Organised crime: ethnicity, migration and stereotypes

Organised crime: ethnicity, migration and stereotypes

Stereotypes allow information to be more easily and swiftly identified, predicted and reacted to: ”without [them] everything would be treated as if it were taking place for the first time” (Helmreich, 2017, p. 7). Whereas myths can be described as commonly and uncritically accepted sets of propositions whose truth has not been examined (Heehs, 1994, pp. 1-3). Though  stereotypes and myths generally help make sense of the complex world that people live in, they oftentimes turn out to be sources of biases and over-generalisations. Organised crime groups (OCGs) present a particularly fertile ground for the emergence of various simplifications and categorisations due to the nature of the phenomenon. This stems from the difficulty in obtaining accurate and reliable data as well as the controversy surrounding acts committed by criminal actors. In particular, ethnicity and migration serve as the basis for development of various myths and stereotypes related to the criminal world. 


There have been some remarkable works that greatly contributed to the literature on the consequences of generalisations and misrepresentations related specifically to ethnicity of members of OCGs (e.g., Rawlinson, 1998; Lombardo, 2010). One of the key points that can be noted when examining scholarly discussion is the significance of neutrality and impartiality of policymakers and law enforcement agencies in tackling organised crime. The purpose of this article is to contribute to the debate by highlighting the importance of evaluating established stereotypes and myths in relation to OCGs. By studying Russian and Greek organised crime groups, it argues that OCGs are not simply foreign phenomena imported from abroad.


The definition of organised crime

Despite the fact that terms ’criminal organisation’ and ’mafia’ are applied on a daily basis in conversations and news broadcasts, there are no universal definitions of these phenomena and their meaning often arouses controversy. Interestingly, the understanding of the notions may greatly differ between scholars and governments. Furthermore, it can be distinctly defined by domestic and international organisations aimed specifically at fighting OCGs.


The heterogeneity of organised crime in Europe requires that organised crime is defined in a clear but, at the same, an all-encompassing manner. Symeonidou-Kastanidou (2007) proposes a framework where an OCG is regarded as an organisation which: 

a)    is characterised by an allocation of roles between its members,

b)    possesses an abundance of technical and – notably– financial means, which it utilises for the fulfillment of its criminal objectives, or is involved in legitimate financial structures ceding high profits,

c)     aims at the acquisition of wealth on a massive scale.


Instead of focusing solely on who OCGs are, an emphasis is put on the entrepreneurial element of OCGs. The aforementioned explanation of OCGs will be applied throughout the article. It is also necessary to highlight that mafias and organised crime groups are not synonyms. A mafia group should be regarded as a certain form of OCG which wields power through controlling both illegal and legal economic activities within a certain territory (Paoli, 2003).


(Mis)representations of Russian organised crime


After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the flow of goods and people between eastern and western parts of Europe became less costly, smoother and, thus, more frequent. This provoked concerns among citizens of various European states that they would be flooded by Russian organised crime (Varese, 2001). Together with this concern, a considerable amount of stereotyping and mythicised conceptualisation of Russian OCGs has diffused and still persists to this day within and outside of Europe. 


Portrayals of Russian organised crime can be observed in popular series (e.g., McMafia), cinema (e.g., John Wick, The Equaliser), and newspaper articles (as shown by Rawlinson, 1998). As a consequence, Russian OCGs tend to be associated with ethnical homogeneity and racketeering as their dominant criminal activity. However, criminal groups operating within a territory as vast as former Soviet Union, to a large extent differ in terms of geographical location, composition, level of sophistication, ethnic background of their members, available resources, and types of criminal activity. As reported by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 1999 more than 140 OCGs operated in the Sverdlovsk region alone (Finckenauer and Voronin, 2001, p. 17). It would seem rather implausible to expect uniformity from Russian OCGs since there are so many distinct groups that fall into this array.


Indeed, criminal groups sometimes restrict membership according to some criteria, such as kinship, race or ethnicity. However, available data suggests that, in contrast to the United States  (US) where ”organised crime provided a ’crooked ladder of upward mobility’ for some immigrants sharing a common ethnicity, culture, and language” (Finckenauer and Voronin, 2001, p. 4; O’Kane, 1992), OCGs in the former Soviet Union were not primarily built upon family or ethnic structures. The case of criminal group vory-v-zakone can be used to explain why the notion of ethnically homogeneous Russian organised crime is erroneous.


Despite harsh state repression and deep transformation of both legal and illegal markets, vory-v-zakone (English: thieves-in-lawcontinues to engage in criminal activity in Russia and in several foreign territories. Consisting of about 5,000 members, vory, along with the Japanese Yakuza, the Mexican Las Zetas, the Neapolitan Camorra, and the MS-13, was recognised as one of the greatest security threats in the US in 2011 (White House, 2011). Vory,which emerged from gulags (Soviet labour camps), despite some characteristics of exclusivity, such as initiation rituals, division of roles, signs (e.g., tattoos), collective beliefs and code of conduct, tends to be open to all ethnicities and minorities within the domestic territory (Varese, Lonsky and Podvysotskiy, 2021). Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and many others are known to have formed the criminal group in the past (Razinkin, 1995). 


The evidence suggests that the group consists of criminals coming from diverse ethnic backgrounds who shared common circumstances in the past. As the recruitment and selection is not restricted by ethnicity or nationality, the participation in the OCG seems to come down to economic and situational considerations, rather than the ethnic ones. Social relations between individuals are key to understanding participation in Vory.

Certain immigrant or ethnic groups have been commonly associated with involvement in particular criminal activities. While Turkish and Chinese criminal professionals are thought to be leading trafficking of heroin, Columbians tend to be perceived as prominent cocaine traffickers and Russian OCGs are oftentimes portrayed as constituting the main problem of racketeering and violent criminal acts (Kleemans, 2014). Violent reputation of Russian crime groups could help explain why a self-employed sex worker of Russian origin ”may be able to keep pimps and bodyguards at a distance, by pretending to have connections with the Russian Mafia” (Bovenkerk, Siegel and Zaitch 2003).


Those involved in Russian organised crime, however, are known to engage in a range of activities domestically and internationally. Apart from arson, kidnapings, and extortion of money, Russian OCGs have engaged in gambling, corruption, drugs and human trafficking, health care fraud, forgery, counterfeting, antiquities swindles, natural resources and arms trafficking, insurance scams, and fuel tax evasion (Finckenauer and Waring, 1998; Finckenauer and Voronin, 2001; Savona and Riccardi, 2015). Furthermore, in contrast to common misconceptions, Russian OCGs operating in Finland are known to solely engage in three illegal activities: illicit drugs, trafficking in human beings and illicit trade in tobacco products (Savona and Riccardi, 2015, p. 97).


Greek organised crime groups


In the 1990s Greece has been a final destination for a large number of immigrants coming from different locations and contexts. While the total number of foreigners is difficult to estimate, only between 1991 and 1994 about 250,000 immigrants entered the country populated by about 11 million people, majority of which were of Albanianorigin followed by Bulgarians, Georgians, Romanians, Russians, and Ukrainians (Tsoutsoumpis, 2018). Greece was not prepared to receive such an immense number of immigrants, thus, from the beginning this considerable flow of people has been viewed as a security threat and no integration policies were introduced (Nomikos, 2010). 


Although it was crime groups already present in Greece that greatly benefitted from immigration through involvement in and coordination of human smuggling, human trafficking and forgery of documents; an increase in petty and street crimes associated with the flow of people resulted in a proliferation of hate towards immigrants, xenophobia and nationalism among the Greek population (Clogg, 2002; Tsoutsoumpis, 2018). Fueled by political discourse and radicalising media broadcasts, fear of immigration intensified among members of the public which blamed foreigners for implementing organised crime in Greece (Antonopoulos, 2009).


Despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies, the illegal cigarette market in Greece is thriving. According to the report prepared by Harvard School of Public Health for the World Health Organisation (2011, p.154), the estimated 543,951,000 pieces of cigarettes were seized in Greece only in 2010. One of the substantial causes why OCGs engage in cigarette market may stem from the increases in taxes of tobacco products sold in Greece. The current cigarettes’ taxation (as a share of the average retail price) in Greece amounts to 84.7%, whereas it totals 69.5% in Luxembourg and 71% in Germany (European Commission, 2022). Furthermore, about 39% of the adults in Greece are daily smokers compared with the OECD average of 19.7% (OECD, 2016).


This suggests that the illegal tobacco market in Greece may be of particular interest to those criminals involved in smuggling goods into the illicit markets where they are heavily taxed and demand is high (Jossens and Raw, 2012). Nonetheless, it is not mafia-like organisations, as portrayed in media, that engage in cigarette smuggling in Greece. The evidence collected by the Hellenic Police suggests that they are dynamic and adaptable networks where roles and responsibilities are distributed within various phases of the supply chain (Vidali, 2017). 


While not all criminal networks have an identical structure, some patterns in terms of division of labour and ethnicity were identified in a comprehensive work by Antonopoulos (2009, p. 484), namely: wholesalers – usually Greek, but also Polish or Russian; procurers – mainly Greek businessmen; pushers – tend to be immigrants; street-sellers – members of migrant communities; Legitimate shop and kiosk owners – Greekprotectors – Russian, Albanian and Greek; scouters, warehouse guards and drivers – mixed ethnicities. Finally, the remaining element are corrupt officials (e.g., coast guards, customs and police officers) who are solely Greek and are either paid to ignore the problem or are actively engaged in the operations, e.g., through providing information about prospective investigations (Chionis, and Chalkia, 2016). 

It is clear that illicit cigarette market is not dominated by foreigners and substantial interactions between individuals of various ethnic backgrounds can be identified. OCGs engaged in cigarettes smuggling are usually ethnically heterogeneous and the distribution of roles between native Greeks and foreigners depends on the stage of supply chain and associated risks. Therefore, in contrast to stereotypes and myths established in Greek culture, only certain tasks, e.g., street-sellers, scouters, warehouse guards and drivers, are normally carried out by certain ethnic or migrant groups, whereas Greeks tend to have leadership roles (Antonopoulos, 2008).






Studying and understanding myths and stereotypes related to ethnicity and OCGs is crucial since practices and policies based on misconceptions are not likely to be effective in the heterogeneous reality of organised crime. Apart from criminalisation and stigmatisation of certain ethnic and minority groups, biased combat against OCGs can reduce the chances of its success. This article has shown that criminal groups that can be gathered under the umbrella of Russian and Greek OCGs are very diverse in terms of members’ ethnicity and types of criminal activities that they engage in. Also, they are not mafia-like organisations and were not imported from abroad. While the ethnicity element should not be completely ignored by those tackling crimes, objectivity, facts and reliable data should be central in order to better understand the participation and recruitment channels of different criminal groups.



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