Can the National Crime Agency Mirror the FBI? Ruthlessness is a Necessity

Today saw the launch of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK, an organisation dedicated to tackling organised crime, border insecurity, economic crime and child exploitation in particular. It has been compared to the FBI by some, whilst Labour supporters claim that the NCA is nothing more than a re-branding of its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

Will the NCA acronym be one for the ages?
Will the NCA acronym be one for the ages?

For the coalition government to justify the role of the NCA and its 4,500 officers, it needs to make sure the agency is bolder and more active than SOCA was. In this sense, it needs to take note from the early development of the FBI and attain a comparable public profile to that entrenched institution of American policing.

Launched in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the FBI was a crucial creation in allowing federally-coordinated serious crime prevention in the US. On the ascension of J. Edgar Hoover to the Directorship in 1924, the BOI aggressively began pursuing organized criminals, using modern technology and scientific profiling, in addition to a ruthless execution of justice.

The 1930s ‘war on crime’ period against Depression-era gangsters such as John Dillinger, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, rocketed the DOI into the national consciousness. Prepared to use lethal force if necessary (as attested to by the shootings of Dillinger and Nelson), Hoover’s G-Men brought a much needed attitude of intolerance to organised and violent crime, which had been glamourised in the mainstream media.

Dillinger dead at the hands of the G-Men
Dillinger dead at the hands of the G-Men

Renamed as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, FBI agents used ethically-dubious techniques to achieve intelligence and, ultimately, success. Unsanctioned wiretaps, bugging of hotel suites and the utilisation of ‘lesser’ criminals or ‘informants’ proved effective, even if their moral efficacy was questioned in some quarters.

Whilst history will remember Hoover as a paranoid bigot with an apparently-lurid private life, his ruthless pursuit of criminality (be it the Mafia, Ku Klux Klan, domestic terrorists or armed robbers) justified the FBI’s continuing existence.

If the NCA in Britain is to have the same affect as the FBI, it must conduct itself with a similar unscrupulousness (however morally dubious that may sometimes be) to its American equivalent. Few people will have heard of SOCA in the UK, testament to its nullified affect. American criminals, however sophisticated, are always wary of the FBI and this in itself can discourage criminal activity and encourage informants to come forward.

'Sammy the Bull' Gravano - a former mobster turned FBI informant whose testimony helped weaken the American Mafia
‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano – a former mobster turned FBI informant whose testimony helped weaken the American Mafia

With its increasing role in counter-terrorism, the FBI has also attained a degree of acceptance with the American public, many of whom understand the occasional need for the breach of their liberties as a means of enhancing national security.

Like the FBI, the NCA needs to adopt a brazen public profile; criminals need to be aware of its existence and the success of its operations so that a degree of wariness (if not fear) can be instilled. The raids on several homes across the country today is a good start.

Whether the NCA can truly be compared to the FBI, particularly given its comparatively tiny budget, remains to be seen, but its leaders must adopt a persistently ruthless approach to criminality which has enabled the FBI to stay at the forefront of American policing for over a century.


Social Disorder, Witchcraft and Murder in Madagascar: cultural legacies and an uncertain future

Madagascar made a rare, albeit unwanted, appearance in international newspapers today with the news that two European men were burnt to death accused of trafficking children’s organs for witchcraft rituals.

An isolated island in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of South Africa, Madagascar is better known for its lemurs and other endemic fauna than any of its people. Yet this incident brings to light some of the issues facing Malagasy society in the lead-up to a crucial general election and how ancient traditions continue to dictate ways of life in the impoverished nation.

Diogo Dias, brother of the more famous Bartolomeu, was the first European mariner to set foot on Madagascar, in the year 1500. Hoping to establish a series of trading posts for the fledgling Carreira da India – the treacherous journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope – Dias was frustrated in his attempts.

Subsequent ventures by other Portuguese and, later French, traders to establish waystations on Madagascar floundered. The country remained devoid of significant European colonization and thus its people retained many of their traditional cultural practices. This included witch-doctors (ombiasi) and shamans who were thought to play a crucial part in staving off evil spirits and other forms of devilry thought to be rife amongst ‘outsiders’.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for piracy. Arabic corsairs, in particular, raided the East African spice and slave markets, operating out of Madagascar, and the unruly reputation of the island further discouraged European colonization. Simultaneously, it encouraged a closer relationship between Madagascar’s rural poor and their spiritual guides, convinced as they were of the practice of witchcraft and sorcery by the foreign intruders.

Madagascar's geography and lack of European colonial rule encouraged pirates to settle its coasts
Madagascar’s geography and lack of European colonial rule encouraged pirates to settle its coasts

It was only in the 19th century that the Malagasy came under the control of an indigenous kingdom. The Merina Kingdom had been in existence since the 16th century but only really achieved centralised control in the 1800s. The new royal family, monopolising the national wealth, sought to eradicate vestiges of witchcraft from the island and initiated a purge of all suspected witches.

Dubious enough as this persecution was, it was given legitimacy by the ruling elite who claimed that mosavy – a mystical force of evil – was harming society and preventing its development. In reality, preying on traditional beliefs in this way was a way for the elite to rid themselves of undesirable elements of society and weaken the dependence of the rural poor on their ombiasi and instead pledge allegiance to the crown.

Finally, in 1897, Madagascar became a European colony as the French took over following the brutal Hova War (1883-1896). This occupation was detestable to the Malagasy which had for so long avoided direct colonization. Unsurprisingly, the French did not react well to the traditional ombiasi and when many were imprisoned as the Europeans sought to impose Christianity.

In keeping with the times, the Hova Wars were portrayed as a heroic venture by the French
In keeping with the times, the Hova Wars were portrayed as a heroic venture by the French

Even so, fears of witchcraft persisted. Writing in 1947, Mary Danielli described how Malagasy villagers told her that “one or more witches would run dementedly to and fro…knocking haphazardly on doors” when a person was nearing death.

French rule finally ended in 1958, by which time the white Europeans themselves had become associated with witchcraft and devilry, whose existence was embedded in Malagasy cultural thinking.

This psychology persists to an extent today for there is a great mistrust of the outsider in Madagascar, which remains fiercely isolated at the expense of social development. Troubles have been more acute since the 2009 political crisis, when Andry Nirina Rajoelina ousted President Marc Ravalomanana. Opposing factions of supporters have fought each other ever since, with the general population suffering the consequences.

Not all witchcraft is evil to the Malagasy, many of whom continue to engage in pagan acts such as the Famadihana – ancestral bone turning – ceremony. In times of crisis, people increasingly resort to familiar cultural practices and outsiders become associated with national ills.

The Famadihana festival remains an important cultural tradition in rural Madagascar
The Famadihana festival remains an important cultural tradition in rural Madagascar

In a nation with a comparatively short colonial history, age-old traditions are yet to be eradicated and acts of violence brutally out of touch with the modern world (such as the burning of the European men) are considered wholly justifiable based on historical principle.