Tag Archives: Organized Crime

Swedish outlaw motorcycle biker strategy

From The Local:

Municipalities in Sweden ought to have the right to ban vests bearing symbols associated with known motorcycle gangs in order to fight organised crime, a leading Social Democrat has suggested.

This is a tough call for authorities all over the world.  When criminal organizations decide to advertise their presence in order to intimidate the population (or other criminal groups) they can have a serious impact upon the community.  BUT, it can also make them easy to identify by the authorities.  Efforts to suppress the most obvious displays of affiliation may eliminate the superficial aspects of the problem but criminal groups will quickly adopt new ways of displaying their membership that rivals, allies and the community will quickly learn as well.

At best, such a measure will give you a brief window of opportunity to enact a more lasting solution, possibly taking advantage of the confusion (if any exists) caused by the new enforcement measure.

By itself, however, it’ll be nothing more than a bit of window dressing.

Gang members…a kaleidoscope of crazy

Why in the world do gang members advertise their presence by prominently displaying ‘colors’, handsigns or tattoos?

Red? Really? It's really only acceptable between May Day and Labor Day...

If you think about it, this display doesn’t seem to make much sense.  After all, this is the equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s going to commit criminal activity’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band (if they can be pried away from serenading local cetaceans).  The point being, if you’ve decided to embark upon a life of crime it seems the last thing you’d want to do is draw attention to yourself but gang displays like this are quite clearly designed to do just that.

So, what’s the deal?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  First, I’d like to point out that the paragraph above contained at least one cognitive bias.  It assumes that all criminals would conduct their activity as I would.  As someone with my values, priorities and (de)motivators.  So, my priorities might look something like this:

  • avoid capture/arrest
  • maximize profit
  • conceal my criminal activity from all but the bare minimum of people who are required to facilitate it

To assume everyone else would have those same priorities would be to commit the sin of ‘mirror imaging‘.  From St. Heuer:

One kind of assumption an analyst should always recognize and question is mirror-imaging–filling gaps in the analyst’s own knowledge by assuming that the other side is likely to act in a certain way because that is how the US would act under similar circumstances. To say, “if I were a Russian intelligence officer …” or “if I were running the Indian Government …” is mirror-imaging.

So, let’s kick that ‘Well, if I were a criminal, I’d…” practice to the curb.  While Heuer spoke about other nations we need to be aware that even within the U.S. we have different cultures (or, perhaps, sub-cultures).  Even if we and the members of a criminal organization both were born and raised in the same country, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have the same cultural experience and values.  Many of us experienced life in suburban, middle-class America.  That can be very, very different from the experiences of populations that are socially excluded because of their immigrant, economic, racial or social status.  So, mirror imaging is just as fraught with danger for law enforcement analysts as it is for those analyzing international issues.

Now, let’s take a slight detour and discuss frogs and bats (trust me, this will all connect).

The August 5th edition of the Science podcast had a story about about the mating signals of bats and frogs.  The conventional wisdom is that elaborate mating displays (long peacock feathers, frog or bat calls) are limited by predators.  At some point the mating display becomes so elaborate that it is the evolutionary equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s looking to get some’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band.

The only problem with conventional wisdom (at least in this case) is that it appears to be wrong.  What really seems to limit the display of these animals is the cognitive abilities of the females (misogynistic joke censored here).  At some point the ladies get overwhelmed with the frog and bat equivalent of bell bottoms, big collars and all that Hai Karate.

So, what does this have to do with gangs?  Well, perhaps gang displays aren’t really limited by law enforcement pressures.  Maybe there’s another (or other) factors that influence how extensive gang displays are.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a recent study (full study available here) into just that.  Andrew Mell argues that ‘peacocking’ by gang members sends a signal to ‘potential mates’ (drug customers) that basically says:

…I’m still willing to commit crimes when I have this handicap, I must be pretty good at evading the police. Incompetent criminals couldn’t get away with wearing gang colors.

He also theorizes other messages gang members might send through other sorts of behavior.

A competent criminal might decide to sell drugs near a school, precisely because penalties are higher there. Who would dare do that? Only someone awfully confident in his or her shrewdness.

I got to thinking about this and the theory also fits in another way.  Gang members aren’t only worried about attracting customers.  It’s a big, bad world out there and gang members often cite protection as a reason for membership.  Flashy displays of membership broadcast to potential rivals that they might be biting off more than they can chew if they want to pick on particular gang member.  If you are a criminal network and want to control a particularly lucrative drug territory you probably won’t think twice about an aggressive strategy if there’s one lone person running things.  But, if taking action might start a gang war with another large group you might look for other territory.

This may explain why findings like those in the NJ Gang Surveys have identified a growing allegiance to ‘super gangs’ (particularly the Bloods) and the decline of small, neighborhood gangs.  The former at least provide the promise of a much larger pool of potential allies thereby raising the bar for who might comfortably confront them.

Swedish chaos

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about Sweden and things have gone to hell in a handbasket…

The Swedish cities of Gothenburg and Malmö have witnessed some surprising organized criminal activity.

Since the start of the year, there have been more than 20 shootings in Gothenburg and Malmö alone, many with clear connections to criminal gangs.

But, to be fair, there are plenty of comparably populated cities in the U.S. that would love to have only 20 shootings over a comparable time frame.

What might be worrying for the Swedes is the following:

In addition to conflicts between established gangs like the Outlaws, Hells Angels, and Bandidos, police have also seen a rise in new gangs based in the suburbs which have lead to increasing competition between the rival groups.

A rise of suburban gangs might indicate a shift of criminal activity from (traditionally) socially excluded populations (generally immigrants) to a broader pool.  That may be a problem if Swedish police and social services aren’t being proactive.

The King has come under fire for allegations that he’s (brace yourself) visited strip clubs and had an affair…a decade or more ago.  You’d think after almost 40 years of rule a monarch would have something a bit more juicy in terms of abuses of power other than getting an occasional lap dance.  The shocking thing is that people are trying to use this as justification for demands that he step down and relinquish his crown.  Oh, Vasa must be spinning in his grave…

Speaking of dictatorial Swedish leaders, it appears young Swedes are pining for being ruled with an iron fist:

Over 25 percent young Swedes think that it would be “good or very good” for Sweden to be less democratic and ruled by a strong and dictatorial leader, according to a new study.

I actually think this says less about Swedes and reinforces the idea that roughly 20% of any given population is made up of the goofy, mentally foreclosed, and crazy.


The impact of organized crime in Afghanistan

The COIN center recently had Gretchen Peters speak (and for which I am kicking myself for missing) about the impact of organized crime on Afghanistan and it’s implications for COIN.

Unfortunately, there’s no audio (yet) for the presentation which makes the slideshow a bit difficult to follow…but…there is an account of the presentation available in the COIN center downloads.  I found the following particularly worthy of note:

  • Forty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is centered on the $4 billion poppy trade

That’s absolutely critical since that means the drug trade is intertwined with virtually all the rest of the Afghan economy.  So, to those out there who want to slash and burn our way out of the problem, you can’t.

…elimination of the drug trade would devastate the country.

The majority of farmers are extremely poor and opium can be used as a form of currency.

In short, destroying the poppies at the level of the grower isn’t going to get you much other than a bunch of pissed off farmers who are unlikely to look favorably upon coalition forces OR the central government which many already see as less than legitimate.

In addition to drugs, organized criminal groups (or insurgent groups that rely upon organized criminal activities) have spread their wings to diversify their money making activities.

  • Extortion of truckers shipping legal items like “timber, marble, gemstones, antiquities and people is rampant.”
  • Truckers are taxes ten percent of their consignment for local goods and thirty to forty percent for carrying coalition supplies. [emphasis added]
  • With no real communications infrastructure, Afghanistan like much of the developing world leapt right to wireless communications.  That would be great except that means that your communication relies on these big honking towers set up everywhere are vulnerable.  Which means with very little effort you can put a serious crimp in national communications. Criminal groups have figured that out and charge protection money for not interfering with the towers.

Let’s face it, all that skimming off the top (and the middle with those rates) not only funds insurgent and criminal groups but it’s a huge drain on local economies, adding yet another impediment to growth.

Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of good news here because the problem is going to be a very, very tough nut to crack under the best of conditions and these, most assuredly, are not the best of conditions.

Still, Ms. Peters takes her best shot at giving us a lifeline.

…protecting local communities from the grip of organized crime can provide the impetus for a successful COIN campaign.

Let’s be honest here.  There is a LOT involved with ‘protecting local communities’ and I’m not sure there’s a phrase out there that can capture all the complexity and potential pitfalls involved with doing that sort of thing. I also suspect that clearing and holding a piece of territory from insurgents might be an easier task than doing so from people who are motivated to conduct criminal activities for profit rather than for ideology.

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Gangs in New Jersey 2010 Part 2

So last time we discussed some of the context and parameters surrounding the New Jersey Street Gang Survey.  Let’s look at some of the more interesting findings of the survey.

First, the authors (on page 17) describe the overall gang environment this way:

this data appears to support the assessment that New Jersey’s gang environment –as measured by the perceptions of municipal law enforcement agencies in the state– can best be described as ‘mature’ and more-or-less at equilibrium.

They base that upon the following data points:

  • “…fewer than half of all respondents (45% or 254 municipalities) indicated the presence of gangs in their jurisdiction during the previous 12 months. This
    proportion remained virtually unchanged from the previous survey in 2007 (43%)
  • The number of respondents unsure whether gangs were present in their jurisdiction remains low (2% of all respondents), possibly indicating that widespread availability of gang awareness training for law enforcement has been effective in allowing local police agencies to identify basic aspects of the gang threat in their communities.
  • Ninety-five (95) municipalities consistently reported the presence of gangs in all three surveys from 2004 to 2010, and 142 municipalities consistently reported the absence of gangs.
  • In 30 municipalities (average pop. 9,817) that responded to all three surveys, the presence of gangs was reported for the first time in 2010. Conversely, nine municipalities (average pop. 19,370) that reported a gang presence in both 2004 and 2007 were ‘gang free’ in 2010.
  • The proportion of 2010 municipalities reporting increased gang activity dropped dramatically compared with levels recorded in both previous surveys; 40% lower than the number of municipalities reporting increased gang activity in the 2007 survey. At the same time, the number of municipalities reporting either no change or a decrease in gang activity increased significantly.

So, overall, I’d say this sets a nice tone for the rest of the document in avoiding the fear mongering and the ‘sky is falling’ mentality we’ve seen far too often in threat assessments over the past few years.  In short, things don’t appear to be getting worse than they were in 2007 from a macro perspective.

How good (or bad) that is depends on how bad things were in 2007 I guess.

Next, while there appeared to be a near universal ability to recognize the presence of street gangs (as demonstrated by the very small number of ‘don’t know’ responses to the question of street gang presence) the survey reveled the presence of widespread and significant intelligence gaps among gangs.  As the authors describe it:

The survey identified widespread information gaps regarding the organizational characteristics of gangs. The lack of such information makes it difficult to assess the cohesion, capabilities, structure and threat of gangs in many parts of the state.

Now it may be that the survey administrators were simply asking the wrong people about organizational characteristics.  It may be that municipal police departments simply aren’t equipped to identify and track questions of organizational structure, cohesion, intent, ideology, and criminal activity that may span jurisdictions.  Since the State Police were conducting this survey and asking these questions can it be assumed that they don’t know the answers?  In that case, who would?  Expecting the federal authorities to be able to have such an understanding of the 244 distinct gangs (let alone the 1,575 gang sets) within just one state might be more than one could reasonably expect.  In short, it may mean that no one really has a good handle on these questions.

While so many gangs were identified in the survey, it’s interesting that there were some noticeable absences.  Again, from the report:

Prior investigations…have identified the presence of a wider variety of criminal networks that meet the definition of street gangs than are reported in this survey. Criminal networks with identities and members tied to nations or regions in Europe, Asia and Africa have been common in New Jersey and the surrounding area for decades, and the lack of any mention in the 2010 Street Gang Survey is worthy of note.

It is unclear whether this reflects a perception among respondents that criminal organizations originating in other regions should not be considered street gangs; if these other criminal networks no longer are present in the state; or if they recently have been successful in avoiding the notice of law enforcement.

Very interesting because this may indicate a bias (intended or not) about what gangs are that overlays any legal definition that our criminal justice system uses.  New Jersey has a number of large, ethnic populations and immigrant communities, many of whom have brought with them or developed an organized criminal component.  Certainly some academics have reported the willingness to label criminal networks of young minorities with the ‘gang’ moniker with more frequency than similar networks of white youth.  This could be a serious intelligence gap since if criminal networks like those from Albania, Vietnam, China and other places aren’t captured as ‘gangs’, under whose watch will they be?

You may have occasionally heard, over the years, about the dangers of prison radicalization.  Particularly the dangers of radical Muslim clerics converting criminals to Islam and convincing them to take up jihad.  This report doesn’t discuss that directly but asked some questions about radicalization and the influence of prisoners on gang activity on the streets.  The results indicate that, at least in New Jersey, this isn’t a big problem:

Of the 254 municipalities reporting the presence of a gang in the 2010 Street Gang Survey, less than one dozen reported gangs involved in extremist ideologies.

It should be noted here that some gangs that were included in the survey were various white supremacist groups who you would associate with the term ‘extremist ideology’.  Some of those groups were identified as possessing extremist ideologies but others were not which raises some questions.  I mean, what’s the point of being a skinhead if you aren’t a racist?  Those few answers may have been the result of survey fatigue or some of the same biases which led to some criminal groups not being included as I discussed above.  It may be that the term ‘extremist ideology’ carried some sort of connotation which the respondent couldn’t apply to the group(s) in his/her jurisdiction.

In any case, let’s not get too worried about legions of ex-cons wanting to institute Sharia law.

I have no idea how popular radical or extremist ideology is in prisons but if the responses given in this survey is correct we might want to think of prison a bit like Las Vegas:  What happens there, stays there.  Except of course, there aren’t any hookers, booze or Circe de Soleil shows in prison.

Perhaps because I had a rather bad school experience I’m always considering the parallels between prison and schools when it comes to gangs.  Not being a parent myself, I’m not sure if the findings in the report are reassuring or not.  Among municipalities that reported the presence of gangs…

Half (50%) of those municipalities did not note the presence of gangs in their schools, while 46% of municipalities did have a gang presence within their schools.

That means roughly 20% of municipalities in New Jersey have schools with a gang presence in them.  While that (just like gang presence generally) is essentially unchanged from 2007, I don’t know if I have enough information to put that number into a wider context.

Some common perceptions of gangs came in for some rough treatment from the survey.  For example:

  • More than half of all gangs identified in New Jersey have fewer than six members
  • Half of all gangs were not reported to be involved in drug distribution crimes.
  • Relatively few gangs are reported to be engaged in inter-gang conflict.
  • While we’ve all heard of gang rivalries (e.g. bloods vs. crips) the data seems to indicate that intra-gang conflict (bloods vs. bloods, etc.) is ‘at least as common’.  In short, Blood is NOT thicker than water.

The latter half of the report is a number of specific gang profiles based upon the survey data.  Each of the 14 profiles goes into more detail about the gang’s criminal activity, membership and organizational characteristics.  Check it out and amaze your friends with your ability to spout obscure gang details.

Next time:  Product response…

Let me know when they break out the trebuchet (South of the border narcotics edition)

Courtesy of boingboing,

National Guard troops video taped drug smugglers using a catapult to fling pot over the border. With a story like thing you know there’s going to be at least one bad pun in here and it starts off in the beginning…

Smugglers using a catapult to launch marijuana across the border were observed on a remote video surveillance system, and National Guard troops coordinated with Mexican authorities to disrupt the far-flung operation.

This does not seem like a particularly wise plan.  There’s a video at the website and I seriously doubt that puny catapult could throw a weight of pot very far (what 100 meters?) so that means you’ve got to have your pick up guys right there.  That’s fine if you need to get something over a fence but I imagine you won’t exactly be blending in with the environment.

Oh, plus the fact that you have to hook up your cataput to your SUV to drive it to the launch area.

Oh, and the fact that you’re driving around with a freakin’ catapult.

The Economist just had a very good podcast about crime in Central America and the spread of Mexican narco-cartels into Honduras, El Salvador and other places.

In addition they talk about Bolivia’s attempt to make the chewing of coca leaves by indigenous people legal. The U.S. (and probably others) are threatening to veto the measure but the podcasters speculate this might push Bolivia to take a more extreme position which would not be in the long term interests of people who want to keep drugs out of the U.S.

This seems like yet another bone headed move where our insistence on moral purity is going to get us in trouble.  You’d think that given our numerous failures in the drug war we wouldn’t want more opponents but, hey, what do I know.  Let’s annoy a few thousand peasants in Bolivia and give them another reason to grow and sell cocoa to drug processors.

The bikerless biker gang (now with fewer bikes!)

Outlaw motorcycle gangs in Europe are a pretty interesting lot and Der Spiegel doesn’t disappoint in a story about a potential conflict between the Hells Angels and a newly formed chapter of the Mongols MC (man, they have a nice website.  I’m not sure is outlaw motorcycle clubs should have facebook pages though.  Seems kind of weird.)  in the city of Bremen.

There are a couple of added twists to the story, however.  First the Mongols are made up of Kurds who are part of a community that immigrated to Germany in the 1980s.  Second (and most strangely for a motorcycle gang), these guys apparently didn’t have motorcycles…

According to investigators, the new bikers have neither motorbikes nor the requisite motorcycle license. Whenever they cruise through Bremen’s downtown area, they drive powerful cars. Mustafa B. was the only member of the clan who had actually gotten his license, two weeks before his untimely death.

So now German authorities are concerned about two potential scenarios:

  1. The Mongols and Hells Angels (the dominant motorcycle gang in Bremen) start to battle it out over control of illegal markets and turf
  2. The Mongols and Hells Angels cooperate to form a criminal partnership

Neither one of those is desirable to German authorities.