What is organised crime?

In 2010, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, issued a stern warning to the international community regarding the growing threat posed by organised crime to the security of states and the development and well-being of societies across the globe:

In the past quarter century (namely, since the end of the Cold War), global governance has failed to keep pace with economic globalization. Therefore, as unprecedented openness in trade, finance, travel and communication has created economic growth and well-being, it has also given rise to massive opportunities for criminals to make their business prosper. Organized crime has diversified, gone global and reached macro-economic proportions: illicit goods are sourced from one continent, trafficked across another, and marketed in a third. Mafias are today truly a transnational problem: a threat to security, especially in poor and conflict-ridden countries. Crime is fuelling corruption, infiltrating business and politics, and hindering development. And it is undermining governance by empowering those who operate outside the law […]So serious is the organized crime threat that the UN Security Council has on several occasions considered its implications in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central America, Somalia, West Africa, and in relation to several themes (trafficking of arms, drugs, people, and natural resources). […] Armies have been mobilized to fight drug cartels, navies have been sent to capture pirates. Yet the threat persists (UNODC, 2010, p. ii).

Today’s universe of organised criminal activities and the individuals, groups and networks involved in them appears to be virtually infinite. Organised criminal operations range from illegal protection and extortion rackets to the trafficking and/or smuggling of illicit drugs, humans, firearms and wildlife, cybercrime, oil theft, money laundering, counterfeiting and maritime piracy (Costa, 2010; UNODC, 2010). The people who plan, steer and implement these operations varyingly include mafia bosses, drug kingpins, paramilitary and insurgent commanders, warlords and gang leaders—but also politicians, military and police officers, civil servants, investment bankers, cargo ship captains and accountants, among representatives of many other professions.

In 2009, UNODC estimated that transnational organised crime generated $870 billion, the equivalent of 1.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) (UNODC, n.d.), and that ‘all criminal proceeds [worldwide] likely [amounted] to some 3.6% of global GDP, equivalent to about US$2.1 trillion’, roughly the same as Italy’s 2014 GDP (UNODC, 2011, p. 7). Considering that since then the world has become not less but more connected through processes of globalisation, it is not implausible that today these figures would be even higher.

Yet, while real enough, organised crime as an analytical concept and social phenomenon remains somewhat elusive. Despite significant efforts by scholars from a variety of social science backgrounds (criminology, economics, sociology, political science, anthropology) to explain its motives, structures and societal impacts, the truth is the ‘study of organized crime is still in its infant stages’ (von Lampe, 2016, p. 13) and ‘has not yet yielded a cohesive and cumulative body of knowledge’ (Schultze-Kraft, 2016, p. 30). According to Klaus von Lampe, a renowned expert in the field, no fewer than 180 different definitions can be found in the literature (2016). On the problem of defining organised crime, see also Allum & Gilmour, 2012; Levi, 2014; and von Lampe, 2001, 2008).

Much of the research on organised crime in the past 40 years or longer has focused on the question of whether it should be understood as an ‘active creature’ perceived to be ‘threatening or dangerous to society’ (Vander Beken, 2012, p. 83); or rather as a set of illegal-criminal activities, particularly those associated with illicit markets, such as the trafficking of illicit drugs and humans (UNODC, 2010). More recently, these approaches have been complemented by a focus on illegal governance, as will be explained below. This research has generally not pictured organised crime as an ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’ social phenomenon but rather as ‘normal’ and ‘rational’. This contrasts with earlier debates – as well as some more recent contributions – which framed organised crime as representing a social pathology caused by certain dysfunctions in the development of modern societies and states (see Della Porta, 2012). This framing met a fierce critique from Margaret Beare, who observes that, ‘writers have argued that there was a preferred political and law enforcement view that created: a public image of organized crime that resulted in increasing resources to fight the threat; a justification for the fact that law enforcement actions were having little impact on the criminal activity due to its size, scope, and imperviousness; an “alien” conspiracy notion that separated organized crime from “normal” society and therefore distanced organized crime from the corruption and collusion of public officials and law enforcement’ (Beare, 1997, p. 156).

The principal motive for groups of people to organise and engage in unlawful activities, which are essentially concerned with providing private ‘protection’ in illegal or illicit markets, is typically identified as the pursuit of financial and other material gain. In this vein, the criminal version of the neoclassical homo economicus, aptly renamed homo economicus criminalis (Duyne et al., 2002; MacCarthy, 2011), is above all concerned with the ‘provision of illegal goods and services [but also] predatory crimes, such as theft, robbery, and fraud’ (von Lampe, 2016, p. 3) and with the exercise of power ‘to bring a level of order to crime and criminals in some form of an underworld government”—power that, however, “may well extend into the upperworld’ (von Lampe, 2016, p. 7). What kinds of illegal goods and services are provided and what form criminal organisations take—that is, whether, for instance, they are hierarchically organised mafias that sell private protection in a specific locality or more horizontally operating transnational drug trafficking networks that smuggle cocaine or heroin across continents—depends on particular historical, social, cultural and political circumstances (Allum & Gilmour, 2012).

Both of these conceptions of organised crime are reflected in the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (the Palermo Convention), adopted under UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/55/25 on 15 November 2000 and entering into effect in 2003. As of May 2016, the Convention has 147 State Signatories and 186 State Parties. Article 2 of the international treaty offers the following definitions of ‘organized criminal group’ and ‘serious crime’ (UNODC, 2004, p. 5):

(a) ‘Organized criminal group’ shall mean a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit; (b) ‘Serious crime’ shall mean conduct constituting an offence punishable by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least four years or a more serious penalty.

While the UN Convention represents a minimum consensus among the international community on what organised crime is, in recent times the ‘illegal-enterprise model’ (Kleemans, 2012, p. 616) of organised crime that underpins it has increasingly become the object of critique. According to Edward Kleemans, for instance, there is not enough evidence to view members of criminal groups foremost as ‘rational, profit-oriented entrepreneurs, who are involved in activities that, although illegal, are driven by the same laws of supply and demand as legal activities’ (Kleemans, 2012, p. 616). In this author’s view, ‘there is nothing wrong with the assumption that economic motives may explain criminal activities’ but ‘there is something wrong […] with the assumption that the actions of people involved in organized crime are coordinated by an invisible hand [of the market]. In essence, organized crime is about criminal co-operation under difficult circumstances. Under such circumstances, the visible hand of social relations, and the visible hand of manipulation and violence is much more important’ (Kleemans, 2012, p. 626). Because illicit markets are characterized by the ‘handicap of illegality’, which is reflected in a low trust environment, social relations become crucial for the ‘execution of transnational, illegal activities’ (Kleemans, 2012).

Kleemans’ emphasis on the salience of social relations in the organisation and conduct of criminal activities ties in with other more recent contributions to the study of organised crime. John de Boer and Louise Bosetti, for instance, highlight the importance of research on ‘criminal opportunities’, where the aim is,

to focus on understanding and tackling markets, products, services and identities that can be criminally exploited for multiple, not just economic, purpose and effect. This approach enables us to focus on how new criminal opportunities enabled by modern technology, political upheaval, conflict and natural disasters provide motivation for individuals, and groups, who formerly were not connected with criminal activity to engage in it (de Boer & Bosetti, 2015, p. 3).

Further, they point to,

the emergence of literature that approaches organized crime as a type of ‘strategy’ that is adopted by criminal organizations and warring parties (whether state-based or non-state). Depending on the context and situation […] armed groups will either adapt criminal or political strategies, sometimes interchangeably, and sometimes with different factions within the same group pursuing distinct strategies. […] Non-state violent actors […] employ a variety of strategies that combine different motives, methods and targets. In the process, these actors often develop political capital among local populations and in some case overtly challenge the state (de Boer & Bosetti, 2015, p. 3).

The relationship between organised crime and the state—that is, whether it is one of confrontation or cooperation—is indeed a crucial issue, not least for understanding and mitigating the negative impact on development and governance. In this regard, Ivan Briscoe and Pamela Kalkman emphasise that,

An approach rooted in the notion of institutional capture by an external criminal force is – despite its persuasive rhetoric – gravely mistaken. […] Illicit activity has become part of the living organism of many countries’ public and business affairs. It must be treated not as a foreign body, but as an integral part of governance and economic systems, and it is essential that policy responses are adapted to this reality (Briscoe & Kalkman, 2016, p. 3).

This ’embeddedness’ of organised criminal activities and actors in the very fabric of the economy, the state and society has alternatively been captured by concepts such as ‘criminal governance’ (Arias, 2006), ‘co-opted state reconfiguration’ (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2012) and ‘crimilegality’ (Schultze-Kraft, 2016), as well as by foregrounding the social bases and origins of organised crime (Duncan, 2014) and the emergence of ‘protection markets’ (Ellis & Shaw, 2015).

While not a unified body of research, these perspectives have in common that they foreground issues of criminal-illegal governance, particularly in fragile states. They challenge notions of the existence of a boundary between organised criminal groups and networks, political institutions and society and the idea that the actions of criminal organisations are essentially a function of their pursuit of financial and other material gains by illegal-criminal means. What they propose instead is to focus attention on the economic, political and social relationships, bargains and agreements between a range of different state and (armed) non-state actors, including criminal groups and networks, which are often localised but may also extend from the local up to the national and international levels. African organised crime experts Stephen Ellis and Mark Shaw (2015), referring to an erosion of the ‘frontiers between politics, crime and business’ (p. 511), highlight that, in Africa,

the protection economy may be considered as a set of transactions entered into for the purpose of ensuring the facilitation, sustainability and safety of […] activities undertaken by a criminal enterprise. In almost all cases, some elements of the state are involved, and indeed in African countries, the state (no matter how weak) is often the defining element in protection markets, either as a direct participant, facilitator, or regulator (Ellis & Shaw, 2015, pp. 522–3).

This analysis is echoed by Latin Americanist Desmond Arias’ on drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro, which shows that ‘drug traffickers are well connected to state and social actors and […] their political projects go beyond clientelism, linking them into legitimate, rule abiding state bureaucrats, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], and religious organisations. They help traffickers make use of money made by legitimate businesses and build and reinforce their legitimacy in favelas’ (Arias, 2006, p. 322). Thus, ‘more than parallel “states” and “polities” drug trafficking in Rio represents an expression of transformed state and social power at the local level’ (Arias, 2006, p. 322).

Recent work by Schultze-Kraft approaches the issue of the relationship between the criminal and non-criminal spheres of economic, political and social orders in the global South by introducing the concept of ‘crimilegality':

A crimilegal order is neither ‘modern’ nor ‘non-modern’ but combines and integrates elements of both. […] ‘Legal’ institutions and organizations coexist and interact with ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’ ones. Formal constitutional and legal dispensations coexist and interact with patrimonialism and clientelism. Regular patterns of social exchange, interaction and transaction that take place in the grey areas that lie between legality and illegality-criminality create their own ‘law’. Crimilegality creates crimilegitimacy (Schultze-Kraft, 2016, p. 37).