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Organized crime is characterized by both the nature of the criminal conduct and also by the structure of the criminal group. Under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, an "organized criminal group" is defined using four criteria:

  1. A structured group of three or more persons (that was not randomly formed);
  2. The group exists for a period of time;
  3. It acts in concert with the aim of committing at least one serious crime (punishable by at least four years of incarceration);
  4. To obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.

The three categories of crimes committed by these groups include the provision of illicit services, the provision of illicit goods, and the infiltration of legitimate business or government. The infiltration of legitimate business and government is distinguished from the provision of illicit goods and services most clearly by its characteristic use of extortionate threats. To carry out these activities, organized criminal groups are organized in different ways, often dependent on opportunities.

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