Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Not yet sleeping with the fishes: Where the Mafia goes from here

Late Gambino boss John Gotti (left) leaves Queens Criminal Court.
Last week's round-up of about 120 suspected members of the Mafia in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island on allegations ranging from murder to racketeering came as a shock to the public, which had written off the mob as little more than the stuff of movies. I suspect that the bust was equally shocking to the mobsters themselves, who had grown overconfident that a cash-strapped government occupied with preventing terrorism had forgotten about them.
In the old days, mob families had little to fear from law enforcement. With their wealth and influence, it was relatively easy for organized crime syndicates - like the famed Five Families of New York - to buy protection, intimidate witnesses and fix criminal cases. If a mob boss was jailed, it was usually for a white-collar crime like tax evasion - most famously, in the case of Al Capone.
In the 1980s, when the federal government mounted an all-out national drive against the Mafia, the criminals faced a much tougher legal system. In courts, threats to witnesses or attempts to bribe judges often resulted in additional charges.
Convictions were much more likely, and under tough racketeering laws, sentences could be severe. Faced with 40 years or more in prison, even veteran gangsters such as Sammy (The Bull) Gravano began cutting deals, and the code of silence known as omerta became a virtual dead letter.
For the next two decades, the Mafia was so battered by law enforcement that, by 2000, it became common to characterize the once-influential mob families as "melting icebergs" that were regressing from sophisticated criminal enterprises to crude gangs.
Not only were the gangsters being jailed wholesale, but the organizations were losing their base. The traditional industrial city, with its distinctive European immigrant neighborhoods that retained Old World cultural values, and its politics dominated by a powerful local political machine, was fast disappearing.
But the Mafia's death has been greatly exaggerated, as Thursday's arrests show. In 2005, I interviewed a number of organized crime experts about the future of the Mafia. The consensus was that while mob strongholds like New York and Chicago were not what they used to be, they were not entirely free of organized crime. In fact, as the most recent allegations show, they remained active in industries like construction and sanitation while continuing the practices of extortion, gambling and loansharking. Despite problems in recruiting members, there were plenty who were attracted to a "Sopranos" lifestyle. As one FBI official put it, some young gangsters "have not been through the wars and feel they can become big shots."
Experts were concerned that if the government ignored the Mafia, it would become powerful once again, expanding into other cities. But Thursday's events proved that law enforcement never lost sight of organized crime.
What will be the Mafia's reaction to the mass round-up? Some bosses will probably opt to lay low for a while. An alternative scenario, already present in some cities, such as Chicago, is that gangsters will pull back from operating enterprises like business scams in favor of franchising these activities out to associates who have no criminal records while they concentrate on providing financing and laundering money.
There may even be a role for the American Mafia in the growing world of international organized crime - a role that could be facilitated by the ease of moving money and the difficulty of tracking digital communications.
In the 21st century, the Mafia, like many an American corporation, may become a subsidiary of an international conglomerate seeking to establish a presence in the United States.
But whatever course the mob chooses, it will not succeed as long as the government continues to vigorously pursue it - as it has done for three decades.
Reppetto is the author of "Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia."



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