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Organized Crime: From Street Gangs to International Groups

Organized crime is an ongoing threat to our society. It typically involves crimes such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, the transfer of illicit goods and money laundering.

The United Nations Office on Drug Control defines organized crime as “a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities that are often in great public demand. Its continuing existence is maintained through corruption of public officials and the use of intimidation, threats or force to protect its operations.” Ultimately, organized crime involves groups of people who work together to commit crime for profit and engage in coercion, extortion, and violence.

Related link: Northern Triangle Violence: Curbing Gang Activities

Organized Crime in the US Goes Back to the 1800s

Organized crime has a long history in the United States. According to the Crime Museum, organized crime in the United States can be traced back to the 1800s involving street gangs such as the notorious group Forty Thieves in New York. These gangs involved hundreds of Irish-American immigrants whose leaders gave them criminal assignments and quotas for the number of crimes they had to commit.

During these times, organized crime groups often formed due to a lack of job opportunities. People desperate for money and work would band together to commit criminal acts and gain the money to survive. According to the Crime Museum, many gangs formed by the 1850s as people were grouped by their ethnic backgrounds and the slums where they lived, and they flourished for decades.

Eventually, some of the most notorious organized crime groups started to appear. For instance, the America Mafia developed as Italian-Americans and Italian-American families joined to form a criminal group.

According to, the American Mafia involved a network of operations in cities around the United States, with a large concentration in Chicago and New York. The American Mafia was known for its ruthlessness and its willingness to use violence to extort people and businesses. This organized crime group was also involved in a wide range of crimes that included drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal gambling and committing other crimes under the guise of legitimate business operations.

The Impact of Prohibition on Organized Crime in the United States

One of the reasons that the Mafia grew in power very quickly was the 1920s Prohibition era that banned the sale, development and distribution of alcohol in the United States. Prohibition created an illicit bootlegging market and permitted the Mafia to thrive as its members stepped in to feed the desire for alcohol across the United States.

According to the Mob Museum, the Mafia and other organized gangs bribed judges, law enforcement officers and federal Prohibition agents. They profited from the illegal production and distribution of alcohol so much that they could employ supply chain workers, lawyers, and accountants.

The Mob Museum also notes that rivalry occurred amongst organized crime groups during Prohibition as trafficking gangs crossed ethnic lines beyond the Italian-American Mafia. These inter-gang rivalries resulted in shootings, bombings, and violence; more than 1,000 people alone were killed in New York.

Major cities across the United States had bootleggers smuggling alcohol to customers, and organized crime became even stronger. Notorious crime bosses, such as Al Capone and Charles Luciano, began to emerge.

The end of Prohibition delivered a serious blow to organized crime as it impacted the enormous profits that could be made from bootlegging. Organized crime also became a focus for the FBI, whose leaders were determined to prosecute Mafia leaders and other criminal bosses. Organized crime, however, continued to evolve in its organization and illegal activities.

Crime Groups Still Exist Today

Today, most of the traditional Mafia organized crime groups are no longer relevant. However, organized crime still exists today, especially in the form of transnational organized crime groups. Some examples of modern criminal enterprises in the United States include outlaw motorcycle gangs, street gangs such as MS-13 and drug trafficking cartels. 

According to the United Nations Office on Drug Control, investigations into organized crime require additional training and perseverance as well as special investigative techniques to understand the depth and scope of organized criminal enterprises. FBI and IRS criminal investigators have an essential role in mitigating and investigating organized crime. Local police agencies who receive the necessary training may also be effective in investigating organized crime.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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