The golden age of organized crime may seem like a thing of the past in this era of surveillance. Law enforcement officers have technology and profiling capabilities now that they never had in the past. But make no mistake: Gangs are alive and thriving. They’ve simply evolved with the times. And we’re not just talking about low-level street gangs, either. Complicated, cunning, and cryptic multinational gangs still control the underworld in our modern age.
While some manage to outmaneuver the law, others receive tacit support from governments. A few have become so deeply entrenched in society that they function as de facto governments. Today, we’ll shine a spotlight on ten of the most influential and formidable gangs. These groups have amassed significant wealth, boast large memberships, and operate on a global scale. Their power and influence are undeniable in the criminal underworld—and beyond.
Related: Top 10 Brutal Methods Of Gang Initiation
10 Black Axe
Table of Contents
The realm of cybercrime extends beyond the infamous “Nigerian prince” scams. It encompasses a vast criminal empire where people share blueprints for online theft. The most successful among these networks is Black Axe. They are a Nigerian group involved in human trafficking and brutal murders. And they reign supreme online too.
Known as Axemen, members of Black Axe coordinate their activities on the internet. There, they exchange photos of grisly killings and mutilations of rival gang members. Their global operations generate billions of dollars across the spectrum. They had a money laundering scheme worth over $5 billion uncovered in Canada in 2017 but didn’t miss a beat after it was found out.
Black Axe’s reach extends to Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. Today, they boast a membership of over 30,000 people. They divide the world into “zones,” each governed by a local “head” who collects “dues” before sending revenue back to the gang’s headquarters in Benin City, Nigeria. The gang has even formed alliances with local mafias in places of historic gang membership, like in Italy.
Black Axe, now more than forty years old, primarily recruits Nigerian university undergraduates to join. Those men are enticed by the prospect of opportunities and connections in a country grappling with high unemployment rates. The initiation process, known as “bamming,” involves a symbolic death and rebirth ritual. It includes a brutal naked whipping with bamboo. Then, the recruit crawls between the legs of fellow gang members while chanting songs. With members infiltrating various sectors such as the armed forces, academia, religious establishments, law enforcement, and politics, combating Black Axe within Nigeria proves to be an uphill battle.
9 Sun Yee On
Triads in China emerged during the 17th century. They were fueled by a mission to restore the Ming dynasty. Although their efforts with that ended in failure, they persisted into the modern day. Operating discreetly, they stuck it out for centuries with black market activities to sustain themselves. Then, by the 1960s, approximately one-sixth of Hong Kong’s population belonged to these secret societies.
While triads traditionally embrace honor and serve as alternatives to corrupt systems, Sun Yee On stands apart from the norm. Established in the early 1900s, its members prioritize self-preservation and wealth. Despite rivalry with Wo Shing Wo (more on them below), the two gangs have been known to join forces when lucrative opportunities arise. Take World War II as an example: The two triad gangs collaborated with the Japanese to preserve themselves and their power.
During the 1970s, Sun Yee On boasted a membership of 47,000. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was dominating Hong Kong’s film industry. Today, its influence now extends to high-ranking government officials in the region. The gang’s exact annual revenue remains undisclosed, but it is believed to reach hundreds of billions. Law enforcement officials believe much of that is due to its control over more than 10% of the entire global heroin supply.
In the wake of Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel’s death in 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel power struggle in Jalisco birthed a new force: the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). True to its name, the CJNG represents a fresh breed of Mexican drug cartel. It has proven to be remarkably resilient, expanding despite leader captures and frozen accounts. And it has also surpassed its ultra-violent predecessors in brutality.
Operating nationwide across Mexico, the CJNG has developed an extensive network for drug trafficking. Today, they have connections all across the globe too. Peers in South and Central America, the United States, Canada, Australia, Southeast Asia, and China help with the illicit trade. But it all started in Jalisco—and the violence fanned out from there.
After 2010, Jalisco quickly witnessed a surge in gruesome killings, disappearances, and mass graves. Cops attributed the murders to the CJNG. Their targets extended beyond rival gang members like Los Zetas. Soon, they were going after police officers and public officials. The group employs ferocious and sophisticated tactics. They also had heavy artillery, including machine guns and grenade launchers. In the past, they’ve even been known to take down helicopters.
To ensure compliance, CJNG recruits endure heinous training before being set out on their own. The recruitment period includes abductions, torture, murder, and even cannibalism. Some members as young as 13 years old are forced to participate. And yet the group has proven to be a paradox at times. The CJNG also conducts public relations campaigns to engage with ordinary citizens and help out in local communities. That keeps the public on their side as much as they need them to then conduct awful acts behind the scenes.
The Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza is considered one of Japan’s most dreaded crime syndicates. They have long been a target of police efforts with little law enforcement success. Operating from its fortress-like headquarters, it reigns as the world’s largest and wealthiest gang. In fact, some liken it to Japan’s second-largest private equity firm. By leveraging a network of hospitality workers, they gather insider trading information and leverage it. Along with other forms of blackmail, they lean hard on powerful politicians and executives. Their illicit activities span drug trafficking, fraud, theft, and violent crimes.
Surprisingly, alongside their criminal endeavors, the Yamaguchi-gumi also dabbles in legitimate businesses and humanitarian groups. This criminal organization manages to maintain a highly visible presence in Japan. It comes complete with office buildings, business cards, fan magazines, and even comic books that chronicle their exploits.
This stark contrast is a far cry from their humble beginnings as a loose labor union formed by dock workers in early twentieth-century Kobe. Additionally, the modern yakuza defies conventional stereotypes. Younger members increasingly avoid tattoos and refrain from the practice of finger amputation to evade gang affiliation. Furthermore, gang warfare and shootouts have drastically decreased due to the severe penalties associated with firearm possession. The new generation of yakuza finds it impractical—and it makes it harder for police to track them.
Despite stricter laws in Japan and internal divisions, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s operations extend across Asia and reach into the United States. They are supposedly even planning to expand their influence into Tokyo. Up to this point, that had been a historically untouched territory. Through that work, the Yamaguchi-gumi remains a dominant force both domestically and internationally. It shows no signs of slowing down in Japan and elsewhere.
The ‘Ndrangheta is often compared to the Sinaloa Cartel because it was previously believed to lack a hierarchical structure. But this notorious Italian organized crime syndicate is far more structured than people initially believed. Recent discoveries reveal the existence of a central figure known as the capo crimine, or “head crime.” That boss operates with near universal approval to carry out whatever acts it pleases. Interestingly, this mafia organization has connections to Carlo Gambino, the real-life inspiration behind The Godfather, in New York City.
Supporting the capo is the crimine, the governing body of the ‘Ndrangheta. Below them are the “colonels.” From there, underlings are tasked with specific jobs and held in control with the threat of sure death if they step out of line. The ‘ndrine, or clans, oversee local territories across Italy. They typically consist of at least 49 members and are often organized around families. The ranking system aligns closely with Catholic saints, with initiations referred to as “baptisms.”
With operations spanning 30 countries and an estimated 60,000 members, ‘Ndrangheta is believed to generate billions and billions of dollars annually. This accounts for 3.5% of Italy’s GDP. It even surpasses the country’s largest bank, UniCredit. If ‘Ndrangheta were an independent nation, it would outearn Luxembourg. Their illicit activities primarily involve drug trafficking and illegal waste disposal. However, they also engage in gambling, extortion, prostitution, gun-running, and counterfeiting. Their reach is so deep and expansive in Italy as to be near-universal across the entire country.
5 Jewish Defense League
The FBI recognizes the Jewish Defense League as a far-right terrorist group. Founded in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, its main goals were to combat anti-Semitism worldwide. Its primary work is in the United States and Israel, but law enforcement believes it operates elsewhere, as well.
The group’s hope was that they would be able to successfully safeguard Jews using force. But not everybody is so gung-ho about how the group has gone about its business. The JDL has faced accusations of carrying out various acts of terrorism that have included bombings, assassinations, and extortion.
Active primarily in the U.S. and Israel, the JDL has a history of violent incidents. In the 1970s, the JDL gained attention through high-profile attacks on Arab targets in the U.S. and Europe. They also opposed the USSR, fighting against the restrictions on Jewish emigration to Israel. Despite its small size, the JDL attracted a substantial following in the Israeli-American Jewish community, largely due to its aggressive tactics.
4 Solntsevskaya Bratva
The Solntsevskaya Bratva, known as the Solntsevo fraternity, emerged as the dominant force among Russian mafia groups after the Soviet Union’s demise. Despite wielding significant influence over banks and businesses in Russia, it operates covertly. Its operations are so subtle, in fact, that some doubt its existence.
The fraternity’s elusive nature stems from a blend of discretion and external factors. Allegedly, its leadership consists of twelve clandestine figures. They supposedly convene in undisclosed global locations. Moreover, the Kremlin is said to exercise control over its activities. Meanwhile, the Russian elite known as “kleptocrats” covertly support and enable its endeavors.
Like China’s triads, Russian gangsters have intertwined themselves within the political establishment since Stalin’s era. Back then, he enlisted their help in bank heists and revolution financing. The 1990s marked a “feeding frenzy” for criminal organizations. They all benefited from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s transition into a capitalist free market. Consequently, they played a pivotal role in shaping the current state of affairs. That blurred the boundaries between criminal activities and the state.
Thus, today, the illicit enterprises of drug and human trafficking seamlessly intertwine with legitimate business operations. In that way, the Solntsevskaya Bratva (supposedly) controls black markets, extorts businesses, smuggles guns, and trafficks drugs. Its business empire is large and forever growing. And it remains a considerable mystery to the rest of the world.
The Camorra mafia is a centuries-old organization predating the nation of Italy itself. Today, it holds sway over the city of Naples. Known as “the system” to locals, it commands such authority that Neapolitans rarely testify against it in court. In turn, they treat it almost like the government. In addition to providing employment, the gang offers protection and exerts control over the city through debt. In effect, it dominates the lives of countless residents. And since it has for centuries, there is little momentum to change that.
Comprising 100 self-governing clans and approximately 10,000 immediate associates, the Camorra boasts an extensive network of dependent clients and allies. Its work goes far beyond just the city of Naples, though. Its combined operations in black market business, drug dealing, and trafficking span the Americas and Europe. In total, they generated an estimated annual revenue of $4.9 billion in 2014 alone.
Contrary to popular belief, the Camorra remains firmly in control of Naples today. And it shows no signs of slowing down, outpacing the rise of rival gangs even now. Notably, it operates drug bazaars known as “piazzas.” These are heavily fortified apartment complexes equipped with numerous lookouts. Inside, they contain an intricate underground system for drug and money exchanges. In that way, police raids are essentially futile. And thus, Camorra goes on existing like it always has—and like it probably always will.
The 14K triad has been active in Hong Kong since the 1940s. Now, it is believed to be the largest of all East Asian gangs with a massive membership. Its endurance is officially attributed to its pyramid structure and vigilance against undercover operations. Plus, the worldwide public’s demand for its services, including heroin, illegal migration, and gambling, has gone a long way to sustain it for decades.
Unofficially, government officers have been known to assist the 14K and other triads. This is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1984, CCP leader Deng Xiaoping openly expressed support for collaborating with organized crime. He praised their patriotism and integrity while acknowledging their business cunning. In the decades since, triads like 14K have even provided protection for CCP officials abroad. In return, the government turns a blind eye to their dubious activities, such as drug and wildlife smuggling. The gang is also believed to be engaged in human trafficking throughout that region.
And the group is so brazen, they are even acting like government officials themselves. Back in 2020, the former leader of the 14K Wan Kuok-koi (also known as “Broken Tooth”) played the role of a dignitary himself. He met with the president of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea to discuss the establishment of a new economic zone on the island. The gang hoped to contribute to China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” trade network in the South Pacific. In turn, authorities are worried the gang will use those new regions as zones to smuggle drugs, guns, and other black market products.
1 Wo Shing Wo
The Wo Shing Wo is a Chinese triad gang operating worldwide. It has experienced steady growth since the 1990s, coinciding with increased police attention. This organization has expanded its influence beyond Hong Kong to many other Asian and even Western cities. Recently, it has established a notable presence in San Francisco. Currently, the Wo Shing Wo boasts a membership exceeding 20,000 people worldwide. And all of them are willing to die for the gang’s access to illegal markets and ill-gotten money.
Primarily recognized for its involvement in illegal gambling, the Wo Shing Wo engages in a wide range of triad activities. These include drug trafficking, protection rackets, and extortion. They have even been known to engage in wildlife smuggling, fraud, counterfeiting, loansharking, cyber scams, and money laundering.
Interestingly, not all of their endeavors are unlawful. Triads also engage in legal ventures such as operating nightclubs, casinos, and bars. In some areas of the Far East, the Wo Shing Wo even works in movie production and distribution. Triads like this aim to address market gaps or provide services that the government fails to offer. But their illegal businesses bring black market sales, corruption, and brutal violence, too. The combination makes them deadly for those who get in their way and difficult for law enforcement to track.