Organised crime is a dangerous threat in our society. Although it is a relatively new phenomenon, modern history has already seen countless criminal groups terrorise countries around the globe (piracy, looting and banditry have been going on for centuries, but the organisation of such gangs are incomparable to those of today). While some are concerned with the enterprises you would generally expect from a criminal organisation – murder, prostitution, drugs, racketeering – others have considerable ‘legitimate’ powers and have even influenced politics and economies. From low-level street and slum groups to global crime networks and cartels, some of these gangs have completely transformed the world and their actions have awarded them notoriety, financial gain and respect.
10. The Aryan Brotherhood
Thought to have formed in San Quentin Prison during the 1960s, The Aryan Brotherhood is a white supremacist gang which brought white prisoners together for protection from rival black and Hispanic groups. When racial unrest intensified and reached its peak throughout America during the 1960s/70s, the Neo-Nazi group is believed to have grown considerably in numbers and was responsible for racially-motivated killings, attacks and prison riots. However, by the 90s the Aryan Brotherhood had changed tactics and its focus moved away from solely protecting and segregating white inmates. They sought out even more power behind bars and adopted an organised crime approach for the Brotherhood by alliancing and brokering deals with other race gangs like the Mexican Mafia (although some rivalries still run deep). The Aryan Brotherhood grew in power and was responsible for the likes of drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, racketeering and sanctioned murder – both in and out of prison. Today, the gang has more than 10,000 members behind bars and walking the streets, and its members are typically recognisable by Neo-Nazi tattoos like swastikas, lightning bolts and HH (Heil Hitler) lettering. Although nowadays other ‘white power’ gangs can be found calling the shots in prison yards, the Aryan Brotherhood ‘brand’ is the oldest and they still maintain their dangerous reputation.
9. The Yakuza
While it’s true that the average, law-abiding citizen doesn’t need to really worry about accidentally crossing the path of Japan’s Yakuza, that doesn’t mean that they are not a dangerous gang. Although referring to the organisation as a ‘gang’ may be putting it lightly as the Yakuza has an estimated 103,000 members internationally, but they still operate in many of the same criminal enterprises – albeit on a much larger, international scale. Their activities tend to vary between different syndicates, but it is know that the Yakuza have been involved in drug smuggling, racketeering, arms smuggling and even human trafficking. Recent laws and policing efforts have curbed many of its illegal activities, but the Yakuza continues to maintain a fairly blatant presence throughout Japan. In fact, some feel that they act as street-level police who prevent potentially worse criminals and gangs from gaining a foothold in the country. The Yakuza’s ‘in the open’ visibility has much to do with the fact that the gang is heavily involved in many semi-legitimate business dealings and that they enjoy fairly close ties in local government and politics. It is believed that most of their revenue comes from financial/investment fraud and taking a cut from very lucrative construction projects. Gang members are recognisable by their flashy suits and cars, extensive tattoos (although these aren’t shown off in public) and missing digits on their hands – members who make a mistake must commit Yubitsume; an act which involves the cutting off of a section of a finger as a form of penance.
8. The Crips and the Bloods
The Crips emerged in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Watts Riots in 1965. Predominantly made up of African American youths, the Crips was a formation of West and East side gangs from the South Central area led by Stanley Tookie Williams and Raymond Lee Washington. The gang quickly rose in strength and numbers and they were known for carrying out murders, robberies, and drug deals. By the late 70s/early 80s, the Crips were violently ruling the inner cities with automatic weapons and profiteering from the sales of crack cocaine. This allowed them to set up in new markets and states, and the gang divided itself between ‘sets’ in different areas. During this time another street gang – the Bloods – challenged the Crips for power and control. The intense rivalry between the two gangs led to one of the most notorious street feuds in American history. However, the Crips are well-known for fighting between themselves, and it’s fairly common to have two local sets of the gang openly feuding with each other over territorial control. Although it is currently believed that there are more than 800 Crips sets operating throughout the United States with around 30,000 members, the gang are thought to be much less structured then they once were. Nevertheless, they are still a dangerous criminal organisation and are directly responsible for many illegal activities in America’s inner city areas.
7. The Solntsevskaya Bratva
The Solntsevskaya Bratva are an offshoot of the Russian Mafia network. It was founded by Sergei Mikhailov, a man who apparently goes to great lengths to pass himself off as a reputable businessman. However, it is widely known that the Solntsevskaya Bratva are just as heavily involved in criminal enterprises as they in legitimate businesses. The gang has been linked to a long list of diverse illegal activities which includes smuggling stolen artwork, contract killings, prostitution, extortion and even trading nuclear materials. However, the gang’s involvement in the business world – particularly the banking and technology sectors – has presented them with much more lucrative opportunities in the fields of credit card and stock market fraud, online scams, hacking and money laundering. The Moscow-based gang is extremely ruthless and well-connected with many international links to other criminal organisations (it was once even affiliated with Russia’s most wanted criminal Semion Mogilevich).
6. Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)
Brazil is well-known for its high crime levels. The poverty-stricken favelas are rife with gang violence (particularly amongst the youth of Brazil) and the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. With 13,000 members (almost half of whom are in prison), the Primeiro Comando da Capital is one of the country’s most dangerous – and most audacious – gangs. Created by eight criminals incarcerated in Sao Paulo prison in 1993, the PCC was formed in retaliation to a bloody prison riot in 1992 which resulted in the deaths of 111 inmates at the hands of prison guards. Investigations revealed that extreme force had been used to stop the riot and that many of the prisoners had been killed execution-style by guards, so the PCC was formed in an effort to create better conditions for inmates with a “by any means necessary” approach. Although the gang deals in drug trafficking, bank robberies, extortion and kidnapping, they are notorious for coordinating deadly attacks in Brazil’s prisons and in the streets of São Paulo. Striking back against the conditions of Brazil’s penal system, in 2001 the PCC organised riots in 29 of the city’s state prisons. Similar riots were repeated in May 2006, but the PCC were also responsible for a wave of violence on ‘the outside’ which saw government offices, police stations, banks and public buildings being targeted and attacked. The death toll reached more than 150 (the majority were criminals and prisoners, but at least 30 members of state and military police were killed), and it was the worst wave of violence Sao Paulo had ever seen. In 2012, the PCC committed a wave of revenge killings against police officers in retaliation for the apparent execution of gang members at the hands of law officials.
5. The Mungiki
Few gangs act with ideological pursuits in mind as most are primarily concerned with building their power, reputation and wealth. The Mungiki are a sect from Kenya founded by Kikuyu militants during a conflict with the Maasai people in the 1980s, but they operate more like a street-level gang than they an extremist militia. Rejecting modernisation, Westernisation and Christianity, the Mungiki are notorious for their shocking waves of violence and for committing ethnic cleansing with grisly machete attacks. The gang have a stranglehold over the Nairobi slums and they run protection and extortion rackets against the impoverished residents. The Mungiki have been known to ‘tax’ people for using electricity, water, public transport and even toilets. The gang was outlawed by the government in 2002 when the Mungiki targeted Matatu owners (public transport buses) in a violent attack which killed more than 50 people. However, the group grew in strength and a repeated bloody attack against Matatu operators in 2007 resulted in a retaliation from armed paramilitary police. More than 8000 suspected members were said to have been executed during a huge crackdown on the Mungiki, but the violent, machete-wielding gang still maintain an active presence in the country and it is thought the gang could still have more than 100,000 active members.
4. Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13)
Formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) was predominantly made up of El Salvadoran immigrants who had fled from the country’s bloody civil war. Because many of its members came from violent guerrilla or militia backgrounds, the MS-13 quickly established itself as a very dangerous threat. The FBI (which created the ‘MS-13 National Gang Task Force’ to combat the gang) estimates that MS-13 has between 6,000 to 10,000 members operating in at least 42 states as well as many more in parts of Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It is believed that the gang’s ties to Central America have allowed them to carry out transnational crimes like firearm and drug smuggling, but the MS-13 is mostly known for carrying out violent crimes at a ‘local’ street level. Murder, drug dealing, kidnapping, home invasion, armed robbery, carjacking and vandalism are just some of the many crimes the different ‘cliques’ of MS-13 has carried out. Although MS-13 is highly organised and maintains a heavy presence in many urban cities, it doesn’t appear to have any national or central leadership and different cliques operate more or less autonomously. The gang marks its territory with graffiti (“MS”, “MS-13”, “MSXIII” or “Mara Salvatrucha” are some of the most commonly used tags) and they have been known to absorb smaller gangs and aggressively target middle and high school students for recruitment to swell their ranks.
3. The Camorra
When most people think of organised crime they picture suit-wearing, Italian-American wise guys. Although many mafia families are still active in the United States, their notorious reputations are overshadowed by their Italian counterparts. The Camorra (which literally means “gang” in Italy) emerged at some point during the 19th century and they are believed to have originated as a prison gang. Based in Naples but operating throughout the Campania region, the Camorra – like so many gangs in Italy – are so dangerous because they have become completely ingrained in the fabric of society. Outnumbering the Sicilian mafia with more than 100 clans and 7,000 members, the Camorra have overwhelming influence in the area and they are known for violently stomping out any opposition to their criminal enterprises which include money laundering, counterfeiting, extortion, drug trade, political corruption, murder and robbery. The Camorra also exert their power over many legitimate businesses and take on shady business deals. In 1980, the gang boosted its revenue considerably when it scooped up reconstruction and building projects following an earthquake in the Campania region and they have been dealing with waste management projects in Naples since the mid-90s (the Camorra made a fortune taking on disposal contracts from businesses and then illegally dumping the waste – some of which was industrial or toxic – wherever they could). Unlike other Italian organisations, the Camorra has a looser horizontal structure so it is less centralised and prone to in-fighting. In 2004, a feud between the Di Lauro and Scissionisti clans resulted in mass bloodshed and more than 100 street executions.
2. Sinaloa Cartel
Mexican drug cartels may seem worlds apart from other gangs on this list, but they are essentially just another branch of organised crime. Since the late 80s, the Sinaloa Cartel has been responsible for most of the drug traffic in Mexico and it is thought that their net worth even rivals the fortunes of Pablo Escobar in his heyday. Like most powerful gangs, their reach extends into the police, business world, and politics, and they are a huge force internationally. Even the recent arrest of major Sinaloa player Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is not thought to have made much difference to the well-oiled operations of the organisation. The Sinaloa have been responsible for countless acts of drug-related violence, revenge killings and contract murders over the years, and they are said to use military-style tactics backed with heavy weaponry to help them in their brutal bloodshed. The ongoing violence has completely transformed Mexico and it shows no signs of slowing down.
1. Los Zetas
Although they are edged out by the Sinaloa Cartel when it comes to financial revenue, Los Zetas more than makes up for it with their brutal reputation and geographic presence. The Los Zetas was formed in 1999 by a group of elite force commandos who left the Mexican Army to work for the Gulf Cartel. In 2010, the gang went independent (creating an intense rivalry with their former employers) and used their military and criminal connections to form one of the most powerful and feared cartels in South America. Described by the United States government as the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.” Los Zetas are primarily concerned with drug trafficking but also dabble in extortion, kidnapping and assassination. The gang has a terrifying reputation because of the way it carries out brutal, indiscriminate acts of violence on civilians and enemies alike. Proudly using the tortured, dismembered remains of corpses to send a grisly message to authorities and rivals, few dare to defy, criticise or even openly discuss Los Zetas in the territories they control. Los Zetas is extremely well-organised and they control and operate many drug trafficking routes as well as maintain alliances with gangs in other countries, including the United States.