Globalization has made it easier to shift money and criminal networks make use of that.
“We tend to think about criminal economy in contrast to the legal economy … but this is no longer true,” said Giulio Rubino, investigative reporter at Correctiv. “Now it is recognized that criminal activity is absolutely synergistic with the global economy.”
At the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, muckrakers and an FBI investigator shared thoughts on how to investigate criminal networks, follow the money, and stay safe.
Infiltrate: In some cases, you might be able to infiltrate a network. Italian mafia structures, however, are so family-centered it’s almost impossible to infiltrate them. “How do you convince a mother that you’re the seventh son?” Cecilia Anesi, co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Project Italy said. Monitoring who is getting married to whom, however, can be a good starting point as weddings are often used to strengthen relations.
Draw maps: Map where members of a criminal network are active. This can provide clues into where to investigate further.
Look for assets: Buying property is a classic strategy for money laundering. Look at structures and patterns and try to figure out where the criminal network might hold its assets. Yassin Musharbash, deputy editor of the investigative unit of German weekly Die Zeit, and his team sifted through property records and found dozens of assets that a criminal network in Germany had bought. As many members of the network had been living off welfare, their real estate purchases provided a hint that their money came from illegal activities. You might even be able to find contracts showing that assets had changed hands. Stevan Dojcinovic, editor of KRIK in Serbia, and his team managed to prove a doctor had received property in exchange for killing a rival of a criminal network.
Request records: In Italy, records such as indictments, police notes, and arrest warrants aren’t readily available. Journalists must request them in person. “If you’re trying to do it from abroad or from another city, phones sometimes ring forever and it’s very frustrating,” Anesi said. It could be easier in other countries, so try to obtain both court and police records to find all the leads.
Recognize patterns: Criminal networks tend to follow similar patterns all over the world. Identifying patterns reported in other countries can help you further your reporting.
Go into the field: Going to the relevant locations can help you find more information. Consider traveling in pairs — if you’re a man and a woman, people tend to assume you’re a couple, which makes you less suspicious. Don’t travel with your own car, rent one instead.
Know criminal networks are changing: In some countries, including the former Soviet republics, you are looking at organizations that have survived multiple changes of governments. “Sometimes the structure of organized crime has been more adaptive, more long-running, and more committed to the community.. than the local government,” said Karen Greenaway, an investigator at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Look for social connections: To find a criminal network, stop looking for specific names and don’t just look at the crime itself. Rather, take the people that committed the crimes as starting points to find their networks. Look through social networks and see whether you can find connections there. “Usually criminal networks work on individuals who have some sort of history together,” Greenaway said. If one person gets arrested for a crime that requires a number of people, start by searching for social connections this person has.
Try to understand their mentality: Criminal networks are often based on culture rather than ideology. “Take into consideration that they have a shared history that goes back hundreds of years. Experience is being passed on. They’re super important because it explains a lot of their behavior,” Musharbash said.
Organise your records: Criminal networks are based on a large number of people. Keep the information that you have organized and keep a list of people who might be interesting to investigate further (and their spouses and their family members).
Stay safe: Make your editor take responsibility for your security. This provides a safety network. Create profiles of the criminals and note down what they’re capable of doing: some of them kill, others don’t. Publish under a joint byline with at least one other reporter. “Journalists often put too much focus on themselves,” Dojcinovic said. “They are kind of making themselves the target.” If criminal networks see that harming one person won’t make the story go away, you’re much less likely to be targeted.
Leonie Kijewski is a freelance reporter based in Cambodia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and various other publications. She speaks German, English, French, and Dutch. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia as a sub-editor and reporter. She holds a master’s degree in international law.