Transnational Organized Crime

Organized crime looks East

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

In 2013, international attention began to fixate on the organized crime challenge in East Asia. The region is no stranger to organized crime; groups such as Japan’s Yakuza and Hong Kong’s Triads have long exercised a strong influence over East Asia’s criminal underworld. However, the region’s breakneck economic growth has changed the stakes of the game. No longer is East Asia a peripheral market for drug traffickers, cyber criminals, and human smugglers, too small in scope and value to be a target in its own right. Increasing affluence in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have opened up a market for organized crime figures comparable in value, and larger in absolute population size, than the traditional high-value organized crime markets in Europe and the United states. One estimate notes that by 2025, China’s middle class alone will number 520 million. As East Asia’s licit market booms and beckons, so too does East Asia’s illicit market. Transnational criminal groups have moved rapidly to gain an advantage.

East Asia, and particular China, has become an increasingly lucrative market for drug trafficking organizations. In China, the number of narcotics users is, according to some estimates, above 15 million. Even this huge population of heroin and amphetamine users represents an extremely low usage prevalence rate, both compared to international levels and China’s historic averages. China’s user population is destined to grow. Throughout the region, tens of millions of others regularly purchase and consume narcotics. Historically, producers in the region have supplied East Asia’s narcotics market. This is starting to change. Now, amphetamines are being imported to Japan and China from West Africa, while cocaine is increasingly filtering across the Pacific and into the clubs of Melbourne and Shanghai.

The profits to be made in drug trafficking are huge, and have prompted drug trafficking crime groups from Africa, Latin America, and Europe to try and get involved in the East Asian market. Individuals associated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations have been turning up in increasing numbers in China, including at least one case where one was arrested at a meth lab in the country. Further south, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs have continued to expand in Australia and South-East Asia, peddling methamphetamines and coercive violence wherever they go. Increased efforts by external organized crime groups to penetrate East Asia’s drug market are likely to accelerate in 2014, propelled as much by the stagnation of narcotics sales in Europe and the US as by the dynamism of the East Asian market.

In addition to drug, human trafficking is increasing throughout the region. The trafficking of persons for labor and sexual trafficking has been an endemic problem for generations. However, the China’s gender imbalance – with tens of millions more males than females – is propelling an increasingly vibrant market in “wife” trafficking. These victims are often trafficked from Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar; enjoying few rights and high-levels of risk in China, they are vulnerable to domestic violence and forced prostitution.

East Asia has also spurred a sharp rise in ivory trafficking over the last decade. While some consumers are interested in ivory products as evidence of their social status, many have come to view ivory as an investment. In China, there are indications that an Ivory “bubble” has emerged, whereby investor demand and the increasing rarity of ivory producing animals prompt a continual rise in price. In turn, the rapid appreciation in price increases the attractiveness of ivory as an investment vehicle, spurring yet more demand. It is a vicious value circle, and one which, given the finite amounts of ivory in existence, is difficult to deter.

The increased importance of East Asia’s criminal market for criminal organizations makes cooperation with regional governments a vital reality for those seeking to counter those same groups. Cooperative endeavors against ivory, for example, will not succeed without buy in from China. How international actors’ structure their outreach to East Asian governments, and perhaps more importantly how East Asian governments respond, will be a key area to watch in 2014.

Finally, East Asia’s organized crime challenge will not be restricted to the large and rich countries that comprise the dominant markets for illicit goods – such as China, Japan, Korea, and Australia. The poor and peripheral countries of the region will be far more threatened.Limited government capacity in these countries will attract organized crime groups, looking for uncontrolled space in which to establish bases and production facilities. It is quite possible that nations in south-east Asia and western Oceana will be buffeted by high levels of criminal violence in the coming years, similar in scope and challenge to what Central American countries are currently dealing with. Signs of violence and corruption related to organized crime in the less affluent areas of East Asia should be monitored closely, lest ripples of violence further destabilize an economically vital yet precarious region.

Arms Trafficking in Syria: A Case of the Biter Getting Bitten

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

The grinding maelstrom that is Syria’s civil war continues to churn. While the grievances behind the conflict are complex and variable, there is one enabling factor that has been vital – access to weaponry. Despite pleas from insurgent groups for more arms, the geographic reach of the conflict and its intensity are indicative of a situation awash in guns. This is a striking shift for a country that historically has had far fewer weapons in civilian hands than its neighbors. Where then does the plethora of weapons in insurgent hands come from, and how have they arrived there?

The most important early source of weaponry for the insurgents were government stockpiles. Government weapons and ammunition have fallen into rebel hands in three ways: purchased from corrupt government officials, via direct assault, in some cases immediately using captured weapons to sustain rolling offensives or brought by defecting soldiers. Since the beginning of the conflict Syria’s military has struggled to staunch a steady stream defectors from joining the insurgents. The presence of these former soldiers bring has both increased the lethality of the insurgency, and helped to shape the types of weapons in demand.

Since the beginning of the conflict the Syrian insurgency has also been supplied weapons smuggled in from neighboring countries. Initially, weapons trafficking groups operated on a small-scale, almost ad-hoc basis and were basically apolitical. Individuals and local smuggling networks procured weapons in Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, from commercial and civilian sources. Highlighting the irony of weapons being smuggled back into Syria which, in in previous years its government had smuggled to insurgent groups in neighboring states, a western diplomat noted, “it’s a case of the biter getting bitten.”

The start of the conflict caused a spike in regional weapons prices, with prices for Ak-47s, sniper rifles and handguns in Iraq increasing nearly four-fold. While expensive, regional sources were able to provide a host of weapons, including AK-47s, M-16s, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles, and Katyusha rockets. Once procured, the weapons were moved across the often unguarded border between Syria and its neighbors by vehicle, donkey, or by foot, before being offered for sale inside the country. As the conflict ground on, and the potential for profits increased, ad-hoc smuggling efforts were taken over by established arms trafficking and professional criminal groups.

A more centrally organized effort to source weapons began in 2012. Representatives of the Free Syrian Army made contact with weapons dealers in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, hoping to procure weapons that would then be smuggled across the Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian rebels also reached out to militia groups in Libya for assistance. The Libyan groups have proven to be a particularly important source of weapons for the Syrian insurgents. Brokers in Libya procure weapons that have either been donated by sympathetic groups, or purchased from the well-stocked black market. Once sufficient quantities have been stockpiles the weapons are shipped by sea or air to Syria’s neighbors. After the Lebanese government seized 60,000 rounds of ammunition being shipped through the northern port of Tripoli, the Libyan groups have mainly transported their weaponry via Turkey, and in a small number of cases Jordan. While the exact amount of weaponry smuggled via this channel is unclear, some smugglers have claimed that over 28 metric tons have been delivered via air alone.

Efforts by Libyan brokers to supply the rebels have coincided with, and perhaps been tied to, efforts by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to arm the rebels. Active support for the insurgency emerged in early 2012, spearheaded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At present, the weapons are primarily sourced from Eastern EuropeCroatiaLibya, and Sudan, with the Qataris and the Saudis purchasing and transporting the weapons to Turkey and Jordan. A rough division labor has emerged, with Qatar primarily supplying groups in the north of the country, while Saudi Arabia provisions those groups in the south. The official pipeline both a magnitude of order larger than unofficial efforts – delivering an estimated 3,500 tons of weaponry – it is also providing increasingly sophisticated weaponry. In at least two recent cases, Qatar is believed to have provided rebels with portable anti-aircraft systems. While the United States is not believed to have provided large amounts of weaponry, it has played a role in developing the arms pipeline and in vetting the Syrian groups that receive the weapons.

The weapons channels supplying Syria’s insurgents comprise a complex, overlapping web of state, non-state and criminal actors.  As the war grinds on these smuggling webs will become increasingly entrenched, and highly vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime groups. One needs look no further than the Balkans – where officially sanctioned smuggling routes were appropriated by crime groups as soon as the conflicts ended – for a vision of the organized crime challenge the Middle East may face in the coming decade.