The global illicit economy Trajectories of transnational organized crime

This report shows how organized crime has gone global in the past 20 years and is harming so many aspects of life on our planet. Organized crime perpetuates and profits from the world's major challenges and is a driver of unsustainable development. Left unchecked, the shadows of the future look even more sinister. New approaches and a global approach are needed if we are going to change the trajectories of organized crime’ Mark Shaw, Director, Global Initiative

Since the early 1990s, transnational organized crime has boomed all over the world, despite the signing of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) in 2000.

Our world is changing at an almost unimaginable speed, but such change often comes at a high cost.

In our relationship with the planet, we are living beyond our means, while economic growth continues in a way that disproportionately benefits a small global elite.

The pace of innovation in spheres such as social media and artificial intelligence often outstrips awareness of what those innovations might entail, leaving regulators playing catch-up.

But in other areas, we are not moving fast enough, such as conflict resolution and curbing climate change.

This environment provides the ideal conditions for transnational organized crime to operate, expand and more deeply embed itself in modern society.

The eight drivers and enablers outlined in our chart have all accelerated the growth of illicit markets and created new opportunities for the convergence of the illicit and licit worlds, and will continue to do so in the near future.

In just a few decades, transnational crime as we know it has changed beyond recognition – and so has its impact.

What was once thought of as a handful of mafias operating in a few problem cities has become a pervasive threat to peace, justice and development the world over.

This criminal transformation has been driven by the geopolitical, economic and technological shifts that have taken place since the turn of the century.

Since 2000, the ‘great accelerator’ – new technologies, including information communications technology (ICT) – has supercharged illicit markets by improving crime groups' operations and covert communications.

This report explores 6 illicit markets, we use timelines to depict visually how these markets have developed over the last 20 years.

Human exploitation

Human trafficking

Opportunities for human trafficking have grown with advances in technology and the increasing incidence worldwide of vulnerable populations.

As of 2017, the total number of detected victims of human trafficking around the world was estimated to be roughly 40.3 million people

The internet has fundamentally changed the market for sexual exploitation, in particular that of children, making it far more widespread and difficult to police.

Human smuggling

Over the last 20 years, migrant smuggling markets have grown as a result of a number of push factors, including conflict and violence, inequality, demography and climate change.

Hostility towards migrants has made them an increasingly vulnerable population

Migrants are dying en route in greater numbers. Heightened border controls are forcing people onto riskier routes, and migrant smugglers treat their lives with greater disdain.

Enviromental crimes

Unsustainable growth, over-consumption, waste and greed have propelled the growth of environmental illicit markets.

Instability, conflict, urbanization, resource scarcity and the expanding consumer markets are some of the factors that have contributed to the growth of Illicit environmental markets.

Wildlife crimes

With high demand and profit (and low enforcement, punishment and prosecution), illicit wildlife trafficking has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Online trade, including on major social networking and e-commerce platforms, is a large and growing part of the international market.

Illicit drugs market

Over the last 20 years, the volume of drugs, types of illegal substances and reach of drug markets through new trafficking routes have all grown significantly.

Poppy cultivation for opium and heroin production is booming, with Afghanistan continuing to produce roughly 85% of global supply.

The introduction and mass marketing of highly addictive opioid pharmaceuticals by large pharmaceutical companies in the US, beginning in the late 1990s, has created a health epidemic which in turn has given rise to a heroin and fentanyl crisis.

Production of cocaine hit an estimated all-time high of 1 976 tonnes in 2017, with markets in Europe driving much of the demand.

New retail markets on the surface and the dark web have created new avenues for selling and purchasing substances, particularly new psychoactive substances (NPS).


Since 2000, the cybercrime market has professionalized, the dark web has matured and the ease of engaging in criminal activity on the internet has lowered the thresh - old for engagement and increased opportunities.

The growth of online commercial activity - a key feature of the virtual economy - has provided enormous opportunity for fraud, identity theft and cyber extortion.

The dark web is its own illicit market and can drive activities in other illicit markets.

On dark web marketplaces, people buy and sell illicit goods such as compromised credit cards, lists of passwords, Instagram user names and weapons.

This market is truly global - it has no boundaries. Activities can move from one continent to the next almost in an instant.

Illegal trade in licit and counterfeit goods

Licit and illicit goods often use the same supply chains and are sold by the same vendors.

A cargo aircraft may carry an illicit commodity (like weapons) in one direction, and a license one (like flowers) on the return journey.

For crime groups, dealing in illicit goods remains a low-risk business since the issue receives little attention.


The OECD claims the trade in counterfeit and pirated goods was estimated at 3 per cent of global trade in 2019.

Some fake products have serious health and safety implications, like substandard or fake pesticides, medical equipment, industrial goods, with contaminated food and beverages and counterfeit medicine.

Online marketplaces have become major sources for the counterfeit trade.


While the impression created by this report may be bleak, we cannot look away or be fatalistic.

The key challenge now is to better understand the nature of the global illicit economy, its relationship with and impact on so many other challenges. Only in this way will we be able to change the trajectory of transnational organized crime and promote sustainable peace and development and safer communities.