In the biggest firearms operation ever coordinated by INTERPOL, authorities in Central and South America have made 14,260 arrests and seized some 8,263 illicit firearms, as well as 305,000 rounds of ammunition. Credit: Interpol/Instagram
How Interpol Works | With Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock
Interpol is an international organization with very high name recognition. But few people, even in the foreign policy community, have a decent understanding of how it works.
As it happens, before I became a foreign policy journalist I did an internship at Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France. This was over 20 years ago — but I’ve been following Interpol’s work closely ever since.
I caught up with my guest today, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock, at a unique time in Interpol’s history. Interpol is formally known as the International Criminal Police Organization. It actually pre-dates the United Nations by over 20 years and this year is commemorating its 100th anniversary.
Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock is a former German police officer who is entering his tenth and final year as the head of Interpol. In our conversation we discuss some broad trends in the transnational organized crime that he has witnessed in his tenure, and how Interpol is evolving to meet those challenges.
How Interpol Works
Interpol was established in 1923, and still exists today, to support multilateral cooperation among the police agencies of its now 195 members. Contra popular perception sometimes conveyed in movies and the like, Interpol is not actually a police force itself. There’s no such thing as an “Interpol Agent” — certainly not someone with ninja like skills who travels the world chasing art thieves, gun traffickers and the like.
Rather, I like to think of Interpol as a platform that law enforcement agencies of its member states can use when they want to share information or cooperate across borders. This can include, for example, linking national criminal databases, like fingerprints, with that of other member states. It can also include cooperating on synchronized police operations to bust international organized crime syndicates that trafficking in guns, people, or do cyber-crimes. Interpol exists as an independent organization to facilitate that kind of cooperation.
In our conversation, Jurgen Stock kicks off with some examples of recent Interpol facilitated operations that exemplify the organizations role in international affairs. He then discusses broad trends in international organized crime and the impact of geopolitics on Interpol’s work.
Interpol is essentially an a-political organization. Most of its work is in support of police going after ordinary crimes, like murder or car theft rings. But it is a member state-lead organization so it is not immune to geopolitics or international rivalries, and Jurgen Stock explains how Interpol tries to stick to its core mission.
Our full conversation is available on your preferred podcast listening app, by going here.
Transcript excerpt edited for clarity. Get the podcast to access the whole conversation
Trends in International Organized Crime Identified by Interpol
Mark Leon Goldberg: You next year will conclude your 10th year as Interpol secretary general. I believe you’re likely term limited out, so this will be your final year as head of Interpol. What have been some of the large trends in transnational organized crimes that you’ve seen evolve over the past decade?
Jurgen Stock: We have clearly seen that during the pandemic, for instance, where criminal groups very quickly shifted their criminal business model to the new vulnerabilities that COVID 19 brought to our societies. So particularly in that situation of lockdowns, we saw cyber enabled crime, cyber crime targeting, even the vaccines that were produced or any other vulnerability, all the fake websites that were produced. And we could easily see how quickly this modus operandi shifted from one part of the world to the next one. So this kind of industrial scale targeting that is being done by criminal groups, that is definitely a dynamic which I haven’t seen in the past. Of course, the Internet helps a lot because that type of crime is still getting stronger and that is a type of crime where, of course, the criminals do not need to leave their home. They can stay at home, they can target any research institute, hospitals, but even individuals with certain scams that have been happening. Again, the key word here is cyber-enabled crime. On the other hand, international terrorism, unfortunately, is still an issue. And of course, some of the risk factors related to difficult situations in countries around the world, economic difficulty, climate change, poverty, energy, other crises, are stimulating opportunities for criminals. And that is what we clearly see, that every crisis situation that we are discussing at a global level is being considered by criminals an opportunity to get more — more money. And again, attacking our societies on the one hand, but also becoming more influential on the other hand. So again, what we are discussing in the context of a crisis, for criminals that is an opportunity and they are exploiting every gap we would leave in international police cooperation. And that is why such a unique platform that brings together law enforcement from 195 member countries across political systems, across different legal systems, is more important than ever because, again, every gap we would leave would be exploited by criminals.
How Transnational Organized Criminal Groups Take Advantage of Climate Change
Mark Leon Goldberg: So I had not previously given much thought to the idea that climate change may inspire transnational organized criminal groups to take advantage of certain, you know, climatic or not, changes in the natural world to illicitly profit. What’s an example of that?
Jurgen Stock: I mean, an example, of course, could be migration movements triggered by a climate situation in certain parts of the world that people are simply forced to leave their homes because of the situation in regards to the climate. And such a situation would be exploited, of course, by those trafficking groups that are exploiting desperate people who are looking for better lives in other parts of the world. Environmental crime could be an example where the climate situation in one part of the world is being exploited in the various avenues of environmental crime, which is a very broad spectrum. We have to consider again that the criminals are constantly monitoring the global landscape for opportunities to attack our societies, and this also with the support already currently, but even more in the future by using modern technology. Artificial intelligence is also a case in point here where we already see criminals starting exploiting artificial intelligence in certain cyber enabled crime activities.
Transnational organized crime in almost all parts of the world has become a national security emergency and should be taken very seriously. And the. The only way to push this development back is a strong centralized agency on a global scale. Interpol is where member countries systematically collect information not only on specific criminal activities, but also crime trends that we have sharing across the world. The traditional model of policing that I have been learning when I was a young police officer, you do everything on a bilateral basis, can no longer be captured. You need to have a platform on national level, on a regional level, and of course on a global level that hubs systematically collecting information on crime trends, on crime patterns, on criminal groups that are operating across not only the borders but across continents, and then to coordinate targeted operations, to push these criminal groups back. And that applies for international terrorism, that applies to transnational organized crime, and, of course, cybercrime, which is borderless by nature. And of course, in a hyper connected world, the criminals have unprecedented opportunities to attack critical infrastructures, our economies and even our private computers. So everyone should take cyber security, for instance, really seriously.
How Interpol Navigates Geopolitics and Great Power Competition
Mark Leon Goldberg:I’m glad that you brought up the global reach of Interpol. As I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking back to my own brief stint as an intern at Interpol headquarters 21 years ago, which in retrospect was a very unique geopolitical moment. It was after the September 11th attacks, but before the U.S. led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Accordingly, there was just a great deal of unity of purpose among countries large and small, and a diverse group of countries to fight terrorism. There was, you know, this kind of pervasive sense that we’re all on the same side against the threat of non-state actors and terrorists. And that definitely trickled down to international police cooperation. But, you know, 21 years later, today is a very different time. We’re in an era of major power competition. How has Interpol experience this geopolitical shift?
Jurgen Stock: Yeah, I mean, it’s important that Interpol sticks to its basic principles, if I may say. And they interestingly, have not been changing since 1923 when because the precursor organization was set up, the International Criminal Police Commission in Vienna, where the idea also at that time was leave politics aside. We are focusing on what our Constitution, even in today’s world, calls so-called “ordinary law crime.” So let’s say criminals without a political motivation, those who simply want to make money. That principle actually has not been changing. And perhaps in today’s geopolitical situation, it’s more important than ever that we stick to these principles, which means Interpol as a technical policeto-police organization. We are not a political organization. We have Article three in our Constitution that strictly prohibits any activity that could be considered a political one, a religious one, a military one, or a racial one. And the independence of the organization is still a key principle and strictly applying the rule of law within Interpol, because we have a set of, for instance, strict rules on the exchange of relevant police information. We have strict data protection rules been implemented over the last decades, and strictly applying the rule of law within our organization remains key. That means, of course, we are not in a position and we are not allowed according to our mandate to police our member countries — what they are doing on a domestic level, what they might do on a bilateral level between each other. But as soon as member countries decide to do use the Interpol channels to use our 19 databases, to use our I-24 seven communication system, to use our analytical capabilities, they have to stick to the rules. And the general secretariat’s role is the oversight to strictly ensure that these principles are being applied to, that everybody is respecting this rules. And I think this is why even in today’s world of some tensions and changes in the geopolitical dynamics, the organization still works, and we still facilitate information exchange even between countries who might have, let’s say, diplomatic difficulties or having no diplomatic ties.