Catching Up With Transnational Organized Crime: Time for New Thinking

Two recent initiatives against transnational organized crime provide reasons for optimism. They suggest that we are finally moving out of the doldrums of a protracted 10-year period during which there was only confined space available for developing new approaches to address organized crime. During this period terrorism had closed down the organized crime debate. There was limited opportunity within institutions and governments for creative and candid assessments of what is required to counter organized crime.

Now there is a shift. It is caused by the growing realization that the policies and approaches of the past are not working. Global organized crime is expanding. Key to the success of international crime networks has been their ability to rapidly exploit the benefits of globalization. They have surged ahead in a world that for them has no borders, leaving behind law enforcement agencies that are stuck within their national borders.

The two initiatives are encouraging, even though they are not yet operational and relate to specific regions only. The first is the announcement in March 2012 that a European Cybercrime Centre is to be established at the Europol offices in The Hague during January 2013. The center will be the European focal point in fighting cybercrime and will focus on illegal online activities carried out by organized crime groups, such as online fraud involving credit cards. It is estimated that worldwide more than one million people become victims of cybercrime every day. The global turnover of cybercrime could reach an overall USD 388 billion, making it more profitable than the global trade in marijuana, cocaine and heroin combined. The agreement to adopt a EU regional approach towards countering cybercrime is a significant advance and should be replicated in other regions.

The second initiative was announced by Mexican President Felipe Calderon on April 15th after the 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. Member states at the summit unanimously approved the establishment of a regional center in Mexico to fight organized crime. The aim is “to create an inter-American system against organized crime” before the end of the year. The summit communiqué conceded that national responses to the threat of organized crime and drug trafficking were, by themselves, insufficient, and that there was a need to establish “a hemispheric approach to transnational organized crime.” These are plans that will not go down well with cartels and criminal networks in Latin America. A “hemispheric approach” will enhance cross-border law enforcement cooperation throughout Latin America and significantly increase the risks for organized crime.

A fundamental problem that these two initiatives attempt to address is the constraint on cross-border law enforcement cooperation caused by national borders and jurisdictions. Regional governments in the two regions seem to appreciate that without some compromise on sovereignty issues in return for greater security for citizens, organized crime will continue to gain ground.

International organizations such as Interpol have not been able to achieve that. Its 190 member states would have to mandate it to undertake joint cross-border criminal investigations, but that has not happened. Without such a mandate, Interpol’s hands are tied, confining it to providing access to police data and support to members on key crime and capacity issues. These are important contributions towards enhancing international police work, but they are unlikely to constitute a serious threat to the activities of sophisticated global criminal networks.

Some developed states post law enforcement officers in embassies across the world. This has contributed to some successes, but they tend to focus on criminal networks that constitute a threat to their own national interests and not so much on those that threaten the host county’s interests.

During the past year, the International Peace Institute hosted a series of discussions between some 40 senior law enforcement officials, civil society actors and development experts who believe that current efforts are yielding too few results and that more innovative ways need to be found to counter transnational organized crime. The result was a new “Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime,” with the objective of rethinking approaches to organized crime, including breaking down the silos between law enforcement, development and political actors.  After its launch towards the end of 2012, the initiative will implement a work plan that focuses on promoting, among others, the globalization of crime strategies. A document entitled “A Network to Counter Networks” provides more details. Download “A Network to Counter Networks” here.

Transnational organized crime cannot be effectively countered by only focusing on law enforcement. It is only one of a number of tools that are available. Others, such as development, institution building, capacity support and information dissemination, should be looked at afresh and receive more attention. The current international environment provides new opportunities to do so.