The pirates who plundered and looted merchant vessels in the seventeenth century and who undertook large-scale trade in stolen goods may be considered among the earliest organized crime groups to make their appearance in the Western world. Many of the activities that are associated with contemporary organized crime, such as prostitution, gambling, theft, and various forms of extortion, were also evident in the frontier communities of the nineteenth-century American West.
However, most observers locate the origins of the distinctly American style of organized crime in the urban centers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a fundamental way, urban conditions provided the kind of environment in which organized crime could flourish. The large population sizes provided a "critical mass" of offenders, customers, and victims and thereby facilitated the development of profitable markets in illicit goods and services. Moreover, the size and density of urban networks allowed criminal forms of organization to become diversified and encouraged the growth of essential support services (such as those offered by corrupt politicians or police).
These early forms of criminal organization were typically tied to local areas and because of the highly segregated character of the city, they had important ethnic dimensions. Irish neighborhoods, for instance, gave rise to street gangs with names like "The Bowery Boys" and the "O'Connell's Guards" and in Chinese, African American, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods criminal organization similarly reflected local cultural and economic circumstances. Neighborhood conditions provided ample opportunity for local criminal entrepreneurs who were willing and able to engage in a various forms of extortion or illicit marketeering.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, residents of the "Little Italies" of many eastern industrialized urban areas had to contend with a crude form of protection racket known as "La Mano Nera" or "the Black Hand." Those members of the local community who were better off financially might receive an anonymous note demanding that a sum of money be paid to the writer. If payment was not forthcoming, victims were typically warned that they could expect to have their businesses bombed or the safety of their family members jeopardized. Customarily, the extortion demand was signed with a crude drawing of a black hand. While the receiver of the letter (as well as other members of the community) were led to believe that the Black Hand was a large and powerful organization, it is more likely that the extortion was the work of individuals or a small group of offenders who used their victims' fear of secret societies (and often their fear of the police) to coerce payment.
While most forms of criminal organization prior to World War I were relatively small-scale operations, the situation changed dramatically with the introduction of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 16 January 1919 and went into effect one year later. The intention of the national experiment was to control alcohol use through the prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. In essence, national prohibition had created an illegal market unlike any that had existed before.
It can be argued that national prohibition facilitated the consolidation of the power of criminal organizations. Although pre-Prohibition criminal enterprises had often been profitable, the revenue potential of Prohibition was unprecedented. While precise estimates of the amount of money that flowed through organized crime groups are difficult to make, it is clear that the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol had become a major industry. In 1927, for instance, the U.S. Attorney's Office estimated that the criminal organization of the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone had an annual income of $105 million. In subsequent years, the profits from the sale of illegal alcohol in Chicago and other cities funded the movement of criminal organizations into diverse sectors of both the licit and the illicit economies.
The importation and distribution of illegal alcohol also encouraged national and international linkages between criminal groups. For instance, the involvement of Canadian organized crime figures in smuggling operations that moved alcohol to the United States facilitated the eventual control by American organized crime groups of Canadian criminal operations in cities such as Toronto and Montreal. On a national level, intergroup cooperation was evidenced by regional conferences of those involved in the illicit liquor business. One such major gathering of crime figures was held in Atlantic City in 1929 and was attended by representatives from criminal organizations located in several major urban areas.
Importantly, the profitability of those industries that subverted national prohibition fostered an environment of widespread corruption in several cities. For many members of the general public as well as many law enforcement and elected officials, prohibition lacked any real moral authority. The relationships between criminal organizations and the political machines that held sway in many cities were stabilized during Prohibition, and the intricate connections between these sectors of the urban social fabric were maintained for decades to come.
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not affect the business of organized crime to the degree it affected many aspects of the legitimate economy. After Prohibition ended in 1933, major criminal organizations diversified and became increasingly powerful in the process. Gambling, loan-sharking, and the growth industry of narcotics distribution became important sources of criminal revenue as repeal threatened the proceeds from the illegal sale of alcohol.
An increasingly significant area of enterprise during this period was "racketeering." While the term may be defined many different ways, it generally refers to the variety of means by which organized crime groups, through the use of violence (actual or implied), gain control of labor unions or legitimate businesses. Often, though, the relationships that joined organized crime groups to unions or legitimate business were mutually advantageous. The leadership of a labor union, for example, might seek to exploit the violent reputation of those involved in organized crime in order to pressure an employer to meet a demand for concessions. Similarly, a business owner might attempt to control the competitive character of the legitimate marketplace or to avert labor troubles through affiliation with those willing to use violence and intimidation in the pursuit of economic goals. The International Longshoremen's Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are among the best known examples of labor organizations affected by racketeering.
In 1950, organized crime became a highly visible part of American popular culture. A series of televised congressional hearings chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver sought not only the testimony of law enforcement experts but also of supposed members of organized crime networks. In general, the latter type of witness tended to remain silent or to otherwise express an unwillingness to provide evidence. These refusals made for startling television viewing and were interpreted by many observers as unambiguous proof of the sinister character of the problem of organized crime.
In its final report the Kefauver committee concluded that organized crime in America was largely under the control of an alien conspiracy known as "the Mafia." The Kefauver committee argued that the organization, which was said to have its origins in Sicily, was firmly in control of gambling, narcotics, political corruption, and labor racketeering in America. The Mafia, it was suggested, cemented its power through the use of violence, intimidation, and corruption.
The influence of the Kefauver committee in shaping postwar perceptions of organized crime as the product of an alien conspiracy, which subverts American social structure rather than emerging from it, cannot be underestimated. Its findings influenced significantly the ways in which policymakers, journalists, academics, and members of the general public would think about the problem of organized crime for decades to come. However, critics have charged that the committee was more engaged by the process of public drama than by a search for the truth. In this respect, it can be argued that the committee had very little proof upon which to base the startling conclusions that it reached about the nationwide conspiracy of ethnic criminals.
A number of developments in subsequent decades nevertheless appeared to be consistent with the findings of the Kefauver committee. In 1957, an apparent conclave of Mafia members was raided in the small upstate town of Apalachin, New York. In 1963, another congressional investigation of organized crime (known popularly as the McClellan committee) heard testimony from a supposed Mafia insider, named Joseph Valachi. According to Valachi, the control of organized crime in America rested with an organization known as "La Cosa Nostra" rather than the Mafia. Valachi described the character of the organization, the oaths that its members took, and recounted the historical process by which the modern La Cosa Nostra was formed after a purge of the older and more traditional Mafia leadership of the 1930s. Once again, critics pointed out that very little of what Valachi had to say could be corroborated independently and that he himself had a record of lying to law enforcement authorities when it suited his purpose. Still, Valachi's testimony helped strengthen a kind of ideological and moral consensus around the view of organized crime as an alien parasitic conspiracy rather than as a problem indigenous to American social life. Moreover, his testimony and the work of the McClellan committee more generally legitimated the subsequent development of investigative approaches to organized crime, including the widespread use of wiretaps, witness immunity, and other strategies facilitated by the passage of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to examine all aspects of crime and justice in America. One of the task forces associated with this commission was charged with the responsibility of investigating the nature and dimensions of organized crime. The report of that task force, shaped principally by the well-known criminologist Donald Cressey, reinforced and extended the view of organized crime as an alien ethnic conspiracy. According to the task force, La Cosa Nostra was comprised of approximately five thousand members organized within twenty-four "families" each of which was associated with a particular regional sphere of influence. Moreover, these families were said to be organized in terms of a rigid hierarchical chain of command. The highest level of decision-making in the organization was a "National Commission" that served as a combination legislature, supreme court, and board of directors.
While a number of critics dissented, there was a widespread consensus by the 1970s that organized crime did indeed reflect an Italian American hegemony. The apparent findings of investigative commissions and task forces were underwritten by films such as The Godfather, The Valachi Papers, and Mean Streets as well as by other elements of popular culture. At the same time, it was increasingly acknowledged that other groups were beginning to make significant inroads in organized crime. Typically described in terms of their ethnicity, such groups were said to include African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Russians. The powerful character of earlier organized crime imagery affected the ways in which such groups were labeled by the mass media and by relevant policy communities and it became common to speak of the growing power of the black, Mexican, or Russian "Mafias."
By the 1980s many observers had come to the conclusion that whatever control La Cosa Nostra exerted over organized crime was in decline. The systems of widespread corruption that had emerged out of Prohibition typically involved well-articulated relationships between organized crime groups on the one hand and established political machines on the other. These machines, which facilitated the centralization of police and urban political corruption, had largely disappeared by the 1970s. Moreover, because municipal policing had become more professionalized and because federal agencies had begun to develop an increasing interest in the activities of organized crime, the bases of large-scale, long-term corruption had been undermined.
The passage of new legislation aimed at the control of organized crime and the aggressive prosecution of cases involving Italian organized crime figures also did much to weaken the hold that La Cosa Nostra had on licit and illicit businesses. Perhaps most important in this respect was the passage of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act and related statutes. The members of Italian American organizations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Boston, and elsewhere were effectively prosecuted and high-visibility cases were brought against well-known figures such as John Gotti and the heads of the five New York crime families were seen as clear proof of the power of the prosecutorial assault.
It is also worth noting that the decline within urban areas of traditional Italian communities and the movement of second and third generations to the suburbs removed from cities much of the popular support that many organized crime figures had previously enjoyed. In addition, it has been suggested that the continued tendency of the Mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) to recruit new members from a dwindling pool of uneducated and violent felons did little to ensure the adaptability of the organization as the business of organized crime became more complex at the end of the twentieth century. In addition, the gains made by other ethnic groups often came at the expense of the Italian American crime syndicate's interests. The traditional control of the heroin markets was lost to Mexican and Asian groups whose strategies for importation of the drug did not depend on the muscle that the Mafia may have been able to exert for so long against the New York waterfront. Similarly, the very lucrative cocaine business was under the control of Colombian cartels rather than Cosa Nostra families. The cartels required neither the financing nor the private violence that the Italian syndicate might have been able to lend to the operation of an illicit market. Such groups were themselves well financed and in possession of their own fearsome reputations regarding the use of violence to settle disputes or to threaten competition.
The concern in the 1980s and 1990s about the emergence of new organized groups was accompanied by a concern about the increasingly transnational character of organized crime. This crime trend has been understood, in large part, as an outcome of the post–cold war reconfiguration of national and economic boundaries. The reduction in trade restrictions, the development of global systems of finance and telecommunications, the increasingly transparent nature of national borders, and the dramatic internal changes in many nations (such as those in the former Soviet Union) made it easier for criminal conspirators to expand their operations internationally. Such operations are tracked, investigated, and prosecuted with great difficulty since effective enforcement requires levels of international cooperation among policing agencies from different nations that often vary markedly regarding their enforcement priorities and the resources available to them.
Police intelligence during the period suggested, for instance, that organized crime groups from the former Soviet Union, Asia, and Italy were forming partnerships among themselves as well as with drug merchants in Central and South America. As in the case of legitimate business, such foreign expansions resulted from the desire to engage new markets. The links between Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia, for example, reflected an interest on the part of the cartels to enter European markets where, as compared to the United States, cocaine could be sold at a higher price and where drug enforcement activity was less aggressive. Estimates of the economic impact of transnational crime are difficult to make and run as high as several hundred billion dollars annually.
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