This module is a resource for lecturers


Organized crime and organized criminal groups


Concepts and terms

Organized crime is a broad concept that encompasses many different forms and manifestations, from large poly-crime-orientated networks to small family businesses dedicated to one or a few specific offences. However, regardless of the core business of organized crime, firearms are frequent and central elements naturally associated with these groups.

Trying to capture this fluid concept is difficult. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) does not define organized crime, but focuses instead on some of its most distinctive elements:

  • the presence of a structured group of three or more people;
  • the aim of committing one or more serious crimes;
  • the profit-oriented nature of the group, in particular the purpose of obtaining a financial or material benefit.

Moreover, the Convention requires, for its applicability, the existence of a transnational element in the offences committed by these groups (the transnationality itself is not part of the definition of either the offences or the group).

‘Organized criminal group’ shall therefore mean “a structured group of three or more persons that exists over a period of time, the members of which act in concert aiming at the commission of one or more serious crimes or offences, in order to obtain a direct or indirect financial or other material benefit” (article 2, subparagraph (a)). By focusing on criminal groups or organizations rather than on individuals, the Convention highlights the associative element often present in organized crime manifestations in terms of people acting in concert as well as in terms of offences committed in furtherance of a broader goal that transcends the single offence.

The criminalization of ‘participation in an organized criminal group’ (article 5) is the natural pendant to this approach and serves the main purpose of providing national criminal justice systems the necessary tools to target not only the material offenders of a single offence, but also the intellectual and material leaders of the groups, and to link otherwise disconnected criminal incidents to a broader common goal.

To qualify as an organized criminal group, the group must have some structure or internal organization and must aim at the commission of serious crimes:

A ‘structured group’ shall mean that the group should not be randomly formed for the immediate commission of an offence, but also does not require formally defined roles for its members, continuity of its membership or a developed structure (article 2, sub-paragraph (b)).

Finally, the participation in a structured group is further complemented by the intentional element of committing one or more serious crimes. The Convention does not provide a list of offences considered of serious nature, but rather a general definition that remits to national laws:

Serious crime’ shall mean “conduct that constitutes offences punishable by national law by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least four years or a more serious penalty” (article 2, subparagraph (b)).

This last distinctive element is of particular importance as it would allow the exclusion from these definitions criminal groups that might commit offences that are not qualified as serious crimes (e.g. youth gangs), or groups whose aim is not of financial or material benefit. Thus, in theory, some terrorist or insurgent groups would not fall under this term when their goals remained of purely ideological and non-material nature. Similarly, groups involved in firearms specific offences would also fall outside the definition of organized criminal groups if these offences are not considered by national law as serious crimes according to the terms of the Convention.

This Module focuses on the relationship between firearms and their illicit trafficking and representative examples of organized crime, terrorism and gang criminality. A more in-depth analysis on organized crime and terrorism can be found in the UNODC Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime and the one on Counter-Terrorism.


Demand for firearms

Firearms are among the most wanted black-market commodities all over the world. Relatively cheap, widely available, extremely lethal, simple to use, durable, portable and concealable, firearms are in high demand especially by criminal groups (UNODC, 2015).

Firearms play a central and essential role in the evolution and activity of organized crime as they are naturally associated with offences typically committed by organized criminal groups (OCGs), such as racketeering and extortion, violent crimes and homicides. They are, however, also needed by OCGs to accomplish their goals of gaining and maintaining power, and using that power to obtain wealth. Illicit by nature, these groups are involved in and connected to a wide range of illicit networks of all kinds (for example, drugs, diamonds, wildlife, human beings, etc.). Their demand for firearms is in this respect significant and relatively constant.

In its Digest of Organized Crime Cases, UNODC (2012: 101) states that “Firearms are linked to various forms of organized crime in several ways: as a tool for gaining and maintaining power, as an instrumentality for the commission of a crime, and as a commodity to be trafficked”.

In general, organized criminal groups tend to have a preference for smaller types of firearms, such as handguns and pistols, due to their portability and capacity for concealment. However, as Europol’s (2011: 18) review notes, “[al]though most organised crime groups prefer handguns, there is a rise in the use of heavy firearms such as assault rifles (e.g. AK-47s) and explosive devices.” This increasing interest for high calibre arms and explosives is indicative of a more aggressive way of doing business and for a possible struggle for greater power among these groups.

Firearms as tools for power

Traditionally, control over territory was crucial for OCGs to the extent that turf wars were fought over a particular area of interest that could range anywhere from a neighbourhood to particular national or international territories. This territorial focus has shifted to some extent towards smaller OCGs and street gangs (see Section 3 of this Module). Larger OCGs engage increasingly in global crime, although many OCGs still maintain firm control over a particular region; for example, the Neapolitan Camorra’s Casalesi Clan controls criminal (and to some extent legitimate) activities in the town of Casal di Principe (Squires, 2011).

Gradually, with the globalization of crime, many OCGs have changed direction becoming more poly-crime and profit-oriented and less bound to a particular territory or region. Scholars have stressed the need for a new way of looking at organized criminal groups based on the assumption that they are market rather than territory focused (Hobbs, 1998). Such approach is confirmed by Europol’s (2013: 34) threat analysis, which shows that:

  • Criminal groups increasingly operate on a network-style basis;
  • 70% of the groups are composed of members of multiple nationalities;
  • More than 30% of OCGs are poly-crime groups.

These findings are not entirely new and suggest that a focus on a specific territory or ethnic group may no longer be the predominant approach for organized criminal groups.

The use of firearms to project power is central to OCGs, although it does not always imply the actual use of these firearms in organized crime open conflicts. In some situations, such as drug cartel wars in Mexico, firearms are used frequently in open conflict while in others firearms play a greater deterrent role. The known or projected existence of large firearms stockpiles ready for use by one criminal group may prevent the others from entering an open conflict. Moreover, the availability of certain types of high-grade military style weapons, as opposed to less powerful arms, has a bearing on the ‘rank’ that criminal groups take within their own criminal communities. The upshot is that the inferior criminal group will take measures to increase and upgrade their own stockpiles to match or surpass those of the more powerful groups, thus resulting in an unofficial organized crime arms race.

The greater the presence of firearms in a specific area, the higher the prevalence of firearms related crime. Thus, the higher the quantity of firearms used by organized criminal groups in an area, the greater the likelihood of firearms-related crime carried out by those who are not members of organized criminal groups. In the Balkans, for example, the Small Arms Survey (2014:1) reports how “the high prevalence of firearms and violent crime in the region is linked to the activities of organized crime.” Similarly, Puerto Rico is strategic in terms of drugs trafficking routes between South America and the United States (Giaritelli, 2018), and nearly eight out of ten homicides in 2016 was committed using a firearm (McCarthy, 2017). Whether it is for the protection of a specific territory or a section of the market, the use of firearms by OCGs has an impact outside the immediate sphere of organized crime, by the simple presence and availability in a specific area.

Firearms as crime enablers

Firearms are naturally associated with offences typically linked to organized crime, such as racketeering, extortion, violent crimes and homicides. One offence frequently involving OCGs is armed robbery, of either a static site (e.g. a bank) or a mobile site (e.g. cash in transit). INTERPOL’s Project Pink Panthers ran from 2007 to 2016 and focused on an extensive network of criminals linked to armed robberies targeting high-end jewellery stores in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States between 1999 and 2015 (INTERPOL, 2010).

The possession of firearms also makes the commission of non-firearms related offences less risky for the participants. In fact, most illicit firearms only appear when they have already fallen into the hands of criminals and used in other crimes. This is often confirmed by national data on firearms seizure and their criminal context.

According to the UNODC (2015) Global Study on Firearms, most of the reported seized firearms were apprehended in the context of other committed crimes, notably violent crimes, but also drug trafficking and organized crime related offences. Only a minority of these firearms were linked to illicit trafficking. Subsequent UNODC data from 2016-2017 has contributed to its Illicit Arms Monitoring Initiative, which provides a more global evidence base in this field.

In 2017, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrested 28 people in a “nationwide gun and drug sting operation” (United States Department of Justice, 2017) in which 71 firearms were seized, but an analysis of the charges laid against those arrested shows:

  • Six charges relating to the Use and Carry of a Firearm During and in Relation to Drug Trafficking/a Drug Trafficking Crime;
  • Six charges relating to Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of Drug Trafficking/a Drug Trafficking Crime; and
  • Four charges relating to Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person/Felon.

The fact that the charges related to illicit possession or carrying of a firearm and not to trafficking is not necessarily indicative of the domestic or foreign origin of these arms, as the most immediate and catch-all legal ground for firearms seizures from a person who is not its legitimate owner is that of ‘illicit possession’. However, the presence of these firearms in the context of other crimes is a strong indication that the firearms seized were intended to provide protection or intimidation during the drug-related offences.

As Module 1 illustrates, statistical data on crimes committed with a firearm, particularly intentional homicides and the mechanisms used for the commission of these crimes, can provide additional useful hints on the use of firearms by organized criminal groups. According to the 2013 UNODC Global Homicide Study, firearms featured among the weapons of choice for intentional homicides, especially in regions plagued by high murder rates and the presence of organized crime. In Latin America, for example, firearms were used in 66% of the reported homicides in 2012. In its 2019 edition (unreleased), the UNODC Global Homicide Study reveals that the proportion of homicides committed with a firearm has increased in the Americas, where it makes up approximately three quarters of all homicides and equivalent to roughly a quarter of all homicides worldwide. In Africa, the second largest region in terms of intentional homicides, the ones perpetrated with firearms has increased to around 40%, equivalent to one seventh of the global total. The absence in many countries of disaggregated data for homicides linked to organized crime, gangs, or terrorism does not allow more detailed conclusions on this aspect at a global level to be drawn.

Various analyses relating to areas in the Americas do, however, provide some insight into this problem. El Salvador, Venezuela and Honduras topped the table for homicides in 2015 and 2016, although it is worth noting that in El Salvador and, to a lesser extent Honduras, the rate subsequently fell slightly after actions by the authorities to curb the bloodshed (Asmann, 2018). One such action was an attempt to negotiate with the principal gangs, the maras, in El Salvador so that when the gangs called a truce, the murder rate halved overnight (International Crisis Group, 2017).

In this ‘Northern Triangle’ region of the Americas, incorporating El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, a history of civil conflicts and authoritarian regimes has fuelled instability. Exposure to the world’s largest illicit drugs producing region in the south, and the largest arms producing markets in the north have combined with a poor record of democracy and rule of law to leave a legacy of crime and violence, among the highest in the world. Weak or inconsistent gun control laws facilitate firearms trafficking in the region (Salcedo-Albarán and Santos, 2017). The combination of this internal circulation of firearms from past conflicts and the significant influx of firearms from neighbouring countries promotes organized crime activities through the control and corruption of senior State officials. In 2017, the former Minister of Defence of El Salvador, General Atilio Benitez, was indicted for criminal activity including illegal trade in firearms (La Prensa Gráfica, 2017), and in April 2018, the General Prosecutor announced that there was sufficient evidence for the charges of “illegal trade in and illegal possession of firearms” to proceed to the next stage of prosecution.

Firearms as trafficking commodities

In addition to the firearms used inside the organizations, OCGs are often also directly involved in firearms trafficking as a secondary lucrative activity. When combined with other core activities, OCGs take advantage of their already established networks and channels which allow them to acquire and traffic all categories of firearms, at all levels, according to the demands in the illicit markets.

Varied estimates of the illicit firearms market value are between US$170 million to US$320 million (UNODC, 2010) and US$1 billion (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). Against this background, firearms still seem to constitute an attractive trafficking opportunity for OCGs, even if it is sometimes just an additional source of income.

Europol (2018) points out that as a result of incomplete and poorly managed post-conflict disarmament, there are often weapons available to civilians in post-conflict areas. In some cases, the proliferation and availability of these weapons are so widespread that their prices drop well below the cost of manufacture. For example, a 1996 report indicated that in Mozambique and Angola an assault rifle could be purchased for less than $15 or for a bag of maize. In Uganda, the price was reported to be the same as that of a chicken (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1999: 5).

These arms left behind become the object of illicit trafficking abroad by civilians who can get easy access to them. Civilians in this context include also organized criminal groups, sometimes even formed by former combatants who reorganized in the post-conflict period (McMullin, 2004; Moratti and Sabic-El-Rayess, 2009; Human Rights Watch, 2014). What this means in practice is that “suppliers […] are able to meet any rise in demand. The fact that a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher can be acquired for as little as EUR 300 to EUR 700 in some parts of the EU indicates their ready availability to criminals” (Europol, 2011: 18). Since one of the acknowledged drivers for organized criminal groups is profit, the existence of a source of firearms at a relatively low price, and a geographically close market for firearms at a higher price, is a golden opportunity. For organized criminal groups the buyer of firearms is of little or no consequence, the key is the price they are willing to pay, as this Module will explore below.

In this respect, the Western Balkans is a pertinent case, as Europol (2013: 31) reports:

“Weapons trafficking [in Europe] is almost exclusively a supplementary rather than primary source of income for the small number of OCGs involved in this crime area. Most groups enter the weapons trafficking business through other criminal activity, which may offer contacts, knowledge of existing routes and infrastructure related to the smuggling of weapons. The weapons and OCGs involved in weapons trafficking primarily originate from the Western Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs are also involved in the trafficking of weapons and have opened chapters in the Western Balkans. OCGs use existing criminal routes to traffic weapons.”

While organized crime in the region did not start at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war which followed, these events and the subsequent economic sanctions provided opportunity for it to proliferate (Small Arms Survey, 2014).

It is not just the Balkans where this is an issue. According to Prentice and Zverev (2016), the waxing and waning of the conflict in Ukraine has allowed firearms to get into the possession of criminals and sold on to buyers outside the conflict zone. During the conflict, weapons remained in the conflict zone until the February 2015 ceasefire after which they began to spread outside the battlefield.


Case Studies

After having seen what makes up an organized criminal group, and why such groups need and want weapons, this section considers a non-exhaustive list of case studies from different regions to see how the links between firearms and OCGs unfold in practice. The information in the case studies is drawn from public domain news reporting.

South Africa

Although the South African homicide rate had steadily declined from 1995 to 2016 ( World Bank, 2019), it was still ranked 14th highest in the world for firearms-related homicide in 2017 (World Atlas, 2017). While only a proportion of these deaths will be due to the activities of OCGs, the country does have a history of organized crime going back to the 19th Century (World Atlas, 2017).

South African Law uses the term “crime syndicate” instead of organized criminal group. According to Shaw (1998: 1), the South African Police Service (SAPS) estimated that at the end of the 1990s, there were “a number of extremely well financed and superbly armed crime syndicates operating in and from South Africa […], almost half of these operations are based in and around Johannesburg.

SaferSpaces (2015) demonstrates three ways in which firearms enter the illicit market in South Africa:

  • Small numbers of legal firearms are smuggled from neighbouring countries;
  • Fraud, corruption and poor enforcement of legislation resulting in inappropriate people being granted firearms licences;
  • Loss and theft of legitimate firearms.

Although some OCGs do exist, the majority of organized crime in South Africa takes the form of what Goga (2015: 1) identifies as ad hoc and “unsophisticated networks” of criminals.

Central America

La Cosa Nostra is a well-known OCG, both in Sicily and the United States. In terms of firearms possession, use and transfer, there have been a number of notable cases in the US over the years. In 2011, the United States Department of Justice (2011) announced 127 arrests of La Cosa Nostra members and associates, and many of the charges brought were for firearms-related murder. In 2016, 46 members of different La Cosa Nostra families were charged with racketeering offences, including illegal trafficking in firearms (United States Department of Justice, 2016). In 2017, there were 19 arrests of members and associates of the Lucchese Crime Family, one of the ‘Five Families’ of La Cosa Nostra, again on charges including firearms related homicide, and other firearms related offences (United States Department of Justice, 2017).

In 2013, the District Attorney for the Central District of California issued an indictment detailing “an alliance between the Mexican Mafia prison gang and the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel that sought to protect and expand the cartel’s drug trafficking activities across the nation” (United States Department of Justice, 2013: 1). Not only did the indictment link the Mexican Mafia with a drug cartel, but also with “the Florencia 13 criminal street gang” in relation to firearms trafficking. According to Calderón (2014: 1), Michoacán is one of the most violent states in Mexico and although La Familia has now largely become Los Caballeros Templarios, the use of firearms by drug traffickers led to 990 homicides in 2014, “the highest homicide rate in 15 years.”

The huge flow of arms into Mexico from the US is exacerbating the violence that has accompanied the illegal trade in narcotics (Al Jazeera, 2018). According to Mexican government sources, in the six years from 2011 to 2016, the US Justice Department traced more than 74,500 firearms seized from drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico to the United States, where they were either manufactured or sold on after being imported from other countries (Grillo, 2018).

Many more weapons are thought to be in the hands of cartel gunmen who commit dozens of murders every day. A 2013 study by the University of San Diego and the Igarapé Institute (McDougal et al., 2013) estimated that between 2010 and 2012, some 253,000 firearms were purchased to be trafficked over the southern border. The gaps in regulation, like the gun show loophole, make it impossible to know the true numbers.

The impact of these firearms in the hands of OCGs, especially drug trafficking cartels, is clearly visible in the high homicide rates. According to information from the Mexican Office for Domestic Affairs, homicides in Mexico rose by 16% in the first half of 2018 (Associated Press, 2018). With 15,973 killings in the first six months of the year, the highest since 1997 when records began, the country broke its own violence records.

In Colombia, a five decade long internal armed conflict has resulted in millions of firearms being smuggled into the country by the various irregular forces and armed groups. These include the guerrilla groups Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), as well as other criminal organizations. During these years, both guerrilla and paramilitary groups were thought to have controlled important parts of the illicit drug trade. One recognized modality of acquiring and paying for firearms was the exchange of drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, for arms (Carillo Galvis, 2017). Moreover, it is thought that the same means of transportation through which the arms were delivered to Colombian territory were also used to load the drugs and ship them back as payment to the arms traffickers (UNODC, 2006).

Of course, it is not only organized criminal groups from other countries which are involved in firearms trafficking in the United States. The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is one of many Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs which operates in the United States and elsewhere. In the US, three full Hells Angels members and two associates were convicted in 2013 of “drug dealing, money laundering, firearms trafficking, use of firearms in relation to crimes of violence and drug dealing, attempted armed robbery,arson, and other offenses” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2013: 1).


The Japanese Yakuza is not a single entity, but rather a collective term applied to a number of organizations. With an estimate of over 8,000 groups, only 20 or so are large enough to come to the attention of the media. According to Adelstein (2017), they are regulated rather than banned, and operate openly as businesses with offices, business cards and corporate emblems, and the address of each group’s headquarters listed on the National Police Agency website.

Reliability and branding make the Smith and Wesson revolver the weapon of choice for Yakuza. However, since it is not manufactured in Japan, and given the very strict Japanese laws on gun ownership (see also Module 6), it is an unavoidable conclusion that the firearms are smuggled into the country from the United States, the Middle East or Southeast Asia (Adelstein, 2017).


In 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a consortium of investigative centers, media and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Central America, reported that with assistance from Europol, the Carabinieri in Italy had arrested two of the leaders of the Ceusi Cosa Nostra family for weapons smuggling (Spaic, 2016). The two were accused of importing deactivated weapons from Slovakia, valued at EUR 45,000, reactivating them and sending them on to Malta. According to Europol, the Italian Carabinieri are therefore not excluding the possibility that these weapons could have fallen into the hands of criminal groups or terrorist organizations operating in the region (Spaic, 2016).

OCGs engaged in the illicit drugs trade are often also involved in arms trafficking activities. According to a report in La Repubblica on 11 March 2016 (Chiarelli, 2016: 1), in November that year police arrested 25 persons trafficking drugs and arms from Albania into Italy. The Anti-Mafia District Directorate stated that ‘autonomous’ mafia type organizations active in Puglia were trafficking cocaine and large amounts of marihuana, as well as firearms from Albania, involving at least three different criminal groups. The arsenal of weapons seized included several machine guns, rifles and pistols, silencers and over 3,500 rounds of ammunitions – “able to arm an entire regiment” – one of the largest single seizures in Italy in the past years.

In 2017, the Carabinieri arrested the head of the Giorgi clan of the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta, who had been on the run since 1994 (Anesi, 2017). He was arrested in connection with the trafficking of drugs and firearms. Less than a month later, Deutsche Welle (Goebel, 2018) reported on two separate police actions on the same day in which 116 more members of the ‘Ndrangheta and 54 members of La Cosa Nostra were arrested for arms and drug trafficking, extortion and murder.

Illicit firearms trafficking has become a major threat to internal security in Europe, and identified as one of the nine priorities for 2018-2021 for the fight against organized crime by the Council of the EU (EU EMPACT). Europol (2018: 1) indicated that the “weapons and organised criminal groups involved in weapons trafficking primarily originate from the Western Balkans (the weapons will typically have been held illegally after recent conflicts in the area) and the former Soviet Union.” Europol (2018: 1) is also clear about the involvement of organized criminal groups in this trade, saying that “outlaw motorcycle gangs are involved in the trafficking of weapons, and have opened chapters in the Western Balkans.

What this series of examples illustrates is that the use of firearms by OCGs is widespread, and that while trafficking may be, as Europol (2013) states, a supplementary source of income, the movement of firearms is constant. Freeman (2015) suggests that while the numbers of weapons trafficked in an individual shipment may be small to attempt to evade detection (the so-called “ant trade”), over time they may result in criminal groups amassing stockpiles of firearms.

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