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Feature Articles


May 2006
Defining Organized Crime

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

The concept of organized crime has been defined by using the traditional Sicilian/American mafia model. That model is now outdated. The current Nigerian global criminality provides an instructive example.

     Crime is a phenomenon that adapts to the changing contours of the society in which it is embedded, following closely its economic and social development, and reproducing its mechanisms. The more complex the society, the more sophisticated the criminal culture needed to subvert and exploit its weaknesses. The development of criminal means evolves from the opportunistic violations by individuals to a more and more differentiated crime structure.

     Present day organized crime (OC) is quite different from that of the past. It has the flexibility to change its methods and to fit seamlessly into the dynamics of modern society. A prime example is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, which has succeeded in adjusting with little interruption to a Sicilian economy that changed from village-agrarian based to urban-industrial based. The changes have been many, including the types of investments of Cosa Nostra’s ill-gotten gains. In the first instance wealth was achieved with the progressive acquisition of land. With urbanization and the rise of the managerial class, the concept of wealth has become the acquisition of real property and businesses.

     OC has become a series of networks, a set of alliances, often across national boundaries, both among criminal groups and common criminals. Also, essential to this mix are the links between the underworld and legitimate institutions and white-collar interests, which form a continuum along a spectrum from purely criminal to the purely legal. The criminal seeks to entice "honest" persons to break the law for mutual profit, in some cases to the extent of blurring the distinction between the crook and those he corrupts.

     Trafficking in narcotics is a case in point. Trafficking results in the corruption, threatening and killing of policemen and judges who attempt to impede the flow of illegal drugs and bring to justice the guilty. In turn, the consumers of drugs are sometimes forced by circumstances to commit crimes to obtain the cash to maintain their drug habits. The proceeds from the drug market are laundered and reinvested into the legal economy. The consequence is a variety of crimes—common, economic, organized—that are intertwined, where one result is the function of the others. OC, thus, has an impact on the society that goes far beyond the mere act of criminality. Through arrogance and total self-interest OC seeks to gain a power monopoly to the determent of the body politic. Unlike the legitimate businessman, whose greed for gain is limited by the public interest, the organized criminal does not play according to the established, agreed upon, rules of business competition. In his infinite drive for profit, he will employ whatever means necessary without concern for the rights of others. OC can only heap scorn on the so-called "citizen," the suckers, the working stiffs, those many who are outside their orbit and do not share their lifestyle.

     Common criminality and OC do intersect. The line between the two is hazy as fringe elements have their roles to play. Many organized criminals begin as thieves and many organized crimes are little more than thievery. There are not two sets of violations that clearly distinguish the two worlds of criminality. But there are specific organizational and longevity characteristics. Thieves coming together to "pull a job" do not constitute a crime enterprise. They are not the same phenomenon as organized criminals dedicated to a continuity overtime of complex operations, a hierarchy of command, a variety of skills, and the cooperation of persons peripheral to the mob’s "made members," who are often essential to a successful outcome. Organized criminals look for the ultimate "big scores," and these require a substantial cash outlay, which only enterprises can muster.

     Organized crime develops a mythology and a reputation in the community that is perceived by several publics—the mass media, the police, the justice and political systems—in such a manner to give an aura to OC often beyond the reality: it is invincible. The mafia is not all powerful and not all seeing, but affiliates turn these myths to their advantage to intimidate and threaten persons who will believe that behind a threat or scam stands a bunch of thugs who will otherwise get to you no matter where you hide. These perceptions form a brew of fact and fancy, where the two become inseparable and where the imagination can run riot over the power and presence of organized criminals.

     This reputation can carry significant weight. It affects the way mafiosi see themselves and the way they are seen by others. The "made member" is more than an outlaw—he is a crazed killer, an institution admired by wannabes, sometimes a glamorous figure of stature in the community, the talk of the town, shrewd and cunning, who garners headlines and is capable of great harm to the body politic. A mafia "hit" is not a quotidian event as is the shooting of a street thug in the inner city. The "hit" signals an inner conflict within the crime family and authorities will ponder at length its purpose and consequences.

     The increasingly complexity and scope of OC in modern society have made difficult the drafting of a definition of the phenomenon to which all parties can more or less agree and that takes into account the entirety of the phenomenon. Crime experts, politicians and other parties weighed in with their opinions. And opinions they remained until these secret societies began to crack open to the light of day with the confessions of an increasing number of informants. Those who turn state’s evidence have many reasons for doing so, including having little choice as they seek protection from their colleagues who wish them ill. Without such statements from those who have been on the inside, documentation of OC would be little more than a collection of myths. (The number of informants, as one example, from the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan camorra increased from ten in 1992 to over 2000 in 1997. They decided to collaborate with the authorities, often after being arrested, furnishing information on the structure and activities of their organizations. In exchange, they received protection for themselves and their families, assistance payments and a reduction in time served.)

     Let us look at some of the official definitions of OC. Among the Italian efforts is included in the Ragnoni-La Torre law of 1982. The fundamental element of the Italian OC involves the exercising of specific forms of economic and political pressure on the collectivity and selected individuals. "An association is of the mafioso type when those who are affiliated members are part of a force of intimidation and are subject to the conditions of omertà, in order to commit crimes, acquire, directly or indirectly, companies or control such economic activity, of concessions, of authorizations, contracts and public services or realizing illegal profits or advantages to themselves or for others or to impede or block the free exercise of the vote or to procure votes to themselves or to others during occasions of electoral consultations." This definition must be understood within the context of the history of OC in Italy.

     In the United States, the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, which includes the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, has no exact definition of OC. But the law recognized the reality of OC (especially in regard to Italo-American criminality) in the form of a "pattern of racketeering activities" committed during a continuous ten-year period, deriving profit from at least two or three crimes, that include—but not limited to—homicide, gambling, usury, narcotics trafficking and corruption. The concept of a "pattern of racketeering activities" can also apply to the infiltration of businesses and the utilization of derived funds.

     The German Federal Police, Bundeskriminalamt, defines OC as the commission of planned crimes for the purpose of profit or power. Two or more persons must collaborate over a prolonged or indefinite period of time, each with a specific task to perform. The criminals must act through an organizational structure that employs violence or other means of intimidation to exercise an influence on politics, the media, the public administration, the justice system or the economy.

     Any examination of the parameters of OC must also take into account the subculture of crime, the underworld, with its unique properties, which emanates, takes from and feeds upon, the society in which it is embedded. In previous decades that subculture in the United States was seen as composed primarily of Italian immigrants, who formed a conspiracy against America. This dominant model of OC—an interconnected group of criminal clans, holding fast to the traditional behavioral patterns of their Old World origins—suggested that OC was identified exclusively with a particular ethnic group, mainly the Sicilians. (In the 20s and 30s, the criminal stereotype became the dark-completed Sicilian mobster, the New York variety, which later was to be reinforced by the Italian immigrant gangster Apalachin meeting in upstate New York, in 1957, and once again on film (The Godfather), on television, and a spate of popular fiction and nonfiction, where the mob is an ever menacing backdrop. This simplified model, and certainly an outdated one, has served as a convenient explanation of the source of American OC, ignoring the obvious, that no group has ever held a monopoly on crime and corruption. Today, especially, OC is transnational, part and parcel of diverse ethnicities and cultures, necessitating more than one model, recognizing that the roots, faces and methods of crime are legion.

     Transnational crime includes a variety of OC associations. Among these are the Columbian cartels, the Chinese Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, the Italian and Russian mafias, the Albanians and Montenegrins, and the Nigerians.

     The relatively new Nigerian criminal menace is but one example demonstrating that the older mafia-model no longer holds. The emergence of Nigeria’s OC in the 1980s was a consequence of the collapse of prices of crude oil exports in an environment of a weak State apparatus and a culture of expediency and self-interest. (Nigeria has 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves—the eight largest on earth.) Lawlessness has become the norm in large portions of Nigeria, at all levels, and that criminality has been exported abroad. In the words of journalist K. Maier in his book, This House Has Fallen, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe."

     The U.S. Department of Justice has called the epidemic of counterfeiting, corruption, credit card theft and other financial crimes the Nigerian Criminal Enterprises (NCEs) in recognition of the challenge to federal law enforcement. NCEs are organized and active in at least sixty countries around the world. They are adaptable, poly-crime organizations that bring new methods to old scams.

     The NCEs do not fit the mold of criminals in the traditional crime syndicates. While a degree of structure is clearly identifiable within many of these networks, the relationships do not rival the organizational structure of Cosa Nostra or the Colombian and Mexican organized groups. The NCEs, from all appearances, tend to be less formal in structure, bonded by family and tribal loyalties but without a distinguishable hierarchical order and virtually impossible to penetrate by outsiders. Many Nigerian criminals are very flexible, innovative and brazen. They are freelancers and entrepreneurs, eager to embark on any illegal activity that shows promise. To add to the difficulty of police investigations, Nigeria has 75 distinct tribal languages.

     Three kinds of Nigerian organizational structures have been suggested. The first is the traditional pyramidal hierarchy. At the top, the capos are often members of the elite and the government, who profit from activities that they coordinate and finance. They exploit the poorly implemented money laundering laws to protect the proceeds of crime that arrive from abroad.

     The second type of structure is the flexible network of clan-type criminality based on family, tribal or friendship affinities. These clans operate within a larger network akin to the traditional mafia hierarchies in that they provide protection, a structural base and political connections.

     The third model are the independent, self-contained cells, the freelancers, who take the initiative seeking out scams that often do not generate large profits.

     According to the Department of Justice, "Nigerian criminal groups are more pervasive around the globe than those of any other nation. The NCEs have exploited financial institutions, insurance companies, government entitlement programs, and individual citizens in the United States. Law enforcement officials in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Russia and other countries have also experienced high crime rates attributable to the Nigerian Criminal Enterprises."

     The United States and Britain are the primary targets of the Nigerian criminals. Heroin trafficking is said to be second in volume only to the Chinese. Scams and frauds have brought in untold amounts of money from the gullible.

     In 1999, U.S. victims reported several hundred million dollars of losses to Nigerian "advance fee" frauds. Mass mailings are sent out that tempt the unwary to accept a "Confidential Business Proposal." Unclaimed and forgotten government funds, they are informed, can be yours if you send cash to grease some of the official palms in Nigeria or for the "transfer tax" needed prior to releasing the funds. This classic "front-loaded" or "advance fee" swindle is called the "419 scam" because of the statutory violation as stated in Nigerian law.

     In 1997, Boston authorities arrested a ring of Nigerian check thieves who had stolen more than two billion dollars from Boston-area banks, law firms and a brokerage house. Checks were taken from the mail en route to a Boston financial institution.

     The proceeds of such crimes are used to finance narcotics smuggling and distribution operations reaching from Thailand and Pakistan to major cities in the United States.

"The criminals typically made their money by extracting ever escalating sums of money from bribes, bank fees and the like from their ‘business partners,’ that is, folks they scam." (Federal Republic of Nigeria website on fraud)


 


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