The Global Underworld: Transnational Crime and the United States
Donald R. Liddick Jr.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004
Subject, Methods, Database:
An essay on transnational crime, based on a review of academic literature, official documents and media reports.
Transnational crime is crime that transcends the jurisdiction of any given state. While transnational crimes may be committed by individuals, observations from around the world invariably reveal that it is also organized crime. In its most pervasive and damaging forms, transnational organized crime involves a political-criminal nexus. Transnational organized crime may be viewed as complex networks of patron-client relationships. This perspective stresses the importance of personal and interpersonal relations, quasi-groups, networks and power relations.
The principal transnational crime groups affecting the United States and Canada are the American Cosa Nostra, outlaw motorcycle gangs, the Russian Mafiya, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triads, South American drug cartels, Italian-based crime groups like the Sicilian Mafia, and Nigerian criminal groups.
Transnational crime is a growing threat. Moreover, the response to this problem has been tardy and largely ineffective.
Transnational crime groups seem to be networking and coordinating their ventures more so than in the past, sharing information, resources, and market access according to the principle of comparative advantage. Such cooperation has allowed gangs to merge expertise, reduce risks, and expand the scope of their activities. The major international criminal gangs are highly diversified, expanding into a broad range of illicit as well as legitimate businesses. The illicit activities include narcotics trafficking, arms trafficking, cargo theft, automobile theft, piracy, art and antiquities theft, product piracy, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, pornography, traffic in human organs, smuggling toxic wastes, traffic in exotic life forms and endangered species, money laundering, violation of intellectual property rights, currency counterfeiting, economic espionage, fraud, computer crimes, terrorism, traffic in nuclear material, cyber terrorism, kidnapping, sports bribery, smuggling of gems and gold, poaching, and illegal dumping of toxic wastes.
The declared purpose of this short text is to provide readers with an overview of transnational crime and the impact it has upon the United States. It begins with the very promising outline of a conception of transnational organized crime as complex networks of patron-client relationships comprising run-of-the-mill criminals as well as public officials and powerful private entities. This perspective is a notable departure from the conventional imagery of rigid, formally structured criminal organizations that encroach upon the legal spheres of society through the corruption of government and the infiltration of businesses. It would pave the way for a concise description of the diverse structures and legal-illegal links that characterize the international crime picture. Unfortunately, however, the book does not live up to the expectations it raises in the introduction. On the contrary, in terms of both rhetoric and content it does not deviate much from the oversimplifying journalistic and official literature on this subject.
The discussion begins with an inventory of the "principal transnational crime groups" that are believed to affect the U.S. and, interestingly given the sub-title of the book, Canada. This chapter is followed by three chapters on transnational criminal activities, one about smuggling, theft and environmental crime, one about money laundering and other financial crimes, and one about terrorism and the trade in weapons of mass destruction. Another chapter is devoted to legal and administrative measures against transnational crime adopted by the United States and by supra-national institutions.
The ordering of the chapters in itself is questionable because starting with crime groups instead of criminal activities implies that the former shape the latter rather than, as the available evidence would suggest, the other way around. Moreover, what are discussed under the headline of "crime groups" without any analytical distinction are quite different types of phenomena. There are groups that function as criminal enterprises, there are entities such as the American Cosa Nostra that have no direct involvement in the conduct of criminal activities because they function as businessmen's associations rather than businesses, and there are criminals that are lumped together under a common label simply by virtue of their ethnic background. Criminals from the former Soviet Union, for example, are invariably classified as belonging to "the Russian Mafiya" (p. 29-31). In fact, ethnicity is essentially the only category consistently applied in the analysis.
Granted, the author explicitly states that the book is "not overly concerned with definition, conceptualization, and theory" (p. 11). But this means that media and official accounts in the end are uncritically accepted at face value.
The absence of a conceptual framework also becomes apparent in the chapters on transnational criminal activities. Very often there is no discernible structure in the discussion of a particular area of crime. Rather, it seems that bits of information have been pieced together as they were available. For example, in the section on motor vehicle theft time series statistics are presented for Europe, but not for any other part of the world (p. 53). Another important area of transnational crime, the distribution of child pornography over the internet, is discussed out of context. It is only addressed as a facet of the Canadian crime situation, presumably because, one may speculate, there was no source available to the author other than a report by the Central Intelligence Service Canada (p. 38).
A related problem is that the literature base of the book in general is rather narrow - important literature on transnational crime such as Finckenauer and Waring (1998), Jenkins (2001), and Naylor (2002) are not included - and that it heavily draws on sources from the mid 1990s which in many instances were already outdated by the time the manuscript was completed in 2003. For example, the European statistics on car theft only cover the time period 1989-1993 so that the significant changes that have been taking place in the following years are ignored.
The best structured and most informative chapter is the one dealing with countermeasures. It contains brief descriptions of such post-9/11 legislation as the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, and discusses some of their civil rights implications, though only very cautiously.
In line with the previous sections, the concluding chapter does not contain an independent assessment of the global crime picture. Instead, the author extensively summarizes a White House document, the 2000 International Crime Threat Assessment, without revealing an opinion of his own. So until the very end the critical framework that has been sketched in the introductory chapter remains unused. This is disappointing not least against the backdrop of the author's previous work which includes a meticulous analysis of the New York numbers business (Liddick, 1999a) and a quite original treatise on organized crime (Liddick, 1999b).
'The Global Underworld' is not a convincing book. It brings little clarity to the complex subject of transnational crime and the pieces of interesting information it does contain are not sufficient to recommend the book to general readers, for which it is primarily intended, or to students, scholars and law enforcement professionals.
Finckenauer, James O., Elin J. Waring, Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998 [read review]
Jenkins, Philip, Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet, New York: New York University Press, 2001
Liddick, Donald, The Mob's Daily Number, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999
Liddick, Donald, An Empirical, Theoretical, and Historical Overview of Organized Crime, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1999
Naylor, R.T., Wages of Crime: Black Markets, Illegal Finance, and the Underworld Economy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002 [read review]
Einstein, Stanley, and Menachem Amir (eds.), Organized Crime: Uncertainties and Dilemmas, Chicago: Office of International Criminal Justice, 1999 [read review]
Reichel, Philip (ed.), Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005
Siegel, Dina, Henk van de Bunt, and Damian Zaitch (eds.), Global Organized Crime: Trends and Developments, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003 [read review]
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