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Post-Soviet “Russian” Organized Crime – Definition, Players and Global Threat
John Giduck
© By John Giduck, all rights reserved, 1995, 2017
The Need of Define ROC. One of the greatest difficulties facing those individuals and
organizations which must deal with the impact of Russian Organized Crime (ROC) is answering
the question, exactly what is Russian organized crime? This difficulty derives in part from the
extreme secrecy with which ROC members have always functioned; and has been exacerbated
by both news media and law enforcement agencies, whose own particular ends are better served
by sensationalized and exaggerating accounts of ROC membership, rising numbers of groups,
types and frequency of various crimes.
What remains missing is a clear understanding of what exactly Russian organized crime and
ROC groups are. Certainly, the media of the 1990s, in reporting incidents of street crime and
overall rising crime rates in Russian, utilized a liberal construction of this term, it then being in
vogue to blame much on the mafiya. In reality, it will be seen that there are actually many layers
of crime in Russia, a number of which are not, and have never been, mafiya controlled.1 Since
the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, news media accounts of an increasing crime rate
paralleled rising estimates of the number of actual ROC groups and numbers. Rarely a month
went by in the three years after the USSR’s collapse that some newspaper, magazine or
television show did not proffer a statistic on the number of ROC groups operating across Russia
that was not substantially greater than those previously reported. A review of such publications
concluded that the U. S. media, in particular, had been engaged in a game of journalistic oneupmanship, each trying to outdo the other with histrionic accounts of the spread of the Russian
mafiya.
The lowest estimate of total active gang membership in Russia more than two decades ago was
reported by journalist and ROC expert Stephen Handelman at fewer than 100,000 people.2
Despite that figure, in publications and testimony before the US Congress, Handelman reported
far more dire figures. By 1995, US news media accounts of this problem reported that Russian
organized crime was comprised of 5,700 different gangs, an estimate which was up from merely
785 in 1991.3 As well, these many thousands of organized crime groups were reported to
employ no fewer than 3 million part-time racketeers; this estimate from the Russian Ministry of
Internal Affairs,4 further evidence that even they ascribed organized crime involvement to
anyone possessing a substantial amount of money.5 While it may seem the worst sort of
evidence-less kangaroo court mentality to anyone who has grown up under the Constitution of
the United States, the fact remained that in the horrific depression, depravity and poverty of the
post-Soviet years, that anyone there with money could only have made it by criminal means.
In order to adequately and accurately understand the organism of Russian organized crime, some
commonly accepted standards and parameters must be established. There is a monumental
disparity between problems inherent to common street crime from those surrounding true
organized crime or mafiya activities, and control of various sectors of the economy and political
structure. To understand Russian organized crime then, it must first be adequately defined.
This occurs through an examination of its component parts: the people who comprise it; its
organizational structure; individual groups; and activities inherent to ROC.
Russian Organized Crime. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is a US
government-funded international organization based in Vienna, Virginia which tracks the
activities of criminal enterprises. In the early years of the study of the Russian organizatsiya, it
was reported that the term “Russian Organized Crime” (ROC) was often misused and overapplied by both law enforcement and the media, as it was often employed to describe every type
of crime committed by former Soviet citizens.6 Indeed, twenty-plus years ago, Russian
organized crime was a phenomenon smaller and more identifiable than believed. However, it
was still not an entity which was as easily identifiable as the original Italian mafia groups. The
mafiya of Russia was seen as a hydra-headed,7 hybrid monster,8 which had come to feed on the
emerging market economies of Russia.9 It was not a monolith, as was often believed, but a
“congeries of hundreds of gangs,”10 according to the U. S. Department of Treasury, Office of
Counterintelligence and FBI. Though most often seen as loosely associated or banded criminal
groups, Russian mafiya entities were also recognized to exist in organizations identical to that of
traditional organized crime entities.11 For the most part, its various entities or components were
not so permanent as was often inferred from the term organized crime. ROC “brigades” came
and went, group leaders were often transitory, and numerous groups were transient, moving from
one area of the former Soviet Union to another.12 The various groups and organized gangs were
often mistaken for traditional mafia in the Italian mold, with everything from Asiatic bandits to
Russia’s version of motorcycle gangs being included in media and law enforcement accounts of
ROC activity.13 Various groups, all broadly considered to be “Russian” organized crime, were
known solely by nationality. Chechen, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian,
Uzbek and Ingushi were all commonly identified types of ROCs, many being so categorized
more due to their origination in those former Soviet republics than any real identifiable entity
with structure and permanence. ROC groups were simultaneously, and seemingly paradoxically,
described by occupation as well. Various “mafias” commonly depicted in western publications
included the drug mafia, the gambling mafia, the taxi mafia, the gold mafia, the currency mafia,
the stolen car mafia, etc.14
At times, some enterprising publication would attempt to better define this amorphous concept
by cross-categorizing these groups. Most often this could not be done with any acceptable
degree of accuracy, and virtually never in a fashion which yielded an accurate organizational
understanding of ROC. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that “lines are indistinct
between Mafiosi and ordinary swindlers or black marketers. Often there is no discernable line at
all between Mafiosi and their political confederates.”15 It is for all these reasons that the
traditional understanding and definition of organized crime, as a “continuing and selfperpetuating criminal conspiracy fed by fear and corruption and motivated by greed”, was often
inapplicable.16
This is not to say that there was no authentic criminal organization known, or which could be
accurately depicted, as the Russian mafiya.17 An analysis of the actual Russian mafiya or
Russian organized crime must be careful to not include the myriad “unorganized” gangs and
temporary associations and affiliations of criminals throughout the former Soviet Union,
engaging in all types of common and sometimes extraordinary criminal activity. The American
understanding of organized crime being defined as a “pattern of racketeering activity” through
otherwise “legitimate business enterprises” is found in the federal Racketeer Influenced and
Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)18, and was based on the structure and activities of La Costa
Nostra.19 True ROC was, and is, an organization with structure and hierarchy, perpetuated with
financial objectives.20 Going back to the 1990s, ROC, or the mafiya, was generally wealthier by
far than the law enforcement agencies working against it and far better equipped in hightechnology weapons, transportation and communication systems.21 Today, the Russians, due to
a partnering of ROC and Putin government agencies, have grown that ability in the form of
peerless computer expertise, expansive hacking enterprises, and other cyber-crime operations for
joint criminal and government purposes. Violence, contrary to popular media reports and the
histrionics of Russian and U S governmental agencies, was rarely indiscriminant. In those early
days, it is used merely to promote the economic objectives of the organized criminal group, i.e.,
market share and profit.22 Dr. Louise I. Shelley, then a professor of Public Policy at American
University and accepted expert on Russian organized crime, created certain parameters within
which true mafiya activities could be defined.
Most organized crime groups make the most significant share
of their profits from the exploitation of the market for
illicit goods and services (i.e., prostitution, gambling, drugs,
contract killing, supply of cheap illegal labor, stolen
automobiles). These activities, combined with the extortion
of legitimate businesses, provide the primary income sources
of organized crime groups in most societies.23
Thus, to understand the true nature of the actual organization or entity deserving of the
appellation “Russian mafiya” or “ROC”, one must consider all of these elements: (1) it is a
perpetuating, “organized” and hierarchical entity; (2) existing for the purpose of attaining
financial objectives; (3) most important of which is the yield of revenue and profit from various
illicit activities in the market place; and, (4) most often associated with organized crime activities
such as bribery, extortion, prostitution, drugs and murder – often through otherwise legitimate
business enterprises.24 However, it must be stood that in the years since this definition and
examples were offered, ROC and the many TCOs with which it is engaged in global criminal
business, have expanded exponentially. Still, within these general parameters it is crucial to
analyze ROC’s component parts to yield an accurate understanding of the true size and activity
level of this phenomenon, and the magnitude of the threat it represents to America and the world.
This cannot be accomplished without first identifying who and what comprised the Russian
mafiya from the early post-Soviet days until today, what organizational and hierarchical
structures have been established by them, what the individual mafiya groups really are and how
they are organized, what actual number of racketeers work in and for these groups, and, finally
what activities in which the mafiya groups are engaged.
The People Within Russian organized Crime. As with any “organized” enterprise, the
Russian mafiya is comprised of a discernable, if not formalized, hierarchy. At the top are the
Vory, having survived the transformation from their previous role as communist antagonists to
command the upper echelon of Russia’s new free market racketeers.25 But these Vory are new,
and indeed different, unlike any kind of criminal seen in Russia before. These mob chieftains
have “one foot in the old black market world, the old criminal world, and another foot in the
official world, the world of politics and the old structure of the party.”26 Membership in the
upper levels of the Russian mafiya could only be attained through an established and respected
member-sponsor, and only then after establishing loyalty and commitment to this lifestyle by
killing someone expedient to the organization, usually a friend or relative, in a manner similar to
the initiation rites of their Sicilian counterparts, which they studied assiduously.27 In fact, the
post-Soviet Russian mafiya not only admired, but in many ways sought to recreate, the Sicilian
mafia which it believed to represent the highest standard of organized crime achievement.28
By 1995, the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) reported that throughout the Commonwealth of
Independent States, there were approximately 500 of these high-level crime bosses. More than
half were estimated to be Georgian, Russian or Ukrainian.29 At that time, all of the high-level
Mafiosi have served time in parison,30 though this is no longer an accurate characteristic. By
then, at all levels they had already begun to eschew the code of honor of the old thieves’ world,
contrary to the romanticization of the media and many experts’ beliefs at the time.31 Still, they
continue to live by an amended code, more practical to the new organization and its aims,
including even a code of silence which the threat of arrest and imprisonment cannot break.32
Members risk this code’s death penalties, communicate in secret vernacular and identify each
other through the display of tattoos “marking their eternal membership”: a spider web for drug
traffickers, an eight point star for robbers; a broken heart for district bosses.33 On their knuckles
are displayed tattoos of Cyrillic letters marking them as “made men” in the organizatsiya.34
As with their Sicilian counterparts, their public appearance is that of ultimate respectability.
Expensively and tastefully attired at all times, the new racketeers regard themselves as the
inheritors of a romantically traditional view of Russia.35 Originally, they were born and bred
under the harshness of the communist regime,36 and by 1991 most had found themselves
supporters of the fledgling Russian democracy.37 In fact, during the attempted putsch against
Gorbachev in August 1991, and the seizure of the Russian White House – within which Boris
Yeltsin rose as an icon of freedom and democracy – it was reported that a number of these same
racketeers were identified delivering coffee and manning guns, defenders of Russia’s new
democracy.38 Today, however, they can claim no such pedigree. With the Soviet Union being
more than a quarter-century dead, these need “godfathers” have no knowledge or recollection of
the era from which they were spawned. They are a new generation of criminal, with a new
generation’s unique perspective on everything, to include any limitations on their own behavior.
Perhaps the political commitment to democracy of these new criminal-businessmen is not the
only indication that they are a different breed from the stereotypical racketeer. Many of the new
Russian organized crime members are highly intelligent, educated and experienced in various
academic and scientific disciplines. Even back in the immediate post-Soviet days, a great
number had advanced degrees in science, engineering and mathematics,39 and many were highlevel scientists and professionals in the Soviet system. Yesterday’s Russian gangsters played
chess40 and many were multi-lingual.41 While today’s crime lords may not have time for such
mundane pursuits as chess when the running of their empires beckons via the internet, they
continue to be highly intelligent, well-educated, well-traveled, urbane and sophisticated. But
some things have not changed. Usually in public the upper-tier bosses are surrounded by five or
six large, muscular men, “with thick necks and vestiges of broken noses.”42 As is traditional
with the Sicilian organized crime members, Russian mobsters utilize upscale restaurants as
meeting places, public visibility and apparent control. Usually found arranged at the rear tables
in such establishments are a large number of enforcers or bodyguards, identifiable by their short,
clean-cut professional hair styles, dark sport jackets and black turtleneck shirts, portable cell
phones, Italian loafers, and stacks of money.43 The extreme size of these individuals originally
attested to the fact that some Russian mob groups hired former members of the Soviet Olympic
weightlifting team,44 in addition to former heavyweight boxers and wrestlers of national if not
Olympic caliber.45 These former athletes were quite obviously used because of their strength
and appearance, being referred to as “pit bulls” and torpedoes.”46 Today, they prefer to hire the
former members of Russia’s elite spetsnaz – special forces – units, everyone of which is a
veteran of the brutal decades-long war in Chechnya. The other remaining consistency from the
old days is brutality: the new leaders routinely prove themselves to be every bit the vicious,
victimizing thugs as their predecessors.
But the conscription of lower-level employees did not stop at former athletes. From the
beginning, there was substantial evidence that certain of the organized crime groups were
employing out-of-work KGB agents to run their individual racketeering enterprises,47 and
further evidence that former Soviet intelligence officers of various agencies now run their own
criminal enterprises.48 Today, with the lifelong connections of Russian President Vladimir
Putin and the KGB (now FSB), evidence is growing that these connections have resulted in the
Russian government using Russian-based organized crime groups to help prosecute its geopolitical agendas either through direct action or by destabilization of foreign countries through
increased criminality. Nowhere has this been more targeted than at the United States, which
remains the world’s number one destination for human trafficking and sex slavery, as well as the
number one market for illegal drugs, both criminal enterprises the Russians specialize in.
Footnote: see Lance Alred’s book. These former intelligence operatives have access to and
knowledge of high-technology and can exploit former networks of individuals and groups
involved in international trade and black marketeeting.49 Still other ROC groups have been
reputed to import former Israeli commandos. In the early years, rising competition among the
various ROC groups dictated a corresponding demand for highly trained professionals with
combat experience and a willingness to follow any orders given.50 It was for this reason as well
that Afghanistan War veterans and Soviet Spetsnaz troops are recruited. And while many of the
mafiya-wars of the nascent Russian Federation have calmed, with criminal industries and
territories well settled, the need for such “security” has not gone away – nor will it ever.
Police officers, and some leading police officials, are believed to be continually conscripted.
Footnote: Joseph Serio writes at length about this in his most recent book:__________.
Allegations of commanding officers within the Russian police departments acting as directors or
consultants for mob-owned front companies and commercial enterprises have been – and
continue to be – made.51 It has also been reported that others moonlight for the gangs as
enforcers or consultants, and that one police captain in Vladivostok even came to head his own
gang.52
ROC Statistics. While the numbers of individuals occupying various positions within ROC
structures may be discernable, it appears that to this day no one has a realistic approximation of
the magnitude of Russian mafiya members in the Russian Federation. It is in this statistic alone,
perhaps more than any other, that the news media first painted a picture of a mafiya problem
gone out of control. By 1995 the F.B.I. estimated that the number of persons in organized crime
groups in Russia actually exceeded the number of La Cosa Nostra members and associates in the
United States. But verifiability was always the problem. ROC could well have exceeded Italian
mob numbers. It could even have exceeded them exponentially; the problem was that no one
knew for certain. Through the 1990s, the estimated numbers of organizatsia groups across the
Russian Federation ranged from fewer than 800 to almost 6,000. Though these estimates
increased consistently since the latter part of 1991, the increase could be attributed as much to
recycled news accounts with incrementally increasing sensationalization as to actual increases in
number of real organized crime entities. The problem today, is that with the cancer that is
organized crime having metastasized into legitimate businesses and industries, as well a …
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