Organized Crime and Terror

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the United States has become a target for terrorist activity, while at the same time it has become home to organized crime, with some groups having their grip on numerous states, countries or even continents. As such, arguments are that maybe, the government ought to focus its resources on either organized crime or counterterrorism. The key to determining a viable solution; therefore, lies with a critical understanding of both vices; hence this paper discusses the history of organized crime and terror, and how the groups behind these acts operate.

Organized Crime refers to the undertaking of criminal enterprises for profit by a group of individuals who are either international, national or local. These organizations obtain their motivations from various factors such as politics and finance among others which implies that each group will operate differently based on its motivation (Alesina, Piccolo, & Pinotti, 2019). The history of Organized Crime in the United States goes back to the American Mafia, an Italian-American, organized crime network, and rose to prominence within the United States in the 1920s. This rise followed a massive surge of immigration that had occurred from Italy to the USA from 1880 to 1910. While most of these persons were clean individuals with no roots to crime, part of them would later turn out into criminals and prey onto members of the community where they settled. Additionally, the Italian Mafioso was facing a hard time under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, hence while the mafia was separate from its Italian counterpart, those who fled Italy introduced omerta, which was a secret keeping code among others that would see American mob absorb and operate by.

During the 1920’s Prohibition Era, the American Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic drinks through the 18th Amendment, which prompted the Italian-American gangs to enter into the illegal trade of smuggling the banned products. Through established connections, these groups became sophisticated criminal enterprises, with exceptional skills at money laundering, smuggling, and bribing of the law enforcement and other public officials. Following the repealing of the prohibition laws, there was a bloody power struggle in New York, where five crime families fought to have control over the city. Lucky Luciano who was a rising mobster then, took advantage and rose to the helm of the organized crime. He further instituted a commission that would help solve crises and disputes between families and members of the Mafia, a point by which the Mafia had risen to almost 20 families across the United States.


Each family had a vote at the commission, where each family was headed by a boss, whose power was unquestioned and they received a cut on all activities any member of their family conducted. Below him, there was an underboss, who controlled captains (capos). The captains were in charge of 10 soldiers, who were tasked with security, murders, and movement of loots. The families then had a consigliere who was the family’s ombudsman or legal advisor. Finally, there were associates at the lowest end of the network who were individuals who did business with or for the crime family but were not fully members (Alesina, Piccolo, & Pinotti, 2019).

The Mafia continued with illegal activities such as loan sharking and prostitution rings following the repealing of the prohibition laws. Additional they also got into legal businesses such as construction, garbage collection, tracking and even had their hands on the labor unions (Berlusconi, 2016; Bjelopera & Finklea, 2012). Their prominences were also bolstered by the fact that leaders were skeptic about their strength in cities, which saw law enforcement handle these issues with laxity. However, the 970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, gave prosecutors the power to pursue both legal and illegal resources of crime families which saw the Mafia loose dominance with the conviction of most of its members. However, with the 9/11 terror attack, most funds were channeled to Counterterrorism, which saw the Mafia increase their activities in illegal businesses, although their impact is negligible.


Mara Salvatrucha also was known as MS-13 is a Salvadorian Organized Crime unit that was established by refugees from El Salvador in 1980, as a way of connecting these individuals as well as for protection against the Latino 18th Street Gang. By 1990, the gang had infiltrated the East Coast, especially the Washington, DC, Long Island and New York and included individuals from other Latin American countries (Finklea, 2018). The organization then moved to become a transnational crime unit following the deportation of at least 130,000 immigrants between 2001 and 2010. Organization members who were deported introduced the American gang culture in their countries and more specifically the MS-13. Most notably the gang has roots in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras which serve as drug and human trafficking routes.

The MS-13 is known for violent crimes. This includes extortion, robbery, drug trafficking, and murders. Additionally, they are involved in the “rent and protection” business where they pick rent from legitimate businesses through force and fear. It consists of loosely organized cells, which are known as cliques. While cliques vary in size from location to location, they contribute to the sense of neighborhood and community and is also an area where the gang generates funds (Finklea, 2018). While it does not have known leaders, authorities state that some of its leaders may be operating from prison or El Salvador.



Rivals: The 8th Street Gang

Starting in Los Angeles as a street gang, the 18th Street, is amongst the most significant transnational criminal entities in the US, comprising of 30,000 to 50,000 members in 20 states in the United States alone. They operate similarly to the MS-13, which has seen a deep rivalry between the two groups given that apart from being multiethnic organizations with similar backgrounds, they also operate in Central American Northern triangle. They are more organized than MS-13 and more violent.


Terrorism is described as the unlawful and illegal acts carried out by an individual or individuals to instill fear in others to help push for political, religious or ideological changes that sit perfectly with the perpetrators’ views. In most cases, the terror activities are used as a resolve to purported injustice where a group or an individual seeks to have his/her revenge or to an extent, have his voice heard.

History of Terror in the United States

While terrorism goes earlier than 1920, the earliest recorded terror attack on the U.S soil goes back to 1920, where an unattended horse-drawn wagon was rigged with a TNT bomb exploding on Wall Street, which killed 35 citizens while injuring several hundred more. This was perpetuated by Bolshevists who were keen on spreading Leninist ideologies. However, this attack was never resolved. This was followed by another bombing in the same city in 1975, when the historic Fraunces Tavern was blown up, killing four in the process and injuring at least 50 people. The Puerto Rican nationalist group (FALN) were responsible for this attack and the law enforcement later linked an additional 13 bombings to this group. Similar to Bolshevists, this group sought to turn Puerto Rico into a communist state during a period when the United States had intensified its war against the penetration of communism in Central and South America (Smith & Zeigler, 2017).

In 1993, still in New York City, Ramzi Yousef blew up a truck bomb at the world trade center’s garage, hoping for the building to come down. This didn’t occur although it killed six people injuring 1,042. The al-Qaida, which would later be responsible for the world trade center attack almost ten years later was suspected of being behind it, and this attack specifically, was suspected of being a response to the American interference and subsequent political and economic support of Israel, based on a letter the lead suspect Ramzi wrote to the New York Times.

Domestic Terrorists

Homegrown terror implies terror that is perpetuated by American citizens on fellow Americans as they seek to have their voices heard, or have revenge for a perceived injustice. This was particularly the case with Theodore Kaczynski, a math professor who would later denounce his knowledge, for a primitive and anarchist lifestyle. Between 1978 and 1995 Theodore sent 16 letter bombs to individuals and scholars who were involved with technological advancement. According to him, technological advancements would destroy nature. However, of the 16 victim bombs, only three died, before he was arrested and sentenced to life in 1995 (Smith & Zeigler, 2017).

Still in 1995 homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols exploded a car outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, which collapsed floors and walls killing 168 people. This bombing affected 220 buildings. These two individuals wanted to start a resolution as a response to how the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas had been handled by federal agencies as well as the military two years before.

In I996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Eric Robert Rudolph a domestic terrorist placed pipe bombs and other dangerous shrapnel beneath the benches of the main Olympic grounds. Upon setting off two people were killed while 111 others were injured. His main reason for such a deadly attack on a function that was supposed to create unity among nations of the world was to disgrace America in the international arena for the fact that they had sanctioned abortion on demand.


On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda leaning terrorists hijacked and crashed two planes into the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Two more aircraft were plunged in the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvanian. These attacks, the deadliest on American soil killed a total of 2, 992 people with Al Qaeda taking responsibility, prompting Bush’s War on a terror campaign in the following years. This was equally a response to American foreign policy in the Middle East, which the Jihadist group claimed was out of America’s Jurisdiction.

Anthrax attacks

Biologist Bruce E Ivins, sent anthrax-laced letters to senators and several media houses, killing five while infecting 17 others. His rationale was to create attention to an anthrax vaccine program established by him. However. While the attacks were carried out in 2001, Ivins was not identified until seven years later.

Following the 9/11 attacks, more attacks and scares have been carried out on the US soil. This has links to foreign terror groups as well as local homegrown terrorists. However, while terror on U.S soil has been dwindling to small scale scares, Organized Crime, continues to score high, where the death of one group births another. Additionally, they are hard to control because of the large number of individuals involved. However, the government must allocate resources to both issues since both have serious adverse effects on the nation’s security.





















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Finklea, K. (2018). MS-13 in the United States and Federal Law. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

Resnick, B. (2013, April 6). Retrieved from The Atlantic:

Smith, M., & Zeigler, S. (2017). Terrorism before and after 9/11 – a more dangerous world? Research and Politics, 4(4), 11-32.