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Last Updated: 04/17/2007
Trans-national Organized Crime: Identifying and Tackling a Growing Threat
Hugh Griffiths

Organized crime transcends state boundaries and finds its niche in transnational markets. Despite international sponsored programmes to better quell the expansion of illicit trade, small arms, narcotics, as well as people continue being trafficked. Hugh Griffiths provides an inside look at the flow of illegal trafficking.

Trans-national organised crime is considered a major threat to human security, damaging societies in the developing and developed world.


Conflict, deregulation and the informal privatisation of the state in areas of Africa, eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Asia have created strong state-crime nexuses in a number of countries which form the basis for regional chains involved in the trafficking of narcotics, arms and human beings as well as other conflict-sensitive commodities such as precious minerals and dual-use goods.


In some fragile states, such as Afghanistan, the political economy is dominated by opium, a commodity which as the main cash crop is used to reinforce the power of regional warlords at the expense of local democracy while supporting a chain of criminal actors straddling three continents.


Heroin is perhaps the most obvious example of a commodity which causes serious harm to the populations of EU member states as well as the citizens of countries en route to developed-world markets including Iran, Russia and Tajikistan.


The sophistication of the trans-national crime networks involved in clandestine commodities such as heroin, coupled with the conflicting interests of various states mean that illicit trans-regional flows often move from production areas to their markets largely unimpeded.


In the case of Southwest Asian heroin, the narcotic travels from east to west, while other commodities such as small arms are mainly illicitly transported from north to south to fuel conflicts in Africa which in turn displace populations who subsequently seek the perceived security of the European Union.


These refugees are then themselves exploited by some of the same organised crime networks involved in weapon movement, but which also ship refugees south to north, offering an often false safe passage through Africa to EU member states via the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Balkan routes.


Trans-national organised crime networks have also exploited other trends relating to globalisation such as expanded international trade and deregulated financial flows to broaden and diversify their activities.


The profits from conflict-related activity and narcotic production zones are invested in islands of prosperity, such as leisure and business development projects in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states, while hard currency flows are directed via off-shore entities based in the Caribbean to take advantage of secretive banking legislation and asset ownership regulations.


The large sums of capital at their disposal allow criminal actors to not only bribe individual police, customs, border guard and army officials in areas such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but also to obtain sophisticated customs and law enforcement databases in order to better predict customs’ shift-changes and identify key personnel to be removed from within various bureaucracies.


Such intelligence-led knowledge advantage allows trans-national crime networks to evade interdiction, capture and prosecution on a major scale, aided by other advances in information technology which have created cottage industries engaged in the forgery and falsification of a variety of identity, end user, export, import and customs documentation.


Specialised forgery procedures, made possible by the IT and desktop publishing revolutions ease the movement of both illicit commodities and those who traffic in them into developed-world markets.


Detailed studies in the Balkans, Caucasus and central Asia have shown how some trans-regional organised crime networks work with elements of the secret police, while in countries such as Iran, the drug trafficking networks have access to shoulder-fired missiles and heavy machine guns, putting them on an equal footing to border guards which have led to casualty figures resembling an insurgency or low-intensity conflict.


Trans-regional organised crime networks also often possess other equipment – such as night vision goggles, mobile phone surveillance and other monitoring devices – which are unavailable to their less well-funded law enforcement counterparts in the CIS, furthering their advantage.


The populations of the developed world – and in particular the European Union – are damaged by the activities of such criminal groups, both in terms of the threat commodities like narcotics and illicit firearms pose to the fabric of such societies, but also the potential danger posed to their economies and energy sources through the increasing involvement of organised crime networks in gas pipelines running through the CIS.


Conflicts in regions such as the Balkans, CIS and southwest Asia are at times fuelled by organised crime networks because of the profits involved in an unregulated market or because such networks involve elements of states with a vested political interest in weak neighbouring countries where both the rule of law and civil society are unable to develop.


The problem posed by trans-national organised crime is accentuated by the fact that international organisations mandated to tackle the problem often have neither the resources nor the structures and powers necessary to effectively reduce illicit flows.


The current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq together with a narrow focus on what is considered terrorism means that trans-regional organised crime activity has been rather ignored or inadvertently supported because of short-term foreign policy and force protection considerations.


In Afghanistan, NATO troops are frequently filmed marching past opium fields left intact so as not to antagonise local farmers and internationally supported warlords.


In Iraq, the United States government has inadvertently funded organised crime networks participating in US Department of Defense contracts to transport weapons for use by the new Iraqi security forces.


Similarly, in the Balkans and Africa, donors have inadvertently strengthened organised crime networks by issuing aid contracts to companies and programs controlled by local warlords associated with wider trans-national organised crime networks and gross violations of human rights.


However, dangers to both the developing and developed world posed by trans-national organised crime and regional networks appears to be increasingly recognised by actors within the European Union.


The European Commission has a new funding line known as the Instrument for Stability (IfS), which was formally established in November 2006, providing a new tool in the fight against trafficking and organised crime.


Although much of the IfS budget will be allocated for crisis response, the next six years should see approximately 130 million euros spent on countering illicit trans-regional flows which involve trans-national organised crime networks spanning several continents.


The IfS is slated to address multi-dimensional threats through partnerships with regional organisations and countries and according to the November 2006 IfS regulation could involve key stake-holders such as civil society associations whose local knowledge regarding state-crime linkages is often ignored in bi-lateral security and justice capacity-building programs.


The European Commission, the body administering the IfS, is currently reviewing options which will facilitate a more integrated and holistic approach to tackle illicit flows rather than specific anti-drugs and counter-terrorism measures applied by donors in the past.


Nevertheless, the increased funding available to tackling trans-regional threats posed by organised crime networks is small compared to the capital laundered by the networks themselves as the global trade in narcotics alone is valued at approximately 400 billion euros.


Moreover, the penetration of organised crime networks in Africa, South America, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the CIS, southwest and Central Asia means that partner agencies, organisations and the individuals controlling them will have to be selected with special care.


Trans-national organised crime networks can no longer simply be categorised as localised threats to be combated through one-dimensional security initiatives.


They have become global players with access to sophisticated law firms and accountancy services in the developed world as well as increasingly integrated in regional political economies with the capacity to reach out to powerful allies in the security services of a number of states.


This means that while internationally-sponsored programs are becoming ever more important in order to reduce or control illicit flows, the pervasive nature of the adversary means that such programs will require special consideration, if they are to be effective.


Given the state-crime nexus prevalent in these areas of the developing world, accurate and detailed field assessments which take into account the views of civil society actors such as investigative journalists, academics and ex-law enforcement officials known for their integrity will be vital to ensure such projects are not compromised in the early stages.


Internationally sponsored programs to reduce illicit trans-regional flows will also need additional practical measures in project cycle management, from identification through to the final evaluation phase in order to prevent or detect penetration by crime networks.


The selection of local, national and regional interlocutors is key in order to ensure that such programs are not damaged, thwarted or indefinitely delayed by individuals working on behalf of elites colluding with such crime networks while information security and data protection will also be important.


However, despite the additional efforts required to effectively support programs aimed at combating organised crime networks, the destabilising effects of illicit flows make such investments increasingly relevant and deserving of resources.


Successful programs implemented early on, while costly in terms of project cycle management time, may provide policy-makers with case study examples, standard operating procedures and security protocols which can be used to accelerate the implementation of subsequent programs while securing such initiatives from crime network penetration.

Opium production increases in southern Afghanistan coupled with falling heroin street prices in cities across the European Union are just one indication of why such trans-regional anti-crime initiatives are of increasing importance to societies in both the developing and developed world.

Hugh Griffiths is an investigations consultant