Confronting Cross-Border Crime

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The official poster for the 10th U.N. congress on Prevention of Crime, which opened last week in Vienna, looked like an advertisement for a TV cop drama: a barbed-wire prison fence framed the face of a young hoodlum, with the single word "crime" marked by a red slash. If only it were still that simple. Today's border-hopping villains are rarely stymied by even the best local gumshoe; it now takes the talents of a diplomat to bring them to book. The rise of the global criminal is, in fact, what brought 1,500 delegates from more than 120 countries to Vienna in the first place. Much of the week-long conference was spent laying the diplomatic groundwork for a proposed international treaty against transnational crime to be negotiated later this year. But as the misleading poster indicated, there's still a long way to go before the old cops-and-robbers image catches up to reality.

It was a sobering session. Louise Frechette, the U.N.'s deputy secretary-general, set the tone in her opening address: "To some people, the global economy means easier trafficking in women and children for forced labor and prostitution, easier smuggling of drugs and arms, easier escape from justice, more businesses from which to extract bribes." Academics first began to track the emergence of global crime syndicates patterned after legitimate multinational companies during the 1990s; yet the cartels' in-your-face behavior has caught most governments unawares. International crime has become the 21st century's fastest-growing industry. Figures presented to the conference show money laundering alone costs $600 billion annually and involves more than 50 offshore banking centers. The upper echelons of organized crime were once dominated by Sicilians, Chinese Triads and Colombian drug barons. Today, at least 10 major crime "corporations" are in play -- and their expanding businesses pose as much of a threat to global stability as war and economic hardship. Sometimes, as illustrated by the diamond gangster cartels operating in Central Africa, wars have become part of their business plan.

In this environment, old crime-busting strategies are clearly inadequate. Australia, for instance, launched a successful program to "buy back" firearms only to discover that clandestine gun shipments from abroad were undermining its hopes of gun control. Barbados watched in frustration last year as its crime rate began to rise after four years of steady decline, thanks to an invasion of drug traffickers from outside the island. Says Barbados Attorney General David Simmons: "With the end of the cold war, small states like ours have become the most vulnerable to international criminals." The conference provided a Cook's tour of crime woes from Kazakhstan to Bolivia, all with a single tragic theme: we can't cope alone. "No nation can tackle the problem of crime in isolation," confessed Mohammadu L. Uwais, Nigeria's chief justice.

Still, recognizing the threat is not the same as dealing with it. While a global crime treaty sounds good in theory, the details can get thorny. The delegates' 21st century vision of global crime busting is colliding with a very 19th century issue. "Sovereignty is the last taboo," says Pino Arlacchi, a former director of Italy's anti-Mafia directorate who heads the U.N.'s new crime prevention and drug control directorate and is one of the architects of this year's meeting. Many of the ideas included in the draft treaty challenge prerogatives states have traditionally reserved for themselves. One proposal, for instance, would lift bank secrecy during cross-border fraud investigations. Large economic powers like the U.S. balk at sharing sensitive data for international operations. And even the E.U., which has some of the most far-reaching anti-crime strategies such as coordinating multinational prosecutions of cross-border crime, will have to cut through thickets of conflicting laws that enable criminals to evade justice simply by crossing the border.

Europol and Interpol are keeping a low profile at the conference -- a reflection, perhaps, of the difficulties multinational police agencies have already encountered in making the leap to cross-border crime fighting. A further complication is that some of the states whose participation is crucial to curbing the power of global crime have themselves become brand names for criminality. Breaking down the barriers against battling fraud and corruption could be embarrassing to Russia, for instance. "Some of our worst cases are in very high places," one Russian delegate admitted privately.

There is, however, little alternative. The crime treaty, with protocols against migrant smuggling, traffic in sex slaves and illicit arms, is to be followed next year by a convention against corruption. But the diplomats may be behind the curve. "Global criminals can move faster than governments," warns Jack Blum, a Washington D.C. consultant on financial crime. The message from Vienna is hard to ignore: the longer governments wait, the farther behind we will fall in the struggle to establish global law and order in the new millennium.