What Is Organised Crime ?

© 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.

interpolIn 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

"Any group having a corporate structure whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities, often surviving on fear and corruption."

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:

" those involved on a continuing basis, normally working with others, in committing crimes for substantial profit or gain, for which a person aged 21 or over on first conviction could expect to be imprisoned for three or more years." (NCIS UK Threat Assessment Report 2005 para 1.1)

This definition was repeated in the 2004 UK Government White Paper on combatting organised crime (See the lecture on combatting organised crime and terrorism)

socaIn 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."

German criminologist Klaus von Lampe has assembled a web page of definitions of organised crime by academics and law enforcement agencies from around the world

Article by Australian criminologist George Gilligan on the blurred boundaries between organised crime, business crime and legitimate business

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:

'street crime'

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:

  • individuals may want to sell their stolen property (e.g. to get money to buy drugs). They can go around pubs selling small items, but this is risky and they may find themselves approaching other more organised criminal groups who have contacts and know where to get rid of stolen property. 

  • In this way individual street criminals may be recruited into organised crime. What started off as a purely amateurish activity may start to be repeated on a regular basis. People who want to buy drugs may end up selling them, Kids who steal cars for joyriding may find themselves regularly stealing cars 'to order' for organised groups who export the vehicles for sale abroad etc. Computer hackers who started the activity 'just for kicks' may find themselves using their skills as a regular activity in return for payment by other criminals seeking to steal credit card details from banks, government document, or spy on secret research by government or private companies.

'project 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:

  • their activities are simple 'one off' episodes relying on surprise and quick escape: glorified stealing - whereas organised crime has more continuous relation with its victims (as in the regular payment of protection money, regular purchase of drugs)  

  • there is little continuity of organisation: the robbers may all know each other, being part of the same underworld or criminal subculture but they tend to come together for a particular 'job' and then share out the proceeds, split up and lie low. Such criminals, for example if their theft is not cash but gold bars or jewellery may use services of more sophisticated organised crime networks e.g. for 'money laundering' their stolen. Obviously, the boundaries between this type of looser criminal organisation and 'organised crime' proper, may be very blurred, particularly where there is no traditional 'Mafia' or clearly organised group which is distinct from ordinary criminals. Individuals may join together and form a group for a short time to, say, import drugs, and then break up and reform in a different combination for some other lucrative illegal activity. But, generally, speaking predatory activities such as robberies, however sophisticated their organisation, are 'one-off; events. Once a large amount has been taken then the impulse is to divide it up among the participants and then disappear from police 'radar'. Organised crime, particularly activities such as drugs trading are continuous business activities. They are not about bursting into a bank or gold deposit and walking off with all the valuables in sight. This requires bluster and bravado as well as a bit of planning. but the careful establishment of contacts, trading routes, sales and distribution markets over a long period of time is a different order of activity. 

  • however, there are of course circumstances in which organised criminal groups may well employ robbers. Any form of business needs to raise capital to invest in plant and equipment. In the case of drugs trading this will involve such items as drugs refining laborities in secure hidden locations. So organised crime may need capital, but it cannot issue shares on the stock exchange or advertise to attract investors. A bank or gold bullion robbery may occur from time to time as a method of raising funds for investment. Also, as we shall note below, organised crime frequently engages in various forms of  'illegal taxation.'


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':

Finally, 'white 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 example a 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 criminals. Both may engage in fraud of various kinds. Thus if a meat producing company secretly puts BSE infected meat back into the market, or if a chemical company illegally dumps dangerous toxic waste in violation of regulations, that would be thought of as white collar crime. On the other organised criminal groups may undertake such activities as a service which they secretly sell to legal companies The dividing line between organised and white collar 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

(a) families:

provenzanoOne 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 tototo 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. 

(b) Gangs 

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 

material on youth gangs

John Pitts study Reluctant Gangsters

The movie City of God

Wikipedia website on gangs

(c) hierarchies 

lucianoThis 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 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.


escobarThe 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. 

(d) networks

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. 

networkThe 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.

For detailed accounts to the various activities of organised criminal groups in the UK go to the Serious Organised Crime Agency website, publications section and read the latest UK Threat Assessment. This is a PDF document which you can download. It will give you an idea of some the activities which are currently engaged in by organised crime groups in the UK and Europe

For a more detail on organised crime activities in the European Union you can read the annual 'Organised Crime Situation Report' of EUROPOL (the agency for police and judicial co-operation within the EU, similar to INTERPOL which operates on a world scale)

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:

An important use of intimidation and threats of violence which has recently come to be seen as a problem in the UK (as elsewhere) concerns the use of illegal migrant labour smuggled into the country by organised crime groups and then used in various types of work (often seasonal agricultural labour) at very low wages. Any protest against wages or working conditions is usually met by threats and violence. The workers themselves, as illegal migrants without legal work permits are in a weak bargaining position in relation to the 'gangmasters' who pay and organise them on behalf of legal businesses.

This came to prominence in the UK in 2004 after a group of Chinese migrant workers drowned while picking cockles (seafood) in Morecombe bay. Here are two articles from the Guardian newspaper on the incident and the working conditions of illegal migrants which it revealed. 

Inside the grim world of the gangmasters (March 27 2004) (part one)  (part two)

Migrants in bonded labour trap (March 29 2004) (here)

Here is a BBC webpage which puts the issue in its global context

(NB you can search the web and find much more material on the issue)

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.

3. trading

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

  • trade in illegal goods and services. In big cities organised crime was traditionally associated with activities such as providing illegal gambling, pornography, running prostitutes and the manufacture and distribution of illegal drugs. Drugs has become the number one example, though other activities such as the smuggling of illegal immigrants, stolen vehicles, wildlife products such as illegally hunted ivory, illegal trading in weapons have become very profitable and in fact account for a large proporation of activities of internationally organised groups. Increasingly the same organised crime groups engaged in international drug smuggling are using their expertise and communications systems to widen into other activities such as smuggling migrants into Western Europe or across the Mexican border into the USA. Once a relatively secure 'trade route' is established e.g. for smuggling drugs, then it can be used for other purposes. 

  • In this context it should be noted that one of the most important characteristics of organised crime involved in trading it that its contact with the public is largely in the form of selling them something that is illegal but which they want. In short, organised crime has customers rather than victims. Everyone will be willing, at least in principle, to give information to the police about the masked robbers that burst into the bank and scared the daylights out of everyone there, but no drug dependent individual is going to give the police details about his or her supplier. This makes the tasks of law enforcement agencies that much harder. 

  • Of course, one thing that organised crime is able to sell is its willingness to use violence and intimidation. Organised criminal groups may for example be hired (secretly) by legitimate businesses to eliminate potential competitors or other obstacles by threatening them with violence.

Wikipedia links on organized crime are a useful starting off point for familiarising yourself with the various types and activities of organised crime.

For a very thorough and advanced overview of some of the issues discussed here , though from a North American standpoint, you can download and read the article: 

Margaret E. Beare and R.T. Naylor (1999) Major Issues Relating to Organized Crime : within the Context of Economic Relationships. Law Commission of Canada. Read this at some time during the course.

For a critical analysis of the global influence of North American definitions and images of organised crime you can read Michael Woodiwiss (2000) 'Organized Crime - The Dumbing of Discourse' . Like the previous article this is something you should take a brief look at now but return to in more detail later. There is also another contribution by the same author on a similar  theme of changing perceptions of organised crime in the US

Another general introduction to, and definition of, organised crime can be found at the late R.T. Young's 'Red Feather Institute. You can read it here.

Finally, you can read a couple of papers by Andre Standing. While they refer very much to the South African context, they give you a good flavour of the debate about the structure and definitions of organised crime. The papers are:

RE-CONCEPTUALISING ORGANISED CRIME   African Security Review 12(2) 2003

RIVAL VIEWS OF ORGANISED CRIME  Institute of Security Studies, Pretoria, South Africa. February 2003