Are criminal organizations a past issue or are they more current, and European, than we think?

by Rebecca Guerrieri

A crime organization is defined as a structured hierarchical or flexible organization of people who cooperate for a long or short period, aiming to enrich themselves through corruption and violence: Mafia is the best example, as it represents one of the most successful results of globalization in the economic world and also a failure of the State’s role and international cooperation. The Mafia is indeed able to navigate the power of the State and gain the necessary trust among people to achieve its goals. With the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, criminal organizations, especially Mafia, spread and got a foothold all over the world. This happened in parallel with the introduction of the free movement of people, the increase in trade and money circulation and the digitalization of the economy: all elements which allowed the birth of a series of illegal and criminal activities. These include trafficking in human beings, illegal weapons and drugs; exploitation in the form of prostitution and slavery: actions that blemish both territory and political life. 

Crime organizations are growing, starting from Italy to the rest of the world, and becoming a relevant issue to discuss amidst the European Parliament. To better understand the Mafia’s influential role, we can interpret it as a parasite that lives thanks to another: this is the way Mafia behaves. This means that it permeates and infects the State’s institutional structures through natural, economic and political crisis. Taking that into account, we must admit that today the Mafia is an integral part of our political and economic institutions.

The birth and evolution of Mafia and transnational crime 

The first crime organizations were born in Italy, under the name of Mafia in the 1980s. The most famous ones were Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Camorra in Campania and ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. They arose as organizations of local landowners with a lot of power in the society, who wanted to control the territory. These powerful people were helped by violent and ruthless allies to punish the ones who didn’t respect them. At the end of the 19th century, the migration movement of Italian people towards America was paired with the export of the Italian mentality and culture, and also of the Mafia. Since then, the Mafia spread all over America and beyond. 

As the world changes, the Mafia grows up as well. Nowadays, criminal organizations are also present in the European Union. In the past, criminal groups had a structure which served the strategic goals of monopolizing territories and markets, and achieving a good knowledge of their own societies. They formed temporary alliances of business and established networks, which were used as footholds. However, today’s crime is different from that which is usually portrayed in old news reports. Serious crime in Europe is more disorganized than organized. Based on the latest data, there are powerful organizations based on transnational ethnic solidarities and responsible for crime activities in the European Union. Transnational crime, or international crime, does not follow stable patterns. Most of these activities are linked to local opportunities, such as changes in legislation (e.g., financial deregulation), that creates possibilities of loopholes for illegal markets and products, or stem from the establishment of a new Mafia group abroad. 

In the European Union’s 28 Member States, about five thousand organized crime groups are under investigation according to the Europol 2017 report, a European tool against crime organization. No country can consider itself immune to Organized Crime Groups (OCGs): even countries with high quality of life fall victim to the crime organization control, as the case of Germany. In addition, Mafia and criminal organizations end up going “jurisdiction shopping”. It means that they take advantage of countries where standards and investigations are softer. Outside Italy, these European OCGs tend to focus on drug and human trafficking; counterfeiting, as it is a low-risk form of easy trafficking (the range of articles considered are health and safety goods like food, medicines and toys), but which nonetheless  represents a significant cost to European societies in terms of unpaid taxes and duties and licit jobs lost; and infiltrating the legal economy with the aim of concealing the origin of crime’s proceeds, through setting up shell companies and complex international schemes involving a series of international bank transfers (such activities are clearly connected with money laundering, which is not only closely linked to other forms of crime, but it is also a lucrative business in its own right)

In the European scenario, there is a strong influence of ‘Ndrangheta for all the listed crime activities. Focusing on the countries in which crimes are perpetrated, we observe how Germany and Swiss are more involved in money laundering and drugs sale, Spain and France (particularly the Côte d’Azur) are well-known for narcotrafficking. For what concerns the trafficking of acid, Belgium and the Netherlands are recognized to be international headquarters. Ireland is crossed by weapons and drugs traffic. Looking at Eastern Europe, Bulgaria and Romania are known for the activities of recycling and theft carried out by local criminal organizations.

The EU response: Europol and SOCTA 

It is possible to argue that the success of criminal organizations is due to the fact that repressive and preventive regulation within the EU concerns exclusively each Member State, which means that the operations against transnational criminal organizations are carried out on the basis of the coordination of different police forces and judiciary. This division of roles represents the best condition for crime organizations to exploit the divergences in penal and processual legislation, the so-called “legislative and penal holes”. Therefore, the fight against such criminal activities must take into account three aspects: the general legislation on legal financial flows; police activities, such as those of Europol and its national correspondents; police and administrative local services.

This is why the European Union has tried to keep up with and tackle these criminal organizations with the creation of Europol (European Police Office) in 2009. Europol is the EU’s law enforcement agency and helps Member States in their fight against international crime and terrorism. It is at the heart of the European security structure and provides vital services, based on analysis. This activity is the key to give its European countries a deeper insight into the crimes they are fighting. Moreover, Europol produces regular and detailed assessments of the situation with regard to crime and terrorism in the EU. 

In order to better face this serious problem, the European Union also created the SOCTA (Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment). It is a Europol’s report issued every four years on activities of international criminal organizations in the European Union. As a threat assessment, the SOCTA is a forward- looking document that evaluates changes in the organized crime landscape. Also, it is the result of a close cooperation between Europol and third parties such as EU agencies, international organizations and countries outside the EU with strategic or operational agreements. The relevance of the involvement of these fundamental stakeholders is also reflected in the SOCTA’s role as the cornerstone of the EU Policy Cycle for Serious and Organized Crime in the EU. The SOCTA 2017 is the most famous report that the EU has ever undertaken and it’s the result of a detailed analysis of the threat of serious and organized crime facing the EU providing information for practitioners, decision-makers and the wider public. Operation Snake in 2015, 

Operation Kouri and Operation Kandil in 2016 are examples of the European Union’s commitment to prevent crime organizations’ growth around the world. 

Nonetheless, it is impossible to not observe how limiting the fight against serious crime at Europol’s action and its national correspondents, ignoring the lack of good regulation of financial flows and not paying attention to the daily fight against crime by local police forces, leads to this paradox: specialized police units are required to concentrate their efforts on marginal phenomena, while at the same time being responsible for the lack of results in critical areas.