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Publication - Research Publication

Serious organised crime in Scotland: a summary of the evidence

Published: 8 Dec 2017
Part of:
Law and order, Research

A desk-based review of national and international literature and national operational and mapping data on serious organised crime.

48 page PDF


48 page PDF


Serious organised crime in Scotland: a summary of the evidence
4. An overview of SOC groups

48 page PDF


4. An overview of SOC groups

Explaining involvement in SOC: risk factors

While this report goes on to describe some of the risk factors in more detail, a 2015 Home Office report provides a helpful summary of common risk factors for becoming involved in SOC. The 2015 report separates the many risk factors for individuals becoming involved in SOC into four categories: criminality; ability; networks and identity. [26]

Firstly, individuals who show certain offending patterns may be at risk of being drawn into SOC. These include those who are involved in 'early prolific' offending and those who are involved in gangs. The report notes that involvement in early criminal experiences can result in continued involvement in adulthood, and can escalate into more serious forms of crime, such as organised crime. As regards gangs, the report notes that in some areas there are overlaps between local gangs and SOC groups. Organised criminals may use these gangs as a vehicle for drug transportation and dealing. Moreover, street gangs may exploit vulnerable children and young people and effectively groom them into becoming involved in SOC groups, and gang involvement may provide members with skills that can be transferred to SOC. [27] However, the Home Office notes that many young people stop being involved in gangs as they get older. It also identifies that some SOC offenders begin offending (and in SOC specifically) later on in life; this will be discussed shortly.

Secondly, individuals with specialist skills and access or who work in particular professions are at risk of being targeted by SOC groups for their involvement. The assistance of these professionals is required to disguise profits or convert illegitimate gains into legitimate assets. [28]

Thirdly, those who have access to criminal networks through links in various contexts (for example, via families, via friendships, and via relationships) may be at risk of becoming involved in SOC.

Finally, an individual's upbringing and lifestyle shapes identity and in turn can either increase or decrease the likelihood of his or her involvement in SOC depending on the nature of each of these. For example, the report notes if an individual has a 'pro criminal' attitude (in the sense that he or she does not see the harm in criminal activities), this may incline him or her to become involved in SOC; individuals who lack a sense of belonging may be drawn into a SOC group to provide this, and the experience of potentially disruptive events during upbringing such as parental break up or parental drug use may be a risk factor. [29]

It is beyond the scope of this review to discuss all of the explanations for people becoming involved in SOC, but the influence of age and the importance of social connections were two findings that emerged in the review, which will now be discussed in some more detail.


In criminology, the 'age crime curve' demonstrates that offending peaks in early adolescence and in the early adulthood years, before declining sharply in the mid -twenties years, and then declining more steadily after this age. [30] Yet data on criminal proceedings in Scotland over the last decade (2005-2015) indicate that this picture is complex. Over this period, there was a decrease in the number of people (both men and women) who faced criminal prosecution who were under 21, and between 21 and 30, and an increase in the numbers facing criminal prosecution who were over 30. [31] Data reveal that in year 2005-2006, the age with the highest conviction rate was those aged 18, at 102 convictions per 1,000 population. However, since 2005-06 the age with the highest conviction rate has "shifted upwards". In 2014-15, the highest conviction rate was for those aged 26-30 (51 convictions per 1,000). [32] This may therefore suggest that offenders are getting older. However, it is not possible to state this conclusively given the limitations and obvious complexity of this. For example, the data demonstrate fluctuations between each year over the period, and the nature of the offence an individual is proceeded against for is not provided; it may be the case that different types of offence attract different ages of offender. This includes any differences in age between SOC offenders and general offenders.

A striking finding from a Dutch study suggests that the age crime curve does not apply to organised criminals. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Justice developed a monitoring system to provide data on the 'criminal careers' [33] of OC members. Data were collected from the criminal offending histories of a sample of 1000 organised criminals. [34] In this study, there were no offenders under the age of 18 and there was a distinct over-representation of older offenders: 43% were aged between 30 and 39 years old. The distribution of offending generally increased with age, decreasing again at the age of 40, though notably later than the early adulthood years often associated with general offenders. Subsequent work by other Dutch criminologists also found a substantial and distinct group of 'adult onset' organised criminals. [35]

A Home Office study uncovered a similar though more nuanced picture of the age profile of SOC offenders. The researchers categorised SOC offenders into five different groups, entitled 'low rate early starters'; 'high rate early starters'; 'high rate persisters'; 'first offenders'; and 'low rate persisters'. [36] While they identified that the age crime curve could be applied to some of the SOC offenders, other offenders had either zero or few precursor offences or a less identifiable spike in offending with age; they consequently concluded that based on the data, no single pathway exists into OC. [37] Data on Scottish nominals also indicates that the age crime curve cannot be applied straightforwardly to SOC offenders, with offenders typically older than late adolescence or early adulthood. Future research could examine patterns of SOC offenders in more detail, to see if they replicate patterns found elsewhere; and could draw further on qualitative data sources (for example of the characteristics of different types of criminal career trajectory), to continue to develop our understanding of this dimension of SOC. Therefore, the evidence suggests that offenders involved in SOC may be older than general offenders, but also that the older age profile of SOC offenders may be reflective of an older profile of offenders across all types of crime.

Trusted social connections

In terms of how SOC groups emerge and function, evidence points to the importance of social connections in the development and work of SOC groups. Age may assist in the establishment of these social connections.

The authors of the Dutch study Kleemans and de Poot argue that strong social connections are central to the formation and on-going success of OC groups; how these are made varies (and as such there is no 'one' pathway), but age may help create these. They note that the success of an OC group relies upon: sharing good social relations with others involved in OC (who include suppliers, customers and clients); the members in the group having the ability to access transnational contacts where required; and the members in the group having the ability to carry out complex activities. Age is likely to be an advantage in allowing these strong social connections with those involved in OC to be established and to develop. However, age is somewhat of a distraction from a key insight into OC which the authors of this study make: that strong social connections are required in order for offenders to become involved in OC in the first instance, and are critical to the on-going success of an OC group. As regards where these connections originate, the Home Office report identifies potential networks in the family; in intimate relationships; via associates; through prison, and via the internet. [38]

Accordingly, the authors refer to the 'social opportunity structure', which they suggest helps to explain people's involvement in OC: social ties provide access to lucrative criminal opportunities. This explains how general offenders 'progress' to OC as they develop their connections. It also explains how some offenders only become involved in OC later in life due to the time it takes to develop these connections, and how individuals who have never been involved in crime, become involved in OC as 'late starters', again as they develop these social ties. Specifically regarding the latter group, often the catalyst for becoming involved in OC is the experience of (acute) financial difficulty. [39] It is also important to bear in mind both the difficulties of breaking the cycle of involvement in crime, as well as securing stable work in the legitimate economy with a criminal record; such difficulties may make continued involvement in crime (of whichever form) more likely. [40]

Another finding from research, which also relates to the structure of SOC groups, is the importance of these social connections also being trustworthy ones. Von Lampe notes that given the risks stemming from the association with other criminals (and the constant risk of exposure), SOC groups must reduce the risk of betrayal. There are various strategies which SOC groups employ to minimise this risk which include building on these social connections (whether they be friendship, family, business or community based) which are trusted. Another strategy is the use of violence, though Von Lampe suggests it is more appropriate to assume that violence is generally avoided rather than is something which characterises these groups. [41] Violence will be discussed in more detail later in this report. McIlwain also emphasises the importance of these social connections to SOC groups and comments that human relationships form the basis[emphasis added] for organised criminal activity. Consequently, he advises that better understanding the dynamics underlying these relationships and the ensuing social networks can allow us to gain a clearer picture of organised criminal activity. [42]

The evidence therefore suggests that involvement in SOC and the success of a SOC group depends on there being strong and trusted social connections with: other members within the group; members from other SOC groups; suppliers; clients and customers; and with any other individual or group involved. Further, these connections can originate from a wide range of contexts.

Structure of SOC groups

Data from the strategic assessment does not provide information on how SOC groups are structured, but evidence from other countries can offer insights here. Researchers in their respective countries have attempted to develop typologies to enable international comparisons and categorisation of different models of SOC.

As Vy Le outlines, in order to disrupt and weaken SOC activity, a fuller understanding of the structure, operation and behaviour of SOC groups is required. [43] However, there is growing recognition that the structure of SOC groups varies considerably, and that there is a "changing landscape" in relation to the structure of SOC groups. [44] At one end of the scale, groups have a rigid hierarchy with a clear chain of command, while at the other end of the scale, groups have a far more "amorphous, free floating and flatter" structure. [45] As Finckenauer also observes, SOC groups not only comprise distinct, strongly hierarchical groups, but also involve much more fluid criminal networks which form in response to emerging criminal opportunities. [46]

Commissioned by the United Nations ( UN), the Centre for International Crime Prevention ( CICP) conducted a survey of forty SOC groups across sixteen countries. [47] These groups were compared using ten main variables covering various aspects of SOC groups including structure, operations and identity. Vy Le observes that while other studies have explored the organisation and activities of SOC groups, this UN study is "likely to be the most comprehensive". [48] This study identified five main typologies of SOC groups. Through drawing on Vy Le's analysis and the UN study itself, these are summarised shortly. However, it is important to acknowledge that while these are the main typologies, given the diversity of SOC groups, they are not exhaustive. Moreover, other work also offers insights into how these groups fit into wider society (for example Von Lampe's work on how SOC groups fit or are integrated into society). [49]

Standard hierarchy: According to this UN study, the standard hierarchy structure is the most common structure and is characterised by a formal hierarchy with clear positions of command and clearly defined roles. The group's hierarchy is maintained through violence (how this works in practice will be discussed in more detail later, albeit knowledge of this remains quite limited). Standard hierarchy groups tend to be comprised of members who are of the same ethnicity or who share similar personal backgrounds.

Regional hierarchy: The regional hierarchy structure is similar to the standard structure in terms of there being a clear chain of command, internal discipline and members sharing common social or ethnic identities. What differentiates a regional hierarchy group from a standard hierarchy group is the "decentralisation of power", where limited autonomy is given to local leaders. [50] The structure allows groups to broaden their membership and participate in various OC activities across a wide geographical area. This kind of structure is particularly beneficial to those groups that are involved in transnational OC.

Clustered hierarchy: A clustered hierarchy structure comprises of groupings of small SOC groups acting under a central body. The groupings or 'clusters' are coordinated in terms of their criminal enterprise by a central coordination body, but retain independence in terms of their activities and identity. These clustered hierarchy structures are uncommon and most likely to develop in unique social environments, such as within a prison system.

Core group: These are unstructured groups of OC criminals who are surrounded by a larger network of associate members. The 'core' itself is small, which makes it easier to maintain internal discipline. Unlike hierarchical structures, power is shared among all its members. From a law enforcement perspective, firstly identifying and secondly tackling these groups is problematic: their lack of a strong ethnic or social identity complicates identification further. In addition, these groups may also operate behind the façade of legitimate businesses that are managed by a small group of people.

Criminal network structure: These networks are highly fluid and adaptable. The individuals within these networks have various skills and characteristics, and they are recruited to undertake particular jobs on the basis of these. The 'pooling of resources' is beneficial to the group, and the success of these very loose structures depend on members' shared personal ties and loyalties. Yet the fluid nature of these structures means that key individuals can be replaced should they leave, or should individuals come to the attention of law enforcement agencies (thus risking exposure). While these groups represent a small proportion of the sample in the UN study, the report notes that it is likely that they are actually common, and possibly even increasing in number.

In summary, it is important to recognise that while SOC groups are often very hierarchical and highly structured, SOC groups come in a variety of shapes and forms, which also includes very loose networks of criminal actors. The traditional or stereotypical conception of a SOC group may be of a Sicilian Mafia style group which is, among other things, familial in origin. [51] However, the evidence presented here suggests that SOC groups can be comprised of members who can be connected to one another in different ways and with varying degrees of closeness. It is crucial that trusted social connections, both internally and externally exist, yet the origins of these social connections are varied and do not emerge solely, for example, from family units. Recognising the diverse structures and compositions of SOC groups is critical to understanding how SOC can be tackled.

SOC activities

This section provides information on some of the key criminal activities SOC groups are involved in although it should be recognised that it is not an exhaustive list of all SOC related activity. SOC groups are involved in a diverse range of criminal activities, which span activities that SOC groups have had traditional involvement in, such as the supply and distribution of illegal drugs, to new and emerging criminal activities [52] such as human trafficking. It is beyond the scope of this report to discuss all of these activities, or discuss them in great detail. However, the diverse list suggests the adaptability of SOC groups to respond to new demands and trends. Strategic assessment data [53] also reveal that just under half of SOC groups are involved in multiple types of criminal activity; this again is demonstrative of the adaptability of SOC groups. However, on this note, it is also important to point out that broader literature (for example, from the EU) identifies other areas of involvement for SOC groups; for instance, in relation to human trafficking and sexual exploitation (which is discussed in Section 5). These groups are likely to be involved in even more activities than is suggested by the following list, which relies on evidence primarily from Scotland and from the wider UK.

It is worth re-iterating that there is a lack of detailed information on SOC groups' involvement in these activities, beyond that provided by the strategic assessment. However, that which does exist offers insight into SOC group activities in Scotland:

  • Drug supply and distribution: As will be discussed, despite declining illegal drug consumption in Scotland in general (as indicated by findings from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey which will be discussed later), the supply and distribution of illegal drugs is a common activity for SOC groups to be engaged in; 65% of Scottish SOC groups are estimated to be involved in this. Heroin is the most popular commodity, followed by cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine and tranquilisers. According to Europol, New Psychoactive Substances ( NPS) as a commodity are likely to emerge as the most significant drug related issue in the EU. [54] Links in relation to drug trafficking exist between Scotland and the north west of England, but links also exist at a European and global level. [55] The cost and impacts of drug supply and distribution will be discussed in more detail in Section 5, but it is worth noting here that even with declining drug consumption, the scale of the drugs market (estimated at £1.4 billion in 2009 [56] ) means that there are likely to be significant numbers of individuals involved in various aspects of this market, including importing, selling, transporting drugs, as well as laundering proceeds, and other related activities.
  • Acquisitive crime: This includes a wide range of crimes including cash-in-transit crimes, organised shoplifting, metal theft, 'tiger kidnappings' [57] , and aggravated burglaries. The most common type of property stolen in organised acquisitive crime is motor vehicles. SOC groups are also known to be involved in organised 'bogus crime' where the vulnerable and/or elderly are targeted for the purposes of extorting cash. [58]
  • Counterfeiting: SOC groups are involved in the trade of counterfeit goods. SOC groups are involved in counterfeiting various goods including tobacco and alcohol. As will be discussed, counterfeiting also involves the unauthorised taking of intellectual property which affects, among others, businesses. [59]
  • Immigration crime: SOC groups are involved in immigration crime, which includes forging documents and arranging sham marriages. [60]
  • Environmental crime: SOC groups are involved in environmental crime, which covers a broad span of activities including the illegal dumping of waste products. Products include construction and demolition waste (including hazardous materials such as asbestos), 'end of life' vehicles and metal, and also electronic or 'e-waste'. E-waste materials can be stripped down in order to reclaim valuable materials such as gold and silver. [61]
  • Fraud: SOC groups involved in fraud have the aim of either making or laundering money. Common fraud types include excise duty evasion, VAT repayment and mortgage fraud. [62] More detail on fraud, as well as its impacts, will be discussed in Section 5.
  • Extortion: Extortion is the use of blackmail or violence to force victims into making illegal payments. SOC groups are known to be involved in extortion but prevalence is difficult to estimate; for example, other types of SOC activity, such as those discussed here, may involve using extortion but the prevalence is unknown. [63]
  • Cybercrime: The UK Government's ' Serious and Organised Crime Strategy 2013' [64] divides cybercrime into two distinct types: cyber-dependent and cyber-enabled crime. Cyber-enabled crime utilises technology to facilitate the crime, and can be committed both offline and online. Cyber-dependent crime, or 'pure cybercrime', can only be carried out through computers or similar devices, and includes: hacking, denial of service attacks (for example, via the flooding of internet servers), and the distribution of malicious software. Due to the evolving and inherently complex nature of both forms of cybercrime and all that this category encompasses, it is very difficult to assess the level of threat posed to Scottish communities. Cybercrime is "intrinsically linked" to SOC, and cyber enabled crime is considered to be a "significant threat" to Scotland. [65] However, not all forms of cybercrime are associated with SOC. While this report does not discuss the harms associated with cybercrime, it is important to note that cybercrime has the potential to affect individuals within society in a more geographically widespread way than other forms of crime. Given this, and given its relatively recent and emerging nature, further investigation is required.
  • Human trafficking: Some SOC groups traffic individuals for profit and for a range of purposes including for sexual exploitation, prostitution, illegal labour (including domestic servitude) and sham marriages. [66]
  • Child sexual exploitation ( CSE): Although not all child sexual exploitation may be organised for financial profit, intelligence suggests that some organised crime groups are involved in CSE. Given the nature of CSE (as well as the issue of under-reporting and the changing and new means by which it can be perpetrated) obtaining an accurate picture of the scale and nature of it in Scotland is problematic. [67] However CSE is a known activity that SOC groups are involved in. The Police Foundation (based in England and Wales) estimates that the true scale of CSE is under estimated and also observes that while SOC groups are involved in CSE, CSE is not always attributed to SOC, but determining who exactly is responsible is a difficult exercise. [68] This complexity will be discussed later, but given these issues, it is likely that the scale and nature of CSE, including that which is perpetrated specifically by SOC groups in Scotland, is also under-estimated.

SOC groups may undertake other types of crimes that are 'secondary', and not directly profitable in themselves, but carried out to support their organisations' need to bank profits, and maintain influence and profile. The following are some of the commonly identified facilitating crimes that SOC groups may become engaged in:

  • Money laundering: Money laundering (converting proceeds of crime into tangible and usable, 'legally' held assets) is often essential to the operation of SOC groups. Money laundering includes the concealment, movement and legitimisation of money made from criminal activities. SOC groups in Scotland are involved in various means of money laundering. Common means are via cash based businesses, use of third party bank accounts and investing in property. The largest numbers of businesses linked to SOC groups are licensed premises, restaurants, construction, shop/retail and garage repairs/maintenance businesses. The majority of SOC groups that are involved in money laundering have links to quasi-legitimate businesses, providing opportunities to launder the profits stemming from SOC activity. [69]
  • Firearms: There are strong links between SOC groups, the drugs market and the use of firearms. It is not uncommon for SOC groups to have access to firearms, and SOC groups are also known to sell firearms to other SOC groups. [70] In terms of understanding the importance of this connection, if a group is known to be able to access firearms, this can bolster the power of a SOC group and thus contribute to its success.
  • Violence: By its nature, violence encompasses a broad range of harms, from the threat of violence and minor assaults, through to murder. Violence specific to SOC (as opposed to violence committed for other reasons) is difficult to isolate and distinguish within crime and victimisation datasets (such as the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey). The strategic assessment notes that violence is often employed by SOC groups, but the full extent and range of this is unknown. [71] Violence (including fear of violence) may be deemed essential to the operation of SOC groups to protect their reputation, business interests and profits. Violence can be used to either facilitate a criminal enterprise or to control elements of a criminal market. As a facilitator, violence can enable crime and also may be used alongside other crimes with the ultimate goal of the generation of profit. However, as outlined by Von Lampe, it is important not to over-state the role of violence; Von Lampe suggests alternatively SOC groups avoid resorting to violence. [72] Although, findings from Campana and Varese's study suggest an underlying complexity to this, and indicate that SOC groups may use violence in a strategic way. For example, a violent act committed by one member can be purposely hidden or revealed, and knowledge of a violent act can be used against the perpetrator (for example, it can be reported to the police). Groups (and members within them) can also develop a reputation for violence, limiting the need to resort to actually using violence. In these ways, violence can be used to encourage co-operation within groups. [73] Lastly, it is important to consider too how fear of violence (created, for example, through reputation) is also a form of violence, and may also help to achieve the goals of a SOC group. For example, fear may inhibit a community from reporting SOC activity.
  • Corruption: This is the process of irregular influence with the goal of allowing participants to gain profit and resources through the breaking of established rules. A study by the Center for the Study of Democracy ( CSD) provides an account of different types of corruption covering various spheres that SOC groups can engage in. These include private sector corruption, political corruption, judicial corruption, police corruption and customs corruption. Corruption can take various forms depending on the context, and can range in severity, from sporadic and low level bribery, to infiltration, to even becoming the leaders of agencies. [74] Scottish SOC groups are known to be involved in corruption.

Finally, the complexity required to undertake this range of operations and activities requires SOC groups to have members performing various roles, many of which require specialisation. While the roles are varied, common specialist roles include being a car thief, a financial specialist and a money launderer. [75]

This overview of SOC activity reveals the broad range of activities SOC groups are involved in. Some of these activities overlap, and as stated, over half of SOC groups are involved in the commission of more than one of these activities at a given time, which is demonstrative of how adaptable SOC groups tend to be.