Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Does It Cost $2 Million to Build a $1 Million Building in New York City?

Until last week, not many people in America had ever heard of Vincenzo Frogiero. But thanks to an FBI indictment, Mr Frogiero has now been immortalised across America by his mobster moniker, 'Vinny Carwash'.

An alleged member of the New York City Gambino crime family, Vinny Carwash was just one of 124 suspected Mafia members rounded up across the north-east US in the biggest one-day mob bust in American history.

Now awaiting trial on racketeering charges, Frogiero is incarcerated in Brooklyn with fellow wise guys whose nicknames seem straight out of a Hollywood casting call for The Sopranos: Johnny Bandana, Junior Lollipops, Johnny Pizza, Jack the Whack and Tony Bagels.

In a pre-dawn raid last week, federal agents in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island swooped on the homes of over 100 alleged mobsters and arrested them on charges that include murder, loan sharking, extortion and labour racketeering.

Among those rounded up were leading members of the five Italian-American families affiliated with 'La Cosa Nostra' -- the Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Bonnano and Lucchese families. Those arrested included family bosses, underbosses, consiglieri, hit men, soldiers and associates.

By far the biggest coup for the Feds was the arrest of 83-year-old Luigi 'Baby Shacks' Manocchio, the former boss of New England's Patriarca crime family and a 60-year-old Mafia veteran.

"It is a reminder that the Mafia is alive and well and that we ignore organised crime at our own peril," Professor Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Weekend Review.

The details contained in the FBI indictments read like plots straight from The Godfather or Goodfellas but federal authorities were quick to point out that, amusing nicknames aside, the Mafia in America today still poses a deadly and persistent threat.

"The notion that today's mob families are more genteel and less violent than in the past is put to lie by the charges contained in the indictments," said Janice Fedarcyk of the FBI's New York field office. "Even more of a myth is the notion that the mob is a thing of the past, that La Cosa Nostra is a shadow of its former self."

Ever since the birth of the American Mafia in the early 1930s, the north-east corridor between New York and Boston has remained the beating heart of the mob enterprise.

Despite a federal crackdown since the 1980s that has weakened the Mafia through mass arrests and stiffer sentences, La Cosa Nostra -- or 'our thing' -- has continued to prosper in the past decade. This is partly due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which saw the FBI divert resources and manpower away from the Mafia for the fight against al-Qa'ida and other terrorist threats.

Membership of the mob is still exclusively reserved for those of Italian extraction. Loyal members who meet the approval of their bosses have the opportunity to become 'made men' -- the highest honour that allows captains to shield themselves from direct criminal activity by having their legions of loyal soldiers do all the dirty work.

The lifestyle is fraught, dangerous and at times boring. "They are street people. They live on the street. They work on the street," said Jay Albanese. "They don't get up until late and they hang out at the restaurant all day just thinking of scams to make money."

"There is paranoia. There is distrust," he said. "You have bad guys killing each other because they don't trust each other. They say they have this blood loyalty and yet they turn each other in. It is really a cut-throat sort of an existence."

Just like Mafia bosses of old -- 'Scarface' Al Capone and his successor, Tony Arrcado aka 'Joe Batters' -- today's Mafioso are quick to dole out nicknames, but these aliases serve an important purpose when trying to confuse federal authorities who are inevitably tracking their movements by electronic surveillance.

"The nicknames serve a very utilitarian purpose," Professor Howard Abadinsky of St John's University told the Irish Independent. "It does confuse law enforcement and it does make it -- from a legal point of view -- very hard to specifically identify these individuals for prosecution purposes."

In recent years, federal authorities have boasted that the Mafia's grasp over New York institutions including labour unions, the waterfront, the Fulton fish market and the garment district has waned.

Experts point out that the organisation has been severely weakened through aggressive public prosecutions, a lack of recruitment opportunities and a declining sense of loyalty among the new guard. The FBI has also been successful at recruiting mob turncoats who are brave enough to disregard the Mafia's ancient vow of silence -- the omerta.

"In the old days you might be much more willing to do time for the group," said Prof Albanese. "People are more individual focused and out for their own profit now, and they're just not as willing to sacrifice for their group."

But despite these setbacks, the Mafia's unique ability to infiltrate business in America and to claim a piece of the action remains unrivalled among other organised crime groups, experts say.

Mobsters in New Jersey, New England and Rhode Island continue to profit from the "bread and butter" staples of Mafia enterprises: operating sports bookmakers, strip clubs, loan-sharking, and gambling operations.

Crime families such as the Genovese exert a tight control over New York's ports, using threats and violence to extort money from shippers and obstruct the flow of commerce. They control several key shipping and construction unions, charging kickbacks to unload ships and paying associates for "no show" jobs.

"If you didn't pay, your fish would sit there on the dock and rot," said Albanese. "It wouldn't be moved. If you didn't pay, you would be excluded from the [fish] market."

In a throwback to the kind of extortion and racketeering portrayed in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, the FBI indictments allege that members of the Genovese even tried to extort Christmastime payments from port workers in New York.

"To be shaking down waterfront workers in the 21st century really seems a throwback to the 1940s or 1950s," said Abadinsky. "You don't make a lot of money by shaking down longshoreman."

And the mob's ability to control key unions has also had a dramatic effect on New York's construction industry and property development.

"People have asked, 'Why does it cost $2m to build a $1m building in New York?'" said Albanese. "Well ... if you were going to pour cement in NYC you had to get union people to do it and you have the mob controlling the unions, so kickbacks had to be paid."

Mafia experts have praised last week's operation but point out that the impact may be short-lived. Exactly two years ago a similar mass arrest of mobsters took place across the northeast but many of them received light prison sentences and soon returned to the streets.

Experts predict that with the top leadership gone, the remaining families will face immediate and perhaps brutal leadership contests. In addition, other organised crime groups -- Russians, Albanians, Asians and Mexicans -- are waiting in the wings, eager to turn a profit on abandoned Mafioso turf.

"For the day to day operations of a crime family, you don't require the boss and the shop management to be there," said Abadinsky. "The people have their assignments and they will carry them out. In the meantime, these people will be replaced."

In time, Vinny Carwash -- and his pals, Meatball, Mush, Hootie and Johnny Bandana -- may well be back on the streets. But if not, there will always be a new crop of eager soldiers to take their places.

"The removal of the current crop of Mafia barons will probably engender a new generation of mobsters," wrote Selwyn Raab in the New York Times. "There have always been, and always will be, ambitious, greedy, wise guys who are willing to risk long prison sentences for the power and riches glittering before them.

"The Mafia is wounded, but not fatally," he said.

Thanks to Caitriona Palmer

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