The Nature of Control

(Chicago Gang Territories, 2013; obtained from

How organized criminal groups work to control their environment

Students of the history of organized crime in North America must invariably come to the notion of territory or control in their readings. Often described as “rackets,” the illegitimate enterprises of organized gangsters are illicit and organized in nature, dependent on stable, prearranged supply and demand of the product or service involved. But control and territory can also be based on geography or even lineage and ethnicity. Certainly in neighbourhoods throughout the large cities of the continent ethnic enclaves have cycled through groups – from Irish and Italian, to Chinese and Latin Americans – that contributed their own legacy to underworld history; indeed, many continue to do so. In this issue of PanAm Crime we will examine the roots of the notion of hegemonic control over organized criminal activities (rackets) that provide the basis for the financial and dynastic staying power of organized criminal institutions, including specific highly organized street gangs.

How do organized criminal groups designate control over specific industries, unions, neighbourhoods and enterprises? The answer is often best perceived as a mixture of tradition and pragmatism. In the south the issue is much less opaque than in the large American and Canadian metropolises. Mexican cartel groups rely on direct physical control over specific territorial areas to effect the movement of their product and ensure their own personal security. The comparative strength of the state in both Canada and the United States precludes such a direct style of control in either of those two countries. This assertion does not mean that Canada and America do not have their own serious issues with the extensive power of organized criminal groups, it simply implies that the manifestations of organized criminality they encounter are often more insidious than overt in nature. The innate demographic movement in east coast cities over the preceding generations has occasioned a more fluid arrangement of territory and control by traditional organized crime groups located there. While often based on ethnicity, these methods of control can rest on dynastic and hegemonic paradigms, or, rather, on maintaining access to the nexus point of supply and demand for illegal narcotics.  Understanding the nature of the control exercised by organized criminal groups over the communities they make their prey allows the historian, analyst, and law enforcement to comprehend the scope of the threat as well as consider methods for the eradication (or mitigation) of the menace it poses.


Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations

Mexican cartels operate on a paradigm strictly defined on both an economic and security level by geographic control. Trafficking choke points at borders and geographic features such as mountainous regions, large rivers, deserts and oceans become the natural focal point of the group’s strength. If a cartel group does not control vast domestic production zones for illicit narcotics, control of these nexus’ of smuggling and returning proceeds, referred to as a plaza, becomes the primary and possibly sole source of revenue for the organization. In the case of Mexico, this sole source of revenue is generally massive, and these major points have spawned regional cartel identities, from Tijuana in the west, through Sonora to Ciudad Juarez, the Rio Bravo River and beleaguered Tamaulipas State on the Gulf Coast. Not only have these identities become specifically dynastic in the case of almost every single northern cartel group, the direct nature of their operational paradigm necessitates violence in order to facilitate serious organizational and financial growth. (For information more on Mexican cartels see here). Tellingly, unlike the other major northern cartel groups – Tijuana, Juarez, Los Zetas and surviving elements of the Gulf Cartel –  the Sinaloa Federation maintains domestic production zones in marijuana and opium, and is therefore in a much better position to enforce its will or withstand conflict.

From these Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) it is possible to discern the best example of total territorial control by an organized crime institution. The Los Zetas, since their inception under Osiel Cardenas Guillen of the once mighty Gulf Cartel, have diversified their control over all criminal activities in areas they determine to be their own, taking piso, or rent, from all sections of society they can infiltrate. Such levels of corruption within and control over cities can be seen from Matamoros and Reynosa in the eastern regions of Mexico’s border region with the united States to Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua State and Tijuana. It is almost certainly possible to include other states and locales in that broad list, including: the states of Sinaloa, Guerrero and Michoacán. (For more on instability in north-eastern Mexico see here).

Autonomous territorial authority is the most visceral and horrendous of all forms of organized criminal control. It undermines the legitimacy of the law and the state, creating vacuums devoid of legitimate and rational governance that are especially vulnerable to the violent and corrupting vicissitudes of governance by criminal institutions. Once populations in these regions, in their desperation, turn to collusion with various branches of the cartel groups – be it farmers growing poppies or marijuana because the domestic produce market has collapsed, or young men and women turning to criminal acts to feed themselves and loved ones – it becomes extremely difficult to re-impose both security and faith in the apparatus of the state as well. This is why PanAm Crime finds potential issues with the ongoing policy of current Mexican President Pea Nieto. While his goal of reducing violence is commendable, it should not be pursued at the expense of policies that take back territory from the direct control of organized criminal groups. It is certainly true that providing social assistance as well as economic opportunities for people in these regions is essential for defeating organized crime in these plazas in the long-term, but such measures cannot be undertaken either efficiently or to the degree required to achieve their desired effects while the supreme local authority’s primary motivation is unbridled enrichment through drug trafficking; (see more here). Renowned academic Max Weber describes the legitimate state as the governing entity that maintains a direct monopoly over the use of violence in a specific geographic area. While perhaps a little too succinct, this idea perfectly describes the current conundrum facing the dilapidated and undermined institutions comprising the Mexican state.


Traditional Organized Crime

The designation of physical regions of control exists within the framework established by traditional east coast crime syndicates as well, including the Italian-American mob. Indeed, large drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in cities across the continent rely on almost exclusively on the notion of physically controlling the access points of supply to consumers. Whether in the form of controlling housing complexes, street corners or full open-air drug markets, the typical DTO, even one operating at sophisticated levels, is wholly reliant on controlling physical geography for the maintenance of its power and economic base. This end is achieved by facilitating the availability of drugs sales within that locale while simultaneously prohibiting the sale of the same products by other groups. Popular historical examples of organizations with such power include the groups run by Leroy “Nicky” Barnes and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols in specific neighbourhoods in northern Manhattan and southern Queens NY, respectively. The modern iteration of Italian-American mafia groups were also created and defined by geography, with separate entities of the organization being established in 20-plus cities across North America in 1931. In each example, be it Cleveland, Philadelphia or Dallas, the entirety of each city’s Italian gangster population coalesced under one institutionalized leadership structure, as defined by the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and enforced by the newly augmented Luciano regime in New York City.

The sprawling city of New York, or “the Volcano” as Joe Bonanno would refer to it, provides an example of the other potential forms of control exercised by organized crime.  Firstly, the existence of five large and powerful mafia families necessitated a more fluid operational paradigm; operating within a strictly geographic framework would lead to violent forms of competition, as the earlier Mexican example made clear. Consequently, the five mafia families began operating crews in the same neighbourhoods, as is seen in areas like Bensonhurst today. The second reason is the natural shift in ethnic boundaries within large cities as demographic and economic transitions alter the face and prosperity of neighbourhoods. As such, cities like New York become entangled webs of loyalty and control with organized criminal enterprises often extending beyond neighbourhood and city boundaries. While New York provides the perfect contemporary example of these methods of control, this paradigm can be found in other large cities, such as Toronto, and also demonstrates the method of interaction between the myriad organized crime groups of various ethnicities that can be found in almost all North American metropolises.

One of the forms of control that allows for the existence of many organized crime syndicates is based on the simple premise of ethnicity. To again borrow the mob as an example, this notion of control was first made clear by the premier mafia turncoat: Joe Valachi. In 1963 a fresh Congressional investigation of the national reach of organized crime in the United States, colloquially referred to McClellan Commission, interviewed Valachi on the extent of the power exercised by America’s mafia borgatas, and how such power was maintained. Besides listing bosses and henchmen as well as categorizing families and induction rituals the witness also dropped one of the paramount nuggets of information related to the institutionalization of the Italian-American mafia as well as many other ethnically-based organized crime institutions. He stated that control was defined as: the right to extort the local Sicilian (Italian) population. As New York’s Italian population migrated to different neighbourhoods throughout the greater New York area the businesses that were deemed under the control of a specific members remained with that member and his crime family. It should also be noted that this control could, in certain situations, be applied to the legitimate as well as illicit enterprises being undertaken by a group or individual.

On top of this idea of ethnic control is the additional idea of dynastic or hegemonic control. This notion strengthens the paradigm of non-geographic ethnic control because it allowed for various individuals, crews or even whole crime families to control enterprises even after the death or retirement of specific individuals. To use garbage as an example, once a crime family establishes control of a specific business location it does not matter what business fills that location, no waste cartage company controlled by another legitimate business or crime family can bid for that spot. The same goes for almost any other industry or enterprise infiltrated by traditional organized crime, including unions specifically. Controlling unions allowed for the mob to diversify, expand and institutionalize when the incredibly lucrative rackets associated with prohibition literally dried-up. Like the garbage pick-up spot, once a union is controlled by a crime family that control is maintained, regardless of who is put forward for election by the membership or if the previous criminal liaison provided by the controlling borgata is killed or arrested. Time does not soften the notion of ownership and this is the key reason why the US Justice Department and Canadian authorities have such long-term trouble breaking the hold of organized crime on unions. The Hells Angels and the Port of Vancouver provide yet another demonstration of this reality; (see here).


Organized Street Gangs et al…

Like organized crime entities, street gangs rely extensively on the notion of geographic or territorial control. However, like the Mexican cartel groups, what they are controlling is instead access points to narcotics. While prison gangs do dabble in other contraband, street gangs are pre-eminently concerned with the controlling narcotics nexus points. Again, these groups rely on ethnicity and habitation within a specific neighbourhood (or cell block) for membership.

The concept of control by maintaining power over narcotics access points, be it a night club or dive bar, has been adopted by other important criminal groups, including one-percenter biker groups and prison gangs. While it should be noted that the Mexican Mafia and potentially some of the other paramount prison gangs have morphed beyond the definition of a traditional prison gang, these groups are now demonstrating the same behaviours as their cousins in older more established criminal syndicates. The Mexican Mafia now maintains direct control of Latino neighbourhoods in southern California. It prohibits crimes it doesn’t want committed and, like neighbourhoods in Brooklyn where people bemoan the disappearance of Italian mob crews that once “protected” their areas, the Latino gangs under the Mexican Mafia have become entrenched members of local communities, adopting mediation, economic and financial responsibilities for many sections of the broader community. When looking at the expansion of the influence of the Mexican Mafia in southern California and beyond it becomes easy to see the full spectrum of control exercised by organized crime, both vituperatively blatant and insidiously obscure. Organized criminal control can be manifested as an ethnic or product-based loyalty; it can also be geographic, dynastic, hegemonic and immune to softening of time; however, only by understanding its nature can communities come one step closer to extracting the organizations involved.


By: Scott Paulseth




Capeci, Jerry and Tom Robbins, Mob Boss, St. Martin’s Press, NYC, 2013.

Mejia, Brittny, “Mexican Mafia’s O.C. boss convicted of federal racketeering charges,” LA Times, January 13, 2016,

Hortis, C. Alexander, The Mob and the City, Prometheus Books, 2014.


One thought on “The Nature of Control

  1. Pingback: The North American Hammer and Sickle – panamericancrime

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