The Structure of Traditional Organised Crime

© John Lea 2008


Traditional and modern organised crime

A simple distinction is sometimes made between ‘traditional’ organised crime and ‘modern’ organised crime. Like all distinctions it is easily exaggerated. Those who make this distinction are usually thinking along the following lines. On the one hand there is a type of organised crime exemplified by the traditional Sicilian Mafia and the Italian-American Mafia – also known as ‘La Cosa Nostra’ ('our thing', or 'our business') and by generations of Hollywood movie makers and American politicians as ‘the Mob’. These groups seemed to be:

  • powerful criminal organisations based on cohesive family structures.

  • concerned with crime as money making activity but also with achieving an element of political power and social status, particularly in relation to the communities and areas where they operated. These two elements of their activities varied in relative importance in different contexts.

On the other hand, of increasing importance in the modern world are the more flexible gangs and organisations which vary considerably in size, operating both locally and globally and which may be quite loosely organised through network connections between individuals or small groups and without any notion of hierarchy. Such groups are regarded as the face of modern organised crime and the typical example is that of drug smuggling networks. The members of these organisations can become very wealthy and powerful but their activity is focused overwhelmingly on the accumulation of profit.

The following table makes a more elaborate contrast between two 'ideal types' of criminal organisation.




Families, clans

Familes, hierarchies, individuals, temporary groups, networks


Based in cohesive communities

Global reach


local power and status



weak state, lack of alternative social organisation

strong states, robust social organisation

Let us look briefly at the elements portrayed in the table above before moving on to look at two well known examples of traditional organised crime.

Traditional organised crime is usually based around family or wider family-led groups, it is rooted in established cohesive communities - either urban or rural - its members are oriented to power and status in these communities (based on fear and respect for strength and violence) as much as accumulating wealth. The activities or traditional organised crime tend to embrace, besides the usual criminal enterprise of protection rackets and trading in illegal commodities, such activities as settling disputes and protecting important or powerful groups within the community usually in the absence of an effective state machine able to perform these functions. The power of organised criminal groups is also enhanced by the weakness of other social and political organisations such as political parties, trades unions, employers associations, voluntary associations, local government agencies, which otherwise might act as a focus of mobilisation against the power of criminal groups, provide strong non-criminal identities and also perpetuate values such as democracy, tolerance, respect for law and human rights which undermine the respect for violence and authoritarianism which can enhance the status of criminal groups (including gangs) in the community.

More modern variants of organised crime, by contrast, are organised in a variety of ways. Criminal families may participate but alongside networks and groups of individuals who have 'gone into business' for some specific purpose such as drugs trafficking. Modern organised crime is less rooted in particular communities: its activities, again as exemplified by drugs trading, frequently have a global reach. 

The main orientation is, furthermore,  focused on wealth accumulation and taking advantage of opportunities for profitable criminal activity on a much larger scale than local communities. Illegal drugs, loansharking or vice can be sold, protection rackets organised in various localities but there is much less attention to achieving respect and power in local communities based on such activities as dispute mediation. Local people will not be encouraged to bring their disputes and problems to prominent criminals to 'sort out'. Rather a certain amount of notoriety may function simply as a deterrent to local people collaborating with the law enforcement agencies and to encourage payment of, for example, protection money. Apart from this there will be a greater emphasis on clandestine operations. Elaborate measures will be taken to avoid the state authorities, to appear invisible to the police and to large sections of the community.  Attempts may be made to corrupt local police and other officials. But in general police and other social and political institutions will be stronger and will be a main focus for identity formation. If local people have problems they will take them to social services, the police or other appropriate agencies rather than a local fixer or 'Godfather.' Criminals will be therefore be most concerned to maintain clandestine, unobtrusive lifestyles. 

These contrasts are 'ideal types'. In many situations elements of both traditional and modern will exist side by side. It is useful therefore to begin by looking at two examples of fairly traditional criminal organisations: the Sicilian and American Mafias

The opening scene of the first Godfather movie (based on the novel by Mario Puzo) with Marlon Brando as the mafia boss Don Vito Corleone) evokes a stylised view the American Mafia as traditional organised crime.

godfatherSet in the United States and beginning sometime in the late 1940s when the mob was still very powerful, the scene is the wedding of Don Vito’s daughter. It is a thoroughly Italian occasion though by no means all the guests are Italian-Americans, and neither are some senior members of his mafia ‘family’. Don Vito sits in his office with the party going on outside in the garden. There is a constant flow of people who have come to see Don Vito, to bring wedding gifts, to pledge undying loyalty and to ask favours. The first of the latter is an undertaker (Mr. Bonasera) whose daughter has been badly beaten up and disfigured by her boyfriend. The young man has received what Bonasera regards as a paltry sentence in the courts. He has come to plead with Don Vito to impose ‘real justice’. Bonasera says:

"I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but - I taught her never to dishonor her family. She found a boyfriend, not an Italian...Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey. And then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor. So they beat her like an animal...She was the light of my life - my beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again...I-I went to the police like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison - suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, 'for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.' "

Don Vito reluctantly agrees but only if the man kisses his hand and pledges loyalty to him as Godfather and understands that he may 'one day, though that day may never come' be called upon to perform a task in return. Don Vito says to him words to the effect ‘But why did you go to the police. Why didn’t you come to me in the first place.?'

Click on the picture above to read the transcript of the conversation on the Godfather official web site

The contrast we have made in the table above should be taken very much as an approximation. There is a tendency for traditional forms of organised crime to become weaker over time and we shall give examples of this. We shall see how in the US the old Italian-American Mafia has been out-competed by newer, more flexible, groups originating in Latin America and other parts of the world. But traditional groups are still around and still very important. In Europe the Sicilian Mafia, one of the oldest forms of traditional organised crime, is still very powerful even though probably weaker than it was 50 years ago. Also, as some commentators argue (e.g. Woodiwiss), in the US both law enforcement agencies and criminologists were over-obsessed with the Italian-American Mafia and its traditional structure and therefore tended to ignore other types of more 'modern' organised crime which have in fact been around for some considerable time. 

In the remainder of this lecture we shall dicuss two examples of traditional organised crime: the Sicilian and American Mafias

Sicily: the weakness of the state and the ruling elites

SicilySicily as an Island on the southern tip of the Italian continent has endured a long history of foreign rule. At various times the island was ruled by Arabs, Normans, Spanish before falling under the domination of mainland Italy. Foreign rulers generally did not fuse with the local landowners and lived elsewhere being concerned with little more than the extraction of tribute. Sicilians were used to seeing their rulers as far away absentee landlords. Even after Italian unification in 1860 when Sicily became part of Italy, heavy taxation on Sicilian peasants was spent not on improving their conditions but was invested in the North of Italy. The absence of a local ruling class well integrated into the life of the area produced a social and political vacuum in Sicily, particularly in the west of the Island. The consequence was a debilitated state and criminal justice system. As the anthropologist Anton Blok in his book The Mafia of a Sicilian Village 1860-1960. wrote:

“Even after the unification of Italy, the State failed to monopolise the use of physical force in large areas of western Sicily and therefore, could not hope to enforce legislation… ‘Mafia’ was born of the tensions between the central government and local landowners on the one hand, and between the latter and peasants on the other.”

gabellottoThe term Mafia emerged sometime in the 1800s. While the evidence of a particular organisation like an underground ‘secret society’ called Mafia is very much in doubt, there were plenty of mafiosi, that is, strong men, or 'violent peasant entrepreneurs' (Anton Blok's term) who were willing to use violence and take people under their protection to compensate for the weakness of the state. These strong individuals who organised ‘self-help’ rose to prominence precisely because of the social and political vacuum in the area. The central government was too weak, for example to protect landowners and guarantee that they received regular rent payments from their tenants. So landowners hired these strong men – often known as gabellotti (as in the picture on the right) – to protect them and guarantee the payment of rents. Indeed many landowners went off to live in the cities leaving the gabellotti  virtually in charge of their estates. As long as the rents flowed in, all was well! In return the landlords patronised these mafiosi, granting them privileges and favours. The term Mafia originally refers as much to this system of patronage as it does to any particular organisation.

Thus the mafia were certainly not simply bandits and criminals. They had a more sophisticated role in protecting the interests of landlords and, also frequently taking over the power and authority of central government often with its acquiescence and covert collaboration. Anton Blok describes the situation

"To a large extent what was later called mafia coincided with these associations of armed strong men and their followers who exercised jurisdiction on the local level in conjuction with formal authority. It is precisely this concatenation that distinguished mafiosi from other power holders such as, for instance, the bandits and outlaws. For it is only in the context of the advent of the State that we can understand and appropriately speak of mafia. Bandits are in open conflict with the law and the State. mafiosi disregard both and act in connivance with those who represent formal law, thus validating their private control of the community's public life."

The Italian sociologist Raimondo Catanzaro makes a similar point in his book, 'Men of Respect': a social history of the sicilian mafia. The exercise of violent coercion by mafiosi

 “occurred within the framework of the weak authority of a state that formally held, but failed to exercise, the legitimate monopoly over violence. It therefore compelled the state to come to terms with those who exercised de facto power at a local level and to delegate to them the functions of exercising that monopoly. Indeed, in practice, the state deferred to their authority, for although it officially prohibited private violence, it nevertheless granted the power to govern on behalf of the central government to that same local ruling class that made use of it."

So we have a situation in which groups of strong men and their followers developed their own forms of violent power and domination, not so much against the state authorities but as a substitute for them. They acted freqently in the interests of the landowners and the magistrates but through the use of the private violence of their gangs. They exercised domination over, and demanded respect from, the communities over whom they ruled. 

This is the basis of an ideological accommodation to the presence of Mafia as a normal feature of Sicilian life through its mythologisation as a force for social stability and justice and characterisation as a ‘parallel legal order’ rather than as a form of criminality. Such a view, as Diego Gambetta notes, has been influential in conservative Italian political and legal thought in the form of the proposition that 

 “… the state cannot justifiably claim a monopoly over the law. The state is only one institution among many, and there is no reason why its legal order should be regarded as superior.” (Gambetta 1993: 5)

So to what ends did the mafia use its power and domination? The Italian sociologist Pino Arlacchi in his book The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism lists the tasks fulfilled by the old mafia as protection, repression, and mediation. Let us consider each in turn.


This refers to the protection of established interests mentioned above, protection of land owners interests and guaranteeing that the poor would pay their rents. But the need for protection extended to almost anyone in the area who had any property. But what is important to understand is that the mafiosi provided not simply protection from bandits and common criminals but also from themselves. As Arlacchi puts it:

“Those who refused to pay protection-money against theft or come to some agreement with the mafia chief, found their property suffering from fires, robberies, and acts of vandalism. Should the injured party persist in standing out against the racket, then his personal safety would be threatened, and he would be the target of increasingly serious attacks, until in the end his life would be at risk.”

In other words, in substituting themselves for a weak state, the mafiosi did not rule benevolently but as criminal racketeers. They took advantage of their own power and the lack of a countervailing power from the state, to rule through fear and intimidation. Even though they substituted themselves for the state and often secured its connivance, the Mafia never ceased to be involved in criminality. But the exercise of  their power and control over communities is what distinguished them from simple predatory robbers or bandits.


Mafiosi also took upon themselves the task of repression of deviant behaviour – not only of small time thieves and bandits but also of those forms of behaviour such as prostitution or homosexuality considered deviant in Sicilian society. In this way the mafiosi attempted to set themselves up as ‘men of respect’ defending the honour of decent people. In this they sometimes collaborated with state authorities. The relations between mafia and the state were not in all cases ones of conflict. As Arlacchi points out, one of the best examples of mafia collaboration with the state was in 1947 when the mafia collaborated with the police in tracking down and killing the Sicilian bandit, Salvatore Giuliano. 

Repression also included a political element. The Mafia could be relied upon to use their violence against all those seeking change and social reform, in particular communists, socialists and trade unionists. In this  they served the interests of the landowners and manufacturers. The latter, of course, would be expected in turn to ensure the protection of the Mafia and to subvert any attempts by enthusiastic policemen or judges to clamp down on organised crime.


Arlacchi sees this as the most important aspect of mafia power: mediating local conflicts between members of the community. “A creditor might make use of the mafia’s power to persuade a debtor to pay up. A debtor might turn to the mafiosi and ask him to intervene on his behalf. In this way, those involved avoided turning their conflict of interest into a legal conflict or conflict of honour, so saving both time and human and material resources.” Arlacchi continues:

“Where goods were stolen, the owner found it more convenient to turn to the mafia than to the police: in return for a certain sum… he would soon get his goods back. The organs of the state were virtually incapable of carrying out their functions in such circumstances.”

By fulfilling these functions mafiosi sought to maintain their power and respect, in the community as well as their reputation based on fear. If the authorities sought to prosecute them for criminal activities then they could rely on the silence of the surrounding community, a silence based on fear mixed with respect and a recognition that the mafiosi were in normal times a more potent force than the police and the courts.

In a simple phrase it may be said that the Mafia substituted itself for the state and public authority with a form of violent private state.

Of course it should not be thought that the Italian ruling political elite as a whole simply went along quietly with this situation. Whereas, as we have noted, large sections of the Sicilian landowning class and local magistrates and police saw it as in their interests to collaborate with the Mafia, the central government in Rome, critical of Sicilian politicians, attempted, in the years following Italian Unification in 1860, to root out the Mafia. A parliamentary inquiry group visited Sicily in 1875-6 but met with local indifference. But, as John Dickie remarks in his book Cosa Nostra, by the end of the 1870s enthusiasm for dealing with the Mafia had fizzled out and the central government in Rome went along with the idea that 'bandits' in Sicily had been effectively eliminated. What had happened was something far more sinister: many small time crooks and bandits, including some lower level Mafiosi, were indeed arrested but only at the expense of firming up the alliance between the powerful Mafia groups and Sicilian politicians. The Mafia collaborated with the authorities in this process of 'cleaning up crime' and so consolidated its own position. Dickie concludes that by the early 1880s "governments in Rome were resigning themselves to working with Sicilian politicians who had mafia support. Mafiosi were  gradually becoming part of a new political normality." (2004: 77)


Mafia organisation: the role of the family

How was the traditional mafia organised? The system of individual power based on strong, violent individuals produced a specific form of organisation. Strong individuals would build organisations around them of loyal followers. The basic unit or social organisation in Sicily was the family. The social and political vacuum we have noted above meant that a sense of community was weak, as were collective organisations such as political parties or trade unions. Strong mafiosi would attempt to build up their families. Thus the organisation of the traditional Sicilian Mafia is an outgrowth of the family. What kept the organisation together was simply family loyalty. This bond of family and blood was far more important than ‘respect for the law’ which, as we have said, was a pretty distant institution. The centrality of the family was reinforced by the lack of other organisations such as political parties, trade unions, or voluntary associations which in more modern societies produce other types of allegience and identity. The group would be built up from this basis of family and the network of blood relatives, reproduced and strengthened by marriage, as the most important social organisation for mutual aid. ‘My family right or wrong’ is the basis to understanding how the mafia group held together. The point to be emphasised is that what held the mafia group together was what held most families together in Sicilian society. The centrepiece of this system was, for the mafia, loyalty to the strong man at the centre of the family, a respect for strength as more important than virtue, a willingness to avenge the honour of the family group irrespective of rights and wrongs. This attitude or form of loyalty was known by the Sicilian word Omerta. Strong mafia families would group together as a Cosca (group) a group of about 15-20 individuals. The network of blood relatives would be expanded by those granted membership, friends and clients for whom the family had acted and now owed loyalty in return.

The structure of the traditional Sicilian mafia was thus a decentralised network of families, each with a rule of local territory. There might be collaboration as family members engaged in activities to their mutual advantage. The mafiosi certainly did not think of themselves as criminals but as ‘men of respect’ as successful examples of the Sicilian way of life. But it is important to understand that they did not only substitute themselves for the law and the state but that they did so in a violent and criminal way. Even though some of the functions they fulfilled were those which a state would have to fulfil, they did it through the use of violence.

The Mafioso had to 'prove' himself (for example by committing murder) in order to become a full member of a Mafia family. The unsavoury qualities required of a Mafioso were succinctly summed up by a Sicilian legal official in 1879

The grade of Mafioso is required by giving evidence of personal courage; by carrying prohibited arms; by fighting a duel through whatever pretence; by stabbing or betraying someone; by pretending to forgive an offence in order to take vengeance for it at some other time or place... by keeping absolute silence regarding some crime; by denying before all the authorities and the magistrates the knowlege of any crime he has seen committed; by bearing false witness in order to procure the acquittal of the guilty; by swindling in whatever way (quoted in Dickie 2004: 69)

Dickie goes on  to quote the Rome correspondant of The Times, having read this and other material commenting with alarm that the Mafia appeared to be "an intangible sect whose organisation is as perfect as that of the Jesuits or the Freemasons and whose secrets are more impenetrable" (Dickie 2004: 69) 

The family structure with its oaths of loyalty to the ‘Godfather’ made for strong cohesive powerful groups in the social conditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century Sicily. But they were quite different from the flexible ‘business’ arrangements of short term alliances which characterise more modern forms of organised crime solely oriented to making money.

Web sources on history of Sicily:

web page from the University of Michigan on history of the mafia

Wikipedia page on history of the Sicilian Mafia

what types of Mafia and organised groups exist in Italy today? Article by Umberto Santino on Mafia and Mafia-type organizations in Italy

Article by Renate Siebert on structure of Sicilian Mafia


So far then, we have established that

  • The social conditions of Sicily in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were characterised by a power vacuum in which strong violent men were able to substitute themselves to a large extent for the state

  • There was no ‘Mafia’ as a single organisation or secret society but a network of local family grouping made up of mafiosi and their immediate relatives and associates. From time to time families collaborated. But the base of organisation and power was local.

  • The mafia substituted themselves for the state but did not use its methods. They did not dispense justice and the rule of law but violence and intimidation as a way of sustaining their power. They were a system of violent private power that substituted itself for the legal state.

  • They were engaged in criminal activities, such as protection rackets, even as they protected others in the community from petty crime.

Thus we can conclude that this form of traditional organised crime was predominantly a system of private power and domination of territories and communities rather than predominantly a money-making organisation. As we shall see later, the structure of mafia power and organisation developed and changed after the second world war, but for now let us move across the Atlantic and look at the structure of mafia organised crime in the United States.

America-the immigrant city

arrivalBetween 1820 and 1930 4.7 million Italians emigrated to US. Between 1900 and 1910 2.1 million immigrants to the US came from Sicily and Southern Italy. When concern about organised crime raised its head in American more often than not the concern focused on organised crime by Americans of Italian origin. The stereotyping of Italian immigration as the main cause of organised crime – despite large involvement by Americans of other ethnic origins such as Irish, Jewish, Dutch, Polish – continued well after the Second World War. Typical was the view espoused by US Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee who chaired the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organised Crime in the United States which spent 12 months holding public hearings in major cities across the US during 1951

“There is a sinister criminal organization known as the Mafia operating throughout the country with ties in other nations... The Mafia is a direct descendant of a criminal organization of the same name originating in the island of Sicily”

The argument being put here is that if Sicilians had not brought the Mafia to the US it would never have developed. The work of many American social scientists was devoted to refuting this notion and showing that not only were all manner of different of ethnic groups involved (remember that the United States has always had a strong ethnic diversity made up of different waves of immigrants from Europe as well as Afro-Americans whose immigration was less than voluntary) but that even where Italians were involved, this was not due to some genetic proclivity to criminality or to the migration of members of the Mafia as a secret society but rather due to the social and economic conditions internal to the United States which the immigrant communities faced.

But most importantly the sentiments of Senator Kevauver and his investigation reflected, even as late and the 1950s, the anti-Italian prejudice that predominated in America. As Gus Russo,  in his book The Outfit,  quotes the newspaper the Washington Post in the early 1900s 

"The Germans, the Irish, and others... migrate to this country, adopt its customs, acquire its language, master its institutions, and identify themselves with its destiny. The Italians never. They remain isolated from any community in which they happen to dwell. They seldom learn to speak our tounge, they have no respect for our laws or our form of government, they are always foreigners." (quoted in Russo 2003: 12)

This strong prejudice against Italian immigrants helped maintain the ghettoisation of the Italian immigrant community in the big cities of the US. They were thrown back onto their own resources. This situation was the background to one of the most important contributions to the understanding of Italian organised crime in America, by the anthropologists Francis and Elizabeth Ianni in their book Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime. They pointed to the situation of Italian immigrants as one in which the culture of the village and family orientation noted above was preserved. The conditions of the immigrant community in the big cities of the United States was not that different, at least initially, from that in the Sicily that the emigrant had left.

“The village culture, the primacy of ties to kinfolk, religion… all of these the immigrant brought with him. Even his characteristic indifference to an absentee central government was simulated here since his only contact with American governmental agencies was the Irish cop on the corner and they consciously ignored each other. He was unable to read newspapers, seldom travelled outside the ‘village’ and found his recreation among kinfolk and townfolk in small social clubs which sprang up in every neighbourhood… He fell back on a system he brought with him; he worked not as an individual but as part of a gang along with other paesani (people from his region), and with a padrone (boss) as their collective agent. The padrone was usually a fellow villager… who spoke enough English to make the necessary arrangements with employers for the sale of Italian labour. The padrone would send back to his village for male workers, negotiate their salaries, collect the money, and divide it among the workers, keeping a share for himself… Thus a new feudalism developed in the padroni system, and few of the workers had any real contact with employers of the outside world. All these facets of southern Italian village culture came with the immigrants, and more than any other ethnic group they clung to them in their enclaves.”

The Ianni argument is that the Sicilian Mafia did not migrate as an organisation to the United States. It was rather that many of the conditions of the immigrant ghettos of American cities produced conditions not dissimilar to those of rural Sicily. The lack of effective law and order was an important feature. The American police largely ignored the immigrant ghettos and were only concerned if immigrants committed crimes outside their ‘area’ so immigrants had to sort out their own conflicts to a considerable extent as they had back in the old country. It is also true that a mafia ‘attitude’ such as we have described above accompanied many emigrants, and that Italians gave a Sicilian ‘flavour’ to American organised crime. But this, again, was not the main reason for the development of American organised crime itself and the involvement of Italian immigrants in it. Other immigrant groups in the rapidly expanding American cities around the turn of the century faced similar conditions and development similar mechanisms to deal with them.

 It is therefore hardly surprising that mafia forms developing in the American city and that they should take something resembling a traditional Sicilian form. But two important factors enabled the Italian-American crime gangs to break out of the Italian ghettos and become major forces in the criminal underworld

1. Prohibition and Economic Crime

prohibitionThere is a crucial difference between the American and Sicilian Mafias. The power of the 'Mob' as it became known was a question of breaking out of the old Italian ghettos of large American cities and building a violent and economically highly profitable form of economic criminality, akin to the modern drugs trade, during the period in American history known as the Prohibition Era. In other words the American mob moved in the direction of a modern, money-making criminal organisation.

In the 1920s as Italian immigrants were still facing ethnic discrimination and lack of opportunities for upward social mobility two other factors became important. Mussolini’s clampdown on the mafia in Italy was driving, for the first time, many real mafiosi to emigrate the United States, and, secondly, the Americans, in one of the crazier periods of their history, declared the production and sale of alcoholic liquor illegal. This period in American history is known as the Prohibition era. It lasted from the 1920 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) to its repeal in 1933. The theme that alcohol was a cause of crime and a wrecker of families was not unique to the United States. There were ‘anti-temperance’ movements in many countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Britain organisations such as the Salvation Army were active in the movement to get people, especially the poor, to turn away from alcohol. But only in American did it become a national government policy for a period.

There were some benefits of course. The death rate from alcoholism was cut by 80 per cent by 1921 from what it had been before the Great War of 1914-18. Meanwhile alcohol-related crime dropped leaving the prisons under-populated. However, these benefits short lived. Poisoning from adulterated liquor soon became a blight, by 1927 causing as many as 50,000 deaths and many more injuries and impairments. But from our point of view the most important consequence of Prohibition was the tremendous boost that it gave to organised crime which was able to reap fabulous profits from the smuggling and illegal distribution and sale of beer, wine and spirits. 

Things could not have been better from the standpoint of crime. Unlike drugs today, alcohol was not banned by all countries. The US was politically isolated and, most important, legitimate brewers in other countries (French wine exporters, Canadian whiskey manufacturers) had every incentive to engage in ‘bootlegging’ or illegal alcohol smuggling. Prohibition or not, most Americans still fancied a drink. These legal producers in other countries engaged in all sorts of ruses to get their products into the US. They financed large scale smuggling in small boats across the Canadian border and the Great Lakes. Some foreign diplomats in Washington even dealt in alcohol, though as late as 1929 Sir Esme Howard, the British ambassador, continued to ban it from official receptions (his staff staged a huge party when he was replaced.) All sorts of people were engaged in bootlegging and in this atmosphere where large numbers of people were ‘at it’ and where alcohol production was perfectly legal in other parts of the world, organised crime was able to flourish and most important, to expand from small neighbourhood street gangs and local corruption to a much more organised and professional underworld organisation. In particular young, second-generation Italian-Americans were able to break out of the Italian ghettos of American cities and into the wider society. Booze hungry Americans were not particular about the ethnic origins of their liquor supply!

CaponeAmerican organised crime was modernising itself and getting into business. This provoked numerous conflicts as new leaderships emerged. The more Americanised gangsters got annoyed with some of the older Sicilians and bumped them off. Individuals emerged like Lucky Luciano who by 1931 was the most important crime boss in New York. Al Capone became a powerful figure in Chicago. He become a millionaire and achieved the highest gross income ever achieved by a private citizen in a single year $105m in 1927. Some of this wealth he invested in soup kitchens for the poor during the economic depression of the 1930s. This period saw a good deal of violence. Two characteristics of bootlegging were conducive to violence and gang warfare: 

  • Firstly, the protection of illegal activity. Cargoes of smuggled or illegally produced alcohol were vulnerable to being robbed. Such was the profitability of the activity and high street value of the beer or whisky that once the goods hit the open road on their way to illegal drinking saloons (known as ‘speakeasies’) that armed men were needed to protect them from being hijacked by other groups of criminals. Also, the bootleggers needed to spend money on such matters as the intimidation or bribery of otherwise non-co-operative politicians, police and law enforcement agencies.

Secondly violence also played a role as a method of internal competition and reorganisation of criminal business. Most gang violence was against other criminals rather than members of the public. The lucrative profits from illegal alcohol meant that competition among gangsters to get in on the act was intense. There was no possibility of legal take-overs. If the competition wouldn’t go quietly then it would have to be forced out. For example in the so-called Chicago Beer wars during the 1920s Irish gangs (the O’Donnells and O’Banions) slugged it out with Italians for control of speakeasies or illegal drinking saloons. This was the era of the classic organised crime celebrated in numerous movies. Men in large hats with the new rapid-fire machine guns were in evidence, though the amount of activity has been exaggerated. In Chicago Al Capone had emerged as most powerful mobster. He organised a truce between the gangs in 1926 and divided up the city between different criminal gangs. But such agreements were inherently unstable. Violence broke out again in 1929 with the famous ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.’ 

Capone was fond of publicity, he wanted status and respect. He liked to be photographed with leading baseball stars. He was careful to keep his 'hands clean' of actual criminal offences. He paid others to do his dirty work. When he was finally sent to jail in 1932 it was not for murder but for tax evasion

convictionProhibition was repealed in 1933. It basically failed because it was unenforceable. By 1925 half a dozen American states, including New York, had passed laws banning local police from investigating violations of Prohibition laws while Federal and state judiciaries, both the honest and the bought-off, became increasingly reluctant to try offenders. The weakening of the national economy in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 meant state governments began seriously to miss the liquor tax revenues they had been denied. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt, who never disguised his fondness for Martinis, campaigned on making beer legal again in order to tax it. After prohibition was over organised crime did not go away, it simply moved into new areas such as gambling, prostitution and labour racketeering. Some of the bootleggers went legal, others diversified in new forms of criminal activity, others kept a foot in both camps. Prohibition had made possible the blurring of boundaries between legal and illegal activities. The repeal of Prohibition coincided with the massive world economic depression of 1930s to reduce the income to organized crime. The ‘Mob’ as they had become known, had vast amounts of money and an army of restless and violent unemployed young men (at the height of prohibition Capone in Chicago had an organization of thousands and employed up to 700 gunmen). The devil makes work for idle hands. Organised crime moved back into its traditional areas – which it had never left – of gambling and prostitution, loansharking and also into labour-racketeering and into the building of protection rackets in almost any area of business. The 1940s and 1950s saw a new wave of violence as the mob forced its way into these areas.

Herbert Ashbury in his 1942 book An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, describes the ruthlessness of the Capone organisation just after the end of Prohibition as they moved into new areas:

“... to hold in line this phase of the Capone syndicate operations, and to hold in line the businesses already conquered, bands of gunmen and sluggers hi-jacked and destroyed truckloads of merchandise, bombed stores and manufacturing plants or wrecked them with axes and crowbars, put acid into laundry vats, poured corrosives into clothing hanging in cleaning or drying shops, blackjacked workers and employers and killed when necessary to enforce their demands”

The establishment of protection rackets is a necessarily violent process as the gang fights its way in by demonstrating its power. Al Capone himself was imprisoned in 1932. But they didn’t get him for his violent and criminal activities. The thing that brought him down was that he failed to send in his tax returns! Meanwhile the 'mob' moved into new areas and consolidated its existing ones. Important areas of activity included controlling job allocation in the docks (waterfront) celebrated in the 1954 film, by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront. The Mafia were also able to gain effective control of some trade unions (labor unions) notably the Teamsters (truck drivers) union led by Jimmy Hoffa. You can research these areas of Mafia activity through the links below

Anthony Bruno's history of the Mob and the Teamsters union
Wikipedia entry on Jimmy Hoffa

Wikipedia entry on Organized Crime on the Waterfront
New York Waterfront Commission website: article on the Mafia in the New York docks today. (2004)

2. The American political system

A second important factor was the structure of the American political system. The Federal system decentralises much legislative and economic power to the individual state governments. Big cities like Chicago also had a great deal of autonomy in the way they ran things. In particular, local city officials had a great deal of power in dispensing jobs in return for political support. This structure, described by Russo (2003:14) as a "perpetual motion corruption machine." enabled favourable relations between gangsters, politicians and city officials -- the latter included the police departments. Thus traditions of political corruption (known as 'machine politics'), not dissimilar to those found in Italy, pervaded the government of cities like Chicago during the period from the nineteenth century right up until the Second World War until reforms introduced by the Roosevelt administration.

big billThis structure formed the backdrop to the relationship between Capone and Chicago Mayor  'Big Bill' Thompson. According to Edward Behr in his book Prohibition: " 'Big Bill' Thompson's three term reign led to a virtual breakdown in law and order, and a situation where... gangs virtually ran the city." (Behr 1997: 174) Traditions of corruption certainly pre-dated the arrival of Prohibition and the Mafia. Brothels and illegal gambling saloons were all paying the local politicians and the police to look the other way. Prohibition simply magnified this situation. But it also made the organised crime gangs much more powerful. In the early years of the twentieth century local gangs--little more than street gangs--were used and paid by local politicians to deal with their enemies. During the Prohibition era the relationship between the criminal gangs and corrupt local politicians was reversed. It was now the gangsters who had the money and power and called the shots. They bribed and corrupted the local politicians. Thus Bill Thompson was Al Capone's stooge-to protect the operations of the bootleggers and the speakeasies (illegal drinking and gambling saloons) and to keep the local police causing too much trouble. As far as police corruption was concerned, New York was not far behind Chicago. The Mafia crime boss of New York, Lucky Luciano boasted during the 1920s that "he controlled every New York police precinct, and had a bagman deliver up to $20,000 a month to New York police commissioner Grover A. Whalen in used notes." (Behr 1997: 179)

Structure of the American Mafia

The question now is, what sort of organisation had established itself? There are two aspects to the question. Firstly the question of size. Had a system of large, well organised, underworld corporations evolved or was organised crime rather still a loose collection of smaller groups more akin to the structure that we described above in the traditional Sicilian mafia? Secondly, the question of the relationship between the Mob and the local Italian-American communities from which it came. Had the interest in power, respect and domination over communities been replaced by a predominant focus on money-making in which the state needed to be kept at bay and prevented from seizing criminal wealth rather than displaced as a system of political power?

Let us deal first with the question of organisation. Certainly, many features of the Prohibition era had encouraged organised crime to act less like a gang of street hoodlums and more like a professional business, albeit an underworld illegal one

  • The incredible profitability of bootlegging brought massive revenues to organised crime. During Prohibition a case of whiskey selling in Canada for $10 could be sold in the US for at least $80.

  • Bootlegging forced organized crime to develop a complex business organisation: raw material to be purchased and shipped. Trucks, drivers, mechanics, labourers boats and crews etc had to be hired and organised. Police and customs officials had to be bribed, Expensive alcohol shipments had to be guarded at their most vulnerable transit points. Illegal warehouses and distilleries had to be set up and guarded.

  • The mob had to learn how to use the legal sector to service its illegal activities. Insurance for their ships, money laundering, and use of criminal profits to gain control of pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies from which they could divert industrial alcohol to illegal brewing. There was a need to deal with legitimate companies to purchase boats, copper tubing, corn sugar, bottling apparatus etc.

Organised crime had to become more like a business operation. But at the same time the very large profits to be made from 'bootlegging' led to intensive competition between crime groups and families. This inevitably led to violence. There is no such thing as a peaceful takeover sanctioned by shareholders as would be possible with competition between legitimate commercial organisations

Donald Cressy and the Bureaucratic-Corporate model

Donal CresseyAccording to the well-known American criminologist Donald Cressy (pictured on the left) in his book Theft of the Nation  (which was based on research conducted for the Kefauver Senate investigation) the type of Italian-American organised crime that had emerged during the Prohibition period and was now a fact of life, indeed resembled a large business corporation. Nevertheless, due to the Italian origin of many of the gangsters and because traditional mafia-type loyalties were an important mechanism of control, Italian-American organised crime utilised and reproduced many of the features of the old traditional mafia. Loyalty is particularly important in illegal organisations to stop penetration by police agents and the fact that, if somebody refuses to obey instructions you can’t take them to court. Violence is the only alternative and of course too much violence would disrupt the working of the organisation.

In arguing that organised crime conformed to the Bureaucratic-Corporate model, Cressy was stressing the ‘business’ side of organised crime activities.

Any large company in a modern business environment has to embody to some extent the characteristics of proper responsibilities for each manager, record keeping and a clear chain of command, people in jobs on basis of their competence, full time competent professionals employed with clear job descriptions.

Is this the form of organisation that we encounter with organised crime?

Cressy’s book was published in 1969 and argued this was indeed the predominant structure of Italian-American organised crime. His evidence was to a considerable extent based on the testimony of Joe Valachi, a gangster who had decided to give evidence to the government. We shall deal with Valachi and more generally the role of evidence by former gangsters as a reliable source of information in a later lecture. But Cressy was certainly criticised, notabley by Joseph Albini (1971) The American Mafia: Genesis of a Legend and others, for giving too much credence to Valachi’s testimony. According to Cressey, in Italian-American organised crime you had the trappings of old mafia family organisation (the crime syndicate was usually called a Family - e.g. the 'five families' of New York organised crime in the 1960s, - and many of the roles in the organisation such as the consigliere (councillor, advisor to the boss) were given Italian terms etc. Nevertheless, the logic was that of a large modern bureaucratic organisation. 

CressseyAlthough Cressy emphasised the Family-like trappings of mafia organisation - the loyalty oaths etc., the structure was essentially that of a modern business organisation involving:

  • a complicated hierarchy...

  • an extensive division of labour

  • positions assigned on the basis of skill (includes recruitment on the basis of proven ability)

  • responsibilities carried out in an impersonal manner

  • extensive rules and regulations

  • written communications down the hierarchy

The lower members of the mafia family would engage in a variety of criminal activities, often in association with non-mafia members. But they would do so as representatives of the larger organisation and under its firm control and direction. Ralph Salerno, an New York Police Department (NYPD) intelligence officer working around the same period that Cressy wrote, had come to similar conclusions. Again, Cressy may have relied too much on Salerno’s evidence. Salerno wrote in 1968 that

"The major difference between the diagram of an organised crime family and the chart of a major corporation is that the head of the enterprise - the Boss - does not have a box over him labelled 'stockholder'. Many of the other boxes are paralleled in the underworld, The Underboss serves a function similar to that of executive vice president. The Councillor off to one side is much like a vice chairman of the board… The Lieutenants or captains farther below are equivalent of divisional vice presidents or general managers. There are different staff jobs corresponding to personnel director, public relations manager…"

In short, the underworld is a mirror image of the upperworld. Cressy argued that the mafia formed itself into this organisational structure at the beginning of the 1930s, 1931 to be precise. He wrote

“to use an analogy with legitimate business, in 1931 organised crime units across America formed into monopolistic corporations and these corporations, in turn, linked themselves into a monopolistic cartel.”

Cressy, then argued, on the basis of Valachi’s testimony of course, that there was a central ‘Commission’ which ran organised crime in the US and directed the activities of 24 families. It was estimated that there were between 2,000 and 4,000 members of the mafia.

Cressy came in for a lot of criticism. Some critics argued for example that this model of the underground ‘evil empire’ paralleled the paranoia, common in the US at that time, about the Soviet Union and the ‘Red Scare’ associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy. If the communists with their sinister organisation, governed from Moscow, were the threat from outside, the secret mafia underworld was the threat from within. Others pointed out that such a thesis was very convenient to law enforcement agencies who could use the need to fight this powerful underworld organisation as an argument for more resources. Others argued Cressy was placing too much reliance on the testimony of ex-mafiosi like Valachi who were simply telling the authorities what they wanted to hear. There were methodological criticisms of Cressy’s work which we shall consider later. His obsession with Italian organised crime led him, it was argued, to ignore the importance of other forms of organised crime. Joseph Albini argued that the this obsession, shared by police and other investigators meant that much organised crime was not being investigated simply because it did not conform to the preconceived mafia model.

From a social science perspective, there were indeed problems with Cressy’s model.

  • The larger the organisation the more vulnerable it is to police infiltration because all members would not necessarily be personally known to one another. Police undercover agents wouldn't need to be that well known to other members to start operating. In fact an emphasis on the small group and personal loyalty rather than bureaucratic impersonality is more likely to be characteristic of illegal organisations.

  • A lot of Mafia activity was initiated by people who were not even full members, of mafia families: illegal opportunities are not discovered by some sort of company research department but by individual contacts and knowledge – organised crime is a ‘bottom-up’ organisation. A good example is that when the Mafia started getting into the drugs trade (and this, as we shall see, is also true of the modern Sicilian mafia), the older bosses frowned on the activity. It was the younger members, often in association with non-mafia members who started doing it. Eventually the bosses came around to the idea because the drugs trade was so profitable, just as Prohibition had been

  • While the corporate model had the advantage that the big bosses could protect themselves from long prison sentences by making sure that others committed crimes (especially murder) on their behalf, a single 'Board of Directors' at the top of the organisation would make it unstable given that anyone was vulnerable to arrest. If all decision-making was concentrated at the top then if the 'Directors' were arrested or had to flee the organisation was in danger of collapse. So how to explain the stability and continuity of organised crime despite numbers of successful arrests of 'Big Guys'. The organisation didn't collapse, as you would expect from the corporate model, it simply readapts and adjusts.

The Patron-Client Network model

There may well be hierarchical organisations at work in modern organised crime, with a directing leadership and subordinates carrying out orders. But they need not necessarily be the large entity that Cressey imagined to exist in America. Here the question is whether such a large structure ever indeed existed in the American Mafia. Even if crime families collaborated and made agreements from time to time - and most of the evidence suggests they did - the idea that they fused into some type of large 'underworld corporation' seems an exaggeration.

An alternative model of the structure of organised crime developed around the work of several American sociologists, including Joseph Albini and Francis and Elizabeth Ianni (1972) Family Business: Kinship And Social Control In Organized Crime. The conclusion of the study by the Joseph and Elizabeth Ianni was that the Mafia in America a much looser organisation which in some ways is closer to that of the old Sicilian mafia we mentioned earlier but without the integration of the mafiosi into the social structure. A good summary of this view of organisation, and a contrast with the bureaucratic model, is given by the sociologist Randall Collins:

“Patrimonial organisation, most characteristic of traditional societies, centers around families, patrons and their clients, and other personalistic networks. The emphasis is on traditional rituals that demonstrate the emotional bonds among men; the world is divided into those whom one can trust because of strongly legitimated personal connections, and the rest of the world from whom nothing is to be expected that cannot be exacted by cold-bloodied bargaining or force. In modern bureaucratic organisation by contrast, personal ties are weaker, less ritualised, and emotionally demonstrative; in their place is the allegiance to a set of abstract rules and positions... Patrimonial elites are more ceremonious and personalistic. Bureaucratic elites emphasise a colder set of ideals.”

The model developed by these students of organised crime was of a much looser model of essential personal connections.

  • mafia families were, as in Sicily, small organisations with close face-to-face networks of trust, small groups of people who know each other well, and some know other people. ‘Friends, and friends of friends’, as the mafia say . Such closed networks are harder for police to penetrate.

  • each ‘node’ of the network provides services connections etc., and importantly, protection, for its clients, who include non-members who 'show respect' Large numbers of gangsters and would-be gangsters are not mafia members. But the mafia is sufficiently powerful to control all crime in its small local area, either by monopolising all activity themselves or allowing others but taxing them. Thus a group of small-time crooks who robbed a mafia run gambling joint would find that they had to pay the money back or face the consequences.

  • initiatives, and the discover of opportunities for criminal activities come from the bottom up; e.g. getting into drugs. These lower level initiatives, come to the attention of the more powerful mafia big shots who either give the ‘okay’ or stamp out the activity. Thus for a time dealing in drugs was frowned on but eventually became okay because of the obvious profitability of the activity and because a whole host of other non-mafia organised crime groups were getting into it.

  • particular competence and expertise etc. were provided from subcontracting rather than from the organisation itself. Thus if it is necessary to kill someone then hit-men will be hired. These may not be mafia members ('made men') but hoodlums or professional killers hired for the purpose. This, again, is good for secrecy as the hired killers won’t know too much about who's paying them. Other expertise e.g. drug refining, computer skills, can be bought in on demand. Most such criminals are white collar deviants, who are not going to spend all their time working for the mafia but who will do jobs on demand.

  • if one family, or its leader is arrested or even big guy, then the nodes will readjust and a new leader will emerge. This is unlike a big top-down organisation which would be thrown into chaos if its leaders were suddenly arrested.

What then, is the role of the Big Guy? He has been around longest, is the most successful, knows most people, has most connections etc. People put themselves under his protection. He has more crooked police officers, ‘bent’ lawyers, and public officials at his disposal than anyone else. Loyalty to him is not the instrumental technical loyalty of a company employee to his or her line manager but an intensely personal thing. That’s what kept the organisation together and enabled it to survive. Even the looser organised groups have a vested interest in the continuation of the 'system'. The Big Guy for example will have a crucial role in regulating conflicts between the various groupings.

from mafia to gangster?

We can now turn to the second question. The rapid expansion of the Mob  based on the economic criminality of the Prohibition era and subsequent decades raises the question of how far Italian-American organised crime moved away from the Sicilian model in which the organisation continues to seek not only wealth but political control, legitimacy and a role in settling disputes in the community from which it emerges, and becomes, simply a form of illegal wealth accumulation-- crime as a form of "forced entry" into the ranks of the wealthy. 

The German sociologist Henner Hess (1998) Mafia and Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth argues that the American Mafia began to move away from this community mediation role. This would be expected as the Italian-American community achieved upward social mobility and moved out of the ghetto and as the mafia widened its economic activities outside the local community. The mafiosi thus loses status and legitimacy and becomes a criminal pure and simple:

“because he has no necessary protective or mediatory function to fulfil within the social system he also possesses no legitimacy in popular morality; that is, he is no longer a mafioso but a criminal... He grants no audiences and nobody calls on him. He is... to the general public an anonymous big-city criminal, with no resemblance to the universally known and respected mafioso of the Sicilian village.” (Hess 1998: 172-3)

The bureaucratic-corporate model portrayed by Cressey would be quite consistent with a criminal organisation that lost its community roots and functions and became simply a money-making machine. But then so would the more decentralised family-oriented structure portrayed by the Iannis. There are plenty of small 'family firms' in modern organised crime. But they tend to concentrate on money-making rather than gaining status and respect through sorting out conflicts in the communities within which they operate.

But if we return to the opening scene from the first Godfather movie, even if it is rather a caricature of the Mafia, we see, even in the period after the Second World War, the American Mafia as still very much rooted in the Italian-American immigrant community. Here the activities of mediation, settling disputes, helping individuals, giving 'justice' to Mr Bonasera, are still very much alive, though not quite in their old Sicilian form. That is to say it is less a question of the weakness or absence of the legitimate state and law enforcement agencies than it is a desire to keep things out of sight of the law enforcement agencies and within 'our' community and impose 'our' values and standards of justice. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) says to Mr Bonasera "But why didn't you come to me in the first place? Why did you go to the police?" Mr Bonasera, it will be recalled, only came to the Don 'for justice' because he didn't get what he regarded as justice from the state. It was not a question of the weakness of the state.

As we shall see in more detail later the traditional Mafia in both its Sicilian and American versions, by retaining its orientation to prestige and status (through the respect that comes from fear) in its own communities, found itself at a disadvantage in relation to other more modern organised crime groups when it came to taking advantage of illegal money-making opportunities. This is broadly the argument of the Italian sociologist Letizia Paoli in her book: Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style . (Oxford University Press, 2003) She argues that the Mafia, both in Italy and the US, clings to its traditional focus on the retention of a local political power base. She argues that this has been to a considerable extent at the expense of opportunities to engage in a more modern purely entrepreneural criminality. The latter would require in the present period a more flexible shifting form of organisation and the ability to operate globally rather than be tied too closely to local communities and family networks. She argues that this was the basic cause of the decline of the old Mob during the 1980s.

We shall return to these issues in a subsequent lecture on the modern forms of organised crime. In this lecture our focus has been on a particular variety of organised crime: the Mafia. This focus is justified because the Mafia still occupies such a central place in the mythology and popular view of organised crime. There are other types of criminal organisation of very long historical lineage such as the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza which could also be considered.


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Arlacchi, Pino (1979) The Mafia: From Man of Honour to Entrepreneur. New Left Review  No 118 pp 55-74.
Behr, Edward (1997) Prohibition: 13 years that changed America. Harmondsworth: Penguin
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Cressey, Donald (1969) Theft of the Nation. New York: Harper and Row.
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