Organized Crime

views updated Jun 08 2018


As with several terms in criminology, organized crime has been defined in a variety of ways and there is surprisingly little consensus regarding its meaning. In part this is because, unlike in the case of homicide or robbery or many other types of offenses, organized crime is a conceptual rather than a legal category. The issue of definition is an important one, however, since how we define organized crime has very important implications for how we attempt to explain it and for the steps we take as a society to prevent or control it.

Of course, all crime is organized to some degree. The criminal acts of juvenile delinquents, a small group of minor thieves, or a three-person team of con artists suggest at least minimal levels of social organization. Yet we do not usually intend the term "organized crime" to include such activities or groups. All crimes and criminals are located along a continuum of organizational sophistication that identifies differences with respect to factors such as the division of labor or stability over time. The importation, preparation, distribution, and sale of illegal drugs is a more organized crime than is a simple mugging; and a group of criminals who steal cars, modify them, and then ship them for sale outside of the United States requires more organization than a group of juveniles who commit the occasional act of convenience store theft. By implication, if not more explicitly, the term "organized crime" refers to groups and acts at the high rather than the low end of any continuum of organizational sophistication.

Unfortunately, the tendency to use the term "organized crime" to refer simultaneously to a type of behavior and a type of person often leads to circular reasoning. For instance, the phrase "'organized crime' is involved in narcotics distribution in New York" is tautological because narcotics distribution is an organized crime and whoever is involved in it is by definition in organized crime. Most typically, organized crime is defined in ways that emphasize high levels of cooperation among groups of professional criminals. In this way, the category organized crime is viewed as synonymous with the category organized criminals. In popular parlance, for instance, organized crime has been equated with "the mob," "the Mafia" or "The Syndicate."

Critics of definitions that tend to equate organized crime with criminal associations are quite correct in pointing out that such definitions discourage our potential understanding of the wide variety of other social actors involved in organized crime. Thus, they contend, there is more to organized crime than associations of professional criminals. There are victims, customers, regulators, suppliers, competitors, and innocent bystanders. Viewed this way, the criminal association is merely one component in a much more complex web of interrelationships that comprise organized crime. Moreover, the configurations among these various elements are always changing and these changes affect the ways in which any particular component (including the criminal association) is organized.

For these writers, organized crime is more usefully conceptualized as a set of market relationships rather than as criminal associations or secret societies. This position reflects the view that many of the kinds of activities with which we customarily associate organized crimedrug dealing, loan-sharking, gambling, the infiltration of legitimate businessare market activities and, therefore, the kinds of questions we need to ask about organized crime are the same kinds of questions we would need to ask about any kind of business. How are goods marketed? How are contractual obligations enforced? What sorts of relationships link criminal entrepreneurs to the general public as well as to those who seek to use state power to regulate their activities? Thus, organized crime involves an ongoing criminal conspiracy, ordered around market relationships that involve victims, offenders, customers, and corrupt officials among others.

To a considerable degree, criminological debates about how to best define organized crime (like debates about its history, structure, and most other matters) are fueled by the problems that plague efforts to undertake original research into organized crime. Many of the standard methodological tools of social sciencethe survey or the experiment, for instancethat are employed with effectiveness in addressing the nature of other forms of offending, lack real application in the study of organized crime. As a result, much of what we know, we have learned indirectly. Popular journalism, the findings of government investigations, and criminal and civil investigations have often substituted for firsthand observation by criminological researchers. For many critics, the lack of original research and the reliance on these other data sources make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Moreover, when original research has been undertaken, such as the study by Francis Ianni and Elizabeth Reuss-Ianni of a New York Italian American crime family, it has often proven to be sharply critical of the official view of organized crime. Such studies have tended to reveal a considerably more complex picture than the one that often emerges in the pages of the "true crime" or fictional narrative or from the proceedings of government inquiries.


The pirates who plundered and looted merchant vessels in the seventeenth century and who undertook large-scale trade in stolen goods may be considered among the earliest organized crime groups to make their appearance in the Western world. Many of the activities that are associated with contemporary organized crime, such as prostitution, gambling, theft, and various forms of extortion, were also evident in the frontier communities of the nineteenth-century American West.

However, most observers locate the origins of the distinctly American style of organized crime in the urban centers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a fundamental way, urban conditions provided the kind of environment in which organized crime could flourish. The large population sizes provided a "critical mass" of offenders, customers, and victims and thereby facilitated the development of profitable markets in illicit goods and services. Moreover, the size and density of urban networks allowed criminal forms of organization to become diversified and encouraged the growth of essential support services (such as those offered by corrupt politicians or police).

These early forms of criminal organization were typically tied to local areas and because of the highly segregated character of the city, they had important ethnic dimensions. Irish neighborhoods, for instance, gave rise to street gangs with names like "The Bowery Boys" and the "O'Connell's Guards" and in Chinese, African American, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods criminal organization similarly reflected local cultural and economic circumstances. Neighborhood conditions provided ample opportunity for local criminal entrepreneurs who were willing and able to engage in a various forms of extortion or illicit marketeering.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, residents of the "Little Italies" of many eastern industrialized urban areas had to contend with a crude form of protection racket known as "La Mano Nera" or "the Black Hand." Those members of the local community who were better off financially might receive an anonymous note demanding that a sum of money be paid to the writer. If payment was not forthcoming, victims were typically warned that they could expect to have their businesses bombed or the safety of their family members jeopardized. Customarily, the extortion demand was signed with a crude drawing of a black hand. While the receiver of the letter (as well as other members of the community) were led to believe that the Black Hand was a large and powerful organization, it is more likely that the extortion was the work of individuals or a small group of offenders who used their victims' fear of secret societies (and often their fear of the police) to coerce payment.

While most forms of criminal organization prior to World War I were relatively small-scale operations, the situation changed dramatically with the introduction of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 16 January 1919 and went into effect one year later. The intention of the national experiment was to control alcohol use through the prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. In essence, national prohibition had created an illegal market unlike any that had existed before.

It can be argued that national prohibition facilitated the consolidation of the power of criminal organizations. Although pre-Prohibition criminal enterprises had often been profitable, the revenue potential of Prohibition was unprecedented. While precise estimates of the amount of money that flowed through organized crime groups are difficult to make, it is clear that the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol had become a major industry. In 1927, for instance, the U.S. Attorney's Office estimated that the criminal organization of the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone had an annual income of $105 million. In subsequent years, the profits from the sale of illegal alcohol in Chicago and other cities funded the movement of criminal organizations into diverse sectors of both the licit and the illicit economies.

The importation and distribution of illegal alcohol also encouraged national and international linkages between criminal groups. For instance, the involvement of Canadian organized crime figures in smuggling operations that moved alcohol to the United States facilitated the eventual control by American organized crime groups of Canadian criminal operations in cities such as Toronto and Montreal. On a national level, intergroup cooperation was evidenced by regional conferences of those involved in the illicit liquor business. One such major gathering of crime figures was held in Atlantic City in 1929 and was attended by representatives from criminal organizations located in several major urban areas.

Importantly, the profitability of those industries that subverted national prohibition fostered an environment of widespread corruption in several cities. For many members of the general public as well as many law enforcement and elected officials, prohibition lacked any real moral authority. The relationships between criminal organizations and the political machines that held sway in many cities were stabilized during Prohibition, and the intricate connections between these sectors of the urban social fabric were maintained for decades to come.

The Great Depression of the 1930s did not affect the business of organized crime to the degree it affected many aspects of the legitimate economy. After Prohibition ended in 1933, major criminal organizations diversified and became increasingly powerful in the process. Gambling, loan-sharking, and the growth industry of narcotics distribution became important sources of criminal revenue as repeal threatened the proceeds from the illegal sale of alcohol.

An increasingly significant area of enterprise during this period was "racketeering." While the term may be defined many different ways, it generally refers to the variety of means by which organized crime groups, through the use of violence (actual or implied), gain control of labor unions or legitimate businesses. Often, though, the relationships that joined organized crime groups to unions or legitimate business were mutually advantageous. The leadership of a labor union, for example, might seek to exploit the violent reputation of those involved in organized crime in order to pressure an employer to meet a demand for concessions. Similarly, a business owner might attempt to control the competitive character of the legitimate marketplace or to avert labor troubles through affiliation with those willing to use violence and intimidation in the pursuit of economic goals. The International Longshoremen's Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are among the best known examples of labor organizations affected by racketeering.

In 1950, organized crime became a highly visible part of American popular culture. A series of televised congressional hearings chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver sought not only the testimony of law enforcement experts but also of supposed members of organized crime networks. In general, the latter type of witness tended to remain silent or to otherwise express an unwillingness to provide evidence. These refusals made for startling television viewing and were interpreted by many observers as unambiguous proof of the sinister character of the problem of organized crime.

In its final report the Kefauver committee concluded that organized crime in America was largely under the control of an alien conspiracy known as "the Mafia." The Kefauver committee argued that the organization, which was said to have its origins in Sicily, was firmly in control of gambling, narcotics, political corruption, and labor racketeering in America. The Mafia, it was suggested, cemented its power through the use of violence, intimidation, and corruption.

The influence of the Kefauver committee in shaping postwar perceptions of organized crime as the product of an alien conspiracy, which subverts American social structure rather than emerging from it, cannot be underestimated. Its findings influenced significantly the ways in which policymakers, journalists, academics, and members of the general public would think about the problem of organized crime for decades to come. However, critics have charged that the committee was more engaged by the process of public drama than by a search for the truth. In this respect, it can be argued that the committee had very little proof upon which to base the startling conclusions that it reached about the nationwide conspiracy of ethnic criminals.

A number of developments in subsequent decades nevertheless appeared to be consistent with the findings of the Kefauver committee. In 1957, an apparent conclave of Mafia members was raided in the small upstate town of Apalachin, New York. In 1963, another congressional investigation of organized crime (known popularly as the McClellan committee) heard testimony from a supposed Mafia insider, named Joseph Valachi. According to Valachi, the control of organized crime in America rested with an organization known as "La Cosa Nostra" rather than the Mafia. Valachi described the character of the organization, the oaths that its members took, and recounted the historical process by which the modern La Cosa Nostra was formed after a purge of the older and more traditional Mafia leadership of the 1930s. Once again, critics pointed out that very little of what Valachi had to say could be corroborated independently and that he himself had a record of lying to law enforcement authorities when it suited his purpose. Still, Valachi's testimony helped strengthen a kind of ideological and moral consensus around the view of organized crime as an alien parasitic conspiracy rather than as a problem indigenous to American social life. Moreover, his testimony and the work of the McClellan committee more generally legitimated the subsequent development of investigative approaches to organized crime, including the widespread use of wiretaps, witness immunity, and other strategies facilitated by the passage of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to examine all aspects of crime and justice in America. One of the task forces associated with this commission was charged with the responsibility of investigating the nature and dimensions of organized crime. The report of that task force, shaped principally by the well-known criminologist Donald Cressey, reinforced and extended the view of organized crime as an alien ethnic conspiracy. According to the task force, La Cosa Nostra was comprised of approximately five thousand members organized within twenty-four "families" each of which was associated with a particular regional sphere of influence. Moreover, these families were said to be organized in terms of a rigid hierarchical chain of command. The highest level of decision-making in the organization was a "National Commission" that served as a combination legislature, supreme court, and board of directors.

While a number of critics dissented, there was a widespread consensus by the 1970s that organized crime did indeed reflect an Italian American hegemony. The apparent findings of investigative commissions and task forces were underwritten by films such as The Godfather, The Valachi Papers, and Mean Streets as well as by other elements of popular culture. At the same time, it was increasingly acknowledged that other groups were beginning to make significant inroads in organized crime. Typically described in terms of their ethnicity, such groups were said to include African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Russians. The powerful character of earlier organized crime imagery affected the ways in which such groups were labeled by the mass media and by relevant policy communities and it became common to speak of the growing power of the black, Mexican, or Russian "Mafias."

By the 1980s many observers had come to the conclusion that whatever control La Cosa Nostra exerted over organized crime was in decline. The systems of widespread corruption that had emerged out of Prohibition typically involved well-articulated relationships between organized crime groups on the one hand and established political machines on the other. These machines, which facilitated the centralization of police and urban political corruption, had largely disappeared by the 1970s. Moreover, because municipal policing had become more professionalized and because federal agencies had begun to develop an increasing interest in the activities of organized crime, the bases of large-scale, long-term corruption had been undermined.

The passage of new legislation aimed at the control of organized crime and the aggressive prosecution of cases involving Italian organized crime figures also did much to weaken the hold that La Cosa Nostra had on licit and illicit businesses. Perhaps most important in this respect was the passage of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act and related statutes. The members of Italian American organizations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Boston, and elsewhere were effectively prosecuted and high-visibility cases were brought against well-known figures such as John Gotti and the heads of the five New York crime families were seen as clear proof of the power of the prosecutorial assault.

It is also worth noting that the decline within urban areas of traditional Italian communities and the movement of second and third generations to the suburbs removed from cities much of the popular support that many organized crime figures had previously enjoyed. In addition, it has been suggested that the continued tendency of the Mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) to recruit new members from a dwindling pool of uneducated and violent felons did little to ensure the adaptability of the organization as the business of organized crime became more complex at the end of the twentieth century. In addition, the gains made by other ethnic groups often came at the expense of the Italian American crime syndicate's interests. The traditional control of the heroin markets was lost to Mexican and Asian groups whose strategies for importation of the drug did not depend on the muscle that the Mafia may have been able to exert for so long against the New York waterfront. Similarly, the very lucrative cocaine business was under the control of Colombian cartels rather than Cosa Nostra families. The cartels required neither the financing nor the private violence that the Italian syndicate might have been able to lend to the operation of an illicit market. Such groups were themselves well financed and in possession of their own fearsome reputations regarding the use of violence to settle disputes or to threaten competition.

The concern in the 1980s and 1990s about the emergence of new organized groups was accompanied by a concern about the increasingly transnational character of organized crime. This crime trend has been understood, in large part, as an outcome of the postcold war reconfiguration of national and economic boundaries. The reduction in trade restrictions, the development of global systems of finance and telecommunications, the increasingly transparent nature of national borders, and the dramatic internal changes in many nations (such as those in the former Soviet Union) made it easier for criminal conspirators to expand their operations internationally. Such operations are tracked, investigated, and prosecuted with great difficulty since effective enforcement requires levels of international cooperation among policing agencies from different nations that often vary markedly regarding their enforcement priorities and the resources available to them.

Police intelligence during the period suggested, for instance, that organized crime groups from the former Soviet Union, Asia, and Italy were forming partnerships among themselves as well as with drug merchants in Central and South America. As in the case of legitimate business, such foreign expansions resulted from the desire to engage new markets. The links between Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia, for example, reflected an interest on the part of the cartels to enter European markets where, as compared to the United States, cocaine could be sold at a higher price and where drug enforcement activity was less aggressive. Estimates of the economic impact of transnational crime are difficult to make and run as high as several hundred billion dollars annually.

The international context

Particularly salient aspects of organized crime in the United States are its apparent durability and the degree to which it has permeated popular culture. Over the decades it has evolved in ways that suggest both an endemic social problem and a distinctly American cultural mythology. Such considerations do not imply, however, that the phenomenon of organized crime is in any sense unique to the United States.

Of course, cross-national comparisons of organized crime levels and activities are exceptionally difficult to make, given considerable variation in legal codes, and the quantity and quality of intelligence information. As a result, generalizations about the kinds of national characteristics that do or do not provide the environment in which organized crime will flourish are always tentative. However, several factors do seem to have real relevance in this respect.

One such factor is the gap that exists between the goods and services which citizens demand and the legal codes that attempt to regulate supply. The experience with alcohol prohibition in the United States (as well as with current drug policies) has convinced many that when laws are designed to regulate illicit markets, organized crime is an inevitability. In the former Soviet Union, an extremely large black market thrived as all forms of individual economic enterprise were illegal. It has been argued that the personnel, who comprise the organized crime groups that have come to be seen as an extremely serious problem in the post-Soviet societies of Eastern Europe, developed their entrepreneurial skills in the context of such market economies.

Traditions and political structures conducive to corruption are also very important to the development of organized crime. The role attributed to American urban political machines is not unique in this respect. The historically authoritarian character of Soviet society encouraged the subversion of the legal control of many forms of entrepreneurial activity and fostered widespread disrespect for the law and political authority. It can be suggested that the immense wealth accumulated by drug cartels in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries when combined with political traditions of one-party rule (as in Mexico or Nigeria, for example) and an immense gap between rich and poor, make political and law enforcement corruption, and as a consequence, organized crime, likely outcomes.

The development of organized crime is also related to geographic location. The proximity of Mexico and Canada to the United States, for instance, has affected the growth of organized crime in both countries. For Mexican crime groups, proximity to the United States provides access to a sizeable and relatively easily penetrable drug market. In the Canadian case, the cultural and social similarities to the United States, and a relatively open border, in addition to several other factors, facilitated the movement northward of major organized crime groups in the 1950s and 1960s. In a different way, according to the U.S. State Department, Chile had avoided, until the closing years of the twentieth century, many of the problems with organized crime that are characteristic of other South American countries due largely to its geographic isolation.

While it is clear that organized crime can emerge out of many different sorts of political contexts, perhaps it is most secure in nations with liberal democratic traditions that emphasize upward mobility and individual achievement. In the United States, cultural approval of the upwardly bound is pervasive and an important part of national ideology. It has often been the case that cultural support of the organized criminal has been no less extensive than for those who have made fortunes in more conventional ways. Not only within their own ethnic communities but also within the wider society, organized crime figures such as Al Capone and John Gotti have emerged as folk heroes and media celebrities.

Ethnic succession and organized crime

The role that ethnicity plays in shaping American organized crime has long been at the center of a heated debate among criminologists. Two broad schools of thought may be identified in this regard. The first, which many critics label the "alien conspiracy theory," assigns primary significance to the role played by Italian American groups in organized crime from the early days of this century until at least the 1980s. From this point of view, large scale American organized crime emerged out of earlier forms of Italian criminal organization such as the "Black Hand" gangs discussed earlier. Such gangs were themselves thought by advocates of this position to have reflected criminal styles and organizational forms imported to America from Sicily and other areas of southern Italy during the large-scale immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While small-scale forms of criminal organization may have predated the importation of the Mafia, advocates of this view maintain that the history of organized crime in America really is the history of the American Mafia. It is claimed that internecine struggles among groups of Italian American gangsters in the 1930s (known as the Castellammarese War) led to the Americanization of the Mafia and the emergence of a new and dynamic leadership that is associated with such well-known organized crime figures of the 1940s and 1950s as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese. As the Americanized "La Cosa Nostra" replaced the more traditional organizational form of the Mafia, Italian American hegemony over organized crime was firmly established for several decades. From this point of view, it is not ethnicity as a variable that matters so much as the distinctive ethnicity of Mafia members. By implication, there is something very unique about the cultural character of southern Italy that has frequently predisposed immigrants from those regions to become involved in organized crime. Not surprisingly, Italian Americans have long complained about the Mafia stereotype and about the suggestion that organized crime is exclusively or largely the domain of those with Italian ancestry.

While the alien conspiracy theory has been legitimated by journalists, government inquiries, and many scholars, its critics argue that it too often substitutes myth for fact. There is, for instance, very little evidence to suggest that Italian American crime was characterized by a unilinear evolution or even that certain of the pivotal events (such as the Castellammarese War) even took place. However, critics charge, the most serious limitation of this argument may be that it tends to treat organized crime as a "special case." Because it attributes organized crime to a small number of criminal conspirators and to unique secret societies, the perspective asks few questions to which general answers can be given. By conceptualizing organized crime as the product of "evil" groups and by conceptualizing these groups as the product of singular social circumstances and powerful personalities, the argument blocks the way to a more abstract understanding of the problem. Moreover, by viewing organized crime as something that is imported to America, rather than as an indigenous product, the perspective does not seek to explain the relationships that link such crime to elements of American social structure.

A second perspective attempts to provide a historical context for the Italian American experience by arguing that it is part of a much broader process of "ethnic succession" in organized crime. This argument maintains that organized crime is not the exclusive domain of any one ethnic group. Rather, groups move into organized crime when other channels of upward social mobility are not open to them, and move out as more legitimate means of attaining wealth, power, and prestige become available. According to the sociologist Daniel Bell, who originally made this argument in the 1950s, organized crime functions as a "queer ladder of social mobility."

Thus, advocates of the ethnic succession argument maintain that in the burgeoning cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, organized crime was dominated by the Irish. As Irish gangs formed, they became connected to urban political machines that were also under Irish control. As the legitimate power structure became increasingly available to Irish Americans, however, they began to view organized crime as less attractive, and as they moved out of such activity, other groupsmost notably Jewish and Italian organized criminalsassumed an increasingly important presence. However, because the Italian domination of organized crime coincided with the rise of mass media, and the investigative activities of the Keafauver committee and other government bodies, the one-to-one correspondence between organized crime and Italian ethnicity became fixed in public discourse.

As Italian dominance in organized crime declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the process of ethnic succession continued. African American, Hispanics, Asians, Russians, and others, it is said, have each in turn replaced their predecessors as changes in the legitimate structures of opportunity have accommodatedoften grudginglygroups who previously played significant roles in organized crime.

The ethnic succession argument presents a more complicated picture of the relationships involving organized crime, ethnicity, and American social structure than the one suggested by theories of alien conspiracies. It contends that organized crime is not imported to America but is instead a logical product of the distinctly American character of minority group stratification and of the restrictions on legitimate opportunities that minorities face. Organized crime is not the property of any particular group but rather a means of social mobility that the existence of illicit markets makes available. As such it has been intertwined historically with other semilegitimate channels of upward mobility, such as entertainment, boxing, and union and urban politics. Like organized crime, these channels of upward mobility do not depend on credentials or family status and, as a result, have also been characterized by processes of ethnic succession.

Analytically, the ethnic succession argument encourages a focus on the variable character of ethnic group experiences in organized crime. Not all groups have been involved in such crime and those that have been involved have tended, often, to specialize in particular forms of illicit activity. By recognizing the differing experiences that groups have with organized crime, it is possible to develop a more general understanding of how ethnicity and historical circumstance interact. Some groups, such as the Germans and Scandinavians, were more likely to settle in rural areas of the Midwest rather than in urban areas of the east, and as a result their involvement in organized crime was less typical. In a consistent way, the cultural backgrounds of other groups have influenced the kinds of illegal activities in which they did become involved. Early in the twentieth century, for instance, the Irish specialized in gambling and labor racketeering. The latter choice reflected their more general involvement in the leadership of the labor movement. It has also been argued that the large-scale involvement of Italian organized criminals in the illegal alcohol business during prohibition represented an attempt to enter an illicit market that was new and thus not under Irish control. Much later in the twentieth century, Vietnamese and Chinese organized crime groups have specialized in extortion and the importation of drugs, while Russian groups have specialized in various forms of fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting.

Aspects of organized crime other than market specialization may also be related to ethnicity. Cultural experience, for instance, may relate to the level of mistrust of government, the degree of community tolerance for particular types of organized crime activities, the willingness to use violence, and to the forms that criminal organizations assume.

Some critics have charged that the theory of ethnic succession is too simplistic. In short, it is suggested that the image of ethnic groups as, in some sense, lined up and waiting their turn to enter organized crime and then neatly exiting when legitimate opportunities present themselves is not consistent with the historical record. There are several strands to this criticism. First, there is historical evidence to support the conclusion that in many citiesincluding, for example, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Clevelandorganized crime has not been under the control of any particular ethnic group but has been run instead by multiethnic hierarchies.

Second, it may be erroneous to assume that organized crime is a channel of upward mobility readily available to those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and who lack access to more conventional channels. Rather, the process has been more complicated such that success in large-scale organized crime appears to be possible only after at least some gains have been made in the conventional order. As stated, the success of the Irish in organized crime early in the century depended on their collaborative relationships with the police, labor unions, and political machines. Thus, prior success in more conformist spheres seems to make success at organized crime possible.

Third, the ethnic succession argument appears to assume that organized crime is a zero-sum game such that movement into this activity is only possible when other groups move out. This need not be the case. If particular markets (for instance, the market in marijuana) do not tend toward monopolization, then clearly groups can move in without pushing anyone else out. Another line of criticism maintains that the major weakness of the argument concerns its failure to explain why, within any ethnic group, some individuals rather than others involve themselves in organized crime. This criticism rightly alerts us to the observation that, with respect to any ethnic group, it is only a very small minority who engage in organized crime. Most ethnic group members remain hardworking, develop legitimate entrepreneurial enterprises, and in general strive to make effective use of those opportunities that do present themselves. According to this view, movement into organized crime is not a response to a reduction in opportunity but a rationally chosen style of life that exploits subterranean American values regarding "easy money" and "the fast life." The General Theory of Crime, developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, suggests that those who engage in organized crime, like those who engage in other forms of crime, do so because they lack high levels of "self control" rather than because they experience the frustration borne of blocked opportunity. A corresponding point can be made regarding the tenet of ethnic succession theory that those who are forced into organized crime move out when legitimate opportunities present themselves. Some observers, such as Peter Lupsha, have noted that movement out often seems more a matter of defeat or attrition than of any effort to gain real respectability. The Italian American organized crime figures who had risen to prominence by the middle of the twentieth century left organized crime principally as a result of death or prosecution. Many of those who remained faced vigorous opponents who sought a share of the businesses that they controlled.


Questions about the structure of organized crime usually involve a consideration of two distinct yet related issues. The first concerns the form and level of organization that characterize criminal associations. The second involves a consideration of the structure of the various markets within which these associations operate.

With respect to the first question, debate has centered around the level of rationality of organized crime groups. In simple terms, the concept of rationality refers to the degree of "organizational sophistication." To the extent that organized crime groups are highly rational, they possess a well-defined division of labor, formal authority relations, and a structural permanence which implies that the organization exists independently of the people that comprise it at any particular point in time. Those descriptions of La Cosa Nostra, for instance, as a relatively formalized bureaucracy with positions for "bosses," "underbosses," and "soldiers" suggest a highly formalized model.

In contrast, it has been argued that organized crime groups more closely resemble informal rather than formal organizations. In this model, organized crime groups are said to consist principally of localized sets of loosely structured relationships that derive from kin and other forms of intimate association. The organizational context is seen to be based less on bureaucratic formality and more on shared cultural understandings and cooperation. Analyses by James O. Finckenauer and Elin K. Waring of the structure of the "Russian Mafia" in America, for instance, reveal that criminal associations typically resemble informal networks and as such are not centralized or dominated by any small group of individuals. Moreover, those individuals who do exert particular influence in these networks do so because of personal influence rather than because of positions that they occupy. There is also little evidence to support the view that these organizational structures outlive the involvement of their central participants.

Some critics of the more formalized model, such as historian Mark Haller, maintain that it is incorrectat least in the case of Italian American crime organizationsto equate an association of organized criminals with a business enterprise. Rather, the members of such associations are relatively independent entrepreneurs who run their own illegal businesses from which they derive income. The organization does not provide "jobs" but serves the needs of its members in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the establishment of relationships and partnerships that facilitate the exploitation of illicit opportunities. Of course, not all groups operate this way and it is important to distinguish those that function like businessmen's associations from those that are themselves business enterprises. The Cosa Nostra differs from a Colombian drug cartel in that the former is a type of social group that serves the interests of its members while the latter is a business group that is concerned with the sale and distribution of illicit goods. To group them together would be to confuse organizations like the Rotary Club with businesses like department stores.

It is also possible that differing views about the level of rationality of organized crime are not so much in conflict as they are differentially applicable. It may be that at certain (higher) levels of some crime organizations, authority is relatively formalized and, to some degree, structure exists quite independently of the activities in which the group is involved at any particular time. At the same time, relationships involving those at lower levels of the organizationor involving those in the organization and those beyond itfunction in much more informal ways. Thus, rationality may not only vary between crime organizations but within them as well.

With respect to the structure of the markets in which organized crime is engaged, a key structural issue concerns what is sometimes assumed to be the inevitability of market monopolization. From one point of view, the trend toward monopoly is the central and defining feature of organized crime. Through the provision of "protection" to those involved in illicit businesses (such as bookmakers), through the establishment of trade associations involving legitimate sectors of the economy (such as the laundry business), or through other extortionate practices, organized crime groups are able to monopolize the delivery of particular goods and services.

In contrast, others have argued that the tendency of illicit markets associated with organized crime is to resist monopolization. Based on an analysis of gambling and loan-sharking operations in the New York City area, for instance, Peter Reuter (1983) concluded that the fear of police intervention and a lack of court-enforceable contracts tend to make markets fragmented and localized. Moreover, entry into such markets was relatively easy and prices for illegal services were set by the competitive power of the marketplace rather than by any sort of central pricing authority. While violence might be expected to facilitate monopolies, it has been found that it is used less frequently (and is less useful) than is sometimes believed. Not only does the use of violence invite police scrutiny, it also suggests a rather unstable mechanism for market control. By implication, any such monopoly is always vulnerable to groups as willing or more willing to use violence.


The range of activities in which organized crime groups are said to be involved is vast indeed. Traditionally, it has been argued that these activities are of two major types. The first involves the distribution and sale of illicit goods and services. Specifically such illicit enterprises might include prostitution, drugs, gambling, pornography, and loan-sharking. Extortion, the other major form of activity, is undertaken as an end in itself or as the means to other ends. These extortionate practices include various forms of business and labor racketeering and, it is argued, they have often provided the point of entry by which organized crime groups "infiltrate" legitimate businesses. While infiltration may in some cases be the appropriate word, in other cases, it obscures the role played by business interests that knowingly engage with organized crime groups because they believe it is in their best interests to do so. Such cases suggest collaboration rather than infiltration since the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic. Thus, a legitimate business might use the relationship with an organized crime group as a source of investment capital while the organized crime group might view the relationship as an effective way to launder funds, diversify risk, or achieve some level of public respectability.

What illicit marketeering and extortion share in common, to some degree, is the potential for organization and routinization. In all such cases, not only collaborators but also victims understand the nature of the relationships in which they are involved. However, both groups may be unwilling to share the task of preventing or controlling the prohibited conduct. This may be because of their own profit-sharing, in the case of collaborators, or because they fear that such action could put them in danger, as in the case of victims.

Other forms of activities associated with organized crime groupssuch as the use of violence or political corruptionmust be understood in terms that stress the instrumental character of such practices. By definition, the businesses of organized crime operate beyond the reach of law and therefore conflicts that arise among participants cannot be resolved using the state-approved legal apparatus. Under such conditions, violence (and more importantly the threat of violence) assume some significance as techniques of conflict resolution. In a related way, organized crime groups need to be able to evade or to neutralize those state agencies charged with their control. Traditionally, corruption has proven to be an important mechanism by which this task is accomplished. As in the case of the infiltration of legitimate business, however, corruption is more often a form of symbiotic relationship than a form of victimization.

By the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers and academics alike had begun to argue that it would be misleading to think about organized crime activities in traditionally narrow terms. While various forms of extortion and marketeering continued to be important income sources, organized crime had become much more sophisticated. Of particular interest in this respect was the increasingly important role that criminal associations were thought to play in various financial markets. In the late 1990s, for instance, it was claimed that organized crime groups owned or controlled several New York brokerage firms.

During this period, attention also focused on the crime of money laundering. As cash businesses, drug trafficking, gambling, and other organized crimes generate huge amounts of money that is vulnerable to seizure by state authorities. The movement of these funds through international money markets not only launders the money but also in many cases extends criminal enterprises and facilitates corruption and bribery. It has been estimated that over $750 billion in illicit funds is laundered worldwide annually of which $300 billion is laundered through the United States.

Controlling organized crime

For many observers, organized crime is not only an object of academic study but also a practical problem about which something needs to be done. Policies aimed at the control of organized crime have tended to emphasize one of two types of strategies. The first targets the members of organized crime groups while the second focuses on the structural characteristics and market relationships that make organized crime possible. It is important to stress that these two broad strategies are not in conflict with each other. However, they do reflect quite different assumptions about how the human and economic resources available for the control of organized crime should be employed.

Strategies that focus on the members of organized crime groups tend to involve the use of the criminal justice system for the purpose of prosecuting offenders. Local state and federal agencies have used a wide arsenal of investigative and prosecutorial weapons to this end. These have included the extensive use of wiretaps, witness immunity and witness protection programs, and special grand juries. Perhaps the most important prosecutorial tool is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was passed in 1970. The act makes it a crime to acquire an interest in, to participate in the affairs of, or to invest the profits acquired from an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity. In the period after 1980, most significant organized crime prosecutions involved the use of the RICO statutes, and the decimation of the traditional Cosa Nostra organization has been attributed to RICO prosecutions.

Critics, however, maintain that all such policies have an inherent limitation in that they proceed from the assumption that the controlthrough prosecutionof members of organized crime groups is somehow synonymous with the control of organized crime. Such "headhunting" approaches, it is argued, confuse the arrest and prosecution of offenders with the control of the activities in which offenders engage. It has been suggested that even when they are successful, these strategies remove only some illicit entrepreneurs from the marketplace and thereby strengthen the rewards for those who remain. This outcome may be made more likely by the tendency of law enforcement to prosecute most successfully those operators who are smallest and weakest. Historically, it has been the case, critics argue, that the response to criminal prosecution is often adaptation on the part of organized crime groups. In the latter years of the twentieth century, for instance, the transparency of many national borders, and the growth of the Internet and of international money markets facilitated such adaptations by posing complex jurisdictional problems to enforcement agencies.

Rather than focus on the members of organized crime groups as the object of policy attention, many analysts argue, it is necessary to focus on the environments within which the businesses that comprise organized crime operate. Seen in this way, organized crime may require market rather than law enforcement interventions. One such intervention aims to decriminalize or legalize those goods and services that form the basis for many organized crime markets. Thus, state lotteries and legalized gambling in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City provide alternatives to a service that would otherwise only be available in illicit markets. However, the approach poses risks since it is not necessarily the case that legalization results in the destruction of illegal markets. It can instead create a social climate that proves to be even more supportive of illegal conduct.

Another strategy involves efforts to "follow the money." The recognition that organized crime activity facilitates the accumulation of large amounts of cash that must be laundered implies a need to make the money itself the object of policy attention. Money laundering by organized crime groups in the 1980s and 1990s (particularly the profits from the drug trade) has facilitated the relationships between organized crime groups and organizations in the more legitimate economy as well as between such groups and the governments of states for which such money is an important source of revenue. Thus, increasing attention has focused on the development of "money laundering" laws and policies that take the profits away from offenders by seizing or freezing assets derived from organized crimes. Indeed, in the United States, money laundering prosecutions rose 400 percent between 1991 and 1993. Effective money laundering policies necessitate a degree of international cooperation that cannot always be achieved either because of differences in enforcement resources or in political will. Such strategies also depend heavily on long-term undercover operations, stings, and the use of informants, all of which pose difficult ethical problems.

Vincent F. Sacco

See also Alcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment; Criminal Careers; Gambling; Rico (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act).


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Organized Crime

views updated May 29 2018

Organized Crime

Some of the most recognizable names associated with U.S. organized crime include "Lucky" Luciano (1892–1962), Meyer Lansky (1902–1983), Al Capone (1899–1947), and "Bugsy" Siegel (1906–1947). Legendary American Mafia or Cosa Nostra crime families include the Colombos, Bonannos, Genoveses, Luccheses, and Gambinos. Famous gangs include the Hell's Angels, the Bloods, the Crips, the Green Light Gangs, the Gangster Disciples, and the Latin Kings. These notable crime bosses, crime families, and street gangs span a time period from the 1920s to the 2000s.

The legends and stories of real life mobsters and street gangs have often captivated our nation's imagination. The entertainment industry fed this fascination with the The Godfather (1972–90) movies and the Home Box Office (HBO) cable television series, The Sopranos. Both depict the extravagant mob lifestyle of fancy cars, clothes, and ritzy homes. The characters of Don Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano, although fictional, have become the public's perception of what real crime families are like.

By the 1990s a number of organized crime units operating within the United States had home bases far from American soil. Chinese organized crime groups called triads, Hong Kong triads, the Russian Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, South American drug cartels (organized crime groups growing and selling narcotics), and the Mexican Mafia represent just some of the organized crime groups operating and cooperating with U.S. crime outfits. In 2002 the FBI reported U.S. organized crime activities brought in an annual income of between $50 and $90 billion dollars—more income than any major national industry. Around that time worldwide profits for organized crime were estimated to be approximately one trillion dollars a year.

Organized crime is any group that has an organized structure of bosses, advisors, and working members whose key goal is to obtain money and property through illegal activities. Organized crime groups use extortion (threats of violence) and force to obtain money or property from a person or group. For example, an organized crime group may extort business owners in a neighborhood by making them pay a monthly fee for protection. If an owner refuses, his business may be vandalized or destroyed. Organized crime activities can negatively impact a community, a region, and the whole country.


In 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act. A central part of the act is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) section. RICO is law enforcement's most powerful tool against organized crime. Defined by RICO, racketeering is the act of participating in a continuing pattern of criminal behavior.

Authorities can charge a wide variety of crimes under RICO. These include murder; kidnapping; gambling; arson (intentionally setting a destructive fire); robbery; bribery (promising a person money or a favor in return for certain action); extortion; dealing in obscene matter (pornography); dealing in controlled substances or chemicals (drug violations); alien smuggling (moving illegal immigrants across the nation's borders); bribery including sports bribery; counterfeiting; embezzlement (to steal money or property, such as a banker using bank funds for his or her own use); mail fraud (fake offers through the mail); murder for hire; prostitution; sexual exploitation of children; theft from the interstate shipping of goods, such as from trucks, trains, or ships; transporting stolen goods across state lines; drug trafficking; and money laundering.

Organized crime offenses

Two of the most profitable racketeering activities of organized crime are drug trafficking and money laundering. Gambling, prostitution, and pornography have also been major moneymakers. In 2002 drug trafficking was the largest illegal organized crime activity both in the United States and worldwide. The three most commonly trafficked illegal drugs were cannabis (marijuana and hashish), cocaine, and heroine. RICO makes growing, smuggling (transporting illegally), receiving, buying, and selling illegal drugs a racketeering activity.

The term "trafficking" means dealing, smuggling, buying with the intent to sell, and selling a substance. For example, once a shipment of illegal drugs enters the United States, a dealer or trafficker pays the smuggler for the drugs. The first trafficker then sells the drugs again to a second trafficker who will transport the drugs to a location where a third trafficker pays the second. Each trafficker is a member of an organized crime group. The amount of money that changes hands goes up with every transaction so each trafficker makes a profit. The money received is called "dirty" money and it needs to be "laundered," or cleaned so it can be passed as legal money.

Money laundering involves specialists within the crime organization who get the dirty money into legitimate financial institutions while concealing where the money came from. Money laundering and global crime usually go together. Financial specialists within organized crime establish a series of bogus companies and deposit dirty money into their bank accounts, usually into banks outside of the United States.

Dirty money is frequently mixed with "clean" or legally obtained money in the bank accounts of legitimate companies, which happen to be owned or run by organized crime groups. This practice is called comingling, or mixing legal and illegal funds together, which makes tracking dirty money difficult. Organized crime money handlers try to completely hide the origins of illegal funds by creating confusing paper (receipt)
trails and often succeed in making dirty money appear to be legitimate company deposits or laundered money.

Once clean or laundered money is moved into legally run businesses, it can be used freely. The types of legal businesses crime organizations commonly run include garbage disposal, meat and produce distribution, restaurants, garment manufacturing, bars and taverns, real estate, and vending machine companies.

Organized crime supplies goods and services that are illegal but which the public nevertheless demands. Illegal gambling or gaming is available in most states, while prostitution and pornography have been favored activities for hundreds of years. Prostitution rings recruit women who engage in sexual activities for money. Pornography is the business of supplying photography or books about sexual behaviors. Using children in pornographic materials is known as child pornography or the sexual exploitation of children.

Characteristics of organized crime

Organized crime groups, whether traditional mob families or street gangs, have a number of common characteristics:

  1. Organized crime thrives on supplying illegal goods and services for which a large number of people are willing to pay. For example, in 1999 an estimated fifteen million Americans used illegal drugs, 75 percent of whom used marijuana.
  2. The goal of organized crime groups is to make money; members also gain a sense of pride, power, and protection.
  3. Groups have what is called a pyramid power structure like legal businesses. In legitimate businesses, there is a boss called the chief executive officer (CEO), under the CEO are vice presidents, treasurers, advisors, accountants, lawyers, technical staff, and so on. Organized crime has a boss, advisors who work closely with the boss and assign tasks to different crews, captains who run the different crews, soldiers who carry out the physical work and act out tasks from collecting money to killing people, and men with special skills.
  4. Members are extremely loyal and committed; they go through initiation rituals, take oaths, and swear to secrecy.
  5. Punishment for members who stray might be demotion to a lower rank or, depending on their offense, death.

During the mid-twentieth century, organized crime in the United States was dominated by the American Mafia whose "godfathers," meaning founders, were of Italian and Sicilian descent. In the latter half of the century, other groups appeared and grew in number, including motorcycle gangs, street gangs, and by the 1990s, organized crime units with home bases in other countries. The remaining portions of this chapter describe types of organized crime units doing business in the United States.

Early Las Vegas and the Mafia

Las Vegas in the early 1940s was not an attractive place to do business or live. It was a dirty desert town of rugged, rough residents. Travelers taking U.S. Highway 91 cut right through the city on their way to California. It was not a place for stopping over, until New York City organized crime bosses Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello sent well-known gangster Bugsy Siegel (1906–1947) to Las Vegas. Siegel's mission was to see if Vegas would make a great gambling spot for West Coast gamblers.

Nevada had legalized gambling in 1931 but no one paid much attention except local cowboys and men from nearby military bases. With Siegel's imagination and organizational skills and the Mafia's money, the first gambling palace in Las Vegas opened on December 26, 1946. The Flamingo, located right on Highway 91, was the first of many gangster-financed gambling houses in Las Vegas. The Desert Inn and the Thunderbird were built and along with the Flamingo ushered in a very profitable and legal business for the mob, at least under Nevada law. Highway 91 was transformed into the glitzy Las Vegas "Strip."

By the 1950s the Chicago Outfit had joined New York City gangsters in Las Vegas. The Outfit ran three major casinos—the Stardust, the Desert Inn, and the Riviera. The Hacienda, Sahara, and Fremont casinos were added by Chicago mobsters in the 1960s. The Stardust was home base to the famous "Rat Pack," a group of entertainers including Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Dean Martin (1917–1995), and Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990). Tourists from the West Coast and Southwest flooded into Vegas for an exciting time of gambling, entertainment, and nightlife.

In the 1970s the presence of organized crime diminished in Vegas when the Nevada legislature allowed public corporations (corporations selling stock to the public) to own casinos. Gangsters made millions by selling their casinos. Millionaire Howard Hughes (1905–1976) bought the Desert Inn in 1967.

American Mafia

Prohibition officially became law on January 17, 1920, as the states ratified (voted approval) of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Those in favor of Prohibition predicted its enforcement would be easy and inexpensive. It soon became apparent, however, that Americans were not prepared to give up alcohol. Beating Prohibition became a national pastime.

Gangs who had limited their activities to gambling and thievery before 1920 transformed into organized groups of "bootleggers," individuals who illegally brought liquor into the country and sold it to thirsty Americans. Bootlegging gangsters became millionaires. Prominent among them was Alphonse "Al" Capone, whose brief career as a Chicago mob boss made him into a legendary character. His income was estimated at over $100 million per year.

Near the end of the 1920s, gangs had become so organized they held a national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 5, 1928. Twenty-three bosses, all of Sicilian families, gathered from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Tampa, and Philadelphia. Capone could not attend because he was not Sicilian, but he sent representatives.

Although mutually suspicious of one another, they discussed common interests, problems, and explored the idea of establishing a nationwide crime syndicate. A syndicate is an association of individuals or groups who agree to carry out certain activities. In another meeting held in May 1929 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, crime bosses from around the country divided up the United States into territories. Next they established a national "Commission," made up of one representative from each of the country's nine territories.

By September 1931, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and his allies—which included Jewish crime boss Meyer Lansky—were at the top of the New York crime scene. They were the victors of the Castellammarse War, a New York City gangster war between old line Italian and Sicilian Mafia bosses who had migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The older bosses focused on settling old vendettas (bitter prolonged feuds), not on making money. The winning Luciano-Lansky faction concentrated entirely on making money and killed anyone who got in their way. Luciano was also responsible for energizing the nine-member commission. This change in direction and the activation of the commission is referred to as the Americanization of the Mafia.

New York City was divided among five crime families with approximately nineteen more family units around the country. The five New York City families became famous; each was named after their Godfather. The legendary families were the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese.

When the highly profitable bootlegging period ended in 1933 with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, organized crime syndicates (groups) focused on other criminal activities including gambling, loan sharking (charging very high interest rates on loans, usually very hard to pay back), prostitution, and drug distribution, a natural extension of bootlegging. Labor racketeering was another popular criminal activity. Gangsters worked their way into positions of power in a labor union and then stole from the union's retirement and health funds.

Keeping a relatively low profile, the national organized crime syndicate received little interference from the FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972). Fearing a poor showing against the underworld, Hoover chose not to battle organized crime. Hoover insisted the mob did not exist in the United States. Organized crime grew and prospered across the country.

In 1951 the Kefauver Committee of the U.S. Senate conducted hearings on crime and concluded an organized Mafia did indeed operate nationwide. The Kefauver Committee was a special congressional committee created by Congress to investigate organized crime in America, including racketeering (obtaining money through illegal activities). In 1957 the New York State Police accidentally uncovered a large meeting of sixty organized crime bosses at a rural home in Apalachin, New York. As police moved in the bosses ran into the New York countryside to escape. After this incident, there was no denying the existence of an American Mafia.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations gained considerable information about the mob from a defendant named Joseph Valachi in 1963. A member of New York City's Genovese family, Valachi was the first Mafia insider to give major information about the workings of the Mafia. For the first time, the American public learned about the commission and the internal structure of crime families in New York and across the nation.

During the 1960s, under the direction of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), the U.S. Department of Justice began a major effort to arrest and prosecute crime family members. At the time, government reports listed twenty-four crime families with five thousand members of Italian and Sicilian ancestry. About this time the American Mafia families became known as the Cosa Nostra. Cosa Nostra means "our thing" in Italian.

Throughout the 1970s crime families warred with each other for power. Members of one family would assassinate another family's boss; then the family of the murdered boss would seek revenge with another killing and so on. Murders were also often committed to prevent a member from testifying in a trial.

The first RICO convictions of mob bosses or heads of families came in 1980. Numerous other gangsters were convicted under RICO for crimes ranging from operating illegal garbage collection associations to loan sharking to murder. In 1985 the bosses of all five Cosa Nostra crime families in New York City received prison terms of at least one hundred years, dealing a major blow to organized crime.

In 1992 Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano (1945–) broke the mob's code of silence, like Joseph Valachi. Gravano, a high-ranking member of the Gambino crime family, testified against his boss, John Gotti (1940–2002). Gotti was sentenced to life in prison. Gotti's successor was his brother Peter, whose legal business was in trash collecting. Peter Gotti ran the Gambino family, which received monthly cash payments from violent thugs who controlled the Brooklyn waterfront where garbage was collected and transported to landfills. Peter, at age sixty-four, was sentenced to more than nine years in prison in April 2004 on charges related to waterfront payoffs.

Three decades of arrests and convictions of Cosa Nostra family members decreased the American mob's power. RICO proved to be a powerful tool for convicting organized crime members and resulted in long prison sentences. The code of silence, to never testify against another crime member, had been broken. Those who testified received much shorter prison sentences than if they had not cooperated.

Government enforcement had sent many high-ranking mob leaders to prison. A life of crime was no longer as attractive and a considerable number of young people from Cosa Nostra families chose to attend universities and pursue lawful careers. A greater number of crime family recruits came from uneducated kids who had neither leadership skills nor the loyalty of past members. The face of organized crime began to significantly change. New criminal gangs of black Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Chinese, Russians, and South Americans competed with the traditional American Mafia. Motorcycle, or "biker," gangs became a major rival of the mob.

Motorcycle gangs

Beginning as motorbike sporting groups after World War II, the freedom of the road and riding across the country attracted a rebellious, adventurous, tough group of young people. Biker groups became biker gangs proud of living outside the norms of the traditional American family life of the 1950s. Two movies propelled the biker life: The Wild Ones in 1954 and Easy Rider in 1969. In 1969 the Hell's Angels, an especially tough and violent motorcycle gang at the time, were hired for the security force at a Rolling Stones (a rock group from England) concert in California at Altamont Speedway. A fan was killed by the Hell's Angels during the concert. This murder gained national attention and Americans suddenly realized the violence associated with biker gangs.

During the 1970s outlaw biker gangs numbered about nine hundred. The largest biker gangs were the Hell's Angels, the Outlaws, and the Bandidos. Each improved its organizational structure and learned how to plan and carry out criminal activities for profit. Their most profitable activity was drug trafficking. By the 1980s the FBI ranked bikers right behind the American Mafia as the most serious organized crime groups in the United States.

By the 1990s, the Bandidos, Hell's Angels, and Outlaws all had chapters in other countries. Hell's Angels had organizations in twenty countries and continued to expand rapidly. Biker gangs with U.S. roots were active in Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and Africa. Sometimes rivals but often partners in criminal activities, these powerful bikers often cooperated with the South American drug cartels and the Italian Mafia. Biker gangs launder their drug money into legitimate businesses and have become very wealthy.

Street gangs

Street gangs in the United States generally begin in the poorest areas of big cities. Racism, prejudice, and high unemployment among young people are the major contributing factors. Young people want status and the respect of their peers just as any middle-class or wealthy youth. Generally a gang is the best way to be respected and protected from other gangs. Gangs form in schools, parks, and on neighborhood streets, wherever groups of friends share similar lifestyles or ethnic backgrounds. Males make up 90 percent of gang membership. Violence and weapons are key components of street gangs. Large U.S. street gangs have become organized and profitable; selling drugs and guns are their chief moneymaking activities.

By 2000 several street gangs had grown large and were very structured and profitable. These so-called Super Gangs had spread nationwide. They include the predominately black American Crips and Bloods, and Hispanic gangs like the Green Light Gangs, Latin Kings, and Gangster Disciples.

Crips and Bloods: Black American gangs in Los Angeles

Throughout the twentieth century, two distinct periods of black American gang formation occurred in Los Angeles. The first was in the early 1940s until 1965, the second from 1970 continuing into the early 2000s. Between the early 1970s and 2000 black American street gangs steadily increased in numbers and membership.

During World War II, large numbers of black Americans migrated from the southern United States to Los Angeles for employment in the war industries, chiefly building aircraft. All-black communities in the central part of Los Angeles expanded. The first black gangs developed in the second half of the 1940s and 1950s in defense from white teenage gangs determined to attack and harass black youth.

By 1960 the black areas of central Los Angeles—Watts, Central Avenue, and West Adams—had grown together. Whites increasingly moved to the suburbs leaving the area predominately black. The interracial violence among black and white gangs turned into black versus black gangs. The western areas of the black communities were economically better off than the eastern half, so eastside gangs resented westside youths and fought west gangs. Most scuffles were hand-to-hand fights or with knives and tire irons. Murders rarely occurred. In 1960 only six gang-related murders occurred in all of Los Angeles County.

In 1965 poverty, unemployment, harsh Los Angeles police treatment of black Americans, and continuing discrimination boiled over into the Watts race riots the summer of 1965, when the police used batons on two black men being arrested. After the riots, the Watts community directed its youth into local clubs, looking for solutions to social injustices including police brutality. In 1965 the Civil Rights movement was gathering strength in Los Angeles. To lend support to civil rights activism, the Black Panther Party, a powerful black political organization, opened a chapter in central Los Angeles.

Viewed as a threat to the security of the nation, the FBI targeted the Panthers and other black organizations. The Los Angeles Panthers were greatly weakened and their political leadership dismantled. By 1970 Los Angeles youth had lost the adult leadership that had kept them working on community issues. Filling the void was a new gang organization period.

In 1969 fifteen-year-old Raymond Washington, a high school student of central Los Angeles, and a few friends formed a gang patterned after a 1960s gang called the Avenues. They named their gang the Baby Avenues and sometimes called themselves the Avenue Cribs, a reference to their young ages. The Cribs wore black leather jackets, earrings in their left ear, and often walked with canes. Before long, stealing and assaulting became the gang's chief activities.

Because of the canes used by gang members, a Los Angeles newspaper reporting on an assault called them the "Crips" for cripples. The Cribs latched onto the name Crips because a slang word crippin' meant robbing and stealing. Gang members lived the crippin' way of life, often stealing black leather jackets. The desire to obtain black leather jackets led to the first Crips murder in 1972. Crips attacked and murdered a sixteen-year-old Los Angeles high school student, a nongang youth and son of an attorney, for the leather jacket he was wearing. The murder, in addition to continuing Crips attacks, received sensational media coverage. To youth living in poverty, the gangs seemed to be a way to attract attention and through gang activity a way to prove manliness and power over others. More and more poor black youths joined Crips.

South Los Angeles schools were soon filled with gang fights and shootings. By the end of 1972 there were eight Crip gangs and ten others, which were responsible for twenty-nine gang-related murders. The Crips and other gangs were rivals, though the Crips outnumbered the others and constantly terrorized them. As a result, the non-Crips met on Piru Street in Compton and formed an alliance that became known as the Bloods. Los Angeles County reported thirty thousand gang members and 355 deaths in 1980.

By 1996 twenty-one communities in Los Angeles County had 274 gangs. Six communities—Los Angeles, Compton, Athens, Inglewood, Carson, and Long Beach—had 225 of the 274 gangs. The gangs were highly structured and focused on making money much like the American Mafia. The business of choice was drugs. By the 1990s the Los Angeles gang epidemic had expanded into urban areas along the West Coast and across the nation. Many of the gangs were extensions of the Bloods and Crips. Wherever unemployment, poverty, and racism existed, gangs could attract members.

Hispanic gangs

Just like black Americans, Hispanics flooded into Southern California during the World War II years in search of war industry jobs. They crowded into the poor Mexican neighborhoods and Hispanic street gangs grew. By the early 1940s gang members had adopted a specific form of dressing, wearing what was called a "zoot suit." Originating in El Paso, Texas, and catching on in Los Angeles, the zoot suit consisted of pleated baggy pants, a long loose fitting coat, highly polished shoes, and a long chain hanging from the belt into a trouser side pocket.

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s Hispanics moved into various housing projects in East Los Angeles. Fights between gangs were common, generally over protecting a gang's territory or "turf."

Hispanic gangs continued growing in membership in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Gangs preyed on gangs, fighting turf battles, and often victimizing innocent residents of their communities. Residents, fearing retaliation, would not help law enforcement investigate gang violence. Around 1980 Hispanic gangs began to sell drugs supplied by the Mexican Mafia to make money. Selling drugs was so profitable for the gangs that even more young Hispanics wanted to join.

Community violence escalated with 452 gang-related murders in Los Angeles County in 1988, with 50,000 reported gang members in 450 different gangs. Seven years later in 1995, there were 1,500 different gangs with 150,000 members located in the Los Angeles area. Although the Crips and Bloods were part of these figures, most of the street gangs were Hispanic.

The Mexican Mafia began requiring a tax on the sale of drugs supposedly to help members in prison. Some street gangs refused to pay the tax and called themselves the "green lighters"—tax free and proud of it. Soon they were known as the Green Light Gangs. By 2000 Hispanic gangs were better organized, operated in cities around the country, and were the fastest growing kind of U.S. gang.

Midwest and East Coast gangs

Chicago in the 1920s was home to Al Capone and his mobsters, most of whom had Italian roots. They grew enormously wealthy during Prohibition by supplying alcohol to the public. The Mafia in Chicago was commonly called the "Outfit." At the start of the twenty-first century, the Outfit was still operating in Chicago and its suburbs. In addition to the Outfit, street gangs organized during the 1940s and 1950s. The Latin Kings, predominately Hispanic, became one of Chicago's most violent gangs.

Arrested members of the Latin Kings often ended up in East Coast prisons in Connecticut and New York, where they formed the Almighty Latin King Nation. By the early 1990s, numerous Latin Kings were in the prison system and also had hundreds of members on the streets of New York and New Jersey. One of the nation's most notorious street gangs, the motto of the Latin Kings was "once a king, always a king." Latin Kings are associated with the People Nations, a loose organization of dangerous gangs including the Vicelords, Bishops, Gaylords, Latin Counts, and Kents.

The Gangster Disciples, originating in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, also spread to the East Coast. Highly organized and specializing in drug sales, Gangster Disciples were found in most East Coast cities by the end of the 1990s and became the largest Folk Nation gang. The Folk Nation is a collection of gangs who banded together as protection from the Latin Kings. Members of the Folk Nation include the Black Gangster Disciples, Spanish Cobras, Black Disciples, Latin Disciples, Two Sixers, and Internation Posse—made up of many ethnicities but joined together as protection from the Latin Kings.

The Bloods and the Crips also sent gang members to the East Coast. Spreading out into neighborhoods across New York City, the Bloods attracted many members. By 2000 the Bloods were the most violent East Coast gang. Youth affiliated with the Los Angeles Crips traveled east in the 1980s and within a decade had a major presence along the East Coast.

Impacts of global organized crime

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, organized crime in the United States was far different than decades earlier when a few powerful Mafia families dominated the country. Modern organized crime activity still includes the American mob, motorcycle gangs, and street gangs but has an increasing number of gangs based in foreign nations.

A major concern for the FBI has been the worldwide cooperation of organized crime groups, forming international partnerships of mutual interest. Major international crime syndicates who partner with U.S. groups include the Russian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triads, Mexican Mafia, South American drug cartels, West African and Caribbean groups, as well as the continued cooperation of Italian and Sicilian organized crime. In addition to Chinese and Japanese crime operations, many smaller Asian groups are based in Taiwan, North and South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

International crime groups still deal in their traditional criminal activities but continue to expand their range of goods and services. Drug trafficking remains a top moneymaker, but weapons, diamonds, luxury cars, and even natural resources such as oil from Russia can all be smuggled and traded illegally. Because of the vast profits involved, money laundering has become the number one crime worldwide. Drug profits alone were close to $100 billion each year in the early 2000s.

Organized crime has also benefited from advances in electronic technology. Information speeds around the world ignoring borders and trade restrictions. Hacking into the computer systems of businesses and financial institutions has become a favored organized crime activity. Criminals can extort a business or a nation with computer viruses. In addition, there is identify theft, credit card fraud, bank fraud (see chapter 6, White-Collar Crime), counterfeiting, creating fake identification such as passports, and many more crimes made possible by computer technology.

To deal with organized crime and its worldwide connections, the FBI established its Organized Crime Section. Responsibilities are subdivided into three units: the La Cosa Nostra/Italian Organized Crime/Labor Racketeering Unit; the Eurasian Organized Crime Unit; and the Asian/African Criminal Enterprise Unit. Through these units the FBI attempts to disrupt and shut down international and U.S. organized crime.

For More Information


Lunde, Paul. Organized Crime: An Inside Guide to the World's Most Successful Industry. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 2004.

Lyman, Michael D., and Gary W. Potter. Organized Crime. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Sanchez, Reymundo. Once a King, Always a King: The Unmaking of a Latin King. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2003.

Siegel, Dina, Henk von de Bunt, and Damian Zaitch, eds. Global Organized Crime: Trends and Developments. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2004.

Sullivan, Robert, ed. Mobsters and Gangsters: Organized Crime in America, from Al Capone to Tony Soprano. New York: Life Books, 2002.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Web Sites

"About Organized Crime." Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (accessed on August 20, 2004).

American Foreign Policy Council. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"Gangsters, Outlaws, and G-Men." Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"International Organized Crime." Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Organized Crime

views updated May 29 2018


note:Although the following article has not been revised for this edition of the Encyclopedia, the substantive coverage is currently appropriate. The editors have provided a list of recent works at the end of the article to facilitate research and exploration of the topic.

Organized crime is considered one of the most serious forms of crime for two reasons: (1) It is so often lucrative and successful; and (2) it is so difficult to counteract. In the broadest terms, organized crime can be viewed as any form of group conduct designed to take advantage of criminal opportunities, whether on a one-time or a recurring basis. More commonly, the label organized crime has more restricted usage.

It should not be a surprise to find criminals associating for the purpose of committing crime. The achievement of goals through cooperative efforts is a common element of contemporary life. Association with other criminals creates an interesting dilemma for the individual criminal. Having coconspirators increases the visibility of criminal conduct, the risks of apprehension, and, upon apprehension, the risk of betrayal. On the other hand, some types of criminal opportunities can be exploited only through group behavior. Offenders who fail to join with others may thereby limit their rewards from criminal conduct. For organized crime to persist, it must function both to overcome the risks of associating with others and result in positive benefits and increased rewards for those who participate.

No one knows how much organized crime is committed every year. Rather than being measured in numbers of events, the significance of organized crime is generally recorded in the dollar volume of activities. Some have argued that revenue estimates for organized crime are advanced more in the interest of drama than of accuracy, but the estimates are nonetheless staggering. For example, annual revenue from the sale of drugs is placed in the $40 to $60 billion range, and annual revenue from illicit gambling operations, at $20 to $40 billion.

Organized crime is unlikely to be reflected in official crime statistics for three reasons: first, crime statistics record information about individual criminal events rather than about the individuals or groups committing them; second, many of the activities of organized crime groups involve socalled victimless crimes where no report of a crime is made; and third, persons who are victimized by organized crime groups may be unlikely or unwilling to come forward and report their victimization.

Organized crime is best understood by examining the nature of ongoing criminal organizations, their activities, and societal response to the behavior of these organizations. A secondary use of the term, referring to criminal support systems that aid all offenders, is also briefly noted.


Organized crime usually refers to the activities of stable groups or gangs that commit crimes on an ongoing basis. While not all group crime is properly labeled "organized crime," there exists no standard definition of the term. Instead, the phenomenon has been variously described as "a cancerous growth on American society" (Andreoli 1976, p. 21); "one of the queer ladders of social mobility" (Bell 1970, p. 166); "a society that seeks to operate outside the control of the American people and its governments" (President's Commission 1967, p. 1); and "the product of a self-perpetuating criminal conspiracy to wring exorbitant profits from our society by any means" (Salerno and Tompkins 1969, p. 303).

Scholars have identified the following as elements that characterize all groups labeled as organized crime: a hierarchical organizational structure, dominated by a strong leader; a territorial imperative, exhibited in attempts to monopolize all lucrative criminal opportunities within a geographic area; a predilection to violence both to enforce internal norms and to advance economic objectives; and a desire to influence the social response to criminal conduct, as demonstrated in significant investments in public corruption. Cressey (1969) identified these latter two characteristics—the "element of enforcement" and the "element of corruption"—as the essential features of organized crime.

In the United States, organized crime has been personified in ethnically based criminal organizations and, in particular, the twenty-four fictive "families" believed to make up the American Mafia. Joseph Valachi, in testimony before the United States Senate in 1963, revealed a sordid and secret world in which he claimed these criminal organizations operated and prospered.

While some scholars pointed to inconsistencies in Valachi's statements, and other criminals would later question the depth of his experience and knowledge, his testimony spawned a series of books and movies that placed Italian criminal organizations in the forefront of the public's consciousness with respect to organized crime.

The term mafia (with either upper- or lower-case letters) is used variously to apply to a secret criminal organization or to a life-style and philosophy that developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century southern Italy and Sicily in opposition to a series of foreign rulers who dominated the area. The life-style combines the idea of manliness in the face of adversity with an antagonism to authority and a closeness and reliance on family and clan.

Smith (1975) argues that applying the "mafia" label to Italian criminal organizations in the United States was both fateful and calculated. It was fateful because it imbued these organizations with international connections that there was little evidence they had. This may in turn have helped these organizations consolidate and solidify their power, in competition with other ethnic (primarily Irish) criminal organizations that were actually more prevalent in the early decades of the twentieth century. Use of the label was calculated in that it gave Italian criminal organizations a subversive and sinister character designed to ensure public support for extraordinary law enforcement efforts to eradicate these groups.

Overlooked in much of the attention paid to Mafia "families" was the fact that bands of brigands and smugglers, displaying many of the same organizational attributes as "mafia," were well established in Elizabethan England; that criminal organizations linked to a life-style based on the primacy of male-dominated families and the concept of dignity and manliness are common in Central and latin America; and that criminal societies and associations have been successful vehicles for social mobility in many cultures, for example, the Chinese Triads or the Japanese Yakuza.

Also overlooked were some significant changes occurring during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the major cities in which the Mafia "families" were believed to operate. These changes signaled what Ianni (1974) called "ethnic succession" in organized crime: That is, as the populations of inner cities came to be dominated by racial minorities, so too were the ranks of those running criminal organizations. This gave rise to law enforcement characterizations of such groups as the "Mexican Mafia" or the "Black Mafia," not because of their associations with Mafia "families" but as a shorthand way of communicating their organizational style and methods of operating.

By the 1980s, the term organized crime had lost its ethnic distinction. Instead, the label started being applied to many more criminal associations, from motorcycle and prison gangs to terrorist groups to some juvenile gangs. Observed in all these groups were the organizational characteristics that had first been identified as distinctive of Mafia "families."


The activities in which organized crime groups are involved constitute another distinctive hallmark. Broadly defined, the term organized crime can be used to describe the activities of a band of pickpockets, a gang of train robbers, or a cartel of drug smugglers. Practically speaking, however, use of the term is somewhat more restrictive.

Commentators, scholars, and lawmakers generally use the term when referring to criminal conspiracies of an entrepreneurial nature—in particular, enterprises focused in black-market goods and services. Black markets are those in which contraband or illegal goods and services are exchanged. In this more restrictive use of the term, the activities of drug smugglers would be included while the conduct of pickpockets or train robbers would not.

These latter groups, and others involved in various forms of theft and extortion, commit what are best termed predatory crimes. As such, they are generally regarded as social pariahs. Society and the forces of social control will actively seek to root out such groups and bring them to justice. This is despite the fact that such groups may display a highly evolved organizational structure, a strong sense of territory, and a tendency toward violence.

Contrast this with groups engaged in entrepreneurial conduct. These groups supply the society with goods and services that are illegal but in demand. While some in society may still view these criminals as social pariahs, many in society will not. Instead, the criminal group establishes patron—business relationships with criminal and noncriminal clients alike. The forces of social control are not so bent on eradicating these groups because of the widespread social support they garner. This support, when added to the profits reaped as criminal entrepreneurs, creates both the means and the conditions for corruption.

If any one activity can be considered the incubator for organized crime in the United States, it would be the distribution and sale of illegal alcohol during Prohibition. The period of Prohibition (1920–1933) took a widely used and highly desired commodity and made it illegal; it also created the opportunity for a number of predatory criminal gangs to evolve as entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs then developed important client and business relationships and emerged from Prohibition as wealthy and somewhat more respectable members of their communities.

Gambling and other vices have similar social support profiles. Purveyors of these services are widely perceived as engaged in victimless crimes, that is, black-market transactions involving willing buyers and sellers. Their activities, while morally unacceptable to many, arouse little social concern.

Societal ambivalence becomes even more pronounced where gray-market goods and services are involved. These are situations where legal goods or services are being provided in an illicit manner or to persons ineligible to receive them. Abuses of wartime rations is a good example of a gray-market situation, as is the negotiation of so-called sweetheart labor contracts or the illegal disposal of hazardous waste.

Criminal groups involved in gray-market activities are very tightly meshed in the economic and social fabric of the legitimate community. The persona of such groups is more likely to be legal than illegal, and the capacity of their members to become closely affiliated with persons of power and authority is likely to be great. Public corruption becomes not only likely but inevitable. Combined with the characteristics that groups of criminals exhibit, the activities in which they engage are also likely to define such groups as organized crime. Some commentators feel it is impossible to separate a group's character from the nature of the crimes it commits. To this way of thinking, selling drugs requires a certain level of organization, but it is impossible to tell whether a group has evolved an organizational style in order to sell drugs or began to sell drugs as a consequence of its organizational capacity.

What is clear is that the capacity to exploit one type of criminal opportunity can be parlayed into other legal and illegal endeavors. Similarly, profits from organized crime activities can permit individual criminals to climb that "queer ladder of social mobility" that wealth creates.


The final aspect of organized crime that distinguishes it from other forms of crime is its relationship with the society in which it operates. Organized crime is the one form of crime that assesses criminal opportunities in light of the probable social response as well as the possible economic and social rewards.

Cressey (1969) identified this capacity of organized crime as a "strategic planning" capability. Using this capability, organized crime groups choose "safe crime": where there is high social tolerance or at least ambivalence toward the conduct; where the chances of apprehension are therefore not great; where, even if apprehended, the chances of conviction are small; and where, even if convicted, the likelihood of serious consequences is also small.

In this assessment, society's attitudes toward various criminal activities become a key determinant in the nature of organized crime activities that will be displayed. Society's attitudes, as embodied in the criminal law, become even more significant.

Packer (1969) argued that in black- and gray-market situations, the criminal law may actually serve as a protective tariff. As such, the law limits the entry of entrepreneurs into the proscribed marketplace while guaranteeing, for those who do enter the market, exorbitant profits. The theory of deterrence does not work in such markets because as the sanction increases so do the likely rewards.

A similar analysis by Smith (1978) suggests that the law operates in many marketplaces to segment genetic demand, labeling some legal and some illegal. By so doing, the law does not reduce demand; what it does is change the dynamics of the market, creating the "domain" or market share of organized crime. In this sense, it is society—through its legislative enactments—that generates and structures the dynamics of organized crime opportunities.

Social institutions also play a role in structuring the nature and success of organized crime. The nature of government and the underpinnings of justice systems loom large in determining how organized crime groups will operate and succeed. Anglo-American legal systems, founded on the principle of individual responsibility for criminal acts, deal at best ineptly with group crime. When faced with more sophisticated criminal conspiracies, they appear to falter.

Where criminal organizations are armed with investments in public corruption, justice systems will not operate properly. Where government operates ineffectively or unfairly, the black market will flourish. Where there is the tendency to proscribe what cannot be controlled, criminal organizations will reap social support and financial rewards.


A secondary use of the term organized crime refers to support systems that aid the criminal activities of all offenders. The typical list of support systems includes the tipster, the fix, the fence, and the corrupt public official. Each of these mechanisms serves to reduce the risks of criminal conduct or to lessen its consequences.

For example, tipsters function to provide criminals with information critical to committing a crime, such as the internal security schedule for a building or the timing of valuable cargo shipments. By doing so, they reduce the uncertainties the offenders face and enhance the chances for success. As a reward, tipsters receive a percentage of the "take," or proceeds of the crime. The fix arranges for special disposition of a criminal's case, once it is in the justice system. This might mean seeing that paperwork is lost, or that a light sentence is imposed. Usually, the fix operates with the aid of corrupt public officials who are in a position to accomplish the required improper acts.

The fence serves as the market for stolen property, transforming it into cash or drugs for thieves. In the role of middleman, the fence determines what thieves steal, how much they are paid to do so, and, consequently, how often they steal. Fences provide structure and stability to a wide range of offenders. Like other criminal support systems, they impose organization on the activities of criminal groups and individual criminals.

Not all criminals can access the services of criminal support systems. These mechanisms will not act to serve the notorious or the psychotic. In this way, criminal elites are established and preserved. For those who use these support systems, crime is organized, the justice system is predictable, and success is likely.

There was a time when the "criminal underworld" was a physical place, a true sanctuary to hide and protect criminals. Now the underworld exists as a communication system, an important dimension of which involves support systems that can aid and protect offenders. The manner in which these systems function provides stability and organization to the underworld.


Organized crime refers primarily to the broad range of activities undertaken by permanent criminal organizations having the following characteristics: a hierarchical organizational structure; a territorial imperative; a predilection for violence; and the capacity and funds to corrupt public officials.

These groups tend to locate in gray or black markets where they establish patron-client relationships with much of society. The funds they earn as entrepreneurs, combined with social support for their activities, permit them to influence the social response to their acts. They may become upwardly mobile as a result of investing their profits in both legal and illegal endeavors.

Organized crime also refers to criminal support systems such as the tipster, the fix, the fence, and the corrupt official, who impose organization and stability in the underworld.

(see also: Criminology)


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Anderson, Annelise Graebner 1979 The Business of Organized Crime. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

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Bell, Daniel 1970 "Crime as an American Way of Life." In M. E. Wolfgang, L. Savitz, and N. Johnson, eds., The Sociology of Crime and Delinquency. New York: Wiley.

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Chubb, Judith 1996 "The Mafia, the Market and the State in Italy and Russia." Journal of Modern ItalianStudies 1:273–291.

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Frisby, Tanya 1998 "The Rise of Organised Crime in Russia: Its Roots and Social Significance." EuropeAsia Studies 50:27–49.

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Marilyn E. Walsh

Organized Crime

views updated May 14 2018

Organized Crime

In the pantheon of the American violent antihero, the gangster has occupied an enduring price of place second only to the cowboy; both have enjoyed the distinction of inspiring an entire genre of popular music. Whether the cinematic iconography is that of the loyal family operativeThe Godfather (1972)or the brutal sadistThe Untouchables (1987)the adventure, violence, and bloodshed of the American gangster continues to grip the imagination of the world.

In reality, organized crime is mainly another businessthe bursts of machine-gun fire and "rubouts" that dominate the movie version of gangland are really only the occasional means to a higher (or lower) endmoney. Like rogue nation-states securing their national interests, organized criminal syndicates aggressively defend their profits and business "turf" by any means necessary.

In distinction to other forms of criminality, organized crime is a conspiratorial activity involving the collaboration of numerous people over a prolonged period. Unlike other criminal groupings, syndicates have maintained enough organizational strength to allow continued operation in the face of the loss of one or more members. Criminal syndicates rely on rules and regulations to maintain discipline and control within their ranks. Breaking the rules typically results in verbal or physical punishment, including death.

Organized crime groups are motivated by money rather than ideologya characteristic that distinguishes them from organized terrorism. Although there are occasional links between terrorist groups and organized criminals (e.g., the Russian Mafia is often accused of supplying Russian nationalists with weapons), organized criminals generally avoid connections with terrorists and are much more restrained and functional in their use of violence.

Like other plunderers, from the state level to the back alleys, organized criminals are willing to use violence and murder to accomplish their goals. Although reliable statistics on mob murder and violence are unavailable, the level of bloodshed seems proportional to the vigor of the market for mob-supplied goods. Expanding markets and profits associated often intensify competition between existing groups and spawn new ones; violence tends to flare when several groups are jockeying for the same market niche. Violence also plays an important internal role among criminal groups who use it as a deterrent to insubordination. Violence can also be the price of failure. Mexican organizations, for example, kidnap, torture, and execute members whose drug shipments are confiscated by U.S. border agents.

Gangsters themselves are the most likely victims of organized-crime-related violence; however, bystanders sometimes get caught in the middle. The DeMeo crew of the Gambino family murdered well over a hundred people; while most of them were criminals, several were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Criminal syndicates tend to specialize in the provision of illicit goods and services. Organized crime is not limited to any one kind of activity, illegal or otherwise, but syndicates tend to focus on gambling, drug trafficking, loan sharking, prostitution, and extortion. To accomplish their goals, participants function in hierarchical networks, with each member assigned a particular task. The structure of organized crime insulates the leadership from direct criminal involvement. The subordinates are willing employees with specialized skills, such as computer hacking or contract murders.

Organized criminals often make use of government corruption to accomplish their organizational goals. Bribery and extortion are necessary tools for the survival of their enterprise. For example, a recent federal investigation in Arizona resulted in the arrest of ten federal officers, two deputy sheriffs, three local police officers, and one local judge. In another investigation, federal agents discovered that four Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors were paid over $800,000 to pass more than twenty tons of cocaine into the United States.

Traditional Organized Crime

The origins of organized crime in the United States date back to at least the early 1800s, when criminal gangs victimized the residents of New York, Boston, and other cities. By the middle of the nineteenth century, at least some of these gangs had emerged in a sufficiently structured and prominent form to warrant public recognition of "organized crime."

One of the first criminal groups with a tightly organized and acknowledged leadership was New York's Forty Thieves Gang, which thrived from 1820 to about 1860 (another gang by the same name operated between 1930 and 1940). Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, many sons of poor Irish immigrants formed gangs and participated in criminal activities, including theft, burglary, and extortion. The Forty Thieves and groups like them were also heavily involved in local politics. In fact, New York's infamous Tammany Hall politicians used the brawling Irish gangs as tools of political power, selectively procuring their services for such unlovely reasons of state as breaking up picket lines, intimidating voters, and stuffing ballot boxes. In return for their help, the gangs received protection from the police, access to political power, and jobs for their relatives.

Other immigrant groups were associated with organized crime in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesamong them Jewish, Polish, Chinese, and Italianleading many criminologists to suspect that immigration may have facilitated the growth of organized criminal activity in the United States. One scholar has argued that because early immigrants were wedged into poverty-stricken ghettos with few legitimate opportunities for conventional success, they were more likely to turn to crime to escape poverty. "The aspiring ethnic, blocked from legitimate access to wealth and power, is permitted to produce and provide those illicit goods and services that society publicly condemns but privately demands" (Ianni 1975, p. 89). In short, organized crime provided the immigrant and his family a means to escape the penury and indignity of the ghetto. The same processes may still be at work in the twenty-first century with more recent immigrants to U.S. cities.

Like many other immigrants groups, the Irish-American population found increasingly legitimate avenues for success outside the ghetto. With fewer members of their own ethnic group willing to support or even tolerate their criminal ventures, Irish syndicates found it difficult to maintain control over the criminal rackets. For the most part, the Irish were slowly, sometimes violently, replaced by other criminal groups.

However, while Irish and other ethnic groups have come and gone on the American organized crime scene, none have rivaled the impact or resilience of the Italian-American syndicates. Between 1820 and 1930 almost 5 million Italians immigrated to the United Statesmore than 2 million between 1900 and 1920. Like the Irish before them, Italian immigrants found themselves isolated in ghetto areas with few legitimate opportunities to realize the American dream, so that some of their number sought to escape poverty by supplying the illicit goods and services demanded by the local populace.

Some argue that the Italian experience was even more conducive to the formation of criminal syndicates. Because many Italian immigrants did not speak English, they were even more isolated and had even fewer opportunities for positive influence outside their ethnic enclaves. Moreover, the organizational antecedents of organized crime, including secret societies such as the Italian Mafia and the Camorra already permeated southern Italian culture. Thus, Italian immigrants brought with them knowledge of the ways of secret societies and the spirit of the Mafia that they used to construct a uniquely American organization that emerged later, with the advent of Prohibition.

In 1919 the passage of the Volstead Act made it illegal to produce, distribute, or sell alcoholic beverages. Prohibition (19201933) provided the context for the rapid development of a new illegal enterprise and the necessity for a more complex division of labor between and within the criminal groups responsible for bringing in and distributing illegal alcohol. In essence, the large profits that could be made by satisfying the public demand for alcohol motivated small-time, local Italian gangs to expand beyond the ghetto.

While it is easy to focus on the violence associated with gang wars during Prohibition, the breadth of the market induced many Italian gangs to work more extensively with other criminal groups than they ever had before. At times, however, cooperation failed and resulted in bloody conflicts. For example, in Chicago a four-year feud between rival Irish and Italian forces culminated on February 14, 1929, when members of the Capone mob, disguised as police officers, systematically executed seven members of the Moran gang in the aptly named "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." Interestingly, collaboration with non-Italians increased profits, and most syndicate leaders recognized that gang wars were bad for business. Working with non-Italian groups also demonstrated the utility of other models of organization that departed radically from the family patronage model of the traditional Italian Mafia that many of the young American-born Italians rejected.

The violence reached its peak in the Castellammarese War of 19301931, when the Old World faction headed by Salvatore Maranzano was nearly exterminated by younger, Americanized factions under the direction of Giuseppe Masseria. By the end of the war, Maranzano was dead along with many of his compatriots, clearing the way for the Americanized gangsters to assume new levels of leadership in Italian-American crime syndicates. In the shadow of Prohibition, newer, younger leaders replaced their fractious elders with an organization that was on the whole more cooperative, stable, and profitable. Some criminologists contend that by the end of Prohibition, U.S. organized crime had developed a national, rigidly hierarchical framework under almost exclusive control of the Italian Mafia. Others cite evidence that indicates the criminal syndicates maintained a fluid, decentralized, ethnically diverse structure that has promoted their interests in an environment hostile to their very existence. As of the twenty-first century, the Mafia (also known as La Cosa Nostra) remains the most powerful organized-crime group in the United States, but most criminologists deem it a declining force.

Nontraditional Organized Crime

The contemporary war on drugs, like Prohibition in an earlier generation, has drawn the attention of organized crime, generating expanded opportunities for cooperation and competition among the various criminal groups seeking entry into this illegal market. While the Mafia may be the best-established criminal group involved in the American drug trade, many of the nontraditional groups vying for a share of the action are better organized, both nationally and internationally, and more violent. Specialization in drug trafficking is one of the hallmarks of the emerging criminal syndicates that experts refer to as nontraditional organized crime; they can also be found operating in other criminal rackets like gambling and prostitution. Although various Asian gangs, primarily of Chinese origin, have been active in the United States since the 1850s, they are also labeled nontraditional organized crime.

The Chinese Triads are among the most feared and interesting criminal syndicates that operate in the United States. Overseas the Triads are heavily engaged in illegal gambling, prostitution, and extortion; inside the United States they generate millions of dollars trafficking in opium products such as heroin. Like many criminal syndicates, Triads are principally involved in the importation and wholesale distribution of narcotics; however, because of their close ties with American Tongs and Chinese-American youth gangs, Triads have ready access to street-level markets. Youth gangs are also instrumental in protecting the Triad/Tong narcotics turf from infiltration by competitors (i.e., rival African-American groups) through intimidation and violence.

Mexico is also home to a number of powerful organized crime groups. Mexican cartels, also considered nontraditional organized crime, vividly illustrate the brutality of drug trafficking. For many years the Juarez Cartel has controlled the El Paso, Texas, gateway for drug traffic. Authorities believe that the Juarez Cartel is responsible for more than 300 drug-related disappearances in Mexico, more than 120 drug-related homicides, and 73 disappearances in El Paso. In a separate incident in 1998, a U.S. border patrol agent confronted and was murdered by narcotics smugglers along the Arizona-Mexico border. Events such as these along the U.S. border with Mexico are part of a larger pattern in which organized criminals attempt to maximize its profits by protecting shipments and territory through the use of deadly force.

Another nontraditional organized-crime group making headway in the United States is the Russian Mafia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Mafia, or vorovskoi mir, emerged as an important criminal organization in both Russia and America, supplying coveted but illegal goods and services in both markets. In addition, the Russian Mafia is intimately tied to the political and economic structure of Russia, much more so than most organized crime groups. Russian businesses, for example, often have little choice but to turn to criminal syndicates for investment capital. While many Russian gangs are local or national, more and more are establishing international links, including links to the United States, where they are involved in multiple rackets, including drug trafficking and securities fraud.

Organized Crime and the Media

The mass media both reflect and shape public perceptions of organized crime. Films such as Good-fellas (1990), televisions shows like The Sopranos (1999), and books like Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969) all portray Italian-Americans as the primary perpetrators of organized crime. Furthermore, stories of organized crime in the news often focus on only the most superficial and sensational crimes. This coverage leaves the public with the view that this type of criminal behavior, while somewhat romantic, is excessively violent. In all likelihood, members of crime syndicates go out of their way to avoid exposure to such violence. Thus the media has fueled society's appetites for stories about mobsters while at the same time obscuring the reality of organized crime groups by providing stereotypical images of their members, their modes of organization, and their activities. Suffused with the romance of death and daring in the popular imagination, the bulk of organized-crime activities carry all the panache of a corporate board meeting or an accountant's balance sheet.

See also: Firearms; Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of; Homicide, Epidemiology of


Abadinsky, Howard. Organized Crime, 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Barlow, Hugh D. Introduction to Criminology, 7th edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Ianni, Francis A. J. Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime. New York: Pocket, 1975.

Lyman, Michael D., and Gary W. Potter. Organized Crime, 2nd edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Mustain, Gene, and Jerry Capeci. Murder Machine: A True Story of Murder, Madness, and the Mafia. New York: Onyx, 1993.

Internet Resources

McCraw, Steven C. "Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking, and Terrorist Acts." In the Federal Bureau of Investigation [web site]. Available from


Crime, Organized

views updated Jun 08 2018


CRIME, ORGANIZED. Organized crime is a term that has been used selectively in the twentieth century to identify particular criminal coalitions, often ethnically based, that others wished to define as dangerous criminal conspiracies. The criminals identified to be part of "organized crime" have seldom possessed the hierarchical structure or the power ascribed to them. Yet, labeling them as "organized crime" often influenced popular attitudes and the policies of law enforcement. A history of organized crime, then, includes both a history of criminal structures and of the selective use of the term.

From the 1860s into the twentieth century, certain types of gambling received increased coordination in many cities. During and after the Civil War, policy gambling—a type of illegal lottery—became widely popular. Fans could bet on the numbers in bars, barber shops, newspaper kiosks, and similar retail outlets. Concurrently, entrepreneurs backed the local retailers, so that the retailer retained a fixed percent of each bet while the backer(s) paid off when bettors won. By the 1880s, as betting on horse racing also became popular, off-track bookmaking was coordinated much like policy, with bets placed in local bars and other hangouts for men, while bookmakers backed the local sellers. As a result, especially by the 1890s, policy and bookmaking syndicates enjoyed the support of bettors, local businessmen, and the politicians who sought their votes.

Outside the South, the Irish were heavily involved in the policy and bookmaking syndicates. Among the earliest and most famous was John Morrissey. After winning a disputed boxing match in September 1853, many recognized him as the American champion until October 1857, when after a successful title defense, he retired. He used his fame to open gambling houses in New York City and during the Civil War put together a major syndicate to back the rising policy gambling in the city. In Saratoga Springs, New York, during the summer racing season, he also operated perhaps the finest casino in the world and found time to serve two terms in the state legislature and two terms in the U.S. Congress. However, criminal entrepreneurs like Morrissey emerged too early to be labeled organized crime.

The term "organized crime" was first used in the 1920s, perhaps from John Landesco's Organized Crime in Chicago, a book-length section of the Illinois Crime Survey, published by the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice (1929). But the concept of powerful bootlegging gangs was popularized by newspaper stories and by movies about Al Capone (and other bootleggers). They were key factors in ascribing to the often decentralized and independent bootleggers a mythical power. In the same decade, activities such as labor and business racketeering were also called "organized crime," capturing the fears of elite businessmen and lawyers that the urban underworld was becoming organized bureaucratically like legitimate businesses. A fear that some criminal activities were now more dangerous because more organized continued as an undercurrent among some criminal justice professionals and academics through the 1930s and 1940s.

From the 1950s into the 1970s, the danger from "organized crime" was reinforced by identifying it with a belief that an Italian American "mafia" exercised nationwide domination of crime. In 1950 and 1951, the idea received popular dissemination when the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime (popularly known as the Kefauver Committee after its chair, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee) held televised hearings, which were America's first big TV event. Listeners were fascinated as the Committee moved from city to city and allowed the public to hear various alleged crime kingpins respond to the grilling by the staff and members of the committee. Perhaps the high point was the testimony of Frank Costello. In eight days during March 1951, he refused to allow his face on camera, but the audience could hear his gravelly voice and watch his clasping hands as he responded defiantly, evasively, or honestly to the committee.

In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice published a report on organized crime, based chiefly upon FBI wiretaps. The report claimed that twenty-four cartels, consisting solely of Italian Americans, cooperated across the nation in the coordination of gambling, loansharking, and drugs. Combating this menace became a central focus of law enforcement. The U.S. Justice Department established Organized Crime Task Forces in many cities where Italian Americans were active in criminal activities. States and cities cooperated. The news media reported the investigations in detail, while novels and movies such as The Godfather (1972) provided the public with vivid and exaggerated images of the power of such men. The focus of federal, state, and local prosecutions on Italian Americans, combined with media attention, increased the idea of the power of such groups, while obscuring and ignoring the complexity and diverse roots of criminal activities.

In the 1970s, with the launching of the "war on drugs," drug trafficking gradually began to supplant the "mafia" as the focus for law enforcement and media attention. It became clear that a so-called mafia could not explain the extensive drug trafficking that provided marijuana, LSD, cocaine, and heroin to a diversity of users. The term "organized crime" was extended to foreign drug "cartels" or to powerful and profitable domestic drug organizations. Again, the effect was to simplify a complex system but also to externalize America's drug problem by suggesting that powerful foreign organizations were at fault. More recently, the expansion of international banking and trade, combined with the management of the international economy by computers, has expanded the term "organized crime" to encompass money laundering, banking and credit card fraud, and other criminal activities embedded in the new economy. After the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings by Middle Eastern hijackers on 11 September 2001, terrorism was added to other transnational crimes as part of international "organized crime."

The term "organized crime," introduced in the 1920s, has been applied to a diversity of criminal activities, generally ethnically based. The effect has often been to simplify an understanding of complex and loosely coordinated activities, to suggest that the activities constitute a foreign danger to the United States, and to exaggerate the power of those engaged in the activities labeled "organized crime."


Fox, Stephen. Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Morrow, 1989.

Haller, Mark H. "Ethnic Crime: The Organized Underworld of Early Twentieth-Century Chicago." In Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait. Edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones. Chapter 19. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984.

———. "Bootleggers as Businessmen: From City Slums to City Builders." In Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition. Chapter 9. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Lacey, Robert. Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. New York: Century, 1991.

Reuter, Peter. Disorganized Crime: The Economics of the Visible Hand. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984.


See alsoBootlegging ; Drug Trafficking, Illegal ; Organized Crime Control Act ; Tweed Ring .

Organized Crime

views updated Jun 08 2018


Criminal activity carried out by an organized enterprise.

Modern organized crime is generally understood to have begun in Italy in the late nineteenth century. The secretive Sicilian group La Cosa Nostra, along with other Sicilian mafia, were more powerful than the Italian government in the early twentieth century. In 1924 Benito Mussolini's fascist government rose to power, and Mussolini orchestrated a crackdown on the Italian mafia. Those mafiosi who were not jailed or killed were forced to flee the country. Many came to the United States, where they flourished in the art of bootlegging and other criminal activity. Since the 1920s organized crime has crossed ethnic lines and is associated with no particular ethnic group.

Congress and many states maintain laws that severely punish crime committed by criminal enterprises. On the federal level, Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970. The declared purpose of the act is to eradicate organized crime by expanding evidence-gathering techniques for law enforcement, specifying more acts as being crimes, authorizing enhanced penalties, and providing for the forfeiture of property owned by criminal enterprises.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (18 U.S.C.A. § 1961 et seq.) is the centerpiece of the Organized Crime Control Act. RICO is a group of statutes that define and set punishments for organized crime. The act's provisions apply to any enterprise that engages in racketeering activity. Racketeering is the act of engaging in a pattern of criminal offenses. The list of offenses that constitute racketeering when committed more than once by an enterprise is lengthy. It includes extortion, fraud, money laundering, federal drug offenses, murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, dealing in obscene matter, counterfeiting, embezzlement, obstruction of justice, obstruction of law enforcement, tampering with witnesses, filing of a false statement to obtain a passport, passport forgery and false use or misuse of a passport, peonage, slavery, unlawful receipt of welfare funds, interstate transport of stolen property, sexual exploitation of children, trafficking in counterfeit labels for audio and visual works, criminal infringement of copyrights, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, white slavery, violation of payment and loan restrictions to labor unions, and harboring, aiding, assisting, or transporting illegal aliens. RICO also includes forfeiture provisions that allow the government to take the property of parties found guilty of violations of the act.

Modern organized criminal enterprises make money by specializing in a variety of crimes, including extortion, blackmail, gambling, loan-sharking, political corruption, and the manufacture and sale of illicit narcotics. Extortion, a time-tested endeavor of organized crime, is the acquisition of property through the use of threats or force. For instance, a criminal enterprise located in a certain neighborhood of a city may visit shopkeepers and demand a specific amount of so-called protection money. If a shopkeeper does not pay the money, the criminal organization may strike at him, his property, or his family.

Blackmail is similar to extortion. It is committed when a person obtains money or value by accusing the victim of a crime, threatening the victim with harm or destruction of the victim's property, or threatening to reveal disgraceful facts about the victim.

Gambling and loan-sharking are other traditional activities of organized criminal enterprises. Where gambling is illegal, some organized crime groups act as the locus for gambling activity. In states where some gambling is legal and some gambling is illegal, organized crime groups offer illegal gaming. Loan-sharking is the provision of loans at illegally high interest rates accompanied by the illegal use of force to collect on past due payments. In organized crime circles, such loans usually are made to persons who cannot obtain credit at legitimate financial institutions and who can serve the criminal enterprise in some way in the event they are unable to repay the loan. Loan-sharking provides organized criminal enterprises with money and helps enlarge the enterprise by bringing into the fold persons who owe a debt to the enterprise.

Political corruption has diminished as a focus of organized crime. In the first half of the twentieth century, some organized crime groups blackmailed or paid money to politicians in return for favorable legislation and favorable treatment from city hall. This sort of activity has decreased over the years as public scrutiny of political activity has increased.

The most recent major venture in organized crime is the manufacture and sale of illicit narcotics. This practice was prefigured in the activities of organized crime from 1919 to 1933. During this period alcohol was illegal under the eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the manufacture and sale of liquor was a favorite activity of organized crime groups. The manufacture and sale of illegal liquors, or bootlegging, was extremely profitable, and it gave organized crime a foothold in American life. Many organized criminal enterprises subsequently imitated bootlegging by selling other illegal drugs.

Violence often accompanies organized crime. Many crime syndicates use murder, torture, assault, and terrorism to keep themselves powerful and profitable. The constant threat of violence keeps victims and witnesses silent. Without them, prosecutors find it difficult to press charges against organized criminals.

The modern notion of organized crime in the United States has expanded beyond the prototypical paradigm of family operations. Organized crime in the early 2000s refers to any group of persons in a continuing operation of criminal activity, including street gangs. To combat the violence and other illegal activity of street gangs, federal and state legislatures have passed laws pertaining specifically to street gangs. Many states provide extra punishment for persons in street gangs who are convicted of certain crimes.

On the federal level, a street gang is defined as an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of five or more persons formed for the purpose of committing a violent crime or drug offense, with members who have engaged in a continuing series of violent crimes or drug law violations that affect interstate or foreign commerce (18 U.S.C.A. § 521). Any person in a street gang convicted for committing or conspiring to commit a violent federal crime or certain federal drug offenses receives an extra ten years in prison beyond the prison sentence for the actual crime.

Despite stringent punishments, organized crime is difficult to eradicate. It tends to occur in large cities where anonymity is relatively easy to maintain. The size and hereditary makeup of many enterprises make them capable of surviving the arrest and imprisonment of numerous members. Many organized crime participants are careful, efficient, and professional criminals, making them difficult to apprehend.

Another reason organized crime is so durable is that the participants are extremely dedicated. The group looks after its own and there are serious consequences of betrayal. Members of organized crime groups often take an oath of allegiance. For example, members of La Cosa Nostra stated, "I enter alive into this organization and leave it dead."

further readings

Abadinsky, Howard. 2003. Organized Crime. 7th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Bonanno, Bill. 2000. Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Story. New York: St. Martin's.

Goodwin, Brian. 2002. "Civil Versus Criminal RICO and the 'Eradication' of La Cosa Nostra." New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement 28 (summer).

Jankiewicz, Sara. 1995."Comment: Glasnost and the Growth of Global Organized Crime." Houston Journal of International Law 18 (fall).

Lyman, Michael D., and Gary W. Potter. 2004. Organized Crime. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Capone, Alphonse; Drugs and Narcotics; Eighteenth Amendment.

Organized Crime

views updated May 21 2018


The term Russian mafia is widely used, but Russian-speaking organized crime is not all Russian, nor is it organized in the same ways as the Italian mafia. Russian-speaking organized crime emerged in the former Soviet Union, and during the decade after the collapse it became a major force in transnational crime.

Because Russia's immense territorial mass spans Europe and Asia, it is easy for organized crime groups to have contacts both with European and Asian crime groups. Russia's crime groups have a truly international reach and operate in North and South America as well as in Africa. Thus they have been among the major beneficiaries of globalization. Russia's technologically advanced economy has given Russian organized crime a technological edge in a world dominated by high technology. Moreover, the collapse of the social control system and the state control apparatus have made it possible for major criminals to operate with impunity both at home and internationally.

During the 1990s, Russian law enforcement declared that the number of organized crime groups was escalating. Between 1990 and 1996, it rose from 785 to more than 8,000, and membership was variously estimated at from 100,000 to as high as three million. These identified crime groups were mostly small, amorphous, impermanent organizations that engaged in extortion, drug dealing, bank fraud, arms trafficking, and armed banditry. The most serious forms of organized crime were often committed by individuals who were not identified with specific crime groups but engaged in the large-scale organized theft of state resources through the privatization of valuable state assets to themselves. Hundreds of billions of Russian assets were sent abroad in the first post-Soviet decade; a significant share of this capital flight was money laundering connected with large-scale post-Soviet organized crime involving people who were not traditional underworld figures. In this respect, organized crime in Russia differs significantly from the Italian mafia or the Japanese Yakuzait is an amalgam of former Communist Party and Komsomol officials, active and demobilized military personnel, law enforcement and security structures, participants in the Soviet second economy, and criminals of the traditional kind. Chechen and other ethnic crime groups are highly visible, but most organized crime involves a broad range of actors working together to promote their financial interests by using violence or threats of violence.

In most of the world, organized crime is primarily associated with the illicit sectors of the economy. Although post-Soviet organized crime groups have moved into the drug trade, especially since the fall of the Taliban, the vast wealth of Russian organized crime derives from its involvement in the legitimate economy, including important sectors like banking, real estate, transport, shipping, and heavy industry, especially aluminum production. Involvement in the legitimate economy does not mean that the crime groups have been legitimized, for they continue to operate with illegitimate tactics even in the legitimate economy. For example, organized criminals are known to intimidate minority shareholders of companies in which they own large blocks of shares and to use violence against business competitors.

Crime groups also engage in automobile, drug, and arms smuggling. The involvement of former military personnel has given particular significance to sales of military technology to foreign crime groups. Weapons obtained from Russian crime groups have been used in armed conflicts in many parts of the world, including Africa and the Balkans. Foreign crime groups, especially in Asia, see Russia as a new source of supply for weapons.

There is, in addition, a significant trade in stolen automobiles between Western Europe and the European parts of Russia. From Irkutsk west to Vladivostok, the cars on the road are predominantly Japanese, some of them stolen from their owners.

Tens of thousands of women have been trafficked abroad, often sold to foreign crime groups that in turn traffic them to more distant locales. Women are trafficked from all over Russia by small-scale criminal businesses and much larger entrepreneurs via an elaborate system of recruitment, transport facilitators, and protectors of the trafficking networks. Despite prevention campaigns, human trafficking is a significant revenue source for Russian organized crime.

Russia's vast natural resources are much exploited by crime groups. Many of the commodities handled by criminals are not traded in the legitimate economy. These include endangered species, timber not authorized for harvest, and radioactive minerals subject to international regulation.

Despite the government's repeated pledges to fight organized crime, the leaders of the criminal organizations and the government officials who facilitate their activities operate with almost total impunity. Pervasive corruption in the criminal justice system has impeded the prosecution of Russian organized criminals both domestically and internationally. Thus organized crime will continue to be a serious problem for the Russian state and the international community.

See also: mafia capitalism; privatization


Handelman, Stephen. (1987). Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafiya. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Satter, David. (2003). Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shelley, Louise. (1996). "Post-Soviet Organized Crime: A New Form of Authoritarianism." Transnational Organized Crime 2 (2/3):122138.

Volkov, Vadim. (2002). Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Williams, Phil, ed. (1997). Russian Organized Crime: The New Threat. Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

Louise Shelley

Organized Crime

views updated Jun 11 2018


Criminal activity carried out by an organized enterprise.

New York Crime Boss Convicted on Racketeering Charges

A federal jury in July 2004 convicted Joseph C. Massino of 11 racketeering charges that involved at least seven murders and a string of other crimes. One of the charges involved the murder of Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, who introduced informant "Donnie Brasco" to Massino's crime family. Massino was the last of the "dons" of the organized crime families in New York to be sentenced to prison.

Massino once reportedly weighed 400 pounds and became known as "Big Joey" within the Bonanno crime family. An agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joe Pistone, began to infiltrate the Bonanno family in 1976 after he was introduced by Napolitano. Pistone, known by the pseudonym "Donnie Brasco," posed as a jewel thief, and the family embraced him. His reports from 1976 to 1981 led to more than 120 convictions, which nearly collapsed the family. Napolitano was shot to death in August 1981 in Staten Island. Pistone's story became the basis for the 1997 movie entitled Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

The federal government actively pursued the organized crime during the 1980s and 1990s. Massino was convicted during the 1980s on racketeering charges. Phillip Rastelli allegedly served as the boss of the Bonanno family from 1979 through 1991, though he also spent much of this time in prison. When Rastelli died in prison in 1991, Massino became his successor. Massino was released in 1992 at a time when the Bonanno family was nearly extinct.

Massino ran the crime syndicate from his Queens restaurant, named Casa Blanca. The organized crime in general has traditionally avoided prosecution of themselves and others by adhering to code of omerta, which is a vow of silence that prohibits one organized crime member from discussing an organization's business with anyone outside of the organization, including authorities. A rash of prosecutions during the 1990s, however, led to an erosion of this practice by members of the organized crime.

The Bonanno family is one of the so-called "five families" in New York City. By 2000, the heads of each of the other families had been arrested or sent to prison. As last surviving leader of the crime organizations, Massino became known as the "Last Don," and he continued to escape prosecution even though news reports had clearly identified him as the leader of the Bonanno family.

Federal authorities arrested Massino in January 2003 and charged him with a litany of offenses, including murder, loan-sharking, arson, illegal gambling, money laundering , sports betting, and extortion. Prosecutors said that the investigation into Massino's case was one of the most expansive in history and that it led to the arrest of more than 60 people. Many of those who were arrested pleaded guilty to charges. The FBI considered Massino to be the "most powerful mobster in the country" at the time of his arrest.

Massino, through his lawyer, David Breitbart, never denied that he controlled the Bonanno family. Instead, Breitbart's primary defense was that Massino ran the family in the peaceful manner. During the nine-week trial in 2004, prosecutors called more than 70 witnesses, including eight who were members of the Bonanno family. This was reportedly the first instance in which members of the Bonanno family had ever testified for the prosecution. Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of a key witness, Massino's brother-in-law Salvatore Vitale. Another witness, former Bonanno captain Frank Lino, said that he had seen and spoken with Massino when the latter was involved in a series of murders during the early 1980s, including the killing of Napolitano.

The jury convicted Massino on July 30 after deliberating for five days. One prosecutor called the government's case the "most sustained assault against a single organized crime family in the history of organized crime investigations." Pistone, the FBI agent who posed as "Donnie Brasco," said that Massino was "the last of the real gangsters. It's the passing of the American Organized crime as we know it." Less than a week after the verdict was announced, the jury also determined that Massino should forfeit nearly $10.4 million and two restaurants, because these assets had been obtained as the fruits of his 25-year criminal career.

At the time of Massino's conviction, several of his subordinates were vying to become his acting successor in the family. One of these men, Vincent Basciano, emerged as the acting leader. However, authorities later arrested Basciano on a murder charge. Massino and Basciano were both held in a federal prison in Brooklyn by the end of 2004. In a surprising turn of events, Massino reportedly cooperated with federal authorities and allowed authorities to tape record a conversation that Massino had with Basciano in prison. Although many expressed disbelief that Massino would become an informant, news reports in February 2005 indicated that Massino had indeed become the first head of a New York family to violate the organized crime's code of silence and to cooperate with prosecutors.

Many experts said that if members of the organized crime no longer adhere to the code of omerta, organized crime syndicates will become dismantled. According to Ronald Goldstock, who formerly led the New York organized crime task force, "The organized crime as we know it is effectively over. If people in the lower orders didn't know that their bosses would sell them out, then they know it now."

Organized Crime

views updated May 14 2018

Organized Crime

Criminal activity carried out by an organized enterprise.

Two Mistrials for Reputed Gambino Crime Family Leader

John A. (Junior) Gotti, reputed head of the Gambino organized crime family, managed to escape conviction in two trials in 2005 and 2006. Gotti stood trial on charges that he ordered a violent kidnapping of Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels crime-fighting group and outspoken radio talk-show host. Prosecutors said they would retry Gotti a third time. Gotti is the son of the late John Gotti, who was known as "Dapper Don." The elder Gotti died in prison in 2002 while serving a life sentence on murder and racketeering charges.

In the first trial, in September 2005, a federal jury acquitted Gotti, 41, of securities fraud charges under 18 U.S.C. §. 371. However, the jury could not agree to a verdict on two alleged racketeering counts under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. §. 1962. The RICO charges alleged that Gotti has participated in the conduct of the affairs of a racketeering organization. For a RICO conviction, the statute requires a finding that a defendant has engaged in "at least two acts of racketeering activity." The indictment against Gotti alleged several acts of racketeering activity. The alleged RICO activity included conspiring to kidnap, and the kidnapping of Curtis Sliwa; conspiring to commit securities fraud; conspiring to commit extortion in the construction industry; loansharking; and conspiracy to commit loansharking.

After eight days of juror deliberations, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin declared a mistrial on the RICO counts. Gotti asked that an acquittal be entered instead. He alleged that the prosecution had failed to prove two racketeering acts, and that under the Double Jeopardy Clause, the U.S. Constitution prohibited retrial on the charges. Judge Scheindlin disagreed and ruled that Gotti could be retried. However, she granted his request to be released from jail pending a retrial. Secured by a $7 million bond, Gotti was placed on house arrest following the 2005 mistrial.

Gotti appealed the mistrial ruling. On February 9, 2006, a panel of three judges from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a summary order upholding Judge Scheindlin's decision. The appellate court issued a detailed opinion on May 25, 2006. The summary order paved the way for Gotti's second trial, which began in mid-February. On March 10, 2006, after one and a half days of deliberation, the judge again declared a mistrial after jurors said they could not come to an agreement.

To support the charges of extortion and loansharking, the prosecution introduced evidence that in February 1997, a police search of a basement uncovered more than $350,000 in a gym bag that belonged to Gotti. Gotti's lawyers contended the money was simply cash wedding gifts that Gotti and his wife had received. The prosecution also presented evidence that a gun equipped with a silencer was found in the basement.

The attempted abduction of Sliwa took place in 1992. Prosecutors alleged that Gotti arranged the kidnapping of Sliwa as retaliation for on-air rants against Dapper Don Gotti; Gotti denied that he ordered Sliwa's attacks. In one instance, Sliwa was beaten with a baseball bat. Several weeks later, Sliwa and a masked hit man struggled in a taxi. During the struggle, Sliwa was shot. He dived out of the moving taxi, recovered, and testified at both trials. Convicted mobsters also testified against Gotti.

Gotti did not testify on his own behalf. However, his lawyers contended that he left the crime family in 1999 or even earlier, for the sake of his wife and children. Sliwa's radio co-host, Ronald L. Kuby, testified as a defense witness. Kuby said that Gotti told him in 1998 that he was "sick of this life."

Prosecutors contended Gotti continued his criminal activity after 1999, including issuing orders and collecting kickbacks. This issue was crucial to the trial. If jurors believed Gotti, the five-year statute of limitations on the RICO charges would have expired.

At one point, Gotti turned down a plea agreement that would have landed him in prison for seven years, on a 10-year sentence. A conviction carried the possibility of a 30-year sentence. Gotti pleaded guilty to unrelated racketeering charges in 1999, for which he was sentenced to six and a half years.

On May 22, 2006, a rewritten federal indictment was issued. It charges that Gotti has continued his mob-related activities, including alleged witness tampering in 2005. It also alleges that he used illegally earned income to create and operate real estate holding companies for buying real estate and collecting rent, and that he used racketeering money to establish and operate a brokerage company. According to the indictment, Gotti promoted crime family members if they committed murders.

Gotti's third trial was set to begin on July 5, 2006. With the issuance of the rewritten indictment, Judge Scheindlin postponed the opening until August 28, to give lawyers adequate preparation time.

Organized Crime

views updated May 23 2018

Organized Crime

Organized crime refers to highly organized businesses devoted to illegal activities. Gangs, known as cartels or families, maintain secrecy, loyalty, and special favors through the threat and use of violence. With bribery, or buying favors, gangs manage to protect their activities from law enforcement. Illegal businesses operated by organized crime gangs involve drugs, gambling, prostitution, and, during Prohibition (1920–33), alcohol.

While alcohol was illegal during Prohibition as a result of the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution , there was little popular support for the law. Demand for alcohol actually increased, and supplying liquor became a lucrative business. Making, transporting, and delivering alcohol required manpower. Because each step needed to be carefully coordinated with the next, gangs of criminals formed in highly organized businesses. Their success encouraged competition, and organized crime flourished.

As organized crime gangs competed for more business, violent encounters became common. In cities like Chicago, Illinois , gangs became powerful influences in many other businesses and in politics. Leaders of gangs became famous and popularly recognized. Al Capone (1899–1947) and Bugs Moran (1891–1957) are still well-known nearly a century after their criminal activity. Although Prohibition ceased to exist following passage of the Twenty-first Amendment , which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, organized crime became well-established and continues to this day.

Organized crime existed in small pockets of the United States before Prohibition, but that era allowed organized crime to spread across the nation. By 1934, powerful independent organizations from across the nation's cities were uniting into a national syndicate. Bootlegging was replaced by other illegal endeavors. Selling narcotics or stolen goods and managing gambling, prostitution, and other activities provide organized crime units with business today.

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