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Modern policing and the threats of transnational criminal organizations

Major changes are needed to combat the dangers posed by drug cartels

Mexico US Fentanyl

Police and military patrol Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico, Jan. 6, 2023, the day after the government detained Ovidio Guzman, the son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, which unleashed deadly firefights between the military and suspected members of the Sinaloa drug cartel. With Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán serving a life sentence, his sons steered the family business into fentanyl, establishing a network of labs churning out massive quantities they smuggled into the U.S.

Martin Urista/AP

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

Explore this article to uncover insights on these issues:

  • American policing’s evolution toward community focus and transparency tech.
  • Police reform’s impact on proactive policing and diversity training.
  • Mexican cartels’ exploitation of U.S. law and enforcement gaps.
  • Value of multi-level law enforcement cooperation against TCOs.
  • Need for innovative law enforcement strategies against TCOs.

By Bobby Rader

Over the past decade, American policing has undergone a profound transformation, influenced by high-profile and contentious incidents, shifts in public perception and legislative changes. Policing in the 21st century is marked by a complex interplay of evolving community expectations, police reform legislation, technological advances and the persistent challenge of combating transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), particularly Mexican drug cartels and the drugs and violence they bring.

The changing face of policing

The past decade has witnessed a seismic shift in the way law enforcement agencies operate. High-profile incidents like the deaths of George Floyd and Michael Brown ignited nationwide protests and triggered intense debates about police practices. These events, often recorded and shared on social media, have cast a harsh spotlight on the actions of the police.

To address public concerns, many agencies have adopted more community-centric approaches. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) acknowledged this in its 2015 National Policy Summit on Community-Police Relations. Chiefs from all over the country agreed more could and should be done to emphasize transparency and accountability, and higher priority placed on fostering positive relationships with the communities they serve. [1] Body-worn cameras have been adopted by many agencies, serving as a tool to facilitate transparency and build trust with the public. [2] Moreover, agencies have invested heavily in social media and other communication channels to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community. [3] Emerging research supports these approaches; RAND recommends that agencies build more robust systems to communicate more effectively and rapidly, listen to and share information with the public.[4]

Simultaneously, the culture within law enforcement agencies has evolved. In a bid to humanize those who wear the badge, law enforcement agencies have embraced social media campaigns like dance-offs and viral lip-sync challenges, portraying officers as approachable and friendly. [3] This shift reflects an effort to connect with communities on a more personal level, fostering trust and understanding. Despite these changes, significant challenges persist. Complex problems such as crime, drug use, human trafficking, homelessness and mental health crises continue to escalate, with California facing particularly acute challenges. [5] Moreover, the very legislation aimed at reforming policing and responding to public demands has posed dilemmas for law enforcement.

Legislative challenges and burdens

Especially in California, police reform legislation has imposed substantial burdens on law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. While many of these reforms aim to combat systemic racism and implicit bias, they simultaneously add layers of complexity and friction to policing, often removing consequences for certain crimes. [6] For example, some reforms have required mandatory training on cultural diversity, racial profiling and implicit bias, diverting resources from other critical aspects of law enforcement. [7]

The community perception that the police are becoming less active, or withdrawing from traditional means of enforcement, is an issue criminal organizations have noticed and are exploiting.

Perhaps one of the most contentious consequences of these reforms is the impact on proactive policing. For instance, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recently announced changes in its policy regarding traffic enforcement stops. Officers are now required to have information or reasonable suspicion of misdemeanor or felony crimes in addition to a vehicle code violation before conducting a stop, a change driven by concerns about racial bias in traffic stops. [8] Additionally, some experts argue the “Ferguson effect” is still impacting individual officers’ decision making around enforcement action. [9] The community perception that the police are becoming less active, or withdrawing from traditional means of enforcement, is an issue criminal organizations have noticed and are exploiting.

Transnational crime

Honduran drug dealers, who largely control the Tenderloin and South Market areas of San Francisco, feel safe largely due to California Sanctuary State Law. According to the 2016 update to San Francisco’s existing legislation, city personnel are prohibited from utilizing municipal assets to assist in any ICE inquiry, apprehension or detention associated with illegal immigration cases. [10] Furthermore, the law restricts ICE from imposing detainers on individuals held in local jails, preventing their deportation upon release. One Honduran dealer said, “The law means they don’t deport. Many look for San Francisco because it is a sanctuary city. You go to jail, and you come back out.” [10]

These reforms and factors have created a perception that proactive enforcement has been curtailed, which will be exploited by TCOs. Recognized Mexican drug cartel expert Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez, Ph.D., said, “All criminals are benefiting from the soft-on-crime approach California has taken,” including TCOs, and that “Where there is a lack of enforcement and accountability, criminals will have an advantage.” [12]

In addition to ways legislatures and courts decide how and which laws will be enforced, there is another set of organizations poised to prosper in this era of discontent.

Mexican transnational criminal organizations

The primary criminal drug threat to the U.S. emanates from Mexican based transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), with no other group currently capable of rivaling their influence.

The two most prominent are the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. They and others are involved in trafficking people, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana across the U.S., utilizing established trafficking routes and distribution networks.

TCOs exercise control over drug trafficking along the southwest border and are actively seeking to increase their markets. Retired DEA agent Abe Perez said, “These criminal organizations are expertly exploiting the evolving landscape of law enforcement to further their illicit activities. While law enforcement agencies grapple with recruitment and retention issues [and] legislative mandates with a hyperfocus on community-centric efforts, TCOs are seizing the opportunity to thrive in the U.S.” [11]

These cartels are known for their complex structures, ruthless operations and brutality. They possess vast networks of clandestine operatives, leverage their transnational reach to facilitate the smuggling of drugs and people across borders and take advantage of geographical and jurisdictional complexities to evade law enforcement efforts. [12] The impact of TCOs is especially acute as we battle the adverse impacts of drug use across America.

An escalating threat

In July 2023, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance. She said, “Americans are experiencing the most devastating drug crisis in our nation’s history. In 2022, more than 110,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses, and countless others were poisoned but survived.” [13] Milgram further defined the goals of the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels is to “grow at all costs, no matter how many people die in the process. The cartels are engaging in deliberate, calculated treachery to deceive Americans and drive addiction to achieve higher profits.” From 2019–21, California overdose deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased by 121%. [14]

Echoing Milgram’s assessment, DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Peter Vainauskas has seen an increase in cartel activity throughout California in the last 10 years, specifically in the Central Valley areas. Primarily the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels and their associates have increased the supply of synthetic opioids and methamphetamine trafficked into the U.S. The primary driver for the surge is the demand, the affordable price and availability of the drugs, and the significant changes in drug policy in the state. Further, a significant portion of these deadly drugs are trafficked in California or trafficked through California to other states.

“Imagine a terrorist organization kills 100,000-plus Americans in a series of attacks on U.S. soil,” Vainauskas said. “Well, this has happened. It’s been done by Mexican-based TCOs and their affiliates. Yes, the level of prioritization should be reevaluated, and more could be done by everyone.” [15]

We need to recognize and understand we are not in the old war on drugs, we are in a war of forecasting and innovation.

The future of policing and combating TCOs

The author convened a panel of law enforcement experts with expertise in transnational crime in August 2023 to study the effects of reduced police interventions on minor crime. Their deliberations produced a set of recommendations for policing agencies, especially those in the Central Valley of California, with smaller rural communities:

1. Leadership: Elected officials and law enforcement leaders should prioritize and articulate the current and future threats posed by TCOs to their communities. They should prioritize issues based on the gravity of the threat, even when such prioritization may not be popular. If we don’t prioritize these threats, a consensus and required support cannot be established.

2. Legislation: Some aspects of the current California police reform legislation may need restructuring or reconsideration. Consequences for crime must exist to have a meaningful impact on TCOs. State and federal legislators must work together to create a united national consensus and prioritization to fund and support more aggressive investigations, joint agency training and cooperation to effectively combat TCOs. Aggressive lobbying by interest groups and law enforcement organizations such as state sheriffs and chiefs’ associations as well as national groups like the International Association of Police Chiefs is needed to make a meaningful impact.

3. Restructuring resources: Federal, state and local agencies should enhance cooperation. More state and local law enforcement officers should be cross-sworn with federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation. These task force officers can attend modified training hosted by said agencies and then serve as intelligence liaisons with their federal counterparts as they work in their communities. This would allow for more federal resources to be deployed in cooperation with the countries where TCOs and their affiliates operate. This would create more networking and information-sharing between those working investigations in the U.S and those deployed to other nations, putting together the evidence needed to identify, for instance, lab locations or the identities and whereabouts of TCO senior leadership.

4. Department of Defense collaboration: Greater cooperation between the Department of Defense and law enforcement agencies is essential. TCOs often possess military-grade weapons, and their operatives are equipped with armored vehicles and body armor. The DOD possesses greater intelligence and surveillance capabilities than state and local law enforcement, and their resources deployed in a collective effort could make a positive difference. Moreover, once investigative targets are identified, DOD resources could be used to execute search or arrest warrants wherever these groups are found, and in places where we’ve gained cooperation.

5. How we frame the fight against TCOs: We need to recognize and understand we are not in the old war on drugs, we are in a war of forecasting and innovation. TCOs innovate much faster than law enforcement out of sheer survival. “Criminal agents create technology responses that are simple and cost-effective and consistently defeat the actions of government agents,” writes strategist and futurist Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez. [16] TCOs are resilient and will not stop innovating new and successful means of delivering their products to U.S. consumers.


The evolving landscape of American policing in the 21st century presents both opportunities and challenges. While efforts to build trust and transparency with communities are essential for long-term success, these initiatives must not detract from law enforcement’s ability to tackle the escalating threat posed by TCOs.

TCOs continue to exploit weaknesses within American law, seizing opportunities created by legislative changes and resource allocation. To effectively combat these criminal organizations, it is imperative that law enforcement leaders and elected officials prioritize the threats TCOs present and undertake meaningful reform that ensures consequences for crime.

Addressing the ability of law enforcement to have a meaningful impact on TCO operations in the future demands an aggressive and comprehensive approach. A collaborative relationship with shared resources and intelligence between federal, state and local agencies is essential to disrupt TCO operations effectively.


1. IACP national policy summit on community-police relations: Advancing a culture of cohesion and community trust. International Association of Chiefs of Police. January 2015.

2. Research on body-worn cameras and law enforcement. National Institute of Justice. January 2022.

3. Garabrandt KR. Ohio sheriff’s office uses videos, social media to foster goodwill. Police1. December 2021.

4. Vermeer M, Barnum D, Sitar SI, et al. Amplifying the speakers: Identifying high-priority needs for law enforcement public information officers. RAND. September 2022.

5. Hart A. California’s homelessness crisis is homegrown, study finds. California Healthline. June 2023.

6. Governor Newsom signs policing reform legislation. Office of Governor Gavin Newsom. September 2021.

7. Cultural diversity program. California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

8. Conklin A, Pagones S. LAPD chief greenlights new policy limiting minor traffic stops to ‘eliminate bias.’ Fox News. February 2022.

9. MacDonald H. The War on Cops. Encounter Books, 2016.

10. Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez. Personal communication. November 2023.

11. Abe Perez. Personal communication. January 2023.

12. Robert Almonte. Personal communication. January 2023.

13. Milgram A. Statement of the U.S. Department of Justice. Department of Justice. July 2023.

14. Ibarra AB, Yee E, Duara N. California’s opioid deaths increased by 121% in 3 years. What’s driving the crisis?” CalMatters. July 2023.

15. Peter Vainauskas. Personal communication. January 2023.

16. Nieto-Gomez R. Stigmergy at the edge: Adversarial stigmergy in the war on drugs. Cognitive Systems Research. June 2016.

About the author

Lt. Bobby Rader has 15 years of law enforcement experience and has worked for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office in California since 2009. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Union University and Institute, Ohio. Rader was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in June 2019. He oversees the Detective Bureau, which consists of the homicide, sex crimes, special victims, general property and agricultural crimes units. He is a graduate of California POST Command College Class 71.