The Straits Times (Singapore)
MAY 22 1997

Experts' group to be set up on Mafia-style organised crime
By R. Senthilnatha
in Vienna

THE move towards an international treaty to fight the rising menace of Mafia-style organised crime is to get a boost when an inter-governmental experts' group is established in the coming months.

The group will seek to bridge the existing differences, including on the definition of the term "organised crime", among countries on how best to deal with the problem, says Mr Dimitros Vlassis, an official at the Vienna-based United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division.

A resolution calling for the creation of the experts' group has been prepared and only needs to be adopted by the UN General Assembly at its meeting later this year, he says.

Given the concern countries have been expressing on the issue, the group can then be formed and meet before the end of the year, he says.

Poland, which has taken a number of initiatives on global action against crime, has already submitted a draft international convention but other proposals can be expected during the group's meetings, Mr Vlassis says.

These moves come as worry about the activities of major crime groups and their efforts to spread their wings, including investing in legal sectors, has been increasing.

There are five major Mafia groups, two of them in Asia.

A UN report on organised crime says that the first, the Chinese and Hongkong-based triads, earn US$200 billion (S$286 billion) annually through extortion, prostitution and drug and migrant smuggling. The liberalised economic zones in China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces are favoured areas for triads wanting to invest their profits.

The Yakuza of Japan is the second Mafia organisation in Asia. The other three Mafia groups are: the well-known Italian Mafia groups, Colombia's Cali cartel and the Russian Vory v Zakonye and affiliated newcomers.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian syndicates have expanded their activities and established a dominant position in eastern and western Europe, controlling the prostitution sector and bringing home an estimated 250,000 stolen cars annually.

Figures vary but a senior German police official claimed recently that the volume of money organised crime groups dealt with in 1991 was a staggering US$5.6 trillion, almost half of it coming from illicit trafficking in drugs.

Crime officials say detecting crime is becoming increasingly difficult as the Mafia groups use modern technology to the maximum and forge strategic alliances among themselves.

UN officials claim to know of contacts between different groups -- for instance, Italian Mafia men tutoring their Russian colleagues on money laundering methods at meetings in Prague or Warsaw.

And it would appear the Russian Mafia groups have learnt their lesson well: In 1982 there were only four banks in the whole of the Soviet Union. A recent report by the Russian Foreign and Defence Policy Council says there are now more than 3,000 institutions specialising in laundering money earning through, among others, the smuggling of nuclear material, extortion, drug smuggling and prostitution.

While the crime groups are going high-tech and forgetting national borders, crime-fighting is still old-fashioned and mostly confined to national borders.

Such differences have also been surfacing during discussions on the proposed treaty.

One major problem is that although the term "organised crime" has become common, particularly in the West, there is still no definition of it.

The Polish draft defines it as group activities of three or more people with hierarchical links engaging in criminal activities.

Some countries, like Canada, do not want to have a definition. In its report on organised crime to the UN, Canada says that the problem of organised crime, including that of stolen vehicles, did not exist a decade ago. Thus, it argues, a convention should not be rigid in fixing a definition but should be flexible enough to deal with problems that may arise in the coming years.

Another equally constraining problem is the question of extradition. Many countries are willing to extradite nationals from third countries to their own, or other countries, should they be sought for their criminal activities, but not so when it comes to extraditing their own nationals sought for crimes in third countries.

How sensitive the issue of extraditing one's own nationals is shown in the Polish draft. The clause dealing with that issue is followed by a number of brackets -- which show changes demanded by countries.

A number of countries, including from the West, have declared that their legal systems do not allow for such extraditions.


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