This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption of public officials; and its influence on society, politics and the economy.

From a legal standpoint, we drew from the United Nations’ Palermo Convention, which defined an “organized criminal group” as “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 offenses established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.”1

This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full introductory section (PDF). See other parts of the series here.

From an academic standpoint, we drew primarily from Joseph Albini and Jeffrey McIllwain, who wrote that organized crime is:

A form of criminal activity within a social system composed of a centralized or decentralized social network (or networks) of at least three actors engaged in an ongoing criminal enterprise in which the size, scope, leadership and structure of the network is generated by the ultimate goal of the enterprise itself (i.e., how the crime is organized). This goal takes advantage of opportunities generated by laws, regulations, and social customs and mores and can be pursued for financial profit and/or the attainment of some form of power to effect social change and/or social mobility via the leveraging and brokering of the network’s social, political and economic capital. Members of the network can be from the underworld or the upperworld. In some forms, force and/or fraud, are used to exploit and/or extort victims, while in others illicit goods and services are provided by members of the network to customers in a marketplace where such activity is often permitted through the establishment of practices which foster the compliance and/or acquiescence of corrupt public and private sector officials who receive remuneration in the form of political favors or in the form of direct or indirect payoffs.2

Our broad interpretation of organized crime gives us the ability to probe the subject from an academic and a policy perspective. It permits us to see organized crime as a pervasive presence in society, involving wealthy and poor, elite and marginalized, politicians and plebeians. In essence, like Albini and McIllwain, our concept of organized crime rests on the notion that it is a structured, multi-stakeholder enterprise that depends on a network or networks of all classes that are created over time in both the illegal and legal realms.

Our definition of organized crime also includes the provision of both goods and services. Organized crime meets the needs of the society in which it functions.3 These goods and services can mesh with both state and private economic activity. In fact, in some instances organized crime serves as one of the few motors of economic activity, can provide a means to obtain otherwise unobtainable social and economic status, and, as we shall see, can also fulfill government functions when the state is unable.

Scholars differ widely on what is the most important common denominator between criminal groups, as they vary so much from place to place. And we recognize that there are numerous types of criminal organizations: those that have strong familial or ethnic ties; those that are from a specific region or neighborhood; those that come from military or police backgrounds; those that share a religious or a political ideology; to name just a few. However, trying to determine one single origin, style or background is futile and can be counterproductive, as Albini has rightly pointed out.4

Organized crime, as Albini states, is more properly understood in the larger context and, in the end, is part of its “social system”: “Serving as an intermediary source between the legal normative and the social normative systems in society, the syndicated criminal dedicates his energy and skills towards erecting a structure that, although illegal, then becomes a functioning part of the social system with which it operates.”5

Just how that structure is organized and operates almost entirely depends on its end goals. In line with D.R. Taft and R. W. England, as well as Albini,6 we see two major types of organizations. One is predatory or parasitic. It lives from extortion, theft and other means of rent extraction from the area in which it operates. This extraction is frequently couched in terms such as “protection,” which, as we shall see, is not always a euphemism. This type of organization is often established in a way that allows it to control physical territory, and it depends on the regular and open display and threat of force to exert its will. The second type of organization is service-oriented (or transactional) and seeks to fill a demand in the market. This type of organization has a structure that is designed to fill that need, whether it is illegal drugs, contraband, prostitution or other illicit goods or services.

There are two ways these organizations can grow: obtain more market share in a specific business or businesses; obtain control of more territory to “tax” legal and illegal businesses. Both types of businesses create and use a vast network of patrons and clients to maintain and expand their influence. Of course some organizations are both parasitic and service-oriented. Those are the most complex of criminal groups but also some of the most volatile and unstable. As the terms “parasitic” and “service-oriented” suggest, their businesses are often at cross-purposes.

The structures of either of the aforementioned categories can be hierarchical or horizontal. They can be large or small in numbers. Some have formal rules, initiation rites and other norms. But many organizations do not have such strict codes of behavior and defy the traditional view of the mafia as depicted in the movies or the media. This type of “disorganized” crime generates more amorphous networks whose members only intermittently interact with each other, and have a list of partners and allies that can be in near constant flux.7

These organized crime groups must be willing and able to employ violence.8 Organized crime’s regular use of violence — both internally to discipline and externally to keep economic and often social control — as well as its regular collection of “taxes,” is what puts it in its most direct competition with the state whose essential function is that of providing protection to its citizens in return for taxes. Organized crime’s use of violence can fundamentally undermine that social contract or establish a kind of parallel social contract. In the most extreme cases, criminal groups become the guardians of specific geographic areas, giving these groups immense political and social capital from which they construct a virtual fortress around themselves.

Still, we need not overstate the use of violence. Violence is a means, not an end, in organized crime. It can be seen as a weakness as well as a strength. “Violence is not a necessary concomitant of organized crime,” Michael D. Maltz wrote. “Rather, it can be viewed as a substitute for economic and political power for those who lack access to these subtler means of coercion.”9

What’s more, the relationship between organized crime and the state is complicated and dynamic, and not one-sided. Peter Lupsha famously broke it down into three stages: predatory, where criminal actors seek expansion at the expense of all external actors, including the state; parasitic, when the criminal groups suck and use the resources of the state; and symbiotic, in which the criminal organizations work in concert with the state.10 Lupsha described this relationship as sequential, but it need not be.

What’s more, we need to consider organized crime from the state’s perspective, i.e., as one that state actors or elites with close ties to the state seek. On the economic front, criminal groups can represent a source of revenue, economic growth, and economic and political opportunity. On the military front, they can represent a willing ally, one that is ready to commit resources to help secure territory or space from a violent or destructive actor in ways the state is not willing or able to.

In these cases, the criminals’ role is not seen as predatory but rather as symbiotic — the state needs the criminals in order to achieve what it cannot achieve alone. Finally, organized crime can serve the state as an ideological construct, a useful political foil as the state — or a particular elite — seeks to expand its role and its power. In our case studies, we shall explore the circumstances in which organized criminal groups and the state interact in myriad ways, sometimes at odds with one another and sometimes in synchronicity.

Organized Crime: Our Guiding Theses

This study is broken down by country, but there are some basic theses about organized crime that run throughout the study and are important to delineate at the outset. These theses inform our understanding of how we believe criminal actors emerge and the role they may play in the development of the state, the economy and the society in which they operate. They are, in other words, the foundation from which we draw many of our preliminary conclusions about how and why organized crime and the elites interact and intersect in the economic, political and social realms. However, they are also fallible, and the case studies will allow us to test them.

Thesis 1: Organized crime flourishes where states are absent, inept, or corrupt, or a combination of the three.

Organized crime serves two basic but fundamental services: providing protection and/or the appearance of a legitimate authority where there is no recognized or legitimate governing body; and providing goods and services that cannot be obtained within the constraints of the law. In our case studies we see examples of groups providing one or both services. There is, nonetheless, no reason to believe that entering one side of the business always leads to the other and, in fact, there are many groups that specialize in “protection” and others who specialize in providing illegal goods and services.

Yet, they do have something in common. Each type of organization emerges and flourishes in the same environment: where the trust between the government and the people has been broken or does not exist because of the corruption, absence or ineptitude of government officials and institutions.

The lack of a reliable state entity helps explain, for example, why noted crime scholar Diego Gambetta centers his mafia thesis on the concept of the provision of protection. With “the protection racket,” as the thesis is often referred to, Gambetta’s central argument is that organized crime emerged to protect the essence of the economy: commercial transactions.11 For Gambetta, the commodity that the mafia, as he refers to organized crime, is selling to the public can be described in one word: trust. “Rather than producing cars, beer, nuts and bolts, or books, they produce and sell trust,” Gambetta writes.12

Mafia-guaranteed transactions occur where the state does not have enough physical presence, where it is corrupted, or where it lacks regulatory measures to ensure any safe, equitable transactions. There is, in essence, no effective arbiter, and criminal organizations fill that void. “In essence, mafiosi operate in those economic transactions and agreements where trust, while of paramount importance, is nevertheless fragile, and where it is either inefficiently supplied or cannot be supplied at all by the state: typically, in illegal transactions in otherwise legal goods, or in all transactions in illegal goods,” he writes.13

In order to do this, the criminal organizations took on the two critical functions that are traditionally associated with the state — namely that of collecting “taxes” (either in regular quotas or as a percentage of transactions), and that of creating a monopoly of force to guarantee these commercial arrangements. At its heart, this is the social contract that citizens have with the state: protection in return for revenue. Organized crime can supplant that contract with their own, parallel contract.

Of course, the underworld rarely ensures regular, equitable transactions. Mafiosi are subject to the same whims and arbitrary decision-making processes that make dictators unpopular. However, in some instances, this is still preferable to the unpredictable and extractive nature of some government authorities. Mafiosi can, as Gambetta says, play a positive role in the economy as well, fostering commercial relations where there might otherwise be very few. When trust is low, for example, the guarantor is the difference between securing a transaction, and no transaction at all, he says.

The result was the widespread emergence of these guarantors in many parts of the world. For Albini — who was also writing about the origins of the mafia in Italy — these guarantors were what were called in 19th Century Sicily “gabellotto.” The role of gabellotto went well beyond that of community strongman. According to Albini, the gabellotti were the glue between peasants and their lords. In Albini’s view, they could therefore be either patrons or clients, or both. As clients, they served a critical function for their large, land-holding masters: keeping workers in line and ensuring peasants paid their dues. They did this by creating and fostering armed gangs, who were also responsible for the “protection” of the local communities.

This set the stage for what Albini calls an “industry of violence.”14 These gangs helped to spread the gabellotti’s own power base either by theft, intimidation or by doing favors for the local lords. That allowed them to become landholders and patrons themselves. Their clients were the same peasants they claimed to protect. Thus the pattern was established for this “mafia” to emerge and spread.

The gabellotti gained further power when Italy established universal suffrage. Suddenly, they controlled votes and could ensure political power as well as social and economic control. They were also the interlocutors for the peasants to express their grievances to the lords and their political representatives. By the 1860s, Albini writes, Sicily’s gabellotti had the makings of a modern-day mafia via: “1) the use or threat of use of violence, 2) an organization (his private bands) to carry out this violence, and 3) the assurance of governmental protection through his new role as a vote procurer.”15 Over time, the gabellotti used this power and influence to open doors of social ascension for their offspring. (This idea of vertical mobility via criminal enterprises is a regular theme throughout studies on organized crime, and something we cover briefly later in this chapter.)

Modern-day Latin America, as we shall see in our case studies, has eerily similar dynamics to that of 19th Century Italy. Local landlords have an almost feudal control over territory and labor. They interact with politicians and other state actors who regularly interact with criminals of various levels of sophistication, size and scope. These criminal actors often collect “taxes” from residents and provide protection services for a fee. These criminal actors also provide votes (and campaign funding) for politicians (or create their own political vehicles to achieve political power). Finally, the criminal actors also frequently serve as interlocutors between the “peasants” and the state and other landlords; and over time, the criminal actors can become landlords themselves.

Of course, organized crime also fulfills other needs, the ones we typically associate with them. It provides goods and services that are illegal or defined as contraband. Criminal actors are, for example, responsible for supplying much of the illegal drugs consumed, as well as contraband cigarettes, prostitutes and other vice. They sell knock-off clothes, and pirated movies and video games. They steal and sell petroleum products, and mine and sell minerals and gold. They run insurance scams, steal and re-sell property and strong-arm businesses and workers via their control of unions. In short, there are few commercial spaces where there is not an element of organized crime.

As Albini noted, the power that comes with being an interlocutor for the communities also means criminals can fill important economic, political and social gaps. It can secure loans where banks will not. It can pressure political representatives to respond to the needs of the community where it operates. It fills social vacuums by financing projects such as village festivals or the construction of a sports facility. It can provide labor where it is needed or suppress it when it is in revolt. In all instances, the common denominator is an absent, corrupt or inept state that condones, works alongside or is the motor of criminal activity.

Thesis 2: Organized crime can undermine the state and distort the economy, but it can also help to provide avenues to higher social and economic standing; help to drive an economy; and, in some instances, help to strengthen the state.

While Gambetta and Albini focus the impact this criminal presence can have at the local and sub-national level and give us our understanding of individual and communal relations with criminal groups — i.e., in commerce, trade and politics in the local townships — others, such as Charles Tilly, illustrate how this phenomenon can play out on the macro level with regards to the formation of the nation-state. For Tilly, it starts with the idea that state is a form of “protection racket”: its monopoly on the use of force within a territory allows it to charge for this service, which is necessary for the development of commerce and regular commercial exchanges.

To reach this point, however, strong clan and feudal leaders regularly relied on periphery criminal actors. Like Albini, Tilly argues that these criminal actors often performed both political and military roles for these clan and feudal leaders. But Tilly takes it further, arguing that these groups helped lay the groundwork for modern, centralized nation-states in Europe. Interestingly, Tilly says these alliances were not sought for the express purpose of creating a nation state. Instead, they were the natural result of a process whereby war begat territory, which begat resource extraction, which begat larger military forces, which begat more war and so on. “War making, extraction and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making,” he writes.16

On its surface, this thesis does not contradict Max Weber’s classic concept of the state as the holder of a monopoly on violence. What sets Tilly apart is that he does not differentiate between the government’s monopoly on violence and the monopoly on violence held by other actors in their own territories or spheres of influence, especially as it served the need of a centralized authority and the development of the nation-state itself. These other actors essentially operate as the state under a different moniker. And in some instances, these actors assist the process of state building, even while they are committing illegal acts to gain and maintain their power. “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing and war making all belong on the same continuum,” Tilly argues.17

The process by which we could therefore determine who was a “legitimate” and who was an “illegitimate” force came about slowly and was fraught with contradictions, Tilly says. Pirates on the sea and marauders on land were the economic motors of some of the first city-states. Soldiers were often expected to feed themselves by pillaging civilian populations. And Tilly notes that Robin Hood’s transformation into “royal archer” (i.e., a state-sanctioned paramilitary) was typical of this fuzzy line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate.”

This tension — challenging the state and the economy on the one side and supporting them on the other — is constant in developing nations. Just as European kings thought of their interactions with criminal actors as a temporary means to an end, so too do modern-day elites in the Americas. Researchers such as Vanda Felbab-Brown reinforce this view, especially as it relates to modern developing world economies. Criminal groups, she says, provide employment, sometimes on a massive scale and over various industries; and security via regular and irregular channels; as well as conflict resolution — they are capable of building capacities and providing the type of services that the state is supposed to provide. As she states:

It is thus important to stop thinking about crime solely as aberrant social activity to be suppressed, but instead think of crime as a competition in state-making. In strong states that effectively address the needs of their societies, the non-state entities cannot outcompete the state. But in areas of socio-political marginalization and poverty — in many Latin American countries, conditions of easily upward of a third of the population — non-state entities do often outcompete the state and secure the allegiance of large segments of society.18

What’s more, the economic capital generated by these illicit projects represents massive portions of these economies and can also lead to alliances between organized crime and state builders. Peter Andreas posits that organized crime, in particular smuggling, was paramount to the independence movement and the subsequent economic development of the United States in numerous respects. From molasses smuggling in the colonial days to the current movement of illegal migrant workers who are vital to the modern economy, the United States has fostered many of these economic activities.

Andreas is particularly concerned with “how the state makes smuggling and how smuggling makes the state.”19 This relationship between organized crime and the state is a critical part of this study. Like Andreas, we embrace the premise that this is a complicated and difficult relationship that depends as much on norms and laws as it does timing and the political leaders of the moment. “This is not to imply a simple, mechanical interaction,” Andreas writes of this nearly constant dance the state must perform with the illicit economy.

There is nothing natural or automatic about it. Throughout American history, we see the full range of state interactions with smuggling, from collusion and toleration to discouragement and condemnation. This is why politics is such a vital part of the story…Beyond the mechanics of illicit trade, it includes the morally charged politics of deviance and vice that is so often wrapped up in the issue of smuggling and the policing of smuggling. Here, politics, economics, and culture intersect and mix, often in explosive ways and with unanticipated and long-lasting repercussions for American society and America’s foreign relations.20

Andreas is not the first to note the irony of US development. Albini and McIllwain describe the American colonies as a place bursting with pirates selling contraband, in large part because of the high taxes and high prices of goods serviced from the British Motherland. Writing about the colonial period, Albini and McIllwain say: “This system of cooperation between criminals, government officials, merchants and the citizens who purchased illegal goods constitutes the basic ingredients for one of the prominent forms of American organized crime, which we have come to call syndicated organized.”21

Modern states have also developed with criminal-business-political alliances that stretch across legal boundaries. In Taiwan, Ko-lin Chin argues that one of the country’s foremost traditional powerbrokers, the KMT party, sought to maintain power by allying itself with “heidao,” or mafia, figures on the local level.22 Other parties, the author says, may have also aligned themselves with the heidao. The heidao eventually began to back their own candidates, which included prominent businessmen who sought entry into politics for their own ends. The resulting triumvirate of interests between the three parties is, as we shall see, similar in some countries in the Americas.

The development of the modern Russian state and economy, Patricia Rawlinson argues, is also intrinsically linked to organized crime.23 Criminal enterprises mixed with legitimate businesses have filled the void left by the state when communism fell. Rawlinson quotes a Russian government study that says that 40,000 businesses were controlled by organized crime in the mid-1990s. This dependence on criminal businesses and shady businessmen has made it impossible to conduct business without interacting with criminal interests. It has also made crime and politics “indistinguishable” from one another.24 The criminal actors have taken the place of the state in many respects, providing, for example, protection and debt collection services.

“Organized crime has supplanted many of the functions of the state, and currently represents the only fully functioning social institution,” Rawlinson says.

The implication is that organized crime cuts both ways for the state. It can serve as an economic motor of development and a security force that helps develop the nation-state, widen its boundaries and increase its reach; or it can serve as a justification for the development of the security forces, which in and of itself can help foster a new elite, which we call a bureaucratic elite. What’s more, in our case studies we can see examples in which both of these tendencies — seemingly at cross-purposes —- actually serve a single end for one particular elite. In other words, while they might condemn criminal activity on one level, they use organized crime in its various manifestations — economic, political and military — on another.

Thesis 3: Organized crime is not limited by class, political affiliation or social status, and, at its core, it is about power.

Too often we view organized crime as a bottom-up activity, one that emerges in the depths of society, in poverty-stricken circumstances, and worms its way into the upper echelons of political and economic power structures. This, as Tilly and Albini point out, is a convenient argument that affords the elites a pass. Still, the most common vision of these criminal groups is that of predator. In this view, the criminals are outsiders. They emerge from the lower classes of society. They are driven by greed, flawed youth and inadequate education. In the most perverted depictions, they are criminals by nature, or for “cultural” or ethnic reasons. And they are frequently characterized as ruthless social climbers, in part because of their low socio-economic origins.

There are certainly cases that fit this mold, the most famous of which is Pablo Escobar. Escobar was the consummate outsider. He was a car thief who rose through the criminal ranks first as a contraband and illegal drug transporter, then later as an international drug distributor. He made vast sums of money but eventually sought political power, attaching himself to a wing of the Liberal Party in Colombia. He also tried to gain access to the elite by attempting to join the exclusive Medellin country club and sending his children to posh schools.

The Colombian elite thwarted both his political and social strivings. Marginalized and hurt, he struck back with a brutal and public campaign. He kidnapped elites and exploded bombs at malls; his men detonated a bomb on an airplane in flight killing all aboard. To some extent, his methods worked. He was able to change the country’s constitution. But he never achieved what he really wanted: the power that comes with being an elite.

That power is reflected in the way we view the elite’s transgressions. Elites have their own legal category when it comes to organized crime: white-collar crime. But the distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime is fuzzy at best. Technically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) refers to it as “frauds committed by business and government professionals,” or “lying, cheating, and stealing.” 25 However, the FBI’s own list of white-collar criminal acts — which includes identity theft, money laundering, piracy and intellectual property theft — could very easily apply to our list of organized crime activities.

White-collar crime is often differentiated from organized crime because it is not considered violent, yet illegal drug dealing, prostitution or even racketeering are not necessarily violent. Meanwhile, a white-collar crime such as money laundering can be a very violent business. In fact, at its core, the only real distinction in the law and in many judicial systems between organized crime and white-collar crime — according to Edwin Sutherland, the man who coined the term — is class.

“The respects in which the crimes of the two classes differ are the incidentals rather than the essentials of criminality. They differ principally in the implementation of the criminal laws which apply to them,” he wrote. “This difference in the implementation of the criminal law is due principally to the difference in the social position of the two types of offenders.”26

For this project, we do not distinguish between white-collar crime and organized crime. White-collar crime and organized crime are, as Vicenzo Ruggiero states, the same.27 They both act in accordance with their needs and employ similar techniques to achieve their goals, which Ruggiero argues should be studied in the same way, regardless of the “social characteristics or background of the perpetrators.”

This is why our conceptual approach is that criminal groups are born from all strata of society. Their members include wealthy, poor and those in between. They may have studied at the best universities, or never have attended school. They are politicians and businessmen; union leaders and clergy; military officers and police captains; thieves and marauders. And their criminal acts need to be studied in the same way.

Andreas, for instance, notes that John Hancock, one of the United States’ preeminent molasses smugglers, was also the first signatory to the Declaration of Independence and one of the architects of the revered US Constitution.28 This alliance between Hancock and the other business and political elites in the British colonies was the result of Hancock’s integration of a shipping service that included licit and illicit goods. In essence, Hancock was what in modern-day Central America we would call a “transportista.”

Examples also abound in our case studies. In two of our case studies, it is the elites themselves who are designing and implementing the criminal schemes. In the others, it is the elites who are benefitting from them, using them to expand their political influence, their economic reach or their social base. There are few who question this elite participation in criminal acts today — which is why we embarked on this project — and even fewer who have faced accusations of wrongdoing.

The paths these elites take to reach wealth and power are not just an illustration of the way in which elites also take part in organized crime, they are critical to understanding why other non-elites do so as well. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have chronicled, these elites are often the same ones who are developing (or not, as the case may be) the very institutions that govern these societies. In essence, elites can skew the nature and mission of the government so it is geared towards protecting what Acemoglu and Robinson term an “extractive” system that is parasitical in its own destructive way.29

These systems thwart economic and political development over the long term, but they also open up opportunity for organized crime to thrive. “Extractive” states skew the way in which the state deploys its security resources, collects its taxes, and applies justice. The result is that social ascension, of the type that Pablo Escobar sought, is stymied. In other words, the “extractive” system impedes upward mobility, leaving few opportunities for those outside of the small group of political, social and economic elites to join their club. Criminal activity, as it operates along the margins of the formal economic and political spheres, can level the playing field in crude but effective ways by creating opportunities to obtain huge amounts of capital in short time spans, and offering protection services to these ruling elites, among other ways.

As it was in 18th Century Sicily, these services can open doors and provide what Daniel Bell famously described as a “queer ladder of social mobility.”

“Crime, in the language of the sociologists, has a ‘functional’ role in the society, and the urban rackets — the illicit activity organized for continuing profit rather than individual illegal acts — is one of the queer ladders of social mobility,” Bell wrote.30

These “social climbers” nearly always face backlash from those who came before them, Bell says, even if those who came before them used some of the same tactics to reach their status.

The pioneers of American Capitalism were not graduated from Harvard’s School of Business Administration. The early settlers and founding fathers, as well as those who “won the West” and built up cattle, mining and other fortunes, often did so by shady speculation and a not inconsiderable amount of violence. They ignored, circumvented or stretched the law when it stood in the way of America’s destiny, and their own — or, were themselves the law when it served their purposes. This has not prevented them and their descendants from feeling proper moral outrage when under the changed circumstances of the crowded urban environments later comers pursued equally ruthless tactics.31

The pattern repeats itself in our case studies. The established elites vilify the non-elites. To this day, Pablo Escobar and his family remain the punching bags for news organizations owned and run by Colombia’s elites. The bankers, the landowners, the mining companies, the cattle ranchers and others who established themselves and their families by undermining the rule of law stand in judgment of the Escobars who seek social ascension via “organized crime.” But these families have traveled similar roads. Both involve nefarious means, subversion of the state, violence (albeit to varying degrees) and other tactics. More importantly, both are after the same goal: power.

The quest for power, not wealth, is at the heart of this project.32 For us, it is an important distinction. Organized crime is most often associated with specific criminal acts that often bring their participants vast sums of money. But organized crime, of the type that we are focused on, is about so much more than the simple accumulation of economic capital. While certainly an important factor in the underworld dynamic and the ability to obtain power, economic resources, as Pablo Escobar discovered, do not automatically give you power.

For organized crime, obtaining power requires relationships and networks. To begin with, organized crime necessarily involves security forces. Organized crime uses these various connections to facilitate the actual businesses, as well as protect its main players from prosecution. As Albini notes, “Provision of illegal services…because they necessitate contact between the criminal and the client on a continuous basis, cannot be readily carried on without soon coming under police or public scrutiny.”33 These connections also include prosecutors, judges, low-level functionaries at port entries and airports, among others.

In its more sophisticated forms, organized crime co-opts high-level government officials, and fosters politicians and even political parties. In some of our case studies, these government officials, politicians and criminal groups are all part of the same criminal organization, or at least working towards the same ends. The political capital that comes with these relationships allows criminal groups to exert power in particular ways that permit them to avoid prosecution, advance and expand their business interests, and establish a base from which to exert power over state resources, as Rawlinson shows in the case of Russia.

Finally, organized crime obtains power by intersecting with the communities in which it operates, which allows it to gain important social capital, thereby adding a further layer of protection from prosecution and public scrutiny. This, as mentioned earlier, can come from supplanting the state as neighborhood watchdog, i.e., its police and often its judicial system. In addition, as some of our case studies illustrate, criminal groups build support by providing jobs and services to the community. Social capital can also, as Desmond Arias shows, come through direct contact and work with community leaders, gaining their trust and supporting their projects.34 And social capital can be accumulated by sponsoring sources of community pride, such as festivals or soccer teams.

In our view, the accumulation of economic, political, and social capital are the foundations of power, and it is this power, as we shall see, that allows organized crime to emerge, expand and sustain its operations. In some instances, this process is truncated, and we are witness to the downfall of a criminal empire or its leader. These instances form the basis of most of our case studies. In other instances, it proceeds apace, providing the base from which families can be made, new elites can emerge and nation-states can be built. In all instances, it is a destructive, messy process that involves a multiplicity of actors, both state and non-state, elites and non-elites, rich and poor, city folk and rural peasants, criminals and innocent civilians. Those are the stories that follow.

*Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.


[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “United Nations Convention Against Transnational Crime and the Protocols Thereto,” United Nations, 2004. Available at:

[2] Joseph Albini and Jeffrey McIllwain, Deconstructing Organized Crime: A Historical and Theoretical Study (London, 2012), pp. 81-82.

[3] This idea dates back at least to the work of Walter Lippmann. See: Lippmann, “Underworld: Our Secret Servant,” Forum, 85 (1931), pp. 1-4, 65-69. (Quoted in Nikos Passos (ed,), Organized Crime (Dartmouth, VT, 1995), p. 9)

[4] Joseph Albini, The American Mafia: Genesis of a Legend (New York, 1971), pp. 34-35.

[5] Ibid., p. 10.

[6] D.R. Taft and R. W. England, Criminology (New York, 1964), cited in Joseph Albini and Jeffrey McIllwain, Deconstructing Organized Crime: A Historical and Theoretical Study (London, 2012), p. 18.

[7] See: Joseph Albini and Peter Reuter, Disorganized Crime: The Economics of the Invisible Hand (Cambridge, MA, 1983).

[8] See: Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia (Cambridge, MA, 1993).

[9] Michael D. Maltz, “On Defining ‘Organized Crime’: The Development of a Definition and a Typology,” in Crime & Delinquency, July 1976, p. 341. (Cited in Passos, p. 18).

[10] See (among others): James Cockayne, “State Fragility, Organised Crime and Peacebuilding: Towards a more Strategic Approach,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, September 2011.

[11] Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia (Cambridge, MA, 1993), pp. 19-20.

[12] Diego Gambetta, “Fragments of an economic theory of the mafia,” the European Journal of Sociology (or Archives of European Sociology), XXIX (1988), pp. 127-145.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Joseph Albini, The American Mafia: Genesis of a Legend (New York, 1971), p. 129.

[15] Ibid., p. 134.

[16] Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemer and Theda Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 169-191.

[17] Ibid., p. 171.

[18] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Conceptualizing Crime as Competition in State-Making and Designing an Effective Response,” from a speech given to the Conference on Illicit Trafficking Activities in the Western Hemisphere: Possible Strategies and Lessons Learned, 21 May 2010.

[19] Peter Andreas, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (New York, 2013), p. 2.

[20] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[21] Joseph Albini and Jeffrey McIllwain, Deconstructing Organized Crime: A Historical and Theoretical Study (London, 2012), p. 12,

[22] Ko-Lin Chin, “Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics” (New York, 2003), pp. 14-15.

[23] Patricia Rawlinson, “Russian Organized Crime: A Brief History,” in Phil Williams (ed.), Russian Organized Crime: A New Threat? (London, 1997), pp. 28-52.

[24] Ibid., p. 57.

[25] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “White-Collar Crime.” Available at:

[26] Edwin H. Sutherland, “White-Collar Criminality,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Feb., 1940), pp. 1-12.

[27] Vicenzo Ruggiero, Organized and Corporate Crime in Europe: Offers that Can’t be Refused (Vermont, 1996), p. 21.

[28] Peter Andreas, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (New York, 2013), pp. 4-5.

[29] Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York, 2012), p. 393. (Kindle edition.)

[30] Daniel Bell, “Crime as an American Way of Life,” The Antioch Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer 1953, p. 133.

[31] Ibid., p. 152.

[32] We have relied on Steven Lukes’ definition of power: “A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary B’s interests.” See: Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (MacMillon, 1974), p. 31.

[33] Joseph Albini, The American Mafia: Genesis of a Legend (Nueva York, 1971), p. 56.

[34] See: Enrique Desmond Arias, “The Dynamics of Criminal Governance: Networks and Social Order in Rio de Janeiro,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 38, (2006).

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...

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