The hierarchical model defines organized crime as a group of interdependent actors in which there is a clear ranking among participants that distinguishes leaders from other members in the criminal enterprise. This structure has been termed the "bureaucratic," "corporate," or "organizational" model of organized crime. This description of organized criminal groups sees it as a government-like or military-like structure, in which illegal activities are organized and approved by superiors and carried out by lower-level operatives who are part of the group (Albanese, 2015; von Lampe, 2016).
Early accounts by informants described mafia groups in the United States and Italy as consisting of bosses, lieutenants and soldiers who controlled territories and run profitable criminal enterprises with these groups ("families"). These accounts provided the essence of the hierarchical model of organized crime, operating with a clear structure, ranking, and organization (Anastasia, 2004; Demaris, 1980; Maas, 1968; Shawcross and Young, 1987; Teresa and Renner, 1973; U.S. Senate; 1965).
The hierarchical approach to organized crime was adopted in official reports and it was used widely to characterize all forms of organized crime beyond mafia-type organizations. This characterization influenced the way in which organized crime was perceived and responded to around the world (Albanese, 1988; Di Ronco and Lavorgna, 2016; Standing, 2003).
Over the years, governments, non-governmental and international organizations and the academia carried out a number of studies on the models of organized criminal groups. The results suggest that the hierarchical model characterizes some organized criminal groups, but there are many others that are not organized in this way (Lombardo, 1994; Lupo, 2015; Rostami, Mondani, Liljeros, Edling, 2017). Research has shown that highly organized and hierarchical mafia groups exist on one end of a spectrum of organized criminal groups "with a variety of hybrid possibilities in between" (Sergi, 2017; Smith, 1980). The hierarchical model is most helpful in describing how some groups organize and operate with respect for position, territory and the importance of being identified as "connected" with the group.
An unfortunate outcome of widespread adherence to the hierarchical model of organized crime was the assumption that successful prosecution of organized crime bosses would eliminate organized criminal groups altogether by collapsing crime families. However, many successful mafia-related prosecutions to the present day found that the continuing demand for illicit goods and services led to the emergence of new leaders and new illicit enterprises to exploit these profitable illegal markets.