“Do you know how it started? The seed was planted in Monte Carlo in 1914.”
Leif Halberg, the head of communications for Interpol, is giving a history lesson on the international police organization. Prince Albert of Monaco was desperate. His luxurious and lucrative casinos along the Mediterranean coast were plagued by increasingly sophisticated swindlers and frauds from various European countries, who eluded the local police with ease. Convinced that he needed the best possible advice, the prince invited police officers from around the world to convene in Monte Carlo. Officials from 20 different countries took him up on the offer. Whether or not they helped crack down on casino crime is unclear, but the gathering proved invaluable in another respect.
“They realized that having people who are knowledgeable about international crime get together wasn’t a bad idea,” Halberg says of the attendees. “They could share their experiences and learn from each other. That’s where the idea for Interpol came about.”
Still, it took another nine years for the idea to formally take shape.
The history of Interpol is the story of how a lofty yet logical concept — law-enforcement cooperation among the world’s countries — became a reality. Despite politics. Despite war. Despite distrust. Today Interpol is bigger than ever, with 181 member countries as of November, and more relevant than ever, given the need for timely information on international terrorists. (See “Ron Noble is on the Case” in the October 2002 issue of Fast Company.)
Although there was interest in crime-fighting cooperation following the Monte Carlo gathering, any thoughts of creating an international body took a backseat during the divisive years of World War I. It wasn’t until 1923 that police organizations from 20 countries met at a conference in Vienna, Austria. This time, the organizer was one of their own, Johann Schober, Vienna’s dynamic police chief.
Criminals in post-war Europe had gone high-tech; they were using cars and telephones. They were also fleeing from one country to the next to evade police, whose investigations typically stopped at the border. The best way to pursue international criminals, Schober believed, was for national police agencies to work together.
As a result of the conference, the International Criminal Police Commission, or ICPC, was formed. It was an early, imperfect version of Interpol, an ostensibly international body funded by a single country, Austria. To avoid conflicts between ideologically opposed nations, the ICPC focused on crimes that weren’t clearly political in nature.
The ICPC was still working out the logistics of how countries would share information, which included an international radio network launched in 1935, when politics intervened. The Germans seized control of Austria in 1938 and subsequently commandeered the ICPC, which was based in Vienna. Under the Nazis, the ICPC was relocated to a Berlin suburb and used by the Gestapo to target Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. In 1940, the rest of the ICPC’s dropped out, in effect, disbanding the predecessor to Interpol, according to Michael Fooner’s 1973 book “Interpol: The Inside Story of the International Crime Fighting Organization.”
The group was revived after World War II and had to start over virtually from scratch. The bulk of its files had been lost or destroyed. The records that did survive were salvaged by a German officer who turned them over to the French, then committed suicide. In 1946, police officials from 17 countries met in Brussels and reestablished the ICPC with its new headquarters in France. A decade later, the group changed its name to the International Criminal Police Organization and eventually adopted its catchy telegraphic address, “Interpol.”
Even though membership grew to include countries beyond Europe and began holding meetings around the world to explore the specific needs of different regions, the organization had an undeniable French influence. It wasn’t until 1985 that Interpol elected its first non-French leader since World War II. Raymond Kendall, a Scotland Yard veteran, took over and set about trying to modernize Interpol, which had grown antiquated largely because of its paltry budget. The paper-based offices resembled a 1950s time capsule. Communication with some small developing countries was limited to Morse code.
Kendall also broadened Interpol’s scope. Despite its technological shortcomings, the organization had helped member countries to track down fugitives and to crack counterfeiting, drugs, and human-slave operations. The new secretary general added acts of terrorism to the list. The following year, in 1986, Internet headquarters in the Paris suburb of St. Cloud, was bombed by terrorists. Three years later, Interpol moved into a newly built fortress-like structure in the French city of Lyon.
Interpol’s state-of-the-art facility is designed to keep the staff and the member countries ahead of the curve. The computer system relays nearly three million messages a year, allowing countries to quickly share the latest crime leads with law-enforcement authorities around the globe. These messages include Interpol’s color-coded notices that seek the arrest of a suspect, information about a crime, or the identity of a missing person. The interactive database on global crime continues to grow, with new fingerprints, stolen or fraudulent passport numbers, names of suspected terrorists, stolen cars, and stolen works of art being added daily.
Shortly after being elected secretary general in 2000, Ron Noble, the first American to hold the position, reorganized the Lyon headquarters to make it a faster, more responsive, 24-7 operation. For Interpol to remain effective and relevant, he believes, it has to keep changing, keep evolving.
Who at the Monte Carlo gathering in 1914 could have foreseen what the seed of that idea would one day become? For that matter, who during World War II would have given the idea much of a chance? But as its history has proven time and again, Interpol is nothing if not a survivor.