What is Organized Crime?

Jun 15 2015

1.  Introduction

Distinct from conventional crimes, “organized crime” involves the commission of series crimes by criminal groups. The offences range from the traditional piracy and slave trade to the present day cybercrime and nuclear smuggling. The Italian Mafia, the Chinese Triads, the Colombian drug cartels, the Japan Yakuza and the Nigerian Criminal Groupsare examples of organized criminal groups.

Organized criminal groups are booming dramatically throughout the world. Just looking at the known Mafias, there was an increase from 785 in 1990 to 8 000 in 1996. Besides, the escalation in figure, the problem gets worse, as organized crime causes massive damage compared to ordinary crimes. For instance the damage cause by organized crime in a year is estimated 13 to 19 billion $ USD for Australia, while, it reached 42.2 billion$ USD for Canada. 

Noticing the problem, international as well as national initiatives are projected to combat organized crime. On top of other things, the fight against organized crime necessitates clear definition. This is crucial, as practitioners as well as academicians need to have a clear understanding of the concept in order to analyse and tackle the problem effectively.

This paper will discuss the concept of “organized crime” as defined under international and national laws. Moreover it will look at the structure, operation, aims and victims of organized crime. It also critically analyses the present definition of “organized crime”. Last but not least, based on the discussion and critics, it will suggest solutions on how to define “organized crime”.

2.  Definition of “Organized Crime”

Although, no one can tell the first time inscription of “organized crime”, it is assumed, it was used for the first time in the 1896 New York criminal annual report. Ever since that time, various disciplines like; International relations, sociology, criminology, international law, penal law, have tried to define the concept of “organized crime”.

An effort to define organized crime is challenging, as there is a dilemma whether the term “organized” indicates the offenders or the crime. Some argue the term “organized” represents, offenders that are organized in a group, while, others claim it stands for, crimes that are committed in a systematic and planned manner.

Besides the confusion created by the term, the diversity of criminal organizations has also contributed for the multiplicity of definitions. This can be inferred from researches conducted in the area. For instance, organized criminal groups found in Nigeria and Zambia are describe as, educated and assimilated with the governmental and lead sophisticated life. While those found in Sweden are neither connected to the government nor educated. On the other hand, the criminal group in USA has been described as migrant workers, most of whom are illiterate, unsophisticated and ready to use violence.

The dilemma associated with the term and diversity of organized criminal groups has forced scholars, practitioners, and legislators to define the concept of “organized crime” in several ways. Nevertheless, organised crime legislation can generally be divided into two. The first category consists of law that define “organized crime” by criminalizing certain types of offenses if committed by organized criminal groups. Whereas, the second category define “organized crime” by criminalizing membership in groups considered as criminal organized groups.

For instance, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) defines “organized crime” taking the second category and provides;

‘Organized criminal group’ shall mean a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefits.’

This definition includes organized criminal groups and networks that benefit from financial as well as non-financial activities. For instance, it includes organized groups that benefit from sexual gratitude from child pornography. Nevertheless, excludes groups like terrorists and insurgents as their main objective is neither to benefit from financial nor material, rather to achieve socio-political goals.

Comparably, the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation (SARPCCO)defined “organized crime” following the first category of organized crime legislation and provide;

‘Organised crime means the illegal activities carried out by an organised criminal group or groups of persons, however loosely or tightly organised, operating over a period of time and having the aim of committing serious crimes through concerted action by using intimidation, violence, corruption or other means in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.’

The definition stipulated by SARPCCO takes a broader scope, since it did not limit the scope of “organized crime” like UNOTC only to serious crime, rather criminalized the commission of any criminal acts executed by organized criminal groups.

In additional to the international legislations, “organized crime” is also defined by national laws. For instance under German law “organized crime is defined as;

‘Organised crime is the planned commission of criminal offences determined by the pursuit of profit and power which, individually or as a whole, are of considerable importance and involve more than two persons, each with his/her own assigned tasks, who collaborate for a prolonged or indefinite period of time.’

This definition provides a strict requirement as it excludes accidental offences by organized criminal groups. It also requires the commission to be both for the purpose of profit and power.

On the other hand, under Russian legislation the term “organized crime” is defined as

‘the functioning of stable, hierarchical associations, engaged in crime as a form of business, and setting up a system of protection against public control by means of corruption.’

Comparable definition of “organized crime” is also found under other national legislation. However, as has been shown in the above paragraphs, there is no general definition of “organized crime”. However, based on literatures on the subject matter over the past 35 years, it was possible to deduce the general concept of “organized crime” as defined currently. This stipulates as;

‘A continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works from illicit activities that is often in great public demand. It is continuing existence is maintained through the use of force, threat, monopoly control and/or the corruption of public officials.’

The current definition of “organized crime” designates the perception towards the features that represent the concept. As a result, in the coming topics the writer will discuss and criticise, the present definition using the common features such as; structure, operation, aims and victims of organized criminal groups as they are used to understand the present definition of “organized crime”.

3.  Structure of Organized Criminal Groups

Organized criminal groups are commonly perceived as illegal enterprises whose structure and management are well-defined. Nevertheless, in reality, organized criminal groups can be tightly or loosely structured. This can be described by using features like; chain of command, size and ethnic composition of organized criminal groups.

Based on these features, the structure of organized criminal groups can be divided into two. The first division designates bureaucratic or corporate like organized criminal groups, while, the second division represents patron-client network organized criminal groups.

Bureaucratic or corporate organized criminal group is characterised by tight and complex structure in which command streams from superior to subordinates. Power is inherent to the position rather than to a specific person. In most instances, the hierarchy comprises specialists assigned based on the labour division. Moreover, this type of organization is characterised by members from same ethnicity, social background, kinship, race or criminal record. Additionally, these types of groups are governed by rules and regulations, which range from administration of profit to disciplinary measures.

Most traditional organized criminal groups can be described as bureaucratic or corporate like criminal organizations. The Chinese Triads, which is one of the largest and strongest criminal groups, ever since its foundation in 1761, is good example. The groups are well-known for their strict membership requirements; among other things membership is highly dependent on ethnicity. The Chinese Triads’ structure and strict rules is also identified in one of its branches called Tongs. This group structure includes members from the same tribe. The bosses are elected once or twice per annum. The structure includes; president at the highest chain of command, followed by vice president, treasurer, auditor, and a public relation officer.

Upon the introduction of new investigative techniques like electronic surveillance, most bureaucratic types of organized criminal groups were easily targeted by law enforcement agencies. This forced them to shift form the traditional bureaucratic kind of structure to a new type of structure called patron-client organized criminal structure. The new type is known by it loose, flexible and decentralized structure. It benefits organized criminal groups on various grounds, on top of everything; it benefited them by minimizing the risk of law enforcements.

Most modern day organized criminal groups can be best described by patron-client organized criminal structure, as they are recognized by their fluid, flexible and pragmatic characteristics. Additionally, though organized criminal groups might have members from the same family or clan, they no more relay in such bonds, rather they tend to work with individuals whose aim is to benefit from the criminal networks.

The Russian organized criminal group in USA are good example of the modern day organized criminal groups. The group is not singly structured entity, rather loosely structured criminal groups, having members from different origins including; Armenia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia. The Russian organized criminal group is estimated to have 12 to 15 networks with an estimated 5 000 to 6 000 members. Each network is characterised by lack of clear leadership as individuals cannot be neither by their identified nor by the power they possess. Their structure has helped them to expand worldwide. Accordingly, an estimated number of 200 large Russian organized criminal groups operate in 58 countries.

The change in structure is also confirmed by research conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That was conducted on 40 criminal organizations found in 16 countries. The finding of the research has revealed, the modern day organized criminal groups cannot be described by their social or ethnic composition. Similar result was reached by a study conducted on 3 000 suspected organized criminal groups in Germany. In which it was found 37% were German,13.5% Turkish,5.6% Polish, 5.5% Italian, 3.7% Vietnamese, 2.9% Russian, 7.3% Yugoslavian and 23.7% Others.

Noting how the structure of organized criminal groups is transforming through time, one can identify the deviation of the present definition of “organized crime” from the reality. As has been discussed above, the present organized criminal groups cannot be described as ‘continuing criminal enterprises’ as they are not structured like enterprises, rather they are best described as loosely structured. Additionally, though the general perception of organized criminal groups is a composition of members from the same ethnic or social background, as has been identified, the modern organized criminal groups are heterogeneous in character. 

As discussed above, the structure of organized criminal groups is changing over time. This has its own impact on their operation. This issue will be the centre of discussion under the coming topic.

4.  Operation of Organized Criminal Groups

Most organized criminal groups emerge and develop in countries experiencing upheaval, economic chaos and social problems. Normally, violence, force, threat, monopoly and corruption are considered intrinsic elements of criminal organizations. As organized criminal groups dependent on these elements for their existence, operation and continuity. Moreover, organized criminal groups are regarded as, enterprises that operate in rational manner by proving illegal goods and services that have great demand in the public.

Most organized criminal groups intertwine their operation with legitimate business. As it lessen the suspicion from law enforcement agencies, while increasing the opportunity to launder money. For example criminal organizations in Belgium are engaged in legitimate business such as; Jewellery retail stores, restaurants and hotels; while in France they are identified in the real estate, golf courses, casinos and private clinics.

Usually the traditional organized criminal groups depend on already existing institutions and financial structures that are developed by states. As the institutions are designed for longer time, these criminal organizations plan to generate profit for extended period of time through these institutions.

In contrast, the operation of the modern organized criminal groups is characterised by immediate economic gain. Using their adaptable and flexible nature, the modern organized criminal groups take advantage of new environments that are favourable to accomplish their plan.For instance in UK, loosely criminals networks are identified working for specific time and dissolve as soon as they benefit from the crime.

Moreover, unlike the traditional organized criminal groups, the modern organized criminal groups operate trans-nationally. A research conducted on this issue has shown that majority of the modern criminal organized groups operate under multi-jurisdictions.

Furthermore, although organized criminal groups are often mentioned in relation with illegal activities, they have also been identified contributing in the socio-political developments of the society; especially in political campaigns and elections. A good example in this regard is the well-known drug trafficker Pablo Escobar who runs for Colombian parliamentarian election and created a political party.

Moreover, though organized criminal organizations have been described as rival enterprises for monopolistic, the reverse has been witnessed by the modern criminal organizations as they share and work in collaboration. For instance, the Turkish organized criminal groups that are engaged in the illegal market of heroin in UK were found assisted by the Eastern European organized criminal group in the laundering of the proceeds of the crime.

As described above, though “organized crime” is generally defined as ‘continuing enterprise’, the above discussions have shown that, the modern organized criminal groups operate for immediate benefits. Moreover, although the operation of organized criminal groups is generally restricted to illegal activities, as shown in the above discussions, they also take part in legitimate undertakings, besides their participation in the socio-political sphere of the community. Considering these facts, it is clear the present definitions of “organized crime” do not comprise all operations by organized criminal groups.

Although organized criminal groups are identified both in legal and illegal, as well as taking part in socio-political issues, their objectives has not been discussed. Thus, in the succeeding topic, aims of organized criminal groups will be discussed.  

5.  Aims of Organized Criminal Groups

Organized criminal groups can be tightly or loosely structured, they might also be found operating in legitimate as well as illegitimate activities, nevertheless regardless of their difference in structure and operation, organized criminal groups, generally strive to get power and money. Hence, social doctrines, political beliefs, ideological and moral concerns are not the concerns of criminal organizations.

The Yakuzan of Japan has helped the Emperor of Japan in supressing political opponents. Likewise, the Italian Mafia are known for their participation in election campaign in Italy. However, these activities are done with the objective of profiting out of the process and not with political, ideological or social concerns.

The above two paragraphs reflect the general aims of organized criminal groups; however, it does not represent the entire picture. As there are organized criminal groups having equivalent structure and operation, nonetheless with different objectives. The writing of scholars also shows the possibility of organized criminal groups to operate for ideological and political objectives.

The most sited examples in this regard are terrorists, whosemain aim is to attack the American government and its alias. Like the other organized criminal groups, terrorists use force, violence or threat to committee crimes. They also use and benefit from globalization, new technologies and prefer to operate in weak or failed states. Accordingly, though the main objectives of terrorists are ideological and political beliefs, like the other criminal organizations, they also committee crimes in order to finance their operation. For instance, it has been revealed by a research that at least 30 terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, finance their operation by selling drugs.

Insurgents which are political-driven groups are other example. Though insurgents differ from organized criminal groups mainly in their aim, like terrorists, insurgents are involved in crimes like; drugs trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling in order to finance their operation. For instance the Taliban insurgents are able to finance their political agenda from the earnings of drug trafficking that is estimated to reach US $ 125 million per annum.

Besides the commonly mentioned terrorist and insurgents, the skin head (Neo Nazi) group that advocate white race as the best race chosen by God, while regarding the other races as burden to the white race that should be eliminated are another example. This group also have similar characteristics of the ordinary criminal organizations except their difference in aim. Similar to other criminal groups, this group also commit crime with the aim of furthering their ideological belief.

The Satanic churches that encourage followers to get involved in evil rituals and enjoy the pleasure of the world, can also be equated with criminal originations, as the followers committee crimes like; child molestation, incest, sexual harassments and assaults, promiscuous with the aim of accomplishing their goals.

The above cited examples show the other side of organized criminal groups, which are excluded from the present definitions of “organized crime”. As the current concept of “organized crime” focus on criminal organizations that are profit oriented, it has excludes criminal organizations that are political, social and spiritual motived. Accordingly, it is obvious that, the present concept of “organized crime” does not cover all aspects of the problem.

6.  Victims of “Organized Crime”

Offences that are commonly association to organized crime such as; drug and human trafficking are known to target huge portion of the population. For instance according to the ILO research, it is estimation that 2 450 000 individuals are victims of human trafficking. While an estimated number of 172 million to 250 million adults use illicit drug in 2007 alone.

Since, organized criminal groups are knows for using violence and threats, undoubtedly, there are severally victims of organized crime. However, it is almost impossible to come up with estimation, like that of human and drug trafficking. This is attributed by facts; as the concept of “organized crime” is fluid that cannot be defined to specific crime or operation. Moreover, as some of the victims are criminals, they will abstain from reporting the incident.

Although, the victims of “organized crime” are not estimated, the crime is regarded as a threat to security and stability of the world. This is also confirmed by the 2004 United Nations report, which listed the contemporary top six threats of the world that includes organised crime beside civil war, environment degradation, and genocide. For this reason, though several researches have pointed out the impacts of “organized crime”, when it comes to victims they are forced to specify “organized crime” as ‘victimless crime’. However, it is agreed that organized crime victimise every citizen.

Though, “organized crime” is generally pictured as a threat to security and stability of countries, this does not demonstrate the entire image. As some scholars have pointed out, “organized crime” benefits some nations, while devastating others. Especially in countries where the government has failed to provide social benefits and security, organized crime has been identified as the only survival and security mechanism for the public. For example, forty per cent of Afghanistan’s economy is derived from drug trafficking that operates through criminal networks. This drug trafficking has been a means of survival for significant portion of the society.

Additionally, as organized criminal groups are engaged in legitimate business, like any enterprise, they are found contributing to the economy. Particularly for countries that are going through economic crises, organized criminal groups are identified contributing for the economic improvement by creating job opportunities.

The above discussion, though it does not totally abort the harm inflicted by organized criminal groups, it also shows the benefit of “organized crime”. This defeats the present understanding of “organized crime” as a problem and threat to human beings and shows the positive side of organized criminal groups.

 The previous discussion regarding the structure, operation, aims and victims of “organized crime” has shown the exclusion of some groups that can fit to the concept of “organized crime”. This shows the exclusion of some criminal organizations from being recognized as organized criminal groups, which has a direct impact treatment and response of the criminal justice system. As most countries use especial mechanism to combat “organized crime”. This will raise a question how the concept of “organized crime” should be defined. This is the emphasis of the following topic

7.  What should be the Scope of “Organized Crime”?

The concept of “organized crime” embraces incompatible notions; it can be defined as; loosely or tightly structured, homogeneous or heterogeneous composed, legal or illegal enterprise, as profitable or non-profitable undertaking. As the features, that express the concept are contradictory, it is difficult to define “organized crime”.

Nevertheless, there are two proposals on how to define the concept; the first group claim, “organized crime” should be broadly defined to include criminal organizations that fit the context of “organized crime”. Consequently they argue for the inclusion of criminal organizations regardless of their structure, aims and operations as long as they fit the context. They enhancement their argument by citing practical models like terrorists, whose methods and strategies are similar to the ordinary criminal groups, besides the enormous damage they inflict.  

On the other hand, the second group, contend the concept of “organized crime” to be defined narrowly. Those who support the second view acknowledge the existence of organized criminal groups that can fit the context of “organized crime”. However, they argue, for the definition to have a narrow scope as the main objective of defining the concept is to combat “organized crime” effectively.

As mentioned under the introduction of this paper; one of the main aims of defining “organized crime” is to come up with a definition for professionals and academicians. However, if the concept of “organized crime” is defined broadly to include notations like terrorism, which, do not even have a precise definition, the purpose of defining will be hampered.

Additionally, the concept of “Organized crime” should not be broadened to include these types of organized criminal groups, since these organized criminal groups are one time phenomena or a threat to few governments, which does not represent the entire context.

The problem to have a broad definition of “organized crime” can be witnessed by looking at US experience, which has a broad definition of “organized crime”. Though the broad definition might not seem a problem by itself, it has created a problem for US law enforcement officers as they were not able to effectively utilize, the million dollars allocated to them in the fight against organized crime. As, the definition of “organized crime” is too elastic and incorporates several offences, that hampered the efforts of law enforcement.

Moreover, though the right of individuals who are under investigation and prosecution can only be violated under strict and exceptional circumstances. If “organized crime” is broadly defined, as most countries allow the use of especial investigation and prosecution techniques like electronic surveillance and undercover, that can violate human rights such as, the right to privacy, the rights of suspects will be violated not as exception rather in most occasions.

As a result, the writer believes the concept of “organized crime” should be defined narrowly taking note of the common and present threats caused by “organized crime”.

8.  Conclusion

The concept of “organized crime” has been defined in various ways. However, it has features that are intrinsic to the concept, that persist to exist till now. Hence, the present definition of “organized crime” should consider features that are inherent to the concept, besides emphasizing the main aim of defining “organized crime”. Accordingly, the concept of “organized crime” should be defined narrowly but inclusive of the main features in order to combat the problem effectively.

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Selam Gebretsion

The blogger has LLM in Transnational Criminal Justice and Crime Prevention from the University of Western Cape and Humboldt University. She also has MA in Gender Studies from Addis Ababa University. Currently the blogger is lecturer at the Ethiopian Civil Service University, former public Prosecutor at the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice.