Is a rigorous definition of organised crime necessary?

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 4328

The classic 1972 film, The Godfather, amongst countless others, helped shape popular perception of the term ‘organised crime’: rich, powerful men of exotic ethnicity, often with political connections, commanding vast underworld empires and violently eliminating rivals. Although perhaps not entirely fictional, this portrayal is somewhat glamorised (like much portrayed in the mass media) and leads to misconceptions. The reality is quite different and much more difficult to define.

There is no clear-cut and universally accepted definition of organised crime. In the United States, the view of an all-powerful nation-wide Mafia syndicate held sway amongst scholars, lawmakers and law enforcers alike for many years following the testimony of turncoat Joe Valachi at the 1951 Kefauver hearings. However, as years went on and criminal demographics changed, the definition became wider, encompassing other actors such as outlaw biker gangs and drug cartels.[1] The UK Threat Assessment of Organised Crime uses a looser definition, preferring to refer to networks of various individuals coming together to engage in criminality rather than more formally organised groups.[2] So should we define organised crime as a specific phenomenon, or should we take a more ‘if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck’ type of approach?

Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that criminal groups are numerous and extremely varied. Returning to The Godfather, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when organised crime is mentioned is the idea of ‘traditional’ crime syndicates engaged in a kind of formal gangsterism. These groups often have cultural roots which transcend mere criminality, a classic example being the Sicilian Mafia or Cosa Nostra. The Mafia, which is thoroughly entrenched in Sicilian culture, politics and society, uses initiation rituals and codes of honour (albeit morally very flexible ones) to create loyalty and allegiance amongst its members. This has made its longevity a defining factor: the Mafia have been around since the 19th century. Meanwhile its well-defined hierarchical structure has allowed it to control its territory like a state within a state (maintaining local law and order) despite frequent setbacks like arrests and imprisonment.[3] The Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads are similar examples.

But these are certainly not the only groups we can refer to when considering organised crime. Prisons are an ideal arena for criminal networks to develop. Considering that a large number of serious offenders are grouped together in a confined space, it is to be expected that gangs would form, controlling activities like drug dealing and extortion within the prison walls, as well as exerting considerable influence outside. In May 2006, a wave of violence struck the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo, with dozens of police officers and their families being murdered in targeted killings. The violence was organised by leaders of the PCC, a local prison gang, using cell phones smuggled into correctional facilities.[4]

Crime is often perpetrated by organised groups as it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to commit certain crimes on their own. These crimes require a division of labour to be efficient. Take for example the international cocaine trade: coca plants are first grown then processed into cocaine by farmers, before being sold to traffickers, who may subcontract another group to take care of the physical logistics of actually moving the product across borders. It is then sold to wholesalers, who in turn sell it on to retailers who sell the end product to the consumer.[5] It would be hard to imagine any one individual managing the cocaine trade from production to consumption – hence the necessity of a network. Many other illegal activities, such as human trafficking, require the collaborative effort of different specialists; for instance, to forge documents.[6] Thus certain crimes may be considered to be organised by default. The best examples of the cocaine trade are the Colombian and Mexican cartels.

A more modern variation of organised cartels is the infamous Nigerian scam. Thousands of emails are sent to recipients who are promised a substantial but non-existent sum of money in exchange for paying a (relatively) smaller ‘processing fee’ of some kind. Although significantly less violent than the cartels, these fraud rings are often sophisticated, large-scale operations requiring specialists in IT and money laundering.[7] This emerging form of criminality also demonstrates how organised crime evolves and adapts to different situations; in this case, the onset of the Information Age.

Street gangs may sometimes be considered forms of organised crime. This was a key aspect of Steven Levitt’s and Sudhir Venkatesh’s famous examination of the financial workings of a drug-dealing street gang. When the crack epidemic hit America in the 1980s, local youth gangs became the logical distributors of the drug. This led to a ‘corporatisation’ of inner-city gangs, with the leaders re-structuring their organisation to run operations more efficiently. The gang examined by Levitt and Venkatesh, had a complicated hierarchy of leaders, lieutenants, enforcers, treasurers and local dealers.[8]

We may also consider entities that although not be inherently criminal as such, may engage in behaviour we could consider as organised crime. Biker gangs such as the Hell’s Angels may fall into this category – members are frequently accused of engaging in drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution,[9] even though the organisation itself has an entirely legitimate purpose for existing. Terrorist and rebel groups may also engage in organised crime-type activities for profit, although the motives are to fund their cause rather than personal enrichment. For example, the Provisional IRA collected donations from supporters to run its campaign but was also known to engage in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, smuggling, money laundering and the drugs trade.[10]

Finally, an interesting element that is receiving more and more attention is the involvement of people within governments who merge with criminal figures to create a state–crime nexus, or ‘Mafia states’ as described by Moisés Naím in his 2012 essay. Naím put forward the assertion that in a number of countries such as Russia, Venezuela and North Korea, officials directly facilitate certain criminal activities to such an extent that there is little difference between organised crime groups and the state.[11] The term originates from the 2010 Wikileaks scandal. In this case, a diplomatic document was leaked which discussed the situation in Russia where the FSB provided protection to crime bosses in exchange for carrying out their ‘dirty work’.[12] The Obama Administration has publically voiced similar concerns about North Korea, accusing the government of running an international counterfeiting ring.[13]

All of these manifestations of organised crime have different internal structures and modes of operation. In 2002, The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime published the results of a survey of forty organised crime groups operating across sixteen countries. Not surprisingly, the groups varied in characteristics: there were differences in size, prominence of ethnic or social ties (about half had no ethnic or social ties at all), activities (a large proportion focused on only one primary activity, drug trafficking being a popular choice), transnational influence, level of violence and links with official, political and business structures.[14] The report also outlined five different structural models which a criminal organisation could take:

  • The standard hierarchy, with a leader at the top, followed by lieutenants and then foot soldiers.
  • The regional hierarchy, which is similar to a standard hierarchy but rather than lieutenants answering to a leader, the group is composed of semi-autonomous cells as part of an overall umbrella organisation.
  • The clustered hierarchy, in which several independent gangs are managed by the entity, which may have a stronger identity than the lesser gangs.
  • The core group – a small group of key players who enjoy the benefits of drawing on a wider network of associates but otherwise have no formal structure.
  • The criminal network – largely based on personal ties and having no hierarchy whatsoever.[15]

What can we deduce from this vast variety of underworld elements, which vary so greatly in their characteristics? Well, as many studies have shown, the reasons for crime have much to do with local or situational factors. Violence in nightclubs, for instance, has been linked to patron boredom, lack of seating and belligerent security, while some researchers have shown a correlation between heatwaves and the likelihood of riots.[16] The patterns of organised crime, like any other type of crime, can be linked to various factors. To illustrate this, let us consider why Afghanistan, rather than the UK, is the source of 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. After all, it is possible to grow opium poppies in British soil under our weather conditions. Further, at least one pharmaceutical company, Macfarlan Smith, maintains several poppy fields and is licensed to process the opium into morphine.[17] Unlike Afghanistan, the UK is not suffering from political instability, widespread underdevelopment and large-scale insurgency, all of which facilitate and encourage narcotics trafficking.[18] Although this is an oversimplification, it would be logical to conclude that the differences between the two countries contribute to their particular manifestation of organised crime.

So what does this mean for defining the term? It means that it is almost impossible to come up with a single, specific definition, since what exactly constitutes organised crime may differ drastically between jurisdictions. For instance, during the Cold War something that would have constituted perfectly legitimate entrepreneurial activity in the capitalist Western bloc would have been considered to be illegal black marketing in the state-run economy of the Soviet Union.[19] So how should crime be understood by experts and professionals who essentially need a definition in order to effectively perform their jobs? The issue becomes further complicated when considering that most organised crime groups operate in very different fields. In the United States, the American branch of the Cosa Nostra’s power base runs protection rackets in predominantly Italian-American neighbourhoods.[20] But the Mafia would have little, if any, impact on the street corner drug market examined by Levitt and Venkatesh, which is in an almost exclusively African-American neighbourhood.[21]

Politicians around the world have drawn up various legislations designed to tackle organised crime. In 2005, lawmakers in the former Soviet republic of Georgia enacted a law making membership of the criminal fraternity, known as the thieves-in-law (active throughout Russia, Georgia and many other post-Soviet states), a crime. The thieves-in-law are a phenomenon very specific to post-Soviet states, having been formed in Stalin’s gulags and following their own ideology and set of rules. Merely being a thief-in-law (that is, being one who follows these particular criminal traditions) can incur imprisonment of seven to eight years, even if the accused has not committed any other offence. The thieves are also more restricted once in prison, their historic power base.[22] Although the law itself is specific to Georgian circumstances (during the 1990s, the country was virtually run by the thieves), it was inspired by the success of other countries – the website for the Georgian Ministry of Justice specifically cites American legislation. This is, of course, referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO for short, probably the most famous anti-organised crime legislation enacted anywhere in the world.

The RICO laws were drawn up in response to the problem that crime bosses, who kept themselves very distant from the activities of their underlings, were virtually immune to prosecution. Now, prosecutors merely had to prove that gangsters were engaged in a pattern of crime (two or more federal or state offences) on behalf of an illicit organisation. If it could be shown that an individual was a part of this organisation, they would also be convicted.[23] RICO proved to be a powerful tool in taking down the hierarchies of many Mafia families, and the harsh punishments it imposed meant many mobsters became willing to provide evidence against their former associates in exchange for a reduced sentence. RICO was so efficient and its definition of an illegal enterprise so broad that it began to be used in other cases. For example, in the case of the National Organization for Women vs. Scheidler, the court found that the actions of anti-abortion activists constituted a racketeering enterprise, though not necessarily run for profit.[24] In the United States, the aim of the legislation was to define organised crime as broadly as possible so as to ensure the convictions of key individuals who were previously considered to be untouchable. In contrast, legislation in Georgia took a very narrow approach to fighting a very specific problem in its society.

Before defining organised crime, policymakers must consider the desired end result and what their planned legislation is trying to achieve. When it comes to law enforcement, investigators must carefully consider the specific type of threat they are facing. A vague definition such as the one used by the Canadian Criminal Code (a group of three or more people which exists for the purpose of committing one or more serious offence resulting in financial or material gain to the groups members)[25] will be of little practical use.

Let us return to the UNODC survey. The Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate of the yakuza, as outlined by the survey, has a ‘regional hierarchy’ comprising several smaller gangs. It has a strong social identity with initiation rituals, a reputation for violence and widespread interests in legitimate businesses such as entertainment and real estate as well as influence in politics and the police force.[26] In contrast, an unnamed group was involved with smuggling Iranian immigrants into the Netherlands. This group had no formal structure. It comprised a network of a few friends who considered what they were doing to be little more than a profitable way for helping their compatriots to achieve a better life. There was no corruption or violence.[27] Clearly, anyone investigating the yakuza and expecting little more than a collection of friends is likely to run into difficulties. The reverse is also true: officers looking into the people-smuggling network as a traditional crime syndicate are probably over-reacting and making use of valuable resources which may be better deployed elsewhere. Law enforcement personnel must use available intelligence to determine the nature of organised crime relevant to their investigation.

Law enforcement bodies also have to define organised crime by what is within their particular jurisdiction. Local or specialised officers are more likely to be familiar with crime in their own area or field and would be able to deal with the threat effectively. Since organised crime is such a broad term, authorities may make use of different agencies to fight its various manifestations. The American Federal Government has several such agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) covers a fairly wide scope: its Organized Crime Section is divided into three task forces focusing on La Cosa Nostra and Italian/Italian-American crime families, Eurasian (ex-Soviet and East European) and Middle Eastern groups and Asian and African criminal enterprises. It also has a Violent Gangs division.[28] The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) focuses on narcotics offences[29] while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is responsible for cigarette smuggling and the arms trade.[30] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigates transborder crime such as human trafficking[31] and the Secret Service, although best known for providing protection to the President and other officials, handles financial crimes and counterfeiting.[32] If one was to ask a representative of any of these organisations what they would consider to be organised crime, they would likely give very different answers. However, this splitting of priorities ensures maximum efficiency in countering the threats posed.

In academia, one has to consider the exact subject being researched. In Federico Varese’s, The Russian Mafia, Varese defines organised crime as an entity which seeks to establish a monopoly over a particular illegal market. This is what separates it from being merely ‘crime which is organised’ (he offers the example of three burglars getting together to break into a house as an example of the latter but not the former). This is a reasonable definition, although one may argue that organised crime may not necessarily seek to dominate a market (see the Netherlands-based human trafficking network). But Varese goes on to say that although a drugs cartel and a ‘mafia’ group may both constitute organised crime, they deal in different commodities: the cartels’ speciality is narcotics, the mafia’s is ‘protection’ (from law enforcement and/or business rivals). To be successful in this model, the cartel must either internalise its protection or subcontract to the mafia.[33]

Although undoubtedly true in some cases, this model is also incredibly restrictive. Why can’t a given group operate in diverse fields? However, the focus of Varese’s research in this particular field is solely on the business of providing security in 1990s Russia where widespread crime and uncertainty over the legal status of free enterprise meant that private businesses had to seek extralegal ways of solving disputes and problems.[34] Other illicit enterprises such as drugs or prostitution have no relevance to the issues being discussed and so are justifiably ignored. In order to conduct good research and analysis, academics must use a narrow, rigorous definition of organised crime which fits their particular interests.

In conclusion, an ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ approach to defining organised crime is unlikely to be of any real use. The answer to the question of what is organised crime is determined largely by who is asking and their objectives. A broad approach may be useful in the context of the law itself, when putting less pressure on the prosecution to provide evidence will result in more successful convictions, but extremely narrow and specified terminology needs to be used when conducting an investigation, academic or otherwise. And of course for criminals, organised crime is merely business.


  • Letizia, Paoli; The paradoxes of organised crime; (Netherlands: Crime, Law and Social Change, Volume 37, Number 1, 2002)
  • The United Kingdom Threat Assessment of Organised Crime 2009/10; (London: Serious Organised Crime Agency, 2010)
  • Dickie, John; Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia; (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
  • Glenny, Misha; McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime; (London: Random House, 2008)
  • The globalization of crime A transnational organized crime threat assessment; (Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010)
  • Levitt, Steven and Venkatesh, Sudhir; An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances; (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000)
  • Horgan, John and Taylor, Max; Playing the ‘Green Card’ – Financing the Provisional IRA: Part 1; (Routledge, 1999)
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  • US embassy cables: Russia is virtual ‘mafia state’, says Spanish investigator; The Guardian, 2010, []
  • Transnational Organized Crime: A Growing Threat to National and International Security; The White House Official Website, []
  • GLOBAL PROGRAMME AGAINST TRANSNATIONAL ORGANIZED CRIME Results of a pilot survey of forty selected organized criminal groups in sixteen countries; (Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2002)
  • Wortley, Richard and Mazerolle, Lorraine; Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis; (New York: Routledge, 2012)
  • Phillips, Rhodri and Wigmore, Barry; The painkilling fields: England’s opium poppies that tackle the NHS morphine crisis; The Daily Mail, 14 July 2007
  • ADDICTION, CRIME AND INSURGENCY: The transnational threat of Afghan opium; ((Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009)
  • Thieves by Law (Alexander Gentelev, Arte; Israel/Germany, 2010)
  • Raab, Selwyn; Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires; (New York: Robson, 2006)
  • Fight against; Ministry of Justice of Georgia official website, []
  • NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN, INC., et al. v. SCHEIDLER et al; (Supreme Court of the United States, 1994)
  • Fundamentals of Organized Crime; Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, []
  • Overview – About Organized Crime; Federal Bureau of Investigation official website, []
  • DEA Mission Statement; Drug Enforcement Administration official website, []
  • Strategic Plan — Fiscal Years 2010–2016; (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 2010)
  • Investigative Mission; United States Secret Service official website, []
  • Varese, Federico; The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy; (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)



































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