'Madonna' stolen in Oslo

On August 23, 2004, masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, and stole two Edvard Munch paintings, The Scream and Madonna. Several apprehensions were made in connection to the theft, and in May 2006 three men were ultimately imprisoned. Two of the perpetrators were forced to pay more than $100 million in compensation to the City of Oslo. Two years after the theft, Norwegian police recovered the stolen paintings. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that proceeds from illegal art trafficking amount to $6 billion per year.

South Korean lawmaker Kim Moon-soo shows a genuine U.S. $100 note (top) and a counterfeit $100 note which he obtained through human rights activists in the Chinese city of Dandong bordering North Korea on February 23, 2006. Kim said he had obtained counterfeit U.S. $100 notes through North Korean trading company officials who he said were certain to be intelligence agents (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Courtesy Reuters).

North Korea discovered to be producing counterfeit U.S. cash

On October 2, 2004, agents of the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation uncovered on a Chinese container ship a stash of counterfeit $100 bills. The discovery was the first shipment of the counterfeit bills, dubbed "supernotes" because of the sophistication and extreme likeness to U.S. currency. Similar shipments soon began showing up by the hundreds of thousands in ports on both U.S. seaboards. Counterfeit bills had made their way into circulation through North Korean diplomats, Russian mafia, and republican organizations in Northern Ireland. Through joint operations such as Operation Smoking Dragon and Royal Charm, the United States has indicted ten suspects, made eighty-seven arrests, and seized more than $4.5 million in counterfeit bills. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions against the North Korean Banco Delta Asia, designated it as a “primary money-laundering concern,” and froze overseas assets of members of the North Korea ruling party.

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, holds the 2004 "High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change" (Henny Ray Abrams/Courtesy Reuters).

UN panel prioritizes fight against crime

In December 2004, a United Nations secretary-general high-level panel on threats, challenges, and change released a report that declared transnational organized crime (TOC) as a “menace to states and societies.” The report argued that TOC weakens human security and hampers the ability of states to “provide for law and order.” The document indicated that internal conflict resolution was critical to curbing the international effects of TOC. The report also urged nations to improve international regulatory frameworks. Overall, the report raised the profile of TOC by identifying it as an amplifier of all other major global threats by creating easy, illegal access to weapons, drugs, and money.

Secretary-general of the Council of Europe Terry Davis (C) speaks at a news conference after the 2005 Council of Europe summit on May 17, 2005. Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski (R) and Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe listen (Peter Andrews/Courtesy Reuters).

Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking in Human Beings established

On May 16, 2005, the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings was opened for signature in Warsaw, Poland. After earning the requisite signatures, it entered into force on February 1, 2008. The convention defined trafficking in human beings as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” through threats, “forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability.” The three main purposes are to prevent and fight against human trafficking, protect the human rights of the victims, and encourage international support for actions against human trafficking. The convention  applies equally to men, women, and children.

A hospital patient in Panama City holds a bottle of the cough medicine tainted with the poison diethylene glycol on October 12, 2006 (Courtesy Reuters/Alberto Lowe).

Counterfeit medicine in Panama kills dozens

In September 2006, forty-six barrels of glycerin, which is typically used in drugs, food, and toothpaste, arrived in Panama. The chemicals, however, which had originated in China, were counterfeit and contained diethylene glycol—a component of industrial solvents and antifreeze. Panamanian drug makers incorporated the counterfeit glycerin into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine that first began sickening patients almost immediately. More than three hundred people died after being given the tainted cold syrup to treat coughs.

Later in 2006, in response to the Panamanian incident and many unfortunate precedents in Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria and India, the World Health Organization launched the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force to combat counterfeit drugs. Despite these actions, production and distribution of counterfeit drugs remain a major global health problem.

Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at a Bangkok criminal court on October 5, 2010. The forty-three-year-old former Soviet air force officer known as the "Merchant of Death" faces U.S. accusations of trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America, and the Middle East (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters).

Viktor Bout arrested in Bangkok

On March 6, 2008, the Royal Thai Police arrested the Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout for negotiating a weapons deal with undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Bout was deported and then sentenced to twenty-five years in prison by a U.S. federal judge in April 2012, despite Russian protests that the trial was politically motivated.

Bout’s apprehension, extradition, and trial required unprecedented international cooperation. However, Bout was arrested and tried for selling weapons to a designated terrorist group (FARC). Therefore critics lamented that poor international legal frameworks prevented Bout from being tried specifically for illegal arms trafficking.

After leaving the Soviet military in the early 1990s, Bout had begun his own air transport company using Soviet military aircraft. He subsequently trafficked weapons to several African warlords and paramilitary groups including in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most notably worked with Charles Taylor of Liberia and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. The United States also made use of his services during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan after 9/11.

The MV Faina, a hijacked Ukrainian ship carrying thirty-three tanks, is seen from a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Aden, in this handout picture from September 29, 2008 (U.S. Navy mass communication specialist second class Jason Zalasky/Courtesy Reuters).

Hijacked ship smuggling weapons to Sudan

On September 25, 2008, the Ukrainian ship the Faina and its twenty-one-member crew were hijacked by Somali pirates and later discovered to be carrying cargo destined for Kenya, including Soviet tanks, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers from a state-owned Ukrainian company. Officials from both the Ukrainian and Kenyan governments declared that the shipment was legal. In 2009, however, leaked cables from a meeting between U.S. and senior Ukrainian officials revealed that the United States had investigated the case, discovered contracts that listed South Sudan as the recipient, and concluded that the cargo onboard was destined for South Sudan. The cables also revealed that the United States had satellite imagery of tanks being offloaded in Kenya and transported by railroad to South Sudan. At the time, arms transfers to the region without approval from the UN Security Council Sudan sanctions committee were considered a violation of an arms embargo.

Packs of cocaine are burned by officials and members of United Nation Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in Monrovia, Liberia on February 2, 2008. A French navy warship intercepted a Liberian-flagged fishing vessel carrying 2.5 tonnes of cocaine in waters off the West African coast, a United Nations anti-narcotics official said (Emmanuel Tobey/Courtesy Reuters).

West Africa new hub for drug trafficking

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released in October 2008, West Africa has become a new transit hub for cocaine. The report indicates that weak governance structures and poor border controls across West Africa are enabling traffickers to easily transport drugs from Latin America to Europe, where they generate some $2 billion in profits. Former UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa pronounced that the new drug “threat” is “turning West Africa’s Gold Coast into the Coke Coast.” Four years on, West Africa continues to be a major route for drug traffickers.

A Palestinian boy holds a picture depicting Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, as Islamic Jihad militants stand on an Israeli flag, during a rally marking the sixteenth anniversary of the killing of Fathi al-Shiqaqi, the militant movement’s founder, in the northern Gaza Strip on April 11, 2011 (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Courtesy Reuters).

Jihadi terrorism in the Western hemisphere

On July 6, 2010, Jameel Nasr was arrested by Mexican authorities and accused of trying to establish “a base in South America and the United States to carry out operations against Israeli and Western targets.” A 2010 Arizona police department internal memo also expressed concern that the organization Hezbollah had been working with drug cartels in Mexico. It noted not only that the partnership threatened to empower the terrorist organization in the Western Hemisphere, but also that Latin American criminal groups appeared to be adopting strategies from Islamic militants. Hezbollah operatives were found to have received money, weapons, and protection from local cartels—and to be capable of bombings in South America. In exchange, the cartels received access to Middle East heroin and benefited from Hezbollah’s experience in money laundering, explosives, tunnel building, and training. Some analysts, however, have cautioned [PDF] that terrorist groups and transnational organized crime groups have very different goals and are unlikely to strike full-blown alliances.

Members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (L-R) Richard Branson, former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, former Norwegian minister of foreign affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg and German state secretary of health Marion Caspers-Merk hold a news conference in New York on June 2, 2011 (Brendan McDermid/Courtesy Reuters).

Global Drug Commission report published

On June 2, 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included former leaders of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Greece, and Switzerland as well as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and various other former government officials, released a monumental report titled War on Drugs. The commission sought to evaluate current anti-narcotrafficking efforts, the results of individual nations’ drug legislation, and propose policy recommendations. The commissioners proposed an historic shift in global drug policy: condemning the global war on drugs as a failure, calling for an end to criminalization of drug users who do not harm or endanger others, encouraging governments to decriminalize the use of certain drugs, and emphasizing that treatment options must be prioritized. The U.S. and Mexican administrations “swiftly dismissed” the findings. A spokesman for the Obama administration explained its viewpoint that “making drugs more available—as this report suggests—will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Customers and employees are seen from the exterior of a fake Apple store in Kunming, Yunnan province, China on July 22, 2011. The fake Apple store in China, made famous by a blog that said even the staff working there didn’t realise it was a bogus outlet, is probably the most audacious example to date of the risks Western companies face in the booming Chinese market (Aly Song/Courtesy Reuters).

Fake Apple stores in China

Illegal storefronts designed to resemble legitimate Apple retailers were discovered in Kunming, China, after an American living in China posted an entry on her blog on July 20, 2011. The story was soon broadcast on more than a thousand media outlets. Chinese officials investigated five of the stores, and the local industry and commerce administration ordered two of them closed for operating without a business license. According to Reuters, however, the merchandise being sold were all genuine Apple products obtained from authorized Apple resellers, but the businesses were not permitted to portray themselves as official Apple stores. According to the Apple website, the company has only five legitimate retail locations in China, three in Shanghai and two in Beijing. The fake stores highlight China’s failure to protect intellectual property rights, which experts say violates the Law of the People’s Republic of China Against Competition by Inappropriate Means.

An analyst looks at code in the malware lab of a cyber security defense lab at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho on September 29, 2011(Jim Urquhart/Courtesy Reuters)

Estonian crime ring arrested for infecting millions of computers worldwide

On November 9, 2011, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested six Estonian nationals and charged them with operating an Internet crime ring that put malicious software on half a million computers in the United States that redirected users to advertisements. The virus also infected computers with malware, rendering them vulnerable to other Internet viruses. Operation Ghost Click, which led to the arrests, was a joint effort that included teams from the FBI, Estonian law enforcement, and the Dutch National Police Agency, among others. Most notably, the operation received help from the private sector on a domestic and international level. The incident highlighted a new front line of transnational crime—cyberspace.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom stands next to his wife Mona as he talks to members of the media after leaving the High Court in Auckland (Simon Watts/Courtesy Reuters).

Anonymous shuts down U.S. government website

On January 19, 2012, the hacker group Anonymous Analytics claimed responsibility for shutting down the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) website only hours after the DOJ and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down the file-sharing site and indicted its founder Kim Dotcom and six associates. Anonymous also took credit for shutting down several other sites, including the Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America, and Universal Music. The DOJ indictment accused of “operating a worldwide criminal organization” that allowed its users to participate in money laundering and copyright infringement.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is projected live on a screen as he speaks during the inauguration of the Americas Summit in Cartagena on April 14, 2012 (Jose Miguel Gomez/Courtesy Reuters).

Latin America debates legalization

At the Sixth Summit of the Americas, leaders from more than thirty countries in North, South, and Central America debated alternative approaches to counter the growing levels of violent crime in the region. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos called for a more open-minded debate about policies between imprisoning drug users and legalizing drugs, proposing that the group consider, for example, “decriminalizing consumption but putting all the efforts into interdiction.”

In the run up to the summit, Latin American officials increasingly called for a new strategy. On March 29, 2012, a Colombian lawmaker named Hugo Velasquez proposed legislation that would decriminalize the cultivation of the coca leaf and marijuana, which garnered support from leaders across the hemisphere. At the summit, however, U.S. president Barack Obama maintained that drug legalization “isn’t a valid option in the United States.”

Former Liberian president Taylor awaits the start of the prosecution’s closing arguments during his trial at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, The Hague, on August 8, 2011 (Jerry Lampen/Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Taylor indicted

On April 26, 2012, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor of war crimes for aiding the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army operating in Sierra Leone. During his presidency, Taylor used profits from selling “logs of war” [PDF]—illegally cut timber—to purchase weapons for his regime. It was later discovered that Taylor sold timber to Leonid Minin, who was arrested in 2000 for arms dealing, in exchange for weapons. A Global Witness report from 2001 alleges that Taylor also restricted access to Liberia’s forests, but granted contracts to at least seven businesses associated with arms trafficking and sponsoring militia movements. The United Nations subsequently enacted sanctions on timber exports from Liberia, which were lifted on June 20, 2006.

The carcasses of elephants slaughtered by poachers (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Illicit ivory dealers discovered in New York

Two New York jewelers pleaded guilty on July 12, 2012 after the seizure of more than $2 million worth of illicit ivory. Despite the international ban on commercial ivory trading since 1989, more than twenty-four tons of ivory was seized around the world in 2011. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and flora, "poachers are responsible for eight of ten elephant deaths in Africa." Such trends also have grave implications for Central African security. Poaching has long been linked to transnational organized crime, and militias, insurgents, and terrorist groups use the profits from wildlife crime to purchase arms and fund operations that further destabilize the region.

HSBC Bank USA President and Chief Executive Officer Dorner and HSBC Holdings Chief Legal Officer Stuart Levey testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters).

Senate accuses HSBC of lax money laundering practices

A July 2012 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations accused global banking giant HSBC of exposing the U.S. financial system to illegal funds from terrorists, drug cartels, and rogue regimes due to lax anti-money laundering (AML) controls. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) had previously cited HSBC for multiple AML deficiencies, yet the OCC had failed to take any action against the bank. HSBC said it "will apologize, acknowledge these mistakes, answer for actions and give absolute commitment to fixing what went wrong." The bank has set aside $2 billion to cover potential fines or settlement costs.

General Ntaganda sits on trial at The Hague in the Netherlands (Peter Dejong/Courtesy Reuters).

DRC rebel leader at the ICC

General Bosco Ntaganda, who fought for a number of rebel groups and the army in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), turned himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. He was then sent to The Hague, where he appeared before the International Criminal Court facing seven counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity that took place in the Ituri region of the DRC between 2002 and 2003 while fighting for the Union of Congolese Patriots led by Thomas Lubanga. Thomas Lubanga, incidentally, has been the only individual convicted by the ICC of war crimes to date. General Ntaganda has also previously been indicted by the ICC for recruiting child soldiers in 2006.

Police destroy sacks of marijuana in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (Junaidi Hanafiah/Courtesy Reuters).

UNODC reports on transnational crime in East Asia

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime completed its first comprehensive study on transnational organized crime threats in East Asia and the Pacific in April 2013. The report, which studies twelve selected contraband markets including trafficking in humans, narcotics, stolen goods, and environmental products, found that these markets are worth $90 billion each year. A third of this value stems from drug trafficking with sixty-five metric tons of heroin worth $16.3 billion flowing through the region in 2011. The report also highlights the growing threat posed by fraudulent medicines and environmental crime related to extractive industries.

Secretary of State John Kerry first proposed information sharing and cooperation between the United States and China on April 13, 2013, during his first visit to Beijing (Paul J. Richards/Courtesy Reuters).

China and United States cooperate on cybersecurity

Talks between China and the United States concerning their efforts to combat cyber threats began in early March amid accusations from both sides that the other was involved in aggressive hacking campaigns against both public and private servers in their respective countries. By late April, the United States and China held their highest-level military talks in two years as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, met with General Fang Fenghui following Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to China. At these talks both China and the United States agreed to create a cooperative "mechanism" to work together on issues related to cybersecurity though progress is likely to remain slow.

Hacking back, or "white-hat hacking" has proven to be a controversial tactic with few rules or codes of conduct to govern the behavior and determine the liabilities of individual companies and law enforcement agencies (Kacper Pempel/Courtesy Reuters).

Microsoft and FBI hack back

In its effort to disrupt cybercrime, Microsoft took part in "Operation Citadel" to disrupt more than a thousand botnets. The botnets in question are allegedly responsible for $500 million in losses to financial institutions, banks, and consumers and are composed of over five million personal computers. Operation Citadel was supported by the FBI and other government agencies.

Issue Brief

Scope of the Challenge

Over the past two decades, as the world economy has globalized, so has its illicit counterpart. The global impact of transnational crime has risen to unprecedented levels. Criminal groups have appropriated new technologies, adapted horizontal network structures that are difficult to trace and stop, and diversified their activities. The result has been an unparalleled scale of international crime.

As many as fifty-two activities fall under the umbrella of transnational crime, from arms smuggling to human trafficking to environmental crime. These crimes undermine states’ abilities to provide citizens with basic services, fuel violent conflicts, and subject people to intolerable suffering. The cost of transnational organized crime is estimated to be roughly 3.6 percent [PDF] of the global economy. Money laundering alone costs at least 2 percent of global gross domestic product every year according to UN reports. Drug traffickers have destabilized entire areas of the Western Hemisphere, leading to the deaths of at least fifty thousand people in Mexico alone in the past six years. Counterfeit medicines further sicken ill patients and contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant strains of viruses. Environmental crime—including illegal logging, waste dumping, and harvesting of endangered species—both destroy fragile ecosystems and endanger innocent civilians. Between twelve and twenty-seven million people toil in forced labor—more than at the peak of the African slave trade.

For many reasons, global transnational crime presents nations with a unique and particularly challenging task. To begin with, by definition, transnational crime crosses borders. But the law enforcement institutions that have developed over centuries were constructed to maintain order primarily within national boundaries. In addition, transnational crime affects nations in diverse ways. In many states, political institutions have strong links to transnational crime, and citizens in numerous communities across the world rely on international criminal groups to provide basic services or livelihoods. Finally, the international community requires solid data to gauge the challenge and effectiveness of responses, but data on transnational organized crime is notoriously difficult to gather and is often politicized.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment

Overall assessment: Archaic system needs reframing

International efforts to address transnational organized crime (TOC) are too weak to address the threat. Strategies focus too little on combating corruption and addressing the increasing interplay of TOC and political power. On balance, multilateral initiatives to fight crime are sector specific and attempt to prosecute TOC without effectively addressing the market that underpins transnational crime globally.

The central legal instrument for fighting transnational organized crime is the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). Finalized in 2000 in Palermo, Italy, the convention is the first to address transnational crime as an activity that cannot be adequately curtailed by treaties tailored to one commercial sector. It defines a TOC group as a structured organization with three or more members and establishes legislative standards for nations to implement domestically.

However, the convention’s ability to inform [PDF] and influence operational practices is limited. UNTOC does not adequately account for the increasingly activity-based, horizontal structure of criminal syndicates or the growing nexus between organized crime and terrorism, corruption, conflict, public health, global finance, and modern technology. The struggle to implement the convention reflects a certain dearth of global political will to do so. In a number of major world powers, the state itself is captured—or partly captured—by organized crime. The governments of Russia and other Eurasian countries are known to benefit from ties between TOC and energy exports as well as from cybercrime; the Chinese economy earns high profits from counterfeits sold internationally; and many Latin American and West African politicians either are coerced by narcotrafficking groups, or maintain close ties with them.

Most important, the treaty lacks an implementation mechanism that would allow assistance to countries not capable of adhering to the convention’s guidelines. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is charged with helping implement UNTOC on the ground, but its former executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, has rebuked UN member states for neglecting their responsibilities. At a 2010 conference of parties, countries acknowledged the need to revise the convention to be more effective and stressed the importance of implementation. A working group is currently reviewing implementation, which might ultimately lead to a monitoring or capacity-building provision.

UNODC also provides technical assistance and training in constructing legal frameworks and enhancing national enforcement capacity. It serves as a hub for disseminating best practices and data collection on criminal activities. All estimates of the magnitude of TOC, however, are necessarily approximations; criminals obviously do not report their annual earnings or scope of activities, and published estimates are often politicized or rely on shaky data [PDF].

Furthermore, UNODC is 91 percent funded by voluntary contributions and suffers from chronic funding shortages and understaffing. These resource constraints continue to limit the agency’s effectiveness.

Beyond UNODC, a succession of UN Security Council (UNSC) open debates, and presidential statements, have slowly and steadily expanded that body’s repertoire on TOC. For example, UNSC presidential statement 2009/32 urged the institution to prioritize the TOC threat to benefit peace and security in Africa. In 2010, the UNSC agreed to a presidential statement 2010/4 committing member states and the UN to fight transnational crime.

Although the UN General Assembly has also issued many resolutions to fight TOC, most have been vague and irrelevant. The broader UN system has also tackled the issue of transnational crime through specialized agencies, programs, commissions, working groups, campaigns, and even a research institute. The UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), for example, reviews UN standards and norms to combat TOC as well as their implementation by member states. The UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) funds the CCPCJ and guides its work. ECOSOC has also issued a number of important resolutions on the subject, which still guide UNODC’s work on crime prevention. For example, a 1995 resolution [PDF] outlined strategies like strengthening community resilience.

Overall, however, the UN’s work on TOC remains piecemeal. Units address the issue only within the context of their agency, departmental, or program mandate and bureaucracy, which impedes policy coherence and effective action. To rectify this, in early 2011, the UN secretary-general established a task force on transnational organized crime and drug trafficking with the aim of creating a system-wide strategy to fight international crime and enhance coordination. The taskforce clearly demonstrates that the UN is aware of the lack of internal cohesion and is increasingly viewing transnational crime as a political and strategic issue.

National policing and border control is also critical to stopping organized crime. In an era of globalization, Interpol is the world’s intermediary for police cooperation. Founded in 1923, Interpol has 190 members, each with a national central bureau staffed by local officials. The agency’s priority is to secure communication among law enforcement agencies, to manage international criminal databases, to provide operational support during crises, and to train police forces. However, with a budget of roughly $75 million in 2010, the agency is grossly underfunded. It also holds no authority to conduct investigations independently or to arrest suspects, and is therefore only as strong as the host country’s police force.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also engaged in the fight against TOC, namely, in conducting assessments of anti–money laundering provisions in countries. To date, the institutions have conducted some seventy assessments, but a recent report [PDF] suggests that they are largely uneven because they did not focus on areas that present greater risk. The World Bank also carries out anticorruption efforts, and in 2011 pledged $1.5 billion to fight TOC over the next few years, recognizing its corrosive impact on development.

Regional cooperation, particularly at borders, is generally weak despite initiatives, such as Europol’s annual organized crime threat assessment, the European Union’s prioritization of anti-TOC efforts in Bulgaria and Romania, and comparable efforts under the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has adopted a successful policy of “naming and shaming” noncooperating jurisdictions, and has enlisted countries to craft legislative frameworks to combat money laundering. Eight regional initiatives modeled on FATF have since been established to replicate its work, and have been widely hailed [PDF] as successful. However, more broadly, regional efforts have been weak. For instance, the initiative of the Economic Community of West African States to adopt a moratorium on the import and export of light weapons has had little impact.

Various major donor countries fund projects in partner nations to enhance security. The United States, for instance, supports four regional International Law Enforcement Academies designed to provide countries with technical support. In general, however, bilateral donor initiatives on TOC are modest. While programs like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative have significant funds, the aid is overwhelmingly military, and funding for more comprehensive solutions has consistently decreased [PDF] year after year.

Imposing economic sanctions against criminal groups is a new strategy being tested by the United States. In July 2011, the Obama administration issued sanctions against four TOC groups in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and eastern Europe. The order froze their assets and criminalized aid to the groups. Such provisions have often been used, with measured success, to target other nonstate actors—namely, terrorists.

Overall, the TOC regime faces three sweeping challenges. First, political will is too often lacking at national, regional, and global levels. More than a few states are crippled by corruption, and when political leaders or elites benefit from organized crime, implementation of international frameworks is not feasible. Second, the current regime suffers from critical normative gaps, and sensible strategies where norms exist. The international community has yet to agree to an operational definition of TOC. As a result, monitoring and enforcement of counter-TOC agreements is weak, many countries have not signed onto important treaties, and national legislation is unevenly implemented. Finally, the dearth of data—and impracticality of properly measuring international criminal activity—hinders every attempt to devise adequate strategies to combat TOC.

Building norms

Building norms: Progressing but still stovepiped and vaguely defined

To construct effective strategies to fight transnational organized crime (TOC), the international community has attempted to build normative consensus. The UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) provided the definition of a TOC group, but it will take years before the convention is fully integrated into national judicial systems. Although some international norms are already strong—such as those for drug trafficking and money laundering—the world is struggling to design instruments that respond effectively to the groups that engage in many forms of crime. At the same time, current norms do not consider the range of political motivations and alliances between powerful political or business leaders and criminals.

Still, one important normative shift is already occurring. Traditionally, global and national standards have aimed primarily to detect and diminish the supply, transport, and sale of illicit commodities. But nations and international institutions are increasingly recognizing the need for a more comprehensive strategy. They are slowly integrating public health, development, and community-based practices to decrease not only the supply but also the demand for illicit commodities. In parallel, development institutions, such as the World Bank, are recognizing [PDF] that anti-TOC funding and programs are imperative for economic growth, democracy, and governance.

Globalization has facilitated an explosive growth in transnational organized crime since the early 1990s. The international community has sought to respond with stronger and more comprehensive measures. In 1994, at the World Ministerial Conference on Organized Transnational Crime in Naples, Italy, countries took an important step and called for a multi-sector treaty that addressed the whole spectrum of TOC. Previously, international treaties had targeted one type of illicit activity—with drug trafficking treaties being the most potent—but failed to address the diverse activities of TOC groups. The result was UNTOC, also known as the Palermo Convention, which was finalized in 2000 and came into force in 2003. Today, UNTOC stands as the core treaty addressing transnational crime as an overarching problem—and the only comprehensive tool the world has.

However, the world still lacks an operational definition for transnational crime, and norms for law enforcement and judicial cooperation remain weak, vague, or nonexistent. UNTOC defined groups that engage in TOC but “excluded single, ad hoc operations,” which are responsible for much of TOC today. Furthermore, to effectively track and prosecute international crime, nations must agree to robust policing cooperation and to assist developing countries. Prosecutions for international crime may require evidence from authorities of multiple nations. Pursuing suspects requires intelligence sharing, extradition, and cross-border police cooperation. Identifying perpetrators also requires capable domestic institutions. However, transnational law enforcement cooperation can be exceedingly controversial. Joint investigations are often undermined when foreign investigations must rely on support from corrupt countries that do not wish to fight crime or whose systems are crippled by corruption. Nations jealously guard judicial and policing authorities as sovereign authorities. Accordingly, these topics have barely been mentioned in international conventions. Countries are also generally reluctant to release domestic intelligence to other nations or to a collective intergovernmental or supranational authority.

Finally, many experts have long called for the world to reorient the fight against crime away from law enforcement and instead address transnational crime as a market activity. As long as incentives for participating in international crime remain so high, they argue, success against one group, or in one area, will merely create a scramble by other groups to usurp the former group’s profit. For example, norms to combat narcotrafficking are very strong, but some argue that they are misguided, because “successes” in one area may only displace the problem elsewhere. The high-profile, well-resourced, and internationally exported U.S.-led war on drugs has long prioritized law enforcement over market-based policies. This approach is so entrenched that retooling international norms to incorporate market-based strategies is an uphill battle. The United States has recently been more candid [PDF] about demand in the developed world fueling international crime, as well as about the need for prevention and treatment, but international action remains strongly focused on supply-side measures. Some critics believe that the global regime needs to shift entirely toward a public health model designed to reduce demand rather than stamp out supply.

When it comes to other criminal sectors, anti–money laundering (AML) norms are among the strongest. In the 1980s, the developed world began to forge international AML instruments, which resulted in the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) forty recommendations for domestic AML regimes. The FATF also identified certain “noncooperating jurisdictions” that could be subject to international naming and shaming. September 11 inspired additional recommendations to combat terrorist financing, and FATF norms have since become the global yardstick for counter–terrorist financing efforts. The need to “follow the money” to root out nonstate actors has become firmly embedded in international normative frameworks.

Global norms against human trafficking and illicit weapons smuggling have also developed significantly in the past decade as nations accede to the relevant protocols to UNTOC: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, and the Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition. Much remains to be done, however. Labor trafficking and the dangers of migrant smuggling receive far too little attention in comparison with sexual trafficking. In terms of weapons smuggling, recognition of its contribution to armed conflict, particularly in Africa and Latin America, is growing, but the world still lacks a strong, enforceable treaty that governs illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons.

Given the weakness of global normative frameworks, certain regions have endeavored to address transnational crime on their own. This approach has some merit, inasmuch as regions often face drastically different realities, and more focused local multilateral institutions may be better suited to combat the threat. On the other hand, some worry that separate regional approaches might undermine common global standards—or help push criminal activities to more vulnerable regions.

To date, regional norms remain weakly developed except in Europe, where the integration of the European Union (EU) has allowed more law enforcement and judicial cooperation. Still, even EU states have been unable to agree to an operational definition of TOC. As organized crime surged in West Africa over the past decade, the Economic Community of West African States did attempt to build regional mechanisms to stem the tide, but fighting organized crime remains a fairly low priority across most of the continent. The Organization of American States’ Hemispheric Action Plan, meanwhile, has endorsed UNTOC and stressed the need for states to implement it—but it has not dented the growth of transnational crime in Latin America. In Asia, the Pacific Islands Forum has made important strides through a capacity-building framework with Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has agreed to some important transnational crime norms, but the region remains plagued by TOC.

Overall, as criminal organizations grow stronger, the world lags in its efforts to devise adequate mechanisms to fight them. In part this reflects a structural problem—the ease with which illicit networks can hopscotch across sovereign borders, leaving national governments behind. In sum, “even as crime is transnationalized, crime control remains largely corralled behind national borders.”


Corruption: Normative and institutional progress, spotty implementation

Corruption fosters the ideal environment for transnational organized crime (TOC). Corruption supports a wide range of illicit markets, from drugs and arms trafficking to environmental crime and counterfeit markets. The same motives that attract TOC to corrupt states also prevent the state from establishing rule of law and a functional judicial system, as corrupt officials benefit from the lack of transparent and accountable systems. Corruption is also notoriously difficult to eradicate in countries where it is deeply embedded in political culture. Many high-level politicians profit from organized crime, hindering anti-TOC efforts. Indeed, in many Eurasian, Latin American, and West African states, criminal syndicates have deeply penetrated executive bodies, legislatures, the police, and courts. Where states consider organized crime an ally in domestic governance, they inevitably will be reluctant to support the development of more robust international governance capacities. Despite some efforts, the international community has been unable to mobilize an effective method to combat corruption.

Over the past decade, anticorruption efforts have picked up steam, but progress is halting. After two protracted years of negotiations, the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) entered into force in December 2005 and established an overarching international framework. As the first legally binding international anticorruption agreement, UNCAC provides a comprehensive set of measures to be implemented by state parties to prevent, combat, and prosecute corruption. Significantly, UNCAC does not define corruption, but does require states to criminalize a wide range of corrupt acts, including bribery, kickbacks, money laundering, embezzlement, and obstructing justice. In an important breakthrough after long-standing disagreement among states, asset recovery is also listed as a fundamental provision of the convention. Emphasizing the need for international cooperation, UNCAC requires state parties to return ill-gotten gains to the country of origin. It also calls for enhanced transparency and accountability, based on the argument that more knowledge raises the costs of illicit activity and therefore reduces corruption.

The convention initially received broad support and has nearly global coverage with 159 state parties. However, countries known for endemic corruption—such as Afghanistan, Honduras, and Russia—are parties to the convention, undermining its legitimacy and exposing its weaknesses. Although UNCAC successfully builds anticorruption norms, it does not provide for monitoring, implementation, or enforcement. The first session of the Conference of State Parties to UNCAC, held in 2006, attempted to address this criticism by committing to establish a mechanism to monitor corruption. But subsequent sessions have failed to reach an agreement.

Regional organizations have also made significant normative progress by developing comprehensive anticorruption instruments, although implementation and effectiveness have been patchy. The first regional convention to address corruption was the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, which was adopted by state parties to the Organization of American States and entered into force in March 1997. The Council of Europe passed the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption in January 2002, with an additional protocol authorizing the creation of a monitoring mechanism, the Group of States Against Corruption. In July 2003, the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption was enacted in an attempt to address widespread corruption on the African continent.

One of the most successful—albeit controversial—regional initiatives is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). At the request of the Guatemalan government, the UN created CICIG in 2007 to reinforce the rule of law by strengthening institutions, investigating corruption, and training officials. By 2010, CICIG helped to oust thousands of corrupt policemen, ten prosecutors, three supreme court justices, and an attorney general. The commission has also supported the trials and convictions [PDF] of more than 130 criminals, including a former president and foreign minister. Some critics have questioned CICIG’s sustainability, arguing that it is not fulfilling its mandate to transfer technical capacities to Guatemalan counterparts and interfering in cases beyond its remit. At the same time, CICIG must request to join criminal cases as a complementary prosecutor and the Guatemalan justice system can deny it jurisdiction to participate—decreasing the commission’s independence and potential impact. Nevertheless, the commission is an important model for anticorruption efforts.

Together, UNCAC and regional conventions provide a solid foundation of international norms, standards, and measures to combat corruption. However, they fall short of the integration and coordination required of a global anticorruption strategy and have not significantly affected change on the ground in most countries.

To fill the void, other international and civil society organizations that focus primarily on economic and sustainable development have taken up the mantle of anticorruption work. The World Bank, Interpol, the Group of Twenty (G20), the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have attempted to raise awareness of the issue by addressing the consequences of corruption.

The World Bank has spearheaded efforts to combat corruption through a partnership with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), called the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR). Established in 2007, StAR provides assistance and training to developing countries to prevent money laundering and recover stolen assets. The initiative has worked with over five hundred officials in forty countries around the world and is expanding its country partnerships, although no assets have been recovered thus far. StAR is further hindered by the fact that it cannot legally investigate or prosecute cases of stolen assets. As part of the StAR initiative, the World Bank cooperates with numerous global bodies, such as INTERPOL and the international center for asset recovery, to help seize and return stolen funds. In addition, the G20 formed the Anti-Corruption Working Group in June 2010 to develop and recommend anticorruption business practices.

Nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions play a critical role in pioneering innovative solutions to increase transparency in corrupt governments. The Program on Liberation Technology, for example, at Stanford University is researching the use of mobile phones to text individuals facts on government spending (per public record), so as to empower local communities with the knowledge of what they should receive and what they do receive.

These efforts are complicated by the fact that there is no existing method of measuring corruption. This is partly because it is largely conducted in secret, and partly because corruption can sometimes appear legitimate. Transparency International, a civil society organization, publishes the annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries according to perceptions of public-sector corruption. Although it is not a perfect science, it does provide a comprehensive assessment of individual countries and regions. In 2011, Somalia, North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan led the list as the most corrupt countries in the world. A recent survey [PDF] conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that Afghan officials paid $2.5 billion in bribes and related payments in 2009.

When undertaken, national anticorruption strategies to end impunity and promote capacity building have also produced some success. In 2008, the Mexican government launched Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean), with the goal of purging the law enforcement of corruption. Thus far, the interim commissioner of the federal police, head of the counternarcotics division, and thirty other officials have been arrested.

Following the money

Following the money: Increasingly legislated, uneven implementation

Money laundering is the life blood of transnational organized crime. Since the late 1980s, the world has been straining to manage illicit flows of cash among the massive sums that flow across borders every day. A meta-analysis [PDF] conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2011 concluded that globally, criminal proceeds amount to around 3.6 percent (or between 2.3 and 5.5 percent) of the world’s gross domestic products combined—roughly $2.1 trillion annually—and costs between 2 and 5 percent of global gross domestic product ever year according to the UN. Nations have prioritized “following the money” to identify criminals and deter citizens from turning to crime, but the world is floundering [PDF] in its efforts. “Ultimately, anti–money laundering tools, which were designed to combat organized crime, have been ineffective,” according to a ten-year review of the Palermo Convention [PDF]. The UNODC reports that less than 1 percent [PDF] of illicit financial flows around the world are seized and frozen. This saps nations of needed resources and allows criminals to profit illegally and remain at large.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), founded in 1989 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is celebrated as one of the greatest anti–money laundering (AML) successes. FATF’s forty recommended measures, published in 1990, and nine counterterrorist financing measures, lay out steps national governments can take to improve AML capabilities. In 2012, FATF also revised its recommendations based on feedback from the financial sector, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals, and combined the terrorism and money laundering recommendations. All member countries both carry out a self assessment and submit to peer review of their implementation of recommendations. In 2000 FATF also published an associated list of noncooperative countries and territories [PDF] (NCCT). Fearful of losing investment or international standing, all twenty-three of the countries first included on the FATF list subsequently enacted AML legislative frameworks and many more passed similar laws in order to avoid landing on the list. Twelve binding UN Security Council resolutions between 2001 and 2010 also mandated UN member states to improve financial monitoring systems, and the FATF recommendations became the yardstick for compliance. Experts therefore credit the FATF NCCT list with coercing “between a quarter and a third of the world’s sovereign states… to adopt the standard AML policy” by 2006. However, despite putting laws on the books, the majority of these countries are incapable or unwilling to strictly enforce them.

To date, eight regional groups modeled on FATF have emerged across the world, that is, FATF-style regional bodies (FSRBs). With a deeper understanding of the local context, the FSRBs evaluate state systems in the region, and recommend ways to improve AML regimes. FSRBs also provide training for law enforcement officials and help countries develop financial intelligence units (FIUs) in coordination with UNODC, which track suspicious financial activity. FIUs are essential because they can participate in an international information sharing initiative that builds a network of FIUs, known as the Egmont Group. As internationally monitored initiatives, FSRBs add meat to various other regional efforts, ranging from the Organization of American States AML standards to an action group against money laundering of the Economic Community of West African States.

More broadly, countries have incrementally forged important AML norms. Originally, the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances first criminalized laundering the profits of drug trafficking. This was later expanded to apply to all money laundering in 1998 by a UN General Assembly political declaration. Then, the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC or Palermo Convention) and the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which entered into force in 2003 and 2005 respectively, further entrenched necessary AML standards. Interpol supports these efforts by processing investigative requests between nations, but because Interpol lacks its own jurisdiction, it primarily urges nations to implement these norms rather than enforces them itself.

 The Palermo Convention clarifies several AML steps for signatories to take. State parties must criminalize money laundering and any conscious facilitation of it, as well as “institute a comprehensive domestic regulatory and supervisory regime… in order to deter and detect all forms of money laundering.” These include stipulations regarding customer identification, record keeping and the reporting of suspicious transactions, as well as shoring up law enforcement, regulatory, and administrative regimes with the necessary resources to cooperate with national and international AML investigations. However, these obligations have been unevenly implemented by states.

Equally important, UNCAC mandates that states “take such civil and administrative measures” to prevent government corruption from the highest levels to lower-level border officials, policeman, and bankers. Since their complicity is necessary for transnational crimes ranging from weapons smuggling to money laundering, these measures are crucial. But implementation has lagged across many member states.

To help states meet these standards, the UN Global Program Against Money Laundering, Proceeds of Crime and the Financing of Terrorism (GPML) provides technical assistance in various forms such as legislative advice or training justice officials to investigate and prosecute financial crime. GPML also supports countries that wish to update [PDF] their domestic AML frameworks, and its mentor program “is one of the most successful known activities in AML/CTF technical and training assistance.” In a 2011 review by an independent panel of experts, GPML was deemed “successful” and “highly relevant.”

In 2000, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also responded to the growing challenge of money laundering, emphasizing that it not only facilitates crime, but also threatens members’ economies by undermining the stability of financial institutions, increasing the volatility of capital flows, and having a “dampening effect on foreign direct investment.” In response, the IMF now conducts assessments, provides technical assistance, and drafts policy recommendations for the global AML effort. As an international body focused on global finance with universal membership, the IMF was able to expand the scope of AML efforts beyond the global North. Still, the IMF is not ideally suited to root out criminal profits because AML efforts require law enforcement and judicial prosecution.

Despite these initiatives, corruption, corporate and bank secrecy, and informal money transfer systems like hawala continue to complicate AML efforts. Financial havens such as Nauru or the Cayman Islands provide opportunities for illicit monetary transfers no matter how robust domestic or regional frameworks are. Many banks also provide offshore operations for clients seeking broader secrecy. Swiss banks, for example, have transferred many operations to Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, or Isle of Jersey. In some cases, banks collude with criminal organizations—even in developed nations as evidenced by one U.S. bank’s cooperation with Mexican cartels.

Therefore, strong regulatory policies are crucial and need to be closely monitored. A growing trend, for instance, requires private banks or firms to take responsibility for AML. In response, banks increasingly publish their own AML policies [PDF], pledge to enact “know your customer” rules, cooperate with law enforcement, and even recruit former financial investigator police officers. In one instance, for example, U.S. banks detected certain money laundering tactics like mirror accounts of drug cartels. Still, numerous studies have concluded that banks generally believe that AML regulations are not cost effective and impose an enormous burden on them. The 2008 financial crisis inspired calls for broader regulations and the U.S. government has recently begun to revisit AML regulation under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, but implementation of the countless stipulations is far off, if not impossible.

Another new strategy with great potential is the use of national sanctions to combat transnational crime. Between July 2011 and February 2012, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on five criminal syndicates in Mexico, Italy, eastern Europe, and Japan. The department stated that the effort aimed to prevent the groups from using billions in annual profits. Experts noted that sanctions have been effective against nonstate actors like al-Qaeda, and thus might aid in combating criminal groups. Though promising, the move’s impact has yet to be demonstrated, and it does not portend to replace multilateral AML cooperation.


Narcotrafficking: Stuck in criminalization paradigm

Narcotrafficking is arguably the most legislated and enforced sector of transnational crime, but the effectiveness of the regime is increasingly questioned. Pressing international issues often suffer from underfunding and lack of high-profile attention, but narcotrafficking is an exception. Heavily backed by U.S. resources and enormous U.S. political attention, countries have sought to enforce an array of treaties that regulate production, distribution, and transport of nonmedical drugs. But trafficking groups easily change location, adapt network-style structures, and diversify their activities to evade law enforcement efforts. As a result, experts stress the need to understand narcotrafficking as a market. In 2011, the UN Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended a paradigm shift to public health rather than criminalization, noting that despite $2.5 trillion spent since the 1970s, the U.S.-led global war on drugs has failed, primarily because of its focus on law enforcement. Slowly, some countries and international institutions are attempting to incorporate public health and economic programs into the fight against narcotrafficking, but much remains to be done.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is the main international body that oversees the implementation of global anti-narcotrafficking efforts by deciding which drugs belong to which schedules (or risk levels) of the drug control treaties and advising other bodies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is the primary agency to help countries implement UN treaties and initiatives on the ground. Highly respected, UNODC operates around the world, conducting evaluations of the illegal drug market, helping states implement awareness programs, and providing treatment support. In addition, the UNODC Justice Section [PDF] helps states establish or improve judicial frameworks and works to empower law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute drug traffickers. For example, a joint program [PDF] with the World Customs Organization that operates in eleven countries helps those nations regulate the contents of shipping containers in which drugs often cross borders. UNODC also conducts a wide array of other operations related to international crime that are critical to anti-narcotrafficking efforts, including anticorruption and alternative livelihood development, among others. Its resources, however, are limited.

The core narcotrafficking accords that still serve as the basis for the international anti-narcotrafficking regime emerged between 1960 and 1990. In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Single Convention) synthesized the mandates of nine drug-related treaties dating back to the 1912 International Opium Convention. The Single Convention also established a list of prohibited substances and limits on the possession, distribution, manufacture and production of prohibited drugs—as well as set up the International Narcotics Control Board, a precursor to UNODC. A decade later, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances incorporated manufactured drugs such as methamphetamines and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)—though it did not criminalize them as harshly as organic illegal drugs. In 1988, the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances built on the previous two treaties, obliging states to criminalize possession, purchase, and cultivation of illegal drugs. It also set down rules for extradition cooperation, created provisions of mutual legal assistance to investigate and prosecute suspects, and criminalized money laundering of narcotrafficking profits. Still in force, these three conventions represent the backbone of the international war on drugs.

Notably, during negotiations for the 1961 Single Convention, nations coalesced into various blocs in a manner that affected the drug regime for the next decades. Powerful nations that were primary importers of illegal organic drugs, such as the United States and West Germany, successfully lobbied for a strict control regime on the supply side, rather than requiring states with high addiction rates to attempt to mitigate demand through health-based policies at home. As a result, today’s anti-narcotrafficking instruments continue to identify the illegal drug trade primarily as a criminal activity, and therefore charge nations to control the problem through law enforcement. 

More recently, the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime did incorporate more comprehensive strategies to fight drug-related offenses. Article 30 of that treaty requires “other measures” to fight crime “through economic development” and Article 31, stipulates that states “shall endeavor to develop” appropriate preventive strategies. Although an important normative development, the directives remain vague and underemphasized. 

Regional organizations have joined the fight against narcotrafficking, with mixed results. The Organization of American States has launched some innovative programs that aim to decrease demand for illegal drugs, but the region still faces an enormous challenge. Latin American leaders are using the forum to pressure the world—and especially the United States—to reevaluate existing prohibition regimes, but any progress will take years. The European Union is endowed with broader powers than other regional initiatives, and therefore has been able to impose more consistent legislation across the union and support capacity-building initiatives in eastern Europe, but European drug use and rates of human trafficking continue to climb. The Economic Community of West African States has taken initial steps to fight drug trafficking, but governance gaps in the region continue to leave it vulnerable. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has conferred high-level political attention on narcotrafficking, committing to a “Drug-Free ASEAN”, but the realities of governance gaps and economic development challenges have impeded [PDF] these efforts. 

A number of bilateral capacity-building endeavors have also had a major impact on narcotrafficking norms around the world. Plan Colombia, (now called the Andean Counterdrug Initiative) for example, is an $8.5 billion program initiated in 1999 in which the United States provides expertise and financial resources to the Colombian military and administrative and judicial sectors to help Colombia fight narcotraffickers. Though the policy has managed to curb the Colombian drug problem to some extent (though not without controversy), in 2010, the UNODC reported that the lion’s share of drug cultivation had merely been displaced to neighboring Peru. The United States has also devoted $1.5 billion since 2008 to the Mérida Initiative to help Mexico suppress cartels there, but as Mexico tames the drug trade in one area it reappears elsewhere and violence is increasing. Mexico’s drug trade has also contributed to surging violence in Central America. Experts stress that these outcomes demonstrate the need to prioritize comprehensive strategies rather than rely too heavily on law enforcement. 

New methods are slowly being pioneered to fight demand at the national level, but they remain the exception rather than the rule. A domestic program within the United States has pioneered drug courts, which supervise drug addicts during treatment rather than imprisoning them. In the first twenty years, drug courts were reported to be 75 percent more successful at preventing recidivism than incarceration and to reduce crime by as much as 35 percent. Similarly, Brazil has devised a strategy of placing permanent “pacifying police units” in the violent favelas, rather than attack narcotrafficking gangs with military police—an approach that has led to a “drastic change,” in the words of a Brazilian police captain. Furthermore, some U.S. districts are experimenting with drug market intervention [PDF]—where known drug dealers are invited to meet with community leaders who convince them of the harm they are inflicting on friends and family, rather than arrested and imprisoned—with remarkable success. Although such initiatives are small, they provide a promising model.

The war on illicit weapons

The war on illicit weapons: Rising awareness, limited scope

Smuggling weapons or their integral components fuels conflict among and within states as well as empowers pernicious nonstate actors such as gangs, pirates, and terrorists. Weapons smuggling can include the illicit transfer or diversion of materials, technology, and components related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as the trafficking and theft of conventional weapons. Awareness has spread about the overall threat from this form of transnational crime, but institutions to counteract the illicit transfer of weapons remain limited in scope.

The threat from illicit WMD transfers is primarily that a terrorist group would create a radiological dirty bomb or assemble a nuclear device. Although the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was agreed to in 1968, attempted to prevent the unchecked proliferation of nuclear weapons, many find the treaty and its enforcement body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, ill equipped to counter threats posed by so-called rogue states and dangerous nonstate actors. The possibility of al-Qaeda or another group independently building a nuclear bomb is relatively small, but the consequences would be devastating. As evidenced by the discovery of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network in Pakistan, modern smuggling can involve intricate transnational channels supporting the transfer of sensitive technology. Stockpiles of nuclear warheads and material are also at risk for theft or illicit transfers, especially within the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

In 2004, the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR) marked a watershed moment for efforts to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Binding on all UN member states, UNSCR 1540 called on countries to implement domestic legislation to prevent proliferation, as well as established the 1540 Committee to monitor implementation of the resolution. Regardless, as of 2011, more than fifty [PDF] UN members had not formally reported their efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation to the 1540 Committee. Other challenges related to the implementation of UNSCR 1540 include difficulties in coordinating global nonproliferation capacity-building efforts and addressing the concerns of some developing states that claim to lack the necessary technical expertise and resources to implement the resolution’s provisions. In addition, many developing countries simply do not prioritize the threat of nuclear weapons as highly as other issues.

The relatively recent emergence of multilateral arrangements like the Proliferation Security Initiative, Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the UN Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism have been critical tools for norm-building and sustaining global attention on the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, potential candidates for illicit transfers—whether state or nonstate—can simply opt not to cooperate or participate in these accords. Similarly, although the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, attended by nearly fifty heads of state or government, pledged to secure vulnerable fissile nuclear material by 2014, the pledge was not legally binding, nor did it cover threats posed by the proliferation of specific nuclear weapons related components. A binding Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty also has yet to be drafted.

Conventional weapons, whether small arms and light weapons (SALW) or more advanced weapons systems, are substantially more likely to be smuggled or involved in illicit transfers. The UN’s  Register for Conventional Arms was created for states to report all exports and imports related to seven categories of armaments considered to be the most dangerous, including small arms. However, compliance by countries is voluntary and reporting has declined in recent years.

The illegal trafficking of SALW, an estimated $1 billion annual industry, has received significant global attention. The UN’s Program of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in SALW in all its Aspects (PoA) is its most comprehensive effort in this area. Adopted by all UN member states in 2001, the PoA requires countries to develop national bodies that review legislation and cooperate internationally to stem illicit trade of SALW. Despite setting important normative foundations on licensing, tracing, and international cooperation, the PoA is a voluntary agreement and does not address [PDF] important issues including ammunitions, state-to-state transfer, and transfer to nonstate actors. A review conference scheduled for 2012 will examine the implementation of its recommendations by member states, but analysts have already reported significant gaps in implementation for a variety of reasons. To begin with, some states do not clearly understand their obligations [PDF], even when the PoA is unambiguous, and for many nations SALW trafficking is not a high priority. In addition, the PoA lacks [PDF] clear benchmarks and a mechanism for sharing best practices to support implementation.

The only legally binding treaty on SALW is the Firearms Protocol, a complementary instrument to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, that requires states to bolster control measures against illicit firearms and their ammunition. However, this agreement also does not regulate state-to-state transfers and has had only some success in helping countries keep a tab on illicit weapons, despite licensing, marking, and tracing provisions. For example, in 2007, in violation of international sanctions, a Ukrainian ship transported thirty-three T-72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-aircraft guns to South Sudan via Kenya.

The International Tracing Instrument (ITI), an offshoot of the PoA, was created to fill this vacuum. The ITI aims to identify and trace weapons’ paths from source to destination. However, an April 2011 report on small arms by the UN secretary-general notes that, in many cases, ground-level officials do not understand tracking related markings on weapons, or do not have the records needed to link weapons with arms manufacturers. Often, serial numbers are simply ground off weapons. 

The United Nations has resumed talks to negotiate a potentially comprehensive and legally binding arms trade treaty. Prospects for a breakthrough are dim, however. Contentious topics will require tough compromises from states such as China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—top arms exporters. U.S. constitutional protections to possess personal firearms significantly complicate negotiations. The agenda includes establishing a monitoring provision for SALW ammunition exports, determining responsibility for illegal state-to-state SALW sales, and enforcing such an accord.

Still, the number of civil society groups dedicated to promoting stronger and more inclusive cross-border regulations of small arms and light weapons has exploded. Established in 1998, the International Action Network on Small Arms, for instance, combines the work of numerous international groups seeking to stop all trafficking of SALW. Persistent lobbying from international nongovernmental organizations may have also played a central role accelerating UN and other regional negotiations to prevent the smuggling of conventional weapons.

Regionally, robust accords to prevent the trafficking of arms are the exception rather than the rule. One of the most far reaching is the binding Economic Community of Western African States Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which entered into force in 2009. Some posit that the convention, which was drafted with support from leading SALW civil society groups and banned arms transfers to nonstate actors, could be a model for other regions and even work toward a global arms trade treaty. The moratorium, however, has been “routinely flouted” [PDF] and has little impact.

Illicit markets

Illicit markets: Lacks comprehensive framework, international agreement

Other illicit markets include counterfeit products, counterfeit drugs, resource trafficking and environmental crime, and organ trafficking. These operate extralegally and thrive at the expense of legal trade and economic systems.

Global efforts to curtail these markets tend to be sector-specific responses, despite the fact that many criminal groups have diversified their activities into multiple markets. Collectively, global conventions, multilateral initiatives, and international institutions provide normative standards of protection, target the movement of illegal goods, and criminalize illicit activities—with varying degrees of effectiveness. Where norms exist, enforcement tends to be uneven. Nongovernmental organizations and private-sector entities have called for a global monitoring mechanism to track violations and seizures to expand knowledge of trends and developments.

Statistics point to oceans as a major channel for illicit markets, given that nearly 90 percent [PDF] of global manufactured goods are transported by container. Several International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions address the safety of container shipping, including the International Convention on Safe Containers, which establishes uniform regulations for shipping containers. The conventions, however, do not address comprehensive security solutions, and illegal goods are secretly stashed in containers en route to their destinations. In 1992, the IMO enacted the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, which created a legal framework to interdict, detain, and prosecute terrorists, pirates, and other criminals.

The U.S. government attempts to address this vulnerability in part through the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which aims to prescreen the majority of containers destined for the United States by isolating those that contain illegal goods before transit. The initiative, which operates in fifty-eight foreign ports, covers more than 80 percent of container cargo en route to the United States. Several international partners and organizations, including the European Union, Group of Eight, and WCO, have expressed interest in modeling security measures for containerized cargo based on the CSI model, though such expansion is years away. Despite these efforts, experts estimate that only 2 percent of containers destined for U.S. ports are actually inspected.

Trade in Counterfeit Products

The World Trade Organization (WTO), the main international institution dealing with trade issues, has led international efforts to combat illicit markets, specifically trade in counterfeit goods. The landmark Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), passed in 1995, applies to all 153 WTO members and establishes minimum standards for intellectual property rights, including trademarks, copyrights, and patents, to be enforced by member states. Covering a broad range of sectors and goods—such as electronics, knock-off designer apparel, and art—TRIPS is the most comprehensive multilateral agreement addressing counterfeit goods to date. The UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization helps the WTO implement TRIPS by managing an international registry of patents, providing translations and notifications of national regulations, and supporting international technical cooperation. Specifically, the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks along with its protocol allows countries to register trademarks in multiple countries through a single application that broadens coverage, but also lacks an enforcement mechanism. At the same time, TRIPS relies on UN member states to enforce intellectual property laws, which has led to serious gaps due to lack of political will or capability.

Recent efforts to strengthen enforcement mechanisms have met stiff resistance. Signed by thirty-one state parties—including Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States, and the European Union—the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) attempts to establish an international legal framework to address violations of intellectual property rights. However, ACTA has been criticized for violating freedom of expression and privacy, as well as excluding civil society organizations and developing countries from negotiations. In response to a petition signed by more than two million Europeans, the European Commission referred ACTA to the European Court of Justice to determine whether the agreement violates individual rights.

Private-sector groups affected by illicit markets have also formed industry-specific trade associations, which have pushed for anti-counterfeiting legislation. Among the most active and influential of these organizations are the Motion Picture Association of America, Business Software Alliance, Recording Industry Association of America, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. They lobby for anti-counterfeiting legislation and enforcement, publish data and reports, run public advocacy and education campaigns, and help their members investigate and prosecute violations. However, rights groups have criticized such organizations for wielding undue influence and pushing legislation that disproportionately benefits businesses at the expense of consumers.

Counterfeit Medicines

TRIPS coverage also extends to pharmaceutical patents. Although TRIPS requires all countries to adopt minimum standards, it does allow for some flexibility for developing countries through compulsory licensing agreements, a provision recently applied for the first time in India to produce a generic cancer drug. In 2001, the WTO Ministerial Conference adopted the Doha Declaration, affirming that TRIPS “does not and should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health” by promoting access to affordable drugs.

Despite these advances, the definition of counterfeit medicine remains unclear. Disagreement is widespread over the working definition of counterfeit drugs provided by the World Health Organization (WHO). Developing countries maintain that generic versions of brand-name drugs should not be considered counterfeit as they are essential to affordable health care. Many nations do not yet have legislation targeting counterfeit drugs, although there are signs of progress. In 2011, China and Nigeria agreed to a new bilateral initiative allowing regulators to jointly combat counterfeit drugs.

Multilateral and regional organizations have taken steps to enforce anti–counterfeit medicine agreements. In 2006, the WHO launched the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce, the goal of which is to develop international and regional networks to facilitate information sharing on the counterfeit drug market, although it has yet to make a global impact due to resistance from several important developing countries. Interpol has also implemented several regional initiatives to combat counterfeit drugs and arrest traffickers: Operation Storm in southeast Asia, Operation Mamba in eastern Africa, and Operation Cobra in western Africa. Between January 2010 and October 2011, Interpol and local partners seized millions of pills and made hundreds of arrests, underscoring the need for continued multilateral intervention. Finally, in December 2010, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on the Counterfeiting of Medical Products and Similar Crimes Involving Threats to Public Health, which criminalized the manufacturing and trade of counterfeit drugs. Experts have criticized the convention, however, for its vague definition of generic medicine—and have instead advocated for a legally binding treaty led by the WHO. Without an international treaty criminalizing counterfeit drugs, progress will be limited, because each region or country continues to operate on various definitions of what constitutes counterfeit medicine. The WHO executive board adopted a voluntary resolution on counterfeit medicine in February 2012, but a comprehensive and adequate treaty is still far off.

Environmental Crime

To fight environmental crime, the principal international treaty is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is the strongest existing measure to protect the environment from exploitation; it proscribes trade in more than nine hundred animal and plant species in danger of extinction, and restricts trade in more than twenty-nine thousand additional species. Although it has created an important framework for efforts against environmental crime, CITES covers such a wide range of plant and animal species that it is virtually impossible to focus attention and enforce trade restrictions on all of them at once. The UN Environment Program (UNEP), the primary UN body for global environmental issues, supports CITES and related programmatic initiatives, but has a limited budget for these efforts. CITES is also supplemented by more than five hundred global and regional multilateral environmental treaties that deal with specific issue areas, including biodiversity, wildlife, pollution, use of chemicals, and waste disposal. The UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, supported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), also serves as a legal framework for combating illicit resource trafficking, although it is primarily limited to crimes committed by organized groups and does not specifically mention the environment.

Laws to regulate illegal resource harvesting have not kept pace with environmental crime. A number of tree species are protected under CITES, but there is no existing comprehensive international agreement that regulates illegal logging. Experts argue [PDF] that CITES could be broadened to more adequately address illegal logging. The Forest Law Enforcement and Governance regional initiative, which convened producer and consumer countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, attempted to raise awareness of illegal logging, but little progress has been made. Despite two other UN agreements to combat illegal fishing—the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (Fish Stocks Agreement) and the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing—serious gaps in enforcement remain (see Global Governance Monitor: Oceans for an in-depth discussion).

International efforts to combat pollution and toxic waste dumping, on the other hand, have achieved marked success. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants together provide an international framework to regulate the movements and dumping of waste, as well as the use of specific chemicals. Maritime pollution is regulated by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). States are responsible for implementing and enforcing MARPOL to curb the most destructive forms of maritime pollution, including oil spills, particulate matter such as sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide, and greenhouse gas emissions.

In response to the proliferation of environmental crime and limited enforcement, five international groups—CITES, Interpol, UNODC, the World Customs Organization, and the World Bank—formed the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCW), which became operational in March 2011. ICCW hopes to mount a coordinated global effort against environmental crime by supporting national law enforcement and facilitating information sharing, but it is too early to judge progress.

Organ Trafficking

Organ trafficking has also become a serious problem. And while the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (TIP protocol) identifies "the removal of organs" as a crime, many national governments have legal loopholes and outliers that allow for the activity to continue unchecked. In Iran, for example, kidney sales are legal and regulated; in India, the law outlaws all organ sales except for kidneys; and in China, it is illegal to buy or sell organs, although the government is allowed to harvest the organs of executed prisoners. A joint UN-Council of Europe study in 2009 called for [PDF] a new international treaty that would specifically address organ trafficking, including human trafficking for the removal of organs, which is a subset of a broader and more pervasive issue.

Combating cyber crime

Combating cyber crime: Advancing from anarchy, but constant challenges

Cyber crime, which is estimated to cost the global economy between $114 billion and $1 trillion annually, comprises myriad illegal activities, including cyberattacks on governments or businesses, identity theft, and illegal hacking. As societies increasingly rely on the Internet, the need for robust measures to address cyber crime is clear. However, some experts believe that establishing a comprehensive, binding cyber crime convention may be impossible given fundamental differences in opinions between countries about the Internet. Other challenges include defining cyber crime and assigning responsibility for attacks orchestrated from within a country’s territory. Even in existing initiatives, the definition of cyber crime and stipulations to fight it are not consistent, and too often cyber crime is conflated with cyberterrorism, cyber espionage, or cyber warfare.

The most robust international accord that addresses cyber crime is the Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime. With thirty-two parties and fifteen signatories, it is the only international legally binding accord that governs the issue. Importantly, it defines cyber crime offenses such as data interference, child pornography, and illegal interception. The accord also includes a yearly consultation process for parties carried out through the Convention Committee on Cyber Crime. Testifying to the need for strong international cyber crime governance, the United States and a number of other countries outside the region have ratified the treaty; more nations are considering doing so.

The convention is also the basis for other international standards on cyber crime. The United Nations (UN) [PDF], Interpol [PDF], and various regional organizations have encouraged countries to model national legislation on the articles of the Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime and have supported acceding to it. Numerous countries, including hotbeds of cyber crime such as Nigeria, have updated [PDF] national legislation to conform to the treaty. However, many underdeveloped states do not have the institutional capacity to fulfill requirements, complicating efforts to harmonize domestic legislation. The convention on cyber crime also includes an additional protocol, which attempts to counter the use of the Internet as a medium to spread xenophobia and racism.

Although the United Nations examined cyber crime and related issues in 2010, member states were unable to reach a consensus on whether to expand the Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime or to create a new global treaty. In many instances, calls for firmer global institutions and agreements to fight cyber crime are met with skepticism from online users and policymakers, who worry that cyber crime laws might limit freedom of speech and private-sector Internet use. Both the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)—responsible for development issues—have introduced several resolutions on cyber crime, but the issue is low on their agenda. In this regard, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has been important in bringing cyber crime to the attention of member states. Created in 1992 at the request of ECOSOC, the commission has increasingly raised the issue of cyber crime with other parts of the UN system. In 2011 it spearheaded a draft resolution urging countries to provide capacity-building assistance to fight cyber crime.

One specialized agency in the UN, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has led [PDF] international information and communication technologies policy since 1865 (the body became a specialized UN agency in 1947). The ITU addresses the gamut of cyber crime problems, but its work on cyber crime has focused on data collection, research, and recommendations on building and harmonizing effective national legislation. The ITU also suffers from some important procedural weaknesses. Only UN plenary assemblies and world conferences can form ITU study groups to discuss relevant problems, but they meet only once every four years. Despite its flaws, the agency has launched some ambitious projects. One of its flagship projects, Child Online Protection, aims to protect children from malicious attacks in cyberspace. More recently, ITU joined forces with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to assess specific countries’ institutional capacities, review legislation, provide technical assistance, and offer training opportunities. Although it is still too early to determine its success, the collaboration paves the way for more partnerships within the UN, where work on cyber crime is often fragmented and lacks prioritization.

Informal organizations and multilateral arrangements have established frameworks to facilitate the sharing of best practices and intelligence related to cyber crime. Interpol, along with its 190 member countries, relies on its I-24/7 worldwide communication system as well as its National Central Reference Points [PDF] network—a specialized group of investigators—to combat cyber crime. But even with these initiatives, many countries do not have adequate funding, enough cyber crime laws, or the institutional capacity to prevent, investigate, or prosecute cyber criminals. Furthermore, working in different jurisdictions to obtain evidence tends to be inefficient and slow. Numerous regional initiatives as well as nongovernmental organizations have also been established with the specific mission of preventing the exploitation of children through the Internet. Enforcement, though, remains limited by the inherent difficulties in tracing perpetrators of cyber crime, especially when occurring across borders and contrasting legal jurisdictions.

One major multilateral initiative, the Lyon Group, was created by the Group of Eight (G8) in 1996. The Lyon Group gathers senior experts to discuss international crime issues and has a dedicated subgroup that addresses high-tech crime with the aim of helping law enforcement agencies enhance their strategies to prevent, investigate, and prosecute cyber crime. The G8 has also adopted forty operative recommendations to combat transnational organized crime, and all members are required to set up a 24/7 network of point of contacts to address computer crimes and requests. Still, current technologies do not have the capacity to fully track cyber crime, which hinders the subgroup’s effectiveness.

At the regional level, organizations and ad hoc groups have attempted to tackle cyber crime. For instance, the Organization of American States (OAS) established a working group on cyber crime, which spearheaded a compilation of existing cyber crime legislation in OAS member states. The working group, backed by a recommendation from all OAS attorney generals and ministers of justice, has also requested that OAS member states consider applying the principles of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cyber Crime. Similarly, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group has taken on the issue, with an action plan [PDF] to combat cyber crime that includes personal information protections, cybersecurity capacity building, and raising awareness against cyber crime. Nevertheless, cyber crime rates continue to climb in every region around the world.

Combating human trafficking and migrant smuggling

Combating human trafficking and migrant smuggling: Record progress, but inadequate enforcement

Human trafficking is the only illicit activity classified as a crime against humanity. Although it manifests itself in many forms, forced labor and sexual exploitation are the primary types. Migrant smuggling is considered distinct from human trafficking, both legally and conceptually. In practice, however, it is difficult to differentiate between the acts of migrant smuggling and trafficking. Both target the poor and deceive or violently abuse victims. Some migrants become victims of trafficking, and smugglers may also serve as traffickers. 

Global governance efforts and tools to combat human trafficking and migrant smuggling are generally uncoordinated, underresourced, and lacking in the political will to exert meaningful change. To date, no permanent mechanism for collecting and evaluating comprehensive data on human trafficking or migrant smuggling has been established, which presents a significant hurdle for international organizations and national governments to devise effective policies and strategies. 

Until recently, no international agreement defined human trafficking or laid out a strategy to address it. Heightened international attention in the 1990s, however, paved the way in the United Nations (UN) for the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (TIP protocol) to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which entered into force in December 2003. To date, 142 countries have ratified the TIP protocol and 128 countries have passed laws prohibiting human trafficking.

The TIP protocol broadly defined human trafficking under international law as the “recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of… forms of coercion… for the purpose of exploitation.” Its ultimate goal was to harmonize domestic legislation to criminalize the phenomenon. 

Similarly, “migrant smuggling” was also undefined until the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air (Smuggling of Migrants protocol) to the UNTOC entered into force in January 2004. It identifies the crime as the “procurement, in order to obtain… financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a state.” Ratified by 129 member states, the protocol does not aim to curb illegal immigration, but instead to undermine organized smugglers. Some experts have argued [PDF], however, that the protocol does not go far enough to protect the rights of migrants. 

The protocols are the strongest measures to date on human trafficking and migrant smuggling. In particular, passage of the TIP protocol prompted the proliferation of regional conventions decrying human trafficking. The European Union ratified the Brussels Declaration on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings  in 2002; the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) passed the Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children in 2004; and the African Union followed suit in 2006 and enacted the Ouagadougou Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Women and Children; among others. Many of these regional conventions, however, are not legally binding on member states, and have thus proved unable to effect significant change on the ground.

Regional action on migrant smuggling has been mostly limited to extending general protections to migrants. For example, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Program for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants, Including Migrant Workers and their Families and the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers focus on the basic rights of migrant workers, with sporadic references to the issue of migrant smuggling.

Despite halting normative progress among regional organizations, enforcement has floundered at the national level. Many countries only recently passed laws codifying human trafficking as a crime, and in some countries such legislation is wholly absent. Definitions of the crime vary widely; many national laws are confined to trafficking of women, or only recognize sexual exploitation of trafficking victims and do not address other forms such as labor trafficking. Even if states have enacted requisite legislation, 40 percent [PDF] of these countries did not produce a single conviction between 2003 and 2008.

Many states have recently criminalized [PDF] migrant smuggling activities, but struggle to enforce the statutes. Of the few governments that try to combat migrant smuggling, resources are often directed to border controls rather than long-term measures. Many states do not see smuggled migrants as victims, but rather as illegal immigrants.

The United States plays a major role in global efforts to combat human trafficking. The U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in October 2000, which provided resources to monitor and reduce human trafficking. However, the TVPA expired at the end of 2011 and is yet to be reauthorized due to partisan deadlock over budget allocations. The U.S. State Department also produces [PDF] an annual trafficking report ranking 184 governments—including itself—on its actions against trafficking. Although somewhat politicized, the reports are a useful means of tracking implementation of international norms. Other organizations, such as the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and International Organization for Migration are also working to compile accurate data. In one high-profile initiative, the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) partnered with other UN agencies to aggregate data. Though moderately successful, the project ended in 2009 and the information will soon be outdated. 

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is charged with monitoring and implementing the UNTOC protocols, which it does by assisting countries with drafting legislation and creating national antitrafficking strategies. Its work is supplemented by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, and the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, who undertake country visits, monitor activities, and produce annual reports on their issue areas. In October 2011, the UNODC and the OHCHR joined forces to enhance cooperation, showing progress in efforts to streamline interagency work.

Countless international, regional, and local NGOs are dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking. Amnesty International, Mercy Corps, and Human Rights Watch often publish country reports on trafficking, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women has a broad membership of more than one hundred affiliated NGOs. Many of the NGOs focus attention on women and sexual slavery, often at the expense of labor trafficking issues.

Child trafficking, of course, remains sensitive and controversial. Although covered in the TIP protocol, some experts have argued that child trafficking deserves a separate accord. International instruments addressing the issue of child labor include the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, which defines “worst forms” as the sale and trafficking of children, forced labor, and recruitment for use in armed conflict. In addition, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict specifically addresses the recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers. Despite these landmark measures, efforts to coordinate child labor and trafficking efforts more broadly remain inadequate.

U.S. and International Crime Policy Issues

New approach to reducing drug demand

Should the international community shift its focus to a broader, health-based approach to cut demand for illegal drugs?

Yes: Proponents [PDF] of a dramatic reset to fight narcotrafficking worldwide argue that attacking producers, suppliers, and transporters of illegal drugs unfairly burdens developing countries, increases the profitability of selling illicit drugs, and also severely raises the levels of violence associated with the trade. In 2011, the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy concluded that the U.S.-led war on drugs had failed, despite $2.5 trillion spent over forty years, precisely because the strategy focuses too heavily on criminalizing illegal drugs. It recommends a shift away from strict prohibition regimes in favor of public health policies to decrease demand, prevent drug abuse, and treat addiction.

Ultimately, attempting to eradicate production of drug crops like coca leaf or opium poppy only displaces the threat and leaves impoverished farmers with poorly implemented alternative livelihood strategies. Furthermore, methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in the past five years, which may account for much of the reduction in use of opiates and cocaine. Given resource constraints, law enforcement agencies must also target drug traffickers consecutively, which creates a feeding frenzy as groups fight to replace the arrested group and leads to exponential violence without decreasing the threat to the community. Finally, by illegalizing supply without devoting equal resources to cutting demand, the current strategy provides an extraordinary incentive to traffickers and producers to provide the drugs to users who are willing to pay high prices because the drugs are hard to come by.

No: Opponents of legalization argue that the greatest costs of drug use are not caused by prohibition regimes, but rather by the drugs themselves. Reducing demand is not possible without limiting drug availability. “When illegal drugs are readily available, the likelihood increases that they will be abused,” explains the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. When China was not able to regulate the supply of opium in 1900, for example, fully 25 percent of China’s population was addicted to opium. Aggregated estimates demonstrate [PDF] that the current strategy of strictly punishing the production or transport of opiates, cocaine, and amphetamine-type stimulants has decreased instances of their abuse by 40 percent over the past century—implying that prohibition regimes have markedly decreased drug use around the world.

Furthermore, opponents say that relaxing controls on supply and use of drugs will not reduce violence because criminality stems from the need to earn quick, large profits outside the law rather than the nature of the illicit product being sold. Drug traffickers “would simply find another commodity to export.” In addition, any relaxation of drug controls would still leave the drugs more heavily taxed or illegal—and therefore not disincentivize illicit trade in them, but only make them more readily available. Finally, theories that the government would benefit from taxing less dangerous drugs like marijuana, and shifting to prevention strategies instead, overlook the concerns that governments might be motivated to disregard the damage of addiction since higher levels of addiction would earn them more money.

Firearms Protocol

Should the United States sign the Firearms Protocol?

Yes: The UN Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime requires countries to adopt responsible legislation to prevent criminals from obtaining guns and implement controls to be able to trace firearms after they are manufactured. The United States helped draft the Firearms Protocol, but has not yet become a party to it. Doing so would not threaten the legal sale and purchase of guns in the United States, nor threaten Second Amendment constitutional rights to bear arms because it seeks only to decrease illicit trade in firearms through marking weapons, maintaining records on gun purchases, and improving licensing systems to prevent known criminals from purchasing weapons. Licit trade would thus not be curtailed. It would, however, significantly decrease the illegal sale of weapons bought in the United States and then sold to cartels that are wreaking havoc in Mexico and Central America—as well as decrease the illicit flows from Central Europe that fuel African civil wars.

No: Opponents to the Firearms Protocol believe that the language is vague, and could be progressively interpreted to curtail individual rights to own guns in the United States. In addition, the protocol does not regulate state-to-state transfers of weapons, which significantly contribute to weapon flows fuelling intrastate conflicts. Opponents of the protocol therefore perceive that the ultimate goal of the protocol is to restrict civilian ownership of firearms. Some have even argued that the right to protect oneself by purchasing a personal firearm is a human right, and should therefore not be limited, no matter how well-intentioned the Firearms Protocol may be.

Sanctions on criminal groups

Should the United States increase the use of unilateral sanctions on transnational organized crime groups?

Yes: The use of economic sanctions against transnational organized crime (TOC) groups are an important recognition of the need to employ innovative strategies to target nonstate actors. Although terrorist groups and TOC groups do not possess similar goals, the structural similarities of these fluid networks imply that analogous mechanisms will be useful to fight both. The executive order freezes the assets in the United States of any individuals that are listed on the order’s annex, as well as freezes the assets of U.S. persons (citizen, resident, or person physically located in the United States) who conduct financial transactions with a designated group. The sanctions will impose a much-needed limit on the financial gains of TOC groups, argue supporters of the move.

The sanctions also bear weight because violators can be fined up to $1 million or sentenced to twenty years in prison, or both. Furthermore, under the executive order, the U.S. secretary of the treasury is granted the power to impose sanctions on other groups, facilitating an adaptive process of punishing groups that emerge.

No: Though economic sanctions appear to be a sharp tool against organized crime groups, in reality, the groups earn billions from trafficking in weapons and people, and other crimes. As a result, sanctions will not significantly cripple their operations or deter people from engaging in criminal behavior. Furthermore, foreign governments may lack the capacity or will to cooperate with U.S. efforts. For example, Japan reacted to the recent U.S. sanctions on Japanese yakuza with “shock and shame,” which will decrease the impact of U.S. economic sanctions on the group. It will also hinder the United States’ ability to identify further criminals on whom to impose sanctions because they rely on Japanese government intelligence. 

In addition, the targeted groups are “large and amorphous,” and will further burden U.S. and international businesses with cumbersome due diligence responsibilities. Moreover, the strategy aims to root out illicit networks with law enforcement, rather than cut demand for their illicit services or use more comprehensive strategies to fight them. Any success in debilitating one criminal group, will only lead another to take its place.

A cyber crime convention

Should the United States pursue a binding international convention related to cyber crime?

Yes: Proponents of a worldwide binding cyber crime convention claim that country-specific mandates will not address the threat because it is a quintessential transnational threat that requires global cooperation . The Internet is an open network and crimes can be perpetrated from within any country. More so than other crimes, the perpetrators of cyber crime directly and instantaneously attack people in foreign jurisdictions, and often target people in multiple countries at once. Cyber criminals can also act with extraordinary speed, increasing the need for swift judicial cooperation among multiple countries to identify criminals and shut down operations in a timely matter.

Extensive and integrated global cooperation is imperative to combat the threat. Bilateral arrangements between law enforcement or judicial agencies cannot keep up with cyber criminals, who operate without the impediment of national borders. A global convention would provide regulatory guidelines, a clearer definition of what constitutes cyber crime, and provide mechanisms for much-needed capacity building to help poor nations confront cyber crime. In addition, supporters believe a binding global treaty is feasible. The Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime, has been ratified and signed by countries outside of the European continent, for example.

No: Opponents of a binding international cyber crime convention argue that the inherent difficulty of investigating cyber crime would render enforcement of a potential convention nearly impossible. Many cyber crime attacks are never detected [PDF], and cyber criminals are able to mask their identity with relative ease. Moreover, monitoring nations’ compliance with a global cyber crime convention is unrealistic as the technology used to conduct cyber crime—such as computer viruses, worms, denial of service attacks, scripts—changes [PDF] so rapidly.

In addition, efforts to control cyber crime threaten freedom of speech and open the door to invasions of private citizens’ privacy, as well as impose limits on the sharing of information via the internet. Enforcement of anti–cyber crime regulations would almost certainly impose [PDF] heavy burdens on the private sector, and opponents of a global accord argue that independent businesses and citizens are better placed to regulate cyber crime themselves. For example, banks have the motivation and funds to invest in protecting their systems and international regulations would do little to improve on their efforts.

Expand CICIG

Should the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) model be expanded for broader anticorruption efforts?

Yes: Supporters of CICIG argue that it is one of the most successful anticorruption initiatives, and should be replicated outside Guatemala or expanded into a regional model. CICIG was first initiated [PDF] by the Guatemalan human rights ombudsman and subsequently earned support from the Guatemalan “government, civil society, institutions for the defense of human rights, UN agencies in Guatemala, and the churches” [PDF]. Because of this local support, CICIG has been better integrated [PDF] into the domestic judicial system. UN support for CICIG, and its hybrid structure that includes international investigators and prosecutors, are also innovative mechanisms that increased its effectiveness and legitimacy.

By 2010, CICIG cooperation with Guatemalan prosecutors and investigators had led to the arrest of a former president for embezzlement, two former national police chiefs for drug connections, former defense officials for fraud, as well as ousted thousands of policemen, ten prosecutors, three supreme court justices, and an attorney general. Advocates of CICIG have lauded the program for its aggressive anticorruption efforts and for raising public awareness of organized crime. In 2010, Honduras and El Salvador consulted with the United States to tentatively establish country-specific models based on CICIG. Although the proposal has yet to come to fruition, supporters argue that it is the most effective method for combating corruption to date, and should be expanded to the region.

No: Critics argue that the CICIG model is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable for several reasons. First, CICIG was formed at the request of the Guatemalan government; it is unlikely that other countries known for similarly high levels of corruption would voluntarily invite the UN to encroach on their national sovereignty. Second, the model is predicated on strong cooperation between the UN and the national government, but CICIG faced significant domestic resistance in Guatemala. The former head of CICIG resigned in 2010, arguing that the Guatemalan government had not fulfilled promises to reform the justice system, particularly its failure to adopt stronger anticrime and anticorruption legislation. The Commission suffered from poor oversight, and has conducted investigations in cases where “it has no business.” The program has also been accused of interfering with Guatemala’s justice agenda rather than helping bolster it and has not managed to get anticorruption legislation through the Guatemalan legislature. In addition, some contend that the body has disproportionately focused on high-profile arrests and prosecutions, skirting its mandate to transfer technical capacities to Guatemalan officials, which is critical to long-term sustainability and future progress. As a result of these serious flaws, CICIG was less popular than the corrupt Guatemalan attorney-general’s office in October 2011 polls.

Recent Developments

UNODC launches anti-counterfeit campaign

January 2014

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a global campaign to educate consumers about the highly lucrative trade of counterfeit goods. The campaign, titled “Don’t Buy Into Organized Crime,” aims to raise awareness about the economic, social, and environmental impact of the illicit counterfeit goods trade and the transnational organized crime that such goods may fund. UNODC estimates that the counterfeit business amounts to $250 billion each year. A report [PDF] released by the campaign highlights the connections between counterfeit goods, corruption, and organized criminal groups, such as the Triads and Yakuza in Asia.

China crushes six tons of confiscated elephant ivory

January 2014

In a show of its commitment to international efforts to combat the illegal trade of ivory, China held a public ceremony to destroy six tons of ivory seized by Chinese authorities. The event came on the heels of a similar event in the United States, where U.S. officials crushed six tons of ivory in November 2013. Although the ivory trade was banned by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989, the illicit trade of ivory persists: according to a 2013 United Nations report [PDF], elephant poaching and ivory trafficking have increased in recent years. Some experts have criticized the destruction of ivory stockpiles, noting that these symbolic acts do little to combat the ivory trade and may in fact have the unintended consequence of increasing demand.


Marijuana legalized in Colorado

January 2014

On January 1, 2014, a Colorado state law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana went into effect. The first of its kind in the United States, the law permits state-licensed marijuana retailers to sell up to one ounce of marijuana to residents of Colorado who are 21 or older. Although cannabis remains illegal under U.S. federal law, the Obama administration has indicated that states will be given the freedom to determine their own laws on recreational and marijuana. Similar developments are taking place in Washington state, where retailers will be authorized to sell marijuana for recreational use later in 2014. Some experts contend that the legalization of marijuana in the United States will undercut Mexican drug cartels’ profits, while others doubt that Colorado’s statute will have any significant impact on transnational drug trafficking.

Microsoft and FBI hack back

June 2013

In its effort to disrupt cybercrime, Microsoft took part in "Operation Citadel" to disrupt more than a thousand botnets.“Botnet” is a term that refers to a network of computers that have been targeted by malicious software (malware) that allows criminals to commit crimes—e.g., spread viruses, attack other computers, commit fraud—over the internet without the users’ awareness. The botnets in question are allegedly responsible for $500 million in losses to financial institutions, banks, and consumers and are composed of over five million personal computers. Operation Citadel was supported by the FBI and other government agencies.

Wildlife crime and illegal forestry

April 2013

A United Nations conference in Vienna suggested that wildlife crime and illegal forestry has become the fourth-largest transnational crime in the world behind illicit trade in drugs, arms, and human beings, respectively. While the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the global trade is worth $17 billion annually, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggests that the illegal trade in wildlife and wood-based products in the Asia-Pacific region alone is worth $19.5 billion.

Sudanese ammunition linked to Ivorian civil war

April 2013

According to a United Nations report, army forces under the command of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo used ammunition rounds produced in the Sudan during the four-month long civil war in the country. The United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) contends that these rounds were likely trafficked into the country following French and UN intervention on the side of newly installed president Outtara. If proven, the trafficking of the weapons would represent a breach of the arms embargo first imposed in 2004 on the Ivory Coast.

Transnational crime in East Asia

April 2013

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime completed its first comprehensive study on transnational organized crime threats in East Asia and the Pacific in April 2013. The report, which studies twelve selected contraband markets including trafficking in humans, narcotics, stolen goods, and environmental products, found that these markets are worth $90 billion each year. A third of this value stems from drug trafficking with sixty-five metric tons of heroin worth $16.3 billion flowing through the region in 2011. The report also highlights the growing threat posed by fraudulent medicines and environmental crime related to extractive industries.

Options for Strengthening The Global Regime Against Transnational Crime


U.S. and international action are needed to manage the threat of transnational organized crime. These recommendations reflect the views of Stewart M. Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program, and James Cockayne, codirector of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation.

In the near term, the United States and its partners should pursue the following initiatives to bolster global anticrime efforts.

A trust fund for independent data

Improve data with a trust fund for independent research

The United States and its partners require more reliable data on transnational crime to appropriately allocate resources where they will achieve maximum impact—and reduce spending on ineffective programs. To accomplish this, the United States should work with likeminded governments to establish a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) trust fund to improve data collection on a range of transnational criminal issues. UNODC currently compiles global statistics on drugs, human trafficking, and corruption, but the mechanisms are flawed due to limited in-country resources, manipulation of data, and low levels of participation from local institutions. The trust fund can be used to build the technical expertise of local staff that collect and analyze the data, and create a mechanism for ongoing training as noted in a report [PDF] by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs.  An effective example for data analysis that could serve as a model is the “crime observatories [PDF]” program, managed by the International Center for the Prevention of Crime, which aim to improve the analysis on criminal data.

Learn from counterterrorism

Draw on lessons from counterterrorism efforts

The U.S. experience fighting global terrorist networks since 9/11 can provide important lessons on how to weaken transnational organized crime groups. The United States should press to apply to transnational crime successful initiatives from the counterterrorism regime, such as the systems of joint threat analysis and international and public-private relationships, that the United States built to tackle the threat of terrorism. The U.S. government has already recognized how some counterterror strategies can apply to anticrime efforts, like the use of sanctions against criminal networks that resembled sanctions on al-Qaeda. It should push for broader international cooperation to reinforce their impact.

In addition, the Financial Action Task Force recently combined its standards for money laundering and terrorist financing, which will effectively require states to improve general anti–money laundering regulations in order to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on counterterrorist financing. The United States should both revise domestic frameworks to comply with the updated standards, and insist that other nations follow suit. Finally, the United States should elevate the importance of combating international criminal networks in diplomatic relationships with existing allies in the “global war on terror,” noting that the two are increasingly interconnected, as both sets of illicit actors increasingly form tactical alliances and appropriate one another’s methodologies.

Anti–money laundering regulations

Bolster anti–money laundering regulations

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank estimate that between $2 and $3 trillion is laundered each year. But worldwide, only $170 million is detected and stopped annually. There are a number of areas where the U.S. government could work more closely with the financial sector to crack down on money laundering and address its intertwining with politics. Positive steps would include closer scrutiny of banking practices of public officials globally, as well as partnerships to develop more effective supervision of informal remittance networks and money transfer systems.

Furthermore, current anti–money laundering standards in the United States require banks to know their customers. But evidence of significant illicit transactions suggests that these regulations need to be implemented more faithfully. The United States should also work more assiduously with international partners to clamp down on the use of offshore tax havens by U.S. corporations or individuals, since such havens are often used to launder the proceeds of illicit trade.

In the longer term, the United States and its international partners should consider the following steps:

Streamline capacity building

Streamline U.S. government anticrime capacity building

The United States should streamline existing capacity-building efforts, which are currently scattered across numerous domestic and international agencies. Currently, the U.S. Department of State bureaus of international narcotics and law and counterterrorism, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Institute for Justice, and Department of Defense—in addition to an array of international programs—all conduct operations to bolster the ability of developing countries to fight transnational crime. Building on the 2011 Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, the U.S. government should compile a database mapping its efforts to counter transnational crime across regions and issue areas, and use the results to improve coordination and reduce duplication of efforts.

Evidence-based drug policy

Support evidence-based drug policy

The United States should support an evidence-based approach to tackling illicit drugs—and end its inflexible commitment to prohibition regimes that prioritize supply reduction over analysis of pricing incentives, strategies for cutting demand, and harm reduction programs. For example, heroin substitution programs have “led [PDF] to an overall reduction in the number of people addicted…[and] reduced levels of other criminal activity associated with the market.” Generally speaking, global prohibition regimes perversely inflate the price of illegal drugs, creating tremendous market incentives for people to produce and transport these forbidden commodities. Studies [PDF] of alternative anti-drug policies have often proved not only successful in tempering incentives to sell illicit drugs, but have also not resulted in increased drug use. At times, these policies have actually decreased violence more than law enforcement interventions. These were the conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose nineteen members included a former U.S. secretary of state and former U.S. chairman of the Federal Reserve, and four former heads of state. The U.S. government must engage in a more open debate about policies to manage drug abuse.

Combat impunity

Combat criminal impunity

In countries with fractured judicial systems, weak rule of law, or widespread corruption, violent criminal organizations can operate with impunity. The United States and its international partners should explore the possibility of setting up a complementary, international judicial framework that could prosecute criminals if local judicial systems are deemed incapable of holding a fair trial. The United Nations should revisit relevant early debates about the International Criminal Court (ICC), which some originally proposed should also try drug traffickers. Even as human trafficking has been labeled a crime against humanity, and as the number of people murdered by criminal organizations surges in parts of the world, many criminal groups operate with impunity [PDF]. In these instances, the United States should consider an international alternative to local courts. This might include prosecuting egregious violent crime under the mandate of the ICC, establishing a distinct body to try such cases, or setting up hybrid international-national courts.

Core Documents



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883, revised 1967, 1979)

Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883, revised 1967, 1979)

Protects all industrial property rights, such as patents, marks, industrial design, utility models, trade names, geographical indications, and repression of unfair competition. Requires state parties to provide the same rights and right of property to citizens of other member countries that it does to its own.

Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (1891, revised 1900, 1911, 1925, 1934, 1957, 1967, 1979)

Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (1891, revised 1900, 1911, 1925, 1934, 1957, 1967, 1979)

Established Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks, allowing one trademark application to be automatically guaranteed in multiple countries if approved. 1981 protocol removed barriers including limited flexibility in registration requirements and time frames, and mandate to submit applications in French.

Hague International Opium Convention (1912)

Hague International Opium Convention (1912)

Prohibited manufacture, distribution, selling, and trade of opium and other drugs for any use other than medical. First official declaration on dangers of opium smoking and other drugs, and their nonmedical trade. 1925 revisions introduced statistical control system overseen by Permanent Central Opium Board, recognized today as International Narcotics Control Board.

Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1951)

Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1951)

Consolidates relevant international agreements struck between 1904 and 1951. States must punish anyone who entices another for prostitution or who exploits prostitution of another, even with consent. First international agreement that prostitution and human trafficking are “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person.” Prohibits brothels, prostitution, and expulsion of offenders.

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (1968)

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (1968)

Includes measures to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into criminal hands. Prohibits five recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS) from supplying nonnuclear weapon states (NNWS) with nuclear weapons-related material or technology. NWS pledge to disarm completely. NNWS guaranteed access to civilian nuclear technology, and accept safeguards. Treaty extended indefinitely during 1995 review conference.

Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971)

Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971)

Introduced international control system over a number of synthetic drugs according to abuse potential and therapeutic value. First international agreement on drug prohibition to reference the importance of treatment, prevention, and education.

United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1975)

United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1975)

Replaced and consolidated existing drug control agreements into one framework.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (1975)

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (1975)

Protects wild animals and plants from overexploitation through international trade. Considered strongest existing measure to combat environmental crime. Protects roughly 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants. Appendices list species threatened with extinction, prohibits trade in such circumstances. Controls trade in species on brink of entering threatened list.

United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988)

United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988)

Requires state parties to criminalize certain drug-related activities, including diversion of precursor chemicals, and to cooperate internationally to interdict illegal drug shipments. Requires countries to seize monetary proceeds from drug offenses, and to pass legislation allowing asset freezes and seizure.

Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (1992)

Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (1992)

Created legal framework to interdict, detain, and prosecute terrorists, pirates, and other criminals. Ensures that all appropriate action is taken against unlawful acts committed against ships. Includes seizure of ships by force, any violence against passengers aboard ships, as well as harmful tampering with ships.

Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)

Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)

Requires states to establish “protected areas” and regulate resources necessary for global biological diversity. State parties must ensure that activities under national jurisdiction or control do not harm “environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (1994)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (1994)

Governs (PDF) uses of the sea, such as illegal fishing, or illegal waste dumping at sea. Sets out international framework for suppression of piracy (PDF), requiring states to cooperate. Prohibits transporting of slaves. Decrees that any slave on board a ship is automatically free.

Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (1995)

Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (1995)

Established minimum standards for intellectual property rights, to be enforced by state parties. Covers broad range of goods, including pharmaceutical patents. Doha Declaration later clarified that TRIPS “does not and should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health” by using generic drugs.

United Nations General Assembly Guidelines on International Arms Transfers (1996)

United Nations General Assembly Guidelines on International Arms Transfers (1996)

Calls on states to recognize how arms transfers contribute to international crime and commit to eradicating illicit arms trafficking. Declares state responsibility to “exercise restraint” over arms, production, transfer, and procurement; to consider noneconomic factors when selling weapons (i.e. international security), and to recognize need for transparency in arms transfer.

Wassenaar Arrangement (1996)

Wassenaar Arrangement (1996)

Created global system for monitoring conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies.

United Nations General Assembly Special Session Political Declaration and Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development (1998)

United Nations General Assembly Special Session Political Declaration and Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development (1998)

Defines and develops concept of alternative development as key to combating illicit drug production. Calls on states to promote sustainable alternative livelihoods. Legitimizes eradication when organized crime groups involved in illicit crop cultivation, and when alternative sources of income exist.

United Nations General Assembly Special Session Political Declaration and Action Plan Against Money Laundering (1998)

United Nations General Assembly Special Session Political Declaration and Action Plan Against Money Laundering (1998)

Broadened UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Anti-Money-Laundering Unit mandate to extend to all serious crime, not just drug offenses.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention (1999)

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention (1999)

Requires parties to enact legislation criminalizing bribery of foreign public officials, as well as any complicity in acts of bribery, “including incitement, aiding and abetting, or authorization of a bribery act.” Signing required for OECD membership.

Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (1999)

Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (1999)

Defines “worst forms” of labor as sale and trafficking of children, forced labor, and recruitment for use in armed conflict.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) List of Uncooperative Tax Havens (2000)

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) List of Uncooperative Tax Havens (2000)

Identifies tax havens or jurisdictions with tax practices that do not adequately combat money laundering. Model Agreement on Exchange of Information on Tax Matters developed standards for effective multilateral information exchange.

United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

First legally binding and multisector international instrument on transnational organized crime (TOC). Defines organized crime group. Requires member states to enact domestic legislation criminalizing membership in organized crime groups, money laundering, corruption and obstruction of justice. Promotes cooperation for international legal assistance, law enforcement cooperation, and extradition.

Protocol Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Firearms protocol) (2001)

Protocol Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Firearms protocol) (2001)

Requires state parties to criminalize illicit manufacture and trafficking of firearms. Promotes international cooperation on combating small arms trade. Requires member states to implement national systems for licensing and marking firearms and to “maintain inventories of weapons” stockpiles. Contains licensing, marking, and tracing provisions.

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons to the United Nations (TIP protocol) to UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2001)

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons to the United Nations (TIP protocol) to UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2001)

Broadly defines human trafficking as “recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of persons, by… coercion… for... exploitation,” and established ultimate goal of harmonizing domestic legislation to criminalize it. Applies to trafficking committed across borders and within a state, and with or without participation of organized criminal groups.

United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects (PoA) (2001)

United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects (PoA) (2001)

Does not address (PDF) important issues including ammunitions, state-to state transfer, and transfer to nonstate actors. Lacks (PDF) clear benchmarks and a mechanism for sharing best practices to support implementation. Lacks oversight.

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR)1373 (2001)

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR)1373 (2001)

Calls on states to prevent, suppress, and criminalize the financing of terrorism.

Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime (2001)

Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime (2001)

Defines cyber crime offenses such as data interference, child pornography, and illegal interception. Provides a model for many other nations and regions of cybercrime international standards to apply. Additional protocol attempts to decrease xenophobia and racism on Internet.

Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2004)

Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2004)

Criminalizes “procurement... to obtain… financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a state.” Protects rights of migrants. State parties may request assistance of other state parties if it suspects a ship to be smuggling migrants.

A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (Report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel) (2004)

A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (Report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel) (2004)

Names transnational organized crime (TOC) as one of six major threats to international security. Mentions drug trafficking as a security and global health threat. Recommends bolstering state capacity and improving coordination between agencies and countries. Calls on all UN members to accede to and implement conventions on TOC and corruption, and for monitoring mechanisms for such treaties.

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (2004)

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (2004)

Calls on countries to implement domestic legislation to prevent nuclear proliferation. Established 1540 Committee to monitor implementation. Governs nuclear sales to nonstate actors.

United Nations Convention Against Corruption (2005)

United Nations Convention Against Corruption (2005)

Requires state parties to criminalize transfer of proceeds from a crime, and other aspects of money laundering. Calls for states to establish financial intelligence units. Does not define corruption. Criminalizes wide range of corrupt acts. Requires state parties to return ill-gotten gains to country of origin.

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1617 (2005)

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1617 (2005)

Urges member states to implement Financial Action Task Force Forty Recommendations on Anti–Money Laundering. Expands on counterterrorist financing measures. Reinforced by UN General Assembly in 2006 (Resolution 60/288).

Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) (drafted in 2006, not yet in force)

Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) (drafted in 2006, not yet in force)

Would ban production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes like highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, which are essential for building nuclear weapons and powering nuclear reactors. Effective control and elimination of fissile materials essential to nuclear disarmament.

Arms Trade Treaty (proposed 2009, not yet in force)

Proposed to reduce irresponsible trade of conventional arms and ammunitions as well as control and regulate the illicit transfer, spread, production, and dispersion of small arms and ammunition. Calls for comprehensive (PDF) and legally binding international framework.

Salvador Declaration (2010)

Salvador Declaration (2010)

Calls on member states to adapt their criminal justice systems to a changing world, and to respect and protect human rights in preventing crime and administering criminal justice.

Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) (completed in 2010, not yet in force)

Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) (completed in 2010, not yet in force)

Attempts to establish an international legal framework against the violation of intellectual property rights (IPR) and to promote cross border protection of IPR.

Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds From Crime (1993)

Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds From Crime (1993)

Clarifies terms of international cooperation and mutual assistance in investigating, locating, seizing, and confiscating illicit profits from transnational crime. Lays out obligations related to confiscating illicit profit, including carrying out provisional actions (e.g. freezing or seizing of assets), and assisting in identifying and tracking suspicious cross-border financial activity.

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1993)

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1993)

Attempts to expand regional cooperation related to the prevention and criminalization of drug trafficking and drug abuse. Clarifies interregional cooperation measures related to mutual legal assistance, prosecution, and the exchange of scientific and technical data related to eradication of plants “containing narcotic or psychotropic substances.”

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (1996)

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (1996)

Clarifies channels for regional cooperation related to certain cases of criminal investigations, prosecutions, and proceedings. Addresses cross-border collaboration related to notification of judicial action, gathering testimony, locating witnesses, freezing of assets, searches and seizures, transmittal of official documents, and the transfer of detained individuals, among other issues.

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention against Corruption (1997)

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention against Corruption (1997)

Dedicated to expanding parties’ capacity to “detect, punish, and eradicate corruption,” as well as increasing regional cooperation in anticorruption efforts. Applies to cases of corruption of public officials, transnational bribery, and illicit enrichment. First international anticorruption convention. Establishes legal framework related to cross-border investigations and adjudication.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons (1998)

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons (1998)

Declaration by parties not to import, export, or manufacture light weapons for the duration of three years.

Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (2002)

Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (2002)

Requires states to adopt necessary legislation or national measures to criminalize both “active and passive bribery.” Applies to bribery of domestic and foreign public officials as well as assemblies. Also applies to private sector, international courts, and international parliamentary assemblies. Clarifies mechanisms for facilitating adjudication of bribery cases including extradition, information-sharing, and confiscation of illicit profit.

Council of Europe Civil Convention (2003)

Council of Europe Civil Convention (2003)

Addresses right of those individuals affected by corruption to receive fair compensation and act as whistleblowers without fear of retaliation. Defines corruption as “requesting, offering, giving or accepting directly or indirectly, a bribe or any undue advantage or prospect thereof, which distorts the proper performance or behavior required of the recipient of the bribe, the undue advantage of or the prospect thereof.”

Association of South East Nation (ASEAN) Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children (2004)

Enumerates potential pathways for cooperation among ASEAN member states to prevent and punish trafficking of women and children. Includes information sharing, increasing cross-border cooperation in document verification, distinguishing victims from perpetrators, and building a regional counter-trafficking network.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol Against Corruption (2005)

Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol Against Corruption (2005)

Calls for variety of national level reforms to prevent and punish corruption, and is chiefly targeted toward addressing the corruption of public officials. Attempts to harmonize anticorruption legislation across region.

Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly Resolution 2141 (2005)

Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly Resolution 2141 (2005)

Established Inter-American Program for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants, Including Migrant Workers and Their Families. Enumerates thirty-three activities for protection of human rights of migrants in different areas of general secretariat of OAS. Identifies smuggling of migrants and trafficking of persons as integral.

African Union (AU) Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2006)

African Union (AU) Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2006)

Addresses a variety of corruption practices, including laundering, bribing of public officials, illicit enrichment, funding of political parties, public-private-sector relationships, and confiscation of proceeds from corruption, among other issues. Covers preventing, adjudicating, and criminalizing corruption. Links participation of civil society and media to combating corruption.

Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control, and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa (2006)

Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control, and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa (2006)

Addresses illicit trafficking, manufacture, and possession of small arms and light weapons (SALW) within Great Lakes Region and Horn of Africa. Calls for national-level reforms on a variety of SALW issues including trafficking, broker regulations, tracking and markings, disposal, import-export controls, voluntary surrender, and implementation of community awareness programs.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2007)

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2007)

Calls on “sending and receiving member states” (in terms of migrant workers) to protect fundamental rights and dignity of migrant workers. Addresses issues including employment rights, repatriation, undocumented workers, and need to implement anti-trafficking and smuggling efforts.


Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds From Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism (2008)

Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds From Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism (2008)

Updates and revises 1990 convention primarily in response to challenges posed by transnational terrorism. First binding international accord to address money laundering and terrorism financing. Details processes for freezing, seizing, and confiscating illicit proceeds.

Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons (2009)

Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons (2009)

Institutes arms transfer ban among member states with possibility of exemption for certain defense and security needs; law enforcement, and participation in peace support operations. Prohibits arms transfer to nonstate actors without approval of importing country.

Council of Europe Convention on the Counterfeiting of Medical Products and Similar Crimes Involving Threats to Public Health (MEDICRIME Convention) (Adopted 2010)

Council of Europe Convention on the Counterfeiting of Medical Products and Similar Crimes Involving Threats to Public Health (MEDICRIME Convention) (Adopted 2010)

Proposed treaty would be first to address counterfeit medicines. Defines counterfeit, medical product, and victim. Criminalizes manufacture and trafficking of counterfeit medicines; falsification of documents related to counterfeit medicine; and unauthorized production, supply, and marketing of medicines or medical devices not meeting basic requirements.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Declaration on Small Arms And Light Weapons (2011)

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Declaration on Small Arms And Light Weapons (2011)

Requests development of national action plans to combat illicit weapons and harmonize legislation across region. Calls for implementation of relevant international and regional small arms and light weapons instruments.


For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) (1914)

International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) (1914)

Supports national police forces worldwide by providing resources and services such as training, investigative support, and access to secure databases and lines of communication.

World Bank (1944)

World Bank (1944)

Promotes economic and sustainable development worldwide by combating corruption and advocating for increased transparency and accountability.  Partners with international organizations on anticorruption and asset recovery initiatives, such as the StAR Initiative. Works with International Monetary Fund to produce anti-money-laundering assessments.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1944)

International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1944)

Provides policy advice and technical assistance to improve accountability, increase transparency, and combat corruption and money laundering. Conducts financial assessments and monitors compliance with international anti–money-laundering standards.  Partners with other international institutions to advance initiatives such as the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group and StAR initiative.

International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (1865, became United Nations agency 1947)

International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (1865, became United Nations agency 1947)

Promotes and coordinates international cooperation on Internet and radio communication standards. Issue-specific study groups collect data, provide research and analysis, and publish recommendations. Study Group Seventeen addresses cybersecurity and cyber crime standards for domestic legislation.

World Customs Organization (WCO) (1947)

World Customs Organization (WCO) (1947)

Intergovernmental organization dedicated to customs issues. Develops global standards, coordinates national policies, and facilitates international trade. Spearheaded anti–money-laundering, counterfeiting, and piracy initiatives.

United Nations Police (UNPOL) (1960)

United Nations Police (UNPOL) (1960)

Part of UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Restructures, trains, and assists domestic law enforcement agencies to prevent and combat organized crime in transitional and post-conflict states. Works closely with Interpol and other UN organizations on anticrime capacity-building initiatives.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (1965)

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (1965)

Focused on economic development and achieving Millennium Development Goals. Partners with UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in anticorruption campaigns. Helps member states implement UN Convention Against Corruption. Houses anticorruption portal that provides news and research for member states.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) (1967)

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) (1967)

UN agency dedicated to use of intellectual property, such as patents, copyright, trademarks, and designs.

UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) 1967

UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) 1967

Assists intergovernmental, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations draft and implement policies to prevent crime and promote criminal justice. Collects and analyzes data on international policies and criminal justice systems. Facilitates international law enforcement cooperation and judicial assistance between and among states.

International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) (1968)

International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) (1968)

Monitors implementation of UN drug conventions and treaties. Works with national governments to identify violations and address weaknesses in countries’ narcotics control systems. Ensures that member states have adequate supplies of licit drugs. Assesses precursor chemicals to determine whether they should be subject to controls.

United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) (1972)

United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) (1972)

Promotes international environmental standards. Coordinates member states’ environmental policies. Provides technical assistance. Works closely with  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora secretariat to monitor implementation. Maintains databases on environmental trade and species. Supports Green Customs Initiative to prevent and detect illegal trade in plants.

Financial Action Task Force (1989)

Financial Action Task Force (1989)

Policymaking body charged with developing and promoting international standards to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. Issues recommendations for anti–money laundering legislation and enforcement. Established financial intelligence units (FIUs) in several countries to protect financial institutions from criminal abuse.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (1997)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (1997)

Central UN agency on transnational organized crime. Assists member states to combat illegal drugs, arms, resources, and human trafficking; migrant smuggling; terrorism; piracy; and corruption. Charged with monitoring compliance, implementation, and enforcement of international treaties and conventions by member states. Provides capacity-building assistance and technical expertise, such as drafting legislation and creating national anticrime strategies.


Organization of American States (OAS) (1948)

Organization of American States (OAS) (1948)

Promotes peace, security, stability, and cooperation among member states. Has sought to address transnational crime, human trafficking, and narcotrafficking, and corruption through various treaties and conventions.

Council of Europe (COE) (1949)

Council of Europe (COE) (1949)

Promotes cooperation among member states on democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.  Has produced numerous treaties on rule of law, organized crime, and other issues pertaining to transnational crime, such as the Medicrime Convention on Counterfeit Medicines.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (1967)

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (1967)

Promotes economic growth, security, and stability among member states. Has passed numerous treaties and conventions against transnational organized crime, corruption, and trafficking.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) (1972)

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) (1972)

Works to accelerate economic development, interstate trade, and coordinate foreign policy objectives among member states. Sponsors agency programs to fight transnational crime and reduce flow of illicit arms into the region. Crime Prevention Action Plan aims to address social development roots of crime.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (1973)

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (1973)

Promotes economic, social, and political security among participating states. Works to combat illicit arms and human trafficking, corruption, environmental resource management, and terrorism.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (1975)

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (1975)

Promotes economic cooperation among member states. Adopted Abuja Declaration in 2008 and Regional Action Plan on Transnational Organized Crime in 2010, which particularly aimed to combat illicit drug trafficking and abuse. Adopted moratorium on import and export of small arms to control their illicit flows.

European Union (EU) (1993)

European Union (EU) (1993)

Regional partnership promoting economic and political interdependency and cooperation. Promotes collective law enforcement and judicial cooperation to prevent illicit trade and trafficking.

Europol (1998)

Europol (1998)

Law enforcement agency of the European Union dedicated to combating organized crime and terrorism.  Gathers, analyzes, and shares criminal information. Operates training programs.  Coordinates multinational operations.

African Union (AU) (2002)

African Union (AU) (2002)

Regional organization promoting peace, security, stability, good governance, and human rights. Has adopted numerous conventions and treaties against drug, human, and arms trafficking, as well as corruption.


For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (1946)

United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (1946)

Established under the UN Economic and Social Council . Central UN policymaking body on drug issues. Monitors implementation of international drug control conventions.

United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) (1991)

United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) (1991)

Receives reports and consolidates data on official international weapons transfers.

Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CPCJ) (1992)

Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CPCJ) (1992)

Principal UN policymaking body for criminal justice issues. Drafts international instruments regarding crime prevention and criminal justice, and monitors the implementation of existing relevant treaties. Mandates and priorities include action against transnational crime, such as organized crime and money laundering. Reviews related standards and norms, and implementation in member states.

United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Program Network of Institutes (1992)

United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Program Network of Institutes (1992)

Seeks to support international agencies and communities with criminal prevention and criminal justice issues.

Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units (FIU) (1995)

Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units (FIU) (1995)

Informal network designed to improve, expand, and systematize exchange of information between FIUs regarding money laundering and terrorism financing. Forum for FIUs to report on best practices.  Promotes establishment of FIUs and coordinates training programs. Each member must adhere to Egmont principles.

International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEA) (1995)

International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEA) (1995)

Facilitates international cooperation with U.S. law enforcement and promotes collective action among global law enforcement to fight transnational crime and terrorism through the sharing of knowledge and training.

Experts Group on Transnational Organized Crime (Lyon Group) (1996)

Experts Group on Transnational Organized Crime (Lyon Group) (1996)

Group of experts gathered by G8 to find ways to fight transnational organized crime (TOC). Merged in 2001 with Roma Group to fight international terrorism, its primary focus today.
Provided recommendations to G8 on how to fight TOC. Subgroups later created to address specific TOC activities (e.g. judicial cooperation in investigations, high-tech crime, immigration fraud, human trafficking).

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Program Against Money Laundering (GPML) (1997)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Program Against Money Laundering (GPML) (1997)

Assists UN member states accede to and implement international frameworks to combat money laundering. Assists member states detect, seize, and confiscate illicit proceeds.  Supplies technical assistance and expertise to help countries develop law enforcement and criminal justice capacity to fight financial crime. Supports improvement of financial intelligence units.  Develops model civil and criminal legislation to promote national compliance with international standards.

Container Security Initiative (2002)

Container Security Initiative (2002)

Aims to identify and inspect all shipments to United States that pose risk for terrorism before they leave foreign ports.

Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) (2003)

Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) (2003)

Establishes interdiction principles of suspected illegal shipments of WMD and related items.

International Tracing Instrument (ITI) (2005)

International Tracing Instrument (ITI) (2005)

Aims to identify and trace weapons’ path from source to destination. Complies with nations’ implementation efforts of Firearms protocol.

World Customs Organization (WCO) Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (SAFE) (2005)

World Customs Organization (WCO) Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (SAFE) (2005)

Establishes seventeen standards for safe, transparent trade and for combating fraudulent activities, such as cargo inspections or customs-to-customs informational exchange. Provides technical and capacity-building assistance. Encourages cooperation between customs administrations.

International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) (2006)

International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) (2006)

Launched by World Health Organization (WHO), aims to develop international and regional networks to facilitate information sharing on counterfeit drug market.

Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) Initiative (2007)

Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) Initiative (2007)

Provides assistance and training to developing countries to prevent money laundering and to help recover stolen assets. Four pillars include empowerment, partnerships, innovation, and international standards.

Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) (2007)

Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) (2007)

Promotes awareness, technical support and services to states and nonstate actors to combat human trafficking worldwide.

International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) (2011)

International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) (2011)

Works with wildlife law enforcement to improve coordinated response against serious wildlife crimes.

Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011)

Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011)

Aims to bring an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce harm caused by drugs to people and societies to international level. Published [PDF] 2011 report encouraging experiments with decriminalization and legal regulation in certain states. Critics countered that lessening the fight to reduce availability would lead to more drug use.

Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) (1986)

Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) (1986)

Forum for members in Western Hemisphere to build capacity to combat drug abuse through action programs, research, and evaluation standards.

Organization of American States (OAS) Meetings of Ministers of Justice or Other Ministers or Attorneys General of the Americas (REMJA) (1996)

Organization of American States (OAS) Meetings of Ministers of Justice or Other Ministers or Attorneys General of the Americas (REMJA) (1996)

Seeks to address problems of judicial cooperation. Addresses mutual assistance in criminal matters, extradition, penitentiary policies, cyber crime, and forensic sciences.

Council of Europe Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti–Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL) (1997)

Council of Europe Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti–Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL) (1997)

Evaluates members based on compliance with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations and other international standards in relation to money laundering and terrorism funding.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (1997)

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (1997)

Seeks to strengthen regional coordination and enforcement on matters relating to transnational crime.


Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) Anti-Money Laundering Unit  (1999)

Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) Anti-Money Laundering Unit  (1999)

Aims to design policies to improve anti–money-laundering and terrorism financing efforts. Trains law enforcement to combat money laundering and terrorism financing.

Plan Colombia (1999)

Plan Colombia (1999)

Developed by Colombian president in 1999, and supported by U.S. funding and technical training since. Seeks to promote peace process, combat narcotics trade, bolster Colombian economy, and strengthen democracy.

Inter-American Working Group on Cyber Crime (1999)

Inter-American Working Group on Cyber Crime (1999)

Works to bolster cyber crime prevention, investigation, and prosecutions. Facilitates information sharing and provides recommendations for how to improve cyber crime cooperation in Western Hemisphere and between OAS and other international organizations.

Anti-Corruption Initiative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)/Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the Asia-Pacific Region (1999)

Anti-Corruption Initiative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)/Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the Asia-Pacific Region (1999)

Works to implement Anti-Corruption Action Plan for Asia and the Pacific  agreed upon in 2001.

Third Border Initiative (2004)

Third Border Initiative (2004)

Aims to provide protection in Caribbean and United States from terrorist and criminal attacks.

Merida Initiative (2007)

Merida Initiative (2007)

United States supported initiative to bolster fight against narcotrafficking and associated violence in primarily Mexico. Provides some aid to Central America through Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Aims to disrupt organized criminal groups, bolster institutions, construct “a twenty-first century border” between the United States and Mexico, and build “strong and resilient communities.”

International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) (2008)

International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) (2008)

Created at request of Guatemalan government. Hybrid judicial model where international prosecutors and investigators work alongside Guatemalan officials to help investigate corruption and bolster domestic capacity to fight corruption.


For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 


War on Drugs-United States

In the past four decades, the United States has allocated an estimated $2.5 trillion in educational programs, foreign military assistance, and policing efforts in its war on drugs. But a number of critics—from law enforcement officials to educational professionals—believe that the policy has failed, citing increasing drug use, racial inequalities caused by the war on drugs, and international violence resulting from it.

The U.S. government has been the driving force in a global effort to reduce supply, transport, and sale of illicit drugs since the early twentieth century, when it spearheaded the first international treaty to reduce the availability of narcotics and cocaine. In 1973, the modern concept of the war on drugs was born when then U.S. president Richard Nixon announced a “global war on the drug menace.” Because of the war on drug’s global nature, in June 2011, a former UN secretary-general, three former Latin American presidents, a former U.S. federal reserve chairman, and an acting Greek prime minister joined together to study the policy, and ultimately concluded that it required rethinking.

Criminal Violence-Mexico

Since 2006, drug related violence is estimated to have killed more than fifty thousand people in Mexico. Criminal violence perpetrated by drug gangs and cartels has manifested through aggravated theft, kidnappings, targeted assassinations of public officials, and even publicized beheadings among the country’s many rival gangs. Mexico remains a major transit point for drug smuggling and illicit weapons smuggling from the United States to Central America. Mexican-based gangs also operate throughout Central America, contributing to “breathtaking levels” of violent crime in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The increase in violence correlates to Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s decision to deploy thousands of troops within the country to assist weak and underfunded local institutions “starved to dysfunction” by budgetary procedures.

Calderon counters that the policy will make Mexico safer in the long term and that easy purchase and transport of illicit weapons in the United States contributes significantly to the problem.

Opium Economy-Afghanistan

Afghanistan is estimated to be responsible for up to 90 percent of global opium production. In 2011, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated (PDF) that the net economic value of opium constituted15 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. Policies to reduce production have also proved challenging because many of Afghanistan’s farmers rely on opium production and would otherwise face extreme poverty, or because alternative opportunities have been destroyed by the ongoing conflict in the country. In addition, a UN study found that rates of addiction to opium, heroin, and other opiates are soaring within Afghanistan; heroin use alone increased by 140 percent over the past five years. To counter Afghanistan’s opium-dominated economy, the UNODC has launched a multiyear capacity-building project with the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Overall, the 2011 UNODC World Drug Report (PDF) estimates that there are 16.7 million opiate users worldwide. The production and export of opium in Afghanistan has fueled instability not only in that country, but also across its borders. In particular, opium plays a significant role in providing both funds for Afghanistan’s ongoing insurgency and resources for powerful transnational drug cartels.

Criminal Haven-Transnistria

The small separatist region of Transnistria, located between Ukraine and Moldova, has become a leading international transit center for smuggling and the sale of illicit goods. Although Transnistria declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, it lacks international recognition as an independent country and technically remains part of Moldova. Nevertheless, Oazu Nantoi, program director at the Institute for Public Policy in Moldova, calls Transnistria “a zone uncontrolled by any state.”

In particular, Transnistria’s ambiguous international status has effectively made it a haven for the smuggling of small arms and light weapons, fraudulent identification and financial documents, cigarettes, CDs, drugs, alcohol, and even human beings. The smuggling of weapons especially has garnered international attention as the country has an estimated forty-thousand-ton stockpile of weapons left from the Cold War as well as a functioning small arms production facility. Weapons linked to Transnistria have appeared in Chechnya, the Balkans, and other locales in Africa.

Illegal Logging-Cambodia

In response to an increasing demand for high-quality rosewood in Vietnam and China, illegal logging has spiked in Cambodia, often with the semiofficial backing from high-level Cambodian military and political officials. According to one nongovernmental organization, illegal logging operations are controlled by a “small kleptocratic mafia” in the country. Although Cambodia’s government has attempted to do more to address illegal logging, the practice nonetheless remains enticing for some of the poorest sectors of Cambodia’s population, who can profit substantially from smuggling rosewood. Over the years, Cambodia’s virgin forest cover has plummeted to 3.1 percent from a high of 70 percent in 1970.

According to the World Bank, illegal logging accounts (PDF) for $10 billion globally. Sadly, the protection of forests is a low priority on the global governance agenda, and to date efforts to create a global treaty that would protect forests from illicit activities remains unrealized. A study by the United Nations Environment Program further indicates that the cost of illegal logging is in the millions, costing governments much needed tax income from legitimate commercial logging activities.

Illicit Weapons-Libya

Following the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, the international community faced a new danger from the Qaddafi regime’s immense stockpiles of conventional and nonconventional weapons. The leftover weapons included large quantities of man-portable-air-defense-systems, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, automatic rifles, and even chemical weapons.

The United States has provided millions of dollars of monetary aid to Libya’s new government to help secure loose weapons, but many experts fear the stockpiles could become targets for theft. 

A December 2011 United Nations report claimed that some of the stockpiled weapons have already been trafficked across Libya’s borders, increasing the potential risk of instability and terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa. Many, in particular, fear Libya’s weapons could fall into the hands of Boko Haram, a powerful terrorist group operating in Nigeria.

Cyber Crime-Nigeria

Nigeria has become increasingly known as the provenance of cyber crime, largely because of the so-called 419 advance-fee fraud. This involves individuals from countries like the United States receiving an official-looking email asking for a small fee in exchange for a (hoax) large payout. This type of cyber crime has scammed unsuspecting businesses and individuals out of billions of dollars worldwide.

Perpetrators of cyber crime in Nigeria have proven extremely adaptable as awareness has increased about 419 scams. New avenues for fraud include social networking websites, actual telephone conversations, shipping scams, and even dating websites. This type of cyber crime has also led to kidnappings, that dupe victims into traveling to Nigeria, where they are then taken and held for ransom. Nigeria has attempted to stop this practice through new national cyber crime laws, but some experts believe (PDF) they are far from adequate and poorly enforced.


Widespread corruption in Russia facilitates transnational crime and high rates of illicit activity. In 2011, Transparency International, which ranks countries along a scale of corruption, placed the nation at 143rd—far behind other emerging powers. Russia also earned last place in the 2011 Bribe Payers Index. Corruption drains the Russian economy of an estimated $2 billion or more a year, it also prevents the nation from tackling domestic drug addiction that has reached an “apocalyptic scale,” funds narcotraffickers in foreign countries, and sustains trade in illicit arms. Furthermore, reports of corrupt military and government officials facilitating illicit trade in nuclear materials remains a major concern

Corruption is the exploitation of public power and resources for private gain. According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perception Index, close to 75 percent of countries score less than 5 out of 10 on corruption—underlying the global magnitude of the problem. Corruption erodes the standard of living and the legitimacy of the ruling governments. Alarmingly, it also increases the risk of civil war by 30-40 percent according to the World Bank.

Counterfeit Goods-China

China produces a large proportion of the world’s counterfeit goods, including products ranging from brand-name fashion items and pirated DVDs to cell phones and cigarettes. For example, in 2010, 78 percent of all software sold in China was illegal—almost twice the global average of 42 percent. Although China announced new measures to combat the flourishing industry in market goods, experts doubt that it will make substantial progress on the issue.

Illicit trade deducts millions of dollars from companies’ profits, and therefore also increases the cost of research and development, and decreases the taxes that governments can earn and use to provide citizens with necessary services. Furthermore, the channels by which counterfeit goods are transported can also be exploited for other more dangerous illicit trade, such as counterfeit medicine or weapons.

Counterfeit Medicines-India

India is a major producer of counterfeit medication, and the sector is growing. To combat the production of counterfeit medication, India has instituted a barcode identification program, whereby people can use text messages and unique identifier numbers to ascertain whether a drug is from a legitimate source. Still, producers of counterfeit medication have shifted to using advanced packing techniques for illicit medications, making it difficult for consumers to determine the authenticity of a given medicine. 

Considered a $200 billion per year industry, a counterfeit medication is “a medicine, which is deliberately and fraudulently mislabeled with respect to identity and/or source,” and, in many cases, can contain inactive or even toxic ingredients that leads to deaths of patients treated with them. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, more than seven hundred thousand people die each year from counterfeit medications, many of which originate in India.

Human Trafficking-Ukraine

Ukraine has long been identified as one of the major hubs of human trafficking, and victims are sold for prostitution, bonded labor, or forced labor. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 110,000 Ukrainian men, women, and children have fallen into trafficking in the past two decades. Though Ukraine has ratified an international  instrument  on human trafficking, the Ukrainian government has been criticized for not complying with minimum standards to combat human trafficking.

Human trafficking claims [PDF] over two million victims each year. In 2006, over 65 percent of victims detected by state authorities were women and close to 80 percent were victims of sexual exploitation. Like other illicit criminal activities, however, a truly accurate global figure remains difficult to estimate due to the covert nature of the crime.



Mark P. Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights

Shannon O'Neil, Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies

Stewart M. Parick, Senior Fellow and Director, International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Paul Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventative Action


CFR Council Special Report: Countering Criminal Violence in Central America

Foreign Affairs: "Mafia States"

Political Science Quarterly: Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Historical Lessons (PDF)

UN Office on Drugs and Crime: Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes (PDF)

UN Global Commission on Drug Policy: War on Drugs

UN Office on Drugs and Crime: 2010 Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment (PDF)

International Peace Institute: Transnational Organized Crime (PDF)

International Peace Institute: Small Arms and Light Weapons (PDF)

Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation: Transnational Organized Crime: Multilateral Responses to a Growing Threat

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Crime, Illicit Networks, and Money Laundering (PDF)


Stewart, Patrick, Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats and International Security (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Misha Glenny, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underground (Vintage, 2007)

Robert Mandel, Dark Logic: Transnational Criminal Tactics and Global Security (Stanford Security Studies, 2010)

Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley, 2007)

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Phil Williams and Dimitri Vlassis, eds., Combating Transnational Crime: Concepts, Activities and Responses (Routledge, 2001)

Paul Stares, Global Habit: The Drug Problem in a Borderless World (Brookings Institution Press, 1996)


George Mason University: Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center

Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas

International Center for the Prevention of Crime

Nathanson Center on Transnational Human Rights and Security