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Leading academics, researchers, and journalists dedicated to the study of organized crime around the world convened November 15 in Bogotá, Colombia, to share the latest findings and major trends, and squabble about how best to define organized crime.

“The Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas,” a joint InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario production, covered topics ranging from the expansion of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s premier criminal organization, to high-level corruption that threatens to derail efforts to combat organized crime. 

SEE ALSO: The Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas

But it took University of Oxford professor Federico Varese to center the conference when he set out to present a framework for how organized crime can be defined.

For years, Varese has argued that there has been an “unusual amount of confusion” in trying to create a workable definition of organized crime. He noted that the 2003 United Nations definition was simply insufficient for describing today’s criminal groups. 

Instead, Varese proposed focusing on what he identified as the “PTG Framework,” or production, trade, and governance framework. Organized crime groups in Colombia and Peru, he said, cultivate coca to produce cocaine, traffic this product to international markets and effectively govern the territories that are essential for their criminal activities.

SEE ALSO: Colombian Organized Crime Observatory

To Varese, this idea of governance is critical. Organized crime groups in Latin America and throughout the world have a state-like function, Varese argued, and are in the “same intellectual space as the state.” In other words, like a government, they need to control this space in order to financially benefit from it. (See Varese’s work here)

According to Varese, this is the apex of organized crime. The production and transit of drugs depend directly on, and thrives, where there is criminal governance, he said. Other panelists agreed, most notably Bruce Bagley from the University of Miami, who said that criminals thrive when organized crime and the state have a symbiotic relationship. (See some of Bagley’s work here)

But others felt Varese fell short in some respects. Phil Williams of the University of Pittsburgh noted that organized crime is involved in more than just production and transport of goods. He cited the illicit trade of antiquities, human trafficking and theft of natural resources such as oil. (See a list of some of Williams’ publications here)

Unbowed by the friendly challenge, Varese plowed ahead, emphasizing the need to insert “governance” more thoroughly into our definition of organized crime.

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