Racketeering Research Paper

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The term “racketeering” is often used as a synonym of organized crime, although it cannot be limited to it. Indeed, it is a broader concept, encompassing a wide range of criminal activities. Such activities have to be committed on a continuative basis and as part of an ongoing criminal group which presents a certain degree of organization.

Section “Defining Racketeering: Origins and Core Elements” provides an overview of the main features of the phenomenon since its first appearance and of its development across different contexts. The various criminal activities that can be committed as part of a racketeering pattern are also examined. Section “Examples of Racketeering: The Case of the Italian Mafias” further develops the issue by providing actual examples of racketeering. The case of the Italian Mafias is analyzed, being extortion racketeering their core business.

Although extortion racketeering is commonly associated with organized crime, it can be performed in a casual or a systemic way. This depends on the market opportunities and characteristics of organized criminal groups. The prevalence of causal or systemic patterns across the European continent is examined in section “Extortion Racketeering in Europe.”

Defining Racketeering: Origins And Core Elements

The term “racketeering” was originally coined by the Employers’ Association of Chicago in 1927 (Witwer 2004, p. 200). It was intended to describe an emerging pattern of criminal conspiracies, aimed at extorting money from legitimate businesses and exerting a monopolistic control over certain (legal or illegal) markets. Collusive arrangements and extortion practices were not a novelty within businesses and labor unions. What the Employers’ Association was more concerned about was the increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates in such practices (Witwer 2004).

The power of organized crime groups in the Unites States, in particular of the Italian Mafia, significantly increased between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. In that period, criminal opportunities were created by prohibition which mainly affected the vice industry (Witwer 2004; Scotti 2002). Bootlegging, as well as illegal gambling and prostitution, became profitable – and at the same time risky – activities. Criminal organizations were able to expand their influence over the illegal (and legal) sphere, for example, by extorting money from vice entrepreneurs in exchange of protection from potential assaults or external competition. The infiltration of the labor unions further increased organized crime control over legitimate businesses and its capacity of penetrating the institutional and political system (Scotti 2002). Infiltration in the legal economy may occur by using legitimate businesses as a front cover for criminal activities or by depriving them of their profits through loansharking and extortion (Kelly 1999). When extortion racketeering is established, the relationship between perpetrators (organized crime groups) and victims (businesses) can be of a predatory, parasitic, or symbiotic nature, according to the durability of the relation (short-or long term) and the degree of “complicity” between criminals and their victims. The different types of relationship will be analyzed more in detail in section “Extortion Racketeering in Europe,” which specifically addresses the issue of extortion racketeering and, therefore, of the relationship between extorters and victimized businesses.

It was with the aim of curbing the infiltration of legitimate businesses by organized crime that the US Congress, in 1970, enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO or RICO Act (Blakey 1990; Blakey and Blakey 1997; Black 1986).

RICO made it unlawful to receive and acquire income from an enterprise, as well as to conduct or participate in the conduction of the enterprise affairs, through a pattern of racketeering activity. “Racketeering activity” identifies “specified felonies committed as part of a criminal enterprise and as part of a pattern” [emphasis added] (Albanese 2011, p. 99):

– Specified felonies. Specified crimes which may result in a “racketeering activity” can be grouped – for merely operational purposes – into four main categories, not to be considered however as mutually exclusive: (1) violence (i.e., murder, kidnapping, arson, extortion), (2) provision of illegal goods and services (i.e., gambling, prostitution, counterfeiting, drugs), (3) corruption (i.e., bribery, extortion, embezzlement), and (4) commercial or other types of frauds (Blakey 2005). For a detailed description of the specified felonies, see the United States Code 18 U.S.C. } 1961-1.

– Criminal enterprise. The term enterprise is intended to include broadly “any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity” (United States Code 18 U.S.C. } 1961-4). In other words, a criminal enterprise refers to any group – or even an individual associated to it – whether legal or illegal, officially formalized or just existing, that is used as a base for committing criminal activities (Albanese 2011).

– Pattern. The pattern indicates two or more of the specified felonies committed within a period of 10 years (excluding any period of imprisonment of the offender) (United States Code 18 U.S.C. } 1961-5).

In order to be considered as a punishable offense according to RICO legislation, racketeering should provide that (a) two or more specified offenses are committed, (b) within a 10-year period, (c) by a person who is involved (e.g., employed, associated, related) in the activities of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

The innovative feature of RICO legislation was that, rather than focusing on specific offenses, it was instead centered on the ongoing criminal enterprise. What is illegal, and therefore punished, is the participation in a group that commits certain types of offenses (Albanese 2011, pp. 100–101). As such, an individual who belongs or is in a way associated with the ongoing criminal enterprise can be charged with racketeering even if the criminal offenses have been physically committed by other members (Schneider 2005; Abadinsky 2009). This provided prosecutors with an effective tool to charge, prosecute, and convict mobsters, gangsters, and other organization leaders. Before the introduction of RICO, such a result would have represented a challenging task, in that traditional criminal laws were directed at prosecuting single and specific offenses. By doing so, the heads of a criminal enterprise (i.e., an organized crime family) were hardly sentenced, since usually they were only indirectly involved in the commission of crimes (Blakey 1990).

In addition to criminalizing racketeering, the Congress also provided extended penalties and unique criminal and civil instruments to combat such an offense (Blakey 1990). The maximum criminal penalties originally established under RICO consist of a $25,000 fine and 20 years imprisonment. The civil RICO provisions also allow to seize and confiscate property and other goods assumed to be the proceeds of a racketeering activity. The purpose is to attack criminal assets and deprive criminal enterprises of their economic resources. Inclusion of the forfeiture provisions under the civil law represents one of the most significant and, at the same time, most controversial aspects of RICO (Schneider 2005). The burden of proof requested by the civil laws is lower compared to the criminal ones, so that the government may seize and confiscate assets from a criminal enterprise involved in racketeering activities without notice and “ex parte” (Schneider 2005; Albanese 2011).

Although it was originally elaborated to counter directly traditional organized crime groups – in the sense of the mafia-type organizations – and their (il) legal activities, RICO legislation cannot be considered as merely limited to organized crime. RICO provisions have demonstrated to be broader in their scope, being successfully applied even in the fight against political corruption, white-collar crime, and violent groups (Blakey 1990). Legitimate business enterprises have been charged as well (see, e.g., the court case Sedima, S.P.R.L. v. Imrex CO.) (Schneider 2005). RICO is intended to reach any sort of enterprise, whether legal or illegal, provided it has been involved in a pattern of racketeering activity.

The following cases provide an account of the variety of situations in which RICO has been used. In 2000, the decision of a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the local Police Department could be sued as a racketeering enterprise, in that some corrupt police officers had allegedly robbed, beaten, framed, and shot suspects (Albanese 2011; ABCNews 2000). In a similar way, in 2002, the governor of Louisiana was convicted under RICO, due to his involvement in various corrupt criminal schemes related to the riverboat gambling license process (Albanese 2011; United States Court of Appeals 2002). In 2008, the leader of a Colombian Drug Cartel was convicted under RICO with the charge of being at the head of a racketeering enterprise that engaged in murder, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and bribery (Albanese 2011; Department of Justice 2008).

RICO has not been immune from criticism. An improper and overused resorting to the civil provisions of RICO has been noticed, for example, in the civil suits among legitimate commercial enterprises (see Schneider 2005, pp. 662–663).

In contexts other than the USA, as, for example, in the Eastern and some Southern European countries (especially Italy and Spain), the term racketeering could keep a more specific focus. It often refers to typical organized crime activities, such as illicit gambling and prostitution, transportation of stolen goods, loan-sharking, and, above all, extortion.

Examples Of Racketeering: The Case Of The Italian Mafias

As the history of Italian organized crime shows, extortion and protection represent the core businesses of the Italian Mafias (Savona 2012). For the purpose of this essay, the term “Italian Mafias” refers to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and the Campanian Camorra.

Gambetta (1993), in his book The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection, defines the mafia as an “industry which produces, promotes and sells private protection.” Protection is provided not only to legitimate businesses but also to criminal actors operating in the underworld.

In the upper-world, the mafia exerts a “parastate” function by taking advantage of the state’s inefficiency in properly preserving legal transactions and free competition from potential abuses. In the underworld, protection is needed because criminal activities are usually carried out in a context free from any formal rule and where no sort of protection by the state is envisaged (Arlacchi 1988). In such a setting, illegal actors resort to the services offered by those agencies – namely, mafia-type organizations – which are able to regulate potential conflicts and provide protection against other cheating and competing criminals (Varese 2001; Transcrime 2009).

Protection becomes extortion when the mafia benefits from a service that it does not actually provide (Gambetta 1993). More precisely, extortion is “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right” (The United States Code 18 U.S.C. } 1951(b)(2)).

When extortion is committed on a regular basis, it turns into racketeering. Extortion racketeering has been defined as “an institutionalized practice whereby tribute is collected on behalf of a criminal group that, in exchange, claims to offer (.. .) protection” (Volkov 2002, p. 1). Italian Mafias resort to it as a means of territorial sovereignty and a financial resource.

Through extortion racketeering, organized crime can first of all control the territory and the economic and political activities being implemented in it. In doing so, the mafia also consolidates its presence as part of the local culture, thus favoring the establishment of a “cultura mafiosa” (mafia culture) (Savona 2012). This means that people gradually become used to the mafia presence and therefore accept it, or even cooperate with it, in order to achieve some sort of benefits in terms of protection and advantages against competitors. In a similar way, through extortion, organized crime groups can infiltrate legitimate businesses and get hold of them when extorted entrepreneurs are no longer able to pay.

At the same time, extortion represents a source of income used by criminal organizations to finance their illegal activities and sustain the maintaining costs of the organization (e.g., payment of the affiliates, maintenance of the families of incarcerated members, military expenses) (Paoli 2003, p. 165).

As pointed out by Paoli (2003), the spread of extortion racketeering on a large scale has been driven by the fact that it is an easy crime to carry out and represents a rapid way to make money: “it does not requires a high initial investment, it carries low managing costs and, in areas where the state’s protection in not regarded as adequate or reliable, it is also a low-risk operation” (Paoli 2003, p. 165). As such, extortion racketeering became one of the main resources by which the Italian Mafias achieved territorial sovereignty in Sicily, Calabria, and Campania. These are the Southern Italian regions in which the Italian Mafias have traditionally established themselves.

In its more “typical” form, extortion racketeering consists of a periodical money payment (the so-called pizzo) required by criminal organizations from legitimate businesses under the threat of violence and intimidation. In some other cases, it can take the form of either extortion in goods and services (such as the imposed removal of merchandise from a company) or extortion of the workforce (through the violent control of the local labor market) (Paoli 2003; Daniele 2009). In this regard, Monzini (1993, pp. 22 et seq.) distinguishes among different types of extortion: (See also Transcrime 2009, pp. 22-23)

  1. Extortion protection consists in a criminal system, similar to taxation, by which regular payments are imposed using violent means. A long-lasting relationship usually develops between the extortionist and the extorted, so that a sort of legitimization of the mafia’s presence and its control over the production gradually arises (Daniele 2009).
  2. Labor racketeering is a means of violent negotiation established within single production units. The mafia extorts the workforce by controlling access to the labor market and employment.
  3. Monopolistic racketeering is a specific market strategy enforced by the use of violence and aimed at physically eliminating competitors and creating monopolistic coalitions. Such a result is achieved by establishing a monopolistic control on the access to those resources which are crucial for a given sector. It is interesting to note that, when extortion racketeering is carried out in mafia contexts, organized crime uses a certain degree of “professionalism” (Savona 2012). First of all, as suggested by Grasso and Varano (2002, p. 80), the mafia does not select the territory on which to establish the extortion racket. It rather prepares it. This means that in many cases the extortionists are the actors creating the conditions for the demand of protection to arise: that is, some minor crimes are committed by the same criminal organizations in order to generate a common sense of insecurity (Transcrime 2009, 22).

Furthermore, the mafia does not target its victims randomly. On the contrary, it selects them according to their vulnerabilities (Grasso and Varano 2002, p. 78; Savona 2012). First of all, the economic activity performed by the victim has to be located within the zone of influence of the mafia (Grasso and Varano 2002, p. 78). This enables Mafiosi to exert successfully their intimidating power. Secondly, the business carried out by the targeted company has to be attractive for the organized crime group (Savona 2012, p. 8), which means offering high profits at low risks. Finally, instruments and infrastructures needed for the production (e.g., warehouses, restaurants, shops, excavators, vehicles, and other machinery) must be exposed and well visible, so that they can be easily identified and targeted by the extortionists. At the same time, the entrepreneur is aware that the company’s business will be closed down should those facilities be destroyed (Grasso and Varano 2002, p. 78; Savona 2012, p. 8). Once a racketeering relationship has been established, defining the type (money, goods, services, etc.) and the amount of the payment represents the next step. When imposing a protection racket, mafia groups often evaluate the economic resources of the victims and calculate the amount of money they are willing to pay (Savona 2012). Even when threatening or frightening the entrepreneur, the mafia decides the extent to which violent actions should be performed, in order to avoid that the victim reports to the police.

Extortion practices carried out by the Italian Mafias are directed not only to legitimate businesses but also to other criminals. The Neapolitan Camorra, for example, has imposed its control over the urban underworld, by establishing a comprehensive system of taxation of all the illegal traffics taking place in its territory. Payments are required to criminals in the form of shares of the revenues arising from theft, prostitution, smuggling, gambling, and other criminal markets (Monzini 1993).

As such, extortion racketeering can be regarded, rather than as a single activity, as a hub where different spheres (legal and illegal) intersect (Savona 2012). Scientific literature has widely recognized that organized crime activities are placed along a continuum, so that it is difficult – and probably improper – to separate strictly criminal activities from non-criminal ones. The selection of the area, in which it is better to operate, depends on the risks and opportunities related to it. The Italian Mafias have engaged in both criminal and non-criminal activities since high opportunities and low risks were available in illegal businesses as well as in legal ones.

Some differences among the three mafias, especially as regards “what” is concretely done and “how,” can be noted. Such a choice is in fact influenced by many factors: know-how, culture of the organization, and social and economic factors. So, for example, the Campanian Camorra is heavily involved in illegal trafficking of waste and counterfeited goods, while this is not the case for the Sicilian Mafia. In a similar way, drug dealing has been one of the main activities of the mafia in Sicily during the 1970s and the 1980s, whereas now it is one of the core businesses of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta. Despite these differences, some similarities can be outlined. Among them, extortion and infiltration in the legitimate sphere represent features that are common to, and characteristics of, all three Italian Mafias (Savona 2012).

Extortion Racketeering In Europe

This part draws mainly on a precedent analysis (Savona and Zanella 2011, pp. 261–267).

Moving to a broader level of analysis (Europe), market opportunities and variations in the characteristics of organized criminal groups can give rise to different types of extortion racketeering: systemic and casual racketeering. Extortion racketeering is systemic when it is deeply rooted and extended across a territory, being a core part of the activities of organized crime groups. Extortion racketeering is casual when it is not extended across a territory since criminal organizations do not routinely engage in such a criminal activity.

These different types of extortion racketeering are shaped by four interrelated variables: (a) market opportunities, (b) the organizational structure of criminal groups, (c) their presence at local level, and (d) the victim/offender relationship.

In other words, on the one hand, the more organized criminal groups focus their activity on the local territory because of market opportunities, the more they develop a monopolistic position and a consequential hierarchical structure, and the more they establish parasitical and symbiotic relationships with their extortion victims, the more extortion racketeering becomes systemic (i.e., widespread and continuous). On the other hand, the more criminal market opportunities are open to transnational activities, the more criminal groups are organized in networks, and the more they establish predatory relationships with their extortion victims, the more extortion racketeering becomes casual.

The four variables and their interrelations are better described below:

(a) Market opportunities

Extortion is an old and simple crime committed by organized crime when the risks are low and the benefits are high. It occurs in contexts where (1) the victims do not report the crime and (2) are willing to pay the protection tax. These two conditions often arise within close-knit ethnic communities (e.g., among Italians at the beginning of the nineteenth century in New York City or among Chinese communities in the USA or in Europe). The low risks connected to this ethnic homogeneity and the consequent control of the territory are balanced by high benefits related to possible criminal market opportunities only. Extortion is systemic when other criminal alternatives are not available or cannot be adopted because of the low expertise of the group and its organization.

 (b) Organizational structure of criminal groups Although there is not a direct relationship between the organizational structure of criminal groups and extortion, the literature and the data show that where extortion is practiced on a large scale, and is systemic, the groups that engage in it are organized hierarchically. Where extortion is more casual, their structure is more flexible (taking the form of a network).

Due to their structure, which enables a lasting presence in a given territory, hierarchical criminal groups gain in reputation and may exercise effective threats of contingent violence against their victims. Moreover, these threats are reinforced by the fact that those threatened believe that these criminal groups “can corrupt legitimate authority or in some other way ensure that they avoid apprehension” (Reuter 1994, p. 95) and can act as an industry which produces and sells private protection (Gambetta 1993).

These elements of reputation – that is, the ability to neutralize law enforcement by means of corruption and the production and sale of protection – are closely related to the type of organized criminal group. Criminal groups with network structures “are not interested in, or capable of, exercising such a quasi-political power” (Paoli and Fijnaut 2004, p. 608). They are too small and ephemeral to be able to carry out systemic extortion racketeering. Only in a few cases they are involved in casual extortion racketeering practices. Networks may openly use violence to heighten their capacity to commit extortion, but they tend to be short lived because they lack the necessary structure and expertise.

In sum, although it is not automatic, the relationship between hierarchical structure and systemic extortion, on the one hand, and flexible structure and casual extortion, on the other, can be explained by means of the other variables shaping extortion: the local dimension of the organized crime action, its control over the territory, and the victim/offender relationship.

(c) The presence at local level

Why does extortion proliferate when organized crime operates at local level? And why is control of the territory so important? The explanation resides in the relationships between organized crime groups and local politicians, administrators, and businesses. The local level is the dimension where collusion with organized crime is easier and reciprocal exchange more profitable. Extortion racketeering is used to finance the criminal organization and its criminal activities and to consolidate its capacity to control local resources such as property, markets, services, and votes.

Criminal groups which exercise intense control over the local territory tend to commit systemic extortion racketeering within legal markets and in the underworld. As far as the legal markets are concerned, extortion racketeering is often viewed as the key “to infiltration and baronial domination of sections of the legitimate economy” (Bell 2000, p. 183). In regard to the underworld, it has been noted (Landesco 1968) that extortion racketeering is often used to “protect” criminal markets. By collecting extortion money from criminals, organized criminal groups establish a form of tax levying system which facilitates the establishment of monopolistic areas and creates barriers to entry that make criminal offenses less attractive.

(d) The victim/offender relationship

When analyzing the victim/offender relationship in extortion racketeering cases, it should be considered that “the boundaries between victim and accomplice are often (.. .) blurred” (Blok 2008, p. 8). These boundaries create the difference between systemic and casual extortion racketeering.

When networks are involved in extortion racketeering, they establish predatory relationships with their victims. Being unable to establish lasting relationships with them, criminal networks consequently act with the “aim or effect to destroy or bleed to death” (Passas 2002, p. 21) the victims, exacting considerable extortive payments in a short period. This is typical of casual extortion racketeering.

By contrast, hierarchical criminal groups, benefiting from their reputation and durability, may establish parasitical or symbiotic relationships with their victims. This contributes to making extortion racketeering systemic.

The relationship is “parasitical when the aim is to preserve the viability of the target, such that illegal benefits can be extorted on a more or less regular basis” (Passas 2002, p. 21). By establishing a lasting relationship with the victim, the offender “harms the host a little at a time, without killing it, or only kills it in slow motion” (Felson 2006, p. 196). In other cases, the relationship may be symbiotic in nature, so that the victim becomes a “friend” of the extorter. The victim thus gains an advantage that is not “simply that of avoiding the likely damages that would otherwise ensue, but can extend to assistance in disposing of competitors, or protection against the threat of isolated bandits, and against the risk of being cheated in the course of business transactions” (Gambetta 2000, p. 166).

Systemic And Casual Extortion Racketeering: The European Case

The link between the presence of casual or systemic extortion racketeering and the variables indicated above has been recently investigated in a study on extortion and organized crime in the 27 European Union Member States (Transcrime 2009). This study analyzed the complex variety of criminal organizations present in the 27 EU Member States, the criminal market opportunities they exploit, the differences in their organizational structures (some are hierarchical, some take the form of a network, some are permanent, some are more ephemeral) together with their differing criminal activities and control over the territory, and the various relationships they establish with their victims.

The study explained that extortion racketeering is casual in most of the European Union Member States (EU MS). The only exceptions are the Eastern EU MS (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) and some EU MS in the South of Europe, namely, Spain and Italy.

When the geographical locations of the 27 EU MS are divided into four clusters, the following patterns emerge (see Caneppele et al. 2009, pp. 253–254):

  1. Northern Europe (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden). Owing to the prevalence of smuggling activities in this region, extortion racketeering is casual in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. In fact, these countries are distinguished by the presence of criminal organizations that do not exercise control over the territory because they are transnational in their smuggling activities. Proximity to Russia and the Caucasian countries and the presence of hierarchical criminal groups have generated systemic extortion racketeering in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
  2. Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, United Kingdom). Owing to the structure of the organized criminal groups operating in this area and to their transnational activities, extortion racketeering is casual. Most of the countries in this area suffer from extortions carried out within close-knit ethnic communities. This is the case, for example, of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom.
  3. Central/Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania). Because of its proximity to the Balkans, this region is an important transit area for criminal goods and services and in particular for smuggling and trafficking activities. However, the likely hierarchical structure of the criminal organizations operating in this area, together with their strong presence at local level, makes extortion racketeering systemic in countries such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia.
  4. Southern Europe (Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain). The region is highly heterogeneous. Differences outweigh similarities in the structure of organized crime groups operating in these countries, and this is also reflected in the different ways in which extortion racketeering is conducted. Extortion racketeering is casual in most of the countries belonging to this cluster.

In two countries – Italy and Spain – extortion racketeering is systemic. In Spain, it is systematic because it is carried out by terrorist groups belonging to ETA which are well structured and rooted in the territory (see Transcrime 2009, Spain country profile). As seen above, in Italy, the phenomenon is mainly linked to mafia-like organized crime, for which extortion racketeering plays a fundamental role in terms of both exercising control over the territory and financing criminal activities.


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