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Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime Groups, Structure and Models


Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) continues to be an issue near the top of the international agenda. While crime has always been an issue, criminal organizations have developed increasingly sophisticated methods. Such international crime can be a threat to the peace and stability of even the most developed countries. The newest technologies have much such crime even less restricted by borders. The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series aims to analyze the different forms of organized crime and the mode of operation of different organized groups. This series will further explore the similarities and differences between Transnational Organized Criminal groups.

The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series is divided into six chapters:

1. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime Groups, Structure and Models

2. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Mafia Transplantation

3. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime

4. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime at Sea

5. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Human Trafficking and Smuggling in Africa and Europe

6. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans

Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime Groups, Structure and Models

A significant difference between organized crime and other forms of criminal conduct is that organized crime is, to put it simply, organized; it is the result of rational and planned acts conducted by groups (Organized Crime Module 1 Key Issues, 2018).

When organized crime crosses international borders, it is called 'Transnational Organized Crime' (TOC) (Organized Crime Module 1 Key Issues, 2018). Transnational Organized Crime is defined as a group of self-perpetuating individuals conducting operations internationally to gain power, money, and influence by illegal means while defending and protecting their activities through violence and corruption (International Organized Crime, 2021). Digitization and Globalization are changing the modi operandi (mode of operation) and the nature of illicit markets of transnational organized crime. With the emergence of cryptocurrencies, their illicit financial flows have become even more difficult to trace (Transnational Organized Crime: A Threat to Global Public Goods | SIPRI, 2022).

Image 1: Cybercrime: The new game changer

The Structures of Organized Crime

To fully understand the differences and similarities among organized crime groups, five structures have been developed to categorize the different organized crime groups. The structures are: Standard Hierarchy, Regional Hierarchy, Clustered Hierarchy, Core Groups and Criminal Network (Stanojoska, 2015).

The first, 'Standard Hierarchy, charts the organized criminal group with only one leader. Such groups are known for their defined roles, strong ethnic and social identity, internal discipline, and a defined hierarchy. Members of Standard Hierarchy organized crime groups always come from the same ethnic background or similar background experience, e.g., prison gangs (Understanding organized crime, 2007). To fulfill their goals, they use violence and often control a territory. They usually have between 10-16 members (Stanojoska, 2015). An example of a Standard Hierarchy is a group referred to by law officials as the Cock Group. They share a common social identity since they all came from prison. This organized crime group was engaged primarily in extortion, trafficking of heroin, maintaining prostitution outlets, stealing vehicles, and extensive use of violence (Understanding organized crime, 2007).

Image 2: Members of the Gambino crime family Mario Cassarino (center) and William Scotto (left)

In a 'Regional Hierarchy', there is a single leader who gives out instructions and plans. The autonomy possessed by the leader is on a regional level as opposed to the organizational level. The leader in a Regional Hierarchy differs from the Standard Hierarchy in terms of influence, but they carry out the same activities. Local organizations which operate within the group are granted independence and autonomy (Stanojoska, 2015). Like the Standard Hierarchy, they have robust systems of internal disciplines with defined lines of authority. An example of a regional hierarchy is the Hell’s Angels in Canada. They are an outlaw motorcycle gang (OMG) with a large structure. They get their income from trafficking and manufacturing illegal drugs, and the members also share a strong social identity. The group is known for its heavy investments in the legal economy at the local level (Understanding organized crime, 2007).

The next is the 'Clustered Hierarchy'. Unlike individual groups, cluster groups have a stronger identity connected in a historical or social context. This structure consists of criminal groups with equal decision-making rights, which are responsible for their actions before one body (Stanojoska, 2015). These criminal groups have put in place an arrangement that assists in managing their activities in a coordinated way. As the organization grows, cluster group members develop a stronger identity in contrast to the smaller groups in which they are actual participants. Mexico's Arellano-Felix Organization is an example of a successful Cluster Hierarchy. The group coordinates with many other criminal organizations and exercises considerable political influence using corruption, has a reputation for using violence, and has penetrated the legitimate economy (Vursavas, 2015).

Image 3: Members of the Hells Angels arrive for a national gathering in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu, Que

Loose nets of subgroup members surround Core Groups. These subgroups usually contain less than 20 members. The structure lacks internal discipline, social or ethnic cohesion and is based on a closed-flat structure. There is a possibility for other members or outside criminal networks to be activated, but only when necessary. Organized criminal enterprises in this category occasionally assume a corporate structure with a legitimate business front; the Core Group engages in illegal activities while holding legitimate business credentials (Stanojoska, 2015). Unlike other hierarchies, power is shared by all participants, which is what makes them a flat structure. They rarely have a specific name and are generally unknown to law enforcement agencies or the general public (Le, 2012). Their small number makes it easier for them to avoid law enforcement interference and maintain internal security. An example of a successful core group organization is the Juvenal Group, primarily involved in trafficking cocaine to the United States. They rarely use violence, but they rely on cooperative ties with other criminal organizations, and they also rely on massive political corruption (Vursavas, 2015).

Image 4: Lucky Luciano, head of the Genovese crime family

The final type of organization is the Criminal Network. The members' activities as individuals construct this group. The individuals participating at a given time are the ones who determine the shape, organization, and membership of the network (Stanojoska, 2015). Their fluid network is highly adaptable and loosely organized. Individual attributes like financial resources, specific skills, and political connections determine how important network participants will be. Individuals come and go from the network and constantly reform the organization depending on its current needs (Le, 2012). Criminal Networks keep very low public profiles and never identify themselves by attributions or names other than the participation of the individuals in the network. An example of a Criminal Network is the Verhagen Group. Their primary business was to traffic hashish, but they were also involved in embezzlement, real estate fraud, and theft (Vursavas, 2015).

The Models of Organized Crime

Not only do organized criminal groups have different structures, they also have several models that are used to describe the behavioral patterns and types of organized crime groups. In addition to the structure of organized crime, three models are used to explain their criminal activities: the bureaucratic model, the patron-client model, and the social network model.

Image 5: Mafia boss John Gotti is escorted by an unidentified man through the crowds outside court during a lunch break in his assault trial in 1990

The bureaucratic or corporate model is known to have large-scale activities which are driven by efficiency. The development of a bureaucratic structure is essential because it is used to control the enterprise as its activities continue to expand. This model deals with creating rules, a hierarchy, means of communication, and specialization (Borton, 2018). The bureaucratic model is a formal organization because it consists of leaders who rule in order of rank (Stormer, 2018).

The patron-client or the patrimonial model is based on the bonds which tie the organization together. The patron provides aid and protection while the client reciprocates, creating a respected and loyal relationship. Emphasis is placed on traditions like personal relationships and rituals. Continuity is offered when the leader is incapacitated when a patron takes the position. Unlike the bureaucratic model, the patron-client has less control over subordinates and is less centralized (Borton, 2018).

Social network models respond to their social environment, and social relations form the basis of this model. Network models are known to be flexible and more responsive to change. Their flexible nature and ability to adapt quickly make it easier to orchestrate crime. They have more access to criminal opportunities and the ability to transfer and receive information at a rapid rate. Criminal networks desire flexibility because a reduced level of supply and demand, law enforcement agencies, and other forms of external pressure can cause a change in the established method of operation (Le, 2012).

Image 6: Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, 2006


Transnational Organized Crime has become more advanced in recent years. It has begun to diversify into other sectors with the help of technology. What differentiates organized criminal groups from other criminal groups is how calculated and organized they are. They are known to have five structures that assist in knowing how different organized groups function. They also adhere to standard organized groups and models, which further explain the workings of transnational organized groups.

Bibliographical References

Borton, T. (2018). Models of Organized Crime Executive Summary.

Caparini, M. (2022, September 2). Transnational organized crime: A threat to global public goods. SIPRI.

International Organized Crime. (2021). The United States Department of Justice.

Le, V. (2012). Organised crime typologies: structure, activities and conditions. International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, 1, 122-128.

Organized Crime Module 1 Key Issues: Defining Organized Crime. (2018). UNODC. Retrieved October 25, 2022, from

Stanojoska, A. ( 2015). Structure of Organized Criminal Groups Originating from the Balkan Peninsula: Models of Trafficking in Human Beings Criminal Groups. Conference: THE POLICE COLLEGE RESEARCH DAYS IN ZAGREB.

Stormer, S. (August 27, 2018). Models of Organized Crime Executive Summary Paper.

Understanding organized crime. (2007). In M. D. Lyman, & G. W. Potter, Organized Crime (pp. 10-14). Prentice hall.

Vursavas, F. (2015). The problems faced fighting against organized crimes globally and the role and effectiveness of law enforcement training: the TADOC case study (Doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University-Graduate School-Newark).

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Blakemore, E. (2019, April 23). Frank Sinatra’s Mob Ties and Other Secrets from His FBI File. HISTORY. [Photograph].

Image 1: Cybercrime: the new game changer. (2017). [Photograph]. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from Image 2: Matthews, C. (2021, June 16). Fortune 5: The Biggest Organized Crime Groups in the World. Fortune. [Photograph]. Image 3: Doucette, K. (2018, December 20). Hells Angels re-establish East Coast presence: “They have a good footprint.” CTVNews. [Photograph]. Image 4: Pak, E. (2020, December 10). 10 of the Most Powerful Mob Bosses of All Time. Biography. [Photograph].

Image 5: Grabianowski, E., & Donovan, J. (2022, August 24). How the Mafia Works. HowStuffWorks. [Photograph]. Image 6: Editorial Staff. (2016, July 13). Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano dies. Kurd Net - Daily News. [Photograph].


Author Photo

Edikan Victoria Inemeh-Etete

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