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German police 'forced to choose' between mafia and terror

October 14, 2016

Organized crime is costing Germany billions and increasingly working via encrypted networks, the German police has said. But despite stable figures, critics say the priorities have switched to fighting terrorism.

Berlin Vorstellung des Lageberichts Organisierte Kriminalität. de Maiziere
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Organized crime is an ever-mutating, highly-professionalized phenomenon that is doing unquantifiable damage to Germany through encrypted networks - that was the central theme of Friday's joint press conference in Wiesbaden between Holger Münch, head of the German federal police (BKA), and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

But nevertheless, the basic figures remained stable. The organized crime numbers for 2015 that Münch and de Maiziere presented showed a tiny reduction in the overall number of organized crime investigations, compared to the year before - from 571 in 2014 down to 566.

There was similarly little change in the number of German-dominated organized crime groups (190 in 2014 and 198 in 2015), Turkish-dominated groups (55 in 2014 compared to 50 in 2015), or in Polish-dominated groups (44 in 2014, 40 in 2015). Meanwhile, the dominant criminal business remained drugs (36.7 percent of the total).

Deutschland Darknet Waffen
The German police wants to pour resources into fighting the illegal online arms tradeImage: picture alliance/dpa/A. Heinl

This, de Maiziere said, suggested that the government was making progress - both thanks to a new disgorgement law that makes it more difficult to hang on to illegally gained profits, and through a new central anti-organized crime unit, designed to coordinate the federal and state level police forces. "Hopefully we'll be able to see the first successes of this coordinated procedure next year," de Maiziere said.

Stats don't lie, do they?

But some observers were less sure that these statistics were a sign of progress. "I don't share that view, and neither do any criminologists that deal with organized crime," said Jürgen Roth, an investigative journalist who has written several books on the mafia in Germany. "The police has seen a significant reduction in resources in the last few years, especially in the area of organized crime."

The fact that the number of criminal investigations had remained stable in 2015 "was not down to the fact that the battle had been fought with any particular intensity, but because there are just no more investigations, because the resources aren't there."

The other problem with the figures, Roth pointed out, was that they don't include data from the customs authority, which is overseen by the Finance Ministry, and which also fights organized crime - particularly when it comes to illegal employment.

Russian mafia - protected by Russia?

BKA chief Münch was keen to underline that the nature of organized crime is constantly shifting, moving easily across borders and using encrypted messaging systems. In an interview given earlier this year, he said that, "We are seeing the Russian-Eurasian organized crime being extremely dynamic."

But that does not mean that the Russian mafia is experiencing a new boom, clarified Roth. "The Russian Mafia is no more on the rise than it has been in the last few years," he told DW. "The problem with those groups we define as Russian mafia or Russian-Eurasian mafia is that they launder money on a large scale, and that the so-called big mafia bosses now all have legal businesses, and nothing can be proved against them."

But the big difference between the Russian mafia and their Italian or German equivalents, said Roth, was that they have a "big, protective roof in the FSB [Russian secret service]." "A light needs to be shone on this, but it isn't," he said.

Jürgen Roth
Jürgen Roth is not convinced that Germany's fight against organized crime is making progressImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Münch also emphasized the modernized nature of organized crime. "We can no longer orientate ourselves around the classical definition of organized crime," he told reporters. "Criminals are acting increasingly in networks." For that reason, more police resources are being pumped into cracking encrypted messages systems like WhatsApp and shining a light on the so-called "darknet."

Mafia ties to terrorism

But Wim Zwijnenburg, an expert in the European illegal arms trade at the Dutch NGO PAX, said that by far the majority of black market sales - especially of weapons - are still happening in the real world, not on the Internet. "It is there, but compared with the rest of the illegal trafficking of small arms and light weapons, it's probably around two to five percent," he told DW.

Roth believes that one reason for the police's loss of focus on the mafia was that it has been forced to make difficult choices in recent years.

"They had to make priorities, and the fight against terrorism has of course taken a much higher priority than fighting organized crime," he said. "Of course there are tight connections between organized crime and terrorism - including Islamic terrorism - that comes especially through getting weapons. But the priority for the police is: is an attack being threatened? How big is the danger? The structural investigation [of organized crime] is happening more on the margins."

Zwijnenburg reinforced this point. "If you remember the Paris attacks, a lot of the terrorists were previously petty criminals, so of course they have connections with criminal networks."