Organized Crime Research Paper

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Relative to other kinds of crime groups (e.g., a burglary crew), law enforcement practitioners and social scientists typically define an organized crime group as follows: (a) it has some manner of formalized structure whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities; (b) it has continuity over time; (c) it maintains its position through use of violence or threat of violence, corruption of public officials, and extortion. Additional important elements may include: (d) its operations tend to be interjurisdictional; (e) key members are bufffered by forms of organizational structuring and by the use of ‘fronts’ and nonmember associates; and (f) long-term goals stress the maximization of profit and power through monopolization, or cartelization, of criminal enter-prises and markets, as well as control over legitimate (noncriminal) businesses and sectors of the economy (Lupsha 1995).

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Organized crime groups may perpetrate almost any kind of swindle, theft, or illicit activity imaginable. But the two main types of activities involve the provision of illicit goods and services like illicit drugs and gambling, and the infiltration of legitimate business (including the illegal manipulation of labor unions).

Most organized crime is never detected and so its costs to society are unknown. It generally is re-cognized, however, that the costs of organized crime in terms of illicit profits, unpaid taxes, disruption of legitimate business, and political and commercial corruption far exceed the costs incurred from conventional crime and street crimes.

1. Scope And Structure Of Organized Crime Groups

The size, structure, and cohesion of criminal organizations has been the subject of much debate. At one end of the spectrum, organized crime is described in terms of large hierarchical organizations that are structured rather like traditional corporations. At the other end, organized crime is described in terms of small, fluid networks that are rather amorphous in structure and are characterized by considerable opportunism.

This dichotomy is unnecessary, however. Organized crime as a concept is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. Criminal organizations fall along a continuum from large to small and from formal hierarchical (even bureaucratic) structure to fluid network organizations (Steffensmeier 1995). Criminal organizations falling at either end of the continuum may be equally adaptable to the exigencies of the illicit marketplace. Groups may combine elements of a formal structure at certain levels, with more amorphous and flexible networks at the lower levels. The Colombian cartels and the US Mafia, for example, have demonstrated remarkable adaptability in spite of their large size and/organizational sophistication.

In addition to size and degree of formal structure, criminal organizations can be identified and compared relative to their scope of criminal activities. Some groups are highly specialized and focus on one kind of activity, such as prostitution or drugs. Other groups engage in a broader range of criminal activities such as gambling, extortion, drug trafficking, financial scams, and infiltration of legitimate businesses.

Criminal organizations or networks also vary in terms of their geographic scope—local, national, or transnational. A powerful transformation is occurring whereby organized crime increasingly is becoming transnational in character. Less and less are the criminal activities of criminal organizations con-strained by national borders. Further, organized crime groups which are still predominantly domestic in scope can be expected in the future to increase their exploitation of global opportunities.

A final dimension concerns the level or scale of impact on the citizenry and on the political and economic structure of a nation. The US Mafia and the major transnational crime organizations represent what has been termed large-scale organized crime, to refer to those powerful criminal groups ‘able to engage in political and economic activity both through legitimate official structures and by illegal means, and which can adversely affect whole areas of productive, social and institutional life’ (Arlacchi 1986, p. 213).

2. Organized Crime Groups Networks In The USA

The bulk of research and theory about organized crime has centered on the USA, where four main forms of organized crime networks now exist: the US Mafia, emerging or previously ignored crime groups, local racketeering syndicates, and transnational criminal organizations (Steffensmeier 1995). These forms are analytically distinct but in practice may merge one into another.

2.1 The US Mafia

Italians are but one in a long succession of groups to become involved in organized crime in the USA. The Irish were the first group to become involved on a large scale, followed by Eastern European Jews, and then by Italians. In recent years Hispanic and Chinese immigrants have made a place for themselves in organized crime. But Italian–American organized crime, of which Cosa Nostra is the archetype, has achieved broader dominance over a wider range of criminal activities than that of any other ethnic group, and for a longer period of time.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, about two dozen Cosa Nostra families are centered in urban areas with relatively large Italian–American populations, such as New York and Chicago. The networks of these families are expansive, moreover, so that localized Mafia groups and Mafia-connected criminal activities exist in a substantial number of US cities. Legislation used to counter organized crime, notably the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, was designed with Cosa Nostra in mind and has enabled law enforcement to develop cases against Mafia groups and other crime organizations as criminal enterprises (Jacobs 1994). Until about the 1970s, ‘Cosa Nostra’ and ‘organized crime’ were considered to be synonymous terms by many law enforcement authorities.

Newer evidence confirms and refines the picture of Cosa Nostra provided by earlier sources (see Cressey 1969). Cosa Nostra exists; possesses a hierarchical chain of command; is self-perpetuating and has an overarching structure which is independent of criminal activity; and becoming a ‘made’ member involves initiation rites and pledges of loyalty, secrecy, and violence. A Cosa Nostra ‘family’ operates autonomously in many US cities, but individual groups are joined together in a crime confederation in which a limited amount of authority has been ceded to a governing national commission. The commission regulates interfamily conflicts but does not attempt to run the day-to-day operations of the syndicates.

The bureaucratic analogy sometimes applied to Cosa Nostra, however, has been overstated. Its structure is looser and more decentralized than the organizational charts imply (Abadinsky 1999). Day-to-day operations of organized crime are often quite hap-hazard, both because of inadequate managerial skills on the part of many participants and because of the need for secrecy—which sets limits on managerial control. Relationships between family hierarchy and members, as well as associations with other family groups, are flexible and fluid. Individual members have sufficient autonomy to build their own power bases and connections. They make their own deals with other criminals, businesses, labor leaders, and government officials based on potential profits or services required.

It appears that the criminality and influence of a number of Cosa Nostra families is less at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it was in the early 1990s. Factors contributing to this decline include intense federal enforcement efforts directed at the Mafia; changing illicit markets (especially drugs); advancing age and attrition in membership; the decline of ethnic communities in urban areas; the shift of political power from cities to the federal government, including the decline in the local ‘political machine’; and the decline of unions. These together have reduced three main historical assets of the Mafia—centralized corruption of police and local officials, a disciplined workforce, and reputation (Reuter 1994). However, some recent prosecutions and law enforcement reports indicate that the increased law enforcement activity has had a tremendous impact on the hierarchy of the families but little effect on Mafia-related activity (Kelly 1999, Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991).

2.2 Previously Ignored And Emerging Crime Groups

Besides traditional Italian organized crime, it is widely recognized that there exists in many US metropolitan areas a collage of groups—Asians, bikers, Blacks, Colombians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Syrians, Lebanese, and Russians—involved in organized crime, notably in the drug trade (Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991, Steffensmeier 1995). Recent immigration to the USA, in particular, has spawned ethnic crime groups who often direct much of their criminal activity against members of their own ethnic group and maintain ties to criminal groups in their homelands. Some of the nontraditional groups are highly organized, while others are not. While many of these groups are considered ‘new’ or ‘emerging’ in that they have become active in recent years, other groups are ‘new’ in the sense that they have only recently been recognized as crime groups. The outlaw motorcycle gangs, for example, have been operating for many years in organized crime activities and are now well established.

2.3 Local Racketeering ‘Syndicates’

As far back as 1951, the US Senate’s Kefauver Committee concluded that much organized crime is localized and indigenous to the community in which it exists. A largely unrecognized but important dimension of the organized crime phenomenon is the significant and longstanding presence of local racketeering groups which dominate extortion and vice activities in many localities and cities throughout the USA, doing so both through legitimate official structures and by illegal means (Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991, Steffensmeier 1995). Core ‘membership’ in these racketeering groups includes not only mafioso and professional criminals but also business people (e.g., car dealers, contractors, restaurant owners), police and city officials, attorneys, and other individuals from ‘respectable’ society who are influential in local politics.

These local crime syndicates generally represent distinct entities, although they often overlap and may even be fragments of a large-scale crime organization such as Cosa Nostra. The syndicates tend to be dominated by a handful of entrepreneurs in which the illegal activities of individual racketeers are carried out through a network of individuals associated with them in that activity. With this type of operation, it frequently is the activity rather than the particular people that fosters the relationship. A number of substantive criminal relationships or ‘partnerships’ may develop, linking joint criminal operations within a network and across other crime networks dominated by other local criminal figures. Overlapping partner-ships for specific illegal ventures are stitched together through opportunistic and fluid alliances. In some instances there may be a central racketeering figure, but more likely there is shared power and a shifting power structure depending, in particular, on who at the time is most influential with local law enforcement and city officials (Steffensmeier 1986).

3. Transnational Crime Organizations (TCOs)

Criminal organizations, particularly in the USA and other rich countries, are increasingly engaging in activities that cross national borders (Martens 1991, National Research Council 1999, Williams 1999). Factors contributing to this development include the globalization of the economy and financial markets; the rise in the numbers and heterogeneity of immigrants, who bring with them social and commercial networks that make law enforcement more difficult and that facilitate conspiracy; improved communications technology, which makes borders more permeable and criminal activities less conspicuous; the end of the Cold War and triumph of capitalism, which have increased the porosity of national boundaries and created new markets for both licit and illicit commodities.

The term ‘transnational’ refers to the movement of information, money, physical objects, people, or other tangible or intangible items across national boundaries (Williams 1999). ‘Transnational organized crime,’ in turn, refers to large-scale crime organizations or networks that operate across national borders or that have a home base in one nation but that operate in other nations or states where there are favorable market opportunities. Their principal activities at the turn of the twenty-first century include: smuggling—in commodities, drugs, and protected species; contra-band such as stolen cars and tobacco products; and services—in immigrants, prostitution, indentured servitude, and money laundering (see Kelly 1986, National Research Council 1999).

Transnational crime organizations (TCOs) vary considerably in the structure, geographic scope, and scale of their operations. Some are organized hierarchically, while others are fluid in structure. The TCOs typically operate out of ‘national sanctuaries’—in areas where there is uneven justice and limited law enforcement capacities, and where they are relatively immune to law enforcement efforts. By acting transnationally, the groups gain access to lucrative markets for illicit commodities or services where the profits are very high and then channel the proceeds from illicit activities through the global financial system.

The most widely recognized transnational groups are: Chinese triads, Colombian cartels, Japanese yakuza, Sicilian Mafia, and some Russian criminal organizations (which vary greatly in organizational structure and sophistication). The Asian gangs and the Sicilian Mafia have long traditions as compared to the Colombian cartels and Russian gangs, which are relatively young.

The Sicilian Mafia, the most global and perhaps the most complex of the transnational organizations, actually refers to four distinct, often overlapping, groups. The most important of these groups is the Sicilian Mafia or Cosa Nostra, followed in order by the Neapolitan Camorra (a group of predominantly local organizations), the Calabrian N’drangheta (a federation of families involved in illegal drugs, contraband tobacco, kidnaping, and extortion), and the ‘Sacra Corona Unita’ in Apulia (based on breakaway factions from the Camorra and N’drangheta). Like the US Mafia, these groups entail a relatively simple hierarchical structure and are based on close associations that are partly functional, partly personal and familial, and partly based on fear (Arlacchi 1986, Paoli 1999). Recent trials both in the USA and Italy (e.g. the ‘Pizza Connection’ case in 1986) have revealed the scope of the Sicilian Mafia’s involvement in international drug trafficking (especially heroin and cocaine) and the considerable extent to which its members associate and interact in criminal activity with the US Mafia. Although its power base remains in Sicily and southern Italy, the Sicilian Mafia has increasingly become a transnational enterprise and its Mafia groups can now be found in virtually every country where there resides a moderately sized population from Sicily (Savona 1993, Sterling 1990).

The Colombian cartels are foremost in the drug business, in contrast to the Sicilian Mafia and most other transnational criminal organizations which en- gage in a range of illegal activity. The cartels—and particularly the Cali cartel that has become the predominant group in the cocaine industry—have also amalgamated corporate and criminal cultures more than any other group (Williams 1994). They resemble modern legitimate firms in utilizing business management principles such as elaborate staffing and division of labor, administrative oversight, strategic planning, and meticulous accounting procedures. The cartels have developed a very specialized cell structure to carry out activities such as logistics, marketing, and money exchange; the cell stucture also provides protection by disbursing information on a need-to-know basis (see Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991).

The recent rise and expansion of major international crime networks represent the most important and threatening development in organized crime at the turn of the twenty-first century. First, very large fortunes have been amassed by some TCOs—reflecting both the extraordinarily large profits obtainable in the illegal economy and the ease with which money can be laundered or ‘cleaned.’ Second, the expanding demand for criminal labor generated by the increased scale of activities has fostered integrative links between the international mafias on the one hand with common and juvenile crime on the other (Arlacchi 1986). The changes toward an older profile and adult involvement in youth gangs in many US cities reflect this development. Third, the most powerful criminal groups (e.g., in Colombia, Russia, Sicily) have shown that they can influence society and economic processes to a greater extent than they are determined by them (Arlacchi 1986).

Fourth, the large-scale criminal organizations—through their huge economic resources and by means of private violence—are able to impose their power and to manipulate large sectors of the political system and the state apparatus. These groups not only arouse general fear and anxiety in many countries but also threaten the governability of individual countries and the world order more generally. The threat to democratic institutions and the erosion of government’s ability in many parts of the world ‘to govern, to provide even the basics of civil peace, economic opportunity, or justice’ (Olson 1994, p. 1) are probably the most detrimental repercussions of the transnational criminal organizations.

4. Roots Of Organized Crime

At least four main factors, singly or in combination, contribute to the rise and persistence of organized crime. First is a certain level of social-cultural dis-organization (Arlacchi 1986). Important here are the consequences of (a) the industrialization and urbanization that have taken place over the last two centuries in countries in the West; (b) the so-called ‘modernization’ that is presently taking place in certain large Asian, Latin American, and African nations; and (c) the spreading democratization and free-market capitalism in the Eastern European nations. Their effects—growing social injustice, poverty, and violence— are a seedbed in particular for the recent emergence of large-scale criminal organizations at the global level.

A second factor is ‘weak’ government. Criminal organizations are more likely to emerge and flourish where the government is lacking in legitimacy or is not fully in control of the territory under their jurisdiction. Organized crime in many countries, as in Sicily, has been generated by despotic governments which give rise to groups formed for self-protection and for providing quasi-governmental services. These conditions also help to foster an ethos of cultural underpinnings for organized crime (Cressey 1969, Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991, Steffensmeier 1995). Main tenets include distrust of outsiders and government, clannishness, proclivity for sanctioned violence and private revenge, a sense of how to coopt the law and achieve immunity by corrupting influential persons, and savvy to cultivate the goodwill of local residents while simultaneously exploiting them for personal advantage.

Third, organized crime arises because it is ‘functional’—either to the community or large subgroups in the society (Cressey 1969). These functions are varied, but may range from providing desired but illicit goods and services, social control and protection (e.g., against certain predatory crimes) in areas where government or official agencies have failed, opportunities for political and economic participation, and welfare-type assistance (e.g., in finding employment, short-term loans to prop up precarious small businesses).

Fourth, there is an easy affinity between organized crime and market-based economies. Organized crime is about the exploitation of business or market opportunities. The necessity to maintain and extend one’s share of the market governs entrepreneurship in organized crime as it also does in the legitimate market (Cressey 1969, Smith 1980).

By their very nature, many organized crime activities, especially financial crimes, require the tacit or open cooperation of legitimate organizations and actors. In the abstract, organizations could be perceived as either legitimate groups that commit no crime or as criminal groups with purely criminal purposes. In the real world, however, the activities of many organizations, both legitimate and criminal, fall between these extremes (Steffensmeier 1986, National Research Council 1999).

These factors together suggest that the organized crime phenomenon is primarily economic and institu-tional, rather than criminal (see Arlacchi 1986, Cressey 1969). Control strategies most likely to be effective will target the real structures and seats of power of organized crime—governmental weakness and official corruption, financial markets and accumulated capital, and the institutional degeneration that allows the problems to continue and grow worse.

5. Ethnicity And/organized Crime

Ethnicity affects organized crime in three related ways (Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991, Steffensmeier 1995). First, organized crime is a multiethnic phenomenon in the sense that a wide variety of ethnic groups are involved. Second, ethnicity typically plays an important role in the formation and function of organized crime groups. Ethnicity contributes to the organization of crime, a feeling of camaraderie built on blood ties, a common cultural base, insularity, mutual trust, a distrust of government, and an exclusivity that reinforces bonds and secrecy within the organization. Third, in both the USA and other rich countries, foreign and immigrant criminal groups have become principal figures in transnational organized crime.

5.1 Alien Conspiracy vs. Ethnic Succession

The role of ethnicity in shaping a country’s organized crime problem has been the subject of some dispute. The alien conspiracy view holds that organized crime doesn’t so much emerge out of a country’s culture or economic realities and politics, but is thrust upon it by particular ethnic, immigrant groups who bring forms of organized crime with them. In the USA, for example, the theory holds that a secret organization originating in Sicily made its way into the USA during the period of massive Italian immigration around the start of the twentieth century. Popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Mafia conspiracy view has since been widely rejected. In 1969 organized crime expert Donald Cressey stated that while ‘the similarities between the two organizations are direct and too great to be ignored, the American Mafia is not merely the Sicilian Mafia transplanted’ (Cressey 1969, p. 8).

A contrasting view characterizes organized crime not as a foreign import but as an expedient avenue for social mobility that is an integral part of a country’s social and economic system (Ianni 1972). Ethnic succession refers to the process by which different ethnic immigrant groups have used, and continue to use, organized criminality as a means of assimilation and advancement. Using their illegal gains and as more legitimate opportunities opened, legitimate advances with all their advantages were pursued as alternatives to criminal activities.

The process of ethnic succession adequately describes the Irish, the Germans, and the Jews (who preceded the Italian migration into the USA), as well as some of the recent ethnically based crime groups both in the USA and elsewhere. But the persistence of the Italians in organized crime is at odds with ethnic succession.

6. Alternative Models Of Organized Crime Groups

Recent writings on organized crime distinguish among three main paradigms of organized crime (Albanese 1998).

In the hierarchical structure model, organized crime is a more or less government-like structure with graded ranks of power or authority; organized illegal activities are conducted with the blessing of higher-ups, illicit activities are ‘protected’ through the influence of the hierarchy, and profits or ‘tribute’ are funneled to superiors (Cressey 1969).

An alternative approach has been to describe organized crime as a network of patron–client relation- ships wherein people’s connections provide them with access to a particular illicit activity (Albini 1971, Ianni 1972). Relationships develop around a central figure, or patron, and the recipients of his favors who are dependent upon him for contacts, protection, and resources. In return, these clients offer loyalty and allegiance.

The enterprise model constitutes a third paradigm of organized crime. Organized crime is a ‘business’ activity that represents a deviant variation on legitimate activity (Smith 1980). The focus is on the ‘enterprise’ and its functional needs, such as revenue and investment requirements, rather than the group undertaking it. Notably, the size and structure of an organized crime group is basically determined by the activity in which it is involved (i.e., function determines structure).

These models are analytically distinct and offer competing pictures of reality, but are better seen as complementary. All organized crime is entrepreneurial and is shaped by market forces; moreover, both patron–client and kinship relations are typically key features of hierarchical crime organizations. One key difference is that the enterprise model focuses more on how organized crime activities are organized (e.g., a drug smuggling operation, a bookmaking business), whereas the hierarchical model focuses more on how crime groups are organized.

7. Success And Survival Of Organized Crime Groups

Five factors help explain why some crime networks, like the Cosa Nostra or Japanese yakuza groups, succeed and survive for a lengthy period of time (see Reuter 1994, Steffensmeier 1995). The first is historical circumstance—e.g., Italian mobsters arrived on the US scene at a critical time (i.e., Prohibition) and were able to entrench themselves in the rackets of urban USA. Once in place, they warded off competing crime groups through advantages derived from their dominant position.

A second factor involves a unique cultural ethos—a set of traditions and/organizational principles supportive of organized crime and very adaptable. A key element of this ethos, anchored in kinship and ethnicity, is a bounded solidarity and enforceable trust that group members can rely on for illicit activities. Other elements include distrust of government, clannishness, and proclivity for sanctioned violence.

The third factor is reputation—a set of beliefs or capacities that represent advantages the mafiosi as entrepreneurs enjoys over their competitors. The set includes the credible threat of violence, the ability to neutralize law enforcement, and the wherewithal to ‘get things done.’

A fourth factor is the ability to recruit a disciplined workforce and prospective leaders. Mafia groups have been able to draft, almost effortlessly, reliable and able recruits from within kin networks and Italian-Sicilian neighborhoods where Mafia-based values and traditions have been in force, and where an abundance of young ‘toughs’ covet the fear and respect that mafiosi still engender.

A final element is durability itself. A crime network (e.g., the Mafia) that has been around a long time gains credibility by showing it can withstand either efforts to repress it or the loss of members from time to time.

These five factors also can be treated as analytic devices for broadly evaluating the strength of organized crime groups and their ‘peculiar threat’ relative to each other and to other forms of crime. The more these conditions can be said to characterize a group, the greater its strength, staying power, and threat relative to other organized crime groups. Furthermore, today’s aggressive law enforcement effort to dismantle established crime groups will be successful only if it greatly reduces the competitive advantages described above. Likewise, strategies aimed at preventing the emergence or stabilization of comparably powerful crime groups will be effective only if they prevent the build up of such assets.


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