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The Changing Structure of Organized Crime Groups

This project was undertaken to explore, and provide information about, an issue or topic. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Government of Canada.

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(Canadian Police College)

Executive Summary

With significant improvements in modes of transport, communication and ever-expanding horizon of technology, organized crime has significantly evolved into a global phenomenon. It also appears that the factors contributing to globalization and the very fact of globalization of organized crime groups has resulted in a range of complex structures of these groups - necessitating the formation of market-driven transnational networks. Researchers have concluded that the criminal organizations of the 21st century are characterized by a large degree of fluidity and structural complexity. As opposed to the popular stereotypes, they utilize diverse forms and sizes of clusters, network structures and groups, often but not invariably transnational with occasional local home-bases, as suited for their diverse forms of illegal activities, and as dictated by emerging opportunities across the globe. Results of a pilot survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2002) of 40 selected organized criminal groups in 16 countries confirmed the existence of this structural fluidity in the five typologies that were identified and related to the observed groups: Standard hierarchy, Regional hierarchy, Clustered hierarchy, Core group and Criminal network. The major Colombian cartels provide a good example of complex network type structures. Their structure is compartmentalized, and mimics a large, multinational corporation - with the home-based president and vice-presidents making decisions, monitoring and managing the acquisition, production, transportation, sales and finance for the drug-trafficking “business”, and the overseas cells handling the import, storage and delivery of the product, as well as money laundering.

Others have noted the heterogeneous structures and opportunity-driven nature of “Russian” organized criminal groups in the United States. They indicated that these organized crime groups were fluid and flexible networks; their leaders held their positions on the basis of their personal characteristics; these interconnected groups were not highly centralized or controlled by a few leaders; they drew upon external resources and partners with necessary expertise for their criminal undertakings. Experts studying the situation in South-East Europe also reported a wide range of structures, ranging from hierarchical to horizontal, both with cell-like structures and loose networks operating. The Chinese organized criminal groups in the United States were believed to be structurally quite complex and diverse, namely gangs, secret societies, triads, tongs, Taiwanese organized crime groups, and strictly US-based tongs and gangs. The Japanese Yakuja is considered to be one of the largest organized crime groups in the world and is described as having a kaicho (boss or father having absolute authority in the group), wakato (deputy or captain), and wakai shu or soldiers, the ordinary members - which seem to point at a hierarchy.

Organized crime groups are not always homogenous with respect to ethnicity. Network-like structures of organized crime groups seem to be more prevalent than ethnicity, region or family-based groups. This appears to be due to the effectiveness of decentralization and loose, non-hierarchical contacts between groups or cells ‘with shifting patterns of associates’ - that collaborate for a specific purpose and then move apart.

The following models and concepts have been mentioned as useful in anticipating organized and transnational crime: political conditions such as a weak state, a weakened state and states in conflict insurgency or terrorism - where an organized crime group provides protection; economic conditions such as market demands, new opportunities for illegal products and services, collaborating with other non-criminal areas; social conditions where loyalty to kinship or ethnic ties supersede loyalty to the state or government - causing corruption and crime to flourish. A social network may form, with a capacity to cross national boundaries. The Risk Management Model depicts a situation where criminal organizations may utilize tools such as counter-intelligence and corruption to minimize the risks of detection and prosecution by stable governments and law enforcement agencies. Composite Models predict combination of some of the above aspects.

Organized crime is believed to have taken on the character of “entrepreneurial crime”, since it has been dealing with any commodity that can be profitably exploited. In view of the highly adaptive strategies of organized crime groups, the possibility of expanding cybercrime could be great, since this is the most important and emerging area of opportunity in the 21st century. The formation of “business liaisons” between transnational organized criminal groups and transnational terrorist groups, and (despite their ideological, practical and operational differences) their collaboration for mutual gain, have been considered by some experts to be a distinct possibility and a global security threat.

A few scholars believe that since a significant number of organized crime groups are utilizing various types of fluid network structures, combating them would benefit from a strategy that focuses on network analysis, in concrete terms as well as in cyberspace. Experts believe that in combating organized crime, there is a need for a number of strategies. These include: a greater political commitment by governments around the globe to recognize the pernicious and transnational nature of organized crime and to combat it; a great need for cooperation for mutual legal assistance and sharing information - in the form of international agreements and treaties among states and within states - among departments and levels of government, to develop and implement a multi-national and multi-disciplinary approach; a need for increasing public awareness regarding organized crime with a focus on reducing the demand for illegal products and services - to prevent corruption at all levels in the civil society and to enhance loyalty to the legitimate state governing system; the need for strategic, systematic and pro-active collection, analysis and sharing of intelligence, especially, financial intelligence, on emerging groups and areas such as cybercrime, identity thefts and computer frauds - keeping within the boundaries of civil liberty; a need for pro-active development and application of the legal apparatus; and for “a systematic threat assessment of known organized crime groups through collecting information on their criminal activities, financial sophistication, violence potential, market/territory and ability to corrupt” as well as through network analysis techniques; and finally, a need for extensive training of law enforcement communities internationally about the complexity of transnational organized crime and the tools for combating it.

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