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 operative— The Godfather (1972)—or the brutal sadist— The 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 business—the 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) end—money. 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 ideology—a 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 centuries—among them Jewish, Polish, Chinese, and Italian—leading 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 States—more 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 (1920–1933) 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 1930–1931, 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 .


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