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Organized Crime - The International Context

united political cultural market

Particularly salient aspects of organized crime in the United States are its apparent durability and the degree to which it has permeated popular culture. Over the decades it has evolved in ways that suggest both an endemic social problem and a distinctly American cultural mythology. Such considerations do not imply, however, that the phenomenon of organized crime is in any sense unique to the United States.

Of course, cross-national comparisons of organized crime levels and activities are exceptionally difficult to make, given considerable variation in legal codes, and the quantity and quality of intelligence information. As a result, generalizations about the kinds of national characteristics that do or do not provide the environment in which organized crime will flourish are always tentative. However, several factors do seem to have real relevance in this respect.

One such factor is the gap that exists between the goods and services which citizens demand and the legal codes that attempt to regulate supply. The experience with alcohol prohibition in the United States (as well as with current drug policies) has convinced many that when laws are designed to regulate illicit markets, organized crime is an inevitability. In the former Soviet Union, an extremely large black market thrived as all forms of individual economic enterprise were illegal. It has been argued that the personnel, who comprise the organized crime groups that have come to be seen as an extremely serious problem in the post-Soviet societies of Eastern Europe, developed their entrepreneurial skills in the context of such market economies.

Traditions and political structures conducive to corruption are also very important to the development of organized crime. The role attributed to American urban political machines is not unique in this respect. The historically authoritarian character of Soviet society encouraged the subversion of the legal control of many forms of entrepreneurial activity and fostered widespread disrespect for the law and political authority. It can be suggested that the immense wealth accumulated by drug cartels in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries when combined with political traditions of one-party rule (as in Mexico or Nigeria, for example) and an immense gap between rich and poor, make political and law enforcement corruption, and as a consequence, organized crime, likely outcomes.

The development of organized crime is also related to geographic location. The proximity of Mexico and Canada to the United States, for instance, has affected the growth of organized crime in both countries. For Mexican crime groups, proximity to the United States provides access to a sizeable and relatively easily penetrable drug market. In the Canadian case, the cultural and social similarities to the United States, and a relatively open border, in addition to several other factors, facilitated the movement northward of major organized crime groups in the 1950s and 1960s. In a different way, according to the U.S. State Department, Chile had avoided, until the closing years of the twentieth century, many of the problems with organized crime that are characteristic of other South American countries due largely to its geographic isolation.

While it is clear that organized crime can emerge out of many different sorts of political contexts, perhaps it is most secure in nations with liberal democratic traditions that emphasize upward mobility and individual achievement. In the United States, cultural approval of the upwardly bound is pervasive and an important part of national ideology. It has often been the case that cultural support of the organized criminal has been no less extensive than for those who have made fortunes in more conventional ways. Not only within their own ethnic communities but also within the wider society, organized crime figures such as Al Capone and John Gotti have emerged as folk heroes and media celebrities.

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