- Defining organized crime
- Definition in the Organized Crime Convention
- Similarities and differences between organized crime and other forms of crime
- Activities, organization and composition of organized criminal groups
Published in April 2018
Regional Perspective: Eastern and Southern Africa - added in April 2020
This module is a resource for lecturers
Similarities and differences between organized crime and other forms of crime
Using the offence, rather than the offender, as a unit of analysis, some acts are clearly "organized," in their commission but are not considered part of organized crime for the purpose of the Organized Crime Convention. Organized crime is actually one type of several categories of organized criminal behaviour.
White-collar crime, for instance, is related to and overlaps with organized crime and the definition contained in the Organized Crime Convention allows to capture many cases of white collar crime. Nonetheless, the two crimes have significant differences in that white-collar crime occurs as a deviation from legitimate business activity, whereas organized crime occurs as a continuing criminal enterprise that exists to profit primarily from illicit activity. White-collar crime can be carried out by an individual whereas organized crime requires more people and planning in order to carry out offences on a more systematic basis. White-collar crime can also be carried out by organized criminal groups. There has been much research comparing the linkages between organized crime and white-collar crime (Kegö, Leijonmarck and Molcean, 2011; Tusikov, 2012).
Governmental bodies and politicians can also be considered offenders of organized crime if the elements of the general definition are met. It is also important to notice that not only individuals but also legal persons, such as corporations, can carry out crimes during the course of business. Serious crime is frequently committed through or under the cover of legal entities. Complex structures can effectively hide the true ownership, clients or particular transactions. Legal persons may also be used to shield natural persons from liability, and complex structures may be used to conceal illegal activity. The role of legal persons in illegal activity may span the whole range of organized transnational crimes, from trafficking in persons, drugs or arms to corruption and money laundering. Ensuring the liability of legal persons is therefore an important component in combating transnational organized crime (more on the liability of legal persons in Module 4).
Terrorism is another form of "organized" criminal behaviour, but it is distinct from organized crime. In general terms, terrorism involves crimes committed with the objective of intimidating a population or compelling a government or international organization with a view to achieving political or social objectives. Examples would include hostage-taking in order to secure freedom for those seen as imprisoned unjustly or acts of violence done in retribution for perceived past injustices. An act of terrorism has a political objective.
Organized crime, on the other hand, always seeks to obtain a financial or other material benefit, whereas power and control can be secondary motives. Organized crime can involve violence and coercion, but the objective in organized crime remains profit.
The definition of "organized criminal group" in the Organized Crime Convention only includes groups that through their activities seek to obtain, directly or indirectly, a "financial or other material benefit." This would not, in principle, include groups such as some terrorist or insurgent groups, provided that their goals were purely non-material. However, the Convention may still apply to crimes committed by those groups in the event that they commit crimes covered by the Convention in order to raise financial or other material benefits.
In other words, while they generally pursue different objectives, activities of terrorists and organized criminal groups can overlap (Bassiouni, 1990). A clear example is when terrorist groups use organized crime activity to fund their political objectives. Terrorist organizations can thus adopt the conventional tactics of organized criminal groups, such as generating profits from drug trafficking, or other types of illicit trade. In this context, UN General Assembly Resolution 55/25 adopting the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime also calls upon States to recognize the link between transnational organized criminal activities and acts of terrorism.
Another important element of distinction between these two crimes is that by definition, organized crime cannot be committed by a single person (as spelled out in the definition of organized criminal group provided by article 2(a) of the Organized Crime Convention) while a terrorist act can be.
There is no definition agreed on by all Members States on terrorism. Instead, there are 19 universal legal instruments against terrorism negotiated over the last 50 years. Although negotiations to draft a comprehensive convention on international terrorism have been undergoing, so far the development of a comprehensive strategy against terrorism has been constrained by the inability to agree on a definition of terrorism, among other issues.
The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism provides a broad definition that is reported below.
Broad definition of terrorism
Article 2-1: Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person by any means, directly or indirectly, unlawfully and wilfully, provides or collects funds with the intention that they should be used or in the knowledge that they are to be used, in full or in part, in order to carry out: […]
(b) Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.
Source: International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism; FATF Interpretative Note to Special Recommendation II on the Financing of Terrorism, defining terrorist act as the above, in addition to offences under the universal anti-terrorism conventions and protocols negotiated as of 1999.
Organized criminal groups, however, may also adopt terrorist tactics of indiscriminate violence and large-scale public intimidation to further criminal objectives or fulfil special operational aims. Organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations may build alliances with each other. The nature of these alliances varies broadly and can include one-off, short-term, and long-term relationships. With time, criminal and terrorist groups may develop a capacity to engage in both criminal and terrorist activities, thus forming entities that display the characteristics of both groups. Figure 1 illustrates the crime-terror nexus. It shows that while organized crime and terrorism have different objectives, they can also overlap.