CA Department of Justice


Transnational organized crime in California is as diverse as it is complex. It involves a range of profit-motivated criminal activities perpetrated by an ever-increasing array of transnational criminal organizations, located both within California and abroad. These organizations have taken advantage of the technological revolution of the last two decades, as well as advancements in trade, transport, and global money transfers, to substantially increase the scale and profitability of their criminal activities in California. 1

Unlike the large, hierarchically-organized international crime groups of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the well-known Medellín or Cali drug cartels, modern transnational criminal organizations are incredibly fluid and adaptive, and have diversified their criminal enterprises. Transnational criminal organizations varying in size, scope, and influence have now established a presence in virtually every one of California’s major urban areas, as well as many smaller cities. They present a real and significant statewide threat to the economic and social fabric of California.

Their profit-driven operations run the gamut from more traditional crimes – such as narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking (the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a victim for profit) – to complex money laundering schemes and sophisticated computer attacks designed to steal personal information and money (Figure 1). These crimes, and the transnational criminal organizations orchestrating them, exploit millions of Americans and impose costs estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.2 Transnational criminal organizations are also constantly altering their illicit capabilities, refining and adapting their tactics in response to enhanced local, state, and federal law enforcement interdiction efforts.

Throughout this Report, we make reference to these groups and their criminal conduct in various ways – as “transnational gangs,” “transnational criminal organizations,” or the shorthand “TCOs,” as well as “transnational organized crime.” There is no singular or exclusive domestic or international definition of a transnational criminal organization and, in fact, the success these groups have enjoyed is due in part to the ambiguity of their organizational structures. However, transnational criminal organizations possess many common traits and Chapter One of this Report discusses those commonalities.

Figure 1 Transnational Organized Crime in California Transnational Organized Crime Chart

The Report is a broad review of transnational criminal activity in California. We analyze four types of transnational criminal organizations active in California (Mexico-based drug cartels, Asian and Eastern European transnational criminal groups, transnational gangs, and Internet-based hacking and fraud rings) and explore their operations in trafficking (drugs, human beings, and weapons), money laundering, and high-tech crime. At their core, the criminal operations conducted by these organizations all have international and domestic dimensions, directly impacting California and its residents.