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Organized crime in America has a history that stretches from 1920 into the twenty-first century. From its beginnings in urban America to the global connections that characterize the phenomenon today, organized crime has proven to be a dynamic enterprise. This research paper provides a summary examination of the nearly 100 years that organized crime has existed in the United States beginning with the critical role of Prohibition.
The Role Of Prohibition
Prior to the Prohibition era (1920–1933) vice – gambling and prostitution – insofar as it was organized, was dominated by big-city political machines aided by street gangs that proliferated among the urban poor. The gangs were local entities serving as the military wing of corrupt political organizations. They engaged voter fraud – voting early and often – and intimidation of political opponents. In short, they were violent errand boys at the bottom of an organizational pyramid that featured political bosses at the top. Then came Prohibition. The “Great Experiment” was a catalyst for organized crime, especially violent forms, to blossom into an important force in American society. Prohibition led to the mobilization of criminal elements in an unprecedented manner, and the ensuing competitive violence turned the power structure upside down. It also led to a new level of criminal organization.
Domestic production of alcoholic beverages is relatively large scale, requiring raw materials, production facilities, warehouses, and trucks, while liquor importation requires ships, warehouses, and trucks, and both need associated personnel. Above all was the need to protect the liquor businesses from predators who could hijack trucks and otherwise exploit a business that being illegal could not depend on law enforcement. Physical protection from the unparalleled surge of violence that accompanied Prohibition was essential for anyone seeking his fortune in the alcohol business.
The organizational pyramid that characterized pre-Prohibition crime was turned upside down – gang leaders pushed the politicians aside and became dominant players in many urban areas. Al Capone, for example, a Brooklyn-born thug became the single most important person in Chicago. In New York, a cabal of Italian and Jewish gangsters ruled a vast underworld and influenced city politics. In urban areas throughout the country, Prohibition changed the relationship between politicians, vice entrepreneurs, and gang leaders. Before 1920, the political boss acted as a patron for the vice entrepreneurs and the gangs: He protected them from law enforcement and they gave him financial and electoral support. The onset of Prohibition, however, unleashed an unsurpassed level of criminal violence, and violence is the specialty of the gangs. Physical protection from rival organizations and armed robbers was suddenly more important than was protection from law enforcement. Prohibition turned gangs into empires.
Prohibition encouraged cooperation between gang leaders from various regions – syndication. Domestic and imported liquor shipments were trucked intra and interstate to warehouses at distribution points. At each juncture the shipment required political and physical protection. Only the criminal organization dominant in the local area could provide such protection. Syndication arose out of these needs, the result of meetings between important organized figures from throughout the United States.
Post-Prohibition Organized Crime
With the onset of the Great Depression (1929) and the subsequent repeal of Prohibition (1933), the financial base of organized crime narrowed considerably. Many players dropped out: Some went into legitimate enterprises or employment; others drifted into conventional criminality. Bootlegging required trucks, drivers, mechanics, garages, warehouses, bookkeepers, and lawyers – skills and assets that could be converted to noncriminal endeavors. For those who remained in the business, reorganization was necessary. When Prohibition ended, bootleggers were still young men – generally in their thirties – yet with wealth and nationwide contacts that had grown out of their liquor-related enterprises. In addition, they had substantial investments in restaurants, nightclubs, gambling, and other profitable businesses. In the 1930s and 1940s, they used their national contacts, diverse interests, and available capital to cooperate in a variety of entrepreneurial activities, legal and illegal.
One of these endeavors was labor racketeering. Leaders of organized crime engineered the domination of international labor unions by combining their control over union locals in their respective territories. Profits from Prohibition were jointly invested in the development of luxury casino hotels in Nevada and Cuba. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the United States (and the rest of the world) was experiencing the Great Depression. Ironically, a cash-starved society had a cash-rich criminal class. This led to the wholesale entry of gangsters into “banking”: They became major loan sharks and, as a natural extension of this enterprise, assumed (often hidden) ownership of a variety of legitimate businesses.
Organized crime with roots in Prohibition remained a formidable entity into the 1960s, but the next decade was characterized by an irreversible decline. Although organized crime in the United States has a history that encompasses cities in every region of the country, outside of the Northeast and Chicago, there are few or no vestiges of the formidable criminal organizations that evolved out of Prohibition. The Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities from which these criminal organizations drew the bulk of their personnel failed to provide a continuous supply of replacements necessary for their survival. The Irish found success in politics and, although
Jewish immigrants and their progeny played a vital role in the development of organized crime, by the third generation Jews had moved into business and the professions. Italian-American communities were sufficiently large enough to provide adequate replacement personnel in only a few cities, such as New York and Chicago. Even there, those aspiring membership in the American Mafia are a tiny fraction of the Italian-American community now solidly part of America’s middle class and whose members are well represented in the ranks of professionals and public officials.
With the enactment of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, prosecutorial success reached unparalleled level of success. The long prison sentences of RICO encouraged disloyalty and American Mafia members routinely became government witnesses testifying against former colleagues, leading to a wholesale breakdown in discipline. In the meantime, new criminal organizations have emerged, eclipsing the remnants of the American Mafia. Some are domestic entities while many more are part of or have ties to criminal organizations outside the United States.
The New Players
In the 1960s, Colombians began immigrating to the United States in numbers sufficient to establish communities in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Among them were criminals experienced in cocaine trafficking. Violence between rival Colombian “cocaine cowboys” brought terror to South Florida. When the gun smoke cleared units affiliated with the two major cartels in Colombia, Medell´ın and Cali, were dominant. Colombian cocaine traffickers eventually partnered with their Mexican counterparts who had long-established heroin networks in the United States. Both supplied Dominican organizations that wholesaled drugs to other groups further down the supply chain such as MS-13, a primarily Salvadoran organization with members organized into clikas active in different parts of the United States, particularly places with large numbers of Latino immigrants.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian criminal groups have flourished in the United States in the absence of the corrupt political machines that provided a protective incubator for the Irish, Jewish, and Italian criminal organizations of an earlier era. They typically have military experience and many are college educated.
African American criminals dominated the numbers (illegal lottery) racket in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago until they were overpowered by violent white gangsters such as Dutch Schultz (New York) and Sam Giancana (Chicago) who had superior police/ political connections. Although blacks have traditionally been locked out of many activities associated with organized crime (e.g., labor and business racketeering) by prejudice, dope is an equal opportunity employer. African American criminal groups made important strides in the heroin business when the Vietnam War exposed many black soldiers to Far Eastern sources. Black criminal groups – African American, Jamaican, and Nigerian – use the drug trade as much as their Irish, Jewish, and Italian predecessors did bootlegging.
Added to the pantheon of organized crime are outlaw motorcycle clubs. The outlaw motorcycle club phenomenon dates to the years after World War II, when many combat veterans, particularly those residing in California, formed a motorcycle club that eventually became the Hell’s Angels. From the fun-long, hell-raising clubs of the postWorld War II era, the Hell’s Angels and several other outlaw clubs, such as the Bandidos and the Outlaws, have parlayed their reputation for violence into self-perpetuating and disciplined organizations whose major source of income is from criminal activity, in particular, drug trafficking.
New players continue to emerge, prison-based gangs, Albanian organizations, and Chinese groups, as the history of organized crime in America continues to evolve.
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