Like a virus, illicit economies spread and mutate
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In the months before he was elected president, Joe Biden made a solemn vow: A Biden administration would crack down on international corruption and the illicit economic activity it triggers.
“I will issue a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility,” the then-candidate wrote in Foreign Affairs. “And I will lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.”
His future vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, issued a similar declaration in her debate against then-Vice President Mike Pence. As California attorney general, Harris recalled, she had taken on “transnational criminal organizations.”
The Biden-Harris pledges cast a spotlight on an unsavory but often overlooked truth, something I saw firsthand during my years in Congress: Illicit economies are a pernicious and growing problem. They exist worldwide in the form of everything ranging from digital piracy and poaching to human trafficking, the sale of counterfeit goods, and the trade of illegal drugs.
Generating a vicious cycle of governmental failures, a weak rule of law, violence, and related corruption, illicit economies threaten stability, peace, economic progress, and security across the globe. This partly stems from how it drains from the global economy. According to the World Economic Forum, illicit economies generate over $2 trillion globally each year for nefarious organizations and criminals.
Even more sobering is how closely illicit economies are interlinked. The same criminals trafficking in weapons also move pharmaceuticals, drugs, and other illegal products. As former President Barack Obama said, “Criminal networks are not only expanding their operations, but they are also diversifying their activities, resulting in a convergence of transnational threats that has evolved to become more complex, volatile, and destabilizing.”
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem even worse. As governments have been focused on providing essential services to safeguard citizens, nefarious actors have accelerated criminal and terrorist funding efforts, as we saw last July when the Department of Justice seized $2 million worth of cryptocurrency from members of the Islamic State. It is no coincidence that this terrorist organization raked in funding from illicit goods such as counterfeit pharmaceuticals and cigarettes.
I have experience with these issues; for me, the consequences of government corruption and criminal activity are deeply personal. My father was an outspoken opponent of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, forcing my family to flee Cuba after he seized power. I was only 8 years old.
In the decades that followed, I watched a tragedy unfold from afar, with the Cuban ruler supported by Moscow and illicit economies from this repressive regime. That’s what despots do. They avoid legitimate commerce and instead make money through trafficking in arms, drugs, and, sadly, even humans.
After I was elected to Congress in 1989 and especially during my time as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I fought against organized crime and terrorism fueled by illicit economies. It became clear to me that away from the spotlight, in the shadows, the nexus of corruption, organized crime, and trafficking in drugs, weapons, and human beings poses a stubborn and serious threat to peace, stability, and economic progress.
What all this experience tells me is this: Political corruption and illicit economies, like a virus, easily spread and mutate. As the pandemic is teaching us, the only way to confront transnational challenges is through cooperation and coordination among everyone from government and multinational organizations to private industries and academic experts.
I am encouraged that combating corruption and advancing democracies is among the first-year priorities of the Biden administration. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that corruption is one of the main drivers of conflict around the world.
I am calling on my former colleagues in Congress and leaders throughout the private sector to work with President Biden and his administration to put an end to these corrupt practices. It will take all parties working together to confront, expose, and eliminate these networks from our economies. I am optimistic we can succeed.
leana Ros-Lehtinen is a senior adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. She served three decades in Congress, including a term as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.