As far as conventional wisdom goes, the Mafia has disappeared from the criminal underground of the United States. But has it?

Image courtesy of US National Archives, public domain.

 In 1963, Joseph Valachi testified to the existence of a national conspiracy of organized crime in the United States. He called it the Cosa Nostra. Roughly translated from Italian this means, “Our Thing” or “Our Affair”. In fact, Valachi was the first member of the Mafia to publically acknowledge its existence.

 At the time, the Mafia was one of the most powerful syndicated crime organizations in the United States. It bore the typical hallmarks of organized crime, as it carried out ongoing and recurrent illegal acts involving multiple offenders. These involved the provision of illegal goods and services in great public demand, mostly through monopoly control. Most major cities in the United States sported a Mafia group or family during the 1950s. The exception was New York, where the Gambino, the Genovese, the Lucchese, the Colombo, and the Bonanno families all vied for power and influence.

 Today, there exists hardly a Mafia family with an identifiable Don in the United States. The New York Times estimated the membership of the five major New York Mafia families to have declined from 3,000 in the 1970s to 1,200 today. Peter Reuter from the School of Public Affairs and the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland reckons that “The Mafia is almost extinguished now as a major actor in the United States’ criminal world”. But is it?

 The Mafia has always been strongest in times when law enforcement has been weakest. In nineteenth century Sicily, the Mafioso was a man of respect who mediated between absent landlords and landless peasants. In the absence of a strong central government both before and after the unification of Italy in 1861, the Mafia administered a system of private justice, strictly separate from that of the state. In this, it was guided by the moral code of the omertà, which forbade any member of the Mafia to apply to the authorities for justice or to assist in the detection of crimes committed by oneself or others. It was this code that Joseph Valachi violated in 1963, which subsequently led to an unprecedented crackdown on Mafia activities in the United States.

 Part of the reason why some believe the Mafia has disappeared is because between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, the Mafia was subjected to a relentless wave of federal prosecution. These efforts were pioneered by Estes Kefauver, Tennessee Senator during the 1950s, and Robert Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General from 1961 to 1964. Yet it was only thanks to their efforts that the existence of the Mafia was established in the public sphere at all.

 The American Mafia flourished in absence of professional law enforcement during the early 1900s and especially after the introduction of Prohibition in 1920. When the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution made the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States, the Mafia profited from the subsequent booming bootleg liquor business. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Mafia was forced to expand its operations. Loansharking, prostitution, gambling, labour racketeering, and narcotics trading became standard practice by the 1950s, and profits from its illegal activities were reinvested in legitimate businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and entertainment ventures. Corruption, bribery, and intimidation of local officials and law enforcement bodies became systematic and widespread, such that it was not surprising there was no nationally coordinated action to combat the Mafia. The federal authorities could not combat a phenomenon they did not know existed.

 This changed with Senator Kefauver’s televised hearings. The 1960s and the 1970s were awash with legislation to combat the Mafia. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Organized Crime Control Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 attested to this development. As a consequence, the leaders of over 20 Italian-American criminal organizations were prosecuted during the past thirty years.

 Yet some argue that these developments are not the only reason for the decline of the Mafia. The Congressional Research Service (CSR) for example, frets that organized crime has become increasingly transnational as a consequence of “open borders and the expansion of the Internet”. In other words, the Mafia is not only threatened by law enforcement, but by competition. The CSR cites a number of Russian, Asian, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and African syndicates, which apparently are gaining enhanced presence on the American as well as the transnational criminal scene. Furthermore, according to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), threats posed by organized crime today are broader and more complex than ever before.

 Yet what did the FBI do in response to the enhanced threat posed by organized crime? First of all, it degraded organized crime to number six on its list of priorities. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, counter-terrorism became its number one priority, and the government as well as the media have shifted their attention further away from organized crime.

Recall that it is precisely in the absence of public attention and government scrutiny that the Mafia operates most effectively. What drove its illegal activities in the past and what drives them in the present is the public demand for the illicit goods and services. According to Janice Defercyi, assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office of the FBI, it is a myth that “the mob is a thing of the past; that the Cosa Nostra is a shadow of its former self”.

Only in January of last year, the FBI arrested over 110 members of Mafia families in the North Eastern United States in what is called the largest nationally coordinated organized crime takedown in the history of the bureau. However, bearing in mind the legislative measures that were adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, should this not have happened earlier? Is this really a mark of success or does it not rather demonstrate the continued presence of the Mafia in America?

It would be misleading to deny the effectiveness of the sustained prosecution of the Mafia over the past thirty years. Yet it would be naïve to assume that the Mafia did not evolve in accordance with the changing environment of enhanced law enforcement and foreign competition. It has already proven its adaptability after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

Those who argue that the Mafia is extinct seem to forget that above anything else, the Mafia is a business. They ought to bear in mind what Mario Puzo, the author to The Godfather once wrote.

“The man with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun.”