Tag Archives: organized crime

Q&A: The Difficulties for Organized Crime Going Legit

How realistic is the Godfather trope of turning a mob family legitimate? I don’t mean “bad people becoming good,” I mean “taking a criminal empire and turning it into a purely corporate, political, or otherwise ‘aboveboard’ one.” Less about switching sides, more about leveling up.

To be honest, The Godfather isn’t realistic, it’s opera. This, also, isn’t what’s going on in the film. Now, as a brief aside, I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s novel, my only exposure to these characters was through Francis Coppola’s adaptations.

Regarding the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pachino), he stayed out of the family business growing up and appeared legitimate. Vito hoped his son would go into politics, providing influence to his family. While the character is more complex than this, keeping specific individuals associated with organized crime enterprises legitimate in order to infiltrate society in places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to is a real strategy. It’s not that the family is legitimate, it’s that certain members have no visible, criminal affiliations, and can operate covertly.

If it seems implausible that a member of a major Mafia family could get elected to office, I’d remind you of William Bulger, brother of Whitey Bulger. Whitey Bulger was the infamous leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. No connection between William and his brother’s criminal enterprise was ever proven, but William was responsible for installing John Connelly into the FBI (via a personal letter written to J. Edgar Hoover.) Connelly would go on to be Whitey’s tamed fed, who kept him appraised of any investigation into his activities, and allowed Whitey to avoid arrest and prosecution for decades. (There’s way more to this than I’m getting into. The Bureau’s Boston field office had some serious corruption problems in the 60s.)

So, it does make sense for a character like Michael to have a deniable background, where he appears to be a legitimate member of society, while still being affiliated with the family. Ironically, the films are an inverse of the normal redemption arc, as Michael makes decisions which irrevocably tie him into the family, which he could have escaped.

The purpose for an entire family to, “go legitimate,” is more about the illusion rather than the reality. For a investigator, it’s much harder to prove a crime occurred when it’s hidden behind legitimate financial activity. Front businesses (particularly ones that deal with cash) are ideal, as they can also be used to launder illicit funds.

I’d argue that it is actually necessary for an illicit organization to have multiple legitimate fronts. It gives the organization a way to pay its members with funds that have already been laundered. It allows the organization to own or rent property (because, “rented by the local mob,” would raise eyebrows), in many cases it’s a critical step to further corruption (such as shipping skimming, though the New York gas tax fraud comes to mind.)

There is a lot of money to be made in illicit enterprise, and organized crime is adept at identifying exploitable situations. They identify points in the economy where there’s a lot of money moving around without much attention or oversight. Then, they use force (or the threat of same) to “muscle” their way in, and that is why they can never go legit.

Under normal circumstances, modern states exercise, and jealously guard monopolies on violence. A significant chunk of modern laws either build into, or articulate this idea. You, as an individual, do not have the authority to inflict violence on others, in exchange you’re protected (at least in theory) from having violence inflicted upon you. (At least, by non-state actors, with the caveat that said, “protection,” is often only deterrence, and any actual state response will likely to be after the fact, or posthumous.)

The problem is that organized crime aspires to become the state. Now, granted, very few criminal enterprises actually want the headache of becoming a nation in their own right. They’d be content with a simple patron/client system, which actually comes pretty close to how most organized crime operates. It is aspiring to be a small, feudalistic, government, operating autonomously under the nose of the legitimate state.

One of the authorities that organized crime (almost universally) seeks to usurp is the use and regulation of violence. Violence is used as a coercive tool, much like in many oppressive regimes, and is used as a form of, “foreign policy,” when interacting with other criminal organizations.

That last paragraph is why an organization can never, truly, go legit. It has a history of using violence as one of its methods of foreign policy. If it didn’t, it would have been obliterated by its competitors. This remains true, even if the organization never openly engaged in violence, and merely used the threat of same.

If one criminal enterprise disarms, it will be consumed by its competitors. In fact, this is a serious risk when there’s any weakness (including a regime change) within an organization. Aggressive competitors will look at that organization, it’s resources, and it’s inability to effectively protect them, as an opportunity.

There is an internal issue with using violence as a control mechanism. If your organization only keeps people in line at gun point, you’re going to have problems the moment you take that threat off the table. A criminal organization swearing off violence, would proceed to (figuratively) eat itself alive in shockingly short order. When the organization abdicated it’s monopoly on violence, that authority spilled down to the individual members, and it can’t (realistically) be returned to the legitimate state. (Worth noting, that a criminal organization who simply “refuses to use violence,” has abdicated control over it.)

Once your organization claims the authority to inflict violence, it is incredibly difficult to safely divest yourself of that.

So long as you maintain authority over violence, you cannot go legitimate. It’s illegal, and you can’t abdicate that authority without being murdered. (Either by your competitors, or your own people.)


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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra


Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.


Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.


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Q&A: Mafia Training

Do you know anything about how the Mafia trains their members?

They don’t, really. At least not in any formalized way. The same is, generally true of most professional criminals. The mafia relied more on able bodies who they could trust, than looking for very specialized skillsets. When you look at the bread and butter operations in organized crime, this starts to make sense. Sending a couple guys into a business to rough up the staff, or engaging in vandalism isn’t going to require specialists. Whatever mooks are lounging around should be able to get those jobs done.

In Mafia families, you’d start seeing people with formal educations higher up the ladder. Again, this wouldn’t be training per say. You might have members who’d been sent to law school and passed the bar, who could operate as lawyers for the family when needed. In at least a few cases, lawyers like this would invoke privileged to impede criminal investigations. Another common profession that you’d see wrapped up in family businesses were accountants. Again, actual accountants who’d been educated, gotten a degree, and then worked for the family.

A third group that would get formalized training were police infiltrators or double agents. These were rarer, but did exist. These were cops. They’d gone through academy training. They may have had a military background. On paper they looked clean and had never been directly associated with the family. The biggest red flag would usually be that they’d grown up in a neighborhood that was mobbed up, though this was not a prerequisite. The most famous example is Special Agent John Connolly who was involved with Boston’s Irish Mob in the 70s, while working in the FBI.

Street level enforcers, or even hitmen couldn’t expect to receive any significant training. At various times, there were Mafia members with military backgrounds. They’d served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, came back, and went back to working for the family, but with far more extensive combat training. In some cases, they’d impart some of their learned lessons to the mobsters they worked with, but this was not the norm.

There is one other exception, but it doesn’t exclusively involve organized crime. Prison functions kind of like graduate school for career criminals. The perk of getting locked up with lots of other felons is that you now have the opportunity to network with and learn from one another in an environment where you can be pretty sure no one’s a cop. Networking was less important for a Mafioso, but access to criminals who had learned specialized trades, and the potential to learn from them, even if that required some form of payment, could be a major silver lining.

Now, I’ve been focusing primarily on the Italian and Irish mobs. East Coast, American, and basically defunct, so let’s grab a couple more off the pile.

As far as I know, the Yakuza doesn’t have any real formalized training either. Their cultural norms are different, so their social role isn’t exactly the same. To be fair, most of my research on the Yakuza has been economic, rather than street level operations. They’re extremely unusual, as organized crime goes, because during the 80s, they started pumping cash into businesses you wouldn’t normally associate with organized crime. This means, in Japan, you can find things like Hospitals or Software companies which are mobbed up. A lot of this folded when their economic bubble popped in the 90s, but some still persist.

The Russian Mob isn’t, really, a thing. Okay, let me back this up and explain. Frequently, it’s convenient to talk about Russian organized crime as a unified entity. Russian criminals willing to work together to achieve their goals are a thing. Large coherent organizations, not so much. These are, ultimately, more like freelance criminals, who came up during the Soviet system, and have that shared experience. This causes them to behave in ways that mimic organized crime elsewhere in the world, but it is ultimately a collection of freelance criminals who are willing to put their differences aside for a paycheck. As with any other group of criminals, you’re looking at a large range of potential backgrounds, which could range from uneducated street kids to ex-special forces, who went freelance when the Soviet Union stopped paying them in the ’90s. On unusual feature of Russian criminals is, they’re unusually well equipped. This dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The government stopped paying employees, and if you were overseeing a state run armory, you had a huge stockpile of weapons, but no food. So, they started selling arms, and bigger things. There’s actually a story floating around from the mid-90s where the Cartels were looking to take possession of a nuclear submarine from the Russian black market, though that deal fell through.

As far as I know, the Triads do not have much in the way of formalized training either. Though, I’ll admit, I’m not particularly well versed on them. Though it is worth noting, these are the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, by a significant margin. The Triads are massive.

Like the Triads, I’m not particularly well versed in The Cartels. As far as I know, there’s not much in the way of formalized training there, and it really is a distinct flavor of organized crime. It’s just one that I’ve never done a lot of reading on.

Finally, North American street gangs are an unusual situation. On the surface it’s similar to the other examples given, no formal training programs. However, in the 90s and 2000s a number of judges revived the old conscription punishment. Sending gang members into the US military. In theory this was supposed to, “set them on the right path,” but, what it actually did was introduce elements of those gangs into the armed services, and gave gang members training and experience on military hardware. When they mustered out, they now had connections that could get them military hardware, and the knowledge to use them, which were also shared with fellow gang members. I’m not sure on the full current status of this situation, but it is an unusual circumstance worth examining.


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