Politics & Government

California Attorney General Kamala Harris targets transnational organized crime

Tougher laws and more money would help California law enforcement combat international organized crime, according to a report released Thursday by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“These groups – with roots in places around the globe – have flocked to California to engage in an increasingly diverse range of criminal activities,” the report says, adding that transnational crime groups are active in every major California city.

While it may first evoke an image of intercontinental drug routes, the term “transnational organized crime” can also encompass human trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime. California’s size, its sprawling transportation infrastructure and its proximity to Latin America make it an attractive hub for organized crime networks.

Policymakers can better equip law enforcement to crack down on organized crime, according to the attorney general’s office, by bolstering laws that could help pursue leaders of crime networks and by restoring law enforcement budgets that diminished during the recession.

Local managers acting on behalf of transnational organizations face relatively lenient sentences. The report recommends that California strengthen its laws, emulating the federal Continuing Criminal Enterprise Act, to allow tougher penalties for these local affiliate heads. Enacted in 1970, the federal law targets local organizers or supervisors in criminal enterprises, particularly drug trafficking, and authorizes minimum 20-year sentences.

“It is by design really trying to target people who, put another way, are not the low-level foot soldiers,” said Special Assistant Attorney General Jeff Tsai. “The issue law enforcement struggles with is how can we go after something higher than that, something more than the low-hanging fruit.”

Lawmakers could also empower prosecutors to freeze the assets or seize the property of a criminal organization before handing down an indictment. Otherwise crime syndicates that see prosecution on the horizon can pre-emptively channel assets back across borders, out of the reach of U.S. officials.

The state lacks a central data clearinghouse on transnational organized crime, impeding communication between various law enforcement agencies. Similarly, the report says state authorities can do a better job working with their Mexican counterparts to pursue international money laundering.

In an example of that type of cross-border collaboration, Harris and a group of state attorneys general will visit Mexico next week to meet with their Mexican counterparts and federal officials. Expected attendees include the top law enforcement officials from Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

Finally, the report addresses state funding shortfalls. Budget cuts have scaled back special units focused on drug crime and human trafficking, and a $7.5 million infusion could fund new units in Sacramento, San Francisco, Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Among other findings in the report:

• California has also become a target for cybercrime operations, emerging as the leading U.S. end point for data breaches originating abroad, especially in Eastern Europe.

• As a government crackdown has altered the dynamics of Mexico’s violent drug trade, an increasing number of California counties host street and prison gangs linked to international enterprises and gangs like the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia Michoacana and MS-13.

• Demand for high-quality marijuana is leading more organized crime groups to establish sophisticated indoor growing operations, separate from existing outdoor grow sites.

• California’s huge and diverse economy offers a channel for money laundering, with $30 billion to $40 billion in illicit funds passing through annually.

• Human trafficking is both lucrative and nearly ubiquitous: “Virtually all types of transnational criminal organizations in California participate in human trafficking in one form or another,” the report states.