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 so-called 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 lowercase 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.

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