By Michael A. Genovese
Not far from downtown Las Vegas is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known as The Mob Museum. The Mob Museum is a cheeky tribute to a bygone era when mobs ruled Vegas and mobsters were celebrities whose doings were chronicled in movies, books, and songs. Edward G. Robinson as Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (1931), James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949), and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932) all captured the oddly romantic qualities of the antihero, and the public was enthralled.
Today, the romance is largely gone and the mob has morphed into what we now call transnational organized crime. No one will be making movie heroes out of its characters. Transnational organized crime threatens individuals, corporations, governments, and entire industries, undermining security, privacy, safety, and social order. In an age of globalization, it has adapted, forging new networks that cross cultures, language barriers, and international borders. Transnational organized crime is now widely recognized as a significant threat to both national and international security, and it threatens the integrity of our political and economic institutions everywhere.
To make matters worse, globalization has allowed previously local criminal gangs and organizations to expand and cross national boundaries, creating a convergence of threats that works as a force multiplier. Gangs are going global. They are forging alliances with criminal organizations in other countries. While difficult to say with certainty, it is believed that Solntsevakaya Bratva, the Russian mafia, is the largest criminal syndicate in the world. Yamaguchi Gumi, which has existed for hundreds of years and is known in Japan as yakuza, ranks second. Two Italian branches of the mafia, Camorra and N’drangheta, rank third and fourth by size for transnational organized crime organizations, and the Mexico-based Sinaloa cartel rounds out the top five. The possibility of a truly transnational crime syndicate gaining power across the world is no longer a James Bond fantasy, but a real possibility.
In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in an effort to call attention to and fight the rise of transnational organized crime. While the document did not formally define transnational organized crime, it recognized that, in general, organized crime consisted of the following:
1) a group of three or more persons who intentionally associate, for
2) a period of time, who
3) act in concert with the aim of committing at least one crime punishable by at least four years’ incarceration, in order to
4) obtain financial or other material benefit.
This loose definition implies that transnational organized crime encompasses virtually all serious profit-motivated criminal activities that could have international implications. Transnational organized crime groups are especially active in several areas:
Drug trafficking: The war on drugs has been a failure, and as demand in the West remains high, trafficking in drugs remains a very lucrative criminal activity. Drug cartels have posed threats to the safety of many countries, most visibly Mexico.
Gambling: An old standby for gangs, gambling is a high-profit activity for criminals.
Human smuggling: As the refugee crisis in Europe demonstrates, there is a large market for smuggling humans across borders. From producing fraudulent travel documents to providing plastic boats for the dangerous sea voyage to Greece, transnational organized crime syndicates are willing to provide “travel services” for a fee. The flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere has been a windfall for organized crime. Absent a coherent and coordinated European response, smugglers continue to exploit the vulnerable at a very high cost. The BBC reported that it can cost $1200 for a place on a flimsy, overcrowded rubber dinghy to risk crossing the Aegean Sea. Herding forty people onto a boat, then, nets human smugglers nearly $50,000 per trip.
Human trafficking: In smuggling, a person is willingly transported from point A to point B. What differentiates trafficking in persons is that these persons are compelled to submit to some form of involuntary servitude, be it arranged “marriage,” prostitution, forced labor, child labor, or sexual exploitation. Human trafficking has also been compared to modern slavery.
Weapons trafficking: The sale of military-grade weapons remains a mainstay of criminal activity. Illicit arms dealers, working through the black market, bring in over $2 billion each year–to say nothing of the incalculable suffering that these weapons cause.
Intellectual property theft: International property-related crimes play an increasingly significant role in transnational organized crime. The theft of trade secrets, movies, music, high-tech products, name-brand goods, and video games, cause the loss of billions of dollars each year.
Cybercrime: Transnational organized crime syndicates have been heavily involved in cybercrime, meaning that identity theft and invasion of corporate, government, and medical records pose increasingly costly threats to our privacy and security. Additionally, the risks to the integrity of our international financial institutions weaken both trust in and security of stock markets, banks, e-commerce, and credit card services. In recent years, thanks in large part to the price of stolen credit card identities’ dropping from $25 per card in 2011 to just $6 today, cybercriminals have shifted tactics to focus on holding companies’ aggregate data hostage. Because many companies targeted prefer having to pay a high ransom to the disruption that involving law enforcement would cause, this strategy has also proved a lucrative one.
From transnational organized crime to terrorism: Authorities fear that terror networks and transnational organized crime organizations will come to find it in their shared interests to cooperate. The Taliban, for example, have already worked with drug cartels, and a growing crime-terror nexus would pose considerable challenges to law enforcement. A special area of concern is the possibility that arms traffickers might obtain weapons of mass destruction and sell them to terrorist organizations.
While globalization may have its benefits, there are also downsides to the growing interconnectedness of the world. The rising threat of transnational organized crime should serve as an occasion to develop more cooperative law enforcement mechanisms, and bring nations into concert in the fight against this trend.
Michael A. Genovese is the president of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount and is the author of over 40 books, most recently (with Todd L. Belt) The Post-Heroic Presidency: Leveraged Leadership in an Age of Limits.
[Photo courtesy of Naval Surface Forces]