Business / Justice

Targeting Organized Crime (in South Africa) – A Systems Approach

The criminal onslaught in South Africa is an increasing problem. Criminal groups are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and dynamically organized in structural terms. In many cases they employ legitimate business structures in their criminal endeavors – as an example to conceal criminal proceeds or profit – and their levels of specialization are also growing.

Although this may not be unique to South Africa, countering such a threat requires increasingly new thinking regarding (a) the nature of the onslaught, and (b) what new era capabilities and approaches may be required for crime control. It may be argued that despite the increasing cooperation amongst the PPP (Private Public Partnership), criminal networking still vastly surpass the capabilities of the “good guys.” In short, there is a need for better strategizing and planning.

The question must be asked though – what to plan for? Who to plan against? It is a primary cornerstone of this document that there is a large void in present approaches to understanding the criminal issues that need to be targeted during such planning – i.e. the criminal centres of gravity (CoG’s). For this I have borrowed heavily from a doctrinal concept that has proven itself to work well, albeit in a different environment – John Warden’s Strategy and Centre of Gravity approach.

How organized criminals operate

With few exceptions, serious organized criminal activity is directly or indirectly concerned with making money. Organized criminals have a very good understanding of criminal markets and are quick to take advantage of such opportunities, or to respond to threats from law enforcement.

But profitability alone cannot explain the choices these criminals make. They also look to manage risk by threatening or using violence; by transferring risks to lower level criminals or “runners”; by corrupting law enforcement officers and others involved in the criminal justice process; and by using professionals to handle their affairs, especially to launder proceeds.

Most organized criminal activities require some sort of criminal collaboration and infrastructure, and this lies behind the formation of organized crime groups and networks. A wide range of structures exist. Some criminals belong to established groups with clear hierarchies and defined roles, but many are part of looser networks.

Time spent together in prison is the basis for many later criminal collaborations. In South Africa this has been specifically proven in the cash-in-transit (CIT) environment, where interviews with incarcerated criminals have shown that whereas criminals may end up in prison for relatively petty crimes, they emerge as well-trained potential CIT robbers in many cases, after serving their sentences. The rehabilitative effect, or lack of, of incarceration has been written about a great deal, but fact is that South Africa’s prisons, due mainly to overcrowding, is a learning school for criminals.

Regarding structures – the information revolution has resulted in the rise of network forms of organization. This means that power is migrating to non-state actors, because they are able to organise into multi-organisational networks more readily than can traditional, hierarchical state actors. One has only to look at the Arab Spring and developments in Eastern Europe as of late to recognize this.

This means that organized crime activities are also increasingly waged by networks, perhaps more than by hierarchies. Two doctrinal approaches seem particularly geared towards supporting networked criminal organisations. One is to organise a network in a way that is as “leaderless” as possible, by having no single leader who stands out, and by using consultative and consensus-building mechanisms for decision-making. In the CIT and business robbery environments in South Africa this seems to be especially the case – different “kingpins” are often prominent within the same structure.

The second is to use “swarming tactics” by having myriad small units that are normally kept apart, converge on a target, conduct an attack, and then re-disperse to prepare for the next operation. In the commercial crime environment this is especially applicable, as these fraudsters tend to migrate to specific towns from time to time, saturate the target environment with their “onslaught”, and then move on again when their modus operandi becomes too well known, or the specific geographical area of operations becomes too “hot”.

Organized crime criminals also make use of “specialists” who provide a service, often to a range of criminal groups. Such services include transportation, money laundering, or the provision of false documentation. In South Africa this is particularly relevant in the Forged Document Manufacturing Enterprise (FDME) environment. A number of these enterprises have been exposed by the police, and when analyzing the contents found at these enterprises, it became apparent that a high degree of specialization is in evidence to forge commercial payment instruments and identity documents.

Organized Crime as a System

So, organized crime groupings operate as a system, or rather, a system of systems. They are therefore fractal in nature. Socio-technical systems analysis holds that every process has both technical and social subsystems. The technical subsystem is comprised of the structures, the tools and knowledge necessary to perform the work (crime) which produce products (proceeds of crime). The social system includes attitudes and beliefs, “contracts” between employers (leaders) and employees (gang members), reactions to work (crime) arrangements, and the relationship between individuals and among groups.

Like in any normal organization, a number of factors have to be considered for the growth and operation of an organized crime system, not least of which are those which underpin the specific design, parameters of which are:

  • Job specialization refers to the number of tasks in a given job and the workers’ control over those tasks. In the organized crime environment it should be clear that very specific role specialization exists, i.e. you have for example drivers, leaders, information gatherers etc.
  • Behavior formalization refers to the standardization of the work processes with operating instructions, job descriptions rules, etc. Whilst this may not necessarily be as formal in the organized crime environment as in for example a larger corporate structure, it is clear that operating instructions and job descriptions do exist, albeit perhaps not formalized in writing in all cases.
  • Training refers to formal instructional programmes. In the organized crime environment this relates more to “on the job” training, although reconnaissance and “dry runs” are often part of the process.
  • Indoctrination refers to programmes and techniques by which the norms of the individual and the organization are standardized. As one example – in the CIT environment there is very strict screening and indoctrination “programs” to make sure that the individual recruited is not an informer. Individuals are often tested in formal or informal settings to get a measure of their loyalty to the “cause”.
  • Unit grouping refers to the basis by which positions are grouped together into units. For both violent and commercial crime groupings, there are very specific groupings and role allocations in evidence.
  • Liaison refers to whole series of mechanisms used to encourage mutual adjustment within and between units. The issue of the importance of networking among criminals has been the subject of many research papers in South(ern) Africa, and it is clear that national and transnational cooperation exists, within the same type of criminal operations (violent crime or commercial crime), but also between them. As only one example – identity documents found by criminals during a robbery may be sold to a commercial crime operation, for them to use for fraudulent purposes.

There can therefore be little doubt that the organized criminal groupings in South Africa, at least in the business crime and CIT environments, operate as networked systems. As such it requires a specific approach to planning and strategizing.

The Importance of Strategizing

Identifying the criminal CoG’s, and targeting these, should be an integral part of the strategizing process. Operations are the servants of strategy. According to the FBI, the following is essential in developing effective crime prevention operations when dealing with organized crime:

  • Identify, define and prioritize groups proving a threat and operating in a particular area
  • Identify the crime problem and specific “racketeering” activities engaged in by the group
  • Establish an intelligence database to serve as a repository for organized crime data;
  • Identify and evaluate resources available and those that are needed;
  • Recruit investigative and support personnel who possess a proactive mentality that is consistent with enterprise investigation;
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive informant programme;
  • Study the industries affected;
  • Initiate only those case investigations that meet the defined criteria and will likely advance the goals and objectives of the programme;
  • Initiate case investigations that are focused and address definable subjects and activities;
  • Ensure that the overriding objective of every case and investigative initiatives is to identify the full scope of the enterprise;
  • Seek to develop task force initiatives when possible and appropriate;
  • Disseminate sensitive findings to other law enforcement agencies;
  • Develop safeguards and protocols to protect the confidentiality of informants, witnesses and information;
  • Transfer or re-assign sources to other localities when exposure warrants removal, as in the situation of arrests.

An important precept to the above is that “planning to win”, or then, to implement the suggestions as laid down by the FBI, can only be achieved with strategically-aligned organizations – i.e. by optimising the concept of jointness. Jointness is not simply cooperation. It encompasses a fusion of resources and minds around the pursuit of a common goal, or mission. It takes the best of whatever crime control capability each organisation can offer for the achievement of specific operational goals. It involves inter alia planning together, identifying objectives together, and employing and tasking mission-specific resources within the PPP. It is an approach to achieve synergy in a resource constrained crime control environment.

In South Africa, despite many attempts by especially the private sector, the crime control PPP has had only limited success – reasons for this will be the subject of a different thesis. So the next section deals with specifically the “What? If organized crime criminals do operate as systems, then surely a similar type of approach is required to identify and target them?

The Systems Approach to Targeting Criminals

The criminal target system should be seen as a number of supporting “rings”, or then, CoG’s. The idea behind the concept is that the central rings are paramount – the more these are identified, targeted and neutralised, the less the requirement to target the outer circles. Figure 1 provides a holistic overview of the concept:

organized crime 1

Each of these five rings may be decomposed further as illustrated in Figure 2 – the list is by no means meant to be exhaustive.

Organized crime 2

Targeting these system components are prioritised from the inside out. It may be argued that in South Africa today, the emphasis is still too much on the outer ring, i.e. to identify and arrest the groups themselves. This will however not produce an optimum solution, unless a massive campaign is launched to do this, which in the present climate will not be politically acceptable to the ruling party. Then one has to consider whether the justice system will be able to cope with the large number of offenders apprehended (which at the moment cannot be done anyhow because of systemic inefficiencies, ergo the reason for this article).

The truth of the matter is that, due to inter alia the socio-economic injustices of the past, there are just too many “foot soldiers” out there waiting to be recruited. Hence focusing on the outer ring primarily, will not ensure strategic victory. From a return on investment/effort point of view, it may be portrayed as follows:

organized crime 3

To reach the future scenario, one should change the relevant systems by affecting their centres of gravity. Enough centres of gravity must experience an impact to create the system change that leads to the future scenario (whatever that might be – this should be determined by focused strategic planning). Impact plans must be developed that show what should happen and when to each centre of gravity and how it will be measured. The basic strategic components of an impact plan are:

  • Desired effect: what needs to happen to the CoG (its end state)?
  • Measure of merit: Measures progress toward the desired effect.
  • Timeframe: when must the desired effect be realised?

The operational components of an impact plan describe how one will achieve the desired effect. For a crime environment, the illustrative example in Table 1, based on factual data from the CIT robbery domain, may be upheld.

organized crime 4

A further element of targeting criminal systems through the COG approach, is that it must be done in a parallel, as opposed to a serial fashion – i.e. targeting the criminal operation should be done through all levels of the crime control landscape – from strategic to operational level, and across all five rings at the same time, and not in silo-like fashion per ring, because this negates the element of surprise. Table 2 serves as an example.

Doing it in parallel fashion will also ensure that the criminal system is disrupted in so many places and at so many times simultaneously, that it will result in peripheral and collateral damage – much along the principles of “shock and awe”. Sustaining this momentum is of course key.

organized crime 5

It is clear that this will be a new approach to crime control. Traditional approaches to control organized crime (in South Africa) do not seem to work effectively, primarily as a result of the following:

  • The big crime bosses never participate in the execution of the crime itself. They use other persons and “runners” to do the dirty work.
  • Organized crime organisations make use of the latest sophisticated technology like
    satellites, computers, and cellular phones to obtain information and to execute their crimes.
  • They make use of corrupt high ranking officials to elude prosecution.
  • They have enormous financial resources which enable them to obtain the best legal representation possible.
  • They make use of techniques such as violence and intimidation against witnesses and persons who threaten their activities.
  • The investigation of organized criminal is a specialised activity, where many officials lack sufficient knowledge, especially since South Africa did away with specialist crime fighting units in the 1990’s.
  • The crime control PPP is hamstrung by lack of sufficient willpower and intellectual know-how to properly investigate new approaches to crime control. Petty territorial “turf issues” and corruption further bedevil any attempts at getting this properly on the go.

The systems approach is therefore upheld as an approach to be able to get around the traditional limitations to control organized crime that have been placed on the law enforcement and private sector environments.


To effectively control organized crime in a resource constrained environment, it is the submission made in this document that new era thinking is required, thinking that focus predominantly on identifying and analysing organized crime groups as systems.

Organized criminals operate in various forms of networks, and identifying, tracking and neutralising these networks require a greater fusion of Private Public Partnership resources. Just focusing on the visible manifestations of these networks, i.e. the groups themselves, at the outer circle, may in many cases be self-defeating. One needs to identify the crucial inner circles and upset their centres of gravity. This requires better and more focused planning (and intelligence), with associated metrics to be able to determine when the objectives have been achieved.

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Ian Vuuren

Ian is a seasoned strategist specializing in strategic management, leadership and risk, currently at a leading facilities management company in the Middle East. Ian has, amongst others, twenty years of military intelligence, policy formulation and strategic planning experience, serving as Director Air Force Intelligence in South Africa, as well as a further fourteen years of experience in listed companies in South Africa and the Middle East. Part of this was spent within the banking industry, notably as the General Manager Crime Risk Information at the SA Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC). After 5 years in the Middle East he is returning to South Africa in April 2014 to pursue new challenges.


  1. Sunelle Bruwer says:

    Enjoyed the read. If only it was more widely understood and properly applied in SA, it would surely have an impact.

  2. A good article Ian. Unfortunately, there are very few people who take note of this as they feel it does not impact on them – yet.

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