Pharmaceutical Crime and Organized Criminal Groups

Interpol, the world’s largest police organization recently released this report. The Executive Summary and Conclusion are posted here.




  • INTERPOL member countries are reporting that criminals involved in pharmaceutical crime are operating through informal networks. Nevertheless, traditional organized crime groups across the globe are also involved in pharmaceutical crime throughout the supply chain.


  • Several member countries have reported an increase in pharmaceutical crime during the past five years, especially in South and Central America.


  • Both the informal networks and the organized crime groups seem to be trafficking in the same types of illicit medicines: erectile dysfunction medication; slimming pills; as well as pain and anxiety relief medication.


  • A primary trend in many member countries is the increased use of illicit online pharmacies, operated by both informal networks and organized criminal groups.


  • Large amounts of money are involved in these transnational criminal enterprises: one illicit online pharmacy network, which was dismantled by US authorities in 2011, managed to earn USD 55 million during two years of operations.


  • Other crimes – such as money laundering, prostitution networks and weapons smuggling – can also be tied to criminals involved in pharmaceutical crime.


  • INTERPOL has also received increased reporting of illegal trafficking of Tramadol over the past year. The origin of shipments seems to be Asia, routed via the Middle East, with a final destination in West Africa.



Pharmaceutical crime is a multifaceted criminal area. We see varying forms of criminal organizations involved in pharmaceutical crime, ranging from small clusters of three to 10 members, to larger well- established hierarchical groups, to sophisticated international networks with elusive structures. With the move to the Internet to sell counterfeit and illicit medicines, law enforcement agencies are increasingly dealing with the latter form of criminal enterprises. Such networks are difficult to target due to the ease with which they can move and establish new websites, the high level of anonymity offered in the virtual world, and the difficulty in piecing together the different criminals involved in wide-ranging affiliate networks.


Authorities are also faced with auxiliary challenges, such as corruption within the licit pharmaceutical community and a lack of dedicated national enforcement units to tackle the issue. This second point is especially alarming given that criminals are increasingly using the Internet to carry out their activities and are, in turn, developing sophisticated techniques to avoid detection. As a result, there is a need to enhance the number of specialized enforcement officers dedicated to targeting the ever evolving online activities of criminal networks.


Some INTERPOL member countries also face legislative challenges to thwarting those responsible for pharmaceutical crime, as few countries appear to possess specific legislation to target this type of crime. Furthermore, many countries cited poor penalties as a contributing factor for the proliferation of criminal networks, who are encouraged to continue to take risks as the rewards outweigh the potential punishments.


Yet from many questionnaire replies, there is an apparent confidence that enforcement and legislative structures currently in place are strong enough to tackle the issue of pharmaceutical crime. The law enforcement community is gradually gaining a fuller picture of the scope of such criminal activity and the structures behind it. For example, there is already a recognition of the problem of the sale of medicines online, illustrated by the growing global interest in participation in Operation Pangea, which reached 100 participating countries in 2012.


This study has also highlighted the need for law enforcement and the public health sector to work together in order to prevent illicit medicines from entering the market and to prosecute those responsible once it does. Some countries have employed a well-functioning multi-agency approach, with close communication between law enforcement officials and public health employees in order for both sectors to gain a better understanding of the challenges within each specific field.


Such coordination and concerted efforts are a step in the right direction to effectively combat pharmaceutical crime. In the long term, this will serve as a prime antidote against a crime area in which traditional structures are being replaced with more dynamic and constantly evolving network- orientated criminal enterprises.