Up to No Good: The Rise of Transnational Criminal Organizations and its Impact on Global Security

Up to No Good: The Rise of Transnational Criminal Organizations and its Impact on Global Security

. 6 min read

Being the seat of power in a nation, governments are often subject to threats against their authority. Such threats include revolutionary groups, both domestic and foreign terrorist organizations, as well as rebellious local territories. However, one area that is often overlooked is the danger of organized crime, more specifically powerful transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), that can displace the authority of legitimate government in the same manner as other seditious elements.

The Operations and Goals of TCOs

TCOs operate vast criminal empires involving a broad range of illegal activities, including drug smuggling and production, human trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. However, the primary goal of these criminal groups is to maintain their own power, whereas revolutionaries and terrorists often seek regime change. This could involve fighting to displace the central authority, but unlike the other examples, they often collaborate with, or at least tolerate, the existence of a central government, as it furthers their own goal of profit.

Most often, transnational criminal organizations do not aim to become the sovereign government over a nation. Transitioning into a narco-state which runs an entire nation is not ideal for TCOs, as that will bring about swift international action. A narco-state will not be taken kindly by the rest of the world, potentially resulting in full scale military intervention, as seen with the 1989 toppling of Manuel Noriega’s regime in Panama by the United States. Rather, they seek to control certain territories and profit from the illegal activities conducted on their land, such as drug trafficking and extortion.

How TCOs Interact With Governments

TCOs will do whatever is necessary to preserve their own interests. One tactic to do this involves cooperation with complicit or even corrupt governments; this strategy is used by many TCOs such as cartels in Mexico or Colombia, MS-13 in El Salvador, and the Mafia in Southern Italy. Such a strategy suits TCOs well as they have less enemies to worry about, and they can utilize the power of the state for their own purposes. In 2014, 43 university students were kidnapped by cartels in the Mexican state of Guerrero, and the government was later found to be involved in both the kidnapping and its subsequent coverup.

With a collaborator in office, TCOs do not need to worry about facing consequences for their actions and can focus on their illegal activities. For example, the Mexican Army has been found to be selling weapons to the cartels, and even former President Enrique Pena Nieto is alleged to have taken US$100 million in bribes from the cartels. In such a situation, the reward is high for government officials to collaborate with the TCO, allowing the criminals to operate with impunity.

However, if the government does not decide to cooperate, TCOs will often engage in extreme violence against the authorities. The goal of such violence is not necessarily to overthrow the government, but to weaken them so much that they are unable to contest the TCO.

This happened in October 2019 when Mexican federal authorities arrested Ovidio Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and son of notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In response, cartel members turned the Sinaloan capital of Culiacan into a warzone, blocking highways and waging an all out gun battle with Mexican security forces, resulting in the deaths of at least 14 people. Eventually, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was forced to order the release of Guzman in order to prevent further violence, humiliating the Mexican government.

Such scenes of violence were repeated in Culiacan in January 2023, when Mexican authorities made a second attempt to capture Guzman. After they arrested Guzman, cartel gunmen again wreaked havoc, burning vehicles, engaging in gunfights with the police, and even attempting to shoot down a Mexican military aircraft with sniper rifles, hitting a commercial Aeroméxico airliner in the process.

This wanton violence is used by TCOs around the world. Across the Atlantic, the Italian Mafia engaged in violence against their enemies in the government as well. In 1992, anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone was murdered by a car bomb planted by the Mafia in Palermo. Falcone’s work had previously led to the arrest of more than 300 mafia members. Such a brazen assassination shows the Mafia’s defiance and disregard of governmental authority.

TCOs vs. Governments (or lack thereof)

In both of these cases, the consequences for resisting TCOs are great, and often weaker governments will see them as a necessary evil with whom they must work. Individual officials have little incentive to lead the fight against TCOs, as that could result in them and their families being killed, especially when the central authority provides little support.

When resistance occurs, however, an already weakened state will only be further weakened. Without the ability to effectively combat the TCO, states are in danger of falling completely under the influence of criminals. The damage caused by TCOs can weaken the government so much that it pushes the nation to the edge of failure. Such is the case with Haiti, where since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise, the country has had neither a president nor a functional elected government. In its absence, gangs have taken control over more than half of the capital, Port au Prince, controlling the country with immunity.

The gangs in Haiti have also taken over the main fuel terminal and key highways, limiting the transportation of vital humanitarian supplies. Their reign of terror is backed up through violent tactics such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. While the Haitian National Police have tried combatting the gangs, they lack support from the government and are prone to attack. As a result, many police units have gone rogue and rebelled against the government, rioting in the streets and even attacking the country’s main airport. The situation has become so dire that Haiti is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, and its de facto leader Ariel Henry has formally requested for foreign military intervention.

In most cases, either an unstable government creates a power vacuum resulting in criminal groups taking over, or conversely the rise of criminal groups leads to the erosion of governmental authority. Many TCOs emerge from a time of great political instability and eventually morph into a much more powerful organization. Such is the case in southern Italy, where the Mafia was formed in the 1860s amidst the chaos of the Risorgimento. Over the years of neglect from the central Italian state, the Mafia gained more of a foothold in southern Italy, expanding their illegal operations and establishing trust with the locals by promising stability.

As a result, people often turn to the Mafia instead of the government for protection and the resolving of civil disputes. This phenomenon continues even to the present day. During the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mafia distributed free food to the residents of Naples while the government struggled with COVID relief and lockdown protests. Here, the TCO often replaces basic governmental functions and tries to win over the local residents. By doing so, they exert more and more control over the people, allowing for them to better manipulate locals.

Compared with the Mafia, which was created in the absence of a functioning government, the emergence of the Mexican cartels led to the weakening of the central state. The cartels have control over many regions of the country, backed up by heavily armed foot soldiers with automatic weapons and even homemade armored vehicles. In battle, cartel forces often beat security forces and seize territory, though they only aim to be the de facto government of a region.

This results in tolerance of their illegal activities solely out of necessity for survival. Cooperation with the government therefore decreases and the TCO are in de facto control of an area. Even the violent gangs in Haiti offer something that the government has thus far not been able to provide: stability. With the absence of a functioning government in Haiti, the gangs provide basic governmental services in their respective areas of control, albeit for their own profit and benefit. In addition to their wanton acts of violence, the gangs can provide a blanket of security in a lawless country, albeit they often extort money in exchange for that protection.

Why This Matters

Without a strong legitimate government, the overreaching power of TCOs leads to the increase of illegal activities and instability. The cartels, Mafia, and Haitian gangs are only a few of the numerous examples of TCOs around the world that upend law and order. A stable government is necessary to combat this rise—otherwise individual officials will be left to fend for themselves and be corrupted by both greed and the necessity to survive.

When this corruption reaches the highest echelons of government, TCOs will have essentially hijacked a nation. Not only does the breaking down of authority cause people to lose trust in the government, but it also results in the increase in trust of the TCO. Trust is hard to win and easy to lose, which makes it essential to neutralize the threat to the government’s legitimacy posed by the TCO before that legitimacy, and the order that comes with it, are eroded away.

Cover Image: The Mexican military raids a house belonging to a suspected Gulf Cartel member in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas on 25 June 2012. Photo by user MX, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Isaac Chakyan Tang

Isaac Tang is a staff writer for the HIR. He is interested in defense affairs, as well as Eastern European and East Asian politics.