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What is organized crime?
Organized crime was characterised by the United Nations, in 1994, as: “group organization to commit crime; hierarchical links or personal relationships which permit leaders to control the group: violence, intimidation and corruption used to earn profits or control territories or markets; laundering of illicit proceeds both in furtherance of criminal activity and to infiltrate the legitimate economy; the potential for expansion into any new activities and beyond national borders; and cooperation with other organized transnational criminal groups.”
It is increasingly global. Although links between, for example, mafia groups in Italy and the USA have existed for decades, new and rapid means of communication have facilitated the development of international networks. Some build on shared linguistic or cultural ties, such as a network trafficking drugs and human organs, which links criminal gangs in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, Pakistan, Dubai and South Africa. Others bring together much less likely groups, such as those trafficking arms, drugs and people between South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia, or those linking the Russian mafia with Colombian cocaine cartels or North American criminal gangs with the Japanese Yakuza. Trafficked commodities may pass from group to group along the supply chain; for instance heroin in Italy has traditionally been produced in Afghanistan, transported by Turks, distributed by Albanians, and sold by Italians.
Organized crime exploits profit opportunities wherever they arise. Globalization of financial markets, with free movement of goods and capital, has facilitated smuggling of counterfeit goods (in part a reflection of the creation of global brands), internet fraud, and money-laundering. On the other hand, organized crime also takes advantage of the barriers to free movement of people across national borders and the laws against non-medicinal use of narcotics: accordingly it earns vast profits in smuggling migrants and psychoactive drugs. Briquet and Favarel have identified deregulation and the “rolling back of the state” in some countries as creating lacunae that have been occupied by profiteers. The political changes in Europe in the late 1980s fuelled the growth in criminal networks, often involving former law enforcement officers. Failed states, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sierra Leone, have provided further opportunities as criminal gangs smuggle arms in and commodities out, for example diamonds, gold, and rare earth metals, often generating violence against those involved in the trade and in the surrounding communities. Finally, there are a few states, such as the Democratic Republic of Korea and Burma and Guinea-Bissau (once described as a narco-state) where politicians have been alleged to have played an active role in international crime.
Organized criminal gangs have strong incentives. Compared with legitimate producers, they have lower costs of production due to the ability to disregard quality and safety standards, tax obligations, minimum wages or employee benefits. Once established, they may threaten or use violence to eliminate competitors, and can obtain favourable treatment by regulatory authorities either through bribes or threats.