Organized Crime

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 The American tradition of daring desperadoes like Jesse James and John Dillinger, has been superseded by the corporate criminal organization.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 gambling, prostitution, 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 prohibition era of the early 20th cent. The efforts of federal officials to enforce the unpopular Volstead Act (see Volstead, Andrew Joseph) 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 Capone 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 Hague in Jersey City, N.J., and James J. (Jimmy) Walker in New York City.

Ultimately public revulsion, furthered by the Wickersham Commission investigation of 1930 (see Wickersham, George Woodward) as well as by many municipal exposés (such as that of Judge Samuel Seabury 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 Luciano (with Mafia 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, Inc. 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 Kefauver 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 Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Organized Crime: Selected full-text books and articles

Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style By Letizia Paoli Oxford University Press, 2003
Gotham Unbound: How New York City Was Liberated from the Grip of Organized Crime By James B. Jacobs; Coleen Friel; Robert Radick New York University Press, 1999
Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld By David E. Kaplan; Alec Dubro University of California Press, 2012
Deciphering the Linkages between Organized Crime and Transnational Crime By Albanese, Jay S Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 1, Fall-Winter 2012
Organizing Portland: Organized Crime, Municipal Corruption, and the Teamsters Union By Donnelly, Robert C Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 104, No. 3, Fall 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Threat Analysis: Organized Crime and Narco-Terrorism in Northern Mexico By Knowles, Gordon James Military Review, Vol. 88, No. 1, January-February 2008
Al Capone: A Biography By Luciano Iorizzo Greenwood Press, 2003
The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America By Lee Bernstein University of Massachusetts Press, 2002
Corruption and Organized Crime By Sandu, Adriana Magdalena; Nitu, Mirela Loredana Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 1, 2013
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State By Peter B. E. Hill Oxford University Press, 2003
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