Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Mafia Crime Families Adapted for the 21st Century

New York City's Five Families owned the 20th Century. Now they must confront the 21st — still alive, still armed and still dangerous.

Today's traditional Mafia family has ventured far from its roots as an ultra-secret society formed in the streets of New York at the dawn of the Depression. The evolution has been epic.

To some, it appears a gang of criminals has turned into a popular culture commodity, spawning movies and TV shows that will long outlast the real-life story. In that version, the bosses are in jail, the gang is undone, and all that's left is the book and movie deal.

In reality, the mob somehow survives, transforming, changing, adapting to the new economies and technologies — sometimes a jump quicker than law enforcement. "As the economy goes, these guys go," said Michael Gaeta, supervisor of the New York FBI's organized crime unit. "Despite our attacks, they've managed to adapt."

Strategically, law enforcement sources say, the mob is closer to its roots, returning to the shadows, avoiding the public walk-talks that brought law enforcement to their door.

They still reap ill-gotten gains from traditional sources. They still have some control over corrupt contractors and unions, and illegal gambling continues as a primary source of wealth. They've also diversified, crafting new scams befitting a new century.

"They're clearly not as visible as they used to be," Gaeta said. "You're not going to see the regular meetings you used to see. They're much more compartmentalized.

"They're smarter about the way they conduct business. At meetings, they make sure everybody leaves their cell phone at the door."

Today's Mafia families no longer perform the ornate induction ceremonies in which a card depicting a saint is burned and a gun is displayed. They've ditched the saint and the gun. Still, they induct new members when old ones die, and they find new ways to steal.

Several families, for instance, got in on the housing boom of 2002-2007 through corrupt construction companies and unions, court papers and sources say. Records show mob-linked companies have been subcontractors on most of the major projects of the last few years, including highway repair, the midtown office tower boom, the massive water treatment plant in the Bronx, even the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

"They were taking full advantage of that — even if it was only removing waste from a construction site," one source said. "They'd have their favorite companies getting jobs. If the union was a problem, they'd take care of it."

Each family had a different method of adapting to the new century.

In the Wall Street boom, a Luchese soldier formed a fake hedge fund, operating out of a one-family house in Staten Island. He conned hundreds of wealthy investors into putting their money in bundled mortgage securities — one of the major causes of the economy's collapse.

When the housing bubble burst, a Genovese crew cashed in on the wave of foreclosures through house-flipping schemes in suburban Westchester.

The Gambino family stole credit card numbers via Internet porn sites, laundered gambling money through an energy drink company called American Blast, and took over a company that distributed bottled water — a far cry from the Prohibition days of bootlegging.

All the families use the Web to enhance their multi-million dollar illegal gambling empires through offshore betting shell corporations.

As part of the new mob order, the penchant for violence has diminished. That is a sea change in New York that also represents a return to the old ways.

For years, the five families divided up New York City in mostly peaceful co-existence, with occasional bouts of behind-the-scenes violence usually wrought by internal power struggles.

Bloodshed began to escalate in the 1980s, as bodies turned up in Staten Island swamps, the World Trade Center garage, even at the doorstep of Sparks Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan.

Then came a major shift in the mob's ability to enforce the vow of silence known as ‘omerta.' In 1991, Gambino underboss Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano decided to become an informant. A wave of informants followed, which deteriorated into shootouts in the streets and dozens of suspected informants who disappeared.

Since 2000, the number of bodies has dropped precipitously, law enforcement sources say. They take this as a sign that the mob once again craves a lower profile to avoid scrutiny. "They keep things calm," one source said. "They try to keep things looking legit. They'd rather take 5 cents from 1,000 people than $10,000 from one."

They've also adopted management changes. Since the conviction of all the major bosses of the middle 20th century, all five families have struggled to find replacements who will last.

Three of the five families have retired the official boss altogether, forming flexible leadership panels that mediate disputes and enforce the so-called rules. "They retrenched. They became much less visible," said one law enforcement source. "The days of John Gotti nonsense, you don't see that anymore."

Today, the mob's haunts aren't what they were. Neighborhoods of Italian immigrants that once served as Ground Zero of Mafia-dom are ethnically diverse, with many former residents relegated to suburbia. The days when mobsters hung out at inner city social clubs — and FBI agents watched from nearby vans with tinted windows — are rare.

Some of the best-known clubs have just vanished:

  • Gravano's old hangout, Tali's Bar in Bensonhurst, where bar owner Mikey DeBatt was whacked in the back room by one of Gravano's crew, is a Vietnamese restaurant.
  • John Gotti's Ravenite Social Club is a trendy shoe store.
  • The Palma Boys Club, where the Genovese family met is an empty store front with lime green walls, is up for lease.
  • The Wimpy Boys Club in Gravesend — where a mob moll was once shot in the head and her ear turned up weeks later — is now Sal's Hair Stylist.

But just because they can't be seen doesn't mean they aren't there.

Thanks to John Marzulli

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