The first threat assessment on Eastern European organized crime published by the KT NON (1999) established that the vast majority of crimes committed by Eastern Europeans and registered by the police from 1991 to 1997 involved theft/auto theft and organized shoplifting. Because the assessment focused on major offences, “records of criminal offences which may be assumed not to be in any way related to organized crime,” such as organized shoplifting, were removed from the database used to analyze the problem (KT NON 1999, pp. 68–69). Only the organized theft of cars was included in this research. It was determined that this offence was committed primarily by groups that resided in Eastern Europe. KT NON first mentioned the existence of organized groups of Polish ram-raiders in the 2000 CBA on Eastern European organized crime. The 2002 CBA states that there was “every reason to pay renewed attention” to the area of relatively light offences like theft and burglary (KT NON 2002, p. 120).
In order to have an adequate view of this kind of crime in the Netherlands, the KT NON started an intelligence project in October 2003 called the Polaris Project. The mission was to identify organized mobile gangs by gathering and analyzing information on relevant incidents and offenders from nine police regions in the northern and eastern provinces of the Netherlands. The project’s conclusion in July 2005 did not coincide with the end of this crime issue. The Polaris Project final report (KLPD/DNR 2005) concluded that the activity of mobile gangs from Poland and Lithuania stabilized and that, in some respects, the scale of activities decreased. This improvement, however, was not expected to consolidate. This section discusses some of the findings of the Polaris Project final report.
Under closer scrutiny, Polish and Lithuanian gangs in particular proved to be involved in more organized forms of relatively light offences. Criminal visitors from both countries were involved in organized shoplifting, Polish offenders were active in a series of evening car break-ins and Lithuanians were associated with auto and lorry thefts and passing counterfeit Euro notes in shops. Offender groups followed a hit-and-run strategy, committing a series of criminal acts in a short period of time, before leaving the country with the stolen gains. A general conclusion that can be drawn from the Polaris report is that in certain regions of several Central and Eastern European countries, criminal networks form mobile gangs in order to commit property crimes in the West. In some cases, goods or vehicles are stolen on assignment. Some gang members even work in salaried employment. A “customer” or “employer” can generate high profits from a large number of relatively small criminal offences. The risk of getting caught is small. Local authorities consider offences to be incidents and do not prioritize them. Even when caught, petty criminals from abroad are rarely ever prosecuted.
On a European level there is little aggregated knowledge available on this subject. In its 2004 European Union Organized Crime Report, Europol recognized the potential threat of organized petty crime and advised that more understanding be gained into this phenomenon (Europol 2004). In the Netherlands, gangs from Poland and Lithuania are most prominent, but there have also been groups from the Balkans. In recent years, Germany and Belgium have been very active in fighting mobile gangs. Germany established special forces (Bekämpfung Osteuropäische Bandenkriminalität) and began working closely together with the local authorities in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to Polish and Lithuanian gangs, Germany also deals with groups from Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Rumania. In Belgium, one-fifth to one-third of burglaries and ram-raids are attributed to traveling gangs from a variety of Eastern and Southeastern European countries. Since 2004, Belgium has prioritized the problem on a federal level (Federal government of Belgium).
Using two types of police sources, the Polaris report tried to estimate the scale on which Polish and Lithuanian mobile gangs operate in the Netherlands. First, it analyzed information on offenders from these countries who were not registered as residents of the Netherlands and the offences they were charged with. Second, it focused on the number of offences associated with mobile banditry to see if any relevant trends could be distinguished. The findings were compared with qualitative information from the Polaris database, which also included information on active groups that had not or not yet been arrested.
According to an annually published general analysis of offences and offenders registered in HKS, in the 1998–2003 period, 5% of all arrested offenders were not registered as a resident of the Netherlands. Following Western Europeans, non-resident offenders from Eastern European countries represented the biggest group in these years. The Polaris report indicated substantial growth in the number of Polish non-resident offenders, in particular, and—to a lesser extent—of Lithuanian non-resident offenders. In 1996, 268 non-resident Polish offenders ran afoul of the Dutch police; by 2004, this number had increased to 1,231 offenders. As far as the police know, 27% of the 2,147 Polish “criminal visitors” arrested between 1998 and 2003 committed more than one offence and 12% had been arrested more than once. The 445 Lithuanians reflect a similar picture (37% and 8% respectively). From October 2003 to December 2005, the Polaris registration counted 2,333 Polish and 845 Lithuanian suspects, the majority of which were reported by nine of the 26 police regions. Since the Polaris registration system is hardly suitable for quantitative analysis, these large numbers can only indicate that the HKS numbers presented above, only offer an impression of the minimum scale of this problem.
The criminal profiles of the registered population of Polish and Lithuanian non-resident offenders show that the majority of the offences they commit can be categorized as crimes against property with no use of violence. As mentioned above, HKS data showed that Polish offenders were mostly involved in shoplifting and car break-ins, whereas Lithuanians specialized in shoplifting, auto theft and passing counterfeit money. The Polaris team also gained intelligence on Polish and Romanian mobile groups specialized in breaking into parking meters at night, groups breaking into houses, groups specialized in pick-pocketing and stealing horse riding gear, boats or outboard motors.
Some general characteristics can be drawn from Polaris intelligence on 38 different criminal groups. At the time of arrest, most groups consisted of two to four persons. Analysis of, for example, telecom data or guest lists of accommodations used by suspects and, in the case of Lithuanian groups, information about border crossings, often showed that gangs consisted of several “teams.” The largest group consisted of 25 members who stole from electronics stores; another group had 19 members who specialized in stealing certain brands of luxury cosmetics. The criminal activities of mobile groups were often carefully planned. Some shoplifters and counterfeit money gang members were recruited through newspaper ads and brought to the Netherlands where they were equipped with “working cars,” mostly with Dutch or German license plates. In general, the stolen goods of several “teams” were pooled and sent back to the home country in one shipment. In some cases, downloaded lists with addresses of shops or shopping lists with items to steal were found. The police also came across maps of the Netherlands indicating places to go and what areas had already been covered. Groups tried to cut costs by sleeping in their cars and stealing gasoline from parked cars or gasoline stations.
Measuring the material and immaterial damage done to society by mobile banditry is not an easy task. The Polaris Project final report attempts to do so based on the number of offences associated with mobile banditry solved. In 2002, 5% of all car break-ins were solved. In 2003 and 2004, Polish and Lithuanian non-residents were reported to be involved in 936 car break-ins; roughly 6% of all 15,034 car break-ins solved. Assuming that the general 5% rate of solving car break-ins is also valid for the Polish and Lithuanian break-ins, these groups committed 18,041 break-ins.26 If the average amount of damage done to cars was €500, the total damage would be valued at €4.5 million. Similar calculations were performed for other offences, bringing the total material damage to €11.2 million in 2 years’ time.
The Polaris report concluded that the estimated material damage done by mobile criminal groups does not merit high prioritization. However, it should be realized that the damage affects a large number of victims. This type of crime affects citizens in a more direct manner than, for example, drug trafficking or money laundering.
In the years before Poland and Lithuania joined the EU, the members of criminal “petty” gangs, who were arrested, were usually deported pursuant to the Aliens Act. Interviews with Lithuanian law enforcement staff revealed that this policy actually encouraged rather than discouraged these criminals to come to the Netherlands. In fact, they were given a free ticket home. Results from the Polaris project taught that an active law enforcement policy on mobile banditry and the actual prosecution of gang members have proven to have a deterrent effect on mobile gangs. The high mobility of this type of crime suggests that pull factors such as a low experienced risk of being caught have a strong effect on choosing which country to go to.
A widespread belief among scholars of organized crime is that contemporary organized crime groups intentionally take advantage of globalization by opening outposts in faraway territories. In turn, such groups supposedly have developed a non-traditional, flat internal structure lacking ‘centres of gravity’. This article puts such a belief to test. The data come from an extensive police investigation into an attempt by a Russian mafia group to open a branch in Rome in the mid-1990s, and a set of phone intercepts over 9 months. Using content analysis and social network analysis, the article reconstructs the organizational structure of the Italian cell. We conclude that the group was forced to move abroad and the group is hierarchically structured and polycentric. The article argues that segments of criminal markets might be ‘flat’, but individual groups contain structure of authority. This study discusses the extent to which phone intercepts can be considered valid and reliable data sources, and contributes to debates on globalization, and the role of women in organized crime. It also calls for a greater integration between Content and Network Analysis.
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