Fighting organized crime and carrying out the “war on drugs” presents several unique challenges to law enforcement. Many organized crime groups operate in a culture of Omerta, or the virtue of silence. In this culture, it is prohibited to provide information to the government, and punishment for violating it can result in death. Also, some of the organized criminal groups have more resources than law enforcement, which enables them to hire the very best attorneys, or even buy corrupt officials. An additional frustration is that the leadership of organized criminal groups does not carry out the actual crimes, so it can be very difficult to prove their involvement.
Law enforcement has discovered that instead of going after crimes like murder or robbery it can be easier to target financial crimes. One earlier example of this was the targeting of Al Capone for tax evasion. It can be easier to find these violations, and to prove them in court than to prove a bosses complicity in violent crime. As law makers realized this, they have created several legal tools to aid in this. One of the most important tools is the Bank Secrecy Act, which required banks to keep records of financial transactions and to report suspicious activities to the government. Before this act was passed, there were no questions asked banking, which made it easy for criminals to use the banks clandestinely. In 1986, the US went a step further and criminalized money laundering, and has sought to spread this practice to international organizations and other countries.
Another major tool for law enforcement is the RICO Statutes. RICO allowed law enforcement to more directly target the top layers of organized crime, as well as allowing for the seizure of assets used in the committing of a crime. The statutes are vague, so they allow for a great degree of interpretation. Basically, someone can be tried under the Rico statutes if they commit two acts of racketeering within ten years. The law required complete witness cooperation, and made it much easier for law enforcement to target the groups, but it was controversial with some civil rights supporters arguing that it went too far.
A later law, the CCCA made it possible to target the assets of criminal groups in civil court. This was a major step, because in civil court decisions are based on the preponderance of the evidence, but in criminal courts decisions are based on a lack of reasonable doubt. Courts could seize up to $100,000 without having to file a criminal charge, and soon this practice became so profitable that law enforcement became ‘addicted’ to drug enforcement seizures, leading to complaints of abuse. Opponents of this practice said it gave law enforcement a bounty hunter approach, and the law was reformed in 2000 to require a substantial connection between the crime and the property.
The US saw money laundering legislation as a major tool to use in the fight against crime, and around election time increased legislation to show their toughness on crime. They even created new agencies, such as FinCEN to specifically target this. These tools can be effective, but organized crime still exists, and has even grown stronger in recent years in some places due to globalization. As long as there is a market for criminal activities that is strong enough to provide a large profit going after finances will help, but not deter determined criminals.