“The Sopranos,” the HBO series loosely based on the DeCavalcante family in New Jersey, romanticized the modern-day Italian Mafia. There’s no doubt the show was a huge hit; however, was there any truth behind it? Is the Mafia a fizzled-out relic of history and pop culture, or does it still thrive in America? And if it is thriving, will the recent bust in New York and New Jersey—the largest in history, with 16 indictments of over 100 mobsters—put the nail in La Cosa Nostra’s coffin?
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was passed by congress in 1970 specifically to target the Mafia. RICO made it easier for feds to bring down mobsters on organized crime charges—specifying “racketeering” as the commission of any two of 35 crimes in a ten-year period—and enabled judges to hand down longer sentences and more severe financial penalties. Since then, the U.S. government has been all over the Mafia like fleas on a dog, arresting bosses in record numbers. RICO effectively undid the code of silence among mobsters, resulting in more convictions as they ratted out one another to save themselves.
History of the Mob
The Mafia came to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, primarily from Sicily, and, in the 1920s, morphed from an honorable group of Sicilian men originally formed to defend against their enemies to the organized crime ring it is today. Charles “Lucky” Luciano organized La Cosa Nostra (LCN)—the American branch of the Sicilian Mafia—by forming a “Commission” to act as overseer of all LCN activities. LCN is divided among several “families” involved in various illegal activities around the country.
The Reality of Organized Crime
Though Frank Sinatra and “The Sopranos” made the Mafia seem cool, mobsters are actually brutal, bloodthirsty criminals who would just as soon stab you in the eye with a fork or rob your granny of her life savings and walk away laughing as look at you. According to the FBI, the biggest threat to America from the Mafia is drug trafficking and money laundering. However, they are also well known for many other racketeering activities, including extortion, bribery, counterfeiting, theft, embezzlement, loan sharking, arson, gambling, prostitution, kidnapping, and, of course, murder. The Mafia controls industries like construction and sanitation in major East Coast cities, and has infiltrated and corrupted labor unions as well.
In January of 2011, over 800 federal, state, and local law enforcement officials conducted one of the largest Mafia busts in history, arresting 127 mobsters from a total of seven New York, New Jersey, and New England Mafia families. Among the arrested were heads and important underbosses of the Columbo and Gambino families of New York, who now face life imprisonment for their crimes. It is important to keep in mind, though, that a 2008 bust that led to the arrests of close to 100 Mafiosi in New York and Siciliy resulted in 62 men charged, only 17 of whom remain behind bars today. Plea deals could set many of these mobsters free to pick up where they left off.
The Future of La Cosa Nostra
The perception that the Mafia in America isn’t what it used to be is, unfortunately, false. The Assistant Director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office said, “The notion that today’s mob families are more genteel and less violent than the past is put to lie by the charges contained in the indictments unsealed today.” One organized crime expert says that the bust will only have a temporary effect on American Mafia activity. Though several big bosses were taken off the streets, the FBI estimates that more than 3,000 LCN members are active in the U.S.— plenty of whom are no doubt happy to step up and take charge.