Transnational Organized Crime

FBI Agents Help Arrest Organized Crime Members (Reuters)

The FBI is dedicated to eliminating transnational organized crime groups that pose the greatest threat to the national and economic security of the United States. The Bureau has found that even if key individuals in an organization are removed, the depth and financial strength of the organization often allow it to continue, so the FBI targets entire organizations responsible for a variety of criminal activities. The Bureau draws upon the experience, training, and proficiency of its agents; its partnerships within the intelligence and law enforcement communities; and its worldwide presence, using sustained, coordinated investigations and the criminal and civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Overview 

Transnational organized crime (TOC) groups are self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate, wholly or in part, by illegal means and irrespective of geography. They constantly seek to obtain power, influence, and monetary gains. There is no single structure under which TOC groups function—they vary from hierarchies to clans, networks, and cells, and may evolve into other structures. These groups are typically insular and protect their activities through corruption, violence, international commerce, complex communication mechanisms, and an organizational structure exploiting national boundaries.

With few exceptions, TOC groups’ primary goal is economic gain and they will employ an array of lawful and illicit schemes to generate profit. Crimes such as drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, firearms trafficking, illegal gambling, extortion, counterfeit goods, wildlife and cultural property smuggling, and cyber crime are keystones within TOC enterprises. The vast sums of money involved can compromise legitimate economies and have a direct impact on governments through the corruption of public officials.

TOC groups may encompass both the Eastern and Western hemispheres and include persons with ethnic or cultural ties to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. These groups, however, are able to target victims and execute their schemes from anywhere in the world; thus, the extent of their presence within a particular area does not necessarily reflect the degree of the threat they pose.

With the increase of technology available around the world, TOC groups are more commonly incorporating cyber techniques into their illicit activities, either committing cyber crimes themselves or using cyber tools to facilitate other unlawful acts. Phishing, Internet auction fraud, and advanced fee fraud schemes allow criminals to target the United States without being present in the country. Technology also enables TOC groups to engage in traditional criminal activity, such as illegal gambling, but with a greater reach through use of the Internet and off-shore servers, thus expanding their global impact.

TOC poses a significant and growing threat to national and international security with dire implications for public safety, public health, democratic institutions, and economic stability across the globe. It jeopardizes our border security, endangers our health through human trafficking and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and seeks to corrupt officials domestically and abroad. These threats also include criminal penetration of global energy and strategic material markets that are vital to national security interests, and logistical and other support to terrorists and foreign intelligence services. 

Countering Transnational Organized Crime 

To combat the ongoing threat posed by these groups, the FBI has a long-established—yet constantly evolving—transnational organized crime program dedicated to eliminating the criminal enterprises that pose the greatest threat to America. Dismantling and disrupting major international and national organized criminal enterprises is a longstanding area of Bureau expertise. The goal of the FBI is to bring down entire organizations, not just arrest select individuals.

The Bureau uses the RICO Act to expand criminal accountability for a number of “predicate offenses,” and to expand a single offense across multiple members of a criminal enterprise. Unlike typical investigations, which target a single criminal act, this multi-pronged approach allows the FBI to disrupt or dismantle the entire enterprise.

The FBI also employs a multifaceted approach to target TOC groups in an attempt to strategically remove their access to illegal proceeds, disable systems in place to accomplish their goals, and capture their members who often reside in safe haven countries.

Due to the transnational nature of these criminal enterprises, the FBI leverages political and law enforcement relationships domestically and abroad to combat the influence and reach of these organized crime groups. The Bureau deploys subject matter experts to international locations to develop strategies to address TOC matters impacting the region, as well as to identify targets of mutual interest.

The FBI also participates in selecting TOC groups to appear on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Top International Criminal Organizations Target (TICOT) List, and contributes to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) efforts to pursue criminal enterprises. Further, to pool resources and leverage technical and investigative expertise, the Bureau participates in many Organized Crime Task Forces consisting of state and local law enforcement partners in the U.S.

Glossary of Terms 

Criminal Enterprise

The FBI defines a criminal enterprise as a group of individuals with an identified hierarchy, or comparable structure, engaged in significant criminal activity.

These organizations often engage in multiple criminal activities and have extensive supporting networks. The terms Organized Crime and Criminal Enterprise are similar and often used synonymously. However, various federal criminal statutes specifically define the elements of an enterprise that need to be proven in order to convict individuals or groups of individuals under those statutes.

The RICO statute, or Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1961(4), defines an enterprise as "any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity."

The Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute, or Title 21 of the United States Code, Section 848(c)(2), defines a criminal enterprise as any group of six or more people, where one of the six occupies a position of organizer, a supervisory position, or any other position of management with respect to the other five, and which generates substantial income or resources, and is engaged in a continuing series of violations of subchapters I and II of Chapter 13 of Title 21 of the United States Code.

Transnational Organized Crime

Those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, and monetary and/or commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and/or violence, or while protecting their illegal activities through a transnational organizational structure and the exploitation of transnational commerce or communication mechanisms.

Significant Racketeering Activity

The FBI defines significant racketeering activities as those predicate criminal acts that are chargeable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. These are found in Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1961 (1) and include the following federal crimes:

  • Bribery
  • Sports Bribery
  • Counterfeiting
  • Embezzlement of Union Funds
  • Mail Fraud
  • Wire Fraud
  • Money Laundering
  • Obstruction of Justice
  • Murder for Hire
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Prostitution
  • Sexual Exploitation of Children
  • Alien Smuggling
  • Trafficking in Counterfeit Goods
  • Theft from Interstate Shipment
  • Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property

And the following state crimes:

  • Murder
  • Kidnapping
  • Gambling
  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Bribery
  • Extortion
  • Drugs

Transnational Crime Threats and Programs

African Transnational Organized Crime Groups 

African TOC groups have developed quickly since the 1980s due to the globalization of the world's economies and the great advances in communications technology. Easier international travel, expanded world trade, and financial transactions that cross national borders have enabled them to branch out of local and regional crime to target international victims and develop criminal networks within more prosperous countries and regions. The political, social, and economic conditions in African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia have helped some enterprises expand globally.

African criminal enterprises have been identified in several major metropolitan areas in the U.S., but are most prevalent in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Newark, New York, and Washington, D.C. Nigerian criminal enterprises are the most significant of these groups and operate in more than 80 countries of the world, including the United States. They are among the most aggressive and expansionist international criminal groups and are primarily engaged in drug trafficking and financial frauds.

The most profitable activity of the Nigerian groups is drug trafficking—delivering heroin from Southeast and Southwest Asia into Europe and the U.S., and cocaine from South America into Europe and South Africa. The associated money laundering has helped establish Nigerian criminal enterprises worldwide. Nigerian groups are also infamous for committing financial frauds globally. These schemes are diverse, targeting individuals, businesses, and government offices. Examples of these activities include insurance fraud involving auto accidents; healthcare billing scams; life insurance schemes; bank, check, and credit card fraud; advance-fee schemes, known as 4-1-9 letters; and document fraud to develop false identities. The advent of the Internet and e-mail has made their crimes more profitable and prevalent.

One such prevalent crime is Business E-mail Compromise (BEC), a sophisticated scam targeting businesses working with foreign suppliers or regularly performing wire transfer payments. The scam is carried out by compromising legitimate business e-mail accounts through social engineering or by computer intrusion techniques to conduct unauthorized transfer of funds. Most victims report using checks as a common method of payment. The fraudsters will use the method most commonly associated with their victim’s normal business practice. Read more about Business E-mail Compromise.

Besides using the standard Enterprise Theory of Investigation (ETI) and RICO investigative tools, the FBI participates in different working groups and initiatives to combat African organized crime on an international level.

Balkan Transnational Organized Crime Groups 

Balkan TOC groups are politically and financially motivated groups influenced by, associated with, or originating from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania. These organized crime groups cause significant financial harm to the United States each year.

Unlike traditional organized crime groups, Balkan groups do not appear to operate under a traditional hierarchy, but rather around ethnic associations and friendship ties. They also appear to be more agile, organic, and project-based. Balkan TOC groups are adept at adopting new technologies, thus increasing their ability to expand their criminal market base through cyber-enabled fraud. These groups engage in a myriad of criminal activity including passport fraud, access device fraud, identify theft, healthcare fraud, real estate fraud, insurance fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking, human smuggling, prostitution, and extortion.

Organized crime in the Balkans has its roots in the traditional clan structures. In these largely rural countries, people organized into clans with large familial ties for protection and mutual assistance. Starting in the 15th century, clan relationships operated under the kanun, or code, which values loyalty and besa, or secrecy. Each clan established itself in specific territories and controlled all activities in that territory. Protection of activities and interests often led to violence between the clans. The elements inherent in the structure of the clans provided the perfect backbone for what is considered modern-day Balkan organized crime.

Many years of communist rule led to black market activities in the Balkans, but the impact of these activities was limited to the region. When communism collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it led to the expansion of Balkan organized crime activities. Criminal markets once closed to Balkan groups suddenly opened, and this led to the creation of an international network. Within the Balkans, organized crime groups infiltrated the new democratic institutions, further expanding their profit opportunities.

Middle Eastern Transnational Organized Crime Groups 

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI has taken a new look at the various criminal threats originating in the Middle East and from Middle Eastern communities in the United States. The Bureau, and law enforcement in general, recognize that Middle Eastern criminal groups often have no direct nexus to terror. Rather, these groups frequently have the same goals as any traditional organized crime ring—to make money through illegal activities.

Criminal groups with associations to the Middle East have been active in the U.S. since at least the 1970s, particularly in areas with significant Middle Eastern or Southwest Asian populations. These organizations are typically loosely organized theft or financial fraud rings formed along familial or tribal lines, and include criminals from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. They typically use small storefronts as bases for criminal operations.

Middle Eastern transnational criminal organizations typically engage in automobile theft, financial fraud, money laundering, interstate transportation of stolen property, smuggling, drug trafficking, document fraud, health care fraud, identity fraud, cigarette smuggling, trademark counterfeiting and sales of counterfeit goods, and the theft and redistribution of infant formula. These enterprises rely on extensive networks of international criminal associates and can be highly sophisticated in their criminal operations. Middle Eastern criminal organizations often engage in joint criminal ventures with one another and across ethnic lines when there is potential profit.

Besides the standard ETI, OCDETF, and RICO investigative tools, the FBI participates in different working groups and initiatives to combat Middle Eastern TOC groups on an international level.

Asian Transnational Organized Crime Groups 

Asian TOC groups have been operating in the United States since the early 1900s. The first of these groups evolved from Chinese tongs—social organizations formed by early Chinese-American immigrants. A century later, the criminalized tongs have been joined by similar organizations with ties to East and Southeast Asia.

Members of the most dominant Asian criminal enterprises affecting the U.S. have ties—either directly or culturally—to China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. However, other enterprises are emerging as threats, including groups from the South Pacific island nations. These enterprises rely on extensive networks of national and international criminal associates that are fluid and extremely mobile. They adapt easily to the changes around them, have multilingual abilities, can be highly sophisticated in their criminal operations, and have extensive financial capabilities. Some enterprises have commercialized their criminal activities and can be considered business firms of various sizes, from small family-run operations to large corporations.

Asian criminal enterprises have prospered thanks largely to the globalization of the world economies and to communications technology and international travel. Generous immigration policies have provided many members the ability to enter and live undetected on every populated continent in the world today. And there are two categories of Asian criminal enterprises: Traditional criminal enterprises include the Chinese triads (or underground societies) based in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, as well as the Japanese Yakuza or Boryokudan; and non-traditional criminal enterprises include groups such as Chinese criminally-influenced tongs, triad affiliates, and other ethnic Asian street gangs found in several countries with sizable Asian communities.

Asian criminal enterprises conduct traditional racketeering activities normally associated with organized crime—extortion, murder, kidnapping, illegal gambling, prostitution, and loansharking. They also smuggle aliens; traffic heroin and methamphetamine; commit financial frauds; steal autos and computer chips; counterfeit computer and clothing products; and engage in money laundering.

There are several trends among Asian criminal enterprises. First, it is more common to see criminal groups cooperate across ethnic and racial heritage lines. Second, some gangs and criminal enterprises have begun to structure their groups in a hierarchical fashion to be more competitive, and the criminal activities they engage in have become globalized. Finally, more of these criminal enterprises are engaging in white-collar crimes and are co-mingling their illegal activities with legitimate business ventures.

In the U.S., Asian criminal enterprises have been identified in more than 50 metropolitan areas. They are more prevalent in Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Besides the standard ETI, Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), and RICO investigative tools, the FBI participates in different working groups and initiatives to combat Asian organized crime on an international level.

Eurasian Transnational Organized Crime Groups 

Eurasian TOC groups are politically and financially motivated organized crime groups influenced by, associated with, or originating from the former Soviet Union or Central Europe. These criminal groups continue to thrive outside their borders in numerous countries around the world, including the United States. It is estimated that Eurasian TOC groups have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to U.S. businesses, investors, and taxpayers.

Evidence and studies suggest Eurasian TOC groups no longer conform to the typical hierarchal structure of traditional organized crime groups, but instead are divided into supporting networks, or cells, each having a different function or responsibility while sharing a common overarching goal. This framework allows cells to operate independently, limiting their contact with members of the entire organization, thus protecting high level organized crime figures.

Eurasian TOC groups often engage in a myriad of criminal activity including healthcare fraud, securities and investment fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking, extortion, auto theft, interstate transportation of stolen property, robbery, attempted murder, and murder.

The roots of Eurasian organized crime in the United States lie with the Vory V Zakone, or “thieves in law.” These are career criminals who banded together for support and profit in the Soviet prison system. During the Soviet period, their leaders, or “shop managers,” were illicitly paid a 30 percent margin to acquire scarce consumer goods and divert raw materials and finished goods from production lines for the benefit of Nomenklatura, or the educated elite, and criminals.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, members allied themselves with corrupt public officials to acquire the control of industries and resources that were being privatized. This gave the syndicate a one-time infusion of wealth and supplied the infrastructure for continuing cash flows and opportunities to launder criminal proceeds. In February 1993, Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of the Federation of Russian States, said, “Organized crime has become the No. 1 threat to Russia’s strategic interests and to national security...Corrupted structures on the highest level have no interest in reform.”

Organized crime members first emerged in the West in the 1970s when Soviet Refuseniks were allowed to emigrate to Europe, Israel, and the United States. Among the Refuseniks were criminals who sought to exploit their new-found freedoms. These criminals helped the major criminal groups expand to the West when the Soviet Union collapsed and the people of the region were able to move about freely.

These groups based in the former Soviet Union have also defrauded newly formed governments of billions of dollars, as industries and resources formerly owned by the government have been privatized. They profit through tax-evasion schemes and using corrupt officials to embezzle government funds. Their activity threatens to destabilize the emerging political institutions and economies of the former Soviet Union, where nuclear weapons remain deployed. The potential political and national security implications of this destabilization cannot be ignored.

Mafia Suspect Arrested

A suspect is arrested during a massive takedown of the Mafia in New York City and other East Coast cities in 2011.

Italian Organized Crime/Mafia 

Since their appearance in the 1800s, the Italian criminal societies known as the Mafia have infiltrated the social and economic fabric of Italy and now impact the world. They are some of the most notorious and widespread of all criminal societies. There are several groups currently active in the United States: the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, the ’Ndrangheta, and the Sacra Corona Unita, or United Sacred Crown. We estimate the four groups have approximately 25,000 members total, with 250,000 affiliates in Canada, South America, Australia, and parts of Europe. They are also known to collaborate with other international organized crime groups from all over the world.

The Mafia has more than 3,000 members and affiliates in the U.S., scattered mostly throughout the major cities in the Northeast, the Midwest, California, and the South. Their largest presence centers around New York, southern New Jersey, and Philadelphia. The major threats to American society posed by these groups are drug trafficking—heroin, in particular—and money laundering. They also are involved in illegal gambling, political corruption, extortion, kidnapping, fraud, counterfeiting, infiltration of legitimate businesses, murders, bombings, and weapons trafficking.

A Long History

These enterprises evolved over the course of 3,000 years during numerous periods of invasion and exploitation by numerous conquering armies in Italy. Over the millennia, Sicilians became more clannish and began to rely on familial ties for safety, protection, justice, and survival. An underground secret society formed initially as resistance fighters against the invaders and to exact frontier vigilante justice against oppression.

In Sicily, the word Mafia tends to mean “manly.” A member was known as a “man of honor,” respected and admired because he protected his family and friends and kept silent even unto death. Sicilians weren’t concerned if the group profited from its actions because it came at the expense of the oppressive authorities. These secret societies eventually grew into the Sicilian Mafia, and changed from a group of honorable Sicilian men to an organized criminal group in the 1920s.

La Cosa Nostra

La Cosa Nostra evolved from the Sicilian Mafia and is one of the foremost organized criminal threats to American society. Translated into English it means “this thing of ours.” It is a nationwide alliance of criminals—linked by blood ties or through conspiracy—dedicated to pursuing crime and protecting its members. It also is called the Mafia, a term used to describe other organized crime groups.

The LCN, as it is known by the FBI, consists of different “families” or groups that are generally arranged geographically and engaged in significant and organized racketeering activity. It is involved in a broad spectrum of illegal activities: murder, extortion, drug trafficking, corruption of public officials, gambling, infiltration of legitimate businesses, labor racketeering, loan sharking, prostitution, pornography, tax-fraud schemes, and stock manipulation schemes.

The LCN is most active in the New York metropolitan area, parts of New Jersey, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and New England. The major LCN families include the five New York-based families—Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese; the Newark-based DeCavalcante family; the New England LCN; the Philadelphia LCN; and the Chicago Outfit. They have members in other major cities and are involved in international crimes. Although the LCN has its roots in Italian organized crime, it has been a separate organization for many years. Today it cooperates in various criminal activities with different criminal groups that are headquartered in Italy.

LCN and Labor Racketeering

Labor racketeering is the domination, manipulation, and control of a labor movement in order to affect related businesses and industries. FBI investigations over the years have clearly demonstrated that labor racketeering costs the American public millions of dollars each year through increased labor costs that are eventually passed on to consumers. This crime has become one of the LCN’s fundamental sources of profit, national power, and influence. In addition to the LCN, the FBI has seen an increase in labor racketeering activities by other TOC groups.

Labor unions provide a rich source for organized criminal groups to exploit: their pension, welfare, and health funds. There are approximately 75,000 union locals in the U.S., and many of them maintain their own benefit funds. Labor racketeers attempt to control health, welfare, and pension plans by offering “sweetheart” contracts, peaceful labor relations, and relaxed work rules to companies, or by rigging union elections. Labor law violations occur primarily in large cities with both a strong industrial base and strong labor unions, like New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. These cities also have a large presence of organized crime figures.

The FBI works closely with the Office of Labor Racketeering in the Department of Labor and with the U.S. Attorneys’ offices in investigating violations of labor law. We also have several investigative techniques to root out labor law violations, including electronic surveillance, undercover operations, confidential sources, and victim interviews. Additionally, numerous criminal and civil statutes are at our disposal, primarily through the RICO statute.

The civil provisions of the RICO statute, especially the consent decrees, have proven to be very powerful weapons against labor racketeering. They are often more productive because they attack the entire corrupt entity instead of imprisoning individuals, who can easily be replaced with other organized crime members or associates. Consent decrees are most effective when there is long-term, systemic corruption at virtually every level of a labor union by criminal organizations. A civil RICO complaint and subsequent consent decree can restore democracy to a corrupt union by imposing civil remedies designed to eliminate such corruption and deter its re-emergence.

Read more about the history of La Cosa Nostra and the Genovese Crime Family.

Sicilian Mafia

Since the early 1900s, the Sicilian Mafia has evolved into an international organized crime group. Some experts estimate it is the second largest organization in Italy. Based in Sicily, this group specializes in heroin trafficking, political corruption, and military arms trafficking—and also is known to engage in arson, frauds, counterfeiting, and other racketeering crimes.

The Sicilian Mafia is infamous for its aggressive assaults on Italian law enforcement officials. In Sicily the term “excellent cadaver” is used to distinguish the assassination of prominent government officials from the common criminals and ordinary citizens killed by the Mafia. High-ranking victims include police commissioners, mayors, judges, police colonels and generals, and Parliament members.

’Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia)

The word “’Ndrangheta” comes from Greek, meaning courage or loyalty. The ’Ndrangheta formed in the 1860s when a group of Sicilians was banished from the island by the Italian government. They settled in Calabria and formed small criminal groups.

There are about 160 ’Ndrangheta cells with roughly 6,000 members. Cells are loosely connected family groups based on blood relationships and marriages. They specialize in kidnapping and political corruption, but also engage in drug trafficking, murder, bombings, counterfeiting, gambling, frauds, thefts, labor racketeering, loansharking, and alien smuggling. In the U.S., there are an estimated 100-200 members and associates, primarily in New York and Florida. 

Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia)

The Camorra first appeared in the mid-1800s in Naples, Italy, as a prison gang—the word “Camorra” means gang. Once released, members formed clans in cities and continued to grow in power. The Camorra has more than 100 clans and approximately 7,000 members, making it the largest of the Italian organized crime groups.

The Camorra made a fortune in reconstruction after an earthquake ravaged the Campania region in 1980. Now it specializes in cigarette smuggling and receives payoffs from other criminal groups for any cigarette traffic through Italy. The Camorra is also involved in money laundering, extortion, alien smuggling, robbery, blackmail, kidnapping, political corruption, and counterfeiting. It is believed that nearly 200 Camorra affiliates reside in the U.S.

Sacra Corona Unita

Law enforcement became aware of the Sacra Corona Unita—translated to "United Sacred Crown"—in the late 1980s. Like other groups, it started as a prison gang. As its members were released, they settled in the Puglia region of Italy and continued to grow and form links with other Mafia groups.

The Sacra Corona Unita consists of about 50 clans with approximately 2,000 members and specializes in smuggling cigarettes, drugs, arms, and people. It is also involved in money laundering, extortion, and political corruption. The organization collects payoffs from other criminal groups for landing rights on the southeast coast of Italy, a natural gateway for smuggling to and from post-Communist countries like Croatia, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia.

Very few Sacra Corona Unita members have been identified in the U.S., although some individuals in Illinois, Florida, and New York have links to the organization.

Western Hemisphere Organized Crime 


The FBI remains focused on efforts to counter transnational criminal threats originating from the western hemisphere—in particular, in three critical areas of criminal activity known as the source zone (where the activity originates), the transit zone (the areas through which the activity passes), and the retail zone (the activity’s ultimate destination).

Source zone countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia account for all the coca harvested in the world, while Mexico is the largest producer of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the western hemisphere. The paramount crime issue in the source zone is the production of illicit narcotics, followed by money laundering, alien smuggling, illegal weapons trafficking, and human trafficking. The transnational criminal organizations enriched and empowered by these activities are responsible for much of the violence in this zone.

The transit zone is comprised of Mexico and Central American countries, primarily Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. The various Central American gangs and other regional groups are involved in migrant smuggling, human trafficking, drug smuggling, and the trafficking of firearms. Due to escalating Mexican law enforcement attention against transnational criminal organizations in that country, Central American drug flow has increased dramatically in the last decade. The resulting displacement of criminal activity and attendant violence from Mexico to other countries in this zone underscores the need for coordinated regional strategies to address transnational criminal activities, so that one country’s success does not negatively impact another’s. Also, the islands of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, can be considered points of concern for similar reasons.

The retail zone comprises the United States and Canada. The U.S. provides the largest drug consumption market in the western hemisphere while Canada serves two roles—as both a destination and transit country for illicit activities including drug smuggling and global alien smuggling.

To combat the activities of Mexican, Central American, and South American transnational criminal organizations—including illicit finance and money laundering activities and the flow of illegal drugs—the FBI works side-by-side with its numerous domestic and international partners to infiltrate, disrupt, and dismantle these groups by targeting their leadership and using sensitive investigative and intelligence techniques in long-term, proactive investigations.

International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center 


On May 29, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the creation of the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2), which marshals the resources and information of nine U.S. law enforcement agencies, as well as federal prosecutors, to collectively combat the threats posed by international criminal organizations to domestic safety and security. The IOC-2 allows partner agencies to join together in a task force setting, combine data, and produce actionable leads for investigators and prosecutors working nationwide to combat international organized crime, and to coordinate the resulting multi-jurisdictional investigations and prosecutions.

The members participating in the IOC-2 include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); U.S. Secret Service (USSS); U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS); U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS); U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General (DOL-OIG); and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Criminal Division.

The mission of the IOC-2 is to disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations posing the greatest threat to the United States by (1) providing de-confliction and coordination of multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency, and multi-national law enforcement operations, investigations, prosecutions, and forfeiture proceedings; (2) identifying and analyzing all source information and intelligence related to transnational organized crime; and (3) disseminating such information and intelligence to support member agency investigative efforts.

According to the U.S. Law Enforcement Strategy to Combat International Organized Crime (IOC Strategy) released in April 2008 by DOJ, international organized crime has considerably expanded in presence, sophistication, and significance in recent years and it now threatens many aspects of how Americans live, work, and do business. These threats include criminal penetration of global energy and strategic material markets that are vital to American national security interests; logistical and other support to terrorists and foreign intelligence services; the use of cyberspace to target U.S. persons and infrastructure; and the manipulation of securities markets and financial institutions.

Read more about the IOC-2.

Major Theft Crimes 


Major theft crimes caused by transnational, national, and regionally based criminal enterprises have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy, not only contributing to the rise of consumer prices, but also to the loss of tax revenues to states and communities. Major theft crimes may support terrorism-related funding and are directly related to organized crime groups, drug trafficking organizations, gang criminal enterprises, and illegal alien groups. Groups that commit major thefts also engage in other criminal acts, including violent crimes, fraud, money laundering, wire and mail fraud, intellectual property crime, and public corruption.

The FBI focuses its resources on the most egregious major theft activity which crosses state and sometimes international lines, particularly thefts of art, cargo, jewelry and gems, retail, and vehicles. Often working side by side with state and local law enforcement on task forces and in partnership with many industry groups, the FBI uses sophisticated techniques, including undercover operations and court-authorized surveillance, to identify and dismantle the criminal networks that commit these major thefts.

Art Theft 

Art theft is the illicit trade in art and cultural artifacts includes theft of individual works of art, illegal export of objects protected by international laws, and pillaging of archaeological sites. The art and cultural property community estimates thefts to be about $500 million annually. It is an international problem requiring cooperation at all levels of law enforcement. Significant efforts are currently focused on ISIL looting and trafficking in cultural property to fund their terrorist agenda.

Although tremendous strides have been made to combat cultural property crime, intelligence reveals this is a growing global threat, demanding proactive FBI measures and resources. To aid in this endeavor, the FBI established the National Stolen Art File (NSAF)–a computerized index of stolen art and cultural property as reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. and internationally–and the Art Crime Team, responsible for addressing art and cultural crime cases. 

Read more about our Art Theft Program.

Cargo Theft 

Cargo theft is a significant crime problem in the U.S.  According to industry estimates, annual losses attributed to stolen cargo are estimated to be in excess of $30 billion and greatly affect US, interstate, and international commerce. Widespread cargo theft has also given rise to concomitant offenses such as robbery, kidnapping, homicide, interstate transportation of stolen motor vehicles, drug trafficking, health care fraud, money laundering and insurance fraud.

Despite the creation of a national cargo theft definition and subsequent addition of a cargo theft category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, UCR reporting of cargo theft remains at a fraction of estimated cargo theft activity nationally. Cargo theft is identified as a high priority due to its adverse economic impact, negative impact on the retail supply chain, disruptive nature on the flow of commerce, and the potential for significant health and safety implications. Health and safety implications focus heavily on a concern for the theft of food and beverage consumables, health and beauty aids, and prescription and over-the-counter medicines and pharmaceuticals. 

 Jewelry and Gem Theft 

Jewelry and gem thefts are often committed by organized criminal enterprises consisting of sophisticated thieves and organized fences for the stolen property. The jewelry and gem industry sustains estimated annual losses in excess of $1.5 billion. In some cases, these crimes resulted in serious physical injury or death. Jewelry and gem theft investigations can be extremely complex, national or international in scope, and require a specialized knowledge of the jewelry industry and how it operates.

As part of these investigations, the FBI liaisons with the jewelry industry and police departments, coordinates multi-divisional investigations, assists the field offices and Legal Attaché offices overseas in JAG-related investigations, and supports an industry-owned and operated database, which is available to all law enforcement from the Jewelers’ Security Alliance.

Read more about our Jewelry and Gem Theft Program.

Organized Retail Theft  

Industry experts estimate that organized retail crimes cost the U.S. approximately $30 billion each year. While that estimate includes other crimes like credit card fraud, gift card fraud, and price tag switching, other forms of theft may threaten consumer health and safety as stolen food products, pharmaceuticals, and other items are not maintained under proper conditions or labeled so may be less effective or hazardous when used by unsuspecting consumers. Organized retail theft causes higher prices for American consumers and less sales tax revenue for state and local governments.

The FBI focuses on the most significant retail theft cases involving the interstate transportation of stolen property as organized retail theft is a gateway crime, which major crime rings use the illicit proceeds to fund other crimes, such as organized crime activities, health care fraud, money laundering, and potentially terrorism. The FBI uses many of the same investigative techniques against organized retail theft groups that it uses against any criminal enterprise and partners with law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels in order to share intelligence and work together operationally.

Vehicle Theft  

From 2011 through 2015, reported vehicle thefts averaged just under 707,000 per year.  Industry experts estimate that vehicle thefts account for $4.95 billion in losses annually.  The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates a national recovery rate of approximately 50-60 percent, making the average annual realized loss over $2 billion. In addition to the adverse economic impact, vehicle theft and its associated national and international criminal enterprises have been identified as having a strong nexus to threat financing where the vehicles are used as a medium or currency for worldwide financial transactions relating to drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and RICO violations.  

With a majority of stolen vehicles occurring in cities and states in close proximity to export areas such as international borders and seaports; it is believed that many unrecovered stolen vehicles are exported to Mexico and countries in Central America, Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Asia.  The FBI focuses its limited resources on disrupting and dismantling the most sophisticated multi-jurisdictional criminal organizations responsible for the interstate and international trafficking of stolen vehicles, especially those that use the criminal proceeds from vehicle theft to fund other criminal activity.