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Christian J. Schurman

One of the biggest threats to global security today is transnational crime, which, by definition, transcends borders and threatens the safety of U.S. citizens both at home and abroad. Transnational criminal organizations often originate and operate overseas, making investigative pursuit a complex undertaking for local, state, and sometimes even federal law enforcement.

Overseas operations and investigations are where the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) excels. DSS is the most widely represented law enforcement agency in the world and is the organization best positioned to combat transnational crime abroad—before it becomes a U.S. domestic concern. DSS, the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of State, has more than 2,100 special agents serving at 275 embassies and consulates in 170 countries, as well as 31 domestic offices across the United States. It employs hundreds of local criminal fraud investigators, investigative assistants, intelligence research specialists, forensic accountants, and other experts with advanced investigative and analytic skills.

These resources, combined with the State Department’s sustained presence throughout the world, allow DSS to fulfill several of the initiatives outlined in the U.S. president’s February 9, 2017, Executive Order  on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking. The executive order calls on the law enforcement community to comprehensively combat transnational crime, including enhancing U.S. cooperation with foreign counterparts against transnational criminal organizations, dismantling those criminal groups within and beyond the United States, and pursuing and supporting efforts to prevent the operational success of those organizations.

Over the decades, DSS has fostered relationships with a worldwide network of law enforcement agencies at the working and senior levels, giving us the on-the-ground access and know-how to pursue U.S. investigations with ties to a suspect or crime overseas. While our primary investigative mission is to deter passport and visa fraud—another item addressed in the president’s executive order—these crimes nearly always include an international dimension and are typically tied to other criminal activities that affect U.S. citizens, including human, drug, sex, and wildlife trafficking; money laundering; terrorism; extortion; cyber offenses; and smuggling.

Consider the following: In the United States, the top three federal judicial districts for DSS-led passport fraud cases are the Central District of California, Southern District of Texas, and Eastern District of New York. All are districts where transnational organized crime groups operate, and all three include major ports of entry into the United States. Across the United States, 79 percent of the suspects DSS arrested in the past six years for passport fraud were foreign nationals, and in calendar year 2016, DSS opened 1,143 visa fraud investigations, 76 percent of which were overseas cases.

While our domestic offices work with U.S. local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to build cases against these transnational criminals working within the United States, our DSS personnel posted overseas work with Europol, Interpol, the U.S. Combatant Commands, and law enforcement partners and governments worldwide to foil these networks at their roots before they become a problem within U.S. borders.

DSS special agents assigned to embassies and consulates overseas serve as the senior U.S. law enforcement representative in the respective country and the security advisor to the ambassador. These special agents, called regional security officers (RSOs), liaise with foreign law enforcement personnel and agencies, train local law enforcement and security officers, and chair the law enforcement working group at post. RSOs are stationed at nearly every embassy and consulate in the world, including in regions where there is little other U.S. presence.

Our special agents who serve overseas have the law enforcement training and investigative skills to combat transnational criminal organizations, but their dual-hatted role as Foreign Service officers also benefits the U.S. law enforcement community. DSS special agents arrive in their assigned countries literally speaking the language, and the agents are well-versed in the protocols, culture, and laws of the countries in which they are navigating. Their linguistic skills and cultural competency facilitate more thorough, timely, and cost-effective investigations. In many cases, other U.S. law enforcement agencies turn to DSS special agents to assist with investigations overseas because of the agents’ broad set of skills and on-the-ground relationships.

Many posts also have assistant regional security officer-investigators (ARSO-Is) who have led or assisted with thousands of transnational cases to stop crimes that directly affect U.S. citizens. ARSO-Is provide on-the-ground investigative assistance and coordination to stop foreign terrorists, sex traffickers, human smugglers, and fraudulent document vendors and to assist with fugitive returns. ARSO-I–assisted cases have led to convictions across the United States. In one recent example, a DSS ARSO-I assisted the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department in closing a 17-year-old cold case involving a murderer  who had fled to Guatemala after brutally killing his girlfriend. In another case, a DSS ARSO-I found one of FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives  hiding out in Nepal, built a case against the New Mexico native, and helped return him to the United States to face justice. Additionally, the ARSO-I in Nogales, Mexico, worked with Mexican and U.S. law enforcement personnel to locate the men convicted  of killing U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010.

In addition to supporting investigations, ARSO-Is train foreign partners, airport employees, and other security personnel on document fraud detection and mitigation. Enhancing the capabilities and resources of our partners around the world allows them to identify and deter crime in their respective countries before it develops into a U.S. operation.

When a transnational global network seems unreachable or a global criminal investigation hits an international wall, DSS stands ready to assist both at home and overseas. By working together, the U.S. law enforcement community—federal agencies, state police, county sheriff’s offices, and city police departments–can answer the call to thwart transnational criminal networks, better secure our borders, and keep U.S. residents safe.

[This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Police Chief Magazine .]

U.S. Department of State

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