Latvia has serious problems with organized crime.
Illegal border crossings, drug trafficking, money laundering, vehicle theft, human trafficking, and corruption are just some of the issues which Latvian law enforcement has to deal with.
In this post I offer a précis of an academic journal article, written by Aleksejs Loskutovs, who examined what forms of organized crime flourishes in this former Soviet country.
Loskutovs is a Latvian politician, he has had over 30 years of experience in law and was an instructor for the police academy in Latvia. While he was there he worked his way up from assistant to associate professor in Criminal Law and Criminology. He then went on and became the head of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau of Latvia. During his time as head, he made big improvements in cracking down on organized crime in Latvia. In 2019, he transitioned into the European parliament.
One of the main money-making activities for Latvian organized crime groups is drug trafficking. Narcotic transportation occurs everywhere in the world, so the fact that Latvia is perfectly geographically placed, next to Russia, means that it is a huge business for Latvian gangs. Often the narcotics will be illegally transported from western countries, thanks to the European Union’s ‘freedom of movement’ and Schengen policies, into Russia.
Yet whilst there are lots of narcotics moving into Russia, there is also a big amount coming out of Russia to its bordering countries. Most of the drugs going from Russia into Latvia are transported across the border or by ferries. In 2015 alone, Latvian legal agencies opened 614 cases involving narcotics trafficking. The biggest bust Latvian police made was in 2015. The Latvian legal agencies discovered 1,115 kilos of hash, worth somewhere from 8–12 million euros.
The Baltic Sea is also becoming a big breeding ground for narcotic trafficking, as you can access different ports to different countries including Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. The main narcotic which gangs move through this area is cocaine. In April of 2015, a ship from Paraguay was seized in Riga, one of Latvia’s capital and one of its biggest ports, due to it having over 6 million euros worth of cocaine on it.
Cybercrime and fraud is another means through which Latvian gangs make money, through a process known as “phishing.”
Phishing is a “cybercrime in which a target or targets are contacted by email, telephone or text message by someone posing as a legitimate institution to lure individuals into providing sensitive data such as personally identifiable information, banking, and credit card details, and passwords.”
Then, once the gangs have this information, they can clear out these “suckers’” bank accounts.
Lots of these criminal acts have involved the Russian and Latvian gangs working together. Latvia has tried to lower the amount of these robberies and scams by working in partnership with foreign governments to stop phishing. Latvia has also joined the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development which has proved beneficial for them.
Other, perhaps less “serious” crimes, are also committed by Latvian organized crime groups. In relative terms (accounting for the cost of living in the country) taxes on daily goods such as alcohol and cigarettes are fairly high. A quick money-making scheme that Latvian gangs have a stake in, therefore, is the illicit buying and selling of cigarettes, thereby undercutting legitimate retailers and avoiding paying taxes. Most of the cigarettes that come into Latvia come from either Belarus or Russia.
Loskutovs reveals the state of the problem: “the biggest number of cigarettes seized at once was 32.85 million. The case serves as an example of the intimate connection between transnational organized crime and corruption. It is not possible to even try to smuggle such a large number of cigarettes without having established contacts with dishonest public officials. In this case, three customs officers and one border officer were apprehended.”
Other activities committed by Latvian gangs include car theft. The stealing and transporting of stolen cars is very popular in Latvia. Most of the cars that are stolen end up in countries like Germany, Lithuania, and Estonia. Latvian police have been cracking down on this recently with many stolen cars being found on trains leaving the country.
Car theft is a minor activity for Latvian gangs, however, especially when compared to drug trafficking and phishing.
Human trafficking appears to be on the rise in Latvia since 2015. This is due, in part, to Latvia’s geographical location—being next to Russia—and also its membership of the European Union, whose terms of membership mandate the free movement of its citizens across all member states’ borders. However, human trafficking is not as common in Latvia, although this could simply mean that gangs are better at hiding their activities from the authorities. There were six cases in 2015 involving human trafficking in Latvia by gangs. But to successfully move people across the EU’s external border and into Latvia, and vice versa, these gangs rely on cooperation with people in the “upperworld,” and in the past some Latvian border guards have proved all-too-willing to accept bribes from gangs—in a word, corruption is what makes trafficking possible.
Ultimately, organised crime is evolving worldwide—the Latvian government knows this all too well. For further information on organized crime in Latvia, check out Loskutovs’s original article:
Loskutovs, Aleksejs. 2016. “Transnational Organized Crime – Latvian Challenges and Responses.” Connections 15 (3), pp. 33–40