Good News and Bad News: the Mafia Is no Longer la Cosa Nostra, but there Are More Mafias than Ever

Joseph M. Conforti
State University of New York 


Nothing has been so exasperating a burden on Italian-Americans over the past century as the Sicilian/Italian Mafia, and particularly the tendency for people to indiscriminately generalize its properties to all Italian-Americans. It has also been a difficult phenomenon to deal with, for however defamatory and embarrassing the Mafia has proven to be for Italian-Americans, denying its existence, or even its ubiquity, was at least equally embarrassing.
            There is some relief in sight, for better or worse. The relief is two-fold: the decline of the traditional Sicilian/Italian Mafia in the United States and the ascendancy of several other organized crime groups from the United States and various other parts of the world. While it is risky to predict the demise of an organization, there is evidence that the traditional (Sicilian/Italian) Mafia is in decline, if not yet quite dead (Reuter, 1995). This is in part evidenced by reports from police sources that a new generation of members is not very evident in what is an otherwise rapidly aging group. But in terms of organized crime, this would only be a relative decline, as other younger organized crime groups increasingly supplant the traditional Mafia.

The Mafia: Italian-American albatross
Italian-Americans have usually found the subject of the Mafia at least somewhat uncomfortable, if not embarrassing to deal with. Many, if not all, have experienced an occasion when several Italian names were said in a row, only to hear someone jokingly say «sounds like the Mafia!» On the other hand, denying the existence of the Mafia has been equally embarrassing, if not even more so. It invites the suggestion by some that you must be «one of them» (Smith, 1975, p. 325). Italian-Americans are, of course, not the only Americans subjected to negative stereotypes. Jewish-Americans have been stereotyped as pushy, obsessed with money and clannish, Irish-Americans as drunkards, African-Americans as lazy and criminal and Polish-Americans as dumb. Even Korean-Americans and Chinese-Americans have been unhappy with their ostensibly more positive stereotypes as hard-studying nerds and hard-working model minorities. All of these stereotypes have two properties in common. One is that there is always an element of truth in these stereotypes, however exaggerated they may be in their over-generalization. That is in itself a very painful thing to accept among the members of the group subjected to the stereotype. That the Mafia developed in Sicily and the Camorra developed in Naples are well documented, as is the fact that some of their members migrated to the United States along with the several million Italian and Sicilian immigrants. The other property the stereotypes share is that they are always in the hands of others. It is the image held by people outside the stereotyped group that defines that group. Those in the stereotyped group usually have little or no leverage available to combat the images. This has been clear in the case of Italian-American politicians and political candidates accused of association with the mob, the Mafia or underworld figures (Luconi, 1996). Such accusations declare one to be guilty until proven innocent, and proving one's innocence, if that is at all possible, takes a lot longer than the campaign and election. It is like Joe McCarthy's accusing people of being communists in the 1950's. In retrospect it appears resoundingly absurd, but in the meantime people's lives were ruined.

Demise of the traditional Italian Mafia
That the traditional Mafia is in a state of demise is reflected in several dimensions of the viability of such an organization. Newspaper accounts of arrests and investigations throughout the country suggest the members are getting older and that new members are not being recruited in numbers great enough to replace the old members (Reuter, 1995). There are at least two reasons that could account for this. One is that, after three to four generations of assimilation and social mobility, the would-be recruits have enough legitimate opportunities available to them that they do not have to pursue opportunities as high in risk as the traditional Mafia has to offer. The other is that those Mafia members who have survived to a relatively ripe old age are probably also interested in investing their accumulated wealth as capital in the legitimate opportunities available to them, especially through and on behalf of their own children. It would be a mark of success that their children did not have to follow in their footsteps. This is very much in keeping with Daniel Bell's (1953) much noted article on organized crime as an alternative ladder of social mobility for the more recently arrived immigrant groups lacking legitimate business opportunities. A second reason for the decline would lie in changes in some of the areas in which the traditional Mafia has usually done business. The biggest change is probably in gambling, generally acknowledged as their largest and longest running source of income. The legalization and legitimization of gambling has become so widespread as to provide little need for illegal services in this area. Almost all states now operate a variety of lotteries and numbers games; some also have off-track betting, many have casinos on Indian reservations or floating on off-shore boats, all in addition to the massive concentrations of gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Even the extension of credit to gamblers, or loan sharking in itself, has been undermined, in this case by the ubiquity of credit cards. Cash advances are available to card holders willing to extend their debts and a kind of legal kiting is available by the acquisition of a new credit card that absorbs the debt of one or more older cards, a process that can be repeated to extend the credit further and further. While the use of these devices entails high interest payments, they are still lower than those of the conventional loan sharks. Another area in which the traditional Mafia long operated was in various forms of union racketeering. The loss of viability in this area is well reflected in New York City where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been successful in breaking the Mafia's hold over the Fulton Fish Market, the garment district trucking industry, the concrete industry, the garbage disposal industry and even its hold over the San Gennaro street feast (Van Natta, 1996). Aside from such legal prosecution, a fundamental limitation on the continuation of this line of endeavor is the sheer contraction of organized labor. Over the past few decades, in the course of America's de-industrialization, organized labor has contracted, to the point where less than 15 per cent of the labor force in America is currently unionized (Monthly Labor Review, 1996).
            Three more factors in the decline might best be looked at in relation to one another. They are the traditional Mafia's role in the drug trade, legal prosecution efforts and the role of competing organized crime groups. While the traditional Mafia has been involved in the drug trade, particularly in bringing heroin into the United States, there have long been indications that there was some ambivalence about this trade and that it may never have extended much beyond heroin. Aside from ambivalence in this area, undoubtedly the most lucrative in organized crime, the traditional Mafia has, on the one hand, been outflanked by competing organized crime groups and, on the other hand, subjected to more effective prosecution by law enforcement agencies. The ability of law enforcement agencies to successfully prosecute the traditional Mafia has taken a significant toll. In March 1996 the United States Attorney's Office brought indictments against 17 individuals in Detroit and Florida, effectively wiping out the Detroit Mafia (Meredith, 1996). That those indicted were generally over the age of 60 reflects the aging of the traditional Mafia. Law enforcement agencies at all levels of government have been investigating the traditional Mafia for decades. They have joined forces, shared information and built stronger cases against such old men than they can possibly build against the generally younger, lesser known and much less penetrable organized crime groups.

The new mafias
To describe the new organized crime groups as lesser known and much less penetrable is at least in part a reflection of the fact that the law enforcement resources have been concentrated on the traditional Mafia. That the newer groups have not received as much attention is also due to the fact that there are many of them from various parts of the world, developed to different degrees, operating in a variety of languages and repertoires. If it has taken almost a century for law enforcement agencies to penetrate the language barrier, code of secrecy and other obstacles of one organized crime group, it is mind boggling to think of what will be required to mount an effective assault on the myriad of new groups succeeding that one group. Almost 20 different kinds of organized crime groups are here being defined as new, and there is no assurance that this is a complete list. They are, after all, secret illegal groups that presumably avoid exposure and identification as long as possible. The diversity of the crime groups reflects race, ethnicity, language, culture and nationality. Some are homegrown while many have arrived from other parts of the world, typically among the law-abiding immigrants from their homelands.

Yakuza What are probably the largest, best organized and most like the traditional mafia are the Japanese Yakuza groups. They are highly structured, with thousands of members organized in subsidiary gangs, which deal mainly in drugs, gambling and a variety of semi-legal enterprises such as dispute resolution (Delfs, 1991). Their expansion into the United States follows the historic route of Japanese immigration to the United States: first to Hawaii, then to the west coast and eastward from there (President's Commission on Organized Crime, 1986, pp. 102-103).

Triads Another large organized crime syndicate that has been moving across the Pacific from Asia would be the Chinese triad groups from Hong Kong. These groups have been moving to the United States with the many immigrants who had been leaving Hong Kong before its return to China in 1997 (Malik, 1988). The triads may well be the most far-flung organized crime groups in the world. Historically operating out of China, Taiwan and (or through) Hong Kong, they are reputed to be active in most, if not all, overseas Chinese communities, including the Chinatowns of numerous cities in the United States (Chin, 1990; Kleinecht, 1996; President's Commission on Organized Crime, 1986, pp. 85-94). They are largely responsible for the movement of Heroin from what has become known as the Golden Triangle near the Chinese border with Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, to at least North America, Australia and Europe (Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, 1996, pp. 260-261; Mulcahy, 1987.
            The operations of the triads in the United States are complicated by their intertwinement with the traditional Chinese tongs and a variety of Chinese street gangs from Vietnam, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan (Chin, 1990; Kleinecht, 1996). These include both Vietnamese gangs that emerged from the «boat people» who escaped from Vietnam to Hong Kong, (and who then spent years in refugee camps there) and Fujianese gangs. The Fujianese specialize in smuggling illegal immigrants from South China's Fujian Province, most infamously known through the grounding of the Golden Venture ship off New York City in 1993 (Kleinecht, 1996, pp. 158ff.)

The Russian mafia Another group that came across an ocean to America is the Russian Mafia. Like other organized crime groups, the Russians came with immigrants from their homeland, in this case Russian Jews. The Russian Jews had become the focal point of international diplomatic negotiations to allow Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union and go to Israel. While thousands left the Soviet Union; once out, some became more interested in the United States than in Israel and a large number wound up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn (Kleinknecht, 1996). These gangsters had developed their skills in the underground economy that flourished as the counterbalance to the state-regulated economy in the Soviet Union. They thus developed skills in a variety of white-collar fraudulent schemes. Their foremost scheme in the United States has been tax evasion in the resale of fuel oil through a series of dummy wholesale companies. Only the company that finally sells the fuel to retailers is obligated to pay taxes, which company disappears amidst all the trades before any taxes are paid. The Russian Mafia has been linked to the traditional Mafia over the years and recently those linkages became clear in a most intriguing case in New Jersey. The Russian Mafia had expanded their fuel oil fraud scheme to New Jersey where the Genovese, Gambino, Luchese and Columbo crime families of the traditional Mafia imposed a tax on their operations (Sullivan, 1996). While the interaction of the two Mafias is interesting in itself, as is the implication that the traditional Mafia is still strong enough to dominate, it is particularly interesting that it took four of the traditional Mafia families to exert such control, suggesting no one of them was strong enough to have done it alone.

Hispanic organized crime organizations
From still another direction, the South, have come more organized crime groups in recent years. These have been mostly Hispanic groups. The best known, the Colombian drug cartels from the cities of Cali and Medellin, distribute a variety of drugs and dominate the distribution of cocaine in the United States (Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, 1996, pp. 81-88; Kleinknecht, 1996). The Colombians work closely with Dominicans, who have come to dominate Hispanic crime groups in New York City (Kleinknecht, 1996). Cubans, especially those taken from prisons and put on boats, along with fleeing refugees during the Mariel boatlift, established bases of operation in Cuban neighborhoods in Southern Florida and Northern New Jersey. Additional Hispanic groups include Puerto Ricans, particularly in numbers running, and Mexicans, including the Mexican Mafia in Los Angeles (Kleinknecht, 1996, p. 239; President's Commission on Organized Crime, 1986,pp. 75-77). Also from South of the border, though not Hispanic, are the Jamaican posses. Like other organized crime groups, they initially settled in the same neighborhoods as their fellow West Indian immigrants, in this case, Brooklyn and Miami, and spread out to other areas of the United States from there (Kleinknecht, 1996, p. 227-30). The one continent not mentioned as a source of new organized crime groups above was Africa. But Nigerians do participate in drug smuggling both independently and in connection with other groups and are likely to become more visible in the United States over time. (Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, 1996, pp. xliii).

Home grown organized crime organizations
This last category actually covers an aggregate of groups that have arisen within the United States in recent decades. They can be categorized by race, including blacks and whites; by origin, including motorcycle gangs, street gangs and prison gangs, though in many cases these categories overlap one another. Among the blacks are the South Central Los Angeles street gangs the Bloods and the Crips, who have been spreading eastward and northward taking over the distribution of drugs in a umber of Midwestern cities. The Bloods and the Crips are actually confederations of smaller gangs, as are Chicago's P. Blackstone Nation and Black Gangster Disciples, who are highly organized and also expanding from their roots on Chicago's South Side. These gangs are complemented by a number of other black gangs in American cities, in various stages of organization, some of which originally emerged from Black Muslim groups (Kleinknecht, 1996). Some of the white groups have emerged from motorcycle gangs, the most famous of which are Hell's Angels, the Outlaws and the Pagans which have spread across the country and to Europe (President's Commission on Organized Crime, 1986, pp. 58-71). One of the things common to groups emerging from street gangs and motorcycle gangs is that their members have usually spent considerable amounts of time in prison, where some of their coalescence occurred, and which serves as a convenient arena in which to recruit new members. In terms of recruiting new members, it may be enlightening to consider where new members are recruited, as a means of anticipating the future sources of organized crime. As best we know, the original Mafia originated from underground guerilla movements in Sicily fighting against a succession of invaders (Smith, 1975). Chinese triads, the Vietnamese gangs, Japanese Yakuza and the more recent Jamaican posses all came from such political-ideological backgrounds as part-time or full-time soldiers. We can observe several places throughout the world where such conditions are generating the new or potential gangsters. Northern Ireland, Palestine, Lebanon, Albania, Rwanda, Burundi, Peru, Guatemala and, above all, the many countries that emerged from what was once Yugoslavia (Hedges, 1996). One more source of future gangs may lie in the frustrations of those young would-be soldiers ready to fight the invaders. While the United States has not literally been invaded, there are underground guerilla groups (particularly in the West) organized to defend against anticipated invasion, which call themselves militias, that may also prove fertile sources of new recruits for organized crime.

Implications for Italian-Americans
While these developments clearly presage some very dark days for America, like the proverbial dark clouds, they too can have a silver lining. The silver lining would be a reduction in the association of organized crime with Italian-Americans. The reduction would result from the transitional nature of the association. That is, the stereotype, by virtue of being associated with an activity in which the group has participated, can be expected to diminish as the activity diminishes. There is already an example of this in the case of Italian-Americans, the association with fascism. Aside from historians studying the past, few people think of Italians in relation to fascism any longer. Thus, as organized crime comes to be associated less and less with Italian-Americans and increasingly with a variety of other ethnic groups, the stereotype should diminish. The association is not likely to completely disappear immediately, however, for there will be the lingering effects of the entertainment media keeping the traditional Mafia alive for its entertainment value. There is also the lingering effect of the very word mafia, which has come to be attached to other organized crime groups such as the Mexican Mafia or the Russian Mafia. Unfortunately the term mafia is surviving the ethnic transition of organized crime. But then, as Jerry Della Femina might put it in attribution, «from those wonderful folks who gave us the word ghetto.»


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