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World: The Changing Face Of Global Organized Crime

  • Roman Kupchinsky --> A bomb unit after a terrorist strike in Russia 8 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Globalization of the world's economic and information infrastructure is shaping a new organized criminal elite. And while the organized criminal gangs of the second half of the 20th century have not disappeared, they are preparing to follow the money and adjust to the economic/regional transformations of the new century.

Many law enforcement agencies in the United States predict that illegal schemes will become increasingly far-reaching -- both geographically and otherwise -- and that criminals, more of whom seem to enjoy some measure of government protection, will become better able to cover their tracks with a bewildering array of shell companies and legal entities established as front companies for transnational criminal activities. Even the term "organized crime" is rapidly being replaced by "organized global crime."

This is how the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) described the coming criminal threat in its "Global Trends 2015" report issued in December 2000: "Disaffected states, terrorists, proliferators, narcotraffickers, and organized criminals will take advantage of the new high-speed information environment and other advances in technology to integrate their illegal activities and compound their threat to stability and security around the world."

That report, however, appeared prior to the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The impact that event had on the U.S. government's analytical thinking is evident in the follow-up report issued by the NIC four years later, "Mapping the Global Future" in December 2004.
While maintaining the basic premise of the 2000 report -- that advances in technology will help determine the future parameters of organized crime -- the newer "Mapping the Global Future" report cautions of the dangers of organized crime teaming up with terrorism.

While maintaining the basic premise of the 2000 report -- that advances in technology will help determine the future parameters of organized crime -- the newer "Mapping the Global Future" report cautions of the dangers of organized crime teaming up with terrorism.

"We expect that the relationship between terrorists and organized criminals will remain primarily a matter of business, i.e., that terrorists will turn to criminals who can provide forged documents, smuggled weapons, or clandestine travel assistance when the terrorists cannot procure these goods and services on their own," the 2005 report's authors write. "Organized criminal groups, however, are unlikely to form long-term strategic alliances with terrorists. Organized crime is motivated by the desire to make money and tends to regard any activity beyond that required to effect profit as bad for business. For their part, terrorist leaders are concerned that ties to non-ideological partners will increase the chance of successful police penetration or that profits will seduce the faithful."

Eurasian Crime

In keeping with the emerging pattern of globalization that is driven by economic growth in Asia and the failure of Russian authorities to fight organized crime effectively, Russian organized crime (ROC) gangs are expected to network with their Asian counterparts and form Eurasian criminal groupings.

Currently the most important international organized crime groups are the mafias (Sicilian, American, and Russian), the Japanese "yakuza," the Colombian drug cartels of Medellin and Cali, and the Chinese triads.

In India, organized crime has made serious inroads into cybercrime and is involved in major money laundering operations through the control of hawalas, the informal banking system, common in Asia and the Middle East.

According to the Institute on Peace and Conflict Studies (found on the web at, "According to Mumbai Police records, hawala (money laundering) transactions averaged more than Rs. 30,000 crores ($6.25 billion) a year in the 1990s." The Institute further claims that "there are reportedly 700 legislators, including 40 Members of Parliament, with criminal antecedents. More than forty-seven percent of the representatives in local self-governments in Maharashtra have criminal backgrounds."

The Chinese Fuk Ching gang, which runs many organized-crime operations in the United States and whose members often come from Fukien Province in China, is among the best known of the Chinese gangs. And while experts claim that Chinese organized-crime gangs do not cooperate readily among themselves and that there is no "Chinese Mafia" as such, Russian experts claim that Russian organized-crime gangs in the Russian Far East have established some links to local Chinese gangs.

In the early 1990s, the FBI established a Eurasian Organized Crime unit in order to deal with the increased volume of criminal activity in the region. Some sources in the FBI have suggested that this unit is seriously understaffed so that more agents can work in counterterrorism and that the remaining staff is having difficulty dealing with counterparts in Eurasia, who the sources say tend to be less than cooperative.

'Elite Networks'

In the "Crime Pattern Analysis" for 2002-03 published by the National Police Agency of the Netherlands, reference is made to "elite networks" as the ascendant danger facing European law enforcement. The example provided in the report is that of a number of Russian's suspected of criminal activities seeking to buy legitimate businesses in the metal and energy markets in the Netherlands.

These "elite networks" consist of criminals with high-level contacts within government and regulatory structures throughout Europe and in Russia who are able to influence decision makers to their benefit and to the detriment of the normal commercial process.

"Mapping the Global Future" points out: "Some organized crime syndicates will form loose alliances with one another. They will attempt to corrupt leaders of unstable, economically fragile, or failing states, insinuate themselves into troubled banks and businesses, exploit information technologies, and cooperate with insurgent movements to control substantial geographic areas."

Earlier "elite network" examples were the BCCI and Bank of New York scandals, in which billions of dollars were allegedly stolen, then laundered by members of the political and economic elite of various countries. The scope of these scams was so great that investigations are still ongoing and the end is not in sight. These two scandals were soon followed by the disappearance of some $4 billion of International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing in Russia, which has also never been solved.

Organized Crime And WMD

The NIC report touches on the possible relationship between organized crime and Weapons of Mass Destruction: "If governments in countries with WMD capabilities lose control of their inventories, the risk of organized crime trafficking in nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons will increase between now and 2020."

Revelations in 2003 of a network of Pakistani scientists selling nuclear-weapons secrets constituted in the eyes of many law-enforcement agencies a criminal "perfect storm." How plausible would it be for a similar group to repeat this type of operation by selling such information to an organized-crime group is anyone's guess. Are law-enforcement agencies able to prevent such a sale, given the problems of communications, varying jurisdictions, and their poor record of exchange of information?

"Mapping the Global Future" writes: "Organized crime groups usually do not want to see governments toppled but thrive in countries where governments are weak, vulnerable to corruption, and unable or unwilling to consistently enforce the rule of law.

"Criminal syndicates, particularly drug trafficking syndicates, may take virtual control of regions within failing states to which the central government cannot extend its writ."

New Ways To Profit

For years, Italian organized crime has been involved in garbage-disposal schemes, which have earned them millions of dollars. In the past five years, these criminal organizations have infiltrated the hazardous-waste-disposal business in the former Soviet Union -- where local officials, under pressure to dispose of chemical and biological waste, were bribed to sign contracts with dubious firms who then took the hazardous waste and disposed of it without any precautions.

"The Times" of London reported on 9 August 2004 that criminal gangs were making "up to 2.5 billion euros each year" on illegal-waste disposal in Italy alone, adding that almost half of the 80 million tons of waste produced annually is believed to be handled by organized crime.

In many countries, bottled water already costs more than petroleum; as potable-water supplies diminish and demand grows, criminals could insert themselves into this highly lucrative business, thereby influencing agricultural production as well as drinking supplies.

The NIS "Global Trends 2015" report predicted that by 2015, nearly half of the world's population would live in "water stressed" countries, creating huge opportunities for global crime groups.

Slow Response By Law Enforcement?

A United Nations workshop on organized crime (the proceedings of which can be found at noted in April 2005 that: "crime was traditionally treated as a local or national issue, and investigation and prosecution of crime was long considered to be confined within national enforcement is one of the more visible and intrusive forms of the exercise of political sovereignty, States have traditionally been reluctant to cooperate with foreign law enforcement agencies."

Unless this attitude is changed soon, many of the NIC's forecasts might indeed prove warranted by 2015.

[For more on related topics, see the "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism" archive.]