Assessing the scope of organized crime in America

organized crime scholar Mark C. Gribben, defines organized crime as “an ongoing criminal enterprise consisting of multiple actors working for economic gain who use or will use force to promote and protect their enterprises.” By this definition a number of groups might fit into the definition of organized crime. Street gangs, hate groups, drug cartels, and the Mafia are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organized crime in the United States.

The preceding graphic demonstrates the scope of organized crime in America. It is important to understand that the crimes within the largest circle are those which are generally considered organized in nature. Those outside the circle, such as the solo murder or the one-time bank robbery are not considered to be organized. They key elements of organized crime must include “ongoing criminal activity with multiple actors.”

The following pages will explore organized crime in America. As there are so many facets to this type of crime, the primary focus will be on the traditional mob which is the blueprint for the vast majority of organized crime in the United States today.

The history of organized crime in America is rooted in the ethnic gang wars of the eighteen hundreds. Early immigrants tended to band together as communities. Within these communities certain elements organized themselves into gangs. In some cases these gangs were a rag tag band of thieves, in others they were pimps. The criminal activities of these immigrant gangs ran the gambit, but one thing was certain: they fought fiercely for their territory.

The roots of the modern Mob were based in an Italian group that called itself the Black Hand. This particular group preyed on immigrants by sending them extortion notes which threatened violence. Though this group was a loosely affiliated squad of extortionists at best, the concept that a criminal secret society was watching over the immigrant population was utterly terrifying to those who had just come to America.

As ethnic rivalries in New York City came to a head, violence between the Italian Black Hand and an Irish gang called the White Hand instigated a need for these street gangs to organize themselves. Slowly these rag-tag groups were becoming a lot less rag-tag in nature.

Nicholas Morello was the first to propose a united criminal organization between the many gangs that were evolving into something else. Morello was killed before he could watch this unification take place.

Prohibition was the fuel required to truly ignite the inferno that would eventually become modern organized crime. Initially, gangsters worked on a small scale competing for local neighborhood drinkers. The end result of early bootlegging efforts was a large amount of violence.

Visionaries such as A.R. Rothstein and his proteges Meyer Lansky, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and “Waxy” Gordon were at the forefront of a violent effort to unite the underworld’s East Coast bootlegging operations. Similarly, the volatile gang world of Chicago was going through growing pains with the likes of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.

As time went by, wars were being fought between gangsters across the country, but the vast majority of the unceasing violence took place in New York and Chicago. Two major events took place in 1928 that would have an effect on organized crime for years to come. The first was the assignation of A.R. Rothstein and the second was the St. Valentines Day Massacre, wherein Al Capone had the vast majority of his opponents killed.

One of the primary results of this bloodletting was the eventual creation of the Syndicate. In 1931, Lucky Luciano worked to create a confederation of equal voices among the mob bosses. This idea was radically different than the concept of having a boss which ruled over all bosses. Those who were tired of the fighting were more than willing to meet. As a result the Five Families of New York met with leaders of Mafia families from all over the country. Reportedly there were representatives from Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, among others. It is believed that the Syndicate is still alive and well in 2003.

The modern mob has its hand in a number of criminal activities. These include but are not limited to loan sharking, narcotics trafficking, pornography distribution, prostitution, and gambling. Throughout North America numerous offshoot criminal activities have been recorded as well.

It is believed that there are currently eighteen Mafia “families” working in the United States. However, between the 1960’s and the 1990’s major steps were taken to infiltrate and eliminate these illegal organizations.

Early efforts to dismantle the mob focused on the Mob Boss. The idea was that if this person could be imprisoned, then the whole gang would fall apart. This, of course, was not true. Mob Bosses were easily replaced whether they were killed by rival factions or placed in prison by the police.

Perhaps the most effective weapon in the war on organized crime has been the 1970 R.I.C.O. legislation.

This legislation, which stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, is focused on eliminating organized crime by going after the money made from these crimes. R.I.C.O. indicates four unlawful elements:

Using income derived from a pattern of racketeering activity to acquire an interest in an enterprise.

Acquiring or maintaining an interest in an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.

Conducting the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity; and Conspiring to commit any of these offenses. (Is This the End of R.I.C.O., Pg 1)

The most important element of this legislation was the fact that no longer did law enforcement have to prove guilt in individual crimes. They simply needed to prove that a crime or crimes had taken place with which a given suspect or suspect business was now holding the money.

Certainly, the Mob has always been able to hide money from the I.R.S. among others. Laundering schemes have always been around. Indeed, each of New York’s five families held “legitimate” business which included everything from garbage collection to the running of the garment district labor unions. The F.B.I.’s new task was to look closely at these places of business in order to make a given charge stick.

There was a period of time in the eighties and early nineties when certain Mob Bosses were high profile. The most notable was John Gotti, also known as “the Dapper Don.” This particular mobster was known throughout New York as a mobster. Periodically he would appear on television or taunt the authorities in other ways. Eventually he was convicted of murder and racketeering charges and sent to prison. However, he became an example to the larger world of organized crime and the result is that the exact ring leader of a given family is no longer so easy to pin down.

Gotti was part of the Carlo Gambino Family, which still remains the largest crime family in the United States. It is estimated that there are twenty separate Capos (underbosses), three hundred made members (officers), and over three thousand associates. Placing the Dapper Don in prison was a major victory for law enforcement.

In 1983 Ronald Regan began the first major initiative against organized crime when he convened a Special Commission on Organized Crime. This commission looked closely at money laundering, labor racketeering and narcotics trafficking. George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton both continued the efforts from a federal level against organized crime.

By 1986, the heads of three of the Five New York Families were in prison. The world of the mafia was slowly deteriorating under the scrutiny of the Federal Government.

Other tactics have been employed by law enforcement as well. These have included more traditional methods such as surveillance and wire taps, to the buying off of mob “snitches” to infiltrating the mafia itself. In 1989, a wire tap was so well placed that the F.B.I. actually recorded a Mafia induction ceremony.

Perhaps the most amazing infiltration was that by Joseph Pistone who went undercover as a petty criminal and street tough under the name of Donnie Brasco. Pistone was able to infiltrate a Bonanno family street crew (one of the five families). The result of this undercover work was the indictment of seventeen “made” members of the family and numerous associates.

The Mafia is down – but never out. Their corruptive influence is deep and pervasive and extends well beyond drug trafficking, extortion, and the more traditional forms of vice. Its tentacles reach into organized labor, and every facet of legitimate business, irrespective of R.I.C.O. The mob owns car dealerships, restaurants, cleaning services, construction companies, waste-handling businesses, and quite possibly may even hold seats on the commodities exchange, the trading floors of Wall Street and financial centers of mid-America. (Lindberg, Pg. 2)

Through the use of the R.I.C.O. laws and solid police work, many of those who were at the top of the organized crime structure of the mob have fallen. Underlings still fall on a regular basis. The effectiveness of this methodology has inspired others fighting organized crime to employ these same tactics. Currently R.I.C.O. laws and other techniques are being used to actively arrest and prosecute members of violent street gangs in Los Angeles and Chicago.

As the Mafia shifts and evolves again, there are other elements of organized crime that need to be focused on.

In the opinion of many veteran prosecutors and federal agents, the Russian “Mafyia,” Colombian drug cartels, Japanese yakuza, Chinese Triads, and the evolving ethnic inner-city street gangs – comprising elements of the “new” organized crime – have supplanted the Mafia and pose a much more lethal threat to the fabric of society as America prepares for the Millenium. (Lindberg, Pg 2)

These so called “new” types of organized crime make up a far greater percentage of crime in the United States today. It has taken nearly one hundred years of law enforcement and legislature to get a solid hold on the mob. Those who have fought the Mafia and other forms of organized crime truly hope that it will not take such a long time to break up the new elements that are infiltrating the world of organized crime.


Israely, Jeff. “Meet the Modern Mob.” Time. 2 June 2002. http://www.time/world/printout/0,8816,257072,00.html

Organized Crime Ed. Mark Gribben. February 2003.

Lindberg, Richard C. “The Mafia in America: Traditional Organized Crime in Transition.” Search International. February 2003.

Is This the End of R.I.C.O. February 2003.

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