A Theoretical Perspective of Organized Crime
Organized crime is serious and ever evolving law enforcement issue with a variety of risk factors that lure many people into its membership. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies use legal tools combined with technology and theories to fight the development of organized crime groups and to dismantle them. This report discusses the risk factors and background issues that may entice or force a person into an organized crime syndicate. Many aspects of organized crime such as theoretical causes provide much beneficial information but large knowledge gaps exist requiring further study. This report highlights known information and areas of further investigation that may yet reduce the activity and produce rehabilitative measures.
Understanding Organized Crime
Organized crime takes a variety of forms such as gangs and organizations built on common bonds of cultural or social elements, which adds to the highly highly secretive nature of these organizations, them difficult to penetrate and even more difficult to gather evidence in normal investigative methods. Understanding organized crime development, structures, theories, and operations produces strategies to reduce membership and bring down such organizations.
Organized crime manifests in many ways but the "enterprise" forms the common element of this criminal activity. The FBI classifies organized crime as any group having a formalized structure that has a primary objective of making money through illegal activities (FBI, 2015). These groups also tend to use violence, corrupt officials, extortion, and other means of profiting and gaining power.
Many different organized crime groups operate in the US and globally and most are formed from a shared group identity. This identity focuses often ethnically such as the Italian Mafia, but organized crime limits not to ethnic or race. Groups of strangers or people sharing a common purpose can form organized crime groups such as Anonymous, the hacktivist group. which uses hacking to attack people or organizations it deems enemies. Groups such as Anonymous form from many different cultures and races, sharing only an ideology. According to the FBI (2015), the largest organized crime groups include Russian mobsters, drug traffickers and financial scam groups in African countries like Nigeria, Chinese tongs, Japanese Boryokudan, Eastern European syndicates, and other Asian crime rings (FBI, 2015).
Jorge from Tokyo, Japan, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
All organized crime groups operate in an organized fashion which protects the group and makes criminal activity more efficient. Such crimes vary but include mail fraud, drug trafficking, computer hacking, fraud, robbery, and many other illegal activities. Organization makes identifying and apprehending members difficult due to secrecy which insulates leadership. Loyalty to the group as well as threat and coercion help maintain this secrecy.
Three theories try to explain organized crime's membership and organization which include: Alien Conspiracy Theory, Rational Choice Theory, and Cognitive Theories (FBI, 2015). Each theory attempts to explain the organized crime formation from different perspective but each has critical issues.
Rational choice theory posits humans are rational creatures that use a form of cost benefit analysis to determine whether or not engagement in criminal behavior is worth the risk. For example, a poor person with little economic opportunities might decide to join an organized crime syndicate, seeing the opportunity worth the risk (Schmalleger, 2011). While having merit this theory fails to fully explain how organized crime syndicates form. If true, rational choice dictates crime organizations would form anywhere lacking economic opportunities. This is not the case since many poor areas in the US do not suffer organized crime.
Alien Conspiracy Theory posits that organized crime is the result of foreigners or immigrants bringing crime with them into a country. This theory may appear to be true due to the fact that many groups are ethnically or nationalist in nature but the reality is that many criminal organizations are based on factors other than belonging to an ethnic group (FBI, 2015). For instance, the Russian Mafia did not form outside of Russia, it formed in Russia and was bolstered by the fall of communism which left the country lacking social services and open for black markets.
Cognitive theories of organized crime are broad and encompass a number of different concepts but most center on the idea of personality types. Many of these theories center on the idea of organized crime members consisting of antisocial or sociopathic personalities. In theory, these personality types are drawn to organized crime groups because the person is dangerous and aggressive by nature and this lifestyle suits him or her. There is some evidence to support these theories because, “Some studies have estimated that about 25 percent of all prison inmates are antisocial, although no data exist on its prevalence in society at large” (Lyman & Potter, 2007). But this research is inconsistent because of the fact that people who are confirmed sociopaths already have criminal histories (Lyman & Potter, 2007). This does not provide a strong basis for the formation of criminal organizations since there is no way to measure these individuals prior to joining the organization.
While these theories appear to be valid they are also incomplete due to inconsistencies and lack of data. When one studies organized crime, there seems to be no real consistent factor with why one would choose to become a member of these organizations (Lyman & Potter, 2007). For these reasons, it is highly likely that membership to a criminal organization is often decided based on a complex set of circumstances such as a combination of personal values, perceptions of morality, upbringing, peer relations, life chances, and individual traits (FBI, 2015). Despite the complexity of theory for organized crime formation, there are aspects of organized crime which have some consistency such as structure.
There are a number of different structures in which organized crime is ordered. These organizations can be based on family, ethnicity, clans, and networks (FBI, 2015). These groups typically have a hierarchal structure in which authority is a top-down design. This structure creates an insulation between high members and lower members when one of the lower members is caught in a crime. This traditional structure is declining in use, but is still common in organized criminal enterprises.
Another form of organized crime has emerged in recent years which utilizes cells or small groups which are loosely connected. By forming cells in this manner, these groups are able to operate independently and minimize the risk of exposing each other to prosecution (FBI, 2015). Today, because of advancements in technology, organized crime groups operate on a global scale which further adds more protection between layers of authority and between groups or cells (FBI, 2015). The structure of organized crime has become more autonomous due to the fact that Rico cases are able to take down large organizations by attacking leadership (FBI, 2015).
The structure of the organized crime organization is often a predictor for the profile of the member. For instance, family structures will be organized with members being composed of either the same ethnic group and in many cases family members. In Afghanistan, drug cartels are composed of farming families which produce opium and for warlords capable of moving the supply outside the country. Depending on the type of structure an organization utilizes, will often be indicative of the perpetrator profile.
To understand how organized crime structures impacts perpetrators, one must examine organizations such as the Irish and Italian Mafia. Both the Irish and Italian Mafia’s are structured in the classical hierarchy with low level enforcers moving upwards to the leadership.
Irish and Italian Mafia
Often Mafias are formed as a result of individuals lacking some form of political or economic opportunity and the formation of groups focused on obtaining these opportunities can form create organized crime syndicates. For example, the Irish Mafia in the US grew out of lack of job, economic, and political opportunities (FBI, 2015). Small gangs of Irish criminals would band together over perceived or real injustices and form organized gangs. These groups would grow and merge over time to create large mafias. The White Hand gang and the Winter Hill Gang are some of the more notable mafias which emerged from these early gangs.
Samuel Mooney Giancana Boss of Chicago Outfit
By Unknown author — Public Domain
The Italian Mafia emerged in the same way as the Irish Mafia starting with being composed of small gangs which would merge into large syndicates and crime families. Similar backgrounds for membership can be found in Italian Mafia members.
Whitey Bulger Winter Hill Gang Boss
By Unknown United States Marshals Service (United States Department of Justice) personnel. — The Patriot Ledger. Credited by source as "U.S. Marshals Service photo" Public Domain
Both Irish and Italian Mafia share many of the same traits including being of the same descent; coming from the same geographic areas; having family involved in the mob; being poor; and having few opportunities (FBI, 2015).
There are several predictors of individuals who may become involved in organized crime. Besides backgrounds individuals who are at the highest risk of becoming involved in organized crime tend share the following characteristics which include special skills, opportunities, and culture (Albanese, 2003). These factor form the backbone of risks of organized crime membership.
Individuals with special skills are at risk of becoming members of organized crime groups due to skills (Albanese, 2003). For instance, a person who is an electronics expert can be used to circumvent various security systems. This skill makes the person valuable to the organization and if other factors such as background are similar to the groups, this person may be at risk of being approached and inducted into a crime syndicate.
Opportunities are another way that individuals are introduced to organized crime. For example, early unions placed enormous authority and power into the hands of a few individuals and many of these individuals were bribed or became members of the Italian Mafia due to their ability to control labor and earn large amounts of money illicitly (Albanese, 2003). Opportunities place many individuals including politicians at risk of becoming organized crime associates.
Culture is risk factor that refers to the environment and upbringing of an individual. For example, individuals who are raised in families or communities where there is a high tolerance to drug trafficking or violence may be at an increased risk of becoming involved in syndicates due to lack of values (Albanese, 2003). This factor can take many different forms but it is deeply intertwined with the other risk factors of special skills and opportunities because it provides individuals with the ethical reasoning to justify membership into crime organizations.
These risk factors comprise the bulk of risk that makes individuals prone to becoming members of organized crime groups. It is important to remember that these factors alone do not create the complete risk profile as backgrounds must be considered along with these elements. Fro instance, not all people who have special skills are at risk of joining organized crime because they may not have the background factors which would place them in this risk category.
Organized crime members have varying outcomes depending on their specific roles in the organization. Low level enforcers in organized crime tend to take the most risk and are typically arrested and must spend time in jail. These individuals are also at the highest risk of being killed, hurt, or spending long sentences in jail (FBI, 2015). The exact nature of outcomes for organized crime members is not clear because many members are low level and may only spend some time in jail before abandoning the organization. These outcomes are also shrouded in mystery because of the different types of crime syndicates and types of crimes they perform (Albanese, 2003).
What does seem to be the prevailing outcome for most organized crime leaders is that they will eventually be killed or they will spend their lives in prison (FBI, 2015). This has been true of most of the famous mobsters and continues to be a trend today as the FBI concentrates on dismantling these organizations through RICO strategies (FBI, 2015). The life chances and opportunities for mafia members is extremely low (Albanese, 2003).
RICO has been a major strategy for law enforcement in fighting organized crime. RICO creates a means for law enforcement to show a criminal enterprise and go after the leadership (Cornell Law, 2014). Another strategy that has been useful is forming alliances with foreign and domestic police agencies. By cooperating, law enforcement is better able to combat these international organizations.
RICO and more cooperation between agencies has been effective in reducing organized crime in many instances. This dismantling of organizations has been limited to organizations which are structured in a hierarchy because of the ability to show the leadership as responsible. This has not been the case in many newer criminal organizations which operate as cells. Organized crime is more cooperative today because of the internet. As a result, crime syndicates overlap and often connect due to the need to operate across borders. The FBI describes this issue as “More and more, they are literally becoming partners in crime, realizing they have more to gain from cooperating than competing” (FBI, 2015). This affects criminal organizations locally by allowing them to be able to operate more effectively and profitably because they have partners which create large supply lines and can provide more criminal opportunities. These relationships allow international organized crime groups to expand tremendously and gain large geographic areas of influence. When these groups work cohesively they can expand the purview of their control tremendously but when relations breakdown this can create losses for all parties. There is more incentive for these groups to work cohesively than to compete.
The outlook for offenders in organized crime is bleak. While romantic notions of gangsters may be prevalent in movies and books, this not the reality of organized crime. Most offenders must serve long sentences or die in criminal activities. Even offenders who are states witness and are afforded protection must often serve time in jail before entering witness protection (FBI, 2015). There are currently few programs designed to rehabilitate organized crime members and most of these programs are aimed at inner city gangs (Schmalleger, 2011). These programs are aimed at preventative in nature looking to reduce gang affiliation and joining gangs such as after school programs intended to keep children off the streets (Schmalleger, 2011).
Organized crime is damaging to individuals as well as to society. Organized crime reduces life chances, increases corruption, and creates serious law enforcement issues. The largest impact of organized crime is on social institutions which are vulnerable to criminal infiltration. When political and corporate institutions are infiltrated this means that criminals can commit crimes that cost large numbers of individual’s money and pain and suffering. For example, many mafia groups are involved in identity theft through hacking company records. When this crime is committed it is often on a large scale with thousands of victims (Schmalleger, 2011).
When one looks at organized crime, there appears to be no real consistent factor with why one would choose to become a criminal other than upbringing and circumstances. While sociocultural factors and even character traits may play a part in this choose there is no one element to which one can say is a universal. The true nature of criminal behavior may rest in family values and in personal ethics. Individuals who are apt to become part of a criminal organization are most likely lacking in a moral or ethical manner to which they understand. This problem is most likely based on a complicated set of factors such as upbringing, peer relations, life chances, and individual traits. Current strategies for dismantling these organizations appear to be best practices. However, more research is needed in the areas of rehabilitation and recidivism.
Albanese, J. S. (2003, January). The Prediction and Control of Organized Crime: A Risk Assessment Instrument for Targeting Law Enforcement Efforts. Retrieved from US Department of Justice: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/199047.pdf
Cornell Law. (2014). Cornell Law. Retrieved from Cornell Law: http://www.law.cornell.edu/
FBI. (2015). About Organized Crime. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/organizedcrime/overview
Lyman, M. D., & Potter, G. W. (2007). Organized Crime (4 ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.
Schmalleger, F. (2011). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century, Eleventh Edition,. Prentice Hall. NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Article Updated: 11/18/2021