Recruitment Pathways into Organised Crime: A Theoretical Framework


Unlike more conventional forms of crime, the success of organised criminal groups depends largely on their ability to identify and recruit co-offenders. Due to the everchanging nature of illicit markets, organised criminal groups tend to recruit individuals with range of skills, knowledge, and experience that will benefit their involvement in a particular market. Potential co-offenders need to be considered trustworthy and willing to engage in illicit behaviour, with criminal groups often drawing upon . However, there has been no attempt by academia to develop a theoretical framework that assists in illuminating the varied recruitment pathways and processes into organised criminal groups.

My current research thesis aims to develop a theoretical framework that explains the varied recruitment pathways and processes into organised criminal groups. In doing so, the research thesis of me and my colleague at Flinders University endeavours to unpack and address long-standing theoretical positions regarding the establishment of co-offending relationships within the structure of criminal groups, the importance of trust in organised crime, and the potential for disengagement and recruitment prevention. Recruitment is the life blood of organised criminal groups and new insight into how co-offending relationships are developed can inform future research on the nature of organised criminal groups. Therefore, my research thesis aims to address the following research question: ‘What are the key recruitment pathways into organised criminal groups?’

‘What are the key recruitment pathways into organised criminal groups?’

In order to develop a theoretical framework, data was extracted from law enforcement interviews and sentencing remarks in Australia. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with law enforcement personnel from New South Wales state police (4 interviews), Queensland state police (6 interviews), and Victoria state police (5 interviews). Interviewees were asked a series of questions regarding recruitment into organised criminal groups; including the importance of trust and potential for prevention. Sentencing remarks (NSW, QLD, VIC, and South Australia Supreme and District Courts) were collated through the AustLII database using several search terms (e.g. ‘criminal syndicate’). Sentencing remarks were selected if they described how an individual was recruited into a criminal group. By utilising the extracted data, a theoretical framework was developed that consists of four key pathways into organised crime: contacts; kinship ties; targeted recruitment; and coercive recruitment.

The contacts pathway suggests that individuals are drawn into organised crime based on pre-existing relationships between co-offenders. Pre-existing relationships can include friends, associates, work colleagues and friends of friends. The data suggests that the recruitment process is often through word of mouth (i.e. through friends and associates), and it is unlikely that criminal groups will recruit someone that is not known to them previously. One interviewee noted that “there’s a lot of that personal relationship sort of history between group members” (VIC 2), while another stressed the pre-existing relationships between co-offenders: “they all know each other, played sports against each other and started using cannabis together” (NSW 1). The contacts pathways emphasises the importance of trust in organised crime, with pre-existing relationships providing the co-offenders with the knowledge that potential co-offenders will be trustworthy based on previous interactions.

The kinship ties pathway argues that familial and ethnic ties provide the foundation for recruitment and co-offending relationships

Similarly, the kinship ties pathway argues that familial and ethnic ties provide the foundation for recruitment and co-offending relationships. Much like the contacts pathways, trust between co-offenders is established through pre-existing relationships, or based on the assumption that those of shared (or similar) ethnicity are more trustworthy. Numerous interviewees noted the importance of kinship ties in organised crime recruitment, with one respondent noting that “it’s heavily reliant upon family networks, so family, friends, ethnicity obviously” (VIC 3). The case of Abbas Bodiatas Taleb and Amoun v R [2013] NSWCCA 115 (22 May 2013) also demonstrates the prominence of kinship ties, with a criminal syndicate that was centred around a family; including brothers and cousins. Although research suggests that organised crime has shifted away from mono-ethnicity and familial groups, the collated data argues that such ties are still important for recruitment and the establishment of co-offending relationships.

On the other hand, the targeted recruitment pathway contends that organised criminal groups will target individuals that have skills or characteristics that are useful to the group or conducive to offending. Often there is no pre-existing relationship between co-offenders, instead individuals are approached by criminal groups and influenced (or corrupted) to engage in organised criminal behaviour. Interviewees explained that if individuals “have a skill set they get targeted and recruited”, for example a chartered accountant (NSW 1). In the case of NSW Crime Commission v Stevermver [2015] NSWSC 1355 (8 September 2015), the defendant was approached by a group engaged in drug supply and importations due to his access to and ability to fly aircrafts. Targeted recruitment reflects the ever-shifting nature of criminal markets and the need for specialised skills, knowledge, and experience in contemporary organised criminal groups.

If individuals “have a skill set they get targeted and recruited”

Finally, the coercive recruitment pathway argues that individuals may be forced or threatened to participate in an organised criminal group, often to repay a debt. Interviewees noted that “recruitment in Asian organised crime is around betting and debt and they’ll force someone into a position where they have to work for them” (NSW 4). Another respondent explained that individuals will get an addiction and start using more drugs than they can afford, and criminal groups will drag them into the offending in order to pay off the debt (NSW 1). Coercive recruitment is also evident in academic literature, where decisions to co-offend are not always a democratic one “based on equal levels of motivation and interests” . Recruitment is the life blood of organised criminal groups, and further research on recruitment pathways can uncover new insight into the establishment of co-offending relationships and the modus operandi of organised criminal groups. In examining these pathways, we can begin to understand the potential for disengagement and the possibility of preventing recruitment into organised criminal groups.

Adrian Leiva is a PhD Candidate in Criminology at the Centre for Crime Policy and Research at Flinders University, Australia. Among his research interests are organised crime, criminal networks, Mafias, co-offending behaviour, the social and cultural elements of organised crime, and law enforcement.

Main Image Credit: C64-92, via Flickr

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.


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