Impact of Transnational Organized Crime on the US Criminal Justice System
How, if at all, do Transnational Organized Criminals affect the US criminal Justice System?

How, if at all, do Transnational Organized Criminals (TOCs) affect the US criminal Justice System?

First, it is important to differentiate between the threat of transnational organized crime and transnational organized criminals. The difference is often overlooked among scholars when discussing where the government should focus its efforts to combat transnational organized crime.

transnational organized crime and US criminal justice system

What is Transnational Organized Crime?

As Phil Williams describes, transnational organized crime refers to criminal organizations or activities that cross national borders and, therefore, involve the territories and laws of at least two states.

The movement of illicit goods and services involves various countries, with different stages of planning, execution, and distribution crossing national borders.

Some of the most threatening examples of transnational crime include drug trafficking, human trafficking, firearms trafficking, corruption, cybercrime, piracy, money laundering, and ecological crime. In many instances, these crimes overlap with one another as networks overlap and take advantage of respective illegal activities.

example of drug trafficking routes

The Market of Transnational Organized Crime

Consider the enterprise theory, which suggests market dynamics create space for illicit businesses to operate, and success is determined by supply and demand (Lyman, 2006). The UNODC has said, “strategies aimed at the groups will not stop the illicit activities if the dynamics of the market remain unaddressed” (Williams, 2012).

Coupled with the understanding that groups engaged in a criminal enterprise are loosely structured, flexible, and highly adaptable, it puts forward a compelling argument that most of the power of transnational crime lies in the activities/market and not the people committing the acts. As such, one could argue that transnational organized crime affects the US criminal justice system more than individual criminals (or groups).

The Threat of Transnational Organized Criminals

Transnational organized criminals affect the US criminal justice system in various ways. Consider the following as a starting point.


Corruption (and violence) play a critical role in transnational organized crime by neutralizing and weakening the state's power. As Williams describes, the very design of corruption is to undermine the judicial system (2012). Lyman continues to discuss the corruption link, which he describes as the “subtle interplay among many community forces” which make accommodations for organized crime within the criminal justice system (2006).

On a high level, drug trafficking organizations develop a symbiotic relationship with state structures and legitimate businesses which makes drug trafficking possible. A Homeland security report from 2010 suggests that Border Patrol seems to be the biggest target for drug traffickers and has the most corruption.

Threat to State and Social Security

The actions of transnational organized criminals present a threat to security on a state and societal level. As TOCs, and drug trafficking, jeopardize the global trend toward peace, freedom, and national security, they jeopardize a nation’s identity (Dordevic, 2009). This includes its form of government, policies, and the perception of the state in the realm of international relations.

Political security is grounded in institutional stability and the political systems of the state (such as the criminal justice system), which are compromised through corruption and relationships with transnational organized criminals. As organized crime undermines efforts to provide sound governance (Williams, 2012), citizens lose faith in the government, authorities, and the criminal justice system, further compromising societal security.

On a lower level, drug trafficking increases violence and street corruption as various gangs battle for territory and distribution, such as the Bloods, Latin Kings, and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The brutality of MS-13 members, with roots in El Salvador, and their power on the streets were recently highlighted in the news (Helmore, 2022).

Drugs are transported into and through New York by couriers on trains and buses before being smuggled further into Canada through nine land ports of entry. This distribution further taints America’s reputation for security, introduces the risk of violence to civilians, and places strain on local law enforcement.

Dordevic mentioned the ecological, economic, social, and political threats of TOCs to show how these illicit organizations surpassed conventional threats before the Cold War. In drug trafficking, these threats may manifest as erosion of human capital, increased conflict, rise in corruption, and public distrust, which creates a sense of insecurity (2009).

Impact on Law and Law Enforcement

The actions of transnational organized criminals place the US criminal justice system in a difficult position as organizations exploit criminogenic asymmetries by taking part in jurisdictional arbitrage, looking for contradictions to leverage in their favor (Williams, 2012). The US criminal justice is forced to reassess weak laws and consider how the laws of neighboring countries impact the success of transnational organized crime.

In the average police department and community, drug trafficking undermines the efforts to provide sound governance by creating a strain on government institutions through corruption, increasing the threat to the national image, increasing public trust in authorities, and putting pressure on limited resources.

The Transnational Organized Crime Network

The convergence of TOC networks often amplifies the threat, and these activities should not be studied alone. For example, drug trafficking is often committed alongside money laundering and corruption.

These threats amplify where there is existing weak, unsettled, or ineffective governance. For example, communities within swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Minnesota, may have higher political tension and will look to authorities for security and effectiveness in handling the economic and social threats of drug trafficking, such as corruption and violence.


  • Dordevic, S. (2009). Understanding transnational organized crime as a Security threat and Security Theories. W. Balkans Sec. Observer, 4, 39. 
  • Helmore, E. (2022, March 26). Trial over brutal killings sheds light on MS-13 and the power of US Street Gangs. The Guardian. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from
  • Lyman, M & Potter, G (2006) Organized Crime, Chapter 2 Theories of Organized Criminal Behavior, Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall. 
  • NDIC. (n.d.). Overview - New York Drug Threat Assessment. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from
  • U.S. Government Publishing Office. (March 11, 2010). New border war: corruption of U.S. officials by drug cartels. Senate Hearing 111-649. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from
  • Williams, P. (2012). Transnational organized crime. In Security Studies (pp. 525-541). Routledge