Did You Order the Red Notice?

A guide to Interpol’s color-coded warnings.

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Interpol released an urgent “Orange Notice” over the weekend, after almost two dozen prisoners—including the convicted USS Cole bomber Jamal Ahmed Badawi—broke out of a Yemeni prison on Friday. Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble now says he would like to upgrade the warning: “Unless Interpol Red Notices are issued urgently for these fugitives … they will be able to travel internationally, to elude detection and to engage in future terrorist activity.” What are these color-coded notices?

Warnings that Interpol sends to each of its 184 member nations. Interpol, aka the International Criminal Police Organization, serves mainly as a communications hub for national law enforcement agencies. Each country sets up its own “National Central Bureau,” through which it shares information on Interpol’s secure, I-24/7 computer network. If cops in one country need information on an international fugitive, their bureau can request a notice from the organization’s headquarters in Lyon, France.

Interpol HQ can then send out a color-coded bulletin that’s printed in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. A Blue Notice serves as a request for information from police in other countries. Detectives might ask Interpol to put out a Blue Notice to help track the movements of a suspected murderer, for example. Interpol can issue a Yellow Notice when someone goes missing and authorities think they may have been taken across a border. An international child abduction would earn Interpol’s yellow seal, as would an amnesiac who doesn’t know his own identity. A Black Notice goes out when one agency finds a dead body that may be from abroad (see Patricia Cornwell’s crime novel of the same name). And a Green Notice allows police in different countries to share warnings about specific people or events.

An international fugitive gets the Red Notice. That means he’s either a convicted criminal or the target of an arrest warrant in the country that put in for the bulletin. The requesting country must send Interpol proof of the conviction and warrant and identifying information about the criminal. (Libya’s bureau backed up the first Red Notice on Osama Bin Laden, even before the 9/11 attacks.) The central office then reviews the case to make sure it doesn’t violate Article 3 of Interpol’s constitution, which rules out “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” That doesn’t mean politicians get a free pass. Within the past few weeks, a Red Notice was issued for the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto.

Interpol created the Orange Notice in 2004 as a special warning related to potential terrorist attacks using “disguised weapons, parcel bombs and other dangerous materials.” The men who tunneled out of jail in Yemen merited the Orange Notice because at least half of them are known terrorists. Red Notices may be forthcoming, but Interpol has to wait for Yemen to provide the necessary documentation.

Bonus Explainer: Where did Interpol come from? Europeans first started talking about the idea before World War I, but the International Criminal Police Commission didn’t come together until 1923. It now has a budget of about $40 million and a headquarters staff of several hundred. Over the years, other international police organizations, like Europol, have also sprung up.

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