The Changing Face of Organised Crime in the United States

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

Photograph: Strep72/Flickr

“You can get more with a nice word and a gun than you can with a kind word.”

Al Capone

The American Dream is the popular American myth that any American who works hard will be assured of great rewards for their labour.  However not all elements of American society have chosen to pursue that dream by legitimate means.  Organised Crime in America has changed and evolved with societal changes that have touched the nation, from the early waves of European migration to the banning of illegal drugs.  Even war and the 1960s counter culture has left it’s mark on the mosaic that is Organised Crime in the United States.

The Italian-American Mafia, in particular of the Sicilian migrant origin, is perhaps the most popularly known type of Organised Crime syndicate in the US.  It’s power and ability to terrorise has been played out in popular films such as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas”.  This form of Organised Crime came very closed to being strangled at birth.  The Black Hand extortion rackets and other Italian-American gangs would of likely died away thanks to improvements in policing, was it not for one of the biggest political mistakes in US political history.  That mistake was the passing of the Volstead Act which came into effect in 1920, enforcing the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution that banned the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Prohibition was like a shot of adrenaline to the dying heart of Italian-American organised crime and the wider criminal underworld.  All of a sudden a huge and popular illegal market was established.  Alcohol was mainly either imported over the US’s giant coastlines and land borders.  In addition alcohol was often distilled domestically, often using suspect ingredients such as formaldehyde in order to provide crude flavouring to products.  The Sicilian based Mafias known as the Cosa Nostra (our world/thing) proved to have the rigid organised structures, discipline and ruthlessness to take the most advantage of this market.

This success inevitably brought renewed interest from Salvatore Maranzano, the most powerful Mafia figure from Sicily who waged the 1930-1931 Castellamerese War in order to assert Sicilian control over all Italian-American Mafia operations by defeating New York kingpin Joe Masseria.  Maranzano won, in no small part due to Charlie “Lucky” Luciano betraying his boss Joe Masseria at a dramatic showdown on Coney Island.  Before long Luciano felt Masseria outgrew his usefulness and hired gunmen to gun him down.

Photograph: George 'Bugs' Moran, Al Capone "Scarface" & Jack 'Machine Gun' McGurn wax works at Potter's Wax Museum, Florida. | Cliff/Flickr.
Photograph: George ‘Bugs’ Moran, Al Capone “Scarface” & Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn wax works at Potter’s Wax Museum, Florida. | Cliff/Flickr.

After coming out of top over his boss Luciano brought about a new order for the Cosa Nostra which survives to this day.  The families in New York were organised into Five Families, who today have manpower of between roughly 1,500-3000 in each family.  The Commission was founded to oversee the operations of the National Crime Syndicate, an organisation accompanying the Five Families and other recognised criminal enterprises.  Luciano, having long worked with his associate Meyer Lansky rejected the narrow racism of the “Moustache Pete’s” generation of the recently deceased bosses in favour of cooperation across the races where possible for profitable business.

American popular culture has long made much of the lone motorcyclist or “biker” as a solitary misfit dedicated to the open road in films such as “The Wild One” and “Easy Rider”.  Such figures began to be seen in gangs more and more after World War Two.  The appearance of these drifter-like men after the war is no coincidence and the war veteran backbone of the first American Motorcycle clubs was reinforced by the arrival of veterans from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.  Many of these men found it hard or undesirable to fit into regular civilian life, opting for the rough and ready biker life known throughout this culture as simply “the life”.  The most well-known biker gang is the Hell’s Angels club founded in 1948.  After that time biker gangs proliferated.  They were at first treated as a kind of curiosity of 1960s counterculture.  But soon things turned sinister.

The promotion of the rough and ready “life” combined with club members needs to earn a living inevitably led to their involvement in crime as many, though not all, Motorcycle clubs became Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs (OMC’s).  OMC’s have been documented as being involved in kidnapping, drug running, contract killing and many other crimes.  OMC’s have often committed crimes on behalf of older organised crime movements such as the Cosa Nostra.  The OMC violent subculture has even spread to the club’s international “Chapters”, including an episode in Scandinavia where munitions from a government armoury was used.  These days OMC’s typically adopt a structure that includes a chain of command that includes a President, Vice President, Treasurer and a Sargent-at-arms.  The US Department of Justice still recognises OMC’s as an ongoing organised crime challenge.

Illegal drugs have supercharged organised crime activity and competition to a point where there is essentially a second Prohibition era.  The Cosa Nostra have been split by the conflict between their old world traditions and their ambitions for power on the issue of drugs.  Some Mafia families chose drugs as a lucrative earner and a way to beat the competition, while others stayed away eyeing the ever harsher drug laws being voted in.  The same drug trafficking routes for Marijuana markets via the Caribbean to Miami were soon used to fuel a Cocaine market, then a Crack Cocaine market.  The Colombian cartels dominated this trade during the 1980s and much of the 1990s with the Medellin and then the Cali cartels posing as significant adversaries to US Law Enforcement.  The fall of the Colombian cartels and the heavy patrolling of the Caribbean route led to the drug market simply adapting.  A Mexican route was established through the border while Mexican drug cartels began to establish major drug distributing routes through the US-Mexican border.

Photograph: Thomas Hawk
Photograph: Thomas Hawk

All organised crime is in some way financed by certain groups breaking the law to give people what they want, be it gambling, sex (by prostitution) or drugs.  Recent studies have proven that the US’s private healthcare system has exacerbated a mid-west heroin epidemic by unscrupulous doctors too readily prescribing opiates, leaving their patients curious about illegal markets in similar products.  The US has a drug problem, as evidenced by the rise of the Mexican cartels financed by American addicts (and ironically armed with Americans arms). The US Justice system also needs an overhaul.  Quite simply the system of elected judges and District Attorney’s (DA’s) has ruined the system’s chances of tackling the root causes of any crime let alone organised crime.  DA’s who are often ambitious for a political career like to make their bones looking tough by locking up minor offenders for unnecessarily long amounts of time.  This leaves them prey to the last and perhaps most insidious form of Organised Crime in the US.

Prison gangs proliferate as the US prison population proliferates.  The US prison population has increased exponentially from the mid-1990s onwards and has stopped long after the Crack Epidemic it was a response too.   In need of protection many new inmates join gangs often in order to stay alive.  The white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood started off as a prison gang to defend white prisoners.  La Eme and La Familia are Latino prison gangs that like the Brotherhood have grown massive outside criminal interests.  If the issue of US prison overpopulation is not tackled then US prisons will cease to become institutes of reform and become little better than crime colleges.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles

Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol’s Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1