In mid-1950s, the Italian-American criminal organization known as Cosa Nostra was enjoying the peak of its political influence and economic success. At the time, many questioned the organization’s presence. J. Edgar Hoover completely denied its existence for years. And unfortunately for the criminals describing themselves as “businessmen,” their reign atop the criminal underworld was swiftly coming to a close. Why did the power of Cosa Nostra begin to decline? Is this decline indicative of the death of the mob? And what does today’s mob look like?
The factors that led to this near cessation of overwhelming power are numerous, but two stand out as the most influential. The first is the death of omertà, the code of silence, and the resulting convictions. The second factor involved other criminal organizations pushing Cosa Nostra to the periphery as a result of competition. In spite of these factors, though, the mafia is still very much alive.
A Death in the Family
The downsizing of the mafia began in 1959 with the arrest of Joe Valachi. Valachi was associated with the Genovese family of New York, which was prominent in Cosa Nostra. Offered a deal in which he could either testify about the mafia or face the death penalty, Valachi decided to talk. In an interview with the HPR, Jeffrey Robinson, author of The Merger: How Organized Crime is Taking Over the World, claimed that this was a pivotal point in the history of the Italian mob: “He broke omertà. That’s really a very important moment because until then nobody talked … the FBI realized that they could get inside Italian organized crime.” According to Robinson, FBI agents began approaching mob figures and offer protection from prosecution in exchange for information on other mobsters. It was an overwhelmingly successful approach.
This strategy leveled serious blows to the structure of Cosa Nostra, culminating in the Mafia Commission Trials of 1987 that indicted each head of New York’s Five Families. In 1992, even John Gotti, known as “Teflon Don” because charges never seemed to stick to him, was convicted on charges related to his organized crime activities. Omertà was dead for Cosa Nostra. According to Robinson, so many people flipped that the Sicilian mafia was able to enter the scene and take control of three of the Five Families of New York. They have maintained control to this day.
Ending an Illegal Monopoly
Cosa Nostra’s peaceful cooperation with other criminal organizations also contributed to the group’s decline. Traditionally, moving onto another group’s territory ensured a war. But according to Robinson, as Russian fraudsters relocated to Miami (Colombian territory)—followed by Italians interested in the heroin market—nobody was being killed. Law enforcement soon came to believe that this was because of collaboration between the organizations. When crack cocaine became readily available, many new criminal organizations got involved, and their quickly expanding influence muscled Cosa Nostra into the periphery. This loss of total power, coupled with the end of omertà, forced the Cosa Nostra into a largely successful effort to downsize.
Several criminal organizations, such as the Russian mob and the Mexican cartels, have filled Cosa Nostra’s power void in the United States. New York University professor Mark Galeotti told the HPR that Russian operations in the United States consist mainly of fraud, including schemes that target the U.S. government. He explains, “There are millions upon millions [of dollars] being looted from Medicare and Medicaid [by Russian organized crime].” Similarly, law enforcement has largely failed in stopping the Mexican drug cartels. In an interview with the HPR, Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, argued that despite efforts by law enforcement to stop the cartels, “you still have a drug industry, you still have thousands and thousands of people working for organized crime, you still have millions of consumers of drugs, and you still have high levels of violence.” Grillo also acknowledged the success of other organizations in exporting their gangs to the United States, particularly Colombian gangs and Jamaican “posses.” These organizations may have supplanted the former power and influence of Cosa Nostra. However, despite their reduced influence, the Italians continue to operate.
Into the Modern Era
In the wake of September 11, the FBI’s focus on organized crime has decreased sharply in favor of counterterrorism operations. In a government document titled “10 Years After: The FBI After 9/11,” the FBI acknowledged that it shifted resources from criminal matters to counterterrorism. The document notes that the number of counterterrorist intelligence analysts has doubled. According to current New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton in a 2007 Policing article, “As law enforcement reacted to the aftermath of 9/11, and the United States’ federal dollars and priorities shifted, organized crime groups were able to exploit the reduction in law enforcement attention and moved aggressively to establish new ‘trade routes’ and alliances.” In a 2011 interview with CUNY TV, former New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab claimed that there were once 500 members of law enforcement working on organized crime in New York City. Now, he said, there are around 50, enabling the survival of Cosa Nostra.
According to Robinson, Italian-American organized crime has found a niche role in construction, extortion and protection rackets. In the construction industry, he explains, Cosa Nostra profits by winning bids to do contract work and then fraudulently collecting revenue for unnecessary or absent employees. According to a close friend of Robinson’s who is now in the witness protection program, five percent of all construction funds in the city of New York go to the mafia. Joseph Pistone, a former FBI agent who infiltrated Cosa Nostra in New York, told Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission, which was investigating construction bid corruption, that the mob controls the construction industry via unions. He said that the mafia bosses control unions and subsequently threaten to strike if the company doesn’t relinquish a “fee.” Robinson adds that the mafia still operates protection rackets, in which a business owner will be threatened and then asked to pay a fee for “protection” from this threat.
Despite its reduced influence, Italian-American organized crime is unquestionably alive. The death of omertà, combined with a crowded criminal market, resulted in a downsizing of Cosa Nostra’s criminal operations. It has transformed from a monopoly on the criminal underworld to another small player in a global network. Despite its diminished influence, it has successfully downsized its operations, paving the way for a sustainable, albeit smaller, operation. Cosa Nostra is not dead, and won’t be anytime soon.
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