© John Lea 2007
Much criminology and the overwhelming focus of criminal law is concerned with criminal acts by individuals. It is, after all, individuals who are actually arrested and appear in court, even if they are seen as representatives or members of criminal organisations. Nevertheless in recent years the study of the structure of criminal organisation, that is the various ways in which groups of individuals combine together to commit crime, usually of an economic nature, has become increasingly important.
It is necessary to start with some definition of what we mean by 'organised crime' so as we have some initial idea what we are looking for. We may well have to modify our initial definitions as we get to know more about the complexity of the subject. Law enforcement agencies, as well as criminologists, adopt working definitions in order to determine what types of illegal activity they should focus their activities on. Let us begin by looking at a couple of definitions of organised crime emanating from the law enforcement community.
In May 1988, Interpol (the international police information exchange agency) held a conference to work out an acceptable definition of organised crime. The definition they arrived at
In the UK the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) was the main government agency concerned with the gathering of information on organised crime. Each year NCIS publishes a 'threat assessment' of organised criminal activity. In recent years NCIS has defined organised criminals as:
This definition was repeated in the 2004 UK Government White Paper on combatting organised crime (See the lecture on combatting organised crime and terrorism)
In April 2006 NCIS was replaced by a new Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). The website for this agency is here. As regards definitions, in answer to the question 'What Is Organised Crime?' the SOCA website simply says:
"Organised crime covers a very wide range of activity and individuals involved in a number of crime sectors. The most damaging sectors to the UK are judged to be trafficking of Class A drugs, organised immigration crime and fraud. In addition, there are a wide range of other threats, including high tech crime, counterfeiting, the use of firearms by serious criminals, serious robbery, organised vehicle crime, cultural property crime and others."
If you look carefully at the definitions above you'll notice how, over time, they have become increasingly vague. The 1988 Interpol definition mentions 'corporate structure' and use of 'fear and corruption'. At least this says something about the actual structure of organised crime though, as we shall see, it is rather outdated now. By the time you get to the 2006 SOCA definition we have simply a vague notion that organised crime 'covers a very wide range of activity' and is 'involved in a number of crime sectors' of which it then goes on to list a few of the most prominent. This, of course, is not a definition at all! The fact is that the organisation and structure, as well as the activities, of organised crime these days is so diverse that attempts to define it have obviously defeated the law enforcement agencies. But, as an American judge once said, when asked for a definition of organised crime, "I know it when I see it."
So lets try and get an overview of the structure and activities of organised crime. The first thing to note is that organised crime is conventionally distinguished from other types of crime which may also be aimed at making money:
Petty crime, household burglary, snatch theft and similar activities are carried on by individuals or small groups of amateurs (i.e. not full time criminals). who steal mainly for themselves or their friends and normally not thought of as organised. This would not be thought of as organised crime. The definition mentioned above refers to 'serious criminal offences' being committed. A bit of shop-lifting from a local supermarket or snatching a handbag from some unfortunate passer by is not what we have in mind here
Nevertheless, petty street crime can easily become linked up to more organised crime:
Project criminals are those more skilled and experienced criminals such as bank robbers who come together for one job and then split the proceeds and break up. They are not thought of as organised crime because:
From the historical point of view there is also the question of the similarities and differences between modern urban organised crime and traditional bandit gangs. The latter are the ancestors of project criminals in that their activity was mainly simple predatory crimes such as robbery. But they also, like organised crime, have continuity of organisation. The outlaw gangs of the American 'Wild West' during the nineteenth century are a good example. Here is an article by James O'Kane on the similarities and differences between bandits and gangsters [Click here]
'white collar crime':
collar' or 'corporate' crime: are terms are usually reserved for
criminal acts within or by an otherwise legal company
and individuals who work within it use it to their own ends (Thus for
commodities trader working for a legitimate bank may use the banks
funds for his own speculative
activities, in effect robbing the organisation for which he
or she works.) There can
be an overlap of activities between white collar and organised
Both may engage in fraud of various kinds. Thus if a meat producing
secretly puts BSE infected meat back into the market, or if a chemical
company illegally dumps dangerous toxic waste in violation of
that would be thought of as white collar crime. On the other organised
criminal groups may undertake such activities as a service which they
sell to legal companies The dividing line between organised and white
crime may be very blurred at times.
The 'organisation' of organised crime
Okay, so how does organised crime organise itself? If organised crime groups are, as in the definitions we have mentioned above, groups of people who work together on a continuous basis to engage in criminal activities. How are they organised? We find a variety of forms of organisation
One of the oldest forms of criminal organisation is based on family and close community. If you think about it this is quite logical. To engage collectively in criminal activity requires loyalty to other members of the group and a willingness to defend the group against outsiders, in particular the law enforcement agencies. Family and blood relations, and also to some extent the ethnic community within which the family network exists, are therefore important forms of cohesion. Thus, for example, the traditional Sicilian Mafia groups were based on families led by 'strong men' prepared to use violence. Families would often co-operate as regards criminal activities but sometimes they would compete with each other, for example over the control of drug distribution or protection rackets. The result would be an outbreak of 'mafia wars'.
Two important recent family heads of Sicilian Mafia groups were Bernardo Provenzano (above left) and Salvatore 'Toto' Riina (above right) who in , after long periods of hiding, were captured by the Italian law enforcement agencies and brought to trial.
British organised crime has seen a number of 'family firms'. As regards London, where this course is based, during the 1950s and 1960s the Kray twins (below left) in East London and Charlie and Eddie Richardson (below centre) in South London achieved a certain notoriety.
A more recent London crime family organisation is sometimes known as the Clerkenwell Crime Syndicate or the 'Adams Family' after the name of its alleged boss.
We hear a lot about gangs these days, the term gang has become almost synonymous with groups of teenagers on bikes and able to obtain and use guns. Recent deaths of young people as a result of conflicts between gangs has become the source of much public concern. Usually, the term 'gang' refers to groups of young people who 'control' or 'rule' a particular territory against other gangs. Such territory may be no bigger than a particular housing estate, though in the US there is talk of large gangs controlling entire suburbs of large cities. Historically speaking, bandits, highwaymen, pirates and robbers were usually forms of gang organisation. Gangs are groups of people with a leader, a hierarchy with the older, more skilled and braver members at the top and a small army of loyal followers. In modern urban contexts, in economically poor and deprived areas of our cities, gang membership may give a sense of identity and belonging, particularly where family and community, and career aspirations are weak on non-existent.
Youth gangs are generally thought of as too young, too disorganised or both, to be regarded as forms of organised crime. But some criminologists are arguing that youth gangs in the UK are becoming more organised. An example is a recent study by John Pitts of gang organisation in the London Borough of Waltham Forest.
In the large cities of the US or Latin America large gangs may be very well organised and sufficiently permanent with established leaders begin to operate as organised crime groups particularly at the sales and distribution end of the illegal drugs trade. The Brazilian movie Cidade de Deus (City of God ) by Fernando Meirelles is a dramatic portrayal of the life of such a gang.
Even smaller, loosely organised youth gangs may have some connections with organised crime
- they may provide services for organised crime groups e.g. as low level drug dealers: running messages, keeping a lookout for police or other groups invading the 'territory'
- they can be a source of recruits for organised crime: becoming a more important professional criminal may be a source of social mobility for more enterprising kids in poor areas who have been lost to the legitimate economy or the educational system
This brings us to more stable, business-like organisation. For a time in the US the view prevailed, particular among law enforcement agencies and politicians that organised crime, in particular Italian-American organised crime was organised like a large, shadowy, underworld business corporation with a hierarchy of bosses, middle managers and street level 'workers'. Well known gangsters such as Al Capone ( left) and Lucky Luciano (below right) who came to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s were thought to be the bosses of such large organisations in Chicago and New York respectively.
This view of organised crime in the US persisted well into the 1950s. Among criminologists Donald Cressey, in his book Theft of a Nation portrayed organised crime in this way. In the media the Godfather movies based on the novels by Mario Puzo, encouraged this view. To say that the view was exaggerated is not to deny that it had elements of truth. The view of the Mafia as a large corporation is illustrated in the diagram below which is based on Cressey's account. The 'consigliere' (Italian for 'advisor' or counsellor) is the boss's assistant. The 'lieutenants' are the 'middle management' of the organisation and the 'soldiers' are the street-level workers.
The boss decides the overall strategy - for example that the organisation will, or will not, enter the illegal drugs trade. The underboss carries the instructions to the Lieutenants who may be responsible for particular aspects of the trade and other activities that the organisation engages in. They will in turn give instrucions to their 'soldiers' to do the work (drug dealing, collecting revenue, dealing with outsiders who try and muscle in on the territory and trying to keep law enforcement agencies off the trail.
Other large scale scale criminal organisations organised on the business model could be seen the the drugs cartels in Latin America, particularly in Colombia. During the 1980s wealthy and powerful traffickers like Pablo Escobar (left - shot in 1993) amassed fortunes (he was among the 125 richest individuals outside the US) and for a time wielded a good deal of political influence in Colombian society.
Families, street gangs and even hierarchies tend to have their power bases in a particular territory. But today organised crime, like legitimate business, is global. Goods and services are manufactured and provided on a world scale. The same is true of criminal products and services. The development of the internet, email and the mobile phone make it possible to organise quite complex international shipments of, for example, illegal drugs, without a complex organisation. The guy making a mobile phone call in the high street may be phoning his mum or his girl friend or he may be phoning some guy he knows vaguely, but well enough to trust, in Amsterdam to arrange an import of heroin, cocaine or other illegal drugs. The Amsterdam guy knows someone with a boat, he maybe also knows some Colombians in Rotterdam who have friends in Bogota or Medellin (cities in Colombia - get yourself a map!) who know a group who run an illegal drugs refinery tucked away in the jungle areas of that country. Our modern network criminal entrepreneur thinks nothing of working abroad for a time and establishing working relations with people of quite different ethnicity and language. He enters into contracts for particular activities, with people he doesn't know that well but whom he has been led to trust. The number of people who actually know each other personally and and work together as a family or stable business may be very small.
The diagram of a network type of organisation, on the right, shows the flexibility of relations between parts or 'nodes' of the network. For the sake of simplicity we have three types of participants here; producers (of illegal drugs for example), traffickers (who ship the product from where it is produced to where it is sold) and the street-level drug dealers or retailers who sell it to consumers. In the hierarchy organisation if the boss is arrested it can be seen the whole organisation might collapse unless another boss takes over quickly. In the network model it is clear that if a particular trafficker, for example, is arrested, then retailers and producers can simply shift their contracts. Network organisation is therefore harder for the law enforcement agencies to deal with.
So there are a variety of types of criminal organisation presently at work. In the UK the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now part of SOCA) in its Threat Assessment Report for 2005 has this to say about forms of criminal organisation in Britain at the present time
The term 'organised crime group' is often used when referring to the activities of serious and organised criminals, and in some instances it best describes the way those concerned have organised and see themselves. However, the term can also be misleading. While there are certainly some organised crime groups that resemble the traditional British 'firm' or Italian mafia, with permanent members each with a distinct role, and a hierarchy in which there are clear chains of command and communication, there are other 'groups' that are, in practice, loose networks. The members of those networks coalesce around one or more prominent criminal(s) to undertake particular criminal ventures of varying complexity, structure and length. In the latter instance, the criminals may not think of themselves as being members of any group, and individuals may be involved with a number of sub-groups within the network, and therefore be involved in a number of separate criminal ventures at any one time. (NCIS 2005 par 2.7)
The activities of organised crime
So what does organised crime do? Most views, including the definitions from Interpol and SOCA which I reported at the begininning of this lecture, stress the goal of making money by illegal means. Organised crime is in business to make profits just like a legal business only it is prepared to trade in illegal commodities and is preparted to use violence to achieve its aims.
There is no definitive list of activities that organised crime will get involved in. It all depends on what is profitable and illegal. But there are basically the following types of activity.
1. Power and status and control
Traditional organised crime, in particular the old Sicilian and American Mafia, was not just concerned with making money. It was also an important system of political power. Mafia leaders ruled their territories on the basis of a mixture of fear and respect. The old Sicilian term Padrino (Godfather) immediately implies respect and standing in the community. This was particularly true in the rural areas of Sicily. It was also portrayed in the opening sequence of the first of the Godfather movies in which Mr Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) to avenge the attack on his daughter.
Respect was based on the fact that the Mafia would sort out conflicts and problems with a much more ruthless efficiency than the state authorities. If their property was stolen many people would go to the Mafia rather than the law enforcement agencies for redress. The Mafia would get the property back, maybe killing the theives in the process. But the quid quo pro for such a service was that you would have an obligation to assist the Mafia should it call on your services in the future.
However, the control of territory even at a street level is an important aspect of the activity of organised crime groups. Communities may be intimidated by threats of violence from criminal gangs so that they do not, for example, give information to the police or legal authorities.
Violence, or the threat of violence, has itself a number of uses:
2. Illegal taxation
The second type of activity might be thought of as illegal taxation. Unlike the armed robber who simply takes money e.g. at gun-point, relying on surprise and quick escape, organised crime develops 'sophisticated' relations with its victims in which the aim is to force the victim to make regular payments for as long as possible. Important examples are
Extortion, such as blackmail, kidnapping of wealthy individuals for large ransome payments
Protection rackets: e.g. forcing restaurant or club owners to pay a portion of their earnings to organised crime in return for 'protection' against unfortunate accidents such as the premises being burnt down or the staff beaten up. Some terrorist groups may also engage in this sort of activity. It is alleged that during the 1980s when the hi-jacking of airliners by Middle East based groups was at its peak, various airlines paid undisclosed sums into secret terrorist bank accounts to avoid having their aircraft hijacked.
Loansharking: lending money to people who can hardly afford to borrow it (i.e. no legal bank will lend them money) and then charging extortionate rates of interest and using violence to collect.
Other types of rackets may involve the creation of artificial monopolies over the supply of a particular good. For example restaurant owners might be forced, as part of the protection racket, to buy their wine from a particular supplier who is in fact run by, or associated with, organised crime groups.
These days many of the most lucrative and profitable activities of organised crime are concerned with trafficking and the buying and selling of illegal goods and services