It's being called the "new empire of evil."
Organized crime, on a global scale, is spreading its tentacles like an octopus. Computer break-ins, burgeoning money laundering, increased trafficking of prostitutes and illegal immigrants - these are just a sampling of crimes thriving in today's borderless world.
Crimes like these, while not new, are extending their reach and potency. They are the dark side of the decade's great achievements, flourishing in fledgling democracies, the global economy, and on the Internet.
More and more, law-enforcement agencies and political leaders worldwide recognize global crime as part of a sophisticated, coordinated effort that requires equally coordinated, international attention.
Earlier this week, President Clinton essentially declared war on this new empire, and he'll take his campaign to fellow leaders this weekend at the economic summit in England.
Unveiling his first comprehensive global crime-control strategy Tuesday, Mr. Clinton said criminals must have "no place to run, no place to hide."
But right now, world-wise criminals are running roughshod over law enforcement, hiding behind anonymous corporations with untraceable bank accounts in places like Antigua and the Cayman Islands.
"We're stymied," acknowledges Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. Mr. de Borchgrave, who directs the center's project on global organized crime, offers these sobering examples:
* The average computer-based bank robbery is $250,000, while the average old-fashioned bank heist yields a paltry $6,000. About 80 percent of bank robbers are caught; less than 1 percent of cyber-crime bank robbers are ever convicted.
* Russian organized crime is digging in around the world. In 1994, the Russian mafia operated in 29 countries; now it's in at least 50. In Italy, the Russians pose a bigger threat than does that country's own infamous Mafia. Twenty-six Russian crime groups operate in 17 cities in the United States. And lately, the Russians are colluding with the Colombians, trading arms for drugs.
* Money-laundering is booming. More than 1 million anonymously owned firms around the world offer a convenient way to set up untraceable bank accounts. As much as $500 billion in criminal proceeds are laundered every year, more than the gross national product of most nations, the White House says.
Jack Blum, a Washington lawyer specializing in international financial crime, remembers going to the Cayman Islands in 1970 and seeing one dozen to two dozen offshore banks along a beach. Offshore banks specialize in anonymous accounts. "Now that sandbar is a city, and it's all built on offshore money," he says.
INCREASINGLY, America is most vulnerable to cybercrime. The more that US transportation, energy, communications, defense, and financial systems depend on computers, the more open they are to abuse and terrorism.
Cargo theft, for instance, has become a $10 billion business, aided by computer tampering that alters a shipper's delivery address so that goods are diverted to wherever a criminal desires.
While most Americans think of the military as fairly secure, Frank Cilluffo, also at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that 98 percent of all Defense Department communications "use the same network we use." As Messrs. Cilluffo and de Borchgrave point out, it's infinitely harder to track down a hacker's "smoking keyboard" than it is to find a smoking gun.
Clinton and other world leaders have been trying to get their arms around the organized-crime octopus for years. Past economic summits (now known as the G-8 for Group of Eight leaders) addressed the issue. Leaders at this weekend's summit in Birmingham are expected to announce new measures to curb the international flow of firearms, money laundering, and high-tech crime.
The crime-control strategy Clinton announced this week calls for, among other things, more US law-enforcement officials overseas, 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, and covering computer crimes under the wiretapping statute.
But the overarching value of the new strategy is that it sets goals and helps "focus" interagency efforts, says a senior administration official.
Even so, some critics say the administration's global and multinational crime-fighting efforts lack teeth. Implementation of initiatives is slow, and resources are few.
In the US, a disconcerting number of officers are leaving the Central Intelligence Agency, possibly impairing its ability to rub elbows with the yatch crowd in Monte Carlo or to recruit the "ugly" but necessary personalities who mingle with terrorists, say Cilluffo and de Borchgrave. Adds Cilluffo, today's heavy reliance on satellite spying "isn't going to cut it."
Both men, who have worked together on the global crime for nearly five years, have a more radical crime-fighting solution: an international FBI that would have the freedom and budget to do its job.
Reasons de Borchgrave: Criminals operate seamlessly without bureaucracy and without borders, so why can't we?
Preview of the economic summit
* Who's at the G-8?
Leaders of the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy, and Russia. They meet in Birmingham, England, today through Sunday.
* What's on the agenda?
The Asia financial crisis, global crime, and employment. Discussions on India, Indonesia, and Kosovo are bound to occur. President Clinton also wants to drum up support for Africa.
* What's different?
Leaders get more free time to talk about whatever they want to.
* Who will Mr. Clinton see?
His one-on-one meetings are with French President Jacques Chirac, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.