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The statutory definition of organized crime stems from the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, as amended. Current law defines "organized crime" as

the unlawful activities of the members of a highly organized, disciplined association engaged in supplying illegal goods and services, including but not limited to gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, narcotics, labor racketeering, and other unlawful activities of members of such organizations.

This definition describes organized crime in terms of the illegal activities rather than in terms of what constitutes a criminal organization. In the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970,[1] and more specifically within Title IX — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) — organized crime is defined in terms of an “enterprise” and a “pattern of racketeering activity.” The predicate offenses for racketeering include a host of state and federal crimes listed in 18 U.S.C. §1961. Although RICO provides a definition for an “enterprise,” it does not describe the attributes of a criminal enterprise that distinguish it from a legal enterprise. In addition, this definition describes organized crime more in terms of the illegal activities than in terms of the criminal organization.

The structure of modern organized crime groups often does not exhibit the rigid hierarchy of more traditional organized crime groups such as the Italian Mafia. Organized crime groups restrict membership based on a number of factors, including race, ethnicity, kinship, and criminal background. These criminal organizations continue, even if leadership or membership changes over time. Further, violence and/or the threat of violence are integral aspects of organized crime. Organized crime groups profit from illegal enterprises as well as from infiltrating legitimate businesses. They may attempt to corrupt public officials in order to escape investigation, prosecution, or punishment. Notably, the primary goal of organized crime groups is to make money; these groups are profit-driven rather than ideology-driven (a key distinction between organized crime and terrorist groups).

Though organized crime has arguably always been transnational, it was not until the 1990s, following the Cold War and the spread of globalization, that the transnational nature of organized crime surged and criminals expanded their operations across increasingly open borders.

Historical background[]

Organized crime in the United States has a long-standing history. Although this history has its origins prior to the 20th century, organized crime flourished around the time of Prohibition[2] and grabbed the attention of policymakers. Through most of the 20th century, U. S. law enforcement combated what most consider “traditional” organized crime networks operating inside the United States, including the Italian Mafia, Russian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza, and Chinese Tongs.


These criminal organizations were involved in a variety of illegal activities, and in the 1950s and 1960s, the most profitable of these activities was gambling, followed by loan sharking, narcotics trafficking, extortion, prostitution, bootlegging, and fraud.[3] Other prominent activities of organized crime groups were racketeering, theft, murder, and money laundering.

The national focus on organized crime led to several efforts aimed at investigating and controlling it. These initial efforts included the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce in 1950 and 1951 led by Senator Kefauver, Senate hearings on organized crime in 1958 and 1963 led by Senator McClellan, a series of conferences on organized crime at Oyster Bay in 1965 and 1966, and the creation of the 1967 Task Force on Organized Crime.

This 1967 Task Force reported that law enforcement measures to curb organized crime had not been successful[4] and, further, that organized crime in America was on the rise.[5] Statistics showed that from 1961 to 1966, the number of individuals indicted by the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section (OCRS) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) rose from 121 to 1,198. Further, the number of those indicted individuals actually convicted rose from 73 to 477.[6] Although the raw number of indictments and convictions rose between 1961 and 1966, the proportion of individuals from organized crime groups who were convicted during this period actually declined, from 60.3% to 39.8%.

Combating organized crime had been a responsibility primarily of state and local law enforcement.[7] As the scope of organized crime was continuing to increase, Congress recognized the need for better crime fighting tools and the need to further the federal government’s role in fighting and prosecuting organized crime.[8]

Federal legislation[]

Congress has enacted a number of laws intended to deal with organized crime, including:

Enforcement efforts[]

Combating organized crime is not a task handled by one federal agency or even one department. Many agencies have a hand in tackling the threats posed by organized crime. The Department of Justice, specifically the U.S. Attorney General’s Organized Crime Council, is responsible for creating domestic organized crime policy. The Council is chaired by the Deputy Attorney General and has representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the U.S. Secret Service; the Internal Revenue Service (IRS); the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; Diplomatic Security; and the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General.

Although many federal and state departments and agencies are involved in fighting organized crime, the primary agency responsible for combating organized crime is the FBI. The Transnational Criminal Enterprise Section in the Criminal Enterprise Branch of the Criminal Investigative Division is responsible for investigating organized crime. This Organized Crime Section is divided into three principal units investigating (1) La Cosa Nostra, Italian organized crime, and racketeering; (2) Eurasian/Middle Eastern organized crime; and (3) Asian and African criminal enterprises.

As its key analytical tool, the FBI uses the Enterprise Theory of Investigation (ETI) to investigate organized crime. ETI involves two steps: (1) identifying a criminal organization and the criminal activities of this organization and (2) identifying the financial assets of the criminal organization for possible forfeiture. This investigative technique seems to complement the RICO statutes in that both ETI and RICO are aimed at dismantling criminal organizations. Further, ETI identifies financial assets that may be subject to forfeiture under civil RICO statutes. This aspect of ETI is directed at combating money laundering and thus the financial lifeline of organized crime.

Internet-based activities[]

Organized crime is increasingly using the Internet to exploit any online opportunity to make money through such activities as information and identity theft, fraud, extortion, illegal gambling, pornography, and other activities. Organized criminal elements are generally more structured and can draw on more extensive funding resources than loosely knit hacker communities, enabling them to hire expert hacker talent or bribe insiders to gain access to more sensitive systems.


  1. Pub. L. No. 91-452.
  2. Frank Browning & John Gerassi, The American Way of Crime 53 (1980).
  3. U.S. Congress, House Government Operations, Legal and Monetary Affairs, "Federal Effort Against Organized Crime: Report of Agency Operations," 90th Cong., 2nd Sess. (Committee Print June 1968.
  4. Task Force on Organized Crime, Task Force Report: "Organized Crime: Annotations and Consultants' Papers," The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 14 (1967).
  5. From remarks by Rep. Dante B. Fascell, Chairman, in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Legal and Monetary Affairs, The Federal Effort Against Organized Crime. Part 1, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., Apr. 5, 1967.
  6. From remarks by Fred M. Vinson, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, Department of Justice, in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Legal and Monetary Affairs, The Federal Effort Against Organized Crime. Part 1, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., Apr. 5, 1967.
  7. Task Force on Organized Crime, "Organized Crime: Report of the Task Force on Organized Crime," National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, Washington (1976).
  8. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Organized Crime Control Act of 1969, Report to accompany S. 30, 91st Cong., 1st Sess., Dec. 16, 1969, S. Rep. 91-617.