Should law enforcement in America prioritize fighting counter-terrorism or fighting organized crime? A full examination of the history and issues involved with both will, I would argue, make the answer clear: with the proper definitions involved of both terror and organized crime, it is the latter which genuinely deserves the attention of law enforcement, and the former which has become the stuff of paranoid post-9/11 fantasy. However, to a certain extent, we will understand the way in which definitional creep can effect both subjects: what is the difference between a terrorist organization and a transnational organized crime enterprise? Why do we not consider a Mexican drug cartel so powerful that it routinely executes scores of people to intimidate local populations not considered a terrorist organization? I would like in this paper to examine the definition and rough history of both organized crime and terrorism in America, and conclude by examining current law enforcement priorities and strategies to indicate our current direction is incorrect. Right now American law enforcement still has an emphasis on counter-terrorism, while the focus should be placed on organized crime, clearly defined.
While organized crime is nothing new, the federal and state effort to combat it through legal means -- thereby offering us a convenient definition -- is fairly new. It is true that the Prohibition era and after saw the rise of large-scale criminal enterprises, yet the irony was that there were no specific laws defining or targeting organized crime at those times when organized crime was arguably most powerful. Certainly organized crime in America dates to before the Civil War in the first half of the nineteenth century, and has found an attentive historian in Herbert Asbury, whose book The Gangs of New York details the prominence of armed street gangs going to war over territory and control of criminal enterprise in the 1840s and 1850s: however, the difficulty with looking at this early time period covered by Asbury is that, as he himself does not fail to note, local government in New York under "Boss" Tweed was itself so thoroughly corrupt that by contemporary standards law enforcement itself would qualify as an organized crime enterprise as well. To find a more modern sense of organized crime would require looking at the early twentieth century, when the passage of the Volstead Act and a constitutional amendment prohibiting sale of alcohol resulted in large-scale criminal enterprises developed to violate those now-repealed regulations. At this point in time, in the nineteen-twenties, criminal enterprises were largely united by ethnic origin, and could generally be identified as based on Italian-American, Irish-American, or Jewish-American. Such a pattern would continue well into the nineteen-fifties, when U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver held a series of hearings to indicate specific federal interest in organized crime, and afterwards. Before allowing the discussion to degenerate into some potential promulgation of ethnic prejudice, however, it is important to note that this is a subject that has been studied extensively and academically. Arguably the most useful theoretical approach to the subject came at the time of the Kefauver hearings, when the social scientist Daniel Bell published his study "Crime as an American Way of Life," which gave rise to what is today known as the "ethnic succession theory" or "social succession theory" as a means of approaching the topic of organized crime. Bell's 1953 thesis is still valid today:
…for the young criminal, hunting in the asphalt jungle of the crowded city, it was not the businessman with his wily manipulation of numbers but the "man with the gun" who was the American hero… [I]n the crowded slums, the gangster… was a man with a gun, acquiring by personal merit what was denied to him by complex orderings of a stratified society. And the duel with the law was the morality play par excellence: the gangster, with whom rides our own illicit desires, and the prosecutor, representing final judgment and the force of the law.
The desires satisfied in extra-legal fashion were more than a hunger for the "forbidden fruits" of conventional morality. They also involved, in the complex and ever shifting structure of group, class and ethnic stratification, which is the warp and woof of America's "open" society, such "normal" goals as independence through a business of one's own, and such "moral" aspirations as the desire for social advancement and social prestige. For crime, in the language of the sociologists, has a "functional" role in the society, and the urban rackets -- the illicit activity organized for continuing profit rather than individual illegal acts-is one of the queer ladders of social mobility in American life. (133)
Bell's advancement of what we now term "ethnic succession theory" hinges upon this sense of a "queer ladder of social mobility," in which the criminal enterprise ultimately offers (through its financial gains and its influence over law enforcement) otherwise stigmatized or downtrodden ethnic populations a way to assimilate. We can see the social mechanism that is outlined by Bell in the Prohibition era: Joseph P. Kennedy, father of JFK, had been a bootlegger illegally organizing imports of liquor from Canada during Prohibition, but by the time of Franklin Roosevelt's election he would be named by the President as Ambassador to the Court of Saint James (the official title for America's ambassador to the United Kingdom). Meanwhile a contemporary of the elder Kennedy, Moses Annenberg, had been a crucial member of the Mafia's illegal gambling operations by running their print services: his son Walter Annenberg would be appointed by Richard Nixon to be Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. In both of these cases, a different ethnic group (Irish Catholic, Jewish) had gone from organized criminal enterprise to the height of wealth and official political prestige within one generation. In other words, what Daniel Bell had described as a "queer ladder of social mobility" was indeed active and effective for a very long time.
However a real and specific legal definition and means of combating organized crime would be adopted relatively late in America, and can be pinpointed to 1970 when Congress approved legislation known as the Organized Crime Control Act. Title IX of this Act, sometimes referred to as RICO (or the "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization" Act) is probably the most famous portion, but its method may perhaps demonstrate why America had no specific legal definition of organized crime for such a long period. The short answer is that RICO does not focus on crime, it focuses on organization. After all, no new types of crime are generally invented by organized crime, and therefore RICO maintains standard definitions of criminal activity while looking for organizations that engage in two or more of those standard criminal activities in a systematic way. The remaining difficulty with the RICO provisions, however, are that they are easily susceptible to abuse by law enforcement: the purpose of the law was to offer law enforcement a ready means of going after large-scale organizations, but the limitations of the definition, and the provisions for financial penalties which can amount to revenue for law enforcement, mean that the law can be mis-applied to smaller scale enterprises who happen to be engaged in two or more qualifying offenses. There are, of course, other laws that have been passed in order to help the fight against organized crime, such as the earlier 1961 Travel Act, for which Siegel (2010) offers a useful definition: "the Travel Act prohibits travel in interstate commerce or use of interstate facilities with the intent to promote, manage, establish, carry on, or facilitate an unlawful activity; it also prohibits the actual or attempted engagement in these activities" (416). The later 1986 Money Laundering Control Act was legislated as part of the later attempt to combat drug-trafficking enterprises, and surprisingly this relatively recent legislation was the first time in which money laundering (generally a crucial activity for most large-scale criminal enterprises) was actually defined as a crime.
To take a contemporary 2014 example of a criminal organization operating within the United States -- and one that may highlight some difficulties with the fight against organized crime in the new millennium -- I would like to focus on Los Zetas. From the outset, we can see what the difficulty is: Los Zetas is technically not an American but a Mexican criminal organization, a drug-trafficking cartel. However their base is in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the boundary line from Laredo, Texas. In other words, the fact that Los Zetas is a "transnational criminal organization" and not an American one is a technicality: the difficulty of pursuing law enforcement goals across the U.S.-Mexico border is actually one of their chief advantages. Los Zetas also clearly shows the way in which corruption and money can influence the way organized crime operates: the group was formed in 1999 by former elite members of the Mexican military's special forces, who had been…
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