“They were my partners in crime. They were my best friends. They were my children’s godfathers.” So said John Martorano, a former hitman known as “The Executioner”, of his fellow mobsters in a gang led by James "Whitey" Bulger (pictured), who was found guilty of 11 murders and racketeering on August 13th. Mr Bulger, now 83 years old, was one of Boston’s most feared criminals in the 1970s and 1980s. In mythology at least, he also typifies an old-school sort of gangster: working class, with a code of honor (at his trial, Mr Bulger strongly contested that he was ever responsible for killing women) and a series of nicknamed henchman. Yet whether in Boston or London’s East End, such gangsters seem to be a thing of the past. How has globalization changed the business of organized crime?

According to Federico Varese, an expert on mafias at Oxford University, the best way to define “organized” crime (as distinct from professional or street crime) is by looking at territory. “Organized criminals don’t just want to make money,” he says, “they also want to control something.” In the 1960s and 1970s, that something was primarily space. Gangsters such as Mr Bulger would mark out a territory within which they could extort local businesses and operate illicit markets selling drugs or sex. The Italian-American New York Mafia controlled that city’s docks, for example—and they used that to maintain a monopoly over the drug supply.

The Kray twins and the Richardsons, both London gangster families, used violence to maintain extortion rackets and used their earnings to finance bigger heists. These gangs were primarily a product of industrialism: they thrived in working-class areas and were often tied up with trade unions and other institutions. Everybody in a gangster’s neighborhood would know of the crime families, and nobody would “grass” or “snitch” to the police.


That began to change in the later 1970s and 1980s. First, drugs became more important than racketeering. In New York, the Italian-American mafia lost its control over the heroin trade as new drug supply routes were opened up from Asia. Increased competition led to a sharp jump in purity but also meant that gangsters had to be better connected. So whereas the mafia’s drug trafficking came about as a consequence of its monopoly over the docks, in the late 1970s access to sources of heroin created gangs which then tried to control territory to sell it. Second, de-industrialisation and suburbanisation in many cities created a far less stable environment for the old-style gangs to operate.

Many of London’s crooks simply moved to Kent and Essex, on the city’s outskirts, for example. In their place came a far more violent sort of crime, with less organized gangsters fighting over market share. That era too is now coming to an end. Crime rates have fallen dramatically in most developed countries, especially in big cities. The drugs trade is now, in management jargon, far less vertically integrated. At the production end of the market, Mexican and Colombian cartels have more of the cocaine market wrapped up, while Turkish and South Asian gangs control the heroin. But at distribution, drug dealers are less likely to be part of an organisation and more likely to be individuals working within loose networks.

Wholesalers, who work in distribution hubs such as Amsterdam, sell at the market price instead of trying to enforce a monopoly through violence—a tactic which, these days, invites police repression. Instead of thuggish lieutenants, importers employ freelancers, paying drivers, dock workers, lawyers, or naive holiday makers to carry their product and launder their cash.

Drug dealing has thus globalised. Indeed, like industry, much of the violence of the drugs trade has just moved overseas, to countries such as Mexico and Colombia, Myanmar and Afghanistan, and increasingly Mali, Ghana and Nigeria. There the cartels use violence to maintain their monopoly. And, perhaps because the drug trade is declining in many developed countries, they are increasingly dabbling in other trades too.

The United Nations identifies a series of “emerging crimes” mostly committed by criminal gangs: these include poaching, illegal logging and trafficking controlled goods, such as archeological artifacts and endangered animals. Those sorts of crimes required ever more dispersed networks, with specialised skills replacing sheer muscle. But even they require more violence than the newest of crimes: cybercrime, identity theft and fraud. These are increasingly being committed by new organisations from countries with little history of organised crime, and are probably the fastest-growing ways of making an illicit buck.

By contrast, the trade of the old-fashioned gangster, well-known in his district, his monopoly enforced by violence, now looks antiquated. They have been replaced by a type of globetrotting businessman-gangster. Some may be nostalgic for the past, when the Kray twins fired bullets into men in pubs but venerated their mothers. Considering their record and Mr Bulger's, however, the change is probably an improvement.