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Transnational Crime and Unity of Effort to Combat Gangs, Criminals and Terrorists

David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Remarks Before the Ministers of Justice or Attorney Generals of the Americas (REMJA)
Washington, DC
April 29, 2008

Good afternoon. Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza (TBC), Attorney General Mukasey, Ambassador (Hector) Morales, and other distinguished guests, I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of your program this week, under the auspices of the OAS, to discuss with you the importance of strengthening joint efforts to safeguard our Hemisphere from the inter-related threats of drug trafficking and transnational crime. This is an excellent opportunity to compare experiences and share viewpoints on the current state of the challenges in front of us.

To those whom I have not had the pleasure to meet personally, I lead the Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL); it is the focal point within the U.S. Government for formulating and implementing our international narcotics control and crime control assistance strategies. INL’s core mission is to provide the assistance that allows our partners to work with us to combat international narcotics production and trafficking, reduce international crime and terrorism, and strengthen international criminal justice institutions. We view this as an effort that advances the interests of the United States and the hemisphere as a whole--we can only be as effective as the cooperation we enjoy with you, our international allies.

Strong law enforcement institutions, rooted in democratic principles and protective of human rights, are vital to preventing a wide array of transnational threats to our hemisphere, from drugs to other forms of organized criminal activity to terrorism. To secure these goals, we rely on a broad range of bilateral, regional, and global assistance programs aimed at strengthening the law enforcement capacity of our foreign partners.

We work closely with the OAS, especially its Secretariat for Multidimensional Security headed by Ambassador Neto. Through the Organization’s Inter-American Drug Commission and its Multilateral Evaluation Mechanism (MEM), OAS member states are working together to measure the results of our efforts against the drug trade. We also work jointly with the United Nations and other international organizations beyond our Hemisphere to develop common international standards to combat drugs, crime, and terrorism, and to develop technical assistance programs that can help implement these standards.

A Growing Threat in the Western Hemisphere

Over the past two days, you have been discussing some of the truly pressing law enforcement challenges and threats that confront our region. As we are all aware, terrorism, illegal drugs and other forms of organized crime share an unholy partnership in many parts of the world, and the Western Hemisphere is no exception. Many of the 44 groups that the U.S. Government has designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) participate in the illegal drug trade and many also engage in financial and other forms of crime. Four of these are in our own hemisphere: the FARC, the ELN, the AUC, and Sendero Luminoso. These terrorist organizations have facilitated narcotrafficking by protecting illicit cultivation, processing and trafficking, corrupting officials, taxing growers in exchange for protection, and smuggling narcotics across borders to finance their violence.

More recently, these worrisome links have expanded to North America, and particularly in the case of some Mexican-based drug trafficking organizations, they have pushed past intimidation to employ terrorist tactics to enforce their drug trafficking monopolies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Some of these groups--such as the Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel which operates along the Southwest border of the United States--have inflicted unprecedented violence, claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians, police officers, and other public officials in recent years. This explosion of violence is the most visible and dramatic manifestation of the damage these criminal organizations inflict on free and democratic societies. But even more far-reaching is the corruption these syndicates promote, wherever they operate. The erosion of government institutions through bribery and intimidation can ultimately pose just as great a threat to democratic governments and the rule of law as the violence on which we focus today. Organized crime syndicates subvert governments in order to guarantee themselves a secure operating environment. Unchecked, these cartels have the wherewithal to buy their way into power or at least into impunity. By working together to combat corruption, we seek to prevent the nightmare of a government manipulated by organized crime from becoming a reality.

When discussing the challenges along the United States’ southern border, I must stress the historic steps taken by Mexico and the administration of President Calderon. President Calderon has moved aggressively to promote integrity within the ranks of Mexico’s police, and he has pursued concrete actions to give law enforcement officials and judicial authorities the resources and the legal underpinning they need. Because the threat of these criminal organizations and the drugs they traffic represent a direct threat to the safety and welfare of the people of the United States, President Bush has requested $1.1 billion to date from our Congress for Mexico and the governments of Central America to support their efforts and share the burden. $550 million was requested as part of an FY 2008 supplemental package, and the budget for the next fiscal year requests an additional $450 million for Mexico and $100 million for Central America. This initiative, born out of meetings held last year between President Bush and President Calderon in Merida, Mexico, and with former President Berger in Guatemala, will complement our efforts here at home to reduce drug demand, to stop the flow of arms and weapons, and to confront gangs and criminal organizations. Strengthening institutions and capacity in our partner countries will help us to act together, responding with greater agility and speed and more effective coordination to the changing tactics of organized crime. We expect this new framework for our joint work will help create a safer, more secure hemisphere where the power of criminal organizations can no longer threaten regional security and the citizens of our Hemisphere.

The United States is also committed to enhancing our engagement with countries in Central America under the Merida Initiative. This cooperation will focus not just on counternarcotics, but on a broad range of issues across the entire law enforcement and justice sector, including our joint efforts to combat organized crime and corruption. The Presidents of Central America have recognized the need to address common threats regionally, and we know that we have willing partners here today to pursue a better-coordinated response to these transnational threats.

The United States has a special interest in promoting additional cooperation with Central America because of the close bonds between our people and economies. Criminals, however, have taken advantage of these linkages. Gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are becoming more dangerous as they expand their illicit activities of drug trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, and murder. These international criminal gangs represent as urgent a threat to the citizens of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa as to the neighborhoods around Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Merida will give us the tools to work together prevent these criminal groups from eroding the benefits we derive of the growing links between our countries.

Through the Merida Initiative, we aim to work with our partners to enhance law enforcement and address drug trafficking and related criminal activity in the region. The Initiative will also allow us to:

  • Fund implementation of all five elements of the U.S. Strategy to Combat Criminal Gangs, including improved processes for repatriation and strong community action programs to prevent youth from joining gangs.
  • Create specialized anti-gang units in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to improve investigation and prosecution of dangerous gang members throughout the region.
  • Support stockpile management and destruction of small arms and light weapons in Central America.
  • And it will provide technological assistance to Mexico to enhance drug control awareness, demand reduction and treatment services.

Other programs, such as training in prison management, and support for police, courts, and prosecutors, will help law enforcement fight this scourge and strengthen weak state institutions which create the space where criminal organizations can operate.

These are systematic reforms and they will require time and effort to implement. As I know all too well from my time as a public servant, it is tempting to question whether such major interventions can achieve sustainable results. To this, I would argue that we have no better proof than the example our own Hemisphere has provided--Colombia.

Colombia is emerging from decades of conflict fueled by narco-trafficking and narco-terrorism. Thanks to the efforts of the Colombian Government and its people, supported by their partners in the hemisphere, we are seeing the expansion of democracy, the strengthening of the rule of law, and the protection of human rights. Further, we are witnessing the economic revitalization of a nation once under siege by drug-trafficking and terrorist organizations. Colombia’s economy, which was so battered during the 1990s, is now growing at a healthy rate and attracting foreign investment. Part of this economic growth can be attributed to the increased security that Colombia now enjoys. The Colombian people are now more optimistic about the possibilities for a lasting peace in their country, and paramilitary groups have been marginalized.

This success has clearly been achieved mostly through the efforts and the sacrifices of Colombia’s people. But it is fair to note, I believe, that increased cooperation with the United States has supported and played a contributing role in the success of Colombia’s efforts. Through this cooperation, we have employed a comprehensive regional approach to eliminating illicit drug crops, interdicting drugs, promoting alternative development, and most importantly for the long-term, supporting sustainable judicial and criminal justice reform and the extension of the authority of the Colombian Government throughout the country. Colombia’s example is one positive change. It inspires us to believe that the Merida Initiative is a sound investment for the future, to the mutual benefit of all of our citizens and nations.

Strengthening Regional Cooperation to Dismantle Criminal Networks

None of us should underestimate the task at hand; defeating and dismantling these criminal organizations will not be an easy task. International criminals have tremendous financial resources and they spare no expense to corrupt government and law enforcement officials. They have extensive worldwide networks to support their operations and are inherently nimble, adapting quickly to change. To make headway against these groups, we need to enhance our cooperation to combat these threats and to dismantle the criminal networks.

The United States is committed to doing its part. One way the State Department helps is by using our taxpayer’s foreign assistance resources to strengthen international cooperation to strengthen criminal justice systems in ways that prepare them to more effectively combat transnational crime.

One of our more effective tools in this effort is our funding and support for our “ILEAs”, or International Law Enforcement Academies. The courses at the ILEAs bring together law enforcement personnel and public servants from many countries worldwide. We sponsor five ILEAs around the world. Our newest is in San Salvador. These courses, developed by law enforcement experts from the United States and the region, give us a common platform from which to fight organized crime and help to develop a network of law enforcement personnel to work together on common problems.

We also continue to develop with other committed governments new enforcement tools and ground breaking conventions and protocols to prevent and combat these threats, including the United Nations Conventions against Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption, two of the newest weapons of international law to combat these threats. They create a broad framework for mutual legal assistance, extradition and law enforcement cooperation, and the Convention against Corruption contains an innovative chapter that promotes international cooperation for asset recovery cases. The two Conventions are particularly important and powerful tools but are not fully appreciated or utilized. For example, they can be used to augment the range of extraditable offenses covered under existing bilateral treaties to include covered those in the Conventions, as well as to obtain evidence from another state by using the mutual legal assistance provisions. The United States has used the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime to secure an extradition that otherwise would not have taken place under an existing bilateral extradition treaty and to obtain provisional arrest warrants. The Conventions are agreed international standards. We should look for ways to use them to strengthen and to expedite cooperation against international crime groups.


Fighting transnational crime and corruption is an ongoing and deliberate process. We cannot afford to lose the ground we have worked so hard to gain. The future of democracy in the Western Hemisphere and our own national security interests are deeply and inextricably intertwined. Working together, we can create a better future through our united efforts against organized crime building societies where our citizens can live in more secure communities and be governed with the highest level of integrity and respect for the rule of law. Thank you.

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