WASHINGTON — CRIMINAL gangs are going global.
Dangerous international syndicates, specializing in narcotics, stolen goods, and smuggling, are rapidly extending their reach from South America to China to Russia and into the United States.
A series of witnesses told Congress this week that gangs are reaping profits of $200 billion to $300 billion a year - sometimes with the cooperation of government officials.
The picture is ugly. Federal officials and government informers say that criminals are using murder, extortion, bribery, and money laundering to build an empire that may endanger the stability of some nations, including the newly emerging democracy in Russia.
Some gangs are even trading nuclear materials, and officials say there is a risk that criminals could eventually get hold of Russian nuclear weapons.
Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who has investigated the growth of crime syndicates, says: ``This enemy is the most serious criminal threat in history, and perhaps the greatest national security threat of our time.''
In a deposition released yesterday by Senator Kerry, Colombia cocaine cartel employee Gabriel Taboada revealed that when all else fails, gangs use bribery to bypass government authorities.
Mr. Taboada, whose previous testimony helped convict Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega in Miami, said he personally bribed diplomats from the US, the former Soviet Union, and Iran as part of a car-importing scheme for drug cartel bosses.
What alarms US law enforcement agencies, however, is the spread of gang cooperation across national boundaries. Witnesses told a Senate foreign relations subcommittee that cooperation now extends from drug cartels in Colombia to the Sicilian Mafia in Italy, and from smugglers in China to the newly emerging, powerful gangs in Russia.
The organizations are ``notoriously violent,'' says R. James Woolsey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When Italy tried to crack down on the Mafia, criminals murdered two anti-Mafia judges and gunned down a priest in church.
THE Clinton White House considers the mounting threat from international crime so serious that it has mustered the CIA and federal law enforcement agencies to expand efforts against it.
Behind crime's rapid growth are the huge profits made from illegal drugs. But federal investigators say the gangs, such as those in China and Russia, are broadening into other lucrative fields. These activities include smuggling of raw materials, Russian icons, illegal immigrants, stolen vehicles, weapons, antiques, and nuclear materials.
Mr. Woolsey told the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, crime, narcotics, and international operations that gangs smuggled 100,000 Chinese into the US last year - far above the ``few thousand'' officially estimated by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Concern about gangs is shared by other world leaders. In February, President Yeltsin called organized crime the No. 1 problem facing his country, and Kerry says Russian gangs threaten that country with ``real catastrophe.''
An estimated 200 major criminal organizations are operating in Russia, and many are now networking with criminals as far away as Colombia and the US. They particularly target banks, private businesses, and government, with up to 50 percent of gang profits going into payoffs to officials, the CIA reports.
Federal officials say fear of crime could prompt Russian voters to turn to extremist politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky in an effort to check the power of gangsters.
Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, says despite the growth of gangs, there is positive news. He notes that Pablo Escobar, the last of the Colombian Medellin drug kingpins, is dead. The noose is closing on the equally notorious Cali cartel, he says. Peru's No. 1 kingpin, ``El Vaticano,'' was sentenced to a life term. Coca yields are down in Peru and cocaine seizures are up. ``Unprecedented pressure'' is being applied to drug organizations in Mexico, Ecuador, and Bolivia, he says.
Mr. Gelbard also points to the federal government's decision to decertify, or put on notice, 10 nations for failure to cooperate in the drug fight. Without certification, a nation loses US assistance. Those failing to be certified this year were Nigeria, Burma, Iran, and Syria. Getting limited certification were Bolivia, Peru, Panama, Laos, Afghanistan, and Laos.
Nigeria's gang problem has worsened. Nigerian gangs are best known in the US for credit card fraud. But their role in drug trafficking has grown rapidly.
The Nigerians have developed a specialty. Other countries produce the illegal drugs. Brokers collect it. Nigerians then carry it to wholesalers in the consumer countries. For example, they move heroin from Thailand to Nigeria to Europe. More recently, they began carrying cocaine from Brazil to Nigeria to Europe, where the price is three times as high as in the US.
It is estimated that Nigerians currently carry one-third of all heroin brought into the US.