The threat of transnational organized crime: old news, by Paulo Pereira

Transnational organized crime is a subject in vogue, especially in the United States. In 2011, President Barack Obama stated in his letter presenting the Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime” that the expanding size, scope, and influence of transnational organized crime and its impact on U.S. and international security and governance represents one of the most significant challenges of this Era. The United Nations appears to follow this lead, once in 2013, its Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, affirmed that transnational organized crime affects peace, security and stability wherever it occurs. Also, that it undermines the authority and effectiveness of State institutions, as well as erodes the rule of law and weakens law enforcement structures.

These are important statements that go hand in hand with several policies focused on combating transnational organized crime. Nonetheless, it is old news. There is no novelty in these assessments, which had already been made in the mid-1990s. This foundational moment is the theme of the article “The United States and the threat of the transnational organized crime in the 1990s”, published in the 51st volume of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional.

In this article, Paulo Pereira, lecturer in the International Relations Department at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP) and at San Tiago Dantas Graduate Programme in International Relations of UNESP, UNICAMP and PUC-SP, states some of the debates addressed in his Ph.D. thesis in Political Science/International Politics, entitled “Securitization of Transnational Organized Crime in the United States in the 1990s”, at the Universidade de Campinas (2011).

The article breaks new ground by analyzing the process of insertion of transnational organized crime in the United States security agenda and its qualification as a contemporary major threat to the post-Cold War world order. It shows that the assessment of transnational crime as an international security issue dates back to  1995, when Bill Clinton stated the Presidential Decision Directive 42 (PDD-42), which, domestically, facilitated the reorganization of the police, military and Intelligence structures of the country to combat this threat and, internationally, had impact on the UN definitions about transnational organized crime. According to Paulo Pereira, two components of this analysis should be taken into consideration.

The first one is the assertion that the definition of organized crime as a national and international security issue was a political process. It must be understood within the redefinitions of the United States’ security agenda since the end of the bipolar conflict. In addition, need to take into account the dynamics of political and economic liberalization, technological advances in communications and transportation. Thus, it’s possible to explain how the transnational organized crime threat was narrated by the executive branch of the United States, allowing for violent policies that reverberated in problematic consequences felt around the world, especially in Latin America countries.

The second aspect is the definition of organized crime as a foreign threat, which brings back the first debates over organized crime in the United States held in the 1950s, under macarthism, followed by consecutive U.S administrations. Based on prior researches, Pereira argues that the 1990’s concept of the transnational organized crime threat is rooted in that previous years, which has put all the responsibility of these crime dynamics on ethnically defined groups based in foreign states, either incapable or uninterested in imposing the rule of law. This “global” crime approach underplayed U.S. domestic conditions that also contributed to its development. As a result, the security strategies based on these concepts have invested primarily in the application, punishment, restraint and dismantling of foreign groups, focusing on immigrants within the United States.

In the same manner, according to Pereira, the executive branch of the United States and its security agencies has defined transnational organized crime as a “new” threat, putting in danger US citizens at home and abroad, as well as their society as a whole. Internationally, there could be different repercussions. On the one hand, it could threaten allies and undermine the little institutional capacity of fragile states. On the other hand, it could strengthen hostile States and other groups, such as terrorist organizations. Finally, the US government has identified transnational crime as a weakening factor of its economy and even of the world capitalist economic system.

Pereira also demonstrates that PDD-42 was the most important institutional mechanism of the United States to combat transnational organized crime in the 1990s, which led to three important derivations: the approval of United Nations Declaration on Crime and Public Safety in 1997, by the General Assembly; the development of a comprehensive U.S. national strategy to go against transnational crime, under the responsibility of the Department of Justice, the State Department and the Treasury Department, which resulted in the International Crime Control Strategy (ICCS) in 1998 and the subsequent presentation of the law project International Crime Control Act in 1998 (ICCA).

Pereira’s article leads the reader through an unorthodox path as it evaluates transnational organized crime differently from the interpretations that share, uncritically, the official evaluation of transnational organized crime as a threat. On the contrary, it highlights the relevance of the political foundations of this concept of threat and the respective response of the United States decision makers.  


Paulo Pereira, International Relations Department, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP), São Paulo, Brazil,

Read this article:

PEREIRA, Paulo. Os Estados Unidos e a ameaça do crime organizado transnacional nos anos 1990. Rev. bras. polít. int. [online]. 2015, vol.58, n.1 [cited  2015-10-02], pp. 84-107 . Available from: <>. ISSN 1983-3121.

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