Deciphering the linkages between organized crime and transnational crime.

AuthorAlbanese, Jay S.
PositionOverview - Report

Over the last twenty years, traditional depictions of organized crime as an ethnic, neighborhood phenomenon have given way to discoveries of emerging transnational criminal enterprises involving trafficking, fraud, and corruption on an international scale. The available evidence suggests that these are not two distinct types of criminal conduct. Instead they are overlapping in nature in terms of the crimes committed, the offenders involved, and in how criminal opportunities are exploited for profit. This article analyzes the similarities and differences between organized crime and transnational crime, concluding that they are in fact manifestations of the same underlying conduct and the same pool of criminal offenders. They involve exploitation of similar criminal opportunities, which have changed in form over time. Recommendations for more effective international prevention and responses are made in the context of assessing the remarkable transnational organized crime control efforts of the last decade.


In 2011, online auctions involving expensive items such as cars, motorcycles, and recreational vehicles were on listed websites, including eBay, Craigslist, and Buyers (mostly from the United States) transferred funds for their purchases using Western Union and bank transfers; however, the items for sale never existed. The conspirators behind this scheme moved from city to city and used false identification to open new bank accounts, while the victims never received the items they had purchased. The case led to a Romanian man pleading guilty to fraud. (1)

This case is a classic example of transnational crime: it is a law violation that involved more than one country in its planning, execution, or impact. Unlike traditional crimes that occur within a single country, transnational crimes are distinguished by their multinational nature and cross border impact.

This article will discuss six aspects of transnational crime that help clarify misconceptions, and will also help establish a path for the future. These six aspects include: a comprehensive classification of transnational crime; transnational crimes as a form of organized crime; transnational criminal activities remaining the same over the years; focus on criminal markets rather than groups or networks; theoretical perspectives on transnational crime prevention; and finally, effective implementation of international agreements.


Transnational crimes are separate from international crimes, which involve crimes against humanity that may or may not involve multiple countries. Examples of international crimes include genocide and terrorism, as well as violations of human rights, often without a profit motive--a central objective of virtually all transnational crimes. In a recent case in New York City, four men who had met in prison concocted a plan to bomb Jewish synagogues. They wanted to carry out what they believed were Osama bin Laden's wishes. The plan was never executed because an informant infiltrated the group and police were able to defuse the bombs. (2) The underlying motive in this case was political or religious hatred without any apparent profit motive. This distinguishes international crimes from the more frequent transnational crimes, which are characterized by motives of personal gain and profit.

Transnational crimes can be categorized as having three broad objectives: provision of illicit goods, provision of illicit services, and the infiltration of business or government operations. As summarized in Table 1, transnational crimes are grouped according to these three objectives and encompass a total of nine types of offenses.

As an example of the cybercrime and fraud category, three individuals were charged with hacking into the telephone systems of large corporations simply so they could make calls around the world and sell this telephone time to others. More than 12 million minutes of telephone calls, valued at $55 million, were fraudulently charged to the corporations in this case. Suspects in this scheme were arrested in the United States, the Philippines, and Italy. (3) This case represents a modern example of an old crime (fraud), using cyberspace, intercontinental telephone capacity, and billing schemes to operate transnationally.


A careful examination of the offenses listed in Table 1 illustrates that most forms of transnational crime center on organized crime activity rather than on traditional, individual, or politically motivated crimes. It is usually a requirement for groups of two or more to form a rational, ongoing conspiracy to plan these crimes and the objective is almost always to make a profit. The vast majority of these offenses simply cannot be carried out effectively by lone offenders, by those who are not organized, or by those without contacts in other countries, given the aims and scope of transnational crime.

A consensus definition of organized crime, using the common elements of multiple scholars, is "a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities that are often in great public demand. Its continuing existence is maintained through the use of force, threats, monopoly control, and/ or the corruption of public officials." (4) The enterprise might be two people engaged in a small scale conspiracy or it might be a multinational crime as described in the previous example.

Therefore, transnational crime is a form of organized crime given its multinational aims and the extent of organization required for success. Transnational organized crime (TOC) can be considered the modern extension of organized crime in the globalized era.


It sometimes seems that new kinds of transnational crimes are occurring all the time, given press accounts of new criminal schemes unearthed, bur it is difficult to name an entirely "new" kind of transnational crime. For example, sea piracy is not mentioned in Table 1, because it is an example of extortion and racketeering--a very old category of transnational crime. (5) Indeed, trafficking in weapons, migrants, and drugs are also very old crimes. Reports of intellectual property theft as a "new" form of crime are instead most often a form of the older crimes of counterfeiting or fraud. These "new" forms of transnational crimes have been made possible by changes in technology and communication, case of travel, and political unrest--all consequences of globalization and government prohibitions. (6)

As Table 1 suggests, there is not an unlimited number of transnational organized crimes, but a limited number of criminal activities that characterize nearly all organized crime. The specific crimes change depending on local conditions (e.g., types of drugs trafficked, types of frauds committed, or nature of stolen property trafficked), but the underlying activity remains of comparatively few distinct types.

Organized criminal activity shifts in its method of execution, but its underlying nature has changed little over time. Table 2 illustrates the changes in the nature of organized crime from older, traditional forms, to newer, modern manifestations that often cross national borders. The contemporary forms are simply newer versions of organized criminal conduct that have been altered in their commission due to changes in opportunity, technology, and in the likelihood of apprehension. Transnational organized crime has characterized the last twenty years, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of vulnerable emerging democracies around the world. It has evolved with the growing ease of international travel and the ability to move products and invest money around the world accompanied by corresponding adjustments made by profit-minded opportunists who have simply changed their methods to increase their gain and decrease the likelihood of apprehension.

By focusing on criminal markets rather than groups or networks, TOC can be described either by the activities in which these markets engage or by the groups they involve. The continuing criminal conspiracies that comprise TOC often require both insiders and outsiders to connect suppliers with customers and protect the enterprise from law enforcement. Therefore, organized crime groups need to obtain the product (e.g., drugs, stolen property) and make it easily available to customers (e.g., movement from source to destination), while obtaining some "insurance" when members are caught or convicted (e.g., the need for corruption of public officials to protect the enterprise from disruption). These elements help ensure that organized crime groups survive and make a profit.

Most risk or threat assessments in organized crime have focused on groups. These assessments are often carried out by law enforcement agencies to determine which groups pose the greatest threat. The methods used to determine risk involve identifying the universe of known crime groups in the country and then ranking them by their attributes and potential seriousness. Sample attributes used in these assessments include violence, corruption, infiltration, sophistication...

To continue reading