Whether or not certain crime syndicates control illegal markets, or both the legitimate and illegitimate business activities in a neighborhood, a town or even a region, is an important question in scholarly discussions of organized crime. In the early 1970s, American scholars such as Donald Cressey and Thomas Schelling identified monopolistic control of this kind as one of the defining features of organized crime. In the words of Schelling, “real organized crime is striving to control the underworld.”
The notion that “mafia-type” criminal organizations dominate criminal markets and even succeed in regulating the activities of other criminal groups immediately met with fierce criticism from the criminology world. Various researchers who had studied the American drug and gambling markets failed to find Cosa Nostra or any other crime syndicate in control of these illegal activities. Peter Reuter, for example, concluded that the mafia did not dominate the New York illegal gambling market. Instead, it was “disorganized” and made up of many independent criminal groups of varying sizes competing for market share. This powerful image is now widely thought to describe how criminal markets are structured in states with a functional legal system, the assumption being that criminal groups cannot grow “big” under constant law enforcement pressure.