Helping or Hurting? Organized Crime’s Role in Times of Distress

Whether or not people want to admit it, organized crime has and will continue to meet a need in society, often during the most desperate times. In Japan, for instance, organized crime has been known as the “yakuza.” yakuzaThis tight-knit, secretive organization is the Japanese version of the Italian Mafia. They operate by strict ethical standards, much like the Samurai, a collection of feared Japanese warriors who practiced Bushido, a rigorous military code of moral conduct that emphasized self-discipline, courage, and loyalty. The yakuza began as a protection from Ronin (rogue Samurai) following the unity of Japan by Tokugawa Leyasu in 1615, and they still play a significant role in Japanese society. The modern yakuza maintain strong relationships with political and corporate entities. Although in recent years this relationship has become more fragile, the yakuza have been able to provide relief to disaster victims and operate without much interference from the police through those relationships.

The most recent evidence of this was the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, which led to the Fukushima incident. This was not the first time the yakuza provided relief after a natural disaster. disaster victimFollowing the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the yakuza came to the aid of some of the first relief to victims. They gathered supplies and brought them to the victims, dispensed hot food, and patrolled the streets to control looting. They were praised by victims for providing this relief much faster and more efficiently than the government. Although the yakuza remain a vital relief source today, they must distribute emergency assistance under the cover of night, being careful to avoid any identification as part of the organized crime faction. After the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, many of the conventional organizations that delivered relief declined to say the supplies had been provided from the yakuza until after supplies had been disbursed. This is new for the yakuza, who for many years were a much respected, even legendary, organization.

So is true of the Kuratong Baleleng, the Philippine mafia. The Kuratong Baleleng, translated to mean the “darling bells,” was created by the Philippine military in 1986 to inform soldiers of the presence of communist rebels. Ongkoy Parojinog was appointed as the chairman of the Kuratong Baleleng and recruited members from urban poor villages. The group was said to have done double duty as disasterwatchmen and as guardians of Ongkoy’s illegal activities. Ongkoy shared a nickname with American gangster Al Capone, “Robin Hood.” He earned this name because of his generosity to citizens; in Ozamiz City, in northwestern Mindanao, the Kuratong Baleleng are said to be well-loved. Upon being officially disbanded by the Philippine government in 1988, the Kuratong Baleleng continued to operate as an organized crime syndicate, much like the yakuza. They are involved in a variety of illegal activities, and according to the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, part of their strength is due to their protection by both local and national government officials. It is hard to imagine that the Kuratong Baleleng is not involved, in some fashion, with the relief efforts currently underway in the Philippines to combat the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan.

In America today when natural or other disasters hit, we expect a government response from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Many remember the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005. Slow to act, mismanaged, and poorly organized, the FEMA Katrina relief effort stands today as an example of government emergency aid at its worst and as an example for future relief efforts of what disaster responders should not do. One has to imagine how the relief efforts after Katrina might have gone with Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, or Don Carlo Gambino providing families with blankets, hot disaster 2food, and protection, much like in Chicago at the onset of the Great Depression. Al Capone opened the first soup kitchen to offer three meals a day to ensure that all people who had lost their jobs received at least one hot meal. Americans who followed the law were relying on criminal elements such as Capone to meet the need to feed their families. If Americans still had organized crime that functioned with relative impunity as it had before the U.S. government crackdown, would we be as appreciative to receive supplies, knowing they were provided by people who conduct criminal activities, or would we be appalled that the support was even offered?