Transnational organised crime is a multi-faceted phenomenon and manifests itself in different activities including drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings, in firearms and money laundering. Over the years, serious and organised crime has evolved in a dynamic and ever evolving phenomenon. Although it is difficult to measure the exact size of illicit markets, evidence drawn from law enforcement activity across the world suggests they are very large in both scale and impact. Serious and organised crime has a significant impact on the growth of the legal economy and society as a whole. The investment of criminal proceeds and trade in illicit commodities is interlinked with tax avoidance and money laundering that strengthens criminal enterprises run by or associated with Organised Crime Groups (OCGs).

OCGs are increasingly flexible, adaptable and innovative, engaging in multiple forms of criminality. These groups are becoming increasingly networked in their organisation and behaviour characterized by a group leadership approach and flexible hierarchies. The ease of international travel and transport, the global emergence of the internet and other technological advances have made geographic considerations less relevant, contributing to the engendering of a more international and networked form of serious and organised crime. There is an increased tendency for groups to cooperate with or incorporate into their membership a greater variety of nationalities. As a result, an increased number of heterogeneous groups have developed that are no longer defined by nationality or ethnicity. Despite this, ethnic kinship, linguistic and historical ties still remain important factors for building bonds and trust and often determine the composition of the core groups controlling larger and increasingly diverse criminal networks.

This evolution has been greatly fostered by the process of globalisation that has allowed organised crime activities to expand at trans-national and trans-regional scope. Criminals act undeterred by geographic boundaries and can no longer be easily associated with specific regions or centres of gravity. Criminals capitalise on new opportunities to generate profit, especially when they are able to rely on existing infrastructures, personnel and contacts. This is particularly true for the groups involved in the transportation and distribution of illicit commodities. In addition, international trade routes, the freedom of movement within the EU but also the establishment of customs-unions amongst countries along trafficking routes enable OCGs to avoid law enforcement activity or circumvent competing groups controlling a particular route. 

Particularly in developing countries and in post-conflict situations, organised crime patronage networks serve as a source of instability that undermine positive changes in the area of stability, governance and socioeconomic development or even endanger post-conflict transitions. Together with corruption they have a devastating impact on the rule of law and hinder equal access to public services.

Trafficking in drugs is one of the major sources of revenue of organised crime. The threats posed by drug trafficking for the regions involved, including source, transit and destination countries are multiple. The impact on the economic and social development from drug abuse and the linked money laundering is estimated to be more than double to the corresponding criminal proceedings. Analyses show that the market for illicit drugs remains the most dynamic among the criminal markets with the highest number of OCGs involved; this has led to the increased co-operation but also competition between these groups across national, linguistic and ethnic divisions which make the phenomenon more complex to understand and even more difficult to address effectively.

In addition, aside from the obvious contribution to increased criminality and instability, drug trafficking is greatly fostering corruption. In general, the relationship between corruption and organised crime is straightforward since OCGs make extensive use of opportunities for corruption in order to successfully carry out their outlawed activities without being investigated or prosecuted. Criminal groups which abuse international borders in order to conduct their business put pressure on public services, local communities and legitimate businesses through corruption.

Globally, the UNODC World Drug Report 2016 estimated a minimum of 190,000 — in most cases avoidable — premature deaths from drugs, the majority attributable to the use of opioids. Only in the EU, the heroin market is estimated at EUR 6.8 billion annually (EU Drugs Markets report 2016). Among illicit narcotics, opiates are also the most costly in terms of treatment, medical care and, arguably, drug-related violence. In addition, heroin is the drug most associated with injection, which brings about a host of acute and chronic health problems, including the transmission of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Tubeculosis. UNODC estimates indicate that the global number of opiate users (i.e., users of opium, morphine and heroin) has slightly increased in recent years and that opiates continued to affect some 18 million people in 2015, while 35 million people are reported to use opioids.

Opium production and routes

As described in the 2017 WDR, global opium production increased in 2016 by one third compared with the previous year. Afghanistan remains by far the largest source country for opiates worldwide, accounting for almost two thirds of the total area globally of illicit opium cultivation, and some 70% of global opium production. The rise in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan can be traced back to the 1980s, when conflict engulfed the country. Most profits are generated downstream, leaving the Afghan producers with only a fraction of the profits, estimated at 3.5% of the total value of the opiate industry.

Most of the heroin trafficked to Europe originates in Afghanistan, where significant cultivation of opium poppies takes place. Despite the complexity of heroin trafficking routes, some global movements can be generalised for Afghan opiates, having an impact upon the EU and the transit and other destination countries.

Historically, most of the heroin trafficked to Europe from Afghanistan came overland via what has become known as the ‘Balkan route’. It is the oldest, and shortest route to European markets, consisting of an overland trajectory that travels via the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and South-Eastern Europe to Western and Central Europe. Although the Balkan route probably remains the main heroin trafficking route into the EU, there is evidence of an increase in the diversity of routes and modes of transport being used.

In recent years large heroin consignments are shipped from ports in Iran and Pakistan on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, especially from a region of Baluchistan known as the Makran Coast and targeting East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania (where they are thought to be processed/repackaged/distributed within Africa and in part sent to Europe). This ‘Southern route’ to Europe entails several modes of transportation and trans-shipment points that may be combined in different ways. This is route is now estimated to represent more than 30% of the overall flows, it is noteworthy that 1 kg of heroin costs around US$ 4,000 in Pakistan, which means that mark-ups may be considerable for those bypassing the Balkan route and trafficking via direct southern route trajectories to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, East Africa may also be developing into a hub for onward trafficking, with maritime trafficking playing an increased role. Some analysts suggest that the resurgent Southern Route targeting East Africa has links to Islamic terrorist groups.

The heroin trafficked on the ‘Northern route’ is exported by land from Afghanistan’s northern borders through Central Asia and is reported to be primarily destined for the very large consumer market in Russia, as well as those in Ukraine, Belarus and the relatively new and still developing ones in Central Asia. Most consignments cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and are then trafficked northwards through Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan before entering Russia.

In addition, a new heroin route now appears to be developing, through the Southern Caucasus and across the Black Sea. Large amounts of heroin have been seized on this route as they were being trafficked from Iran to Ukraine and Moldova via Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The traffic in Afghan opiates is harmful not only for the intended places of its destination, but also for the countries and territories it transits, considerably contributing, inter alia, to the spread of crime, corruption, drug abuse and HIV infection, and has serious implications for the legal, political, economic, and social stability in the countries at hand.