Transnational organised crime, in a literal sense, has a history as old as national governments and international trade. Piracy, cross-border brigandage, smuggling, fraud and trading in stolen or forbidden goods and services are ancient occupations that increased in significance as nation states were taking shape. Piracy and cross-border brigandage have now been banished to parts of the world where state authority is weak. However, the other occupations have flourished in recent years in most parts of the world, irrespective of the strength or weakness of the authority of individual states or the collective efforts of the international community.
Transnational organised crime in the limited sense that most commentators and policy-makers use has a much more recent history. Since the early 1990s, it has usually been used as a synonym for international gangsterism in general or the 'Mafia' or Mafia-type organisations, in particular. In this sense, 'transnational organised crime' has become a term that is now an integral part of the vocabulary of criminal justice policy-makers across the world. Many governments are in a continuous process of devising new ways to combat what for most is a newly discovered problem. Multilateral treaties, United Nations conventions and transnational law enforcement institutions are proliferating and intelligence agencies once fully employed in Cold War activities now take on such presumed entities as the 'Mafia', the 'Camorra', the 'Yakusa', the 'Triads' or any others that may be given a Mafia label as identification. These groups, according to experts cited in a 1993 United Nations discussion guide, effectively constitute organised crime since it 'consists of tightly knit, highly organised networks of operatives that pursue common goals and objectives, within a hierarchical power structure that spans across countries and regions to cover the entire world' (United Nations, 1993).
This chapter presents a brief outline of American efforts to conceptualise organised crime and transnational organised crime. It argues that the USA has successfully exported its analysis of organised crime problems despite evidence of its inadequacy.
Organised crime first became the subject of academic and professional study in the 1920s and 1930s. It is important to note, however, that