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.

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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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