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Research Synopsis

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Research Questions

  1. What are the operational characteristics of transnational criminal networks? What are the strategic alliances among criminal groups and other actors along the key nodes of clandestine smuggling routes?
  2. How do transnational criminal networks threaten U.S. interests?
  3. What U.S. government policies and programs can be used to combat these networks?
  4. What are some roles the U.S. Army could play in combatting TCNs, consistent with U.S. policy?

In July 2011, President Barack Obama promulgated the Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. In the letter presenting the strategy, the president stated that the expanding size, scope, and influence of transnational organized crime and its impact on U.S. and international security and governance represent one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. Through an analysis of transnational criminal networks originating in South America, this report develops a more refined understanding of the operational characteristics of these networks; the strategic alliances that they have established with state and other nonstate actors; and the multiple threats that they pose to U.S. interests and to the stability of the countries where they operate. It identifies U.S. government policies and programs to counter these networks; the roles of the Department of Defense, the geographic combatant commands, component commands, and task forces; and examines how U.S. Army assets and capabilities can contribute to U.S. government efforts to counter these networks. The report also recommends reconsidering the way in which nontraditional national security threats are classified; updating statutory authorities; providing adequate budgets for the counternetwork mission; and improving interagency coordination.

Key Findings

Countering Transnational Organized Crime Is a New Mission for the Department of Defense

  • Success in counternarcotics has been traditionally measured by the amount of illicit drugs interdicted.
  • However, even if drug flow reduction goals are met, the drug trafficking infrastructure would still be in place.
  • Countering transnational criminal networks requires identifying the critical nodes in the criminal organizations and determining where operations can achieve the greatest effect.
  • Gaps in authorities may create difficulties in military abilities to participate in this effort.

Destabilizing Effects of Transnational Criminal Networks

  • These criminal organizations take root in supply areas and transportation nodes while usurping the host nations' basic functioning capacity.
  • Over time, the illicit economy grows and nonstate actors provide an increasing range of social goods and fill the security and political vacuum that emerges from the gradual erosion of state power, legitimacy, and capacity.

The U.S. Army Could Play a Role in Combating Transnational Criminal Networks

  • Combating transnational criminal organizations is an endeavor in which the Army could help develop interagency and multinational strategies to more effectively counter these organizations and then assist with planning to implement those strategies.
  • Such initiatives would constitute a valuable expansion from the Army's current efforts to build partner capacity, perform network analysis, and support detection and monitoring.


  • The U.S. government could bring authorities and policy guidance in line with the strategy to combat transnational organized crime.
  • Interagency efforts to combat these networks could be improved, roles could be better defined, and joint doctrine could be developed.
  • The Army could take several steps to clarify its role in countering criminal networks, including participating in strategy development, increasing support to network analysis efforts, and working with partner nations and militaries to help them strengthen border control.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Army Quadrennial Defense Review Office in the Office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, and prepared by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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