Transnational Crime

USS Rentz confiscates cocaine, Official U.S. Navy Page from United States of America Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker/U.S. Navy, public domain

USS Rentz confiscates cocaine, Official U.S. Navy Page from United States of America Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker/U.S. Navy, public domain

Transnational Crime

Transnational crime (or global crime) is a key issue in international relations, as it encompasses many activities, and billions of dollars a year. In this article, we shall discuss transnational crime by defining what is transnational crime, examining different types of transnational crime, the effect that transnational crime and global crime has on individuals, societies, and states, as well as what state and non-state actors (such as NGOs) are doing to prevent transnational crime, as well as stopping international crime from taking place. We have also listed the references, as well as links to books on the subject of transnational crime.

Transnational Crime Definition

Transnational crime is understood as crime that takes place across the borders of two or more countries. Global crime has a similar definition, as it is criminal activity conducted across the globe. Transnational crime has been a part of international relations and international trade for quite some time (Payne, 2013). However, as societies and individuals become more connected to one another, this this globalization “enables criminal networks to work alongside legal global activities and to establish connections with many different countries” (Payne, 2013: 256).

There are a number of reasons for the rise of transnational crime in international relations and in the world today. Payne (2013) explains that the notion of transnational crime “is intricately intertwined with revolutionary technological, financial, communications, economic, cultural, and political changes that characterize globalization, and it is increasingly difficult to separate criminal activities from legitimate global transactions” (256). Thus, the factors for the presence of transnational crime depend on the individual, and on the specific context of the case that one is examining. For example, some have argued that one factor for global crime has been the fall of the Soviet Union, which has allowed groups easier access to operate in the international system. In addition to shifting geopolitical realities, other reasons for transnational crime have been linked to issues of poverty and economic imbalances. Other factors may include “…failed states, global migration, growth of global cities, the expansion of free trade, rapid communications and computer technologies, and easy global financial transactions” (Payne, 2013: 256).

When discussing the definition of transnational crime, it is important to separate it from what is referred to as international crime. Transnational crimes are crimes often committed with financial profit in mind, international crime includes crimes such as human rights abuses, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc… And while transnational crime is crime carried out across two or more international borders, international crime can take place within the borders of one state (Albanese, 2012), and in fact, it often does.

These criminal organizations often looking a lot like how non-criminal organizations, and particularly businesses run. For example, like legitimate businesses, criminal organizations often have the same sort of hierarchical leadership structure, and they also concern themselves with things such as product and technological innovations, as well as trying to reduce the level of risk in conducting their business. In addition, “Beyond these characteristics, what bears emphasis is that both of these transnational actors, crime groups and corporations, follow the logic of neoliberalism and design innovative strategies to do so. They are engaged in head-on competition with one another” (Mittleman & Johnston, 1999: 113). So, we have to understand how these criminal organizations operate, and more specifically, what are the ways in which they are trying to increase their profit margins, all the while in competition with other criminal organizations who are working in the same criminal activities.

What Are the Types of Transnational Crime?

There are many different types of transnational crime in the international system. We have listed a number of different types of global crime that takes place across state borders. Just some of the types of transnational crime are drug trafficking, kidnapping, human trafficking, human slavery, counterfeit goods, goods smuggling, piracy, cyber-attacks, trading in stolen art, the trading of exotic animals, and other criminal activities.

The UK Border Agency found over one million Chinese made cigarettes hidden inside concrete blocks during a search on 27 October 2010, UK Home Office, CC 2.0

The UK Border Agency found over one million Chinese made cigarettes hidden inside concrete blocks during a search on 27 October 2010, UK Home Office, CC

Jay Albanese (2012) explains that there are three key objectives with regards to why individuals carry out transnational crime. They are the “provision of illicit goods, provision of illicit services, and the infiltration of business or government operations” (2). And often, transnational crime is viewed as a form of organized crime, since many of the crimes are committed by more than one individual (Albanese, 2012). And when looking at the issue of transnational crime in the world, it seems that one of the main findings in the literature is that these transnational criminal organizations are often the ones who have created and continue to control the various trade paths that exist (Haken, 2011). The reason for this is that profits from transnational crime and illicit markets are funneled mainly to the transnational crime syndicates who establish and maintain vast trade networks.

How Do Criminal Organizations Operate?

Transnational criminal organizations’ objectives are to increase their profits as well as influence over territory, which in turn allows them to have further control over their criminal actions. However, in many cases, these criminal organizations–in order to conduct their businesses–are reliant on several other criminal groups, whether it is with regards to the delivery of a product, or assistance in shipping a product. However, there is often a level of distrust between groups, often because of a fear of the motivations and intentions of the other groups. But they still work together, because, in many cases, the profits far outweigh any of the differences between criminal organizations (Mittleman & Johnston, 1999).

However, the cooperation between different criminal organizations is often not the only factor that allows for these groups to carry out their illegal criminal activity. For as Mittleman & Johnston (1999) argue, “the smuggling operations would not be possible without the involvement of powerful and wealthy criminals who have the resources to corrupt state officials. The corruption of political authorities is the crucible in which customs officers, police and tax inspectors assist in criminal operations or merely look the other way…In this web of criminals, the rich, and politicians, the latter provide legal protection for their partners” (109-110).

These criminal organizations are often able to function because they work both “above the state” as well as “below the state. For example, these criminal organizations often work in areas–and are able to exploit–the increased reduction of borders due to globalization. As the international community becomes more economically and socially connected, these groups have more opportunities to sell their product to more and more people who may want said goods. In addition, they work with individuals who may not be seeing the benefits of globalization, or in fact, may have had their livelihoods negatively affected by new globalization currents. It is often the case that “these groups reach down and out to the lower rungs of social structures–the impoverished–a substratum that does not lend itself to the easy strategies prescribed by the state and interstate institutions” (Mittleman & Johnston, 1999: 110).

Where do Criminal Organizations Operate?

As the world is becoming more technologically connected with one another, the need for criminals be in specific location for crime is not needed; they are able to operate throughout the world, particularly if their crimes involve activity through the internet, which can allow them to move much more freely, and without a reliance on a particular space or location. However, this is not to say that criminal organizations don’t concentrate in certain locations. For example, Mittlemen & Johnston, writing in 1999 on this issue, have argued that “Global cities, more than states, are the main loci of transnational criminal organizations” (112). There are many reasons that criminal organizations still often congregate in cities, even given the increased ability to commit crime through non-specified locations of the internet. As Mittleman & Johnston (1999) argue, “it is world cities…that offer agglomerations of financial services (which provide vast opportunities for disguising the use and flow of money), sources of technological innovation, and advanced communications and transportation systems. In these locales and elsewhere, a new breed of cybercriminals can exploit inherent vulnerabilities in the electronic infrastructure of global finance through computer intrusions for the purpose of theft, blackmail, and extortion” (112).

Stopping Transnational Crime

Various international entities, along with other state and non-state actors have worked to stop transnational crime. However, it has been quite difficult to do so. Scholars argue that “[c]ountries are ill equipped to effectively respond to global criminal activities…globalization has been far more beneficial to nonstate actors, including smugglers, drug traffickers, and other global criminal networks, than it has been to nation states. The hierarchical structure of countries is a liability in an increasing decentralized, global society. Furthermore, globalization has diminished the ability of states to exercise effective jurisdiction over their territories and to regulate trade and other activities” (Payne, 2013: 270). In addition, states are often unable to successfully stop all transnational crime that affects their own state, and internationally. It is often very expensive to halt transnational crime, and governments do not have the necessary budgets (Payne, 2013).

Nevertheless, there are many ways that they have tried to halt illegal activities. One of the key organizations working to combat transnational crime is the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, which is working out of France. Interpol is understood to be a “[g]lobal clearinghouse for police information that assists countries in criminal cases” (Payne, 2013: 270), and “is the world’s largest international police organization, with 190 member countries” (INTERPOL, 2014). In terms of its responsibilities in their fight against transnational crime, “Interpol collects and analyzes data, supports global crime investigations, organizes operational working meetings among countries, and organizes regional and global conferences on a wide range of criminal activities” (Payne, 2013: 270). Interpol (2014) explains that they “work to ensure that police around the world have access to the tools and services necessary to do their jobs effectively. We provide targeted training, expert investigative support, relevant data and secure communications channels.”

Along with the efforts of Interpol in conduction with other criminal investigation entities throughout the world, another tool that has been used to fight transnational crime has been the role of the international treaties and conventions with regards to countering global crime. One of the most related conventions with regards to transnational crime is the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime which is “a global agreement that outlaws bank secrecy, keeps prosecutors worldwide in contact by email, allows international arrest warrants to be sent by e-mail, provided for videoconferences to allow witnesses to testify without have to travel around the world, and creates international witness protection programs” (Payne, 2013: 270). The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime was “adopted by General Assembly resolution 55/25 of 15 November 2000” (UNODC, 2014). The UN Convention was put into force in 2003. This document is seen as an important addition to the fight against transnational crime, and is being put in place in many different ways, such as helping with legal aid, setting up extradition for those accused of committing a crime (Albanese, 2013), as well as other points mentioned above.

But in addition to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the UN also passed “The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children in 2003 (UNODC, 2003). This Protocol is very important, as “[i]t is the first global legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on trafficking in persons” (UNODC, 2003). The UN has also passed a number of additional protocols, such as the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, and other protocols such as the Protocol Against the Illicit Manufactoring of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (UNODC, 2003). These protocols have aided in bringing addition attention to these criminal issues, and offering a wide range of support for the ending of such transnational crime.

However, the sharing of information is not always effective. For example, the United States government has attempted to increase the collection and sharing of information with regards to criminal organizations. But, taking the U.S. actions with regards to cooperation efforts with El Salvador, “the FBI released lists of suspected gang-member deportees to a special unit within the Salvadoran national police, which then disseminated the list across the country’s law enforcement agencies. However, according to interviews conducted…the police unit responsible for disseminating the information did not properly communicate, or in some cases refused to communicate, the names of suspected gang members to other police agencies. There are many reasons for such breakdowns in communication, including distrust about how the information will be used” (Dudley, 2012: 9-10).

But along with legal measures and police response to stop transnational crime, there have also been attempts to address root causes of criminal behavior, both underlying causes (such as poverty), but also ways to minimize the abilities for crime to take place (Albanese, 2013) (for a detailed discussion of prevention methods with regards to criminal enterprises, see Albanese, 2013).

Of course, it is important to analyze the effectiveness of these approaches with regards to stopping transnational crime (Albanese, 2013). And while there are challenges to examining the level of effectiveness of international laws and international cooperation against transnational crime (Albanese, 2013), it is critical to carry out such tasks, given the importance of preventing human rights abuses and ensuring that criminal activity is stopped.


Transnational Crime Books

Jay Albanese, Transnational Crime and the 21st Century: Criminal Enterprise, Corruption, and Opportunity


Jay Albanese & Phillip Reichel, Transnational Organized Crime: An Overview From Six Continents


Jay S. Albanese & Philip L. Reichel, Transnational Organized Crime: An Overview From Six Continents


Jay Albanese & Phillip Reichel (editors), Transnational Crime and Justice



Albanese, J. S. (2013). Deciphering the Linkages Between Organized Crime and Transnational Crime. Journal of International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2012, Vol. 66, No. 1, pages 1-16.

Haken, J. (2011). Transnational Crime in an Organized World. Global Financial Integrity. February 2011. Available Online:

INTERPOL (2014). Overview. Available Online:

Mittleman, J.H. & Johnston, R. (1999). The Globalization of Organized Crime, The Courtesan State, and the Corruption of Civil Society, Global Governance, pages 103-126.

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

UNODC (2014). United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto. Available Online:

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