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Criminal activity carried out by an organized enterprise.
Modern organized crime is generally understood to have begun in Italy in the late nineteenth century. The secretive Sicilian group La Cosa Nostra, along with other Sicilian mafia, were more powerful than the Italian government in the early twentieth century. In 1924 Benito Mussolini's fascist government rose to power, and Mussolini orchestrated a crackdown on the Italian mafia. Those mafiosi who were not jailed or killed were forced to flee the country. Many came to the United States, where they flourished in the art of bootlegging and other criminal activity. Since the 1920s organized crime has crossed ethnic lines and is associated with no particular ethnic group.
Congress and many states maintain laws that severely punish crime committed by criminal enterprises. On the federal level, Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970. The declared purpose of the act is to eradicate organized crime by expanding evidence-gathering techniques for law enforcement, specifying more acts as being crimes, authorizing enhanced penalties, and providing for the forfeiture of property owned by criminal enterprises.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (18 U.S.C.A. § 1961 et seq.) is the centerpiece of the Organized Crime Control Act. RICO is a group of statutes that define and set punishments for organized crime. The act's provisions apply to any enterprise that engages in racketeering activity. Racketeering is the act of engaging in a pattern of criminal offenses. The list of offenses that constitute racketeering when committed more than once by an enterprise is lengthy. It includes extortion, fraud, money laundering, federal drug offenses, murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, dealing in obscene matter, counterfeiting, embezzlement, obstruction of justice, obstruction of law enforcement, tampering with witnesses, filing of a false statement to obtain a passport, passport forgery and false use or misuse of a passport, peonage, slavery, unlawful receipt of welfare funds, interstate transport of stolen property, sexual exploitation of children, trafficking in counterfeit labels for audio and visual works, criminal infringement of copyrights, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, white slavery, violation of payment and loan restrictions to labor unions, and harboring, aiding, assisting, or transporting illegal aliens. RICO also includes forfeiture provisions that allow the government to take the property of parties found guilty of violations of the act.
Modern organized criminal enterprises make money by specializing in a variety of crimes, including extortion, blackmail, gambling, loan-sharking, political corruption, and the manufacture and sale of illicit narcotics. Extortion, a time-tested endeavor of organized crime, is the acquisition of property through the use of threats or force. For instance, a criminal enterprise located in a certain neighborhood of a city may visit shopkeepers and demand a specific amount of so-called protection money. If a shopkeeper does not pay the money, the criminal organization may strike at him, his property, or his family.
Blackmail is similar to extortion. It is committed when a person obtains money or value by accusing the victim of a crime, threatening the victim with harm or destruction of the victim's property, or threatening to reveal disgraceful facts about the victim.
Gambling and loan-sharking are other traditional activities of organized criminal enterprises. Where gambling is illegal, some organized crime groups act as the locus for gambling activity. In states where some gambling is legal and some gambling is illegal, organized crime groups offer illegal gaming. Loan-sharking is the provision of loans at illegally high interest rates accompanied by the illegal use of force to collect on past due payments. In organized crime circles, such loans usually are made to persons who cannot obtain credit at legitimate financial institutions and who can serve the criminal enterprise in some way in the event they are unable to repay the loan. Loan-sharking provides organized criminal enterprises with money and helps enlarge the enterprise by bringing into the fold persons who owe a debt to the enterprise.
Political corruption has diminished as a focus of organized crime. In the first half of the twentieth century, some organized crime groups blackmailed or paid money to politicians in return for favorable legislation and favorable treatment from city hall. This sort of activity has decreased over the years as public scrutiny of political activity has increased.
The most recent major venture in organized crime is the manufacture and sale of illicit narcotics. This practice was prefigured in the activities of organized crime from 1919 to 1933. During this period alcohol was illegal under the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the manufacture and sale of liquor was a favorite activity of organized crime groups. The manufacture and sale of illegal liquors, or bootlegging, was extremely profitable, and it gave organized crime a foothold in American life. Many organized criminal enterprises subsequently imitated bootlegging by selling other illegal drugs.
Violence often accompanies organized crime. Many crime syndicates use murder, torture, assault, and terrorism to keep themselves powerful and profitable. The constant threat of violence keeps victims and witnesses silent. Without them, prosecutors find it difficult to press charges against organized criminals.
The modern notion of organized crime in the United States has expanded beyond the prototypical paradigm of family operations. Organized crime in the early 2000s refers to any group of persons in a continuing operation of criminal activity, including street gangs. To combat the violence and other illegal activity of street gangs, federal and state legislatures have passed laws pertaining specifically to street gangs. Many states provide extra punishment for persons in street gangs who are convicted of certain crimes.
On the federal level, a street gang is defined as an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of five or more persons formed for the purpose of committing a violent crime or drug offense, with members who have engaged in a continuing series of violent crimes or drug law violations that affect interstate or foreign commerce (18 U.S.C.A. § 521). Any person in a street gang convicted for committing or conspiring to commit a violent federal crime or certain federal drug offenses receives an extra ten years in prison beyond the prison sentence for the actual crime.
Despite stringent punishments, organized crime is difficult to eradicate. It tends to occur in large cities where anonymity is relatively easy to maintain. The size and hereditary makeup of many enterprises make them capable of surviving the arrest and imprisonment of numerous members. Many organized crime participants are careful, efficient, and professional criminals, making them difficult to apprehend.
Another reason organized crime is so durable is that the participants are extremely dedicated. The group looks after its own and there are serious consequences of betrayal. Members of organized crime groups often take an oath of allegiance. For example, members of La Cosa Nostra stated, "I enter alive into this organization and leave it dead."
Abadinsky, Howard. 2003. Organized Crime. 7th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Bonanno, Bill. 2000. Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Story. New York: St. Martin's.
Goodwin, Brian. 2002. "Civil Versus Criminal RICO and the 'Eradication' of La Cosa Nostra." New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement 28 (summer).
Jankiewicz, Sara. 1995."Comment: Glasnost and the Growth of Global Organized Crime." Houston Journal of International Law 18 (fall).
Lyman, Michael D., and Gary W. Potter. 2004. Organized Crime. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.