Policy Papers

Organised crime, the mythology of the Mafia, and the American/Anglo Response

Michael Woodiwiss |

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Executive Summary

  • The UK government's 2011 strategy for organised crime, Local to global: reducing the risk from organised crime, is based on 'reducing the risk' of a poorly understood phenomenon.
  • Most popular and professional understanding of organised crime in the UK, and elsewhere, derives from the USA, where policy has been informed by an association with a set of myths associated with 'Mafia' criminality and dominated by an approach based mainly on centralising law enforcement.
  • This spawned legislation such as the American Organized Crime Control Act (OCCA) of 1970, which was designed to cope with a highly centralised and rational criminal structure that never existed. This act has provided a blueprint for organised crime control both at home and abroad.
  • Through the commitment to United Nations (UN) anti-drug and anti-crime conventions and other agreements, most nations, including the UK, have ignored the deficiencies of American organised crime control and followed its lead since the 1980s.
  • A British approach that replicates American institutions and tactics has not so far made a positive impact on crime control here, but is about to be further enshrined with the launch of the National Crime Agency in 2013.
  • More attention should be given to understanding the sources and nature of the risk the Home Office strategy is hoping to reduce. In the meantime, debate is limited by mythical statistics and a flawed national and international security consensus.


Late in 2011 Home Secretary Theresa May launched a Strategy Paper entitled Local to Global: Reducing the Risk from Organised Crime, which outlined the British government's new approach to a problem it defined as follows:

Organised crime involves individuals, normally working with others, with the capacity and capability to commit serious crime on a continuing basis, which includes elements of planning, control and coordination, and benefits those involved.

'Organised crime', it continued, 'is a global phenomenon' which 'poses a threat to the UK's national security.

Among the many damaging and destructive consequences of organised crime, the strategy highlighted the threat posed by drug-trafficking, in particular, and the more general threat of organised crime activity to businesses and the state itself.

The strategy commits to the enhancement of multi-lateral cooperation within the European Union and the UN and to continue to 'work with our US partners through the new senior level UK/US organised crime contact group'.

However, few assumptions in the Government's analysis of the problem are supported by the historical record. None of the objectives are likely to be met satisfactorily unless policy makers begin to address some awkward historical realities about the problem of organised crime itself, the way it was misinterpreted in the US, and the way this misinterpretation was exported abroad.

Early efforts to control and understand organised crime

The US has been addressing organised crime internally for more than 90 years and exporting its interpretation since at least the early Cold War era.

The problem first became the subject of systematic study and widespread concern during the Prohibition era, from 1920-1933, when there was a ban on the manufacture, transportation, sale, and importation of alcohol. This was not, as often claimed, an 'experiment' but part of an ambitious programme of moral reform, aiming to eradicate behaviour such as gambling, prostitution, and recreational drug-use, as well as drinking beer and spirits. While gambling and prostitution remained the subject of local or state prohibition, drugs and alcohol became the subject of national prohibitions, through the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, and the 18th Amendment of 1919. American prohibitionists made efforts to internationalise both of these radical approaches to the problems associated with drug and alcohol use. As we shall see, they only proved successful with narcotics.

The first and last time the US government commissioned a comprehensive and objective study of organised crime was in 1929 when President Herbert Hoover announced the creation of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, headed by former Attorney General George Wickersham. After a two-year investigation the Commission's evidence demonstrated that economic realities would always undermine prohibitionist ideals and that Prohibition had actually worsened a situation of widespread and systematic lawlessness in America. There was overwhelming evidence that it had a rotting effect on American society in general and, in particular, on American law enforcement and criminal justice. Police officers, prohibition agents, prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges and ostensibly legitimate business interests were part of the corrupt networks that allowed smugglers and bootleggers (those who trafficked alcohol) to take the most risks and share in the profits of illegal alcohol.

In 1929, the political commentator, Walter Lippmann, made a comparison between American and European alcohol, gambling, prostitution and drug control in his essay, The Underworld as Servant, which clearly found the European models of control superior. America's frequent gangland shootings and corruption scandals, he argued, demonstrated that the machinery of US law enforcement was not working. We have in the end, he argued, 'to deal not only with all the vices we intended to abolish but with the additional dangers which arise from having turned over their exploitation to the underworld'. By contrast, the European tradition was 'tolerant of human appetites, and far too worldly to seek to condemn absolutely what it seems impossible to abolish'.

Such arguments and the hard evidence in the Wickersham Commission's reports gave more force to the campaign to repeal Prohibition, which succeeded on 5 December 1933. Alcohol remained a dangerously addictive substance, but now it was legal, it became possible to limit the damage it caused. Legalisation did not result in a noticeable increase in alcohol-related health problems. There were other positive social and economic consequences, two of which are particularly relevant to the present day situation regarding illegal drugs. The number of deaths from cheaply-made, contaminated liquor declined dramatically and the prohibition of alcohol no longer provided a major financial basis for organised crime. Although repeal cut off an immense source of illegal income, corrupt networks of gangsters, career criminals, business interests, and public officials, continued to supply the demand for activities that remained prohibited, notably gambling, commercialised sex, and recreational drug use.

Eventually, drug trafficking became more important as a major financial basis for organised crime than bootlegging. Agents in the nation's chief drug law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), and many more in the city and state police drugs squads were part of the corrupt networks that took their share of a growing illegal market. Many of these agents were found to be more involved in trafficking itself than in its suppression. The FBN's inability to stem corruption in its own ranks resulted in its abolition in 1968.

In Europe, criminal gangs, entrepreneurial syndicates, corrupt police and criminal justice officials existed, but they had far less scope to profit from illegal markets than their American equivalents throughout most of the 20th century. Largely because of a regulatory approach to alcohol, gambling, drugs, and commercialised sex, the policing of organised crime in Britain, for example, remained relatively low-key and local. With the exception of the occasional moral panic concerning vice or American-style 'gangsterism', Lippmann's observations held true for Britain. The British government laid down restrictions on the time and places where alcohol could be bought instead of prohibiting it entirely. Gambling was also regulated in ways intended to discourage it. Similarly, the response to drugs was either through public health initiatives or, more usually, to turn a blind eye to behaviour that appeared to harm only the consumer. As a result, although Britain had a long history of moral panics, these had little influence on the policing of organised crime and the control of drugs until the second half of the 20th century, when they came to replace evidence-based policy making and pragmatic responses to undesirable and harmful human habits.

In the US, evidence from the Wickersham Commission and from contemporary social scientific research informed thinking on organised crime during the 1930s. The best American minds had been concentrated by this, and by the Great Depression. Thoughtful commentators believed the Depression had revealed that something was fundamentally wrong with American capitalism, and that the orthodox dependence on the market righting itself would not provide a cure. Some, such as Charles Beard, a leading historian, made the suggestion that organised crime was one of the unfortunate products of unfettered capitalism. In 1931, Beard wrote an article on the widely disseminated myth that America's greatness was based on 'rugged individualism':

The cold truth is that the individualist creed of everybody for himself and the devil take the hindmost is principally responsible for the distress in which Western civilization finds itself - with investment racketeering at one end and labor racketeering at the other.

It followed from this kind of analysis that more rigorous business regulation was necessary to lessen the opportunities for successful organised crime in legal markets.

During times of prosperity and complacency such insights about the nature and causes of organised criminal activity might have been lost, but they were made at a time when American capitalism faced its most serious crisis of the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt took office as President in 1933, committed to taking radical action to restore people's faith in the American system, and to make the US a much less hospitable place for organised criminals. During his first two administrations, government action at local and federal level not only ensured the conviction of large numbers of gangsters, and some of their police and political protectors, but much more significantly it also reduced the opportunities for successful organised criminal activity in both legal and illegal markets. Roosevelt's New Deal was an intense period of legislative and executive activity that, more effectively than ever before, policed business and limited the traffic in illegal goods. These reforms saw a decline in the corporate employment of gangsters in labour-management disputes and made large-scale fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement more difficult and risky. Roosevelt and most of his Democratic party also supported the repeal of the Prohibition amendment in 1933, which, as we have already noted, removed a major financial basis for organised crime.

Although large numbers of gangsters were convicted during these years, large scale imprisonment was never contemplated as an answer to organised crime by experts because, as the sociologist Fred Haynes stated, 'Our prisons probably train more criminals than they deter or reform'. American prisons, as ethnographers would later show, fostered the social relationships that later became organised criminal partnerships and networks once individuals were released. It has become clear that that putting, hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurally-minded transgressors together with those guilty of violence, fraud and theft has proved to be part of the problem of organised crime, rather than its solution.

Constructing the American response to organised crime: Mafia mythology

American 1930s wisdom about organised crime was short-lived, however, ending as the reforming tendencies of the New Deal were replaced by the emphasis on national security during the Cold War. Instead of pursuing policies that reduced opportunities for successful organised criminal activity, organised crime was redefined as an 'Unamerican' problem, stemming from a conspiracy of Italians, usually known as the Mafia, and its alleged Jewish co-conspirators, notably gambling entrepreneur Meyer Lansky. An approach based mainly on breaking-up criminal conspiracies was established, and later exported, as demonstrated in the UK government's latest strategy, and similar policy statements from many other countries.

Government agencies such as the FBN and, in the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Senate Committees chaired by Estes Kefauver and John McClellan, newspaper, magazine and book publishers, and finally Mario Puzo's 1969 film The Godfather, all entrenched the belief that the Mafia was a coherent national organisation that dominated organised crime activity in the US and further afield. All empirically-based research, such as David Critchley's study of early twentieth century New York mafia groups, has since demonstrated that this interpretation was far-fetched. The Mafia conspiracy analysis was accepted, however, because it de-emphasised the part played in organised crime by elite and respected figures. It also justified the retention of laws prohibiting gambling and drugs that had only ever been selectively and unsuccessfully enforced.

In 1969, Richard Nixon added the weight of the presidency to this line of analysis, supporting new legislation that increased federal jurisdiction over criminal activity to unprecedented levels. He warned that the Mafia's influence had 'deeply penetrated broad segments of American life' and announced a series of measures designed to pursue the criminal syndicate - depicting it as a singular entity. In 1970 Congress supported this line and passed the Organized Crime Control Act (OCCA). This and other legislation gave federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies an unprecedented array of powers. They could now more easily use eavesdropping and wiretapping devices, cultivate informants, secure convictions that would attract long sentences and seize the financial assets of their targets. It amounted to a major centralisation of policing powers and a diminution of constitutional guarantees.

Since the passage of OCCA, the FBI's investigation of the twenty-plus Italian-American crime 'families' that undoubtedly existed has shown that many of them swore masonic-type oaths of allegiance and used murder and intimidation to protect territories, markets and operations. But the evidence also showed the limits of Mafia power and the limits of the government's campaign against them. It showed that bosses, even in cities such as New York where mafiosi were plentiful, could not direct or control criminal activity in their own city, let alone nationally. They were certainly powerful gangsters who made an impact on local economies, but definitely not part of a tightly-knit, all-powerful national syndicate, that could constitute a national security threat.

In the 1980s the Reagan administration appointed a Presidential Commission to investigate organised crime, which had proved resistant to a great deal of government expense and effort. The Commission's understanding of organised crime represented a 'dumbing down' of the analysis of the problem. Commentators in the 1930s focused on defects in American laws, policies and institutions and found them responsible for America's organised crime. Structural reforms were put in place. Subsequent commentators offered a less productive account of immigrant-led crime 'cartels'. The Reagan Commission retained, and pluralised, the cartel theory, claiming that although the Mafia had once been the dominant force in US organised crime, it was being challenged in the 1980s by several crime 'cartels' emerging amongst Asian, Latin American and other groups. The underlying argument remained the same however: forces outside of mainstream culture threatened otherwise sound institutions. No structural reforms were deemed necessary, rather an intensification of law enforcement effort.

The Americanisation of international law enforcement

The Reagan Commission's recommendations on domestic and foreign policy responses to organised crime were clear: a harder line on all fronts, but especially on drugs, at home, combined with increasing efforts to spread the American gospel - on drug control in particular - abroad. US diplomats, FBI and drug enforcement officers helped disseminate this line of argument through national and international media outlets and it was enthusiastically adopted in mainstream culture, for instance through the immensely popular Thames Television documentary series Crime Inc, shown in the UK in 1984.

Margaret Thatcher's government was receptive to the new American approach. This was illustrated in August 1985 when Thatcher visited the customs area at Heathrow airport, accompanied by television and press cameras, and repeated a warning issued by Reagan to drug traffickers three years earlier: 'We are after you. The pursuit will be relentless. We shall make your life not worth living'. Since then illegal substances have become easier to obtain in both Britain and America, suggesting that those who trafficked in drugs were unaffected by the new 'tough' line.

Thatcher's visit to Heathrow followed a litany of drug horror stories in the press and television that played on the fears of parents in particular. As had long been the case in the US, it proved impossible to achieve an informed and open-minded debate about drug control in such an emotive atmosphere; attempts to do so were met with a concerted and negative response. In September 1985, for example, Dr David Marjot, an experienced treatment centre consultant, told medical journalists that as de facto prohibition had failed to control the use of heroin by addicts, there was a need to consider a response to the problem that focused on treatment rather than law enforcement. His remarks were either ignored or condemned in the media. Debate was thus stifled.

At the same time, media reporting began to refer to Britain having its own drug 'barons', 'czars' and 'Mr Bigs', with seizures reported not just in weight but in more impressive, but very misleading, 'estimated street values', and groups of criminals, especially foreign criminals described as 'armies', 'corporations' or 'national security threats'.

Since then there has been an Americanisation of the international response to drugs, built around the framework established by UN conventions. These conventions were established largely as a result of intense and long-term American pressure, culminating in the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. This required all signatories to improve their ability to identify, arrest, prosecute and convict those who traffic drugs across national boundaries. By July 2005, 173 countries were party to this convention and, as a result, changed their codes of criminal offences and the structure of their police authorities. The effort to globalise American drug prohibition policies has been successful, while the effort to enforce these policies remains as hopelessly unsuccessful as America's efforts at alcohol prohibition. The quantity and variety of substances available through the illegal market place has massively increased in the past three decades.

In 1994 the UN held in Naples the World Ministerial Conference on Organized Transnational Crime. It is clear from studies of the background to this conference that it represented a coincidence of interests between the US, the member states of the European Union and the internal politics of the UN itself. It supported drug prohibition efforts but broadened the range of organised criminal activity to include money laundering, the trade in nuclear technology and human organs and the transporting of illegal immigrants. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, set the tone with his opening address. 'Traditional crime organisations', he claimed, 'have, in a very short time, succeeded in adapting to the new international context to become veritable crime multinationals'. Boutros-Ghali was followed by a series of government leaders who echoed similar themes. Elias Jassan, for example, described organised crime as 'a new monster... the Anti-State'. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described crime organisations as 'armies of evil' who could be defeated only by 'international collaboration'. Notions about centralised criminal 'cartels' had minimal empirical support, but dominated international discourse on organised crime at the highest levels. There was no significant dissent from this line at the conference and many speakers implicitly or explicitly emphasised the success of US-approved organised crime control strategies. The states that signed the anti-drug and anti organised crime conventions therefore committed themselves to an American-style approach to these problems.

Mexico indicated its adherence to US prohibitionist goals by its prompt signing of the 1988 anti-drug convention and the rhetoric of its leaders which closely resembled that of US and UN spokespersons. Since the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-1988) every Mexican government has declared drug trafficking to be a national security threat, using similar rhetorical devices as the Americans. This was a major departure from the past, as the language of national security had previously been rare in Mexican political discourse. It was followed by a significant expansion of the state's drug control apparatus, involving a tripling of its drug control budget and personnel in the following decade. Drug control in fact came to dominate the federal criminal justice system and justified the ever-increasing involvement of the Mexican military.

Increased federal and military involvement plus constant pressure from the US, however, did not come close to controlling Mexican-American drug trafficking. The drug trade now represents one of Mexico's biggest industries, amounting to billions of dollars collected mainly from American consumers.

In the borderlands between Mexico and the US, the trade in guns, mainly from the north, and drugs, mainly from the south, has made the effects of drug prohibition more catastrophic than anywhere else in the world. Mexican officials estimate that there have been more than 47,000 drug-related killings between 2006 and 2012, mainly those involved in, or caught up in, conflict between drug trafficking organisations, but including hundreds of police officers and soldiers.

In Britain from the 1980s, drug law enforcement was intensified and made more aggressive. There were stiffer penalties for drug offenders, and more police were transferred to anti-drug duties. The establishment of the National Drugs Intelligence Unit (NDIU) in the late 1980s marked the start of a paradigm shift in British policing towards a more centralised, intelligence-led approach to drugs and organised crime on the American model. The National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Service replaced the NDIU in the 1990s, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency was set up in 2006, and the National Crime Agency is set to follow in 2013. During this fundamental change in British policing there has been minimal informed discussion amongst the policy making community about the nature of the organised crime problem that these agencies are supposed to be confronting.


The novelist Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow perceptively noted that if policy makers get people to ask the wrong questions they don't have to worry about the answers. The current UK government's strategy prevents informed debate by mimicking the American and UN international security discourse on organised crime.

In the US, the UK and elsewhere, myths and misrepresentations have distorted popular and professional perceptions of organised crime. As a result, unworkable policies have been pursued, making it far more difficult to limit the damage done by organised criminal activity. Despite increasingly co-operative efforts by national governments and the international community and the export of the type of approach outlined in the Strategy Paper, organised criminal activity continues to flourish.

As the American and the international experience has shown, no amount of centralisation of policing, co-operation between local and state level forces, or between systems of different nations will 'reduce the risk' from organised crime until at least two questions are addressed in a historically informed way. First, what methods of drug control can reduce the profitability of the traffic in drugs? In the US, 90 years of intense drug law enforcement activity has not dented profitability. Drug trafficking organisations can afford to lose 90 percent of their product, and still make a profit. They can also, as continuing bank scandals illustrate, easily launder this profit. Secondly, what approaches to the control of organised crime have worked in the past? This would require some understanding of the Depression era reforms that, as noted earlier, made America a less hospitable place for organised criminals. It is no coincidence that as the US dismantled many of these reforms from the 1980s, organised criminals took advantage.

The Home Office has announced a research strategy that:

will aim to improve the value from research and analysis on organised crime by: helping prioritise key questions; encouraging data sharing; promoting the dissemination and sharing of research findings; encouraging collaboration; and reducing duplication of effort.

The strategy will cover a range of disciplines and mentions social research, economics and statistics, but not history. This was a missed opportunity to correct the damage that a poor evidence base and ahistorical thinking have wrought on organised crime policy during the 20th century and into the 21st. It is essential that a historical understanding of the structural conditions that have promoted and facilitated organised crime in the past should be prioritised in current policy efforts. Otherwise it is likely that the government's strategic aims will be reversed: opportunities for organised crime to take root will continue to increase, enforcement action will be nullified as more organised crime networks come through the prison system, and there will be a 'rotting' impact on communities, businesses and the state itself.

In 1931 the Wickersham Commission issued its final report with a plea that should resonate with today's policy makers, similarly faced with a crisis in capitalism:

The importance of dealing with organized crime... cannot be over-emphasized. Intelligent action requires knowledge - not, as in too many cases, a mere redoubling of effort in the absence of adequate information and a definite plan. The carrying out of our recommendation for immediate, comprehensive, and scientific nation-wide inquiry into organized crime should make possible the development of an intelligent plan for its control.

Franklin Roosevelt's administration, informed by a contextual understanding of organised criminality took action that reduced it, and made large-scale financial crime more difficult and risky. However, this progress ended after the Second World War when the US choose to scapegoat a foreign conspiracy for problems that actually stemmed from failing prohibitions and inadequate regulatory oversight at home. The Wickersham Commission's call for a comprehensive and scientific nationwide inquiry into organised crime was ignored and no intelligent plan for its control was formed.

Organised crime today undoubtedly makes damaging and destructive impacts at local, regional, national and international levels, but it is inadequate to depict it as a 'security threat' that requires nothing more than a redoubling or multiplication of effort from a harmonised international community. British policy makers should join with international partners and globalise Wickersham's recommendation for immediate, comprehensive, and scientific inquiry into organised crime. This inquiry should be informed by an understanding of what has worked, and what has not worked, in the past.

Further Reading

Felia Allum and Stan Gilmour (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Transnational Organised Crime (London: Routledge, 2011)

Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann, Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Ted Galen Carpenter, Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

David Critchley, The Origin of Organised Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931, (London: Routledge, 2009)

Spear, H.B., Heroin Addiction Care and Control: The British System, 1916-1984, (London: Drugscope, 2002)

Michael Woodiwiss and Dick Hobbs, 'Organised Evil and the Atlantic Alliance: Moral Panics and the Rhetoric of Organised Crime Policing in America and Britain', British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 49, No. 1, January 2009.

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