The New York Mob ain’t dead, but it’s far from the robust times it enjoyed when the five New York crime families— Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese—single-handedly controlled the city’s powerful labor unions and ran roughshod over the burgeoning construction, trucking, garbage-hauling, and garment industries. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, who have waged a sometimes brutal battle against the five La Cosa Nostra families for more the 60 years, estimate that no more than 750 “made” members (those who have taken the oath of silence) have a continuing allegiance to one of the city’s crime families, with only about 7,500 “associates” (professional criminals whose livelihood is derived principally from the Mob’s criminal enterprises) still on the street. That compares to an active membership in New York of more than 3,000 made members just a few years ago, with the total number of associates estimated at upwards of 20,000 in 1993. One in every ten made members is in jail, including several former New York bosses and their top aides.
A similar story rings true throughout the country, where 24 La Cosa Nostra crime families operate nationwide with an estimated workforce of less than 1,500 made members. The downward spiral of members and associates continues, despite La Costa Nostra’s continued presence across the country: the East Coast, from Philadelphia to Boston; west to Buffalo and other Great Lakes cities; Miami, Tampa, and Atlanta in the Southeast; New Orleans and Houston in the South and Southwest; Kansas City, Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas in the Midwest and West; and California on the West Coast.
Former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, a veteran federal prosecutor, believes the Mob has been “severely weakened” by several high-profile prosecutions. Those cases, he told me, had forged “major inroads” into the inner workings and the hierarchy of the various crime families. “La Cosa Nostra has changed dramatically over the past few years, and is now almost gone from many cities,” he said. “It still has a foothold in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but not anywhere near what it use to be.”
Now in private practice in Washington, D.G., Mr. diGenova said several “truly crippling prosecutions” were responsible for the Mob’s demise, along with the changing character of those who now run the organizations. He described the Mob’s new leaders as less sophisticated and less capable of running their organizations. And several of the crime syndicates are indeed now run by acting leaders, having no permanent boss or no one in line for the job. The resulting leadership vacuum has splintered and decentralized the once-strong mob hierarchy.
Justice Department officials, who have vowed to “eliminate the influence” of traditional crime organizations, also believe the Mob nationwide has suffered severe setbacks from continuing —and successful—government prosecutions, particularly those against the bosses of the Colombo, Gambino, and Lucchese families, and from competition by less organized but more violent Asian gangs, the Grips and the Bloods, outlaw motorcycle gangs, the Jamaican posse, and others. Mr. diGenova said emerging Asian and black gangs have replaced many of the La Cosa Nostra operations throughout the country that in earlier times were rooted in Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities. “The ascendancy of new groups is not a surprise,” he said. “It’s part of the normal evolution of organized crime groups.” Meanwhile, several of La Cosa Nostra’s old haunts, mainly the social clubs along the infamous Mulberry Street in Little Italy, have shut down or become trendy shops and restaurants.
Despite the decline of the old-line guard and the rise of new Mob bosses and underlings more committed to self-interest than to old values of loyalty, the crime organizations’ often-profitable criminal ventures persist in several areas of the country. And while their numbers have dwindled, they still are active players in a number of dangerous criminal ventures, including murder, drugs, money laundering, weapons sales, labor racketeering, extortion, burglary, loan sharking, arson, immigration fraud, and auto theft. However, according to federal law enforcement authorities, a significant amount of the drug trade—that lucrative business that netted the Mob millions of dollars annually—has been lost to other crime syndicates, including the Colombian and Mexican gangs who bypass the same La Cosa Nostra bosses who once demanded a piece of the action.
Historically, La Cosa Nostra, by necessity, has operated on at least two levels, one more secretive than the other. Everyday crime—gambling, loansharking, and drugs—require contact with an often eager consumer. But the infiltration of legitimate businesses and labor unions is an invisible foray—deeply hidden from law enforcement scrutiny.
One sign that the Mob’s influence—particularly in New York—is on the wane is a decline of meetings by the bosses of the five La Costa Nostra families. Calling themselves the Commission, the bosses met often to discuss internal problems and to coordinate their various criminal enterprises. Law enforcement authorities believe the Commission—established in 1931 by Mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano—has gone out of business.
“It’s too early to tell if the Commission is permanently dead,” Daniel J. Castleman, chief of investigations for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, told the New York Times. Prosecutors believe the Commission has not met since 1996, crippled by a lack of leadership from the five families. “Without a Commission there will be significant disruption in the ability of organized crime to victimize people and to make a comeback in the industries they once dominated,” Mr. Castleman said.
Much of the decline of the Mob relates to decisions by key La Cosa Nostra figures to violate the syndicate’s code of silence, the omerta. One high-profile defection was Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, one-time Gambino consigliere, who broke the code to testify against his former boss, John Gotti. Gotti, the 55-year-old, brash-talking Mob boss known as the “Dapper Don,” was convicted in l992 on racketeering charges, including ordering the 1985 murder of former Gambino boss Paul Castellano. The conviction, in the government’s fourth attempt, was based largely on Gravano’s testimony.
The guilty verdict, coming after just 13 hours of deliberation by a sequestered and anonymous jury in Brooklyn, was the climax of a six-year effort by federal prosecutors to put Gotti away. Three previous trials (in 1986, 1987, and 1989) ended in acquittal, earning him the nickname “Teflon Don” when the charges did not stick. Gotti and co-defendant Frank “Locks” Locascio, 59, a Gambino underboss, were found guilty of murder, conspiracy, racketeering, gambling, loansharking, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax fraud. He was sentenced in June 1992 by U.S. District Judge Leo Glasser in Brooklyn to life in prison.
At the time, the Gambino family was considered the largest and most active La Cosa Nostra operation in the country, with 200 members and more than 2,000 associates. Named after Carlo Gambino, the late boss of bosses, the organization operated throughout New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Florida and was involved in murder, drug smuggling, money laundering, gambling, embezzlement, extortion, labor racketeering, loansharking, hijacking, airport thefts, and pornography. Crime profits, estimated at $500 million a year, had been used to infiltrate several legitimate businesses, including the garment industry, banking and finance, construction, entertainment, restaurants, food products, liquor sales, manufacturing, and medical services.
“The Teflon is gone. The don is covered with Velcro, and all the charges stuck,” said James Fox, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York office. Attorney General William P. Barr called Gotti’s conviction “a major victory in the department’s continuing assault on organized crime.” He said, “Although more remains to be done, we are making substantial progress in dismantling these organizations.”
Mr. Barr, now in private law practice, told the Washington Times that federal prosecutors have made deals with “unsavory characters” in high-profile drug and racketeering cases in order to win convictions. And, he argued, that policy should continue. “There are no swans in sewers,” he said. “When you’re dealing with criminal organizations, including governments that have been corrupted, there’s only one way to get to the leadership—and that’s through the people who are subordinate. Our capacity to use informants and to turn people within organizations against the leadership, that’s why we’re seeing a lot of progress.” Mr. Barr said that while defense counsel and others have characterized the plea agreements with criminals as “sweetheart deals,” he would prefer to describe them as “appropriate.”
Part of the government’s case against Gotti was based on tapes secretly recorded by the FBI at the Ravenite social club in Brooklyn, which served as Gotti’s headquarters. The Mob boss was heard on the tapes giving orders and describing the organization’s business. On one tape, Gotti bragged about his “greatest hits”—and included a reference to the Castellano slaying. In all, Gotti discussed more than a dozen murders and talked about several Mob hits that were considered, and he also discussed the organization’s secret business dealings and named several associates.
“Some people believe he failed to take the necessary precautions to protect the family,” said a New York police detective. “Wiseguys generally walk on the street or on the boardwalk or at a park when they talk about the business—somewhere they feel safe. Gotti’s on more tape than most disc jockeys.”
What ultimately sealed Gotti’s fate was the willingness of “Sammy the Bull” Gravano to testify against his former boss. The agreement, according to authorities, was worked out with federal prosecutors after Gravano had spent 11 months in the same jail cell with Gotti awaiting trial. Gravano’s wife, they said, begged her husband not to testify.
His testimony sent shockwaves throughout the hierarchies of the city’s other crime families—two of whom, the Genovese and Bonanno organizations, are now so leery of Mob meetings that they refuse to attend them, including the Commission sessions. The Genovese family is considered by law enforcement authorities the most active crime syndicate today, with 250 made members, followed by the Gambino family with about 200 members and the Bonanno and Lucchese families with only about 100 members each.
Gravano, who himself was targeted for prosecution in the Castellano killing, showed in court that he had direct access to Gotti, knowledge of the family’s illegal business dealings, and firsthand information on Gotti’s activities. Facing life in prison for his reputed connection to the Castellano-Bilotti murders, the mobster-turned-informant reportedly cut a deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for his testimony. He heads a growing list of high-ranking mobsters who have turned their backs on La Cosa Nostra’s infamous code of silence to become government informants.
“It used to be unheard of for a made member to turn on the family,” William F. Roemer, Jr., who headed the FBI’s organized crime strike force in Chicago for more than 25 years, said in an interview before his recent death. “But the code of silence, the omerta, has been eroded,” he said. “Top Mob leaders from around the country are seeking to cooperate as a viable alternative to spending 30 or 40 years in prison. Many are beginning to find out that, unlike the past, they can get away with it.”
Jim E. Moody, veteran chief of the FBI’s organized crime section in Washington, said La Cosa Nostra members today are “realists,” and that many of them who agree to testify “see it is an option to spending the rest of their lives in prison. They know that under the new sentencing guidelines, if they get 88 years in prison, they’re going to be there for 88 years—or until they die.”
The willingness of La Cosa Nostra members to go to prison rather than testify against family members began to change in 1981 with the advent of the FBI’s “enterprise theory of investigation,” which allowed the bureau to target crime families instead of individual members. Aided by informants who could be protected, new criminal and civil racketeering statutes, and, eventually, tougher sentencing guidelines, this approach targeted crime bosses and disrupted La Cosa Nostra organizations. Since 1981, more than 1,000 made members and associates have been convicted in federal courts. The hierarchies of the five New York families have been prosecuted, and La Cosa Nostra activities in Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and St. Louis have been targeted.
Prosecutors believe a major reason for the FBI’s success against La Cosa Nostra has been the witness security program, which can hide federal informants in or out of prison, and provide protection for their families. “They still die if they get caught, and they understand that,” said Mr. Roemer. “But with the witness security program, getting caught is much less a certainty.”
A growing number of mobsters and associates have been willing to break La Cosa Nostra’s infamous code of silence over the past three decades. They include:
Alfonse D’Arco: an acting boss of the Lucchese crime family who agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in a labor-racketeering trial in New York involving alleged bid-rigging in several multimillion-dollar projects.
Aladena Fratianno: a former acting boss of the Los Angeles Mob and a Mob captain in Cleveland, “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno gave testimony that led to the convictions of five Mob bosses in Los Angeles on charges of racketeering.
Angela Lonardo: underboss of the Cleveland crime family, now facing a 103-year prison sentence, Lonardo was instrumental in later court cases involving the Mob and was the highest-ranking member ever to defect.
Vincent Teresa: the Number Three man in the New England Mob, “Fat Vinny” Teresa—facing imprisonment at a federal prison in Pennsylvania—testified against Mob figures from Florida to Massachusetts, resulting in the indictment or conviction of more than 50 organized crime bosses, including Meyer Lansky, the Mob’s biggest moneymaker.
Joseph Valachi: while being questioned by the FBI in September 1963, Valachi became the first Mob member to confirm the existence of La Cosa Nostia in the United States. Later, in testimony before the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, he described the organization’s inner workings.
Even Nicholas “The Little Guy” Corozzo, once considered Gotti’s heir-apparent, pleaded guilty in 1997 to federal racketeering charges. In a deal with federal authorities for a lesser sentence, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to violate racketeering laws. The deal, which required his cooperation in other cases, netted him a 15-year reduction on his sentence.