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Transnational Organized Crime and
the Palermo Convention:
A Reality Check
André Standing, rapporteur
Cover Photo: A Montenegro customs
officer throws cartons of smuggled
cigarettes into an incinerator outside
the capital Podgorica on August 8,
2007. Authorities in the Adriatic
Coast republic had seized 1.5 million
counterfeit cigarettes. © STEVO
The views expressed in this meeting
report reflect the rapporteur’s
interpretation of the discussions at a
half-day seminar held at IPI in New
York. The report does not necessarily
represent the views of IPI. IPI
welcomes consideration of a wide
range of perspectives in the pursuit
of a well-informed debate on critical
policies and issues in international
IPI Publications
Adam Lupel, Editor
Ellie B. Hearne, Publications Officer
Suggested Citation:
André Standing, rapporteur,
“Transnational Organized Crime and
the Palermo Convention: A Reality
Check,” New York: International
Peace Institute, December 2010.
© by International Peace Institute,
All Rights Reserved
ANDRÉ STANDING is an independent researcher based in
IPI owes a great debt of thanks to its many generous
donors. In particular, IPI would like to thank the governments of Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and Turkey, whose
support made this publication possible.
Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Trends and Developments in TOC
Over the Past Decade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The International Response to TOC and
the Palermo Convention . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Annex: Agenda . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Ten years have passed since the adoption of the
Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime
(the Palermo Convention) by the UN General
Assembly on November 15, 2000. At the signing of
the convention in Palermo, Sicily, in December
2000, many government delegations welcomed the
Palermo Convention as an important step in the
fight against organized crime. Some warned against
viewing it as a final measure and stressed that the
convention and its protocols should be considered
as a starting point rather than an end in itself.1
The development of the convention followed an
increased realization during the 1980s and 1990s
that the threat of organized crime was no longer
merely a domestic one but had grown into one of
global proportions. The realization that an international threat requires an international response
became an important driving force.
Government delegations attending the Palermo
conference in December 2000 could not have
known that less than a year later a new international threat would suddenly emerge that would be
regarded as far more immediate and dangerous
than transnational organized crime. The attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon resulted
in a shift of attention and resources toward
countering terrorism, causing transnational
organized crime (TOC) to drop on the priority and
threat lists. However, during the past five years the
significant expansion and impact of transnational
organized crime in different parts of the world have
contributed to a renewed focus on the international
threat that it poses. National strategies to counter
transnational organized crime have been dusted off
and strengthened, and additional resources are
being made available to help in doing so.
This is part of a renewed international interest in
transnational organized crime and in efforts to
counter it. The Palermo Convention, seen as the
main international tool to counter TOC, has
therefore also come under renewed scrutiny. How
has TOC evolved and changed over the past ten
years and what role has the Palermo Convention
played in countering it? Addressing questions such
as these is also a matter of interest to the programmatic work of the International Peace Institute.
As part of this work, a half-day seminar took
place in New York on October 6, 2010. The aim of
this event was to reflect on how TOC has changed
over the past decade and to begin a discussion on
the Palermo Convention as well as the challenges
facing international efforts to counter organized
crime more generally.
This report provides a thematic summary of the
presentations and discussions that occurred on
October 6th. It is important to state from the outset
that the event was not intended to provide a definitive evaluation of the Palermo Convention; rather, it
was an opportunity for experts to reflect on some
broad themes and indentify issues to take forward.
Given the complexity of the subjects put forward
for discussion, there was an inevitable limit to what
could be covered, both in terms of the depth of
analysis, as well as geographical scope. However, as
will be evident, the meeting was successful in
providing a rich debate on contemporary trends,
and it benefited from the participation of leading
experts on this subject from the US, Latin America,
Africa, and China. Indeed, the inclusion of a
Chinese perspective on transnational organized
crime was one of the unique aspects of this
The report is divided into two sections. The first
addresses some of the key observations in trends in
TOC occurring globally and within specific
regions. The second considers the Palermo
Convention as well as some of the main difficulties
facing the international community in addressing
Trends and Developments
in TOC Over the Past
In discussing trends in the development of
organized crime over the past ten years, differences
in regions are evident, as are rival views of how to
understand and conceptualize the problem. Indeed,
a point raised by several of the expert panelists was
1 A useful source of articles and perspectives on the evolving role of the United Nations in combating transnational organized crime can be found in Phil Williams
and Ernesto Ugo Savona, The United Nations and Transnational Organized Crime (London: Frank Cass, 1996), and several articles published in the journal
Transnational Organized Crime, e.g., Phil Williams and Dimitri Vlassis, “Combating Transnational Organized Crime: Concepts, Activities, and Responses,”
Transnational Organized Crime 4, no. 4 (2001).
that in-depth research on organized crime, which
can help inform international efforts at reducing its
prevalence, remains sparse and the issue requires
urgent attention.
The following pages summarize the main
thematic issues that were discussed and debated by
the panel of experts and participants at the meeting.
Here we have arranged these discussions into seven
key topics.
A strong theme during the discussions was that the
scale and profits of organized crime have increased
significantly over the past ten years. There was also
unanimous agreement that the structure of TOC
has evolved; if there was ever a belief in the hierarchical mafia-style organization that dominated
criminal markets, such organizations are now a
thing of the past.2 The organization of contemporary crime is far more fluid and dynamic, which
poses unique challenges for law enforcement.
Nick Lewis of the UK’s Serious Organised Crime
Agency argued that drugs are still the most
profitable element of TOC, with the latest estimates
suggesting the annual turnover of illegal drug
markets is as high as $1 trillion.3 In Afghanistan,
heroin production is valued at $50 billion per year,
and in the US $40 billion worth of cocaine is sold
annually, with a further $30 billion sold in the rest
of the world. New synthetic drugs have been
created and stronger strains of cannabis have
entered the market, causing new mental health
problems. In the UK alone, £1.5 billion is spent on
cannabis every year.4
Alongside drugs, there has been growth in
human trafficking. The UN estimates that in 2000,
1 million people were trafficked by criminal organizations. Lewis reports that today that number has
risen to roughly 2.5 million, with profits estimated
at some $20 billion.5
Fraud and financial scams have also increased
dramatically. This is partly due to advances in
technology.6 For example, ten years ago those
perpetrating so-called 419 scams from Nigeria were
restricted to sending out individual letters and
emails. Now, criminals can access huge “sucker
lists” and can send out thousands of letters all over
the world instantly. In the UK, it has been estimated
that such fraud costs £30 billion every year. New
forms of fraud include “romance fraud” where
people using online dating fora are lured into
sending money to bogus partners. As Lewis put it at
the seminar,
Before the rise of cyber crime, the man in the street
felt largely untouched by organized crime. It was by
definition an “underworld” activity, and rarely
touched ordinary lives. In recent years though, the
home computer has enabled criminals to deliver child
pornography, fraud and extortion into the heart of
billions of family homes.
In China, this growth in the financial profits of
organized crime was also cited as a direct outcome
of the remarkable economic growth occurring in
the country. Although not all of China’s new
economic elite derive success from crime, criminal
activities are thought to be behind the emergence of
some very wealthy individuals who are increasingly
spending the proceeds of crime oversees. For
example, criminals from mainland China are
believed to be one of the main groups of consumers
of luxury goods in Hong Kong; Wing Lo of the City
University of Hong Kong described how such
people arrive in Hong Kong with suitcases of cash
to buy jewelry and real estate, or gamble in Macau.
Some 20 percent of real estate in Hong Kong,
especially the most luxurious apartments, is now
bought by mainland Chinese, and it is thought that
some money-laundering activities are involved.
A further key activity of organized crime in
China is the production and smuggling of counter2 MEETING REPORT
2 The changing structure of organized-crime groups has been a source of debate in scholarly texts for some years, beginning with the classic piece by Donald Cressey,
Organized Crime and Criminal Organizations (Cambridge, UK: W. Heffer & Sons, 1971), which was critiqued by many others: see, for example, Peter Reuter, “The
Organisation of Illegal Markets: An Economic Analysis,” Washington, DC: National Institute for Justice, 1985, and Mark H. Haller, “Bureaucracy and the Mafia: An
Alternative View,” in Understanding Organized Crime in Global Perspective: A Reader, edited by Patrick J. Ryan & George E. Rush (London: Sage, 1997).
3 For estimates on global drug trade, see the annual World Drug Reports produced by the UNODC. More information available at .
4 For further information, see the 2009-2010 report, “The United Kingdom Threat Assessment of Organized Crime,” London: Serious Organised Crime Agency, 2010,
pp. 23-42.
5 For research and reports on human trafficking and organized crime, see UNODC, Smuggling of Migrants: A Global Review and Annotated Bibliography of Different
Publications (Vienna: UNODC, 2010). There is also a wealth of information available from the website of the International Organization for Migration, ; and extensive links to the literature from .
6 As detailed in SOCA, “The United Kingdom Threat Assessment of Organized Crime,” pp. 52-69. For further discussion and an overview, see Peter Grabosky “The
Internet, Technology, and Organized Crime,” Asian Journal of Criminology 2, no. 2 (2007).
feit goods, including medicines, electronics,
agricultural products, CDs, and DVDs. There is no
doubt that this growth in counterfeit products has
emerged as one of the main concerns of Chinese
organized crime among the international
community, as counterfeit products cause profound
harm and undermine legitimate business.7 Wing
noted that 55 percent of all counterfeit products
seized by customs officials in the EU in 2008
originated from China. However, the external
threats caused by this trade should not overshadow
the impacts felt in China itself. He also pointed out
that Chinese citizens are the main consumers of
counterfeit goods and therefore they represent the
main victims of this industry. As he put it, “in
China, an egg doesn’t definitely come from a
chicken, and chicken is used to make pork.”
In China we also see the structural changes in
organized crime that are linked to globalization and
the emergence of new technologies.8 Wing argued
that the Chinese criminal organizations—known as
triad societies, which used to be highly organized
and hierarchical—have been superseded by more
fluid organizations, or networks. Loyalty and
territory still play important roles within the triads,
but individual members are more entrepreneurial
and independent in pursuing business opportunities. The triads remain important in providing
protection, as well as organizing prostitution,
gambling, drug trade, and money laundering, yet
the old systems and forms of organizations are
being eroded. That being said, Wing pointed out
that in comparison to other regions, violence is not
as prevalent in the operations of the triads, as they
prefer a less brutal approach to business, based on
forging friendly links with police and politicians
that provide them with space and territory to
enforce contracts.
Alongside the triad societies, Wing described the
growth of less formal and opportunistic forms of
organized crime in China, often based on family,
social, and business connections. These types of
organized crime may only last for a short while.
This form of fleeting organized crime (or project
crime) is flourishing in China and creates
complexity in understanding the phenomenon.
Organized crime in China is not limited to the
activities of the triads. Indeed, Wing argued that the
growth and spread of criminal enterprise illustrates
how China has vigorously embraced the ethos of
capitalism, perhaps more so than most other
countries in the world—using licit, illicit, or vice
activities to gain money is an embedded feature of
the new Chinese society. Here lies an important
connection between dominant societal values and
ideology, and the growth and prevalence of
organized criminal activities.9
Nick Lewis reiterated this notion of networks
becoming the dominant approach to organizing
international crime.10 He further noted that over the
past ten years criminal organizations are increasingly outsourcing specific activities to specialized
groups. This means the supply chains in international criminal markets are fragmented and highly
changeable. So, for example, in a bid to decrease
their exposure to risk, Colombian drug organizations in the early 2000s outsourced smuggling
operations to Mexican operators, which has been
part of the reason for the dramatic rise of Mexican
drug organizations in the past few years. In the EU,
groups who provide transport with “no questions
asked” for criminal organizations have also
emerged. Both Lewis and Phil Williams, of the
University of Pittsburgh, term these types of
operators “criminal service providers.” Previously,
such jobs were undertaken “in house,” i.e., within
more structured groups that had clearly defined
Williams elaborated on this change in the nature
of global organized crime, suggesting that in the
past few years we have seen the “appropriation of
criminal activities” by a much wider group of
actors. This includes not only professional criminal
organizations, but also warlords, insurgents, street
7 For an American perspective on the evolving threats caused by Asian organized crime, see James Finckenauer and Ko-Lin Chin, “Asian Organized Crime and its
Impact on the United States,” Trends in Organized Crime 10, no. 2 (2004). See also Tim Philips, Knock Off: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods (Philadelphia,
PA: Thompson-Shore, 2007).
8 See also, An Chen, “Secret Societies and Organized Crime in Contemporary China,” Modern Asian Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 77-107, and for an earlier perspective,
Curtis, E. Glenn, Seth L. Elan, Rexford A.Hudson, and Nina A. Kollars, “Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations,” Trends in Organized Crime 7,
no. 3 (2002): 19-59.
9 Several scholars have explored the relationship between criminal organizations, dominant societal values and capitalism. A classic essay in this regards is Charles Tilly,
“War-Making and State-Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982). See also Michael Woodiwiss, Organized Crime and American Power, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001).
10 As foreseen in Phil Williams and Roy Godson, “Anticipating Organized and Transnational Crime,” Crime Law and Social Change, no. 4 (2002): 311-355.
gangs, political groups, and to some extent terrorist
movements (the link with terrorism is elaborated
below). He strongly emphasized that in
understanding organized crime today, “we cannot
confine ourselves to traditional criminal
enterprises.” He further argued that this appropriation of criminal activities reflects wider trends of
insecurity, weakening states, and the inability of
governments almost everywhere to guarantee that
the basic needs of their citizens are met. The nature
of organized crime is therefore a feature of a
changing geopolitical landscape and alternative
governance arrangements.
Each of the expert panelists argued that the
expansion of organized crime represents the
exploitation of new opportunities, many of which
were not anticipated a decade ago.
In particular, many new opportunities arise from
technological developments. Nick Lewis argued
that improvements in digital communications,
including latest 3G and 4G technologies with
encrypted digital streaming and high-quality video
conferencing, have greatly improved the logistics of
international organized crime, making it easier for
criminal networks to communicate, but also
making it easier to transfer money around the
world. Lewis stated that the task of intercepting
global communications has become much harder
than should ever have been allowed.
New technologies have created new forms of
organized theft and fraud. Already noted are the
developments in 419 scams. Another example is the
growing problem of credit-card fraud, where credit
cards are temporarily stolen, their information
copied then loaded onto a new, counterfeit card.
Wing described this as an increasing concern in
China and Hong Kong. In particular, the triads
have become adept at exploiting this form of crime,
typically employing indebted waiters and entertainment workers to copy cards belonging to
unsuspecting customers.
Technology is one way of understanding the new
opportunities available to TOC. Yet new opportunities are also being presented to TOC by weakening
states and uneven law enforcement. Peter Gastrow,
IPI director of programs, described this in terms of
the changing relationship between TOC and
developing countries. Broadly speaking, Gastrow
argues that in the last ten years there has been a
discernable expansion of TOC from the developed
world to the developing one. Criminals have
increasingly outsourced activities to poorer
countries, and transitional states have provided
substantial prospects for criminal groups. In particular Gastrow mentioned the rise of TOC in West
Africa involved in drug smuggling to Europe and
North America,11 alongside the more publicized
examples of the expansion of organized crime in
transitional states such as the Soviet Union and
South Africa. In short, Gastrow suggested that TOC
is increasingly using vulnerable developing and
transitional countries as safe “launching pads” for
international crimes. It was noted that developing
countries are emerging as new markets for TOC,
but overall the most lucrative markets remain the
EU and North America. Lewis agreed, stating,
[Organized crime groups] migrate to new countries
to exploit the lack of legislation, poorly coordinated
law enforcement, or easily corruptible governments,
or to take advantage of geographical location.
Notwithstanding these observations about the
movement of TOC into vulnerable regions and
countries, a somewhat different dynamic is evident
in China, which again raises the issue of regional
differences in organized crime trends. Wing argues
that the economic boom in China has meant
Chinese organized criminals have been content to
operate only within the country, and have therefore
not felt the need to expand operations globally, at
least not to the same extent as with other TOC. For
example, drug markets in China have expanded
substantially and are a relatively easy source of
substantial profits.
However, somewhat paradoxically, China’s
economic growth has meant the opportunities for
some forms of international crime have
diminished; most importantly, illegal human
Historically, migrant smuggling, controlled by
the triads, has been a substantial illicit activity,
driven by the large demand among Chinese citizens
to leave China in the hope of finding improved
employment and political freedom in Western
11 For further evidence, see UNODC, Transnational Organized Crime in the West African Region (Vienna, 2005).
Europe and North America. However, with
improved gross domestic product (GDP) and
increased employment, coupled with the financial
crisis occurring elsewhere, there has been a marked
decrease in this demand, and therefore the number
of illegal immigrants from China appears to be
falling. Put simply, Chinese people now prefer to
stay in China over seeking a new life oversees. Wing
suggests this trend may change again if China’s
economic growth stalls, particularly if the Yuan is
drastically appreciated, as advocated by the US.
Nevertheless, the point is an important one—while
new opportunities for crime have stimulated the
global expansion of TOC in many regions, the
opposite trend appears to be occurring in China in
terms of migrant smuggling. Moreover, for China,
it is the vast opportunities for crime within the
country that are the focus of triad criminal organizations.
In addition to the new opportunities for TOC, the
shifting geopolitical nature of organized crime over
the last decade is also explained as an outcome of
displacement. There have been isolated successes in
addressing organized crime, or at least in raising
the risks of doing criminal business in some places.
While this may not have lessened it as a global
phenomenon, over the last decade organized crime
has adapted and sometimes relocated. Peter
Gastrow explains this in terms of the spread of
TOC from developed countries to less developed
ones. However, in addition to this larger trend,
there have been important regional developments.
Phil Williams discussed the situation in Latin
America, citing a “change in the center of gravity.”
Colombia-based organized-crime groups are no
longer the dominant force in the international
cocaine market, with Mexican groups largely taking
over this position. This shift was partly due to
national and international success at fighting large
trafficking organizations in Medellin and Cali that
controlled cocaine production, and therefore we are
now seeing the displacement of Colombian drug
organizations to neighboring countries. Guatemala
and Venezuela are two countries where Colombian
organizations have had particular success, with
Nick Lewis suggesting that further in-roads may be
made into vulnerable countries such as Suriname
and Guyana.
Although Colombian drug organizations are no
longer dominating international drug trade, they
remain important players. In recent times, some of
the more overtly political Colombian organizations
involved in drug production have morphed into
more dynamic entrepreneurial groups. There is
even cooperation between groups that were
previously in conflict and ideologically opposed to
one another.
Mexican drug organizations have rapidly seized
the opportunities created by changes in
Colombia—a process that has also been facilitated
by geographical factors. Mexico suffers from a
“location curse” and is strategically positioned for
the moving of cocaine and other drugs from South
America to the North and into Europe via West
Africa. Mexican drug groups also have experience
in producing and smuggling heroin, and more
recently methamphetamines. It is now the case that
throughout North America there is a clear increase
in the number and spread of Mexican drug-selling
The emergence of Mexican drug organizations as
the dominant force in international drug supply,
particularly that of cocaine, has created new
dynamics of violence in Mexico, which are gaining
increasing international attention.12 Williams spoke
about the complexities of this violence, as well as
some misconceptions surrounding it.
There is little doubt that drug-related violence is
deeply troubling in Mexico, and it is an inevitable
feature of this illicit market. However, the violence
is geographically concentrated and much of it is
targeted strategically. Drug-related violence is not
as widespread as the media and others portray.13
Violence is concentrated primarily in the border
regions of the country and to some extent drug
organizations have targeted more local politicians
and journalists than was the case previously.
Williams also emphasized the emergence of
12 There is a growing literature on Mexican drug violence. See, for example, Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and
Juarez (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009); and also Phil Williams’ recent article on Mexico and Iraq which is highly relevant to the discussion here:
“Illicit Markets, Weak States, and Violence: Iraq and Mexico,” Crime Law and Social Change 52, no. 3 (2009).
13 See also Andrew Selee, David Shirk, and Eric Olson, “Five Myths About Mexico’s Drug Wars,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2010.
“anomic violence” in some areas, especially Juarez.
At least some of the violence in Mexico’s drug
markets is not rational or calculated; rather, it
represents a degeneration of values and social
norms: “I kill therefore I exist.”
Williams went on to describe some of the factors
that are fueling conflict in these specific areas of the
country. For one, the Mexican government has
gone from being in collusion with drug organizations to being far more confrontational. He also
noted the inadvertent implications of sequential
law enforcement. In response to opportunities and
resource constraints, police have tended to target
specific groups sequentially rather than engage in
simultaneous attacks across the board. This has
created power vacuums, or “vacancy chains” within
and between rival groups, leading to something
akin to a feeding frenzy.14
Both Lewis and Williams therefore made the
point that selective and uneven law enforcement
can have perverse consequences, and this remains a
critical element in the evolving nature of TOC.15
Phil Williams recommended a broader approach to
fighting organized crime, whereby law enforcement
would act “across the board” rather than by simply
targeting prominent individuals. This is a message
with both local and international ramifications.
Whether it is a new feature of organized crime or
not, discussions at the seminar reiterated that
corruption is critical to the phenomenon.16
Gastrow cited high susceptibility to corruption as
one of the main reasons why TOC has tended to
redeploy to developing countries. The capacity of
police and the criminal-justice system in
developing countries is generally low, which is part
of the problem. He also stressed that a key factor is
the ease with which TOC can infiltrate and co-opt
the very top levels of government and the state in
many developing countries. The resulting protection from investigation and prosecution, both
nationally and internationally, presents an
enormous opportunity for TOC.
The situation in China is similar. A question put
to Wing Lo was whether the Chinese authorities are
doing enough to curb the growth in illicit activities,
including the production of counterfeit products
and money laundering. He explained that the vast
size of China, combined with the disorganized and
sporadic nature of many criminal enterprises,
forms part of the problem and he agreed that
overall the response by Chinese authorities to
organized crime has indeed been weak and largely
ineffective. Yet again, a fundamental challenge is
corruption and collusion in illicit activities by
police and local authorities. A defining feature of
Chinese triad societies has been the creation of
protection rackets, which operate as a “protective
umbrella” for criminals. Government officials and
criminal-justice personnel are involved in
organized crime and represent some of its main
beneficiaries. Wing explained that the national
government is quick to impose new laws and
regulations, but these have little impact on a local
level. Bribe payments are commonplace and these
often mean people involved in organized crime do
not end up in court.
Lewis added further weight to the importance of
political corruption, explaining that international
money laundering and smuggling routinely involve
politicians and employees of legitimate businesses,
including banking. He also touched on the considerable problem of fraud affecting development aid,
noting that
The international aid program itself is targeted not
just by traditional criminal types, but by corrupt
government figures, elected officials and aid workers
unable to resist the temptations presented by billions
of cash dollars and staggered by the poor controls
and audit arrangements that follow it. This corruption leads to alliances between criminal groups and
politicians—indeed, sometimes they are synonymous—which in turn leads to legal and political
process being undermined by criminals. One small
step away from failing states, civil war, or insurgency.
Here we see further reason to agree with
Williams’ notion that TOC can no longer be seen as
the activities of traditional criminal organizations.
14 See H. Richard Friman, “Forging the Vacancy Chain: Law Enforcement Efforts and Mobility in Criminal Economies,” Crime Law and Social Change 41, no. 1
15 For an interesting case study and discussion on this, see Dean Yang, “Can Enforcement Backfire? Crime Displacement in the Context of Customs Reform in the
Philippines,” Working Paper No. 02-010, Ann Arbor, MI: Ford School of Public Policy, 2004.
16 The role of corruption in organized crime has been a subject of study for decades. For a recent review of the literature, see Kip Schlegel, “The Evolving Nature of
Corruption in Organized Crime,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Royal York, Toronto, 2008.
It is a complex network involving different groups
and actors; members of political and business elites
form part of the problem.17
Returning to the analysis of developing countries
and the threat posed by organized crime, Gastrow
warned of a “vicious circle” facing poorer countries
related in part to this systemic corruption. The
growth of organized crime in developing countries
can undermine law enforcement and further
weaken state governance. There is therefore a
worrying possibility that the gulf between the
developing world and the developed, in terms of
their ability to combat organized crime, will
increase. Gastrow urged that this issue be given
serious consideration in the review of the Palermo
The case of Guatemala was suggested as
warranting further analysis and reflection. It was
noted that frustration over systemic corruption
meant the government of Guatemala has given the
mandate to the United Nations to take over several
functions of the state, including areas relating to
criminal justice and policing. Gastrow noted that so
far little is known about how this situation has
influenced the emergence and development of
organized crime. This is another area that was
noted for further research and it is possible that
there may be ramifications for other countries,
although clearly handing over governance to an
unelected international body is controversial and
comes with major complications.
Arguably one of the chief developments in the last
ten years causing change in the way organized
crime is perceived lies with the actual and potential
connections between TOC and terrorist groups.
Prior to the Palermo Convention this was a matter
that received little if any attention.18 September 11th
represented a significant turning point; now the
specter of TOC forging working relations with
terrorists is considered one of the major issues in
this field.19
Several questions were put to the panel on
specific cases where there appears to be strong
working relations between terrorist groups and
criminal organizations, including in North Africa,
Afghanistan, Turkey, and Somalia. One of the
underlying concerns raised in the meeting was that
this relationship between criminal organizations
and terrorists is contributing significantly to global
insecurity and demands further action. Yet the
nature of these links was a matter of differing
perceptions and analysis. Again, regional differences were evident, but so too are conflicting
intelligence reports.
It appears uncontroversial that in some areas
known terrorist groups extract rents from drug
trafficking and this forms an important stream of
financing for terrorist activities and the purchase of
weapons. The example of the Taliban and the
production and smuggling of heroin from
Afghanistan was highlighted as a serious concern.20
However a point stressed in the discussions was
that the labels used by international commentators
can be artificial and there is a blurring between
what is understood as organized crime and what is
considered terrorism.
Williams’ approach to this subject builds on his
notion of the “appropriation of criminal activities”
by a growing range of actors. He suggested drawing
a distinction between “groups” and “activities,”
which may help provide a conceptual framework.21
In some cases criminal groups can become involved
in terrorist activities, which is what seems to have
occurred in the Madrid bombings of 2004.
Likewise, formerly insurgent or terrorist groups
may gradually shift focus and concentrate on illicit
income-generating activities, leaving behind their
political or ideological roots. The FARC in
Colombia and the Irish Republican Army were
17 Michael Woodiwiss defines organized crime as being “systemic criminal activity for money or power.” Michael Woodiwiss, Organized Crime and American Power:
A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 3.
18 However, some scholars began writing on the links between terrorism and organized crime during the early 1990s. See, for example, D. Ward “Gray Area
Phenomena: The Changing Nature of Organized Crime and Terrorism,” Criminal Justice International 11 (1995), pp. 1, 4, 18.
19 There is much literature exploring the nexus of terrorism and organized crime. Some recent examples include Louise I. Shelly and John T. Picarelli, “Methods and
Motives: Exploring the Links Between International Organized Crime and International Terrorism,” Trends in Organized Crime 9, no. 2 (2005); Thomas M.
Sandersen, “Transnational Terror and Organized Crime: Blurring the Lines,” SAIS Review of International Affairs 24, no. 1 (2004); Frank Bovenkerk and Bashir
Abou Chakra, “Terrorism and Organized Crime,” Forum on Crime and Society 4, no. 1 (2004). There have also been several sensational publications on this theme,
such Paul Williams’ book, The Al Qaeda Connection: International Terrorism, Organized Crime, and the Coming Apocalypse (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005).
20 For an in-depth analysis, see Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009).
21 A similar argument for a reconceptualization of crime types was made by Naylor, see R. T. Naylor, “Towards a General Theory of Profit-Driven Crimes,” British
Journal of Criminology 43, no. 1 (2003).
cited as examples. Indeed, there is an argument that
this represents a welcome development—organized
crime being the lesser of the two evils.
Yet another permutation, one that seems
prevalent today, is that criminal networks or groups
are used by terrorists as “service providers.”22 An
example was given of Iraq, where purely criminal
networks involved in kidnapping have sold people
to insurgents. In this situation, TOC may not be
forging an ideological link with terrorism; rather,
the relationship is one of self interest and profit.
Notwithstanding the difficulties in conceptualizing the problem, the evolving relationship
between TOC and international terrorism clearly
represents a major concern, one that warrants
further debate.
As described below, this growing international
concern with terrorism is also relevant to
understanding how the international community
has responded to the threat of organized crime over
the past decade. Examining the link between
terrorism and TOC is therefore not only about the
possible synergies between these groups and activities, but also what role terrorism has played in
changing policy and funding for international
criminal investigations.
The growth in TOC over the past decade, as well as
its changing nature, led to a consideration of the
resulting social and economic harms. Discussions
at the seminar touched on a number of concerns:
the growth in drug markets and related violence,
new forms of cyber crime, and the destabilizing
effect corruption has on state legitimacy and
effectiveness, particularly in developing and transitional countries.
However, focusing exclusively on the negative
impacts of TOC may only provide a partial
understanding. In providing an overview of some
broad trends occurring in Latin America, Phil
Williams stressed an important and often
overlooked aspect of organized crime. Despite the
overwhelmingly negative view of organized crime
presented by law-enforcement agencies and others,
it is an undeniable fact that organized crime has
social and economic benefits; “organized crime is
not an unmitigated evil.”
The drug trade provides substantial income for
otherwise poor communities and organized-crime
groups can be an embedded feature of community
governance in many Latin American cities, with
several studies exploring this, most notably in
Brazil.23 Indeed, social scientists working on
organized crime decades ago, such as Daniel Bell,
noted how illicit activities can operate as an alternative ladder of social and economic mobility.24 The
same is partly true today, and it is this seemingly
positive contribution to some sections of society
that makes combating organized crime particularly
In putting forward this view, Williams noted that
social and economic benefits should not be simplified; in the same areas where organized crime has
beneficial outcomes, it also exacerbates poverty and
marginalization. There is therefore a complex
relationship between community development and
organized crime in poorer areas.25
Williams provided a further example of the
ambiguous threats posed by organized crime. This
related to money laundering. He questioned
whether so-called dirty money had such a
pernicious impact on the formal economy as is
often assumed. He suggested that dirty money
behaved exactly the same way as legitimate money.26
Although there was a limited opportunity in the
seminar to discuss this aspect of the social and
economic consequences of organized crime, it was
22 For one of the earliest publications exploring the notion of “criminal service providers,” see Vincenzo Ruggiero, “Criminals and Service Providers: Cross National
Dirty Economies,” Crime Law and Social Change 28, no. 1 (1997).
23 Enrique Desmond Arias, “The Trouble with Social Capital: Networks and Criminality in Rio de Janerio,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American
Political Science Association, September 1, 2002. Dennis Rodgers, “Dying for it: Gangs, Violence, and Social Change in Urban Nicaragua,” CERLAC Bulletin 2, no.
3 (2003); and for an example from Africa, see André Standing, “Organised Crime: A Study from the Cape Flats,” Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2006.
24 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960). However, this thesis has been
criticized by several texts noting how criminal markets are characterized by the same forms of marginalization and discrimination as legal ones. See, for example,
Jock Young, The Exclusive Society (London: Sage, 1999).
25 For a discussion on this, see André Standing, “The Social Contradictions of Organized Crime,” Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2003.
26 A point made in R. T. Naylor, Wages of Crime: Black Markets, Illegal Finance, and the Underworld Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), but, for an
alternative view, see Vito Tanzi, “Macroeconomic Implications of Money Laundering,” in Responding to Money Laundering: International Perspectives, edited by
Ernesto Ugo Savona (London: Routledge, 2000).
noted that such research and discussion is long
A discussion on the harm caused by TOC led to
the question of decriminalization. It was noted in
particular that in Latin America the issue of
decriminalization continues to be raised as a viable
solution to the problems associated with drug
trafficking and violence. It was put to the panel of
experts that this policy option perhaps isn’t being
taken seriously by the international community.
The view of one seminar participant was that much
of the harm caused by organized crime in drug
markets is a direct outcome of prohibition.
Moreover, it was argued that a failure to consider
decriminalization may reflect the dependence
international law enforcement has on sustaining the
illegality of the drug trade.27 Billions of dollars are
spent on international crime fighting, which may
act as a barrier to reform.
The panel of experts did not agree with this view,
arguing that the impacts of prohibition are more
complex and that it is necessary to take into account
the broader social and economic costs of decriminalization.28 However, it was not possible to fully explore
these arguments further at this seminar, given the
restrictions in time as well as the thematic focus.
The International Response
to TOC and the Palermo
The expansion and growth of TOC discussed at this
event suggest an overall failure to address the threat
of TOC in the past decade. There appear to have
been some successes, but the problem of displacement and adaptation by criminal networks means
on a global scale such isolated success may not be
enough. In this context a review of the Palermo
Convention is important.29 The basic question arises
of whether the convention has succeeded in
improving the international response, and if not,
why not? Following on from this, we need to ask
what the international community can do to
improve the implementation of the Palermo
Convention to bring about a sustainable reduction
in the harm of TOC.
A point raised at the meeting concerned the critical
importance of a formal evaluation of the Palermo
Convention. It was stressed that data and comparative evidence on what works in terms of fighting
organized crime has historically been absent, which
makes understanding international best practice
extremely difficult.30 Indeed, in the US, the
Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act
(RICO Act) has still not been scientifically
evaluated in terms of its success or failures.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC) and the Conference of States Party
(COP) to the UN Convention Against
Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which
meets every two years, have embarked on a number
of activities that aim to improve evaluation of the
convention. This work remains in its early stages, as
much emphasis has been given to obtaining the
signature and ratification of the convention by state
parties. However, there is a discernable shift toward
creating more structured and comprehensive
review mechanisms. To this end UNODC has
created a software tool that allows individual
signatories of UNTOC to upload key information
on compliance and implementation of UNTOC,
and there have been regional studies on organized
crime conducted by UNODC, as well as studies
focusing on particular aspects of UNTOC,
including witness protection.
A view put forward at the seminar was that, until
such review mechanisms were developed more
fully, it would be impossible to be sure of what the
impact of UNTOC has been.
The panel was asked whether international
efforts to combat organized crime have failed to
27 A controversial argument, but one made elsewhere, such as James Sheptycki, “Global Law Enforcement as a Protection Racket: Some Skeptical Notes on
Transnational Organized Crime as an Object of Global Governance,” in Transnational Organized Crime: Perspectives on Global Security, edited by Adam Edwards
and Peter Gill (London: Routledge, 2003).
28 There is much literature on the merits and limitations of decriminalization, particularly that of drugs. For a synthesis of these arguments, see, for example, Douglas
Husak, The Legalization of Drugs (For and Against) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
29 For a useful article on the success and failure of the Palermo Convention in its first few years, see Andreas Schloenhardt, “Transnational Organized Crime and
International Law: The Palermo Convention,” Criminal Law Journal 29 (2005).
30 While this lack of evaluation stands true, there have been several exceptions. For a useful early discussion on this, see Michael D. Maltz, Measuring the Effectiveness
of Organized Crime Control Efforts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), as well as critical literature on the failure of law enforcement in combating organized
crime such as Naylor, Wages of Crime.
include benchmarks of success. It was suggested
this was an oversight that undermined progress,
and that vast spending by the US in particular
lacked clear measurable objectives. This was
accepted as a weakness to national and international efforts.
It was also argued that such evaluations cannot
simply focus on what has been done by lawenforcement agencies, what laws have been
implemented, and what new institutions have been
established. Such measurements tell us little about
the actual easing of the problem. The example was
given of international efforts to combat money
laundering. There has been a great deal of new
banking legislation and the establishment of
thousands of Financial Investigation Units, but
overall the impact in terms of making it harder for
criminals to launder money has been minimal.
Ultimately, anti-money-laundering tools, which
were designed to combat organized crime, have
been ineffective.31
Finally, a panelist noted that there were three
further important observations about UNTOC,
which need to be considered in relation to this issue
of an effective evaluation. First, the convention is a
legal instrument designed to improve international
legislation and enable cooperation between
countries. It is not, however, an operational
agreement which directs specific crime-fighting
activities. In proceeding with evaluations, we
therefore have to take care in understanding what
the convention is designed to do. This may help
explain its limitations and influence people’s
expectations of UNTOC.
Secondly, UNTOC has struggled to resolve the
issue of having a governing body, which, among
other functions, could help direct evaluations. In
previous international agreements on crime, such
as that on narcotics, there have been expert bodies
elected to oversee and coordinate the implementation of these agreements. However this is no longer
politically viable. All individual states party to
UNTOC see themselves as members of the de facto
governing body of the convention. This makes it a
somewhat cumbersome and slow-moving initiative. It was suggested that a more dynamic
governing body is emerging through COP, but until
this issue is resolved, evaluations may remain less
effective and efficient than they could be.
Thirdly, individual states can be reluctant to
divulge information on their performance in
meeting UNTOC and fighting organized crime,
particularly where this may lead to criticism. This
can undermine efforts at evaluation where data are
requested from states and law-enforcement
agencies by UNODC. It is partly this reason why
independent research institutes may be best placed
to undertake evaluations in the future.
Notwithstanding the lack of formal evaluation of
the impact of UNTOC there were several reasons
put forward by participants in the seminar as to
why the convention has had an ambiguous impact
over the past decade. Part of the problem, as
described above, relates to the dynamic nature of
organized crime. There have been profound
changes in the nature and activities of organized
crime over the past ten years. This points to the
need for a dynamic and adaptable international
response. Yet the Palermo Convention has evolved
slowly and may not have kept pace with the
changing reality of international crime as well as it
could have.
This disappointing response appears greatly
influenced by the rising concern over terrorism
during the past decade. There was a strong message
from experts at this meeting that momentum for
addressing TOC that led to the signing of the
Palermo Convention was quickly lost after
September 11th. Put simply, new energies and
funding directed toward fighting international
terrorism came at the expense of international
efforts against TOC. At the same time, it was noted
that other international agreements promoted by
the United Nations in the same era also had the
effect of downgrading the importance of TOC,
including the United Nations Convention Against
Corruption (UNCAC). It was noted that this type of
meeting was welcomed by those working in
UNTOC as it may help to raise international
31 For a recent paper on the failure of anti-money-laundering laws, with a particular focus on developing countries, see Jason Sharman, “Power and Discourse in
Policy Diffusion: Anti-Money Laundering in Developing States,” International Studies Quarterly 2, no. 3 (2008).
Some doubt was raised about the impact of the
global fight against terrorism, particularly as antiterrorism work includes strengthening law enforcement in countries where terrorists are based. The
point was raised that such anti-terrorism work
must have a spill-over effect on organized crime in
general.32 Panelists acknowledged this influence,
but it was stressed that in operational terms there
remains an artificial divide between fighting the
two problems. Nick Lewis argued that there was far
more scope for cooperation and collaboration
between agencies fighting terrorism and organized
crime, not only given the emerging relations
between criminal networks and terrorists, but also
because terrorists are increasingly using the same
tools, such as the Internet and money laundering.
This sort of joined-up response is urgently needed,
and to some extent seems to be occurring more
often now than was the case a few years ago.
Although terrorism may have undermined
efforts at combating TOC, it was also argued that
recent policy failures have contributed to the
challenge. It is not simply the activities and strategies of TOC where the problem lies, “we have
changed society and often created organized crime
and corruption as a consequence.” In particular it
was noted that postconflict rebuilding in the
Middle East has failed to address the criminalized
chaos that is emerging—attempts at addressing
corruption and crime have come to represent the
application of a Band-Aid to what is a major injury.
If the impact of the global fight against terrorism is
undermining responses to TOC, this is further
compounded by the ongoing difficulties facing
crime-fighting agencies in conducting cross-border
Peter Gastrow focused the discussion on the
problems facing developing countries, particularly
in Africa. His analysis of corruption in developing
countries suggests that crime-fighting agencies
from developed countries often find it difficult to
form effective partnerships with local police.
Others with experience in this field confirmed the
problem, pointing out that in addition to corruption, most developing countries lack expertise and
specialization in investigating sophisticated
organized crime. Conducting investigations that
can lead to a positive judicial outcome is extremely
expensive, meaning reservations about crossborder policing efforts tend to dampen efforts of
overseas police.
The inability to improve policing cooperation
across borders was also explained as a “problem of
sovereignty.” Within Europe and between Europe
and the US, there has been an increase in partnerships, particularly in fighting international drug
trafficking. For reasons that are not immediately
apparent, many developing countries take a
guarded view of forging similar initiatives, showing
a reluctance to hand over their independence to a
collective effort. There are therefore very few, if any,
effective multilateral attempts at dealing with
organized crime that include developing countries.
A recurring theme during this event was that the
issue should be elevated in policy discussions,
including at the forthcoming conference of parties
to the UNTOC. A principal concern was over the
growing gulf between the ability of developing
countries to counter TOC and that of developed
countries, which could further encourage TOC to
relocate to the Global South.
A further observation concerned the possibility of
an expanded role for the UN community in
addressing TOC. It was noted that whereas TOC
has evolved into dynamic networks, the UN system
is closer to the old-school model of the mafia:
hierarchical, slow to adapt, and cumbersome.
The issue of organized crime is a cross-cutting
one, relevant to many parts of the UN architecture,
as well as the realization of the Millennium
Development Goals. Yet organized crime remains
perceived as a specialist field, something tackled by
UNODC in relative isolation. A question therefore
arises, How can the UN develop policy coherence
in addressing TOC?
One view on this issue is that tackling crime
remains unattractive for several of the UN agencies,
something thought of as a psychological problem.
For complicated reasons, fighting crime is not seen
32 For an earlier discussion on combating both criminal networks and terrorists, see John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of
Crime, Terror, and Militancy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2002).
as attractive, particularly among those who are
focused on human rights and democracy.
It was also noted that a perennial problem facing
the UN relates to competition for budgets and
funding. This makes collaboration on a crosscutting issue difficult. Overall, the seminar stopped
short of advancing concrete suggestions for the
expanded role of the UN, but it was flagged for
further discussions.
Closely related to this observation, Lewis
provided one of the concluding statements, arguing
that the issue of organized crime is too often
tackled by national governments acting in their
own self-interest, and overlooking the fact that the
threats of TOC interconnect across national
borders. Governments need to embrace fighting
organized crime as a truly global threat—a collective response to a shared problem.
Transnational organized crime has changed in
complicated ways, partly due to new technologies
and new opportunities, and partly due to the
selective activities of law enforcement. Meanwhile,
the emergence of global terrorism has given a
further dimension to the problem. Notwith standing the conceptual ambiguities of distinguishing between organized crime and terrorism,
terrorist groups appear to be engaging in criminal
activities to gain access to financing, and new
working relationships are forming among crime
networks, terrorists, and political insurgents. Our
knowledge of these developments remains
somewhat sketchy, partly due to limited and
conflicting intelligence reports.
While there are broad global trends in the
developments of TOC, regional differences remain
important. In this respect it is useful to reflect on the
situation in China, which has been influenced by
impressive domestic economic growth. The issue of
organized crime is distinct in Latin America and
Africa yet interconnected at the same time.
The structural changes that seem to have
occurred to TOC also suggest new terminology and
theoretical models are needed. TOC can no longer
be seen as a conspiracy of distinct criminal
enterprises. Viewed as an activity, it is increasingly
clear that TOC involves a wide range of actors,
including corrupt officials, political groups,
warlords, and so on. Future research will no doubt
have to look into the political economy of
organized crime to better understand the interplay
among these different actors.
Differences of opinion also exist on the harm of
organized crime and its relationship to communities and economies. Perhaps a straightforward view
of organized crime being an unmitigated evil is too
simplistic. There are important policy implications
for improving our understanding of harm, as well
as benefits, related to organized crime, particularly
if citizens are to play a role in assisting crime
fighting. A review of the harm caused by organized
crime can also help inform difficult policy debates,
such as that on decriminalization.
In terms of the international response to
organized crime, the Palermo Convention has had
an ambiguous role. There was an element of
optimism from some commentators that the
convention may have had a slow start, but there are
promising signs that it is picking up momentum.
Others were less certain of this, pointing out that
the convention is limited in scope and too slow to
respond to the fast-changing nature of the problem.
How we go forward from this situation remains a
tremendously intricate issue to resolve. Evaluating
what has been done appears a vital task, yet
arguably the methodology for doing so remains
unclear. It is not enough to measure the implementation of the convention; the real challenge lies in
making the connection between the convention
and real-world changes in the harm caused by
organized crime. Moreover, it is worth noting that
the mandate to undertake such difficult and
controversial evaluations may be hard to gain from
the member states of the Palermo Convention.
One of the key complaints made by those
involved in fighting organized crime is the inadvertent impact of the importance given to global
efforts to combat terrorism. Indeed, in his
concluding remarks Professor Edward C. Luck
noted that in the past those engaged in combating
and studying organized crime have struggled to
gain sufficient recognition within the international
community, a point alluded to in earlier discussions. Yet it was his view that changes are evident.
The issue of TOC is the object of growing attention.
He noted that institutes such as IPI have a strong
role to play in ensuring that this recognition
ANNEX: Agenda
Transnational Organized Crime and the Palermo Convention:
A Reality Check
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
8:30am – 1:00pm
Trygve Lie Center for Peace, Security & Development
International Peace Institute
777 UN Plaza, 12th floor
(Corner of 44th Street and 1st Avenue)
08:30am Breakfast Buffet
09:00am Welcoming Remarks
Edward C. Luck, Senior Vice President for Research and Programs, International Peace
Institute (IPI)
09:10 – 10:10am Panel 1: Recent Trends in Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) and its Evolving
Nature, Growth, and Global Impact
Moderator: Peter Gastrow, Senior Fellow and Director of Programs, IPI
Global Trends and Developments
Speaker: Nick Lewis, Regional Manager, Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA),
British Embassy, Washington, DC
Impact of TOC on Developing Countries
Speaker: Peter Gastrow
09:55 – 10:10am Questions, Comments, and Discussion
10:10 – 10:55am The Evolution and Impact of TOC in Latin America
Speaker: Phil Williams, Professor of International Security, Graduate School of Public and
International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia
Current and Expected Developments in China
Speaker: Wing Lo, Professor of Criminology, City University of Hong Kong, China
10:55 – 11:15am Questions, Comments, and Discussion
11:15 – 11:30am Coffee Break
11:30 – 12:15pm Panel 2: Assessing the Role of the Palermo Convention
Moderator: Peter Gastrow
Evaluating the Palermo Convention
Speaker: John Picarelli, Social Science Analyst, National Institute of Justice, United States
Department of Justice, Washington, DC
Ten Years of Palermo Convention: An Assessment of its Role in Countering TOC
Speaker: Catherine Volz, former Chief of the Human Security Branch of the Division for
Operations, and Chief of the Treaty and Legal Affairs Branch, United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Vienna
12:15 – 12:50pm Questions, Comments, and Discussion
12:50 – 12:55pm Closing Remarks
Edward C. Luck
international not-for-profit think tank with a staff representing more
than twenty nationalities. IPI is dedicated to promoting the prevention
and settlement of conflicts between and within states by strengthening
international peace and security institutions. To achieve its purpose, IPI
employs a mix of policy research, convening, publishing, and outreach.
777 United Nations Plaza New York, NY 10017-3521 USA
TEL +1-212 687-4300 FAX +1-212 983-8246

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