A Historical Overview of Transnational Crime

David Felsen & Akis Kalaitzidis. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. Sage Publication. 2005.

The interest of scholars and practitioners in transnational crime took off in earnest during the 1990s, amid significant political and economic developments in the international system. The end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union shortly afterward, and the emergence of new states in Eastern Europe in this period marked the beginning of a new era. By the mid-1990s, the relatively orderly Cold War system had given way to a world of greater uncertainty and an evergrowing number of perceived threats to nation-states. These new developments, coupled with immense technological changes in recent years, have heightened our concern over nation-states’ vulnerability to cross-border criminal activity.

This chapter first explores early attention to transnational actors in the social sciences. Next, the chapter traces the evolution of the term transnational crime. Third, the chapter briefly looks at historical instances of transnational crime. Then the chapter examines the growing interest in transnational crime in the 1990s at both the theoretical and practical levels. Finally, the chapter concludes with a brief look at the scope of transnational crime today.

The Concept of Transnationalism in the Social Sciences

There have been a number of references to transnationalism, transnational actors, and transnational organizations in the literature of various disciplines over the past three decades. In the 1970s, international relations introduced the concept of the transnational actor. The focus on nonstate transnational actors grew out of pluralist theories of the state and its decision-making process. In domestic politics, pluralist theorists have always argued that political outputs resulted from competition among different interest groups.

Similarly, at the international level, scholars began to focus their attention on the role of non-state entities in the international system, challenging conventional realist assumptions about the nation-state as the principal actor in the international system (Viotti & Kauppi, 1987). In their edited work, Transnational Relations and World Politics, Keohane and Nye (1972) asserted that a variety of transnational actors played significant roles in international relations. Transnational actors engaged in a whole host of cross-border activities and processes, involving the movement of money, information, and people across frontiers (Keohane & Nye, 1972; Morse, 1972). The actors might be government bureaucrats or their agencies, who often establish ties with their counterparts in other countries, or they could be private actors pursuing their interests in different countries. It was argued that the communications and actions of transnational actors greatly affected international political outcomes. At times, transnational actors could take actions running counter to their own country’s interests.

In the same period, Huntington (1973) dissected the features of transnational organizations. Huntington defined these organizations as having operations and activities located in two or more countries. Transnational organizations, according to Huntington, seek to mobilize their resources and optimize their strategies to efficiently penetrate the territories in which they operate. Rosenau (1980) concisely defined transnational processes as “processes whereby international relations conducted by governments have been supplemented by relations among private individuals, groups, and societies that can and do have important consequences for the course of events” (p. 1).

Transnational organizations also became important to political and economic theories of dependency and underdevelopment in the 1970s. These scholars turned their attention toward the growing phenomenon of multinational corporations, also termed transnational corporations, examining the impact on the economies of less-developed countries of transnational corporations headquartered in advanced industrialized societies. Many argued that the exploitation by transnational corporations of poor countries established a dependency relationship, resulting in underdevelopment of dependent economies and rampant political corruption among the elite of dependent countries. Moreover, profits, rather than being reinvested in the country where the corporation operates, were merely transferred back to the firm’s home country, ensuring that benefits to poor countries were minimal (Jenkins, 1987).

Scholars such as Braithwaite (1979) studied specific linkages between transnational corporations and political corruption. The U.N. Center on Transnational Corporations explored the long-term effects resulting from the ongoing relationship between transnational corporations and less-developed countries. These studies proliferated in the late 1970s and 1980s (Jenkins, 1987). It was at this time that the concept of transnational crime entered the criminology lexicon.

Evolution of the Concept of Transnational Crime

Although practical interest in transnational crime by policymakers and law enforcement officials emerged more concretely in the 1990s, transnational crime entered the discourse of criminology in the 1970s at roughly the same time that transnationalism entered the vocabulary of other social sciences. However, early references to transnational crime did not delineate a precise criminological phenomenon. Rather, transnational was interchanged with international or global developments. For instance, Clifford’s 1975 article “New Dimensions in Criminality: National and Transnational,” although distinguishing between domestic and international crime, still employed transnational and international interchangeably (Clifford, 1975, pp. 74-76; 1976). Transnational references could also be found in discussions of international terrorism—a case in point being Mickolus’s (1980) Transnational Terrorism: A Chronology of Events (see Mickolus, 1978, 1980; Oots, 1986; Stohl, 1979).

The Fifth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention in 1975 is where many consider the term to have been actually coined (Mueller, 2001, p. 13; Reuter & Petrie, 1999, p. 7). Yet it is unclear whether the term at that time referred to a distinct criminological phenomenon or whether it referred simply to economic crimes by transnational corporations in the sense understood by dependency theorists. For instance, one of the agenda items at the 1975 Congress was a report titled “Changes in Forms and Dimensions of Criminality: Transnational and National,” which discussed establishing “more effective control over the abuse of economic power by national and transnational enterprises” (United Nations, 1976, item 5).

During the 1980s, however, transnational crime came to describe a much broader array of criminal activities (MacNamara & Stead, 1982; Smith, 1989). This coincided with an increase in attention to narcotics trafficking, which had become a priority of U.S. law enforcement ever since the war on drugs had been declared by the Nixon administration, and efforts were redoubled during the Reagan years. Other criminal activities addressed by the MacNamara and Stead (1982) edited volume included the smuggling of illegal aliens, arms smuggling, currency offenses, fraud, and terrorism.

It was also in this period that a precise and parsimonious definition of transnational crime was offered by Bossard (1990) in Transnational Crime and Criminal Law. According to Bossard, transnational crime is an activity that is considered a criminal offense by at least two countries (p. 5). Bossard’s conclusions noted that transnational crime is as much a political as a legal problem, that the phenomenon “is largely influenced by the development of world problems” (p. 143) and that it “takes advantage of all forms of progress, especially in international transport, … telecommunication and computers” (p. 141). These observations were confirmed by developments in the 1990s.

By the final decade of the 20th century, there emerged a stronger discussion of transnational crime, both at the theoretical and practical levels. Cross-border crime had become a key security issue for policymakers and law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States (Williams, 2001, p. 58). Their efforts increasingly shifted from domestic organized crime to the international arena and transnational crime. The events surrounding this growing attention to transnational crime in the 1990s will be discussed later; first, however, the next section looks at our different understandings of transnational crime.

Current Understanding of Transnational Crime

The term transnational crime now belongs to the everyday lexicon not only of criminologists but also of policymakers, law enforcement officials, and the public. Although the concept of transnational crime could seldom be found in any legal text or law enforcement handbook before the last decade (Mitsilegas, 2003, p. 82), today the term is commonly employed by specialists and nonspecialists alike. Yet, transnational crime is not a legal concept; it lacks a precise juridical meaning. It remains a concept within criminology that describes social phenomena (Mueller, 2001, p. 13). The term is both sociological, because we are concerned with understanding criminal groups or networks, and political, because transnational criminal actors operate within an international environment structured by nation-states and by politics (Serrano, 2002, p. 16).

However, there remains little consensus over the terminology of this social scientific phenomenon. For example, many scholars highlight the organized nature of transnational organized crime or TOC (Berdal & Serrano, 2002). Others reject TOC’s organized nature, arguing that viewing it as organized distorts our understanding of cross-border crime rather than helping to explain it. As one critic notes, “TOC discourse precludes a more subtle understanding of the phenomenon it purports to describe and thereby diminishes the effectiveness of the response to it” (Sheptycki, 2003, p. 142).

Indeed, the use of the term organized crime has drawn widespread criticism. The term was introduced by anticorruption reformers in the United States during the nineteenth century. Back then, organized crime referred to the local political corruption extant in large U.S. cities, where politicians and the police protected gambling and prostitution operations. It was only in the postwar era that the term evolved into one that referred to organized associations of gangsters (Woodiwiss, 2003, pp. 4-13). Today, while many see organized crime as having features such as hierarchical structure, division of labor, organizational codes or taboos, continuity in operations, the practice of corruption, and a capability to inflict violence (Lee, 1999, pp. 1-2), numerous experts have shown that criminal activities are often not at all organized but instead are quite disorganized (Reuter, 1985; Van Duyne, 1996).

It is clear that the degree of organization of criminal activity can vary dramatically, with some groups possessing hierarchical structures and other criminals operating within loosely structured, flexible networks. This is so because illegal markets operate like other markets, with many groups supplying goods and services and forming linkages in myriad ways. Consequently, critics argue that the term organized crime merely simplifies and mystifies the complexities of criminal activities and functions (Reuter, 1985; Reuter & Petrie, 1999).

This criticism also extends to transnational organized crime (Passas, 1999, p. xiii). The notion of transnational organized crime produces an image of numerous tightly knit international criminal groups when, in fact, criminal structures are less stable and networks are more diffuse. At the same time, however, scholars tend to see crime as having a necessary degree of organization (Beare, 2003; Berdal & Serrano, 2002). “Precisely because it involves criminal activities that cross national boundaries, some degree of organization is usually required, generally a considerable amount” (Reuter & Petrie, 1999, p. 8). Nevertheless, although a growing number of scholars and practitioners make use of the more controversial term TOC, this volume views transnational crime as being generally less strictly organized.

Another concern is that transnational crime is frequently confused with other terms that describe the same phenomena—notably international or global crime (Ruggiero, 2000; Serrano, 2002; Viano, 1999). The distinction between transnational and international crime is particularly blurred. Those who distinguish between the two argue that international crimes are crimes prohibited by international laws, norms, treaties, and customs, whereas transnational crimes are specifically concerned with acts criminalized by the laws of more than one country (Bassiouni, 1983; Bossard, 1990). Yet others view the internationalization of criminal law and prohibitions as the main feature characterizing transnational crime (Nadelmann, 1990; Serrano, 2002).

Apart from these terminological issues, there is also little agreement over the formal definition of transnational crime. Bossard (1990) asserts, as discussed earlier, that transnational crime simply refers to acts that violate the laws of more than one country (p. 5). The United Nations has adopted a similar approach, defining transnational crime as “offences whose inception, prevention and/or direct or indirect effects involved more than one country” (quoted in Mueller, 2001, p. 14).

Other scholars prefer broader sociological definitions of transnational crime. For example, Passas (1998) defines transnational crime as “avoidable and unnecessary harm to society, which is serious enough to warrant state intervention and similar to other kinds of acts criminalized in the countries concerned or by international law” and where “offenders or victims find themselves in—or operated through—different jurisdictions” (Passas 1998, p. 3). This definition aims at a wider understanding of crime, much in the tradition of sociologist Edwin Sutherland (Passas, 1998).

In short, although the term transnational crime is more widely used today than ever before, it remains a much-debated concept. Differences between transnational and international crime are also less clear in practice. Owing to the many ongoing conceptual controversies such as those discussed above, scholars concede that “academic efforts to reduce the notion of transnational crime and organized crime to a precise and uncontested analytical definition have generally proved fruitless” (Serrano, 2002, p. 14).

Nevertheless, the introduction and widespread use of the term transnational crime among law enforcement officials and policymakers has helped focus debate about security priorities in the 1990s. It gives cross-border criminal activities a more concrete label and has prompted better categorization and understanding of these activities. The growing attention to transnational crime itself reflects the way in which law enforcement officials and government policymakers have changed their perception of security and law enforcement priorities. As argued later, these changes with respect to crime resulted from international developments and changes in domestic attitudes and priorities. Before turning to the developments of recent years, this chapter will briefly look at some historical examples of how changing international circumstances and domestic politics refocused policy with respect to transnational criminal activities. The next section covers the historical cases of slavery, piracy, and smuggling.

Historical Cases of Transnational Crime

Over the past century, we have witnessed the internationalization of criminal law by way of international treaties and domestic legislation (Nadelmann, 1993). For example, money laundering, trafficking in endangered species, even drug trafficking, which were of limited juridical importance 100 years ago, now are key concerns at the dawn of the 21st century (Andreas, 2002, p. 39). Changes are due in large measure to advances in technology, international developments, and changes in moral attitudes in Europe and the United States and have led to the development of new criminal legislation under conditions wherein “a highly interventionist state is promoted to police the illegal sectors” (Andreas, 2002, p. 39).

Furthermore, these shifts in policy priorities often resulted from changed international conditions and changes in moral attitudes and domestic interests. This section focuses on three examples where enforcement against transnational crime developed as a result of changed political, economic, and moral circumstances within states. The cases examined here are slavery, piracy, and smuggling.

Slavery as a Transnational Crime

The crime of slavery has existed since antiquity. Slaves helped build the Parthenon in Athens and the Coliseum in Rome. Large slave markets existed in the cities of Chios, Rhodes, Delos, and Ephesus (Thomas, 1997). Although there was some opposition to the institution, many, including such well-known figures as Aristotle, defended it. Aristotle wrote in Politics that “humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command and those who are born to obey” (quoted in Thomas, 1997, p. 28).

Slavery largely disappeared for almost a millennium from the European continent but once again reemerged after 1500. The conquest of the Americas in the 16th century prompted the demand for slaves in the New World. The first European power to give permission to transfer slaves was Spain under King Ferdinand (Thomas, 1997, p. 792). The Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British soon followed with their own legislation. In 1672, the King of England granted a charter to the Royal African Company permitting the company to deal in slaves (Thomas, 1997, p. 196). By the end of the 17th century, the slave trade was “considered not only a lawful but desirable branch of commerce, a participation in which was made the object of wars, negotiations, and treaties between different European states” (Wheaton quoted in Bassiouni, 1991, pp. 450-451).

However, the growing commercial and military might of the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries, coupled with its embrace of new economic ideas and its reduced commercial need for slaves, resulted in the change in course of the Atlantic slave trade. This process began inside British civil society, which enjoyed relatively greater press freedom than elsewhere, and by political and judicial decisions of the period. In London, books and pamphlets appeared condemning the practice of trade in African slaves, leading to changes in attitudes among the political and economic elite, and among the population in general. A pivotal moment was the Quakers’ transformation from participants in the slave trade to strong opponents. Groups such as the Anti-Slavery Society became driving forces in Britain of the day (Nadelmann, 1990; Thomas, 1997).

In 1807, the British Parliament made the slave trade illegal at home. However, Britain formally banned slavery in its colonies only later on—in British West Indies in 1838 and British India in 1843 (Bassiouni, 1991). Once having criminalized the institution in its own empire, the British used its diplomatic and military resources to ban slavery elsewhere, employing its warships in the 1840s as an international police force to suppress the slave trade globally and signing bilateral agreements with numerous states to search vessels for slaves at sea (the United States remained an exception). Brazil, one state that resisted British demands in the first half of the 19th century, had its ships seized and burned in its harbors (Nadelmann, 1990).

Britain also used its clout to bring about recognition of slavery as an international crime as part of various 19th-century treaties. At the Congress of Vienna of 1815, a declaration was signed that condemned slavery, although the declaration did not include practical enforcement mechanisms to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. The Congress of Verona of 1822 also included a multilateral condemnation of slavery, as did other treaties signed in 1841 and 1862. However, the international treaties alone did not result in slavery’s abolition (Bassiouni, 1991; Nadelmann, 1990).

Other countries lagged behind Britain in this regard. Most of the states of the United States had passed laws against the institution before the onset of the Civil War, but these were not enforced with any rigor. Moreover, the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves Into Any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States was signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson in March 1807 and went into force in 1808. Yet the Times of London reported in 1846 that New York City was the greatest slave-trading market in the world (Nadelmann, 1993, p. 32). In short, governments either continued to be directly involved in the slave trade or else tacitly encouraged or approved of the trade. As Bassiouni (1991) notes, “It was difficult for many European countries who had already abolished slavery in their own constitutions and legislation to condemn the slave trade outright, as it was not economically feasible to do so” (p. 451).

The end of support for slavery by European governments and by the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s had less to do with international treaties and domestic norms in place than with changes in domestic political and economic interests and changes in moral attitudes, which saw a growing chorus of opposition to the institution in Britain. Following this shift on the part first of Britain and then of other European powers and the United States, the 20th century witnessed a slew of new international laws adopted to underpin the moral shift against slavery. These included the Geneva Convention and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (Bassiouni, 1991, pp. 491-492).

Piracy as a Transnational Crime

Like slavery, piracy was employed by both nation-states and private actors for economic gain and has also been criminalized under international and domestic laws. Also like slavery, piracy is a phenomenon that has existed since antiquity. It was the subject of Homeric poems, which labeled it as a significant criminal activity (De Souza, 1999, pp. 16-17). The creation of the Delian League in 478 b.c. was motivated by a collective concern over piracy. Moreover, under the leadership of its most famous general, Pericles, Athens and other Greek city-states issued a decree aimed at combating piracy and ensuring the safety of the seas. Pericles got approval from other Hellenic states for naval operations against pirates. Sparta, on the other hand, used piracy as an instrument of state policy to weaken its nemesis Athens, supporting raids on the coast of Attica (see De Souza, 1999, pp. 26-30).

Piracy remained an enforcement challenge as well as a tool of state policy for continental European powers of the Middle Ages. On one hand, European countries had to contend with raids by the Mediterranean Corsairs on their islands and of their shipping. On the other hand, they also turned pirates to their advantage. Since the 1200s, the British Crown supported privateering, employing private sea vessels to assist in its attacks on France. In 1243, Henry III issued privateer commissions, whereby the king would receive half the proceeds from these adventurers (Thomson, 1994, p. 22).

After 1500, with Spain in the ascendancy in Europe, the British overtly encouraged individual pirates such as Francis Drake and others. The naval competition that existed between Spain and Britain at the time, and Britain’s concern over Spain’s accumulation of treasures and territory in the Americas, led to a rise in acts of piracy (Chambliss, 1989). Although piracy was deemed a criminal act by most European countries at that time, the British policy of encouraging piracy saved the country military resources and allowed the British to avoid direct confrontation with the powerful Spanish Empire (Chambliss, 1989).

In general, most countries cooperated with pirates at various times in exchange for portions of their treasure. For example, the French government told its colonial governors on its islands not to interfere with pirates and to offer their ships safe harbor in exchange for a percentage of their goods. The British admiralty instructed Britain’s colonial governors and British naval ships to do the same, offering assistance under the Crown (Chambliss, 1989). The United States in the 1800s also offered sanctuary for pirates in exchange for their treasures. Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, offered safe passage in exchange for goods (Johnson, 1999). Furthermore, the French and English Crowns, and many of the nobility, invested in many pirate ventures, with Francis Drake, England’s most famous, receiving a knighthood for his services by Queen Elizabeth I (Naylor 2001, pp. 7-9).

Changing moral attitudes and political circumstances in the late 19th century made piracy and privateering a less attractive tool of state policy and, consequently, made it easier to enforce domestic legislation and international agreements against acts of piracy. In particular, the ascendancy of the British on the high seas was accompanied by more widespread criminalization. In the 19th century, the British introduced norms in both the domestic and international spheres (Williams, 1961). Moreover, there were several naval attacks against pirates by the British, Americans, and Dutch, which had the effect of helping to reduce piracy globally over the course of the 1800s (Nadelmann, 1990, pp. 488-489).

As in the case of slavery, however, the criminalization of piracy spread gradually, as the benefits of piracy as a tool of state policy diminished and as commercial interests saw piracy as more of a hindrance than a help; hence, an end to government-sanctioned piracy was seen as a policy to better secure commercial interests. Moreover, the 19th century witnessed the acceptance of new norms of civilized behavior during peacetime, which entailed a moral obligation not to engage in acts of piracy (Nadelmann, 1990, p. 490).

Nevertheless, piracy continues to flourish today in certain parts of the world. In particular, the problem is acute in the Far East where small city-states often offer safe harbor to pirates in exchange for goods. The situation has worsened in the past two decades because “so many countries, instead of being positive about the difficulties, tend to be recessive and put forward copious arguments claiming either there is not a problem or explaining why they cannot do anything about it” (Abhyankar, 2001, p. 183). One recent report by the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors these incidents, said that piracy has been rising steadily since 2000 (“Piracy Rife,” 2003). Piracy poses a strong challenge to the international order and may become one of the faster-growing transnational crimes of the future.

Opium Smuggling as a Historical Transnational Crime

Like slavery and piracy, smuggling has existed throughout history and has been employed both as state policy and by nonstate groups. Smuggling arises because of different laws and regulations that govern markets across borders. Whenever the flow of a commodity is controlled or prohibited by one state, it creates an environment that favors profits through smuggling. State-sponsored smuggling and state sanctioning of illegal trade have been policies of particular importance for European interests. For instance, illegal trade between Britain and Spain’s colonies was a deliberate British policy in the first half of the 18th century that helped bring about the collapse of Spain’s hegemony in the New World and Spain’s entire commercial framework. Owing to the policies of the government and large private British interests such as the South Seas Company, Spanish commerce to the New World was cut from 15,000 tons a year to 4,000 or less by 1737. This caused a decline in profits to Spanish merchants and in revenues to the king of Spain (Nelson, 1945, p. 65).

One particularly salient example of state-sponsored smuggling is the illegal trade in opium by the British, which gave rise to the Opium Wars of the 19th century. Beginning in the 15th century, the Portuguese, Spanish, and British sought to bring opium to China to pay for imports of tea, spices, and pottery. The British were most successful at this. Through their government-sanctioned cartel, the British East India Company, and by way of military force, they were able to establish and maintain lucrative opium markets in China. This policy also resulted in two wars over opium in the 19th century (Abadinsky, 2003).

By the 19th century, just as the British public turned against the slave trade, the British government was establishing an opium market on mainland China in order to improve its trade balance with the country. Britain’s East India Company had imported large quantities of tea and spices to Britain since the 17th and 18th centuries, but China bought little in return, creating a huge trade imbalance over the years. The British introduced an opium market, with opium brought in from India in an attempt to remedy this trade imbalance. This policy persisted in spite of opium restrictions in Britain itself.

Opium was soon after declared illegal by the emperor, and the trade went underground, supported by the British and coordinated by Chinese triad gangs (Abadinsky, 2003, p. 280). In 1839, the Chinese military lay siege to Canton and confiscated British merchant ships. In response, in 1840 a British expeditionary force attacked China, seizing Hong Kong and making the emperor pay compensation to the merchants. At the conclusion of the First Opium War in the mid-1840s, there was again an upsurge in opium imported into China.

When the Chinese government once again resisted British opium trade terms in 1856, a second opium war broke out. This time Britain was helped by the French, Russians, and Americans to exploit the militarily weak China (Abadinsky, 2003). Despite the military victory, however, British control over the opium trade from India to China became less commercially lucrative, because an alternative opium source for China, Persia, emerged in the 1870s.

Britain’s loss of their opium revenues and their loss of control over the Chinese opium market made it easier for the gradual shift toward criminalizing narcotics at the end of the 1800s and in the early 1900s. This process was led by the United States, principally over the course of the 20th century (Abadinsky, 2003; Nadelmann, 1993). Yet within Britain itself, there grew up a strong anti-opium movement, which paralleled in many ways the antislavery movement. Groups such as the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade lobbied the government against Britain’s opium exports from India to China, backed by other anti-opium societies and Liberal Party members (Nadelmann, 1990, pp. 503-504). When the British Liberal Party won the elections of 1906, the opium trade was ended. It was considered a “triumph of moral (religious and humanitarian) impulses over political and economic interests” (Nadelmann, 1990, p. 504).

In short, international developments— namely, changes to the opium market, coupled with changes to commercial interests and moral attitudes toward opium trade—resulted in the gradual end to Britain’s participation in illegal opium exports to China. It also led to Britain’s support over the course of the 20th century of American-led antidrug efforts.

In conclusion, what is common to all three historical cases is that changes in policies toward all three activities were the result of international developments, as well as the result of changes in domestic political and economic interests in addition to moral attitudes. The implementation of new legislation at the domestic level and new norms and treaties at the international level did not suffice in bringing about international recognition of slavery, piracy, and drug smuggling as transnational (international) crimes. Although the 1990s did not deal with the criminalization of actions hitherto engaged in by European countries and the United States, the period did see changes in international circumstances and domestic political and security interests. In addition, there were changes to moral attitudes concerning what constitutes key security threats— as policymakers and law enforcement officials, particularly in the United States, shifted their focus from the battle against Communism toward the battle against transnational crime. These factors all contributed to placing transnational crime at the forefront of the security agenda.

Changing International Conditions and Priorities in the 1990s

As highlighted above, international developments, changes in domestic political and security interests, and changes in moral attitudes helped bring about changes in security priorities to Europe and the United States during the 1990s. Indeed, as discussed below, the very language to describe transnational crime was borrowed from the lexicon of the Cold War (Woodiwiss, 2003). Some of the key events of these years include the emergence of new states with unstable economic and political structures in Eastern Europe, the development of a common market among European Union (EU) states, and the redefinition of U.S. policy following the demise of the Soviet Union. All these events pointed toward the need to develop a new economic, political, and security framework. At the same time, dramatic advances in technology, notably in the Internet and communications technologies, heightened cross-border linkages and made national frontiers seem more permeable than ever (Passas, 2001, p. 28). For policymakers and law enforcement officials, the rapidly unfolding events led them to replace their commitment to containing Communism with a commitment to containing the growing threat of transnational crime.

The collapse of the economies of the post-Communist East resulted in increased migration by Eastern Europeans across Western Europe’s borders. Relatively weak law enforcement and border controls in the post-Communist states also meant an increase in corruption and illegal activities, including drug trafficking; alcohol and tobacco smuggling; trafficking in dangerous materials, firearms, and illegal immigrants; money laundering; and corruption (Joutsen, 2001). The Balkans wars of the 1990s also proved to be the first international political crisis in the post-Cold War order, as well as a law enforcement concern.

Apart from unleashing Europe’s first war in almost half a century, the Balkans unleashed a new network of criminal activity. The outbreak of conflict in the region, the breakdown in institutions, and the mass emigration of people from the former Yugoslavia created opportunities for criminals and criminal networks. Organized crime was closely linked to the conflicts there (Koppel & Szekely, 2002).

The instability of post-Communist states greatly affected the policies of Western Europe and the EU. The completion of Europe’s single market in 1992 removed barriers to the movement of goods, services, and peoples across borders, thereby highlighting the need for tighter coordination in the sphere of criminal justice. Hence, from the late 1980s onward, the Western European states of the EU attempted to strengthen their own internal institutions to offset the growing challenges that emerged in Europe at the end of the Cold War (Nugent, 1994; Swann, 1995).

Economic and monetary union remained the most visible priority of the EU during discussions of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union in 1991-1992 (Dinan, 1994). However, policymakers grew increasingly concerned about the lack of coordination among national law enforcement agencies to deal with the emerging illegal opportunities that stemmed from the creation of the customs union and the free movement of goods and people across borders. Illegal migration and trafficking, as well as money laundering, were particularly salient issues. With the increasing numbers of illegal non-EU citizens, particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe, coming into Western Europe, there was significant debate in the 1990s concerning the strengthening of “fortress Europe” (Geddes, 2001; Ruggiero, South, & Taylor, 1998). Yet measures to stem the illegal movement of non-EU migrants merely encouraged opportunistic criminals who increased their trafficking in persons into the EU (Taylor, 2002, pp. 125-126).

Similarly, finance officials from EU governments argued that money-laundering activities were expected to proliferate considerably as closer economic integration ensued, in preparation for the launch of the single currency in 1999 (Joyce, 1999). Without legislative and enforcement changes to accommodate integration, it would become harder for the EU and national governments to track financial transactions (Adamoli, 2001).

In response to these institutional weaknesses, the EU took steps to strengthen its Justice and Home Affairs institutions, the so-called third pillar of the European Union structure, which deals with internal issues in the community. The EU adopted new measures as part of Title VI of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 (Dinan, 1994). Title VI discussed increasing cooperation between European states in the area of international drug trafficking, among other areas. At the same time, the European Council pushed through a proposal to create Europol, the European Police Office, although ratification of the Europol convention had to wait until 1998 (den Boer, 2002, p. 104). Nevertheless, from the early 1990s, European countries gradually increased their cooperation in policing and began harmonizing enforcement policies, above all in the areas of money laundering and counterfeiting (Joyce, 1999).

Although Europe’s chief political response to the end of the Cold War was the strengthening of its internal institutions, the only remaining superpower needed to outline its new priorities in the post-Cold War “new world order” at home and abroad. The United States needed to reprioritize how it allocated its resources over the medium term. At this point, new threats and challenges quickly emerged, or were rediscovered, in the 1990s. Prominent among these were drug smuggling, terrorism, and the growing penetration of international organized crime groups into the United States economy and society.

This shift in focus of the United States, away from its Cold War security interests and moral obligations to contain Communism and toward threats posed by a multiplicity of different groups and countries ensured that transnational crime emerged from being a conceptual consideration and became a central security policy issue (Shelley, 1995; Williams, 2001). Whereas before the fall of the Berlin Wall, U.S. law enforcement officials principally focused on domestic criminal organizations operating within or close to its borders, developments in the international system resulted in changed attitudes and priorities of policymakers and law enforcement officials, leading to a renewed focus on transnational crime.

There is much evidence of this change in U.S. policy direction in the early 1990s. One example is U.S. efforts in drug trafficking. Attempts to combat the international drug trade by declaring “war on drugs” started in the early 1970s and expanded under the Reagan administration in the 1980s (Nadelmann, 1993). There occurred a growing number of extradition requests in this period, requests rising from 50 per year in the 1970s to 500 for the year 1990 (Nadelmann, 1993, p. 4). Also, the United States began to focus more attention on producer markets in Latin America. Whereas, in Colombia, between 1920 and 1960, the smuggling of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine was not considered the jurisdiction of law enforcement (Serrano & Toro, 2002, p. 157), by the 1990s, the country was under increasing U.S. pressure to help stem the flow of drugs to the United States. U.S. dissatisfaction with certain Latin American countries’ efforts in this regard led to an unprecedented “conditional” certification of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru in 1995—which threatened antidrug assistance to these countries if these governments did not do their share to stop the production and flow of drugs. Subsequently, the United States fully decertified Colombia in 1996 (Granada, 2002).

Another example of this shift in its security focus can be gleaned from law enforcement’s use of terminology in this period. With the Cold War over, law enforcement officials began borrowing Cold War terminology to describe the emerging transnational criminal threats in the 1990s. At a September 1994 conference gathering in Washington, D.C., of high-level U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials, organizers chose the title “Global Organized Crime: The New Empire of Evil,” while the executive summary of the conference stated, “The dimensions of global organized crime present a greater international security challenge than anything Western democracies had to cope with during the cold war” (quoted in Woodiwiss, 2003, p. 26).

In sum, in the early post-Cold War era, Europe and the United States rapidly moved to prioritize transnational crime as a key security issue, both as a consequence of the economic and political instability in post-Communist Europe and as an alternative security strategy following the end of the Cold War. Since the beginning of the 1990s, a growing number of government resources have been allocated to transnational crime, more academic research has been devoted to the subject, and the term has gradually entered the vocabulary and been used with greater regularity. In short, the 1990s signaled a shift toward the internationalization of the concept of transnational crime.

The Internationalization of Transnational Crime: The Role of the United Nations

The growing attention paid to transnational crime by the United States and Europe was mirrored by efforts of the United Nations. The United Nations as an institution was facing myriad challenges by the 1990s, as the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the emergence of new states increased its membership significantly and altered its priorities. The United Nations sought a more pronounced role in the new world order that was emerging. In the post-Cold War era the United Nations sighted an opportunity to strengthen its lead role in obtaining global cooperation and collaboration toward alleviating poverty and hunger, promoting development, addressing human rights issues, and organizing other quality-of-life initiatives. For the United Nations, the growth of transnational crime represented a threat to its objectives, as well as an opportunity for the international body to take a lead in this area.

The institutional mechanisms of the United Nations in the area of criminal justice were enhanced throughout the 1990s. As early as December 1990, the General Assembly adopted treaties on extradition, mutual assistance on criminal matters, and the transfer of criminal proceeds (Vlassis, 2002, p. 83). In 1991, the U.N. Secretary-General convened a ministerial meeting in Versailles, France, to create a new U.N. criminal justice and crime prevention initiative. The new program was adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year, to be governed by the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) (Vlassis 2002, p. 84).

The CCPCJ aimed to foster more direct coordination among high-level government officials of different countries to address growing transnational criminality. At the CCPCJ’s first session in 1992, it was determined that transnational crime would be a key theme of the Commission’s work. The involvement, and subsequent death of Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone at the hand of organized crime in Italy further galvanized the efforts of the CCPCJ (Gilbert, 1995; McCarthy, 1997).

A key initiative of this agency’s activity was the World Ministerial Conference on Transnational Organized Crime, held in Naples in 1994 (Mueller, 2001; Williams & Savona, 1996). The conference was attended by more than 2,000 high-level government officials from 142 countries. The aim was to discuss the challenges posed by transnational crime, as well as how to cooperate to meet those challenges. At the conference’s conclusion, the “Naples Political Declaration and Global Action Plan Against Transnational Organized Crime” was adopted. The declaration was subsequently adopted formally by the General Assembly one month later (Sheptycki, 2003; Williams & Savona, 1996).

Following the Naples declaration, transnational crime received an ever-increasing amount of interest on the part of governments around the globe. At the United Nation’s 50th anniversary ceremony of June 1995, U.S. President Clinton urged the United Nations to promote cooperation in fighting transnational crime and called for a joint declaration on international crime (Lupsha, 1996; Mitsilegas, 2003). The Clinton administration reaffirmed its commitment to combating transnational crime again in 1996, defining it as a national security priority (Serrano, 2002, p. 27).

By the second half of the decade, a U.N. draft convention on transnational crime was in the works. In 1997, the U.N. General Assembly established an intergovernmental group to begin writing the document. By November 2000, within 3 years, the U.N. General Assembly had adopted the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The convention aims to address four key areas: criminalization, international cooperation, technical cooperation, and implementation (Vlassis, 2002). In sum, in well within a single decade, transnational crime had ceased to be an infrequently discussed academic concept and had become a practical security priority that engaged the world’s most important international body.

The Scope of Transnational Crime Today

Despite the disagreements that exist over the definition of transnational crime, organized or otherwise, what is clear is that the phenomenon encompasses a wide array of criminal activities. In an attempt to delineate better the nature of transnational crime, in 1994, the United Nations established 18 categories of transnational crime—a list topped by money laundering and terrorism (Mueller, 2001, p. 14). More recently, Reuter and Petrie (1999) have succinctly categorized the principal transnational criminal activities as follows:

  • Smuggling—commodities, drugs, protected species
  • Contraband (goods subject to tariffs or quotas)—stolen cars, tobacco products
  • Services—immigrants, prostitution, indentured servitude, money laundering and fraud (pp. 11-12)

Although there is a wide array of transnational activities, certain categories have received more interest than others. The activities that seem to have garnered the most attention are smuggling activities—drug smuggling, arms trafficking, smuggling of nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), trafficking in persons, and money-laundering services.

Before the 1990s, drug trafficking was practically one of the only transnational crime activities that received considerable attention from both law enforcement officials and the public. The war on drugs had been declared before the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, changes in the international system have made drug smuggling an ever-greater threat for nation-states, and a more profitable enterprise for criminal organizations. The zones of production have become more numerous, and distribution has become more sophisticated. There have been growing signs of links between drug trafficking and other forms of crime, notably arms smuggling (Williams & Savona, 1996, p. 22).

The trafficking of arms is another key area of transnational crime. The end of the Cold War has resulted in many groups within post-Communist states, and elsewhere, engaging in the illegal sale of arms. The Yugoslav wars in the 1990s provided a lucrative market for arms smugglers (Koppel & Szekely, 2002). Arms traffickers exploit the breakdown in political institutions both in the country of origin and in the country where the arms are destined. Attempts by groups to circumvent arms embargos imposed on rogue states have also been a problematic issue in recent years.

Another area of rising concern today is the smuggling of nuclear materials and WMDs, which is linked to rising concern over terrorism. The smuggling of nuclear materials, either sponsored by rogue states or orchestrated by terrorist groups, has become a central concern for law enforcement. There has been an increase in discoveries of nuclear smuggling activities by law enforcement officials in Germany, Hungary, and other states that border the former U.S.S.R., as it has been discovered that nuclear materials are often purchased from Russian government-controlled institutions, highlighting the inadequate control by authorities over these institutions (Williams & Savona, 1996). The problem is addressed by the chapter on terrorism in this volume.

Another area of particular concern is the trafficking in persons. The widening of the gap between rich and poor countries in recent years, advances in transportation technology, and the greater permeability of borders, particularly in Europe, have made illegal trafficking in humans a key transnational crime issue. Trafficking has increased, particularly of women and children from poorer countries, many of whom hope for a better life abroad but are duped and sold into slavery or forced into prostitution. Trafficking in people has risen in the 1990s especially among migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and from the Far East.

A key criminal service underpinning the above activities is money laundering. Money laundering has grown considerably, owing to the better information and communication technologies that have emerged within the world’s financial systems. Moreover, the freer movement of people and goods across borders, the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies in different countries, banking secrecy, and the discrepancies among nation-states in terms of financial regulation and legislation regarding money laundering have also contributed to the proliferation of tax havens and money laundering (Arlacchi, 2001, pp. 10-11).

Furthermore, although there has been a great deal of discussion of the destabilizing effects of money laundering, it is a phenomenon that is still poorly grasped and an area for which there is little certain empirical evidence or statistical data—all this in addition to poor training for staff carrying out research (Van Duyne, 2001, p. 10). This important transnational crime is also discussed in this volume.

In sum, the challenges posed by transnational crime are many, not least because numerous forms of transnational crime have bourgeoned in recent years. The response of policymakers and law enforcement agencies to the growing threat of transnational crime has enjoyed some successes, although as the chapters in this volume attest, much more can be done.


Transnational crime as a concept offers a lens through which we can better discuss and analyze cross-border criminal activity. Although the phenomenon was rarely discussed in the 1980s, the emergence of transnational crime in the 1990s as a security issue resulted from both changes to the international system and changes to domestic attitudes toward security and crime in both Europe and the United States. The result has been the growing acceptance among countries that transnational crime poses significant security challenges to nation-states. The Naples declaration and, more recently, the U.N. convention that addressed transnational crime have further institutionalized transnational crime as a security issue of paramount importance.