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The List: The World's Most Powerful Crime Syndicates

The Sopranos, an acclaimed television drama about a fictional Italian-American mobster, is headed for its last season finale after six years of startling success. But what of the real-world mafias that control illicit trade and terrorize innocent victims from Moscow to Mexico City? When it comes to powerful global crime networks, we can’t just “fuggedaboutit.”

The Yakuza

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The big picture: With close ties to many politicians and right-wing pressure groups, Japans crime syndicates can operate without much fear of the law.

Major players: The largest yakuza group is the Yamaguchi-gumi, whose 39,000 members account for nearly half of all Japanese gangsters. Headquartered in Kobe, the group has been growing fast through corporate-style acquisitions. Current godfather Kenichi Shinoda manages the criminal empire from jail. This incarceration is his second stint; in the 1970s, he did time for slicing up a rival with a sword.

Distinguishing features: Publicity and style. The yakuza are the most open of crime syndicates, with official headquarters, nameplates, and business cards. Flashy suits, distinctive tiger tattoos, and missing fingers (cut off as penance for failure) make for a romantic public image. Humanitarian gestures and an avoidance of civilian casualties, meanwhile, leave the public willing to look away from the groups violence.

Where theyre headed: Conflict with the authorities. Several recent high-profile killings may mean the end of the governments tolerant approachand the police are now adding 10,000 extra officers to take on the gangs. Yamaguchi-gumis expansion into Tokyo, meanwhile, is provoking resistance from rivals and may lead to bloody turf wars.

Russian Mafiya

The big picture: As much as one tenth of Russias territory, and one quarter of its economy, may be under the sway of roughly 300,000 members in some 450 different Russian mob groups.

TATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Major players: No one organization seems dominantunless you count the Russian government itself, parts of which have been completely taken over. The recently arrested Vladimir Nikolayevs rsum is typical: member of Russian President Vladimir Putins governing party, mayor of Vladivostok, and owner of an empire of seafood, meat, and timber processing companies. He got his mayoral post when his opponent tripped over a grenade left outside his office.

Distinguishing features: Ruthlessness. The Russians are willing to go after journalists, the police, and senior officials to an extent that would make other syndicates squeamish. The September 2006 slaying of Andrei Kozlov, top deputy at the Russian Central Bank and an anticorruption crusader, was a clear statement that the Russian mob will back down from no one.

Where theyre headed: Upscale. Russias crime lords are moving out of the constraints of the black market and taking over legitimate operations, like chemical factories, ports, and banks. Shootouts are down, as gangs consolidate control and focus on backroom deals. Globalization is in, too, with heavy Russian presence growing in Israel and New Yorks Brighton Beach.

Italian Mafia

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The big picture: The Italians are still the ones that first come to mind when the topic is organized crime. With estimated revenues of $50 billion in 2005, the Mafia would be one of Italys biggest companies if they incorporated.

Major players: Sicilys Cosa Nostra is obviously a force to be reckoned with, having held the island in its grip for decades. Calabrias Ndrangheta, however, is emerging as a bigger, stronger, more brutal, and more global presence. Its 10,000 members are at the center of drug-running networks linking Colombia to Europes markets.

Distinguishing features: Strong local and family connections. Cosa Nostra has been famous for enforcing omert, its code of silence, on local populations, government officials, and even the Church. They and the other Mafia families take advantage of poor communities and almost feudal societies to maintain power and influence.

Where theyre headed: A fight for survival. The arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the cappo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses), outside Corleone in April last year dealt Cosa Nostra a grave blow. Soon after, 24 godfathers were picked up in a series of dramatic raids. An aggressive attitude by Italys center-left government has been credited with breaking the Sicilian Mafias leadership, and may soon turn its focus to Ndrangheta and the other criminal families.

Mexican Drug Cartels

The big picture: Increased interdiction efforts by U.S. authorities put the Colombian cartels out of the transport sector of the drug trade, and vicious gangs in Mexico have risen to take their place.

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Major players: The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have a lock on business across the Arizona and Texas borders, respectively. A third major group operating out of Tijuana competes with them for the rights to keep American users flush with cocaine and methamphetamines sourced from as far away as China. All three cartels leaders are in jail, but their organizations have continued their murderous ways.

Distinctive features: Multimedia flair. The cartels have recently been locked in a low-intensity war, and the executions and torture through which it is being fought have been the subject of numerous music videos posted on YouTube by gang members. When a video hasnt said enough, gang members have been known to brandish the decapitated heads of their enemies as warnings.

Where theyre headed: Nowhere good. Mexican President Felipe Caldern has brought the full force of the Mexican military to bear on the gangs, even creating a special commando unit answering directly to him. But the drugs still flow and the bodies are piling up. The cartels have killed over 1,000 people so far this year, including a number of high-ranking officials. The groups reach, meanwhile, is spreading to Peru and Central America.

Italian-American Mafia

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The big picture: Despite its vaunted reputation, the American version of Cosa Nostra is a pale reflection of its former self. Once a nationwide presence, now its reach is limited to New York City and Chicago.

Major players: None now. U.S. presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made their names in high-profile trials of top godfathers in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, New Yorks Five FamiliesGambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Colombo, and Bonannoare still presences in New York. But after decades of relentless prosecutions, none of them now has an easily identifiable don.

Distinguishing features: Disloyalty. Wiretapping and the United States federal RICO statute gave prosecutors wide latitude to threaten bosses and soldiers alike. Facing long prison terms, hundreds of made guys have dropped pledges of omert and turned states evidence. Younger members shun the low profiles and family loyalties of their predecessors, undermining the families effectiveness from within.

Where theyre headed: Hopefully, irrelevance and eventual extinction. The mob is still able to squeeze cash out of corrupt unions, the construction industry, gambling, drugs, and extortionate loans. But the life lacks the glamour it once held, and is just as likely as ever to lead to a violent end. Some experts worry, however, that a shift in law enforcement priorities away from the Mafia may lead to a resurgence.

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