Global Financial Integrity

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Transnational Crime and Terrorist Financing

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Most crimes committed in the world are crimes of greed. Transnational criminal networks can generate huge sums of money, and—like any other business—they require access to the international financial system in order to conduct their complex and far-reaching operations.

Law enforcement operations often focus predominantly on interdicting the physical objects—like bags of cocaine or boxes of counterfeit Rolexes—being smuggled by criminals, rather than tracking and seizing the money being earned by the criminal networks.

GFI believes that effective law enforcement requires following the money and making it more difficult to launder illicit proceeds. Across all the illicit industries and security threats—from arms trafficking to illicit timber to terrorism—money is the most common thread. Making it more difficult to move and hide illicit money is an overarching solution to the source of all of these problems, which are often approached as separate issues by law enforcement.

What Are the Biggest Illicit Industries?

In 2011, GFI research estimated that the global illicit flow of goods, guns, people, and natural resources is approximately $650 billion. Of the 12 illicit activities studied, drug smuggling ($320 billion per year), counterfeiting ($250 billion per year), and human trafficking ($31.6 billion) were the first, second, and third largest, respectively, in terms of illicit funds generated.

The following table shows the full breakdown of the 12 different illicit markets analyzed by GFI:

GFI is currently in the process of updating these estimates. Certain industries have seen tremendous growth since 2011, including the illicit wildlife and oil industries.

How Do Criminals Move Money?

Generally, transnational criminals move money the same way that tax evaders or corrupt public officials do. Some, like notorious arms trader Viktor Bout (portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie Lord of War), use a web of anonymous shell companies to hide assets. Others, like the Colombian drug cartel exporting stuffed animals out of Los Angeles, utilize trade-based money laundering.

What about Terrorist Financing?

The line between criminal network and terrorist network has become increasingly blurry in recent years. Terrorists often finance their operations by selling drugs, poaching rhinos, or counterfeiting goods. They participate in the same networks and use the same mechanisms to move illicit money.