Organized crime (OC) never fails to fascinate people. It’s the topic of countless movies, tv shows, mystery novels and true crime books. This dark and secret underworld seems both strange and somehow familiar, like something out of a dream. Criminologists have tried to explain it in mundane and often left-leaning terms of poverty, lack of opportunity, oppression and prejudice.
A Spanish Mafia?
While there is probably some truth to it, that way of thinking fails to explain why some ethnic and racial groups are more into OC than others. This observation is usually met with skepsis from many experts who view it as prejudiced. For instance, when the Reagan administration’s President’s Commission on Organized Crime’s report categorized OC by race, ethnicity and nationality criminologist Jay Albanese commented it like this,
This is xenophobic in several important respects. First, the United States’ two bordering neighbors, Mexico and Canada, are identified, and the other ethnic groups represent most of the recent immigration waves of the twentieth century. Only the Irish and Italian groups are nineteenth century immigrants. It is interesting that no British, French, German or other western European groups were identified. Are we to assume there are no people involved in organized crime from Western Europe?
While this is a global phenomenon, there is no doubt that some groups are much more active than others. Albanese’s own book Organized Crime in Our Time as well as other books on the topic makes this very clear. America has been plagued by criminal organizations made up of mainly Italian, Irish or Jewish members, but there isn’t much in the way of German or Spanish OC. Apart from the Irish, people of Western Europe are not very active in this sort of criminal behavior. Why these differences?
Readers of this blog probably know that I’m intrigued and impressed by the theory of clannishness put forward by blogger hbd* chick. In just a few words, it states that long-term inbreeding in a population creates a special set of behaviors which due to increased inclusive fitness is characterized by a concern for and loyalty to relatives, at the expense of outsiders and society in general. This attitude creates corrupt, violent and backward-minded societies while outbreeding creates the opposite, although too much outbreeding appears to make for a sort of detached intellectualism that lacks common sense and disregards empirical data – airy fairy liberals. Anyway, here is her preliminary ranking (in inversed order) of clannishness based on genetic studies and historical records,
1 – the english (not all of them — probably not the cornish, for instance), some of the dutch
2 – the scandinavians
3 or 4 – the irish
6-7 – the italians, the greeks, the chinese
7-8 – the albanians
10 – the yanomamo
11 – the arabs
This list is far from complete but it certainly puts it gives a rough picture of the situation. North Western Europe is the least clannish, Southern Europe a little worse, Southeast Europe yet a little worse and the Middle East as clannish as it gets.
Basic Features of OC
Let’s compare the concept of clannishness with some typical features of organized crime (OC) taken from Howard Abadinsky’s Organized Crime 9th edition,
1. Has no political goals
2. Is hierarchical
3. Has a limited or exclusive membership
4. Constitutes a unique subculture
5. Perpetuates itself
6. Exhibits a willingness to use illegal violence
7. Is monopolistic
8. Is governed by explicit rules and regulations
As we can see, this matches clannish behavior pretty well. Clannish groups usually lack political goals other than to promote themselves. Having ideals about society requires a genuine interest, and they are simply not civic-minded – they are clan-minded. Hierarchal and exclusive need no explanation. Although similar to other groups in their region these groups are culturally conservative and maintain their sometimes ancient traditions, which covers points 4 and 5. Violence is almost by definition since when you reject the state you can only settle things that way. Upholding any form of intergroup rules would in fact constitute a form of society. As far as monopoly goes, I’m not sure how they trade but they clearly have a lot of dos and don’ts. So 7 out of 8 and maybe more, that’s a pretty good match. And note that these criteria are not just some general stuff that fits any social group. Political parties, social classes, the English, gay people, firemen, women, geeks and so on – none of them meet these criteria.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of OC is probably Mafia. This word generally refers to a type of OC that originated in Southern Italy. Unlike the north, this region was very clannish and to some extent still is. Here is Abadinsky again,
The southern Italian developed an ideal of manliness, omertá, that includes noncooperation with authorities, self-control in the face of adversity, and the vendetta—“blood washes blood”—“which dictated that any offense or slight to the famiglia (family) had to be avenged, no matter what the consequences or how long it took. Neither government nor church was to be trusted. The only basis of loyalty was famiglia—“blood of my blood” (sangu de me sangu). The famiglia was composed of all of one’s blood relatives, including those relatives Americans would consider very distant cousins, aunts, and uncles, an extended clan whose genealogy was traced through paternity.
And it is exactly these clans that OC in Southern Italy is based on. When Italy was united government officials complained about “parties” or “sects” that were often merely extended families with guns who made Sicily ungovernable.
When people from Southern Italy (or Mezzogiorno as it’s sometimes called) emigrated to America they brought their OC with them. As Abadinsky points out, “Every important Italian American organized crime figure has had cultural roots in this region.” In the new country they found huge business opportunities, especially with Prohibition, but also new challenges since they could no longer rely completely on their families but had to forge alliances with other groups. This situation divided Italian OC in America in two camps who battled it out in the so-called Castellammarese War. On one side was by Salvatore Maranzano, clannish and old school and on the other was Joe Masseria who represented those who wanted to expand and cooperate. Masseria was killed in 1930 as was Maranzano the next year, most likely with the help of Jewish gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. By that time it was clear that Masseria’s way of thinking was prevailing.
This led to great financial success but in the long run it also meant that the strength of the family diminished. You now had to rely on outsiders and people didn’t even marry in the Italian group anymore. Eventually the mafia dropped the requirement that members must be Italian on both sides but in doing so they became even less clannish. And competing with became harder as other groups moved in. Without clannish cohesion, the smarter people wanted to mainstream into the larger American society so hiring became increasingly difficult. Having neither loyalty nor competence, Italian OC in America declined.
‘Ndrangheta – Still Clannish, and Still Going Strong
Back in Italy the OC groups are facing similar problems as the modern world intrudes on their way of life. But one group, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, has managed to maintain a high degree of clannishness and some say it is actually growing, establishing groups in Germany, Canada, Australia and other places with Calabrian minorities. Although being blood-based means you can’t hire the best man for the job, only the best relative for the job, this may go a long way because of the loyalty it creates. According to criminologist Letizia Paoli,
In order to strengthen the cohesion of the inner nucleus, the practice of intermarriage between first cousins is strongly encouraged and marriages are also used to cement alliances with other groups in the immediate neighborhood.
Members of the ‘Ndrangheta may not be aware of the concept of inclusive fitness, but they know what works and they stick to it.
Albania and Islam
Not far from Southern Italy we have the small Muslim country of Albania, which has plenty of OC, although it’s not as known for it as Italy, possibly because of the smaller population (3.5 million) and the fact that these criminals have not been as active in America (until recently) and thus been popularized by Hollywood. According to Abadinsky, Albanians represent “the fastest growing ethnic criminal presence in Europe, with operations reaching as far as Australia and the United States.”
At the same time Albania is probably the most clannish country in Europe. And the connection between this clannishness and OC has not gone unnoticed either, here another quote from Abadinsky,
Albania is distinguished by its strong sense of familial and clan ties, and the country’s criminal groups (fis) have much in common with their southern Italian colleagues, including the concepts of omertá and famigli.
And Letizia Paoli notes that,
Many Albanian men can still identify relatives of the seventh to tenth degree and expect to be able to rely on them if they need support in either licit or illicit businesses
But how about Muslim countries in general? Arabs rank highest on hbd chick’s list, but you don’t hear much about OC from there. Well, you might say that OC is the official order in many of these countries. In Saudi Arabia for instance, the royal family, House of Saud, and associated clans, control all important political offices and natural resources. The rest of the population have no say at all. That’s probably how the whole world would look if OC would prevail.
It’s often said that America is to be blamed for the OC in Mexico. It has created an enormous market for drugs along and easily transgressed border that separates the rich USA from the poorer Mexico. While this is true, Mexico is also a somewhat clannish country, as criminologist Louise Shelley points out,
…people are not treated alike; strangers, those outside the circle of family and close friends, are not wholly to be trusted. One is much safer giving one’s confidence only to friends of long-standing or family members. Thus, as in Southern Italy, societal focus is on the interests of the immediate and extended family, not the wider interests of a more impersonal societal good.
While Mexican drug organizations are large enterprises, they are usually run by families at the the highest level. The Amezcuas/Colima Cartel was founded by the Amezcuas-Contreras brothers who in turn recruited relatives and long-time friends. The successful Herrera family who dominated heroin trafficking for many years was run by six interrelated families. The Tijuana Cartel was founded and run by the Arellano-Félix family of seven brothers and four sisters (in Latin America women take more part in OC). The Sonora Cartel was founded by Ángel Félix-Gallardo, a second cousin of the Arellano-Félix brothers. And so on.
The Future of OC and Its Clannish Connection
I know, this is just scratching the surface, and this is not to say that clannishness is the only reason for OC. Poverty, opportunity and prejudice etc are no doubt contributing factors as well. But the way clannishness and OC go hand in hand like described above can’t be a coincidence. Rather, it makes perfect sense given the very definitions of these concepts. Clannishness is taking care of yourself and your group, often with violence, at the expense of other people and society. OC can be described in the exact same way.
The flop side of clannish OC is that it prevents efficiency because you can’t hire the best people. Some groups appear to compromise by being ethnic (rather than outright clannish) and some, like outlaw bikers, are largely “color blind” and rely much more on rules and regulations and written documentation. But that makes it easier for the police to monitor their activities. Whether their military-type organizations is the future of OC or not remains an open question. For the moment it seems clear that clannishness is still an important factor in OC, and as the world becomes increasingly international blood-based loyalty may prove to be an even more valuable commodity in the future. Time will tell.