April 29, 2011 — Two major shifts affecting the security of the United States in the past three decades—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of transnational terrorism—went virtually unrecognized and unanticipated by U.S. policymakers, although in retrospect the signs were plain for everyone to see. Today, a third threat to American security is in plain sight, but is still unrecognized except for specialists at lower and intermediate decision-making levels. Transnational crime has grown to such proportions in today’s world that it has become a significant factor in geopolitics and a threat to the future of civil government worldwide. The danger is particularly acute in this hemisphere, in a region generally from the Canadian treeline through the U.S., Mexico and Central America, to Colombia and Venezuela, an area loosely defined as “Mesoamerica.”   This is a glimpse into the future fight of the 21st century—disintegrative forces of blended crime, terrorism and insurgency against governments and civic order.
Understanding the threat posed by crime requires, first, that we recognize the insidious effect that corruption has on the functions of government worldwide, particularly in our own hemisphere. This not just a resurgent Mafia, though the Mafia is part of the larger challenge. Four factors have combined in a “perfect storm” to greatly enlarge the effect of crime in the world today. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s released huge stocks of arms and useful infrastructure—airlift, shipping and industrious, entrepreneurial people—as well as relaxing border controls that had immobilized millions in the former Soviet empire. This led to mass migrations of peoples—probably greater, as a percentage of population, than the Hun migrations at the end of the Roman Empire. The result, along with high birth rates in the emerging world, has been not only an increase in people available for criminal “armies,” but also a huge upsurge in human trafficking, either legal or illegal, willing or unwilling. Next, the communications revolution of the past decade has put into the hands of criminals communications and data processing systems ideally suited for evading police, controlling illicit activities, navigating with pinpoint accuracy, and for moving wealth within global financial systems. Finally, international markets in illegal drugs have brought fabulous wealth to a crooked few, and illicit funds flow freely with little regard for national borders or governments. Easily available illegal money gives criminals more fiscal “mobility” to buy gear – weapons, computers, etc.—than their sometimes-outgunned, tax-financed opponents. The size of the global black economy has been estimated to be as huge as a fifth of the global gross national product.   Criminal cartels, gangs and other illegal armed groups are today spending billions of dollars annually to undermine governments worldwide, either by corruption or, when that fails, by intimidation and violence. This is not exclusively a blue-collar problem; the criminal networks include not only rich thugs and brutal “soldiers,” but also white-collar businessmen, some of the world’s leading banks and financial houses and governmental ministers.
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