The most dangerous gangs in the world operate on an international scale, committing murder, producing and trafficking drugs, extorting local businesses, bribing and blackmailing politicians, running prostitution and illegal gambling operations, engaging in human trafficking, illegally dumping waste, and even running major corporations and legitimate businesses.
Some of these gangs bring in as much revenue as Fortune 500 corporations and have the same level of sophistication to match. Where they differ is the ruthless violence and intimidation tactics with which they carry out their empire building.
Here are 10 of the most dangerous gangs in the world as measured by their size, international scope, local influence, and level of violence.
10. The Mungiki
The Mungiki may consist of as many as 100,000 gang members from Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. They’re viewed as both a criminal syndicate and a terrorist group, and are known for beheading anyone who stands in their way, as well as the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.
The Mungiki originated as just another of the many machete-wielding ethnic gang that plague many African countries. However over the last few years, the Mungiki have managed to gather significant political and economic force through large scale recruitment and violence. In the most recent Kenyan election, the Mungiki used violence to intimidate, mounting severed heads on poles in Nairobi to scare voters.
When the Kikuyu incumbent - Mwai Kibaki - won a questionable election victory over his challenger Raila Odinga, the Mungiki started ruthlessly murdering women and children from rival ethnic groups.
While The Mungiki hold little influence outside of Kenya and its neighboring countries, the level of violence practiced by the group puts them in our top 10 list of the most dangerous gangs in the world.
9. Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)
The Primeiro Comando da capital (PCC), is a notorious gang based out of Sau Paulo, Brazil. They maintain an extraordinary level of control over the local state prison system, as well as the
favelas - the poor, Brazilian shanty towns notorious for their extreme poverty, violence and lawlessness.
The gang is believed to be comprised of around 6,000 dues-paying members, as well as another 140,000 prison inmates. While the gang originated in the Sau Paulo prison system (its believed to have started as a prison soccer team), the PCC now orchestrate drug deals with gangs like the Columbian FARC and Rios Red Command.
The PCC is probably most famous for bringing the city of Sao Paulo to a virtual standstill in spring of 2006 when its members simultaneously attacked banks, buses, public buildings, and prisons over a 4 day period. By the end of the chaos, 150 people were dead.
8. United Bamboo (Zhu Lien Bang)
United Bamboo is a Taiwanese gang consisting of around 10,000 ethnic Chinese gang members and their associates. The United bamboo gang began as an assassination machine backed by Beijing during the Communist takeover of China. They used violent tactics in order to silence dissidents, though their violence is now being plied for human trafficking activities, extortion, illegal prostitution and gambling, as well as drug smuggling.
While they’re based out of Taiwan, they have influence throughout the Pacific Rim, having notoriously murdered journalists as distant as California.
7. The Hell’s Angels
While the Hell’s Angels promote themselves as a group of law abiding motorcycle enthusiasts, they are perhaps the most well known and revered criminal syndicate in the United States and Canada. Although they’re largely headquartered in North America, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club has chapters in 27 countries. The Hell’s Angels are heavily involved in drug trafficking, local drug dealing, robbery, prostitution, and extortion. They also control a large number of legitimate businesses throughout North America, especially in the nightlife industry.
The Hell’s Angels are probably most well known for their patches and jackets bearing the infamous “Winged Death Heads” logo, and their fondness for Harley Davidson motorcycles. The Hell’s Angels are classified by law enforcement as the most powerful of the “big 4” motorcycle gangs.
6. The Yakuza
While the Yakuza is perhaps the most influential organized crime group within their own home country, the famed Yakuza generally goes about their business with minimal violence compared to many of the gangs on this list, although they’re certainly no strangers to intimidation and murder. The largest branch of the Yakuza, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has 39,000 gang members and accounts for almost 50% of all of Japan’s gangsters.
The Yakuza have extremely close ties with high level politicians and are intertwined with everyday business in Japan. They have official corporate headquarters and business cards, and members parade around fearlessly in tinted luxury vehicles, distinctive tattoos, flashy suits, and missing fingers. The missing fingers are a result of acts of penance, where a member who has failed in some way cuts off parts to show his regret for failure. To avoid trouble, many businesses will deny access to Yakuza members with uncovered tattoos.
While the Yakuza are associated with a wide range of illegal and oftentimes violent activities, they also perform humanitarian work and generally aim to avoid civilian casualties, which allows them to continue to operate relatively openly within Japanese society.
5. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)
The Mara Salvatrucha may very well be the most dangerous gang in the United States and Central America. The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, originated in El Salvador from a posse (mamra) of El Savadorian immigrants who escaped to Southern California during the 1980s shortly after El Salvador’s bloody civil war.
Since then, MS-13 has grown as an international force, spreading throughout Central America, Mexico, and The United States, though authorities don’t believe MS-13 operates with any central leadership.
They originally gained notoriety as hired muscle for the Mexican cartels, but has since grown into a dangerous threat of its own. MS-13 members are notorious for their tattoos and unflinching willingness to use brutal violence to achieve their goals.
In a 2011 Gang Assessment, the FBI included an entire section dedicated to the MS-13, indicating that this may very well be the most dangerous gang operating in the United States at the moment. The FBI even has an entire task force dedicated to MS-13.
The Camorra are an extremely influential and violent faction of the Italian mafia. While the Camorra doesn’t have a centralized leadership, this only makes them more robust. The Camorra is believed to be a loose affiliation of around 111 Camorra clans, which in total have over 6,700 members.
Leading Italian mafia expert and investigative journalist Roberto Saviano believes that the Camorra are the most influential faction of the Italian mafia, based on their numbers, level of influence, economic power, and the level of violence they use in pursuit of their goals. In addition to their criminal activities, they also control a large number of legitimate businesses throughout Italy.
While the Camorra are involved in virtually every type of criminal activity imaginable, they’re especially notorious amongst locals for their extortion of local businesses. The price of not paying is often arson or death. Because of their use of bribery and violence to influence local politicians and law enforcement, Camorra clans can wield tremendous influence over the areas they control.
3. SoIntsevskaya Bratva
The SoIntsevskaya Bratva, also known as the SoIntsevskaya Brotherhood, is usually considered to be the largest faction of the collection of loosely organized crime syndicates known as the “Russian Mafia”.
Actual information available about the Solntsevskaya Bratva is limited. What is known however is that the groups leader and founder - Sergei “Mikhas” Mikhailov - fashions himself more businessman than mafioso. It is believed that the group controls hundreds of legitimate businesses throughout Russia and beyond. However, despite being involved heavily in legitimate business, the SoIntsevskaya Bratva have no qualms about using murder and violence to achieve business ends and eliminate competitors.
The SoIntsevskaya Bratva are also involved in virtually every aspect of the Russian underworld, and run criminal rackets running the gamut of traditional mafia activities, from prostitution, to extortion, to bribery and blackmail, to credit card fraud, human trafficking, arms dealing, stock fraud, money laundering, and even online scams and hacking.
The influence and power of the SoIntsevskaya Bratva extend well beyond Russia’s borders. This gang has powerful influence in the United States as well, particularly in Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Grand Rapids, and New York.
2. Sinaloa Cartel
Once the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, the still highly influential Sinaloa cartel continues to battle with the Los Zetas and other smaller cartels for control of Mexico’s drug trade. The Sinaloa cartel is led by the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the billionaire widely considered to be the richest and most powerful drug trafficker in the entire world.
“El Chapo” (which means Shorty in Spanish) is so powerful that he’s been named to the Forbes “World’s Most Powerful People” list every year since 2009. He has also been declared the “Godfather of the Drug World” by the DEA.
Some experts considered the Sinaloa Cartel to be the most powerful cartel in Mexico, while others believe its Los Zetas. Because official numbers are nearly impossible to obtain, the only thing we know is that the Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most powerful players in the international drug trade, and will continue to wage a violent battle with the Los Zetas and Mexico’s numerous other cartels for many years to come.
1. Los Zetas
For nearly 10 years, Mexico has become plagued by a violent drug war that has claimed over 50,000 lives. Ever since 2006 when then President Felipe Calderon declared a war on Mexico’s drug cartels, many of Mexico’s once great cities have become battlegrounds for control of the multi-billion dollar drug routes into the United States.
The turf war between the notoriously violent Los Zetas and the older Sinaloa cartel are in large part responsible for the torture and mass murders that have been regular headlines in Mexico since 2006. The Los Zetas were originally formed when a group of Mexico’s Elite Special Forces left the army to enter the lucrative drug trade by becoming hired muscle for the Gulf Cartel.
Eventually, the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel realized that they could grab a piece of the drug pie themselves, and broke off to form the Los Zetas. These military trained assassins created a drug cartel that took the violence of the drug war to a new level, ruthlessly murdering and torturing anyone from rival gang members, suspected informants, police, politicians, journalists, and innocent citizens.
They’re now considered the most powerful, dangerous, and lucrative drug cartel in Mexico, and are likely the world’s most dangerous gang. Their influence is so strong that when their leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a shootout with Mexican Marines in October 2012, Los Zetas managed to steal his body from authorities, making Mexican authorities look helpless.