Untangling the Spider’s Web: Tackling Transnational Criminal Networks

by Clotilde Sebag, CRIMSON Project Assistant, RUSI Europe

2 March 2023

A coordinated transnational response is needed to understand and tackle the complex criminal networks involved in global illicit flows.

A recent Europol-coordinated operation, Operation Desert Light, took down a ‘super cartel’ said to be controlling one third of Europe’s cocaine trade. Operations across Europe and the United Arab Emirates targeted the drugs trafficking infrastructure in Europe and the command-and-control centre in Dubai, culminating in the arrest of 49 suspects and the seizure of over 33 tonnes of drugs.

Rather than being a super cartel, this was an association of international drugpins representing some of the largest European criminal groups who came together to engage in ‘large-scale drugs trafficking and money laundering’. With different links to a variety of actors throughout the cocaine supply chain, they formed a wide network ranging from source countries in South America to European consumer countries.

Criminal actors coming together to form partnerships may sound counterintuitive, and yet they do, establishing a myriad of links that are useful to the wider trafficking effort. Actors, which can be groups or individuals, are connected to different degrees. They are divided according to their function within supply chains and connected by various ties. In this organisational structure, no one person controls the entire network, giving rise to fluid transnational organised crime networks active in different jurisdictions and across borders.

The types of partnerships and degrees of interconnectedness all vary. At the micro-level, local criminal ties can be based on shared economic interests, kinship, family connections, or ethnicity. At the macro-level, the primary driver behind cooperation between international criminal groups is economic interest, and ties can be thought of as ‘arrangements of convenience’ to, for instance, maximise comparative advantages, minimise risk, and enter new territory. Ties between criminal groups and actors can range from volatile and inconsistent arrangements to deeper and more durable alliances. These in turn are deeply impacted by trust, as research has shown. Low trust between actors leads to short-term and inconsistent arrangements, while higher levels of trust, which are also built up over time, lead to more stable and longer-term arrangements.

Today we see strong ties between and within European and Latin American criminal networks, particularly in the cocaine trade, facilitated by certain individuals and groups. Serbian and Montenegrin criminal networks have direct connections with Colombian and other European criminal groups, while the Albanian mafia is particularly influential and has consolidated partnerships and a direct presence in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela, and is the main intermediary for the distribution of cocaine arriving at the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. Within the EU, criminal groups from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK are interconnected, forming a sprawling European cocaine trafficking network.

Global illicit flows, including the trafficking of illegal commodities such as cocaine, the illegal movement of legal goods such as timber, and flows of illicit finance and services, all involve such networked criminal groups. The convergence of illicit flows, including overlapping commodities, environments, groups and actors, is a great concern. For instance, certain actors, such as brokers, play a key role in connecting and coordinating criminal networks, groups and individuals involved in different kinds of trafficking and operating in different geographical areas.

This spider’s web of organised criminal groups merits close attention, as it is precisely this networked structure that shapes criminals’ operational capacities, their global reach and their resilience to law enforcement efforts. Policymakers and experts should be striving for a deeper understanding of how these structures come about and operate in order to develop effective responses to dynamic drug supply chains.

A closer focus on criminals’ organisational structure is key to policy development, as it shapes their adaptive responses to disruption. It is the ability to rapidly expand and contract that allows organised criminal networks to quickly react to shifts in the supply chain and keep operating – for instance, the arrest of an actor can be countered through new partnerships, and interdiction efforts in one geographical area can lead to the displacement of criminal activities and routes to areas with no or lower interdiction efforts, sometimes referred to as the ‘balloon effect’. The networked structure allows criminals not only to react to new constraints, but also to benefit from new opportunities. Partnerships and new alliances provide criminal groups with opportunities to enter new markets and drive innovation. Europe has been the victim of this, with new criminal networks coming into the cocaine market, for example, and ‘contributing to an increased availability of cocaine’, as well as Mexican methamphetamine experts, or ‘cooks’, being sent to Europe to help Dutch criminal groups set up domestic methamphetamine manufacturing laboratories.

Law enforcement’s disruption efforts should therefore be based on knowledge of group structures, including the identification of central actors, such as heads and brokers; actors positioned to join the network when others are removed; and potential weak links. A mix of quantitative studies (such as Social Network Analysis) and qualitative studies would form a solid evidence base on which to build policy and countermeasures.

The transnational nature of organised crime, operating across borders and jurisdictions, requires a coordinated transnational response – one that adopts, much like the criminals, the form of a network: a network of practitioners, researchers and policymakers from across the world sharing best practices and local insights to develop coherent and effective policies. The EU’s Global Illicit Flows Programme (GIFP) is one instance of such networked cooperation – moving beyond a focus on commodities, recognising how different illicit flows converge, and highlighting the necessity of trans-regional criminal justice cooperation. The RUSI Europe-led Monitoring and Support for the Global Illicit Flows Programme (MASIF), part of the GIFP, is a key example of coordination efforts to build relationships and exchange evidence-based research. It is through such trusted cooperation that the spider’s web of transnational criminal networks can slowly be untangled.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI Europe or any other institution.

Copyright: Nicolas Picard/Unsplash

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Clotilde Sebag, CRIMSON Project Assistant, RUSI Europe

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