The Evolution of Organized Crime Analysis

History Of Organized Crime

More than a century of motion pictures and more than a half-century of television productions have created a somewhat romanticized version of organized crime as typified in “The Godfather” series. Indeed, there is even a National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, commonly known as “The Mob Museum” in Las Vegas which is a popular tourist destination (Green, 2013). The reality of organized crime, however, contrasts sharply with any romanticized depiction and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) emphasizes that organized crime is not only prevalent in the United States, it has become far more complex and broader in scope compared to the past. To determine the facts about the history of organized crime, this paper provides a background and overview followed by an analysis of some of the main sources of revenues for these criminal organizations. Finally, the paper concludes with an analysis of current intelligence related methods, and emerging intelligence methods directed at organized crime and a summary of the research and important findings concerning the history of organized crime.

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Review and Analysis

Background and overview of organized crime

According to the general definition provided by the FBI, organized crime is “any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities” (Organized crime, 2016, para. 4). Clearly, this definition includes an enormous array of activities that subvert the law in some fashion, and frequently include violence as a means of enforcement. Not surprisingly, these criminal organizations have a profoundly adverse effect on the communities in which they operate as well as the state, region, and entire nation (Organized crime, 2016).

While a broad application of the FBI’s definition of organized crime suggests that these types of organizations have existed as long as the country, the formal analysis of organized crime only dates back to the early 20th century. Some of the first research into organized crime was conducted as part of the Illinois Crime Survey by John Landesco in 1929 (Kelly & Chin, 1999). This seminal research found that the roots of organized crime could be found the members’ community-level social structures. In sum, Landesco determined that, “The members of the crime syndicate came from neighborhoods ‘where the gang tradition is old’ and where the residents could absorb the attitudes and skills necessary to enter into the world of organized crime” (as cited in Kelly & Chin, 1999, p. 333).

Law enforcement authorities first started to specifically target organized crime in 1967 when the New York City Police Department’s Italian branch commander grew concerned over the Black Hand’s extortion of the local Italian community and their natural reluctance to cooperate in any investigation (Kelly & Chin, 1999). In an ill-fated response, the police commander planned to examine Sicilian police records to discover any grounds for deporting Black Hand leaders; however, the leaders learned about the plan and the police commander was assassinated (Kelly & Chin, 1999). The Black Hand leader who was suspected of ordering the assassination was having dinner with an Italian parliamentarian at the time and therefore had an iron-clad alibi (Kelly & Chin, 1999). Three-quarters of a century later, organized crime remains a nationwide problem that has required a multi-faceted enforcement strategy. As Kelly and Chin concludes, “The business of organized crime continued and continues apace, as do the law enforcement efforts to combat it” (1999, p. 333).

As noted in the introduction, the general public’s perception of organized crime contrasts sharply with the reality today. Organized crime has become a transnational phenomenon and many of the criminal organizations operating in the U.S. today are involved with criminal activities that transcend the conventional views about the Mafia. In this regard, Kelly and Chin (1999) point out that, “Asked to define organized crime,’ many ordinary citizens would conjure up a vision of Mafia or La Cosa Nostra (LCN), and the popular image is not limited to the public” (p. 334). In fact, this skewed perception of organized crime even influenced the manner in which the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act was framed in 1970 (Kelly & Chin, 1999). As a result, initial law enforcement efforts were almost all focused on Italian-Sicilian organizations; however, by 1987, federal authorities began to include other ethnic groups including South and Central Americans and Asians (Kelly & Chin, 1999).

Today, other ethnic groups have become the focus of law enforcement efforts to combat organized crime, including the following:

• Russian mobsters who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse;

• Groups from African countries like Nigeria that engage in drug trafficking and financial scams;

• Chinese tongs, Japanese Boryokudan, and other Asian crime rings; and, • Enterprises based in Eastern European nations like Hungary and Romania (Organized crime, 2016, para. 4).

Each of these criminal organizations is active in the United States and the Internet has facilitated the development of sophisticated networks between formerly disparate groups that recognize the benefits of cooperation. For instance, Calderon (2015) emphasizes that, “Transnational organized crime operates through intricate nets of complicity. The activity of criminal organizations related with smuggling drugs, weapons, and even humans, transcends borders” (p. 52). Moreover, continuous reinvestment of the proceeds of organized crime activities into legitimate businesses has further fueled the proliferation and growth (Musumeci, 2014). Although the full economic impact of organized crime is difficult to assess, current estimates place the figure at approximately $1 trillion annually on a global basis (Organized crime, 2016).

Although the broad definition of organized crime used by the FBY can include virtually any criminal enterprise intended to generate illegal profits, the specific practices that are included in the RICO Act include the following federal-level crimes:

• Bribery;

• Sports Bribery;

• Counterfeiting;

• Embezzlement of Union Funds;

• Mail Fraud;

• Wire Fraud;

• Money Laundering;

• Obstruction of Justice;

• Murder for Hire;

• Drug Trafficking;

• Prostitution;

• Sexual Exploitation of Children;

• Alien Smuggling;

• Trafficking in Counterfeit Goods;

• Theft from Interstate Shipment; and, • Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property;

In addition, the following practices are state-level crimes:

• Murder;

• Kidnapping;

• Gambling (in jurisdiction where it is outlawed);

• Arson;

• Robbery;

• Bribery;

• Extortion; and, • Drugs (Organized crime, 2016).

Although it is reasonable to posit that all of these activities can be lucrative criminal enterprises, two activities in particular, drug trafficking and money laundering operations, have been the focus of increasing law enforcement as discussed below.

Drug trafficking

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2016) defines drug trafficking as “a global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws” (Drug trafficking, 2016, para. 1). There has been a concerted nationwide effort to combat drug trafficking, beginning with President Nixon’s “war on drugs” in 1971 (Calderon, 2015). Like the overall economic impact of organized crime in general, the precise amount of illicit proceeds generated by drug trafficking are not known, but the heroin and cocaine trades alone are estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars (Drug trafficking, 2016), estimates that do not even include methamphetamine, Ecstasy and cannabis (Zill & Bergman, 2014). As a result, drug trafficking has become one of the most significant sources of revenues for criminal organizations despite the corresponding multi-billion dollar war on drugs (Calderon, 2015). Indeed, today, the United States is the world’s largest market for illegal drugs (Zill & Bergman, 2014).

Based on its geographic proximity to the U.S. Mexico remains a major source of drugs being trafficked in this country today (Morris, 2012). The potential effects of the recent president-elect’s announced intention to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico remain unclear, but it is reasonable to suggest that major drug cartels will continue to identify ways to smuggle drugs into the U.S. so long as there are large profits to be made (Morris, 2012). Flush with billions of dollars in U.S. cash, it is also little wonder that organized crime groups in Mexico have been able to prosper and grow in power and influence despite aggressive bilateral efforts to combat them. As Morris points out, “Corruption facilitates the operation of Mexico’s vast and powerful criminal-business enterprises while simultaneously debilitating the state’s efforts to confront them” (2012, p. 30).

Given the complexity of the transnational logistics required to engage in drug trafficking, organized crime in nearly always involved at some or all stages of the process. In this regard, Calderon (2015) notes that, “Drug trafficking and organized crime are intertwined and correlated. Drug trafficking has been the origin and is still the main source of income for many criminal organizations” (p. 53). In addition, because of the enormous amounts of cash that are generated by drug trafficking, there are frequently money laundering operations involved as discussed below.

Money laundering operations

The definition of money laundering provided by Black’s Law Dictionary (1990) states that this is “the term used to describe investment or other transfer of money flowing from racketeering, drug transactions, and other illegal sources into legitimate channels so that its original source cannot be traced” (p. 864). As noted above, many organized crime groups reinvest their illicit proceeds in legitimate businesses specifically to increase their influence and to launder “dirty money.” For example, Zill and Bergman (2014) note that, “Like any cash rich business, drug trafficking organizations invest in the legitimate economy of their own country and use investment advisors in financial instruments available in the international marketplace” (p. 3).

The comingling of illicit proceeds with legitimate money makes law enforcement especially problematic. A money-laundering expert with the Drug Enforcement Agency emphasizes that, “[F]rom the very beginning, there is an attempt of integration [of illegitimate and legitimate money]. So when you do go in and try to dissect and pull the drug money out of it, it’s hard because there’s a lot of legitimate money in there” (as cited in Zill and Bergman, 2014, p. 3). Although virtually any legitimate business can be used to launder money, those enterprises that ordinary handle large amounts of cash such as casinos are especially popular among organized crime groups (Strategy to combat transnational organized crime, 2011). Money laundering operations are also difficult to detect due to the increasing prevalence of otherwise-legitimate professionals such as bankers, lawyers, and real estate brokers who are termed organized crime “facilitators (Strategy to combat transnational organized crime, 2011).

Current and emerging intelligence-related methods

Besides participating in numerous international initiatives, the FBI also participates in several domestic task forces targeted at money laundering and drug trafficking (Organized crime, 2016). In this regard the FBI reports that it “works side-by-side with its numerous domestic and international partners to infiltrate, disrupt, and dismantle these groups by targeting their leadership and using sensitive investigative and intelligence techniques in long-term, proactive investigations” (Organized crime, 2016, para. 5). Likewise, in 2011, President Barack Obama implemented a national security strategy designed to address the broad-based challenges that are involved with intelligence-gathering activities for organized criminal activities including money laundering and drug trafficking (Strategy to combat transnational organized crime, 2011). In addition, other initiatives launched by the federal government in recent years that are intended to improve intelligence-gathering include using cyber technologies and cooperation with cybercrime networks in other countries (Strategy to combat transnational organized crime, 2011).


The face of organized crime has changed in fundamental ways since the early 20th century when Italian-Sicilian groups formed the vast majority of these criminal enterprises in the United States. Today, though, organized crime has become a truly global problem that threatens the security interests of the U.S. at home and abroad, and it is reasonable to conclude that a significant portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars being channeled into these criminal organizations is being diverted to terrorist groups. Unfortunately, the war on drugs has been a failure by any measure and the U.S. is the largest market for illegal drugs today, and the revenues from these activities fuel the need for a growing money laundering operation as well. Taken together, it is clear that organized crime will continue to become more sophisticated in the future and a coordinated, global response on the level of the Manhattan Project will be needed to stem this growth.


Calderon, F. (2015, Summer). Drug trafficking and organized crime: Connected but different. Harvard International Review, 36(4), 52-55.

Drug trafficking. (2016). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved from https://

Green, M. (2013, October 1). How the Mob (Museum) was won: Building a history of organized crime in the U.S. UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, 17(2), 101-104.

Kelly, R. J. & Chin, K. L. (1999). Handbook of organized crime in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Morris, S. D. (2012, Spring). Corruption, drug trafficking, and violence in Mexico. The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 18(2), 29-32.

Musumeci, M. (2014, June 16). The impact of organized crime on the legal economy: identifying strategies to disrupt criminal investment in key sectors. United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. Retrieved from organized_crime.

Organized crime. (2016). Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.fbi. gov/investigate/organized-crime.

Strategy to combat transnational organized crime. (2011). The White House. Retrieved from

Zill, O. & Bergman, L. (2014). Do the math: Why the illegal drug business is thriving. Frontline. Retrieved from math.html.

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