organized crime

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organized crime,

criminal activities organized and coordinated on a national scale, often with international connections. The American tradition of daring desperadoes like Jesse James and John Dillinger, has been superseded by the corporate criminal organization. Firmly rooted in the social structure, it is protected by corrupt politicians and law enforcement officers, and legal advice; it profits from such activities as gamblinggambling
or gaming,
betting of money or valuables on, and often participation in, games of chance (some involving degrees of skill). In England and in the United States, gambling was not a common-law crime if conducted privately.
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, prostitutionprostitution,
act of granting sexual access for payment. Although most commonly conducted by females for males, it may be performed by females or males for either females or males.
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, and the illicit use of narcotics.

Organized crime is not limited to Western countries. The Japanese have the very public and active Yakuza and Boryokudan. During the cold war the Russian Mafia used its connections in the Communist party to establish a vast black market network, and in the power vacuum that followed the fall of Communism the brutal group became even wealthier, more influential, and more successful.

The Prohibition Era

The organized-crime syndicate in the United States is a product of the prohibitionprohibition,
legal prevention of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, the extreme of the regulatory liquor laws. The modern movement for prohibition had its main growth in the United States and developed largely as a result of the agitation of
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 era of the early 20th cent. The efforts of federal officials to enforce the unpopular Volstead Act (see Volstead, Andrew JosephVolstead, Andrew Joseph
, 1860–1947, American legislator, b. Goodhue co., Minn. A lawyer, he held several local offices in Minnesota before serving (1903–23) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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) of 1920 generated the growth of highly organized bootlegging rings with nationwide and international contacts. Although loose alliances were joined among such groups as the Al CaponeCapone, Al
(Alfonso or Alphonse Capone) , 1899–1947, American gangster, b. Naples, Italy. Brought up in New York City, he became connected with organized crime and was the subject of murder investigations.
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 mob of Chicago, the Detroit Purple gang, and the Owney Madden ring of New York City, gang wars and gangland killings were distinctive features of the 1920s. Powerful gangs corrupted local law-enforcement agencies, even gaining access to high-ranking judges and politicians, such as mayors Frank HagueHague, Frank
, 1876–1956, American politician, mayor of Jersey City, N.J., b. Jersey City. He worked his way up through the ranks of the local Democratic machine and was elected (1913) to the city board of commissioners.
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 in Jersey City, N.J., and James J. (Jimmy) WalkerWalker, James John,
1881–1946, American politician, b. New York City. Dapper and debonair, Jimmy Walker, having tried his hand at song writing, engaged in Democratic politics and in 1909 became a member of the state assembly. After studying law at St.
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 in New York City.

Ultimately public revulsion, furthered by the Wickersham Commission investigation of 1930 (see Wickersham, George WoodwardWickersham, George Woodward,
1858–1936, American lawyer and government official, b. Pittsburgh. He began law practice in Philadelphia, and after moving (1882) to New York City, he became a prominent corporation lawyer. As U.S.
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) as well as by many municipal exposés (such as that of Judge Samuel SeaburySeabury, Samuel,
1873–1958, American jurist, b. New York City; great-great-grandson of Samuel Seabury (1729–96). He served on the supreme court (1907–14) and on the court of appeals (1914–16) of New York state.
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 in New York City), led to a crackdown on political corruption. After the repeal (1933) of prohibition, surviving organized crime leaders turned to new avenues of profitable crime, such as labor racketeering, gambling, and narcotics traffic.

The Syndicate

The era of the 1920s had taught organized crime leaders the value of strong political connections and the disadvantages of internecine warfare, but it was not until the 1930s that Lucky LucianoLuciano, Lucky
(Charles Luciano), 1896–1962, American crime boss, b. near Palermo, Sicily, as Salvatore Luciana. His family emigrated in 1906, settling in New York City, where he almost immediately embarked on a life of crime.
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 (with MafiaMafia
, name given to a number of organized groups of Sicilian brigands in the 19th and 20th cent. Unlike the Camorra in Naples, the Mafia had no hierarchic organization; each group operated on its own.
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 connections) and Louis Lepke Buchalter created a tight interstate criminal organization called the Syndicate. It included many crime figures from all over the country in an invisible government, apportioning territorial boundaries, allocating the profits from crime, and punishing those who violated their decrees. The notorious Murder, IncMurder, Inc.,
name given to the band of professional killers who operated (1930–40) throughout the United States as the enforcement arm of the Syndicate, composed of the national heads of organized crime. Originally a gang of neighborhood thugs in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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. enforced Syndicate decisions.

With the trial and the conviction of Luciano, the smashing of Murder, Inc., and the execution of Buchalter, organized crime in the United States appeared to be ended. Luciano was eventually released from prison and deported to Italy, allegedly for services rendered on the New York waterfront during World War II; there, he was reputedly connected with the international drug trade.

The Kefauver Investigation and the Knapp Commission

In 1950–51, the crime-investigating committee of Sen. Estes KefauverKefauver, Carey Estes
, 1903–63, U.S. Senator from Tennessee (1949–63), b. Madisonville, Tenn., known as Estes Kefauver. He became a Chattanooga lawyer and in 1938 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until he entered the Senate in 1949.
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 revealed that organized crime, albeit under new leadership, was still operating. Perhaps a more alarming aspect brought to light by the committee was the aura of respectability achieved by top racketeers who, by removing themselves from direct contact with criminal activities and maintaining legitimate business fronts, had insulated themselves from criminal prosecution. The Kefauver investigation led to a flurry of law-enforcement activity, particularly attempts to deport foreign-born crime kings such as Luciano.

In Nov., 1957, a routine police check in remote Apalachin, N.Y., uncovered a convention of gangland leaders from all over the United States and abroad. The resulting rash of investigations revealed the power and extensive operations of organized crime. The inadequacy and inability of local law-enforcement agencies to cope with organized crime was underscored by the Knapp Commission, which uncovered relations between New York City police and organized crime. The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) estimated that twice as much money was made by organized crime as by all other types of criminal activity combined.

Recent Years

Recent analyses of organized crime point out its similarities to multinational corporate structure: it too has made the transition to a service economy, diversifying and establishing an international commodities market. A 1988 U.S. report on the Cosa Nostra affirmed the bribing of public officials and labor unions, and periodic meetings of the 25 main families to settle disputes. In recent years, Hispanics, Chinese, and other groups have gained a foothold in organized crime through the sale and distribution of drugs in U.S. cities. The collapse of the Soviet Union also helped precipitate the growth of international crime, especially the worldwide trafficking of human beings for prostitution, indentured labor, domestic slavery, child labor, and other illegal practices. Meanwhile, in the last decades of the 20th cent. the traditional Mob increasingly abandoned such blue-collar crime as extortion and construction and trash-removal rackets while continuing its activities in gambling and loan-sharking and turning to such white-collar crime as health insurance fraud, sales of fake telephone cards, and stock swindles.


See G. Taylor, Organized Crime in America (1962); H. Messick, The Silent Syndicate (1966); D. Cressey, Theft of the Nation (1969); R. Salerno, The Crime Confederation (1969); H. Messick and B. Goldblatt, The Mobs and the Mafia (1972); F. Ianni, Black Mafia (1974); A. Block, Organizing Crime (1981); P. Maas, The Valachi Papers (1986); J. Mills, The Underground Empire (1986); A. Vaksberg, The Soviet Mafia (1991); G. Russo, The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (2002); S. E. Scorza, comp., Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime (2007); M. Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (2008); S. Lupo, History of the Mafia (2009); J. Dickie, Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy's Three Mafias (2014).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

organized crime

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Organized Crime


a form of criminal activity carried on in bourgeois countries, primarily the USA, by illegal organizations called syndicates, such as the Mafia and the Cosa Nostra. Organized crime originated with the adoption in the USA in 1920 of Prohibition, or the “dry law,” which made the sale of alcoholic beverages a criminal offense. Prohibition resulted in “bootlegging”—underground, black market trade in alcohol at inflated prices. The colossal profits were a stimulus for the formation of gangs of bootleggers, the competition among which developed into bloody battles. By the time Prohibition was repealed in the early 1930’s, criminal organizations had already taken shape as a variety of business in most states.

Organized crime in its present form involves a considerable number of people (about 5,000 in the USA) and is characterized by specialization of function and ties between states on a nationwide scale. The structure of organized crime follows the principle of vertical subordination. There are shippers, producers, wholesalers, and retailers; members of different levels of the syndicate often do not know one another. The group that receives the profits and exercises authority is separate from the group that engages directly in action. The upper leadership of the syndicate concerns itself chiefly with putting together criminal conspiracies and aiding and abetting crime. Membership in a syndicate usually involves participation in more than one type of criminal activity. Groups of professional killers who eliminate “objectionable” persons play an important role in the syndicates.

Organized crime encompasses the “rackets,” or extortion under threat of reprisal, and also the supplying of illegal goods and the offering of prohibited services. Examples are gambling, loan-sharking, the sale of narcotics, the distribution of pornography, and the maintenance of hideouts. Organized crime has also penetrated “legal” spheres of business and the corrupt, or “yellow,” labor unions. To ensure their security the agents of organized crime suborn and corrupt the state administrative machinery. Organized crime constitutes graphic evidence of the crisis of the capitalist state and society and of the corruption of the bourgeois state machinery.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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