The Slate Gist

The Mafia

The Mafia has replaced the Wild West as the movie industry’s great American myth. Re-released two weeks ago to commemorate its 25th anniversary, TheGodfather depicts Mafiosi ruling a sprawling business empire in the 1940s. More recent films present images of a Mafia in decline: In Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino’s mobster character loots parking meters to earn his keep. Next month CBS will air The Last Don, an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s latest novel. What is the Mafia’s role in real life, and how has it changed over the years?

The Mafia (Arabic for “refuge”), also called la cosa nostra (“our thing”), began as a clandestine partisan band in 9th century Sicily, combating a series of foreign invasions. By the 18th century, it had evolved into the island’s unofficial government. It retained its paramilitary tactics and insularity (Mafiosi called their organization a “family,” and members took a blood oath). During the 19th century, the group turned criminal. It terrorized businesses and landowners who didn’t regularly pay protection.

At the turn of the century, the Mafia attempted to replicate its Sicilian operation throughout Western Europe and America. It initially succeeded only in Southern Italy and America. By 1920, the Mafia had established “families” (chapters) in most Italian-American enclaves, even in midsized cities like Rochester, N.Y., and San Jose, Calif. Extorting protection payments continued to be its primary function. Only during Prohibition did it branch out of ethnic neighborhoods and into bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. However, in New York and Chicago–the largest bastions of organized crime–Jewish and Italian gangs (not Sicilian Mafiosi) dominated. In the 1930s, the mobsters Meyer Lansky and “Lucky” Luciano set up a national crime syndicate–a board of the most powerful organized-crime chiefs to mediate disputes and plan schemes. The Mafia played only a minor role.

The Godfather’s depiction of Mafia strength in the late ‘40s is largely accurate. Because of its committed, disciplined rank and file and economic base in extortion, the Mafia emerged as the dominant organized-crime group to survive Prohibition’s repeal. In 1957, Mafia families took control of the Lansky-Luciano syndicate. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, families also firmed up relationships with urban political machines (New York City politicians openly sought their support), police departments, and the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover denied the existence of the Mafia and refused to investigate it). City governments helped rig government contracts and turned a blind eye to other rackets. Many of the scams depended on the Mafia’s increasing control of unions, especially the Teamsters and the Longshoremen’s.

The Mafia’s power has steadily declined since the late ‘50s. In New York, the number of “soldiers” or “wise-guys“–the ones who take the blood oath–has dwindled. According to the New York City Police Department, there were about 3,000 soldiers in the city in the early ‘70s, 1,000 in 1990, and only 750 last year. The Mafia is said to rely increasingly on “associates”–mobsters who have not taken an oath. Often this consists of alliances with other ethnic gangs, especially Irish ones.

In the last 10 years, Mafia operations have been devastated by arrests. For instance, last year federal agents busted the bulk of Detroit’s family–one of the most powerful and impenetrable. The FBI describes once-thriving operations in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and other major cities as virtually defunct. The head of the FBI’s organized-crime unit estimates that 10 percent of America’s active Mafia soldiers are now locked up.

Only New York and Chicago have substantial Mafia organizations. The New York Mafia consists of five families (Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Bonanno, and Colombo) that have sometimes cooperated, sometimes competed with one another. Until the 1992 arrest of its boss, John Gotti, New York’s Gambino family was the nation’s most powerful. However, it has been replaced by the Genovese family, which has recently suffered fewer arrests. But the Genoveses, too, are in trouble. The family’s leader, Vincent “Chin” Gigante, was recently indicted and has been said to be mentally unstable–he used to wander Greenwich Village in his pajamas, mumbling incoherently. The Lucchese and Bonanno families merged gambling activities last year to compensate for thinning ranks.

Police estimate that Chicago’s Mafia syndicate the “Outfit” has only 100 members–half its 1990 strength. After a series of convictions in the mid-’80s, the Outfit lost its control of Las Vegas casino-gambling revenue to legitimate business.

In spite of declining numbers, the Mafia remains profitable. According to the New York City Police Department, in 1994 the five families pocketed $2 billion from gambling alone. Loan-sharking also continues to be lucrative. However, the Mafia’s other activities have radically changed. For instance, its biggest extortion schemes in the New York area have been broken up: It no longer controls wholesale food (the City Council broke its hold on Fulton Fish Market) or Long Island’s garbage-removal cartel. According to the New York Times, it has adapted to the losses by shifting to white-collar crime. Major new scams include collaboration with small brokerage houses in stock-tampering schemes, and the manufacturing of faulty prepaid telephone calling cards sold at convenience stores.

Mafia experts propose five explanations for the decline:

1) Increased federal enforcement. Before Hoover’s death, the FBI did not aggressively investigate the Mafia. In addition, starting in the early ‘80s federal prosecutors have used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), passed in 1970, to charge top mob bosses with extortion.

2) The government cleaned up the unions. As late as 1986, the Justice Department found that the Mafia controlled the International Longshoremen’s Association, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, the Teamsters union, and the Laborers’ International Union. However, subsequent government supervision of these unions has reduced mob involvement.

3) The rise of black urban politics destroyed the big city machines the Mafia once depended upon to carry out its rackets.

4) Assimilation: Second- and third-generation Sicilians, who now control the Mafia, place less emphasis on the omertà –the code of silence that precludes snitching. Turncoats have provided the decisive evidence in recent cases against John Gotti and other bosses.

5) The Mafia failed to control the drug trade. Mexican, Colombian, and South Asian mobsters more efficiently import cheaper drugs and eschew partnerships with the Mafia. In addition, many predict the Russian mob, operating out of Brooklyn, will soon replace the Mafia as New York City’s largest organized-crime outfit.