David Luna: Smarter, faster, better — combating illicit economies across the Americas

Shegini, Ukraine - Marh, 2017: Smuggled cigarettes disguised as
Illegal trade is a clear and present danger to U.S national security.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Coast Guard offloaded a seizure of $1 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. The seizure represents law enforcement’s commitment to stopping drug trafficking and illegal trade, but it also reflects the growing volume of illegal trade and the boldness of the criminals behind it

Today, illegal trade is a clear and present danger to U.S. national security. Every year, roughly $2.2 trillion worth of illegal goods are moved across global borders. This not only costs taxpayers, but it also fuels corruption, instability, and violence that can threaten communities in Florida and around the world.

Dangerous criminal networks get rich from many forms of illegal trade, including trafficking illegal drugs, guns, fake medicines and tobacco; cybercrime and organized retail crime; and smuggling stolen, counterfeit, and pirated goods and even human beings.

To carry out these activities, criminal syndicates exploit disruptions in the legitimate marketplace. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a 40% increase in counterfeited goods online. Current supply chain issues and shortages in products like baby formula are also likely to fuel the illicit marketplace.

Similar to how criminals take advantage of stressed markets and susceptible consumers, they also take advantage of advancements in technology and gaps in law enforcement activity to gain access to the marketplace. Free Trade Zones (FTZs) are areas where goods and products can be moved, stored, and processed without the intervention of local customs authorities. FTZs are used around the world, including in the United States, to help move global commerce more efficiently and inexpensively, but they have also become vulnerable to exploitation by criminal and terrorist networks.

The Colón Free Trade Zone (CFTZ) in Panama — the largest FTZ in the Western Hemisphere — has been publicly accused by the U.S. government of being among “the world’s most significant drug money launderers and criminal facilitators.” At another FTZ along the border of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, it is estimated that roughly six billion cigarettes are smuggled annually. The profits from this illegal trade are thought to be financing international terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, which has a strong presence in the region.

Regardless of the commodity or activity, the world’s most dangerous criminals are highly sophisticated and exploit every possible opportunity to fund and bolster their operations.

To better safeguard the open markets and security of our homeland and beyond, we must strengthen our own law enforcement capabilities, starting with a better, more cooperative approach. A unified strategy can be forged by public and private sector collaboration to share expertise, data and best practices. We must also strengthen our political will across every level of the government to create and enforce strong policies that will crack down on these global criminal networks here in the United States and abroad.

An important step is being taken in Miami this week, where the International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE) is hosting a strategic regional dialogue on illicit trade and FTZs as part of the 2022 Concordia Americas Summit. As a partner of United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT) — a coalition of more than 75 national and state brand enforcement experts, law enforcement agencies, academics, and leading business organizations — ICAIE is working to create dynamic partnerships that will help counter illegal trade to protect and strengthen our collective security.

No singular government or industry can address this complex problem on its own. It requires cooperative discussions, approaches and solutions that make full use of existing expertise, information sharing and evolving technologies. Government, the private sector, and civil society all have a role to play, and these organizations are helping to provide the critical path forward.

As policymakers, law enforcement and private companies work to share resources and intelligence, there are ways the public can protect themselves as well. Through self-education on illegal trade, its severe impacts on Florida’s communities, and how to avoid and report counterfeit and stolen products, we can mobilize others to work together and fight back. A good place to start is visiting www.icaie.com and www.USAIT.org.


David M. Luna is the founder and executive director of the International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE), and president and CEO of Luna Global Networks & Convergence Strategies LLC. He is a former U.S. diplomat and national security official; current chair of the Business at OECD Anti-Illicit Trade Expert Group (AITEG); chair of AIT Committee of the U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB); member of The Business 20 (B20/G20) Integrity & Compliance Task Force; and a senior fellow for national security and co-director of the Anti-Illicit Trade Institute (AITI), at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC), Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University.

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One comment

  • Richard Bruce

    July 14, 2022 at 3:36 pm

    The reason high volumes of illegal drugs enter Florida is because a unique special federal court exists just to process smuggling cases. A large quantity of drugs are being seized in the Pacific and transported to Florida for adjudication.

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