What are the biggest issues your office is facing today?

If you had asked me this question twenty years ago, I would undoubtedly have told you “drug trafficking.” I might even have narrowed it down to cocaine and our southern border.  We are still facing that issue, of course, but now our challenges transcend one type of crime or one border.

Corruption is a notable example. Combating corruption has become a top priority for the Department of State, and the bureau that I lead, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Corruption undermines the rule of law, stifles growth, and fuels other transnational crime such as terrorist financing, money laundering, and trafficking in humans. It also compromises public safety when the police and military are involved. The figure we use for the annual cost of corruption worldwide is US$2.6 trillion.

Cybercrime is a pressing issue.  The bad guys may communicate in chat rooms rather than dark alleys, but their motive is familiar: money.  My bureau helps law enforcement track down cyber fugitives—we have offered multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the arrest of several such individuals—and we also target the conditions that allow them to hide and thrive.  We do this by working with and through international organizations like the Council of Europe and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, because they help countries learn from each other. The goal is to ensure that the international community is just as agile and coordinated as the cybercriminal organizations we are trying to combat.

Finally, I believe that wildlife trafficking is one of our most urgent problems—and when I say “our,” I mean not only my bureau, but the entire world.  Unlike narcotics, there is a limited supply of animals on the planet. My bureau plays a leading role in combatting wildlife trafficking, from implementing the President’s Strategy on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, to increasing wildlife investigations training at our International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEAs) in Botswana and Thailand, to equipping rangers with the tools they need to defend their parks from poachers.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of heroin users in the United States in recent years. Where are the drugs coming from and what is your office doing to prevent the problem from growing any larger?

The majority of heroin consumed in the United States comes from Mexico and Colombia.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mexico is now the world’s third largest cultivator of opium poppy – clearly a concern for Americans. In addition to heroin, drug trafficking organizations smuggle precursor chemicals used to produce heroin. Since 2008, my bureau has worked in close partnership with Mexico through the Merida Initiative to disrupt drug trafficking, with the goal of stemming the flow of heroin from Mexico to the United States. We provide extensive equipment, training, and technical advice to Mexico, and develop and implement coordinated law enforcement strategies. Our assistance under Merida aims to work with Mexicans as they strengthen their justice sector and rule of law—critical ingredients to combatting crime. Finally, we cooperate with the Mexican government to increase communication and information sharing on the topic of heroin.

Colombia is the other major source of heroin we see in the United States. Colombia has been a stalwart partner in reducing poppy cultivation, attacking heroin production and transportation networks, and dismantling heroin trafficking organizations. The INL bureau works in close partnership with Colombia on increasing the capacity of law enforcement and strengthening rule of law institutions. And it’s not just INL or the State Department working with the Colombians—a 13-member DEA team is in-country in Colombia, supporting a 50-member Colombian police Heroin Task Force which plays a key role in disrupting the “farm to arm” heroin pipeline.

I should also say a few words about Afghanistan, as it produces over 80 percent of the world’s heroin. We work with the Afghan government on a multi-faceted approach to the problem. Our goals are to reduce the cultivation, production, trafficking, and use of heroin in Afghanistan. We accomplish this through a range of activities: interdiction training and assistance, alternative livelihood programs, drug demand reduction, Afghan ministerial capacity building, regional cooperation, and eradication.

It has almost been a decade since the Mexican Drug War began. How would you characterize the problem today? What progress has been made and what still needs to be done?

As things stand today, Mexico is a major transit and source country for drugs destined for the United States, including methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. Narcotics trafficking and its associated violence in Mexico pose significant problems to our security and to private sector investment in Mexico.

The news is not all bad: we are making progress. Mexico actively combats drug trafficking, with substantial United States-Mexico cooperation. The Merida Initiative is an important part of these efforts, providing equipment, training, and technical advice to Mexico so that that country can strengthen law enforcement and justice institutions, reduce impunity, and sustain the rule of law. Under Merida, we are building our partnership with Mexico to advance the fight against drug traffickers, gangs, and organized crime. Our assistance aims to be comprehensive; we not only partner with the police who stop the bad guys, but also with Mexican prosecutors and judges who play a key role in fighting these egregious crimes.

The US government provides training, equipment, and technical assistance to help Mexico interdict narcotics, currency, weapons, explosives, and other illicit goods, and to support Mexico’s efforts to improve overall border security. We are seeing results in this fight: during the past year, the Mexican government captured several high profile traffickers, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel; Vicente Carillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez Cartel; and most recently, Servando Gomez and Omar Trevino, leaders of the Knights Templar and Zetas Cartel.

Security challenges such as these do not lend themselves to easy or short-term solutions. But I predict that sustained collaboration between the United States and Mexico will weaken the trafficking organizations and improve overall security in Mexico.

How would you describe the link between drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime?

These days, the operative word is “convergence.” The subtitle to the President’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, released in July 2011, is, “Addressing Converging Threats to National Security.” The Strategy is based on the recognition that criminal organizations of all stripes–including drug traffickers–are behaving increasingly like multinational CEOs, diversifying portfolios into new markets and new industries.

Human smuggling offers an example of convergence. Once a route across a border is established, criminal organizations that specialize in human smuggling are well-positioned to help any type of bad actor—drug traffickers, arms traffickers, fugitives, and terrorists. Money laundering is another example. We often refer to money launderers as “facilitators,” who offer their services to a wide variety of criminal organizations, including drug traffickers.  Money laundering is a common denominator of many types of crime, but it is a vulnerability for criminal organizations, because it means we can “follow the money” to take down their networks more efficiently.

How does your office manage the balance between each country’s own sovereignty with preventing drug trafficking into the United States. For instance, how is office dealing with a law Jamaica recently passed legalizing small amounts of marijuana?

These two imperatives are not mutually exclusive. The three UN drug control conventions, which are the source of international law on this issue, allow each country to make sovereign decisions on national drug policy. The UN conventions permit a degree of flexibility on how countries implement their obligations under the law, particularly with respect to drug use; the conventions anticipate variations in national legal frameworks. Different countries have different approaches to national drug policy, from some degree of decriminalization, as with the Jamaica example that you cite, to the extremely strict penalties which other countries apply to drug offenses.

We focus on building partnerships to combat international drug trafficking and transnational organized crime. The United States and Jamaica have a strong law enforcement partnership which will continue, and the United States will build the capacity of our Jamaican partners to combat international drug trafficking, transnational organized crime, and the violence that they breed.

And more broadly, what is your response to those who say that legalizing illicit drugs will make problems related to drug trafficking go away?

There are wide variations in drug policies–and views on these policies–throughout the world. At the extremes are those who call for using law enforcement tools against anyone who uses or possesses illicit drugs, and the others who claim legalization will solve all of the problems associated with drugs and the drug trade. In the United States, we have come to understand that we can’t arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. There are innovations taking place at the federal and state level, including drug treatment courts, which recognize that many offenders require medical help dealing with addiction rather than time in jail. Drug use is not a criminal justice problem; it is a public health problem. Drug policy should, perhaps, be driven by the lessons of neuroscience rather than political science.

Do you think that the United States has a particularly strong obligation in terms of regulating the worldwide drug trade?

Our approach begins with the UN framework. This framework, enshrined in three UN drug conventions, is an overarching mechanism for ensuring access to substances for legitimate medical and scientific purposes, while also facilitating international cooperation to counter criminal traffickers. The conventions say that drug control is a “common and shared responsibility” of the international community. This is not just an American opinion, but a view underscored by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Logically, the best way to tackle a transnational challenge is through an international approach.