The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Since its modern inception as we understand it, organized crime has evolved.

In casual conversation, the term “organized crime” evokes images of gun-toting mobsters and secretive criminal networks. While some may conflate it with street gangs or clan-based crime, organized crime is, in essence, a sophisticated enterprise that systematically seeks illicit gains. Although frequently labeled as “mafias,” these organizations often lack the sociocultural history of Italy’s infamous syndicates. Such distinctions may seem pedantic, but they are crucial for understanding the depth and complexity of this underworld.

The insidious impact of organized crime on society is twofold. First, it erodes public confidence in the rule of law, fostering the perception that law enforcement agencies are powerless to ensure internal security. Second, infiltrating criminal elements into political systems and administrative bodies poses a grave risk to democratic governance. While less visible than acts of terrorism, organized crime’s calculated discretion makes it no less damaging. In economic terms, the threat is particularly acute for small businesses, which often find themselves ensnared in protection rackets and mired in property crimes.

Organized crime casts a wide net, profiting handsomely from a diverse array of illicit activities. Its domains encompass human trafficking and smuggling; sexual exploitation, which includes prostitution and the trafficking of women and children; kidnapping and ransom schemes; drug manufacturing and trafficking; the illegal arms trade; illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction; smuggling of natural resources, notably “blood diamonds”; food fraud, including the sale of rotten meat; armed theft and residential burglary; extortion and protection rackets; economic malfeasance and fraudulent schemes; credit card forgery and financial fraud; counterfeiting and money laundering; embargo evasion; illegal gambling operations; vehicle theft and cargo hijacking; art and antiquities theft; and environmental crimes, ranging from organized poaching to illegal logging.

The sheer scale of the operations is staggering. Criminal organizations amass billions, deeming any counteraction financially unfeasible. Expert money launderers disperse these illicit funds globally, creating labyrinthine trails for investigators. International cooperation among law enforcement is not just advisable—it’s imperative. The human resources needed for such expansive investigations are daunting, not to mention the collaboration of various governments, from Haiti to Serbia, which often collaborates with these criminal enterprises.

Public perception, too, plays a role in perpetuating organized crime. When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched an aggressive campaign against drug trafficking in 2016-2017, the outcry was loud but short-lived. Few sought to combat the problem through more humane and practical approaches. In many ways, society appears to tolerate, if not enable, this criminal underworld. As drug policies continue to fuel organized crime, the world watches in anticipation, wondering how nations will rise to this pervasive challenge.

Eva Kneifel is studying Politics and History at FernUniversität Campus Hagen.