For those who fight against transnational organised crime on a daily basis, there are several extremely important issues, including: international cooperation, the specialisation of the actors in the criminal chain, effective coordination between these actors, analysis of the criminal threat in order to understand the reality of the situation and be able to anticipate its evolution and the definition of joint strategies. However, there is another matter that, due to its fundamental nature probably surpasses all others: the money and all crime-related proceeds and property stemming from organised crime.
It is no surprise to anyone that criminals are driven by profit and fueled by money. Nevertheless, the amounts generated in this area are still overwhelming. While several studies have stated that the hidden nature of the funds make it difficult to arrive at precise figures, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the illicit funds from criminal activities worldwide represents 4% of world GDP ($3.76 trillion). Meanwhile, the estimated amount of money laundered globally in one year is between 2% and 5% of global GDP ($1.88 – $4.7 trillion). At a European Union level, illicit activities are calculated to generate around €110 billion per year. It is estimated that EU authorities manage to seize and confiscate between 1% and 2% of these criminal assets. We could cite more figures, although those given here should be enough to understand the basics – organised criminal groups today have economic resources greater than the GDP of several countries on the planet and the profits generated by criminal activities are enormous. These groups have the ability to buy anything, services and, in many cases, even people. There is also a demonstrable correlation between the presence and profits of organised crime and levels of corruption. The two go hand-in-hand.
This reality needs to be tackled head on. With its inherent violence and profound impact on people, public health and the environment, it is without doubt a major problem that has to be addressed in a determined way. Perhaps the first thing to do is to ask ourselves: Would organised crime be so powerful if it were not backed by such huge financial resources? It is possible to debate the matter, put forward arguments and defend one’s position; nevertheless, the answer to this question has to be “Yes”. It is also interesting to note that while globally there is public pressure to punish offenders and criminals -usually through prison sentences- there is no such powerful movement pushing to apply a sentence that is far more effective than any custodial measure: the total and systematic confiscation of all property derived from crime. This is a punishment that has very real advantages: it prevents the financing of crime, severely limits the ability of organised groups to expand and allows countries to recover funds to pay for both preventative and punitive policies (at a time in which public spending is repeatedly being cut). If we compare it to costly prison sentences that create violence, affect human rights and which have not had a real impact on reducing levels of violence, the effective option does not seem so complicated.
Despite this situation, the finances of organised crime remain, in many parts of the world, a complete unknown or, at the very least, an area in which there is considerable scope for improvement. This is not to say that the investigation and prosecution of economic and financial crime linked to organised groups are a simple matter. On the contrary, they are extremely complex, due to the variety and sometimes impenetrable nature of financial flows and the network of companies, businesses and financial arrangements that make it very difficult to identify the actors involved and even more so the final beneficiaries. Nor can we say that the laws are fully adapted to facing up to this reality or that international cooperation on the matter is seamless. It is perfectly clear that there are considerable obstacles and resistance to making progress in these matters, with vested interests hindering investigations that allow for the identification, seizure and confiscation of the assets gained from crime.
Faced with the mountain of criminal assets that continues to grow every day, we can either stand idly by and see how far they can go, using excuses such as that we are not prepared or that we don’t have the tools, the resources or adequate legislation, or we can act, albeit imperfectly, but with an iron will that can move mountains – even mountains of dirty money. We have to follow the money, identify as many criminal assets as possible, attack proceeds from crime on all fronts, confiscate them all and make them available to the community. It is not an easy challenge, it will take a lot of effort, but it is not impossible.
At the EL PAcCTO Programme, we are aware of the great importance of this issue. We have been working with countries in Latin America for several years to strengthen institutions in the penal chain, reinforce international cooperation and train those involved, in particular in relation to money laundering and the identification, confiscation and management of assets derived from crime. However, there is still a lot that can be done: developing the expertise of those in the criminal justice chain in these areas which requires detailed and, in several cases, highly technical knowledge, improving international police and legal cooperation processes in these areas to make them swifter and more effective, stronger inter-institutional coordination to ensure the actors involved in these issues work hand-in-hand and streamlining the use of processes and tools that provide for the effective management of criminal assets. It is also about encouraging the mainstreaming of economic-financial issues in all cases related to organised crime since, where there is crime, there are criminal assets that have to be identified and confiscated.
By choosing the financing of organised crime as the focus for our Annual Programme Meeting, we hope that our discussions and debates will allow all the participants to understand how fundamental this topic is and that each and every one of them can learn about the tools and good practices that exist to deal with the problem. It is time to address this issue in a comprehensive, voluntary and determined manner. If we want effective results in the fight against transnational organised crime, attacking the money gained from the crime is a necessary step. Together, we can do it!