Written by Mikhail Falaleev
Translated by Elizaveta Ovchinnikova
12 May 2021. Rossiyskaya Gazeta – Federal Issue No. 103(8454)
The Abduction of Europa
Organised crime is a danger no less serious than the pandemic. In Europe, they openly talk about the mafia threat not only for individual citizens or companies but also for the very existence of states. Sometimes it is hard to define in the hands of mafiosi or honest businessmen this or that enterprise is. The unexpected danger multiplied by the realities of the pandemic, experts believe, may even call into question the existence of the European Union.
President of the International Police Association Russian Section (IPA RS), Lieutenant General, Doctor of Law, Professor, Honoured Lawyer of the Russian Federation Yury Zhdanov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta (RG) about new criminal challenges faced by Europeans.
From Drugs to the Economy
RG: Yury, maybe the danger is rather exaggerated? Where did such extreme assessments come from?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Knowing the habit of tolerant Europeans to tone down sharp details and just avoid extremes, I am afraid they even underestimate the danger. And their experts sound the alarm in the report European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (EU SOCTA) published on 12 April 2021.
It quite frankly states that organised crime, hidden from the public due to the opacity of its activities, poses a serious threat to European citizens, businesses, state institutions and the economy as a whole. Organised crime groups (OCG) are present in all EU Member States. OCGs use their large illegal profits to infiltrate the legitimate economy and state institutions, in particular through corruption.
RG: Well, the mafia acts like this always and everywhere. What exactly has alarmed Europe?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: First of all, ‘dirty’ money, or rather its quantity. The proceeds from criminal activities in the dark markets of the EU in 2019 amounted to 139 billion euros, which corresponds to 1% of the gross domestic product of the Union.
RG: Probably mainly due to drug trafficking?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Not only. ‘Only’ about 40% of criminal networks operating in the EU are involved in drug trafficking. About 60% use violence as part of their criminal businesses. Two-thirds of criminals regularly resort to corruption. More than 80% of criminal networks use legal business structures.
Less than half of criminal networks are involved in drug trafficking. More than 80% use legal business structures regularly resorting to corruption and violence.
RG: When did Europe realise the danger?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Recently. The complexity of a crime group’s business model, in particular, was revealed in 2020. It happened during a joint investigation conducted by the French and Dutch authorities with the support of Europol and Eurojust to eliminate EncroChat – an encrypted phone network widely used by criminal networks.
To date, the EncroChat case has led to more than 1,800 arrests and more than 1,500 new investigations. In addition, it has demonstrated how organised crime gangs operate transnationally and online in all criminal markets in a network environment using increasingly sophisticated methods of work and new technologies.
And in March, there was another joint operation after ‘cracking’ Sky ECC, an encrypted network that many former EncroChat users moved to. The police operation led to the prevention of more than 70 violent incidents, the seizure of more than 28 tons of drugs and the arrest of more than 80 suspects of involvement in organised crime in Belgium and the Netherlands. More than 400 new investigations have been launched into high-risk organised crime groups.
RG: What does ‘high-risk’ mean? Are there low-risk OCGs?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: That is what they call groups that like shooting and blowing up, especially in public places. And their number in the EU is growing.
In general, the presence of firearms is a key factor in the growth of violence by organised crime unities, allowing them to intimidate their opponents and exercise control over their members and markets. The implementation of the new EU Action Plan on Illicit Trafficking in Firearms for 2020-2025 is now beginning.
Income From Coronavirus
RG: As far as I understand, the pandemic did not particularly bother them.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Except that it helped develop new ideas. Organised crime groups used the pandemic to expand criminal activity on the Internet and to participate in fraud, including with counterfeit medical products. The steady high demand for COVID-19 vaccines makes such an occupation attractive for criminals seeking to participate in the production and supply of counterfeit vaccine. EU governments have identified fraud attempts and fake offers by fraudsters trying to sell more than 1.1 billion doses of the vaccine worth more than 15.4 billion euros.
During the international operation with the support of Europol and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), in the period from March to December 2020, law enforcement agencies of 19 Member Countries and eight third countries seized almost 33 million counterfeit medical devices, including face masks, test and diagnostic kits, eight tons of raw materials and 70,000 liters of hygienic disinfectants.
RG: The picture is bleak. And what are they going to do in the EU?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: On 14 April, the specialised EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime was published.
The European Union has provided law enforcement agencies with a wide range of tools to facilitate the exchange of information, which has proved to be of critical importance for detecting criminal activities and networks. For example, the Schengen Information System (SIS) allows operative officers to quickly detect and determine the location of persons and objects involved in organised crime activities and take appropriate measures. The information in this sharing database can help law enforcement officials arrest a person, confiscate an object or determine the movements of persons involved in the investigation. In 2020 alone, the search in the Schengen Information System was conducted almost four billion times, resulting in more than 200,000 requests found.
The reform also provides Europol with access to the SIS alerts and the exchange of additional information, as well as makes more efficient use of biometric data, introducing the possibility of using facial images for identification purposes and including DNA profiles to facilitate the identification of missing persons. The implementation of these innovations is progressing at full speed so that the new system will be fully ready for operation by the end of this year.
RG: That is, detectives and operatives, judges and prosecutors will be able to communicate better and faster. But was it different in a united Europe until now?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Investigators working in isolation in one EU Member State often cannot determine the involvement of organised crime groups in a specific crime. Many bilateral links between the national databases of Member States have not been built due to technical complexity and related financial problems. In addition, it may take weeks or even months for the authorities to share personal data on the crime.
RG: And what does the Strategy offer?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: There are a lot of ideas. In particular, it is suggested to improve the work of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT). In principle, it has been working since 2010. EMPACT allows Member Countries to identify priority crime threats in the EU where collective action is needed.
Although EMPACT already provides significant operative results, for example, in terms of drug seizures or arrests of criminals, it is not currently being fully used. Its complexity, lack of awareness among direct employees and insufficient funding do not always ensure the Member States and external partners’ interest or active participation and hinder the development of more complex operations.
The task is to strengthen the EMPACT position as a key EU tool in the fight against organised and serious international crime. There should be a significant increase in EMPACT funding to allow it to develop conduct more complex operations.
The Police Go Into Intelligence
RG: In order to exchange information, you first need to get this information somewhere...
Mr Yury Zhdanov: And this is also mentioned in the Strategy – about the further development of serious and organised crime intelligence in Europol.
RG: Only in Europol?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It is planned to expand the exchange of information and investigative actions with third countries and regions that are the main centres of high-risk organised crime. They can affect the EU Member States, including through seconded bilateral liaison officers of the Member States.
For example, Interpol is another key participant in international cooperation in the fight against organised crime.
18 Interpol databases contain more than 100 million records of law enforcement agencies, including wanted criminals, suspected terrorists, fingerprints, stolen cars, stolen and lost travel documents, weapons.
These databases identify links and thus contribute to the investigation of transnational organised crime.
RG: Yet, how is it planned to make a decisive attack against the mafia?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: The main focus of law enforcement investigations is aimed at participants and networks that form the basis of crime ecosystems. Therefore, in order to combat the mafia directly, some Member States have created structures at the national level or specialised units within law enforcement and judicial bodies.
RG: I bet migrants are a great help for the mafia in Europe. Both as a source of income, ‘human commodities’ and as new recruits.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Yes, they are. And this year a new Action Plan will be adopted to tackle the illegal smuggling of migrants. The special EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings (2021-2025) will also be proposed to eliminate the specifics of this crime.
RG: Is cybercrime also one of the most painful issues?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: This is also a Strategy’s direction. The European Cybercrime Centre at Europol (EC3) founded in 2013 played a key role in tracking the use of the COVID-19 pandemic by organised crime, in creating materials and reports for the information of Member States and the public, supporting investigations of online fraud committed by OCGs. In addition, it publishes the regular Organised Crime Threat Assessment Reports on the Internet (IOCTA), which are an important source of information for determining priorities in conducting operations and policies.
Soon, a law will be proposed to improve the protection of children from sexual violence. For example, there will be a requirement for online service providers to detect materials about sexual abuse of children and report this to state authorities.
The legislation will ensure consistency with other legislative initiatives, in particular, with the proposal for the Digital Services Act (DSA).
RG: How do they resist fraud in the EU?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: They understand that in crisis conditions, fraud, including fraud with customs, excise duties and VAT, is a serious threat to the EU security. For example, counterfeit products account for 6.8% of EU imports and are a considerable source of income for OCGs. Medical and sanitary goods account for a significant and growing share of counterfeiting, a phenomenon that has increased alarmingly with the COVID-19 pandemic. Organised crime is engaged in the production and supply of counterfeit protective equipment, test kits and pharmaceuticals.
Organised crime gangs are increasingly involved in crimes such as counterfeiting pesticides and fraudulent use of the EU organic logo.
Where is Money?
RG: And yet, the most painful issue for the mafia is money. They should not only be ‘raised’ but also legalised. This money keeps rolling out somewhere. Is Europol trying to find and hit where it hurts the most?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Indeed, organised crime in the EU mainly depends on the ability to launder huge amounts of criminal proceeds. While three-quarters of criminal organisations still use basic methods to hide their illegal income, such as investing in real estate or other expensive goods, others rely on increasingly sophisticated methods with the help of ‘white-collar’ money laundering. The financial trail that criminals leave behind is a key indicator of their activities, providing investigators with useful leads and invaluable evidence for prosecuting criminals.
RG: How successful are they following this financial trail?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Despite the development of the legislative framework for combatting money laundering and for asset recovery, only a small proportion of money laundering operations are detected and only 1% of criminal assets are confiscated. This is compounded by the wider use of financial channels with more limited supervision than the banking sector, such as virtual currencies.
Financial investigations are not being fully utilised, partly due to the insufficient capacity of law enforcement agencies to conduct these complex and burdensome investigations. Moreover, the narrow scope of application of the legal framework of confiscation further hinders the possibility of depriving criminals of their illegally obtained assets.
RG: Do law enforcement officers lack authority to fight the mafia?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It turns out this way. Moreover, asset recovery units currently face problems in tracking assets, since they do not have, for example, the authority to temporarily freeze in order to prevent the dispersion of assets or direct and immediate access to certain public registries, such as central land registry or central company registry. The recovered assets are also not always managed effectively and are not used enough to compensate victims or to benefit the society.
However, by establishing the European Financial and Economic Crime Centre (EFECC), Europol has expanded its capabilities to support Member States in conducting financial investigations. Now the task is to step up efforts on freezing and confiscating through further strengthening of the legal framework at the EU level and reinforcement of the operational capabilities of asset recovery offices.
Therefore, legislative proposals are being prepared aimed at enhancing and developing the EU Anti-Money Laundering framework, at creating a single set of directly applicable rules and regulations in the second quarter of 2021.
RG: What is proposed specifically?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It is proposed to strengthen supervision at the EU level and create an EU mechanism for coordinating and supporting financial intelligence units. It is equally necessary to further develop a culture of early financial investigations in all Member States and to build the investigators’ capacity to combat the financial spheres of organised crime.