International drug trafficking syndicates have become almost as infamous for serial violence as for their domination of regional cocaine, heroin, and amphetamine markets. Although now defined as Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) threats by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), concern has been building for years that violence associated with turbulent drug markets is having a destabilizing impact on a variety of countries, from Mexico and El Salvador to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
As if drug related assassinations and decapitations of rivals were not enough, intelligence reports document evolving TOC alliances with terrorist organizations - both indigenous (e.g. Salvadoran MS-13) and foreign (e.g. Hezbollah and al-Qaeda). It has long been known that a drug-terrorism nexus has dominated a major South American drug trafficking area - the Tri Border Region where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. That nexus has also been home to Hamas and Hezbollah operatives who allied themselves with narcotics producers and exporters.
To combat the burgeoning threat of narcoterrorism, the NSC recently announced the cornerstone elements of a more robust U.S. policy:
To diminish these threats, we will continue ongoing efforts to identify and disrupt the leadership, production, intelligence gathering, transportation, and financial infrastructure of major TOC networks. By targeting the human, technology, travel, and communications aspects of these networks, we will be able to monitor and gather intelligence to identify the full scope of the TOC networks, their members, financial assets, and criminal activities.
The above strategy excerpt calls for the explicit targeting of narcoterrorist "financial assets" and for insights on exactly what the government plans to do differently, we turn to the efforts of two cornerstone federal agencies: The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). FinCEN has long been a principal ally of federal agencies from the FBI and DEA to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in targeting all manner of illegally earned and concealed assets for seizure and forfeiture.
To implement the Administration’s TOC strategy, FinCEN will continue its leadership as the U.S. designated Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) which collaborates with other worldwide FIUs in the “Egmont Group” of G-20 nations. An example of FinCEN’s success as an FIU is its role in building a case against the Lebanese Canadian Bank for money laundering that furthered narcotics trafficking that benefited Hezbollah.
DEA will advance TOC objectives through an élite capability in its Special Operations Division (SOD), which was created to consolidate all DEA resources in the management of complex (multi defendant and usually multinational) investigations. In 2002 in cooperation with the FBI, DEA created within SOD the Counter Narco-Terrorism Operations Center (CNTOC) to coordinate all DEA investigations and intelligence linked to narcoterrorism.
Because of its close affiliation with the U.S. intelligence community, most CNTOC activities remain highly classified. However, in Congressional oversight testimony, it was disclosed that CNTOC plays an active role in interdicting organized crime funds intended for the support of terrorism. In one example declassified for a Congressional hearing, SOD has assigned a Special Agent from CNTOC to assist its Kabul CO [Country Office] in providing operational coordination with the intelligence community on development of confidential information sources. Specifically, as an SOD activity within the Kabul office, DEA and vetted Afghan units combine forces to “identify, recruit, and direct Confidential Sources [informants]” who are then deployed to target priority drug traffickers, money launderers, and narcoterrorists in that troubled region.
In conclusion, the marriage of advanced intelligence and investigative resources should reconstitute U.S. counternarcotics and counterterrorism efforts toward far greater impact. After all, the earlier blend of similar capabilities to fight Colombian cartels succeeded to a degree that appears instructive…at least for the near term.