How 10 Major Criminal Organizations Actually Started Out

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Vote up the organizations with the best origin tales.

Behind every major criminal enterprise is the story of where it all began. Some of the largest transnational operations today began life as local outfits with few aspirations beyond survival in a hostile world. Not every gang began with criminal intent; some groups formed for mutual protection, others to provide a sense of belonging for outsiders. Wider political and social conditions form an important part of each gang’s story.

From the Sicilian mafia to the Japanese yakuza and everyone in between, this collection looks at the narratives behind where and how some of the world's most notorious criminal organizations got started.

  • 1
    59 VOTES

    La Cosa Nostra (US)

    The American offshoot of the Sicilian Mafia tends to be associated with New York, but its first American activities took place in New Orleans, with the slaying of a police chief in 1890. More than 4 million Italians left for the US across a 30-year period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The overwhelming majority were law-abiding citizens seeking an escape from poverty and a chance to start anew in the US. The first wave of criminal gangs wasn't actually derived from the Sicilian Mafia, but merely incorporated their methods to prey upon other members of their community.

    In New Orleans, the first turf war was over control of the docks. David Hennessey, the city's police superintendent, was accused of taking bribes from one of the factions and promptly gunned down on October 15, 1890. The city's outraged populace carried out reprisals against the immigrant community - one of the worst lynchings in American history was against Italian-Americans in 1891.

    It was in New York that the American Mafia truly took hold as factions rose and fell in prominence in the early 1900s. The crackdown on the Mafia by Benito Mussolini in the old country sparked a further wave of Sicilian immigration in the 1920s. In 1928 a definitive turn in the history of the American mob took place when the Castellammarese War broke out. To the victor, Salvatore Maranzano, went the spoils - for a few months, anyway.

    Maranzano established the system dubbed La Cosa Nostra ("our thing"), which included New York's Five Families, before he was gunned down in September 1931 on the orders of Charles "Lucky" Luciano after a five-month reign as the "boss of all bosses." Future two-time losing American presidential candidate Thomas Dewey successfully brought Luciano to trial in 1936. 

    59 votes
  • The Mafia (Sicily)
    Photo: Antonino Cutrera / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    75 VOTES

    The Mafia (Sicily)

    There are many mafias across the world, but it's only the organization stemming from the Italian island of Sicily that is widely recognized as the Mafia. Sicily's position in the middle of the Mediterranean meant that the island would fall under the control of various foreign powers over the course of its troubled history. Two distinctive Sicilian characteristics emerged from this experience, which laid the foundations for its Mafia to thrive. The first was an entrenched concept and distrust of central authority; the other was an intense loyalty shown to one's family and community. 

    Cosche, the Sicilian dialect for clan, sprouted up across the island at first as a means of mutual protection against the oppression of outside forces, but over time branched into less honorable pursuits. Two possible origins exist for the word "mafia" itself.

    The first is a tale not taken too seriously by scholars - an acronym for a rebellious slogan against the oppression of French occupiers in the 13th century. The story is that a local woman perished while resisting an attempted rape by a French soldier. The victim's fiancé then exacted his vengeance against the soldier, leading to an uprising in 1282. The letters of the slogan "Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela" ("death to France is Italy's cry") form "MAFIA."

    The more widely accepted story is that the term is simply a mixture of Sicilian dialect and Arabic (the Arabs occupied the island in the 9th century), which translates to "acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful." Thus a mafioso wasn't necessarily a criminal, but a person with a finely tuned sense of honor and distrust of authority. A mafioso lived by the honor code of omerta, whose main principles were silence and the right of vendetta.

    Mafiosos flocked to Giuseppe Garibaldi's banner when the Italian patriot landed in Sicily with a band of volunteers known as the "Squadri della Mafia" (Mafia Squadron). Italian unification created a local power vacuum eagerly filled by the Mafia. In 1870, the Roman government struck a bargain with the mob to track down non-Mafia bandits roving the countryside. In exchange, the government would turn a blind eye to the Mafia's own illegal activities. 

    The Roman government was deeply mistaken in its belief that the accommodations would be a temporary measure. The Mafia was there to stay: "The king of Italy might rule the island but men of my tradition govern it."

    75 votes
  • The Sinaloa Cartel (Mexico)
    Photo: Takinginterest01 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    71 VOTES

    The Sinaloa Cartel (Mexico)

    The Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico grew out of the farming communities of the rural Pacific coast region in the 1960s and '70s. But the area’s connection to drug trafficking goes back much further. Thanks partly to an influx of Chinese settlers and its proximity to the US, Sinaloa was a hub for the cultivation and distribution of opium in the late 1800s, which was legal at the time. The trade persisted even after legislation in 1914 to regulate the sale of opium. 

    World War II saw the US rely increasingly on Sinaloa for opium needed to produce morphine, but this would ultimately sow the seeds for illegal trade in the postwar years. In the 1960s and '70s, some of the Sinaloan farming communities switched to the cultivation of marijuana. The cartel's first kingpin was Pedro Aviles. After he was slain in a shootout with the authorities, the next generation of leaders emerged and moved toward the more profitable production of cocaine.

    The cartel was formed in 1989 not as a singular organization with one leader, but as an alliance of organizations working together.

    71 votes
  • Yakuza (Japan)
    Photo: Utagawa Hiroshige / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    54 VOTES

    Yakuza (Japan)

    The term yakuza comes from gambling syndicates active in the early Edo period (1600-1868). After a long period of internal strife, Japan settled into a long period of peace, which meant that a substantial number of trained warriors no longer had much purpose. Some masterless samurai, ronin, drifted into less reputable forms of income. 

    The ruling Tokugawa regime imposed tight controls on the movement of people and goods within the country. This, in turn, opened up a world of opportunities for lowly traveling merchants and gambling syndicates to amass wealth and influence by swindling locals and extorting local businesses. The tekiya ("peddlers") and bakuto ("gamblers") were the predecessors of the Yakuza. 

    One game of chance offered by the bakuto was hanafuda, a three-card match in the mold of blackjack. The worst possible hand in the game was 8-9-0 or ya-ku-za. Thus, yakuza became synonymous with something useless or good-for-nothing, and came to refer to the groups in general. Of course, the Yakuza weren't too keen on that moniker and preferred to go by ninkyō-dantai ("chivalrous groups") or gokudo ("those who go all the way")

    The Yakuza of present-day Japan sprang from these Edo-era street gangs.

    54 votes
  • The Triads (China)
    Photo: Ian Lambot / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
    37 VOTES

    The Triads (China)

    It was traditionally believed that the first Triads - or Tiandihui - were a secret loyalist society formed in the aftermath of the Ming dynasty's fall in 1644; the aim was to overthrow the succeeding Qing dynasty. This story was repeated by Triad members themselves and the scholars who studied them. However, the opening of archival material offered a different explanation - the Tiandihui began life as a mutual aid society at a later starting point in the 18th century.

    The "Heaven and Earth Society" was founded in 1761 by a small band of men led by Ti Xi in the Fujian province. At the time, the Tiandihui was but one of 199 secret societies formed in the 18th century. The area was a major trading hub and so attracted migrants from other parts of the country seeking opportunity. As individuals, they were vulnerable to predatory gangs and pirates, which made membership in a secret society a way of banding together in mutual protection. 

    If a member was accosted by a bandit, he would only need to raise his thumb upward to signify heaven. If the robber, in turn, raised his little finger to represent earth, he was obliged to leave his victim be.

    The surge in membership was largely the product of mutual self-interest rather than any enduring loyalty to the fallen Ming regime. As the strength and influence of the society grew, the Tiandihui branched out into less reputable activities. By the early 1900s, the organization had splintered into numerous smaller groups across the country. After the Communists prevailed in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Triad groups fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as overseas.

    The cramped conditions of the Kowloon Walled City (pictured) were controlled by Triads until its 1994 demolition. Authorities estimated that 1 in 6 people in Hong Kong had some form of affiliation with the Triads. 

    37 votes
  • Russian Mafia/Bratva
    Photo: Viktor Bulla / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    48 VOTES

    Russian Mafia/Bratva

    The origins of Russian organized crime stretch back to small groups of bandits roving the countryside during the final years of the Romanov dynasty. Under the tight restrictions of the Russian Czar, one of the few ways for the lower classes to resist was to live outside the law. The groups were collectively known as Vorovskoy Mir ("thieves' world") and operated by a simple code of honor:

    1. Never inform on other members
    2. Never cooperate with the authorities 
    3. Share the loot

    During the Russian Revolution, the organization essentially controlled the streets of Moscow and took full advantage of the ensuing chaos from the conflict. However, once Josef Stalin assumed control of the Soviet Union in 1924, the bandits had outlived their usefulness and were imprisoned en masse by the Communist dictator. Stalin's crackdown of the Voroskoy Mir only served to sow the seeds of the modern Russian mafia. The Vory v Zakone ("thieves in law") was formed by the prison gangs, along with a distinctive subculture

    After Germany invaded Russia in 1941, a desperate Stalin offered the millions of imprisoned young men a chance to fight for their freedom by joining the Red Army. This was a direct violation of the code of honor, but many still chose to answer Stalin's calls to arms. Once the conflict ended, Stalin reneged on his promise and sent the criminals back to the gulags. The returning convicts were known as suki ("bitches") and met with violent reprisals by the gangs as prison guards watched indifferently. 

    After Stalin passed in 1953, 8 million prisoners were freed and the old way of doing things was discarded; instead, cooperation with corrupt officials promised lucrative rewards in a thriving black market

    48 votes