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Focusing on groups versus activities


Evidence from both criminal cases and research studies of organized criminal groups in different locations supports each of the three models of organized crime in certain respects. Some organized criminal groups are hierarchical (even if loosely so), culturally bound, and are also maintained by supply and demand for available illicit products and services. Ethnically or culturally bound organized criminal groups clearly exist that are not hierarchical in structure, but rather are driven by economic opportunities in illicit markets. There are also organized criminal groups not hierarchical or culturally bound that engage in criminal activities that correspond to the available opportunities to profit illicitly.

Both the hierarchical and local cultural models focus on how organized criminal groups are organized; the enterprise model focuses on how organized criminal activities are organized. Examples of all three models can be found in different markets and locations around the world. Some organized crime is hierarchical in nature and much is not. In addition, some organized crime is locally based and culturally bound in nature and much is not. On the other hand, all organized crime activity is entrepreneurial in nature as its ultimate purpose is a financial or other material benefit. Organized crime as a course of conduct can be studied as an economic activity, but it is prosecuted based on the relationship among its participants in criminal enterprises.

A UNODC analysis of 16 countries and one region (the Caribbean) summarized their reports of transnational organized criminal groups in each country and what was known about three prominent organized criminal groups there (United Nations Centre for International Crime Prevention, 2000). The 40 organized criminal groups identified were found to follow five different models:

  • Rigid hierarchy - single boss with strong internal discipline within several divisions.
  • Devolved hierarchy - regional structures, each with its own hierarchy and degree of autonomy.
  • Hierarchical conglomerate - a loose or umbrella association of otherwise separate organized criminal groups.
  • Core criminal group - a horizontal structure of core individuals who describe themselves as working for the same organization.
  • Organized criminal network - individuals engage in criminal activity in shifting alliances, not necessarily affiliated with any criminal group, but according to skills they possess to carry out illicit activity.

This typology of groups ranged from the most to least organized, and the responding countries reported about one-third of the groups to be hierarchical in structure. These groups are often larger, and better documented, than other groups. The survey found about one-third of the 40 groups identified to be ethnically-based. The remaining groups had no strong social or ethnic identity, or members were simply drawn from the same social background. Significantly, two-thirds of the groups identified had activities in three or more countries. This study illustrates how organized crime is structured differently in different countries of the world.


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