Experts say combating illegal trade requires collaboration between law enforcement, private sector

Illegal trade, which includes counterfeiting, smuggling, organized retail theft, human trafficking, and the drug trade, affects every state, including Arizona, whose proximity to an international border makes the state an even more likely target for these criminal enterprises, experts told an audience at a recent Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry event. 

United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade, USA-IT, is working to shine a light on the illegal activity and educate the business community on how crime can undermine the business environment.  

USA-IT is a large coalition made up of law enforcement agencies, leading business organizations, brand enforcement experts and academics, that is leading the discussion on collaborative and innovative approaches to thwart the increase in illegal trade in Arizona. 

The event featured a panel moderated by Matt Albence, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Panelists were:        

David Lake, CEO of the Center on Shadow Economics

Luis Ramirez, President of Ramirez International 

Buna George, Executive Director of the Greater Yuma Port Authority 

“When criminal activity becomes a business it becomes a competing economic interest, so when talking about illicit trade, we talk about keeping the criminal out of the economy,” said Lake, a retired law enforcement officer with more than 30 years of experience working as an undercover agent buying and selling counterfeit goods and studying what he calls the shadow economy. “But when that criminal gets into the economy, we are able to find that every time a counterfeit good is sold, the money that would have been brought to the community for a legitimate good is gone.”  

The shadow economy has an unfair advantage in competing with legitimate commerce, but Lake said he’s concerned not enough law enforcement resources are being devoted to the problem. 

He said more effort should be devoted toward “building law enforcement’s capacity to detect and dismantle the criminal networks profiting from illicit trade.”

Lake said that law enforcement leaders often understand how this kind of economic activity adversely affects businesses, but that the message hasn’t gotten out yet to other groups with more political power and enough influence to redirect resources and task forces to the issue. 

“No agency has enough resources. The more that we can provide from the private sector to help law enforcement to do what they need to do, the better we can combat this,” he said.

Luis Ramirez, an adviser to clients involved in cross-border trade, explained how manufacturers and supply chain managers bear the burden of illegal trade, as checkpoints and security at ports of entry tighten, slowing down legitimate trade and increasing costs. 

Ramirez said the increased costs of trade get passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. 

“From our perspective, we believe that our border cannot be protected by our agencies doing the best with what they’ve got; we need to give them what they need,” Ramirez said. “We are imposing on them this mission that they must make happen. Getting out there talking to members of Congress, getting additional resources, revising your staffing model, getting more technology to make the process faster and better for these kinds of port of entry projects.” 

Attendees also heard from Major Damon Cecil, chief of staff for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, who spoke on how important it is for industry and community leaders to contribute to the fight against criminal networks.  

Cecil, like the panelists who spoke before him, touched on why “spreading knowledge” is the first major step in dealing with the crisis before us. 

“You have to know what is going on, and you have to recognize what is going on and how these decisions at the highest level impact our community,” Cecil said. “This is a crisis, and we are in it, folks, we are absolutely in it. And I think the partnership and collaboration between the private and public sector must involve a synergistic harmony between knowledge and truth in Washington, D.C., in Phoenix, and even in Mexico City.”

Cecil said organizations like USA-IT and the expert insight it assembles are essential to the kind of information sharing that will lead to the collaborative approach that he’s calling for.

Stephen Matter

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