The Al Capone approach

2013-06-17 15:33

For those who don’t recognize the name, Alphonse Capone was a Chicago-based gangster who made a fortune from a range of criminal activities during the 1920s. Although he, and his cohorts, engaged in a number of illegal activities, such as prostitution, it was in ‘bootlegging’ (the illicit trade in alcohol) during America’s period of Prohibition where he made most of his money. Between 1919 and 1933, the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol were outlawed in the USA. In order to enforce his control over illegal trading, in liquor and women, he participated in extensive corruption of officials and widespread violence. One of his most infamous demonstrations of criminal dictatorship was the St Valentine’s Massacre, when his henchmen gunned down seven members of a rival gang.

I used ‘The Al Capone approach’ as a title, because I believe what happened in the 1920’s can offer us, if not lessons, at least food for thought today.

Capone operated in what might be regarded as the early days of organized crime. He, and the other crime groups and networks throughout the United States, exploited to the fullest the decisions by government, responding to calls from various sections in society, to ban specific forms of trade. In the 1920s, huge profits were gained by providing liquor to consumers in an illicit fashion. However, those profits dried out, in complete contrast to supplies of booze, when Prohibition ended in 1933 and alcohol trading was legalized once more. Many in the law enforcement community believe that Prohibition introduced levels of sophistication, violence and organization into crime that had not been seen before and which, in many respects, remain with us in modern times. If nothing else, that era surely showed us the need for very careful reflection before introducing, amending or repealing law.

I imagine relatively few people today, particularly in the USA, would disagree with the repeal of Prohibition, even though excess alcohol consumption continues to be a major cause of public disorder and also brings seriously negative impacts to human health (to those of the imbiber and often those around him or her). Capone’s other profit base, prostitution, is legal in many parts of the world today, although managing or recruiting prostitutes tends to remain an offence. But narcotics have, to a significant extent, replaced liquor as organized crime’s favoured commodity.

As someone who spent almost four decades working operationally and strategically on policing issues, I am not, personally, especially in favour of prohibitions, unless there is an overwhelming need for them. I can understand why some countries choose to allow women to be prostitutes, just as I see the need to lock up their ‘pimps’. I recognize that it can be regarded as a matter of personal freedom if a female wishes to sell her sexual favours, albeit I would hope that they might incline towards, and be able to access, alternative sources of income. I also recognize that too many women are forced, by any number of circumstances, into prostitution, which is why we need to criminalize those who seek to exploit them. But what I wanted most whilst a law enforcer, and I suspect this was a desire shared by the majority of my colleagues, was some consistency in approach as to what is to be lawful and what is to be criminal. Despite what some people may interpret from my comments elsewhere, I am not particularly opposed to legalizing trade in rhino horn, in principle, even if I believe we should reflect upon the current reasons for demand and what impacts commercial trade might have.

I never felt it my place to be anti- or pro-trade; my role was to enforce the law, or assist others to do so. But I couldn’t avoid being troubled by debates perhaps diverting attention away from the crime that was occurring whilst the arguing went back and forward. I now regularly read suggestions that selling horns to Vietnam will save the rhino whilst, at the same time, being told that the only way to safeguard elephants is for China to outlaw its domestic trade in ivory. Is it just me, or is there some inconsistency there? And don’t get me started on tiger farming, which is another discussion that has rumbled on and on without resolution, as tigers come closer and closer to extinction. Poaching of elephants took place during an international ivory trade ban and it took place after legal trade too. I leave others to deliberate on which approach best serves the species. What really concerns me is that we have the most effective law enforcement in place, regardless of whether commerce is present. And that we don’t forget to focus on achieving the most effective enforcement, alongside any trade-related discussions or debates over demand-reduction and alternative responses.

I wonder what would have happened had Prohibition not been repealed. Would good, in the form of the cops, have eventually won out over evil, in the shape of organized crime? Would an alcohol-free America be different in 2013 than it has otherwise been? I bet it would. How many other countries might have followed the example, had prohibition proved successful? To be fair, there are probably only so many lessons to be drawn, in relation to trade legalization, from what happened in the 1920s. But I’m convinced that there is a very good lesson to be learned in relation to law enforcement. And that relates to how you bring criminals to justice.

In replying to concerns voiced by the international conservation community, the government of Viet Nam regularly said that weaknesses in its legislation had prevented, or inhibited, its enforcement agencies from responding fully to the escalating illegal trade in rhino horn. This had, allegedly, been especially relevant in relation to horns imported into the country; the horns having been acquired as a result of what is now popularly described as ‘pseudo-hunting’ in South Africa. Shortcomings in national wildlife laws are constantly presented as an excuse why countries around the world, and not just Viet Nam, cannot do more to respond to the ongoing, and seemingly ever-increasing, scourge of criminal natural resource exploitation. To my mind, trotting out such explanations shows quite the opposite. It demonstrates a lack of imaginative legal thinking and a shameful failure to bring a multi-agency approach to bear. In fairness to them, many wildlife law enforcement officers, in too many countries across the globe, are being left by their colleagues in other parts of the enforcement domain to combat levels of sophistication and organization that they are ill-equipped to cope with.

We need to turn away from wildlife legislation.

If a Vietnamese or Thai citizen, or any other nationality, travels from their homeland to another country and pays in cash (often very large sums of cash) to engage in an activity (like rhino hunting), whether legal or not, they are almost bound to have violated currency controls; both of their own country and their destination. One does not need provisions in wildlife legislation to investigate and prosecute such behaviour. Indeed, the existing statutes governing international cross-border movement of currency will, in most countries, enable investigators to consider aspects of money-laundering, asset recovery and seizure and provide them with the authority to examine bank accounts, money transfer records, etc., alongside what might be the main focus of the criminality.

If one fails, at the time of export or import, to honestly declare items upon which duties and taxes may be due, one commits an offence. Any failure to declare the true intended purpose, to which those items will be put to use, since this will often determine the amount of tax, is also an offence. For instance, there is a big difference between claiming something as a personal hunting trophy and it actually being aimed at commercial consumption (albeit in a clandestine market). Customs laws, in almost every nation in the world, tend to be the strongest in relation to dealing with fraud and smuggling. Their provisions apply to wildlife just as much as any other contraband.

If you recruit an individual to engage in pseudo-trophy-hunting, you have entered into a criminal conspiracy. If you supply weapons and ammunition to persons, with the intention that they cross a national border to undertake the poaching of endangered species, you are engaging in a criminal conspiracy. If you pay a courier to hide elephant tusks inside a suitcase and travel from Africa to Asia, you are participating in a criminal conspiracy. ‘Conspiracy’ is one of the most serious of all crimes, whether under statute or common law, and carries the possible penalty of life imprisonment in many jurisdictions. You can criminally conspire to profit from illicit trade in wildlife just as readily as you can from trafficking in humans, arms, stolen works of art, nuclear waste or chemical weapons.

If you are a member of, or associated with, the organized crime groups that are currently equipping the multi-person gangs with AK-47 assault weapons, or rifles designed to bring down big game, knowing that they will use them against anti-poaching personnel just as readily as they will use them to poach elephants and rhinos, I believe you ought to be prosecuted, in the relevant circumstances, for engaging in a conspiracy to commit murder. We, deservedly, applaud the work that our Police officers do in cities and towns to protect society but we often fail to appreciate what their counterparts are doing to protect fauna and flora.

It seems highly probable that the networks and individuals who are behind much of today’s wildlife crime will not be focussed solely on animals and plants as a means to gather profit. The reason that wildlife crime is so attractive to the criminal fraternity is that it is high-profit and, all too often, low-risk. The number of law enforcement officers targeting those illicitly trading elephant, rhino or tiger products is tiny, compared against those seeking out the narcotic traffickers. This is just one more example of inconsistency.

It also seems probable that those participating in organized wildlife crimes are not covering their tracks as carefully as they do during other periods of illicit activities; when they deal in drugs for instance, for the very reason that there is currently a low risk of detection. I think there is a soft underbelly there that we need, desperately and urgently, to attack.

South Africa’s recent response to rhino poaching, involving multi-agency collaboration and coordination, together with innovative and imaginative prosecutions, offers an excellent example to the rest of the world. But so too did what happened to Al Capone. South Africa, and the US, were both forced into such responses by the sheer weight of criminality that their law enforcement agencies were called upon to combat. We need to learn lessons. The rest of the world must not wait for crime, whether bootlegging or endangered species poaching, to affect them. They should adopt the motto of the Boy Scouts – ‘Be Prepared’.

Most of the world is running to catch up with, let alone overtake, organized crime. Rhinos may have replaced, for some organized crime groups, narcotics as an easy-option profit base. What animal, plant or other commodity will be next?

Alphonse Capone was targeted by the Chicago Police Department and also by federal law enforcement agencies. None of them were initially able to arrest him for prostitution, corruption, violence, bootlegging or the myriad of other crimes he committed personally, or ordered others to commit. But the multi-agency approach did finally pay off, when a Treasury officer noted that Capone had not paid any income tax. And that is what sent one of history’s most famous criminals to jail in 1931, meaning he saw the end of Prohibition from a prison cell.

I am not overly concerned whether wildlife is traded or not. Go ahead and discuss it as much as you like. Just as long as the debating doesn’t interfere with catching criminals. I don’t particularly care what form of criminal prosecution leads to the bad guys ending up in jail either, just as long as they do. I know very well that enforcement alone is never going to be the solution, whatever the issue under discussion, but it is a very important element, and we haven’t got our act together yet. What really frustrates me is that we have opportunities to bring serious criminals to justice and we are not currently exploiting those chances to the full.

If we can save some endangered species along the way, that would be a nice bonus of course. It would also be nice if the wider law enforcement community woke up to what is going on as much as the conservation community apparently has. Whilst all views are very welcome around the table, I would rather that more people brought handcuffs.

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