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American Mafia, Research Paper Example

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Introduction

The Italian Mafia in America is a strange and still somewhat mysterious thing.  On one level, and indisputably, this form of a criminal cartel has damaged the United States in immeasurable ways.  Untold numbers of civilians and law enforcement persons have been murdered by it, victims of its systematic ruthlessness and determination to maintain vast power and wealth.  On another level, and even before popular novels and films such as The Godfather created a mythic and even admirable quality to it, the Mafia has been perceived as an essentially decent and honorable organization.   Many both inside it and external to it viewed it as a perhaps frightening agency of sorts, but one built upon standards of behavior and control not unlike those found in any massive enterprise.  It was felt by some  that the Italian Mafia, as occasionally violent as it was and is, sought only to advance opportunities for Italian Americans unable to receive fair treatment in America.  Others, Italian American and otherwise, perceived a commendable core of loyalty as dictating its existence.  These impressions remain in place today, and despite a history of unparalleled bloodshed, extortion, and racketeering.

As will be seen, the history of the Italian Mafia in America is an extraordinary story of how one culture defiantly remained intact in a new land, and drew upon Old World traditions to carve out supremacy in a largely hostile environment.  The efforts were successful, and the reach of the Italian Mafia at its apex encompassed the highest levels of politics and business.   As the 20th century progressed, internal conflicts, along with increased focus on the part of the U.S. government to undermine and destroy it, have rendered this Mafia a shadow of what it was.  In broaching into drug traffic, the Mafia actually planted the seeds for its own dissolution, in prompting that rigorous law enforcement.  If there was a “golden epoch” of the Italian Mafia, it is gone.  The presence of it remains to this day, nonetheless.   The modern Italian Mafia may be a shadow of what it once was, but the reality is that its hold and power are less visible, and therefore impossible to assess.

Background

As has been made evident in many popular books and films, the origins of the Mafia echo the origins of America itself.  More exactly, all the immigration waves coming to the U.S. have reflected the impetus that made that immigration desirable, or even necessary, in the first place.  If home nations were decaying overseas and men could not support their families, there was a new land where anything could happen, and where hard work would translate to a good life.  These immigrants, not surprisingly, brought with them all their cultural ideologies and belief systems.

In regard to Sicilian immigrants, these ideologies had been formed decades earlier in their homeland.   It was suspected, even by Sicilians, that the Mafia was an ancient system of racketeering with roots in the Middles Ages.  This is untrue.  The actual origins of the Italian Mafia date back only to the 1860s, and were generated by concerns related to one product only: the lemon.  In the middle decades of the 19th century, there was a new and vast demand for lemons; the British Navy required them in bulk to fight off scurvy, as lemon oils were essential in tea-making.  Soon, European nations and the U.S. were eager to trade for the fruit, and Sicily found itself with a highly valuable commercial resource.  As this product was vulnerable to attack and theft by rival interests in the Sicilian industry, and as getting a grove going was a costly effort, the basics for racketeering opportunities were in place.  Protection was needed by new lemon growers, as was funding.   From the great Sicilian city of Palermo, then, came the first recognized Mafia family, the Uditore  (Dickie, 2005,  pp. 38-43).  In very little time, grove owners realized that this family’s interests were combined with those of the local authorities.

What evolved, and rapidly, was the system of Mafia rule that would carry into America.  Mafia dons, or family heads, made arrangements with government authorities early on, usually in the form of extortion conspiracy; as the law refused to interfere in Mafia control of estates, the law received a percentage of the profits.  Then, and in a manner most effective for retaining illicit control, the Mafia would establish its own people within the groves and farms (Dickie, 2005,  p. 39).  This method of infiltration to secure family interests would be repeated almost identically in Las Vegas, a century later.  Owners and farmers not directly linked to the Mafia were essentially compelled to “hire” Mafia representatives, a strategy that may well have accounted for the long success of the criminal enterprise.  Simply, illegality is better protected when more people are involved, and there are agents looking out for it in every related sphere.  Then, this methodology has an effect removed from that of maintaining the business interests of the Mafia, because a pervasive quality is then a part of the criminality.  When the law, the workers, and virtually everyone involved in the business itself is either representing the Mafia or compelled to do business with it, the racketeering becomes imbedded in the culture itself.

Even in that relatively brief span of time, then, the Sicilian Mafia was a part of the Italian culture, and it came with the Italians settling in the new country.  From 1880 to 1900, in the vast waves of European immigration reaching America,  the number of Italians making their homes in the New York area grew from twenty thousand to ten times that number (Repetto, 2004,  p. 18).  In the first decade of the 20th century, nearly a million Sicilians emigrated to the United States, settling primarily in the Northeast (Dickie, 2005,  p. 161).   Clearly, only a small percentage of these had any criminal ambitions, and many came, in fact, to leave behind the corruption in their native country, which stifled honest opportunity.   Nonetheless, and ironically, Italian Mafia structures developed quickly because the cultural conditions in America generated strong feelings in the Italians that only by looking after themselves and their own interests could they truly experience the “American dream”.

The Italians, of course, were not the only ethnic group taking this course; in the first decades of the 20th century, the metropolitan area surrounding New York saw rises in gangs and “mafias” of Chinese, Russian, and Irish immigrants (Mink, O’Connor, 2004,  p. 394).  It would be the Italians, however, who would bring the concept to its most successful and commonly known expression.  Simply, no other culture did it better: “Italian Americans in organized crime maximized the openings created by faulty regulatory regimes” (Critchley, 2009,  p. 9).   This Mafia, unlike the others, devoted thought to the most effective means to exploit the weaknesses in urban systems.

One specific strategy leading to this unique success may be identified, in that the emerging Mafia families seized on the opportunities presented by existent union corruption.  If the new country, for example, was oppressing its immigrant Italian labor force, the Mafia families began to exercise power through immediately forging alliances within its powerful unions, which were both badly organized and rife with extortion.  In this sense, they were “representing” the best interests of the working-class Italian, and generating solidarity (Critchley, 2009,  p. 9).   As industry grew in the urban areas, then, the influence and power of the Mafia grew.  Then, and in the earlier days of gaining control, the Italian Mafia relied on a relatively simple structural system.  Bosses, even heads of families, were only a ladder rung away from the hired guns.  Ranks were few, and this served to reinforce the highly desirable familial quality to the criminality.  Families, in fact, were not defined necessarily by blood ties, but by professed allegiances as well.  Only later would the Mafia begin to develop a complex hierarchy, in order to better insulate the big bosses (Critchley, 2009,  p. 10).   In the beginning, the primary elements enabling Mafia success were closeness and mutual interest, both fueled by an ethnic pride then largely self-perpetuating.

Rise to Power in America

The basic beginnings of the vast power of the Italian Mafia are typically traced to Black Hand operations.  There was no actual organization known as the “Black Hand”; rather, the name applied to any individual or band of Italians who coerced merchants in surrendering money, assets, or employment for Italians.  The methods were simple.  A representative from the gang would visit or write to the target, “requesting” the aims and clearly intimating that failure to comply would result in damage or injury.  The letters were strikingly polite: “’Honored Sir, we respectfully request’ – the  message was always the same – ‘Pay or die’” (Repetto,  2005,  p. 36). Accompanying these results, when merchants resisted and suffered, was a hand print in black ink on the scene (Mallory, 2011,  p. 111).  It was basic extortion, and it worked, allowing small bands of criminals to gain power and join forces.

Ultimately, five Italian families took on the roles of being the great Mafia enterprises.  The Bonanno, Genovese, Colombo, Gambino and Lucchese families essentially comprised the criminal underworld and organizational structure that would become commonly known to all America as the Mafia (Raab, 2006,  p. xi).  There were, of course, others, even as the families themselves merged or took on powerful members of others within their ranks.   Nonetheless, these were the highest levels of Mafia power, established by a careful attention to business interests, a common bond in resisting the maltreatment to Italians from the largely Irish police force, and a consistent fostering of solidarity within the Italian communities.  While the Mulberry Street neighborhood of New York was the Italian immigrant community base, there was as well one uptown, near Harlem.   It may be that this initial component of dual locations as bases of operations inspired the great expansion policies of the Mafia.   The organization learned that, provided connections and loyalties were maintained, enormous opportunities for profit could be exploited in other territories.

In time, and with expanded power, the practices of the Black Hand lessened, then disappeared.  This was not due to an ethical reversal on the Mafia’s part; more pragmatically, such primitive tactics were no longer necessary.  An event in 20th century American life would prove to be the single greatest boost to organized crime in the nation’s history: the Volstead Act of 1919, which banned the manufacture and sales of liquor throughout the U.S.  In the four years that this highly controversial, and typically disregarded, law was in effect, the Mafia enjoyed unparalleled opportunities for large-scale profits.   Moreover, this bounty was by no means restricted  to the metropolitan area, as the Mafia bosses soon saw the potentials on broad-based operations.  As alcohol was illegal everywhere and the families were overseeing production in New York, or importing liquor illegally from Cuba and other nations, it made very good sense to expand the market, establish family representation in other cities, and “go national”. Crime boss Bonanno, sponsored by a Sicilian Mafia family to investigate American opportunities, was amazed at the possibilities offered by Prohibition: “It was the ‘golden goose’, he rhapsodized” (Raab,  2006,  p. 24).   It remains a striking irony that the U.S. government, even then confounded in attempts to end Mafia influence and corruption, should have so remarkably presented the enemy with its greatest source of revenue.   In a word, Mafia families had already established great power, but Prohibition allowed them to evolve into massive, corporate enterprises.

Reaches of Influence

Not unexpectedly, a great difficulty in assessing the true range of the Mafia’s influence lies in the nature of organized criminality, which is inherently covert.   What is indisputable is that this influence stretched into virtually every arena wherein commerce occurs on a large scale.    One notable case of this may be seen in the Mafia’s long exploitation of an asset at its New York doorstep: JFK airport.  By the middle decades of the 20th century, billions of dollars worth of good were coming directly into this venue, and it was a prize far too rich to be passed by.  While all the families engaged in airport manipulation and theft, Mafia boss Carlo Gambino most focused on this resource.   He had great experience – and had made huge profit – in intercepting foreign goods coming in through the waterfront, but the times had changed and the stakes were higher.  Gambino understood that he required control of the airport labor forces to realize the criminal potential; if the men unloading the planes and cargo are on your payroll, in a sense, then you own the goods.  To that end, Gambino actively pursued a controlling interest in the most powerful union of all, the Teamsters (Davis,  1994,  p. 110).  This in place, he was able to enhance his family’s empire for years, in trafficking stolen goods worth billions.

It is difficult to properly convey the power wielded by the Mafia through its control of the Teamsters.  The union had been notoriously corrupt before direct Mafia influence began; Dave Beck, its president in the 1950s, was convicted on charges of grand larceny.   Even more notorious, however, was the Mafia involvement of Beck’s successor, Jimmy Hoffa.   By 1959, the U.S. government established that Hoffa was closely connected to the Lucchese family, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy identified Hoffa as his chief target in combating organized crime in 1961 (Davis, 1994,  p. 111).   Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 was, and remains, strongly believed to have been the work of the Mafia, perhaps fearful of disclosures Hoffa would make to the authorities.  Nevertheless, and for a number of years when Hoffa retained his position, the Italian Mafia enjoyed a virtually limitless power over the commercially vital activities of the Teamsters.

With Las Vegas, another case presents itself of Mafia growth and influence. The financial opportunities to be gained from this resort city were simply too enormous to overlook, and a literal flood of Mafia “investors” gradually took control of the hotel and gambling operations in the 1940s and 1950s.   The city had been conceived of and largely begun by both legitimate entrepreneurs and others with distinct Mafia ties, such as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel.  Mafia control was established frequently in concert with, and under the more respectable names of, other partners.   Nonetheless, the money was almost entirely all Mafia money.  For example, Caesar’s Palace was heavily invested in by Jerry Catena, one of the Genovese family’s chief men.  Tellingly, a vast amount of money came from Jimmy Hoffa.   More specifically, the millions came from the Teamsters’ pension fund (Sifakis,  2005,  p. 256).  By the heyday of Vegas in the 1950s, when the nation was turning it into an enormously popular resort, it was generally believed that the entire city belonged to the Mafia.

Mafia influence, if not outright ownership, of  Las Vegas reveals a distinctly important point regarding its processes, which is the Mafia’s taking advantage of an enormous opportunity not entirely criminal in nature.   In the days of Prohibition, the Mafia was able to keep powerful political support because the illegality of bootlegging was not severely “criminalized”; the law was hotly debated, and consequently breaking it was not viewed as an essentially criminal act.  This permitted officials paid by the Mafia to maintain their connections to them without completely destroying their own credibility as public servants.  The same was true of gambling in Las Vegas.   For one thing, it was actually legal, if ostensibly subject to extreme conditions.  For another, the ethical issues generated by it allowed, as with Prohibition, safety margins for politicians.  Here, again, they could evince support for casinos,  be somewhat recognized as affiliated with the controlling families, yet retain some respect (Dickie, 2005,  p. 232).  The arrangement was, in fact, mutually advantageous; as a politician’s image served to enhance the Mafia’s, the Mafia became more established, and consequently less of a stigma for the politicians.

Nonetheless, criminal activity underscored the Mafia’s advances in Las Vegas.   Either from behind-the-scenes, as silent owners, or more evident as casino and hotel management, the Mafia engaged in standard, extortionist tactics to maintain its foothold and profits.   When strikes threatened to disrupt trade, the Mafia was on hand to break them.   Similarly, it worked with the labor unions themselves to extort money and services (Dickie,  2005,  p. 232).   During the great boom of the city in the middle of the 20th century, the Italian Mafia enjoyed what would be its last stronghold over American enterprise, at least in a manner irrefutably identified with it.

Decline and Current Status

The reality of the Italian Mafia today is widely contested.  There are those who believe its power is as vast as ever, and only submerged by screens and facades necessitated by the surveillance technologies of modern life.   Then, other arguments insist that the day of the all-powerful crime family as presented by the Italian boss is a thing of the past.  It is, of course, difficult to ascertain the truth; as noted, criminality is intrinsically a covert affair, particularly when conducted on enormous, commercial scales.  It is, simply, impossible to know how actively present Italian Mafia families are in criminal activities, a situation clearly exacerbated by the complicated interrelations of business concerns in an increasingly global market.

In one sense, The Godfather books and films present a factual scenario.  It is true that Italian Mafia families were turning towards legitimizing their enterprises, dating back to the 1970s.  It may be said, in fact, that the great interest in Las Vegas was the first surge of this intention, even as it sought to criminally exploit a legal activity.  Mafia business have been “laundered”, to remove illicit associations.  Simultaneously, increased and persistent governmental probing has resulted in family activities being more submerged than ever before: “Federal prosecutions in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s have resulted in the Mafia becoming more of an underground operation, and even dormant in many areas of America” (Mallory,  2011,  p. 110).   As is obvious, “underground” translates into unknowable, and a decline by no means points to an elimination.

Another massive force in eroding Mafia power, at least in its overt form, was the drug trafficking engaged in by the families.  In this realm, and dangerously so, the Mafia had radically veered from any course that blurred the lines of legality, and the consequences would be as severe as the profits had been high.  From the onset of the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, there was intense governmental focus on Mafia drug trading, possibly because this was one arena in which few safety mechanisms, such as purchased political power, could assist it.  If an average citizen had been inclined to view the Mafia sympathetically when it promoted gambling and alcohol, this was far less likely when the life-and-death element of drugs was the affair in question, and politicians could no longer afford to ally themselves with families.  Prosecutions were rampant, with extreme losses to both families and to income, and even the most skilled and expensive attorneys could not save Mafia suspects convicted of drug dealing from long sentences. Within a matter of years, the Bonanno and Lucchese dynasties, two of the most powerful Mafia families, lost two-thirds of their members to prison sentences  (Dickie,  2005,  p. 233).  As any Italian Mafia family inherently relies on its own composition, a severe decline in Italian Mafia power is the most probable consequence of these societal and governmental actions.

Conclusion

From beginnings forged in the lemon groves of Sicily, the cultural entity known as the Italian Mafia made its way to America, and established itself as a monumental force.   In promoting itself through values of cultural and familial solidarity, it managed to conduct vast criminal enterprises while still retaining some measure of public regard, or even sympathy.  In later years, it power would expand and corrupt institutions central to American life and the American economy, such as the unions and the flow of airport commerce, and it would essentially operate a massive city attractive to, and visited by, millions of Americans every year.   The Mafia’s reign would fall with the onset of severe governmental probing and rigid prosecution of offenses, particularly in regard to drug trades, and the Italian Mafia today, wherever it exists, is a shadow of what it was.  However, the presence of it remains to this day and, weakened or not, the Italian Mafia remains a criminal force in America, if a largely invisible one.

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