The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Some basic thoughts on the nature of organized crime PART 1

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on April 15, 2011
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Organized crime (both in the national and transnational forms) has long been seen as a great challenge to the prosperity and security of ASEAN as a whole and its individual member states. Criminal activities in the region are seen as more and more alarming as they are perceived to be increasingly powerful, “organized” and “transnational”. Indeed, in order to tackle these issues, the global police club, Interpol, has begun construction of its regional headquarters in Singapore.

On the surface it appears that the public might share the governments’ concerns, as surveys indicate that crime is generally perceived to be one of the major social problems. One should note however, that what the public regard as criminal might have much more to do with ordinary (“visible”) crime rather than with some organized transnational crime so much feared by governments.  In any case, it appears that the general understanding of the nature of the latter and the difference between the two has been quite limited. In this blog entry, I want to highlight some of the main differences between ordinary and organized crime.

The first thing that comes to mind when talking about organized crime is that it must involve some degree of organization. In other words, it cannot simply be a pub brawl (no matter how brutal). While this is true, the mere fact that some criminal activity may require some organization does not necessarily make it a part of organized crime. For instance, if two robbers decide to snatch purses using a scooter, they must be organized enough to buy (or rent) the scooter, but it does not mean that their actions are anything other than ordinary criminality. Even sophisticatedly planned bank robberies fall under the category of ordinary “project crimes” and not organized crime. At the same time, as it was rightly observed by Naylor, “(…)not all underground entrepreneurs who peddle dope or kiddy porn belong to hierarchical and durable organizations. What makes organized crime different is that its participants organize not just to participate in the market for criminal goods and services but also to dominate that market.”

Indeed, what really characterizes organized crime is not that it sometimes might involve forced redistribution of wealth (which is the crucial component of all profit-driven ordinary crimes), but rather that it attempts to dominate a market for specific illicit goods and/or services (such as sex services, gambling, drugs, etc.). Operating in a market for “forbidden consumption desires” (as labeled by Naylor) usually involves a whole range of illegal activities, such as smuggling and trafficking, bribing, forging, money-laundering, etc. While many of the above require crossing borders, the bottom line is that the main driver for organized crime is the local demand for illegal commodities. Hence it comes as no surprise that many see organized crime as a type of “enterprise” resembling legal businesses. In my next blog entry I will try to show this notion must be taken with a grain of salt.

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