February 23, 1996

February 23, 1996 | Commentary on Crime

ED022296a: The Emerging International Mafia

Even as America wages a fierce battle against organized criminal gangs here at home, the threat to U.S. interests from an emerging international crime cartel grows more serious every day.

Groups like the Colombian Cartels, the Asian Triads and the Italian Mafias -- long destabilizing factors in their host countries -- are becoming significant players on the international stage, carrying out their criminal activities across borders and threatening the stability and interests of numerous countries. In short, they have become an international security threat.

Fresh evidence of this growing threat comes from Colombia, where President Ernesto Samper is under pressure to resign for allegedly taking massive campaign contributions for his 1994 presidential race from the Cali cocaine cartel. Whether these particular charges are true or not, groups like the Cali cartel -- which is already responsible for up to 80 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States -- are increasingly able to operate above the law, buying off or even killing the government officials who are supposed to work with U.S. law- enforcement agencies to crack down on crime.

What's worse, the cartels, triads and Mafias are now forging alliances with criminal organizations in Russia, Mexico and Nigeria, giving these organized crime syndicates a truly international reach. They are becoming an international crime corporation with illegal franchises spanning the globe.

The ability of these groups to operate with complete disregard for local or international law -- not to mention common decency -- now threatens to destabilize a number of countries, especially poor states that are trying to implement economic and democratic reforms. By corrupting government officials and undermining legitimate business enterprises, these criminal cabals threaten to set back progress in developing nations by many years, and in the case of Russia, could forestall reform indefinitely.

The list of crimes the new international criminal organizations are involved in is long. They traffic in drugs, people, and chemical, biological and nuclear material. They perpetrate billions of dollars worth of fraud against banks, businesses and governments. They destroy lives, undermine economies, diminish confidence in political and economic reform, and spread corruption and violence. In short, they have become an international security threat.

What to do? Clearly, we need to devise a new foreign policy to deal with these criminal groups -- to put them out of business and in jail. In his recent speech to the United Nations, President Clinton acknowledged the growing threat posed by international criminal groups and called for stronger efforts to fight these organizations.

Such efforts must achieve several goals: dismantle the major criminal groups, stiffen the penalties for engaging in international crime, and foster international cooperation to counter the actions of criminal elements.

At home, U.S. policy-makers can take concrete steps to help meet these goals. We must beef up intelligence capabilities against key groups and their leaders. We must work with other countries to strengthen their legal systems and police forces. We must enhance our ability to monitor the flow of money to prevent criminal organizations from abusing international financial and banking systems. And we must increase international awareness of the threat these groups pose and forge a united front to bring them to justice.

No country is immune from the debilitating influence of international organized crime. The political corruption scandals in Colombia and Italy, the challenge to democracy in Russia, the brazen ruthlessness of the Mexican Mafia, and U.S. streets awash in drugs -- all are the product of ruthless criminal organizations willing to trample human life and dignity in their rush for ill-gotten gain.

As the most powerful country on earth, the United States has an obligation to lead the world in crafting a tough, international response. Just as President Bush cobbled together a coalition to counter the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, so too must President Clinton start to work with any interested nation in challenging the threat posed by the new international crime cartels.

Unlike Colombia, the United States has not yet faced a political threat from international criminal activity. But we see the impact of the international crime on our streets every day, in the wasted lives and drug violence tearing our cities apart.

The Cold War may be over, but America still has enemies in the world. Emerging international crime cartels are simply the latest. The United States cannot afford to ignore this problem, but must begin to fashion a foreign-policy response as tough as the stand we take against criminal groups here at home.

About the Author

Related Issues: Crime

This essay by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Anti-Narcotics Caucus, is adapted from his recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.