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How much organized crime is there?

The true extent of organized crime is unknown. Characteristic organized crimes, such as conspiracy, criminal association, racketeering, and extortion, are not counted in any systematic way. Other offences involving provision of illicit goods and services are usually known only when they result in arrests or prosecution

The problem of measurement in organized crime is made difficult by four interrelated factors: efforts to conceal taken by perpetrators, victim non-reporting, the extent to which organized crime is involved in a particular incident, and the multiple elements of the phenomenon.


Organized crime is more concealed than many other types of crime because specific efforts are made to prevent it from being known. For example, an organized criminal group that provides illicit goods - such as using illicitly manufactured or produced drugs, falsified medical products or counterfeit goods -, or services - such as migrant smuggling - also takes action to protect these ongoing criminal activities through corruption, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Therefore, those involved in organized crime do not only commit crimes, they make ongoing efforts to conceal them from being discovered.

Victim reporting

The nature of organized crime reduces the likelihood of victims reporting these crimes to authorities. In some cases, customers of products and services offered by organized criminal groups are willing participants, so reporting crimes would incriminate them. An offence in which all parties involved consent to an illegal act - referred to by some as "victimless crime" - presents a distinct pattern of deviant behaviour and makes it particularly challenging to identify victims. For instance, consider the consumers and beneficiaries of illicit goods and services in cases of trafficking in drugs, counterfeit goods or smuggling of migrants. In all such examples, all parties involved in the illicit transaction (i.e. those who provide the product or service and those who buy it) are willing participants to it. As a result, there are likely to be fewer crimes committed by organized criminal groups reported to authorities than other crimes, such as robbery and theft, where the victim and offender are more clearly differentiated. In addition, crimes involving the infiltration of government and business involve corruption or extortion, so victims might include the community at large which does not know it is being victimized, or individuals who are complicit, corrupt or under duress, for example through extortion. In any of these situations, the crime is not likely to be reported to authorities. The number of unreported crimes is known as the "dark figure of crime", which puts into doubt the effectiveness and efficiency of the official crime data.

Difficult to isolate

Organized crime is a concept difficult to measure with accuracy or isolate from non-organized crime. Most governments can simply record known criminal incidents. It is very difficult to know what proportion of arrests for drug or illegal firearms-related offences is connected to organized crime activity, and which are simply the acts of individuals unconnected to organized crime. A few jurisdictions make an effort to measure organized crime by counting organized criminal groups, or considering whether certain incidents are related to organized crime. The problem lies in making these determinations, which often rely on incomplete facts, and arbitrary assessments of the situation or the suspects, which might not be known until after adjudication, if it is ever truly known at all.

Multiple elements

Organized crime is a complex phenomenon that consists of multiple overlapping elements, which are often measured separately. There are at least five components of organized crime. (Williams, 2001) They are:

  • Offenders: the actual perpetrators of crime and their accomplices.
  • Products: either illicit products, such as falsified medical products, or licit products that are stolen and/or smuggled.
  • People: persons who are trafficked within countries and across borders to fulfil demand in the global sex trade and labour as well as irregular migrants who enter countries in violation of immigration restrictions.
  • Proceeds: the profits derived from illicit activity.
  • Cyber dimension: various forms of cybercrime such as online sexual exploitation of children, malicious code or virus, or electronic bank robberies.

The methodology of measuring organized crime may thus change depending on what specific element of organized crime is the focus of the inquiry.

There are only three perspectives from which to count crimes of any kind: the offender, the victim, and government authorities (usually the police or courts). In the case of organized crime, it can be seen that attempting to measure it from any of the three perspectives is difficult, because both offenders and victims are unlikely to reveal the incident, and the police are unlikely to be made aware of it.

The problem of direct measurement has led to some efforts to rely on indirect indicators of organized crime, such as measuring the presence of organized groups using police surveys, unsolved homicides, victimization data, data on public perceptions, and media coverage of organized crime. These efforts have been sporadic due to the lack of valid and reliable data on which to base a substantial measure of organized crime. Therefore, there has not been consistent progress in improving the measurement of organized crime (Barberet, 2014; Castle, 2008; Dugato, De Simoni and Savona, 2014; Sergi, 2016).

International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (ICCS)

In an effort to improve quality of data on crime and criminal justice at national level and to support national efforts to monitor related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets, UNODC developed the International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (ICCS). ICCS is a classification of criminal offences based on internationally agreed concepts, definitions and principles in order to enhance the consistency and international comparability of crime statistics, and improve analytical capabilities at both the national and international levels. It is also applicable to all forms of crime data, whatever the stage of the criminal justice process (police, prosecution, conviction, imprisonment) at which they are collected, as well as to data collected in crime victimization surveys.

Next: Alternative ways to measure organized crime
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