The illegal trade, which includes counterfeiting, smuggling, organized retail theft, human trafficking and drug trafficking, 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 and Industry event.
United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade, USA-IT, strives to bring illegal activity to light and educate the business community about how crime can undermine the business environment.
USA-IT is a broad coalition of law enforcement agencies, leading business organizations, brand enforcement experts and academics, leading the discussion on collaborative approaches and innovative ways to counter the increase in illegal trade in Arizona.
The event included a panel moderated by Matt Albence, the former Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The 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 we talk about illicit trade, we are talking about keeping the criminal out of the economy,” said Lake, a law enforcement officer. retired with over 30 years of experience as an undercover agent buying and selling counterfeit goods and studying what he calls the underground economy. “But when this criminal enters the economy, we are able to see that every time a counterfeit product is sold, the money that would have been brought to the community for legitimate good is gone.”
The underground economy has an unfair advantage in competing with legitimate commerce, but Lake said he’s concerned law enforcement resources aren’t being devoted enough to the problem.
He said more efforts should be devoted to “strengthening law enforcement’s ability to detect and dismantle criminal networks that profit from the illicit trade”.
Lake said law enforcement officials often understand how this type of economic activity negatively affects businesses, but the message has yet to get across to other groups with more political power and enough power. leverage to redirect resources and workgroups to the problem.
“No agency has enough resources. The more we can provide from the private sector to help law enforcement do what they need to do, the better we can combat this,” he said.
Luis Ramirez, advisor to clients involved in cross-border trade, explained how manufacturers and supply chain managers are bearing the burden of illegal trade, as checkpoints and security at entry points tighten , slowing legitimate commerce and increasing costs.
Ramirez said increased trade costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
“From our point of view, we believe that our border cannot be protected by our agencies doing the best they can with what they have; we have to give them what they need,” Ramirez said. “We impose on them this mission that they must carry out. Go out to talk to members of Congress, get additional resources, revise your staffing model, get more technology to make the process faster and better for these type of port of entry projects.
Attendees also heard from Major Damon Cecil, Chief of Staff for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, who spoke about how important it is for industry and community leaders to help in the fight against criminal networks.
Cecil, like previous panelists, explained why “knowledge dissemination” is the first major step in managing the crisis ahead.
“You have to know what’s going on, and you have to recognize what’s going on and how these decisions at the highest level are impacting our community,” Cecil said. “This is a crisis, and we’re here, folks, we’re absolutely there. And I think partnership and collaboration between the private and public sectors must involve a synergistic harmony between knowledge and truth in Washington, D.C. , in Phoenix and even in Mexico City.
Cecil said organizations such as USA-IT and the expert knowledge it brings together are key to the kind of information sharing that will lead to the collaborative approach he calls for.