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Back to Archives | Back to June 2011 Contents 

INTERPOL: Connecting Police for a Safer World

By Matteo Vaccani, General Secretariat, INTERPOL



ollowing a tradition lasting more than a decade, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport entered 2011 as the world’s busiest airport.1 In 2010 alone, it welcomed about 4.5 million international passengers.2

All international travelers are likely accustomed to a routine including a final swipe of their passports through readers by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. However, they are probably unaware that each single swipe conducted at every U.S. seaport and airport results in the passport number being checked against more than 26 million stolen and lost travel document records shared by almost 160 countries worldwide.

These checks are possible because of access to the Stolen and Lost Travel Document (SLTD) database, developed by the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO). Created more than 80 years ago, the ICPO counts the United States as one of its founding members. It is better known globally by the acronym INTERPOL.


INTERPOL: Mission and Mandate

Unfortunately, having a famous name does not always translate into a clear understanding of one’s work. When INTERPOL is named by the media, cited in political debates, or portrayed by the entertainment industry, its actual structure and role are seldom clearly understood. In movies, INTERPOL agents are often knocking down doors with all guns blazing or chasing and boarding foreign ships in international waters.

The message in such portrayals is that INTERPOL is a standing, international police force involving operatives who are ready to be deployed to foreign soil to investigate, search, arrest foreign citizens, and seize property.

This represents a major and serious misconception of the nature of INTERPOL, the rationale behind its creation, and the services provided by the organization every day to each of its 188 member countries.

INTERPOL is a recognized international organization created by sovereign countries to serve sovereign countries. INTERPOL came into being and persists to this day because of its members’ will within the legal framework determined by them. INTERPOL and its staff cannot and do not impose its will upon any of the organization’s members worldwide.

The rationale behind the creation of INTERPOL many years ago is even more relevant today. Criminals, whatever their motive and objectives, no longer heed national or regional boundaries. They thrive on traversing them. They seek to exploit them every day.

Criminals may escape conviction or prosecution by crossing borders. They may scan the international environment for nations or regions with limited enforcement capacity to minimize the costs to their illegal enterprises and to maximize profit. They may choose to commit crimes in different jurisdictions to scatter evidence and make investigations virtually impossible for a single national police force to undertake.

INTERPOL was created specifically to address this dilemma: that the walls built to protect have become tools in the hands of those who threaten the safety of citizens around the globe.

In short, INTERPOL exists to connect police in order to prevent and fight crime. It exists to make sure that the national police forces of its member countries can mitigate and address criminal threats to their citizens’ security effectively by working with other foreign national police forces.

There is no INTERPOL supranational police force operating across the globe. Each national force cooperating through INTERPOL maintains sole jurisdiction over criminal matters in its territory. In even simpler terms, INTERPOL does not enforce; it facilitates enforcement by legitimate authorities in their respective sovereign states.


Serving Members: National Sovereignty and Human Rights First

As an organization created to serve its members, INTERPOL finds its natural limits in the national sovereignty of each of them. At the same time, its activities must respect human rights. Both imperatives are explicitly delineated in the organization’s constitution.

The recognized added value of INTERPOL rests on its capacity to connect police from countries that may not enjoy diplomatic relations—a circumstance that is frequently exploited by fugitives. To make this connection possible, specific safeguards are built into the INTERPOL system to encourage member countries to trust the organization’s impartiality. INTERPOL’s effectiveness in helping national police forces against international crime can only be as solid as that confidence.

For this reason, INTERPOL’s constitution strictly forbids “the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious, or racial character.”3

If these elements were to be identified in a request from any one of the organization’s 188 member countries, no action would be taken by INTERPOL.

Moreover, specific restrictions on the use of INTERPOL databases allow any member country to choose the countries with which it would like to share information. And any information made available to other member countries remains under the exclusive ownership of the contributor. INTERPOL does not assume ownership of such records or data, which can be withdrawn from databases at any moment by their rightful owner.

Additional safeguards concern international wanted status alerts, or Red Notices. First and foremost, national arrest warrants are required for their issuance. Second, it is within the discretion of a member country to decide whether to act upon a particular Red Notice, depending on its national legislation and international obligations vis-à-vis the requesting country. As in all other INTERPOL activities, respect of each country’s sovereignty is paramount.

What emerges from this system is clear: INTERPOL cannot infringe upon the sovereignty of any of the organization’s member countries. It is up to each country to determine when and how to call upon INTERPOL for support or whether to comply with another member country’s request for assistance. This is central to INTERPOL’s mandate.



INTERPOL Structure, Tools, and Services

INTERPOL’s general secretariat headquarters are located in Lyon, France, and comprise more than 500 staff, including police officers from member police forces and more than 90 different nationalities. The organization also has seven regional offices in Argentina, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Kenya, Thailand, and Zimbabwe and representative offices at the United Nations in New York and at the European Union in Brussels, Belgium.

Yet, INTERPOL’s global structure is also designed around a simple but key reality: Although crime has become transnational, there is no single, universal transnational crime model.

Organized crime syndicates or terrorist cells originate from and embed themselves in local environments with distinctive features and modus operandi familiar only to those in local law enforcement operating in the field.

This unique local knowledge and experience are powerful tools that need to be exploited and shared across borders to become global tools against crime in all its forms. For this reason, INTERPOL’s backbone is its global network of National Central Bureaus (NCBs), staffed by highly trained law enforcement officers and operating strictly under the authority of each member country.

An NCB is the designated contact point for the general secretariat, the regional offices, and other member countries requiring assistance. At the same time, it is the fundamental node of the INTERPOL network, allowing the system to operate on a daily basis and its services to be tailored to the needs of frontline law enforcement.

In the United States, the National Central Bureau in Washington, D.C. (INTERPOL Washington), serves as the statutory representative to INTERPOL on behalf of the attorney general and as the official U.S. point of contact for international investigative cooperation among INTERPOL’s 188 member countries and the more than 18,000 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in the United States.

INTERPOL Washington is comanaged by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is staffed by approximately 42 sworn law enforcement and analytical personnel detailed from 24 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, along with 77 full-time DOJ employees. Its personnel operate in divisions dedicated to specific investigative areas, including Alien and Fugitive, Economic Crimes, Drugs, Terrorism and Violent Crimes, and Human Trafficking and Child Protection. In addition to its investigative divisions, INTERPOL Washington maintains its State and Local Liaison Division and its 24/7 Operations and Command Center, which support its domestic and international outreach and information sharing efforts, as well as the Office of General Counsel for review of related legal matters.

INTERPOL Washington therefore acts as the key fulcrum in the daily interaction among the United States, INTERPOL’s member countries, and its general secretariat in Lyon, France.


Agencies Detailing Law Enforcement and
Analytical Personnel to INTERPOL Washington
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
  • Department of Defense/U.S. Marine Corps
  • Department of Justice/Criminal Division
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Health and Human Services/Office of Inspector General
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • New York City Police Department
  • U.S. Office of Personnel Management
  • Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office
  • U.S. Capitol Police
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • U.S. Department of State
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • U.S. Marshals Service
  • U.S. Postal Inspection Service
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
For more information, visit http://www.justice.gov/usncb.
Secure Global Communication Network

Effective communication is essential for successful law enforcement. Information needs to be shared securely and rapidly in order to preserve life, capture fugitives, and prevent crime.

As the world’s largest police organization, INTERPOL has made this principle a pillar of its own operational model since its creation by ensuring transmission of police intelligence and the issue of color-coded alerts (or INTERPOL Notices) among its member countriesand their police forces.4

To be effective, communication must be rapid. For this reason, following a major upgrade in its infrastructure in 2003, INTERPOL became the first police organization to employ Internet technology to securely and rapidly exchange police information.

Today, its secure I-24/7 (INTERPOL 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) global police communications system connects, in real time, all 188 INTERPOL member countries. Requests for assistance can be received and forwarded by the general secretariat to the entire membership or to selected members in seconds, ensuring maximum operational effectiveness.

In the year 2000, before the system had been put in place, about three million messages were exchanged every year globally via INTERPOL. In 2010, more than 14 million such messages were exchanged. Prior to the current system, notices were sent by regular mail around the world and could take months to arrive. Today, these notices are issued and distributed globally within a few hours and in all four official languages of the organization—Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.

In addition, specifically designed solutions now allow users deployed to the front lines beyond NCBs worldwide to access INTERPOL’s network and, thus, global police information. This translates into a global pool of authorized users numbering more than 23,000 in 2011 and prompt intelligence-led action by law enforcement in the field.

For example, consider the case of a Canadian national wanted in France for rape and sexual offenses against children. While leaving the Caribbean following a vacation, he was recognized by local police officers from his description in an INTERPOL notice but managed to flee upon questioning.

During his three-hour flight from Barbados to Miami, Florida, on his way to Canada, his status changed from fugitive to future detainee, thanks to rapid and effective communication via INTERPOL. Close coordination between the NCBs in Barbados, France, and the United States ensured that U.S. authorities were notified of his movements and that he was arrested by CBP agents as soon as he set foot in Miami International Airport. This demonstrates international police cooperation at its best.


Constant Support to Policing and Law Enforcement

INTERPOL is often requested to assist member countries in coordinating enforcement actions, establishing contact with foreign counterparts, or providing specialized expertise from its general secretariat or other member countries.

To respond around the clock via a single point of contact to member countries’ requests and promptly act to meet their needs, the organization created its 24/7 Command and Coordination Center (CCC) in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was clear that the nature of modern international crime did not allow for the previous nine-to-five approach from INTERPOL.

Since 2002, INTERPOL’s CCC in Lyon ensures every day that members’ requests and potential hits on INTERPOL’s databases receive appropriate and timely follow-up. Where necessary, INTERPOL notices and alerts are created and circulated globally based on information submitted by member countries.

An example of such assistance in the field is the successful location and arrest in June 2010 of Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch national allegedly involved in the murder of a 21-year-old woman in Peru.

With the suspect’s location unknown, Peru authorities contacted INTERPOL’s CCC to alert the international law enforcement community of his status. The CCC then immediately contacted neighboring countries (Chile, in particular, based on intelligence received); the Netherlands (to run a check on the suspect’s background); and the United States (because of possible extortion charges linked to a 2005 missing person case).

Thanks to such coordination, the suspect was located in the coastal town of Vina del Mar, Chile, less than a week after his disappearance, and was deported back to Peru.

Another case highlighting the need for prompt cross-border coordination and intelligence exchange occurred in 2009. In this instance, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, requested INTERPOL’s assistance following the theft of gold worth $2 million from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, International Airport. With intelligence indicating that three suspects were already on route to Hong Kong and two others were fleeing to an unknown destination, prompt action was essential to ensure a successful outcome of the case.

Coordination between NCB Abu Dhabi; NCB Doha, Qatar; and NCB Hong Kong while the suspects were still airborne allowed the suspects to be identified and arrested upon landing in Hong Kong, leading to their deportation back to Dubai. In parallel, following a global alert sent by the CCC, NCB London located the two other suspects in London who were en route to Italy, where they were arrested.

Finally, authorities in Dubai indicated that the stolen gold had been shipped to New York from Dubai via the shipping company DHL. By immediately informing INTERPOL Washington, U.S. authorities in New York City seized one of the two packages sent from Dubai.

This single case, which unfolded over only four days, brought together police services across three continents.


An officer with the INTERPOL Major Events Support Team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa verifies passport data against the INTERPOL Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database.
Highly Specialized Support

In some cases, however, member countries’ needs go beyond remote operational assistance. In these instances, and strictly at the request of member countries, specifically assembled INTERPOL teams are deployed on the ground to support police with highly specialized expertise ranging from investigative and analytical support to disaster victim identification capabilities.

Such assistance is typically provided in the aftermath of major incidents or natural disasters (in these cases, from Incident Response Teams [IRTs]); or in the preparation and implementation of security measures for major international events (in these cases, INTERPOL Major Event Support Teams [IMESTs]). To date, INTERPOL has deployed more than 100 IRTs or IMESTs globally, starting in October 2002 in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa saw the largest IMEST ever deployed by INTERPOL, at which 50 officers from 32 countries were posted at all airports and border crossings across the country and deployed to hotels at match venues to assist in conducting instant checks against INTERPOL’s databases. More than 600,000 checks were carried out, resulting in nearly 100 hits. IMEST support was also provided to a local police investigation into a suspected fraudulent passport production factory in the capital, leading to the arrest of 21 individuals for distributing counterfeit documents.

These are just a few examples of how around-the-clock assistance—whether remotely via technology or in the physical location of the incident—can be provided by INTERPOL to police around the world. The objective remains the same: mobilizing international resources and expertise to ensure successful law enforcement.


Assistance in Identifying Crimes and Criminals

Borders can act as invaluable opportunities in the hands of criminals. However, they can also be turned into effective weapons for law enforcement when the right piece of intelligence is shared internationally and is accessed by the right officer, at the right time and place.

To achieve this, INTERPOL also acts as a neutral repository of information voluntarily shared among member countries. Its specialized databases contain a wealth of police data that can be accessed by NCBs and other authorized users across the globe so that suspects can be promptly identified and key links between cross-border criminal cases can be established. In short, INTERPOL allows critical law enforcement decisions to be made.

In 2010 alone, more than 42,000 hits were recorded throughout the world following checks against INTERPOL's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, which currently contains more than 26 million entries.

INTERPOL’s databases currently contain close to 34 million police records shared within its membership, including stolen and lost travel documents, nominal records, stolen motor vehicles, stolen works of art, fingerprints, DNA profiles, and child sexual exploitation images.

In 2010 alone, approximately 1.7 million checks were conducted, on average, every day against INTERPOL databases. The results were more than 216,000 positive hits worldwide, leading to criminal cases solved, illegal entries into countries prevented, and fugitives apprehended.

The potential is huge. In late January 2010, INTERPOL’s SLTD database helped officers to prevent several passengers in transit towards the United States from entering via Trinidad and Tobago. Checks against global police data revealed that the Swedish passports the passengers were holding had been stolen. In addition, the leader of the group was found to be a fugitive wanted by Dutch police on human trafficking charges and was successfully extradited to the Netherlands.

The same week, records contained in INTERPOL’s global DNA profile database established a link between a 2009 rape case in Salzburg, Austria, and a series of sexual assaults in California in 2004. The response from checks conducted by U.S. authorities five years later was clear: the same individual—an Afghan national arrested in Austria—was the single perpetrator of all those assaults.

Yet there are cases where police data and skilled investigation techniques may not suffice to bring a case to a successful conclusion. The immediate danger that the perpetrator of a heinous crime may reoffend may demand that intelligence be gathered both from law enforcement and the general public.

In several such cases, INTERPOL has been able to successfully combine intelligence in its databases and tips from the public so that dangerous individuals are arrested.

INTERPOL’s Operation Vico is probably the best example. In 2007, images of child sexual abuse by one man were found on the Internet. No further information that could identify him was available. 5 After the material was included in INTERPOL’s databases and all law enforcement avenues were exhausted, a public appeal was launched in a bid to identify the individual. Within 10 days, the subject was identified; located in Thailand (where he had fled from South Korea); and eventually arrested. He is currently serving a six-year sentence in Bangkok, Thailand.

The following year, a similar case involving an unknown man pictured in a series of child abuse images was solved with the same approach. Within 48 hours, three credible tips from the public led to the identification, the location, and the arrest of the suspect—a U.S. citizen from New Jersey—by special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The man pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence. His arrest also led to the capture of two other sexual abusers and the organizer of their trips to Asia.


Capacity Building

When crime expands beyond national and regional borders, gaps in police capacity might accommodate criminals seeking safe havens. By working through capacity-building initiatives, INTERPOL seeks to bridge the gap between national policing capacity and international policing requirements.

In today’s world, international policing capacity is based on two elements: (1) access to proper policing tools and infrastructure and (2) the development of the skills necessary to maximize value from those instruments.

Policing infrastructure development must follow the enforcement priorities of the recipient country or agency and the nature of the criminal offence. INTERPOL projects are therefore tailored to these needs in order to maximize effectiveness on the ground. This was the case, for example, with the extension of the I-24/7 communication network to the port of Mombasa, Kenya, in order to foster international intelligence sharing within multilateral efforts against maritime piracy.

INTERPOL’s training activities follow a similar approach. In 2010, 141 police training sessions were delivered by INTERPOL, benefiting 4,200 participants representing more than 160 countries. Best practices and state-of-the-art techniques in specific crime areas are identified among INTERPOL’s membership and are shared with member countries.

The long-term benefits of training can be seen only on the ground. For this reason, INTERPOL often implements integrated capacity-building projects combining skills development through training and their application into operations on the ground.

Operations Bia and Cascades are such examples, conducted in Africa (Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, respectively) in 2009 and 2010, leading to the rescue of more than 150 children who were the victims of human trafficking for forced labor purposes.6 In these and several other operations (ranging from wildlife crime to anticounterfeit raids), INTERPOL played a key support role in the planning phase and in the training the officers received before their deployment.
INTERPOL’s Operation Cascades took place in Burkina Faso in October 2010 and led to the rescue of more than 100 suspected child trafficking victims, many of whom had been forced to work in illegally operated gold mining quarries in the Cascades region.

The Future: Challenges Ahead

The combination of INTERPOL’s strategic priorities, as described and implemented on a daily basis by the organization, aims to provide holistic support to member countries and leverage the unique experience of their respective national police forces against international crime.

Those skills will be dearly needed as law enforcement continues in the twenty-first century. Cross-border crime has traditionally been linked with the search for anonymity and wider reach by criminals around the globe. At the beginning of INTERPOL’s history, this was reflected by the increasing opportunities for physical mobility by criminals at a time when accessible and fast international travel was about to boom. Today, those imperatives are even stronger and more relevant, with global air travel alone expected to increase to 3.3 billion passengers over the next three years.7

But during the past few decades, a similar if not greater revolution has shaken the landscape of international law enforcement. With the widespread proliferation of access to the Internet, virtual mobility has become a new weapon available to criminals.

Victims and perpetrators are increasingly distributed across different continents. Geographical distance is playing an increasingly marginal role in the success of criminal endeavors across all crime types. Cyberspace offers new opportunities to swindle, steal, and abuse without displacement, often in total anonymity.

With the Internet global population estimated to exceed two billion,8 the proliferation of mobile terminals connected to the Internet is also opening the door to a very dangerous overlap between physical and virtual anonymity. An effective response from law enforcement to such a challenge, both nationally and internationally, is more than urgent.

What is needed is for innovation to become an opportunity for police. To do so, INTERPOL is currently undergoing a thorough reorganization of its structure and activities. A new global facility—the INTERPOL Global Complex—will be operational in Singapore starting in 2014, allowing the organization to take its next evolutionary step based around three principles.

First, the facility will allow greater operational reach, with a dedicated CCC component that together with Lyon and Buenos Aires, Argentina, will see INTERPOL’s 24/7 assistance activities accommodate different time zones. Second, it will see new activities focused on the research and development of new policing solutions and digital security, in partnership with the private sector. Finally, it will host INTERPOL’s new dedicated capacity-building pillar, closely connected to the organization’s research and development activities.

Taking these steps will allow INTERPOL and all of its member countries to more effectively face tomorrow’s challenges in the real world and to protect the citizens its members all serve. ■


Notes:

1“Passenger Traffic for Past 12 Months, 12 Months Ending December 2010,” Airports Council International, http://www.aci.aero/cda/aci_common/display/main/aci_content07_c.jsp?zn=aci&cp=1-5-212-218-224_666_2__ (accessed April 12, 2011).
2Kelly Yamanouchi, “Hartsfield-Jackson No. 6 for International Passenger Traffic,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 22, 2011, http://www.ajc.com/business/hartsfield-jackson-no-6-881880.html (accessed April 12, 2011).
3INTERPOL Const. art. III, http://www.interpol.int/Public/ICPO/LegalMaterials/constitution/constitutionGenReg/constitution.asp#gp, (accessed April 13, 2011).
4These notifications are categorized through a color code corresponding to their content. For example, the most well-known is the Red Notice, an international request for the provisional arrest of an individual. For a full list and explanation of notices, please see http://www.interpol.int/public/Notices/default.asp (accessed April 12, 2011).
5INTERPOL, “INTERPOL Seeks Public’s Help to Identify Man Photographed Sexually Abusing Children: Operation Vico,” press release, October 8, 2007, http://www.interpol.int/Public/ICPO/PressReleases/PR2007/PR200745.asp (accessed April 13, 2011).
6INTERPOL, “Burkina Faso Police Rescue More Than 100 Child Trafficking Victims during INTERPOL-Supported Operation,” press release, November 5, 2010, http://www.interpol.int/Public/ICPO/PressReleases/PR2010/PR090.asp (accessed April 13, 2011).
7“IATA Forecasts 3.3 Billion Pax by 2014; Shift Eastward with 1 Billion Expected in Asia,” Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, February 15, 2011, http://www.centreforaviation.com/news/2011/02/15/iata-forecasts-33-billion-pax-by-2014-growth-shifts-eastward-with-1-billion-pax-expected-in-asia/page1 (accessed April 12, 2011).
8“ITU Statistics, Global Numbers of Internet Users, Total and Per 100 Inhabitants, 2000–2010,” International Telecommunication Union, http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/excel/2010/Internet_users_00-10_2.xls (accessed April 12, 2011).


Please cite as:

Matteo Vaccani, "INTERPOL: Connecting Police for a Safer World," The Police Chief 78 (June 2011): 36–51.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 6, June 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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