You know that the underworld has evolved when the Mafia no longer seems scary to you. Today’s new breed of crime syndicate is brutal, unremorseful and operating right under our noses. In this feature, we’ll travel the world to bring back bloody messages from the most dangerous gangs, alliances and crime syndicates out there. Drugs, human smuggling, murder for hire and even some nastier stuff – these guys do it all.
When you think of scary gangs associated with Los Angeles, the Crips and Bloods probably pop into your mind first. But Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, make those guys look like amateurs. The gang started in the 1980s when a group of Salvadoran immigrants banded together to protect themselves from the more established criminal groups in the area. They quickly discovered that they could get a piece of the pie themselves, and swiftly moved into drugs and human smuggling. With between 30,000 and 50,000 members worldwide, they have the muscle to do just about anything they want. Members are pretty easy to spot, as they typically cover their hands and face with tattoos to proclaim their allegiance. MS-13 is also notorious for their bloody revenge killings.
It’s kind of a given – if you look hard enough for a crime syndicate, you’ll find one. You don’t have to look all that hard for South Asia’s D-Company, as they get cause all kinds of terror. Established by Islamic leader Dawoob Ibrahim Kaskar, the group engages in a wide variety of illegal activities and funnels the money into terrorist attacks, most notably the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed over 200 people. Its above-ground activities include financing Bollywood films, but most of D-Company’s cash comes from gun running, contract killing and drug trafficking. When you pair organized crime with international terror, you have a really frightening threat.
A crime syndicate doesn’t have to be huge to make this list – it just needs to be terrifying. For residents of the British town of Islington, the Clerkenwell Syndicate is enough to make you lock your doors. Founded in the 1980s by the three Adams brothers, the gang quickly grew notorious for their willingness to get their hands dirty. Youngest brother Patrick Adams was notorious for his violent nature, employing a trademark method of speeding up to targets on a motorcycle, unloading a pistol into them and tearing away before anybody realized what was happening. The group has been linked positively to more than 25 murders and are suspected of dozens more. One of their prime sources of money is, of course, extortion, with just about every business in Islington lining their pockets under fear of death.
No, not the Mafia. This is the Russian organized crime group that quickly rose up after the fall of Communism to control the newly free markets. The members were hardened in the gulag prisons, and once they were released, crime bosses had plenty of ex-KGB agents and unemployed soldiers to hire for muscle. The groups eventually organized under the leadership of Ukranian-born Semyon Mogilevich, boasting 300,000 members worldwide. In addition to the usual strong-arming and drug smuggling, the group is behind stock fraud and more white-collar activities. They’ve established a strong presence in the United States as well, especially New York and Florida.
For every drug cartel in Mexico, there’s a sister group in America that carry out their dirty work. One of the most brutal of those is Barrio Azteca, based in El Paso, Texas. Originally formed in 1986, Barrio Azteca has become a force of terror in their communities because of their disregard for collateral damage. If you’re on their list, get out of town fast – their traditional method of execution is to beat you half to death and throw you into a pit of burning mesquite, cheering wildly as you agonizingly burn to death. They’ve also been responsible for multiple horrifying massacres, most notably mass murders at several children’s birthday parties.
Although Kenya’s Mungiki hasn’t made any impact outside of their home nation, they are still so violent and terrifying that they need to have a spot on this list. The group is half crime syndicate and half religion, rejecting all European influence in favor of tribalism and brutality. The Mungiki preys on the most helpless members of society, occupying the slums of Nairobi and extorting residents for protection money. They also dominate the taxi industry with an iron fist, murdering and beheading anybody who dares to drive into their territory. If you’re on the wrong side of the Mungiki, you can expect to be horrifically mutilated by machete-wielding gang members before your body is publicly set on fire as a warning to others.
Italy, of course, is the homeland of organized crime. We all know about the Cosa Nostra, headquartered in Sicily, but through the 1990s and 2000s they were surpassed by the ‘Ndrangheta. Located in the province of Calabria, at Italy’s boot, this group first came to prominence in the 1970s after launching an ambitious kidnapping and ransom spree. With the money they made there, they allied with Colombian smugglers to bring cocaine into the country. They now control most of Calabria’s business and account for three percent of Italy’s gross domestic product. The group remains solid due to its insistence on family relationships – you don’t join the ‘Ndrangheta, you’re born into it.
Japan’s organized crime stands in stark contrast to the normally subdued nature of their society. The yakuza, as organized criminals are known there, are willful outliers, marking their body with complex tattoos and rejecting the workaday world. The oldest and largest of the yakuza groups is the Yamaguchi-gumi, rumored to boast 55,000 members. Headquartered in Kobe, they have their fingers in all kinds of pies, from extortion to Internet pornography. The tight-knit yakuza structure keeps the people at the top insulated from any reprisals. And, of course, they’re not afraid to put a bullet into anybody that stands in their way, including government officials.
Dai Huen Jai
The Chinese Triads are remarkable for their ability to thrive even under a Communist regime, hiding in plain sight in normal society while pulling all kinds of illegal acts. One of the most notorious of the triads is the Dai Huen Jai, also known as the “Big Circle Gang.” Like many of the gangs on this list, the group got its start in the military. After Mao died, many members of his “Red Guards” were sent to re-education camps. Naturally, after being betrayed by the same government they served, these guys were pretty pissed off, and they escaped to Hong Kong to lay the groundwork for a global criminal organization. Because the Dai Huen Jai operates in small, loosely-connected cells, it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of their size. We do know that they have extensive drug smuggling and human trafficking operations all over the world.
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It was tough to pick just one of Mexico’s many sophisticated and dangerous drug cartels, but Los Zetas made the cut. In 1999, a group of commandos from the Mexican army’s Elite Forces group got together and agreed that there was a lot more money to be made on the other side of the law, so they deserted to join up with the Gulf Cartel as muscle. But these guys were ambitious, so in 2010 they decided to set off on their own, cutting ties with the Cartel to set up shop in Nuevo Laredo, right across the Texas border. What makes the Zetas stand out from their competitors is the sheer gusto they have for violence – while other cartels will sometimes try to find peaceful solutions to problems, the Zetas shoot first and ask questions later. They currently control the drug trade in 11 Mexican states.