Extortion and Extortion Racketeering
- Atanas RusevAtanas RusevSecurity Program, Center for the Study of Democracy
Extortion as a crime has long attracted the interest of scholars, and much effort has been put into coining a precise definition that would allow distinguishing it from other similar predatory practices such as blackmail, bribery, coercion, and robbery. Academic literature classifies extortive practices according to their degree of complexity and involvement of organized crime. In this sense, the simplest form of extortion displays one offender who receives a one-time benefit from one victim, while the most sophisticated form is illustrated by racketeering, whereby an organized crime group systematically extorts money from multiple victims. Extortion as an organized crime activity can involve both episodic extortion practices and well-rooted systemic practices over a certain territory, where the latter is usually regarded as perpetrated by Mafia-type criminal organizations. Some scholars argue that extortion racketeering as a Mafia crime should be defined as sale and provision of extralegal protection services—protection of property rights, dispute resolution, and enforcement of contracts. However, others contend that extortion by Mafia-type organizations should not be counted as an economic activity but rather be considered as an illegal form of taxation imposed by quasi-political groups. In economic terms, it is a transfer of value and creates no economic output.
In contrast with the traditional understanding of extortion racketeering as “defining activity of organized crime,” some scholars have also focused on “extortion under the color of office,” or, in other words, extortion perpetrated by public servants or politicians in their official capacity. Extortion has often been compared with bribery, since both crimes can be defined as an unlawful conversion of properties and goods belonging to someone else for one’s own personal use and benefit. The debate on the differences between bribery and extortion, however, is a contested one, and has followed two lines of argument: respectively, the degree of coercion involved in the crime and the role (or modus operandi) of public officials in the bribery and extortive scheme. The common element for both crimes is the fact that representatives of the state abuse their power and official position for their own benefit.