In this chapter, we discuss examples of crime trends in areas on the rural-urban continuum in several countries, illustrating the difficulties and possible danger of comparison between types of statistics and across countries. Types of offenders found in rural areas as well as the types of victimization that most affect those living in these areas are also discussed in this chapter, based on examples from the international literature. Victimization in rural areas includes a wide array of offences from farm crime, environmental and wildlife offences to violence against women, harassment, and discrimination against minority groups to drug and related organized crime, just to name a few.

Crime Trends

While the international literature is rich in comparisons of crime trends among countries, relatively few studies are devoted to exploring rural-urban differences in crime across countries. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Western world experienced increasing rates of crime, notably robbery, homicide, and assault (Eisner 2008). But by the mid-1990s, several countries started to observe a widespread drop in crime, most notably the United states where violent and property crime indexes fell by 34% and 29%, respectively (Ceccato 2015d; Levitt 2004). More recently, van Dijk et al. (2021) found, for instance, that rates of common crime as well as homicide have continued to drop in the Global North, in particular from 2006 to 2019, while Africa, South Asia, and Central America experienced an increase. However, not all forms of crime followed this trend; for instance, an exception being organized crime and corruption which decreased in sub-Saharan Africa and increased in North and Latin America, Australia, and parts of Europe. Some of these national trends can be observed when they are split by type of area, but methodological challenges still constitute a barrier for comparison among (and within) countries and areas (Deller and Deller 2010).

The mere comparison of crime rates between rural and urban areas may not reveal informative patterns because rural areas show, as a rule, lower rates of crime than urban areas (Ceccato 2015d; Kaylen et al. 2019; Laub 1983; Mawby 2015). Comparing crime trends over time would be more enlightening, as sparsely populated areas are governed by their own circumstances of crime dynamics (Cebulak 2004), and some areas have become more criminogenic for certain types of crime but less for others (Bachman 1992; Ceccato and Dolmen 2011). Disparities in crime trends may appear among various degrees of rurality as well. Alternative ways of depicting crime trends across areas on the rural-urban continuum are necessary to capture intra country comparisons. For example, a recent study by Shimada and Suzuki (2021) explored the use of principal component analysis on municipal-level census data in Japan to generate a rural index that represents the ecological characteristics of each municipality on the rural-urban continuum.

In some countries, trends of crime and fear of crime appear to follow similar patterns, although they are not the same (Moore and Trojanowicz 1988; Skogan 2011) as more commonly, there is a discrepancy between actual crime and the public’s perception of crime (see, e.g., Larsen and Olsen 2020; Office for National Statistics 2017; Roberts and Stalans 2000). The most fearful are not necessarily the most victimized; often the reverse is true (Moore and Trojanowicz 1988). For example, McPhail et al. (2017) found that while official crime rates had been declining in Canada during the previous two decades, residents of the province of Saskatchewan commonly perceived that crime levels were either stagnant or rising. Skogan (2011, p. 102) cites the National Reassurance Policing Program, which expresses how this kind of mismatch in trends of actual and perceived crime can be of serious concern for the police, as they ultimately rely on public support for funding and legitimacy. Notably, these discrepancies in trends may be particularly prominent within rural communities as illustrated in recent research, such as (McPhail et al. 2017).

The following subsection exemplifies how crime fluctuates over time in areas on the rural-urban continuum, using examples from the literature and updated statistics for a selection of countries. The United States presents an interesting case, due to the size of the country and of its rural territory: 97% of the country’s land mass is ‘rural’ and home to around 20% of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). In Europe we look at Sweden, while Australia and Brazil provide us with references from the southern hemisphere, with Brazil as part of Global South. Although these figures are not strictly comparable across countries (e.g., some are police statistics, others are victimization survey data), these examples are illustrative of the trends in particular national contexts. The aim is to show differences in criminogenic conditions and safety needs by area.

Crime Trends on the Rural-Urban Continuum: Selected Countries

In the United States, violent and property crime decreased relatively steadily in all areas between 1993 and 2019 according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (Fig. 4.1). Kneebone and Raphael (2011) provide evidence of the apparent convergence between rural and urban crime trends. In a study covering 5400 communities located within the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, both violent and property crime were found to have significantly declined between 1990 and 2008, with the largest decreases occurring in cities. Cities and high-density suburbs saw violent crime rates decline, but predominantly rural communities experienced slight increases that could not be explained by their changing demographics. This trend falls in line with other international trends (e.g., Carcach 2000; Marshall and Johnson 2005; Osgood and Chambers 2003). Deller and Deller (2010) reports that between 1987 and 2002, both violent and total crime rates increased in rural counties but decreased in urban counties. Research showed that non-lethal violence has increased on average in exurban (rural) and some suburban areas (Kneebone and Raphael 2011).

Fig. 4.1
figure 1

Index of violent and property victimization in the United States, 1993 = 100; 1993–2019 (Data source: NCVS data, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2021)). (Notes regarding Fig. 4.1: (i) Urban = within a principal city of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Suburban = within an MSA but not within a principal city of the MSA. Rural = outside of an MSA (Anderson, 2020). (ii) ** = For the years 1996–2019, the data should be interpreted with caution, as it is based on 10 or fewer sample cases or the coefficient of variation is greater than 50. (iii) The number of victimizations for the year of 2006 has been calculated as the mean of 2005 and 2007 numbers. The reasoning behind this is that methodological changes when conducting the NCVS of 2006 led to a variation in victimization that could not be attributed to actual year-to-year changes, mainly affecting rural sample areas. For more information, see Rand (2007))

Crime trends also vary among different types of areas on the rural-urban continuum. There is evidence that rural towns experiencing fast growth – often called “boomtowns” – are especially vulnerable to increasing crime rates (see, e.g., Archbold 2015; Park and Stokowski 2009; Park and Stokowski 2011; Ruddell 2017; Stokowski 1996). For example, Ruddell et al. (2014) found that in 2010–2012, violent crime dropped by 25.6% in non-“boom counties,” but increased by 18.5% in counties that had been affected by oil expansion.

Crime trends often vary across different levels of population density. In the United States, for instance, the variance among highly non-metropolitan areas has been shown to be equal to or greater than that among metropolitan areas in terms of crime rates and contextual variables (Wells and Weisheit 2004). Offenders too, regardless of age, race, or gender, have shown similar offending patterns in both urban and rural areas (Laub 1983). Efforts to predict crime are of limited use in areas with low population density (Kadar et al. 2019). Previous research has shown that the idea of higher population densities being associated with higher crime levels may simply not be applicable for all types of crime. For example, Battin and Crowl (2017) found a significant, negative relationship between population density and property crimes, and little to no significant relationship with violent crimes.

Similar to the case of the United States and NCVS data (Fig. 4.1), the Swedish Crime Survey (NTU) shows that residents of smaller towns and rural municipalities appear to experience lower levels of victimization of crimes such as assault and burglary, compared to larger and more urban municipalities (Table 4.1). Interestingly, the rest of the country seems to be not simply conforming to the trends of larger municipalities: the share victimized of burglary decreased in larger cities between 2017 and 2018, while it increased slightly in small towns. Previous research showed that inter-municipal population changes (between remote rural areas to accessible rural) were in the past associated with these shifts in victimization, see, for example, Ceccato and Dolmen (2011).

Table 4.1 Self-reported victimization of assault and burglary 2016–2020 type of residence, share victimized people/households, respectively

Other data sources can show a slightly different trend for Sweden. For one, in rural areas in the 2010s, rates of violent crime recorded by police statistics were higher than if they had followed the national trend from the 1990s and 2000s (Ceccato and Dolmen 2011). From 1996 to 2010, urban and accessible rural areas had a higher risk of total crime than remote rural areas, but later the crime trend lines started to converge (Ceccato and Dolmen 2013). More recently, while urban and accessible rural areas have consistently shown larger rates of total reported crime than remote rural areas, rural areas have recently experienced relatively larger increases of levels of violent crime (Brå 2021a). Note however that current figures show that the percentage of increase, not the actual rates of crime.

Although violent crimes in rural areas comprise significantly fewer cases than those found in other areas in Sweden, the total number of reported violent crimes in rural areas was more than the double in 2020 than those reported in 2000 (Fig. 4.2), where this increase was associated with assault and sexual violence, including rape.

Fig. 4.2
figure 2

Index of total violent and property crime in Sweden, 2004 = 100, 2004–2020. (Note: “Violent crime” includes all crimes under the Swedish Criminal Code Chap. 3 – “On offenses against life and health” and Chap. 6: “Sexual offenses.” “Property crime” includes all offenses described within Chap. 8: “Theft, robbery and other appropriative offenses”). (Data source: Brå (2021a))

Australia and Canada provide additional examples of countries where several rural areas are relatively more criminogenic than some metropolitan areas (Barclay 2017; Rudell and Lithopoulos 2016; Tyler 1998). In the Global South, other, yet similar trends have been observed. For example, the nature of violent crime in the Turkish countryside has differed from inner-city violence, with offenses like honor killings, land disputes, and family feuds (Cayli 2014). Residential burglary in the rural parts of the Malaysian state of Johor has been noted to be at the highest levels in the country (Hamid and Toyong 2014).

In Brazil, violent crimes have been on the rise nationally but have undergone a much steeper increase in rural areas, especially the most remote ones (Ceccato and Ceccato 2017; Justus et al. 2016; Scorzafave et al. 2015). Furthermore, violence rates can vary greatly in rural areas. The median of the rates of homicide in rural municipalities (accessible and remote) was found to be significantly different from the other areas. These rural municipalities comprise 3363 municipalities or 60% of the country’s total municipalities (IPEA 2020).

The variation in the overall homicide rate in Brazil was smaller than the growth in the median of homicide rates in rural municipalities over the 11 years 2007–2017 (Fig. 4.3), especially in municipalities with conflicts related to land reform and including indigenous territories. The increase in violence in the countryside coincided with an increase in the variation of homicide rates within rural municipalities, which implies that rural municipalities remained more unequal in terms of the prevalence of lethality, particularly in the north, center, northeast regions (IPEA 2020).

Fig. 4.3
figure 3

Median of rates of homicide in Brazil; police-registered data, 2007–2017. Rate per 100,000 inhabitants per municipality. (Source: IPEA (2020))

Rural areas clearly show signs that their criminogenic conditions are distinct from those of urban areas, emphasizing the need for the continued study of crime trends across the rural-urban continuum. Although we advise against drawing conclusions across the previously illustrated examples, there is growing evidence that some areas on the rural-urban continuum are becoming more criminogenic. However, the rural-urban dichotomy imposes a number of limitations when illustrating these crime trends within and across countries because of the differences in rural-urban categories. Differences by crime type and data sources are also important to be considered before drawing any conclusions between rural and urban areas. Below we further discuss a few of other challenges when comparing crime trends across the rural-urban continuum.

Challenges in Identifying Crime Trends

One major obstacle when predicting crime trends is the underreporting of crime to the police. In general, the seriousness and type of the offense dictates the likelihood of reporting. Studies have presented several factors which influence the willingness and ability to report crime in rural areas. These include the physical characteristics of the area, such as a higher degree of isolation and remoteness in terms of accessing services, which constitute barriers to reporting, as many support networks are centered in urban areas and on urban victims (Owen and Carrington 2015). Laub (1981) indicated that in the United States, for crimes such as rape, assault, and personal larceny, no significant difference was found in reporting rates between urban and rural areas. However, the reasons for not reporting differed. As for rape, urban residents felt there was “nothing to be done” or mentioned a lack of proof, while rural populations more often referred to it being a “private or personal matter.” Victims can also be “silenced” through informal social controls such as gossip, and feelings of dishonor and shame at being a domestic violence victim, all of which threaten the victim with ostracization by the community (Abrahams and Jewkes 2010; Owen and Carrington 2015). The real or perceived lack of anonymity can also decrease the likelihood of reporting crime, especially when the police may be acquainted with the victim and/or offender and spread sensitive information (Ceccato and Dolmen 2011; DeKeseredy and Hall-Sanchez 2016). In general, the close-knit communities of rural areas can be associated with lower reporting rates of highly interpersonal offenses such as domestic violence. Some other crimes, however, such as burglary and auto theft, are reported to a greater extent, mainly for the purpose of collecting insurance (Ceccato 2015a).

Offenders

Offenders in the Rural

Research has shown that typical characteristics of offenders in the rural include being male, a newcomer, travelling stranger, or tourist (see, e.g., Smith 2010; van Daele and Beken 2010); local, and young (Baldwin 1994); and working in the farming industry (Smith and McElwee 2013). This profile shows the difficulty in identifying “a typical rural offender,” as it is only those who are caught by the police who are represented in research, which misses those who hide behind unreported crime. Mawby (2015) found, for instance, that offenders in rural areas could be divided into two categories: residents or visitors. Among the residents, one finds both long-term residents and newcomers, as well as temporary residents (e.g., seasonal workers). Visitors who commit crimes include vacationers, travelling criminals, and commuter criminals. While seasonal workers and vacationers may offend when living in or visiting the areas, commuter and travelling criminals travel to the area with the explicit aim of committing crime.

Changes in rural-urban dynamics, such as population shifts from cities to suburbs, may be associated with the mobility of criminals through migration or commuting (Porter 2011). Smith (2010) reports on how farm equipment, for example, is an attractive target for urban criminal gangs, as well as urban criminals relocating to and settling in rural communities where it is easier to avoid police detection. Ceccato et al. (2021) found that some travelling offenders target farms for reasons other than monetary gain, as is the case with criminal animal rights activists where their oppositional activities translated to trespassing, harassment, theft, vandalism, and violence against farmers working in animal production. Also, more persistent structural problems can also shape rural offenders; patriarchal marginalization of women has led to restrictions on mobility and both social and economic freedoms, with varying experiences for urban and rural female offenders (Parker and Reckdenwald 2008).

Prison inmates and repeat offenders have been studied in order to create profiles of rural offenders (see, e.g., Blurton and Copus 2003; Lilliott et al. 2017). For example, the rural career criminal has often been found to be relatively harmless, but mental health issues, drug abuse, and low levels of education are often linked to repeat offending (Berg and DeLisi 2005). Rural youth as offenders has also been a common topic within rural criminology. Baldwin (1994) studied alcohol-abusing, young offenders; Bouchard and Nguyen (2010) examined how criminal networks help the juvenile offender avoid the criminal justice system; and at-risk rural and non-rural minority youths were compared in Gale and Wundersitz (1986) and Vazsonyi and Trejos-Castillo (2006).

Farmers as Offenders

Farming and farmers are essential to rural areas and the discourse on rural crime. Donnermeyer (2016a, p. 147) defines farmers as “anyone who produces food, ranging from those who grows crops, fruits and vegetables to those who raise livestock […], from small labor-intensive landholders to capital intensive large-scale industrialists…”. Farmers’ illegal behaviors can be associated with farming practices and violating environmental regulations. For example, the abuse and neglect of farm animals is, perhaps intuitively, one of the ways farmers can easily take on the role as offenders (Lovell 2016). Also, farming and related facilities can produce large amounts of environmentally hazardous materials, such as pollutants from manure, litter, and process wastewater, and regulating their proper disposal may be difficult due to, for example, large numbers of unrecorded small facilities, such as in the case of buffalo farm factories (Gargiulo et al. 2016). Additionally, the illegal killing of predators or “pests” is a common practice among farmers and other rural inhabitants, and often justified as protecting themselves or their businesses (Enticott 2011). In desperation during droughts, farmers may also steal water from irrigation channels (Barclay and Bartel 2015).

Monetary gain is, as with other types of offenders, also a motivation of criminal farmers. There is the case of “illegal pluriactivity” (McElwee et al. 2017; Smith and McElwee 2013), which involves farmers using alternative income generation strategies through engaging in, for example, the illegal meat trade, medicine trade, and wildlife and dog breeding. Furthermore, the forced labor trafficking industry is strongly connected to the farming industry, where farmers may subject trafficked workers (who are often foreign, poor, and disenfranchised), to, for example, poor living conditions, environmental hazards, threats, violence, and sexual assault (Barrick 2016).

Research has also found that while drug use is comparably lower among rural versus urban residents, rural areas are very prominent places of cultivation of drugs such as cannabis (Ceccato 2015b; Weisheit and Brownstein 2016; Weisheit et al. 1993).

Offenders of Environmental and Wildlife Crime (EWC)

Environmental crime can often be viewed as victimless or less offensive crimes that are committed by offenders with various and complex underlying motivations. One often imagines typical offenders of environmental crime to be larger corporations or industries (see, e.g., Brisman et al. 2016; Opsal and O’Connor Shelley 2014; Perdue 2018), such as mining companies, or hazardous waste facilities that are often deliberately located in poor and rural areas in order to protect the owners’ economic interests (McDowell 2013). In fact, rural EWC such as illegal dumping is often committed by local residents (Ceccato 2015b). As previously mentioned, farmers have been found to be responsible for water theft or of offenses including polluting water and wetlands; illegal treatment, storage, or disposal of hazardous waste; illegal land clearance and farm animal abuse (see, e.g., Barclay and Bartel 2015; Gargiulo et al. 2016; Lin 2015; Lovell 2016; Lowe et al. 1996). Historically, hunters and other rural residents have also been associated with poaching (Archer 1999; Osborne 2016), which includes the illegal killing of animals perceived as threats and pests, for food or for recreational value. Furthermore, there appears to be patterns of rural residents becoming offenders of EWC when criminal law comes into conflict with local hunting practices. For example, cultural subsistence hunting among indigenous peoples in, for example, Brazil has come into clash with governmental authorities’ conservation efforts (Antunes et al. 2019). Additionally, forest fires are an annual problem for many countries and in Europe they are provoked by human activities in 95% of cases (Salvador 2016). But laws restricting the use of fire may disregard the cultural and historical importance as well as the utility of intentional fire use, as in the cases of regenerating pastures and clearing agricultural residue (Carmenta et al. 2019; Salvador 2016). Certain activities considered environmentally harmful, for example, small-scale and artisanal mining, can also be the main source of income for less affluent households (Eduful et al. 2020). For more details, see section devoted to EWC.

Victimization

Property Crime

People living in rural areas can be said to be exposed to two types of property crimes – property crime in the rural and rural property crime. Property crime in the rural refers to all types of offenses that take place in rural areas, such as, residential burglary; as opposed to rural property crime which are those that are explicitly linked to rural situational conditions, such as, theft of livestock. Rural areas are not free from crimes such as thefts, burglaries, robberies, and vandalism. Urban areas have higher rates of property crime, which is largely due to providing more opportunities in the form of stock of goods than rural areas (Ceccato 2015d). These goods can often be money, personal objects of value, or even utilities such as water or electricity (see, e.g., Jamil 2018). However, there are certain goods and forms of property crime that are virtually only found in rural areas as discussed below.

Certain property crimes can appear to be more or less prevalent in rural areas. For example, Clarke and Harris (1992) noted a much higher disparity of auto theft between urban and rural areas in the United States (a ratio of 6.6 to 1) compared to most other property crimes, although robberies had the highest disparity (a ratio of 19 to 1). Ceccato (2015d) presents previous research with similar findings, although the author also notes that theft from motor vehicles in the United Kingdom has been disproportionately higher in rural areas. Furthermore, while the overall rates of property crimes have decreased in most countries, there are exceptions, and different types of crimes can follow different patterns in the same country. In Japan, a linear pattern of victimization was found for bicycle theft, with one-thirtieth the risk in the most rural municipalities compared to the most urban municipalities, while for motor vehicle theft the pattern was nonlinear. The same analysis also revealed that victims in rural areas were less likely to have locked their belongings before they were stolen than those living in urban areas (Shimada and Suzuki 2021). In Sweden, robbery, car theft, and burglary have increased in rural areas and decreased in urban areas (Ceccato 2015d), and housebreaking crime in the rural parts of the Malaysian state of Johor has been noted to be at the highest levels in the country (Hamid and Toyong 2014). Also, no matter how relatively low the rural rates are, the impacts of property crimes on rural areas and residents are significant, as demonstrated by the research. For example, Wilhelmsson and Ceccato (2015) found that burglaries have a strong negative effect on Swedish housing prices in non-metropolitan areas.

Allen and Cancino (2012) found that certain social structural conditions have different effects on property crimes in urban versus rural areas, such as ethnic heterogeneity and percentage foreign-born population. In the United States, resource disadvantage has been positively correlated with violent and property crime rates in rural counties with a population loss (Barnett and Mencken (2002). While Arthur (1991) successfully explained property crime with socioeconomic predictors, Stack (1995) applied routine activity theory to burglary and found crime opportunity to be positively correlated with burglaries in rural areas, independent of social disorganization conditions.

Rural property crime includes crimes that are endemic to rural areas, such as theft of tractors, agricultural equipment, fuel and livestock, which is commonly categorized as farm or agricultural crime (Barclay 2016). Notably, most research on agricultural crime has found that it is largely property related (Barclay and Donnermeyer 2002). Farms appear to provide opportunities for property crime, due to the presence of both valuable and easily accessible goods as well as to situational conditions that can be exploited by offenders, such as lack of guardianship on large properties (see, e.g., Barclay and Donnermeyer 2002; Jones 2012; Mears et al. 2007). In the United Kingdom, the annual economic cost of farm crime has been estimated at 45 million pounds (Morris et al. 2020). Furthermore, while on a local level there are obvious impacts such as economic losses due to theft and loss of work time, farm crime can also affect farmers’ mental health and disrupt the cohesiveness of rural communities by undermining trust between neighbors (Barclay 2016; Ceccato 2015b; Saltiel et al. 1992; Smith 2020).

The perceptions of farmers and other rural residents regarding property crime can substantially differ from those of urban residents, although this has varied over time and place. Jones (2016, p. 172) quotes James T. Hammick about how in the nineteenth century rural crime was considered less serious with theft being more small-scale, and with criminals only occasionally committing crop or livestock theft once or twice a year. Kilday (2014) found that in eighteenth-century Oxfordshire County, England, petty thefts mainly involved food or livestock that could quickly be converted into food. In Africa, agricultural theft has long been expected and even tolerated by farmers, where the motivations for the thefts could often be obtaining food or even following cultural traditions (Bunei et al. 2016; Donnermeyer 2017). However, after the colonization era and other global and local socioeconomic and cultural shifts in society, the tolerance for agricultural theft has decreased while at the same time both the scale of and motivations for the thefts have changed, as monetary gain is now the main driver and violence is also more common (Bunei et al. 2016; Fleisher 2002).

Compared to other rural groups, farmers may be more vulnerable to and fearful of crime (Bankston et al. 1987). Farming has become an increasingly large-scale and capital-intense business globally, with new technology replacing labor for reasons of efficiency and increased economic viability (Barclay and Donnermeyer 2011). This has also increased the volume and scale of farm crime, for example, entailing the organized theft of crops and farm equipment that are smuggled into other countries (Jones 2012; Swanson 1981). Also, improved infrastructure, both in terms of transportation and internet access, has greatly facilitated the targeting of farmers. Cattle theft, for example, can be committed more easily with better roads and greater accessibility to highways, which also facilitate an easier escape (Justus et al. 2018). Crimes such as fraud and unlawful threats are increasingly committed via telephone, computer, and social media, where offenders hide behind the cover of anonymity (Ceccato 2016).

In summary, property crime has been shown to be a chronic problem in rural areas, both property crime that happens to occur in the rural, as discussed in the previous subsection, and property crime unique to the rural. However, the property crimes intrinsically tied to rural life (such as farm crime) decidedly demonstrate the need for contextualizing property crimes in the rural. While property crimes generally involve the theft of goods such as valuable objects and money, the definition could be expanded to the organized trade of, for example, people, as much of human trafficking takes part in rural areas (see, e.g., Barrick 2016; Byrne and Smith 2016; Kumar et al. 2020). Environmental crimes such as the trade of exotic or endangered species (Korsell and Hagstedt 2008; Smith and McElwee 2013) could also be considered theft of goods and property crime, but such crimes have not been explored within the scope of this study. However, with the increasingly larger scale and greater organization of crime in rural areas, property crime remains an important issue to tackle.

Violent Crime

Violence is among the subjects that garner the most attention within rural criminology, although it is not fully understood. While rural and suburban areas have generally experienced lower rates of violence than urban areas, the notion that rural residents around the world are safe from the impacts of violence is one of the persistent myths about rural violence (Donnermeyer 2016b). Conversely, various media have also contributed to stereotyping of rural areas as dangerous places where urban people may be violently victimized by “demented, in-bred locals without conscience or constraint” (DeKeseredy et al. 2014, p. 179). In this section, violent crime is discussed under two main categories: general violence which often means crimes like assault, murder, gun violence, and gang-related violence that mainly happen in public places, and domestic violence and violence against women, which involve violence against the offender’s current, former, or potential partners and children that mainly occurs in the home. What follows here is first an overview of the historical and current violent crime trends across the world, and what violence means in a rural context.

General Violence

In most countries, violent crime rates have historically been relatively low in rural areas compared to other types of areas. For instance, in the United States during the 1970s, violence rates per 100,000 persons were 1568, 924, and 793 for urban, suburban, and rural areas, respectively (Laub 1983). Kaylen et al. (2019) similarly provide a comparison of aggravated assault rates in areas of different levels of urbanization between 1988 and 2005, which once again showed that urban areas experienced higher rates. As Kowalski and Duffield (1990) found for rural areas, this may be because the risk for violence decreases as individualism is reduced and cohesion is strengthened. Religion has been found to have a positive effect on violent crime reduction in rural areas through establishing social networks in churches (Lee 2006), although the detailed mechanisms between religion and violence are not fully known.

Kaylen et al. (2019) also observed that the decline in crime has been much greater in urban areas than in rural areas. The rural-urban gap has narrowed over time for certain crime types, for example, murder rates in Russia (Chervyakov et al. 2002), and in Sweden certain trends have shown higher than expected levels of violence in rural areas compared to if they had followed the national average (Ceccato 2015c). In fact, certain types of violence seem to be increasing in rural spaces, such as non-lethal violence and when the offender is an intimate (Ceccato 2015d). In the provinces of Canada, there exist patterns demonstrating tendencies for rural areas to specialize in violent crime (Carleton et al. 2014). However, there is also some controversy in the measurement of violent crime, as the choice of data sources may lead to inconsistent results, especially for rural areas (Berg and Lauritsen 2016).

In certain countries, like Australia, violent crime rates have been higher than average in rural and regional areas (Hogg and Carrington 2016). This is also true in the Global South, for example, in post-war Cambodia where rates of homicide were higher in rural areas (Broadhurst 2002). As previously discussed, in Brazil, violence has decreased in metropolitan areas and shown signs of dispersing to rural areas, as it is significantly rising in less urbanized rural areas (Justus et al. 2016; Steeves et al. 2015). With increased modernization (e.g., through electrification), poorer rural regions may experience decreased homicide rates as well, although the dispersion to other regions may persist (Arvate et al. 2018).

Studies have found some support for the generalizability of urban-based models to explain patterns of violence, such as social disorganization theory, although it is important to recognize that a separate rural contextualization of this theory may be needed (Barnett and Mencken 2002; Petee and Kowalski 1993). Rural violence has been explained through different mechanisms compared to urban violence, for example, residential (in)stability and ethnic heterogeneity not being predictive of violence, and poverty being inversely related to rape in rural areas (Melde 2006). While, for example, Lee and Slack (2008) found a consistent relationship between violent crime and labor market conditions throughout the rural-urban continuum, other studies have found less support, with, for example, Arthur (1991) finding that socioeconomic factors are better suited for predicting property crime than predicting violence.

Current theories and models appear to be insufficient to fully explain rural violence, for one must also understand the context of rural society. For example, an important part of the rural culture of violence in some countries is the availability of guns. Numerous studies have researched rural gun violence in the form of homicides, school shootings, police shootings, self-defense, and suicide (e.g., De Angelis et al. 2017; Hemenway et al. 2020; Hemenway and Solnick 2015; Kalesan et al. 2020; Rocque 2012; Singh and Singh 2005). In the international literature, guns are especially associated with North American rural communities due to the higher rate of gun ownership compared to urban areas. Although using guns as a means of committing homicide is actually rare in rural areas, lethal gun accidents are fairly common in the United States (Reid and Cesaroni 2016). DeKeseredy et al. (2016) cite Websdale (1998) who argues that it is easier to fire a gun undetected in rural areas, as rural residents often associate gunshots with hunting. The higher acceptance of guns for hunting and self-protection also increases the acceptance for using guns for intimidation, for example, of intimate partners, see more regarding domestic violence in the coming section.

Gendered Violence

A whole branch of rural criminology literature specializes in domestic violence (against partners and children) and in intimate partner violence (IPV) in particular, which includes physical and sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current, former, or potential partner or spouse. In the United States, for instance, intimate feminicide, or the murder of women by a current, former, or potential partner, is one specific crime type that tends to be increasing as well as be proportionally higher (in percentage) in rural areas than in urban and suburban areas (DeKeseredy et al. 2016). Yet the issue lacks priority, which may be due to lack of awareness and education (DeKeseredy 2020) and to an overall normalization of the problem. Underreporting domestic violence is not only the result of the victims’ silence but also of the silence, tolerance, and negligence of those close to the victim (Gracia 2004). Neighbors in rural areas may have a higher tolerance for particular behaviors than in urban areas (Anderson 1999), and privacy norms dictate that they “keep their mouths shut” or “keep out of other people’s business.”

Barriers to reporting crime and/or receiving support can be more tangible in rural areas, particularly for women that have been victims of violence. Examples of barriers include the higher degree of isolation due to long distances, poverty, and the gender-role dynamics within couples (Ceccato 2015e). Women often have little access to cash, property, or other assets, with men or their extended family often controlling these resources either directly or indirectly through family trusts (Wendt 2016). Distances between houses in rural areas are often greater than in urban centers, which makes it more difficult for neighbors to discover any violence that occurs (DeKeseredy et al. 2004). If victims of violence decides to seek help, it is not always easy to leave the house (Websdale 1998). The nearest women’s shelter may be many miles away, and the distance may be exacerbated by poor or no public transportation (Lewis 2003), or limited or sporadic access to the internet or mobile phones (DeKeseredy and Joseph 2006). Therefore, official data on domestic violence and/or violence against women in rural areas can be problematic. Systematic analyses published as articles about violence against women in the Global South are scarce, but examples can be found in DeKeseredy et al. (2018), Jewkes et al. (2005), and Abrahams and Jewkes (2010).

Most studies on rural violence research have been recently published, in other words, 68% were published in 2010 or later (violence is the theme in 15% of the publications). Secondary data such as official records were the most used method together with statistical analysis, followed by interviews. While studies focusing on the United States were dominant, Brazil was the second most studied country. Other contributions from the Global South included cases of violence in Turkish rural regions (Çaya 2014), racialized farm worker violence in Zimbabwe (Rutherford 2004), Somalian piracy (Collins 2016), and violent land reform in China (Meng 2016). Overall, 62% of the publications on violence were about “street violence,” while the rest of the publications were dedicated to domestic violence and a larger focus on violence against women, but also to topics related to child abuse (Calvert and Munsie-Benson 1999; Dawson and Wells 2006; El-Hak et al. 2009). In summary, violence in rural areas is plentiful and takes many forms. Focusing on general trends can lead to ignoring variations among and within rural communities, missing areas of high risk. Understanding rural culture is essential to truly grasp the mechanisms of violent crime in rural areas, how it occurs and persists and, how to prevent it.

Hate Crime, Discrimination, and the Rural “Other”

The term “hate crime” has varying definitions among and within countries and has been criticized for not being sufficiently precise. Using a definition from Swedish law, it can involve incitement against ethnic groups, unlawful discrimination, and any crime where the motive to offend is “because of race, color, national or ethnic origin, creed, sexual orientation, transgender identity or expression or other similar circumstance” (Brå 2019, p. 14). Gerstenfeld (2003, p. 5) provides a simpler definition: “a criminal act that is motivated, at least in part, by the group affiliation of the victim.” What can be generally agreed upon is that “hate crime” is a collective term for many different crimes, such as threats, harassment, and physical violence. And as with many other subjects within criminology, studies of hate crime have only recently turned to non-urban contexts (Lumsden et al. 2019). This urban bias can be problematic as it allows for ignoring worrying trends. For example, Ruback et al. (2018) found that in Pennsylvania, USA, the rate of hate crimes based on the Uniform Crime Report had been underestimated by a factor of 1.6 overall, but by factor of 2.5 for rural areas.

Due to the idea of the rural idyll, rural communities have persistently been viewed as tight-knitted and friendly, with residents having a deep sense of local identity and feeling of belonging (Garland and Chakraborti 2006a). However, this perspective marginalizes and neglects the experiences of the rural “other,” which in certain contexts can be defined as “people other than white, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied, sound-minded, heterosexual men” (Philo 1992, p. 193). In numerous cases, rural communities have been observed to be very inclined to protect their self-defined identities and cultures against perceived threats (Yarwood and Gardner 2000). As such, the othering process usually targets strangers and “outsiders” as well as whoever else does not fit into the image of the community in terms of behavior and lifestyle and/or visual appearance (such as sexual orientation or racial/ethnic phenotype). Who is “othered” and who is considered “the same” is a result of broader configurations of power and systematic issues in society (Little 1999).

In this section, we report how those who are considered as non-conforming to the image and ideals of rural society are subjected to hate and discrimination, especially due to their racial and ethnic group affiliation and/or sexual orientation.

Racial and Ethnic-Based Hate and Discrimination

Even within the small body of reviewed studies on this topic, experiences of racist harassment have been largely neglected (Garland and Chakraborti 2006b). Garland and Chakraborti (2004) studied victims of racism in the United Kingdom, where they note that interviewees had a hard time breaking down their experiences into isolated incidents. They confirm previous research that racist harassment is better viewed as a process rather than a series of independent events. Furthermore, although the recorded rates of racist incidents were much lower in rural areas, only a fraction is ever reported to the police. Observed harassments included both “low-level racism” such as hostile exclusion and subjection of victims through an “othering”-process, as well as “high-level racism” by which victims experienced vandalism of their property, physical violence, and attempted petrol bombings. Additionally, victims rarely felt supported by state or voluntary agencies such as the police, due to their lack of sympathy and understanding of their victimization. 

Rural areas have long been presented as homogenous in terms of social values as well as race and ethnicity; specifically, in countries of the Global North like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the notion of rural areas as “white” spaces has persisted (Forrest and Dunn 2013; Garland and Chakraborti 2006a; Lichter and Brown 2011). This notion has been increasingly contested following population shifts, such as in the United States and the diffusion of Latin American immigrants into rural areas (Lichter and Brown 2011). These changes may be interpreted by some as a potential threat to rural identity and culture, leading to the formation of hostile groups. Weisheit et al. (1995) outline how rural America has been the home and birthplace of several “hate groups” and far-right, extremist organizations connected to anti-Semitism, racism, fundamentalist Christian values, and a suspicion of government. Many such group members “seek to return to simpler times in a world they can create and control,” which is why they are drawn to the remoteness of rural areas (Weisheit et al. 1995, p. 47). In Europe, the increased influence of far-right-wing political parties has also led to a higher prevalence of racist attitudes in the countryside (Schuermans and de Maesschalck 2010).

Research has demonstrated varying findings regarding rural attitudes toward immigration. For example, on the one hand, Palmer (1996) noted that Canadian rural residents were less concerned about immigrant crime than urban residents, while, on the other hand, Forrest and Dunn (2013) found that rural South Australians were less tolerant than those living in metropolitan areas. Any definition of “whiteness” has admittedly varied over time and may also vary by context. Lumsden et al. (2019) point out that there can be a racialized differentiation based on cultural differences rather than phenotypical. This reveals that even immigrants that can be considered “white,” for example, eastern Europeans, can be racially marginalized.

Not only “outsiders” are subjected to discrimination or viewed as the “other”; both social structural systems and government institutions can target native rural residents. In India, multiple studies have focused on discrimination (based on the caste system), which appears to be prominent in the rural parts of the country (see, e.g., Akhtar 2020; Chandra and Pradhan 2001; Panda and Guha 2015). The othering process can take different shapes depending if it is the “old other” or the “new other”; see the example of Sami population and the temporary population of berry pickers in Sweden (Ceccato 2017). Notably, indigenous peoples of, for example, Thailand, Australia, Brazil, and Cuba have also been targeted by governmental discrimination and infringement on land, actions largely painted by colonialist mindsets (see, e.g., Anderson 2018; Canofre 2017; Cunneen 2016; García 2011; Jobes 2004), although this has occurred and continues to occur in many more places across the globe than are documented in the reviewed publications.

Discrimination and Hate Crimes Against LGBTQ+ Persons

No matter where they live, LGBTQ+ persons face similar struggles. Homophobic prejudice has led to discriminatory behaviors that impact the mental health and safety perceptions of gay and lesbian individuals, but also lead to verbal and physical harassment, and even murder (Lindhorst 1997). LGBTQ+ youth have been found to experience much higher rates of harassment and bullying than non-LGBTQ+ youth (Wike et al. 2021). Herek (1992, p. 89) points out that anti-gay hate crime is a result of heterosexism; “an ideological system that denies, denigrates and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship or community.” Crimes with heterosexism as an underlying motivation may cause harm that goes beyond the actual victimization event by affecting psychological and emotional well-being as well as causing behavioral changes (Bell and Perry 2015).

Few studies have considered the rural experiences of homophobic and transphobic hate crime, despite evidence pointing to a higher probability of victimization in rural areas. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 76.4% of rural LGBTQ+ students had been victimized based on their sexual orientation compared to 66.1% of suburban and 68.8% of urban LGBTQ+ students (Kosciw et al. 2020). Rural transgender students were also found to be more likely to experience gender-based harassment than their non-rural counterparts. But even when rural victimization rates are similar to the rates urban and suburban areas, rural LGBTQ+ may have less accessibility to various services and social support. The close bonds of rural communities may restrict individual privacy, and may complicate living in communities that are not as LGBTQ+-friendly (Wike et al. 2021). In Australia, Morandini et al. (2015) found that those residing in rural-remote areas concealed their sexuality at much higher rates than those living in metropolitan areas. They also had less involvement in the LGBTQ+ community and fewer friendships than other people with the same identity. The researchers also noted higher internalized homophobia among men. In Sweden, MUCF (2020) found that young LGBTQ+ people in rural areas have less access to meeting places with other youths and may avoid attending recreational events and activities due to the fear of being treated badly. However, there are cases in which rural areas can be inclusive and welcoming (Rosenberg 2021); see for instance, the case of Conner and Okamura (2021) who list the advantages of living in rural areas for LGBTQ+ people. 

Drugs in Rural Areas

Drug-related offenses encompass a range of activities, from (ab)use to production, transportation, and trade; all of which may take different forms in rural contexts, especially in border regions. Relying mainly on evidence from North America, in this section we discuss who the rural substance users are, the types of drugs, the production and transportation of drugs, and their relation to the rural context.

Substance abuse is often viewed as primarily an urban issue, which may be true from some perspectives as most rural areas report lower levels of drug use (Weisheit and Brownstein 2016). However, studies have shown that among certain groups, especially rural youth, the rural-urban gap in substance abuse has been narrowing. In fact, since the early 2000s, the levels of substance abuse among rural youth have often been equal to or even exceeded those of their urban counterparts: mainly in the United States but also in the United Kingdom (Ceccato 2015f; Donnermeyer 2015a; Gomez and Pruitt 2016).

Certain rural characteristics may explain why rural youth (and other groups) may be at larger risk for turning to drug consumption and forming addictions. This includes more restricted access to local services such as treatment and recreation centers compared to urban areas, social stigma and a lack of anonymity deterring the use of mental health services (Gomez and Pruitt 2016). Factors such as bonding with family and school peers and integration into peer clusters may decrease or increase the probability of rural youth learning of illegal drugs, as per the theories of peer cluster theory and primary socialization theory (for a review, see Donnermeyer (2015b). Also, previous and current criminal engagement, especially involving violent crime, has been linked to higher rates of rural substance abuse in several studies (see, e.g., Nordfjærn et al. 2013; Oser et al. 2011; Webster et al. 2007, 2010). Rates of substance abuse may also differ based on drug type. Hakansson et al. (2008) found that Swedish amphetamine users are often older, less likely to be non-Nordic immigrants and members of a more rural population, compared to heroin users. Rural males have also been shown to abuse pain relievers, psychotherapeutics, and other illicit drugs (excluding marijuana) at higher rates than non-rural males (Gundy et al. 2016).

Largely located in rural areas, the domestic marijuana industry has grown rapidly in industrialized countries like the United States and Canada (Bouchard and Nguyen 2010; Weisheit et al. 1993). Methamphetamine is one of the more prominent and modern types of synthetic drugs, and, notably in the United States, it is unique as its epicenter of production was in rural communities when it first emerged in the early twenty-first century (Garriott 2016). Methamphetamine and amphetamine use continue to be a problem in large parts of Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, and notably among the rural population in Sweden (Hakansson et al. 2008). In recent years, the use of opioids, including heroin as well as legal medical substances, have been part of the so-called ‘overdose crises’ largely in the rural areas of the United States (Kalesan et al. 2020; Orsi et al. 2018) but also found in rural Scotland (Hay and Gannon 2006). Furthermore, drugs that are legal in most countries are not necessarily detached from criminal behavior, such as alcohol, which has a long association with rural delinquency (see, e.g., Davis and Potter 1991; Martire and Larney 2011; Petrie et al. 2010).

Weisheit and Brownstein (2016) point out that rural areas are especially suited for drug production as they “provide a level of physical privacy…that is more difficult to find in an urban environment,” and the detection of these sites is further impeded by the comparably limited resources of the rural police. Additionally, the lesser social and economic capital of rural areas may also be a strong factor affecting both drug use and production, which are the most prevalent in the poorest rural areas (Donnermeyer 2015a). Rural areas as sites of drug production (mainly marijuana and methamphetamine) have become common in not only the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden (Ceccato 2015b; Weisheit and Brownstein 2016). Looking outside the Global North also reveals more of the social and cultural connotations of drug production within rural areas. For example, in the studies by van Dun (2014) and De Souza and Hoefle (1999) in Peru and Brazil, respectively, we find two historical pieces on organized drug production that look at both the illicit economies and social networks within the rural population, and the related violence. Anderson (2018) has examined how the restrictions of the civil rights of the Karen people in Thailand led to opium cultivation becoming their last means of survival. Stippel and Serrano-Moreno (2020) explored the importance of the coca leaf in the rural population in Bolivia and the interaction with the country’s continuous adaptations of anti-drug policies.

Rural areas and border areas also play an important role in the transshipment of drugs; for example, in the United States where drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are still largely produced outside the country (Garriott 2016; Weisheit et al. 1993). Weisheit et al. (1993) found that rural areas that serve as transshipment points often develop problems with drug use as well, as interviews with marijuana growers revealed that some used their profits to support their cocaine habits. Findings have also shown links with other types of crime; for example, Ceccato (2004) noted that in Lithuania, certain border cities associated with drug and alcohol smuggling also had more assaults.

Environmental and Wildlife Crime

Environmental and wildlife crime (EWC) encompasses a range of possible transgressions against nature, including illegal dumping of waste, pollution, animal abuse, poaching, deforestation, and other environmental harms. Barclay and Bartel (2015) outlined several reasons why there are currently no official definitions of environmental crime. First, the topic is relatively recent. Second, it is difficult to pinpoint individualized harm and causation, as incidents of environmental harm can happen at both global and local levels. Third, an incident may involve multiple acts and the effects may not be detected immediately, or even after several years. And last, that there can be ambiguity surrounding the (il)legality and (im)morality of many of the actions considered as EWC.

Traditional criminological theories have been applied to explain environmental crime. For example, factors associated with social disorganization have been found to increase the odds of forest fires in Indonesia (Saptawan et al. 2020). Rational choice theory has proven to be a useful basis for devising mitigation measures, as offenders of EWC adhere to cost-benefit assessments of the consequences of committing an offense (von Essen et al. 2016). Situational crime models such as routine activity and crime pattern theory have been utilized as well to explain levels and patterns of EWC (Stassen and Ceccato 2020; von Essen et al. 2016).

However, the aforementioned conflict between law and local practices, as well as morality and legal ambiguity, constitutes a large part of understanding EWC in the rural. White (2016) describes the idea of “folk crime,” that is, illegal acts that are perceived by the offenders and the community as not so criminal, dangerous, or harmful. Illegal killings of animals by hunters and farmers may be considered less offensive by rural residents, especially of animals that are considered “pests” or threats to the offenders and their businesses (see, e.g., Enticott 2011; Ruiz-Suárez et al. 2015; Wagner et al. 2019; Wisniewski et al. 2019). However, offenders of EWC are not necessarily unaware or nonchalant regarding offending; rather, they utilize justifications to neutralize inner, moral conflicts; see, for example, neutralization theory (Sykes and Matza 1957). von Essen et al. (2017) found that hunters justify the killings of wolves in multiple ways, although the crimes are discussed through the “veil of anonymity” by which the hunters distance themselves from the offending. Further justification includes framing these acts as political protest against injustice and resistance against authorities (Holmes 2016; Højberg et al. 2017; Pohja-Mykrä 2016; von Essen et al. 2015). Additionally, Schoultz and Flyghed (2016) showed how environmental harm caused by corporations and industries is excused by appealing to higher loyalties, such as referencing the societal benefits their activities may provide; and this happens across the globe. Indeed, EWC is often considered a “cost of doing business,” or even covered up to defend local economies or businesses (Ceccato 2015b; McDowell 2013).

Stassen and Ceccato (2020) suggested that EWC does not happen at random but follows people’s routine activities. This in turn makes combating EWC in rural areas even more challenging than in urban areas, as the detection time increases due to comparably lower guardianship and likelihood of someone encountering the incident. Ceccato (2015b) found that the detection rate is heavily dependent on environmental inspectors, who in Sweden, for example, have the dual role of reporting crimes and develop many other functions. However, when there is difficulty proving that an incident is the result of a crime and the likelihood of prosecution is low, inspectors may choose not to report, which in turn makes police statistics of EWC a problematic source of data. Additionally, authorities are not actively searching for environmental crime, meaning that they are only notified of more obvious and visible incidents.

Organized Crime

Rural areas have increasingly been found to be locations of organized and larger-scale crime by groups and larger networks. Organized crime in rural areas can include illegal enterprises of, for example, drug production and dealing, food fraud, counterfeiting, as well as human trafficking and gang violence (see, e.g. Somerville et al. 2015). As rural areas are often places of social isolation and lower guardianship, they may have vulnerabilities that allow organized crime to more easily manifest in communities in different ways. Criminal organizations can, for example, establish themselves within communities through social networks in the local area, or outside communities through long-distance networks. Rural areas may also serve as both transshipment points and final destinations of trafficked goods and/or people. While perspectives of the rural United States have dominated the research topic thus far, organized crime is clearly present in, for example, the South American and Asian country sides as well. In the following section, this will all be explored in different contexts, focusing on drugs, “street crime,” human trafficking as well as other, more unique cases.

Organized Drug Trade

Drugs may be the most (in)famous illicit or illegal products trafficked by organized crime, and a substantial portion of both drug production and distribution takes place in the rural. For instance, rural areas are especially viable for drug production, as they provide drug producers with higher level of physical privacy and lower detection rates, and with lesser police presence than in urban areas, as well as with soil and water access for cultivating organic drugs (Barclay et al. 2016; Weisheit and Brownstein 2016). While much of the rural drug production and distribution in the United States involves small-scale producers and dealers, international drug trafficking organizations are significant actors in the trans-national production and distribution of drugs, for example, methamphetamine and marijuana from Mexican cartels and alcohol from Canada and Jamaica flowing into rural areas of the United States (Weisheit and Brownstein 2016).

Nonetheless, organized drug networks are commonly originating from or manifesting within rural areas as well. The industry of bootlegging alcohol, for example, can be considered a notable rural criminal enterprise (Davis and Potter 1991). Other developments can be seen in Scotland, where drug organizations based outside rural communities maintain drug markets in rural areas by proxy, making it increasingly difficult for police to disrupt them (Clark et al. 2020). De Souza and Hoefle (1999) studied organized crime related to cannabis cultivation in northeast Brazil, and how it intensified local family feuds and envy-inspired violence. Similarly, the study by van Dun (2014) examined illegal networks and relationships between local cocaine producers, drug bosses, and the rural community in Peru, and how these shape the social organization of these communities. Here the author further observed how the organized drug production industry not only functions as a local economic system but also involves a range of social relations and networks between both legal and illegal actors. In fact, the dominance of smaller Peruvian criminal organizations and their involvement with villagers was found to lead to a certain level of social acceptance of drug production and distribution.

Gang Crime

Gang crime is mainly referring to street and youth gangs, involving a range of illicit activities such as violence, theft, and drug trading. Gangs are not a recent phenomenon in rural areas, but the topic only recently received the same attention as its urban counterpart (Glosser 2016); this despite the fact that the likelihood of young people joining a gang is equal among youth from urban, suburban, and rural areas (Watkins and Taylor 2016). Furthermore, studies such as Anderson et al. (2016) have revealed that some rural areas in the United States have disproportionately high levels of gang-related crime. Glosser (2016) reviewed previous research finding that gang structures are somewhat different in rural areas; there is a higher prevalence of “hybrid gangs”, meaning gangs that cross cultural, ethnic, and racial boundaries, in contrast to traditional gangs. This is due to the lower population of rural communities and potential gang members, restricting the possibility of having a single, structural characteristic as in traditional gangs. Rural gang activities have also been shown to be more secretive and less visible than their urban counterparts. Social isolation, inequality and the disconnect between “migrant” and “native” rural community members have been highlighted as reasons why young people engage in gangs in rural areas.

Human Trafficking

A subject that has increasingly become relevant is the prevalence of human trafficking in rural areas. One form of human trafficking is sex trafficking, which in the United States is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 as “the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act,” where the sexual act is induced by force, coercion, fraud, or where the victim is a legal minor (Cole and Sprang 2015). While sex traffickers appear to operate similarly along the rural-urban continuum, there is a persistent lack of knowledge and preparedness to tackle the issue in rural areas, as rural government officials and professionals are less aware of and less likely to have received training in the subject (Cole and Sprang 2015; Kumar et al. 2020). As rural areas are often characterized by financial instability and a lack of legitimate employment opportunities compared to urban areas, rural inhabitants may be more vulnerable to falling prey to the sex traffickers’ strategies when trying to secure a livelihood for themselves and their families (Kumar et al. 2020).

While the sex trafficking of women and children may be the more well-known form of human trade, there has been an increased focus on trafficking in order to exploit labor, especially within the farming industry (Barrick 2016; Brisman et al. 2014; Brisman et al. 2016; Byrne and Smith 2016). In fact, estimations of the composition of the forced labor industry puts the share of sex work at 22%, while 68% involves agricultural and 10%, construction and domestic work, although the likelihood of experiencing sexual abuse is high in both categories (Byrne and Smith 2016). Labor trafficking involves transporting, forcing, or coercing someone into involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery, while differing from smuggling. The abuse of farm workers involves a large system of exploiting poor, disenfranchised, and often foreign workers, who have limited legal protection and therefore are easier to control and coerce into compliance (Barrick 2016).

Other Forms of Organized Crime

An emergent subtopic under the umbrella of organized crime is food fraud and theft among farmers; for example, the illegal halal meat trade (McElwee et al. 2017; Smith and McElwee 2013). Food fraud involves any illegal activity related to tampering with, adding to, or misrepresenting food, and it can be considered a criminal enterprise due to involving both legitimate and criminal behaviors (McElwee et al. 2017). It has been compared to the cocaine trade in terms of profit, although with fewer risks and a lower likelihood of detection (Smith and McElwee 2013). Other rural criminal enterprises include the Chinese “cake uncles,” who under the guise of delivering cakes commit petty fraud in rural villages, which later expanded into larger enterprises (Xi 2018). Mafias have also emerged as illegal suppliers of sand and oil in rural India (Michelutti 2019).

In summary, organized crime seems to have a relatively significant presence in rural areas, although this is thus far not reflected in the amount of literature dedicated to this topic. Organized crime involves a range of different types of crime and offenders, which may impact differently areas in the rural-urban continuum. Certain organized crimes such as those related to the agricultural industry are, by their nature, limited to rural areas, as previously discussed. As this is an emergent topic within rural criminology, we hope that this section has illustrated the need for greater attention to be placed on this subject by future research.