Tackling organised crime: introduction

Tackling organised crime and mitigating its negative, corrosive impacts on communities, societies and states has typically been viewed as a law enforcement task. Around the world, fighting organised crime is primarily the remit of police forces and judicial institutions, which have been supported or sometimes even supplanted by the military where security conditions have become particularly difficult, such as in Mexico and Nigeria.

In the past two decades, national governments and regional and international organisations have all responded to organised crime by conducting threat assessments of varying kinds. However, these ‘measure the crime itself, rather than its impact’ and ‘try to capture what is moving [and] how much is moving, [but] look less at why it is moving along a specific path and who has enabled it’ (Global Initiative, 2016, p. v).

In a mirror image, organised crime control interventions and strategies across the world tend to emphasise the disruption of illicit markets and the dismantling of criminal groups and networks through law enforcement means. In this battle, authorities seize all sorts of illicit and licit smuggled commodities every day—in airports, at border crossings and on board ships, trains, trucks and cars— virtually everywhere in the world. Every day, people are apprehended by law enforcers and—less often—sentenced by judges for their involvement in illicit and illegal trades.

Yet, despite the enormous amount of public revenue spent every year on these interventions, we cannot be sure of their effectiveness. As organised crime expert Jay Albanese observes,

There generally has been a shocking lack of attention worldwide to documenting and accurately measuring or estimating organized crime. As one author put it, ‘organized crime has been defined in the relative absence of knowledge’ about its true dimensions (Castle, 2008, p. 139). Few countries make any effort to systematically count it, measure changes from year to year, or objectively determine the impact of laws and policies intended to reduce its incidence. Therefore, organized crime ‘control’ efforts generally occur in a vacuum, so that reasonable questions such as the following cannot be answered: Has this policy had any impact on organized crime groups? Has it affected the incidence of organized crime activity? What is the precise cost benefit analysis of the approaches taken in terms of cost, impact on citizens, markets, and organized crime? The situation is comparable to marketing a new anticancer drug, but failing to measure in any systematic way whether the drug actually has any impact on cancer! (Albanese, 2009, p. 413).

It is not unreasonable to argue that this unfortunate state of affairs owes, at least in part, to the difficulties of defining and conceptualising organised crime, as Section 1 discussed. Moreover, different policy communities have different interests in, and tools for, tackling organised crime, ranging from ‘hard’ law enforcement and crime control interventions to ‘soft’ developmental approaches to reduce societal harm organised criminal activities and groups cause. This is evidenced in a recent study on approaches to counter-crime programming. The result not of an evaluation of specific interventions to counter organised crime but of a desk review of a wide range of academic and policy documents that speak to many different aspects of crime, this identifies ‘six high level theories of change that taken together were considered to account for the majority of approaches and strategies employed to address [transnational organised crime]’ (Midgley et al., 2014, p. 7): deterrence; severing the links between politics, the state and crime; managed adaptation of crime to minimise negative impacts on violence, security and conflict; cultural change; economic transformation; and global regulation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors find that ‘many of these theories are overlapping and share common characteristics’, but ‘there are also contradictions between the different theories of change. […] It is also clear that programmes focused on [transnational organised crime] are guided by a wide range of assumptions. Assessing the robustness of the assumptions (and measuring impact of these programmes) based on available evidence is challenging. The evidence base for many of these issues remains largely under-developed’ (Midgley et al., 2014, p. 40).

A cohesive body of policies to counter organised crime does not exist. Given the chameleonic and dynamic nature of the phenomenon and the diverging ways different domestic and international policy communities perceive and seek to address it, this is not likely to emerge any time soon. Thus, it is true that ‘there is now significant scope for further exploring the role of development actors in countering organised crime and building communities and state institutions that are resilient to its deleterious impacts’ (Global Initiative, 2014, p. 1). But the question remains whether development interventions should be countering organised crime by targeting it directly using means other than law enforcement, or using proven development tools to change the broader social, economic, political and governance conditions that enable organised criminal activities to emerge and thrive.

  • Prominent examples of such threat assessments include the EU Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, UNODC’s Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessments and the Canada/US Organized Crime Threat Assessment. These and similar threat assessments are regularly updated and made available online.