Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for your opening remarks. Thank you as well for hosting us here in this magnificent building for this, the Seventh meeting of the Organization of American States’ Justice ministerial, or as it is more commonly known, “REMJA.”
I also want to express my gratitude to all of the Justice Ministers and Attorney’s General of the OAS member states who have taken the time to travel here to continue this essential dialogue. We come from 34 different countries, with 34 different legal systems. But we also come united by one overarching goal: to secure, through the Rule of Law, the security and rights of our citizens. And it is part of the genius of the OAS that it recognizes that this goal can best be accomplished when we work together.
In meeting today and tomorrow, we will build upon the excellent work done by the Past Presidencies of the REMJA – most recently those of the Dominican Republic and of Mexico. It is thus appropriate to begin by noting the strides we have all made to fulfill the Conclusions and Recommendations of REMJA 6. For example:
- The Hemispheric Plan of Action Against Transnational Crime has been completed, and adopted by the Permanent Council of the OAS.
- In addition, working with the leadership of the REMJA Group of Governmental Experts on Cybercrime as well as host country experts, the Computer Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice has presented three regional workshops – in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Barbados -- on computer investigations and forensics; these workshops have been attended by investigators and prosecutors from 31 member states. More regional workshops are planned this year for Trinidad and Tobago, and Colombia.
- Still further, through the work of the REMJA Working Group on Mutual Assistance and Extradition, and of the Central Authorities and Other Experts in these areas, we have continued to explore how we can improve our cooperation, including through the Hemispheric Information Exchange Network for Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and Extradition.
- And finally, looking to the future, our prison and penitentiary experts will be meeting in Chile, while our Forensic Specialists will be meeting in the Dominican Republic, all for the purpose of sharing information and experiences, and developing standards and strategies.
These are important accomplishments of REMJA, which we will discuss at greater length when we address tomorrow our own Conclusions and Recommendations for REMJA 7. I commend the critical work of our respective staffs.
REMJA provides an important opportunity for dialogue. We will hear from each other as to the criminal justice issues we face, and consider how we can best help each other in addressing these issues. Our topic today is Hemispheric Trends and Legal and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters – including mutual legal assistance, extradition, and asset seizure.
To structure our Dialogue today, let me propose six questions for our discussions. These are by no means the limit what we should consider, but are meant to serve as a starting point:
1. What are the significant trends in transnational criminal activity that you have seen in the region?
2. Are you seeing increased criminal activity by organized groups, such as gangs or cartels?
3. What particular challenges in the areas of money laundering, and narcotics and arms trafficking, do you face, and what initiatives have you taken to address them?
4. What has been your experience with existing mechanisms of extradition and mutual legal assistance in combating transnational organized crime?
5. Do you find, in practice, that your domestic laws are sufficient to secure the extradition of fugitives to and from other countries?
6. Have you taken steps to improve as may be necessary your domestic laws regarding money laundering, asset forfeiture, and bank secrecy in order to combat transnational criminal activity?
If I may, I would like to open our dialogue and address the first of these questions, namely the matter of significant crime trends, from the U.S. perspective.
One of the most significant trends we have seen in the United States is the rise of international organized crime, which presents a greater challenge to law enforcement than did the traditional mafia, in many respects. The geographical source of the threat is not the only difference. The degree of sophistication is also quite different.
Some of the most significant international organized criminals are infiltrating strategic industries in this Hemisphere and around the world. They can create havoc in our economic infrastructure. Such organizations pose real national security threats to us all.
In the past we understood the basics of international organized crime, but we lacked an overall perspective on how the pieces fit together. Therefore, the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies recently conducted a comprehensive assessment of international organized crime. First, we learned that organized crime, in addition to being as varied and dangerous as ever, has a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. As a result, the challenge we face is quite different from the one we faced a generation or two ago. Organized criminals are more sophisticated, better funded, and have greater influence over government and political institutions worldwide. They also understand how to use the latest technology and communications first to perpetrate and then to cover up their crimes.
Unfortunately, these new groups are far more involved in our everyday lives than many people appreciate. They touch all sectors of our economy, dealing in everything from cigarettes to oil; clothing to pharmaceuticals. These criminals invest some of the millions they make from illegal activities in the same publicly traded companies as we hold in our pension plans. They exploit the internet and peddle their scams on eBay, and are responsible for a significant part of the spam email we get. In fact, the internet is tailor-made for organized crime--it's anonymous, largely untraceable, and can provide instant communication for a far-flung network of criminals.
In many ways, these groups are run like global corporations. They use sophisticated financial operations. They may exploit legitimate banking systems in our countries to launder money, or engage in other financial crimes like insurance fraud. Offenders operating these schemes are willing to move money for anyone who needs to hide the source, ownership, or destination of the funds--no questions asked. They corrupt banking officials and exploit gaps in anti-money-laundering protections around the world to enable to movement of illicit funds. By all estimates, such schemes move billions of dollars every year through U.S. financial institutions.
Other threats identified in our assessment include manipulation of securities markets; corrupting public officials, globally; and using violence as a basis for power. These are the hallmarks of international organized crime in the 21st century. That is what we are up against.
We must carefully consider how to deal with this new threat. Last week, I announced a comprehensive law enforcement strategy for the United States, in partnership with other nations, to address international organized crime. This strategy – which complements our related strategies for attacking narcotics cartels and gangs – sets out four priority areas of action against international organized crime.
First, we will target the biggest organized crime threats, just as we've done successfully in targeting the worst of the worst transnational drug cartels. We will develop a high-priority list of persons and organizations that pose the greatest threat, and we will focus our resources on them.
Second, we will gather information from all available sources—including law enforcement, the intelligence community, the private sector, and most importantly you, our international partners—in order to identify and draw connections within and between these illicit groups.
Third, we will use every lawful tool at our disposal. This means we will step up what we are already doing with our international partners to indentify and detain these criminals wherever they hide. International borders are not an obstacle to criminals, and we will try to make sure those borders do not pose an obstacle to effective law enforcement.
Finally, we will develop aggressive strategies for dismantling entire criminal organizations and removing their leadership.
But we can do all of these things only in partnership with you. We want to help design a new program, and develop even closer working relationships with you. For the sake of future generations, this is not only a noble but a vital goal, and I am proud to be able to pursue it with all of you, the leaders on justice issues in this Hemisphere.
By working together, we can strengthen the rule of law and the administration of justice, and we can combat transnational criminal threats. The Merida Initiative is an example of such a partnership: through that Initiative, we hope to strengthen further the courageous efforts of the governments in Mexico and Central America to confront drugs, gangs, and violent crime. This criminal activity is a joint problem, and we must face it jointly. I am very hopeful that, with the support of Congress for the funding requested by the President, we will be able to seize the opportunity that the Merida Initiative represents.
I look forward to hearing you, my colleagues, present your own views on the critical crime trends we face together. Accordingly, I conclude my Opening Remarks by thanking you again for coming here today, and joining in this important dialogue of Ministers and Attorneys General.