Part of a majesty and grandeur of the American experiment is that no matter who you are or where you come from, with some hard work and determination, you can rise from nothing to become the head of a major criminal organization. Like baseball and apple pie, organized crime has been an American tradition ever since it first became a nation. And like the nation itself, American organized crime is a melting pot of different industries, rackets, enforcement brigades, and transnational networks that Walmart only wishes it could duplicate.
So whether you are hoping to learn more about how to get “made,” or simply delight in glamorous cautionary tales about good people doing bad things, here are a few choice tidbits about the OC that isn’t a reference to California.
10. More Than the Mafia
In America, “organized crime” has become almost synonymous with “the mafia” thanks to a combination of pop culture, a few standout criminal celebrities, and ethnic stereotyping. Although the Sicilian-derived mafia may comprise the best known organized crime groups in the United States, they are far from the only name in the game.
During the glory years of mafia activity, a hybrid Italian-Jewish coalition known as Murder, Inc., operated a lucrative contract killing operation out of a 24-cafe in Brooklyn. This group essentially did for hitmen what Henry Ford did for manufacturing. Their plucky New York kill squad was responsible for an untold number of murders as far flung as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Florida, and functioned as an unaffiliated enforcement arm for many of the largest organized crime groups of the time. Murder, Inc. was essentially the McWhopper of its time: a strategic union between two of the biggest and most lethal factions of organized crime leveraging the best of both groups to maximize reach and impact.
Murder, Inc., itself grew out of the independent and wildly successful assortment of Jewish-American organized crime groups, alternatively known (but never to their faces) as the Israeli Mafia or even Kosher Nostra. By the end of the 19th century, these groups collectively ran more than 90 percent of all prostitution in the U.S. The Jewish gangster division was also notable in part for organizing at one time behind a female leader, one Fredericka ‘Marm’ Mandelbaum. She was instrumental in turning New York City into the heart of North American organized crime before escaping to Canada and living out her remaining years in wealth, comfort, and pre-extradition foreign sovereignty. That’s right–she laid the foundations for an entire century of organized crime, and got away with everything. So much for cautionary tales.
Even before the Jewish-American “mafia” was running the show, though, Irish-American gangs were the biggest force in organized crime in the young country. These loosely organized street gangs (or Gangs of New York, if you are a movie fan) fought for neighborhood protection and gambling rackets for decades before going head-to-head with the Italian-American mafia in a fight for dominance during Prohibition.
In case you weren’t seeing the trend, almost all organized crime tends to emerge organically from immigration trends. Every time the U.S. sees a pronounced spike in immigration from any given region, country, or ethnicity, nativist backlash helps create the conditions for blackmarket bootstrapping that can (and does) very easily escalate into a criminal network.
That isn’t to say that immigrants are all criminals, or that without immigration there would be no organized crime. Rather, a combination of disenfranchisement along with anti-immigrant behaviors means immigrants face a lot of challenges when they arrive. From language and cultural barriers, to being forced to concentrate in poorer neighborhoods, to lack of political representation, as well as outright ostracism, nativism entrenches prejudicial hiring, cementing a lack of opportunity, limited access to education, and even basic social structures beyond their own immigrant communities.
Cut off from the rest of the world, immigrant communities thus turn inward to solve their basic problems and forge ties to improve their situation. The more they have in common–ie, the more immigrants from a single country or region come to America at the same time–the stronger their upstart community.
So, a potato famine in Ireland drives a wave of Irish immigrants, who earn the enmity of the locals upon arrival, cluster in poor areas, and soon Irish gangs are laying the groundwork for a criminal empire.
9. Organized Crime Provides Law Enforcement
It sounds like an oxymoron: extra-legal law enforcement?
In fact, organized crime almost always has its start as a protection racket. While much of the crime in the world is what we call ‘crimes of opportunity,’ the most lucrative criminal groups have their origins in the opposite situation: a lack of opportunity.
While we delight in assigning overt ethnic stereotypes to organized crime–even Futurama’s Robot Mafia was transparently an Italian-American pastiche–the foundations of organized crime are all too universal and human.
Psychologist Paul Bloom, who explored the origins of morality by studying babies, found that even young children, left to their own devices, will use violence and intimidation in an attempt to maintain fairness and social order. When adults are in the room, they look to the adults for these safety measures and moral enforcement. When adults are gone, the babies create their own enforcement system based on strength and ostentatious confrontation. Basically, inside each of us is a little Batman, just waiting for society’s justice to fail us so we can create our own.
Again, it comes down in part to immigration and disenfranchisement. Assimilation takes time, but survival cannot wait. When the establishment of police, law, and order is out of reach, people tend to make due through alternative means. Plus, different gangs competing for dominance can be every bit as hazardous to the community as corrupt bureaucrats and dirty cops, so it pays to invest in at least one criminal gang. As gangs and protection rackets grow, earn buy-in from more people, and have more economic and social clout, they become self-sustaining, as well as capable of diversification–say, into murder for hire, or trafficking contraband.
It doesn’t matter if the community manages to assimilate, or the protection they once offered becomes predatory; once gang membership earns legitimacy and becomes a vehicle to opportunity, it is hard to convince its rank and file to quit and find alternative work. So organized crime adapts, survives, and grows.
This, more or less, is the genesis of all organized crime: what starts as a way to ensure basic needs are met and economic opportunity exists, grows into its own parallel economy and almost corporate organization.
8. Drug Gangs Are Basically Fast Food Franchises
In the world of legitimate business, branding is important: it helps create repeat customers, allows you to diversify on the strength of prior success, and supports growth efforts. In the world of organized crime, the parallel law enforcement systems rely more on brute strength and fear, than on the nuances of trademarks, copyrights, and patents. However, there is one model that has managed to take both markets by storm: the franchise.
Franchising is essentially a model for growth through duplication: the same products, under the same name, made in the same way by the same supplier, sold according to a standardized pricing structure, blending local entrepreneurship with centralized authority. Your neighborhood McDonald’s, for example, is locally owned and operated, but trains all staff according to corporate standards, gets all product from a central corporate supplier, and has generally the same menu everywhere–with prices, specials, and offerings subject to broad regional variation.
Drug gangs have copied this model with rousing success, because like fast food, illegal drugs are essentially a consumer good, subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. Drug cartels have organized highly efficient system to connect production (growers and labs, mostly), with distributors (ie, mules and traffickers), with retailers–that is, dealers.
Obviously, every stage in this system is vulnerable when the goods in question are illegal, so some amount of standardization is necessary to ensure the folks involved are trustworthy, reliable, and competent. Given the incredible volume and value of the drug market, the participants at every level have plenty of incentive to streamline supply chains and coordinate as much as possible, maximizing growth and revenue pathways while mitigating direct competition as much as possible.
Dealers are recruited and assigned territory in which they may sell drugs under the authority of local and regional “managers,” with higher status in the drug gang, who coordinate the acquisition and distribution of contraband among retailers. Dealer turf is negotiated according to salesmanship and demand, while competing franchises are dealt with either through peaceful coordination, or well-regulated violence. Hitmen and enforcers, after all, are generally at least contracted by gang leadership to avoid escalation and especially to prevent law enforcement from intervening.
Just as an employee in a fast food franchise has the opportunity to ascend the ranks to become a manager and owner, so too does the drug gang hierarchy have an order of succession and advancement. And the higher up you go, the more profit you get to keep, and the more subordinates you control.
This, in part, explains why gang membership is such an attractive opportunity: working in a community business with career potential, merit-based incentives and bonuses, leadership trajectories, and the promise of financial freedom through hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. Plus, just like opening a drive-thru burger joint, it is much safer, predictable, and reliable to franchise out through an established brand (or gang/cartel) than to try to go it alone.
7. Prohibition Corporatized Criminal Gangs
Organized crime wasn’t always quite this well organized. The whole franchise arrangement is a relatively modern phenomenon compared to the history of gangs and criminal enterprise in America. The real turning point in transform the country’s black market hustlers and crime families with all their associated gangs and enterprises (mostly prostitution and gambling) into major international networks was the prohibition of alcohol beginning in 1919.
Prohibition, which had started as a local initiative and eventually engulfed the entire country, was a game-changer. It essentially cornered the market on alcohol on behalf of organized crime by relegating it to the extralegal sector, cutting off all the formerly legal creators, suppliers, and retailers already in the business. Making the pivot from legal business to black market trade wasn’t easy for those who had led the industry before, seeing as how a pretty obvious place to start searching for a speakeasy or distillery would be former bars and distilleries. Organized crime groups, with their secret membership network, money laundering systems, and knowledge of how to move contraband around, launched into this vacuum and quickly expanded to meet demand.
Part of the reason organized crime in general is so closely associated with the 1920-30s is that this was really the golden age of American crime. Prohibition made the entire alcohol supply chain more lucrative than ever, which made organized crime, in turn, both more profitable and more competitive than ever. The price of beer went up more than 700 percent, while hard liquor prices doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, depending on the spirit. Despite the surge in prices and the supposed ban on booze, alcohol consumption only dipped around 20 percent.
The primary effect of Prohibition was really in cementing organized crime in America. Crime families–particularly Italian-American, though plenty of other groups played their part–became household names with purchasing power on par with major corporations; international supply chains were bolstered by the need to move large quantities of foreign booze into the country; protection rackets exploded as the violence of competition rose alongside the clout of major criminal organizations.
Homicide rates shot up by nearly 80 percent, while theft, burglary, and other violent crimes jumped anywhere from 5-20 percent. At the same time, spending on law enforcement at every level ballooned to keep pace with crime, putting more and more government officials in a position to make a little extra on the side through various levels of feigned ignorance or active participation in the criminal rackets.
The bigger the system got, the more specialization and opportunity became available both to those close to the major crime families, as well as those enterprising individuals who simply wanted a taste of the gravy. And like every great business, it all became too big to fail.
When Prohibition was finally repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, all this criminal infrastructure, with tangential operations, supply lines, global connections, and of course, financial backing, had to go somewhere. Human trafficking, prostitution, drug trades, gambling, and all manner of rackets became swollen by the scale of organized crime in the wake of Prohibition.
Of course, those weren’t the only destinations for all this capital…
6. Organized Crime has Lots of Legitimate Businesses (and Investments)
American organized crime came onto the post-Prohibition scene in the middle of the 20th century with a lot of money to spend. Like any good company that has successfully exploited its niche, this meant it was time to diversify. Besides sidelining into hard drugs, human trafficking, murder for hire, and other mainstays of the underworld, the various factions and families saw some lucrative opportunities in above-board investments as well.
A particularly prescient bootlegging gang known as the Broadway Mob used its connections and money during the Prohibition era to acquire several speakeasies and clubs, as well as apartments and theaters. Besides giving them control of both sides of the equation where alcohol was concerned, it left a steady revenue stream in the form of rent payments and real estate appreciation even after Prohibition was repealed. The brains behind this investment-heavy approach to managing mob money was Arnold Rothstein, who used his influence and capital for everything from financing Broadway plays to fixing the 1919 World Series, and even–according to rumor–arranging to have a space for 0 added to roulette wheels, giving the house a nudge up in the odds.
Perhaps less surprisingly, mob money had more than a nominal role in everything from the site-selection and development of Las Vegas, to the development of Nevada politics and lawmaking surrounding the legality of gambling and prostitution. The father of President John F. Kennedy was unambiguously associated with the Chicago bootlegging scene during Prohibition, and there has been plenty of speculation that along with the family’s wealth, some amount of its subsequent political clout originated in organized crime. JFK, famed politician though he was, also happened to be chummy with legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, even recording a special rendition of “High Hopes” together in support of the 1960 presidential election. Their introduction may or may not have been arranged by the mob).
Sinatra himself was also purportedly indebted to the mafia for getting his start in the music (and then movie) business, a rumor immortalized by the book-turned-movie The Godfather and character Johnny Fontane. Sinatra famously delivered a severe dressing-down to Godfather author Mario Puzo over the character, though without explicitly denying the validity of the implications.
If Sinatra did get his start through mob connections, he is still just one of the many entertainment figures who got work thanks to Music Corporation of America, or MCA, a talent agency that operated like a cartel and was largely managed by organized crime figures. MCA and similar groups essentially used the threat of retribution and the promise of financing to pressure speakeasies, clubs, and eventually recording studios, and film industry executives and producers, into using their preferred cadre of actors, singers, and even trade professionals. At its peak, MCA was known unofficially as “The Octopus” for the way it seemed to have its tentacles in everything–and a coalition of Jewish, Italian, and other various criminal groups pulling all the strings.
Even Ronald Reagan, whose acting career preceded his political tenure, happened to be a client of MCA manager Lew Wasserman, a star-making mogul with deep ties to the mafia, including marriage to the daughter of a known mob lawyer. MCA helped bring Reagan onto the silver screen, and when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, he used his influence in turn to give MCA a leg-up on early television show production, further entrenching MCA as the pathway to success in the entertainment industry.
When MCA was eventually broken up following a lengthy federal investigation, Reagan himself would later describe the treatment of the organization as a foundational experience in his political awakening, particularly his conservative, anti-government ideology.
5. Organized Crime is a Pop Culture Phenomenon
Nothing says “gangster!” quite like a felt fedora. Or if you prefer your murder for hire with a wee bit ‘o Irish, perhaps you’d favor the razor-rimmed flat caps of Peaky Blinders. But the legacy of organized crime in America goes well beyond metropolitan landmarks and sartorial trends. There is nearly a century of cultural iconography that owes its fame, at least in part, to the real OG’s of history.
American hip-hop is rife with references to the mob; in a meta-maze worthy of Lewis Carroll, rappers have styled themselves after the characters made famous on film and other media, who are by various turns fictional inventions, semi-fictional composites, and earnest reflections of real-life gangsters from various decades and crime groups throughout American criminal history. It is almost impossible to separate where life imitated art, or the art reflects real life, because the imagery as become so ubiquitous across the board.
The proliferation of movies about various elements of mob culture and criminal life is such that it is practically its own sub-genre of film: the mob movie. But today’s Netflix binge-watchers and devotees of the Golden Age of Television also have organized crime stories to thank for kicking off the revolution in serialized storytelling.
Analysts and critics alike see “the Sopranos Effect” as a revolutionary business model on par with the assembly line or the drive-thru, as far as television and storytelling are concerned. HBO’s The Sopranos arguably initiated a trend in TV that, along with streaming services, transformed the small screen into the premier destination for big storytelling ambitions, with everything from Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones and Westworld following in its wake.
4. They Use Prison to Train and Recruit Members
Prison gangs have become a microcosm of organized crime itself. Initially, gangs formed in prison for the same reason they formed on the streets: to provide protection, community, and a hierarchy to manage scarce resources. But just as organized crime grew and evolved in the wake of Prohibition and on the shoulders of the War on Drugs, so have prison gangs evolved into a much more sophisticated and influential enterprise.
Today, prison gangs aren’t just a protection racket for the inmates, but for the guards, staff, and very institutions in which they operate. Prison overcrowding has become so extreme that the gangs are often more responsible for maintaining order than anyone on the outside. Whether inmates enter the system already affiliated with a gang, or are recruited following their incarceration, membership is virtually mandatory as a matter of survival. Prison has become the LinkedIn of organized crime.
But not everyone headed for prison is focused only on survival. Doing time in prison has become a cultural rite of passage within many gang cultures–a mark of commitment, authenticity, and cementing membership identities. Of course, this isn’t just a nominal period or empty ritual; prisons have become active recruitment centers and training grounds for the organized crime community. With mirror organizations outside the penal system, prison gangs have every bit as much reach, capital control, and relevance to the black market as any other organized criminal group.
While rehabilitative approaches to incarceration emphasize the need to provide vocational training, these programs routinely neglect to provide any social support network inmates can utilize upon release to fully capitalize on their skills training. Prison gangs, on the other hand, are built on social networking and relationships, so when they prepare inmates for the skilled trades of criminal operations, they end up doing a better job preparing them to get and stay productive upon release.
Essentially, the public financing used to build and operate prisons has become a subsidy not just for crime itself, but for the most well-regulated and prolific practitioners of crime.
3. Organized Crime Supports Terrorism
Cumulatively, international organized crime activities make up more than 1.5 percent of global GDP, involving nearly a trillion dollars of revenue. Taking advantage of this kind of revenue necessitates a lot of money laundering. For this reason alone, it is easy to see how international terrorism would have some overlapping interests with organized crime. Pinning down the exact amount of money that changes hands between organized crime and terrorist groups is hard, mostly because the very nature of their relationship is based on keeping money hidden from view.
It isn’t that the mafia supports terrorist ideologies, so much as organized crime will, from time to time, intersect with the activities of various terror groups as a matter of routine business. While global terrorism pays for itself through the black market trade of drugs, slaves, and weapons, organized crime provides a good deal of infrastructure to access markets and facilitate the movement of such contraband.
As far as the intelligence community is concerned, this amounts to some combination of tolerance and collaboration. That is, most of the time they simply tolerate one another’s existence given the natural overlap of their operations, but when necessity dictates, they will occasionally deal directly with one another or even cooperate to achieve some mutual goal (usually, avoiding being shut down by the government or losing money and goods).
2. Organized Crime Also, Paradoxically, Fights Terrorism
Organized crime has a similar attitude toward terrorism as the average suburban HOA has toward maximum security prisons or wastewater treatment plants: NIMBY, or Not In My Back Yard. They tolerate the idea to the extent that it isn’t entirely avoidable, but don’t want it somewhere it can’t be ignored.
Basically, although terrorism provides some amount of supply and demand for organized crime activities, it isn’t exactly the lifeblood of the black market. So while they coexist and sometimes even collaborate, their interests are ultimately not particularly compatible. Violent revolutions and ideological extremists aren’t any better for the health of underground economies than those above ground. More to the point, terrorist attacks that threaten communities and the grassroots membership of organized crime groups create powerful enemies unbeholden to the rules of war or international human rights.
This seems to be the impulse behind New York mob boss Giovani Gambino’s open threat to ISIS, made during an NBC News interview. The way he tells it, the Sicilian mafia has kept ISIS and other terrorist cells from gaining ground in Italy, and despite the best efforts of the FBI or Department of Homeland Security, it is really the New York mob that is keeping the state (and to a lesser extent, the country) safe from terrorist attacks.
Experts debate the true extent to which organized crime both empowers and intimidates various terror groups. One compelling alternative theory posits that the very nature of their shared economic interests keeps areas rife with organized crime safe from terrorist threats: disrupting such communities would amount to self-destruction on the part of the terror groups. It is like a fortification: it serves to keep enemies out as well as to keep prisoners in. Which function it is serving depends on your perspective. Whether it is the financial muscle or the…regular muscle the defines the relationship, organized crime and terrorism are The Odd Couple of the extralegal underworld.
1. They Live Among Us
The old scared-straight cliche is to ask, rhetorically, “You ever see any retired gang-bangers?” Turns out the answer may very well be, “Yes.”
Death and prison aren’t exactly the only company-sponsored 401(k) of the career criminal. Getting out of the underworld can actually come with the full financing and benefits sponsorship of the federal government by means of the witness protection program.
For more details, just consider the story of Frank Salemme, a major New England mob boss throughout the 1990s, who spent nearly a decade in a quiet Atlanta neighborhood before a previously unsolved murder came back to implicate him. Unfortunately for “Cadillac Frank,” the feds might revoke your pension when they find out you previously interfered with an investigation by killing a witness, but if not for that little slip-up, he’d still be living out his golden years in partnership with the government.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable cooperating with their former nemesis just to finance retirement. In these cases, it is more attractive to escape the hustle and bustle of city (and criminal) life by heading out west and living off the land. At least, that is what Enrico Ponzo did.
After an attempted hit on a rival boss (incidentally, against Frank Salemme), Ponzo packed up shop and moved to Marsing, Idaho, where nothing exciting ever happens. Literally: Idaho has been ranked as the most boring state in the country, and Mr. Ponzo capitalized on this for 11 years under the assumed identity of Jay Shaw: Cattle Rancher and Minor League Hockey Fan… That is, until his girlfriend took their kids and left him. A few weeks later, federal investigators figured out why a cowpoke in the middle of Idaho spoke with a thick New York accent; then he was arrested and convicted of a laundry list of crimes.
The cowboy life isn’t a natural fit for everyone, however. Like any of us law-abiding squares, some gangsters dream of retiring to a quaint Italian village–perhaps somewhere in the mountains–where rest and relaxation are part of the daily routine.
Such was the case of Ernesto Fazzalari, an international crime lord with connections from Mexico to New York, who spent 20 years evading arrest after being convicted–in absentia–of enough crimes to become Italy’s second Most Wanted man. Commandos found Fazzalari snuggling up with his girlfriend in a cottage in the Calabrian mountains of Italy, arresting them both and disrupting one of the largest trans-continental crime networks ever formed in the process.
Not every story has this same ending though. For Robert Luisi, Jr., life in the witness protection program was going just fine until he decided to out himself as a reformed mobster. See, in addition to a new name–Alonso Esposito–and a change of scenery from Boston to Memphis, Luisi found a whole new hobby to fill his retirement: spreading the good word.
On the way to prison following a conviction for drug trafficking, Luisi experienced a divine vision, and thereafter devoted himself to religious study. Once he earned the support of the federal witness protection program, he relocated to Tennessee and became a pastor, preaching at his community church, as well as broadcasting sermons on a local talk radio station, self-publishing a book about his theological viewpoints, and maintaining his own faith-based website. He explained that he wasn’t worried about retribution or his past coming back to haunt him, because he never ratted on anyone–except, as it would happen, for Enrico Ponzo, the would-be Idahoan cattle rancher.
The lesson here is that you might think of organized crime as a bespoke suit-wearing, cocaine mountain-sniffing, tough-talking club membership, who only exist in certain neighborhoods or gated communities, and who you can easily avoid by keeping your nose clean and minding your own above board business. But in fact, organized crime may be concentrated among neighborhoods and communities–these are community-centric groups, after all–but their footprint is just about as distributed as 7-Eleven or Walmart. Whether you are living in some flyover farming town, a cookie-cutter suburb, or even vacationing in a quaint European countryside village, you have an even chance of bumping into one of the world’s most wanted criminals.