We Are Family: Crime Organizations Around the World

Every country has a mafia, and some export them–like the Russians to London in Eastern Promises.

While technically the Mafia is a term that only applies to a certain traditional Italian crime syndicate, the idea of the Mafia seems to be universal. In Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, the Russian Mafia may new to London, but in Russia they are an old story. (Interestingly in London, the Russian Mafia is only one of several international crime families trying to get a foothold in the lucrative London market.) In nearly every culture, there has historically risen a complex syndicate of organized criminals usually based around some concept of the family. And every national cinema seems to be equally fascinated by these criminal elements. But the differences between crime syndicates are as interesting and telling as the similarities. To misquote Tolstoy, "Every happy family is the same. Every crime family is criminal in its own way." The following is a short tour of international crime.

Cosa Nostra

The Sicilian Mafia, commonly known as "Cosa Nostra" (aka "Our Thing"), is arguably the most famous and mythologized of all crime syndicates. There are many conflicting ideas as to its origins. Some imagine its roots in medieval times, others even claim an early Imperial link, but most historians agree that the Mafia came into its own in the 19th century paralleling Italy's own formation of national identity. In Sicily, where the Mafia is most deeply rooted, some historians suggest that the lawlessness that erupted after the 1848 revolution there seeded the ground for organized crime. Gangs that were hired to protect private estates stayed on, collecting "protection" in ways not all that different from the mob today. Over time these groups organized themselves into families that help criminal sway, generation after generation.

In the '30s and '40s, things changed. Mussolini's violent and criminal regime saw the traditional Mafia as little more than competition. As such, many organized crime leaders stayed underground, joined the government or emigrated to fresher markets. Joseph Bonanno (aka Joe Bananas), for example, fled Italy to set up business in America, soon rising to become head of one of New York's infamous "five families."

The Italian Mafia's explosive rise to power occurred after the war, when governmental chaos and economic instability made criminal enterprises easy, if not in some places, necessary. Many accuse the U.S. post-war occupation forces of supporting the Mafia in order to suppress local communist parties. Others have seen a even more sinister link between the CIA, local mafia organizations and international drug routes. In any case, the Italian Mafia during this post-war period expanded their local criminal network into an international syndicate, working with the French and others to bring heroin from Africa and the Middle East to Western Europe and America.

While Italians have not been as cinematically enamored of their Mafia as Americans are, there are a number of significant films dealing with the Mafia. Alberto Lattuada's Mafiosa (1962) provided a comic turn on the institution, and other contemporary films, like The Best of Youth, included the Mafia as a back story. Only a few, like Ricky Tognazzi's hard-hitting 1993 La Scorta about a mafia-fighting magistrate, take the Cosa Nostra head on. It would take the Americans to make the Mafia movie stars in their own right.

American Mafia

While the American Mafia owes much of its structure, mythology and talent to the Italian–specifically Sicilian–Mafia, it has also created a history all its own. One of the original incarnations of the American Mafia was the appearance of "The Black Hand" movement. While forms of the "Black Hand" can be traced back to 18th century Sicily, the group took off in 19th century America as a kind of criminal welcome wagon. Secret gangs would send letters, literally signed by the image of a black hand, extorting money from newly landed citizens, thus creating an ongoing revenue stream as well as a properly terrorized public. In 1890, the Mafia gained public attention when the gangland slaying of a police superintendent in New Orleans brought media attention and government scrutiny to local Italian criminal gangs.

It was not, however, until the '20s, when prohibition gave the Mafia their most powerful business initiative that the organization really took off. In Chicago, Al Capone rose to become a national figure by selling bootleg liquor and killing anyone who got in his way. Elsewhere every city developed their own crime families, often with the result of mob wars breaking out between competing families.

In New York, the severity of the wars between the families forced the organization to centralize power, starting with the ascension of Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Soon the local families would give way to a national, even multinational, organization. In the next few decades the Mafia, while maintaining their secrecy, grew to be a shadow government connecting the local "made man" to the national figures. While organized crime's bread and butter remained traditional crimes, like extortion, prostitution, fraud and drugs, its business interests soon grew to incorporate many seemingly legitimate industries and union activities.

In 1951, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver held a series of congressional hearings that explored the scope of organized crime in America. The "Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce" did little to deter organized crime, but the nationally televised spectacle did succeed in further mythologizing the Mafia, with J. Edgar Hoover famously promising to wage war on the organization. In 1957, the accidental discovery of an international Mafia conference in Apalachin, New York, in which over 100 bosses from across America and Italy converged, made apparent the global reach and structure of organized crime in America. Then in 1963, Joe Valachi broke the Mafia rule of Omertà (or silence), testifying before a congressional committee on the organization and structure of the secret organization. Despite exposés, congressional hearings, police crackdowns and numerous documentaries, the mafia continues in America. Its fiercest competition now comes not from the government but from the intrusion of other national crime syndicates onto its turf.

Since the advent of cinema, Americans have been willing to pay good money to see mobsters get it in the end. The earlier silent screen versions depicted street gangs, and then in the '30s, especially at Warner Brothers, gangster films like Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931) took over. Although such films hinted at the shadowy existence of a mob, few dealt specifically with the mafia. It was not until Joseph Valachi publicly gave details about the Costa Nostra that films, including the 1972 drama The Valachi Papers, started depicting the mafia as an historical entity. As such, the '70s saw the wave of mafia films like The Godfather and The French Connection dealing with the actual organization. As the HBO hit series The Sopranos continued to prove, the mafia never loses its appeal to audiences.


Relatively unknown for most of the twentieth century, the 'Ndrangheta (pronounced "en-drang-ay-ta") in the last 25 years has emerged as one of the most violent criminal forces in Western Europe. More and more bolded headlines announcing audacious murders on the streets of European capitals can be traced back to Calabria, that dusty stretch of Italy at the very southern tip (or toe) where the 'Ndrangheta hail from.

The term 'Ndrangheta (which comes from Calabrian dialect) means "honorable men," and was meant to describe the secret societies that emerged in the 1880s, primarily to strike back at the oppressive ruling class through extortion. As time went on this seemingly political gesture became simply a criminal strategy to profit off anyone with money–industrialists, tourists, or government officials. While the 'Ndrangheta arose in the geographic territory right next to Sicily (and Cosa Nostra), the two criminal syndicates have kept distinct identities. One major difference between the two is structure. While the mafia is organized in a pyramid formation, the 'Ndrangheta is much more a family federation, a series of organized gangs connected by family ties. For this reason, the 'Ndrangheta have remained more secretive and hard to break into than the mafia, since the 'Ndrangheta insures its insularity with strict family ties and oaths of secrecy.

In the 1970s, the 'Ndrangheta, which hitherto had restricted most of its criminal activity to the Calabrian region, began a campaign to extend their influence throughout Europe. A ferocious and bloody gang war brought to power a new generation that pushed more extreme criminal activity. They started off by kidnapping noted Italian businessmen and investing their profits in a slice of the European heroin market. Eventually, through ties with the Colombian drug cartels, the 'Ndrangheta took over the cocaine market. Now, Italian officials estimate that 80% of cocaine entering Europe is brought in by the 'Ndrangheta.

The Yakuza

In Japan, the most notorious crime syndicate, the Yakuza, exists at all levels of Japanese society. There are a number of theories as to the origins of the group. Some historians link the group to the gangs of 17th century samurais, which during peacetime took to stealing (ala Robin Hood) from the rich to support the poor villagers. In truth, the gangs more likely set up shadow governments that extorted money from everyone. The name itself defines a hand of cards–or more specifically 8 (Ya) 9 (ku) and 3 (sa)–three cards that add up to 20, a losing hand of hana-fuda. Many take this card-game name to suggest a criminal pride in being dubbed outsiders, losers, and discarded.

The modern Yakuza sprung after World War II, when the black market conditions facing Japan spurred on criminal adventurism. Rather than taking cues from traditional Japanese folklore and costumes, the Yakuza turned to western images of gangsters to define their look of slicked short hair, sunglasses and shiny suits. Much like the Russian mafia, Yakuza sport elaborate tattoos. But unlike the Russian tattoos, which operate as a secret language and resume, Yakuza tattoos (or "irezumi") are full-body, colorful emblems of their identity. In addition, bearing the tattoos demonstrates in themselves a rite of passage, because they are administered through a lengthy and painful process in which ink is inserted beneath the skin by bamboo or steel needles.

Differing from most criminal organizations, the Yakuza are not a secret society. Their local offices are often out in the open, their numbers are in the phone book, and they keep a high profile in politics and entertainment. As such they have shied away from overt criminal activities (such as theft) and focused instead on abusive business practices, like loan sharking (banking), extortion (insurance), and fraud (marketing), as well as claiming a stake in high profile entertainment venues, like professional wrestling and pornography, and big-money deals, like real estate and export. Rounding out their business portfolio are narcotics and prostitution.

While their socially accepted claim to being a business guild permitted them to operate openly in Japanese culture, recent violent and highly publicized skirmishes have started to turn public opinion. In 1992, a five-person attack on filmmaker Juzo Itami after a negative portrayal of the Yakuza in his feature Minbo no Onna (The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) lead to a government crackdown. In 1995 the government passed the "Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members," which was aimed to curtail, if not stop, some of the Yakuza's more brazen criminal behavior.

The effect of such crackdowns has been, among other things, to push the Yakuza overseas. In last few decades, the Yakuza have reached out to America. Their main outpost is Hawaii, a halfway point in bringing crystal meth into the U.S. and exporting firearms to Japan. In Los Angeles, they have set up allegiances with Chinese and other Asian gangs, while in Las Vegas, they have been hired by the American mob to set up Japanese tourists. One of the most publicized infiltrations of the Yakuza into the U.S. economy involved Prescott Bush, the uncle of President George W. Bush, who was paid about $500,000 to arrange a 1989 deal by which a Yakuza front company bought a controlling interest of two American corporations.

Like the American mafia, the Yakuza have been a popular film subject. A staple of post-war Japanese film, the Yakuza were raised to philosophical levels by '60s pop director Suzuki Seijun, who created an absurd form of mob existentialism in films like Branded to Kill. In the '70s, the glorified violence of Yakuza turned violent and gritty. And by the '90s they become figures of deep psychological conflict, as in Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi (Fireworks).


Triads, the Chinese mafia brand, followed a complex route to its modern status as a crime syndicate. Begun in the 16th century, it arose up as opposition party to the ruling Manchu dynasty. Like with many other criminal organizations, the triads started as a quasi-military political organization that slowly descended into crime after its originating conflict had ended. By the 19th century, the British coined the term "triad" to label these various criminal gangs based on the three-sided symbols that often sported.

By the time the Communists took control of Mainland China in 1949, the Triads had migrated to Hong Kong and Taiwan, often setting up close connections with local politicians and the police department. Through the '60s and '70s the Triads grew in power and size, becoming a formidable force in Hong Kong and Taiwanese culture. When China took over sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, the government officially welcomed the groups with the proviso, "As long as they are patriots, concerned with maintaining the prosperity of Hong Kong, we should respect them."

For years, triads have been a mainstay of Chinese cinema, appearing as the subject matter of many great Hong Kong directors, from John Woo to Johnnie To. Indeed the Chinese filmmakers, following the lead of Hollywood B-movie directors, turned the crime film into a new art form. Recently American directors has been returning the favor by re-adapting Chinese mafia films, like The Departed, Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning adaptation of the Hong-Kong film Infernal Affairs.


Tong is the name applied to Chinese organized crime groups in America, although Tongs emerged originally as business organizations. The first, begun in 1874 in San Francisco, emerged to protect Chinese merchants from abusive white business practices. But as with many other criminal organizations, what began as protection quickly turned into extortion. Never a secret society, Tongs operated openly, often working out of "the lodge" (which often doubled as a gambling center). The word "tong" means, in fact, "hall" or "gathering place."

As Chinese immigrants spread across America, so did the different Tongs so that nearly every mid-sized American city reported some level of Tong activity. In major cities, like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, the fierce competition between groups boiled over into outright war, often waged out in the public and in the streets. The appearance of axe-wielding Tong gangs spurred on the term "hatchet men" to describe the members.

In recent years Tongs have been involved in a range of criminal behavior from local extortion (or protection money) and drugs to prostitution, smuggling immigrants and sex trafficking.

Hollywood has long used the Tongs as a subject of fear, ridicule and horror. One of their first film appearances was in the 1928 Buster Keaton silent comedy The Cameraman, in which Keaton tries to photograph a Tong War on New York City's Mott Street as chaos breaks out around him. In 1932, Edward G. Robinson played a Tong member out for revenge in The Hatchet Man. Tongs continued to appear in Hollywood plots as nefarious, secret forces, always hovering on the margins of society. The British-made horror movie Terror of the Tongs (with Christopher Lee) demonstrated one of the more obvious mixings of genre with xenophobia.

Indian Mafia

The various criminal groups that emerged in Indian industrial cities in the 1940s have been dubbed the "Indian Mafia." Mostly hooked into traditional clan groups throughout India, the Mumbai mafia has become most noted for their overt influence on the business of Bollywood. Not only do they launder money through the financing of Bollywood films, they become active participants in their production. Regular investigations into the Mumbai film industry recount issues of extortion, murder and hard-balling salary negotiations with actors and directors with threats of violence.