Some criminal organizations, such as terrorist organizations, are politically motivated. Gangs sometimes become "disciplined" enough to be considered "organized". An organized gang or criminal set can also be referred to as a mob. The act of engaging in criminal activity as a structured group is referred to in the United States as racketeering. In the U.S., organized crime is often prosecuted federally under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), Statute (18 U.S.C. Part I Chapter 96 §§ 1961-1968).
"Piracy and banditry were to the pre-industrial world what organized crime is to modern society" (Paul Lunde, Organized Crime, 2004). Today, crime is thought of as an urban phenomenon, but for most of human history it was the rural world that was crime-ridden. Pirates and bandits attacked trade routes, at times severely disrupting commerce, raising costs, insurance rates and prices to the consumer.
Organized crime is deeply linked to the moral problem of integrating subcivilized energy into civilized state building. The early Christian world was dubious about an unqualified legitimacy of nation-states. St. Augustine (City of God, 4.4) famously defined them as what would now be called kleptocracies, states founded on theft:
"If justice be disregarded, what are states but large bandit bands, and what are bandit bands but small states? ... Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, 'What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor'" ().
A later North African writer, Ibn Khaldun, observing the predatorial conquests of the Mongol leader Tamerlane in the 14th century, developed a theory of state formation based on the periodic conquest of civilized states by barbarians, who are quickly acculturated by urban life, lose their warlike qualities and succumb in turn to conquest by yet another wave of barbarians. As criminologist Paul Lunde states, "Barbarian conquerors, whether Vandals, Goths, Norsemen, Turks or Mongols are not normally thought of as organized crime groups, yet they share many features associated with successful criminal organizations. They were for the most part non-ideological, predominantly ethnically based, used violence and intimidation, and adhered to their own codes of law" (ibid.).
Although medieval feudal lords were not usually engaged in what moderns would consider "criminal activities" (except for irregular robber barons, self-enthroned Viking adventurers, and mercenary "free company" leaders), their hierarchical courts, monopoly of violence, extension of protection to their serfs in exchange for labor and a percentage of harvests and durability are structurally similar to classic organized crime groups like the Mafia. In the modern world, it is difficult to distinguish some corrupt and lawless governments from organized crime gangs. These regimes, characteristic of some of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, use the state apparatus to control organized crime for their own ends.
In order for a criminal organization to prosper, some degree of support is required from the society in which it lives. Thus, it is often necessary to corrupt some of its respected members, most commonly achieved through bribery, blackmail, and the establishment of symbiotic relationships with legitimate businesses. Judicial and police officers and legislators are especially targeted for control by organized crime via bribes.
Lacking much of the paperwork that is common to legitimate organizations, criminal organizations can usually evolve and reorganize much more quickly when the need arises. They are quick to capitalize on newly-opened markets, and quick to rebuild themselves under another guise when caught by authorities.
This is especially true of organized groups that engage in human trafficking.
The newest growth sectors for organized crime are identity theft and online extortion. These activities are troubling because they discourage consumers from using the Internet for e-commerce. E-commerce was supposed to level the playing ground between small and large businesses, but the growth of online organized crime is leading to the opposite effect; large businesses are able to afford more bandwidth (to resist denial-of-service attacks) and superior security. Furthermore, organized crime using the Internet is much harder to trace down for the police (even though they increasingly deploy cybercops) since police forces and law enforcement agencies in general operate on a national level while the Internet makes it even more simple for criminal organizations to cross boundaries and even to operate completely remotely.
In the past criminal organizations have naturally limited themselves by their need to expand. This has put them in competition with each other. This competition, often leading to violence, uses valuable resources such as manpower (either killed or sent to prison), equipment and finances. In the United States, the Irish Mob boss of the Winter Hill Gang (in the 1980s) turned informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He used this position to eliminate competition and consolidate power within the city of Boston which led to the imprisonment of several senior organized crime figures including Gennaro "Jerry" Anguilo underboss of the Patriarca crime family. Infighting sometimes occurs within an organization, such as the Castellamarese war of 1930-31 and the Boston Irish Mob Wars of the 1960s and 1970s.
Today criminal organizations are increasingly working together, realizing that it is better to work in cooperation rather than in competition with each other. This has led to the rise of global criminal organizations such as Mara Salvatrucha. The Sicilian Mafia in the U.S. have had links with organized crime groups in Italy such as the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta and the Sacra Corona Unita. The Sicilian Mafia has also been known to work with the Irish Mob (John Gotti of the Gambino family and James Coonan of the Westies are known to have worked together, with the westies operating as a contract hit squad for the Gambino family after they helped Coonan come to power), the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia. The FBI estimates that global organized crime makes $1 trillion per year.
This rise in cooperation between criminal organizations has meant that law enforcement agencies are increasingly having to work together. The FBI operates an organized crime section from its headquarters in Washington and is known to work with other national (e.g. Polizia di Stato and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), federal (e.g., Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Coast Guard), state (e.g., Massachusetts State Police Special Investigation Unit and the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation) and city (e.g., New York Police Department Organized Crime Unit and the Los Angeles Police Department Special Operations Division) law enforcement agencies.
Criminal organizations may function both inside and outside of prison, such as the Mexican Mafia, Folk Nation, and the Brazilian PCC. Biker gangs such as the Hells Angels may also be involved in organized crime.
Terrorist and paramilitary organizations such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Ulster Defence Association, FARC and the PKK have been known to engage in organized crime to raise funds for their political activities.
World leaders throughout history who have been accused of running their country like a criminal organization include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Francisco Franco, Hugo Banzer, Kim Jong Il, Slobodan Milošević, Alberto Fujimori (in league with his advisor Vladimiro Montesinos), Senior General Than Shwe of Burma and various other dictators and military juntas. Corrupt political leaders may have links to existing organized crime groups, either domestic or international, or else may simply exercise power in a manner that duplicates the functioning and purpose of organized crime.
Another use of the term "criminal organization" exists in human rights law and refers to an organization which has been found guilty of crimes against humanity. Once an organization has been determined to be a criminal organization, one must only demonstrate that an individual belonged to that organization to be punished and not that the individual actually individually committed illegal acts.
This concept of the criminal organization came into being during the Nuremberg Trials. Several public sector organizations of Nazi Germany such as the SS and Gestapo were judged to be criminal organizations, while other organizations such as the German Army High Command were indicted but acquitted of charges.
This conception of criminal organizations was, and continues to be, controversial, and has not been used in human rights law since the trials at Nuremberg.
Organized crime groups also provide a range of illegal services and goods, such as loansharking of money at very high interest rates, bookmaking and gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, gunrunning, providing murder for hire, illegal dumping of toxic waste, people smuggling and trafficking in human beings . Organized crime groups also do a range of business and labor racketeering activities, such as casino skimming, Insider trading, setting up monopolies in industries such as garbage collecting, construction and cement pouring, bid rigging, getting "no-show" and "no-work" jobs, using non-union labor and pocketing the wage difference, money laundering, political corruption, and bullying.