Features of Criminal Organizations in the U.S. and Mexico


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20141102


This essay compares, contrasts, and analyzes the history, organization, and methods of criminal organizations in the U.S. and Mexico. Organized crime has arguably never been restricted to national borders, but globalization during the post-Cold War years (more specifically-1990s) brought with it an expansion in criminal operations (Finklea, 2010). These organizations not only operate in the same territories, but cross the boundaries of other states. These organizations differ slightly in their organization and methods, but capital accumulation remains their primary motive.

The United States

In the U.S., the forthright agency combating organized crime is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with priority attention paid to Eurasian/Russian, Asian, Italian, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and African criminal organizations (Finklea, 2010).

Eurasian/Russian crime groups were identified in the late 1970s and became more pronounced during the Post-Soviet era (Finklea, 2010). The FBI has labeled them “the top organized crime threats to the U.S.” (Finklea, 2010, p. 17). As reported by Kristin M. Finklea, “Russian organized criminals are involved in long-established organized crime activities such as extortion, abduction, human smuggling, prostitution, drug trafficking, and theft, as well as white-collar criminal activities including money laundering and fraud of various types” (2010, p. 17). Additional frauds and scams span mutiple domains including natural resources, financial services, and healthcare industries (Finklea, 2010). The groups are organized is such a way as to accommodate specialized skills for specialized crimes opposed to a purely hierarchical structure (Finklea, 2010).

Asian criminal organizations date back to the early 1900s with increased activity since the 1990s (Finklea, 2010). Although some of the groups are more organized than others, none have been identified as having a strict unification. Similar to Russian crime groups, their determination to increase profits discourages them from striving for ethnic and racial solidarity. Asian criminal organizations have benefited the most from human and drug (especially heroin) trafficking, but also engage in frauds, scams, and thefts of various kinds (Finklea, 2010). They operate in almost identical territory to Russian crime groups (Finklea, 2010).

Italian: The Sicilian Mafia, Neapolitan Mafia, Calabrian Mafia, and the United Sacred Mafia are all actively organized in the U.S. (FBI, 2014). However, the most influential criminal organization, the La Cosa Nostra (LCN), has been operating in the U.S. since 1920 (Finklea, 2010). There is much more unity amongst the LCN as it can be distinguished as five families (Finklea, 2010). The LCN has been involved in gambling, loan sharking, and the common crimes of drug trafficking and money laundering, but also infiltrated legitimate industries such as gaming, storage, and trucking (Finklea, 2010).

Balkan criminal organizations (especially Albanian groups) were identified in the U.S. between 1985 and 1990 (Finklea, 2010). The group was originally recognized as sharing a tight-family orient, but as time progressed, began recruiting outsiders with coveted criminal experience. The criminal activities practiced by the Balkan criminal organizations include “gambling, extortion, robbery, counterfeit currency, drug trafficking, human smuggling, real estate fraud, money laundering, witness intimidation, and murder” (Finklea, 2010, p. 19). Interestingly, whereas some organizations have allowed outsiders to join their ranks, the Balkan criminal organizations have even partnered with and cooperatively shared territory with other criminal organizations such as the LCN (Finklea, 2010).

Middle Eastern criminal organizations have been active in the U.S. since the 1970s (FBI, 2014). They are organized in a familial or tribal context in areas highly populated with Middle Easterners or Southwest Asians (FBI, 2014). They use legitimate storefronts to mask their activites and engage in crimes ranging from theft of automobiles and infant formula, to financial, health, and identity fraud, to money laundering and trafficking drugs, cigarettes, and stolen property (FBI, 2014).

African criminal organizations (most notably Nigerian) have evolved rapidly since the 1980s and have been identified in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Newark, New York, and Washington, D.C. (FBI, 2014). They have been deemed by the FBI as “among the most aggressive and expansionist international criminal groups” (2014). They are heavily engaged in a diverse range of financial frauds that target individuals, businesses, and governments, but generate the most profits from trafficking heroine into Europe, the U.S, and South Africa (FBI, 2014).


In Mexico, where one the highest kidnapping rates in the world is scored, there are seven principle criminal organizations; The Zetas, Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Familia Michoacana, Juarez Cartel, Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), Knights Templar (InSightCrime.org, 2014). These criminal organizations engage in crimes including drug production, drug and human trafficking, kidnapping, and money laundering (InSightCrime.org, 2014). The first three organizations are addressed below.

Whereas the Eurasian/Russian groups heralds as the top crime threats in the U.S., the Zetas are recognized as “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent…” in Mexico (InSightCrime.org, 2014). The group started out in 1997 as the military wing for the Gulf Cartel with an original membership stemming from the ranks of prior Airborne Special Forces. The Zetas were and continue to be hired assassins, bodyguards, and drug runners and have attacked police stations and prisons and carried out bombings and beheadings (InSightCrime.org, 2014).

Sinaloa is a region in Mexico where most drug trafficking organizations originated from (InSightCrime.org, 2014). Essentially, the Sinaloa Cartel is a conglomeration of criminal farmers related by blood or marriage who began trafficking marijuana and cocaine in the 1960s and 1970s. They have influenced the political and economic elites and used their connections to suppress rivals (InSightCrime.org, 2014). The core of the organization was the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) which spilt in 2008 before the Gulf Cartel (prior rivals to the Sinaloa Cartel) became allies (InSightCrime.org, 2014).

The Gulf Cartel dates back to 1984 when Juan Garcia Abrego took his uncle’s marijuana and heroin business and began brokering deals with other cartels (InSightCrime.org, 2014). By 1996, the Gulf Cartel was generating several billions in revenue and influencing others such as the Juarez Cartel. As the year 2000 approached, the group had expanded their operations to include cocaine and methamphetamines, outsourced other criminal activities such as human trafficking to other gangs, and secured the corruption of high level governmental officials. Further, the cartel is organized centrally in Tamaulipas which allows it to charge fees to others for passing through. The Zetas (contracted as a security force) was arguably the Gulf’s most effective investment, but later split and became a major rival (InSightCrime.org, 2014).

Key Observations and Predictions

Although none of the major Mexican criminal organizations originated in the U.S., some of those in the U.S. had their origins in Mexico. Still further, the largest portions of criminal organizations in the U.S. are structured more like businesses whereas those in Mexico are predominately oriented toward paramilitary organizations.

For the most parts, racial ethnicity contributes significantly to the differentiation of criminal organizations in the U.S., whereas attempting to do so in Mexico would yield little to no results.

As criminal organizations continue to evolve they will undoubtedly borrow lessons from others that have outpaced them in dominating territory and maximizing profits. Although some organizations demonstrate a peculiar appetite for utilizing sensational levels of violence, none of the organizations demonstrate a reluctance to increase violence when it is considered an essential means to profit.

In the U.S., key territories are located in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Honolulu, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. (InSightCrime.org, 2014). In Mexico, key territories are located in Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, Distrito Federal, Guanajuato, and Guerrero (InSightCrime.org, 2014).

Key routes in both the U.S. and Mexico guarantee that criminal organizations will remain engaged in turf wars that will demand coalition building with previous rivals as well as the division, fragmentation, and splintering of long-time allies. Moreover, the methods and organization of the leading groups today, may better define those who have suffered near extinction in the future. Evolution is inevitable.



Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2014). African Criminal Enterprises. Retrieved from FBI.gov: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/organizedcrime/african

Finklea, K. M. (2010). Organized Crime in the United States. Congressional Research Service.

InSightCrime.org. (2014). Mexico. Retrieved from InSightCrime: http://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/mexico#security


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