The Mafia

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Ge­orge Anas­ta­sia out­look@wash­ Ge­orge Anas­ta­sia is an au­thor and for­mer re­porter for the Philadel­phia In­quirer who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about or­ga­nized crime and the Amer­i­can Mafia.

The Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val ended last month with screen­ings of “The God­fa­ther” and “The God­fa­ther: Part II.” The pur­pose was to cel­e­brate the 45th an­niver­sary of the first film, which pumped new life into a genre that had dom­i­nated the movie in­dus­try in the 1930s. Re­leased at a time when the Amer­i­can Mafia was los­ing its hold on the un­der­world, the movies of­fered a ro­man­ti­cized ver­sion of “the life,” a ver­sion that cel­e­brated “men of honor” and omerta. In many ways, the movies have served as train­ing films for sec­ond­ and third­gen­er­a­tion Ital­ian Amer­i­can gangsters, who moved from the ur­ban cen­ters of their im­mi­grant grand­par­ents to ho­mog­e­nized sub­urbs where Sunday din­ner is served at the Olive Gar­den and espresso comes in four fla­vors at Star­bucks. The movies have also re­in­forced sev­eral myths about the Mafia that, iron­i­cally, the ac­tions of those in the next gen­er­a­tions quickly dis­pelled.

MYTH NO. 1 The Mafia doesn’t deal drugs.

In “The God­fa­ther,” Michael Cor­leone be­came a gang­ster after his brother Sonny was bru­tally slaugh­tered on the cause­way in a dis­pute over drugs. Don Vito Cor­leone’s avowed op­po­si­tion to nar­cotics traf­fick­ing helped cre­ate the per­cep­tion that drug deal­ing was against the rules. Tes­ti­mony at real-life mob tri­als re­in­forced that ca­nard. “Our pol­icy was against drugs,” mob­ster turned govern­ment wit­ness Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gra­vano said while tes­ti­fy­ing against mob boss John Gotti in 1993.

The re­al­ity is that as far back as Lucky Lu­ciano, the mob has been in the drug busi­ness. In 1959, Vito Gen­ovese — who gave his name to one of the five New York fam­i­lies — was im­pris­oned on drug charges, as was his low-level crime fam­ily sol­dier Joe Valachi. Drugs have gen­er­ated bil­lions of dol­lars in in­come for the mob over the decades. The “Pizza Con­nec­tion,” for in­stance, was a Si­cil­ian Mafia heroin ring that dom­i­nated the trade in New York and other East Coast cities be­tween 1975 and 1984, bring­ing an es­ti­mated $1.6 bil­lion worth of heroin into the United States, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

FBI doc­u­ments do in­di­cate that bosses such as Paul Castellano and Vin­cent “the Chin” Gi­gante in New York and An­gelo Bruno in Philadel­phia banned mem­bers of their or­ga­ni­za­tions from get­ting in­volved in nar­cotics. But that wasn’t based on a moral op­po­si­tion to drug deal­ing. Rather, it stemmed from the re­al­iza­tion by those bosses — who al­ready had more money than they could count — of the tremen­dous le­gal jeop­ardy that came with nar­cotics as the fed­eral govern­ment amped up the war on drugs in the early 1970s. And gangsters have tes­ti­fied that bosses such as Gotti, who banned nar­cotics, still know­ingly ac­cepted trib­ute pay­ments from un­der­world drug deal­ers. The hyp­o­crit­i­cal mes­sage: Don’t deal drugs, but if you do, I get a piece of the ac­tion.

MYTH NO. 2 Omerta, the code of si­lence, is a sa­cred rule.

The idea that the Mafia’s code of si­lence is un­break­able is a cen­ter­piece of pop cul­ture about the mob, in movies, books and TV shows.

In re­al­ity, that code was bro­ken decades ago, when Valachi, the Gen­ovese crime fam­ily as­so­ciate, told a Se­nate sub­com­mit­tee in 1963 that the syn­di­cate called it­self “Cosa Nos­tra,” or “Our Thing.” Over the next 20 years, a half­dozen made mem­bers, in­clud­ing An­gelo Lonardo in Cleve­land, Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fra­tianno in Los An­ge­les and Vin­cent “Fat Vin­nie” Teresa in Bos­ton, be­came govern­ment co­op­er­a­tors. By the late 1980s, omerta was shat­tered. In city after city, mem­bers of the mob be­gan to real­ize that they could get out from un­der their crim­i­nal prob­lems by cut­ting deals with fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors and head­ing for the wit­ness stand.

In part, this was a re­sult of the Amer­i­can­iza­tion of the Mafia. Doors that had been closed to Ital­ian im­mi­grants in the 1910s and 1920s be­cause of prej­u­dice and big­otry were kicked open two gen­er­a­tions later. To­day, the best and the bright­est in that com­mu­nity are doc­tors, lawyers, ed­u­ca­tors, en­ter­tain­ers, sci­en­tists and judges. Many of those who now make the Mafia a ca­reer choice are driven pri­mar­ily by eco­nomics. Th­ese mob­sters, un­like ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, never em­braced Cosa Nos­tra as a way of life. For them, it was a busi­ness, a way to make money. And when they found them­selves un­der in­dict­ment and fac­ing 20 years to life, they made a busi­ness de­ci­sion: How do I cut my losses?

MYTH NO. 3 The Mafia’s ini­ti­a­tion rite is a se­cret cer­e­mony.

For years, the rite of pas­sage into a Mafia fam­ily — known as a mak­ing cer­e­mony — was a closely guarded se­cret. The for­mal rit­ual was sacro­sanct and sel­dom dis­cussed, even among mem­bers of the crime fam­i­lies. “Once a bul­let leaves that gun, you never talk about it,” mob boss Joseph Massino said of an oath he took at his ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony in 1977.

Of course, Massino said this from the wit­ness stand in 2011 after be­com­ing a govern­ment in­for­mant, de­spite the vow he had taken. He joined an ever-grow­ing list of “men of honor” who have openly dis­cussed — usu­ally in court­rooms, but also in books and in tele­vi­sion in­ter­views — the se­cret rite. To­day, ac­cu­rate reen­act­ments can be seen in mob movies, and FBI doc­u­ments pro­vide de­tailed ac­counts of the process. The cer­e­mony usu­ally takes place be­fore a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner and is con­ducted by the boss or the un­der­boss of the crime fam­ily. It be­gins with a for­mal, al­most Bap­tismal-like ques­tion­ing of the can­di­date, whose trig­ger fin­ger is pricked with a pin. The blood is then wiped on a re­li­gious card de­pict­ing a saint. The card is crum­pled, cupped in the ini­ti­ate’s hands and set on fire, while the in­ductee swears an oath to live and die for the crime fam­ily, pledg­ing to “burn like this saint” if he be­trays any­one in the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The FBI se­cretly recorded one cer­e­mony in 1989 by plant­ing elec­tronic lis­ten­ing de­vices in a home in sub­ur­ban Bos­ton where mem­bers of the Pa­tri­arca fam­ily were to be made. A year later, a New Jersey mob fig­ure who was co­op­er­at­ing with the state po­lice wore a body wire to his own ini­ti­a­tion. The mob­ster, Ge­orge Fresolone, later co-au­thored a book ti­tled “Blood Oath.” After the fact, Mafia lead­ers ruled his cer­e­mony in­valid, even though four of the five ini­ti­ates that day had no idea what Fresolone was up to.

MYTH NO. 4 Any­one who tes­ti­fies against the Mafia will be killed.

Joe Pi­s­tone, the FBI agent who spent six years un­der­cover as Don­nie Brasco, build­ing cases and then tes­ti­fy­ing against the mob, put it best in a 1997 Washington Post in­ter­view: “What con­cerns you is the cow­boy, y’know? Some­body who wants to make a name for him­self within the mob.” Pi­s­tone’s com­ments came in re­sponse to re­ports that the mob had put a $500,000 con­tract on his head. Mur­der is the tool used to en­force the code of con­duct in the un­der­world. Pi­s­tone, as Don­nie Brasco, had vi­o­lated that code.

But the Wit­ness Se­cu­rity Pro­gram means it’s safe to break with the Mafia. Co­op­er­at­ing wit­nesses and their fam­i­lies have an op­por­tu­nity to walk away from the life. Run by the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice since 1971 and com­monly but in­cor­rectly re­ferred to as the Wit­ness Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram, the ser­vice pro­vides re­lo­ca­tion, a new iden­tity and a fi­nan­cial stipend to help a wit­ness get reestab­lished in an­other part of the coun­try. The pro­gram has set up new lives for more than 8,600 wit­nesses (not all of them Mafiosi) and 9,900 of their fam­ily mem­bers.

The stipend doesn’t last for­ever — it usu­ally ends after about a year. The down­side, and one rea­son some co­op­er­a­tors even­tu­ally opt out, is that wit­nesses and their fam­i­lies can never re­turn to visit with friends and rel­a­tives they have left be­hind, a hard­ship that many find too dif­fi­cult.

MYTH NO. 5 The Mafia never in­ter­acts with other or­ga­nized-crime groups.

Most film and TV de­pic­tions of the Mafia show it op­er­at­ing com­pletely on its own. And in­deed, when they were the big dogs in the game — from the late 1940s through the 1970s — Ital­ian Amer­i­can Mafia or­ga­ni­za­tions rarely in­ter­acted with other crim­i­nal groups. The one ex­cep­tion was an oc­ca­sional over­lap with the Si­cil­ian Mafia, but then they were crim­i­nal cousins whose roots went back to the same fam­ily tree.

To­day the Amer­i­can Mafia, while still a player, is no longer the mono­lithic un­der­world power that it was in the days of Lu­ciano and Al Capone.

Michael Franzese, a Colombo fam­ily capo, de­scribed his deal­ings in the 1980s with Rus­sian mob­sters in a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar gaso­line tax fraud scheme this way: “The Rus­sian mob from Brighton Beach in the gas busi­ness — the best part­ners I ever had.”

Mafia fig­ures in var­i­ous cities have been linked to the metham­phetamine trade with mem­bers of the Pa­gans mo­tor­cy­cle gang. And lead­ers of the Luc­ch­ese and Colombo crime fam­i­lies dealt on a reg­u­lar ba­sis with Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, a no­to­ri­ous heroin traf­ficker out of Har­lem.

At the end of the day, the Mafia isn’t about pride, it’s about money — how to get it, how to keep it and how to make more of it.


New York po­lice of­fi­cers es­cort Mafia hit man To­masso “the Ox” Petto, sec­ond from left, in 1903, after his ar­rest on mur­der charges.

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