Transnational organized crime: an imminent threat to the nation-state?

Author:Shelley, Louise
Position:Transcending National Boundaries

Transnational organized crime has been a serious problem for most of the 20th century, but it has only recently been recognized as a threat to the world order. This criminality undermines the integrity of individual countries, but it is not yet a threat to the nation-state. Failure to develop viable, coordinated international policies in the face of ever-growing transnational criminality, however, may undermine the nation-state in the 21st century.

The "global mafia" has been sensationalized by an international press eager for exciting copy, and intelligence organizations are assessing the dimensions of international drug trafficking.(2) Furthermore, in November 1994 the United Nations sponsored an international conference to develop strategies to combat organized crime.(3) The European Union is also taking numerous initiatives in this area. Attention to such a serious international problem is long overdue.

The seriousness of the problem lies in the complexity of these organizations and their activities, their global penetration and the threat they pose to democracy and legitimate economic development - these organizations clearly undermine the concept of the nation-state. For the purposes of this article transnational criminal organizations will be considered as organized crime groups that 1) are based in one state; 2) commit their crimes in one but usually several host countries, whose market conditions are favorable; and 3) conduct illicit activities affording low risk of apprehension.(4)

The complexity of transnational organized crime does not permit the construction of simple generalizations; there is no prototypical crime cartel. Organized crime groups engage in such widely publicized activities as drugs and arms trafficking, smuggling of automobiles and people and trafficking in stolen art. They also engage in such insidious activities as smuggling of embargoed commodities, industrial and technological espionage, financial market manipulation and the corruption and control of groups within and outside of the legal state system. Money laundering through multiple investments in banks, financial institutions and businesses around the globe has become a central and transnational feature of these groups' activities, as they need to hide ever-larger revenues.(5)

Given this level of complexity and the political dynamics of the post-Second World War period, it is hardly surprising that no comprehensive international effort against organized crime has been initiated until recently. Transnational organized crime has been problematic for the last couple of decades, but it is only since the end of the Cold War that it has been addressed by so many countries and international bodies. The recently mounted attack on transnational organized crime is, indeed, partly a consequence of the need for security bodies (such as the CIA, KGB and the Mossad) and international organizations (such as the U.N. and the Council of Europe) to develop new missions in the post-cold War era. While the world focused on such highly visible problems as the superpower conflict or regional hostilities, the increasingly pemicious and pervasive transnational crime that now threatens the economic and political stability of many nations was ignored. Long-term neglect of this problem means that the world now faces highly developed criminal organizations that undermine the rule of law, international security and the world economy and which, if they are allowed to continue unimpeded, could threaten the concept of the nation-state.

Factors in the Growth of Transnational Organized Crime

The fundamental forces underlying the growth and increasingly international character of organized crime are the technological explosion and economic boom of the post-second World War period as well as the current geopolitical situation, which has been rapidly evolving since the collapse of the socialist world. The 1960s represent the benchmark for many of the technological and economic changes affecting transnational crimes, whereas the political changes contributing to the spread of transnational crime emerged in subsequent decades.

The growth in transnational illegal activities is largely due to the increasingly international scope of legitimate business and the ease with which it is conducted. Significant technological advances most affecting the growth of transnational crime include the rise of commercial airline travel, telecommunications (including telephone, fax and computer networks) and the use of computers in business. For example, between 1960 and 1974, the passenger volume on international flights increased sixfold. By 1992, it had increased more than four times from 1974 levels. This rise has contributed to an increasingly mobile world population, a mobility equally enjoyed by carriers of illicit commodities and illegally obtained currencies. Concomitantly, between 1970 and 1990, global trade increased ten times.(6) Included in the increased flow of commodities are illicit commodities, as cargo is loaded and unloaded at numerous points around the globe to avoid detection. Advances in telecommunications and satellite technology, the development of fiber-optic cable and the miniaturization and complexity of computers have resulted in a communications explosion of international telephone calls, fax transmissions and wire transfers. Crime groups benefitting from the "global village" and its instant and anonymous telecommunications are able to operate without frontiers in unprecedented ways. With such a volume of travel and trade, criminals or traffickers are less easily distinguished from their fellow travellers or legitimate businesspersons.

This leads to another factor underlying the increase in international crime - the growth of international business. Organized crime groups follow the trends of international business. The increasing economic interdependence of the world requires both licit and illicit businesses to think internationally. Global markets have developed in both legitimate goods and illicit goods, the most notable of which is the international narcotics trade. Just as legitimate multinational corporations establish branches around the world to take advantage of attractive labor or raw-materials markets, so do illicit multinational businesses. Furthermore, international businesses, both legitimate and illicit, also establish facilities worldwide for production, marketing and distribution. These enterprises are able to expand geographically to take advantage of these new economic circumstances thanks to the aforementioned communications revolution.

The transnational character of organized crime means that these groups are now part of the global political agenda. As they develop from their domestic bases, their members establish links with fellow nationals living abroad. Tribal links among similar ethnic groups in different countries may facilitate international illicit activity, such as that seen across borders in Africa, the Golden Triangle and along the southern frontier of the former Soviet Union (the Azerbaijani-Iran and Tadzhik-Afghan borders).(7)

The collapse of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR, along with the rise of the European Union (E.U.), have resulted in loosely controlled borders stretching from Europe to the Pacific Ocean and along a lengthy frontier with Asia. Not only do indigenous crime groups operate with near impunity in these areas, but a lack of coordinated policy facilitates illicit commerce in goods and human beings as well as large-scale money laundering. The fall of communism has lessened the ability of the border police and the ministries of internal affairs of the successor states to strictly enforce former borders between the Asian successor states and their neighbors. With these porous borders, the geographical boundaries of individual countries are less important. For example, one goal of the E.U. - the free movement of peoples and goods among its member-states - has benefitted these states but has also been exploited by European criminals as well as numerous crime groups from Asia, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Eastern Europe.

Large-scale ideological confrontations have been replaced in recent decades by hundreds of smaller ethnic conflicts in many regions of the globe. These small-scale wars contribute to transnational organized crime by increasing the supply of narcotics and by feeding the trade in arms. Developing countries with poor economies that are dependent upon agricultural commodities are, with falling agricultural prices, often attracted to drug cultivation as a means of obtaining cash. This money can then be used to purchase arms for use in small-scale clashes. Weapons for such purposes are often bought on the illegal arms market, which is supplied by transnational organized crime groups.

However, despite the veritable explosion in illicit trade, the hegemony of global international crime is exaggerated. Increasing links exist among different international organized groups, but the idea advocated by Claire Sterling of a pax mafiosa is premature.(8) The cooperation among organized crime groups from different regions of the world enhances drug-trafficking capacities and permits the smuggling of nuclear materials as well as trafficking in human beings, but it does not yet present a consolidated threat to the established political order. An emerging pax mafiosa is precluded because many parts of the world are not under the domination of a particular organized crime group. The violence that exists in many Westem European cities, particularly Berlin, is evidence that there is strong competition among different organized crime groups for control.

Pernicious Consequences of Organized Crime

The costs of transnational organized crime are not exclusively monetary. Transnational organized crime undermines political structures, the world economy and...

To continue reading