Since this article was published--October 2, 2008-- the organization has been in the news again. A judge on November 19 ordered the arrest of the head of Interpol in Mexico, Ricardo Gutierrez Vargas, as part of an investigation into alleged links with drug cartels.
The top decision-making body of the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol as it is better known, meets in St Petersburg on Tuesday. The General Assembly will consider admitting Vatican City as the organization’s 187th member, and reflect on Interpol’s contributions to the Olympic games, but the majority of the meeting will be turned over to discussion of more mundane, though vitally important, issues -- improving information exchange between police forces.
While the organization’s name retains a certain glamour, it has no detective staff of its own and serves largely as a conduit of information between officers from different countries (including as a secure telephone exchange through its ‘I-24/7’ system). It also maintains databases (incorporating not just offenders but also items such as lost documents), operates crisis response centres and serves as a centre for research and training.
The organization has been in the news recently, with Secretary-General Ronald Noble complaining of inadequate policing in Afghanistan, a recent member. The war on terror has demonstrated the organization’s usefulness -- since the attacks of September 2001, the organization has expanded hugely, its budget rising by 50% between 2000 and 2006, and the number of ‘Red notices’ (international notifications of arrest warrants) having increased by nearly 300% in the same period.
Every increase in the organization’s responsibility for terrorism has been marked by controversy. The organization’s constitution, after all, prohibits “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character” –- following the exploitation of the organization by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and Eastern European Communist regimes in the 1950s. After the organization began receiving powers to investigate terrorism in the 1970s, dealing with hijacks and bombs on planes, it faced criticism over which actions fell under the definition of terrorism.
More recently, the organization’s assistance to China, which made hundreds of thousands of enquiries into Interpol databases in the run-up to the Olympics, has raised questions about the kinds of crimes to which the organization pays attention. That the meeting is taking place in Russia, with its own troubled relationship with the rule of law, is also raising eyebrows. Interpol has been required to tread carefully in indicting politicians accused of fraud, given the risk of getting politically engaged, and even anti-drug or organized crime measures can feature a political element.
The organization is vulnerable to a challenge from the other direction, too: that it’s not doing enough with the data it has collected. In spite of national co-ordination offices the launch of the I-24/7 network in 2003, getting information where it needs to be is fiendishly difficult: due to legal restrictions between countries, inter-institutional rivalries, and even differing office hours and computer formats. Even if information reaches a particular national Interpol office, there is a further challenge getting it to ordinary beat officers -– prompting European police services especially to try and widen access to I-24/7 to investigators, and trial ‘MIND/FIND’, systems for border police to check registers of lost documents. There is also a problem at the other end, in reporting problems to Interpol: during his Afghan visit, Noble complained that his organization often has to learn of incidents such as prison escapes through the media.
For all its problems, Interpol remains the most sophisticated example of police co-ordination, at a time when it has never been easier for criminals (and their money) to evade police scrutiny across borders. Other attempts, such as Europol in the EU, are at more primitive -- European police forces sent ten times more traffic to each other via Interpol than through Europol. Certainly, Interpol is keen to demonstrate its usefulness, following embarrassment earlier in the year, when the President of the organization (the representative of national members), Jackie Selebi of the South African police, stood down over allegations he received bribes from drug traffickers. Frustratingly for the organization, the key to its future reputation is with the national officers who make use of its services -- and so, to a significant extent, out of its hands.