Organised Crime And International Policing

Organized Crime

Following the end of the Cold War, organized crime was described as the greatest threat to Western democracies. The Taliban and Al Qaeda’s involvement in drug cultivation and trafficking compounds that threat.

There does not appear to be a universally agreed definition of ‘organized crime’ and it is more difficult to describe it in a UK context as we do not have the equivalent of the Italian or Russian Mafia, the Colombian or Mexican Cartels, the Japanese Yakuza, or the Chinese Triads nor the highly dangerous and violent motorcycle gangs of Scandinavia and North America. In London and one or two other cities we have, however, been exposed to the actions of the Triads and Jamaican Posses or Yardies and to the crime that shows you can always fool some of the people some of the time, the Nigerian-based 419 (the number of the relevant Nigerian statute) scam.

In Britain the tradition seems to be much less structured, with individuals or small groups being project-based, coming together for a specific operation or series of operations and then going their separate ways until the next project is proposed. The growing threat is from family clans of Kurds, Turks, Kashmiris and Pakistanis who use business and family links between the UK and their homelands as a cover for drugs and human trafficking, and the Russians and East European Mafias, but they have not yet reached the scale of any of the organizations described above.

The main areas for organized crime in the UK are:

  • drug trafficking
  • people trafficking for employment or sex
  • smuggling (in the UK, apart from drugs it is mainly cigarettes, alcohol and counterfeit goods)
  • fraud
  • trade in stolen art
  • paedophilia, especially pornographic exchange
  • loan sharking
  • car and plant theft (a modern tractor can cost more than a top-of-the-range Mercedes)
  • counterfeiting – banknotes and goods.

The groups range from small city-based gangs to globalized transnational criminal organizations. It is difficult to take in the scale of activity.  The UN estimated in 2000 that the gross returns from organized crime globally was between 1 and 1.5 billion US dollars.  The profits of the Colombian cartels would comfortably sustain that country’s national debt.  From this it can be seen that these large organizations have the resources with which to take on the forces of law and order in technical, managerial and force-of-arms terms and that they have easily enough resources with which to bribe and corrupt at any level.

Most of these crimes are ‘victimless’. The difficulty that this creates is that there are no complainants to bring them to police attention.  All the participants get some benefit from it.  This can be true even of major frauds as they are usually directed against large financial institutions, which often prefer to suffer the loss than the adverse publicity.  Where there are victims, such as in people trafficking and prostitution, they are rarely visible to ordinary people.  Where they are aware of these crimes they are more often than not the purchaser of, say, prostitution.  Of the crimes listed, only loan sharking impacts directly on individuals in the UK, but this mainly affects the poor and even then it provides them access to funds which are otherwise not available.  Car and plant theft do have victims but they are usually covered by insurance, so we all pay.

Operational Features of Organized Crime

The nature and extent of organized crime can only be uncovered through the use of intensive investigative techniques, such as infiltration by undercover officers, the development of informants within the organization and sophisticated surveillance techniques using the whole spectrum of approaches, from officers on the ground through to the use of satellites – all supported by comprehensive and sophisticated intelligence collection and development techniques.

Even at the lowest level it is unlikely that these organizations will both be based and work in one police area. This is true even of the Metropolitan Police area, as the participants are likely to be ‘housed’ in the suburbs of Kent, Surrey and Essex but work both in the Metropolitan Police area and elsewhere in the country.  This cross-border feature makes surveillance, the collection of intelligence and some operational deployment, such as with firearms or covert surveillance, at best cumbersome and often difficult.

These organizations are rich. This means that they can afford to infiltrate and subvert the government and law enforcement bodies, purchase equipment and people for their own protection against the state and other organized criminals, and develop sophisticated anti-surveillance techniques.

The people running these organizations tend to be clever. They are able to distance themselves from the actual criminal activities through layers of management and distribution organizations and the use of self-sufficient cells.  They are highly ‘surveillance-aware’ in terms of both law enforcement agencies and other criminal organizations, and they have access to multiple identities, both personal and corporate.

They are willing to use high levels of force, including fatal force, if necessary. This makes the development of internal informants difficult and creates a very high risk threshold for undercover officers.  Informants or witnesses must be supported by a sophisticated witness protection programme, both to ensure their safety and to encourage others to come forward.  These programmes are expensive.  They require sophisticated liaison with other organizations which have to generate a deal with the false identity, and a support programme which keeps the witness separate from family and other former connections.  It also leaves the force open to a continuous stream of demands from the protected witness, which need to be resolved successfully if the programme is not to be undermined.

These criminals are highly mobile in terms of their ability both to move around nationally and internationally and to transfer their profits nationally and internationally. The creation of the European Union and its expansion has massively assisted in this in terms of personal mobility, and the removal of international barriers to capital movements has created a laissez-faire environment where the money launderer is spoilt for choice.  It is relatively straightforward for those involved to remove themselves from jurisdictions in which they are wanted or suspected and to sustain themselves whilst abroad through the funds which they have already deposited there.  They avoid those jurisdictions where controls are tight and they continually seek out the weakest links in terms of the risk of extradition and seizure of their money.

Those involved in medium- or high-level organizations are also engaged in legitimate business (although they may have been funded initially from crime). This makes it difficult to separate out legitimate from illegitimate profits and makes the issue of the seizure of assets a particularly difficult one, especially when the assets are in another jurisdiction.

As well as national and international crime there is also the problem of organized gangs working across the whole spectrum of activities described on a much more local and smaller scale – although still on a geographical basis wider than most forces and with the connections needed withthese larger organizations to manage the local ‘outlets’. All the difficulties that arise in terms of investigative powers, intelligence, surveillance, financial tracking and witness protection apply equally to this level of crime although limited to the narrower geography of the British Isles, with their different jurisdictions.

There are forty-three police forces in England and Wales, eight in Scotland and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI). Their operational response to organized crime will fall in the following areas.


Even in a country as small as Britain operational mobility can pose serious problems. Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legal systems and devolved governments.  This means that police officers do not have full police powers outside their national jurisdiction and always require the co-operation and support of the local police in order to carry out any action.  HM Revenue and Customs do not suffer from this restriction.  The situation in the UK crystallizes the difficulty that will be met when trying to move the UK and other nations to a more transnational basis of policing (see below).  England and Scotland have been united under one crown since 1704, and one parliament since 1807, but police officers only have full powers within their respective jurisdictions and, even here, when they are acting out of their force area will normally only act having informed the local forces of their intentions.  Local chief constables still have an effective power of veto over other forces, although not the Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), in terms of firearms operations or operations in those communities where sensitivities are high.


This is a very expensive police activity. In order to track a ‘surveillance aware’ suspect for sixteen hours a team of between twelve and sixteen is needed, depending on the likely movements of the suspect.  Technical equipment and advance intelligence of likely movements can reduce this, but generally only at the margin.  Most forces in England and Wales range from 1,600 to 2,500 officers.  In Scotland, outside Strathclyde, they are significantly smaller.  Other than the PSNI and the Met most forces have a very limited surveillance capability, usually limited to two or three teams.  These generally have to cover the whole gamut of surveillance activity from serious criminals suspected of property crime such as robbery and burglary, through drugs, and increasingly in some forces, significant anti-terrorism work.  Most officers are given basic surveillance training but the standard is variable.


Every force has a central intelligence bureau, but the bulk of the intelligence activity is carried out by basic command units and is focused at a very local level. Forces do not have open access to the SOCA systems but can only gain this through its operatives.  This is not a criticism, as this is a necessary security and filtration gateway.

Financial Tracking and Seizure

This reflects the picture for intelligence and surveillance with each force trying to sustain small teams of variable ability through the ups and downs of budge changes and difficulty in recruiting to a very narrowly based task.

Liaison and Information Exchange

The UK is fairly unique in not having a national police force. Each force is independent and only the Met and Kent (due to the Channel Tunnel) have a real international capability.  Indeed the absence of a national force leads foreigners to treat the Met as if it were one.  This makes liaison difficult both ways and means that investigators are forced to work through SOCA, unless they have fortuitously managed to set up a bilateral arrangement with a foreign force.  When this factor is combined with the sensitives of all governments and judiciaries to foreign forces carrying out any tasks within their jurisdiction (see below), it puts the UK service at a particular disadvantage when dealing with matters which have an international dimension.

The National Crime Squad and the National Crime Intelligence Service

Until 1995 the UK had no national capability in terms of intelligence, surveillance or investigation. The highest level of capability was delivered by the Regional Crime Squads (RCS) which had grown out of the task forces developed by groups of forces in the 1960s to deal with cross-border crime (depicted on TV at the time by Stratford Johns’ Charlie Barlow).  The work that the RCS encompassed became national rather than regional crime, and by the late 1980s it could be fairly said that the bulk of their work was either at a national or international level.  By the early 1990s it was generally accepted that there was a need for a national body to deal with organized crime.

Internal police politics slowed the decision-making down and led to the illogical and dysfunctional decision to set up both the National Crime Squad (NCS) and the National Crime Intelligence Service (NCIS) as two separate entities. Both of these bodies continued to be staffed by recruiting police officers on secondment from forces.

The Serious Organized Crime Agency

The continuing growth of organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, and the increase in the terrorist threat and its involvement in the drugs trade led to another review and the decision was at last taken to set up a unitary body which could amalgamate the work of three agencies: police, HM Revenue and Customs and immigration, so that there was only one intelligence database and the problem could for the first time be given a strategic direction.

The agency was set up in 2006 and combines the powers of its three constituent parts, making it the most powerful policing agency in the UK. The Director can designate any of its operatives with the powers of a police officer, a customs officer or an immigration officer.  It recruits from all three of these services, the Security Services and directly from the general public.  Its operatives:

  • can compel individuals to answer questions and produce documents – not to comply is a criminal offence
  • can strike deals with offenders to turn Queen’s evidence – other agencies need the permission of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
  • have greater powers of confiscation than any other agency
  • have greater powers to obtain court orders for the disclosure of financial affairs than any other agency.

It employs over 4,000 people and is divided into four directorates:

  • Enforcement
  • Intelligence
  • Intervention and Asset Recovery
  • Corporate (personnel, finance etc.)

SOCA is described as an ‘executive non-departmental agency sponsored by, but operationally independent from, the Home Office’. The current Director-General is an ex-police officer but the Chair (supposedly non-executive) and three of the four heads of the directorates are all ex-Security Services.  My guess is that this leaves the Director-General rather isolated and it is no coincidence that the police service already refers to SOCA as MI7.

Its main emphasis is on class A drugs and people trafficking, which together take up 70 per cent of its effort – 45 per cent on drugs, 25 per cent on people trafficking. This reflects the growing international nature of its work; it currently has 130 operatives working in forty countries.  It also houses the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the National Central Bureau which links forces to Interpol, Europol and the Schengen arrangements (see below).  The only service that it provides directly to forces is tactical and technical support in cases of kidnapping and extortion.

Crime-writing Possibilities

SOCA now houses two powerful cultures, which will inevitably clash. The police and customs culture which dominates the Enforcement Directorate will seek at some point to act in order to disrupt the criminal organization and take what it can; the intelligence culture which comes from the Security Services will always be striving for the complete picture, the gold at the end of the intelligence rainbow.  The whole structure suggests that the intelligence culture probably dominates its current work and will certainly dominate its future.  This is powerfully signalled by the way that success will be measured by the new agency.  The NCS measured success by the number of organizations disrupted and the amount of drugs seized and assets confiscated.  SOCA is to be measured on ‘harm reduction’ – whatever that may mean, and you can guarantee that it will always mean that it is succeeding.

There will also be tension between SOCA and individual forces. This may come in two guises.  One is where the force is dealing with a criminal organization that is too big for its own resources and too small for SOCA – this will now apply to almost all criminal organizations that do not have an international element.  The force will resent having to apply its scarce resources to a problem which is national or at least regional.  The other situation, probably better in crime-writing terms, is where a force wishes to act and disrupt but SOCA would prefer to let the criminal activity run in order to be able to fill in the bigger picture.

There is also the possibility of political interference. Chief constables are operationally independent and that independence has been clearly defined over time by the courts.  The Director-General of SOCA does not have that same operational independence.  He or she is subject to political interference through the Board of the Agency (all appointed by the Home Secretary, who does not see the need for police representation) and the non-executive Chairman.  Anyone who thinks that the Security Services are not subject to this form of interference has only to look at the ‘dodgy dossier’ for the Iraq war and its harassment of Labour politicians in the 1960s and 1970s for proof to the contrary.

International Policing

In the opening chapters of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code Captain Bazu Fache completely abandons a murder scene in which he had wiped out some important evidence and takes all his police officers in pursuit of a mobile phone, thus allowing Professor Langdon to escape.  He then fails to catch a Smart car in which the professor is travelling in a chase through the Paris streets, traffic-free as it is early morning.  You will see from this that he begins to look, in my eyes, much more like Inspector Clouseau than the ‘tough, canny and persistent’ character described in the Wikipedia entry.  Then he invades England and allows Langdon to escape for the second time (by hiding in probably one of the easiest buildings to search, an aircraft hangar).

When reading the book this was the straw that broke this camel’s back; the fictional world that Brown had created looked comical rather than mysterious. In real life police officers of any nationality enter into each other’s patches with care and trepidation; for one to act in this way was laughable.  If a police officer goes to make inquiries in another force he will normally get in touch with the local division, tell them the inquiries that he or she intends to make, check that it doesn’t cut across anything that they are doing, find out if there is any local intelligence on the subject and possibly even invite them to be present.  To carry out an investigation in another country takes weeks if not months of preparation and the involvement of the Foreign Office and requires the investigator to give the other country notice of whom they want to see and why.  Although developments in Europe have eased the situation somewhat these basic requirements are still in place.  The constraints, and the likely-hood of future developments, are best understood by looking at the position in Scotland and England.  The crowns united in 1704, the parliaments in 1807 and yet it is only in the last decade or so that they have grudgingly allowed each other’s police forces limited powers in both countries.

One of the elements that distinguishes an independent state from any other form of governance is that government’s exclusive right to use force or permit the use of force against any of its subjects or citizens. This means that governments are unwilling in the extreme to allow police officers from any other country to operate inside their borders.  The power is jealously guarded so that, even when officers are allowed to enter another country in order to carry out inquiries, those inquiries are always either conducted by the police force of the host country or under its very direct supervision.  This has long been appreciated by intelligent criminals who have exploited to the full the cumbersome mechanisms that police force have to operate in order to make any progress.


The first practical step to overcome this was the setting up of Interpol in 1923, initially by seventeen states not including the UK, but expanded in 1924 to include most of the countries of the then developed world. It was set up under the League of Nations and was based in Vienna.  In 1938 when Austria was invaded by Germany the headquarters was moved to Berlin and the organization quickly became defunct.  It was reformed in 1946 under the aegis of the United Nations initially being based in Paris and now in Lyons.  It currently has a total of 186 member states, the highest number in any international organization.  It is a peculiar organization in that it is not supported by treaty but is more like a private international association of chiefs of police, probably the reason why it has functioned in a very practical way.

From the very beginning Interpol’s approach has been not ‘What should be done’, but rather, ‘Given every country’s different laws, culture, political maturity and approach to human rights what can be done?’ All that can be impossible to get enough countries to agree that any international  policing agency should have transnational policing powers of investigation or enforcement to make any arrangement viable.

Interpol has exploited its limited role very effectively. It has developed a database at any border crossing in real time.  It now has a very extensive database of more than 120,000 files concerning people, vehicles and stolen art and has its own secure communication system which allows open access to all the members through its Automatic Search Facility (ASF).  This strength is also a significant weakness.  A large number of the countries which are members have corrupt governments and police forces.  Any police officer putting intelligence on the system knows that these forces and governments have access to it, so most of the information which is held is either low level or is targeted at individuals rather than criminal organizations.  For example it would be idiotic to put sensitive drugs intelligence about the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia through Venezuela then East Africa when all of these countries have access to it.

Every member of Interpol has a National Central Bureau (NCB), which can be a large unit, as in all European countries, or just one nominated person. In the UK the NCB consists of a detective superintendent and fifty-nine staff, twenty-one of whom are police officers.  All the country’s inquiries are handled by the NCB, although the ASF can theoretically be extended out to police forces and even down to the individual if the country has a secure communications network (which the UK has).  For practical reasons of security, audit and sheer manageability the UK, and most other countries, limit the access to the ASF to the NCB.

The bulk of Interpol’s work is done through its system of notices. These are either generally circulated or specially aimed at targeted countries.  In 2007 6,000 were issued.  They are colour coded:

  • red – descriptions of persons wanted for arrest and extradition
  • blue – descriptions of persons who one or more countries seek to locate and trace
  • green – descriptions of persons of interest to one or more countries
  • yellow – descriptions of missing persons
  • blue – unidentified bodies.

Within its limited terms of reference Interpol is a highly effective and very valuable organization, allowing police force some operational capability in the international sphere.


Europol is still a bit of a character in search of an author. It was born out of the ten EEC’s TREVI arrangements of the 1970s which are now so arcane that there is no agreement on what the acronym means (although there is a majority view that it means terrorisme, radicalisme, extremisme et violence internationale).  It was a logical product of the growth in trade and cross-border movements in the Community.  When the EU was formed by the Maastricht Treaty, what later grew into Europol was established by the creation of the European Drugs Unit, based at The Hague.

Any proposals to develop an international European police force face the same sovereignty issues that limit Interpol. Some countries with a strong federal background such as Germany are more relaxed about such a proposal and Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed that such a force be established in 1990.  Most other countries are more reluctant to join even the Schengen arrangements, our resistance to any concept of a federal state of Europe and our history of relations between Scotland and England, it seems highly improbably that any force will be allowed to operate in the UK in the foreseeable future.  This resistance has been compounded by the rapid expansion of the EU in the last decade to include a significant number of countries from Eastern Europe, some of whose police forces have a very poor reputation in terms of corruption and human rights.

Europol’s current status is that of a European Interpol in that it is restricted to developing databases and exchanging information, although it is now expanding its work into training and support, particularly for the new member countries.

The Schengen Agreement

The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 by France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It committed those countries to open borders, with the free movement of people and commerce without passports or customs barriers.  It was not actually enacted until 1995, when it was also signed by Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.  It now applies to all the EU mainland countries except Bulgaria and Romania and also includes the non-EU countries of Norway, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.  The UK and Ireland are not signatories but already have their own Common Travel Area limited their participation in the Schengen arrangements to improved political and judicial co-operation.

The open borders on the mainland created a need for greater police co-operation, providing for situations of ‘hot pursuit’ and surveillance operations where the subject crossed a border whilst being followed. Those provisions are:

  • Police forces can continue ‘hot pursuit’ across the border provided that they are in uniform and are in a marked vehicle. They can carry their service weapons. They have limited powers of arrest and common sense dictates that the further the pursuit goes into the second country the more likely it is that that country will want to take over the operation completely
  • They may continue a surveillance operation where the subject has crossed the border. If possible they should obtain permission first but in cases of urgency they can do so without permission provided that they tell the second country of the operation as soon as possible. The second country can either permit them to continue the operation or tell them to terminate it. If consent is not obtained within five hours the operation must be terminated. They may carry their service weapons during the operation.

Although these provisions look very limited they are significant in terms of improved police effectiveness and the political maturity of the signatory countries. Indeed the Schengen countries have achieved in twenty-five years what it took the UK 300.  The signatory countries have also developed a criminal intelligence database to which the UK and Ireland have access.

Bilateral Contacts

Police culture is such that trust is usually based on personal contact or references from trusted sources. This applies to both police forces of the same country and international contacts.  The more sensitive the intelligence, the more certain any police officer likes to be of its recipient.  It also helps if the forces have similar cultures.  This has meant that over the years policing in Europe has divided into two: the north – i.e. the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian trio of Sweden and Denmark and Norway; and the southern – Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have a reputation for more deep-set corruption.  France seems somehow to bridge the gap between the two.  To these two have now been added the Eastern European countries, which are still fledgling democracies and whose police forces have poor reputations.  A British police officer would be unlikely to wish to work with or give intelligence to anyone in these countries whom he or she had not personally worked with or whose credentials he or she could not establish with another trusted officer.

In crime-writing terms a bilateral friendship is easily the best device to use in allowing an investigator to operate in a foreign country. It allows the protagonist to act under the aegis of the police force of that country, with all that that means in terms of powers and access to intelligence.  The growth of transnational policing operations (especially in drugs, money-laundering and organized crime), internal conferences and shared training have all made the development of such friendships more likely and thus more credible.

Inquiries Outside Europe

Forces do send officers abroad to carry inquiries. It is a very expensive process and is only used for very serious crime such as murder or kidnapping, when the force believes that it is the only way of getting the information.  In England it is done through the Foreign Office.  If they accept that it can work they will approach the government of the country concerned to establish whether they are willing to receive police officer and assist them in carrying out their inquiries under what is called a commission rogatoire.   The investigating team have formalized terms of reference from which they cannot diverge.  During their inquiries they will always be accompanied by a senior member of the police force of the host country, who can direct that all inquiries be made through him or her.  The formality, the language problems, the differences in culture and the need for the investigators to stay within the terms of reference mean that the overall effectiveness is crucially dependent on:

  • the state of relations with the receiving country
  • the effectiveness of its police force
  • the culture of the country with reference to co-operation with the police
  • the relationship between the investigator and the local police officer in charge.

We have a very good example of how this can and might not work in Bedfordshire, with the murder of a Kashmiri. He had been shot in his restaurant with a shotgun and the car the assailants had used was found burnt out some distance away.  There were no forensics and we were sure that it was a ‘domestic’, i.e. that it was an inter-family issue.  We sent officers to Pakistani Kashmir, to the village where the victim came from originally.  What worked was that the investigator established a very good rapport with his Pakistani counterpart and we found out what had almost certainly happened.  What didn’t work was that the information was all hearsay and we doubted that a British court would have approved of the methods that the Pakistani police used to obtain it.


Whether or not a person can be extradited from another country is crucially dependent on:

  • the existence of a bilateral agreement between the two countries
  • the crime being recognized in the extraditing country
  • the crime being included in the agreement.

The process is now relatively straightforward within the European Union but can be very difficult elsewhere. For example the Russian constitution will not allow the extradition of a Russian citizen.  As an ex-police officer I find it ironic that the USA, which consistently refused to extradite members of the IRA during its bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s on the grounds that their crimes were political, will now, after 9/11, kidnap individuals for ‘extraordinary rendition’.  It makes one realize just how flexible even a written constitution can be when there is the political will.

©Queen Victoria


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