The Differences Between Criminal Organizations and Street Gangs

By Theresa Bettmann
A similarity between gangs and criminal organizations is the use of firearms.
A similarity between gangs and criminal organizations is the use of firearms.

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

Criminal Organizations

Organized crime rings are highly structured illegal business operations.
Organized crime rings are highly structured illegal business operations.

Criminal organizations are large, complex networks of illegal structures often operating behind legitimate businesses. Traditional institutions like labor 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 organization. Typically members become increasing wealthy by advancing in the organization. Although some participants are socialized into this system as youth, the organizations are run by career criminal adults. Organized 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 recognized.

Street Gangs

Gang activity ranges from minor infractions like graffitti to more serious offenses.
Gang activity ranges from minor infractions like graffitti to more serious offenses.

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.

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 organizations whose sole purpose is managing illegal operations. Organized criminal institutions must have strong consistent leadership to remain successful. Organized 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 organized 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.