This module is a resource for lecturers


Beyond the three 'non-traditional' approaches to organized crime prevention


The administrative or ‘non-traditional’ approaches proposed by Schneider and reconsidered by Levi and Maguire (2004) offer valid elements to organize and understand some of the main typologies of organized crime prevention. Nonetheless, there are at least two other relevant categories of intervention that require further considerations. These are:

  1. Law enforcement/criminal justice prevention, and
  2. International and domestic cooperation

Law enforcement/criminal justice prevention of organized crime

As highlighted in another section of this Module, criminal justice measures, although more often associated with the repression of crime, can – and often are – preventive too. Interventions of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, courts and penitentiary institutions, encompass a broad range of actions that interest different phases of the criminal justice process and range from proactive investigations to stop crimes from occurring, to post-release support of ex-prisoners to prevent re-offending.

Proactive investigations – which are conducted before a crime has been committed - are a fundamental component of any successful strategy to prevent and combat organized crime. They are generally based on criminal intelligence analysis which allows law enforcement authorities to identify and understand criminal groups operating in their areas. Once these groups are identified and their habits known, law enforcement authorities may begin to assess current trends in crime in order to forecast and hamper the development of perceived future criminal activities (UNODC (a), 2020). In addition to supporting investigations, surveillance operations and the prosecution of cases, criminal intelligence analysis also provides law enforcement agencies with the ability to effectively manage financial, human and other resources and meet their responsibility for crime prevention.

Organized crime threat assessment

As preventive action can vary depending on the individual circumstances of a country or region, a necessary first step in any strategy is an organized crime threat assessment, which should include the application of diagnostic tools to identify risk factors, as well as a baseline assessment (UN, 2014). An analysis of existing risks within a country is necessary to identify the most significant transnational organized crime threats and to formulate appropriate preventive responses. In parallel, a baseline assessment of preventive measures assists in identifying gaps in law enforcement responses. Such assessments should be repeated regularly and paired with the development of strategic criminal intelligence and an analysis of transnational organized crime activity. More information on threat and risk assessments (including an explanation of terminology) is available in Module 5 of the Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime. UNODC has also developed a number of global, regional and national threat assessments available here, as well as tools to support States in the development of threat assessments, such as a the Guidance on the preparation and use of serious and organized crime threat assessments (SOCTA Handbook).


Because of the gravity often associated with organized crimes, there are particular tools available to the criminal justice system in organized crime cases that might not be accessible - or simply used - when dealing with other types of crimes (e.g. petty offences). In the investigation phase, these include the use of special investigative techniques, such as physical and electronic surveillance, undercover operations and financial analysis, among others. Once a crime has been committed and the accused arrested, in some jurisdictions prosecutors and judges can recur to mitigation of punishment in exchange for substantial cooperation in investigating or prosecuting a serious criminal offence. In some cases, immunity might be granted in exchange for testimony, in an attempt to go after individuals who are suspected of having committed more serious offences through the testimony of less important figures. These measures often need to be associated with the ability to provide effective protection to witnesses, as well as assistance and protection to victims of organized crime, and thus to have a witness protection programme in place. Furthermore, criminal justice procedure may permit the freezing or confiscation of assets, or the seizure of illicit goods or suspected proceeds of crime at various points during criminal justice proceedings. As mentioned earlier in this Module, confiscation is a fundamental instrument to prevent and combat organized crime as it disrupts the criminal enterprise by undermining its fiscal structure.

In addition, there are a series of measures related to incarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners that can be adopted in organized crime cases. One example is pre-trial detention, widely used in such cases as it may be necessary “to prevent flight, interference with evidence or the recurrence of crime,” or “where the person concerned constitutes a clear and serious threat to society which cannot be contained in any other manner” (UN, 1994). Nonetheless, as established by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the “Tokyo Rules”), governments should make every reasonable effort to avoid pre-trial detention, which shall remain a means of last resort in criminal proceedings and, whenever possible, be replaced with alternatives to imprisonment. In this sense, contemporary penologists have argued that the indiscriminate use of such measures and "tough on crime" policies have led to an era of over incarceration across many different jurisdictions (see for instance Roberts et al., 2003; Pratt, 2007). If not applied carefully and exceptionally, these measures might exacerbate the problem instead of helping to address it. For instance, because of prison overcrowding and other system shortcomings such as poor prison management and corruption in the detention system, prisons might become recruitment grounds for organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations (UNODC (b), 2020). The topic of alternatives to imprisonment is considered in more detail in Module 7 of the Teaching Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which also includes a specific section on pre-trial alternatives; for more information on imprisonment, punishment and prison reform, see Module 6 of the same series.

Organized crime prevention and gender considerations

Pathways of offending, incarceration and, more broadly, experiences with the criminal justice system are gendered. Prevention strategies that do not take into account the gendered aspects of these processes are therefore unlikely to effectively address the underlying causes of (organized) crime. A number of UNODC Modules have been dedicated to the issue of gender, both in the context of organized crime specifically (Module 15 on Gender and Organized Crime of the Organized Crime Module Series; Module 13 on Gender Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants of the Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Module Series) and crime prevention and criminal justice in general (Module 9 on Gender in the Criminal Justice System of the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Module Series). It will suffice to recall in the framework of the present Module that there are certain factors related to criminal justice systems that affect women and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual and intersex) persons differently, and often disproportionately. These factors and pathways to incarceration include, among others, experience of prior violence and abuse, coercion into crime by an abuser or a person of influence, the commission of 'moral' crimes such as adultery, or certain sex practices prohibited by law (Manjoo, 2013). Within the female prison population, disadvantaged ethnic minorities, foreign nationals and indigenous people constitute a larger proportion than their proportion within the general community, often due to the specific problems these vulnerable groups face in society (van den Bergh, Gatherer, Fraser, and Moller, 2011).

Within the context of organized crime, there are a series of specific issues to consider. Generally, in organized criminal groups, women tend to do a lot of the "dirty work" of the organization (e.g. moving drugs, transporting arms, gathering intelligence on rival gangs), therefore being disproportionately at risk of detection by law enforcement. They more often cover low-ranking roles in criminal organizations, which results in limited access to the intelligence or insider information on the groups they work with. In turn, this makes them less likely to negotiate reduced sentences in jurisdictions where mitigation in exchange for cooperation is possible.

In many countries, women and persons who identify as LGBTI are disproportionately impacted by discriminatory laws and procedures that undermine equality of opportunity with respect to employment and education. This can translate in the exclusion from the labour market and the formal economy altogether or being forced to accept low paying or illegal jobs in order to survive. That is the case, for instance, of rural women involved in the coca economy in countries of Latin America, employed as crop workers and trading coca leaf and its derivatives (on this topic, see the case study "The Place that Female Coca Growers Deserve" in the exercise section of Module 15 on Gender and Organized Crime). Ignoring their perspectives hides experiences that are key to understand how social inequality and poverty operate through policies like the "war on drugs" and impact women and vulnerable sectors of society. Financial precarity and lower levels of literacy also translate into a lack of knowledge to navigate the criminal justice system, lack of resources to meet bail or financial requirements of sureties (when applicable) and inability to afford commercially obtained legal services, among other issues (for an analysis of the challenges that women and LGBTI persons in conflict with the law might face, please consult the relevant sections – women; LGBTI - of the Module on Gender in the Criminal Justice System in the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Module Series).

The division of tasks along gender roles also plays a role in migratory flows, and results in the fact that women are more likely to be convicted of smuggling friends and family members (Sanchez, 2018). While the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol to the Organized Crime Convention does not intend to criminalize activities of those who provide support to migrants for humanitarian reasons or based on close family ties, some countries did not reflect this in their national legislation and prosecute men and women for smuggling also in those cases (UNODC, 2006). In such circumstances, women can be charged with smuggling for providing room and board for their children, husbands or partners.

These and many other considerations highlighted in the abovementioned Modules accentuate the importance of taking a closer look at gender in the study of organized crime and adopting a gender-sensitive strategy for the effective prevention of this phenomenon.


Regarding conditions of imprisonment, in some countries organized crime-related offences carry with them a particularly strict regime of detention, especially when the prisoner is a leader of an organized criminal group. In an attempt to impede obstruction of justice during trials, to ensure that the accused person severs all ties with the other members of the group, and to reduce the chances that they can continue to run criminal operations behind bars, some of these special regimes keep prisoners in isolation. Other measures include relocating prisoners to correctional institutions far from their community, limiting visiting rights to family members and spouses, or denying visiting rights altogether (on this topic, please also see the Module on Gender and Organized Crime of the Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime). Practices such as temporary solitary confinement, used both during pre-trial and post-trial detention should always be limited in time, subject to independent review and applied only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority, as established by Rule 3 of the UN Standards Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). These safeguards are in line with the consideration that imprisonment - in most countries the most severe form of punishment that courts can impose - should strive to achieve the reformation and social rehabilitation of offenders (Article 10.3 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights) as well as their preparation for social reintegration (Rule 4 of the Nelson Mandela Rules).

Rehabilitation and social reintegration of former prisoners who were members – or leaders - of organized criminal groups presents specific challenges. Although the topic is raised here, a thorough description of social reintegration programmes is beyond the scope of this Module. For the purpose of this Module, it is sufficient to highlight that individuals who are immersed in negative social groups – such as members of criminal organizations - are more likely to identify with the roles in the group and less likely to modify their identity and behaviour after imprisonment (UNODC, 2012(b)). Gangs and criminal groups provide a strong sense of belonging to their members and can exercise a strong attraction for recently released prisoners. It is important to recognize, therefore, that former prisoners with an affiliation to these groups also more likely to re-offend upon release (UNODC, 2012(b)).

Generally, both in community-based and institutional treatments, it is necessary to systematically deliver interventions - such as psychological counselling and support, cognitive-behavioural programmes, social work interventions, education, vocational training, creative therapies and family activities - to support withdrawal from criminal organizations and desistance from criminal behaviour (see for examples UNODC’s Youth Crime Prevention through Sports initiative, also discussed in the exercise section of this Module, which aims to promote sports and related activities to prevent crime and to effectively build resilience of at-risk youth). In some cases, the only alternative for former members of organized criminal groups might consist of starting a new life in a completely new environment, away from familiar networks of friends or contacts. Programmes and interventions to help break the former prisoner’s social ties to gangs and other criminal organizations are necessary, including interventions to help with the development of pro-social support networks (UNODC, 2012 (b)).

Want to know more on rehabilitation and social reintegration of prisoners?

For more information, please see UNODC’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Programme. Among other initiatives, this Programme has developed a 'Roadmap for the Development of Prison-based Rehabilitation Programmes', which provides practical guidance for prison administrations to assist in the development of high-quality and sustainable rehabilitation programmes that meet international standards. Additional guiding tools published under the auspices of the Programme are the 'Handbook on Anti-Corruption Measures in Prisons' and the second edition of the

'Introductory Handbook on the Prevention of Recidivism and the Social Reintegration of Offenders'. 


Further information on some of the specific measures mentioned in this section is contained in the following Modules:

  • Module 8 Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime: Law Enforcement Tools
  • Module 9 Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime: Prosecution Strategies
  • Module 10 Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime: Sentencing and Confiscation

International and domestic cooperation

International and domestic cooperation are essential for effectively preventing and combating organized crime. To facilitate international cooperation, national legislation and actions need to be aligned with international standards and norms, as well as legally binding international treaties. As analysed at length in different Modules of the Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime, the most important legally binding instruments in the field of organized crime are the Organized Crime Convention and its three supplementing Protocols as well as the Corruption Convention. These treaties have formalized a significant proportion of the United Nations standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice – that are internationally agreed non-binding normative resolutions - in binding international law for their States parties.

The importance of the United Nations standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice is analysed in Module 1 of the Teaching Module Serieson Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which recognizes them as a powerful affirmation of our common humanity and a way to safeguard human dignity. The standards and norms constitute authoritative minimum standards and rules to assist Member States in addressing a series of challenges in the criminal justice process including: lack of services; poverty; inequality; corruption; the criminalization of victims; deficiencies in law or procedure; undue delays or overly expedient processes; overreliance on punitive approaches; and harmful stereotypes or social norms that bear discriminatory effects. They are therefore a fundamental crime prevention tool as they not only mean to remove obstacles to the effective administration of justice, but also to address those issues that undermine public confidence in the State. 

Besides the important role of facilitating the negotiations and adoption of landmark international treaties and standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice, the United Nations also fosters cooperation, engagement and information exchange in this field. Specifically, within the context of the Conference of the Parties to the Organized Crime Convention information exchange is fundamental to improve the capacity of all parties to effectively prevent and combat transnational organized crime and to promote and review the implementation of the Convention, in accordance with its article 32 (the Mechanism for the Review of the Implementation of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto was adopted at the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties in 2018). Cooperation with regional organizations could also prove beneficial in that regard and would allow insight to be gained into regional challenges and lessons learned. Nonetheless, in establishing partnerships, it is important to recognize that the most beneficial alliances may not be regionally based, but shaped by transnational organized crime flows, which might also foster unconventional collaboration in the fight against transnational organized crime. The Organized Crime Convention provides the legal basis and framework for such cooperation.

Coordinated law enforcement action provides for better results, so international cooperation should include the coordination of these efforts among States and specialized international networks and organizations, such as INTERPOL, the European Police Office (Europol), the Police Community of the Americas (AMERIPOL), the ASEAN National Police (ASEANAPOL) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. National law enforcement agencies should participate in the work of regional law enforcement mechanisms to identify appropriate investigations.

Collaboration through regional networks, such as the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC), the Gulf Criminal Intelligence Centre to Combat Drugs, the joint planning cell of Afghanistan, Iran (Islamic Republic of) and Pakistan, and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre, leverages the combined strength of individual regional networks and serves to augment intelligence and investigation capacities. In accordance with article 19 of the Organized Crime Convention, such collaboration may be supported by the creation of joint investigative bodies by two or more Member States for the purposes of collaborating on specific, complex cases with a transnational dimension. In addition to building formal partnerships, Member States should seek to foster informal, flexible networks to prevent and combat transnational organized crime to promptly and adequately respond to the constantly evolving dynamics of this phenomenon.

Cross-country alliances and the exchange of information at the international level cannot be effective without domestic cooperation. Transnational organized crime can manifest itself in multiple ways within and across different States, regions, sectors and illicit markets. Therefore, and in order to effectively and comprehensively prevent transnational organized crime, a whole-of-government strategy that involves all relevant branches and sections and the criminal justice system is essential. Such a strategy should also provide for strong mechanisms for cooperation. Many existing national strategies either acknowledge the need for greater collaboration among national bodies or set out the State’s support for existing bodies and structures. Further efforts in this regard must include both horizontal and vertical action, building synergies between different branches of the national government and increased cooperation between different levels (local, State and federal/national depending on the system) of the government.

To effectively coordinate and harmonize the work of relevant entities, governments must take the lead in formulating cohesive national strategies that align and prioritize efforts and resources within and between relevant organizations. The government should lead policy development, designating priorities in countering organized crime and ensuring that frameworks are in place to enable collaboration. However, strong governmental leadership should not detract from the independent functioning of law enforcement and other bodies involved in combating and preventing organized crime. The existence, at the national level, of a central entity in the fight against transnational organized crime may be necessary for effective coordination of efforts. Where the establishment of such an institution is not possible, States should establish a strong framework, enabling close cooperation.

Frameworks, guidelines and systems for knowledge-sharing, including necessary and adequate data protection checks, are of central importance. For that reason, it may be necessary to re-examine confidentiality legislation to ensure that agencies are able to share intelligence, wherever justified, and within the boundaries of national and regional data protection provisions as well as international human rights law. Owing to competition among various government bodies, actors may at times be unwilling to readily provide information and share knowledge, hence governments could consider establishing systems rewarding cooperation (UNODC, 2011).

Preventing and combating transnational organized crime cannot be limited to the national level; local stakeholders must also be actively engaged, in particular in cases where law enforcement powers are not wholly within the scope of a single, national authority. While central bodies and agencies may serve as catalysts for vertical cooperation, local law enforcement and other relevant bodies should ensure support for broader attempts to prevent and combat transnational organized crime by providing other law enforcement agencies with all available and relevant information. One strategy to encourage bottom-up support is to establish local and regional units for the purpose of sharing knowledge and encouraging cooperation as well as develop carefully drafted information sharing protocols to safeguard privacy and ensure only relevant and appropriate information is shared.

Last but not least, law enforcement and intelligence bodies require operational independence from political interference. A lack of operational independence is one of the most prevalent issues in preventing and combating transnational organized crime, especially considering the strong interlinkages between transnational organized crime and corruption. The operational independence of the police requires a strong system of police oversight. An operationally independent system can only ever be as effective as the individuals involved. Therefore, an independent system of recruitment, promotion and tenure is necessary to ensure that officers are politically independent and that they act with integrity. Further information on the importance of the integrity and accountability of law enforcement is presented in Module 5 of the Teaching Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.