Forecast | Future of organized crime: Future of crime P5

The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, Scarface, Casino, The Departed, Eastern Promises, the public's fascination with organized crime seems natural given our love-hate relationship with this underworld. On the one hand, we openly support organized crime every time we purchase illicit drugs or frequent shady bars, clubs, and casinos; meanwhile, we oppose it when our tax dollars prosecute mobsters. 

Organized crime feels both out of place, as well as uncomfortably natural in our society. It has existed for centuries, perhaps even millennia, depending on how you define it. Like a virus, organized crime abuses and steals from the society it serves, but like a release valve, it also enables black markets that provide the products and services governments either don't allow or aren't able to provide for its citizens. In some regions and countries, organized crime and terror organizations assume the role of government where the traditional government has collapsed entirely. 

Given this dual reality, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some of the world's top criminal organizations currently generate more revenue than select nation states. Just look at Fortune’s list of the top five organized crime groups: 

  • Solntsevskaya Bratva (Russian mafia) — Revenue: $8.5 billion
  • Yamaguchi Gumi (aka The Yakuza from Japan) — Revenue: $6.6 billion
  • Camorra (Italian-American mafia) — Revenue: $4.9 billion
  • Ndrangheta (Italian mob) — Revenue: $4.5 billion
  • Sinaloa Cartel (Mexican mob) — Revenue: $3 billion 

Even more jaw-dropping, the US FBI estimates that global organized crime generates a staggering $1 trillion annually.

With all this cash, organized crime isn’t going anywhere soon. In fact, organized crime will enjoy a bright future well into the late 2030s. Let’s look at the trends that will drive its growth, how it will be forced to evolve, and then we’ll take a look at the tech future federal organizations will use to break them apart. 

Trends fuelling the rise of organized crime

Given the preceding chapters of this Future of Crime series, you would be forgiven to think that crime, in general, is headed for extinction. While this is true in the long run, the short-term reality is that crime, especially of the organized variety, will benefit and prosper from a range of negative trends between 2020 to 2040. 

Future recessions. As a general rule, recessions mean good business for organized crime. During times of uncertainty, people seek refuge in the increased consumption of drugs, as well as participate in underground betting and gambling schemes, activities that criminal syndicates specialize in dealing. Moreover, during hard times many turn to loan sharks to pay off emergency loans—and if you’ve watched any mafia movie, you know that decision rarely works out well. 

Fortunately for criminal organizations, and unfortunately for the global economy, recessions will become more common over the coming decades largely due to automation. As outlined in chapter five of our Future of Work series, 47 percent of today’s jobs will disappear by 2040, all while world’s population is set to grow to nine billion by that same year. While developed nations may overcome automation through social welfare schemes like the Universal Basic Income, many developing nations (that are also expecting the large population growth) won't have the resources to offer such government services. 

To the point, without a massive restructuring of the global economic system, half of the world's working-age population may become unemployed and dependent on government welfare. This scenario would cripple most export-based economies, leading to widespread recessions across the globe. 

Trafficking and smuggling. Whether it’s smuggling drugs and knockoff goods, sneaking refugees across borders, or trafficking women and children, when economies enter into recessions, when nations collapse (e.g. Syria and Libya), and when regions suffer devastating environmental disasters, that’s when the logistics faculties of criminal organizations thrive. 

Unfortunately, the next two decades will see a world where these three conditions become commonplace. For as recessions multiply, so too will the risk of nations collapsing. And as the effects of climate change worsens, we'll also see the number of devastating weather-related events multiply, leading to millions of climate change refugees.

The Syrian War is a case in point: A poor economy, a chronic national drought, and a flare-up in sectarian tensions started a war that, as of September 2016, has resulted in warlords and criminal organizations seizing power throughout the nation, as well as millions of refugees destabilizing Europe and the Middle East—many of whom have also fallen into the hands of traffickers

Future failed states. Furthering the point above, when nations are weakened by economic distress, environmental disasters, or war, it opens an opportunity for organized crime groups to use their cash reserves to gain influence among the elites within the political, financial and military spheres. Remember, when the government becomes unable to pay its public servants, said public servants will become more open to accepting aid from outside organizations to help them put food on their family's plates. 

This is a pattern that has played out regularly across Africa, parts of the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon), and, as of 2016, throughout much of South America (Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela). As nation-states become more volatile over the next two decades, the wealth of the organized crime organizations that operate within them will grow in step. 

Cybercrime gold rush. Discussed in the second chapter of this series, the 2020s will be a gold rush cybercrime. Without rehashing that entire chapter, by the late 2020s, approximately three billion people in the developing world will gain access to the web for the first time. These novice Internet users represent a future payday for online scammers, especially since the developing nations these scammers will target won’t have the cyber defense infrastructure needed to defend their citizens. A lot of damage will be done before tech giants, like Google, engineer methods to provide free cybersecurity services for the developing world. 

Engineering synthetic drugs. Discussed in the previous chapter of this series, advances in recent breakthroughs such as CRISPR (explained in chapter three of our Future of Health series) will enable criminally funded scientists to produce a range genetically engineered plants and chemicals with psychoactive properties. These drugs can be engineered to have extremely specific styles of highs and the synthetic ones can be produced in mass quantities in remote warehouses—useful as governments in the developing world are getting better at locating and eradicating narcotic crop fields.

How organized crime will evolve against tech-enabled police

Over the previous chapters, we explored the tech that will eventually lead to the end of theft, cybercrime, and even violent crime. These advances will most definitely have an impact on organized crime, forcing its leaders to adjust how they operate and the types of crimes they choose to pursue. The following trends outline just how these criminal organizations will evolve to stay one step ahead of the law.

The death of the lone criminal. Thanks to significant advances in artificial intelligence (AI), big data, CCTV tech, the Internet of Things, manufacturing automation, and cultural trends, the days of the small-time criminal are numbered. Be it traditional crimes or cyber crimes, they will all become far too risky and the gains far too minimal. For this reason, the remaining individuals with the motivation, propensity, and skillset for crime will likely turn to employment with criminal organizations who have the infrastructure necessary to reduce the costs and risks associated of most forms of criminal activity.

Organized crime organizations become localized and cooperative. By the late 2020s, the advancements in AI and big data mentioned above will enable police and intelligence agencies around the world to identify and track individuals and property associated with criminal organizations at scale, globally. Furthermore, as bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries make it easier for law enforcement agencies to pursue criminals across borders, it will become increasingly difficult for criminal organizations to maintain the global footprint they enjoyed throughout much of the 20th century. 

As a result, many criminal organizations will turn inward, operating within the national borders of their home country with minimal interaction with their international affiliates. Additionally, this increased police pressure may encourage a greater level of trade and cooperation between competing criminal organizations to pull off the increasingly complex heists necessary to overcome future security tech. 

Criminal money reinvested into legitimate ventures. As police and intelligence agencies become more effective, criminal organizations will look for new avenues to invest their money. The more well-connected organizations will increase their bribery budgets to pay off enough politicians and police to continue operating without harassment … at least for a time. Over the long term, criminal organizations will invest an ever greater share of their criminal earnings into legitimate economic activity. While hard to imagine today, this honest option will simply become the option of least resistance, offering criminal organizations a better return on their investment compared to criminal activity that police tech will make substantially more costly and risky.

Breaking apart organized crime

The overarching theme of this series is that the future of crime is the end of crime. And when it comes to organized crime, this is a fate they won’t escape. With every passing decade going forward, police and intelligence organizations will see massive improvements in their collection, organization, and analysis of data in a variety of fields, from finance to social media, from real estate to retail sales, and more. Future police supercomputers will sift through all of this big data to isolate criminal activity and from there, isolate the criminals and criminal networks responsible for them.

For example, chapter four of our Future of Policing series discussed how police agencies around the world have begun using predictive analytics software—this is a tool that translates years' worth of crime reports and statistics, combined with real-time urban data, to predict the probability and type of criminal activity likely to occur at any given time, in every part of a city. Police departments use this data to strategically deploy police in high-risk urban areas to better intercept crimes as they happen or scare off would-be criminals altogether. 

Likewise, military engineers are developing software that can predict the social structures of street gangs. By better understanding these structures, police agencies will become better positioned to disrupt them with key arrests. And in Italy, a collective of software engineers created a centralized, user-friendly, real-time, national database of all goods confiscated by the Italian authorities from the Mafia. Italian police agencies are now using this database to more effectively coordinate their enforcement activity against their country's many mafia groups. 


These few examples are an early sample of the many projects now underway to modernize law enforcement against organized crime. This new tech will substantially bring down the costs of investigating complex criminal organizations and make it easier to prosecute them. In fact, by 2040, the surveillance and analytics tech that will become available to the police will make running a traditional, centralized criminal organization next to impossible. The only variable, as always seems to be the case, is whether a country has enough uncorrupted politicians and police chiefs willing to use these tools to put an end to these organizations once and for all.

Likelihood of happening rating 
Large (4/5)
importance rating 
Moderate (3/5)
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Next scheduled update for this forecast
February 20, 2021. Last updated February 20, 2019.
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