In the surveillance state era you might think the Golden Age of organized crime is over, but gangs are very much thriving – even some of the old ones. They’ve just adapted. While some still manage to evade the law, others are enabled by governments. And some are so embedded in the fabric of their society, they’re like de facto governments themselves.
Based on their revenue, membership, and/or global distribution, here ten of the most powerful today.
The killing of Sinaloa Cartel capo Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel in 2010 left a power vacuum in the drug trafficking underworld, with rival factions battling for control of Jalisco. It was out of this frenzy that the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) emerged.
As its name suggests, the CJNG really is a new generation of Mexican drug cartel. For one thing, it’s highly resilient – continuing to expand despite the capture of multiple leaders and bank accounts. For another, it’s even more violent than its ultra-violent forerunners. Right from the beginning, Jalisco saw a spike in murders, missing persons, and mass graves. Victims included not only rival gang members (such as Los Zetas (“the Zs”)), but also police and public officials. Attacks were fierce and sophisticated, using machine guns and grenade launchers and even downing helicopters. To ensure all members are capable of the actions required of them, training for the CJNG involves kidnapping, torturing, murdering, and eating people – and new members may be as young as 12. At the same time, though, the CJNG reaches out to ordinary citizens with its PR campaigns.
Active throughout Mexico, the CJNG now has an international network including contacts in South and Central America, the US and Canada, Australia, Southeast Asia, and China.
9. Wo Shing Wo
The Wo Shing Wo has been steadily expanding since the 1990s when police started paying more attention. The gang has spread throughout Hong Kong as well as around the world with a significant presence in San Francisco.
It is, of course, a triad – a Chinese gang named for the unity of heaven, man, and earth. While the Wo Shing Wo is known mainly for its involvement in illegal gambling, triad activities also include: drug trafficking; protection rackets and extortion; wildlife smuggling; fraud and counterfeiting; loansharking; cyberscams; and money laundering. Not all their activities are illegal, however. Triads are also involved in legitimate businesses (nightclubs, casinos, bars, etc.) and even the production and distribution of movies. Triads simply exist to fill a gap in the market – or provide services the government doesn’t.
Today, Wo Shing Wo has over 20,000 members.
8. Black Axe
“Nigerian prince” scams may seem comically naive, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. They’re part of an expanding global empire of crime, in which members share “formats” or blueprints for ways to rob people online.
The most powerful of the cybercrime gangs originating from Nigeria is Black Axe – a cult-like organization involved in human trafficking and brutal murders as well. Members, called Axemen, coordinate online, sharing photos of recent killings and mutilations – usually of rival gang members. Internationally, their activities are thought to generate billions of dollars. In Canada alone in 2017, authorities uncovered a money laundering scheme worth more than $5 billion. And it’s not clear how many others exist; Black Axe is active in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, among other regions, and is thought to have more than 30,000 members. This is thanks to their organization, such as splitting the world into “zones” – each with a local “head” to which “dues” are payable before revenue can be returned to Black Axe’s base in Benin City. In Italy, for example, the gang cooperates with the local mafia.
Now more than four decades old, Black Axe tends to recruit university undergraduates in Nigeria – many of whom, facing one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, are desperate for opportunities and contacts. Initiation (“bamming”) reportedly involves a symbolic death and rebirth — a savage naked whipping with bamboo followed by crawling between the legs of other gang members and emerging to songs and chants. With members in the Nigerian armed forces, academia, religious establishment, law enforcement and politics, Black Axe is extremely difficult to combat at home.
6. Sinaloa Cartel
Famously associated with the drug lord El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel is today the largest and most powerful of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations. According to Fortune in 2014, its annual revenue is estimated to be upwards of $3 billion. But it may be much more, with operations in more than 50 countries. Unlike other cartels, which have branched into other areas, the Sinaloa cartel has remained firmly focused on drugs – especially cocaine, meth, heroin, and cannabis.
Because of its non-hierarchical structure, lacking any single leader or kingpin, the Sinaloa cartel has resisted efforts to destroy it. This is also thought to have facilitated its global expansion, with many local groups operating semi-independently around the world. Members are often bound, however, by blood relation or marriage. In fact, it began as an affiliation of farming families. Another characteristic of the Sinaloa cartel is its preference for non-violent solutions – preferring to bribe but still prepared to kill. This is in stark contrast to its number one rival today, the CJNG.
Thought to be centuries old (older than Italy, in fact), the Camorra mafia controls the city of Naples. Such is its influence that Neapolitans, who call it “the system”, tend not to testify against it – as if it were the government itself. It might as well be; the gang provides not only work but protection to the people. It also owns much of the city through debt, dominating the lives of many citizens.
Membership includes 100 “autonomous clans” and around 10,000 “immediate associates”, as well as a larger base of dependent clients and friends. Annual revenue from combined operations (including in the Americas and Europe) was estimated in 2014 to be $4.9 billion.
Contrary to popular belief in the rise of other gangs in Naples, Camorra is still in control of the city. Among its enterprises there are the piazzas or drug bazaars – fortified apartment blocks with dozens of lookouts and a clandestine system for exchanging drugs and money that makes police raids basically pointless.
Long thought to be non-hierarchical or horizontal in structure, similar to the Sinaloa Cartel, ‘Ndrangheta is now known to have a single central kingpin, or capo crimine (“head crime”). In fact, this is the mafia associated with New York City’s real-life inspiration for The Godfather, Carlo Gambino.
Surrounding the capo is the ‘Ndrangheta’s governing body, the crimine. Below them are the “colonels”: the mastro generale (“general master”), capo societá (“head of the society”), and contabile (“accountant”). Then there are the ‘ndrine or clans – usually families of at least 49 members – in charge of local territories. The ranking system is closely tied to Catholic saints, and initiations are known as “baptisms”.
As of 2014, ‘Ndrangheta’s operations across 30 countries and 60,000 members were thought to generate $66.4 billion a year – or 3.5% of Italy’s GDP. That’s more than the country’s biggest bank UniCredit. And if ‘Ndrangheta were a country itself, it would make more money than Luxembourg. Activities mainly include drug trafficking and “illegal waste disposal”, but also gambling, extortion, prostitution, gun-running, and counterfeiting.
4. Sun Yee On
Triads in China date back to the 17th century when they worked in secret to restore the Ming dynasty to power. Though unsuccessful in that aim, they continued to operate below the radar and, by the 1960s, triad membership in Hong Kong had grown to an estimated one-sixth of the population.
Traditionally, triads are honor-based societies – an alternative to corrupt institutions. Sun Yee On, however, is a notable exception to the rule. Formed in the early twentieth century, members are solely interested in self-preservation and wealth. Though its main rival is Wo Shing Wo, for example, and fighting is common, it’s not above teaming up to make money. Similarly, in WWII, it cooperated with the Japanese.
By the 1970s, Sun Yee On had 47,000 members. In the 80s and 90s, it took over Hong Kong’s film industry, and today its influence extends to senior government officials. Its precise annual revenue is unknown but is thought to be hundreds of billions, in part because it controls 12% of the global heroin supply.
The 14K triad is thought to be the largest by far in terms of membership and has been active in Hong Kong since the 1940s. Officially, police attribute its resilience to its pyramid-like structure, its alertness to undercover operations, and the public demand for its services (which include heroin, illegal migration, and gambling).
Unofficially, however, the 14K and other triads are aided by government officials. This is nothing new; in 1984, CCP leader Deng Xiaoping openly expressed his willingness to work with organized crime – praising their patriotism and honor. In fact, triads have provided protection for CCP officials overseas. In return, the government ignores some of their more questionable activities, like the smuggling of drugs, wildlife, and people through the Golden Triangle “special economic zone” (SEZ).
As recently as 2020, former 14K leader Wan Kuok-koi (aka “Broken Tooth”) acted as a dignitary himself, meeting with the president of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea to discuss plans for a new SEZ as part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ trade network.
2. Solntsevskaya Bratva
The Solntsevskaya Bratva (or “Solntsevo fraternity”) rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union to become the most powerful of the Russian mafias. Although it controls banks and businesses in Russia, it’s virtually invisible on the streets – so much so that some think it doesn’t exist.
Part of this is down to discretion. The leadership is thought to comprise twelve individuals who meet secretly in different locations around the world. But it’s also because its activities are kept in check by the Kremlin, while at the same time enabled by the Russian elite, or “kleptocrats”. Similar to the triads in China, Russian gangsters have been embedded in the political establishment ever since Stalin first employed them to rob banks and raise funds for revolution. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent entry to the capitalist free market was a “feeding frenzy” for gangs. Ultimately, they helped shape the new status quo. Nowadays, there’s no clear line between crime and state. The trafficking of drugs and humans is almost seamlessly combined with legitimate business enterprises.
For many years, police have sought to destroy the Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza – “one of the most feared crime syndicates in Japan”. From its fortress-like headquarters, it runs the world’s largest and wealthiest gang or, as some would put it, “Japan’s second largest private equity group”. Members are known to gather insider trading information, as well information to blackmail powerful politicians and executives, through a network of hospitality workers. Other activities include drugs trafficking, fraud, theft, and violent crimes.
However, they also run legitimate businesses and humanitarian groups. For a criminal gang, they actually have a very public image in Japan – from office buildings and business cards to fan magazines and “comic books about their exploits”. This is a far cry from its origins as a loose labor union of dock workers in early twentieth century Kobe. This yakuza also bucks many of the usual stereotypes, with younger members tending away from tattoos, chopping off their pinkies, and so on to avoid identification as gang members. Gang warfare involving shootouts has also become much less common. The penalties for firearm possession are just too severe to make sense to the new generation of yakuza.
Nevertheless, Yamaguchi-gumi operations extend throughout Asia and into the United States. Domestically, the gang also plans to expand into Tokyo – historically not their territory. Despite the more punishing laws in Japan and internal splits, it remains dominant both at home and abroad.