Illicit flows and illicit commodities

Illicit flows are commonly understood to involve the trafficking of an illicit commodity, from source to destination, along established routes.

Generally generated by organised crime and facilitated by criminal activities, illicit flow involves the cross-border transit of illegal commodities to the point of use from which further illicit flows may then emanate, thus supporting, financing or generating other organised criminal activities.

Illicit flows tend to involve tangible products and entail illicit goods trafficking (for instance wildlife threatened by extinction – ivory, pangolin scales, among many othersschedule I drugs or counterfeit goods) or licit goods trafficked illicitly (for example goods whose trade is strictly regulated, such as armspre-cursor chemicals, schedule II drugsinstruments that can be used for torture or facilitate the death penalty, or goods trafficked involving VAT fraud).

Furthermore, the development of cyber globalisation has profoundly influenced criminal activities, leading to the development of other less perceptible flows, such as electronic money transfers and dark-web enabled financial transactions and communication. While independent national legislation is in force, the key standard covering the cross-border organised crime fuelling illicit trafficking remains the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC).

In the context of an increasingly globalised world, which facilitates easier movement of persons and substances, organised crime groups have thrived. Against this backdrop, it has become increasingly important to tackle criminal groups by recognising the commonality between the crimes they commit, the routes they utilise and the methodology they employ; they are all interdependent, of equal importance and all enable illicit flows to efficiently exist.

Globalisation presents border authorities with many challenges as they seek to balance national security with an ever-increasing pressure to quickly clear goods and merchandise through customs controls. Organised crime groups recognise this and often utilise licit commercial enterprise as a means to conceal their illicit activity, for example by placing drugs in with legitimate fruit cargos or ivory in with authorised wood consignments.

Disrupting illicit flows

To effectively disrupt illicit flows, authorities often rely on risk profiling and the sharing of information and intelligence, so as to maintain an intelligence led approach towards operational border activity. This highlights the necessity to improve networking between the involved law enforcement officers and judicial authorities, to ensure that communication channels are available and that trans-regionally, operational information is shared to enable the effective fight against transnational organised crime.

Recognising the integrated nature of illicit flows, rather than focusing on a single commodity or method, this type of approach significantly expands the scope of existing resources, allowing a wider impact on a more extensive spectrum of organised crime.

The Global Illicit Flows Programme is operating on four continents and includes several projects that address maritime and air trafficking, drug supply, and arms trafficking. The programme also intends to support best practice in trans-regional investigations and post-seizure forensic outcomes to enhance responsiveness to the issues. In addition, it complements other EU assistance aimed at curbing trafficking in human beings, wildlife or minerals, and strengthens the European Union’s response to illicit multi-commodity flows led by criminal organisations, which threaten the national and international economic and social well-being of all citizens.