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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Organized Crime: An Evolving Challenge for U.S. Law Enforcement

Jerome P. Bjelopera
Analyst in Organized Crime and Terrorism

Kristin M. Finklea
Analyst in Domestic Security

In the last two decades, organized crime has grown more complex, posing evolving challenges for U.S. federal law enforcement. These criminals have transformed their operations in ways that broaden their reach and make it harder for law enforcement to combat them. They have adopted more-networked structural models, internationalized their operations, and grown more tech savvy. They are a significant challenge to U.S. law enforcement.

Modern organized criminals often prefer cellular or networked structural models for their flexibility and avoid the hierarchies that previously governed more traditional organized crime groups such as the Cosa Nostra. Fluid network structures make it harder for law enforcement to infiltrate, disrupt, and dismantle conspiracies. Many 21
st century organized crime groups opportunistically form around specific, short-term schemes and may outsource portions of their operations rather than keeping it all “in-house.”

Globalization has revolutionized both licit and illicit commerce. Commercial and technological innovations have reduced national trade barriers, widened transportation infrastructure, and bolstered volumes of international business. The internet and extensive cellular telephone networks have fostered rapid communication. Integrated financial systems, which allow for easy global movement of money, are exploited by criminals to launder their illicit proceeds. Estimates suggest that money laundering annually accounts for between 2% and 5% of world GDP. Simultaneously, borders are opportunities for criminals and impediments to law enforcement.

Organized criminals have expanded their technological “toolkits,” incorporating technologydriven fraud into their capabilities. Their operations can harm U.S. citizens without ever having a physical presence in the country. These illicit activities include cyber intrusions into corporate databases, theft of individual consumer credit card information, fencing of stolen merchandise online, and leveraging technology to aid in narcotics smuggling. Further, criminal organizations—which have historically burrowed into and exploited local ethnic communities— can now rely on internet connectivity and extensive, international transportation linkages to target localities around the globe.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a shift in law enforcement attention and resources toward counterterrorism-related activities and away from traditional crime fighting activities including the investigation of organized crime. Although the effects of organized crime may not be seen in a consolidated attack resulting in the physical loss of life, they are far-reaching—impacting economic stability, public health and safety, as well as national security. One challenge facing law enforcement is that the federal investigation of organized crime matters has not historically been a centralized effort, and there is no single agency charged with investigating organized crime in the way the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been designated the lead investigative agency for terrorism. Further, resources to tackle this issue are divided among federal agencies and little consensus exists regarding the scope of the problem, the measurable harm caused by these groups, or how to tackle them. As such, Congress may exert oversight regarding the federal coordination of organized crime investigations. Policymakers may also debate the efficacy of current resources appropriated to combat organized crime.

Date of Report: December 23, 2010
Number of Pages: 42
Order Number: R41547
Price: $29.95

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