On this list, you’ll find some of the most terrifying gangs and crime syndicates from every continent on Earth, with the exception of Australia and, obviously, Antarctica. No one’s going to be muscling in on penguin turf anytime soon. As for the Land Down Under, it’s because while Australia has some scary biker gangs, which are called bikie gangs (how adorable!), their most dominant crime syndicate is actually centralized in Europe (and it’s found in entry #5).
In some cases, these gangs make more money than Fortune 500 companies, while others generate very little revenue, but what they all have in common is that they are terrifying.
10. The Numbers Gang
Pollsmoor Prison is located in Cape Town, South Africa, and is famous for two reasons. The first is that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for six years. The second is that the prison is basically run by three different gangs – the 26s, the 27s, and 29s, or known as a whole as the Numbers Gangs. The gangs have a pretty easy-to-understand pitch when it comes to recruiting new members – join a gang or get raped and possibly murdered.
Each gang plays a specific role in the overcrowded prison. The 26s are physically fit men that are capable of stealing. Next is the 27s; they specifically target guards, which means guards don’t normally enter the prison itself. Instead everything inside the prison is controlled by the gangs. In order to join the 27s, you have to stab a guard first.
Finally, there is the 28s, and they have a pretty open membership. When a man joins, there are two roles that he can fulfill for the gang. They can be part of the gold line, which is a fighter, or they can choose the silver line, which is to serve the fighters sexually. If someone chooses the silver line, they are initiated into the gang by having sex with the leader of the 28s, John Mongrel, who came to Pollsmoor when he was just 14-years-old. In an interview on the documentary show Ross Kemp on Gangs, Mongrel was very clear that the sex involves a lot of eye contact, but he’s not too big on consent.
Luckily, the gang does not have much influence outside of the prison, but it should be an excellent reminder to stay on the right side of the law if you’re ever in Cape Town.
9. Sun Yee On
The triads, which is colloquially known as the Chinese mafia, dates back to the 17th century. They originally formed as a society that wanted to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming dynasty. They ultimately failed, but the bond between the members survived.
In the 20th century, the large triad group started to break up into smaller factions. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, many of the groups moved to Hong Kong, while others went to Macau, Taiwan, and other countries overseas including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Today, it’s believed that there are 57 triad societies and the biggest of those groups is Sun Yee On, which was formed in 1919 and are Hong Kong-based. It’s unclear how many members they have, but it is suspected that they have over 60,000 members worldwide.
In order to join, a person has to take 36 oaths, like “If I am arrested after committing an offense, I must accept my punishment and not try to place blame on my sworn brothers. If I do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts,” or “I shall never embezzle cash or property from my sworn brothers. If I break this oath I will be killed by myriads of swords.”
Sun Yee On makes money the same way that many other gangs do; they run prostitution rings, fraud schemes, extort legitimate businesses, and are known to traffic and deal in heroin, cocaine, and opium. Supposedly, Sun Yee On made a deal with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and they now have access to the raw materials to make methamphetamine.
Sun Yee On’s main form of attack is assaults with knives because of Hong Kong’s strict firearm laws. What happens many times is that groups of men armed with knives, often meat cleavers which are called “choppers,” swarm their victims and stab and slash them. Not all of the attacks are deadly, but they can leave victims without a limb.
D-Company was started by Dawood Ibrahim in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), India, in 1976. Ibrahim was raised Muslim and lived in a predominantly Muslim area of Bombay. Despite the fact that his father was a police constable, Ibrahim and his brother got involved in petty crime as teenagers and eventually developed a gang with their friends. In the mid-1980s, the gang made a power grab from the gang that had a monopoly over the Bombay underground, the Lala clan, and after a short war, D-Company came out the victor. However, Ibrahim was wanted for murder, so he was forced to leave India and moved to Dubai.
Over the next two decades, Ibrahim ran D-Company and made it one of the biggest crime syndicates without ever stepping foot in India. While in exile, Ibrahim masterminded the 1993 Bombay Bombings, which was a series of 12 car bombs planted by D-Company, all detonated on March 12. 257 people were killed and 713 people were injured. The apparent motive was revenge for Muslims being killed in protests in the months preceding the bombings.
In 2003, Ibrahim was told to leave Dubai after one of his associates was assassinated in a popular club there. It’s believed he then moved to Karachi, Pakistan. However, the Pakistani government denies any knowledge of him, although locals can apparently point out his house.
D-Company is heavily involved in real estate scams and extortion in Mumbai and the United Arab Emirates. Other profitable businesses for the gang include counterfeiting currency, arms running, and drug trafficking.
Japan’s organized crime syndicate, the yakuza, is comprised of 21 boryokudan (“violence groups”) and the biggest one is Yamaguchi-gumi, which is headed by Kenichi Shinoda, who is the gangs sixth ever kumicho (“chairman”). The group was founded in 1915 by Harukichi Yamaguchi in Kobe, Japan.
Yamaguchi-gumi is involved in all levels of illegal activity like running the red light districts in Japan, drugs and arms trafficking, extortion, fraud, and blackmail. They even fix sumo wrestling matches.
Of course, Yamaguchi-gumi is not above using violence and they have been involved in several gang wars throughout the years. One between 1985 and 1989 got to be so bad that a local newspaper kept a running score of how many people died and how many were injured.
Despite being violent gangs, for decades, Yamaguchi-gumi and the other yakuza families worked out in the open in Japan and had a huge membership. During the 1990s and 2000s, there were about 80,000 yakuza and about half of them belonged to Yamaguchi-gumi, making them the largest street gang in the world at the time. However, the overall yakuza numbers have dwindled since 2011, because that is when laws were enacted to restrict the yakuza’s access to revenue. Then in 2015, 3,000 Yamaguchi-gumi members splintered off into a new group. It was thought this split would lead to a full out war like the one in the 1980s. But while there were incidents of violence, the war has yet to happen.
Currently, Yamaguchi-gumi’s membership is at about 11,500, but an expert on the yakuza, Jake Adelstein, thinks that the number will grow in 2021 when many casinos will open in Japan. Adelstein believes that the yakuza will skim money from the casino and blackmail people who lose big at them.
6. The Albanian Mafia
Not a whole lot is known about the Albanian mob, and one reason is that Albanians have a very unique language, so international investigators have a hard time penetrating their communications. What is known is that it was started around the 1950s, when a large group of Albanians immigrated to Turkey. This opened up trade routes for heroin from Turkey into Albania.
In the 1980s, just as communism was about to fall there, Albanians started to leave the country, and some of them ended up in New York. Some men found work with the Gambino family as hitmen. Before long, they eventually formed their own gang, Rudaj Organization, and began to battle the Gambino and Lucchese for territory.
Back in Albania, communism came to an end in in 1989, and in the chaos, criminal gangs expanded and gained a lot of power. Also, since there were Albanian immigrants in different pockets of the world, like in the United States, the growing mafia had global connections.
Today it’s believed that there are 15 different crime families operating in Albania. Their major areas of revenue are trafficking heroin and human smuggling. They are considered a hybrid group, as they not only deal in criminal activities, but are heavily involved in political activities as well.
Italy is the birthplace of the mafia. The term “mafia” was used to exclusively describe the crime family that is based in Sicily, which was started in the 1860s during the chaotic, crime-filled time when Sicily became a state of the newly formed Italy.
Today, there are four main families in Italy. The original Sicilian mafia, which is now known as Cosa Nostra, is still active, but they aren’t as powerful as they once were. The other families are the Camorra, based in Campania; the Apulia-based Sacra Corona Unita; and finally, the most powerful – ‘Ndrangheta, which is based in Calabria.
‘Ndrangheta first formed in the Calabrian prison system in the late 1800s, but they started to come into power over a century and a half later in the 1960s and 1970s, when they would kidnap people for ransom. Using the ransom money, they invested in cocaine and were the first family to exploit the drug market. Cosa Nostra, who was the dominant gang at the time, wasn’t as quick to get into the drug trade. Instead, they were focusing their efforts on a violent push back against the government, who were trying to clamp down on their illegal activities. A pair of murders that really got the attention of the police was the killing of two anti-mafia judges. With the police more focused on their rival, it gave ‘Ndrangheta room to flourish.
Today, it is thought that ‘Ndrangheta are responsible for 80 percent of all cocaine trafficking in Europe. Besides cocaine, ‘Ndrangheta are also involved in nearly every other type of illegal activity that is profitable, with the exception of prostitution.
From all their illicit activity, ‘Ndrangheta supposedly makes too much money and don’t know what to do with it. The police have audio tape of two gangsters digging up money they had buried in order to hide it, and found out millions of dollars had rotted.
As for how much they make, according to an Italian think-tank, in 2013 they made $60 billion in revenue, which is about as much as PepsiCo made in 2016 and about three percent of Italy’s GDP.
One key to their success is that they are very secretive. Many times, the only people who are allowed into the gang are blood relatives. This makes it hard for members to testify against another member because they would be turning against someone who is literally a brother, a nephew, or a father, and so on. Their methods appear to be working because it’s rare for a member of ‘Ndrangheta to cooperate with the police.
One recorded case of a police informant working against ‘Ndrangheta happened in 2010 and it didn’t end well. The 35-year-old woman was shot, and her body dissolved in acid. So while ‘Ndrangheta may be secretive, they aren’t afraid to make headlines by using violence.
4. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was started in 2004 as al-Qaeda in Iraq and after several leaders were killed, they changed their name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and in between were known as the Islamic State of Iraq. These days, the names ISIS and ISIL are basically interchangeable. Currently, they have strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Many of you reading this are probably thinking that ISIL is a terrorist group, and you are totally correct. However, that label does not make them any less of a criminal organization.
ISIL uses many of same recruiting methods as many street gangs. Notably, they attract young, angry men, not just from the war-torn areas where they live, but from across the globe, with the promise of guns, power, and money.
Their criminal activities include ransom from kidnappings, selling stolen artifacts, extortion, and they’re also big into human trafficking. One thing that ISIL has that none of the other gangs do is access to oil. From all their illegal activity, it’s believed that they make over $1 billion a year.
ISIL’s notoriety on a global scale was helped by their execution videos that they uploaded to the internet. Many times they are beheadings and in some cases, the executions are performed by children.
3. Solntsevskaya Bratva
Solntsevskaya Bratva is the Russian Mafia, but very little is known about them. It’s believed to have been started by Sergei Mikhailov, who fancies himself more of a businessman than a gangster.
The syndicate doesn’t have a rigid central structure. Instead, it’s 10 autonomous groups that work fairly independent of each other. However, there is a 12-person board that meets regularly and they will pool resources. They also have chapters on every continent (except Antarctica).
Solntsevskaya Bratva is believed to be one of the wealthiest and most profitable crime syndicates in the world. They are involved in every single aspect of the Russian criminal underworld and one of their biggest revenue streams is extortion. Supposedly, people doing business in Russia end up paying out about 20% of their profits to Solntsevskaya Bratva. If they don’t pay up, their family members will most likely end up dead. And if Solntsevskaya Bratva doesn’t have a problem going after people’s families over extortion money, one can only imagine what they do to rivals and people who wronged them.
2. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)
The United States has more than its share of violent gangs and crime syndicates. There are motorcycle gangs like the Hell’s Angels and the Mongols, or urban gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, but for the FBI, the most troublesome is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. Currently, they are the only gang that has a dedicated task force assigned to them.
MS-13 was started in the 1980s in Los Angeles by immigrants from El Salvador who were fleeing from a civil war. Since then, MS-13 have grown to become a “transnational criminal organization,” and they have 6,000 to 10,000 members spread across 42 states and D.C., along with international chapters, which are called cliques, in Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Gang members are often recognizable because of their tattoos, which are sometimes on their face, and their clothing is often adorned with MS-13 symbols. Ethnically, they are mainly Salvadorian or first generation American-Salvadorians, but there are also some members that are Honduran and Guatemalan as well. They often recruit young men, often trying to get boys who are in middle and high school.
Their main sources of income are dealing drugs, extortion, robbery, and human trafficking, often for the sex trade.
One reason that MS-13 worries the FBI so much is their shocking level of violence. Often, much of the violence stems from the fact that MS-13 doesn’t exactly have a hierarchy; instead they have more of a horizontal system, with cliques acting autonomously. This causes tension between the cliques and it often leads to violent conflicts and civilians can be caught in the crossfire.
Also, while they are violent in the United States, they are even worse in Central America. Their territory in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is called the Northern Triangle and it is the most violent part of the world that is not at war.
1. Los Zetas
The current major Mexican drug cartels started off as drug traffickers who shipped cocaine from Colombia into the United States in the 1980s. During that time, the United States government was cracking down on the Colombian cartels, but not much was being done in Mexico. During the ’80s, the two most dominant Mexican cartels were the Guadalajara cartel and the Gulf cartel.
In 1989, the head of the Guadalajara cartel was arrested and the cartel’s trafficking routes were split up between the three lieutenants, giving birth to the Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana cartels. Currently, the Sinaloa cartel is considered the most dominant cartel because they have the biggest territory and the most trafficking routes, which are supposedly approved by the FBI, into the United States. This includes a drug route into Chicago, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, has seen a dramatic rise in murder. Meanwhile, the Gulf cartel is considered the second largest.
However, the most terrifying cartel is the third largest – Los Zetas, which means the “The Zs.” The identity of their current leader is unknown and there could be a good reason for that. Since its inception, all their known leaders have either been arrested or killed. Their last leader was Omar Treviño Morales, who was arrested in 2015, and the leader before him was his brother Miguel Treviño Morales, and he was arrested in 2013.
Los Zetas started off as a 34-man death squad for the Gulf cartel in 1999. They were all former Mexican military and had received elite training. By 2003, their numbers grew to over 300 men. After years of infighting, Los Zetas officially broke away from the Gulf cartel in 2010. At the time of the split, the US government said that Los Zetas was “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.”
What makes Los Zetas so dangerous is that they don’t really play by any rules. For example, in 2009, they broke into the home of a police chief, shot him and his wife, who was also a police officer, and then set the house on fire with the couple’s three daughters still alive inside.
Another time, in spring 2011, Los Zetas stopped several buses full of migrants. They raped the women and then forced the men to fight gladiator-style to the death. The winners were then given jobs as assassins with Los Zetas for their ongoing war with the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. Everyone else on the buses were murdered. After the bus hijacking, 193 bodies were found buried in 72 graves. This was just one of several massacres they committed where dozens of people were senselessly slaughtered.
Not even people on social media can speak out against Los Zetas. One citizen journalist, Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, posted stories and spoke out against Los Zetas anonymously online for several months using the hashtag #reynosafollow. In 2014, a tweet was sent out from her account that read, “#reynosafollow FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MY REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A PHYSICIAN. TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END.”
That was followed by a tweet that contained two pictures, one of a woman, presumed to be del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, looking at the camera, and the next one was the same woman with a gunshot wound to her head. Sadly, the body of Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio has never been found.
Los Zetas have also taken a page out of ISIL’s playbook and make videos of decapitations. The videos then somehow make their way online and, based on a quick Google search, which we highly, highly advise against, there are a variety of Los Zetas beheading videos.
Finally, a former leader of Los Zetas liked to kill his victims by a technique called guiso, which means stew. He would stuff someone in a 55 gallon drum and then burn them alive.
Those are just a few crimes committed by Los Zetas, but they are responsible for many, many other horrifying atrocities and are probably the most terrifying gang in operation right now.
Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website, or his true crime YouTube channel.