Organized Crime in Europe

Klaus Von Lampe. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. 2005. Sage Publication.

The concept of “organized crime” is an American invention that has been superimposed on a heterogeneous European crime landscape. The overall picture is murky, fragmented, and often contradictory because of factual differences, scattered and often incompatible data, and culturally induced differences in perceptions and conceptualizations. Numerous attempts have been made in Europe to redefine the term organized crime. These efforts have oscillated between, on the one hand, the desire to depart from the conventional American imagery of “crime syndicates” to accommodate the specific conditions in Europe and, on the other hand, the concern not to relinquish the “emotional kick” (Levi, 1998, p. 336) the term organized crime has, exactly because of the connotation of sinister crime organizations. So far, the diversity of perspectives has not been overcome by a common European approach. Even within the European Union, efforts toward a harmonization of views have not yet produced the intended results. To date, the European Union has been unable to arrive at a clear-cut definition of organized crime (Mitsilegas, 2001), and the contributions from member states to the annual E.U. Organised Crime Report continue to reflect not only different phenomena but also diverging conceptions. In some countries, for example, the focus is on the volume of certain types of “organized” crime, whereas other countries emphasize the number of “criminal groups” that operate within their borders (Europol, 2002; see also den Boer, 2001). In light of this background, it is difficult to summarize the situation of organized crime in Europe. Much of the available material reveals more about the social construction of reality than about the reality of organized crime.

The Conceptual History of Organized Crime in Europe: A Brief Overview

The phenomena that are variously lumped together under the umbrella term organized crime have a long tradition in Europe, some going back to preindustrial times (Egmond, 1996; Sharpe, 1996) and even all the way back to the Roman Empire (Woodiwiss, 2001). But the concept of organized crime has only recently been introduced to the European criminal policy debate (Fijnaut, 1990). The beginnings of the organized crime discourse in Europe can be traced back to the 1960s. At that time, the American public’s preoccupation with “La Cosa Nostra” was approaching its climax (von Lampe, 2001a), and some observers in Western Europe began to wonder if similar problems could emerge on their side of the Atlantic. These concerns, however, were not broadly shared. The notion prevailed that organized crime was an ill-fitting term for the description of the Western European crime picture. A study sponsored by the Council of Europe in 1970 found that police forces across Western Europe had little use for this concept. The researchers noted a general agreement that American-style organized crime in the sense of the provision of illegal goods and services by well-organized and politically entrenched “crime syndicates” was almost nonexistent. Instead, developments in the area of predatory crime were believed to pose a much greater and far more immediate danger. In the final report of the project (Mack & Kerner, 1975), two major trends were emphasized. One perceived trend went from traditional predatory crimes to predatory business-type crimes such as long-firm fraud. The other trend involved the weakening of the traditional localized underworld milieu and the emergence of a more anonymous, nonterritorial network of individuals and clusters of individuals from different social and regional backgrounds who formed temporary teams to pool resources for the commission of specific crimes. This network of criminals, it was stressed, did not have “any elaborate collective organisation,” nor was there a “Mr. Big” (Mack & Kerner, 1975, p. 54). New dimensions of organizational sophistication were seen only insofar as the degree of planning and preparation of each criminal enterprise had allegedly increased and a vertical division of labor between background organizers and frontline operators had become more common. In light of these perceived trends of committing crimes that are more distinct and businesslike the spectacular, violence-prone exploits of gangland figures like the Krays and Richardsons in London did not appear to be the signal for a coming era of gang rule in Europe but more an anomaly. Instead, it was the Great Train Robbery of 1963 that in the eyes of the contemporary observer constituted “the outstanding single criminal operation in the 1960s” (Mack & Kerner, 1975, p. 39). In fact, the Great Train Robbery was described by one British criminologist “as the most outstanding achievement in the entire history of organised crime” (quoted in Mack & Kerner, 1975, p. 171).

Although the Council of Europe study of 1970 found little evidence of “syndicated crime,” it seemed at least plausible that criminal organizations could evolve out of enduring patterns of cooperation within the overall crime network (Kerner, 1973). But when in the mid-1980s two research projects once again investigated police perceptions of organized crime, these concerns had still not materialized. The two studies, which were conducted in West Germany and which can probably be taken as indicative of the situation in most of Western Europe, produced a picture very similar to the one drawn 15 years earlier (Rebscher & Vahlenkamp, 1988, 1991; Weschke & Heine-Heiss, 1990). The German underworld was characterized as essentially a loose system of varying criminal alliances. It seemed that during the 1970s and early 1980s, neither the existing groups had developed into larger units nor had a concentration of power taken place in the form of a mafia-style protection monopoly. The prevailing principle appeared to be that of peaceful coexistence. There were some exceptions to the rule, but these were not seen as decisive factors. Both studies pointed to the existence of more clearly defined, hierarchical crime organizations made up of foreigners who remained on the margins of the criminal landscape, whereas other foreigners had allegedly blended into the domestic underworld circles. Yet the notion of more cohesive criminal groups, as Rebscher and Vahlenkamp (1988) self-critically pointed out, might well have been a misconception. They found that officers who conducted their investigations on a case-by-case basis tended to report the existence of criminal organizations, whereas respondents from offender-oriented units that monitored the entire range of activities of particular suspects did not. In sum, the main difference between the early 1970s and mid 1980s is probably one mainly of terminology. Although at first the organized crime label was only very hesitantly used in the European context, in the mid-1980s the network of criminally exploitable contacts within and between the urban underworlds was identified as the specific form of organized crime in Western Europe.

A major shift in the perception of organized crime did not take place until the late 1980s (van Duyne, 2004; von Lampe, 2001a). The inclusion of so-called nontraditional (i.e., non-Italian) organized crime in the official American view on organized crime at that time (President’s Commission on Organized Crime, 1986), the growing migration problem in Western Europe, the discussion of new police powers in the fight against drug trafficking, and finally the profound changes following the fall of the Iron Curtain can be seen as some of the factors that contributed to a revitalization of the threatening image of mafia syndicates. In contrast to the original perception of the 1960s, however, these were now believed to be a present danger. According to journalistic depictions and official reports, Europe had become a hotbed for transnational, mostly ethnically defined “mafias” (Europol, 2002; Flormann & Krevert, 2001; Freemantle, 1995; Lindlau, 1987; Sterling, 1994). Ironically, efforts on the part of the police to arrive at a common understanding of organized crime have continued to follow the opposite direction. The working definition by Germany’s national police agency BKA (Bundeskriminalamt), for example, which since its formulation in 1990 has found some acceptance in Europe, requires little more than the cooperation of three offenders over a certain period of time (Black, Vander Beken, & De Ruyver, 2000; Levi, 1998). Along these lines, in Eastern Europe yet another understanding of organized crime has evolved, one that places much more emphasis on economic crime and high-level corruption. Here, the term mafia applies to “the entire web of persons who profit from the new economic order” (Foglesong & Solomon, 2001, p. 33).

A Classificatory Scheme for Assessing Organized Crime in Europe

The brief review of the conceptual history indicates the heterogeneity of the European understanding of organized crime. To do justice to the different approaches and to capture the broad range of aspects addressed in the public and scientific debate, it seems necessary to adopt a metatheoretical conceptualization. The following analysis will be outlined by a classificatory scheme that distinguishes three basic dimensions: (a) organized criminal activities, (b) structural patterns of criminal cooperation, and (c) the systemic context of organized criminals, criminal structures, and criminal activities.

Activity Dimension

Some depictions of organized crime place more emphasis on the “crime” component than on the aspect of “organization.” They treat certain modalities of the commission of crimes as distinctive or even quintessential features, linking organized crime, for example, to “serious” or “sophisticated” criminal activities. One crucial differentiation is the distinction between predatory and market-based crimes. As mentioned, in the 1960s, predatory crimes, including property crimes and fraud, tended to be regarded as a greater menace than crimes connected with illegal markets. Today, organized crime is primarily associated with the provision of illegal goods and services. Europol has named drug trafficking, illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, and various types of financial crimes, including different kinds of fraud, as the areas of crime expected to be most important for organized criminal groups in the future (Europol, 2002). A special case is constituted by the extortion of protection payments (racketeering), which is essentially a predatory crime but may also involve the provision of services, for both legal and illegal actors—for example, the actual protection against physical harm from other criminals, the elimination of competitors, or the collection of debts. Protection rackets that extend to the legal spheres of society and offer some services to the victims have, for instance, been reported in Southern Italy (Gambetta, 1993) and Russia (Skoblikov, 1999; Varese, 2001). In Western European countries, extortion of legal businesses is believed to be confined largely to particular ethnic minority communities and subculturally embedded businesses such as nightclubs (Europol, 2002; Fijnaut, Bovenkerk, Bruinsma, & Van de Bunt, 1998; Hobbs, Hadfield, Lister, & Winlow, 2002; Krevert, 1997).

Other potentially useful classifications within the activity dimension pertain to the methods ascribed to “organized criminals,” most notably the use of violence and intimidation. It has been argued that (racketeering aside) violence may be a latent feature of all organized crime but is far less commonly applied than stereotypical imagery would suggest. Where violence erupts, it may be more a sign of disorganized crime than organized crime (Pearson & Hobbs, 2001; Zaitch, 2002).

Structural Dimension

Networks and Organizations

Central to most conceptions of organized crime is the structural dimension. Usually, patterns of criminal cooperation are ordered along a continuum from “loosely structured” networks to “tightly structured” criminal organizations. A clearer picture, however, emerges when networks and organizations are treated as two distinct analytical categories. Criminal networks are webs of criminally exploitable ties. They demarcate the social space within which a given criminal actor can operate and cooperate. The notion of criminal organization, in contrast, addresses the question of whether or not network members cooperate as autonomous partners or in the context of an overarching system of more or less persistent norms, expectations, and procedures that permit coordinated, purposeful action (von Lampe, 2003).

Recent research, especially in the area of drug trafficking but also in other areas of crime, has by and large confirmed earlier assessments that the predominant structural pattern of criminal cooperation in Europe are webs of personal relations that are flexibly used by criminals for the commission of crimes. Cooperation typically occurs either on a contractual basis, in the form of supplier-consumer or ephemeral employer-employee relations, or on a partnership basis in pairs or small groups with little overall horizontal or vertical integration (Bruinsma & Bernasco, 2004; van Duyne, 1996; Fijnaut et al., 1998; Gruppo Abele, 2003; Hobbs & Dunnighan, 1998; Johansen, 1998; Junninen & Aromaa, 2000; Kleemans & Van de Bunt, 1999; von Lampe, 2003; Paoli, 2002, 2003; Pearson & Hobbs, 2001; Ruggiero, 1996; Zaitch, 2002). Official statements at times go in the same direction but claim (not quite convincingly) that it constituted a new development that “traditional hierarchical structures are being replaced by loose networks of criminals” (Commission of the European Communities, 2001, p. 8). This does not mean that criminal organizations have ceased to exist. Criminal organizations with a complex structure have been observed, for example, in the case of criminal groups that operate from “safe haven” countries (Williams, 1999, p. 44) where they experience little or no law enforcement interference (see, e.g., Benninger, 1999). In contrast, the emergence of criminal organizations in hostile environments, marked by high levels of law enforcement pressure, is theoretically and empirically an exceptional phenomenon (von Lampe, 2003), unless the criminal structures rest on some form of legitimate structure. This is the case, for instance, where outwardly legitimate businesses are involved in VAT (value added tax) fraud (van Duyne, 1996; van Duyne, Pheijffer, Kuijl, Van Dijk, & Bakker, 2001) and E.U. subsidy fraud (Sieber, 1998); private security firms offer illegal debt collection services (Varese, 2001); or licensed casinos are used for the operation of illegal gambling (Sieber & Bögel, 1993). Finally, clandestine fraternal associations that are only indirectly involved in criminal enterprises, such as, for example, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (Paoli, 1998), can qualify as organizations.


This point regarding the emergence of criminal organizations in hostile environments leads to another valuable distinction, apart from differentiating between networks and organizations: the distinction between various functions of criminal structures. Criminal structures can be expected to serve economic, social, or quasi-governmental purposes. Economic structures aim at material gain, such as, for example, a cigarette-smuggling ring or a gang of burglars. These have to be distinguished, analytically, from criminal structures that serve social functions. Fraternities such as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (Paoli, 1998), outlaw motorcycle gangs (Brown, 1999; Haut, 1999; Zimmerli, 1999), and the Russian vory v zakone (Varese, 2001) fall into this category, but to a certain degree, so also do subcultures such as the clubbing scene (Pearson & Hobbs, 2001) or those emerging within marginalized ethnic communities (Bovenkerk, 1998). These structures support their members only indirectly in illegal economic activities—for example, by facilitating contacts, giving status, reinforcing deviant values, and providing a forum for the exchange of information (Haller, 1992). Quasi-governmental structures, in turn, support illegal economic activities in a more abstract way by establishing and enforcing rules of conduct and by settling disputes in a given territory or market (Anderson, 1979). Here, too, the Italian Mafia seems to be an appropriate example, but less formal arrangements fulfilling the same function of maintaining order among criminal actors have also been documented in other countries. For example, in Germany’s red light districts, influential pimps are reported to hold “councils” to adjudicate disputes (Behr, 1985; Sieber & Bögel, 1993).

The notion of quasi-governmental criminal structures leads the discussion to a more complex level of observation, pertaining to structures that overarch the “underworld” either in the form of monopolies in illegal markets or in the form of illegal monopolies of violence over certain territories. Here, again, no clear picture can be discerned. Theoretically, monopolies can be expected to emerge in the area of systematic extortion as a precondition for doing business (Schelling, 1971). Empirically, monopolies of violence in Europe seem to exist primarily on a local level with more or less fragile agreements on territorial or sectorial exclusiveness between different racketeering groups (Gambetta, 1993; Varese, 2001). Monopolies in illegal commodity markets, on the other hand, appear to be more the exception than the rule (Besozzi, 2001), but economies of scale may lead to oligopolistic structures as, for example, on the upper levels of the cigarette black market (von Lampe, 2002b) and the production level of the synthetic drugs market (Gruppo Abele, 2003).

The three identified core functions of criminal structures are not empirically independent—that is, a criminal group may serve, for instance, both social and economic purposes. However, from a theoretical point of view—given different structural and logistical demands—it is unlikely that a particular criminal group will have both economic and quasi-governmental functions (Block, 1983; Skaperdas & Syropoulos, 1995). Often enough, it seems that the role of a particular “mafia” is misinterpreted because this distinction is not made and social and quasi-governmental structures are falsely described in terms of business enterprises (Haller, 1992).

Systemic Dimension

The third basic dimension of the organized crime concept, the systemic context, addresses two important issues: (a) the social embeddedness of organized crime and (b) the nexus between illegal and legal economic and political structures. Social embeddedness refers, in the first instance, to underlying social relations that enable or at least facilitate the emergence of criminal networks by providing participants with a common basis of trust (Kleemans & Van de Bunt, 1999). Familial, friendship, and ethnic ties are those most frequently mentioned in this regard, but legal business relations have also been found to develop into criminal relations (von Lampe & Johansen, 2004). In a more general sense, social embeddedness refers to the degree of hostility that organized criminals face with regard to recruitment, the marketability of illegal goods and services, or the securing of logistical and ideological support. It must be stressed that the social embeddedness of organized crime varies greatly in Europe from region to region and from one area of crime to another. The same is true for the relations between criminals and representatives of the legal institutions of society. These relations may be characterized by confrontation, factual tolerance, connivance, cooperation, and integration, the latter being the case when legal actors themselves are committing “organized crimes.”

In sum, this means that there is not one naturally given relationship between “upper-world” and “underworld.” Not all organized criminals, for example, seek to neutralize law enforcement through corruption or attempt to infiltrate legal businesses, just as collusion between illegal and legal actors does not always imply an asymmetry of power in favor of the criminal side. Rather, the available evidence suggests that contextual variables such as socioeconomic and cultural cleavages, the legitimacy of legal institutions, and the effectiveness of law enforcement influence the structure and operations of criminal networks and the interrelations with the immediate and broader environment.

The Criminal Geography of Europe

Conventional descriptions tend to paint a black-and-white picture of organized crime in Europe: The countries in transition in Eastern Europe are seen to have conditions conducive to the emergence of criminal organizations, whereas the rich Western European countries, according to this view, serve primarily as markets for illegal goods and services and as easy targets for the commission of predatory crimes and the laundering of illicit profits. In a global perspective, Europe is in a similar fashion said to be an area of operation for transnational criminal groups from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Although the East-West and North-South dichotomies are not without merit, a closer look reveals a more complex and differentiated picture. To begin with, even in the age of globalization, crime remains, to a considerable extent, a localized problem. Indigenous criminals continue to play a role (Europol, 2002), and where international ramifications have developed, organized crime seems to be characterized more by interdependent local units than by structures that operate in what would appear to be an almost metaphysical transnational sphere (Hobbs & Dunnighan, 1998). In the light of this background, the importance of Europe for crime globally, and of any country within Europe, is defined as much by domestic conditions in their own right as by the international context.

Europe in the Global Context of Organized Crime

Europe as a whole occupies a position in the global crime picture that is characterized, at the same time, by (a) significant manifestations of domestic organized crime—for example, the production and distribution of synthetic drugs (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction [EMCDDA], 2002; Gruppo Abele, 2003); (b) lucrative markets for illegal goods and services from abroad, such as agricultural drugs from Latin America, North Africa, and Asia (EMCDDA, 2002); (c) the export of illegal goods, such as embargoed weapons technology (Wamers, 1996) or child pornography (Jenkins, 2001); and (c) the operation of European criminals outside of Europe such as fraudsters from the former Soviet Union operating in the United States (Finckenauer & Waring, 1998). Europe also functions as a transit route for illicit goods—for example, drugs going from Nigeria to the United States and Canada (Adamoli, Di Nicola, Savona, & Zoffi, 1998). The different roles Europe plays point to the interplay and overlap of various factors. That drugs like heroin and cocaine are imported rather than homegrown can be attributed to natural conditions as well as to differences in law enforcement between Europe and the main coca- and poppy-cultivating countries in Latin America and Asia. These “asymmetries” (Passas, 1998) are exploited by criminal entrepreneurs who are capable of transnational operation and cooperation—for example, through the use of legal business contacts or familial ties connecting actors in cultivation and transit countries with members of migrant communities in the countries of distribution (Bovenkerk, 1998; Tarrius, 1999). The lack of language barriers between former colonies and former colonial powers can also facilitate international criminal cooperation. This helps to explain, for example, why Spain is the main European port of entry for cocaine from Latin America (EMCDDA, 2002; see also Zaitch, 2002).

European Organized Crime and Post-communist Transition

Within Europe, the crime picture has come to be described primarily in the context of the changes that have been set in motion by the collapse of the Soviet system. The shift from state planning to a free-market economy and the reorganization of the political and administrative framework from totalitarian control to democratic structures in the transition countries in Eastern Europe have been marked by an increase in social inequalities, the undermining of traditional values, and a weakening of formal and informal control mechanisms. Probably as a result of these and other factors, there has been a dramatic increase in reported crimes going hand in hand with decreasing clearance rates (Holyst, 1999; Levay, 2000). But the postcommunist transition period has not only produced conditions conducive to crime as such. It has also created opportunities for the predatory takeover of legal institutions of society, such as politics, private enterprise, and the media, by ruthless interest groups. These actors, who come primarily from the ranks of the old communist elite and black marketeers, have been able, for example, to manipulate the privatization of formerly state owned businesses in a way that they acquired shares below market value or obtained factual control over businesses for the purpose of systematically looting company assets (Baloun & Scheinost, 2002; Osyka, 2000; Peev, 2002; Varese, 2001). Even businesses with no criminal connotation have come under the influence of criminal elements because of the inefficiency of the justice system and the resulting demand for illicit dispute settlement and debt collection services (Skoblikov, 1999; Varese, 2001). Likewise, entrepreneurs have found themselves under pressure to engage in corrupt practices to stay in business (Roberts, Adibekian, Nemiria, Tarkhnishvili, & Tholen, 1998; Varese, 2001). Consequently, the boundaries between the legal and illegal spheres have become blurred, and terms such as “crony capitalism” and “criminal-syndicalist state” have become customary to characterize the economic and political situation (Gerber, 2000; Peev, 2002). Still, it would be false to generalize and to make a simple distinction between the countries of transition on the one hand and the established democratic countries in Western Europe on the other.

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, for example, points to substantial differences between relatively well-off countries such as Slovenia, Estonia, and Hungary with average scores between 6.0 and 4.9 and relatively corrupt countries such Russia, Romania, and the Ukraine with scores between 2.7 and 2.4. Two transition countries, Slovenia and Estonia, even fare better than the worst-ranked Western European countries, Italy and Greece (Transparency International, 2002). Estimates on the extent of the “shadow economy” go in the same direction, showing a significant East-West difference within Europe as a whole and within Eastern Europe while at the same time, according to some calculations, the shares of unreported economic activities could well be lower in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia, than in Italy and Greece (Schneider & Enste, 2000).

The legal and institutional framework to combat organized crime also shows important differences as well as similarities across the East-West divide. The countries in transition have not only struggled to bring their legislations in line with international standards, in some cases they have gone beyond this level to pass more far-reaching provisions (Adamoli et al., 1998; Ambos, 2002; Gropp & Huber, 2001). Thus, the problem of effective implementation aside, in some regards, conditions in Western Europe may well be more favorable to organized crime than in Eastern Europe. At the same time, efforts on the E.U. level toward legal harmonization and improved police and judicial cooperation have been slow going, so that potential criminogenic legal asymmetries have persisted in Western Europe, just as they continue to exist in Europe as a whole.

Selected Areas of Crime

In light of these diverging trends and circumstances, general statements on the geography of organized crime in Europe have to be made with great caution. Looking at specific types of crime, it becomes apparent that in some cases, new threats have emerged as a result of the political changes in Eastern Europe; some crimes have received a new impetus; and in some instances, geographical distribution patterns have changed.

As has been noted earlier, the transformation from state planning to private business created numerous opportunities for embezzlement and fraud. A unique example of crime brought forth by the transition process is provided by the exploitation of currency exchange provisions that accompanied the currency union between East and West Germany in 1990. Fraud schemes involving members of the communist nomenklatura in various former Soviet Bloc countries resulted in several billion Euros worth of damages incurred by the German federal bank from the exchange of rubles in connection with nonexistent export deals (Schmidt, 1993).

Another type of crime closely linked to the demise of the Soviet regime, but one with more far-reaching implications, is the trafficking in nuclear material. In the early and mid-1990s, radioactive substances from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union were seized in Western Europe. These incidents gave rise to concerns that an illicit market for nuclear material was in the process of developing. Since then, however, cases of suspected trafficking in radioactive substances have diminished, presumably because of improved security in nuclear installations and because of poor market demand. Moreover, the market has so far not been populated by criminal organizations but, rather, “by amateur criminals, scam artists, and (on the demand side) undercover police and police decoys” (Lee, 2003, p. 101; see also Lee, 1998; Nillson, 1998).

Two types of criminal activity that have undergone considerable changes since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and on which the economic differences between Eastern and Western Europe have come to bear, are illegal migration and human trafficking. Eastern European countries have become major source and transit countries for illegal migrants on their way to Western Europe (Dobovšek, 2004; Lehti & Aromaa, 2004). Moscow, for example, serves as an important hub for migrants from Asia. But in recent years, some transition countries seem to have become destination countries themselves (Okólski, 2000; Pieke, 2002). In the area of human trafficking, Eastern European countries, since the early 1990s, have replaced third world countries as the major sources of trafficked women and children for the Western European sex industry. Poverty, increasing gender inequality, sex discrimination, and ethnic discrimination in the countries of transition are believed to be the driving forces behind this development (Kelly, 2002; Vocks & Nijboer, 2000). Trafficking routes are in part determined by geographical proximity— for example, between Scandinavia and the Baltic states—and in part they appear to reflect consumer demands that are met by chains of interlocking networks of traffickers and procurers, connecting source countries in Eastern Europe with Western Europe over greater distances. At the same time, trafficking routes also exist between different countries of transition (Kelly, 2002; see also Salt, 2000). In the related field of child pornography, East-West differences in attitudes and in the intensity of law enforcement have allegedly “revolutionized” the market. The break away from communist austerity has created an atmosphere, enhanced by the weakness of the police, in which child pornographic material can be produced and distributed quite freely (Jenkins, 2001).

Similar to human trafficking and child pornography, the smuggling of excise goods— namely, cigarettes—has experienced a boost since the early 1990s. One scheme involves the large-scale procurement of cigarettes for export from the European Union to Eastern Europe. The cigarettes, for which no excise and VAT is payable within the European Union, are being reloaded and smuggled back to the European Union. Main trafficking routes stretch from the Baltic States and Poland to Germany and Great Britain, and from the Balkans to Italy. Traffickers can take advantage of the relative immunity from law enforcement in those countries where the reloading takes place and of the sheer volume of cross-border trade that makes detection of contraband difficult (van Duyne, 2003; Joossens, 1999; Joossens & Raw, 1998; von Lampe, 2002b). In some Balkan countries, smugglers even seem to have received active cooperation from governments (Hajdinjak, 2002).

As a final selected example of crime types, the trafficking in stolen motor vehicles may be used to illustrate the diverse and dynamic European criminal landscape. Within a few months of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a substantial market for stolen consumer goods, including cars, emerged in Eastern Europe (Killias & Aebi, 2000). Cars were stolen primarily in the Benelux countries, France, Italy, and Germany, to meet a huge demand for motor vehicles in the former economies of shortage (Sieber & Bögel, 1993). The opening of the borders to the East meant an overall increase in the volume of car theft in Europe, because traditional trafficking routes, most notably to the Middle East, did not cease to function (Sehr, 1995). In the early years, Poland seems to have been the main trade center for the Eastern European market, because of its geographical location and because already during the 1980s, Polish crime networks had been involved in the cross-border trafficking of stolen cars on a small scale (Rixdorf, 1993). Soon, however, offenders from other countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, appeared on the scene, and the areas of operation for car thieves expanded in all directions, including to countries in Eastern Europe (Dobovšek, 2004). Likewise, the consumer markets shifted eastward, to the Baltic States, Russia, the Ukraine, and even farther to the Caucasus region, presumably in part as a response to the saturation of demand in countries such as Poland, which has increasingly adopted the role of a transit and source country for stolen motor vehicles (Sehr, 1995). Parallel to this development, the volume of car theft has decreased in Western Europe, following, as one important factor, the introduction of more effective antitheft technology (Europol, 2002; Ratzel & Lippert, 2001). Trafficking in motor vehicles can serve as a case in point for the changing crime patterns in Europe. Moreover, it helps to illuminate the sometimes ambiguous nature of organized crime. A significant share of reported cases of car theft is believed to involve insurance fraud where car owners conspire with traffickers. Estimates place the figure for Germany as high as 50% (Ratzel & Lippert, 2001). This means that the dividing line between offenders and victims is blurred and that, unlike conventional wisdom suggests, there is similarly no clear-cut role allocation between Eastern and Western European countries.

Basic Types of Organized Criminal Structures in Europe

So far, the discussion has highlighted particular aspects of the overall problem of organized crime from different angles, against the backdrop of a metatheoretical conceptualization. In the concluding section, these aspects will be dealt with in a more holistic way in connection with some basic types of organized criminal structures. Two stereotypical manifestations of organized crime will be analyzed—the Sicilian Mafia and what has come to be called the Russian Mafia. It is argued that both phenomena constitute deviant cases and that other criminal structures, also discussed below, are more characteristic of European organized crime.

The Sicilian Mafia (Cosa Nostra)

The Mafia in Sicily is often regarded as the archetype of organized crime and has been the subject of much scholarly controversy. One hotly debated issue concerns the question of whether the Mafia is a stable organization, or, rather, a cultural phenomenon, state of mind, or behavioral system that reflects certain traits of Sicilian culture (see Catanzaro, 1992; Lupo, 2002). The best answer to this question seems to be that the Mafia is both. The Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, is a secret association with a clearly defined membership. At the same time, it is a reflection of more general social and cultural conditions in southern Italy that have also produced other mafia groups in Sicily outside Cosa Nostra but with essentially the same purposes and functions (Arlacchi, 1993; Gambetta, 1993).

The basic structural unit of the Cosa Nostra is the cosca or family, consisting of from a handful to over 100 members under the leadership of a capo. Each family claims an illicit monopoly of power in a defined territory. The families, with intermittent variations over the years, are coordinated on the provincial level by a so-called commissione or cupola. Above the provincial level a commissione interprovinciale has been created as the supreme coordinating body of the Cosa Nostra (Gambetta, 1993). The structure, which in practice has proven to be fragile and not always effective (Hess, 1998; Lupo, 2002; Stille, 1995), is quite simple. There is a hierarchy, but no horizontal differentiation of tasks. This needs to be understood with a view to the limited functions the Cosa Nostra serves as an organization. As has been mentioned above, the Cosa Nostra is a fraternal association with both social and quasi-governmental functions, but not a business enterprise (Paoli, 1998). Therefore, it does not require, for example, elaborate arrangements for the performance of tasks in a division of labor. The aims of the Cosa Nostra are more or less limited to the protection and promotion of the legal and especially illegal economic, political, and social interests of its members and to the regulation of internal conflicts (Arlacchi, 1993). These conflicts arise quite naturally from the main occupation of mafiosi, the provision of private protection in the absence of effective regulatory institutions. The guarantee of protection necessitates the absence of competition. This can best be secured when all providers are integrated into one centralized, hierarchical structure (Gambetta, 1993). Apart from private protection, Mafia members are involved in a variety of criminal activities, including drug trafficking (Paoli, 1999).

One of the characteristic features that set the Mafia apart from other manifestations of organized crime is the close bond mafiosi have established to representatives of the political system on the local, regional, and national levels. In fact, a number of Cosa Nostra members are said to have held public offices themselves (Arlacchi, 1993). The alliance between the Mafia and politics has its historical roots in the ability of Mafia dons to mobilize electoral support. In return, mafiosi have received political protection, and they have been allowed to share in the distribution of public benefits (Catanzaro, 1992; Stille, 1995). As such, the Mafia has become an integral component of the clientelistic political culture of Italy (Ginsborg, 2001). Since the 1980s, however, the relationship between the Mafia and politics has deteriorated. Although mafiosi have gained greater autonomy due to the financial power obtained from drug trafficking, the state has taken far-reaching legislative and administrative measures to curtail the Mafia’s role in mediating political and social conflicts (Arlacchi, 1993). The confrontation has culminated in the assassinations of Magistrates Falcone and Borsellino in 1992 and the subsequent arrest and eventual conviction of numerous Mafia leaders (Paoli, 1999; Stille, 1995). In recent years, the Cosa Nostra has allegedly shifted away from violent confrontation and adopted a low-profile strategy under a new leadership (Europol, 2002; Neubacher, 2002).

The “Russian Mafia” and the Vory v Zakone

The so-called Russian Mafia, like its Sicilian counterpart, is linked to the territorially based provision of protection services and to alliances between upperworld and underworld (Varese, 2001). The term “Russian Mafia” variously refers to any or all of essentially three types of actors that characterize the crime picture in Russia today: (a) corrupt government officials; (b) shady business tycoons, so-called oligarchs; and (c) members of criminal gangs headed by so-called authorities (avtoritety) and loosely tied to each other through a criminal fraternity known as the “thieves in law” (vory v zakone). This three-tiered edifice first took shape in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, when government and party bureaucrats, participants of the shadow economy, and professional criminals began to establish a corrupt system of mutually beneficial relations. In the period of privatization, these three groups, because of their connections and financial power, were those best positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities and to acquire control over formerly state-owned businesses and natural resources. The new criminal entrepreneurs have been able to amass huge fortunes from the mostly illicit export of strategic raw materials such as non-ferrous and rare metals, jewels, timber, and various products of the military-industrial complex (Finckenauer & Voronin, 2001; Glinkina, 1994; Varese, 2001).

The keys to understanding the crime situation in post-Soviet Russia appear to be systemic corruption and the fact that the state has lost its monopoly over coercion (Galeotti, 1998). The criminal landscape is described as populated by territorially based, hierarchically structured criminal groups with the reputation and ability to use violence. These groups offer a protective roof (krysha) to legal and illegal businesses. This can take on the form of pure extortion, or it may be combined with the actual protection from physical harm and the provision of services such as debt collection and the elimination of competitors (Skoblikov, 1999; Varese, 2001). The criminal gangs strive in a situation where violence is a readily available and viable option for solving conflicts in the business world and on the political arena (Galeotti, 1998). Their influence, however, appears limited by the fact that on the one hand, private security firms and even government agencies have entered the market of private protection and, on the other hand, that some potential victims of extortion, major economic conglomerates, have established their own security forces (Varese, 2001; Volkov, 2000a, 2000b). The internalization of protection goes hand in hand with corrupt ties to political figures who offer a variety of favors, including tax concessions, protectionist measures against competitors, and exemptions from duties. In providing political protection, different branches of the state apparatus may come in conflict with each other. In those cases, the side whose “roof” is higher in the state hierarchy is said to keep the upper hand. In turn, political roofs appear to be superior to criminal roofs. Criminals reportedly refrain from entering into conflict with political protectors (Varese, 2001). So although there is evidence of alliances between criminal gangs and the political and business elites and a partial overlap between these groups, the gang element seems to be, relatively, the weakest component in the overall system of crime and corruption.

Given this caveat, it appears somewhat odd that so much emphasis is placed on the vory v zakone, Russia’s alleged gangster elite. The thieves in law are a criminal fraternity that evolved during the 1920s in the Soviet prison system (Gulag). Their cultural roots supposedly go back to thieves’ guilds of the 19th century and the traditional Russian village community, stressing solidarity, a sense of equality, and defiance for state authority. The internal structure is nonhierarchical, although older members reportedly wield greater moral authority. The vory control a communal fund (obshchak) to support group activities. Contributions to the obshchak come from extorted inmates and from criminals outside the prison (Sobolev, Rushchenko, & Volobuev, 2002; Varese, 2001). In the post-Soviet era, vory have less of a prison background. Long incarceration is no longer a precondition for being inducted into the fraternity. Many young criminals are simply buying membership, whereas in other instances the title vor v zakone is bestowed on deserving criminals, and obtaining the title signals a promotion within the underworld (Varese, 2001). From this description follows that vory v zakone do not have a power base of their own. In fact, the vory code of conduct, unlike mafia culture in Sicily, does not emphasize the use of violence (Volkov, 2000b). Rather, the vory’s position of power seems to depend on their individual role within criminal gangs and on the high reputation they enjoy in criminal circles. This is no guarantee of underworld supremacy. In the Yekaterinenburg region, Russia’s largest industrial center, for example, a gang led by thieves in law lost to ruthless competition with a criminal gang composed of former athletes (Finckenauer & Voronin, 2001; Volkov, 2000b).

Organized Crime European Style

The Sicilian Mafia and the Russian Mafia are characterized by the close interaction and partial overlap of criminal, economic, and political elites. In this respect, both phenomena seem to constitute deviant cases in the European crime landscape. Although there are no systematically collected data to corroborate this claim, violence-based criminal gangs appear to operate more or less separately from the legal spheres of society. Moreover, criminal networks seem to have a tendency not to stretch across social and cultural boundaries. Instead, criminal actors tend to associate with criminal actors of a similar background (Weerman, 2003). To put the Sicilian and Russian Mafias into perspective, the following classification based on differences in the social embeddedness of criminal actors (von Lampe, 2001b, 2002a) briefly highlights some manifestations of organized criminal structures that may be more characteristic of Europe in general. The typology is premised on two tentative assumptions: (a) the relative social homogeneity of criminal networks and (b) a positive correlation between the social position of criminal actors and the quality of criminal opportunities.

The typology distinguishes four basic constellations. The first type comprises criminal networks with no social support structure within the countries of operation, as in the case of burglary gangs that use home bases in Eastern Europe as a hub for crime sprees in Western Europe (Benninger, 1999). The recruitment and training of group members and the formation of teams takes place under relative immunity from law enforcement. These conditions appear to be favorable for the emergence of complex organizational structures, including a military-like hierarchy and a division of labor within and between teams. The lack of social support in the countries of operation, in turn, corresponds to the predatory nature of the crimes and to the seemingly unrestrained willingness to use violence against persons and property.

The second category refers to subculture-based crime networks. In these cases, criminal actors can rely on a social support structure that is larger than that provided by their immediate criminal network but more or less set apart from mainstream society and its institutions. An illustrative example is provided by Turkish and Kurdish drug smuggling and distribution rings embedded in migrant communities in various Western European countries. Most heroin marketed in Europe comes from the Golden Crescent area via Turkey (EMCDDA, 2002). Smuggling, storage, and distribution of heroin are typically organized through networks of familial ties. Although on one hand, the seclusion of ethnic minority communities is used to shield criminal activities from detection, on the other hand, actors are familiar enough with the infrastructure in their respective host countries—communication, business, and finances—to take advantage of it (van Duyne, 1996; Flormann & Krevert, 2001; Pearson & Hobbs, 2001).

The third constellation includes criminal networks rooted in mainstream society. These networks comprise outwardly law-abiding actors who are not restricted by any practical, cultural, or legal obstacles in taking advantage of the legitimate social infrastructure. Mainstream embedded networks are typically involved in organized business crimes such as investment fraud or health insurance fraud. In comparison with crime networks rooted in subcultures, they have a number of strategic advantages, including “natural” interaction with officeholders that may translate into crime opportunities or reduced risks of law enforcement interference. Even in the absence of outright corruptive relations, ties to public officials can prove a valuable shield against police action (van Duyne, 1997).

The fourth type pertains to networks entrenched in the power elites. In contrast to the former category, actors have direct access to socially relevant decision-making processes in politics, business, and the media. Examples are provided by a long series of scandals on the local, state, national, and supranational levels, involving the abuse or misuse of competencies for profit, power, or protection from criminal prosecution for other crimes. These scandals are connected, for example, to illegal party financing and public contracts (Pujas & Rhodes, 1998). The problem in this realm is that, more than in other social spheres, a lot remains in the dark so that even after lengthy inquiries, in many cases there is not much more than speculation and guesswork about the extent and degree of criminal involvement of members of the power elites.

It seems to be a characteristic trait of the treatment of organized crime all over Europe that socially more or less marginalized crime networks receive continuous attention, whereas potentially more harmful crime networks, with greater capacities to manipulate institutional decisions and to profit from lucrative opportunities in the area of business crime, tend to be the subject of scandals that only sporadically occupy the minds of the public and law enforcement. Therefore, the emergence of a clearer picture of organized crime in Europe will not only depend on further police investigations, journalistic inquiries, and scientific research per se; it may also depend on a reorientation of the focus of attention, away from the black-and- white dichotomies that currently influence the perception of organized crime.