Europol 2024 Report: Decoding EU’s Most Threatening Criminal Networks

This report is the first of its kind to analyze in depth the characteristics that make criminal actors particularly threatening. Enhancing law enforcement’s understanding of their functioning and core capabilities will further strengthen the fight against serious and organized crime. It is essential as a complement to a commodity-based approach.

Serious and organised crime is omnipresent and continues to represent a major threat to the internal security of the European Union (EU). In order to fight it effectively, law enforcement needs to understand the key areas where it should prioritise resources. The threat posed by organised crime is often assessed through the dimension of criminal markets and criminal activities. However, the picture is incomplete without analysing the capabilities and intent of its key players. One key approach is to focus on and address the most threatening criminal networks that affect the internal security of the EU. 

Understanding their critical strengths is paramount as these are the criminal networks that exert significant negative impact on the societies and economies of EU Member States. The EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2021 brought the changing relationships between criminal actors into focus in an organised crime landscape that is characterised by a networked environment where cooperation between criminals is fluid, systematic and profit-driven.1 The concept ‘criminal network’ reflects the nature of the current criminal landscape, which is complex and includes a variety of criminal associations. Criminal networks involve collaboration between groups and individuals – groups of different organizational character, and individuals who are either embedded within a particular network or operate outside of it.


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This analysis brings to light the characteristics of those criminal networks that pose the highest threat to the EU’s internal security. The aim is to strenghten our understanding of criminal networks, in order to help policy makers and law enforcement make informed policy and operational decisions to tackle them. This report responds to several initiatives that highlight the need to enhance our understanding of what shapes the threat of criminal networks, including by the EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers and the current Belgian Presidency of the EU Council. The results of the analysis will complement the commodity-based assessment of the EU SOCTA 2025 with a deeper criminal-actor focused analysis. It will also support the EMPACT Operational Action Plan on High-Risk Criminal Networks on developing a methodology to identify the most threatening criminal networks. It forms part of the EU roadmap to fight drug trafficking and organised crime under Action 4.


This analysis is based on a unique dataset designed specifically for this purpose and, where relevant, illustrated with additional information already shared with Europol as the European hub for criminal information. Based on agreed criteria from the EU SOCTA methodology, EU Member States and Europol’s partner countries joined forces to identify the most threatening criminal networks active in and affecting the EU. This resulted in a unique dataset of 821 most threatening criminal networks4, with extensive information on all relevant aspects that describe them and help assess their threat. These data have a twofold significance for EU law enforcement.

The data collection has a unique importance as an intelligence-led assessment of how the most threatening criminal networks are organised, what criminal activities they engage in and how and where they operate. It provides unprecedented insights into the key features of these networks that contribute to make them particularly menacing for the EU’s internal security. This will considerably strengthen our common understanding of how criminal networks operate. This assessment should help policy makers and law enforcement to make informed policy and operational decisions to tackle them. It is a starting point for future analysis of criminal actors, and will be further elaborated in forthcoming analytical products, such as the EU SOCTA 2025.

Secondly, this vast amount of criminal data collected, now centralised at Europol, further reinforces the Agency’s role as a criminal information hub. It constitutes a pivotal asset in enhancing operational effectiveness, enabling law enforcement to better target and conduct criminal investigations in the framework of cross-border police cooperation. It will allow allocating investigative resources more efficiently and ultimately enhancing public security.

April 5, 2024 Published by The EUROPOL. (Download PDF Report)

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