UN States Try to Curb Organized Crime

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Crime has been sprinting across national borders faster than law-enforcement officials can keep up with it.

Organized-crime groups that used to operate nationally are forging new global ties. Many groups, United Nations experts say, are moving beyond traditional drug- and arms-smuggling and prostitution into new areas, such as trade in nuclear technology, transport of illegal aliens, and money-laundering.

The UN says major syndicates, which now control most illegal international trade, do $750 billion worth of business a year. These groups are the focus of a UN conference in Cairo this week. As Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali notes, "Some criminal 'empires' are richer than many poorer states." Or, as the World Bank reports, they are worth far more than the gross domestic products of the Middle Eastern and North African nations combined.

The new global criminals have been quick to take advantage of major changes in the last five or six years, including the move toward freer trade, the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and the introduction of technology that allows money to cross borders at the touch of a computer key.

Nations trying to liberalize their economies, such as Mexico and Russia, have been particularly vulnerable. The US Treasury estimates, for example, that more than one-fourth of the funds used to buy recently privatized Mexican banks had illicit origins. And laundered monies are suspected as a key factor in the trade imbalance that spurred December's peso devaluation.

In Cairo, some 1,300 government officials, law-enforcement professionals, and academic crime experts are trying to come up with more effective ways to fight the spread of transnational crime. They are sharing their failures, successes, and aims at the ten-day United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, which ends May 8. The Congress has met every five years since 1955.

Everyone agrees that more must be done. "The problem starts when you move into the nitty gritty of how to do it," says Eduardo Vetere, chief of the UN's small Vienna-based Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice branch. Issues of sovereignty and national pride, he says, have kept progress slow.

In his view, new approaches are crucial. "If we continue using concepts and methods that are centuries old, the organized-crime groups are always going to be ahead of us," he says.

The world community is just starting to respond to the new "springtime" of global crime, says Emilio Viano, professor of criminal law at American University in Washington. "We didn't realize the extent of it. We're just beginning to look beyond national boundaries."

*European leaders are expected to give final approval in June to Europol, a new cooperative European police agency. It will have wider powers than Interpol, mainly a data-sharing network.

*Italy, host of two special UN conferences last year on money-laundering and organized crime, has offered to finance a task force to look into setting up a special training center for law-enforcement and criminal-justice personnel to fight transnational crime.

*The US, which has posted Drug Enforcement Administration agents in its overseas embassies for years, has recently added FBI agents to 26 missions. The FBI currently is setting up a training academy in Budapest to educate middle managers of police agencies in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. FBI director Louis Freeh told Congress recently that a network of police partners must be developed and that more global cooperation is vital in the war against drug traffickers.

"These criminal groups that are forging new coalitions sometimes send money through as many as seven or eight countries, so we all have to pull together as a team," agrees Gregory Passic, a money-laundering expert with the DEA in New York. …