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Lessons from organised crime task forces: Brazil and beyond

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Delivering an effective law enforcement and criminal justice response to organized crime is challenging for even the best resourced governments. Ordinary police officers may lack the legal remit, discretion and skills to respond to the problem. They are also frequently influenced by powerful crime bosses and criminal organizations. Local police bodies seeking to investigate organized crime on their own often struggle to work with federal and state authorities. Yet a comprehensive and coordinated approach to combating organized crime is essential. An examination of selected cases in Brazil and around the world highlights the use of task forces in the fight against organised crime. Despite some successes, task forces are hardly problem free: political and bureaucratic interference frequently weaken their effectiveness. Ensuring robust oversight of task forces while simultaneously ring-fencing them from political influence is essential.

The Brazilian struggle

Brazil is no stranger to organized crime. The country is wracked by prolific drug and arms smuggling, cyber-crime and money laundering. Neighboring three cocaine-producing countries, Brazil experiences considerable narcotics trans-shipment and consumption. It already registers more homicides – roughly 58,000 a year – than any other country on earth. Not surprisingly, Brazilian authorities have stepped up cross-border and domestic interdiction operations in recent decades, including the deployment military and federal police assets. The armed forces are also regularly tasked with supporting military and civil police whether to provide additional protection for mega events or in their fight against powerful organized crime factions (in and outside of prisons). Senior representatives of the armed forces describe organized crime as one of the most significant threat facing Brazilian citizens.

The Brazilian federal and state governments have struggled to coordinate their efforts to fight organized crime. Part of the problem is structural. The 1988 Constitution devolves law enforcement matters to the secretary of public security and the military and civil police of each of Brazil´s 26 states and federal capital district. Yet all “international” crimes – including cross-border drug, arms, contraband and people trafficking – legally fall under the jurisdiction of the federal police. Because these crimes inevitably have a domestic character, there are predictably tensions between police forces when investigating and prosecuting organized crime groups engaged in trans-border operations. Although the federal authorities have issued three national public security strategies to coordinate responses since the late 1990s – the latest in 2017 – they lack teeth.

An additional difficulty confronting Brazil´s federal and state governments is that organized crime has infected, and in some cases appropriated, political and public institutions. Many of the country´s political parties, government agencies and commercial enterprises are ensnared in an unprecedented corruption scandal and anti-crime operation called Lava Jato, or Car Wash. Successive Attorney Generals have publicly described those caught-up in the scandal (including current and previous Presidents) as forming an “organized crime racket”, a “criminal enterprise” and a “parallel criminal state”. Meanwhile, at the state and municipal levels, governors, mayors and legislators regularly collude with paramilitary, militia and drug faction groups. Given the high profits involved, military and civil police frequently interact with drug traffickers, extortion rackets, black market arms dealers and mafia groups.

The state of Rio de Janeiro is particularly badly affected by criminal governance. Most recently, in October 2017, Brazil´s Supreme Electoral Tribunal stated that Rio de Janeiro was experiencing the most serious instance “state capture” by organized crime in history. Rio de Janeiro has faced similar accusations in the past. A 2008 review issued by Rio de Janeiro´s legislative assembly demonstrated how militia groups in the metropolitan capital were involved in financing the electoral campaigns of local legislators. Today, at least 19 electoral zones – amounting to 1.1 million voters, or 9% of the electorate – are dominated by drug factions and militia. Rio de Janeiro is not the only state badly infested with organized criminal actors: similar processes are playing out in Amazonas, Sao Paulo, and across the country.

One common strategy to tackle the organized crime-government nexus involves the formation of independent federal task forces. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation and evidence of “state capture” by organized crime, Brazil´s federal authorities announced its intention to establish a federal task for the state of Rio de Janeiro. While yet to be formally approved, the mandate of the federal task force will most likely focus on prosecuting arms smuggling, gun trafficking and money laundering since these are all classified as “federal” crimes. The current Ministers of Defense and Justice and Rio de Janeiro´s secretary of public security support the idea of establishing a task force. Should it be confirmed, it would include representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of Finance, Intelligence (ABIN), the federal police and others.

Old method… new context

This would not be the first time Brazil´s national authorities have approved a task force to expand the fight against organized crime at the state level. Indeed, Brazil has been down this road before. Task forces have been mobilized in Brasilia, Parana and Sao Paulo to tackle issues such as slave labor, illegal timber extraction and money laundering. One the most successful efforts emerged in the wake of a 2002 Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) designed to tackle a surge in organized crime and violence across Brazil. The Commission deliberated for close to two years. It´s focus was geographically far-reaching, spanning 17 states. The final CPI report was extensive, reaching 1,200 pages. Among its many recommendations was the initiation of a new CPI on money laundering and the expansion of the CPI on organized crime. The report signaled the government´s commitment to tackling one of Brazil´s most intractable challenges.

The CPI´s findings were both damning and explosive. It directly named 800 individuals suspected of involvement in organized crime, including two federal deputies, fourteen state deputies, six judges and a host of mayors, police officers and businessmen. In other words, all three powers of the state – the executive, legislature and judiciary – were openly described as having been captured by organized crime. Most Brazilians accepted the existence of organized crime in society: the CPI represented the first time it was officially named and condemned at the highest levels. Most important, the CPI led to the funding of a series of Special Missions Against Organized Crime in at least two crime-infested states, Espiritu Santo and Acre.

The state of Espiritu Santo was no stranger to organized crime. In 1993, well before the CPI and Special Mission, local human rights activists prepared a damning report documenting systemic corruption and criminal violence and presented it to the Ministry of Justice’s Council for the Defense of Human Rights. By 1999, a group of 50 NGOs were meeting in a permanent forum to monitor organized violence and impunity across the state. In 1999, the Attorney General provided evidence to the CPI that implicated the state´s governor, deputy and two dozen military and civil police officers and firearms retailers in a series of crime rackets. By 2002, spurred on by the killing of a prominent lawyer, the Brazilian Bar Association called for an immediate federal intervention. The national Attorney General initially rejected the request, but following the resignation of the Minister of Justice, his ruling was overturned. A Special Mission was launched in July 2002.

The Espirtu Santo Special Mission went swiftly to work. The team included more than 200 representatives from the federal police, the federal road police, the Attorney General´s office, the public ministry, and federal and state justice officials. It launched a series of raids seizing computers and files in the homes and businesses of suspects. The Mission arrested key members of the criminal network and blocked the assets of others. The news was not all positive. The task force ran out of steam and was only picked-up again some years later when a new governor emerged. What is more, during the period of the Special Mission´s intervention, state-level criminal violence actually increased. For example, murders rose by more than 11% between 2002 and 2003, mostly a result of summary executions perpetrated by militia and police groups.

A Special Mission was also announced for the state of northwestern state of Acre in 1999. Acre has long been a transshipment zone for cocaine given its proximity to coca-producing nations of Bolivia and Peru. The area is a hotbed of organized crime, including human smuggling and illegal logging. The decision to send the Special Mission was made in the wake of testimony provided to Brazil´s national Attorney General. He singled out the involvement of the state´s former governor, deputy and 66 other state and municipal politicians and business people allegedly involved in organized crime. While smaller in scope and scale than the team sent to Espiritu Santo, a key task of the Acre Special Mission was to conduct surveillance on the financial and telephone transactions of identified suspects. The actual mission did not deploy, however, until 2002.

The Acre Special Mission was more modest in size and scope than its counterpart in Espiritu Santo. It included federal police, but also federal and state public ministries. At the heart of the operation was the apprehension and imprisonment of Hildrebrando Pascoal – known as “Deputy Chainsaw” for the manner in which he disposed of his victims. At the time of his arrest, Pasocoal was a federal deputy, but had also served as the Acre secretary of public security and chief of a ruthless paramilitary group. Immediately thereafter, the state authorities created a new Special Group to Combat Organized Crime (GAECO) to ensure the sustainability of their operations. The impacts were far-reaching and continue to be lauded as a success story to this day.

Developing a global model?

Many countries have mobilized task forces to take the fight to organized crime. The most prominent examples come from the US, but there are others in Europe, South Africa and across Latin America. There is no standard template or formula for these entities. Nevertheless, they do tend to feature a number of common characteristics. At a minimum, they adopt a highly focused strategic vision and a coordinated inter-agency approach. They also tend to be informed by sophisticated intelligence and focus primarily on disrupting high value assets, especially crime leaders and their network of finances. In cases where they have the mandate to do so, task forces emphasize police and judicial reform, including screening, confidence tests and purging of (corrupt) police. At their best, federal task forces send a signal to law enforcement and the criminal justice system, urging them to redirect attention and resources to the most important organized crime networks.

The United States has initiated several federal task forces to tackle organized crime since the early 1980s. The most well known is the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) program. Since its launch in 1982, it is responsible for more than 44,000 drug-related convictions and the seizure of over $3 billion. The OCDETF is overseen by the national Attorney General and fields over 2,500 agents located in nine core cities. It is focused almost entirely on dismantling drug trafficking organizations and money laundering enterprises. The OCDETF also has considerable power since it allocates federal resources to participating agencies. It´s activities range from gathering intelligence and investigating key organizations to launching financial investigations and undertaking asset forfeiture.

The OCDETF integrates representatives from at least eleven US federal agencies. They include the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Criminal and Tax Division of the US Department of Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the US Coast Guard, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department and the US Marshals Service. As a national entity, the task force also harnesses the offices of 93 US Attorneys in 50 states. The task force is also supported by a network of fusion centers – many of them set-up after 9/11 – that ensures a coordinated, inter-agency and multi-jurisdictional approach, though this is difficult to achieve in practice.

Meanwhile, in the UK and Northern Ireland, task forces were also developed to fight organized crime connected to the violent conflict in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Organized Crime Task Force (NIOCTF) was and remains focused on disrupting criminal organizations and their fundraising capabilities. The scope is comparatively broad and includes Internet crime, excise and tax fraud, drugs, counterfeit currency, human trafficking and armed robbery. It brings together the UK Home Office, the Office of Immigration Enforcement, Revenue and Customs, The Crown Solicitors Office, the UK Human Trafficking Center, the Police Services and dozens of public and private partners.

Another example comes from South Africa and its Directorate of Special Operations (DSO, known as the Scorpions). The DSO was established in 2001 to investigate and prosecute drug trafficking, human smuggling, and public and white collar fraud and corruption. It was directed by the National Prosecuting Authority and included more than 536 of the best prosecutors, police, financial, forensic and intelligence experts in the nation. It included Special Operations, Witness-Protection services, the Asset Forfeiture Unit, and specialized agencies focused on sexual offences, community affairs and commercial crimes. It was disbanded in 2009, however, following tensions with the South African Police Service and unease amongst the political elite as to investigations that targeted powerful figures, including the country’s chief of police.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Colombia´s “integrated intelligence center against criminal bands” (CI2-BACRIM) was a task force established in 2001. It was made up of an inter-agency committee that monitored organized crime groups and guided strategic and tactical decision-making from the national to the municipal levels. It included representatives from the Prosecutors Office, the Financial Analysis and Information Unit (UIAF), the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC), the Technical Corps of Research, the Armed Forces, Police and other non-military and law enforcement institutions.

In 2016, the Colombian CI2-BACRIM was upgraded and transformed into an “integrated intelligence center against organized criminal groups and organized armed groups” (Ci2-GDO/GAO). It retains a similar membership and structure to its predecessor. It is also responsible for integrating and evaluating information related to the structures, organization, and activities of armed groups. And it also works alongside the Anti-Smuggling Task Force (FEA) that is focused on monitoring goods using scanning systems and satellite technology.

In Central America, there are also inter-governmental cross-border task forces that tend to combine military and police assets. For example, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have pooled resources in a Tri-national Anti-Gang Task Force (TAGTF) focused on gang activity, drug trafficking, human smuggling and sharing intelligence. The TAGTF is similar to the Tecún-Umán Interagency Task Force made up of military and police personnel on the Mexico-Guatemala border and the Maya-Chorti Task Force on the Honduran-Guatemalan border. Many of these receive support from the US government, including both SOUTHCOM and federal law enforcement bodies.

Political insulation

Taken together, federal task forces appear to have made a worthwhile contribution to the fight against organized crime. It is difficult to assess their precise costs and benefits given that many of the resources deployed are difficult to ascertain and overall success difficult to judge. Yet, across a variety of contexts the evidence does suggest that, failing external interference and with the right combination of skills and leadership, multi-agency task forces can generate important dividends. Even so, this cursory review suggests that task forces are complex enterprises and require considerable preparation and oversight. The creation of task forces will invariably generate institutional tensions across the criminal justice system. Even the most successful task forces can create jealousies that may disrupt their functioning.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to task forces is political interference – by their very nature, task forces hone in on the interests of powerful elites, including many in higher office and business. There is always a risk of task forces becoming politicized and prevented from achieving their mission. The most important priority, then, may be less the details of their structuring and resourcing, although these are of course critical in themselves, but sealing task forces off from political influence. Building strong cross-partisan support for task forces is thus essential. So too is engaging actively with civil society groups and business who often exert powerful “behind-the-scenes” influence. If task forces are adequately supported, and effectively communicate results, they may well prove one of the most effective tools against organized crime available.

Learning the right lessons

Task forces are easier to describe than define. As the above cases make clear, they typically include a group of law enforcement, criminal justice, accounting and intelligence specialists provided with the mandate and resources to complete a complex task and recommend actions. Task forces are typically guided by an action plan and defined instructions to prosecute serious crimes. In Brazil, for example, they are usually informed by an official mandate (e.g. CPI) which invests the task force with investigatory powers. Task forces can be temporary as in the Latin American experience or permanent as in the case of the US. And while it is recommended that they are of a manageable size, there is no minimum or maximum number of members.

The most successful task forces combine a common set of attributes. They are highly competent, interdisciplinary, interoperable, adaptive, efficient, communicative and can rapidly seize “windows of opportunity”. They are force multipliers using a combination of special investigative techniques, counterintelligence, and very targeted prosecutorial interventions. Key to their success are the right combination of skills, the appropriate level of monitoring, authorization to use advanced investigation measures, and a focus on results. To function effectively, they need to be properly resourced and incentivized, including possibly a system of incentives to reward results.

Several principles stand out when it comes to creating successful task forces to fight organized crime. At the outset, they require insulation from political manipulation. This is exceedingly challenging, but essential. Next, given the complex character of organized crime, task forces should set a clear strategic vision and targets, while building in flexible and adaptable tactical capabilities. Although the fight against organized crime is long-term, task forces should adopt a preset time limit while allowing for extensions. While task forces must include police, prosecutors, financial specialists, and intelligence officials, they should be led by the entities with the most relevant experience. Finally, task forces should anticipate a hand-over, including to specialized entities that can carry-on follow-on activities. This is key to ensuring that the momentum established by task forces is not completely lost after they depart.