The National Crime Agency’s Martin Molloy on combatting the UK’s sophisticated crime gangs

27 jul 2018

Written by Martin Molloy, former Deputy Director of National Crime Agency

As former Deputy Director of the UK’s National Crime Agency, I have seen a number of key threats and trends in illicit trade develop over my career. But one of the most pressing concerns right now is that organized crime groups in the U.K. are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have been shocked to see these groups are working together in a more structured manner. A report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) showed that gangs have moved on from their traditionally brutal territorial competition for both contraband and customers. Many are now collaborating on their efforts to get illicit goods into the country while specializing in specific areas of the illicit supply chain. This level of professionalism is largely unprecedented in the U.K. and has made the jobs of border control and law enforcement much more difficult.

Effectively, we are increasingly seeing criminal gangs moving into a business-based model. Aside from greater collaboration and specialization, we are also seeing a diversification of their activities as they aim to minimize risk and maximize profit. The stereotype of gangs selling drugs and weapons while engaging in turf warfare simply isn’t the case anymore. These are sophisticated operations that adapt to changes in the demand and supply of illicit markets.

For example, many EU gangs had given up on human trafficking and document forgery due to an unappetizing risk/reward balance. However, following the developments of the migrant crisis, the past five years have seen a huge spike in criminal gangs moving back into the business as demand for these services has shot up, especially those operating in the U.K.

Many criminal groups have also moved into low-risk, high-return products such as tobacco, as they offer minimal sanctions if caught and are much easier to smuggle into a country than drugs or weapons. But it is not just fast-moving consumer products like tobacco that are driving illicit trade. Organized crime is a business, and if they see an opportunity to make money, then they’ll take it. This is something I have witnessed first-hand in a number of my roles, especially as head of the NCA’s Prevention Department and as the President of the European National Advisory Group on Kidnap and Extortion.

This means that the reach of the damage caused by illicit trade is expanding on an almost daily basis. It ranges from everything from transport to the film industry, and even the likes of the services industry.

Despite this, until recently, legitimate businesses and law enforcement agencies have been slow to come together to form a united response to the issue. I chair an industry-working group that represents over 300 companies, focusing on the impact that illicit trade is having on British industry. I see many industries suffering from the same illicit trade-related issues, but unfortunately, there has only been limited cooperation between the different industry sectors.

The current priority of this Anti-Illicit Trade Group is encouraging companies and Law Enforcement Agencies to come together and collectively develop future solutions to issues. I passionately believe that businesses should find this form of horizon scanning as routine as competitor analysis. You get much more credibility and much more take-up with policymakers and government if you look at it from that perspective.

Without collaboration between industries and the ability to combat both the current and the future illicit trade threats, U.K. businesses will find it increasingly hard to combat the ever more sophisticated criminal gangs operating across the country. It is more important than ever for industries that have developed extensive knowledge about illicit trade to work with industries that are only now beginning to see the problem emerge. And law enforcement must start to proactively engage with representatives from these industries as all stakeholders aim to stay ahead of the criminal gangs.

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