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What Is a Thug?

Thugs may act as enforcers, threatening people who do not obey criminal organizations.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 August 2014
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A thug is a criminal who may engage in violent and abusive behavior to accomplish goals such as robbery. In addition to committing crimes like robbery, thugs can also act as criminal enforcers, threatening people in a community who do not comply with mandates from a criminal organization. This term could be considered analogous to “hoodlum” and is derived from the Hindi thag, meaning “thief” or “con man.”

This word entered English as a result of the colonization of India by Britain. The etymology is sometimes mistakenly given as being derived from thuggee, a related word that actually refers to a very specific type of criminal activity. Thuggee, a practice dating from at least the 17th century, involves waylaying travelers to rob and kill them, often in large bands, a form of banditry or piracy. While thugs sometimes murder in the course of their work, they do not form bands explicitly for the purpose of attacking and killing travelers, as was the case with thuggee.

Thugs may belong to a criminal organization or gang, or can be hired independently. They are typically male and have at least some physical strength, although they also use weapons ranging from bats to guns. Thugs commit acts of violence with the goal of theft, sending a message, or controlling territory; a thug may, for example, act as an enforcer for a criminal gang interested in maintaining dominance within a particular section of a city.

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The linkage of thugs with organized crime makes them a topic of interest for law enforcement. While individual cases of thuggery will usually be pursued in the interests of public safety, cases where a thug can be positively linked with a larger organization are a particular focus for law enforcement officers and prosecutors interested in breaking down organized crime. Sometimes, capturing an individual thug can create the beginnings of a case that may lead back to a high-ranking member of the organization, allowing law enforcement to strike at its heart.

The reasons people pursue careers as thugs are variable. Often, thugs are from an impoverished background, and they may live in a community with few opportunities and chances for advancement. Criminal activity can be seen as a way to get ahead, especially if older siblings or other family members are already doing it. In some cases, people may be pressured to join a criminal organization, threatened by current members with retributions if they do not agree to work as a thug on behalf of the organization.

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