History of Organized Crime in the US Outlook

Org Crime

Organized crime underwrites the bulk of political, social, and economic history in America. What has often been mentioned in passing as legitimate business activities can and often should be reframed as organized crime, such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial mercantilism that it supported (Woodiwiss, 2003). When organized crime is taken out of its Hollywood context, which portrays organized crime as an immigrant problem, some patterns emerge that clarify the function and structure of organized crime in America. Organized crime tends to flourish in “societies that experience rapid and intense social change,” (Albini et al. 1995, p. 213). This is why the United States has been a hot spring of organized crime in various manifestations throughout the nation’s history. In only a few hundred years, the United States has gone from colonial outpost to global superpower. Rapid change and cultural transformation foment organized crime, as do the influx of immigrants that transform the political, social, and economic landscape of the nation. Although organized crime does deserve to be looked at through the lens of criminal justice, a sociological framework provides a more meaningful and helpful analysis that can shed light on the future of public policy. Past policies attempting to address the problems associated with organized crime, such as threats to public safety, violence, extortion, fraud, theft, and any number of any other victim-centric issues may miss some of the bigger picture. The history of organized crime in the United States is as rich, varied, and nuanced as the nation itself.

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According to Lyman & Potter (2000), the problems associated with organized crime include damages to the taxpayer system, increased costs of law enforcement, violence, and the exploitation of the underclass. However, the function of organized crime is often to mitigate perceived social ills. Organized crime in the United States has assumed several forms and functions. One of those functions has been to provide a proxy social, political, and economic system for disenfranchised communities. Another function of organized crime has been to participate in a liminal capitalist market system. Not all manifestations of organized crime had been lawless, either. As Woodiwiss (2003) points out, organized crime facilitated corporate power and fomented the growth of market capitalism in the United States. What might be called gray or black market activity through the benefit of hindsight would have been considered legitimate or at least condoned business dealings in the past. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Stanfords, and other major names in American corporate history, families that built some of the nation’s proudest and most endearing institutions and enterprises, were “ruthless” and used “violent and corrupt means” to achieve their goals of acquiring wealth and power (Mallory, 2012, p. 18). The Robber Barons of American history are in many ways no different from corporate America in the 21st century, and its collusion with government (Mallory, 2012).

One of the methods by which nineteenth century capitalist enterprise worked was to infiltrate multiple domains of economic, political, and social power. “Although decisions and responsibilities were still concentrated at the top of corporate hierarchies, the complicated and fragmented new bureaucratic arrangements had the effect of making accountability for illegal or harmful activities more complicated,” (p. 107). Therefore, a hallmark of organized crime is the confluence of different types of power. Power entails not only official posts held in government but actual methods of wielding power, including the dominance of the economy. With the profit motive, the ideal of individualism, and the American Dream firmly entrenched in the public consciousness, organized crime could flourish relatively untouched. A mistrust of big government and anti-federalist policies further entrenched organized crime models into the American economy and political system throughout much of the nation’s history. Organized crime initially flourished because two seemingly contradictory elements: too little government intervention and too much government collusion with big business. What was needed was a radical shift in public values.

It was not until the end of the First World War that American social norms shifted toward an appreciation for government and good governance, largely due to the need for a more concentrated and pointed means of dealing with some of the ill effects of organized crime (Woodiwiss, 2003). Of course, the term “organized crime” was a new one, reflective of the new ethic in which government would champion the rights of the people. Lyman & Potter (2000) trace the origin of the term “organized crime” to the Chicago Commission of Inquiry in 1915. The term organized crime had been used in the late nineteenth century, but “serious efforts to define and discuss it as a distinct problem” began in the 1920s and 1930s (Woodiwiss, 2003, p. 227). It would not be until the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1961 that the federal government defined and operationalized specific elements that fall within the rubric of organized crime such as racketeering.

Organized crime became a symbol of illegitimate power and authority. Subsequent to the first wave of laws denouncing organized crime, corporations in America shifted their methodologies, thereby pushing organized crime in its more formal sense to the fringes of the marketplace and political arenas. The segregation of legitimate and illegitimate business activities is a relatively new development in American history. Prior to the First World War, the lines between legitimate and illegitimate business, between that which harmed people and that which benefitted the dominant culture, were blurred. African-Americans, Native Americans, and all other disenfranchised groups had always been victims of violence, coercion, intimidation, and subordination that should and do fall under the rubric of organized crime. Unemployment, lack of housing, disenfranchisement, and anomie have allowed organized crime to flourish especially well in disadvantaged communities in the United States (Mallory, 2012). Much early 20th century organized crime was market-driven, although there was also a potent political purpose in enabling disenfranchised groups to wield more power than they would have otherwise.

Organized crime had been viewed as a collusion between the interests of business tycoons and corrupt government officials, Following the First World War, a few important shifts in public consciousness emerged, coinciding with serious changes in the American demographic and cultural history. The most important change was in immigration patterns, leading to the ability to scapegoat immigrant groups. Organized crime had been indigenously American, with roots in the American Dream and the expansion of white capitalist culture. Starting in the early to mid twentieth century, organized crime became an immigrant issue. It was “an outside threat to otherwise sound U.S. laws and institutions,” (p. 227). Thus, the fear mongering that enabled xenophobia and prejudice became part and parcel of anti-organized crime discourse. The existence of organized crime perpetuated anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-immigrant sentiments paradoxically served to perpetuate organized crime by validating the U.S. versus them, insider vs. outsider, and cops vs. robbers mentality. As Albanese (2011) points out, organized crime is “interethnic,” and “ethnicity is not a very powerful explanation for the existence of organized crime” (p. 12). Rather, organized crime is better understood more as a reaction to market forces and opportunities. Structural-functionalism also provides a valid framework for understanding organized crime, even as conflict and strain theories likewise explain some of the ways organized crime has functioned and flourished.

Large and rapid influxes of new immigrants led to the types of social change that fertilize the seeds of organized crime. The Irish immigrant influx after the potato famine in the 19th century led to millions of Irish people coalescing in small geographic zones. As a result, the Irish “established their own neighborhoods and with their large ethnic vote established the corrupt political machine, which allowed them to control both the legal and illegal enterprises of the cities where they settled,” (Mallory, 2012, p. 19). Similar patterns emerged in other ethnic communities.

Unfortunately, the oversimplification of organized crime and racist discourse surrounding treatment of organized crime has also led to a “dumbing down” of the rhetoric and legislation used to address the very real problems created by organized crime (Woodiwiss, 2003). The most significant modern manifestation of dumbed down policies is the war on drugs, which should have dismantled itself peacefully as did prohibition of alcohol. Instead, the war on drugs has led to the bolstering of organized crime syndicates. The war on drugs has technically been waged since the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which gave rise to “nationally organized crime groups” and massive police complicity in them (Mallory, 2012). From 1920 to 1933, alcohol prohibition provided “another market opportunity for expansion of organized crime in the United States,” (Mallory, 2012, p. 22). The 18th Amendment to the Constitution enabled a thirteen-year flourishing of the black market alcohol trade. The Wickersham Commission in 1931 studied the impact of prohibition on criminal activity, and the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. Yet drug prohibition remains in place.

Already engaged in the drug trade, organized crime syndicates had by this time developed the hierarchical organizational structure they are renowned for, and which has been frequently depicted on film and television shows. Interestingly, Mallory (2012) credits Arnold Rothstein and the Jewish organized crime syndicates with developing the “modern bureaucratic structure” of the organized crime group (p. 22). A significant development in organized crime business models was their straddling the legitimate-illegitimate line. While they generated significant incomes in illicit trades like drugs and alcohol, organized crime businesses also engaged in legitimate activities and not only as a means of money laundering or funneling. The infiltration of labor unions by organized crime syndicates became a core feature of early twentieth century business models, too, as it enabled a near total control of the capitalist enterprise. In other words, the entire system could be on the syndicate’s payroll: workers, police, politicians, judges, and traffickers.

According to Lyman & Potter (2000), the primary attributes that describe organized crime groups must include a non-ideological mission. In other words, organized crime groups are distinguishable from some terrorist groups in that they have no political goals. However, it would be impossible to differentiate between the political goal of economic dominion and social power vs. The more tangible goals espoused by separatist or nationalist groups. Other qualities unique to organized crime groups as they have evolved in the twentieth century include their hierarchical, limited or exclusive membership, the structures of which depend on the specific group (Lyman & Potter, 2000). Division of labor and other features are not necessarily inherent to organized crime, but may be present due to their business models and ascription to the basic tenets of capitalism. Like all capitalist enterprise, organized crime provides services and goods for a profit motive and may engage in practices like extortion or corruption as a means of achieving profit and maintaining market sector dominance. Inhibiting competition is therefore another shared value between organized crime’s illegitimate business ventures and legitimate business ventures. Like legitimate businesses, organized crime enterprises work with contractors who provide ancillary services like legal counsel and protection, and the support of community and business leaders.

Italian Mafia

Mafia is in the blood of Italy, rooted so deeply in the culture and history of the region that Woodiwiss (2003) traces organized crime to Roman times. Competitive survival in hostile environments, a view of masculinity that depends on “noncooperation with authorities,” and of course, the term “vendetta” are all inextricably entwined with Italian identities (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 106). Likewise, the concept of the famiglia, an extended family that goes well beyond the American notion of nuclear family and includes a community kinship bond, has underwritten the evolution of Italian organized crime.

Italian organized crime centers largely on what is known as the Mezzogiorno, literally meaning midday but a colloquialism for Southern Italy. Highlighting the sociological underpinnings of organized crime, Southern Italy had been oppressed politically, socially, and economically for centuries. A feudal system had remain entrenched in Southern Italy long after it had been dismantled in the north, and even after the unification of Italy, economic development has lagged and continues to lag there (Abadinsky, 2013). Moreover, the regions of southern Italy were also the regions most averse to the nationalistic spirit and did not want to be a part of the Italian nation-state (Abadinsky, 2013). Given the pernicious efficacy of the age-old concepts of famiglia and indifference to authority, it is no wonder that Italian mafia was born and bred in the south of Italy.

Ironically or perhaps predictably, attempts to economically rejuvenate the south have led only to further Mafia infiltration of legitimate business and government enterprises. Mafia groups have controlled public contracts, either through “dummy companies” or subcontracting schemes, and the phenomenon has become so widespread as to have bled into areas that had never before been under the control of mafia empires (Abadinsky, 2013). The three most significant Italian organized crime groups are the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta, and the Napolitano Camorra. Each of these groups operates transnationally and each has a bearing on the United States. However, of these three groups, the Cosa Nostra has had the longest and most serious legacy in American organized crime. The Camorra’s jurisdiction has remained more solidly tied to the Old World and has expanded deeply into the Balkans. ‘Ndrangheta has operated internationally with impunity, and has extended into the United States. These three groups all trace their history to roughly the same time period: Italian unification. Other Italian mafia groups include the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita, and a newer group in Sicily, La Stidda (Snow, 2012).

The Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta share a common sociological history and grounding. Both represent the “outgrowth of a section of the middle class which had been licensed to use violence by the ruling classes of the day and were founded on codes of honor, secrecy, and silence,” (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 107). On the other hand, the Camorra was “an association of the poorest classes for whom crime was a means of survival and was neither secretive or elitist,” (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 107). The latter is framed in terms of conflict theory, showing how economically and politically disenfranchised groups use crime as a means of gaining power. All mafia groups in Italy have served as liaisons between various stakeholders in the public and private sector. No domain of Italian mafia is exempt: from the smallest local business to the most potent enterprise. The Cosa Nostra, which is “the” Mafia with a capital “M,” brought their considerable wealth, power, and knowledge of the system to the United States. The Cosa Nostra’s reputation for ruthless violence was not outpaced until the 1980s, until the rise of the Colombian drug cartels (Varese, 2011).

The primary distinguishing feature between Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta is the role of blood lines and the structure of kinship in the group. With Mafia (Cosa Nostra), the famiglia is not only welcome to be a loosely defined structure independent of blood line but it is strongly suggested that not too many members of the same family become members of the crime group ostensibly to prevent conflicts of interest and consolidations of power as well as offering some tacit protections against the obliterations of whole bloodlines (Varese, 2011). With the ‘Ndrangheta, on the other hand, blood lines are crucial and membership is bestowed only upon those within the actual family tree. There have been “significantly fewer defections” versus the Cosa Nostra because of the importance of keeping it all within the family (Varese, 2011). In other words, it is less likely a person will confess or become an informant if it means bringing down brothers, sisters, wives, mothers, and grandchildren. According to Varese (2011), the Camorra has a similar structure to the ‘Ndrangheta. Family ties have allowed ‘Ndrangheta operations to be relatively successful in as disparate regions as the United States, Canada, Germany, Belgium, France, and Australia (Varese, 2011). The idea is that rather than focusing on gaining “territory” and infiltrating the local host culture, the mafia family instead reaps profits to directly benefit the family alone.

For the immigrant mafia group to be successful, it must understand fully the target market and all situational variables. The Mafia was able to do this well in the United States, by building generations of contacts in the new world, while maintaining connections with the Old World as well. Varese (2011) credits information gathering, the development of strong social ties, and strong social networks as being the cornerstones to business success in organized crime. As in the old country, mafia groups provided valuable services or products to their clientele. In addition to providing clientele with in-demand goods and services that are not available on the white market such as drugs or prostitutes, mafia organizations provide intangible but invaluable services like “extralegal governance,” in the form of “protection,” (Varese, 2011, p. 6). Protection may be from police harassment, theft, or unions. The target market for such services tacitly supports the existence of organized crime in their communities because the relationship becomes symbiotic. When politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised groups do not receive the legal protection or economic resources they need, organized crime can step in and serve as a proxy for legitimate power. Because the Mafia arose in Sicily due directly to “weak central government” and the mistrust of the new centralized government in Rome in the nineteenth century, the new manifestations of Cosa Nostra in the United States arose in communities with similarly loose infrastructures (Albanese, 2011, p. 96). One of the core functions of all three of the main Italian mafia groups was to broker deals that could not otherwise be made due to weak enforcement of contract and other types of law (Albanese, 2011; Varese, 2011). So powerful and influential had the Cosa Nostra become in Italy and the United States that “it may be described as a private government of organized crime,” (Albanese, 2011, p. 108). When Cosa Nostra launched subsidiary groups in the United States, preexisting social ties and networks were established and easily entrenched.

Asian Organized Crime

There are several sociological and structural similarities between Asian organized crime syndicates and Cosa Nostra (Keene, 1989). In fact, the FBI has discovered some working connections between Cosa Nostra and Asian organized crime in that Asian groups have provided heroin in exchange for illegal weapons and loan sharking capital; both have provided contract killings for one another; and both have engaged in joint gambling operations (Keene, 1989). The Valachi Hearings in 1963 shed light on the structure, function, and nature of the Cosa Nostra in the United States, leading to the gradual weakening of Italian mafia by the end of the 1980s. Subsequently, law enforcement has paid greater attention to Asian organized crime (Keene, 1989). Although there are some key coalitions and commonalities between Asian organized crime and Italian, Asian organized crime does have some key distinguishing features that warrant attention.

According to Keene (1989), the same market forces that propelled early twentieth century organized crime continue to propel Asian organized crime. This is especially true with regards to the drug trade. Drug prohibition fuels Asian organized crime perhaps more than any other feature. Asian organized crime has been deeply and lucratively involved in the drug trade for centuries. Organized crime syndicates in China rose to prominence earlier than the Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta in Italy: about the 17th century. Just as organized crime in Italy was a response to political conflict, the Chinese “triad” system was a “resistance” movement against the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (Keene, 1989, p. 13). The movement originated in Buddhist monasteries where politically active monks blended Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese mythology into an organized system including martial arts training (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006). As the movement grew in momentum, it spread via a system of secret societies. The term triad refers to the triangle symbol used by the network, which was fairly well-organized and had infiltrated law enforcement in Hong Kong until as late as the 1970s (Keene, 1989). “People who were dispossessed, who felt oppressed, or who fell in love with the popular romance of the societies flocked to join,” but ultimately drew membership from a wide swath of Chinese society (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006, p. 82).

According to Mosquera (1993), the triads are “the oldest of the Chinese organized crime groups active in the United States.” The triad system is far from outmoded, and it has left a legacy on the ways modern Asian organized crime is organized. Tongs are the public or legitimized face of Chinese organized crime, but often served an overtly benevolent function in protecting Asian immigrants from widespread racism and abuse. The Tong model originated from the Triad societies of China, and helped establish business and fraternal organizations in American cities with large Chinese populations (Mosquera, 1993). Triads and Tongs are “similarly organized and have many similar ceremonies and traditions,” and both are linked to a conglomerate of business activities including “money laundering, drug trafficking, gambling, extortion, prostitution, loan sharking, pornography, alien smuggling, and various protection schemes,” (Mosquera, 1993, p. 65).

Vietnamese organized crime in the United States has a different structure, form, and function than its Chinese counterpart. Mosquera (1993) describes the difference between “roving” and “local” Vietnamese gangs, both of which are territorial in nature but with the roving groups infiltrating different Vietnamese communities around the country. They often work with Chinese syndicates (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006, Japanese organized crime in the United States has flourished as well, with groups like the Yukuza (Boryokudan) being particularly large and lucrative (Mosquera, 1993).

Russian Organized Crime

Russian organized crime is unlike its Asian and Italian counterparts because it is less organized; “their only common denominator is that they all speak Russian” (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006, p. 138). The Russian “mafiya” is “not a large mafia or even a few large mafias like in Italy, but instead consists of numerous smaller organized crime groups,” (Snow, 2013, p. 338). Core features that distinguish Russian organized crime from its Asian counterparts is the “interconnectedness of black markets with government activities” in Russia itself, and the special role the Russian mafia plays in shaping politics in the home country. Its operations abroad are primarily to serve the needs of its primary stakeholders. Unlike triads, Russian organized crime “has become a powerful special interest shaping political and economic outcomes in the country,” (Snow, 2013, p. 338). They are “less conducive to market capitalism” versus other groups, too (Snow, 2013, p. 338).

However, Russian organized crime highlights the central sociological dimensions of organized crime. The existence of Russian mafia can be traced to the “abrupt transformation of the Russian society from a centralized command economy to one driven by the forces of market capitalism,” (Albini, et al., 1995). This dramatic change and the power vacuums it created, coupled with the economic breakdowns and widespread poverty and unemployment, “created the socio-pathological conditions for the malignant spread of mercenary and especially syndicated organized crime,” (Albini et al., 1995, p. 231). There was not necessarily a “resistance” movement like that of the triads, but instead, there was infiltration of the government on an unprecedented level. Organized crime in Russia has manifested on several dimensions including the political, the social, the mercenary, and the creation of in-group syndicates that consolidate power. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, crime syndication in Russa has reached “pandemic levels,” (Albini et al., 1995, p. 213).

Like triads, Russian organized crime has, at least historically, been associated with secret societies, elaborate codes of ethics, and initiation rites (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006). This was especially true in the Soviet-era organized crime in which gulag prisoners formed a massive criminal underworld replete with its own dialect (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006). Organized crime in Russia has since shifted to being incredibly slippery, loose, and difficult for law enforcement. Unable to apply the same rules as could be applied to groups like Cosa Nostra or even the Asian organized crime syndicates, law enforcement have trouble pinning down the nature of Russian organized crime. Russian organized crime has a global reach and has been especially pernicious in both the United States and Western Europe. According to Galeotti (2005), one of the strengths of Russian organized crime is its “close, incestuous relationship with Russian business,” as well as Russian government (p. 67).

Russian organized crime in a way signals a backslide toward the robber baron days of American history. The Russian model is all-encompassing and morally ambiguous. While there may be some signs that Russian companies may be trying to distance themselves from the mafia because they seek full acceptance in the legitimate global marketplace, the illegitimate marketplace continues to provide ample opportunities for business growth. Because many Russian organized crime syndicates have links to Russia, it may be difficult for American law enforcement to make headway in dismantling their American counterparts like those that operate in areas with a large Russian community like Brighton Beach.

Like Asian, Italian, and any other type of organized crime like motorcycle gangs or Colombian drug cartels, organized crime can be understood well within a structuralist-functionalist framework. Organized crime is often a result of either too much or too little state intervention. On the one hand, too much state intervention as can be seen with the war on drugs can lead to problematic organized crime. On the other hand, too little state intervention can also enable organized crime to flourish. Organized crime syndicates are often “outlets for political frustration,” (Nicaso & Lamothe, 2006, p. 82). They allow disenfranchised groups to create and maintain power, undermining legitimate authority figures and symbols. Likewise, organized crime often blossoms where even non-members of the mafia benefit indirectly. In both Italy and Russia, the organized crime syndicate delivers goods and services that would have otherwise been unavailable and the same is true for their clientele in the New World. Any attempt to subvert organized crime in the United States depends on a thorough understanding of its mechanisms, forms, and functions in the community.


Abadinsky, H. (2013). Organized Crime. Belmont: Wadsworth

Albanese, J.S. (2011). Organized Crime in Our Times. 6th Edition. Burlington: Elsevier.

Albini, J.L. et al. (1995). Russian organized crime: Its history, structure, and function. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 11(4), 213-243.

Cornell University Law School. (2014). 18 U.S. Code § 1961 — Definitions. Retrieved online: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1961

Galeotti, M. (2005). Global Crime Today. New York: Routledge.

Keene, L. (1989). Asian organized crime. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 58(10).

Lyman, M.D. & Potter, G.W. (2000). Organized Crime, 2nd. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mallory, S. (2012). Understanding Organized Crime. 2nd Edition. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Mosquera, R. (1993). Asian organized crime. Police Chief 60(10), 65-72.

Nicaso, A. & Lamothe, L. (2006). Angels, Mobsters and Narco-Terrorists. Mississauga: John Wiley.

Snow, N.A. (2013). “Dennis M.P. McCarthy: An economic history of organized crime: a national and transnational approach” [Book Review]. Public Choice 154(3-4), 337-340.

Varese, F. (2011). Mafias on the Move. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woodiwiss, M. (2003). Organized Crime and American Power. University of Toronto Press.

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