Organized crime constitutes in and of itself a social problem, but, in reality, it becomes an influential factor in producing many other types of social problems.
Attempts at finding a definition of organized crime acceptable to all the disciplines that deal with its subject matter have met with frustration; hence, here its major characteristics are distinguished by the word organized, which means that it is committed by two or more or a group or groups of individuals working together. Another distinguishing feature lies in the criminal goals, motivations, or ends that these groups seek to achieve.
There are four basic types of organized crime. The first is mercenary organized crime, in which the major goal is attaining a direct financial profit from engaging in the crime. This category includes gangs that burglarize homes, auto theft rings, pocket-picking rings, and groups that perpetuate various forms of confidence games. By contrast, those who participate in ingroup organized crime do not have financial gain as their major motive; instead their purpose lies in the individual’s psychological and social gratification attained by belonging to a group that engages in “rumbles” and other risk-seeking thrills for the sheer adventure itself. Political-social organized crime also does not have direct financial profit as its goal; instead the goal is that of changing or maintaining an existing political-social structure; terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan are examples of this type. Finally, syndicated organized crime, the type that receives the most attention from researchers, journalists, and politicians, has as the goal of its criminal participants that of attaining direct financial gain by providing illicit goods and/or services to the public through the use of threat, violence, and procuring police or political “protection” to safeguard its participants from legal interference. Illicit gambling, prostitution, and illicit drug trafficking have been its major enterprises.
In the United States, the subject of syndicated organized crime has enjoyed a romance with the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra. In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. governmental committees captured the public imagination and concluded that syndicated crime was primarily an Italian and Sicilian import. Critics of these conclusions were quick to point out that these governmental investigations had two serious flaws: (1) historically, they argued that syndicated crime began with Sicilian involvement in the 1930s and that its membership was exclusively of Italian and Sicilian origin. Historical fact reveals that syndicated crime has existed in America throughout its history, including during colonial times. And (2) studies show that syndicated crime is not and never has been the province of any one ethnic group. In reality, mafia as syndicated crime is better understood as a method rather than an organization, a method that includes the use of force, intimidation, or the threats of such, requiring a group whose purpose is that of providing illicit goods and services and does so by obtaining political or police protection. As such, mafia or syndicated crime can exist anywhere. As for being exported, it is individuals who migrate; the growth and survival of the system itself is ultimately dependent upon the social conditions and social system of the country where it operates, which either allows or stifles its development.
The reasons syndicated crime continuously captures the attention of those who study it as well as the general public itself lie in its moral, ethical, and legal implications. Its continued existence speaks to an eternal dialectic between good and evil, one in which governments seek to make certain goods and services illegal with the intent of controlling morality, only to find that there are always enough individuals who seek and are willing to pay for these goods and services and enough criminals willing to risk life and imprisonment in order to make them available. Thus, there is no country in the world without organized crime among its social problems. To estimate the profits rounded to an exact amount would be impossible other than noting that, yearly, around the world, the profits amount to billions of dollars.
Each country has its criminal groups; in China, we have the Triads; in Japan, the Yakuza. Because of their large membership and power, these groups exert influence on the financial affairs of their respective countries. Each group operating in the world varies in the enterprises it engages in, depending upon the social structure and the needs for illicit goods demanded by its customers. Typically, the organized criminals watch and wait for trends among the populations in which they exist. Thus illicit drug trafficking in the United States did not become a major enterprise until the 1950s when the “beatnik” and “hippie” movements made its use popular. Indeed, the entire history of U.S. syndicated crime consists of organized criminals taking advantage of changing U.S. trends and needs for illicit goods.
Clearly illustrative of this reality is the Prohibition Era ushered in by the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920. The act made the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal, other than for medical purposes. This spawned the creation of criminal syndicates throughout the country. One of its celebrated criminals was Alphonse “Al” Capone, who ruled the underworld in Chicago during the Prohibition era. Taking his power from establishments paying large sums for protection, he also made certain that he controlled the political arena by helping elect political candidates who, in return, would protect his enterprises.
Although mercenary and ingroup forms of organized crime such as petty swindlers, pickpockets, and warring gangs were prevalent on the streets of New York City in the second half of the 19th century, it was the Prohibition era that allowed syndicated criminals in the major U.S. cities to produce a level of profits unknown to them at any time before in U.S. history. The development of sophisticated avenues of corruption on a worldwide scale and a worldwide increase in the desire for illicit drugs has, since the 1950s, increasingly allowed not only U.S. syndicates but those in foreign countries as well to make extreme profits from this trade. An example of this phenomenon is Pablo Escobar, a Colombian cocaine drug lord, who in 1989, at the young age of 40, was considered the world’s most powerful criminal. In his rise to power, he killed Colombian Supreme Court justices, police chiefs, and presidential candidates. It took the joint effort of the U.S. military and the Colombian government, using the most sophisticated surveillance equipment and weapons, to bring him out of hiding and kill him.
The power that can be amassed by criminal syndicates speaks to the issue of why this form of crime is of relevance to the creation of social problems. The single element of the corruption it generates serves to create a loss of faith in government among the citizens of local and federal governments. Mercenary forms of this crime bring financial loss to citizens and corporations such as those incurred in scams in which imitation designer bags or clothing is sold to unsuspecting customers. The customer receives an inferior product, while the designer company loses its profit from the potential sale of its legitimate and superior product. Citizens are robbed at gunpoint by gangs; autos are stolen by auto theft rings, each of these adding to the yearly financial loss of property by citizens. So, too, some Chinese and Russian syndicates within the past decade have developed enterprises that transport alien citizens from one country to another. In some cases the aliens request this service themselves, hoping to find better jobs in foreign lands. In other cases, particularly among female victims, these aliens are promised jobs only to find that once they arrive in their new country, they are turned instead into prostitutes or forced to work as cheap labor in “sweat shops.”
Probably the most serious future social problem presented by organized criminals emerges from the current and developing globalization phenomenon that allows criminals to more readily cross borders and view the entire world as a potential marketplace for their ventures. As stated earlier, these criminals are quick to take advantage of social and technological change, and now the entire world has become their stage. Add the rise within the past 2 decades of political-social organized crime in the form of terrorist groups, and we see the threat this presents to the future security of the world and the continued presence of organized crime itself as a social problem.
- Albini, Joseph L. 1971. The American Mafia. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Albini, Joseph L. and Jeffrey S. Mclllwain. Forthcoming. The Mafia Matrix. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
- Ryan, Patrick J. and George E. Rush, eds. 1997. Organized Crime in Global Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Smith, Dwight C., Jr. 1975. The Mafia Mystique. New York: Basic Books.
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