Define to Defeat Organized Crime

By C. J. Oakes

The Issue: In order to defeat Organized Crime, a definition common to all in the criminal justice system must be developed. 


The Essay: Define to Defeat Organized Crime


Any war consists of simply two sides; the battle between organized crime and the criminal justice system is no different.  In the Second Century B.C.E., Sun Tzu wrote that to win every battle requires knowing both oneself and ones enemy.  He further added that knowing only self leads to short-lived victories, for the enemy will regain lost ground (Mallory, 2007).  For this reason, criminal justice researchers and philosophers have attempted to create a single, common definition for organized crime, but for various reasons, this seeming simple task has proven elusive.

Organized Crime Defined

Depending on which Criminal Justice organization one asks, the definition of organized crime may vary widely.  For instance, the United Nations definition includes five distinct types of organized crime networks, dependent on how each is structured.  These range from the more traditional forms based largely on ethnic background, such as the Mafia, to newer concepts like the Criminal Networks made possible by the growth of the Internet (Lyman & Potter, 2007).  In the United States, the Federal government has a definition that varies considerably from the several states (Mallory, 2007).

Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying b...
Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One reason for the differences is that by having a working definition, Justice Departments can determine the right allocations of funds and equipment for pursuing an investigation; by determining whether a group in question is counted as organized crime or not, investigators save valuable resources.  The intent is to streamline operations and save money, which is always in short supply (Mallory, 2007).

Some of the basic concepts most recognize, however, are that organized crime groups tend to structure their operations similar to legal corporations with chains of command, information disseminated on a need-to-know basis, specialization of members, and clearly defined rules of conduct.  Given that, perhaps the best definition given comes from the state of Texas, which simply applies the concept to any individual or group that forms or operates an ongoing enterprise that intends to profit from illegal activities that are vice or violent (Mallory, 2007).

Perception versus Definition

Prior to investigating this matter further, the author considered organized crime to mean simply any group of people who join forces to operate a criminal enterprise.  However, by this definition street gangs could be considered organized crime; according to Lyman and Potter (2007), this is not the case.  Indeed, there are numerous criminal groups that fit this simple definition that do not fit the definitions rendered by most states and the Federal Government.  Some have even concluded that a conclusive definition for organized crime is impossible; this leads this author to conclude that perhaps that is the reason Organized Crime groups are increasing worldwide (Mallory, 2007).  As noted by Sun Tzu earlier, if one does not know the enemy, one cannot make progress toward a victory.

Three Characteristics of Organized Crime

Of course, not having a definition does not really hamper apprehending and prosecuting criminals involved in organized crime.  Instead of concerns over exact definitions, many have chosen to consider the characteristics of such enterprises instead.  Three of the characteristics common to most organized crime operations are the ability to hold influence over political and judiciary leaders, violence and/or intimidation, and money laundering (Mallory, 2007).

English: Structure about Organized Crime Centr...
English: Structure about Organized Crime Central Area from Police of the Generalitat – Mossos d’Esquadra. Català: Organigrama de l’Àrea Central de Crim Organitzat de la Policia de la Generalitat – Mossos d’Esquadra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By taking into consideration just these three characteristics, one can see that common street gangs, although using violence and laundering their ill-gotten gains, usually lack the ability to sway corrupt authorities.  Hence, these would not be considered organized crime.

Further illustrating the advantage of this approach, Western European countries adopted 11 characteristics; if a crime group exhibits six out of the eleven, they are considered organized crime (Mallory, 2007).

Still, if Criminal Justice professionals are to defeat organized crime, it is vital to understand why a clear definition is so difficult to create; perhaps this understanding can lead to knowing the enemy.

Know the Enemy

Given the degree of loyalty common in organized crime outfits, it would be useful to take a more fundamental approach.  Because organized crime functions as a group, a useful tool is the study of group dynamics.

Elliot and Sherwin (1997) studied goal-directed behaviors and found that hope played an integral role in shaping the actions of the members of a group.  This is in harmony with research by Smith (2008) who found that terrorist groups thrived by filling members needs for affiliation and power.

Tattooed Crip.
Tattooed Crip. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Although street gangs are not defined in most jurisdictions as “organized crime,” the structures are similar and should be dealt with in the same way.

This is not surprising to the author, for Lewis (2003) noted that groups provide members with fundamental needs associated with security, identity, and stimulus; it was through this research that the author developed his own hypotheses related to this problem.

Lewis (2003) writes that all people develop values based on only six systems and of these, what could be termed the collective value system is the most popular.  This is because through this system, people can have all their needs easily met.  Such needs include power, acceptance, and hope.  This value system is so common and popular because it is a fundamental group system, displayed in tribes, gangs, and families.  Hence, when a person does not have strong familial or community ties, other organizations often become attractive like surrogate families.  This explains the high degree of loyalty found in organized crime groups; members are reticent to turn on their bosses for in so doing, they risk losing their family (Oakes, 2011).

In addition, because every group develops their own unique collective values and traditions, efforts to define all organized crime en masse are hindered, even made nearly impossible (Oakes, 2011).  Finally, because most such groups develop primarily for financial gain, market dynamics would surely shape the choices made by those in charge and these choices would shape the collective values of the group.  This would make efforts to define any particular group dependent on changing circumstances.


Considering the complexities of markets, crime, and peoples worldwide, it is of little wonder that efforts to define definitively organized crime fail.  Criminal Justice professionals and legislative bodies may d better by seeking to understand the motives behind such groups and act accordingly.  Fighting organized crime could be as simple as removing the motivations for the crime.  Of course, in many cases this is clearly impossible.  In such instances, an understanding of the motivations of organized crime groups can enable law enforcement to anticipate movements of many within the organization.  In so doing, these members become easier targets for arrest and prosecution.  As with any war, victory is gained one battle at a time.  Knowing the enemy called organized crime is vital to gaining such a victory.


Read Also

Placing a Lock on Organized Crime

The Legal Limitations to Combatting Organized Crime

Vice is Nice for Organized Crime

One ‘Best’ Theory for Organized Crime

Five Crimes of the Times: Drugs, Money Laundering, Terrorism, Human Trafficking, Cyber-Crime



  • Elliot, T. R., & Sherwin, E. D. (Jun1997). Developing hope in the social context:  Alternative perspectives of motive, meaning, and identity. Group Dynamics:  Theory, Research, and Practice, 1(2), 119-123.
  • Lewis, H. (2003). A Question of Values:  Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices that Shape Our Lives (3rd ed.). Mount Jackson, VA: Axios Press.
  • Lyman, M. D., & Potter, G. W. (2007). Organized crime (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentis Hall.
  • Mallory, S. L. (2007). Understanding organized crime. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
  • Oakes, C. J. (Sept. 15, 2011). Why We Do What We Do. Retrieved from (currently unpublished)
  • Smith, A. G. (Feb2008). The Implicit Motives of Terrorist Groups:  How the Needs for Affiliation and Power Translate into Death and Destruction. Political Psychology, 29(1), 55-75.

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