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Black market cigarettes and viagra hauled in by UK customs police.
Black market cigarettes and viagra hauled in by UK customs police.
Marco Tripmaker

BERLIN — Organized crime syndicates have long smuggled drugs and cigarettes. Their distribution strategy is so effective that police around the world have a hard time tracing the channels that allow their products to reach the black market. But could these crimes also be funding terrorism?

Members of what is believed to be a criminal gang are facing trial in the German city of Potsdam. They are suspected of bribing customs officers with suitcases stuffed with cash at European Union border checkpoints. They are accused of then transferring goods between trucks at night somewhere in the municipality of Paulinenaue. The German government says it has lost taxes worth 60 million euros.

The German court has been analyzing the evidence of this case for more than a year now. The verdict will be declared later this month. Trials against suspected members of organized crime take a lot of time to adjudicate. Just the tapping of phones alone takes months to set up and analyze.

How does organized crime work nowadays? And how is it linked to terrorism?

Criminal lawyer Arndt Sinn recently published a study "Organized Crime 3.0" that addresses these questions. Sinn founded the Centre for European and International Penal Law Studies, known by the acronym ZEIS, and has been researching organized crime for years.

Organized crime, by definition, involves at least three people who are well-organized to commit felonies in order to maximize profits.

"But we are not talking about Sicilian Mafia godfathers of crime or Disney's Beagle Boys, who stole a lollipop or two. Some of these individuals are actually quite dangerous and get together to commit serious crimes through chatrooms and Darknet," says Sinn.

On Darknet, a part of the web where it's hard to locate users, a person can shop for any criminal service. "There are experts for anything and everything. We say it's a ‘crime as a service.' But the trouble law enforcement faces is that these hybrid groups of criminals are very difficult to catch. The investigation into these groups, by nature, has to be incredibly extensive."

For these criminals, cigarettes and medical drugs are the most lucrative goods to smuggle as they yield staggering profits. "One person takes care of procuring the goods while the next bribes the customs and border guards at EU borders, while the third person is responsible for the bookkeeping," says Sinn. "These people are not stupid and they usually go their separate ways after a successful project has been completed."

Germany is being flooded by so-called "illicit whites" — cigarettes that were legally produced in Belarus, China, Russia and Dubai and are then smuggled to Germany "on coal trains, inside furniture or barges," says an undercover investigator.

But European police forces are not enough tackle this problem. The tobacco industry has taken steps to track-and-trace their products more carefully seeing as they are aware that their products might be funding terrorism. Terrorism experts Louise Shelley and Peter Neumann found that the terrorists behind the Paris attacks were financed through cigarette smuggling. "The risk of being discovered is relatively low. But law enforcement agencies should really pay more attention to seemingly petty crime," says Shelley.

But that's not enough, says Sinn. He believes that organized crime functions as the "bubbling fountain" of money. "To dry this fountain, national as well as international law enforcement agencies will have to work even more closely with one another and create a network that will focus on the areas where organized crime and terrorism intersect. It seems that even the interior ministry is finally reaching that conclusion very, very slowly."

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