As many as fifty-two activities fall under the umbrella of transnational crime, from arms smuggling to human trafficking to environmental crime. These crimes undermine states’ abilities to provide citizens with basic services, fuel violent conflicts, and subject people to intolerable suffering. The cost of transnational organized crime (TOC) is estimated to be roughly 3.6 percent (PDF) of the global economy. Money laundering alone costs at least 2 percent of global gross domestic product every year according to United Nations (UN) reports. Drug traffickers have destabilized entire areas of the Western Hemisphere, leading to the deaths of at least fifty thousand people in Mexico alone in the past six years. Counterfeit medicines further sicken ill patients and contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant strains of viruses. Environmental crime—including illegal logging, waste dumping, and harvesting of endangered species—both destroy fragile ecosystems and endanger innocent civilians. Between twelve and twenty-seven million people toil in forced labor—more than at the peak of the African slave trade.
For many reasons, global transnational crime presents nations with a unique and particularly challenging task. To begin with, by definition, transnational crime crosses borders. But the law enforcement institutions that have developed over centuries were constructed to maintain order primarily within national boundaries. In addition, transnational crime affects nations in diverse ways. In many states, political institutions have strong links to transnational crime, and citizens in numerous communities across the world rely on international criminal groups to provide basic services or livelihoods. Finally, the international community requires solid data to gauge the challenge and effectiveness of responses, but data on TOC is notoriously difficult to gather and is often politicized.