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Crime and criminality

The notions of "crime" and "criminality" are so polysemous that there is no other way than to propose, as a preliminary point, a definition that is more sociological than legal. In this perspective, we consider as criminals or delinquents all the behaviors that a legislator incriminates by threatening the person responsible for a sentence.


In this definition, there is no crime per se. An act is qualified as criminal under the action of a legitimate power which sanctions certain behaviors. For philosophers, moralists or jurists, the transgression of a  prohibited  can be characterized as criminal, regardless of the ability of the  institutions  to identify its author more or less correctly; it follows from this the belief in the existence of a “real criminality” which would be constituted only by the total number of transgressed acts accompanied by a penalty, which the perpetrators are more or less aware of having committed.

Alongside this theoretical conception of "real criminality", which would exist virtually without the slightest beginning of proof, there is a second conception, carried by jurists: "legal criminality". This includes all penalized acts whose perpetrators are identified by institutions specializing in their identification and repression (judicial statistics), and punished by fines or deprivation of liberty (prison statistics).


This extremely restrictive legalistic conception of crime only takes into account, rigorously, those responsible for acts qualified as “felony or misdemeanor”, and punished as such. All "perpetrators" presumed innocent until justice has found them guilty should be strictly ignored from the scope of institutional analysis. Obviously, this is never the case, even among the most legalistic jurists. Everything then happens as if ...

The fear of transnational organized crime has grown steadily during the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center. Succeeding the threat of the expansion of communism, this new fear was not without similarities to that of the international networks of "hyperterrorism", now predominant, and could easily come back to the forefront thanks to such or such auspicious news.

How did the consensus around this transnational threat come about? The question is important because, despite the profusion of speeches on this theme, the uncertainties weighing on its definition, the empirical foundations of this concept and the nature of the danger it represents at the global level are far from being resolved. Let us go further: it would even be preferable to abandon this too globalizing approach, in favor of the analysis of the different forms of transnational illicit economic practices, the existence of which is much less questionable.

The formulation of an international problem

During the 1990s, the concept of transnational organized crime met with considerable success and circulated in many professional circles. An impressive list of books, specialized journals, Internet sites, study and research centers have been devoted to him. However, this success owes nothing to the precision of the concept, as evidenced by incessant difficulties of definition, which are of at least two orders.


First, the terms "organized crime" or "criminal organizations" have always given rise to controversy. When a consensus appears between the States on the need to fight against these forms of delinquency, the definitions adopted appear to be formidably broad. Thus, in Palermo, in December 2000, the 120 signatory countries of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime agreed to define organized criminal groups as "structured groups of three or more people, existing for some time and acting in concert for the purpose of committing one or more serious offenses or offenses established in accordance with this Convention in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material advantage "(United Nations, General Assembly, 2000, p. 4 ).

Such a definition takes us away from common representations of criminal organizations, including for example, if we think about it, political parties engaged in illicit financing operations or companies anxious to conquer, by all means, new markets. . Many experts therefore attribute additional properties to criminal or mafia organizations: rooted locally and closely linked to a given population, they are considered to be hierarchical secret societies, engaged in legal and illegal enterprises and ready to resort to violence and to corruption to increase their profits. Their ethnic, clan or family origin, their conspiratorial character and their relative conformity to the model of the Sicilian mafia are frequently underlined.

The definition of the transnational nature of organized crime represents a second difficulty. According to the United Nations definition, an offense is transnational when it is committed in more than one State, that its preparation takes place at least partially outside the State in which it is committed, that the group that commits it operates in several States or that it produces "substantial effects in another State" (United Nations, General Assembly, 2000, p. 5).


In these conditions, transnational organized crime mainly represents the transnational activities of criminal organizations. But, beyond the practices, this expression also tends to unify the various criminal organizations whose territorial base is national. Where they come from, they are supposed to share a similar form of organization, interests and objectives. They are likely to come together, get along, share a vision of the world and represent a threat to the international community as a whole.


Transnational organized crime thus refers to a network of mafias serving common illicit objectives. This conception opens up the prospect of a global conspiracy. Claire Sterling, an investigative journalist known for having, in the 1980s, written a book on global terrorist networks, was able to describe, in the early 1990s, the summits of a sort of mafia G6 that she calls " Crime-Intern "or" Worldwide Mafia International ", made up of Americans, Colombians, Italians, Japanese, Chinese from Hong Kong and Russians, eager to share markets and place the world under their control (Sterling , 1994). This idea, as frightening as it is attractive, has spread in many think tanks specializing in security issues (Raine and Cilluffo, 1994), in certain American political circles, as well as among many experts, journalists and researchers.

Despite these inaccuracies, criminal organizations are almost unanimously considered to be more or less specialized enterprises, each combining in its own way legal and illegal activities. The latter correspond to three groups: attacks - possibly violent - against people and property, the organization of highly remunerative illicit trafficking (counterfeiting, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, etc.), and economic and criminal crime. business, that is to say, among others, scams, fraud, corruption or money laundering. They seek to own rents and monopolies, as well as to increase their number of activities, in order to maximize their profits.

Arson is one of the three major crimes, the other two being homicide
and sexual assault

Pyromania is now classified as Impulse Control Disorder according to the classification of the American Psychiatric Association

How has globalization transformed the actors and practices of organized crime?

Criminal organizations did not wait until the 1970s to develop transnational activities, but the latter undoubtedly benefited from financial globalization, that is to say from the deregulation and expansion of international financial markets. These developments have provided new means and techniques to conceal illicit income and invest it in the legal economy. Dialectically, the increase in transnational illicit capital flows has probably contributed to the development of financial markets.


Other changes, such as the development of transport and new information and communication technologies, have simultaneously affected the transnational activities of criminal organizations, without however fundamentally changing their nature. As a result, the illicit products at the origin of international trafficking have certainly grown in volume and diversified. Finally, the collapse of the communist states has produced several effects, by spatially expanding the markets for illicit products, by offering tempting investment opportunities (in particular which have arisen thanks to privatization programs) and by promoting the emergence of new criminal organizations capable of carrying out transnational activity.


The post-bipolar context has also deprived some guerrillas of their sources of funding:  "The criminal resource has thus taken the place of the strategic resource represented, a few years earlier, by obedience to Moscow or Washington". The evolution of the world over the past three decades has thus favored the increase in the number of criminal organizations and products subject to illicit trafficking, and may have facilitated the penetration of capital of illicit origin into the legal economy.

For these reasons, should we consider that the threat has fundamentally changed? In any case, this is what most experts say. We must first agree on the nature of the dangers involved. Those who are convinced of the existence of an anarchic international society of mafias, like that of the States, believe that it probably represents "the major threat to the world system in the 1990s and beyond".


It is first of all the very foundations of state authority that are threatened. This conviction is nothing new: whatever one thinks about it, Cosa Nostra has often been presented as a "counter-government" which, beyond the illicit activities which it carries out, challenges the State by collecting revenue. and using violence to achieve his ends. The increase in the number of criminal organizations, all apprehended from the Sicilian model, has led to an extension of this threat. In Russia, the fear of a "great criminal revolution", of a seizure of power by the criminal milieu, was frequently expressed during the 1990s.

But the phenomenon also affects Western democracies. In the United States, the proliferation of criminal organizations of foreign origin and the expansion of their transnational activities have worried many observers, who are quick to mention a threat to national security (Naylor, 1995). Criminal organizations not only conquer the territory and harm the economic interests of the country, but they threaten the political regime and the founding values of the United States.


Many American politicians in the early 1990s may have regarded "organized crime as the new communism", or that "winning the cold war is nothing when we are on the verge of losing the war. against another tyranny ". Louise Shelley, known for her work on Russia, presents transnational organized crime as a new form of authoritarianism, capable of destabilizing the most consolidated democracies. This logic of confrontation leads the most radical experts in the fight against organized crime to evoke the imminence of a new world war.

Financial markets and the international economy are also in danger. While some insist on the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the development of finance and that of organized crime, others note that illicit capital flows can, for example, distort competition in certain areas (arms market, for example), damage the reputation of financial centers or banking establishments, or even destabilize national economies (Fabre, 1999). Voices are being raised within international financial institutions and the business community to denounce the growing weight of illicit capital in transnational financial transactions.

Food for thought