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Transnational organized crime (TOC) is organized crime coordinated across national borders, involving groups or markets of individuals working in more than one country to plan and execute illegal business ventures.[1] In order to achieve their goals, these criminal groups use systematic violence and corruption. Common transnational organized crimes include conveying drugs, conveying arms, trafficking for sex, toxic waste disposal, materials theft and poaching.[2]


Prior to World War I, several organizations were created to formalize international police cooperation, but most quickly failed, primarily because public police institutions were not sufficiently detached from the political centers of their respective states to function autonomously as expert bureaucracies.[3] In 1914, the First International Criminal Police Congress was held in Monaco, which saw police officers, lawyers and magistrates from 24 countries meeting to discuss arrest procedures, identification techniques, centralized international criminal records and extradition proceedings. This organization appeared poised to avoid the political forces that ended earlier organizations, but the outbreak of World War I disorganized the Congress.[4]

In 1923, a second International Criminal Police Congress was held in Vienna, on the initiative of Mr. Hans Schober, President of the Austrian police. Schober, eager to avoid the politics that doomed previous international police efforts, noted that "ours is not a political but a cultural goal. It only concerns the fight against the common enemy of humankind: the ordinary criminal."[3] This second Congress created the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), which served as the direct forerunner of Interpol.[5] Founding members included police officials from Russia, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Poland, China, Egypt, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.[6] In 1926, the ICPC's General Assembly, held in Berlin, proposed that each country establish a central point of contact within its police structure: the forerunner of the National Central Bureau (NCB).[5] In 1938, the Nazis assumed control of the ICPC and most countries stopped participating, effectively causing the ICPC to cease to exist as an international organization.

After World War II, Belgium led the rebuilding of the organization, with a new headquarters in Paris and a new name - Interpol. The United Nations did not recognize Interpol as an intergovernmental organization until 1971.[5] On June 17, 1971, President Nixon declared "America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive." [7] With this declaration, the United States began the War on Drugs. At the time, the flow of illicit narcotics into its borders was deemed a major risk to the health and safety of Americans, and as a result, enormous resources were spent in the effort to curtail both the supply of and demand for illegal drugs. In the three decades that followed President Nixon's declaration, drug trafficking served as the dominant form of what the United States and many of its allies viewed as transnational organized crime.[8]

In recent years, that viewpoint has changed. The character of transnational organized crime has changed in three major ways since the war on drugs began. Drug trafficking has become more diversified, criminal networks have harnessed new methods of conducting business, and the structure of criminal networks has changed. Organized crime has gone global, giving way to the term transnational organized crime. Global governance has failed to keep pace with economic globalization. Antonio Maria Costa, former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, effectively summarized the change in TOC over the last quarter century by saying, "as unprecedented openness in trade, finance, travel and communication has created economic growth and well-being, it has also given rise to massive opportunities for criminals to make their business prosper."[2]


Transnational organized crime is widely opposed on the basis of a number of negative effects. It can undermine democracy, disrupt free markets, drain national assets, and inhibit the development of stable societies.[9] In doing so, it has been argued[citation needed], national and international criminal groups threaten the security of all nations. The victims of these transnational crime networks are governments that are unstable or not powerful enough to prevent them, with the networks conducting illegal activities that provide them with profits. Transnational organized crimes interrupt peace[citation needed] and stability[citation needed] of nations worldwide, often using bribery, violence, or terror to meet their needs.

TOC is insufficiently understood, according to the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.[2] In the most recent full-scale United Nations assessment of TOC, conducted in 2010, the executive director states, "there is a lack of information on transnational criminal markets and trends. The few studies that exist have looked at sections of the problem, by sector or country, rather than the big picture. Without a global perspective there cannot be evidence-based policy."[2] In response to the threat, law enforcement agencies have created a number of effective approaches for combating this transnational organized crime.[10]

Louise I. Shelley (Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University) has said:

Transnational crime will be a defining issue of the 21st century for policymakers - as defining as the Cold War was for the 20th century and colonialism was for the 19th. Terrorists and transnational crime groups will proliferate because these crime groups are major beneficiaries of globalization. They take advantage of increased travel, trade, rapid money movements, telecommunications and computer links, and are well positioned for growth.[11]

Combating transnational organized crime

Most illicit trafficking begins or ends in the world's greatest economic powers, such as the G8 (forum). In other words, the world's largest trading partners are also the world's greatest markets for illicit goods and services. Many of these world powers have recently taken steps to combat TOC in a large, collective, international effort with partners and allies. Several organizations around the world have initiated efforts to combat TOC whose success or failure have yet to be determined.[12]

According to the UN Asia and Far East Institute (UNAFEI), combating transnational organized crime relies first and foremost on effective investigative techniques and prosecutorial tools. Three techniques in particular stand out as the most important in combating transnational organized crime: electronic surveillance, undercover operations, and the use of confidential informants (CIs),[13] with electronic surveillance being the single most important and effective law enforcement tool against TOC.[13] Electronic surveillance provides reliable, often irrefutable evidence of crimes through a participant's own words or image. This form allows law enforcement to learn of conspirators' plans before they are carried out and is particularly helpful in combating TOC because it enables law enforcement in any country to obtain evidence of co-conspirators in other countries. Obtaining evidence of conspiratorial planning internationally would otherwise be very difficult.[citation needed]

After electronic surveillance, the second most important tool is undercover operations,[13] Through undercover operations, law enforcement agents can infiltrate the highest levels of organized crime by posing as criminals themselves when real criminals discuss their plans and seek assistance in committing crimes. Over time, agents can gain the confidence of criminals and induce them to reveal information on past or ongoing criminal activities.[citation needed] followed by CIs refers to individuals who are not willing to testify but who provide information or assistance to law enforcement in exchange for money or lenient treatment for their own crimes and with the promise of confidentiality.[13] In many cases,[which?] CIs are engaged in criminal activity themselves and can therefore provide valuable direct evidence regarding the criminal activities being conducted by their criminal associates. Such evidence frequently enables law enforcement officers to obtain warrants authorizing electronic surveillance. In rare cases, the court may order the disclosure of a CIs identity to a defendant, such as when the informant can provide evidence that may exculpate the defendant.[citation needed]

Enforcement in the United States

Tools of Prosecution

The following are some of the methods used by authorities in the US to combat transnational organised crime:

White House Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime

In May 2010, the White House released its National Security Strategy, detailing the need to aggressive combat transnational organized crime. This strategy document states, "Combating transnational criminal and trafficking networks requires a multidimensional strategy that safeguards citizens, breaks the financial strength of criminal and terrorist networks, disrupts illicit trafficking networks, defeats transnational criminal organizations, fights government corruption, strengthens the rule of law, bolsters judicial systems, and improves transparency. While these are major challenges, the United States will be able to devise and execute a collective strategy with other nations facing the same threats."[14]

In July 2011, the White House released its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, which reflects this change and sets forth a strategy "to build, balance, and integrate the tools of American power to combat transnational organized crime and related threats to national security—and to urge our foreign partners to do the same."[15] This strategy document set out five overarching policy objectives consistent with the vision and priorities of the National Security Strategy:

  1. Protect Americans and our partners from the harm, violence, and exploitation of transnational criminal networks.
  2. Help partner countries strengthen governance and transparency, break the corruptive power of transnational criminal networks, and sever state-crime alliances.
  3. Break the economic power of transnational criminal networks and protect strategic markets and the U.S. financial system from TOC penetration and abuse.
  4. Defeat transnational criminal networks that pose the greatest threat to national security, by targeting their infrastructures, depriving them of their enabling means, and preventing the criminal facilitation of terrorist activities.
  5. Build international consensus, multilateral cooperation, and public-private partnerships to defeat transnational organized crime.

Enforcement agencies of the United States

National Guard

In keeping with the U.S. National Security Council's strategy to combat transnational organized crime, the National Guard Bureau established the CTOC Center of Excellence (COE) to educate and train Combatant Commands, military services, federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, and community leaders.[16]

Another approach the United States takes in CTOC is the use of multijurisdictional task forces that combine investigative resources from several agencies so that the strength and sophistication of a task force's capabilities are greater than any single agency. Collaboration among law enforcement agencies is a key element in discovering possible links between local crimes and crimes with a transnational component.[17]

The National Guard Bureau uses such an organization in CTOC. Its Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training (MCTFT) program and its Western Regional Counterdrug Training Center provide the core of National Guard Bureau training and collaboration among law enforcement agencies at all levels.[18]

United States Southern Command

Main article: United States Southern Command

As the lead U.S. agency responsible for directing illicit trafficking detection and monitoring activities, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) conducts operational and tactical activities in support of whole-of-government efforts to combat transnational organized crime in the maritime approaches to Central America. SOUTHCOM focuses on strengthening the security capacities of U.S. partners in Central America.[19]

Another primary focus of SOUTHCOM CTOC efforts is supporting the interdiction of drug trafficking. SOUTHCOM collaborates with other agencies and nations to support CTOC efforts through detection & monitoring, information sharing, and partner nation capacity building.[19]

Department of Homeland Security

Charged with securing the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plays an integral role in the U.S. efforts to combat transnational organized crime both at home and with partners abroad. DHS leverages and deploys numerous CTOC resources, while working closely with other federal, state and local agencies, foreign governments and partners in the private sector. Once TOC threats are identified, DHS works with partners to interdict them through strengthened interdiction, investigations, and prosecutions.[20]

Department of State

The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), an agency of the Department of State, conducts CTOC operations at home and abroad by delivering justice and fairness and by strengthening police, courts, and corrections systems. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores.[21]

INL CTOC efforts include helping foreign governments build effective law enforcement institutions that combat transnational organized crime, everything from money laundering, cybercrime, and intellectual property theft to trafficking in goods, people, weapons, drugs, or endangered wildlife. INL combats corruption by helping governments build transparent and accountable public institutions—a cornerstone of strong, stable, and fair societies that offer a level playing field for U.S. businesses abroad.[21]

Department of Treasury

Established in 1990, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) provides investigative support to law enforcement, intelligence, and regulatory agencies, cooperating globally with counterpart financial intelligence units (FIUs), and uses its regulatory authorities to make it more difficult for organized criminal groups to move money through the financial system. FinCEN supports the Department of the Treasury's efforts to promote the adoption of international standards involving anti-money laundering and the counter-financing of terrorism (AML/CFT), including through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) where FinCEN led the delegation from 1994 through 1998. The National Security Council identified FinCEN as one of 34 Federal entities that it considered as having a significant role in the fight against international crime as noted in an August 2001 Government Accountability Office report.

In 2012, the Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on four key transnational organized crime groups: Camorra from Italy, Brothers' Circle from Russia, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Yakuza) from Japan, and Los Zetas from Mexico.[22]

Drug Enforcement Administration

The strength and sophistication of a task force's capabilities will be stronger than any single agency's if the task force is multijurisdictional, combining investigative resources from several agencies.[23] The key element in finding out possible links between local crimes and crimes with transnational component is collaboration among law enforcement agencies. To illustrate further, Operation Trifecta, a 19-month transnational investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), involved 9 Federal agencies and 67 State and local law enforcement agencies from 8 States. In 2003, it led to the arrests of some 240 individuals charged with transnational drug trafficking.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

Law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are employed by nation-states to counteract international organized crime. Serious international crime—such as crimes against humanity—may be investigated by the International Criminal Court, but that Court does not have the power to take suspects into custody, instead relying on the support of law enforcement and military force in relevant countries.

International enforcement agencies

United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime

On November 15, 2000, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and is appointed to serve as the most significant mechanism for fighting TOC internationally. The first of its kind, the convention identified TOC as criminal actions that cannot be sufficiently combated by pacts tailored to a single commercial enterprise.[24] The Ad Hoc Committee was established by the United Nations General Assembly to deal with this problem by taking a series of measures against transnational organized crime. These include the creation of domestic criminal offences to combat the problem, and the adoption of new, sweeping frameworks for mutual legal assistance, extradition, law-enforcement cooperation, and technical assistance and training.

A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime highlighted that Southeast Asia produced an estimated 48 tons of heroin in 2011. The vast majority of this cultivation – roughly twice that of Afghanistan, which arguably receives much greater attention – has occurred in the fragile state of Myanmar. The UN report estimated that the revenue generated from this trade to be worth $16.3 billion during the same period.[citation needed]

The revenues generated from such trafficking often lie at the root of instability and violence in the region. Additionally, the same routes used to smuggle drugs will likely be used to transport weapons and militants in the event that the current conflict expands. Reconciling the numerous armed ethnic groups that exist within Myanmar continues to be a challenge for the nascent government. A strong drug trade will only complicate negotiations between government officials and these groups.[citation needed]

Combating TOC internationally proves difficult because so many governments and economies benefit enormously from TOC. For example, the Russia government benefits from money gained through cybercrime and through ties between TOC and it energy exporters. China's economy also benefits from cybercrime as well as from counterfeiting. West African and Latin American politicians are either coerced by or maintain financially beneficial relationships with drug traffickers.[24]

UNTOC ability to help combat CTOC is compounded by its inability to directly assist countries that are incapable of adhering to the convention's guidelines. Most countries agreed for a necessary, innovative, and more strategic approach at the 2010 conference of parties, yet to date no significant employment of tactics or policy has been determined. Voluntary contributions account for nearly all of UNODC's funding and the organization suffers from chronic funding and staffing shortages. This limits UNODC's overall effectiveness.[24]

The UN General Assembly has also issued many resolutions to combat TOC; however, most have been ineffective because of their vagueness and irrelevancy.[24]


The idea of the organization known today as Interpol was born at the first International Criminal Police Congress, held in Monaco in 1914. It was officially created in 1923 with the name, International Criminal Police Commission, and renamed in 1956 with the name, Interpol. Today, it is the largest international police organization in the world and is made up of 190 member nations. Each member nation staffs a national central bureau that communicates and cooperates with other member nations. Its mission is "Preventing and fighting crime through enhanced cooperation and innovation on police and security matters".[25]

Although the organization Interpol exists to coordinate intelligence efforts between national law enforcement agencies, it is not an international police force[clarification needed], and indeed no such international law enforcement body with universal jurisdiction exists.

The agency's number one priority is to maintain a secure global police information system between the National Central Bureaus of each member nation. In addition to this priority, Interpol provides round-the-clock support to police and law enforcement agencies of all member nations. It also continuously attempts to innovate and enhance the tools used to fight crime and it assists in the identification of crimes and criminals. Finally, it delivers high-level training, certification and accreditation to law enforcement personnel.[25]

Like most international CTOC organizations, Interpol suffers from continuously high levels of underfunding. In 2010, it operated on roughly $75 million budget. Since it holds no authority to conduct independent investigations or to arrest suspects, it is only as strong as the host country's police force.[25]

World Bank

With a membership of 188 nations, the World Bank is nearly the same size as Interpol (190) and although CTOC is not its primary mission, the World Bank does attempt to combat TOC by conducting assessments of anti-money laundering provisions and carrying out anti-corruption efforts. Its efforts are hindered, however, by the lack of concrete mandates and authorities. In a 2009 World Bank paper entitled, "Slavery and Human Trafficking International Law and the Role of the World Bank", the author states that "the World Bank’s mandate appears to permit preventive action", thereby lending doubt whether or not the World Bank is even permitted by UN mandate to involve itself in the fight against human trafficking.[26]

Recognizing the detrimental impact on its mission[clarification needed], the World Bank made a $1.5 billion pledge in 2011 to help combat TOC in the coming years.[24]

In another CTOC initiative, the World Bank is partnered with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR). This initiative helps to recover corruption related proceeds by creating an effective and collaborative environment for global law enforcement policy development.[26]

International Monetary Fund

The International Monetary Fund also conducts assessments of anti-money laundering provisions in countries.[24]


Europol is the law enforcement agency of the European Union (EU) whose main goal is to help achieve a safer Europe for the benefit of all EU citizens. The organization does so by assisting the EU Member States in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism.[27]

Europol officers hold no authority to conduct arrests but they support EU law enforcement colleagues by gathering, analyzing and disseminating information and coordinating operations. Europol uses the information to prevent, detect and investigate offenses, and to track down and prosecute those who commit them. Europol experts and analysts take part in Joint Investigation Teams which help solve criminal cases on the spot in EU countries.[27]

Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering

The Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), an initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions. The objectives of the FATF are to

set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.

To this end, the FATF developed a number of recommendations that have been recognized by law enforcement agencies around the world as the standard in the combating of TOC; specifically in the fight against money laundering, terror financing, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.[28]

To help combat CTOC, the FATF maintains a policy that has proven successful thus far, in which it "names and shames" that jurisdictions that choose to not cooperate with FATF. It also enlists the help of cooperating countries in the crafting of legislative frameworks used in the effort to combat money laundering.[28]


  1. ^ Yuriy A. Voronin (2000). "Measures to Control Transnational Organized Crime, Summary" (PDF). National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS). U.S. Department of Justice. Document No. NCJ 184773. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Home Page". UNODC. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Deflem, Mathieu (April 19, 2024), "Bureaucratization and Social Control: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation", Law & Society Review, 34 (3): 739–778, doi:10.2307/3115142, JSTOR 3115142
  4. ^ "The International Criminal Police". UNODC. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c "History of Interpol". Interpol. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  6. ^ "Interpol: Frequently Asked Questions" (PDF). Fair Trials International. November 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  7. ^ "Remarks About an Intensified Program for Drug Abuse Prevention and Control. June 17, 1971". The American Presidency Project. Retrieved September 1, 2015.
  8. ^ Wechsler, William. "Combating Transnational Organized Crime" (PDF). Washington Institute. The Washington Institut for Near East Policy. Retrieved September 1, 2015.
  9. ^ "Transnational organized crime: the global illegal economy". Transnational organized crime. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
  10. ^ "Effectively Combating Transnational Organized Crime". National Institute of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  11. ^ [1] (This article incorporates text from the U.S. Department of State that is believed to be in the public domain.)
  12. ^ "Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime". Retrieved September 2, 2015 – via National Archives.
  13. ^ a b c d Ohr, Bruce G. "Effective Methods to Combat Transnational Organized Crime in Criminal Justice Processes" (PDF). UNAFEI. United Nations. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  14. ^ "NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY: May 2010" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on January 20, 2017. Retrieved September 4, 2015 – via National Archives.
  15. ^ "Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Executive Summary". Retrieved September 1, 2015 – via National Archives.
  16. ^ "CTOC Center of Excellence". CTOC Center of Excellence. National Guard Burea. Archived from the original on October 31, 2015. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  17. ^ "Effectively Combating Transnational Organized Crime". Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  18. ^ "MCTFT". MCTFT. National Guard Bureau. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  19. ^ a b "Countering Transnational Organized Crime". USSOUTHCOM. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  20. ^ "Combating Transnational Organized Crime". Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  21. ^ a b "DoS CTOC efforts". Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  22. ^ Cohen, David. "Combating Transnational Organized Crime". United States Department of the Treasury. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  23. ^ "Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime". The White House.
  24. ^ a b c d e f "The Global Regime for Transnational Crime". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  25. ^ a b c "Interpol Overview". Interpol. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  26. ^ a b "Slavery and Human Trafficking International Law and the Role of the World Bank" (PDF). World Bank. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  27. ^ a b "About Europol". Europol. Retrieved September 8, 2015.
  28. ^ a b "Who is FATF". FATF. Retrieved September 8, 2015.