‘Whac-A-Mole’: Why we’re losing the fight against organised crime
2 Oct 2019|

In 1975, Japan’s Kazuo Yamada invented a brilliantly simple yet addictive arcade game that would eventually be affectionately known as ‘Whac-A-Mole’. The premise for the game is simple. A player waits for plastic moles to intermittently raise their heads out of one of six holes. If a mole appears above its hole, the player tires to hit it on the head with a big rubber mallet to score points. The more moles you ‘whack’, the higher your score.

Lately I’ve been struck by the parallels that can be drawn between this game and the daily grind of Australia’s efforts to combat transnational serious and organised crime both at home and across Southeast Asia.

In the Mekong subregion’s ‘Whac-A-Mole’ game with organised crime groups, law enforcement agencies are the players. They use their operational police as the mallet to whack—or more correctly in this case, arrest—the criminals when they appear. To be fair, though, with the support of good intelligence and good policy, law enforcement is far more proactive than the traditional ‘Whac-A-Mole’ player.

Low-level criminals make up the majority of the moles in the game. Sometimes the criminal moles emerge from their holes by mistake, or they stay in the open for a little too long. Other times they are forced out of their holes by other moles or by the mechanical parts of the game.

The game itself is the criminal economy, operated behind the scenes by a small number of savvy, experienced moles. These moles don’t play the game, but simply make it work. In the original ‘Whac-A-Mole’, it often escaped the attention of the player that despite racking up high scores they never won; the moles just kept coming. Playing the game was so intoxicating that few seemed to notice the futility.

It seems to me that Australia’s and ASEAN member states’ current law enforcement strategies for fighting organised crime in the region are bogged down like the original ‘Whac-A-Mole’ players. Arrests and seizures of drugs and cash are increasing, but the game continues unabated.

In August 2017, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released the sixth edition of its biennial report on organised crime in Australia. It estimated that the annual cost of organised crime to Australia had more than doubled in the two years since the last report, from around $15 billion to around $36 billion. These figures gave the clearest indication to date that the Commonwealth’s law enforcement agencies were losing ground in the fight against organised crime.

In September 2018, the ACIC released its Illicit drug data report, an annual analysis of drug seizures and arrests. The report’s findings, coupled with data from the commission’s national wastewater drug monitoring program, provided an unprecedented level of detail on Australia’s illicit drug demand and supply patterns, and ample evidence that ‘Whack-A-Criminal’ isn’t working.

In July 2019, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime released its latest assessment of regional transnational organised crime. The report paints a bleak picture in which policy success against organised crime in Southeast Asia has been fleeting at best. Worse still, the region is awash with illicit drugs while organised crime kingpins are probably enjoying record profits from increased production levels.

Over the past decade, Australian law enforcement has increasingly used the term ‘disruption’ in its key policy and strategy documents on combating organized crime. This is in recognition of the limited impacts of the traditional arrest-and-seize response.

Disruption involves introducing measures designed to inhibit criminal freedom of movement, business models and profit-making opportunities. Unfortunately, for many in law enforcement, disruption has become a synonym for arrest and seizure.

If law enforcement is to break free of the ‘Whack-A-Criminal’ cycle, it will need to do much more to define, develop and employ disruption methodologies. A much more strategic approach to law enforcement focused on disruption effects is what’s needed.

Policymakers now need to develop a lexicon for disruption effects. Such a lexicon needs to assist in achieving a range of goals, including:

  • reducing the timing and tempo of opportunities to commit serious and organised crime
  • increasing the exposure of key figures and organisations to law enforcement action
  • increasing criminals’ perceptions of risk, including the likelihood and consequences of being caught
  • increasing the costs associated with undertaking serious and organised criminal activities
  • decreasing the profit margins for the illicit economy
  • decreasing the vulnerability of the licit economy to organised crime
  • reducing the national, bilateral and regional jurisdictional silos that can be exploited by criminals.

Australia is in a strong position to lead the development of innovative approaches to disruption. The ACIC, and its disruption unit, provide the much-needed strategic picture of criminality in Australia and the region.

The establishment of the Home Affairs portfolio has seen the development of a critical mass of policy professionals who have the capacity to develop a national disruption policy. The more recent establishment of the Office of the Commonwealth Transnational Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator provides a mechanism to lead and strengthen national disruption efforts.

While Australian law enforcement can’t, and shouldn’t, stop targeting criminals, it’s time to introduce new disruption techniques that break open the current ‘Whac-A-Mole’ game.