Organised crime is changing and becoming increasingly diverse in its methods, groups structures, and impact on society. A new criminal landscape is emerging, marked increasingly by highly mobile and flexible groups operating in multiple jurisdictions and criminal sectors, and aided, in particular, by widespread, illicit use of the Internet.
Criminal groups are increasingly multi-commodity and poly-criminal in their activities. The best resourced groups, including some Albanian-speaking and Lithuanian groups, have gathered diverse portfolios of criminal business interests, improving their resilience at a time of economic austerity and strengthening their capability to identify and exploit new illicit markets. Activities such as carbon credit fraud, payment card fraud and commodity counterfeiting attract the increasing interest of groups due to lower levels of perceived risk involved.
More than ever before strong levels of cooperation exist between different organised crime groups, transcending national, ethnic, and business differences. Those trafficking commodities increasingly share loads, spreading risks and costs. An increasingly collaborative atmosphere has also intensified the practice of barter, in which illicit commodities are exchanged rather than purchased with cash. This, and a marked tendency for groups to engage in activities such as currency counterfeiting and property crime in order to fund others such as drug trafficking, has made organised crime activities less visible to authorities targeting criminal assets.
Criminal groups have taken full advantage of developments in commercial and passenger transport infrastructure, effectively shortening supply chains by means of container shipments, air freight, light aircraft and the Internet. As a result, routes for illicit commodities destined for the EU are more diverse, prevalent, and dynamic than ever before. Organised crime remains highly responsive to law enforcement control measures, as seen by the relocation of substantial flows of illegal immigrants from Mediterranean maritime routes to Greece’s border with Turkey.
The knowing cooperation of specialists in the transport, financial, real estate, legal and pharmaceutical sectors is a notable facilitating factor for organised crime. In the current economic climate businesses, particularly in sectors capable of providing support for commodity trafficking or money laundering, have become more vulnerable to corruptive influence.
Meanwhile, in more general terms, the ongoing effects of the global economic crisis have brought EU citizens into closer proximity with organised crime. Financial constraints have made communities more tolerant of illicit commodities, especially counterfeit goods, and individuals more likely to be recruited by criminal groups, for example for cannabis cultivation or as drug couriers or money ‘mules’. Taking into consideration also reports of financial constraints on law enforcement, the crisis presents a clear threat in societal and policing terms.
Within individual criminal sectors the market for illicit drugs is particularly dynamic, with fluctuating prices and purity levels for cocaine and heroin, along with shortages of synthetic precursors, prompting the emergence of ‘legal highs’ and other substitutes. In addition, drug markets in the EU and those of neighbouring regions are increasingly interconnected. Increased heroin consumption in the Western Balkans, cocaine consumption in the Former Soviet Union, and further expansion in synthetic drug production in the Middle East, for example, all affect market conditions for drug trafficking and production in the EU. Meanwhile diversification of the cocaine trade has seen a proliferation of new routes to the EU, including through parts of Africa where possible links between drug traffickers and terrorist groups have been identified.
Internet technology has now emerged as a key facilitator for the vast majority of offline organised crime activity. In addition to the high-tech crimes of cybercrime, payment card fraud, the distribution of child abuse material, and audio visual piracy, extensive use of the Internet now underpins illicit drug synthesis, extraction and distribution, the recruitment and marketing of victims of trafficking in human beings (THB), the facilitation of illegal immigration, the supply of counterfeit commodities, trafficking in endangered species, and many other criminal activities. It is also widely used as a secure communication and money laundering tool by criminal groups.
In geographical terms the most prominent organised crime activities in the EU are underpinned by a logistical architecture located around five key hubs (see Annex for further details). The North West hub retains its role as the principal coordination centre for drug distribution, due to its proximity to highly profitable destination markets, its well developed commercial and transport infrastructure, and its production capacity. The North East hub remains a focus for transit of illicit commodities to and from the Former Soviet Union and a base for violent poly-criminal groups with international reach. The leading role of the South West hub in cocaine and cannabis resin transit and distribution persists despite eastward shifts in some trafficking routes, and it currently serves also as a transit zone for victims of THB for sexual exploitation. The Southern hub continues to be prominent in criminal entrepreneurship, as a centre for counterfeit currency and commodities, a transit zone for victims of THB and illegal immigrants, and a base for some of the best resourced criminal groups in Europe.
Of all the hubs the South East has seen the greatest expansion in recent years, as a result of increased trafficking via the Black Sea, proliferation of numerous Balkan routes for illicit commodities to and from the EU, and a significant increase in illegal immigration via Greece. These developments in the region have contributed to the formation of a Balkan axis for trafficking to the EU, consisting of the Western Balkans and South East Europe. New transit hubs are in the process of being formed in countries such as Hungary, where several Balkan and Black Sea routes converge. Albanian speaking, Turkish and Former Soviet Union criminal groups are seeking to expand their interests in the EU, and may exploit opportunities in the possible accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen Zone, and recent and prospective EU visa exemptions for Western Balkan states, the Ukraine and Moldova.
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