Interpol at 100: Does the World's Police Force Work?

The agency is battling a new generation of criminals, amid accusations that it has become a tool of dictators.
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Interpol employees escort Alejandro Jimenez Gonzalez, a Costa Rican arrested on suspicion of assassinating an Argentine singer. (Reuters/The Atlantic)

Earlier this month, local police, backed by Interpol, fanned out across the Philippines, busting nearly 60 people allegedly connected to cyber “sextortion” syndicates. These groups, investigators say, tricked thousands of victims on at least four continents into participating in sexually explicit online videos and chats, only to then demand money from them to keep the material secret.

It was a crime nearly a century from being invented when the first International Criminal Police Congress gathered in Monaco in the spring of 1914, for a meeting that would ultimately result in the creation of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as Interpol (the organization traces its lineage to the conference, though Interpol itself wasn't established until 1923). At the time, European nations wanted to collaborate against anarchists and terrorists who were supposedly plotting the overthrow of the political order across the continent. Nowadays, Interpol has 190 member states and a much broader cast of shadowy transnational criminals to combat—from pharmaceutical counterfeiters to football-match fixers to a modern generation of terrorists.

The Philippines bust is just one high-profile case that Interpol has been involved in recently. From flagging stolen passports used on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight to offering help in locating the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, the organization keeps popping up in the world’s most prominent investigations. All of which raises the question: What exactly has Interpol become, 100 years since it was set in motion? And is its model of international policing succeeding against today’s international criminals?

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International policing predated the first modern attempts to forge an international government, reversing the standard state-level order of government first, then police. Interpol arose not as an arm of the United Nations, which wouldn’t be founded for another three decades, but through “a practical arrangement” between local police themselves, says Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who has written widely on Interpol.

The result, Deflem told me by email, was “a network of police from different nations, a collaborative organization.” Rather than creating a new breed of cop with a global beat and a responsibility for international law enforcement, Interpol established a mechanism for helping local police do their local jobs. As the anthropologist Meg Stalcup wrote last year in a fascinating history of the organization, “Interpol was not designed to act as a scaled-up version of local policing.”

In fact, the popular image of Interpol as a global police force chasing down jet-setting rogues with stacks of fake passports is a myth. Interpol officers do not bust down doors to apprehend dashing art thieves. There isn’t any such thing as an Interpol officer, and the people who work for Interpol can’t conduct investigations or make arrests. In the case of the sextortion rings, for example, Filipino cops were the ones hauling off the alleged cyberperps; Interpol just helped them know where to look for the suspects.

Interpol’s key role in that operation, as in others, was as an information clearinghouse. The organization, which is based in Lyon, France, performs this function both by maintaining international criminal databases and facilitating contacts among officers from different national police forces—tasks that have been greatly refined in recent years with advances in communications technology. Whereas Interpol’s big innovation of 1935 was an international radio network for police, today it has “I-24/7,” a secure communications network described as “a bit like a private Internet just for police.” This year, the organization will open a Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore as an R&D headquarters for combating cybercrime. At the lower-tech level, annual general-assembly meetings convene delegates from member countries to vote on policies and resources. Interpol’s National Central Bureaus in each member country serve as contact points among them, with actual law enforcement performed by the relevant national institutions. 

It is this built-in notion of sovereignty that leaves Interpol better able than some other international organizations to function amid political tensions among, or even a lack of diplomatic relations between, its members (the U.S. is a member, as are Iran and Cuba). Interpol’s constitution emphasizes that the cooperation it facilitates must take place “within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries and in the spirit of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’”

The other edge of this sword, however, is that these constraints limit Interpol’s practical utility. Deflem says that when national law-enforcement agencies do international work—for example, pursuing a fugitive who committed a crime at home and then fled overseas—they often prefer to partner directly with the relevant country rather than involving Interpol. Interpol’s size, he says, limits its value. Its resources—the organization had an operating budget of €70 million ($90 million) in 2012, the bulk of it provided by member countries based on their ability to pay—“are very minimal” compared to those of many local police forces. The entire staff, mostly international civil servants and police on loan from national police forces, is roughly 650 people. For comparison’s sake, the New York City Police Department had a budget of nearly $4.9 billion in fiscal year 2012, and it has about 34,500 uniformed officers.

Even so, Interpol has facilitated major law-enforcement successes, such as an operation last month that rescued 76 suspected child-trafficking victims in Ivory Coast. And one of its main services—issuing “notices” at the request of members to help locate fugitives or missing persons—is now widely used. In 2012, Interpol issued 8,100 Red Notices—notifications for the arrest and possible extradition of wanted persons. That represented a nearly sevenfold increase in the use of such notices since 2002.

But despite Interpol’s constitutional prohibition against “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character,” there have been reports that authoritarian regimes are abusing the Red-Notice system in pursuing dissidents overseas. Last November, Fair Trials International published a damning report detailing cases like that of Petr Silaev, a Russian activist arrested and imprisoned in Spain after being slapped with a Red Notice on charges of hooliganism (following months of legal wrangling, Spain ultimately refused to extradite him to Russia). A 2011 investigation found that 28 percent of Interpol Red Notices studied were from countries Freedom House identified as having no civil liberties, and that half were from countries Transparency International ranked among the most corrupt in the world. For his part, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble has maintained that these high-profile cases obscure a low rate of problems; there were 49 official complaints about such notices in 2012. Nor is the system solely a tool of authoritarian governments: “Almost half of wanted subjects currently in our nominal databases are from the European Union,” he wrote last year.

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The controversy over Red Notices highlights a central dilemma for Interpol in the post-September 11 and theoretically imminent post-“global war on terrorism” era. For generations prior to 9/11, terrorism of both the domestic and the international variety was perceived and combated as crime (indeed, anarchist terrorism was among the problems spurring Interpol’s formation in the first place). But the political motivations necessary for violence to qualify as terrorist in nature, and the political judgments required for labeling violence as terrorism, would seem to put the crime of terrorism outside Interpol’s constitutional scope.

Yet the “war” waged on terrorists as enemies more dangerous than criminals may have been an aberration, and it was never universally embraced in any case. “I would say that it still remains the case that the cooperative international law-enforcement response to terrorism is the dominant model,” even though drones and special ops get more headlines, says Allen Weiner, the director of Stanford University’s Program in International and Comparative Law.

On the surface, this seems like a job for Interpol, and Deflem has pointed out that the organization has tried to thread this needle: “Basically, terrorist incidents are broken down into their constituent parts”—such as hijacking or hostage-taking—“only the criminal elements of which can then be identified and subject to police investigations.”

This was the case, for example, in 1998, when Osama bin Laden became the subject of a Red Notice for murder, at Libya’s request, four months before al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Africa. The bin Laden case illustrates both Interpol’s potential and its limitations. As a nexus for information from police organizations all over the world, Interpol is well-positioned to anticipate events—even if doing so inevitably involves entertaining requests from authoritarian countries such as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya. But as an organization that is something short of a “global police force,” Interpol is only as good as its local partners.

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Kathy Gilsinan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers global affairs. She was previously senior editor at World Politics Review.

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