Despite what Hollywood says, organized crime is a lot more about maintaining a smoothly functioning illegal global economy than it is about explosions and cement overshoes.
Its top money-making industries are drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling migrants, illegal firearms, and weapons, trafficking in natural resources (like diamonds), illegal trade in wildlife (including poaching), the sale of fraudulent medicines, and cybercrime.
So where and who are the world’s most notorious mafias?
Also known as Gokudo, these Japanese and Korean organized crime syndicates are almost mainstream. They have office buildings, business cards, and frequently show up in gossip columns of newspapers. Identifiable by their black suits and the missing tips of their little fingers (lopping them off to show contrition to your boss is known as yubitsume), Yakuza are often involved in politics and corporate boards of directors. They were also among the first to respond with relief efforts after the 2011 tsunami.
2. 18th Street Gang
Also known as the Children’s Army because they recruited elementary and middle school children, the 18th Street Gang (or M-18) is one of the largest gangs in the Northern Hemisphere. They are said to have a membership of more than 30,000 in the US alone, with a home base in Los Angeles. One of their rival organizations is MS-13 (further down this list), and they are known to have connections to the Mexican cartels and some smaller Central American crime rings.
A terrifying group that is part terrorist organization and part religion, Mungiki (which means “multitude” in Kikuyu) favours rejection of all Westernization and a return to traditional values. While they are currently active only in Kenya, they run extortion rackets in the slums of Nairobi and control the taxi industry, beheading and mutilating anyone who crosses them…sometimes also lighting them on fire. The police in Kenya often treat Mungiki suspects to violent retributive behaviour.
4. Russian Mafia
Now officially the scariest organized crime group, a former FBI Special Agent called the Russian Mafia “the most dangerous people on earth.” They may have as many as 300,000 members across 450 groups, and are well known for having elaborate and hierarchical tattoos. They frequently use military tactics, and their most common activities are terrorism, organ trafficking, and contract killing.
5. Hells Angels
Considered an organized crime syndicate by the US State Department, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is best known for riding Harley Davidsons and having an almost mythical history of crime attributed to them. The official policy of the club is that they are motorcycle enthusiasts and any crimes committed are the fault of individual members, not club policy; pop culture, such as the 1966 film The Wild Angels
, depicts them as ruthless, violent criminals. Members of the gang have been associated with drug trafficking, sex work rings, and extortion.
6. Sicilian Mafia: La Cosa Nostra
Despite being a young mafia (it started in the second half of the 19th century), the Sicilian and American Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”) rapidly became the most feared organized crime group wherever they settled. Strictly family-based and hierarchical, the group is very ritualized and has elaborate initiation ceremonies that are open only to Sicilian men. They follow omertà
, a code of silence and secrecy; failing to do so results in execution.
7. Albanian Mob
There are over 15 clans that control the bulk of Albanian organized crime. The highly organized and rigid structure of their mostly family-based system has resulted in Albanian mafia cells spreading globally, with a focus on drug trafficking, human trafficking, and arms dealing. They are quick to violence and one of the godfathers, Daut Kadriovski, has been identified as the biggest heroin dealer in Europe.
8. Serbian Mafia
Composed of multiple groups in Serbia and the Serbian diaspora, the mafia was seen by many Serbs as a way out of the crushing economic aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. With active cells in 20-30 countries, the organization is best known for drug trafficking and gun-running, although several Serbian bosses in Madrid made headlines in 2009 when they killed and ate a recalcitrant member after running him through a meat grinder.
9. Montreal Mafia: The Rizzutos
The Rizzuto family organized crime syndicate is mostly based in Montreal, but spreads across southern Quebec and Ontario. They built up connections to New York’s Bonanno family (part of the notorious “Five Families” of the US Cosa Nostra), which eventually led to a vicious mafia war in Montreal in the late 1970s. The senior levels of the family were decimated first by a police sting and then by numerous assassinations, leaving a power vacuum. The Rizzuto family owns most of Montreal’s construction contracting.
This group based in India, Pakistan, and the UAE is led by Dawood Ibrahim, an internationally wanted man (and Bollywood star) whose activities go from extortion up to terrorist acts like the 1993 Bombay bombings, which killed 257 people and injured over 700. Ibrahim is said to have ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and D-Company is funded with billions of dollars from legitimate businesses (including real estate and banking) as well as illegal activities. Currently on the run, Ibrahim is said to have undergone extensive plastic surgery.