photo of Rick Porrello via RickPorrello.com
Among 2011’s more notable headlines, the American mafia took a giant hit. The first blow came in January when 127 New York Mafiosi were arrested in the biggest mob bust in FBI history. The second came so after with the capture and arrest of one of the most notorious Irish crime bosses to live, James “Whitey” Bulger, in June. So, that’s like FBI: 128; Mafia: 0. While organized crime has always been fantasized in the cinema, this year proved legitimate gangster enterprise is still alive and well, and the hunt to thwart its efforts equally fervent.
Obviously, there’s no empirical way to determine how far the web of La Cosa Nostra has spun, nor the exact size of such a dent, but assuredly, the red flags were waved.
“The code of silence for criminal groups (“omerta” for the Mafia), whether a formal rule or unspoken expectation, was a critical element of their birth and growth,” explains Rick Porrello, a Cleveland-area police chief and author of books, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia and To Kill The Irishman, which was made into a film last year starring Christopher Walken and Val Kilmer. “This principle began losing strength in the late 1970s and early 1980s following the 1977 murder of Cleveland mob foe, “Irishman” Danny Greene, and the federal government’s successful crippling of several crime families as an indirect result of that case. It has gradually eroded to the point that informants and outright turncoats, even at the highest levels… are no longer an unexpected development in modern organized crime.”
Clearly, someone’s been giving something up, as the New York Post noted in their coverage of the raid, “Even Michael Corleone never took out this many members of the Five Families.”
Indeed, the January arrests were particularly striking due to the magnitude of the capture. Facilitated by the cooperation of an informant identified as “CW-1,” it wasn’t just a ton of gangsters, but all kinds of gangsters, including members of the Colombo, Gambino, and Genovese crime families. And it’s just as seedy as the movies. The Post piece goes to list a series of indictments for every offense in the book, and for crimes stretching as far as Rhode Island, where Luigi “Baby Shacks” Manocchio allegedly shook down a series of “porno shops and nightclubs.” Furthermore, as a result of the seizure, law enforcement officials are supposedly aiming to utilize the detained to expose higher marshals, and “to further decimate the Gambinos and Colombos.”
Maybe, this really is one step towards the end, yet, as Porrello points out, the mafia has “rooted itself deeply into American life,” and functions primarily around an insatiable “foundation of greed.” He considers the most prominent mafia territories currently to be New York City, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia. Complete destruction of such an empire will be difficult, as necessity for more money never tires, and ultimately, when one mobster gets removed from the street, another takes his place. Plus, there is always someone who’ll rise to the occasion.
Porello describes the qualified candidate as, “A socially, economically or culturally vulnerable young man with some connection (real or exaggerated) to the local crime “family” or remnants thereof. Like the criminally-inclined person in general, this young man will unfortunately be willing to risk, or be ignorant of the risk to, his freedom or even his life in satisfaction of his greed and lack of work ethic. He will idolize the mobsters and their lifestyle and his desire will include acquiring the reputation of being “one of the boys,” maybe even someday a “made” or inducted member and someone not to be fucked with. It could be that this identity is enough reward to sustain his involvement even if big money doesn’t come easily, and it usually does not for lower echelon Mafia members.”
Even watching the big guns get taken down might not deter a new recruit from the game. Gotti, Capone and now Whitey Bulger, have all met distressing fates, and yet clearly operations continue vicariously through their families. Fictionalized by Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, the real Bulger was wanted for 19 counts of murder, in addition to extortion, money laundering and drug charges when he was apprehended this year. According to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, he appeared to otherwise be a pretty well rounded guy, described as “an avid reader with an interest in history,” who spent time at the library, and stayed physically active “by walking on beaches.” Despite such a conscientious existence, he managed to commit a slew of felonies starting at the age of 13, and evaded final capture for 16 years when he was caught this Spring in Santa Monica, living in a condominium two blocks from the ocean. In the seizure, the Feds found over $800,000 in cash, 30 firearms, and a handful of stolen IDs. Bulger now stands trial in Boston, where he was arraigned shortly after his apprehension, telling the judge he could afford a lawyer “if you give me my money back.”
Assuredly, no matter how hard they fall, the mafia never loses arrogance. Such self-confidence is reason enough to believe their definitive end is nowhere in sight.