The List: The World’s Most Unexpected Crime Waves

Thanks to both the forces of globalization and the worsening financial crisis, criminal activity is spreading to some surprising places and groups. Here are five crime waves that authorities never saw coming.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.




The perpetrators: rival Copenhagen drug gangs

Scene of the crimes: Something may indeed be rotten in one of Europe’s safest and most prosperous countries as authorities struggle to contain a worrisome surge in drug-related violence. The troubles began in Christiania, Copenhagen’s famous squatter district. Once known as a haven for hippies and artists, the area has become overrun with hard-drug use. Authorities moved to clamp down on drug dealing in Christiania in 2004, but criminal activity has since spread to the rest of the city. Copenhagen has seen 60 shootings, most of them drug-related, in the last six months, prompting the government to enact sweeping new drug laws including longer prison terms and increased surveillance power for police.

Although the violence may appear insignificant by many countries’ standards (only three have been killed and 25 injured in the current drug war), it stands out in normally placid Denmark, and the government fears it could exacerbate racial tensions brought on by the country’s recent influx of Middle Eastern immigrants. Like a Scandinavian West Side Story, the two primary gangs involved in the war are the Hells Angels, comprising ethnic Danes, and the Black Cobras, which is mostly Middle Eastern. Immigrants rights groups are already complaining of discriminatory policing and unequal sentencing as authorities clamp down.


The perpetrators: the disenchanted elderly

Scene of the crimes: Japan is facing an increasing problem of crime committed by the elderly. Between 2002 and 2007, arrests of people over 65 more than doubled while the overall crime rate decreased. Seniors were responsible for one in seven crimes last year. Pickpocketing and robbery are the most common offenses, though assaults by the elderly have increased by a factor of 17 as well.

It’s a bit hard not to be amused by stories like that of the man who robbed a Nagoya grocery store with a knife last year and made a successful getaway despite needing a cane to walk, but the problem is actually a very serious one as Japan’s elderly population mushrooms. Japanese social scientists blame the gray crime wave on economic distress brought on by the country’s stagnant economy and the breakdown of the traditional family structure. It’s very difficult to live on their small pensions, so if they don’t have relatives to support them they get backed into a financial corner and become isolated, a criminology professor in Kyoto told Australia’s The Age. The government is now spending 8.3 billion yen to build three prison wards outfitted with walkers and support rails.



The perpetrators: marginalized youths and migrant workers

Scene of the crimes: China’s social ills may be many, but thanks partly to its draconian law-enforcement practices, crime has not traditionally been one of them. That might be changing these days thanks to the social instability brought on by the country’s massive internal migration and the financial crisis. The number of criminal cases per year has more than doubled since the 1990s. Perhaps more troublingly, crimes committed by minors doubled in the last decade and, according to the China Daily, now account for 10 percent of criminal sentences by Chinese courts. Rural youths left behind as their parents migrate to cities for work are thought to be the root of the problem. Chinese police launched a crackdown on rural crime in 2007.

And all that was before the bottom fell out of the global economy. With factories closing and jobs disappearing throughout China, criminologists are worried about an increase in crime similar to the spike that occurred after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. It’s too early for conclusive statistical data, but anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in robberies in now struggling industrial cities such as Shenzhen. As millions of out-of-work migrants return to the countryside, the potential for social upheaval and crime is great.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


The perpetrators: white-collar fraudsters

Scene of the crimes: As the global downturn devastates their country’s economy, more and more Britons are turning to crime, particularly fraud. In March 2009, authorities reported a 63 percent increase in incidents of financial crime, compared with the same time last year. Some of the numbers can be attributed to increased reporting and awareness as authorities step up enforcement after years of lax policing of property scams, but as the economic downturn worsens, authorities are expecting an uptick in petty scams. The economic crime unit of the London police is currently investigating 689 suspects, including multimillion-pound mini-Madoff pyramid schemes.

A former director of public prosecutions recently described the country’s financial regulatory system as completely broken, and another police official predicted that the country’s first billion-pound fraud would probably come to light soon. As authorities struggle to catch up with the problem, economic realities might be making their job harder: With interest rates slashed to an extremely low 0.5 percent, fraudulent offers of impossible returns on investments are becoming more enticing.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The perpetrators: Mexican drug gangs

Scene of the crimes: Violence related to illegal immigration and the drug trade is hardly new in this southwestern border state, but local authorities have never seen anything like the recent wave of kidnappings, murders, and home invasions as Mexico’s brutal drug war, particularly violence from the notorious Sinaloa cartel, spills over the border. Recently, public statement body dumps of the kind that are now routine in Mexico have been appearing in the Arizona desert, often showing evidence of brutal torture.

More than 340 people were kidnapped from their homes in Phoenix last year. The crime has become so prevalent in Phoenix that the city’s police department has formed a special division just to deal with it. Hopefully they’re well-equipped. Sinaloa gunmen often wear gear identical to what U.S. SWAT teams wear and come armed with high-powered Belgian rifles, armor-piercing bullets, and even rocket-propelled grenades. There’s evidence that the cartels are also moving into the profitable but brutal field of trafficking illegal immigrants. Police say that illegal immigrants are hiding in more than 1,000 safe houses throughout the Phoenix area. Torture and rape are commonly used to extort money from the migrants. [The level of violence is] definitely being ramped up beyond anything we’ve ever seen before, state Sen. Jonathan Paton told Agence France-Presse.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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