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European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, Belgian Minister of Home Affairs Annelies Verlinden, Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle, Belgian Minister of Justice Paul Van Tigchelt, and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders pictured during an hybrid press conference to present a report on the most threatening criminal networks in the European Union, in Brussels, Friday, 5 April 2024. (Photo by HATIM KAGHAT/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Europol Identifies Characteristics of the Most-Threatening Criminal Networks to the EU

Successful companies tend to be agile and resilient ones, capable of anticipating trends and pivoting quickly to adapt to new environments while maintaining operations. The most threatening criminal networks in the EU also have these skillsets, according to a new Europol report published Friday.

“The most threatening criminal networks exhibit remarkable agility,” according to Decoding the EU’s Most Threatening Criminal Networks. “They are able to inventively make use of opportunities in the legal world, such as by using or setting up legal business structures to facilitate or conceal their criminal activity, and to launder their money.”

Based on data from all member states and 17 partnering countries, Europol highlighted 821 highest-risk criminal networks whose membership exceeds 25,000 people. The groups were chosen based on the threat they pose to the EU’s internal security. They are active in a wide range of criminal business areas:

  • Drug Trafficking – 295 Groups

  • Fraud – 125 Groups

  • Property Crime – 63 Groups

  • Migrant Smuggling – 48 Groups

  • Trafficking in Human Beings – 36 Groups

  • Counterfeiting – 13 Groups

  • Cybercrime – 9 Groups

  • Environmental Crime – 7 Groups

  • Extortion – 5 Groups

  • Firearms – 5 Groups

“Organized crime is one of the biggest threats we face today, threatening society with corruption and extreme violence,” said Ylva Johansson, European commissioner for home affairs, in a statement Friday. “We need to know what we’re fighting—that’s why mapping organized crime is a key objective of our EU organized crime strategy and the roadmap I launched last October. The result is this important report showing the criminal threat posed by over 800 criminal networks with tens of thousands of members.”

The report went a step further and shared the fundamental characteristics these groups have that make them successful.

Agile. The most threatening groups can adapt criminal business processes to opportunities and challenges, including difficulties posed by law enforcement. These groups are also successful at infiltrating and misusing legal business structures to carry out their activity, including laundering profits, and have been doing it for more than 10 years.

“Eighty-six percent of the most threatening criminal networks make use of legal business structures, the vast majority in the EU,” according to Europol.

Sectors that are especially vulnerable to criminal network infiltration include construction, hospitality, and logistics.

Borderless. Top-tier threatening groups run operations that extend beyond borders, touching multiple countries with several nationalities represented within the operation.

“However, looking at the locations of their core activities, the vast majority maintain a strong geographical focus and do not extend their core activities too broadly,” Europol assessed.

Controlling. The most threatening groups “exert strong control and focus over their criminal operations,” the report explained. These groups typically specialize in a core business and their leadership tends to be settled in a main country of activity—or the origin country for key members.

Many of these groups use a cooperation model—maintaining independent control over main activities but when cooperating with others, they do so with an equal partnership.

“Such a cooperation model likely increases criminal efficiency and allows for a high degree of independence in controlling the full criminal business process, from start to end,” according to the report. “A majority of the threatening criminal networks tend to have end-to-end control over the majority of their activities or over the main part of the criminal process.”

If the organization lacks expertise on a new aspect of their operation, they will delegate it to an “external service provider” using a crime-as-a-service business model, Europol assessed.

“The most threatening criminal networks remain involved in other types of crime that support, strengthen, or conceal their main crimes,” the report explained. “Firearms trafficking, for example, is often committed together with drug trafficking or in support of violent activities such as extortion and racketeering. As profit is the main objective uniting criminal actors, money laundering is a key part of criminal enterprises, and nearly all (96 percent) networks launder their criminal proceeds themselves.”

Destructive. Groups that engage in criminal activity and corruptive practices inflict the most damage to the EU’s security; drug trafficking is the main criminal activity for half of the most threatening groups. But more than 70 percent of these groups engaged in corruption to facilitate their operations, as well as 68 percent using violence and intimidation as features of their “modus operandi,” Europol found.

“Some of the most threatening criminal networks recruit from a young strata of the vulnerable population, even minors, and abuse them to execute tasks in drug trafficking or to exploit them in criminal activities,” according to the report. “They often do this as a countermeasure to avoid prosecution and/or identification of core network members or leadership.”

Other Characteristics to Note…

Like a legitimate business, the highest-risk criminal networks tend to have a hierarchical structure with a clear delineation of tasks, internal controls, and disciplinary systems.

“The largest groups are often hierarchically structured, and on many occasions are family or clan-based (such as mafia-families) or [outlaw motorcycle gangs],” Europol found.

Members are committed to the group to achieve a common goal and often by a sense of belonging and commitment, creating cohesion that reinforces their ability to be agile and resilient.

“It allows them to rely on a community, comprising assets and illicit affiliations within diasporas and groups of associates situated in different places, to establish their criminal operations,” Europol said. “The cohesion is further strengthened and guided by the presence of strong leadership.”

Strong leadership is essential for nearly all of the most threatening criminal groups studied, even decentralized networks.

“Leadership is in most cases considered irreplaceable, while middle-management is considered easier to replace,” Europol assessed, adding that leaders typically physically distance themselves from criminal operations—most likely to avoid detection.

For groups that are not as tied to one leader—such as outlaw motorcycle gangs and Italian mafia groups—this could be because they typically have succession planning in place to ensure strong leaders are part of the operation.

“Detention and conviction of leadership or other high-value targets do not necessarily halt the networks’ criminal business,” Europol wrote. “Leaders often continue to coordinate criminal operations from prison, even over extended periods of time, allowing the network to maintain its dominance. Some networks also demonstrate a high degree of resilience and agility with multiple key network members imprisoned.”

In a statement at a press conference on Friday, European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said the report’s findings have significant implications for justice systems across the EU.

“Judges and prosecutors can only fight organized crime if they are free from intimidation, threats, or attempts to influence their professional integrity,” Reynders said. “We must assure that this is the case. As the most threatening criminal networks run borderless criminal operations, cooperation between experts is vital.”