When most people think of organized crime, they envision the tightly knit mobster families made famous by Hollywood movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. However, international organized crime is a business with little glamour or romanticism. Global organized crime generally involves the transfer of illegal goods or people across national borders; this is commonly known as smuggling or trafficking. It can also involve the performing of illegal services for someone outside the country, such as money laundering. The annual flow of illegal goods through global organized crime syndicates is valued as high as $650 billion, though estimates vary widely since organized crime syndicates are numerous and operate outside the law.
The largest percentage of this illegal goods trade—approximately half—consists of illicit drugs like marijuana, opium, and cocaine. Trafficking in counterfeit money and goods accounts for more than $200 billion in annual profits for organized crime, and human trafficking brings about $30 billion in criminal gains. Illegal goods that some might immediately associate with global organized crime, such as weapons and diamonds or gold from war-torn regions, account for a far smaller percentage of the smuggling trade.
In general, the flow of illegal goods and services takes place from less prosperous, developing nations to wealthier, developed nations. There are several reasons for this. The trafficked goods may not be available in the developed nation due to strict regulation or unavailability of resources to make the goods. Cocaine, for example, is produced from the coca plant, which only grows natively in certain parts of South America. Another reason is that it may be cheaper to produce the goods in developing nations and smuggle them across the globe than it is to produce the goods domestically. This is often true of counterfeit copies of brand-name merchandise, also known as "knock-offs." Finally, law enforcement and government officials in developing nations may be more susceptible to bribery, since their earnings are far below the minimum standards set in prosperous nations.
Despite the important role played by developing nations in international organized crime, the citizens of these countries benefit the least from it. For example, Afghanistan is the source of nearly all the world's supply of opium, yet opium producers within the country only earn an estimated three to four percent of the profits from the sale of the drug. In addition, the illegal activity often results in damage to or loss of natural resources, violence, and corruption throughout the government of the developing nation. The drug trade in Mexico, for example, has left tens of thousands dead, and has resulted in rampant corruption among the country's government and police.
Global organized crime has its greatest impact at borders or ports of entry that connect countries through legitimate trade routes. This is one reason that Mexico has become the center of a prolonged, bloody drug war: it shares an extensive border with the United States, which remains the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. As border officials have attempted to crack down on the flow of illegal goods through normal border checkpoints, organized crime syndicates have come up with creative solutions. Between 2006 and 2010, U.S. drug enforcement and border patrol agents discovered two underground tunnels, each nearly half a mile long, that connected the Mexican town of Tijuana with warehouses on the U.S. side of the border. These secret routes were used for transporting marijuana.
Because organized crime syndicates operate on a global level, it can be difficult to capture or prosecute the true leaders of the operation. On 20 January 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice arrested more than one hundred members of American mafia organizations on charges that included murder and drug trafficking. "Mafia" is the term applied organized crimes families in the United States that have some relation to Italian criminal gangs of the nineteenth century. Even as the heads of these infamous crime families are sent to prison, however, the criminal operations continue under the guidance of their successors. In some cases, the crime bosses continue to oversee their criminal operations even while in prison. The Italian government has attempted to stop such activity among its own mafia prisoners by suspending their right to communicate with outsiders. The European Court of Human Rights has found that the policy in some cases violates European human rights treaties, since it prevents prisoners from speaking with their legal counsel as well as human-rights groups.
One of the few organizations capable of pursuing organized crime leaders on a global level is the International Criminal Police Organization, popularly known as Interpol. With 188 member nations, the reach of Interpol far exceeds any other law enforcement body in the world. However, Interpol agents are not empowered to make arrests; they assist local law enforcement by providing global intelligence, such as a worldwide database of fingerprint and DNA data. In addition, recent evidence suggests that Interpol itself is not above the lure of the profits of organized crime: on 2 June 2010, former president of Interpol Jackie Selebi was convicted in South Africa of corruption charges stemming from actions that occurred during his leadership. Selebi stood accused of receiving bribes from a convicted drug trafficker. He was sentenced to 15 years, but remains free pending appeal.
Infamous Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger was arrested in California on 22 June 2011. The 81-year-old was in his Los Angeles apartment, which he shared with his girlfriend, when police apprehended him. He had been on the run from police for sixteen years and was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) list of most wanted criminals. Bulger, the inspiration for a mob boss portrayed by actor Jack Nicholson in the 2006 film The Departed, was wanted for nineteen murders. On 30 April 2015, an FBI agent who testified in Bulger's defense during his 2013 trial was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Despite the agent's testimony on his behalf, Bulger had been convicted on thirty-one of thirty-two charges in August 2013.
Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the alleged head of a major Jamaica-based crime organization, pleaded guilty on 31 August 2011 to racketeering charges in a New York district federal court. Coke was captured last year after five weeks of violent clashes in Kingston, Jamaica, and then extradited to the United States. Coke admitted in court to heading the Kingston-based Shower Posse and Presidential Click, two organizations that traffic drugs and weapons.
During 2010 and 2011, an extreme sovereign debt crisis afflicted several European nations, leading to financial bailouts from the European Union and political turmoil in many countries. Italy's longtime Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (1936–) was forced from office in November 2011 amid Italy's growing financial problems. While Berlusconi's political fortunes dwindled and Italy's banks languished, Italy's organized crime syndicates prospered. According to SOS Impresa, an Italian anti-crime group, the Italian mafia has used the country's financial crisis to become the nation's biggest "bank," with profits totaling about 100 billion euros per year, generated mostly through lending at extortionate rates.
In April 2014, the mayor of Apatzingan, a city of nearly 100,000 people in Mexico's Michoacan state, was arrested on extortion charges and alleged to be connected to a drug cartel. Uriel Chavez Mendoza was elected to the office in 2011 as a member of Mexico's longtime ruling party, the PRI. Three city councilmen testified to authorities that the mayor had tried to pressure them into making protection payments to the Caballeros Templarios, a gang involved in drug dealing and other rackets. Community-based vigilante groups said the mayor had let the cartel infiltrate the city's police force.
In July, Italian police arrested sixteen members of an alleged mafia clan based in southern Italy. The members were arrested in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, and were accused of operating a cocaine smuggling ring throughout Europe. The police relied heavily on information from a widow of a Cacciola mafia clan member who committed suicide in 2005.
In September 2014, Brazilian police launched a massive operation meant to purge their own ranks of an organized crime ring. According to prosecutors, the 14th Battalion of Rio de Janeiro had essentially operated as its own extortion racket, shaking down local businesses for money in return for police protection. A total of twenty-two officers were arrested in connection with the crime ring, including the third-in-command of Rio's military police.
In early December, Italian police launched a massive corruption investigation aimed at exposing connections between government officials and the mafia. Among the one hundred suspects in the case was the former mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno (1958–). Alemanno was not among the thirty-seven people arrested in the initial wave of the investigation. Police seized over $250 million in assets as part of the probe, plus government documents from Rome and the surrounding area.
A three-month mission against organized crime by the Chinese government culminated in the arrests of nineteen thousand people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong province on 24 September 2015. Chinese officials said Hong Kong– and Macau–based triad gangs have become increasingly active on the mainland. Police also seized millions of dollars in cash, drugs, weapons, and contraband.