The Differences Between Criminal Organizations and Street Gangs

Written by theresa bettmann
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The Differences Between Criminal Organizations and Street Gangs
A similarity between gangs and criminal organisations is the use of firearms. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

The term street gang and criminal organisation are used interchangeably, but the two are different. Although both groups typically participate in criminal activities, the groups are organised differently and their members fit into entirely different profiles.

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Criminal Organizations

Criminal organisations are large, complex networks of illegal structures often operating behind legitimate businesses. Traditional institutions like trade unions, construction and trash hauling have been ways to hide illegal activities. These crime rings operate under a hierarchical structure similar to normal businesses, with several levels of power and opportunities for advancing within the organisation. Typically members become increasing wealthy by advancing in the organisation. Although some participants are socialised into this system as youth, the organisations are run by career criminal adults. Organised crime networks are present around the world, many partnering in crime through modern technology like the Internet. Russian mobsters, the Italian Mafia, Chinese Tongs and the Japanese Brorkudan are some of those more widely recognised.

The Differences Between Criminal Organizations and Street Gangs
Organised crime rings are highly structured illegal business operations. (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Street Gangs

Street gangs are comprised of youth within a given location or "turf." Gang members range in age from as young as 12 to the mid-twenties. There is no single definition for a gang and terms like "gang," "youth gang," and "street gang" are used interchangeably. Gangs can form anywhere but most are found in larger metropolitan areas. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, gangs arise out of a need for power and strength in a powerless environment. Youth respond by forming social groups and these gangs become surrogate families, providing a sense of belonging linked by location, symbols and in name. Often members are "socialized" into gangs through friends or older siblings who already participate.

The Differences Between Criminal Organizations and Street Gangs
Gang activity ranges from minor infractions like graffitti to more serious offences. (BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images)

Organizational Structure

Gangs are loosely structured with ever changing leadership and fluctuating membership and are based upon loyalty and group cohesion rather than a rigid hierarchical structure. Although there is much sensationalism regarding the difficulty of leaving gangs, members often do leave by choice. One way is to be "jumped" out with a group beating, much like many initiations into gangs. Others simply become less active until ultimately quitting all together. Gangs do participate in criminal activities, but more so as a means of fun and to earn money. Not all gang activity is criminally motivated, differing from criminal organisations whose sole purpose is managing illegal operations. Organised criminal institutions must have strong consistent leadership to remain successful. Organised crime rings rarely ever have members who leave voluntarily or successfully, they are usually members for life.

Types of Criminal Activity

Street gangs get their names from their street presence and for committing street crimes, including robbery, aggravated assault, gun crimes, murder and even rape. Most gang-related crimes are regional and associated with opposing gang rivalries and turf wars. Some gangs participate in drug-related crimes merely as a way to support their own habits and generate some income. By comparison, adult organised crime rings build extensive enterprises in drug trafficking, human trafficking and prostitution, extortion and elaborate financial scams. These crimes are not limited to any particular location and encompass a much more global region.

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