It sounds logical to say that in order to understand crime, you must focus on criminals and felonies. But advances in social science give us reason to reconsider this idea.
Heroin is trafficked from Turkey across the Kapitan Andreevo security checkpoint in Bulgaria, to be sold in the richest countries of the European Union. More illegal drugs arrive in Europe from South America, via the countries of Eastern Africa. In South Africa, racketeers, private security firms, and arms dealers conduct businesses together, erasing the boundaries of legal and illegal financial procedures.
In Mexico, ferrous material, hydrocarbon condensate, and illegal drugs are trafficked and sold to both legal and illegal firms and individuals inside the United States. "Los Zetas" and other criminal networks operating in Central America also engage in human trafficking, kidnapping, and murdering of migrants before they cross the American border. Between 2006 and 2010, some of those criminal networks laundered $881 millions dollars through a single legal bank inside the United States. In fact, in 2012, the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice pointed out that the same Bank "failed to monitor" $9.4 billion dollars during that same period.
Those who have ever sent or received wire transfers, both inside and outside the United States, will find it difficult to understand how one of the most important banks worldwide could "fail to monitor" $9.4 billion.
In all of these cases, the participation of legitimate public servants and "legal" individuals and corporations is essential. In all of these cases, bankers, attorneys, police and border officials, flight controllers, mayors, governors, presidents, and politicians co-opt and are co-opted by crime. Sometimes they are the instruments, and sometimes they are the structural bridges connecting legality and illegality. They provide information, money, protection, knowledge, and social capital to criminal networks; a reason to define them as "unlawful" actors. However, they operate within legal agencies, which is a reason to define them as "lawful" actors. They seem to be both lawful and unlawful at the same time. They are what we call "gray" actors, located and operating on the boundaries of legality and illegality. They don't appear in the charts of the criminal organizations, although they provide relevant inputs for successful criminal operation.
Despite the significant role of these "gray" actors, social scientists interested in analyzing crime usually focus their attention only on criminal individuals and criminal actions. Those scientists usually study crime through qualitative and quantitative data that informs only of those "dark" elements, while omitting the fact that transnational and domestic crime is carried out by various types of actors who don't interact solely through criminal actions. This is a hyper-simplified approach—a caricature—because those "dark" elements are only the tip of the iceberg regarding global crime.
This simplified approach also assumes that society is a digital and binary system in which the "good" and the "bad" guys—the "us" and "them"—are perfectly distinguishable. This distinction is useful in penal terms when simple algorithms—"if individual X executes the action Y, then X is criminal"—orient the decision of judges delivering final sentences. However, in sociological, anthropological, and psychological terms, this line is more difficult to define. If society is a digital system, it is certainly not a binary one.
This does not mean that crime is completely relative, or that we are all criminals because we are indirectly related to someone who committed a crime. This only means that defining and analyzing crime should not consist of a simple binary criterion such as belonging to a group or executing a single action. This criterion is useful when studying the boss of a criminal group, or the specific action of shooting a gun and committing murder. However, most of the time, affiliations and actions are complex and fuzzy. This vagueness of reality explains why we, as society, rely and trust the intuition of a judge, a person who, despite simple algorithms, considers various elements such as intentions, context, and effects when deciding a sentence. This is why we are not designing software for convicting criminals and assigning sentences—it's complicated.
Current tools for organizing, associating and visualizing large amounts of data are useful for understanding the complexity of crime. Formulating explicative models through social network analysis or predictive models through machine learning that integrates several variables, are examples of useful procedures. However, those procedures usually escape classic distinctions between "right" and "wrong" or the fragmentation of scientific bodies. Good and evil, right and wrong, legal and illegal—these are all context-driven.
Economists, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists are often uncomfortable with the mixture of concepts required for analyzing complexity of behavior. Facing this complexity requires integrating categories from multiple scientific domains, moving quickly between macro and micro characteristics, and even adopting new models of causality. This sounds like an impossible enterprise inside traditional scientific spaces.
Social scientists have the moral commitment to use the most accurate tools of observation when analyzing data and phenomena, because their observations inform the design and enforcement of policies. If inaccurate tools are used, bad decisions are made, like a doctor diagnosing a tumor just by measuring body temperature. When the science we are studying is about understanding human trafficking, mass murders or terrorism, using the best tools and providing the best inputs mean preserving lives.
It is therefore time to retire the idea that understanding crime means understanding the minds and actions of criminals. Additionally, we must also retire other naïve ideas such as "organized crime" or that any current State or government evolves without any criminal influence. These are nicely simplified concepts that work well in theoretical models, contained within the walls of classrooms and the pages of journals that manage to evade the complexity and vagueness of society. However, if we do not deal with the true complexity and vagueness of society using the diverse tools provided by science, we'll have to deal with it in the streets, the courtrooms, or when facing threats, like it or not.