Organized crime is a problem of tremendous economic, social, and political significance in the world today. Criminal organizations operate around the globe, affecting countries both rich and poor, regimes both democratic and authoritarian, and cultures both Western and non-Western. Its practitioners are secretive and elusive, for their behavior necessarily takes place in the shadows, hidden from the gaze of the public eye. Despite this opaqueness, global criminal organizations have an impact on contemporary states that is real, often dramatic, and definitely substantial. Scholars of comparative politics have traditionally not identified organized crime as a core, defining issue of the field in the same way that they have with problems like development, democratization, institutions, or culture. The time has come to correct this oversight.
This chapter is divided into four sections. The first demonstrates the significance of organized crime in the contemporary world. The second provides definitions of key terms, explores how organized crime is structured, and considers how globalization impacts the criminal industry. The third section focuses on patterned interactions between criminals and politicians. Organized crime cannot prosper without the assistance of corrupt politicians. In many places in the world, a political-criminal nexus prevails, in which criminals and state agents derive mutual rewards and benefits from covert networks of cooperation. Finally, the fourth section contains a series of case studies that cast light on the political-criminal nexus in a variety of settings. We start by examining Italy, which is the classic case of a mafia-penetrated state. Next, Russia's postcommunist transition illustrates the emergence of criminal organizations as the state weakened and declined during the country's “roaring ’90s.” The final case explores the connection between crime and politics in Mexico and, in particular, the rise since the late 1990s of powerful, competing, and extremely violent drug syndicates whose activities spill over into, and threaten, the United States. The chapter ends with a brief reflection on the ever-evolving relationship between crime and the state.