Globalization and Organized Crime Research

Globalization and Organized Crime

Globalization has caused many changes in society. Telecommunications technology such as the internet allows for large amounts of data to be transmitted across vast distances. This has made information more accessible and long-distance communication virtually instantaneous. Such developments have changed the way companies do business and the way society operates.

The benefits of globalization have not been lost on organized crime groups. These organizations seek any advantage they can find in their competition with other organized crime groups as well as law enforcement. Their flexibility as informal, underground organizations means they are positioned to capitalize on developments in the economy.

Globalization has heightened and expanded the already large role that organized crime plays in the global economy. Organized crime organizations operate much like businesses, motivated by the same incentives. Just as legitimate multinational corporations have expanded global operations to capitalize on cheap labor, raw materials, and new markets, organized crime groups have also expanded their operations for these very reasons, among others.

Organized crime groups manage huge, profitable operations in human trafficking, migrant smuggling, heroin trafficking, cocaine trafficking, firearms trafficking, environmental resources trafficking, counterfeit goods trafficking, maritime piracy and cybercrime. (UNODC, 2010, p. vii). Globalization has helped to make these operations more efficient, more profitable, and more expansive.

Thesis: The economic liberalization accompanying globalization has expanded the field of potential business opportunities for organized crime, opening up new markets, supply lines, and business opportunities. Additionally, advances in telecommunications technology have allowed criminal associations to coordinate operations from a number of different locations. Global governance mechanisms have not kept pace with these increasingly mobile organizations, and the worldwide organized crime problem will likely get worse before it gets better.

New Markets

Globalization has provided a number of new locations for organized crime (“OC”) groups to set up familiar operations. It is usually the metropolitan-based groups that are the first to go overseas. In Japan, it was not the largest Yakuza group that set up shop overseas first but the Yakuza groups of Tokyo, the Inagawa-Kai in Hawaii and the Sumiyoshi-Kai in the Philippines. (Kaplan, 2003, p. 98). OC groups from developed countries, such as the Yakuza of Japan, take advantage of their stronger currencies to buy a foothold in new markets.

Extortion and Fraud

Certain illicit activities, such as extortion, can be done in almost any location as long as there is a vulnerable victim. For the Japanese Yakuzas committing extortion across various Asian countries, the victims were the multinational Japanese corporations which set up outsourcing operations. (Kaplan, p. 102). For the Italian-American Mafia members engaged in construction fraud in Montreal, this element was provided by public construction funds. (Cherry, 2011). Human Trafficking

Globalization has exacerbated the problem of human trafficking through increasing the economic gap between developed and undeveloped countries. Due to increasing global inequalities and restrictive immigration policies in developed countries, many workers from developing countries are desperate to gain access to more developed countries. (UNODC, 2010, p. 4). Many hopefuls turn to criminal networks who offer to smuggle them into a country for a fee. The workers often exhaust their life savings and often borrow money in order to pay for the “trip.”

Firearms Trafficking

Firearms smuggling has benefited from access to many smaller, politically unstable states for firearms. This is immensely helpful to OCR groups in Eastern Europe, where the fall of the Soviet Union left many countries with a huge surplus of military-grade firearms. Before globalization, these groups did not know of or did not have access to the insurgent groups and paramilitary groups that would be interested in buying those firearms. Now, the Ukraine is shipping these firearms to states and groups in Africa, many of which are rogue states or embargoed states. (UNODC, 2010, p. 8-9).

Money Laundering

One of the most common activities OCR engage in is money laundering, where they take advantage of the gap in financial monitoring between different nations. Money laundering is particularly popular in weak states with poor financial monitoring capabilities. The lack of transparency and effective state monitoring in the banking systems of many Latin American and Caribbean nations left them particularly vulnerable to penetration by Russian money launderers. (Bagley, 2004, p. 35)

OCR groups, with their considerable financial clout, also take advantage of investment opportunities overseas. Despite the huge cash reserves they sit on, these groups often encounter difficulties investing such dirty money in their own country of origin. They are able to invest this dirty money in the legal economy of foreign countries through dummy corporations.

New Business Opportunities

Counterfeit Medicine

Globalization has enabled an especially dangerous type of criminal activity, counterfeit medicines. Because of cheaper labor costs, Asian countries such as India and China have become popular outsourcing destinations for pharmaceutical companies in Europe and the U.S. OC groups manufacture diluted formulations or outright dummy pills and re-label them for sale in poorer countries in South-East Asia and Africa. (UNODC, 2010, p. 10). When drugs are not of the potency or even of the type they are labeled to be, the results can be fatal for the consumer. Such deception can also have broader public health risks, as diluted medication can fuel the breeding of drug-resistant strains of pathogens. (UNODC, p. 11)

Counterfeit Goods

Globalization has also increased opportunities for organized crime in the trade of counterfeit goods. Much of the global economic growth in recent years has derived companies outsourcing their manufacturing operations to other countries with cheaper labor costs. Counterfeiters have taken advantage of outsourcing — in which the designers and manufacturers of a product live on different continents.

OC groups take advantage of the large gap between the cost to produce consumer goods and their final market value. OC groups utilize their connections in source countries, such as the Triads in China, to produce counterfeit goods for shipment to Europe, where the goods are often designed and sold. (UNODC, 2010, p. 10). These counterfeit goods sometimes come from the same factories which produce the official goods, as the contracting manufacturer will sometimes produce extra units for sale out of the backdoor.


Globalization has created a reliance on technology in the business world that has increased the opportunities for cybercime. One popular activity for OC groups is identity theft. Credit-card information can be acquired from consumers through hacking secured computer systems, phishing information from unwitting consumers, and distributing malware programs that relay information from the host computer after installation.

OC groups pose a serious threat in the area of identify theft because they can mobilize large numbers of people to perform low-skill cybercrime attacks. It makes viable criminal strategies that are unprofitable to lone wolves due to the high failure rate. For example, even though most consumers are on guard against phishing schemes targeted at their credit-card information, these schemes remain profitable because the perpetrators need only succeed in locating one or two marks in millions of attempts. (UNODC, 2010, p. 204).

Natural Resources

Globalization has increased organized criminal activity in the field of natural resources crime. As global regulations protecting environmental resources grow, certain business activities have been made illegal. Specifically, businesses are banned from harvesting endangered natural resources and trading in environmentally harmful substances. Some businesses who have come to rely on such resources to these have been turning to the black market in order procure those resources.

Organized crime is stepping in to provide goods and services which are now prohibited by environmental regulations. These activities include dumping of hazardous waste for a fee, trading in ozone-depleting substances, and harvesting endangered natural resources. (UNODC, 2010, p. 149). These activities are becoming more profitable as demand increases as the above-market supply of such resources diminishes.

Globalization has expanded the scope of environmentally-harmful activities as OC groups find new sources of protected resources, often in countries with weaker environmental protection apparatus. OC groups obtain ivory and rhinoceros horn through poachers of endangered elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa. (UNODC, 2010, p. 9) Although many poachers have no contact organized crime, they sell their goods to local merchants who do. OC groups in Africa accumulate large amounts of illicit ivory and rhinoceros horn for shipment to Asia.

OC groups also engage in trade which is not absolutely prohibited, but highly regulated. Timber is an endangered natural resource in many parts of Southeast Asia and timber shipments to countries in East Asia and Europe often require paperwork demonstrating that they are sourced legally. OC groups will buy illegally-sourced timber from illegal logging gangs in the Philippines and also buy official paperwork from corrupt government officials to ensure their acceptance into destination countries. (UNODC, 2010, p. 10).

New Supply Sources and Supply Lines

Drug Smuggling

Drug smuggling, popular long before globalization, has been made more efficient through the addition of new transit hubs, often located in rogue states. Most cocaine is grown in the Andean region of South America and shipped to either the United States or Europe. However, direct shipments from Colombia to the United States are dangerous because of monitoring efforts by law enforcement. Thus, many shipments go to another destination before the United States or Europe in order to throw law enforcement off of the trail. For cocaine coming out of Colombia, West Africa and Venezuela, home to rogue states and dictatorships, have become popular transit hubs.

The increased transportation of goods accompanying globalization has increased opportunities for maritime piracy. Organized crime is exploiting the increasingly dense international flow of commercial vessels. Maritime piracy consists not only of hijacking of goods, but also kidnapping of passengers for ransom. (UNODC, 2010, p. 11)

OC groups engaged in pirating do not often begin as OC groups. Pirates off the cost of Somalia started as local Somali fishermen who formed vigilante groups to protect their territorial waters. These armed ships eventually exceeded their mandate of mere protection and began to hijack commercial ships for goods. These activities have proved so profitable that these groups are now drifting further from the Somali Coast and attacking commercial freighters and pleasure craft completely unrelated to Somalia. (UNODC, 2010, p. 11)

New Partners

Less developed nation-states with weaker governance are attractive spots for organized crime activity. The governments of such nations are typically more corrupt and self-interested. Such corruption by government officials allows organized crime groups to penetrate those nations, not only through the neglect of law enforcement duties, but also through active assistance by those government officials. These “white-collar collaborators” use their local connections and knowledge to improve logistics for the organizations’ operations. (UNODC, 2010, p. ii). The Japanese Yakuza started up lucrative sex trade and smuggling operations in the Philippines through bribes and gifts to local businessmen and bureaucrats. (Kaplan, 2003, p. 252-53).

Increased Mobility

Globalization has made it harder to detect and stop organized crime because it provides increased mobility. OC groups can plan or perform many elements of a criminal operation from virtually anywhere and have started to do so. Unfortunately, organized crime is not seriously combated in most areas in the world. Many countries in the world simply do not have the infrastructure in place to respond to organized crime. This results in much organized crime activity going undetected, much less stopped.

Organized crime is different from conventional crime in that the existence of organized crime is not typically reported to law enforcement authorities. (Lyman & Potter, 2007, p. 8). Thus, law enforcement authorities can only detect organized crime by proactively investigating it. Such investigations require a huge investment in manpower, money, and political will. Furthermore, this investment does not necessarily guarantee results in the form of arrests, especially if investigative efforts are not sustained.

The ability to detect organized crime is contingent on three key elements, which are lacking in many parts of the world. First, law enforcement must have sufficient resources to take on the additional work beyond their normal case load, which is often considerable. Second, law enforcement must have the skills to conduct long-term, clandestine investigations. Third, law enforcement forces must be able to resist the corrupting influence of organized crime groups. (UNODC, 2010, p. 27).

For many developing countries, corruption is a major roadblock to the detection and regulation of organized crime activities. Government officials and local businessmen play a huge role in enabling organized criminal activities. (Abadinsky, 2010, p. 24) In developing countries, low salaries and the lack of a strong civic spirit among government officials makes them highly susceptible to bribes and coercion by OC groups. Such officials will not only decline to report activity, but will often actively assist in the execution of criminal operations.

Corruption of government officials often causes organized criminal activity to go undetected. In some cases, such activities are even reported as legitimate because of the participation of government officials, such as with the legitimation of illegal timber by official paperwork in the Philippines. (UNODC, p. 154) This obscures the nature of legitimate and illegitimate economic activity in these countries, compromising the intelligence-gathering efforts of law enforcement.

Even in countries where law enforcement forces can resist corruption, efforts to combat organized crime are often frustrated by a lack of political will. The United States is a country where law enforcement authorities have the resources, skills, and civic loyalty to combat organized crime, yet many activities are left unregulated

Countries that are affected by organized crime and have the ability to combat organized crime can no longer combat organized crime alone. Globalization has separated the sources of production from the sources of consumption through outsourcing. Thus, the individual elements of an organized criminal operation are likely to be located in more than one country. Thus, it is almost impossible for the law enforcement authorities of one country to stop an organized criminal operation completely.

Even when law enforcement authorities can stop criminal operations, it is difficult for them to apprehend key leadership. The leadership of OC groups often place themselves out of the reach more capable law enforcement forces. For many groups, this location is the organization’s very own country of origin, where law enforcement authorities have either been bribed by the OC group or lack the resources to combat the OC group. This explains why the strongest criminal organizations are located outside of the countries with the strongest law enforcement apparatus, such as the United States. The leadership of the Russian Mafia enjoys strong connections with old Soviet military contacts. (Mallory, 2007, p. 90). The Yakuza have developed a stable, respectful relationship with governmental authorities in Japan, who even rely on the Yakuza to prevent crime and unrest. (Kaplan, 2003, p. 182).

Furthermore, many organized crime groups are undergoing a decentralization of their organizational structure. They are opting for the federated model instead of the centralized, pyramid model with all authority resting at the top. This makes it even more difficult to pin down the leadership of criminal organizations.

In the rare cases where a country is successful in stopping an organized criminal operation, the result is not a true cessation of such activity but, rather, a displacement. Success in suppressing organized crime operations in one country often pushes those illicit activities into other countries. (UNODC, 2010, p. v). This makes a comprehensive, coordinated, and long-term solution necessary.

Responses to Global Organized Crime

International Cooperation

There have been serious attempts to enable multi-national cooperation in combating organized crime. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, an agreement between members of the United Nations created in 2000 (UNODC, 2010, p. 25). The convention requires member countries to adopt certain responses to transnational problems such as smuggling. It also requires countries to repatriate criminals and victims in certain situations.

A Market-oriented Approach

Although international cooperation appears to be the biggest obstacle to combating organized crime, an even greater obstacle, perhaps, is the excessive focus on criminal groups instead of market forces. Individual criminal groups are not nearly as essential to illicit criminal activity as market forces. For example, the FBI’s war on the Italian-American Mafia did much to reduce the organization’s power, but ultimately failed to reduce the prevalence of criminal activities such as gambling, prostitution, or drug trafficking, in which the organization was heavily involved. A long-term reduction in such activities requires a reconfiguration of market forces, which would involve much more than just law enforcement efforts.

Some observers recommend a market-based approach instead of the traditional organization-based approach. The traditional organization-based approach focuses on tracking and arresting groups of professional criminals. However, “strategies aimed at the groups will not stop the illicit activities if the dynamics of the market remain unaddressed.” (UNODC, 2010, p. v). Organized crime problems today seem are less a matter of a group of individuals who are involved in a range of illicit activities, and more a matter of a group of illicit activities in which some individuals and groups are presently involved. (UNODC, 2010, p. v).

The UNCTOC has taken the first steps to changing this, defining organized crime as “any serious offence committed by a group of three or more people with the aim of making money.” Such a broad definition represents a more market-oriented approach. The institutional recognition that market forces are key elements of the problem is a good first step. However, acting on this understanding is difficult, as market forces are extremely difficult to control. In fact, market forces, sometimes referred to as the “invisible hand,” are more likely to control than be controlled.

The most promising approach to controlling the market forces underlying organized crime is to work on reducing demand for illegal goods, services, and people. This is often referred to as the “licit” side of illicit economic activity because it occurs over-ground, involving largely legitimate actors. (UNODC, 2010, p. 277-278). Legitimate actors are more responsive to government regulation because they often have much more to lose from violating the law than OC groups, who have already accepted the risk of violating the law.

Most illicit economic activities are mirrored by parallel licit activities, which help to conceal those illicit activities. For example, the trade in illegal timber is accompanied by the trade in legal timber. Once the illegal timber enters the legitimate market it is blended into the supply of legal timber. This allows buyers of such timber, the legitimate actors, to claim ignorance of the timber’s illicit origin, even though many are aware of its origin.

One approach to reducing demand for illicit products is by increasing accountability on key market actors: buyers, sellers, and transporters. Making customers legally accountable for the purchase of illicit products would make them more vigilant in verifying the origin of their goods, which they are already entitled to do as customers for quality-verification purposes. (UNODC, 2010, p. 278). As the number of willing buyers for illicit products decreases, the market’s demand for these products will decrease. As demand decreases, these activities will become less profitable and, according to economic principles, less prevalent.

The strategy of accountability also applies to sellers of key components of illicit products. Making such sellers accountable for the final uses of those products will encourage them to refuse sale to customers intending to use those products for illicit purposes. When only legitimate users of acetic anhydride can access it, heroin production will become much more difficult. (UNODC, 2010, p. 278).

Accountability would also be useful in the context of transportation, especially among bulk carriers. Bulk carriers are already required to be licensed and monitored. If their cargoes were similarly regulated, the transportation of illicit goods would be much more difficult. This difficulty would make such activities more risky and, thus, much less attractive to criminal organizations.


Organized crime is essentially an economic activity. In this sense, organized crime groups can be likened to legitimate business organizations. The behavior of organized crime groups often resembles that of corporations, particularly in their mode of exploiting economic opportunities. In predicting the future effects of globalization on organized crime, then, it may be best to look at the behavior of corporations for guidance.


Lyman, M.D. & Potter, G.W. (2007). Organized Crime. New York: Prentice Hall

Abadinsky, H. (2010). Organized crime. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Mallory, S.L. (2007). Understanding organized crime. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett.

Kaplan, D.E., & Dubro, A. (2003). Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2010). The globalization of crime: A transnational organized crime threat assessment. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Bagley, B.M. (2004) Globalization and Transnational Organized Crime: The Russian Mafia in Latin America and the Caribbean. Global Crime, 6:1 pp. 32-53

Cherry, P. (2011) “Slain Mobster Exported Construction Fraud.” Montreal Gazette. Nov. 26, 2011. Available at

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