Crime has been sprinting across national borders faster than law-enforcement officials can keep up with it.
Organized-crime groups that used to operate nationally are forging new global ties. Many groups, United Nations experts say, are moving beyond traditional drug- and arms-smuggling and prostitution into new areas, such as trade in nuclear technology, transport of illegal aliens, and money-laundering.
The UN says major syndicates, which now control most illegal international trade, do $750 billion worth of business a year. These groups are the focus of a UN conference in Cairo this week. As Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali notes, ''Some criminal 'empires' are richer than many poorer states.'' Or, as the World Bank reports, they are worth far more than the gross domestic products of the Middle Eastern and North African nations combined.
The new global criminals have been quick to take advantage of major changes in the last five or six years, including the move toward freer trade, the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and the introduction of technology that allows money to cross borders at the touch of a computer key.
Nations trying to liberalize their economies, such as Mexico and Russia, have been particularly vulnerable. The US Treasury estimates, for example, that more than one-fourth of the funds used to buy recently privatized Mexican banks had illicit origins. And laundered monies are suspected as a key factor in the trade imbalance that spurred December's peso devaluation.
In Cairo, some 1,300 government officials, law-enforcement professionals, and academic crime experts are trying to come up with more effective ways to fight the spread of transnational crime. They are sharing their failures, successes, and aims at the ten-day United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, which ends May 8. The Congress has met every five years since 1955.
Everyone agrees that more must be done. ''The problem starts when you move into the nitty gritty of how to do it,'' says Eduardo Vetere, chief of the UN's small Vienna-based Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice branch. Issues of sovereignty and national pride, he says, have kept progress slow.
In his view, new approaches are crucial. ''If we continue using concepts and methods that are centuries old, the organized-crime groups are always going to be ahead of us,'' he says.
The world community is just starting to respond to the new ''springtime'' of global crime, says Emilio Viano, professor of criminal law at American University in Washington. ''We didn't realize the extent of it. We're just beginning to look beyond national boundaries.''
* European leaders are expected to give final approval in June to Europol, a new cooperative European police agency. It will have wider powers than Interpol, mainly a data-sharing network.
* Italy, host of two special UN conferences last year on money-laundering and organized crime, has offered to finance a task force to look into setting up a special training center for law-enforcement and criminal-justice personnel to fight transnational crime.
* The US, which has posted Drug Enforcement Administration agents in its overseas embassies for years, has recently added FBI agents to 26 missions. The FBI currently is setting up a training academy in Budapest to educate middle managers of police agencies in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. FBI director Louis Freeh told Congress recently that a network of police partners must be developed and that more global cooperation is vital in the war against drug traffickers.
''These criminal groups that are forging new coalitions sometimes send money through as many as seven or eight countries, so we all have to pull together as a team,'' agrees Gregory Passic, a money-laundering expert with the DEA in New York.
* At the Cairo meeting this week, Japan is urging nations to develop a common strategy to control illegal traffic in firearms, while Argentina is expected to continue its hard push for a legally binding convention on transnational crime. Argentina wants specific crimes at issue defined (a long list from illicit traffic in children to money-laundering) and explicit rules to make financial institutions more transparent and accountable.
Yet major obstacles to a more united fight against global crime remain. Some nations know they would lose needed capital and business to other countries if they cracked down on suspected money-laundering operations. ''There are powerful economic interests that can make nations turn a blind eye to where money is coming from,'' says Professor Viano who notes that resistance to Argentina's proposal was strong at a November meeting on organized crime in Naples.
Some nations also fret that once-secret data, if shared more freely, could get into the wrong hands. Also, some nations do not want the bureaucracy and lack of control that go with a multilateral operation. The US, for instance, strongly prefers a bilateral approach to treaties and has negotiated separate extradition arrangements with more than 100 nations. The US wants to be able to ''pick and choose'' its negotiating partners, a US official says, since extradition is a two-way street. US concerns include the kind of punishment the other nation metes out for crimes and whether or not its legal system is fair and honest.
Thus, much of the UN's future crime work is likely to focus on harmonizing and closing gaps in the network of national laws against crime and on training and technical assistance.
''I think for the next four to five years the emphasis will be on training, training, training,'' says Gary Hill, spokesman for the Alliance of Nongovernmental Organizations for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. He has worked on basic training manuals for prison officials with local input both in the Caribbean and in Somalia where he conducted classes.
In theory, all nations have a vested interest in such basic work. Fragile criminal-justice systems are more vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime. Also, no nation can implement bilateral or UN treaties unless it has the needed training, personnel, and equipment in place.
''It's not much good having an extradition treaty unless you've got a guy sitting at a desk somewhere whose job it is to deal with extradition requirements and move the paper flow -- and a court system that understands what to do with one of these cases,'' says Roger Clark, author of a book on the UN's crime-fighting efforts and a professor of law at Rutgers University Law School in Camden, N.J. Yet a major problem for the UN in all of this is lack of funds, he says.
One prickly topic sure to be discussed in Cairo this week is public corruption. Until recently the subject was an unmentionable, both at such UN congresses and in the crime field, notes the UN's Eduardo Vetere. The Cairo delegates will try to draft a code of conduct for public officials.
Viano, a specialist in organized crime, says he thinks a world police investigative and enforcement effort may be inevitable: ''I think the national police ... will have to join an international body to effectively investigate transnational crime.''
Others are less sure such a step is in the cards. ''I don't see any demand at all for a global police force,'' says Jeffrey Laurenti, director of multilateral studies at the UN Association of the USA, a research group. The only venture into international crime enforcement that the UN might make one day, he says, would be to follow up on Jamaica's longtime suggestion to help small nations get a firmer handle on drug traffickers.
''If you're ever going to see any directly assisted UN activity, it would probably be to support small states that don't have the resources to guard against being taken over by outside criminal syndicates,'' he explains.