Walter Kemp

Organized crime is moving up the international agenda. People and governments are becoming increasingly concerned about violence and instability associated with criminality. The recent crises in Haiti and Ecuador are cases in point. These are accompanied by a wide array of emerging threats from synthetic drugs to piracy and from cybercrime to transnational fraud. A recent flurry of high-level meetings, including of the UN Security Council, INTERPOL and the G7, demonstrates growing concern about the scale of the threat. But a more strategic and global response is urgently needed.

The 2023 Global Organized Crime Index shows that nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of criminality. The effects of this crime are wide-ranging, and include the harms caused by drug trafficking, the fear and violence generated by criminal gangs, the economic costs of financial crime, migrant smuggling and cybercrime, and the damage done to our planet by the illegal trade in natural resources.  

As well as robbing their victims of their money or even their lives, criminal groups also fuel corruption and undermine governance. Indeed, one of the findings of the Organized Crime Index is that state-embedded actors are the primary facilitators of illicit economies worldwide. All too often, the very people who should be part of the solution are instead part of the problem.  

And yet there is no international plan to deal with this threat. There are global strategies on terrorism, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and disaster risk reduction. And there are regional and national strategies against organized crime, but there is no global strategy. This must change. As INTERPOL declared in a statement issued in November 2023, marking its centenary, ‘tackling transnational organized crime must become a global national security priority’.  

A transnational threat requiring a global response  

Over the past 30 years the global illicit economy has boomed on the back of globalization. Illicit activities flow through the same channels as licit ones: the internet, ports, border crossings, banks, transportation networks, supply chains and free trade zones. Money made in illicit economies is laundered through real estate or companies and hidden offshore. Those who make this possible are not necessarily members of the criminal underworld; facilitators in the private or public sector enable illicit activities and reap substantial rewards in the process.  

Most types of crime involve the movement of people, goods or money across borders. What is a transnational problem therefore requires a multilateral solution. National responses, even by the most powerful countries, are insufficient. As INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock noted in a recent editorial, ‘no single law enforcement body, no regional grouping, no one can tackle this explosion of organized crime on their own’. 

But governments often have other priorities, particularly in the face of fast-moving crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, wars or natural disasters. Organized crime is often off the radar because it is a slow-burning problem with victims commonly out of sight. When leaders focus on organized crime – such as drug trafficking or migrant smuggling – the response tends to be reactive, heavy-handed and politically motivated, rather than strategic, comprehensive and long-term.  

Another obstacle to greater global cooperation is that some countries do not want to internationalize what they see as issues of national security. They continue to guard their sovereignty, even as it is eroded by crime and corruption. Moreover, state-embedded actors who profit from illicit economies have little incentive to make changes that undermine both their power and the sources of their wealth. The existence of different regulatory frameworks and legal systems, as well as a lack of harmonization of national definitions of crime, also hampers cross-border cooperation. Moreover, a lack of trust is often a barrier to exchanging intelligence or evidence.  

Meanwhile, criminals have proved adept at using technology, sharing information, cooperating across borders and developing resilient networks. Criminals have organized globally while police remain largely focused on national jurisdictions or bilateral cooperation.  

What is wrong with current approaches?  

While there is no global strategy to tackle organized crime, there is a UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which is almost 25 years old. Rapid technological advancement, increasing challenges of environmental crime, the creation of new psychoactive substances, changing attitudes towards drugs, and the emerging link between violent crime and threats to international peace and security have strained the convention beyond the types of challenges it was designed to address. In addition, the convention has no adjudicative body, meaning that the responsibility for implementation rests entirely with member states.  

Furthermore, organized crime and grand corruption are dealt with separately at the international level when in fact they are inextricably linked: corruption enables organized crime while the profits of crime grease the wheels of corruption.  

Rapid technological innovation means that law enforcement responses often lag behind, with police forces lacking the resources to investigate financial crime, collect and exchange digital evidence, carry out forensics on new types of synthetic drugs or crack down on cybercrime. This hampers the police’s ability to work with more technologically advanced counterparts and to catch savvy and better resourced criminals.  

A prohibitionist approach to controlling the illicit drug trade has created unreasonable expectations about what law enforcement can do, while armies have realized that it is virtually impossible to win the ‘war on drugs’.  

Another major handicap is the dearth of reliable data on illicit markets and actors. There are major information gaps, as well as an over-reliance on national crime statistics and insufficient data analysis. There is also a lack of comparable information: data collection often varies between countries in terms of availability, reliability and consistency, as well as the methodologies used. As a result, there is no universal understanding of the problem. This hinders the development of evidence-based policy and coordinated action at the international level.  

Criminal agendas thicken the fog of war and can undermine peace efforts. In conflict zones and peace operations, organized crime is often the elephant in the room: it is ever-present but often ignored. The latest crises in Haiti and Ecuador are the most recent examples of what may occur if the threat is allowed to fester. To address this short-coming, a statement made in December 2023 by the president of the UN Security Council underscored the importance of enhanced political and conflict-related analysis, including of the criminal networks that enable transnational organized crime and terrorism.  

Calls for a more strategic approach   

The current fractured geopolitical environment makes it more difficult to successfully promote greater international cooperation against transnational organized crime. And yet organized crime may be an area in which states can find common ground. For example, one of the few issues on which the US and China have recently been able to agree is the need to cooperate to reduce the trafficking of fentanyl and its precursors. And despite deadlock in the UN Security Council, member states imposed sanctions to curb criminal activity and gang violence in Haiti in October 2022.  

In December 2023, the UN Security Council also held a debate specifically on transnational organized crime. In a statement issued after the meeting, the Security Council outlined the importance of enhancing international and regional cooperation in tackling the problem. Similarly, strengthening international collaboration to fight organized crime featured prominently in the communiqué issued by the G7 interior and security ministers that same month.  

Others have called more specifically for a global strategy to counter organized crime. In 2023, for example, the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism suggested that the UN Summit of the Future, scheduled for September 2024, should ‘agree on a global strategy on transnational organized crime, laying out the key areas for collaboration, strategic priorities, and common benchmarks for the multilateral system’.  

One of the reasons the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) was formed 10 years ago was to begin identifying the building blocks of a global strategy against transnational organized crime. To that end and answering the growing call for more strategic approaches to dealing with this global challenge, the GI-TOC will issue a report in early 2024 titled ‘Intersections: Working towards a global strategy against organized crime’.  

‘Intersections’ makes the case for a more strategic approach to organized crime, highlights the harms it causes, identifies possible building blocks for a global strategy to combat it, and outlines potential roles for a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including governments, law enforcement agencies, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society.  

Criminals, like magicians, benefit from diversion. With 2024 set to hold plenty of distractions for political leaders, the public and the media, there is a risk that organized crime will be treated as a low priority. Instead, we should campaign for the opposite, for the multilateral adoption of a global strategy to counter organized crime.