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Feature Articles


February 2007
A Perspective On Transnational Criminality

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"The global nature of information technology enables criminal activity to be truly transnational. That is, a person sitting in Spain can disable a computer in Singapore, or disseminate child pornography in Swaziland. Additional problems arise from the difficulty of exercising national sovereignty over capital and information flows. Jurisdiction issues may arise from transborder online transmission. If an online financial newsletter originating in Albania contains fraudulent speculation about the prospects of a company whose shares are traded on the Australian Stock Exchange, where has the offence occurred? The globalisation of crime poses further problems, as the cost of investigating and prosecuting transnational crime may be prohibitive in all but the most serious cases. Sovereign governments are finding it difficult to exercise control over online behaviour at home, not to mention abroad. A resident of Chicago who falls victim to a telemarketing scam originating in Albania, for example, can expect little assistance from law enforcement agencies in either jurisdiction. As a result, regulation by territorially-based rules my prove to be inappropriate for some types of offences." (P. Grabosky, Crime and Technology in the Global Village, 1998)

     Organized crime is now well positioned on a global scale. The criminal groups of today are fully capable of rapid adjustments to changing opportunities that become available to them. These include narcotics trafficking, bank fraud, transnational traffic in humans, auto theft, recycling of ill-gotten gains and various forms of contraband.

     Crime pays huge dividends and big money corrupts. One need only consider the volume of criminal activities worldwide from the most mundane electronic con to complex business involving gangs of many nationalities. The totality of operations, large and small, adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars being deposited into the international banking systems to be laundered and then pumped into the global economy. (Money laundering is the act of transferring illegally obtained money through legitimate persons or accounts so that its original source cannot be traced.)

     The past decades have noted a significant expansion of the boundaries of smoothly structured and effective criminal activity. New strategic alliances are found among the South American cartels and the clans of the Russian Mafiya, the Chinese Triads, the Japanese Yakuza and other ethnic-based organizations, all of them engaged in full-time criminality. Most notable in relation to size, profit and impact on societal stability and mores are the international narcotics markets and the exploitation of women and minors for profit. The success of criminal enterprises has encouraged many new recruits to the underworld and its fringes, resulting in a rise in common delinquency and other social problems, as seen in the proliferation of prostitution rings and widespread corruption of persons and institutions, which are enticed by the lure of easy money with few risks.

"Never before has there been so much opportunity for so many people. And never before has there been so much opportunity for criminal organizations to exploit the system." (Pino Arlacchi, Italian criminologist)

"From the perspective of organized crime today, Al Capone was a small-time hoodlum with restricted horizons, limited ambitions and merely a local fiefdom." (United Nations report)

"Every year illegal drugs kill about 17,000 Americans. The illicit drug trade is estimated at between $500 and $900 billion worldwide." (United Nations report)

     Those who favor the legalization of controlled substances want to deprive the drug lords of their vast profits that in turn would decrease the strength and scope of such clans and overall criminality. Others contend that legalization is an illusion. The mafia lost control of their drug transactions with little or no diminution of their prestige or power. When the Sicilian Cosa Nostra lost its heroin network in the 1980s, attention was shifted from drugs to extortion and corruption. As one door closes, some observe, criminal entrepreneurs, like other businessmen, do not retire, but seek new investment opportunities. The growth of money laundering schemes and the slave traffic have more than made up for loses of income due to greater law enforcement diligence.

     Organized crime like all historical phenomena has a life span—a beginning, a growth cycle and an end. There is nothing mystical about mafia-type organizations. The antimafia thrust in Italy in recent decades has demonstrated that even the most powerful criminal syndicate can be dismantled and defeated. All that is needed is a united and sustained effort. In Italy, law enforcers and the public alike have banded together to crush the old Cosa Nostra. The criminal stronghold of Palermo, Sicily, previously considered by pundits as invincible and impenetrable, is no longer such, experiencing only seven homicides and no mafia murders in 1998, compared with 200 in 1992.

     Nor are the drug cartels immune. The Medelin and Cale cartels have been decimated through the courageous efforts of the Colombian government. Earnings from the export of all illicit drugs in Columbia dropped by half—from a record high of $4 billion in 1984 to $2 billion in 1996. The drug industry in Bolivia is much less today than twenty years ago. Some 29 percent of the heroin consumed in the U.S. filters into the country through the hands of Mexican gangsters. The drug moguls of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia were brought to justice or neutralized.

     Such successes can be temporary, and probably will be, unless transcrime is confronted on a global scale through the cooperation of the effected nation states.

     International meetings on organized crime have stressed that a united front is essential to "bring the laws of various nations in harmony" especially in respect to grave issues such as fiscal havens (money laundering is valued at two to five percent of world GDP) and traffic in humans.

      An estimated 600 thousand to 800 thousand people are trafficked across international borders annually; 14,500 to 17,000 into the U.S. The Italian case is illustrative.

     Human trafficking has been called the "dark side of globalization." Young women brought into Europe from eastern countries are enticed to emigrate by promises of work or marriage, an elegant lifestyle, or an assurance that they can better support their families from abroad. Once in the host country the illusions of riches and romance are shattered when they are brusquely relieved of all documentation and sold as "goods," to be enslaved and abused at the whim of their "owners," often into the sex industry. The traffickers that serve the Italian market are mostly Albanians, Italians and Romanians; some are women who handle the chores of recruitment and delivery. In one of many instances, in the city of Rome, fifty females (Romanians, Moldavians and Ukrainians), including eleven minors, who were transported illegally into Italy by a Romanian criminal clan and forced into prostitution, were liberated by the police from their sex statuses.

     The United Nations has been at the forefront of efforts in seeking international cooperation on fighting global crime. In 2000, in Palermo, Sicily, the United States and 123 other countries signed the United Nations Convention against transnational organized crime. "The convention has three protocols: to combat trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms. Each of the protocols focuses on a particularly dangerous type of organized crime activity for which coordinated international efforts are essential. The protocols require that member states have laws criminalizing these activities, all of which have become more and more dangerous and widespread in recent years."


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