Fighting Organized Crime: What Works in Law Enforcement and Beyond

By Phyllis Dininio

Transnational organized crime has expanded dramatically in size and scope in the 21st century and now poses threats to security, politics, commerce and communities. Countering it effectively is not just a job for law enforcement. Policymakers and practitioners need to pull their weight to enable effective responses. This blog post offers a snapshot of what works to counter transnational organized crime based on expert remarks presented at a series of USAID-hosted roundtable discussions on rule of law and organized crime.

What law enforcement needs to do better

Silhouette of a businessman running, police lights in the background

Experience in countries with a history of fighting organized crime such as the United States and Italy has shown that reactive law enforcement, which commences after a crime is committed, is not enough. Capacity building should support a proactive approach to law enforcement that draws on many types of evidence to build a case against criminal groups. Surveillance, informants, and asset seizures are critical tools in this proactive approach. Surveillance from such devices as wiretaps, bugs, or hidden cameras is indispensable where people are afraid to talk and kingpins rarely carry out crimes themselves. Informants and witness protection complement the intelligence gleaned from surveillance and help law enforcement understand what it is seeing and hearing. Cooperation agreements, a form of plea bargaining that offers criminals more lenient sentences for becoming informants against other criminals, often provide key information in organized crime trials. In addition, the ability to seize assets used in criminal offenses provides an important weapon. Organized criminals will likely be more concerned by the prospect of losing their wealth than by serving time in prison.

Research has also shown that short and certain sentencing has the largest effect on deterrence, whereas tough-on-crime policies have unintended consequences for the fight against organized crime. In terms of deterrence, potential offenders respond more to the certainty of apprehension, which reflects the size and quality of the police force and initiatives such as community policing and crime “hot spots,” than to the severity of punishment. Moreover, zero-tolerance policies have unintended consequences for the fight against organized crime as they increase criminal violence in response to law enforcement violence, harden first-time offenders, and strengthen gangs in prisons as they fill with gang members. 

Flashpoints are often key to mobilizing the population against government complicity

Government complicity in organized crime presents a greater challenge for combating it. In general, government complicity in organized crime is more likely where the rule of law is weak and illicit money is concentrated in fewer hands and represents a greater share of national income. Where high-level officials are complicit in organized crime, a flashpoint is typically needed to mobilize the population against powerful interests. One kind of flashpoint is electoral fraud, such as the 2003 parliamentary elections in Georgia that prompted protestors to take to the streets in what became known as the Rose Revolution. Another kind of flashpoint is the assassination of anti-crime fighters, such as the 1992 murders of the anti-mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino in Italy, which prompted protests that pushed forward the Clean Hands campaign. Revelations of criminal linkages are another kind of flashpoint, such as those uncovered by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2015, which unleashed months of protests and led to the resignation and conviction of the president and vice president. Even where high-level officials are not complicit in organized crime, social pressure and international support can buttress the political will of government officials to implement effective policies. 

Avviso Pubblico march against mafia violence
Local administrators, who belong to association Avviso Pubblico or Public Warning, attend a march against mafia violence in Polistena, Calabria, Italy, June 24, 2016. The banner reads: “Administrators at gunpoint.” REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Law enforcement is not enough

Efforts to tackle government complicity in organized crime also need to strengthen systems of accountability to prevent the growth and influence of organized crime. Initiatives in the judicial, political, economic and social domains must aim to interdict and dismantle organized crime networks and remove complicit officials from power, but also to make it harder for organized crime to infiltrate the state in the future. Reforming electoral laws, campaign finance regulations, procurement policies, bank regulations and antitrust legislation as well as supporting investigative journalism, civic education and public awareness campaigns can reduce crime groups’ latitude of operations and prevent future abuse even as judicial reforms fight criminal actors head on. For example, placing limits on campaign expenditures or controlling sources of campaign funds may weaken the ability of crime groups to purchase influence with elected officials. 

Where social norms uphold harmful behavior, efforts to fight organized crime may also benefit from social norm interventions. Changing social norms may help to:

  • Reduce consumer demand for illicit goods and services, including wildlife, drugs, child labor and sex;
  • Deter involvement in illicit activity, such as poaching animals or extorting businesses;
  • Reduce engagement in corruption; and
  • Lower social acceptance of illicit activities more generally.

When social norms are at play, changing behavior is difficult. People may ignore laws or act against their own beliefs if the social pressure experienced from social norms prevail. Social norms can act as a brake on other interventions. For example, laws may ban the trade in ivory, but social norms supporting the consumption of wildlife products, and social norms within the police or customs service to use their positions to make money, may sustain it. Similarly, awareness campaigns may shift individual attitudes against the consumption of shark fin soup, but social pressures from family members or colleagues may sustain it.

Strategies for changing social norms focus on shifting the social expectations and pressures that sustain a behavior. This includes changing what people believe is typical behavior and changing what people believe the group will condone or censure.  People need to feel that they can engage in a different behavior without the risk of stigmatization, isolation or other punishment (or with a  reward for engaging in the new behavior). Although not everyone’s behavior needs to change for social norms to change, the changed behavior needs to be visible and perceived to be widespread.

More information

For more on key dynamics between the rule of law and organized crime, please see the white papers produced by Management Systems International, a TetraTech Company, with funding by the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID):


About the author

Phyllis Dininio

Phyllis Dininio is a Senior Technical Director at Management Systems International where she is leading research on rule of law and organized crime for USAID, among other projects. Previously, Dr. Dininio served in the US State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, the World Bank, the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, and USAID’s Democracy and Governance Center. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Politics from Yale University.


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