Trade liberalization, fewer borders, and cheap air travel all are contributing to a rise in organized crime from the south and east of Europe
As borders come down within and beyond Europe, it is not only legitimate businesses that are benefiting, but also those that produce illegal drugs, traffic in humans, manufacture fake luxury goods, and counterfeit euros – businesses better known as organised crime – are profiting too, according to a new report from the EU's criminal intelligence agency.
Liberalisation, low-cost airlines, and China's low-wage economy are all helping Europe's gangsters to thrive while the rest of the economy remains in crisis, says Europol's 2009 organised crime threat assessment.
Foremost amongst the agency's predictions based on current data is the emerging threat from west African groups, which Europol singled out in the report as one of the main new developments.
Morocco is a major source of marijuana for EU markets, and cocaine "trafficking via countries in West Africa has dramatically increased," the report warns.
"West Africa now acts as a key transit zone, due to its strategic location between the cocaine producing countries and Europe."
The Gulf of Guinea area, where Nigerians "maintain a position of influence within the wider criminal landscape," is increasingly playing a key role as a logistics centre for drugs from South America headed for Europe. Meanwhile, the same location is a major source of humans trafficked for sex work.
Such groups are taking advantage of the same process of liberalisation that have profited many EU businesses.
"A noteworthy development is the use of the Balkan Route through the Black Sea to Romania and the Mediterranean Sea to ports in Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro," the report says. "Trade liberalisation in the Balkan region, its geographical position in relation to Europe, and the presence of pre-established transnational organised crime networks are strong facilitators in this development."
"Smuggling via the Balkans has long since proven to be a low-risk route into the EU."
The report breaks up Europe's gangs into five 'hubs', the most important of which are those from the northwest, centred on the Netherlands and to a lesser extent Belgium.
"As is the case with the trade in many legal goods, the geographical centre is the Netherlands," the report reads.
Such groups, from the low countries as well as the UK and Ireland are increasingly challenged however – but also complemented – by the African groups, as well as those from eastern Europe, Turkey, Pakistan, China, Vietnam and Colombia.
In many cases, argue the report's authors, such gangs are comprised of the children of first-generation immigrants now living in the EU.
The northwest hub is fed by sources in the Middle East, in particular from Dubai, a key financial centre and logistics base for gangsters. There, they make contacts, deals, launder money and co-ordinate shipments.
Italian organised crime groups, the core of the 'southern hub' focus on cocaine and cannabis trafficking, along with irregular immigration, counterfeiting euros and fake goods produced in China.
"Trade flows from China have steadily increased in the port of Naples, which is also a hub for flows of Chinese counterfeit goods. Both Camorra and Apulian crime groups have established extensive contact with Chinese groups in order to produce, transport and distribute counterfeit products such as software, CDs and movies and luxury goods.
More dangerous still, is the explosion in counterfeit pharmaceutical products, which come mainly from China, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Turkey.
"To maximise profits, organised crime groups produce medicines without regard to ingredients – including the active principle – composition and production methods."
China, along with eastern Europe to a lesser extent, is also a key source of ingredients for synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines and methamphetamine, which are soaring in popularity.
In the northeast, Lithuanian groups maintain a "central role" while St Petersburg is the most important logistical nexus, with sources feeding into the EU via Russia – particularly via Kaliningrad, the little patch of the Russian Federation that sits smack in the middle of European Union territory – and also Ukraine and Belarus.
The report also finds an increasing trend of indoor cannabis plantations in EU member states, and that victims of human trafficking, or irregular immigrants repaying the cost of their journey, are often exploited in such operations.
Low-cost airlines have also become a valuable addition to the gangsters' toolbox, says the report.
"Document counterfeiting and the abuse of the transport sector, mainly low cost airlines, are major facilitating factors in [human trafficking]."
The paper goes on to say that such flights have been a gift for drug distribution.
"The global interconnectivity of passenger airlines affords crime groups a wide variety of routing options to directly target local markets throughout the EU. In exploiting this means, [such groups] are using the method of Transit-Point-Stacking (TPS), in which they implement a flight plan consisting of multiple sequential flights in an effort to hide the initial origin of couriers."
Such developments come as no surprise to Letizia Paoli, a professor at the University of Leuven and a past advisor to Europol on organised crime.
"Liberalisation, airlines, China, it's all really part of the same phenomenon," she told EUobserver.
"Organised crime is the price you pay for a more open market economy," she said. "You don't want to have to check every container coming into Antwerp or Rotterdam, control every person crossing a border, but if you choose to do so, to open up legitimate trade, you have to take into account that these processes will also be exploited for illegal purposes.
"There's nothing you can do, unless you want to hinder legitimate businesses."
"The same with these airlines – we've all profited from low-cost airlines. Mobility has enormously increased over the past two decades, but this increased mobility likewise offers instruments that can be exploited with criminal aims."
Meanwhile, note the authors of the report, while the global economy is in one of its roughest patches in decades, organised crime could actually be profiting from the downturn.
With lower purchasing power, consumers may look more to counterfeit products, while employers aim to hire cheaper labour, making irregular – and much cheaper – workers more attractive.
The report also wonders whether the recession may mean people take more drugs, which "might give criminals an opportunity to keep profits high during the crisis."