Today, we’re delving into organized crime—specifically, the intricate, sometimes confounding, web spun by two major players: the mafia and drug cartels.
Picture this—on one side, you have the godfathers of crime, the mafia, known for their deep roots in tradition, family ties, and a diversified portfolio of nefarious activities. On the flip side, there are the drug cartels, entities that are focused, often ruthlessly, on one main thing: the drug trade.
These underworld organizations may seem similar at first glance—both wield immense power, operate outside the law, and have a global reach. Yet, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find unique characteristics that differentiate them.
We’ll stroll down the darker alleys of society, where we’ll untangle the complexities of these organizations and learn what sets the mafia apart from a drug cartel.
The Origin Stories of the Mafia and Drug Cartels
Both are influential organized crime syndicates but bear different roots. Let’s draw out these differences.
La Cosa Nostra
Let’s start with the Mafia. The exact origins are murky, but the Mafia as we know it probably began in Sicily, Italy, around the 19th century.
However, there might have been similar groups even before that. At that time, Sicily was undergoing many changes, with the feudal system breaking down and a lack of effective law enforcement.
In this environment, groups of men started forming to offer protection and justice in exchange for money, a system called “protection racketeering.” Over time, these groups evolved into the Sicilian Mafia.
The idea spread to other parts of Italy and eventually to America with Italian immigrants. In America, the Mafia found opportunities in the chaos of Prohibition and urban growth, finally growing into an influential criminal organization.
Now, onto the cartels. The history of drug cartels is tied mainly to the drug trade itself. Let’s take the example of Colombian and Mexican cartels, as they’re some of the most well-known. In the mid-20th century, there was a growing demand for drugs, particularly marijuana and cocaine, in the United States.
In Colombia, groups like the Medellin and Cali cartels emerged to control the production and distribution of cocaine. They became immensely powerful, often using violence and corruption to protect their interests. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Colombian cartels were at their peak, but pressure from law enforcement led to their decline.
As the Colombian cartels fell, Mexican cartels rose to take their place. These groups, like the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas, had initially been involved in smuggling goods across the US-Mexico border.
But with the decline of the Colombian cartels, they saw an opportunity to take over the drug trade. They’re now some of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.
The Initiation Rites In the Mafia and Drug Cartels
Ah, the rituals of joining a life of crime. It can vary greatly depending on the group and the context, but let’s dive into it.
La Cosa Nostra
The initiation process can be relatively formalized for the mafia, particularly traditional ones like the Italian or Sicilian Mafia. It’s almost like an ominous fraternity initiation.
There’s a “making ceremony” ceremony where the recruit swears a life-long oath of loyalty, called omertà. This can involve symbolic rituals, like burning a picture of a saint. At the same time, the recruit holds it, signifying that they’re willing to burn in hell if they betray the organization.
The new member might also be required to commit a crime, often murder, to prove their loyalty and resolve. Remember, these groups often value family and personal ties, so being vouched for by a current member is usually necessary.
Cartels, on the other hand, tend to be a bit less ritualistic and formal. Entry into a cartel might be more about proving one’s usefulness and ruthlessness.
For example, a person might start as a lookout, progress to a foot soldier, and then to a leadership position if they prove themselves. Sometimes, recruits might be required to commit violent acts as a form of initiation, proving they have the stomach for the cartel’s violent lifestyle.
This can sometimes be killing a rival gang member or public official.
Who is More Powerful?
If we’re talking about raw firepower and violence, the modern drug cartels, especially some of the ones in Mexico and South America, probably take the cake. These organizations have been known to go toe-to-toe with the military and have sometimes employed former military personnel.
Due to the immensely lucrative drug trade, they can exert significant control over large territories and have vast resources at their disposal.
On the other hand, if we’re considering influence over local communities, politics, and even legitimate businesses, traditional mafia organizations have often woven themselves deeply into the fabric of society. They’re sometimes seen as part of the community, albeit in a dark and dangerous region.
They’ve historically influenced politics, controlled labor unions, and have had their hands in numerous legitimate businesses.
The Impacts of the Mafia and Drug Cartels
Both are notorious staples of organized crime, but they operate in distinct ways, have unique histories, and leave different societal imprints. With its familial bonds and traditional structures, the mafia has woven itself deeply into the societal fabric, wielding influence over businesses and politics.
On the other side, cartels, focusing on the drug trade, command raw power and instill fear, often creating devastating social and political upheavals.
However, amid these stark contrasts, one thread binds them together—their reliance on societies where law enforcement and governance are weak or corruptible.
As we move forward, we must understand and address these underlying issues that provide fertile ground for such groups to flourish. Only then can we hope to lessen their grip on society.
And remember, as fascinating as this all might seem, the impacts of these organizations are all too real—something we should always keep in mind.