Measuring Transnational Crime

Cindy Hill. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. Sage Publication. 2005.

Criminal groups have traditionally been identified with specific countries and areas; the Sicilian Mafia with Palermo, the Chinese Triads and Japanese Yakuza, and the American Mafia families in New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, to name a few. However, researchers and practitioners began to notice that criminal groups were no longer sharing a regional character; rather, they have evolved into an international or transnational character complete with regional and global alliances. Causes for this change have been attributed to dramatic shifts in social, political, and economic systems around the world in the late 20th century, as well as extraordinary advances in communication technology and transportation. Specifically, a number of landmark events, including the creation of free-trade blocs such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the advent of the Internet, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the commercialization of China have opened new targets for international or transnational organized criminal activity and new methods of operation (Richards, 1999).

Whatever the geographic scope of the criminal operations, it is clear that organized criminal activity is no longer simply a local or domestic activity. The range of activities pursued by criminal organizations has broadened significantly. As the activities and interests of these organizations became more global, they began to partner with other criminal groups to gain admittance into new markets and to benefit from their allies’ unique criminal abilities to outsource certain specialties, such as drug routes into the United States, using contacts for surplus military arms or nuclear materials, or connecting organ “donors” with organ recipients from around the world. As such, transnational crime has emerged as a leading issue in the 21st century. A common grouping of crimes considered to be transnational includes, among others, the illicit trafficking in arms, drugs, women and children, immigrants, body organs, cultural artifacts, and nuclear material; terrorist activities; environmental crime; and money laundering (Mueller, 1999).

Often, the term organized crime is used synonymously with transnational crime. However, much of the research written on organized crime highlights the characteristics of the crime groups and not the dynamics of the transnational markets that have allowed the activities of these organizations to thrive (Morrison, 2003). Corresponding to the view that organized crime poses a greater threat than other more “ordinary” crimes is the view that transnational organized crime must be more dangerous and ubiquitous (Morrison, 2003). Although many transnational crimes are perpetrated by organized criminal groups, all transnational crimes are not necessarily the work of an organized criminal group. For example, recent worldwide events have caused an increased interest in terrorist organizations. The major sources of income for terrorist groups are organized crime and the trafficking of weapons and drugs. The financing of terrorism takes many forms and represents an economic structure that has many of the same characteristics of international organized crime. Despite the passage of new laws regarding money laundering in several countries, the ability to investigate such transactions is difficult at best.

Providing empirical confirmation of the major trends in transnational criminal activity remains elusive. In developing a protocol for measuring transnational crime, it is first important to focus on the more traditional crimes, to find a consistent methodology, an accurate data set, and a method to compare diverse countries with one another. With such a vast array of crimes classified as transnational, government entities and researchers alike have been perplexed with how to count, measure, or make true approximations on worldwide criminal statistics.

A number of issues relating to transnational crime need to be examined. Like any social phenomenon, crime continues to evolve in response to a constantly shifting legal, economic, and political environment. To inform policy on transnational crime in the hopes of greater cooperative enforcement, an agenda of research is required to address the conceptual dilemmas of current knowledge on the subject. For example, in terms of international cooperation, bilateral or multilateral arrangements with other countries have increased over the years; however, they have failed to synchronize national laws to any great extent. Therefore, to accurately assess the transnational crime problem with the purpose of developing viable solutions, some method of definition and measurement needs to be employed. That method is appropriately chosen from the techniques used by criminologists to define and measure traditional crime.

This chapter briefly introduces some of the problems in recording, reporting, and analyzing crime cross-nationally. Robbery and homicide rates (both generally perceived as violent crimes) are used to illustrate these problems inherent in developing comparative crime statistics. Goals of this chapter are to illustrate how current knowledge regarding problems associated with measuring crime in various countries can help one to understand and anticipate problems associated with measuring transnational crime. This is accomplished by (a) explaining measurement problems for traditional crimes such as homicide and robbery, (b) noting the difficulty in comparing crime cross-nationally, (c) explaining measurement problems for transnational crime as being both similar to and different from those for traditional crimes, and (d) using a typology of several transnational crimes to suggest ways to overcome the measurement problems.

Problems Encountered When Measuring Domestic Crime

Reporting, Recording, and Classification Problems

Crimes come to the attention of police not only through reports by victims but also through direct detection by the police. Thus, the proportion of crimes committed that become known to police will also depend on the efficiency and discretionary practices of the police (Riedel, 1990). These, in turn, will depend on the number of police officers, the quality of their training, and the cultural and political pressures to which they are subjected (Reichel, 2002). If these factors vary systematically across nations—that is, by level of development, cultural, or legal system—official police data will also be systematically biased (Wolf, 1971). Results of two studies of the relationship between crime rates and the number of police officers per population suggest that the number of police officers significantly affects crime rates and that crime rates significantly affect the number of police assigned to a particular location (Levitt, 1997; Marvell & Moody, 1996). There is also research indicating that the resources a country devotes to policing and the relative number of police officers in a country have little association to crime rates, indicating that biases introduced by differences in access to police and the efficiency of police are not great (Bennett & Wiegand, 1994). However, police presence is often an overlooked explanatory variable in cross-national crime studies (Neapolitan, 1997). In the 48 cross-national studies surveyed, only one (McDonald, 1976) used size of police force as an exploratory variable.

Not all crimes reported to or detected by police become part of the official records reported to the United Nations or to Interpol (the two most used compilers of cross-national crime data). There are likely to be both unintentional and intentional errors in the collection, recording, and classification of crimes (Hagan, 2003; Vito & Blankenship, 2002). Many police departments do a poor job of completely and uniformly gathering crime data from all sections of the country; this is likely to be more true of developing nations than of more industrialized nations (Groves, McCleary, & Newman, 1985). Thus, there is some evidence that police work in developing nations is less efficient and more biased toward the powerful than in industrial nations (Arthur, 1991).

All researchers agree there are differences among nations in the proportion of crimes reported to or detected by the police (Neapolitan, 1997). Some researchers argue that there is sufficient evidence that these differences are essentially random and thus do not systematically bias research (Archer & Gartner, 1984; Barclay & Tavares, 2002; Bennett & Wiegand, 1994; van Kesteren, Mayhew, & Nieuwbeerta, 2001). Other researchers have addressed the issue of reporting differences between developing and industrial nations and have concluded that they are not significant (Barclay & Tavares, 2002; Krohn, 1976, 1978; Krohn & Wellford, 1977; van Kesteren et al., 2001; Wellford, 1974).

Police may underreport or overreport certain crimes because of political pressures or cultural values. Political instability and regime changes might influence legal definitions and the recording and classifying of some offenses, as well as the tendency of people to report offenses, all of which adversely affect trend analysis (Hagan, 2003; Vito & Blankenship, 2002). Two examples of countries facing transformations included the African nations of Rwanda and the Congo, both plagued with political volatility and police corruption. Furthermore, some crimes may be tolerated or even de facto decriminalized and thus not handled in an official manner (Arthur, 1991). However, there is little hard evidence regarding any of the above, because such things are difficult to research.

Definitional Problems

Many conventional crimes, such as murder and theft, have ancient origins and thus are quite similarly defined across nations (Kick & LaFree, 1985). The apparent existence of legal universals and consistent cross-national perspectives suggest that some crimes may be cross-nationally comparable. In addition to problems common to most cross-national comparative research, several problems are more specific to cross-national studies of homicide and other crimes (Kick & LaFree, 1985). Perhaps the most basic of these is the problem of classifying crimes in a consistent manner across countries. Even homicide, which is the most easily defined and often the most researched crime cross-nationally, suffers from definitional differences among countries. Classification of casualties as homicides is particularly problematic in nations experiencing war, rebellion, or severe political and civil conflicts (Gartner, 1990; Howard, Newman, & Pridemore, 2000; Huang & Wellford, 1989; Lynch, 1995). Crime statistics from countries such as Cyprus and Colombia, for example, must be critically analyzed to ensure that data represent the homicide definition provided by the researching organization.

Official police data reflect the legal codes and practices of a country, and these might vary considerably among nations (Neapolitan, 1996). The United Nations tries to adjust for this by having nations place crimes in broad categories that include many of the definitional differences among nations. Each country is allowed some latitude in interpretation of the categories provided, and in some cases, legal codes are too different for the categories to be used in a similar manner (see questionnaire’s definition of terms in United Nations, 2001). Thus, many nations cannot or do not place the same crimes in the same categories. For example, in contrast to all other Western nations, the Netherlands has no crime category for robbery (Marshall, 1989); therefore, if they report data for robbery categories, it is important to understand what definitions were used. Such classifications may not represent the total crime numbers for a country. Similarly, Japan classifies assaults resulting in death in the assault category and not in the homicide category (Kalish, 1988). Also, when crimes are forced into broad categories, important variations within the category may be concealed. Two countries may report the same number of thefts, but in one country 90% may involve forcible entry, whereas in another country only 20% involve forcible entry (Lynch, 1995). Attempting to measure the phenomenon is often the single most important way of focusing attention on the definitional issues because it requires conceptual clarity (Reuter & Petrie, 1999). Often, the nuances between robbery, burglary, and theft are the most difficult for countries to define in their criminal codes with regard to United Nations or Interpol surveys.

Statistics on crime tell as much about the bureaucracy of the justice system in a given country and about how it is viewed by the general public as they do about the true extent of crime in that country or about how such crime is being dealt with. The problems involved in cross-national analysis have been detailed in many studies (e.g., Krohn, 1976; MacKenzie, Baunach, & Roberg, 1990; Martin, Romano, & Haran, 1988; McDonald, 1976; Messner, 1992; Messner & Rosenfeld, 1997; Neapolitan, 1996; Smith & Zahn, 1999). Most researchers have included as many countries as possible in their research; however, until recently, data have not been available for a sufficient number and diversity of countries to test hypotheses properly and to make generalizations regarding international crime trends (Lynch, 1995; Messner, 1989; Neuman & Berger, 1988; Newman & Howard, 1999; Reichel, 2002).

In addition, data collected must be reliable and accurate. The majority of cross-national crime research uses secondary data. Therefore, it is important to understand the definitions used by the primary researchers and recognize variations in reporting and recording practices.

Selection Criteria for Sample Countries

Of particular importance to any cross-national sample is the distribution of countries included in a sample according to the geopolitical and regional placements of the country. Perry and Robertson (2002) suggest that a sample population should be divided into four distinct geographical regions (Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Arab/Middle East-North Africa) and three distinct geopolitical regions (Arab nations, Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern European [CIS-EE] nations, and Western industrial and other West European established democracies). These regions reflect conventional geopolitical and regional demarcations for countries across the world (Perry & Robertson, 2002). Furthermore, another transcontinental category should also be created in cross-national comparisons for those countries that are industrial democracies of the West as well as Western Europe, designated as advanced. This category includes countries such as Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Often, when crime statistics are compared cross-nationally, they are given in terms of total raw numbers, or ratios. However, this does not take into consideration the individual characteristics of the countries. In accordance with existing research and theorizing on the structural sources of crime across nations, several important structural features of individual nations are taken into consideration to minimize the possibility of observing spurious results (Lee, 2001). One prerequisite referenced throughout the literature for making comprehensive comparisons between individual countries is an understanding of the social, economic, and administrative situations within each country. Crime, thus, is a function of many different factors. It is important, for example, to compare area, population, and population density of the sample population to more accurately compare crime rates between countries. For instance, according to the United Nations Fifth Crime and Justice Survey (United Nations, 1995), the Bahamas and the Russian Federation have similar homicide rates, yet they are vastly different types of countries; they vary in land area, population, gross domestic product, and police personnel to population ratio, to name a few. Likewise, Canada, Denmark, Russia, and Hong Kong may have similar robbery rates, yet each is very much different when examining them together on characteristics besides crime. Other variables must at least be noted when attempting to assess and compare crime rates cross-nationally.

Problems Encountered When Comparing Domestic Crime Cross-Nationally

Crime analysis allows a researcher to determine who is doing what to whom by its focus on crime against persons and property. It also involves trend correlations to assist in management and in the solving and the prevention of crime (Gottlieb, Arenberg, & Singh, 1994). In the administration of justice, it is important to assess an emerging crime problem, whether at the local, state, or national level. Therefore, many nations have attempted to assess their crime problems by compiling and analyzing reported crimes to the police or by crime victimization surveys. Presently, these types of analyses focus on traditional crimes, such as homicide, robbery, and burglary, particularly when applied to a cross-national setting.

What makes comparisons possible is that crime is ubiquitous. Although many countries have quite different legal systems, based on their individual histories and traditions, one common feature of all countries is crime. However, what is defined as crime and how countries respond to it vary significantly from country to country (Kalish, 1988). The types of crime data collected may also differ considerably from country to country (Newman, 1999; Nowak, 1989; Shichor, 1990). The types of analyses performed may also differ. For instance, in countries with a decentralized police system, identifying which category of offense has occurred is very difficult. In addition, political control of crime recording is a reality that must be recognized when one attempts to interpret crime statistics (Reichel, 2002). For example, human rights organizations dispute the number of executions committed in China each year. Although the Chinese government does not report the number of executions, it is believed that China far surpasses any other country in the number of executions carried out and, furthermore, that the Chinese government attempts to distort the number of political prisoners it currently has incarcerated. Also, some countries may focus their attention and interest on certain types of crimes, such as the “war on drugs” in the United States in the 1980s. As such, there was a significant increase in the rate of these types of reported crimes.

Although cross-national research on crime increased in the 1980s and 1990s, relative to other crime research, it remains quite small (Neapolitan, 1997). Reporting problems in the collection of crime statistics has been very well documented (LaFree, 1999; Neapolitan, 1997; Newman, 1999) and remains a key cause for the low number of cross-national crime studies. Because each country has similar difficulties in recording and reporting crime figures, crime rate comparisons among countries is problematic. Differing definitions, criminal justice and governmental structures, economic developments, and a variety of other factors unique to each country make it difficult to properly compare even the most well-documented crime rates cross-nationally. Although researchers and scholars frequently note that homicide statistics are the most accurately recorded and most universally defined crime category across nations, even homicide can suffer from different recording practices.

Differences in a nation’s social environment will also affect crime comparisons. For example, developed countries with telephones may have more crime reported to the police than countries without a contemporary communications infrastructure. In addition, technologically advanced police forces may report and record a higher proportion of crimes than police forces without computer capabilities.

Limitations of Cross-National Studies

Any cross-national study faces a difficult set of methodological problems in conducting rigorous analyses. The following details some of the problems common to most comparative research and those specific to the study of cross-national crime data collection.

Samples and Data Availability

Most of the general difficulties facing comparative research using countries as the unit of analysis are related to problems of directly transferring common statistical analysis techniques to an analysis environment in which the available sample is severely limited (Newman & Howard, 1999). For example, most common statistical analysis techniques are based on the assumption that the cases being analyzed are randomly sampled from a larger population (Hagan, 2003). However, comparative cross-national studies of crime generally have been based not on random samples but instead on simple data availability. This has several important implications. First, samples are intrinsically biased in that not all countries of the world are equally likely to be studied. In general, comparative cross-national studies more commonly have included developed, Western-styled democracies and less commonly have included developing nations, communist nations, and nations of the former Soviet Union (Perry & Robertson, 2002; van Kesteren et al., 2001). In addition, as stated previously, the relative proportion of industrial countries in a sample may well have a great influence on research results, especially because the level of development is often a key variable in many cross-national crime studies (He, 1999). The industrial or more developed countries of the world constitute about 40% of the countries represented in Interpol, World Health Organization, and U.N. samples (LaFree, 1999). However, these same countries represent less than 15% of the total number of nations of the world. Thus, most previous research has in all probability been biased by the large proportion of developed Western nations in samples because it would appear that these nations have distinctly different crime patterns and historical and situational contexts from those of developing nations (He, 1999; Howard et al., 2000; LaFree, 1999).

Another sample problem is what to do with the former communist countries currently in transition of Eastern-Central Europe. The political, economic, and social situations of these nations have always made their inclusion in analysis with other nations questionable. The recent changes in these countries, including the creation of more nations, make it even more likely that, in analysis, they might unduly influence research, confounding and confusing results, particularly in longitudinal studies where the time period is before, during, and after the transition (Newman, 1999).

Finally, because the total number of countries with available data is relatively small, sample sizes analyzed are also small. Small sample sizes suggest that results may be highly dependent on only a few cases. In the analysis of cross-national crime rates, a single outlier can sometimes change conclusions. Therefore, it is important to examine the countries sampled multivariately and determine how outliers are affecting the results.

Because of sample size limitations, analyses based on common statistical techniques are severely limited. For example, problems of multi-colinearity cannot be solved by increasing the size of the sample. Moreover, statistical techniques generally are limited to relatively simple bivariate direct effects models (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998). For instance, in exploring 48 cross-national homicide studies from 1965 to 2001, sample sizes range from a low of 14 observations (Landau, 1984) to a high of 1,075 (Bennett, 1991), using pooled time-series techniques. Earlier homicide studies more often relied on simple classifications or measures of central tendency (see, e.g., Quinney, 1965; Wolf, 1971). Of the 10 earliest studies examined, ranging from 1965 to 1980, 7 did not report significance tests for individual variables.

Homicide Rates

As previous research has shown, reported crime changes considerably over time. Crime rates change at different rates for different offenses and for different countries. In a 15-year time period (1980-1994), the average homicide rate in 25 countries increased by roughly 6.5% (Moors, 2003). The pattern of homicide rates when compared with the development status of countries is a bit more difficult to assess. Cross-national crime data indicate that less-developed countries have higher average rates of homicide than do industrialized countries (Krohn, 1976; Lee, 2001; Moors, 2003; Wellford, 1974; Wolf, 1971). Homicide rates in developing countries have been increasing over time. Industrial countries have had a general decrease in crime over the 15-year time period, particularly in the 1990s. This observation has also been made by other researchers (see also Newman, 1999). However, the caveat must be made that the samples countries may play a role in this observation.

Robbery Rates

Over the same time period (1980-1994), the average robbery rate increased more frequently in the 1980s. There was a 25% increase from the early 1980s (1980-1984) to the late 1980s (1985-1989). As previously discussed, this increase may be due to the amount of missing robbery data in the early 1980s or because of bias resulting from the countries sampled. Because cross-national crime data indicate that less-developed countries have higher average rates of homicide than do industrialized countries (Lee, 2001), one could extend that to other violent crimes, such as assault or robbery; however, it was found that industrialized countries had significantly higher average robbery rates than the developing countries sampled (Moors, 2003).

In the past, the lack of quality data has not allowed for reliable cross-national crime research. Therefore, when attempting to make cross-national crime comparisons, the types of countries in the sample population should also be critically examined (e.g., when comparing industrial countries to developing countries; Islamic law countries to common, civil, or socialist law countries; or similar countries by some predetermined characteristic to each other, such as regional location).

Through time, cross-national crime studies have employed increasingly sophisticated multivariate regression analysis, pooled time-series analysis, and LISREL analysis (LaFree, 1999). Furthermore, the numbers of variables used as controls have increased substantially in more recent studies (Howard et al., 2000).

Measuring Transnational Crime

Problems Likely to Be Encountered When Tracking Transnational Crimes

The globalization of crime demands a coordinated or transnational criminal justice response (Howard et al., 2000). The difference between traditional crimes and certain types of transnational crimes is that, generally, traditional crimes can be counted as crime analysis. Transnational crimes, on the other hand, involve not only crime analysis but intelligence analysis as well. Intelligence analysis, which focuses on the relationship between persons and organizations involved in illegal—and usually conspiratorial—activities, aids in determining who is doing what with whom (Gottlieb et al., 1994). As such, intelligence analysis is often difficult for local law enforcement officials to recognize and investigate. The two major sources of cross-national data, the United Nations and Interpol, collect data solely on traditional crimes, which does not accurately reflect a nation’s entire crime problem (Neapolitan, 1997).

Martin and Romano (1992) and Newman (1999) agree that the apparent increase in transnational crime has contributed to a greater interest among countries to take notice of the crime situations occurring in other countries. Recent worldwide events have placed greater emphasis on international cooperation and have resulted in changing views regarding the traditional obligations and expectations of one country in relation to its citizens and to other countries (Bloomfield, 2002; Nadelmann, 1993; Richman, 2000). However, the nature of transnational crime takes advantage of the ease of movement between countries, making it even more difficult to establish a unified strategy for hindering such crime problems.

Although it is important that methods for collecting and analyzing cross-national data on nontraditional crimes be developed, previous efforts have not been very successful. The very nature of these types of transnational crime makes it difficult to quantitatively assess. Transnational crimes are often very complex crimes, composed of a number of smaller crimes, which thus makes them extremely difficult to accurately count. No systematic method of accounting for these types of crimes currently exists at the international level, although attempts have been made to compile data on individual crimes, such as arms trafficking, drug trafficking, or illegal immigration.

Traditional crimes are most often collected on a national level. These crimes are relatively discrete events. Therefore, although definitions across countries may differ, most countries have been able to adjust their definitions of crime to those of a survey for international comparison, such as the United Nations Crime and Justice Survey. It is much more difficult to have a common definition for nontraditional crimes. Often, the very definition of what a transnational crime consists of is at the center of the controversy. Different authors have used slightly different definitions over the years (see, e.g., Alder, Mueller, & Laufer, 1994; Martin & Romano, 1992).

The figures currently cited in the literature are based on those crimes that come to the attention of law enforcement entities. However, the ratio between failures and successes is unknown. Therefore, estimates can vary greatly. New ways to measure them must be found that are organizationally sophisticated (Howard et al., 2000). Therefore, providing empirical support in major trends of transnational crime currently is a very problematic undertaking that is still in its initial stages of development.

Providing quantitative indicators for traditional crime is difficult, but finding hard data on illicit enterprises of transnational scope is close to impossible (Williams, 1999). As part of the Fifth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (1995) efforts were made to assess the prevalence and extent of transnational crime. Transnational crime was defined as “offences whose inception, proportion and/or direct or indirect effects involved more than one country” (para. 9). However, from this initial attempt, it was discovered that few countries record these crimes separately in their official statistics. The penal codes of nations and countries do not categorize “transnational crime,” and consequently, no official statistics are available to submit data on such events.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for the development of reliable and uniform data collection at the international level. To have a coordinated law enforcement response to transnational crime, an understanding of the characteristics of these crimes is required. In addition, the operational strengths and weaknesses of crime control systems in other countries, which is an important goal of comparative studies, must be recognized (Howard et al., 2000).

Suggestions for Measuring Transnational Crime

In many countries, there are no serious efforts to collect data about transnational crime, partly because of a lack of resources and expertise. Moreover, little is done to coordinate collection efforts and to combine national statistics about organized criminal activity. The aim of criminal justice systems around the world is policing within national borders. Nevertheless, there has been increased attention devoted to this variety of crime. For the moment, much of the information is anecdotal and depends to a large extent on media accounts of transnational crime, so these data sources bring with them considerable difficulties in terms of validity, as noted by a number of researchers (Howard et al., 2000; Passas, 1995; Williams, 1999).

In general, because of the lack of reliable quantitative data, an accurate assessment of the scale of transnational crime cannot be made. That is not to say that transnational crime cannot be measured; however, very little is currently available to suggest how the measurement task should be approached. For most transnational organized crime activities, there are simply no systematic estimates of size. For example, although the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has recently made attempts to estimate the number of illegal immigrants inside the United States (Stana, 2002), it has not attempted to estimate either the number entering as the result of organized smuggling activities or the revenues generated by such smuggling. Issues such as this must first be recognized in order to see a clearer picture of the problem at hand. As is often the case, agencies may compile and aggregate data, but statistical techniques are often underused. Data may be simply presented in summary expressions.

Official records such as court and regulatory proceedings are currently one of the best sources of useful data on transnational crime. Caveats exist in using such data, however. Court records report only a small and unrepresentative set of activities, usually the most serious ones. Even in the population of actual prosecutions, itself unrepresentative of all criminal activities of these enterprises, most cases do not go to trial but are settled through plea bargaining in the United States. Most indictments identify a set of specific criminal acts that provide only modest illumination of the underlying organization.

Passas (1998) suggests that “criminogenic asymmetries,” the differences among nations in law or regulations or in the effectiveness of enforcement, facilitates the development of transnational crime. Thus, one country may provide a safe haven, or at least a safer haven, for conducting criminal activities in the other. Certainly, this applies to the international drug market. For example, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the leading producers of cocaine for the world market because of their low risks of sanctions, along with cheap land labor in these countries (U.S. Department of State, 2002).

Other current possible data sources include investigative records, ethnographic studies and surveys, and informants. Although there are numerous potential data sources for the study of transnational crime, each has substantial weaknesses. Most have an opportunistic element, because they are from operational sources. Much of the data currently available are from one organization that attempts to collect data on one type of crime. For example, the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention has established a modest research program in drugs, people trafficking, and corruption.

The use of liaisons or legal attachés between countries may be another possible link to investigate transnational problems between countries. Also, the use of educational programs such as the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which brings together law enforcement personnel from around the world, can be a means to collect preliminary information regarding transnational crimes among countries. These types of gatherings can be used as focus groups to discuss the emerging problems and what some possible responses may be.

Clarity Through Transnational Typologies

Although it is difficult to compile one database with all the types of crimes categorized within a transnational definition, the following is a brief overview of some of the offenses that transnational criminal groups are involved in and some possible means to gather data on each crime.

Firearms Trafficking

The arms trafficking industry involves domestic as well as foreign-made weapons. In addition to firearms bought and sold in the United States, many American-made weapons are purchased abroad and then illegally smuggled back into the country. This can make it very difficult to keep accurate counts of this type of transnational crime. Often, end-user certificates, registry of shipments, and fraudulent manufacturer’s stamps are used to smuggle weapons. The Organization of American States (OAS) Treaty Against Illicit Trafficking in Firearms (an initiative of the U.S. government’s 1998 international crime control strategy), called for a “hemispheric convention to combat the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition and explosives” (White House, 1998). An agreement negotiated at the OAS convention mandates that all member parties establish a single point of contact to coordinate international firearms trafficking issues. Although legal arms sales to developing nations are tumbling, the illicit sale is increasing globally (Shanker, 2002).

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) in the United States is responsible for investigating the illegal movement of firearms, explosives, and ammunition in international traffic and preventing such arms from being used throughout the world to commit acts of terrorism, to subvert restrictions posed by other nations on their residents, and to be used as commodities in organized crime and narcotics-related activities. The BATF has an extensive program designed to curtail the influx of foreign-made weapons, and those American-made weapons being smuggled back into the country. BATF’s National Tracing Center (NTC) is the world’s only facility with the capability to trace the history of firearms, maintaining transaction records on more than 100 million firearms. In 2000, the NTC processed approximately 210,000 crime gun traces (Department of the Treasury, 2001).

In conjunction with the U.S. Customs Service, BATF also participates in foreign-country firearm trafficking assessments and training programs funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Access to such information may be one possible means to initially identify arms trafficking numbers. Although more intelligence and analysis are needed, the relatively small numbers of firearms seized at the site of importation into a country suggest that it is unlikely that criminal demand is being met to any significant degree by the smuggling of firearms (National Criminal Intelligence Service [NCIS], 2003).

Drug Trafficking

The commercial exchange of illegal drugs, including the equipment and substances involved in producing, manufacturing, and using drugs, is known as drug trafficking. The consequences of drug trafficking have created a major challenge for countries worldwide. Of all the transnational illegal markets, the best explored is that for drugs (Reuter & Petrie, 1999). In terms of scale, drug trafficking also represents the greatest organized crime threat, although the high priority attached to it by law enforcement over a number of years may inadvertently have diverted attention from other areas, whose relative importance is currently less well understood as a result (NCIS, 2003). The most recent estimates, those for 2001, give a total of about 65billion in retail sales in the United States alone, the largest component being cocaine (36 billion) (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDPC], 2003). Worldwide, it is estimated that drug trafficking is a $400 billion trade market (Drug Policy Alliance, 2002).

International drug-trafficking organizations have extensive networks of suppliers and front companies and businesses to facilitate narcotics smuggling and money laundering of illicit proceeds (Reuter & Petrie, 1999). The evolution of the international drug trade has included more worldwide trafficking of synthetic drugs and a growing group of actors (ONDPC, 2003). Increasingly, traffickers from many countries are avoiding traditional practices of partnering with a single ethnic group and have been working together with many in the purchase, transportation, and distribution of illegal drugs.

In addition, nontraditional trafficking groups, such as rebel armies and extremist groups, have also turned to the drug trade as a means of increasing proceeds for their causes. There is evidence that various terrorist groups, such as the Shining Path in Peru and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tax illicit drug production as a means of financing their activities and operations. Drug-trafficking groups in Central and South Asia and Latin America, where the majority of illicit drugs are produced and trafficked, have expanded their networks to include cross-border cooperation and associations with other drug-trafficking groups. Adapting quickly, international drug-trafficking organizations have found new methods for smuggling drugs, new transshipment routes, and new ways to launder money that make it difficult for law enforcement entities to track. All these are possible with more open borders and modern telecommunications technology.

Some nations have shifted their policy focus toward harm reduction based on the notion that reducing the consumption of drugs will help to contain the flow and production of controlled substances. Despite their best efforts, it is estimated by the Drug Policy Alliance (2002) that only 10% to 15% of heroin and 30% of cocaine is intercepted worldwide. Because drug traffickers earn a gross profit of around 300%, it is estimated that at least 70% of international drug shipments need to be intercepted to substantially reduce the illegal trafficking industry.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the United States manages a number of information-sharing programs that give law enforcement agencies access to database information, such as in intelligence centers like the El Paso (Texas) Intelligence Center. In addition, Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF), in which DEA participates at the federal level, combine resources of many agencies under one roof to provide a comprehensive approach against criminal organizations. Participating state and local agencies receive information from Federal agencies involved in the individual OCDETF investigations.

On a more international level, the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the DEA is a comprehensive enforcement operation designed specifically to coordinate multiagency, multijurisdictional, and multinational Title III investigations against the command-and-control elements of major drug-trafficking organizations operating domestically and abroad. The investigative resources of SOD support a variety of multijurisdictional drug enforcement investigations associated with the Southwest Border, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. DEA programs may be an invaluable resource for statistical data on illegal drug trafficking; however, these data are limited to the countries in which the DEA operates. A worldwide drug-trafficking database has yet to be designed.

Illegal Migration

An activity where an effective distribution system is necessary for the crime to be completed is illegal immigration. Illegal immigration comprises people smuggling, where the migrants are essentially willing participants, and where organized criminals profit mainly from facilitating their migration across borders, and human trafficking, where the intention behind the facilitation is to exploit the migrants when they reach their destination. The vast majority of illegal immigrants appear to be willing participants rather than victims of human trafficking. However, the nature of human trafficking is such that it is harder to identify numbers and therefore quantify if persons fall into the trafficking or smuggling category.

Most human-trafficking victims come from Asia, with over 375,000 victims each year. The former Soviet Union is believed to be the largest new source of trafficking for prostitution and the sex industry, with over 100,000 women and children trafficked each year from that region. The U.S. Department of State has estimated that at any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the trafficking pipeline, being warehoused by traffickers, waiting for new routes to open up or fraudulent documents to become available (Richards, 1999).

The worldwide smuggling of migrants has increased rapidly since the early 1990s. Estimates have as many as 500,000 people from countries such as China and India being smuggled into Western Europe at fees from as low as 250tohighsof25,000 per person (Schmid & Savona, 1995). Migrants from South and Central America have “coyotes” (smugglers) take them over the Mexican border into the United States (Nieves, 2002). Chinese immigrants pay smugglers up to $45,000 per person for successful entry into the United States (Chin, 1998). Also, although it is impossible to quantify the effects, the need for organized illegal assistance will have grown in the wake of increased security and border controls around the world following the events of September 11, 2001. Schmid and Savona (1995) note that the criminals involved in smuggling people are often concurrently engaged in arms and drug smuggling.

Identity theft has been a prevalent crime for which aliens can obtain fraudulent documents to enter the United States or other countries illegally or to obtain employment and other benefits. In the fiscal year 2000, the INS reported almost 124,000 fraudulent documents intercepted by INS inspectors (Stana, 2002). INS believes organized crime groups will increasingly use smugglers to facilitate illegal entry of individuals into the United States to engage in criminal activities, such as narcotics trafficking and terrorism. With heightened border security, alien smugglers are expected to increasingly use fraudulent documents to introduce aliens into the United States (Stana, 2002). Illegal migration is often an event-driven statistic. After the September 11th attacks, many of the suspected terrorists arrested were for INS charges. The focus on illegal immigration caused a change in law and a more critical look at the immigration problem as a whole.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the majority of persons entering the United States illegally are returned to their country of origin without being referred to the criminal justice system (Ward, 2000). The number of noncitizens processed in the federal criminal justice system increased an average of 13% annually from 1984 to 2000. In 1984, 3,462 non-U.S. citizens were prosecuted in federal district courts, and by 2000, the number had risen to 20,751 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000). During the same period the number of non-U.S. citizen inmates increased from 4,088 to 20,655. About 55% of those inmates were in the United States legally (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2001).

The combination of increased freedom of movement, pursuit of better opportunities, diminished legitimate migration possibilities, and demand for foreign labor has resulted in a profound increase in the level of illegal migration. Many immigrants will travel under appalling conditions in the hopes of a better life (“Immigration,” 2003). There are numerous cases in which the traffickers have taken the money and left the would-be migrants stranded. Immigration, both in numbers and characteristics, may depend on the strength and stability of the government in the sending country, especially the firmness of the rule of law and the specificity of legislation targeting criminal activities. The opaqueness of many immigrant communities to policing allows organized crime networks to flourish in a relatively safe setting. In addition, the extent to which the receiving country is open to immigrants—providing opportunities for learning the language, culture, and new skills and a niche in the legal economy—may influence the extent to which organized crime can gain a foothold in immigrant neighborhoods.

The United Nations has a Global Programme Against the Trafficking in Human Beings that addresses human trafficking, particularly that of women and children. In a selection of countries, field projects are being carried out to test promising strategies, such as new structures for collaboration between police, immigration, victims’ support, and the judiciary, both within countries and internationally (linking countries of origin to destination countries). The Transnational Crime and Corruption Center of American University has performed numerous studies on human trafficking and alien smuggling. Aside from training law enforcement personnel, part of its focus is on quantifying the political, social, and economic costs of trafficking. Such programs are needed to assess the people-smuggling and human-trafficking problems worldwide.

Trafficking in Human Organs

One of the most controversial areas of transnational crime is human organ trafficking. With the advent of organ transplantation more than three decades ago, the human body has quickly become a commodity for replacement parts. Some maintain that organized crime and other criminal elements are exploiting this area (Chang, 1995; Orszag-Land, 1997). In countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil, persistent reports have suggested a thriving black market in human organs. China has been accused of removing organs from executed prisoners to supply them to recipients from other countries. Although there is little quantitative evidence, supported by sensational personal accounts, that organized transnational trafficking of organs exists, there are good grounds for concluding that a black market in human organs does exist and that because of differential levels of wealth among nations organ trafficking has a transnational dimension. Often, the organ “donors” are from one country, the recipient from another, and the operation is performed in a third country.

Organ trafficking can be understood at one level in simple supply-and-demand terms. The global demand for organs has surpassed organ donation in most cases, thus creating a market economy. A remarkably high demand for body parts has produced predatory competition among tissue and transplant banks. Although illegal immigration and other related crime produces an enormous profit, a single dead body has the potential to yield tens of thousands of dollars to tissue banks and research facilities (Katches, Heisel, & Campbell, 2000). And with the scarcity of consensual organ donors worldwide, a network of illicit traders, often called body brokers or intermediaries, has emerged. Black marketers understand that trafficking laws are either obscure or limited in their use of penalties (Tass, 1998). The result is a flourishing black market in human body parts, nourished through kidnapping, mutilation, and murder. The expansion of the illegal body part trade must be heavily dependent on collaboration between localized and international gangs (Orszag-Land, 1997).

Britain’s National Criminal Intelligence Service believes an illegal black market in cloned body parts will be yet another future market for organized crime rings (“Is Illicit Cloning,”1999). Presently, there are severe organ shortages, and instances of organ trafficking and trading have been reported globally. Activities range from corruption in waiting list distribution, body part theft from morgues, compensated gift giving, outright organ sales, the use of organs from executed prisoners, and even granted release time to prisoners for organ donation.

Although this is a vastly understudied area, Organs Watch was founded in 1999 out of the University of California at Berkeley to investigate reports and rumors of human rights abuses surrounding organ trafficking, identify hot spots where abuse may be occurring, and begin to define the line between ethical transplant surgery and practices that are exploitative or corrupt. Initial data may be available through these reports; however, it is still on the case study level of analysis.


The criminal community is enlarging; although traditional crimes are ever present, the international criminal justice community must also deal with emerging nontraditional crimes. Governments are responding to transnational criminal activities, but they are doing too little too late. Arms trafficking, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and trafficking of human organs are just a few transnational crimes that appear to be growing in numbers. To address the sources and motivations of these crimes, they first must be legally defined as such in an international forum.

One conclusion that might be weakly inferred from the attempts to estimate the scale of drug importing is that consumption-based estimates are likely to be stronger than supply-based estimates (Reuter & Petrie, 1999). However, the large population surveys that exist for drug use do not exist for other illicit commodities and services. Moreover, measuring other markets that have little in common (e.g., illegal immigrant smuggling, organ trafficking, and arms trafficking) with any specificity may prove challenging because of low base rates of consumption compared with rates for drugs, for example. It seems clear that the measurement task will require very different data collection and analytic methods than have thus far been available.

There is a need for nations to continue to develop and communicate a comprehensive strategy on transnational organized crime. Specifically, the nature and scope, as well as current and future risks and threats, need to be assessed and researched. Efforts need to be expanded, especially in the area of reliable and uniform data collection. More sophisticated methodologies need to be devised and greater use made of the information available in the private sector (Williams, 1999).

As a matter of urgency, a central clearinghouse needs to be established with a focus on illicit market activities of all kinds and a recognition of the cross-linkages and synergies being developed. An increased emphasis on coordinated efforts should also be pursued. Coordination and cooperation are key to conducting research that address the problems inherent in transnational crime.