US intelligence chief James Clapper declared before a Senate committee that transnational criminal organizations, particularly those from Latin America, were an “abiding threat to US economic and national security interests.”

What particularly worries the US intelligence community is not only the current state and sophistication of Latin American transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), but their evolution, and their potential to develop ties not only with groups on the US list of terrorist organizations, but with foreign states and foreign intelligence agencies.

As far as Latin America is concerned, organized crime presents the single greatest threat to governments in the region, among them key US allies like Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador. Other countries under even greater threat from crime are Honduras, with one of the highest murder rates in the world, along with Guatemala, and the tiny nation of Belize.

In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Clapper mentioned the criminal activities that finance TCOs, and which are on the rise due to the globalized economy. He mentioned human smuggling, and the increase in kidnappings for ransom. He had Mexico in mind when he said this, but other nations in Latin America are seeing significant increases in kidnapping, among them Venezuela and smaller nations like Haiti and Paraguay. Clapper sees human trafficking as an increasingly attractive option to TCOs, due to what he described as a high profit, low risk dynamic. Human trafficking is seen as a higher risk activity for the US, due to the possibility that networks could be used to smuggle in terrorists interested in launching attacks within the mainland United States.

The US intelligence community sees a deepening relationship between terrorism and organized crime. Clapper stated that he believes terrorist organizations will “increasingly turn to crime and criminal networks for funding and logistics.” Perhaps the best Latin American examples of this are Colombian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which are both involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking as well as kidnapping and extortion.

When it came to discussing Latin America and the Caribbean, Clapper had criticism for four nations that not only have populist leaders, but often anti-US tendencies: Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Two of those nations, Bolivia and Venezuela, have been decertified as not doing enough to fight drugs. Bolivia is one of the principal producers of cocaine, while Venezuela is perhaps the principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine heading not only to the US, but increasingly towards Europe.

Clapper made it clear that the drug threat to the United States “emanates primarily from the Western Hemisphere,” with “the majority of US-consumed drugs produced in Mexico, Colombia and Canada.”

He identified the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as particularly at risk from organized crime, thanks not only to their strategic position for the transit of drugs northwards, but due to a “permissive environment” created by weak institutions and corrupt officials.

Mexico inevitably came in for special mention. While Clapper highlighted successes in arresting drug cartel leaders, he mentioned that the “ambitious reform agenda” needed to tackle organized crime was progressing at a very slow rate. He noted that Mexican cartels do have a presence on US soil, but qualified this by saying that the violence that was plaguing its southern neighbor was unlikely to spillover into the mainland United States.

While much of Mr Clapper’s testimony has been heard before, in terms of organized crime in Latin America, there were three things he said that stand out. The first is the recognition that TCOs in the region are diversifying their criminal portfolios away from relying solely on the drug trade. The fact he highlighted human trafficking as a growing threat is also significant from our perspective. The most popular and common entry point into the US is via Mexico, along routes that have been used for decades by Latin migrants in pursuit of the American dream. What the US fears more than anything else is that these well-trodden routes will be used by extremist and terrorist organizations to infiltrate people into the mainland US.

This leads us to the final point of the potential marriage between organized crime and terrorism. Groups on the US list of terrorist organizations have long resorted to illicit activities to fill their coffers. TCOs in Latin America are not picky about whom they work with. If the price is right they will provide their services to all and sundry. Whether it be guiding al-Qaida extremists across illegal border crossing points or selling home-made submarines usually used to transport drugs, TCOs would happily cooperate with groups whose intent might be to harm the US, its citizens and its interests.

That transnational organized crime in Latin America is strengthening is beyond doubt. That its reach is extending beyond its traditional strongholds of Colombia and Mexico is also quite clear. Transnational organized crime is the principal threat to national security in Latin America, and by extension a major threat to that of the United States.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...