Intelligence and Organised Crime

The importance of intelligence for combating organised crime

Intelligence, as related to policing, and justice and the military is an area that is little understood in the public sphere.  When I was working on a proposal for AMERIPOL (a poor countries Interpol), the South American Police Association, I became curious about the practicalities of operationalizing intelligence sharing between countries for the purpose of inhibiting organised crime.

Normal business operations are conducted within the framework of a state justice system and have recourse to dispute settlement mechanisms should the parties in a business deal have a disagreement, or breach of contract. Organised crime operates in the areas at the margins of state control, specifically in the taboo areas, the illegal areas. For this reason organised crime has no recourse to public dispute settlement mechanisms.  In contrast, contracts are reinforced through the guarantee of violence should a dispute occur. Thus organised crime attracts the most ruthless individuals or groups, the people who don’t mind doing business under these conditions.

Given this dynamic, trusting people becomes especially important.  People engaged in organised crime appear to be charming, ethical, friendly and  cooperative with each other, because of the importance of networks of trust.  The Mafia use a false-kinship bond – Omerta – to seal the links between members, so that members can trust each other with repayments and obligations where there is no contract except the handshake. This is also the reason why organised crime is perpetrated by families or clans.

In organised crime that requires careful planning and a division of roles, bonded secrecy is of utmost important as well as trust. How do these groups maintain secrecy? Could it be through the creation of situations where unspeakable acts are committed as a group thus guaranteeing participants’ silence for fear of personal exposure?

Organised crime negatively affects the legitimate economy since it offers a way of gaining capital which is outside the legitimate rules of the game, like a second track for profit making. The perversity is that the capital gained from illegal markets enters into the legitimate economy, skewing the playing field of market competition.

What areas does organised crime operate in? Related to smuggling, organised crime makes its money out of crossing boundaries. A border is the boundary between two different economic systems, where the rules of each system’s game are specific to the region within the boundary. If one can acquire a product in one game system (nation-state economy with rules and regulations and environmental considerations that define ‘the rules of the game’), and clandestinely enter that product into another game system, one can make a lot of money by exploiting the discrepancy between the two systems. The most obvious example is cocaine, whose value increases exponentially as it is transferred between producer countries, transit countries and consumer countries. Trafficked women are similar, as are monetary currency, weapons, biological material, cars, and consumer goods.

Apart from smuggling networks, organised crime makes money from extortion, by providing security from the threat of the insecurity it may itself induce. In Italy in 2011 165,000 business and 50,000 closed because the added cost of extortion payments pushed them out of business – (here greed results ultimately in less profitable returns).

Organised crime subverts the democratic system, by installing candidates against the will of the people and using violence as a coercive mechanism. In this sense organised crime makes money by working directly contrary to rules which are established by the state to protect the common good. The state protects the wellbeing of the people by electing representatives, and by having transparent financial processes, as well as a system of punishment for corruption, and due processes for spending public money, or distributing public resources. Organised crime corrupts this, using networks of influence and bribery (from capital which has been accrued through illegal means), thus perverting the functioning of the state.

When organised crime can act in this way with impunity, the influence of its capital grows and spreads throughout the economy. The possibility of making money in this way also acts as a deterrent for entrepreneurs and investors to play by the rules chosen by democracy; it encourages informality and disrespect for the common good. Risk-taking entrepreneurs are attracted to investing in these areas where such large profits are to be made. As mafias and secret societies increase the impunity of their acts, democracy and justice become hollowed out, and states decay into baroque facades, merely providing fronts for criminal oligarchies which control the real substance.

Organised crime therefore cannot be ignored: it needs to be carefully monitored. We can take it as a starting point that if society has rules, there will be those who seek to make profit by subverting the rules; thus it is necessary for society to have a force whose job it is to detect and police this undesirable behaviour. Hence the need for intelligence.

In the AMERIPOL region, drug cartels from Colombia invest in beachfront high rises in the Brazilian city of Florianopolis. There is no comprehensive intelligence sharing mechanism between the police in Colombia and the police in Brazil. In fact even between different police precincts there is no sharing of information.  Thus organised crime’s profits cannot be traced.

But how could an international pool of information be feasible? AMERIPOL suggested that an International Regional Headquarters should be set up, and each participating police force should send two representatives to work there. Within each country the different police departments would have a liaison, who would share information with the Ameripol HQ’s different commissions. For example, Ameripol HQ would have an economic crimes commission, a human trafficking commission, a homicide division and a drugs division. Thus there would be an interface between each country’s relevant police division and headquarters. The headquarters in turn would responsible for passing the information on to other police departments, depending on topic.

There is a real need for the police forces of South America to be able to share information between each other, and combat the challenge to all constituted by organised crime.  It is a matter of urgency, because it is through this absence of information sharing that organised crime has become so powerful.  Naturally there is money to be made when what costs 10 units here, costs 50 across the border.  To combat this area of crime, it is logical for police forces from different countries to cooperate and share information at least as efficiently as trafficking cartel. However, this doesn’t happen. The police and prosecutors don’t work with each other efficiently. At the moment the only official intelligence service that really works in South America, is the network set up by the DEA, which is the one agency capitalised enough to afford equipment and international operations. However the DEA has a narrow remit, and ostensibly focuses international intelligence operations only on the drug related aspect of organised crime.

However, there are many challenges to intelligence sharing.  It is in itself a secretive subject, and the police are not ‘Cartesianally‘ outside of the ecology of organised crime.  They are underpaid, and if ‘intelligence powerful’, they become the targets for corruption. More importantly, it is natural to suspect ones neighbour of being corrupt, and even more natural to suspect it of another cop in another department (let alone one from another country), so the honest officers are reluctant to share information with people that they do not know personally (thus Mafiosi-style trust is also operating within the police!). The other problem is that, like the police, state systems and broader hierarchies of power are also subsumed into the sphere of influence exerted by organised crime. This dovetails nicely into liberal fears that the state or the police should not have too much power, or too much information on their citizens, because this information gives corruptible individuals more power than they have already.

The topic is a difficult one to broach, because at the same time as this legitimate liberal misgiving restrains the information available to the police, organised crime is expanding its malign influence, its spider web of control, through the legitimate economy. For example, organised crime is officially the biggest business in Italy, with enough liquid assets to make it the largest bank in the country (65 billion Euros) while holding a share of 7% of the country’s GDP. I don’t think that this statistic is unique to Italy, despite the sensational attention that the Italian Mafia receives.

The ideal goal of organised crime is to conduct criminal acts within a legal system, and the master criminals are those whose system is so well established that their networks of influence have matured to the level where they affect the legislative procedure, and can actually change the law to suit their profit making while riding roughshod over the common good. For example, look at the banking crisis, where a small, secretive insider group made a huge amount of profit directly through the manipulation of markets by the exchange of privileged secrets and the betrayal of clients (telling clients to buy, while at the same time putting out rumours that the stock is worthless); then, when the house of cards came crashing down, managing to ‘socialise the debt’ by getting institutions which were set up to work for the aggregate good to assume the debt caused by these insider groups in the first place.

Regarding the devious operations of the banking industry (which may be compared to a mafia), how do these groups maintain loyalty, and why do the elected representatives of the common good connive with them?

Again, the issue at the crux of this subject is the notion of secrecy. Organised crime programmes work on secrecy, both between members, and regarding the secrecy of the system as a whole through compartmentalisation, isolated franchise organisations, seemingly informal production deals and confidential trade-offs with independent entrepreneurs. Mind you, there is always a book-keeper somewhere, under a stone!

The very institution that we have to investigate this has similarly secretive structure.  I am talking about the Law Enforcement Organised Crime Investigation departments. The police keep their investigations and their databases secret for fear of the corruptibility of others, and in response to the potential danger from organised crime. Another similarity of the police is that the police, while they are the legitimate wielders of the violence of the state, have recourse nonetheless to violence to back up their aims, or their whims.

Intelligence agencies occupy an ambiguous ground; the CIA was set up with a no holds barred approach to the Soviet Union, which took illegality in its stride. Intelligence organisations, like organised crime networks, are based on discretion, and have a pyramidical structure with only a few coordinators who actually know what is going on.  They also tend to have links with special operations military departments, making ruthlessness a key part of their arsenal. The acronym of the CIA is also playfully ‘The Cocaine Importing Agency’, or as Buckminster Fuller out it ‘Capitalism’s Invisible Army’ (as well as ‘The Complete Idiots Agency’).

With these observations, are we as modern states trying to fight fire with fire by using these sorts of institutions to combat organised crime?

I propose that perhaps the villain that needs to be combated is the secrecy which allows for conspiratorial networks to occur. Information on organised crime should not be kept in the archives of double password encrypted police files, but should be firmly in the public domain, for all of us to be read.

It is of no surprise that organised crime has worked indefatigably to culturally associate the good citizen who has the bravery or the career ambition to expose the secrets of the perpetrators, with the notion of disloyalty, hinting that they are working against the common good by creating lucre for themselves unethically. These citizens are given derogatory names.  They are called ‘snitches’, or ‘grasses’.  Snitching is bad, we are taught from our schooldays. At the same time, the media portrays organised crime as ‘cool’, from the successful black guys in music videos to the films of Francis Ford Copolla and Martin Scorsese. This reinforces an aura of cultural reverence for organised crime.

Meanwhile Bradley Manning may get life in prison for exposing a video of an army helicopter shooting unarmed people in Iraq, and Julian Assange is accused of being a terrorist. The whistle blower in the British Treasury who ‘grassed’ on the executive handshake that let Goldman Sachs of £12 million pounds of tax lost his job.

While the Central American example of the President wiretapped by his chief of intelligence at the behest of a drug cartel sounds is a wild story of a failed state, the banking crisis and Bradley Manning, and the example of Italy, show that the developed countries are in a similarly farcical situation.

Democracy as a form of state organisation is put forward as purporting to work for the aggregate common good of the people. The weight on the shoulders of our leaders must lie towards fulfilling this obligation. However secrecy and smoke-screens allow small elite groups (organised criminals) to pervert the actions of our elected leaders. Even worse, in some cases, the only leaders who can ever be elected are the ones who are guarantee-ably bound to secrecy, and controlled through secrets – either clandestine knowledge of their perversions and affiliations, or undisclosed payments into their bank accounts.

Organised crime must be combated with disclosure, shaming and publicity. In addition,  some sort of  comprehensive, transparent, and well publicised democratic database should be implemented notifying us all of the people involved in organised crime, and their networks of influence: a database which the electorate could use when choosing political parties and electing leaders.


Post note problems

What I didn’t look at here is the line of analysis following Buckminster Fuller, who writes that the state itself, and civilisation arose from strong men who began to live off of others using the threat of violence – he gives the example of the bandit asking for protection money from the shepherd, “you need me to stop your sheep disappearing at night.” From these beginnings we get barons, who Fuller sees as kingpins, mobilising labour for example to build ocean-going trade ships through the threat of violence. We could even say that the enclosure of the commons (fundamental for the modern capitalist state) was a result of organised crime’s take over of the land).  What I take from this is that it is historically accurate to see many of the legitimate moneyed interests in our world as being just as much criminal cartels as the Colombian cocaine cartels, or Russian Bizness men.

Another observation is the social impact of ‘crime’ versus organised crime. For example, in a city where there is a well established crime boss, there is actually not that much negative social impact, because crime can only be committed with the boss’ orders, also as there is no challenger to his hegemony, there is less violence on the street. Many studies show that a fragmented drug trafficking yields much more social ills the more disorganised it is, as turf wars and conflicts become more and more common. Here we have a policeman’s dilemma: Imagine a cop has got all the information he needs to put the kingpin away. Should he do it if he knows that the ensuing power vacuum will yield a vicious turf war, or should he establish ‘an understanding’ with the crime boss?

Perhaps it is only by getting to grips with these understandings that we can come up with a realistic way of thinking about the influence of organised crime.

JFK on secrecy in 1961:


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