Organized crime was once the preserve of small gangs or families operating within strict geographic areas, but now they’re transnational and not just bribing high officials, but becoming them.

Whilst the influence and activity of organized crime has arguably fallen in some nations due to increased law enforcement measures and capabilities, notably surveillance, legislation and infiltration, in others precisely the same has happened, only in reverse. In some countries criminal gangs are located and their illegal activities stamped out, in others those activities are taken over and the gangs merely superseded by those who did the stamping.

A collaboration between governments and organized crime is nothing new, of course, with corruption being a characteristic of their operations in whichever field of criminality they pursue. Pay offs and backhanders, considerations and favors have all played their part in sealing a relationship between criminals and government officials, with some government agencies seeking to use the mafia in order to further their goals. The CIA asking the mafia to knock off Castro might seem a bit wild-eyed and optimistic, but it was hardly unthinkable.

Organized Crime Takes Power

● Mafia states on the increase across the world

● Shift away from poker & blackjack signals increase in drugs trade

● Transnational response slow and unwieldy

The difference that has arisen in recent years is that in some nations the political leadership has used power to not crack down on gangs and their activities, but take them over, defending and expanding them, and using the organs of the state to further the interests of criminal gangs. From spy chiefs to military officers, heads of police departments to heads of state themselves, the top echelons of the organized crime world are no longer the preserve of organized criminals alone.

Where national interests have become so intertwined with the interests of criminal organizations that they are almost impossible to differentiate, it is equally impossible to say which is in charge of whom. Has the mafia thrown off its mystique of secrecy and adopted the garments of the legitimate establishment to increase profits, or has the establishment absorbed the tactics of organized crime in order to increase control? In whichever case it seems the world finds it very difficult to contend with this new style of government.

Old Thinking Not Solving New Problems

There are three main reasons for this and they are all three misconceptions that are applied to the modern international criminal organizations by those who frankly should know better. It is perhaps old thinking in a rapidly changing world that leaves those seeking to counter the rise of this type of uber-mafia at a distinct disadvantage. There is a distinct failure to adapt that makes a card counting system for the blind seem a sensible idea, but why is it that when criminal organizations can evolve, their opposite numbers can’t?

Firstly there is a tendency to believe that the criminal interests of the past are still current and that there is, in effect, nothing new to today’s organized criminals. This is a myopic view that ignores the rise in cybercrime, the use of modern technology and cryptography, and the employment of equipment that was once out of reach to mere criminal gangs in order to further their goals. Colombian drug cartels use fully submersible submarines (as opposed to the semi-submersible variety) to import their product to the US, for instance.

Secondly is this somewhat dated a concept of the small batch of bad apples, that without these few there would be no more problem. However the criminal ecosystem now no longer requires merely a handful of people to be involved but whole populations, the expansion of the drugs trade involves millions, the counterfeit goods business just as many, and smuggling perhaps even more. The bad apples theory simply doesn’t apply anymore, too many of us create the demand for their supply.

Thirdly there’s the unfortunately rather clingy belief that this is purely a criminal issue, that it is merely a matter of the police catching them, prosecutors making the case and judges placing the miscreants in jail. The progression of organized crime beyond the level at which that might applicable means that it is far more an issue of a political and security nature. With criminal organizations easily rivaling their legitimate corporate cousins in terms of size and revenue it isn’t surprising that their influence in the political sphere is also mirrored.

Gamekeeper Turned Poacher

The degree to which this sort of thinking has hampered efforts to prevent the slide of nations into mafia controlled stooges is perhaps best highlighted by the results. For example in 2008 General Henry Rangel Silva was placed on the US treasury’s list of officially designated drug kingpins for ‘materially assisting narcotic trafficking activities’ and in 2010 became defense minister and head of the Venezuelan armed forces, the armed forced charged with responsibility of stopping narcotic trafficking from and to Venezuela.

International treaties and multilateral organizations, such as they exist, are slow and unsuited to the task they face, law enforcement is inherently a national issue that now requires an international aspect it finds difficult to adopt with the same alacrity as their opposite numbers. Merely countering this new form of flexible transnational threat is proving all but impossible and the idea of reversing its gains in criminalization of individual nations, a pipe dream. However there are glimmer of common sense and international cooperation offering a chance for change.

Some of the smart strategies being adopted by law enforcement include requiring high level public officials to make their personal finances public, examining their lawyers and accountants and attempting to improve coordination between domestic agencies, but these are slow to show effect and have yet to be adopted everywhere, and barring war crimes there are few transnational legal systems to
deal with complex criminal cases the range across continents let alone mere national borders.

The development of the mafia state as a criminal entity is the natural culmination of rampant capitalism, fiscally controlled politics and a mainly domestic reaction to a transnational issue. Wealthier more powerful criminals than had hitherto been seen have taken on the mantle of legitimate control and like all politicians they will be extremely reluctant to give that power up. It remains to be seen what inroads can be made to combat this new variety of organized crime or if we are destined to be a mafia planet.

Read more about gambling and the mafia.