19th Century

Organized Crime

The following essay is adapted from a paper, written by Tyler Welch, on the theory behind the concept of organised crime. Tyler is a first year undergraduate student at Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA). Originally from Maine, USA, he is also a talented soccer player and is a striker for his university’s team. Tyler also has another forthcoming article which he will be contributing to this website on terrorist subcultures.

Let us imagine that there is a robber who wants to steal from a convenience store. This robber is fairly intelligent and a few days before plans ahead by first walking into the store to find out where all of the security cameras are placed. He may also take note of the hours that are the most popular for customers to go in. After all of his research and planning, he finally carries out the robbery. This crime was certainly organised and executed in a methodical way, yet most people would not consider this robber’s crime as constituting an example of organised crime, for that term, for most people, often brings up images of the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian Mafiya, or the Yakuza, to name but a few. This post discusses how we should define organised crime and how such criminal networks operate. We will then take a more in depth look at the origins of the Sicilian mafia and discuss their ways and customs.


The cast of Goodfellas – this is the image that most people have of organised crime.

The criminologist, James Finckenauer, highlights some of the problems inherent in defining organised crime, saying that,

“the problem […comes] not from the word crime, but from the word organized’.[i]

Crimes such as murder, robbery, and theft are mala in se (wrong in and of itself). Prostitution, drug dealing, bribery, and in some regions, gambling, are mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited by law).[ii] All of the above offences would require a degree of method in their execution, therefore, “any definition must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised”.[iii] Thus, a satisfactory definition which distinguishes the actions of mafia groups from the two-bit robber is the fact that organised crime is non-ideological; there is a hierarchy and structure under which its members operate; the hierarchy must facilitate continuity, enabling the group to exist even if its leading members are arrested and imprisoned; the highly secretive yet powerful hierarchy is often reinforced by restricting its membership to a chosen few who are highly vetted; and finally traditional organised crime groups must penetrate the “upperworld” of local and sometimes national governments, as well as businesses, through bribery and extortion.[iv]

Not all organised crime groups are organised in the same way, however, for different groups organise themselves differently, as we can see through the illustrations of the “traditional” hierarchy of organised crime groups and the “loose network”. In the first, the “soldiers” would have to go through the underbosses to get to the boss. Likewise, if the authorities were trying to take down the group, they would have to track down some of the members in the lower parts of the chain so that they can get more information on where the head man is and take the organisation down. This is how the mafia in nineteenth-century Sicily and twentieth-century New York typically operated.

Mafia Structure 1

The “Standard” Criminal Network Hierarchy (C) Larrisia Hall

However, organised crime groups require a particular set of conditions under which they can grow and flourish. To understand the origins of a group such as the Sicilian Mafia, we must turn to the political and social history of nineteenth-century Italy. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is well-known as the homeland of the mafia. This island became a part of the nation state of Italy when it was unified under the Royal House of Piedmont-Sardinia in the 1860s. However, Italy at this time and lacked sufficient resources to enforce the law in what had already been an unruly region prior to its unification with Italy, and many of whose inhabitants resented the new regime. Banditry became endemic throughout the southern regions of Italy, and the landowning classes didn’t want their stuff to be taken and vandalized. Since there was no effective police system at the time, the landowning classes turned to private armies, known by the name of mafie, to watch over and protect their estates for a fee. Over time these groups became known as the mafia because they gradually exerted their influence, not only over businesses and farms, but also over local government. The mafia gained a lot of attention at this time, although the people in the mafia rarely call themselves mafia. They rather call it cosa nostra which means “our thing”. These clans are called families or cosche. These families or cosche come together to form a mafia. They all have a strong bond with each other and kinship is applicable as well because everyone is like a brother to one another. Also every mafia has a territory and in the territory they have a monopoly or violence policy. Which means that every business is owned by one of the family members in the mafia and if there is a business that is in operation in the mafias territory and they aren’t willing to pay the mafia they will take matters into their own hands to see that they start paying. Being arranged in such a close knit community comes at a price: no one can leave the mafia because they have to go through an initiation ritual that includes an interrogation, a blood oath to never betray the family, and holding a burning piece of paper. Anyone of the members can move up in the chain of command if they work hard enough because it was a democratic system with an election based on the other family members. To keep track of all these criminals there has to be something to keep them in check. That one thing is honor. A member of the mafia has honor if he always puts the family first and abides by the mafia rules. If a member has no honor they are nothing. There is one sacred term that every member of the mafia must follow and that term is Omerta. That word signifies a code of silence which forbids mafia speaking about the group to non-members, which in practice is a prohibition upon speaking to the police. No two members of the mafia, furthermore, can introduce themselves to one another and only a third member can introduce the two if he knows they are both members of the mafia. Thus, organised crime groups such as the Sicilian mafia are subcultures because their moral values, and the activities they engage in, set them apart from mainstream society with its legal and cultural apparatus.

mafia Structure 2

The Modern “Loose Network” Structure. Source: Source: Klaus von Lampe, “Understanding Organised Crime in Germany” (1995)

While the traditional hierarchy worked well for organised crime groups in the twentieth century, their activities could be significantly disrupted by the authorities if the boss was imprisoned, and the group’s activities could even cease. From the mid-twentieth century, therefore, organised crime groups evolved into a more unorthodox structure called a “loose structure”, facilitated in part by globalisation from the 1980s onwards. In the second image, we can see there are many operational sub-units in the organisation. There is no single place to find the head boss because they are all equally important which makes it very difficult for the authorities to track them down and eliminate because there is no clearly identifiable center of power; the latter structure also facilitates continuity more effectively than the traditional hierarchy does; as no single unit depends upon another, if the leader of one unit is tracked down and sent to prison, the organisation simply carries on.

Although Finckenaur says that that organised crime groups are non-ideological, they are essentially capitalist, and aim to provide people with some type of service.[v] Thus,

making a profit, through whatever means are considered necessary, is in fact the primary goal of organised criminal groups.[vi]

Nowadays many Americans, for example, want sex, drugs, opportunities to gamble, and to obtain outlawed arms, and so organised crime groups are only too ready to make money by providing consumers with such things through illegal means such as drug and people trafficking, and loan-sharking. Often, as in the case of the Sicilian mafia, they even provide protection from robbery, and so they charge law-abiding businesses owners a fee (what we could call extortion). On occasion, organised crime groups invest in restaurants and bars gains to get respectable social status, and present themselves as some type of Robin Hood figures by giving back to the local community. Their legitimate businesses are, of course, also an effective way to launder money.[vii]

Although there is not a universal agreement on the definition of organised crime, the definitions provided by Finckenaur and Galeotti provide a good basis from which researchers and policy makers can move forward in combatting organised crime. This can only be done when the history of these groups is considered; when their hierarchies are analyzed; and by asking questions of mainstream governments such as whether it is productive to prohibit things which people want, when organised crime groups are only too willing to supply them. Finally, it should be remembered that it will always be difficult for anybody to fully investigate the workings of these groups because they form highly secretive subcultures.


[i] James Finckenaur, ‘‘Problems of Definition: What Is Organised Crime?’, Trends in Organised Crime, 8: 3 (2005), 63-83 (p. 64). Crime itself can be straightforwardly defined more simply as an action which is an offence and punishable by law.

[ii] Ibid., p. 65. A simpler form of this is there are actions that can be committed and by the general public it is looked down upon but other actions can be up for debate in what is right and wrong based on preference and the area where the rules are made. Much of the Middle East operates under Islamic laws, which forbid gambling, with one possible penalty for this being beheading. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, gambling is very lenient. In almost every city center there is a casino or place to make bets on football matches and no one gets punished for it.

[iii] Ibid., p. 64.

[iv] Ibid., p. 65. Finckenaur recognizes something very important in defining organised crime. Some people may believe that groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda are classified as organized crime but they are not. The criminal organizations actually collaborate with terrorist organizations and the terrorist help in crimes to help finance their own organisation. The difference between the two groups are the ideological and non-ideological sides to them. This means that the organised crime groups go about their business to receive a profit while the terrorist organisations go about their business to advance a political and/or religious agenda.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., p. 67. Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. 1; Mark Galeotti, whose own definition of organised crime is broadly in agreement with Finckenaur’s, sheds further light on our understanding of organised crime networks as a subculture which mirrors the structures of mainstream society, saying that “When societies get organised, so too their criminals; and in this way, organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order.” Further information on organised crime and the Siclian mafia can be found in the following works: John Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004); Petter Gottschalk, ‘How Criminal Organisations Work: Some Theoretical Perspectives’. The Police Journal, 81 (2008), 46-61.

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