"Yes, Mr. Hoover, there is a Mafia" (Rudy Giuliani)

    Organized crime is in a class by itself.  It's big, it's powerful, it's well-connected, and highly profitable.  Mafia is the most common term used to describe the more profitable criminal organizations around the world, but other terminology exists, such as: international criminal organizations (military usage); transnational crime (United Nations usage); and enterprise crime (FBI usage).  As the term is utilized in criminology, it refers to any (or all) of six (6) different types of crime: (1) crime as business, which includes white collar crime as well as various forms of corruption; (2) offenses involving works of art, counterfeiting, or other cultural artifacts; (3) crime associated with the distribution and sale of narcotics as well as other contraband substances; (4) crime associated with human migration or sex trafficking including various forms of prostitution; and (5) crime involving contract murder or for-hire use of force, mostly deadly force; and (6) various forms of computer crime involving identity theft and/or other large-scale financial frauds.  A variety of definitions exist (see the Many Definitions of Organized Crime), and although no one-sentence definition is agreed upon, probably the best and most-cited comes from Abadinsky (2002:6): Organized crime is a non-ideological enterprise involving a number of persons in close social interaction, organized on a hierarchical basis, with at least three levels/ranks, for the purpose of securing profit and power by engaging in illegal and legal activities.

    Abadinsky (2002) goes on to say that membership in organized crime can be by kinship or friendship, and that even non-members may be involved on a contingency basis.  Permanent membership is restricted, however, to those who are active in pursuit of the organization's goals.  Regular membership as well as discipline is controlled by bribery, extortion, violence, and murder (or at least the reputation for using these methods).  There is usually some attempt to allow members to functionally specialize by skill, although jack-of-all-trades offenders are quite common.  The organization perpetuates itself even after key members have gone.  Rules and regulations are very explicit.  Organized crime hates competition; it always seeks a monopoly.  Life in organized crime involves life in a unique subculture.  Albanese (2002) and Finckenauer (2005) point out, furthermore, that essential to any definition is the corruption of public officials which assures continuity of operations as well as protection from competition.        

    There are known characteristics of organized crime, such as corruption, violence, sophistication, continuity, structure, discipline, ideology (or lack thereof), multiple enterprises, and involvement in legitimate enterprises.  These are the characteristics put forward by Maltz (1990; 1994), which are the most frequent basis of arguments with other criminologists such as Abadinsky (2002), Albanese (2002), Hagan (2010), and Conklin (2010), among others.  Abadinsky (2002), for his part, argues that organized crime is non-ideological; that is, its members don't care what the cause is, as long as everybody makes money.  Abadinsky (2002) also seems to follow Cressey (1969; 1972), a pioneer in the field, by suggesting the key characteristic is the highly-developed division of labor -- so highly-developed, in fact, that its mode of organization could well serve as a better model for business and making money.  Albanese (2002) and Hagan (2010) argue that the key characteristic is corruption; that organized crime operates along a continuum in this regard, slowly eating away at the integrity of legitimate social institutions.  Conklin (2010) argues the key characteristic is continuity, or the ability of these kinds of organizations to survive and achieve permanence from generation to generation.  The definitional problems have created legal problems.  At law, a criminal statute normally details a certain act (actus reus) and mental state (mens rea).  This is next to impossible with organized crime because no one knows how to precisely measure the degree of corruption that would be the necessary threshold, and in terms of mental state, as Cressey (1969) put it, no one knows how or wants to criminalize an "attitude" (which is the requisite mental state for becoming an organized criminal).  The organized criminal mindset may very well involve a "degree" or "spectrum" as Albanese (1989) points out.     

    Best analyzed as a business operation, organized crime involves marketing techniques (threat, extortion, smuggling) and a product line (drugs, sex, gambling, loan-sharking, pornography, or other outlawed items).  The business system resembles a legitimate business enterprise, and will even have a corporate executive structure, a staff of assistants, and accountants.  It's important to remember, however, that this kind of business was originally built up by force, intimidation, or threat.  The members of such a business are really gangsters.  In many cases, they are evolved professional criminals who exemplify the mystique glamorized by legendary figures in history -- people such as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano.  Their underworld system survives by pretending to be legitimate business or by infiltrating (through immunity and protection rackets) legitimate business.  The following table provides some simple distinctions between the two types of business.

Legitimate business Illegitimate business
Food products
Real estate
Garbage disposal
Garment manufacturing
Bars and taverns
Labor unions
Vending machines
Labor racketeering


     Besides violence (of course), which is almost always extremist or fantastic to some degree in organized crime, there are a number of other essential characteristics.  However, a word about the violence is in order.  Organized criminals take their violence seriously.  They also take threats of violence seriously.  In fact, it might be safe to say they don't truly hold to any differences existing between threat(s) of violence and act(s) of violence.  It is just taken for granted or used for symbolic purposes.  Far more interesting things engage their minds, such as complex "capers" or "jobs" involving planning for property crime.  Short-term and long-term planning dominates their mindsets in this regard, and often, multiple levels of execution are planned to perfect the perfect job.   It is the long-term accumulation of wealth, influence, and power which they are "organized" for, not the violence.  Other characteristics are:

    Organized crime usually accounts for about 1-2% of the gross national product of any country it sets up shop in.  They will try to "skim" more if they can, but they usually limit themselves because it is in their best interest to keep the legitimate systems operating that they are "skimming" off of.  In some cases, the annual income of an organized crime group may be greater than some of the major industries of an industrialized state.  Major sources of revenue often come from infiltration of labor unions, taking control of pension funds and dues.  Hijacking of shipments and cargo theft are other significant sources of income, along with Internet pornography and call girl/escort services.  Organized crime frequently tries to infiltrate low-tech, low-hanging fruit, legitimate businesses (such as garbage collection), and there is a clear preference for products and services which have uniformity, few competitors, and operate in rigid markets where price increases will not reduce demand.  If someone operates such a business, they are a prime target for mob infiltration.  Other businesses are sought to solely provide a "front" for money laundering operations.  According to Albanese (2002), there are four (4) opportunity factors for organized crime: (1) economic factors, such as poor standards of living, demands for illicit services, and a competitive environment; (2) governmental factors, such as corruption or weak local ability at enforcing laws; (3) law enforcement factors, such as poorly paid police officers who are not adequately trained; and (4) social or technological changes, such as new technologies which promote organized crime.   Risk assessment for organized crime control usually focuses on these factors (as well as potential harm) to assess the prospects for specific illicit activities in specific localities.   

    The classic pattern of organized crime is a gradual movement, or continuum (Hagan 1983), involving either a linear progression or other pattern resembling the following:


    According to proponents of alien conspiracy theory, sometime around 1900, a group called the Black Hand (a lower east side Manhattan gang modeled after the Sicilian Mafia) led by Johnny Torrio, leader of the Five Points Gang, set up a national syndicate of 25 or so Italian-dominated crime families calling themselves La Cosa Nostra (LCN or "this thing of ours", also called the Mob or Mafia), the most important five families being the Gambino, Columbo, Lucchese, Bonnano, and Genovese, the founding "godfathers". Meetings throughout the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s helped settle the differences between Sicilians and Italians (who had always been at odds with one another), discover ways to settle gang wars nonviolently and maximize profits.  During prohibition, LCN concentrated on alcohol; after prohibition, narcotics and bookmaking.  After WW II, LCN moved into entertainment (Cuba, Vegas, hotel chains, jukebox concerns, restaurants, and taverns).   By effective payoffs, blackmail, and coercion, by the 1950s, the mobsters became respectable businessmen, and moved into labor unions. Two commissions, the Kefauver and McClellan commissions looked into these activities.   During the 1960s, via succession due to repeated assassinations of other aspiring leaders, Carlo Gambino ran the Mob until his death of natural causes in 1976, then John Gotti emerged to run the Gambino family until 1992. A major FBI crackdown began in 1981 and is continuing. The typical LCN chain of command is an industrial model: a boss (don), with an advisor (consigliere) and underboss (sort of vice president). Answering to the underboss are caporegimas (heads of regiments or lieutenants or captains) who are chiefs to soldati ("buttons", soldiers).

    Ethnic succession is the rule for transition in organized crime. As one group wanes, another group stands ready to take its place. Today, other ethnic groups have forged a loose confederation of organized crime.  These include the Dixie Mafia in the South, Latin American gangs in the Southwest, White ethnic groups across the nation, and Italian and Cuban groups operating worldwide.  Since 1970, Russian and Asian (Chinese and Japanese) groups have been operating on U.S. soil, the Russian groups especially good at fencing stolen merchandise and the Asian groups especially good as the heroin market.  Nigerian/West African groups also operate in the U.S.  American-made biker gangs pick up the market for drugs not monopolized by other groups.  The Colombian drug cartels concentrated on cocaine smuggling. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, the black gangs abandoned their inner city isolation and adopted the "franchise" model (Crips & Bloods).

    Biker gangs are "outlaw motorcycle gangs", a breed apart from most biker organizations.  The oldest ones (Hells Angels, Pagans, Outlaws) trace their origins to clubs formed in the 1930s and 1940s.  When the American Motorcycle Association said that 99 percent of riders were law-abiding, outlaw bikers started calling themselves "1%ers," and wearing "1%er" patches on their jackets, along with other insignia, known as "colors." Members of outlaw clubs are often called patch-holders, and protecting club symbols can be a matter of life and death.  The Hells Angels are the largest group, with chapters across the United States, in Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere.  Their rivals are a group known as the Outlaws.  The Bandidos, based in the Southwest are another large group.  They have been rapidly expanding in recent years.  The Pagans have been cracked down on the most by law enforcement, and they, like other groups, such as the Mongols, are the frequent target of extensive law enforcement investigation.  Most groups support themselves primarily through drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion.  They fight over territory and drugs.  It needs to be noted that not all motorcycle clubs are biker gangs.  Non-outlaw motorcycle clubs include the Soldiers for Jesus, Christian Motorcycle groups, various clubs of African-American bikers, and various clubs of law enforcement officers.  


    Traditionally, organized crime has been immune from prosecution because of public apathy and because of strong political connections. Police have always tried to use "alternative" police tactics because traditional law enforcement doesn't work.  Organized crime is very sensitive about "snitches" and informants.  A few of the things that have been tried include: community policing, surveillance, varieties of undercover operations, immunity (transactional immunity provides blanket protection against prosecution for crimes about which a person is compelled to testify; use immunity prohibits anything the person says from being used against them, but they can still be prosecuted using evidence obtained independently) and witness protection programs.  The most common reasons for arrest of organized crime members are racketeering, drugs, stolen property, prostitution, gambling, and murder.

    By far, the most effective measure has been the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act. Title IX of that act is called RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization). It listed 24 different activities (such as bribery, extortion, murder) associated with organized criminal activity, lessened the rules on what defines a conspiracy, and gave law enforcement the tool of asset forfeiture, the seizure of assets, proceeds, and instrumentalities of crime.  In the 1980s, this paid off handsomely for law enforcement.  Today, the younger generation of gangsters seems more willing to break the code of silence and turn informer than face prison terms. To be deemed a racketeer, the suspect must have committed at least two of 24 different activities on the list within a ten-year period, and participation in the organization supporting the activity must be shown. Participants are then found guilty for the acts of the criminal organization regardless of their personal participation. RICO penalties are severe; prison sentences are double or triple the usual amount.

    Racketeering prosecutions often involve the strike force concept.  In a good year, 500 mobsters get convicted.  The FBI, DEA, ATF, Labor, IRS, and local law enforcement all have joint responsibility for organized crime. Several other possible law enforcement objectives have been examined:

    UNDERCOVER operations are usually only called for when, by no other means, can you get information on an impending crime the group is about to commit.  Other appropriate uses are to locate contraband storage areas, and to check on the reliability of informants and snitches.  INFORMANTS are notoriously difficult to control with organized crime, but are absolutely essential with newly emerging gangs for which there is no historical database. One of the jobs of the analyst is often to corroborate an informant's information (by checking on whether it is substantiated by other intelligence) and to determine informant reliability. The following terminology is standard for rating informants:


Aboriginal -- This is word meaning "native peoples", and aboriginal organized crime is mainly a problem in Canada. In that country, several Indian tribes control the illegal tobacco, weapons, and gaming markets.  It's of special concern to Canadian authorities right now since Canada is trying to move toward becoming a disarmed society.  For background, see any one of the reports by the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada.

Chinese -- The Tongs and Triad (Chinese Mafia) have been involved in business extortion, alien trafficking (with Mexico), the underground garlic trade (in Taiwan), software piracy, and of course, the more traditional drugs, gambling, and prostitution in Chinatowns across the world. The Tongs are an old secret society, going back to the mid-1800s. They operate behind immigrant protection associations, but have many of the characteristics of traditional organized gangs. The Triads are what the British called them because of their fascination with numerology, the importance of the number three, and their mystical initiation ceremonies. They believe it is their destiny to control all vice activity.  

Colombian -- The Colombian drug cartels have been a heavily-studied organized crime group, and although arrest or disappearance of their leaders has always brought authorities hope that the syndicate is over, they just seem to keep reorganizing. There's a real sense of popular support for the drug barons in Colombia as little poor guys who made it big, and the different cartels have close, intricate relationships. Although it's dangerous to make rough comparisons, Mendellin-type cartels tend to act like petty street hoodlums, and Cali-type cartels tend to operate like legitimate businessmen. The Colombians tend to have many sympathizers, and a complex infrastructure, employing many people in a typical operation.  Amnesty programs have been tried with some success against them. 

Italian -- More has been written about Italian Mafia business than probably any other topic. See any of the suggested Internet Resources at the bottom of this page for information on this genre.

Jamaican -- The Jamaican Posse underworld (from Kingston primarily) has developed a reputation as one of the first "nontraditional" organized crime groups.  They basically developed the marketing techniques for crack, controlling at least half of the crack market in the world. They also engage in kidnapping, murder, robbery, and auto theft.  There are several known posses operating throughout the U.S., some with a large number of members and others with a small number of members. 

Japanese -- The Yakuza (origins: 7th century) have always been at the center of Asian organized crime action, and are a persistent source of irritation to Japanese authorities. They do, however, pose some threats to the United States (in California and Hawaii) in terms of money laundering and weapons smuggling, which are their primary international sources of revenue. Their legitimate activities include banking and real estate. They have a highly structured hierarchy.

Jewish -- In Israel, several Jews from former Soviet states have formed organized crime groups, and of course, there's been gangster-style Jewish organized crime in America ever since the days of Meyer Lansky (one of the best books on him is But He Was Good to His Mother)

Mexican -- Alien smuggling, drug trafficking, and money laundering are big business for the Mexican Mafia and various drug cartels.  Narcotics control has, of course, always been the number one U.S. concern, but the "Mexicanization" of American law enforcement is a growing problem as American officials are coming to more and more resemble the style of laid-back law enforcement so characteristic of Mexico.

Nigerian -- The situation in Nigeria mostly revolves around the drug trade, but this is a nation where organized cybercrime is quite heavy.  A large number of computer scams and frauds originate from this country.

Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs -- Drugs, prostitution, strip club infiltration, anti-police tactics, and courtroom disruption techniques are just some of the major activities of this group. While many motorcycle enthusiasts are just rowdies, a disturbing number are involved in organized crime. 

Russian -- The mobsters who now rule Russia are engaged in nuclear smuggling, corruption, loansharking, bootlegging (gasoline) and protection rackets.  The Casey Institute keeps good track of them (as do other groups), and Finckenauer's (2005) research is probably the best on the subject.  These groups operate abroad, in the U.S. and Europe, especially in South Brooklyn and Berlin.

Vietnamese -- Triad groups and gangs of Vietnamese origin (e.g., Born to Kill) are of growing concern to U.S. authorities, compared to other gangs. They are considered by many to be the most ruthless of the Asian gangs.


    There are two major forms of illegal gambling: numbers and bookmaking. Numbers is a form of lottery in which a person places a bet from $1-10 by choosing 3 numbers between 000 and 999, then receiving a receipt from a "numbers runner".  The runner, who has several copies of the receipt, passes one to a "pickup" who carries it to the "bank" or the accounting room of the numbers operation.  If the customer wins, they get a multiple (100-500 times the amount of the bet) payoff.  There are different ways of determining the winning number. The "Brooklyn method" is based on the last three digits of the total amount of money a particular racetrack handles on a specific day. Runners make a 25% commission on their receipts, besides tips. The banker usually pays off the police. Bookmaking is sports betting. For basketball and football, one team is usually given a handicap of a certain number of points, called a "spread".  If the 49ers are handicapped by 8 points against the Bears, a person betting on the 49ers wins if the 49ers win by more than 8 points.  A person betting on the Bears wins if the Bears win or lose by less than 8 points. If the 49ers win by exactly 8 points, all bets are returned.  To prevent returns, most bookmakers express the spread in half-point values, such as 8.5 points. A bookmaking operation requires a "bookie" (who sets limits on the size of bets), a runner (who transfers money), and a clerk (who handles the records). Some bookies have a "tabber" who keeps tabs on changing spreads.


    They seem to come from low-income backgrounds in high crime areas of the inner city.  Most begin as ordinary street criminals, but rather than retiring or "ageing out" of crime, they continue their careers into their late 20s and 30s, progressing up the "queer ladder of mobility" (as it's been called) that is organized crime (individuals on their own make their mark and hope to be noticed, recruited or selected).  It's a bit more than the "jumping-in" rituals associated with gang crime.  The initiate becomes a "made" man, and joins the ranks of a worldwide organization of professional criminals in elaborate initiation ceremonies, learning to avoid emotional, unplanned criminal activity. If the organized criminal is allowed any leeway at all, it's toward the goal of corrupting the criminal justice system. The idea is to constantly be on the make for opportunities and setups to get the goods on somebody.  Here's a typical ORGANIZED CRIME NETWORK in a city showing the most likely targets for extortion or bribery:

Capo Soldati Soldati Capo
Restaurant owners
Vending machines
Bingo parlors
Taverns and clubs
Receivers of stolen property
City councilmen
State legislators
Licensing officials
Law enforcement:
Chief of police
Assistant chiefs
Asst. Prosecutor
Patrol commander
Vice squad commander
Narcotics officers
Lieutenants, Captains, Sergeants

Identity, status, and belonging are the reasons why someone would join a gang.


    Organized crime is the natural home for intelligence analysis.  Almost every analytic technique available can be used, from activity flow charts to conversation analysis to telephone records. This is the one area where ELINT has played a major role since wiretapping has been around a long time with organized crime. Here's some typical analytical products:

1. ASSOCIATION ANALYSIS -- Using data received through surveillance or informants, a link chart is produced showing the links between known and suspected members of the organized crime group. The chart should look like a family tree.  It can list people, places, or entities.  

2. TELEPHONE ANALYSIS -- Using telephone wiretap information or other "wires", a frequency distribution chart is produced, showing the time of the call (start/end), to whom, and the total length of time. The result is a rather graphic portrayal of who and where the suspect calls most of the time. The analyst can also add the known time of certain events into the chart.  A gambling operation would show, for example, a flurry of calls right before a sporting event. 

3. CONVERSATION ANALYSIS -- Using eavesdropping information, testimony of snitches, or other "wires", the analyst can often put together a content analysis chart, showing that certain phrases like "I want to to whack em good" always precede an act of violence against somebody.  This is especially important if the members of the organization speak in code words, like "you gotta do what you gotta do".  Discourse analysis as well as other more advanced forms of linguistic analysis allow deciphering tone, meter, and inflection in the voice to read the messages behind the words spoken. 

Classic Financial Scandals & Organized Crime

Eastern European Organized Crime
Friends of Ours Blog
GangLand: Mafia News & La Cosa Nostra & LCN Cities
Global Organized Crime Project
INTERPOL: Definitions of Organized Crime
Organized Crime: an annotated bibliography
Organized Crime Registry **
Ridgeway Center for Transnational Organized Crime
Russian Organized Crime
U.S. Treasury Dept: Following the Money
Yahoo's List of Organized Crime websites
Yakuza: a history & Yakuza: past and present

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Last updated: Oct. 23, 2012
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O'Connor, T.  (2012). "Organized Crime Investigation," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from