According to the recent statement of Europol, criminal groups from the former Soviet Union and Balkans intend to expand their interests in the EU. They have different opportunities available posing a serious threat to the EU countries.

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Introduction

The Western European countries are targeted by organized crime groups because they have wealthy people who are ready to spend their money. The area also has very good transport and communication systems. The European countries come second to the United States in the market for drugs in the world. Additionally, the European Union countries offer a very good market for illegal transactions making it easy for the illegal groups to operate.

In Western Europe, the native groups are known to organize themselves in groups to undertake most of their activities. The people in the former Soviet Union countries have formed illegal groups from the past, and they need a lot of money in order to finance their activities such as military operations. They engage in criminal activities that have very high returns such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting (Columbus 2003).

These organized crime groups often have the support of very influential people, which makes it very hard to counter them. For example, some groups in Serbia have links with the government officials who often protect their interests (Nutall 2000).

Illegal groups often recruit a lot of people. This allows them to have many followers in the countries they operate. Some also have international links making them able to execute easily most of their activities. For example, these groups have representatives in almost all continents that control the operations in those regions.

The increased cooperation between these groups has significantly increased their profits. Some groups exchange drugs for the property that is stolen, firearms, and other drugs. This has made the economy, which is informal, become intense. Consequently, the organized crime is hard to be noticed by the authorities and the general public, apart from their customers.

Activities, Interests, and Situation of  Criminal Groups

Drugs

In the European Union countries, drug trafficking is largely controlled by these criminal groups. They mostly deal with more than one drug in an attempt to ensure maximum returns. Some groups, such as those from western Balkan have diversified their activities. They are moving from selling cannabis and now dealing with heroin and synthesis. In addition, some groups of people enter into other illegal and criminal activities. They do this in order to finance their drug trafficking activities.

Some groups produce counterfeit Euro, which they use to buy these drugs, such as heroin. Others deal with stolen vehicles, which they steal from one part of Europe and sell in another part of Europe or Africa. When there are fluctuations in the market, these groups usually engage in criminal activities.

These groups usually target the markets in the northern parts of Europe. The reason is that the prices in these places are mostly very high. Usually, cannabis cultivated in one country is often sold in other countries where they fetch more profits. In Russia, there is a large number of synthetic drugs that are produced. They benefit from the cheap cost of manufacturing in the country, and accessibility to the Nordic countries where they are sold. This has helped increase the returns for these criminal groups.

They also have very sophisticated ways of monitoring street values and wholesale prices of drugs, making them in a position for identification of real-time market changes in the market and routes used for drug trafficking.

The groups that are engaged in the trafficking of drugs to the European Union countries have very effective communication among themselves. They share the risks involved in different markets, which has facilitated their trade and increased returns. Victims of human trafficking mostly to be exploited sexually are given such drugs, which make them comply with the demands and requests of their victimizers. The people who transport cannabis to different places often use vehicles that are stolen.

The increased cooperation between these groups has significantly increased their profits. Some groups exchange drugs for the property that is stolen, firearms, and other drugs. This has made the economy, which is informal, to become intense. Consequently, the organized crime is hard to be noticed by the authorities and the general public, apart from their customers.

To facilitate their operations, the traffickers also engage in other legitimate trading activities. They include exporting and importing, transportation of freight and passengers, rental of vehicles, and telecommunication. The traffickers are given advice by several other specialists on maritime, pharmaceuticals, law, and finance. This shows how much these groups have sort diversification of their trade leading to flexible ways of operation (Maccoun, & Reuter 2001).

Most of these drugs are transported in containers. The business could be facilitated when the ports of Tangier in Morocco and Port Said, in Egypt, are completed. This occurs due to their proximity to Europe. Despite using technology to communicate and distribute these drugs, most people search for equipment, markets, and expertise from the internet. Some groups also use sophisticated methods, such as remote monitoring, in order to monitor their storage and production.

Despite the groups operating with high levels of ethnicity, most of them have links with other groups from around the world. This helps in managing trading and logistical operations on other continents. For example, drugs worth more than $1 million were nabbed in Kenya, with sources being linked with Russian groups. These groups go to an extent of engaging with their rival groups in an attempt to increase their effectiveness in the market. Below are some of the common drugs that are sold in the Eurozone:

Heroin

Heroin enters into the Eurozone from Afghanistan via routes in Turkey and areas, in Balkan. The Balkan groups coordinate transportation and link the source to the markets of these drugs.

These Balkan transport routes have shown very high levels of diversity and flexibility. Vast consignments of the drugs pass through Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania before entering western parts of Balkan. Albania, which is in the Kosovo region, is a very crucial location where packaging and storing of drugs is done. This region is widely known in the EU for vibrant drug trafficking.

The role of heroin distribution in Western Europe is held by the North West Criminal Hub. This is due to its proximity to the target markets. They also have a well-established transport, commerce, and the Turkish people who live there.

All through Europe, there has been evidence of the close relationship between the criminal groups and heroin routes. One of them is the Kosovo route which is controlled by the Balkan groups. Italian groups also regulate a big share of air and sea infrastructure used for transportation of the drugs. This is due to their development and proximity to the seaports. The Russian groups control the North East hub which is very close to the markets in Lithuania and Albania.

In most cases, the people who transport heroin are paid from the drug earnings, and this has created a market in the routes through which it is transported. Since the prices of the drugs are often very high in the destination market locations, the small amounts in the routes are sold to very few people. This has led to increased use of heroin substitutes such as Fentanyl and Subutex.

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Cocaine

There are several routes through which these drugs enter the EU. The regulatory enforcement in the region has made the groups advance and use other opportunities such as logistical and infrastructural developments. Despite Spain and Portugal being the major points of entry, where the drugs enter into the Eurozone, an increasing number of consignments are entering through the Balkan routes.

In the western Balkans, the drugs are increasingly arriving from Latin America. These very large consignments arrive through the ports that are in the Adriatic and the Black Sea. The expansion of this trade has been facilitated by the criminal networks that already exist in the region. The criminal groups have increased their profits by establishing bases in Latin America where they source their cocaine. The Balkan routes are also used by criminal groups in Italy to transport cocaine to the western parts of Africa (Norwitz 2008).

Russian criminal groups recruit people from EU countries who are involved in the transportation of the drugs. These people use the ports of Odessa, Constanta, and Varna to transport the drugs to Moldova where they are stored and re-processed.

In the former Soviet Union, there has been a shortage in the supply of this drug. This has been attributed to the strict legislation and law enforcement in the sources, which are in western Africa and Latin America. Consequently, the prices of the commodity were raised, leading to the increased adulteration. This is where substitutes are added to the drugs compromising their purity. Most customers, therefore, opted to buy substitutes instead, reducing the prices of cocaine significantly.

Synthetic Drugs

The supply of these drugs depends highly on the demand at that time, and the supply of other drugs, mostly cocaine. These drugs are produced in proximity to their markets to ensure cost-effectiveness. Their production is done in close collaboration with specialists who are in organic synthesis and pharmaceuticals retailers. The chemists offer their services to these groups, which leads to specialized support to the organized crimes industry (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2003).

Ecstasy is one of the drugs that exchanges for heroin in the Western Balkans and for cocaine in Latin America. Over the last two years, there has been a reduction in the production of these drugs due to the decrease of precursor PMK, which was being sourced from China. This occurs due to the strict measures that were put to regulate its production and export from China.

As a result of the reduction of these drug production, the groups have developed their substitutes, which they call designer drugs. One of the drugs that gained popularity is an amphetamine, which is produced in the North West and transported through the Balkan routes by these criminal groups. It is mostly exchanged for heroin. The production plants are in the Western Balkans where nationals from the European Union are employed as managers.

In the recent past, the production plants are moving to Russia since the costs of production are lower than in other countries involved. The Russian criminal groups have been for long time dealing with BMK, but the supply has been reduced by the closure of some very large plants in the country by the government as a control measure (Thompson 2012).

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Cannabis

The cultivation of this drug is continuously increasing in Europe. Most criminal groups do indoor cultivation of the herbs. Production and packaging are mostly done by the groups in the North West hub. They also store the drugs as they wait for the market.

Most of the cannabis that is sold in Europe comes from Afghanistan and South Africa. The criminal groups from the Balkan control their routes through which cannabis from Afghanistan enters Europe. However, groups from the Netherlands are the ones who deal with these drugs rather than the ones from Russia and Balkan, although they trade in them in low quantities. They are also involved in its transportation through the Balkan routes (Fijnaut & Paoli 2004).

Qat

These are the roots of a plant, Catha edulis. They are chewed commonly by the Somali communities living in the Diaspora, and most of them live in the north-western parts of Europe. The North West criminal hub, therefore, plays a leading role in the distribution of drugs to the Somali living here. There are no regulations against the use and sale of this drug in several EU member states, which makes its supply effective. This also facilitates the supply to other nations that have regulated its use and supply.

The criminal groups in the North West liaise with their counterparts in Africa, mostly al-Shabaab, who control the production in Africa. The drugs are transported in passage planes or cargo planes since they are very perishable. This has led to the condemnation of the drug supply with most EU member states claiming that it funds terrorism activities (Shanty, & Mishra, 2008).

Commercial cultivation of the plant is not done in the European nations, since the time the plant takes to mature and produce the herbs is long, making them not economically viable.

The Influence of the Balkan Region on Drug Trafficking

This region is the hub of drug and substance trafficking in the EU. Heroin coming from Turkey, and cocaine from Latin America, is stored and repackaged here before it is sold, while, the cannabis, consumed in Europe, is cultivated in this area. Synthetic drugs and other substances, such as acetic anhydride, are sold to their destination market through this region. The markets in this region are mostly controlled by the criminal groups from the region and Russia, and the other former Soviet Union countries.

The western Balkans has prominence trading of heroin. There are several routes through which the drugs can enter Europe, but most drugs must enter or leave the continent through these routes. This is coordinated by the criminal groups existing there.

For example, shipments of cocaine move all the way from the south-western part of the continent, past the north-western parts, and the southern parts only to the harbor in the ports, in Montenegro. The same is then transported back to the other parts of the continent. This shows how influential the criminal groups are, to the trafficking of these drugs (Abadinsky 2010).

Groups That Have Dominated Drug Trafficking

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West Africans

These are organized groups mostly from Nigeria and a few other countries in the western part of Africa. They are some of the groups that are very successful in trafficking drugs to and from the European nations. They mostly arrange for the logistical matters of drugs from one place to another. They are organized for the transportation of cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and ecstasy to several European nations. These groups are recognized in drug trafficking because they are flexible in their methods of trafficking and trading routes.

Albanians

These are criminal groups that only deal with both criminal activities and drug trafficking. Inside Europe, these groups are known for trafficking illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. They have a lot of resources which they use to secure their drug markets and seek new markets. These groups mostly use their profits to fund the activities of organizations in Kosovo which were in the former liberation army.

Lithuanian Groups

These groups are often brokers of the drugs in Europe. They are mostly based in the northern parts of Europe, the western parts, and in the former Soviet Union countries. They influence drug trafficking in most parts of Europe. These groups have recently become the most integral part of the components of the BMK supply chain in Europe. They were able to accumulate a lot of wealth from these activities which they have used to finance the recruitment of extra members (Duyne 2001).

Facilitation of Illegal Migration

These organized groups have established creative modes of operations, which facilitate their unlimited access to most European Union countries without being detected. Most of these groups recruit people from countries outside the European Union. They then give them counterfeited documents that they use during traveling and their stay in the countries where they are assigned duties.

Some groups have used several bogus methods necessary to obtain visas for their people. They include establishing schools which they use to get the student visa for the people they disguise as students or creating the companies which they use to get passports for their people (Koff 2008).

The most commonly reported groups that engage in the facilitation of illegal migration of people in the European Union countries are of Turkish, Albanian, and Russian origin. At times, these groups are sub-contracted to facilitate illegal migration of some people into the countries that they prefer by other people. This, however, does not undermine their influence in the activity, and they are integral in the control of illegal migration at all times (Albanese 2010).

There have been occasional shifts in the hubs of illegal migration facilitation since the European Union countries have been changing immigration laws. The shifts have been taking place when the legal climate is not favorable in the places of operation where they move to favorable hubs. Currently, Greece and Turkey are the main hubs of illegal immigration, with the rate in Turkey increasing by over 50% in the last three years.

Human Trafficking

Criminal groups are constantly providing a human resource that is exploited in different conditions. Human traffickers get profits after they transport people to the places where they are to be exploited. Most of them are immigrants from other countries outside Europe. They do not use clearly defined routes, unlike in the case of illegal immigrants (Aronowitz 2009).

The traffickers get the victims from societies where there are limited or employment opportunities. They promise them very hefty pay and fulfilling jobs abroad. Some go to an extent of signing contracts where they are offered very good terms. The victims only realize that they had been duped when there are no such conditions as they had been convinced before. In most cases, the victims cannot fight for their rights, since they often do not have legal documents authorizing their stay in those countries.

In some cases, minors are trafficked. These are at times below the age of criminal liability and are used to perpetrate criminal activities such as drug trafficking. For example, criminals in Rome use their own passports to register minors as their dependents or children. They do not often give any photographs. They, therefore, traffic children of a similar gender who are at times used for perpetrating crimes. These groups mostly use the internet to market and recruit people.

Some criminal groups are so well organized that they are able to control the whole process from recruiting victims, to transporting them, providing them with relevant documents, and executing the intended crime with them. Some of these are used for prostitution, high levels of corruption, laundering of money.

These groups are capable of handling the victims even in their large numbers. They also have very good networks where they are able to get easily the victims, transport them, and are able to transfer them across several cities in the European Union without any difficulties (Troubnikoff 2003).

There is an emerging trend in the trafficking of humans where they are mostly targeting women. This can be attributed to their non-violent nature. Women are less likely to be violent than their male counterparts. Women can also be used for activities such as prostitution and sex slaves. However, late violence towards victims has reduced significantly except among the Albanians.

In the European Union countries, the groups that are highly involved in the trafficking of humans are Nigerians, Romanians, Albanians, Russians, Turks, and Hungarians. The organized criminal groups in these countries are often responsible for this trafficking.

The Roma criminal groups have high levels of mobility. The Roma communities that live in the European Union member countries are often detached from the public authorities. This has left the most vulnerable members of society, women, and children, at risk of being exploited by these criminal groups. Many people of Roma origin live in both Bulgaria and Romania, which is the major factor that leads to increased human trafficking into those countries.

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Fraud

VAT Fraud

This is one of the crimes that are termed as very lucrative. There have not been any actual figures that have been released by the European Union. However, it is estimated that the member states have lost up to 3 billion Euros in one year. VAT fraud has immense effects on the country both economically and socially. It distorts how a single market successfully operates where a lot of public revenue is lost, and funding for the European Community is affected. The European nations, therefore, are forced to spend a lot of money in an attempt to curb the crime.

There are also increasing cases of missing trader intra-community or (MTIC) fraud. This is facilitated by the evolution of goods that are portable, such as cell phones and computer chipsets, to the items that are intangible such as carbon credit. The levels of VAT fraud are very high in the European Union, despite the range of the goods that are being involved.

In carbon trade fraud alone, European nations lose around 5 billion pounds in one year, which is an aggregate amount. This is where some firms purchase carbon dioxide emission quotas from the states that are non-liable to VAT. They continue to sell these rights in the countries where VAT is charged.

While doing this, they reclaim the VAT from the country which is a loss to the latter, since no VAT has actually been paid. This is most common in the north-western parts of Europe, which have progressed from frauds on mobile phones and computer chipsets VAT. This occurred due to changes in taxation regulations that took place in the year 2009.

Payment Card Fraud

The European Union is the biggest market for transactions involving payment cards. It was estimated that in the year 2009, payment fraud cost European Union member countries more than 1.5 billion euros. This figure could also rise since the criminal groups in the European Union also fraudulently obtained money from people outside Europe.

These organized groups usually collect information from cards by attacking the payment services that are online. They also use some malicious software in order to obtain information and data from payment cardholders. Others could use some social means to cause unknown people to give them data about their cards. Some also get data from people owning cards disguised as representatives from some banks or these payment services.

The criminal groups in the former Soviet Union are the major perpetrators of this crime in the United States and Africa. This is usually facilitated by the fact that skimming software and devices are increasingly becoming accessible. These people are able to steal data and clone cards, which are used for less secure e-commerce. In addition, the cards that are not adequately secured are targeted.

This has, however, been significantly reduced by the introduction of EMV standards that ensure that the payment cards and online payments services are very secure. These criminal groups are, therefore, seeking other victims since it has become hard in the European nations. They are moving to America and Africa.

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Counterfeiting

There are two levels of counterfeiting that are common in the European nations among the organized criminal groups. That is counterfeiting of the euro and counterfeiting of goods.

Counterfeiting of the Euro

In the last three years, this act has increased by over 31%. Counterfeiting of the euro is not only rampant in Europe but also done by the groups in other continents and used to purchase goods from the Eurozone.

In order to ensure there is minimum risk involved, the groups that deal with this kind of currency have a very rigid organization for its distribution. They operate in independent cells, which are used to distribute it. The people, who fund the activities, do not take part in the production.

The people, who produce the same, are often trained, which improves their technical competence while printing. Distribution is done by people who are seldom skilled but operate in small temporary units. They sell these currencies at very cheap prices (Mossialos, Mrazek & Walley 2004).

Intelligence is involved in the criminal groups in Bulgaria and Lithuania. They are said to be the major producers and distributors of counterfeit currencies in Europe. This activity is not the only one in the illegal production companies. Some groups have gone to the extent of working closely with staff and owners of legitimate currency manufacturing companies.

Counterfeiting of Property

This involves the counterfeiting of products and documents used for travel. The products are mostly counterfeited by the groups in China but distributed in the European nations by the groups in Europe. Travel documents are counterfeited to facilitate illegal migration and trafficking of people. The most counterfeited products are drugs and electronics. These are mostly produced in China but distributed in the European Union countries.

Weapons Trafficking

Most European Union member nations are affected adversely by the weapons that are brought on the continent by the Western Balkans. Very large consignments of weapons are transported through Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The organized criminal groups are responsible for the smuggling of such weapons. These weapons have been brought to these countries since the 1990s and have caused several conflicts on the continent. The former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries were among the first to be faced by such hoes.

The western Balkan nations still remain some of the major suppliers of heavy arms that are brought into the European Union nations. Most of these arms are stored in Bosnia and Kosovo from where they are distributed to the other areas.

These organized groups conceal the arms in legitimate cargo or are transported in private and public service vehicles, although in very small quantities. Some of these groups traffic very sophisticated weapons such as military weapons and aircraft pieces of equipment. However, the most commonly trafficked firearms are small weapons as handguns.

Organized Property Crime

The groups in the western Balkans, in the south-eastern parts of Europe, and the former Soviet Union are getting involved in property crime at a very alarming rate. These activities include stealing vehicles and armed robbery.

The groups from Lithuania are mostly involved in criminal activities, in the countries that are located around the United Kingdom. Their main activities are vehicle theft and robbing of jewelry. They are often heavily armed and operate in a very organized manner.

Groups of Albanian origin are famous for their use of excessive force when executing their activities. They mostly have the support of some national services such as the police or armed forces.

Opportunities Available for Criminal Groups

Money Laundering

Although these groups have been in this business for a short period of time, modern technology has offered new and advanced ways, through which these groups could adopt. Most groups use couriers who carry small amounts of money, less than the amounts that are required to be reported. Several groups are reported to use light aircraft to transport this cash. They could change the routes they use depending on the risks that might arise.

The euro can be easily trafficked since its originality is not easily determined. There is a 500 euro note which can be easily transported. Although in the United Kingdom most authorities do not supply the currency, it still remains legal. This could make it very easy for money laundering since transporting currency in 500 notes in small packs can contain a lot of cash (Lilley 2006).

The money launderers could use the money services business where they exchange small notes into the big ones that can easily be transported. They could also use electronic services such as Western Union. This can be done using a third party agent where the money is paid to their preferred destination. Third parties will help reduce the chances of being tracked by the authorities. Such third parties that could be used are the illegal immigrants.

Organized groups use the new technology to deliver their currency in time. The existing digital money transfer systems are often some of the fast ways that criminal groups can use. Online gambling can also be used effectively for such activities.

Use of Internet

The criminal groups can use the internet to support almost all their activities. For example, in human trafficking, the employment bureaus, which these groups have established to get those people, are advertised online. People seeking jobs are able to use these opportunities which in most cases seem to be very lucrative. Most arrangements are done online until the victims are transported to their destinations.

Online banking is also used to move money fast by the criminal groups. This is very efficient for them since most transactions are done in one click making it easy for them to implement most of their transactions. For example, very big deals can be sealed by the payment of large sums of money online without having to carry currency physically. The groups are able to pay and receive money from those they deal with very fast.

Through the internet, criminal groups are able to access very important personal information that they can use to implement most of their transactions. The groups are able to steal personal information, which they need to make online money transfers and can transfer it from their bank accounts to where they wish. Credit cards are also hacked into where the transactions are executed in disguise, and the victims are left to pay big credits.

The groups can also use this information they obtained to avoid being detected by the authorities in their operations. They have also been able to hack into corporate websites and online accounts, which have enabled them to access some important documents and implement some transactions. For example, they were able to hack into immigration websites and process travel documents for their clients (Gori & Paparela,2006).

The criminal groups can recruit very skilled young people from the universities who have very adverse skills in hacking. The young people are readily available considering the fact that, in most countries, the rate of employment is lower than the rate at which people are completing their education. The high wages that are offered by these groups are also encouraging people to work for them.

Threats Posed by the Activities of These Groups

The activities of these groups are a very big threat to the security of the people who are living in the European Union member countries. For example, drugs that are trafficked into the continent have caused most member countries an excess of 1.5 million Euros per year.

The harm caused by the use of some illicit drugs trafficked into the country has adverse problems such as increased crime rates. The people who are using these drugs often engage in criminal activities in order to finance the drugs (Battersby, Siracusa & Ripiloski 2011). The drug users can also become very aggressive and cause massive harm to the people (Lyman 2010).

Billions are lost by the European Union member nations. VAT and other fraud have affected them in the number of public service returns, as well as the amounts of money that the governments' channel to the economies. This can be shown by the drop of G.D.P of the European Union countries by 4.2% in the year 2009 (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, & Council of Europe 2000).

There is at times unfair competition in the economies. In the sectors where there is illegal human trafficking, the companies usually have a lot of unfair competition, since the companies that have these employees pay fewer salaries, therefore, controlling the markets to their discretion.

In the markets, the goods, which are genuine, are often beaten by the counterfeit due to the high amounts of money that they cost. This usually allows them to thrive in the market. This affects the companies that apply the genuine ways to produce their goods. Consequently, this affects the income of the countries. These counterfeits influence the health of the people who use these products.

For example, in Eastern Europe, the rates of cases of pandemic virus infections are increasing due to the use of these counterfeit drugs. They also are not as effective as genuine ones leading to losses to the people who use them. They also can affect brand names if they are termed as other genuine brands.

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