Comparative Perspective on Organized Crime Groups


The Sicilian Mafia and the Medellin Cartel are both born out of political unrest. They both operate internationally and their actions can have significant impact on the related countries. Though usually illegitimate, the groups have had popular support and some of their leaders were revered and looked up to. The groups have intricate links with the political establishment of the day and can affect the results of elections. Both the organized crime groups plunder the very people whom they protect. The Sicilian Mafia is, interestingly, quite structured and its members bound to honor and a code of conduct.

Comparative Perspective on Organized Crime Groups

The Medellin Cartel of Columbia and the Sicilian Mafia are the two groups chosen for a comparative analysis. In what aspects do they differ? What are their similarities? Suchlike questions will be dealt with in the passages that follow.

The Backdrop of Political Turmoil

Both the crime groups emerged in regions with a history of political volatility. The civil war of 1948-1958 had the harshest impact on the city and its surrounding areas. The civil war was essentially one of struggle between poor campesinos and the rich landowners. It is no coincidence that most of the populace of Medellin are poor and are émigrés from the countryside. The industrial city of Medellin served as the operating base for the Medellin Cartel, whose founders include Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa clan, and Carlos Lehder-Rivas. The city is also notorious for smuggling and pickpocketing (Griswold 2005).

Similarly, the union of Sicily with Italy proved significant in the growth and consolidation of the Mafia, which could be considered as a special social class. The Sicilian Mafiosi filled in the gap caused by an inefficient government and hence functioned as an unofficial police force that maintains order. The Italian government is heavily partisan towards the bourgeois north. It meant that the Sicilian peasant, without any political representation, was heavily exploited. The landowners, of course, evaded such oppression. Such conditions of inequality and injustice made necessary a protective force, and hence the Mafia. But the Mafiosi were more than just police, in that they were a political force themselves. Election results were largely determined by the Mafia through coercion and intimidation. (The Economist, 1995)

Intertwining of Crime and Political Establishment

Both groups had strong links to the government and at times were even part of it.  In 1982, Escobar was elected as an alternate Colombian representative in Envigado, a region nearby Medellín. There he established himself as a savior of the underprivileged by implementing construction projects for slum dwellers and soccer fields for the youth. He even had his own newspaper, which acted as his public relations equipment. It portrayed him as an up-from-the-slums statesman. Escobar enjoyed immunity from arrest as long as he was a public representative. (Griswold 2005)

The connections between the Sicilian mafia and the Italian government are even more pronounced. The mafia assumes many roles in many contexts which includes controlling votes, surveillance of polling booths, intimidation and rigging. These practices are made easy by the general apathy of the public towards elections in particular and government in general. The Toto Riina case of 1987 is a good example. Toto Riina ordered a switch in votes and arranged the murder of the Christian Democratic Party leader, as a protest against the government’s “maxitrial” (The Economist, 1995). Such treatment was meted out to the other popular party leader Salvo Lima too. Such is the power of the Sicilian Mafia that they dealt with the state on conditions of equality and would go any lengths to keep their credo.

Charismatic Leaders

The crime groups are also similar in that they were led by charismatic and popular leaders. Pablo Escobar, the members of the Ochoa clan, Carlos Lehder-Rivas, Al Capone and John Gotti all seemed to enjoy public spotlight and even projected themselves as champions of the underclass.

The Medellin cartel enjoyed the support of many ordinary people. The attitude on the street was that drug trading was really a “demand problem”, necessitated by the large appetites of North Americans. It is even ironic that Escobar’s house, when raided by government officials, could only expose his private library containing books on such subjects as Colombian law, and Spanish versions of Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” and Richard Nixon’s “Real Peace”. (Griswold 2005)

Pablo Escobar, the most notorious member of the cartel, invested much of his profits in buying private airplanes. As his wealth increased, so did the trappings of his lifestyle. He purchased many large ranches, apartments and houses in and around the city. On top of that he also invested substantial sums of money in legitimate businesses. A Miami Beach mansion costing nearly a million dollars was one of his favorite homes. He also purchased King’s Harbor Apartments in Plantation, for more than eight million dollars. Such a luxurious lifestyle acted as an attraction for the general masses, which looked upon him as a role-model, someone to emulate.

Such extravagant life-styles and a popular mass appeal are also evident in the lives of other leaders as Carlos Lehder-Rivas, Al Capone, John Gotti etc.

Rules and Code of conduct

Though the Sicilian Mafia and the Medellin Cartel are similar in many ways, there is one area where they differ slightly -they differ in the rules by which they function.

The Sicilian Mafia is regarded by some as a mix of the honest and the criminal. The ethic goes like this: always side with friends even if they are wrong; defend dignity at all costs and never allow the smallest slight to go unpunished; never disclose secrets and always be suspicious of governmental authority and law. And quite appropriate to such a code of conduct the mafia never refer to legislative law in private dealings (Bull 1990). All disputes are settled by a show of strength and toughness; might is right. Also, the mafia holds no external obligation other than the one towards the code of honor. In fact, for the Mafia, nothing actually could be unjust. “Honor” was always a question of strength, domination and power; never a question of justice. Hence, some order within the apparent disorderliness of the mafia operations. In other words, however violent and indiscriminate some of their operations appear, there is an underlying ethic and a certain code of conduct that the groups follow. (The Economist, 1995)

The Medellin Cartel on the other hand, is not so entrenched in its code of conduct and the sense of honor. A good example is the ruthlessness and vengeance with which Escobar turned on the authorities, when some of the policies were unfavorable towards him. He arrange the murder of more that 30 judges (who were pressing for extradition of cartel members to the United States). Escobar also sent a warning to all the supporters of such a stance. But the government did not heed to the warning and pursued further action against cartel members. At this point, Escobar was in a fix. And how does he come out of the predicament? – by tipping off his former associate Carlos Lehder-Rivas to the police. On top of that he masterminded a campaign of terror, by the end of which the presidential candidate, who pledged to bring narco-traffickers to justice, was murdered (Griswold 2005). This was followed by a terrorist act on an Avianca airliner, killing 110 passengers, many of them civilians. These same civilians once worshipped him. So in the Medellin Cartel world, the only ethic is self-interest. There is no loyalty beyond loyalty to oneself.

This is an important distinction between the two crime groups. The Sicilian Mafia is more structured and follows a predictable code of conduct; where as the Medelling cartel is less organized and less bound by loyalties.

Protectors and Persecutors

The crime groups we are investigating perform a dual role. Those that they protect are also at times persecuted.

The Sicilian Mafia grew up as a response to a certain kind of market failure. The state was incapable and ineffective, which meant that there was no law enforcement body to guard business contracts and property rights. A small-time peasant, for instance, could not be sure, when he bought a plot of land, that the transaction is a legitimate one (Bull 1990). This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust. And where distrust thrives, protection becomes essential, although a less ideal substitute. Thus the Mafia had become an economic-enforcement agency, quite similar to the state. And this means it is sometimes regarded, in the absence of an alternative, as legitimate indeed. It has turned from being a hunter, who kills his prey and moves on, into a rancher – someone who lives off his herd, but also “protects” it. Thus,

“The mafia was outlaw, but tolerated, secret but recognizable, criminal but upholding of order. It protected and ripped off the owners of the great estates, protected and ripped off the sharecroppers who worked the estates, and ripped off the peasants who slaved on them” (The Economist 1989)

The Medellin Cartel too assumed these dual roles, but albeit in a more haphazard manner. For example, the benevolent acts of Pablo Escobar toward the poor were not born out of any principles of the Cartel. They were philanthropic acts of a certain individual at a certain favorable time, for the same benefactors were later stampeded during Escobar’s violent confrontation with the authorities. (The Economist 1989)

While the Sicilian Mafia acted as a conservative force in dispensing crude justice in an anarchic society, the Medelling Cartel claims no such motto. Its favorable acts towards society have come out of individual spontaneous action. In some cases they are no more than cleverly designed publicity stunts to draw popular support.

The American Connection

Both the groups also have a strong connection with the United States. The Mafia is thriving as an illegitimate, underground, and secretive organization within the confines of the United States (Bull 1990). The Medellin Cartel, on the other hand, has no significant footing in the United States, although it employs Columbian agents thinly spread across the country to carry out the deals (The Economist 1989). The influence of the Medellin Cartel on American society and culture is more profound than that of the Mafia. This is so because the drugs are primarily targeted at the youth of the country and can hence affect a whole generation of people.


Bull, George. “The Mafia: the Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia.” Management Today (May 1990): 131(1).

Criminals as insurance salesmen. (Mafia’s role in society).” The Economist (US) 336.n7922 (July 8, 1995): 52(1).

Colombia’s cocaine overdose. (International).” The Economist (US) 312.n7617 (August 26, 1989): 29(2).

Griswold, Eliza. “Medellin stories from an urban war: a murderous international drug cartel and violent conflict bedevil a Colombian city striving for normalcy.” National Geographic 207.3 (March 2005): 72(19).

Bull, George. “The Mafia: the Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia.” Management Today (May 1990): 131(1).

Criminals as insurance salesmen. (Mafia’s role in society).” The Economist (US) 336.n7922 (July 8, 1995): 52(1).

Colombia’s cocaine overdose. (International).” The Economist (US) 312.n7617 (August 26, 1989): 29(2).

Griswold, Eliza. “Medellin stories from an urban war: a murderous international drug cartel and violent conflict bedevil a Colombian city striving for normalcy.” National Geographic 207.3 (March 2005): 72(19).