“In Palestine, family is important. If we’re speaking about fighting organised crime, this is a challenge”

Dr Michele Tarlao from the Italian State Police has over 35 years’ experience in investigating organised crime and developing strategies to combat it both in his home country, as well as in postings abroad to the former Yugoslavia and South America. Though Italy is far from only country to suffer from organised crime groups, the global reach of Italy’s emigrant population, as well as Hollywood glamour have made sure that the Italian word ‘mafia’ is understood in every country around the world. Dr Tarlao brings the expertise of fighting organised crime and narcotics in his home country with him to his secondment to EUPOL COPPS, where he is currently advising the Palestinian Civil Police and Ministry of Interior.

“You need to always look at the bigger picture,” says Michele, when talking about his job. “Say you have a marijuana plantation. It’s not enough just to find the guys planting the drugs. You need to understand the people who use the drugs as well. And then, how the drugs get from the farm to the users. Who provides the technology for a drug operation? The equipment? The precursors? More often than not, the people who are behind big drug operations are also connected to people trafficking, weapons smuggling, bootlegged tobacco and alcohol, and of course, money laundering to legitimise their profits”.

The Italian adviser is full of praise for his Palestinian counterparts, “They are very skilled, very valuable colleagues. The Anti-Narcotics Department is one of the best organised departments in the Palestinian Civil Police and our cooperation started immediately”. He believes however that more needs to be done to coordinate the work of different institutions, so they work better together.

“We have to consider that in order to solve this problem, many different experts need to be involved – education, health, communications professionals for awareness raising campaigns etc,” Tarlao says. “One of the biggest results we have had so far is encouraging the Anti-Narcotics Department, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Health to work more closely together”.

It’s not just cooperation of national institutions that should be encouraged however, according to the Italian expert. International cooperation is also important, and Tarlao has put his Palestinian counterparts in touch with European agencies such as the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon. The EMCDDA is currently working on a major mapping exercise to understand the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on drug supply, usage, harm to human health and society and the provision of public and health services to drug users. There are also ongoing talks with the EU Representative Office on how to improve cooperation with European law enforcement agencies such as EUROPOL and CEPOL.

Dr Tarlao notes that economic downturns frequently lead to a rise in organised crime as people lose jobs and legitimate sources of income and turn to crime in order to earn money. “You have to understand organised crime as working like a big company,” he says. “You cannot talk about single crimes, you have to understand it as a network of different crimes. To fight it you need as much data as possible to understand and assess what is going on. It is possible that due to the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, criminal gangs will try and infiltrate other parts of the economy”.

With international support, Palestinian law enforcement authorities have improved the data and analysis of drug trafficking and are building a more sophisticated picture of how organised criminals operate. Recently, EUPOL COPPS organised training for its Palestinian counterparts for them to better understand how criminals use the Dark Web and crypto-currencies to traffic drugs, weapons, people and launder money.

When asked to name the challenges in the West Bank in terms of fighting organised crime, the Italian expert highlights the current structure of legislation as being an obstacle. He points out for example that the Criminal Code used in the West Bank is the Jordanian one. Moreover, legal definitions of organised crime and membership of a criminal group are weak. “If you cannot define what a criminal organisation is, it’s difficult to prosecute one,” says Tarlao dryly.

Another challenge is the traditional structure of families. “It happens that homicides related to organised crime are simply explained as ‘family disputes’,” says the Italian police officer. “This places obstacles in the way of understanding the underlying picture of organised crime in the West Bank. Moreover, any criminal coming forward with information about a criminal gang may be putting members of their family at risk. A witness protection programme would be useful, but there isn’t one in place yet”.

Dr Tarlao concludes on a positive note. “From 2013 – 2017, Palestine signed the most important international treaties and conventions against transnational organised crime. Not only those of the UN, but also those of the Arab League. So, the international legal instruments are ready. The next stage will be fully implementing these conventions and also, greater cooperation between different institutions, in particular the police and prosecution service. Things are going in the right direction”.