What is RICO?
The leader of the MS-13 east coast organization has been brought before a court on RICO charges, where he is being accused of conspiracy and racketeering among gangs in cities such as Boston; Houston; and Columbus, Ohio. The charges are coming after an extensive investigation, including a wiretap that recorded the leader organizing recruitment drives and advising members of the gang. He also helped smuggle supplies to imprisoned members of the gang, and organized hits on members of rival gangs. The situation looks grim for the man- with such a high-value target, it’s unlikely that investigators would make a move until they were absolutely certain they could prove his guilt. Apparently, the government of his native El Salvador has also declined to grant him help.
But, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what exactly the “RICO” charges being brought up against him are. Although the term is often thrown around by characters in legal cop dramas, it can be difficult to know what they actually mean by it. According to these Milwaukee criminal defense lawyers, RICO is another name for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. It was passed as part of a larger bill in 1970 with the intention of making prosecuting the leaders of criminal organizations easier. Prior to the passage of the bill, a legal loophole meant that the person who ordered a crime couldn’t necessarily be charged for it. So, for example, a mob boss who told his subordinate to murder a rival gang member could not be tried for the murder itself. With the passage of RICO, people who order criminal actions as part of a criminal conspiracy can be held just as responsible as if they’d committed the crimes themselves.
But since its passage, it’s been used for more than just convicting mafia leaders and drug lords. It’s been used for a wide variety of actions that could be called racketeering or conspiracy, in order to bring charges against many people who acted as the head of a larger group. For example, in 2002 it was used against the owner of a minor league baseball team, who was accused of deliberately reducing the value of the team for his own gain. It’s been used against pro-life activists who blocked access to abortion clinics, wall street executives accused of insider trading, and Catholic sexual abuse investigations. It’s even been used against police departments. In 2000, a judge ruled that plaintiffs would be allowed to pursue RICO charges against the LAPD.
Of course, the law is an extremely complex thing. Even a single act such as RICO involves so much precedent, rulings, and loopholes that trying to fully summarize it is impossible in a single blog post. In fact, without going law school, it seems like trying to understand anything more than the most basic facts about it would be an extraordinary task. But hopefully, I’ve at least provided a starting point for understanding a very interesting part of our legal system.