Crime committed on a national or international scale by a criminal association; also, the associations themselves. Such associations engage in offenses such as cargo theft, fraud, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, and the demanding of protection payments. Their principal source of income derives from the supply of illegal goods and services for which there is continuous public demand, such as drugs, prostitution, loan-sharking (i.e., the lending of money at extremely high interest rates), and gambling. They are characterized by a hierarchy of ranks with assigned responsibilities; the coordination of activities among subgroups; the division of geographic territory among different associations; a commitment to total secrecy; efforts to corrupt law-enforcement authorities; and the use of extreme violence, including murder, against rival associations, informers, and other enemies. International rings of smugglers, jewel thieves, and drug traffickers have existed throughout Europe and Asia, and Sicily and Japan have centuries-old criminal organizations. In the U.S., organized crime flourished in the 20th century, especially during the Prohibition era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it became immensely powerful in Russia, taking advantage of a weak and impoverished government and widespread official corruption. See also Mafia; yakuza.
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