This, in turn, has the effect of further polarising communities and alienating large segments of the population who already feel disenfranchised by an unequal distribution of global resources.
Are we sure there are no less destructive, more socially acceptable alternatives or, as a minimum, some ways to mitigate the impact of unpopular budgetary cuts?
It’s somehow striking that no political party is arguing that a significant contribution to the preservation of social cohesion should come from the recovery of the staggering amount of global wealth stolen through corruption, drug trafficking and other illicit trade that is currently nurturing rampant transnational criminal syndicates. When crime issues feature in electoral campaigns, it is usually to promise more police officers to patrol the streets and increased prison capacity, for example. But crime-control policies need not only represent a burden to state coffers. They can become a wealth-generating strategy if focused, determined and sustained efforts are made to recover stolen criminal assets, well beyond the currently half-hearted efforts.
Estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime put the amount of money laundered globally in one year at 2-5% of global GDP, or US$2trn. To date, investments made in asset recovery efforts are a drop in the ocean. According to Europol, only 1.1% of criminal profits were confiscated in the EU between 2010 and 2014. If this figure were to increase by just a few percentage points, it could translate into a bonanza for national governments, potentially helping to avoid painful cuts to healthcare programmes, pensions for the elderly, subsidies for kindergartens and so on.
I often recall what former Cosa Nostra member Gaspare Mutolo declared in front of the Italian Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Committee back in 1993: “What bothers us most is when they take the money out of our pockets. One prefers to remain in jail with the money rather than being free without the money.”
So, why aren’t genuine, sustained and aggressive efforts being made to “follow the money” as a major path not only to deprive ever-expanding criminal networks of oxygen, but also to recover badly needed resources? After all, this is money that in one way or another has been syphoned from taxpayers’ pockets.
Let’s be fair. Following the money is akin to driving in a thick fog. Financial investigations are time and resource consuming, and fraught with obstacles. They often involve turning to foreign countries for help in tracing assets, freezing bank accounts held abroad and enforcing foreign confiscation orders. And while some authorities may be genuinely willing to assist, including through dedicated asset recovery offices, many are overstretched and not necessarily hoping for the phone to ring. Others are blatantly non-co-operative and pride themselves on their ability to shelter wealth (without asking too many questions about its origin) behind opaque regulations and corporate veils.
Even if investigators eventually succeed in having criminal assets traced, confiscated and turned over, they shouldn’t claim victory too quickly. The Italian experience is instructive. Currently, Italy is at the forefront of global efforts to confiscate criminal assets. Its legislative framework is one of the world’s most advanced and admired. And yet it is proving quite difficult to ensure that the approximately €30bn in assets seized and confiscated from Mafia organisations are effectively allocated for the purposes envisaged by the law: public and social re-use and, as a last resort, sale. Despite recent attempts to streamline procedures, Italy’s nine-year-old Agency for the Management and the Allocation of Seized and Confiscated Assets is still struggling with scarce resources and a Byzantine bureaucracy.
So, mission impossible? Not really. Many countries have already made criminal confiscations easier from a legal point of view, for example, by shifting from prosecutors to defendants the burden to prove that the assets in question are not derived from criminal conduct. Or by enabling authorities to broadly confiscate assets of criminal organisations without the need to establish a connection between those assets and specific criminal offences.
But above all, there seems to be momentum. The public at large, people from all walks of life and political affiliations, are increasingly frustrated at the sheer magnitude of organised crime, exposed by almost daily revelations of massive corruption and money-laundering schemes.
We need a new generation of aspiring politicians willing to invest time and political capital in championing criminal asset recovery as a central pillar of governments’ action. Initially, implementing such a strategy would require steep increases in the number of highly trained financial investigators, investments in big data analytics, and the allocation of significant resources to asset management and cross-border co-operation bodies. But in the medium term, these investments would yield a big payoff. Recovering even just an additional 5% of the globally stolen wealth could make a material difference to the daily lives of a large number of people who are struggling to make ends meet.