U.N. Crime Commission Takes Closer Look at Gangs, Urban Crime

By Jane Morse
USINFO Staff Writer

Vienna, Austria – Nearly one-sixth of the earth’s population lives in dangerous, crime-ridden conditions, says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“In some of the world’s biggest cities there are neglected and dangerous neighborhoods where even the police fear to go,” he said April 23 at the opening of the 16th session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.  “Close to 1 billion people live in diabolical ghettos and shanty-towns – that’s one-sixth of humanity – where the conduct of daily life is 30 times riskier than elsewhere.

“Fragile regions, debilitated by mass poverty, unemployment, corruption and violence, are breeding grounds for criminals and terrorists alike,” Costa said.  “Some areas – within countries and across their borders – are out of government control:  hell for their citizens, oases for organized crime.  UNODC has provided ample evidence – with analyses covering Africa, Central America and soon the Balkans – that the poverty-crime cycle is doubly vicious:  for its brutality and because it perpetuates itself.”

Gangs and urban crime will be a priority topic at the weeklong crime commission meeting in Vienna, Austria.  During a press conference the same day, Costa said many of the cities that have the most severe problems are in Latin America and Africa.

Costa shared a personal experience he had during a visit to a Latin American city he declined to name.   Flying by helicopter with the mayor of that large city, Costa said, required staying at altitudes that would keep them out of range of military-grade weapons available to the criminals that dominated life there.

To understand and find better ways to deal with crime, the UNODC is trying to compile data on the depth and breadth of the problem and on implementation of the U.N. Crime Convention by member states.   “I should like to produce a world crime report, as we are producing yearly now for quite some time a world drug [narcotics] report,” Costa said.

So far, only one-fifth of the member states have returned the UNODC questionnaire, he said.  Many countries do not have the information and/or need technical assistance to be able to create a useful picture of the crime problems in their countries, Costa said.


“Gangs are expanding across the United States and their activities have reached critical proportions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and on Mexico’s southern border,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Verville told USINFO. Verville, who is leading the U.S. delegation to the U.N. conference, is the State Department’s expert on international crime for its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“Indeed, the gang problem is one of the top public security issues facing a number of Central American governments and the United States,” she said.  “At the Crime Commission, the United States will share best practices and lessons learned, and ask that other countries do the same.”

Specifically, the United States, Verville said, has developed an anti-gang strategy that coordinates international actions of all U.S. government agencies in cooperation with affected countries and includes diplomacy, law enforcement cooperation, capacity enhancement, prevention and improved approaches to illegal migration and repatriation.

The U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), Verville explained, provides the global framework to make international cooperation on fighting organized crime a reality.  Entering into force in September 2003, the UNTOC is the first legally binding global instrument that specifically targets transnational organized crime.

“The Convention creates a broad framework for mutual legal assistance, extradition and practical law enforcement cooperation,” Verville said.  “In addition, the U.N. Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) serves as a basis for international cooperation to target and combat corruption.”


Costa has characterized corruption as both a crime in itself and “a lubricant for other crimes.”

“It facilitates criminal actions that result in the stealing of public property and of poor people’s essential services,” he said.

In her remarks to USINFO, Verville noted that UNCAC, as the first anti-corruption agreement to be applied at the global level, commits parties to criminalize bribery and other corrupt conduct, to take a wide variety of measures to prevent corruption from happening, to cooperate internationally on a law enforcement level and to implement measures that will facilitate cooperation on extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of sentenced persons, joint investigations and special investigative techniques.

“It also contains an innovative chapter that develops a framework for international cooperation on asset recovery cases,” Verville said.  “By fully implementing both the UNTOC and the UNCAC, countries will demonstrate that they are committed to staying ahead of the criminals by utilizing the incredible breadth of these Conventions,” she said.

See also "U.S. Seeks To Intensify Global Fight Against Child Exploitation."

For more information, see Bribery and Corruption.