Europe's crime without frontiers

Europe's crime without frontiers

Opinion piece (The Yorkshire Post)
21 June 2006

Europol, the European Union's police office, has warned governments of a clear and present threat from transnational gangs trafficking in arms, drugs and people; as well as running counterfeiting and money-laundering rackets.

These gangs are exploiting the lowering of national trade and travel barriers to commit crimes and escape punishment.

The most serious threats can be traced to four main types of gang. First, there are the big, home-grown gangs. These are the mafia-style groups, like the Italian 'Ndrangheta, that have developed extensive transnational contacts. Similar crime syndicates in the Netherlands, Britain and Belgium have also gone global, regularly working with gangs from other countries.

Second come the Albanian, Chinese, Turkish, Moroccan and Russian-speaking immigrants who have formed violent ethnic gangs in several EU member-states. These gangs account for much of the illegal drugs and human trafficking in their host countries while maintaining strong links to their home countries. Albanian gangs are particularly widespread, fanning out across Europe since the 1990s.

The third type of group could be more accurately called (dis)organised crime: networks of perpetrators that may only come together on a crime-by-crime basis. Some may never even meet in person. Nigerian organised crime tends to follow this pattern with, for example, the so-called 419 scams: spam e-mails inviting the gullible to commit huge sums of money to specious investments.

Last are the illegal motorcycle gangs. These are a global phenomenon with strictly organised chapters located worldwide.

In Europe, three groups are dominant: the Hell's Angels, the Bandidos and the Outlaws. These gangs are involved in crimes ranging from traditional drug smuggling or vehicle crime to human trafficking and contract killings. They are spreading throughout the new memberstates but are particularly active in the Nordic countries, in Germany and in Belgium. They are also becoming more active in Britain.

The main gang activity is drug trafficking. Illegal substances enter the EU through several principal routes, each dominated by different gangs. For example, routes through the Nordic and Baltic region are dominated by Russian-speaking gangs, while the Atlantic area is in the grip of the Dutch, the British and the Belgians. These well-established routes have also become corridors for illegal immigration, alcohol and tobacco smuggling and sex-slave trafficking. Each year, more than 100,000 women and children are trafficked across EU borders. Many end up in forced prostitution in brothels or on the streets of British cities.

Governments and their police forces know they must work together to dismantle such increasingly sophisticated networks. "By making Europe a safer place, we add to the safety and security of this country", says a senior officer of London's Metropolitan Police. "Our security starts not only at our own borders, but also at the Greek islands or the Finnish frontier".

European governments have been officially working against organised crime ever since Interpol was founded in Vienna in 1923. But they have never been able to match, or surpass, the degree of international co-operation achieved by criminals.

In the past, this has led to a piecemeal approach. Prosecutors have been satisfied with readdressing individual crimes, not with the larger threat to the economy, or to society, as a whole.

This is due to a number of basic difficulties. First, good intelligence and information-sharing is critical for police to understand and neutralise a criminal network. Law-enforcement authorities are usually reluctant to share such precious information, especially with several partners whom they may never have met in person. Thus police forces can work at crosspurposes, unaware that they are investigating the same criminal with operations in both their jurisdictions.

Second, governments organise their law-enforcement services differently. Some police forces are independent while others take their lead from prosecutors.

Denmark, Finland and Ireland have national police forces, centralised under a clearly designated "chief". But the UK and Spain have decentralised police forces – in the UK, for example, there are 43 separate forces.

Smaller regional forces may not have the power to answer requests for information or cooperation from national counterparts abroad. Police answerable to prosecutors, meanwhile, tend to be reactive, chasing wrong-doers rather than preventing crimes before they happen. Third, different legal traditions prevent EU member-states from working together effectively to tackle crime. There are 27 legal systems in the EU (even Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own distinct systems), each with its own rules for starting investigations and gathering evidence.

International conventions governing co-operation between these systems tend to be too complex and inflexible to provide a basis for fighting modern crime.

Since 1999, crime and policing are increasingly discussed around the EU table, with the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty and the proper establishment of Europol.

Europol handles criminal intelligence and supports investigations conducted by lawenforcement officers in EU countries when they have a cross-border element.

It has two main sections: one consisting of offices staffed by seconded officers from the 25 member-states; the other is the agency's central analysis unit which combines information from the member-states to create a Europe-wide picture of a certain organised-crime activity. While Europol officers cannot make arrests or initiate investigations, they can assist during investigations, including searches and the questioning of suspects.

Despite these developments, however, member-states have decided that co-operation is still too reactive, mostly pursuing criminals after they have committed their crimes. Hence they have decided to adopt the British approach of intelligence-led or preventive policing when dealing with cross-border gangs. Policing in Britain operates on the principle that prevention of crime is all important and that intelligence-gathering is vital to achieve this. Hence EU governments have ordered Europol to produce a yearly assessment of the threat from organised crime, drawing on the shared intelligence of their police forces.

The governments need this threat assessment to decide which gangs need tackling most urgently. Their police chiefs will use its findings to hammer out plans for several major joint operations against established crime networks.

The member-states have also promised to reform information-sharing between their lawenforcement authorities by adhering to a "principle of availability" by 2008. This means police forces no longer plaintively having to request information from each other. The idea is that access will now be assumed.

Meanwhile, the governments will continue an ongoing effort to align national criminal laws more closely throughout the EU. They have just agreed to shake up old procedures for sharing evidence through a new European evidence warrant. And police officers are also being encouraged to co-operate more through joint investigation teams. This new legal tool allows multi-national police teams to work as a unit on the same investigations. Major challenges remain, however. Many seriously doubt that the EU governments will be able to deliver on their lofty commitments on time. Freeing up information-sharing by 2008, for example, is a huge undertaking with many serious hurdles to be overcome. And police officers privately worry that some new initiatives are motivated by politics rather than tailored to meet their needs while co-operating in the field. However, if the new initiatives can be made to work, they will help hugely to put Europe's crime bosses behind bars, throw down the gauntlet to organised crime and put up an effective fight against the scourges of people trafficking and the drugs trade.