If great criminal success also requires hard work, why don't those people just focus on legitimate endeavours with less risk?

Something I struggle to understand.

P.S. Not talking about petty criminals but more about serious El Chapo-type enterprises.

What do you call great criminal success? I’ll hazard a guess that the quickest ways to get criminally rich are drugs or financial fraud. The former can mean a dramatically shortened lifespan, the other can mean you have the money to skip to a haven that you can’t be extradited from, and enjoy the fruits of your misdeeds there.

Rate of Return. Work hard to become a Doctor or Lawyer, maybe make a Million a year. Sell drugs, make a Million a week.

Some people may have been born into that lifestyle, or, from an early age, been pressed or influenced into a gang or just a fish swimming in the water of that environment such that crime was the life for them.

Also, legit endeavors have a far higher entry barrier. To be a doctor, you need to have had great grades and test scores to get into med school. You need lots of money for tuition, or be willing to take on $300k in student debt. You’ll be competing against many others, etc.

Whereas being a criminal requires no bachelor’s degree, no 95th percentile SAT score, no formal qualifications other than being smart and savvy.

Simple. Making a huge amount.

Sorry to burst your bubble, the arms of USA are extremely long. More specifically, USA usually has no issues extraditing from countries that have no extradition treaties. And even more specifically, there are only a couple of countries where USA extradition is currently extremely unlikely and those are not likely the countries most Americans or for that matter most people would like to enjoy their spoils in.

So the real huge success is making huge money and NOT being identified and wanted by USA. Rare indeed. Otherwise, you have to live under a rock like El Mayo.

If they could make money in legitimate business as easily as they do committing crimes then they would. Some use their criminal proceeds to establish legitimate businesses, but criminals tend to carry a lot of baggage that keeps them involved in criminal activity or prosecution for past acts.

You would think so but I don’t think so. Think of any serious drug organization. Constantly on the run. Constantly fighting with competitors. All of that in addition to running the business. And you can’t just run the business - you have to find a workaround for literally everything, from production to logistics to financing, to distribution. You can’t just call someone up and say “handle this aspect for me” like you can in legitimate business.

On the other hand you don’t have to spend a lot of time, effort and money making sure you aren’t running afoul of picky little rules and regulations that still hem in every ostensibly legal business. Once you’ve decided to operate outside the law in the large scheme of things you’ve also freed yourself from all the bureaucracy that can strangle a business to death and be used by competitors as a means to force you to expend your capital and time fighting off being nibbled to death by ducks. One could argue that running an illegal business is actually less troublesome than running a legal one.

Regular jobs are pretty boring compared to criminal work. Enter data in a spreadsheet or figure out a way to clean out the safe of the local supermarket? Plus, a criminal may be able to set their own hours and have more freedom about when they work. That can be more attractive than a 9-5, M-F job.

You may even make similar decisions with regular jobs. There are many reasons that you may pick a lower paying job over a higher paying one, such as it’s more interesting, the coworkers are nicer, the workplace is more flexible, the job is more rewarding, etc. We don’t make simple decisions where we pick the highest paying job per unit of work regardless of what that work is.

The skillsets are at least somewhat different. If you’re good at advancing your goals with the use of violence, you can be a soldier or a criminal. You’re not going to get rich as a soldier.

OK, that’s legitimate. The most successful criminals love their profession. They get a thrill from doing it.

I mentioned the difficulty of successfully turning from criminal activity to legitimate business, but it does happen by establishing actual businesses that make money on their own and then avoiding prosecution for past crimes. As I said, continued criminal activity just gives the authorities the opportunity to take everything away, it has to end, or at least never be exposed.

You can get rich running an enforcement wing of an organization though. For example, Los Anthrax or La Gente Nueva enforcement wings of the Sinaloa cartel. You are unlikely to ever get “the first roles” but you will get rich. As a commander of soldiers. Not a soldier, of course.

Don’t underestimate the factor of “belonging” as well. A criminal gang or mafia/Triad can give a disaffected, troubled youngster a sense of family, brotherhood and loyalty. That’s powerful. Especially if you are a racial minority, too, where it gives you the feeling that people of your kind are looking out for you, and you for them.

You would think so. Yet, very few stop when they can. Arguably, the most massive amount of “legalization” happened in the former Soviet Union. The wild 1990s were brazenly criminal. A lot of wealth was created but few survived (yes, physically). Most of the survivors successfully legitimized.

Agreed. Also, people with few opportunities and especially in countries with limited upward mobility like Mexico. Yes, I’m thinking of El Chapo peasant farmer days.

Yes. So it does happen, right?

Right, that’s my point. There are some skillsets that are lucrative in a criminal enterprise but not in a legal one.

A prisoner once told me that he had been making about twelve hundred dollars a day dealing drugs (and this was several decades ago when that was a pretty good sum). He said that was far more money than he could make in any other job and he accepted the reality that would occasionally get caught and spend some time in prison as a cost of doing business. So he planned on going back into drug dealing when he got out.

I can question some of his details. I don’t know if he was overestimating how much money he was making. And I feel he was ignoring some of the long-term costs of drug dealing. But overall, he had a rational approach to his profession; he had weighed the pros and cons of being a criminal and found it was his best option.