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A New Breed of Mafia: Causes and Ideas on Transnational Organized Crime in the 21st Century

Published on 25th March 2017

Transnational organized crime: the United Nations has placed it in the top ten of its listing of primary threats to world peace (UN Convention on Organized Crime). The White House has an official strategy to combat the problem, devoting the resources of numerous state agencies to it. It has been called one of the 21st Century’s greatest challenges as organized criminal activities are difficult to track and often large in scope (National Security Council). However, organized crime is hardly a new problem. The Sicilian and, by extension, American mafias have existed for over a hundred years. The Yakuza in Japan can trace their roots to the early 1800s. Strict and sweeping legislation, such as the RICO laws[1] in the United States and the Botaiho law[2] in Japan were intended to remedy the issue. Instead, what has been observed is a widespread dispersion and diversification of organized crime from a domestic to a global phenomenon. Instead of capitulating under state pressure, as would be expected, syndicates have simply graduated from traditional crimes such as protection rackets and extortion into the newer, global crimes such as drug smuggling and human trafficking. This, at first, would seem counterintuitive. Laws are meant to prevent something, not make it worse, but that is just what occurred. Another particularly troubling aspect is that not only are syndicates expanding globally, but they are also forming links, as in 2014, it was reported that the Sicilian Mafia and the drug cartels of Latin America had formed ties (Goldstein 2014).

Organized crime is an ever-changing and increasingly fluid phenomenon. Like many aspects of international relations, research into syndicates barely even existed one hundred years ago. Therefore, continued research into organized crime is essential to keeping up a current understanding of the issue. One thing that research cannot afford is complacency and further, because organized crime affects so many people even while its covert nature muffles these effects, research into its development is key. If states wantonly throw laws at the issue without a comprehensive understanding of its modern nature, the effect is tantamount to playing chess blind.

The main question that this analysis will attempt to address is why transnational organized crime has not just survived, but proliferated in the 21st century and, more specifically, how a major cause of this proliferation is the very laws that were intended to stop it. This argument will be given via empirical and theoretical methods in order to demonstrate the severity of organized crime as a very real issue, and not one relegated to the movies. Mafias[3] are, by their nature, covert, and thus the problem often evades the public eye. It is my hope that this analysis can also work to remedy that.


Crime has always been a difficult issue to keep track of simply because not all criminals get caught. Logically, for every drug smuggler caught, there are many more who are not. This issue becomes even more complex when crime is further narrowed down to the sphere of organized crime. Syndicates tend to be very careful as to their public image, often using legitimate businesses as a front to disguise illegal activities. Furthermore, many syndicate-linked crimes involve political corruption, making it even more difficult to separate them from legitimate actions. Much of the literature on the subject has been devoted to defining what organized crime actually is and how exactly one can measure it in the first place. For example, Kaplan and Dubro explain that crime rates in Japan are renowned for being some of the lowest in the world. However, crime rates in this context refer to arrests and reported crimes. In Japan, many syndicates have historically had a certain relationship with the police, in which case many crimes go unreported and many criminals walk free (2003). If that is the case, then it matters little just how much or how strong organized crime legislation is; the law is only as good as the individuals who execute it. In general, the scholarly work on this situation and on organized crime as a whole, has followed two distinct models.

In the first vein of research, scholars focus on specific case studies on the status of organized crime within individual states. This is unsurprising as syndicates do grow up independently of each other and, as such, are unique in many ways. A great deal of these case studies delve into the world of the Sicilian Mafia.

However, while La Cosa Nostra[4] is by far the most popular subject of organized crime research, both scholarly and otherwise, case studies exist on many systems around the world. Hill, in his book, Yakuza, Law, and State, breaks down the various purposes of a mafia, chiefly that of providing services which the state cannot or will not provide, and applies this to Japan. His work concerns the sources of income for Japanese syndicates, which range from protection rackets to high-level political corruption, and the legal responses to it, such as the aforementioned Botaiho law (2003). Varese, on the other hand, analyzes the Russian Mafia, but through a different methodology. While Hill analyzes the profit motive, Varese’s focus is on mafias as providers of protection. From this standpoint, he explains the Russian Mafia historically, laying out their foundations and evolution to the present. A main point is that the Russian economy, in 1991, transitioned from a state-run system to a market economy. The significance of a market economy to organized crime will be discussed in subsequent pages. (2001). This theme of mafias as providers of services is extended by Bandiera, who explains the origins and purposes of the Sicilian Mafia and argues that the organization emerged when land rights were relatively unprotected by the state (2003). This sets a precedent for Mafia-state relations via case study.

The second principal path taken by researchers is to detach from specific case studies and study the conceptual basis of organized crime. Bequai spends considerable amounts of text in pursuit of a simple definition of organized crime, thus demonstrating the vagueness of the issue at hand. After explaining a brief history of organized crime, he systematically breaks down the various activities of syndicates, such as loan sharking, gambling, and various illegal trades. In the ending pages of his work, he addresses the governmental response by analyzing the penal system and its inherent weaknesses as a response mechanism to organized crime. He criticizes the system itself for being antiquated and handicapping the abilities of the individuals in its employ (1979). Weisel, too, takes a general approach, but her work is more concerned with the differences between individual gangs and how it may perhaps be detrimental to view organized crime as one entity and not as the many interconnected groups that it is (2002).

While many have categorized organized crime as this huge syndicate, in reality it consists of many gangs and one of the problems with transnational organized crime is how these many diverse gangs interact and trade. Such a line of thought does not however, explain the syndicates’ relationship to the state. Ruth does just that in his article, explaining that there is a willingness of authorities to gloss over organized crime and trouble identifying it due to compliance of the victims. He explains why it is so difficult for a state to effectively combat organized crime. In a similar vein to Weisel, he claims that one of the primary problems is that organized crime is viewed as an independent and unique problem, when in reality, the major syndicates have a hand in dozens of industries and businesses, both legal and illegal (1967). The name of the game, per se, is diversification, which makes sense logically. When investing in the stock market, making diverse investments is far less risky than a few similar ones. Organized crime works in a similar fashion and this viewpoint can help to develop ideas on how to understand and address it.

While both the case study and conceptual approaches to organized crime and the legislation designed to prevent it are useful and help to explain the hidden world of mafias, the phenomenon of transnational organized crime appears to be relatively virgin territory. Transnational crime itself is not a new issue, but transnational organized crime is a relatively recent development, one that scholarly research has not yet reached. At best, case studies of transnational gang activities are explained chronologically, but in depth analysis is, as yet, nonexistent. On the other side of our question, regarding the explanation of legislation regarding the issue, the existing literature largely just explains the way the legislation works, but relatively little of its effectiveness. This research intends to remedy both of these errors.


Transnational organized crime is a 21st century problem, and this paper aims to find out why. Drawing on what is already known about organized crime, it can be reasonably assumed that the main goal of syndicates is to make a profit, by means legal and illegal. This is reflected in their hallmark crimes of protection racketeering, money laundering, loansharking, and so on. It also explains, as was hinted at above, why gangs have such diversified activities. All of these activities are, in most countries[5], crimes, and when a state aims to stop crimes, a law is passed to that effect, and thus we have our legislation. Suddenly, it becomes quite dangerous for the syndicate to extort people and commit other crimes when the authorities have been given a somewhat significant amount of latitude as pertains to the enforcement of the aforementioned legislation. This brings to attention the primary support system for profit: markets.

Simply put, organized crime works much the same way as any other enterprise, operating based off of principles of supply and demand. The differences lie in the legality of the enterprise and methods of operation. Organized crime provides goods and services that the state cannot or will not. Regardless, gangs need markets, and when sweeping, strict laws are passed domestically that make for a hostile market, it is only natural that the next logical step would be to look outward to other markets that perhaps are more open. The most common case of this involves citizens of third world countries being taken advantage of as the state is either too weak or too corrupt to do anything about the problem.  Looking closely, one can observe massive amounts of criminal activity-based revenue going from states largely viewed as ‘third world’, including several in Central America and many states in Africa, to wealthy areas. There is an observable flow from Central America to the United States, from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, and from Southeast Asia to East Asia (Hagen 2011).

Another perspective looks at the supply side of the equation, which is also represented by the map above. In most situations, the market is there, but strict laws and crackdowns of authority make it difficult to supply that market. This, ironically enough, usually makes the market even more fertile, as it were, based on the principle of the forbidden fruit (people want what they cannot have). The most readily identifiable examples of this are drug and human trafficking. It is common that when goods or services are made illegal, the syndicates are there to continue to provide that good or service because of their nature operating outside the sphere of influence of the legal system. This has the added benefit for the syndicates in that there is no legitimate competition to supply the market, as the illegality of the activity precludes that possibility. If the government prevents administration of this relationship domestically, the syndicate must find supply elsewhere.

In the arena of drugs, the production of cocaine is illegal and highly monitored, and penalties are steep for the production of cocaine in the United States. Mere possession often triggers mandatory minimums no fewer than five years in prison. However, there is a market demand for the product. Insert organized crime, which facilitates for the transfer of cocaine from Latin America via Colombian and Mexican drug cartels to the United States in one of the world’s most problematic illicit trade networks. If one were to refer to the map presented here, one would see just that, a very large revenue arrow labeled “cocaine” going from Colombia to the United States. A salient example of human trafficking is represented by the purple arrow on the map from Brazil to Europe. There is a market demand for prostitution, which in several areas is outlawed. So, European gangs simply go to Brazil, a state which has been historically lackadaisical in its human trafficking policies. Simply put, government intervention in the form of anti-organized crime legislation forces syndicates to diversify and branch outward in order to maintain their operations.

The relatively unclear nature and lack of research mean that study into transnational organized crime is largely speculative. Furthermore, this entails that there are many possible causes as to the nature of its proliferation. One of the primary reasons given is the advent of globalization. With new technologies such as the internet, cell phones, easier and quicker travel, and the ability to move money wirelessly, crime has in many ways become easier to commit covertly. Returning to the theme of markets, branching out is literally just a click away. In 1900, not only would it have been ideologically odd for the Italian Mafia to conduct relations with the Japanese Yakuza, but it would have been logistically arduous at best and, at worst, impossible. However, in 2015, such occurrences are becoming a more and more regular phenomenon. Not only has globalization made it easier to commit crime, it has also made it more difficult to get caught. The wireless nature of today’s society has made person to person contact, generally a risky proposition, in many cases unnecessary, thus making it more difficult to catch crime in the act. It may still be possible for the authorities to track activities electronically, but such issues run into large debates about privacy rights that are perhaps best suited for another researcher. Even so, it is important to recognize that such conditions do exist and should be accounted for in research.

Another factor that will have to be controlled for is state corruption. Corruption is a very real and very severe problem as relates to organized crime. Many criminals in such systems depend on it to accomplish their goals. In Japan, for instance, the Yakuza are heavily involved with the construction industry, and many gang bosses have day jobs running the industry. It so happens that the construction workers union in Japan has a rather significant presence, as public works projects are considered an important aspect of community development. Local representatives know this and have been reported to award contracts to construction firms associated with gangs (Kaplan & Dubro, 2003). There are many other forms of syndicate-related political corruption, some far more severe than others, even reaching into national governmental offices. Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister of Italy, for example, has had his own well-documented issues with political corruption. For the purposes of this research and in the interest of streamlining, the assumption will have to be made that the governments and laws being analyzed are relatively free of political corruption.

This line of theory leads to the following hypothesis:

As more restrictive legislation aimed at reducing domestic organized crime is passed, transnational organized crime will increase in kind.

There is, however, another element to the issue that merits some input. All of the states mentioned so far that have these issues with the growth and diversification of organized crime share one very important aspect. The United States, Italy, Japan, and Russia are all strong, powerful states with considerable clout and influence. For one thing, all four have a seat at the G8, though the status of Russia remains unclear ever since the 2014 Crimea fracas. This minor technicality is insubstantial, however, to the overall commonality of these states. This makes sense, to a degree. In order for a state to pass feasible restrictive legislation, it generally has to have the capability to act upon it and enforce it. As a line of inquiry, however, the relationship between state strength on its own and transnational organized crime bears merit as an addendum to my primary argument of the legal-criminal relationship. As such, a second hypothesis should also be put forth, one that is closely related to the first, and yet independent.

As state strength increases, so too will the tendency of any and all domestically based organized crime syndicates to branch out internationally.


The independent variable in this body of research is to be anti-organized crime legislation itself, with the focus being severity of restrictions and punishments. Laws across several states will be analyzed. These states will include any and all states that have passed such legislation, but a primary analytical focus will be placed upon the United States, Italy, Russia, and Japan, which are all societies with a storied history of both organized crime and legislation to combat it. A scale will be applied, ranging in numeration from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least severe and 10 being the most severe. For example, a state with laws stipulating that methamphetamine trafficking deserves a nominal fine would qualify as a 1 on the scale, while a state with penalties of life imprisonment for an identical crime would likely be classified as a 10. This task will be made simpler and more streamlined by the fact that each of the above mentioned states have passed very specific and pointed legislation concerning organized crime. This data will then be recorded. The dependent variable to be compared with will be the resulting effect, incidence of transnational organized crime-related events. Transnational here is defined as any illicit activity that crosses from the jurisdiction of one sovereign state into the jurisdiction of another. An organized crime-related event will be classified as several types of occurrence. Arrests that are made in connection with the activities of an organized crime syndicate as well as reports of such incidences that do not necessarily result in arrests will also count. Of course, these incidents will only be counted if they fulfill the previous condition of being transnational in nature. In the same vein, only laws related to domestic organized crime will be analyzed, in keeping with the hypothesis that domestic laws foster international crime.

To measure state strength, the State Fragility Index, a widely accepted method of monitoring state strength, will be applied in much the same way as the scale used to measure crime laws, except that the State Fragility Index conducts its measurements as an aggregate of several 4-point scales. Special attention in particular will be paid to a state’s scores on the Security Legitimacy and Economic Effectiveness elements of the Index (Haken 2014). Following this data collection phase, an empirical frequency distribution and linear regression analysis will be created and presented graphically. In keeping with the hypotheses above, I expect there to be a very strong correlation between the severity of domestic forms of organized crime legislation and statistics of transnational organized crime, along with an outflow of this crime from strong states to weak. As stated before, consequences of globalization and political corruption must be controlled for. The important thing to look for will be seeing how each case is affected by the same phenomena.

To my knowledge, this subject matter has not yet been taken in scholarly research. As it is with most things in history done for the first time, it is not without holes. One issue is the classic “dogs that don’t bark” scenario, and is inherent in any study into crime and criminology. How does one account for crime that is not reported, and moreover, how does one measure the absence of crime? Quite simply, it is possible that statistics that are discovered on crime have questionable reliability because the criminal business would not be profitable in the first place if every crime was reported and every criminal was caught. A challenge that is encountered when studying international organized crime is that when events happen across state borders, they become very difficult to keep track of, especially if the states in question are inherently secretive. There is a reason why Swiss bank accounts are so popular among criminals and the uber-wealthy.


The phenomenon of transnational organized crime is a new frontier in the study of political science. As such, it is an imperfect endeavor. This research, while imperfect, can hopefully provide the first step to establish a sophisticated body of work in the field of transnational crime study. I have attempted, in these pages, to decipher the causality of the legal system in regards to that phenomenon. Organized crime operates within and around this system and each side responds to the push and pull factors of the other. This work has attempted to prove that the push factor of state intervention causes organized crime to branch out internationally.

In the future, I predict that this will continue to be a problem as international cooperation with regards to sovereignty has historically been rocky at best. One need only glance at the organization of the UN Security Council to see that. However, I acknowledge that this is no one-sided situation and hopefully, further research can illuminate the issue further by studying the difficult issues of globalization and corruption, which have been highlighted above. Another particularly interesting avenue of research that could be taken in the future is an analysis of state relations between states in which transnational organized crime originates and those which it exploits, specifically related to the issue of these crimes. One particularly intriguing case study within that vein could be human trafficking in Southeast Asia. The prevalence of Japanese gangs involved in the orchestration of human trafficking from states like the Philippines and Thailand, compounded with already potentially testy relationships between states, could open new avenues in the sphere of international relations. One of the great debates of modern society is whether or not crime can ever be successfully eliminated. I cannot speculate on that, but it can be understood and, as the adage goes, it is better to fight the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t.


Bandiera, Oriana. "Land Reform, the Market for Protection, and the Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: Theory and Evidence." Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization 19.1 (2003): 218-244. JSTOR. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

Bequai, August. Organized Crime: the Fifth Estate. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1979. Print.

Goldstein, Joseph. "Arrests in New York and Italy Thwart Mob Drug Scheme, Authorities Say." New York Times 11 February 2014. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

Hagen, Chad and Luke Shuman. "Infographic: Crime, Organised." Map. Wired.co.uk. 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 15. Apr. 2015.

Haken, Nate, J.J. Messner, Krista Hendry, Patricia Taft, Kendall Lawrence, Laura Brisard, Felipe Umana. Fragile States Index: 2014. The Fund for Peace, 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

Hill, Peter B.E. The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law, and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Kaplan, David E. and Alec Dubro. Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.

Ruth Jr., Henry S. "Why Organized Crime Thrives." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 374 (1967): 113-122. JSTOR. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

United Nations. UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. 2003. Web.

United States National Security Council. Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. 2011.

Varese, Federico. Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Weisel, Deborah Lamm. Contemporary Gangs: An Organizational Analysis. New York: LFB Publishing, LLC, 2002. Print.

[1] The common name for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, which was largely aimed at stopping organized crime such as the Mafia in New York and Chicago

[2] In its full form, the name of this law is roughly translated as the “Criminal Group Countermeasures Law”

[3] Mafia, in this context is being defined not as a specific organization, but borrowing from Hill’s definition, is “a set of firms that provide extra-state protection to consumers in primarily, but not exclusively, the illegal market sector.” (Hill 2003)

[4] Italian for “Our Thing”, a common term for the Sicilian Mafia.

[5] There has been some considerable research done into the status of North Korea as a state perpetrator of organized crime, from counterfeiting currency to illegal drug smuggling. See Kan, Bechtol, and Collins’ 2013 work for more detail into the matter.