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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: Transnational Crime in the Americas

“Transnational Crime in the Americas”

Hosted by the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs
Washington, DC • June 27, 2013

Moderator: Prof. Ruth Wedgwood, Director, International Law and Organizations Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Hosted by: Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs, Universal Peace Federation


The monthly forum of the Office for Peace and Security in Washington dealt with Transnational Crime in the Americas. This was a follow up to a program held in March 2012. Experts in the field gathered to discuss transnational organized crime and its many faces – drug and human trafficking, money laundering, corruption, the link between transnational crime and terrorism, and the serious threat posed to national and international security. Participants discussed the cultural, political, technological and financial aspects. Certainly everyone agreed that the rule of law and enforcement are needed, but fundamentally the root causes must be more effectively addressed by governments, the UN, and other international institutions, especially governments of the industrialized world. Root causes of transnational crime include: poverty, disfranchisement, unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, and restriction of large portions of population in countries around the world.  

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Prof. Ruth Wedgwood - Director, International Law and Organizations Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (MODERATOR)

Dr. Alexandre Mansourov - Visiting Scholar, U.S.-Korea Institute, SAIS, John Hopkins University

Ralph Winnie, Jr. – Director, Eurasian Business Coalition’s China Program, Eurasia Center

David Jackson - Executive Editor, The Washington Times

James Nelson - Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice

Dr. Felicia Buadoo-Adade - Consultant, SeraphimGLOBAL

Cynthia Dillon – Host and Producer, Republicans Abroad International

M.E. “Spike” Bowman - Distinguished Fellow, University of Virginia School of Law

Emiko Butler - Coordinator, Women's Federation for World Peace-Maryland chapter

James Morrison - Embassy Row columnist, The Washington Times

George M. Pope - Retired/Concerned Citizen

Thomas McDevitt - Chairman, The Washington Times

Angela Voegele - Police Attaché Assistant, Embassy of Switzerland

Dr. Lloyd Fennell - President, Ecumenical Counseling Institute and the Save a Child Save a Family Foundation

Dr. Antonio Betancourt - Director, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office

Dr. Mark Barry - Advisor, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office

Dr. William Selig - Deputy Director, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office

Opening remarks: Dr. Antonio Betancourt

Transnational organized crime poses a serious threat to democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law in Central America and beyond.  It is a multi-faceted phenomenon and has manifested itself in trafficking in persons, firearms and narcotics; money laundering; and a shocking host of illicit activities. 

In March 2012, we hosted a forum on this important subject and discussed the pervasive effects that transnational crime has had on politics, security, and societies around the world.

Getting to the root of the problem as well as coming up with viable solutions are elements much less obvious but critically essential. This forum will seek to analyze these challenges and formulate viable road maps and possible solutions for the benefit of educated public opinion, government leaders, private sector entities, and the international community.

Introduction to the moderator

The moderator for the forum, Professor Ruth Wedgwood, is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, and currently, directs the international law program at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Professor Wedgwood served as chief of staff to the head of the criminal division in the U.S. Department of Justice, chairing the attorney general’s working group on informant and undercover investigative guidelines, and as federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

General summary and observations

Professor Wedgwood shared anecdotes from her distinguished career beginning with the Letelier Assassination (1976), her days as a federal prosecutor in New York, and then experiences with the FBI and international / transnational crime. September 11, 2011 brought about dramatic changes in how criminal activity is monitored and crimes prosecuted.

Not that many years ago, organized crime referred to the Mafia, a monolithic, hierarchical organization involved in criminal activities. But since 9/11, and of course earlier, crime has become transnational and international, so its activity is a threat not only to the U.S., but all governments and to global security.

According to The National Institute of Justice (an evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice), organized crime groups include: Russian Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, Yakuza (Japan), and Latin American groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18, which have expanded to the United States, and many others.

Modern technology and globalization have greatly impacted transnational crime. Travel has become less expensive; smartphones are readily available; there’s hardly a place in the world that doesn’t have access to the Internet; untraceable international wire transfers -- all have become tools and opportunity for the criminals.

Globalization has given organized crime the means to get from one place to another and work with different like-minded groups. Organized crime groups even have their own communication systems.

Dr. Betancourt pointed out that the organized criminal organizations in Colombia have more sophisticated technology then the government and the military. Why? Because they have the money to buy the best that technology offers on the market.

With this technology, criminal groups no longer have to follow the traditional hierarchical organizational structure. Professor Wedgwood said: “The world is flat.”

It was pointed out that the FBI has always looked at organized crime as criminal activity, while the CIA looks at it as an intelligence endeavor. For example, if a bribe would facilitate getting needed information, then the CIA could justify its morality and legality.

Dr. Lloyd Fennell, President of the Ecumenical Counseling Institute and the Save a Child Save a Family Foundation, spoke about the effects of transnational crime on the culture of his native country, Jamaica, a small country in the Caribbean, and what can be done to make positive change.

Ralph Winnie shared an experience about the Chinese in the U.S. and their control and management over the lives of the immigrants. Criminal organizations exploit the vulnerabilities of immigrants through their lack of language, employment, and education.

In many nations, where there are no legal employment opportunities, desperate parents conclude that marrying their daughters to a successful drug dealer is more attractive than to be tied to a subsistence life with a poor farmer, honest though it might be. Economic necessities have quietly transformed the general perception of honesty, so in many communities, corruption has become the new norm.

Drug trafficking rings are highly lucrative businesses in the Metro-DC area. Couriers from Central America regularly bring large amounts of cocaine into the area. Just recently, one of the participants pointed out, there was a drug bust in Northern Virginia with a group of Hondurans who had hidden drugs in shoes and decorative wooden frames. When asked why they would risk their lives, the answer was always the same: quick and easy money.

Connection or nexus between transnational crime and terrorism?

What is the connection or nexus between transnational crime and terrorism? Transnational crime − human trafficking, organ trafficking, weapons and drugs dealing, etc. − undermines the rule of law but when linked with terrorist groups, the problems become magnified because the stability of an entire government and nation is affected.

A participant mentioned, for example, a terrorist who uses the services of a counterfeiter to make a false passport. It is known that Hezbollah has drug connections to the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, and throughout the Southern Cone. In other words, Hezbollah, one of the world’s largest terrorist groups, is fundraising for its terrorist activities by supporting transnational crime whether through drugs, prostitution, arms trade, etc.

Dr. Betancourt challenged the claims of suicide bombers who claim only to be ideologically-driven “martyrs,” but in fact are motivated by financial compensation that would allow a poor family with several children to end up with a home of their own and education for their children. In the years that he worked in Israel / Palestine, he learned that in many cases, families of suicide bombers were given large sums of money and educational opportunities that would’ve been beyond their reach. Donations are made to special funds from wealthy Saudis and rich Arabs.

“After September 11, a connection developed between ideology, radical religious beliefs and transnational crime that was not there in the 80s or 90s,” said Betancourt. “Some governments in Latin America supported the Colombian terrorist group, FARC. This organization receives funding from the drug trade, kidnappings, and bank robberies,” he said.

Social media and transnational crime

Social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) have become unwilling tools in the arena of the Internet, information gathering, and opportunities for their misuse.

David Jackson, Executive Editor, The Washington Times, submitted the following text:

“The proliferation of social media has created some new challenges for law enforcement on the international level. Besides significantly raising the risk of exposure to -- and potential cost of -- identity theft, which can now be as easily committed from Nigeria as from your local ATM machine, thanks to phishing and other online schemes, it also has raised an interesting dilemma for young intelligence officers. Since it has become highly unusual, even attention-getting, NOT to have, say, a Facebook page, young officers are almost forced to create one just to avoid attracting attention. Yet they of course cannot reveal anything about what they do or where they are! Put another way: They have to hide in plain sight.”

Cynthia Dillon, Executive Director, Republicans Abroad International, shared a story about what’s called “a web crawler,” an Internet “bot” that systematically browses the web and collects information about anyone’s purchases, interests, personal data.

A participant told about ChoicePoint (now part of Reed Elsevier), a computer program that “mined” personal data from public and private databases. The company has more than 20 billion records of individuals and businesses.

But with this technology, comes the threat of misuse, and the increase in cyber terrorism.

Dr. Betancourt spoke about the relationship between high rates of unemployment in Colombia among the educated with no formal or informal economic means to utilize their talents. Transnational crime with its base in the economy of the country becomes the alternative for employment. The young and educated are approached by shadow “corporations,” controlled by criminal syndicates. Educated people with no other alternative and seeking well-paying jobs become involved in illegal and criminal activities by contributing their skills in engineering, finance, chemistry and many other professions. He said: “Most of the economies of Latin America, in fact, in most of the developing world, cannot absorb the educated men and women coming out of the universities and technical schools. The borders are now closed for that surplus labor to move to more affluent countries, like the US, the European Union, Japan, Brazil, etc. There are enormous barriers for labor to move from country to country. A lot of that labor finds employment in criminal economies and illegal activities connected with transnational crime.”

Once illegal corporations become seemingly legitimate, and a viable means to make quick money, then it is easy to see how some gullible people can get caught up in its web. Ralph Winnie mentioned the example of human trafficking and how someone can innocently get caught up in nefarious activities.

Another example, people are recruited to smuggle large sums of cash, as a mule. The requirements for money laundering are simple but with potentially high rewards. Money laundering and the ability to make anonymous bank wire transfers are essential tools for transnational criminal activity and organizations.

The forum members also discussed the misuse of the diplomatic pouch. For example, last year Italian police discovered a quantity of cocaine being smuggled into the country in Ecuador’s diplomatic pouch. Russia and Latvia were also mentioned.

Transnational crime, greed and corruption and terrorism

The forum participants all agreed that as long as people can be corrupt then criminal activity will continue. Transnational crime is big business. It’s often called the “dark side” of globalization. Corruption can be difficult to define since cultural factors enter into the determination. In one country, a facilitation payment or bribe is a normal part of doing business, but in others, it may be viewed as illegal. Cultural context can be complex and sensitive.

Dr. Betancourt spoke about democracy and self governance, the social contract between the governed and government in “real” democracies. He said: “The more self governance the more democracy in a country. Either you police yourself or someone will police you. The more people cherish democratic principles and are involved in the activities of the democratic process the more their democracy will endure and deliver security and prosperity. Self-governance equals democracy.”

Dr. Fennell spoke about the hungry children in the Americas. He said, “Poverty has no morality. Hunger has no morality,” and discussed about the need to care for the innocent victims because in some countries, control of food has become a terrorist’s weapon. “Men and women are elected and placed in positions of leadership. We’re paying them to do a job. If they can’t fulfill the job, then change is needed.”

Dr. Lloyd G. Fennell encouraged the forum to support The Capital Area Community Food Bank for the homeless.

Dr. Felicia Buadoo-Adade, Consultant, SeraphimGLOBAL, and 28 years with the DC Department of Health as a women’s health specialist, thanked the Universal Peace Federation for hosting the forum. She said: “I’m glad Dr. Fennell was focusing on the basic needs and causes of trafficking, specifically poverty. When people are in poverty, they will find anyway to survive. The UPF is all about peace and some of the initiatives they support promote women as the turning point. If we are able to find solutions to eradicate poverty, then the problems of drug trafficking and human trafficking will be reduced.”

Dr. Buadoo-Adade asked the forum: “Did we come up with a roadmap for the victims of transnational crime in the Americas? We must come up with a strategy to end this wrongdoing.”


The forum participants all expressed concern for the enormity of transnational organized crime and the many peripheral issues. One expert said: “Responsible individuals must tackle the problem, but our strategy should be to take it on as a per project basis, instead of a head-on confrontation.” Others echoed President Obama’s sentiments of a “national emergency,” that requires drastic measures.

Dr. Betancourt gave the Unificationist perspective that echoes the thinking of the UPF founder, the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon. “The Unificationist perspective is not just to feed the hungry, but to help lift people from the bottom. We must promote self-governance. History has shown that either you govern yourself or someone will govern you. Either you are the owner of your economy or someone will own you. America is drifting today because its culture is not focusing in teaching on self-governance and self-control. Instead, culturally we are teaching indulgence, irresponsible behavior, and to live beyond one’s means. Freedom to do whatever we want despite the consequences. I believe in freedom of choice, as one key component of democracy, but to build a great society, citizenry values have to be emphasized and this is what America collectively and individually is forgetting to educate, particularly among the ‘leadership’ of the nation both in government and private sector.Leadership in any field means to lead towards something better, higher objectives to reach out and make a difference for the individual and the collective. Father Moon’s philosophy is to live for the sake of others. According to Father Moon all existence began first with that principle, to live for the sake of others. The principle to live for the sake of others is not the result of evolution; it is part of the original human blueprint.”

A few final thoughts from the forum participants were received by email.

James Nelson, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice - As to my thoughts on transnational crime, I believe it’s important, even critical, to recognize and understand the synergistic aspects of the activity. To wit, economic status, greed, power, political corruption, opportunities (for criminal elements) created by the differences (cultural, legal, historical) between nations, etc. 

George M. Pope, III - I believe to solve any problem we must act smart utilizing all means, technology, and prioritize project areas to align with coalition partners that will bring about peaceful solutions from allied governmental units, religious organizations, educational think tanks and counter terrorism, human trafficking, organized crime, gang and narcotic cartel specialty entities. The big item I would emphasize: select no more than three projects to commence with in piloting best practices objectives. The real issue is human greed, conscience, and it’s got to come from the heart, in a Christian sense.

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