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Crime and Migration

How have diasporas created global networks of skilled criminals?

November 17, 2005

How have diasporas created global networks of skilled criminals?

According to UN estimates, international crime generates $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion a year, with drug trafficking, illegal arms trade, human trafficking and smuggling — especially of women and children for prostitution and servitude — and money laundering constituting the principal activities.

The profits from drugs, often funneled through diasporic networks, have played an important role in Haiti's narco-coup in 2004, the ongoing violence in Colombia and the warlordism in Afghanistan.

These activities not only bring in billions of dollars of revenue to source countries each year, but also increase their economic dependence on drug trafficking, prostitution and other forms of illegal activity.

Virtually all international criminal networks — whether Albanian, Italian, Colombian or Chinese — rely on their respective diaspora as a base for their activity.

Diasporas have been a boon to international crime for a number of reasons. As with any business, international criminal activity requires enforcement mechanisms and trust, which diasporic networks can easily internalize.

Increased migration — much of which stems from states with weak economies and political instability — has created a large demand for both financial support and larger global networks.

In many cases, such networks become particularly prominent where immigrant groups are not fully integrated into their host societies, as one policy group has observed. Forced repatriation of felons — for example, from the United States to Central America — has given these networks additional strength.

Much like any international industry, many criminal networks rely on expatriated populations to help facilitate their activities abroad.

The most well-known example in the 20th century is the Italian Mafia, which built its structure on a large migratory population, especially to the New World.

The Chinese triads have an even longer history and continue to thrive today with strong connections to Chinese populations around the world, particularly in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States.

In recent years, traditional triad groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan have been hooked up with mainland Chinese criminal gangs, whose activities extend beyond the usual extortion, gambling, people smuggling and drug trafficking to more sophisticated crimes such as credit card fraud, computer chip theft and violations of intellectual property rights.

Nigerian criminal gangs — about 500 are thought to be operating in at least 80 countries — are known to take advantage of large West African populations worldwide to operate global networks of drug trafficking and sophisticated, lucrative fraud schemes.

According to recent estimates of U.S. customs officials, Nigerian criminal syndicates have established themselves as the world's most active traffickers of Asian heroin, with 25-30% of the heroin seized at U.S. international airports found on couriers employed by Nigerian trafficking groups.

The end of the Cold War and the conflict in the Balkans prompted an exodus from that part of the world that served, in turn, as the impetus for the establishment of some of today's thriving criminal networks.

Ethnic Albanian groups, whether originating from Albania or Kosovo, have been the most prominent and are particularly active in trafficking drugs, arms, cigarettes, illegal aliens and women for prostitution.

They reportedly dominate the market for heroin in Norway, Sweden, southern Germany and Switzerland.

By 1999, Albanian groups controlled most of Italy's prostitution and had displaced the Russian Mafia as the controlling power of central London's lucrative prostitution racket.

Arguably the most educated among the various international crime groups, the Russian Mafia blossomed under the Soviet regime by supplying hard-to-find products to government officials and by greasing the wheels of a command economy.

In the 1990s, the organization profited from the chaotic economic situation, rapidly garnering economic and political influence.

This power combined with the personal ties that many top crime leaders developed during the 1970s and l980s while serving time in prison, still helps them to coordinate illegal activities today. The group relies heavily on the overseas Russian population, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, for support and resources.

Italian: Wide variety of activities including gambling, extortion, drug smuggling, arms dealing, alien smuggling and environmental crimes, particularly illegal hazardous waste dumping.

Extensive presence via expatriate Italian populations throughout Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the United States and Canada. Italian Diaspora crime groups in the United States include the Cosa Nostra.

Russian: Particularly active in oil and gas trading sectors, financial markets, and sale of arms overseas. Presence in more than 60 countries. Russian Mafia commonly establishes illegal operations in overseas resorts frequented by Russian speakers. Most influential in Eastern and Central Europe.

Ethnic Albanian: Active in trafficking drugs, arms, cigarettes, illegal aliens, and women for prostitution. Albanian gangs now dominate the market for heroin in Norway, Sweden, southern Germany, and Switzerland, and dominate prostitution in Italy and London. Small-scale operations in northeastern United States.

Whether originating from Albania or Kosovo, ethnic Albanian groups are typically from tight-knit clans. Since the end of the cold war, Albanian groups have expanded beyond their borders to become the most significant of smaller criminal groups.

Chinese: Mainland Chinese criminal gangs expanded beyond traditional triad activities of extortion, gambling, and illegal alien and drug trafficking into more sophisticated areas such as credit card fraud, computer chip theft, and IPR violations.

Strong connections in Chinese enclaves around the world, particularly in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Nigerian: Particularly active in drug trafficking and sophisticated fraud schemes. Nigerian criminal syndicates are the world's most active traffickers of Asian heroin and are increasingly trafficking South American cocaine.

Nigerian criminal groups take advantage of large West African populations worldwide. Recent estimates suggest 500 Nigerian criminal cells are operating in at least 80 countries. The United States and Britain are key targets.

Latin American: In the past decade, have expanded beyond drug production and trafficking into money laundering and production of counterfeit goods.

Nevertheless, major Latin American criminal organizations are not involved in the smuggling of illegal aliens into the United States. Trafficking networks have been established across the Western Hemisphere.