plot Realistic Criminal Organization: Loyalty, Incentives, Environment, and Betrayal?

Hello,
I have a question relevant to my story. A key part of the plot is that my protagonist is going to get recruited into a criminal organization and work for them for a few months, somewhat tolerating the lifestyle, until he witnesses atrocities that are so reprehensible that he decides to undermine the organization and to leave it.

I don't know much about the mafia or organized crime in general, but I was wondering what these sorts of organizations might really do to maintain loyalty. I suspect there's got to be something other than just fear and money that keeps people from leaving them and/or informing on them to the police. This is a critical plot point of my series and there is supposed to be a moral dilemma between the protagonist, the organization, and some of his "friends" that he made while working for the corrupt organization. The organization is really up-to-no-good, but they were able to foster an environment that gives the illusion that they aren't completely bad. For instance, they don't do that bullshit where you shoot your partners-in-crime in the back so that you get their share of the loot. Maybe they have some code of conduct, maybe they force everyone to wear a gps tracker (or to have a gps tracker in their work-vehicle), maybe they don't overtly force you to do jobs that you refuse to do, but they try to persuade you or promise you something if you accept the job. I really want this organization to have that "this doesn't seem all that bad" feel to it but the organization is really terrible. Maybe the higher-ups brainwash the subordinates into accepting the way things are, maybe they make grand promises that they actually deliver on, maybe they offer paths to higher education or help you pay off your student debts? I want this organization to seem like a place you could almost trust, but I want it to be plausible and realistic.

When my protagonist wants to leave the organization, I want it to be a difficult decision; when my protagonist decides to take down the organization, I want it to be extremely difficult. Like, maybe the organization has secret connections with local law-enforcement and they have dirty cops that help the organization to cover its tracks and/or to help the organization detect informants and they have ways of dealing with former employees. Even though this organization is supposed to be "nice," I want them to have some serious countermeasures for dealing with disgruntled employees who may want to undermine them, but it shouldn't be too comical.

I would greatly appreciate suggestions and ideas on this subject.
Sincerely,
-Rick
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
This is probably stating the obvious, but have you started by watching movies and TV shows about organized crime? The Sopranos has always been considered one of the more accurate portrayals of that world, and The Godfather reportedly got the sense of the world pretty well. I'd also suggest American Gangster and Donnie Brasco (based on a true story).

One of the main underlying themes is that group X has not been able to rely on the police (and the government as a whole) to protect them, so they organize to protect themselves. That's true regardless of the ethnicity, and certainly relates to the mafia's origins in Sicily.
 
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I suspect there's got to be something other than just fear and money that keeps people from leaving them and/or informing on them to the police.
You have one problem here: of course fear keeps people loyal. You may not like that answer, because you want to tell a different story, but then your story will be unrealistic. Hypothetically -- and I do mean hypothetically!!!! -- if the people that run this site said, we are going to kill your family and horribly torture you to death if you don't post on the site at least once a week. Not only that, but you actually knew they would do this. Not only that, but you knew if you went to the police with this information there was some possibility they would do something about it, but most likely they would not. Not only that, but you've been a part of this site for a time, doing the bidding of the site (which you knew was wrong) before you went to the police.... I'm going to suggest that in the real world, you are going to post to this site once a week for years to come... and to the outside world, you're going to appear very loyal to this site.

I'm not sure why you are so dismissive of fear as a loyalty motivator. I don't think you have an inkling what credible threats of violence -- or more generally, fear as you say -- do to people.

Then think about the money part. Vladimir Putin, when he approaches the people he wants to do his bidding, is able to credibly threaten a horrible death, but on the flip side credibly offer monetary reward. "@Rick_Leuce, try and escape me and I promise you a horrible death. Do what I ask of you, and you will earn millions". I'm guessing you think yours or anyone's morality is going to stand up to that, so, there has to be something more. I guarantee there are only a handful of humans that will stand up to that. If you want it real, do some interviews or read about people that have endured credible threats of violence, much less huge monetary rewards if they comply.
 
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It's all about research. As mlesemann has suggested, there are a number of relatively realistic films out there. I would recommend "Goodfellas" as well.

There are plenty of non-fiction books out there. A quick Google search will take care of that.

non-fiction books about organized crime - Bing

You could also talk to police detectives; they live with it every day. All you have to do is find the local cop bar and be willing to buy A LOT of drinks. That's how I got to record some police vehicles and got info about the local firing range so I could record some weapons. (At the range I bought ammunition instead of drinks.)

A bit more difficult is finding an intersection where you could come in contact with real criminal types. In the late 90's/early 00's I was engineering at a recording studio in the Bronx and met gangbangers fairly often; they were the ones financing the artists, so they were at the sessions. One rule the studio had - in fact just about the only rule - was no weapons in the building. I heard a few conversations that, while not especially incriminating, were pretty revealing about the lifestyle. But most of what I heard was who got arrested, who got shot, who was banging whose girl while he was in jail, who was getting out of jail, who had court dates - pretty much thug gossip. Back in the day when I was a working musician, the band would occasionally get a high-paying but low audience gig where the club was obviously a laundry. I even played bar piano a few times for a "family" at their house parties. The rules were very simple, be the three monkeys (hear/see/speak no evil) and hands off of the women.

As they say, write what you know. That's why research is so important.
 
You have one problem here: of course fear keeps people loyal. You may not like that answer, because you want to tell a different story, but then your story will be unrealistic. Hypothetically -- and I do mean hypothetically!!!! -- if the people that run this site said, we are going to kill your family and horribly torture you to death if you don't post on the site at least once a week. Not only that, but you actually knew they would do this. Not only that, but you knew if you went to the police with this information there was some possibility they would do something about it, but most likely they would not. Not only that, but you've been a part of this site for a time, doing the bidding of the site (which you knew was wrong) before you went to the police.... I'm going to suggest that in the real world, you are going to post to this site once a week for years to come... and to the outside world, you're going to appear very loyal to this site.

I'm not sure why you are so dismissive of fear as a loyalty motivator. I don't think you have an inkling what credible threats of violence -- or more generally, fear as you say -- do to people.

Then think about the money part. Vladimir Putin, when he approaches the people he wants to do his bidding, is able to credibly threaten a horrible death, but on the flip side credibly offer monetary reward. "@Rick_Leuce, try and escape me and I promise you a horrible death. Do what I ask of you, and you will earn millions". I'm guessing you think yours or anyone's morality is going to stand up to that, so, there has to be something more. I guarantee there are only a handful of humans that will stand up to that. If you want it real, do some interviews or read about people that have endured credible threats of violence, much less huge monetary rewards if they comply.

Hello, thanks for the response.
My only understanding for how a criminal organization would run is based solely on what I've seen on television. I was wondering if any intelligent human being would ever want to work for a criminal organization since you sacrifice all of your freedoms, put yourself (and your family) in danger, and you can't leave whenever you want, but hey, maybe you make a lot of money but there are so many strings attached its probably not worth it.

I was wondering if this is an oversimplified model for how actual organized crime works. Are they this overtly threatening or are they more subtle about it? I'm starting to wonder if my story requires something more along the lines of a regular business (or a series of businesses) in which the employees are secretly running an illegal side-hustle in order to make extra income. I really want the protagonist to have a moral conundrum in which the decision to leave the organization is not too straightforward. Like, maybe the organization actually has some sort of understanding that if you are opposed to helping them carry out a certain job, they won't force you to (since this could create resentment and lead to problems later), but you also can't interfere with their business or else they will kill you. Something along these lines. They give you some sort of illusion of choice. You don't have to get your hands dirty, but the organization is going to keep doing what they are doing and by refusing to participate you are just leaving money on the table. They aren't "forcing" you to do anything, they are just "offering" you an opportunity to make money. I'm really aiming for tyranny with a happy face; something that sounds good but that becomes much more terrifying if you really think about it.
 
It's all about research. As mlesemann has suggested, there are a number of relatively realistic films out there. I would recommend "Goodfellas" as well.

There are plenty of non-fiction books out there. A quick Google search will take care of that.

non-fiction books about organized crime - Bing

You could also talk to police detectives; they live with it every day. All you have to do is find the local cop bar and be willing to buy A LOT of drinks. That's how I got to record some police vehicles and got info about the local firing range so I could record some weapons. (At the range I bought ammunition instead of drinks.)

A bit more difficult is finding an intersection where you could come in contact with real criminal types. In the late 90's/early 00's I was engineering at a recording studio in the Bronx and met gangbangers fairly often; they were the ones financing the artists, so they were at the sessions. One rule the studio had - in fact just about the only rule - was no weapons in the building. I heard a few conversations that, while not especially incriminating, were pretty revealing about the lifestyle. But most of what I heard was who got arrested, who got shot, who was banging whose girl while he was in jail, who was getting out of jail, who had court dates - pretty much thug gossip. Back in the day when I was a working musician, the band would occasionally get a high-paying but low audience gig where the club was obviously a laundry. I even played bar piano a few times for a "family" at their house parties. The rules were very simple, be the three monkeys (hear/see/speak no evil) and hands off of the women.

As they say, write what you know. That's why research is so important.
Thank you, that's really helpful.
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I was wondering if any intelligent human being would ever want to work for a criminal organization since you sacrifice all of your freedoms, put yourself (and your family) in danger, and you can't leave whenever you want, but hey, maybe you make a lot of money but there are so many strings attached its probably not worth it.
Many people grow up believing that their options to make money and succeed in the world are limited to non-existent. I think you need to incorporate your main character's background and perspective on their prospects - however you choose to set that up - into their decision to join the organization.
 
They aren't "forcing" you to do anything, they are just "offering" you an opportunity to make money.
That's "The Godfather." "Make him an offer he can't refuse."

You might want to check out "The Firm" (1993) about a law firm that helps wealthy clients hide money.

I'm starting to wonder if my story requires something more along the lines of a regular business (or a series of businesses) in which the employees are secretly running an illegal side-hustle in order to make extra income

My little blurb about night clubs acting as financial laundries is germane to the discussion. The purpose of these outwardly legitimate businesses is to take illegally obtained funds and to "launder" them into clean cash. I'm sure that these gigs with 40 people in the club were put on the books as a very busy night with 400 patrons At a much lower level there was a drug dealer on Yonkers, NY back in the 1980's who worked as a freelance insurance agent to cover his income stream. His minions were listed as employees. It took the authorities months to unravel all of the books when he was finally arrested. To me the most interesting aspect was that they would never have been discovered if one of the foot soldiers hadn't gotten violent, because previously there had been no reason at all to look into a seemingly legitimate business.

Trucking companies are a very common laundry. Most of the employees have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. All they do is drive a loaded truck from one place to another. If caught with contraband in their truck they can honestly say that they had no idea what was going on behind the scenes.

What happens to some is they make just one small moral compromise. Once they've stepped over the line the next step isn't as difficult to cross again. All of a sudden they find that these small steps have them enmeshed in a situation that could send them to jail, and fear takes over; they don't want to go to jail and lose their money and status.

Many people grow up believing that their options to make money and succeed in the world are limited to non-existent.

Another scenario is the inner city problem of disadvantaged young men looking for money and status. Poor schools, no family structure and other social issues leave them with few options. The gang becomes their family, and they become addicted to the adrenaline rush of participating in illegal activities.

At the upper end is internet crime. Data mining/hacking, scams, data manipulation, you name it. These are the folks who are embedded with shady big businesses.

What you need to do is figure out your main character(s) so you can focus your research. My completely unsolicited idea for you is an inner city kid who gets out of the projects and makes good. He has street smarts and thinks that he knows what to avoid, but finds a whole new aspect of criminality he never expected to encounter. A la "The Firm" he discovers much too late that he is in over his head. Your own research can parallel that of your protagonist.
 
I was wondering if any intelligent human being would ever want to work for a criminal organization since you sacrifice all of your freedoms, put yourself (and your family) in danger, and you can't leave whenever you want, but hey, maybe you make a lot of money but there are so many strings attached its probably not worth it.
Jeaaaaa.......for you and me its not wort it. In a place where the unemployment is 90% the jobs you can choose from are MC Donald s and Burger king and you'r grew up in by the street because at home you would be abused by your Mother's friend. Having a group of loyal friends, a hierarchy you can clime, money, status and girls would sound pretty good. Now you have more freedom that ...it is worth it.
 
My mother and father were both ex-cons... My father's stepmother was Sicilian and her two sons were made men. I used to cringe every Sunday evening when we drove the hour and a half to eat with that family because I had to watch my Dad suck up to those two. Only problem? My father wasn't Italian or Sicilian.

It took him almost a year to get those two (who are now dead -- in fact? Everyone's dead now) to toss him a little work here and there. Goodfellas was fairly accurate. There's always those guys who are not Italian or Sicilian who are trying like hell to get into everyone's good graces.

But make NO MISTAKE... It's ALL driven by FEAR. Loyalty is driven by FEAR even between those who are extremely CLOSE. There is always the underlying threat of violence to YOU and of course, your family. They have absolutely zero problem making your family pay for something you did and it is ULTIMATELY how they manage to keep you IN LINE.
 
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sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
My mother and father were both ex-cons... My father's stepmother was Sicilian and her two sons were made men. I used to cringe every Sunday evening when we drove the hour and a half to eat with that family because I had to watch my Dad suck up to those two. Only problem? My father wasn't Italian or Sicilian.

It took him almost a year to get those two (who are now dead -- in fact? Everyone's dead now) to toss him a little work here and there. Goodfellas was fairly accurate. There's always those guys who are not Italian or Sicilian who are trying like hell to get into everyone's good graces.

But make NO MISTAKE... It's ALL driven by FEAR. Loyalty is driven by FEAR even between those who are extremely CLOSE. There is always the underlying threat of violence to YOU and of course, your family. They have absolutely zero problem making your family pay for something you did and it is ULTIMATELY how they manage to keep you IN LINE.

I'll add to this... when you are killed by the mafia its usually your best friend in the mafia that does it.
Your bff was ordered to and cannot refuse or they will be next.

but no one will disrespect you in public when youre made. thats worth a lot to some people.
 
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indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Family
Heritage
Feeling of belonging
Security
Tradition
Love
Growing up into it
Money
Greed
Self-reliance
Career criminal
No conscience
Bloodlust
The thrill
The clout
The mystique
Being feared
Being respected
Taking care of your own problems
Loyalty
Etc.
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
Family
Heritage
Feeling of belonging
Security
Tradition
Love
Growing up into it
Money
Greed
Self-reliance
Career criminal
No conscience
Bloodlust
The thrill
The clout
The mystique
Being feared
Being respected
Taking care of your own problems
Loyalty
Etc.
Money might belong a little higher up there lol

this dude was making millions a week if i recall. MILLIONS per week
 
I was wondering if any intelligent human being would ever want to work for a criminal organization since you sacrifice all of your freedoms, put yourself (and your family) in danger, and you can't leave whenever you want, but hey, maybe you make a lot of money but there are so many strings attached its probably not worth it.
I think you're right. Most intelligent people -- with opportunities -- would not join a criminal organization. Most humans don't even commit crimes for the money even without all the encumbrances a mob life entails. The ones that join are generally family members and those that grow up around Mafiosi. The non-family types are generally poorer people with little opportunity. The money can be incredibly big, even for members on the lower rungs of the organization. There is also the respect. If you grow up in a poor neighborhood in NYC with mob members around, the respect you see them receiving can be intoxicating. Much better than being a poor kid, getting pushed around all the time.

However, the reasons for joining a criminal organization are different than the reasons for staying. Your original question was about how loyalty is created, not why someone would join. You listed 1) Fear and 2) money and then wondered out loud if there might be a #3. If you haven't gotten the message: #1 is all you need. The reasons for joining, are more varied than the reason for staying. Money and respect might be two of them.

Are they this overtly threatening or are they more subtle about it?
They are overtly threatening -- though the language may be coded. Subtlety does not frighten people and they want you to be very afraid.

Like, maybe the organization actually has some sort of understanding that if you are opposed to helping them carry out a certain job, they won't force you to (since this could create resentment and lead to problems later), but you also can't interfere with their business or else they will kill you. Something along these lines. They give you some sort of illusion of choice.
As a member of a crew, you have some flexibility in determining the scams you want to run to make money. Like an entrepreneur, you approach your capo with a proposal ("I want to steal cars, chop 'em up and sell the parts to a guy I know") and if approved, you put together some crew and go do it. You pay your capo a percentage of the money you make. You have no flexibility when you are told to do something by a higher up. None. When the capo calls a meeting, you come. You could be at your kids baseball game or in the middle of sex, you drop what you are doing and come. Being even a minute late is considered disrespectful and... well... you don't want to be perceived as being disrespectful.
 
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WOW! That's a lot of replies; I really appreciate it.
If it is true that FEAR is what primarily motivates everyone in the organization to be loyal, then this actually makes my job a little easier; I thought it was more complicated. Granted, I will still do some research because I care about making my fictional story reasonably realistic; I don't want a silly oversight to be the biggest thing people dislike about my film. I'm getting flashbacks of every time my relatives point and shout out at all the blatantly obvious and/or historical inaccuracies in films that ruined the whole experience for them (especially since these are the people I will be sharing my films with). Relatively silly things may happen in my film, but the part about the criminal organization is supposed to be deadly serious and it's going to be a recurring issue. I really want to hammer home the fact that a stupid mistake you made 5 years ago can still be haunting you; my protagonist is going to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life since he betrayed the criminal organization (which he only joined because he was stupid, stealing food, and on the run from the cops). My character actually gets disowned from his family and they move to another state and he is single; so I kind of like the idea that these criminals can't threaten his family so they have no choice but to hunt my guy down. Of course, as the years go by, my protagonist becomes intimate with someone and he realizes that now he has someone he cares about and that she could now be in danger just for being close to him (even years after his connection to the crime group). I really want to explore all of the subtle consequences that come from hanging around with the wrong people. I guess you could say one of the morals of my story is to not sell your soul, no matter how desperate you are because there are fates worse than death. Another moral could be that as long as you are still alive, it's never too late to try to redeem yourself.
 
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