Comparing the Italian and NYC Mafias
by Ryan Dennis
Earlier this year Frank Cali, leader of the Gambino crime syndicate, was shot down outside his home in Staten Island. It marked the first mafia killing in New York City since 1985.
As a nice poetic touch, the murder happened only a few minutes from where The Godfather was filmed. Such an event has gotten people wondering if things are heating up on the NYC mafia scene.
This country loves its mafia movies. From Goodfellas to Scarface to, yes, The
Godfather trilogy. Pacino and De Niro have taken us to the gritty backstreets of the city and shown us what it’s like to be a wiseguy. Somewhere in all that is a comment on the American spirit—being tough, hardened, coming from nothing and rising to power. We can’t get enough of it. Still, for most of us anyway, it feels like something that’s only in the movies.
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However, The New York mafia is a very real thing. The Five Families (Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno, and Colombo) took a hit with the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations) Act introduced in 1970, allowing bosses to be tried for crimes and murders they ordered. Regardless, the FBI estimates there to be at least 3,000 members of Italian-American crime groups in the US, most of them in New York. That’s a pretty healthy number from the first Sicilian immigrants that came over 150 years ago.
Still, if you think the mafia is the stuff of movies, take a moment to consider the scene from where it all started: Southern Italy. For most areas, it’s the stuff of life there. Between Cosa Nostra in Sicily, ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, Camorra in Naples and Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, their influence reaches into everything. They have infiltrated politics, legitimate businesses and legal enterprises, controlling a vast amount of the economy in regions at the end of the boot.
Francis Ford Coppola won an Oscar for Godfather II. Roberto Saviano, author of the Italian mafia book Gomorrah (that led to the film and series), had to go into
hiding. You might ask how the Italian mafia can have such a strong hold on an EU country in this modern age.
The answer is probably complicated, but starts with the economics of Italy. The south has always been much poorer than the north, with much fewer occupational prospects. In many towns the only way to get a job is from the mafia, and that alone makes ordinary citizens beholden to them (even if mafia control has kept the region poor).
As my southern-Italian girlfriend explains, they offer a sense of order, because they don’t kill without a purpose and their presence keeps random thuggery somewhat tamped down. She, as much as any Southern Italian, knows how the mafia works. Her second cousin was employed as their lawyer, but tried to keep some of the dirty money he was “cleaning.” He was shot to death and burned in his car. (He should have known better, she tells me nonchalantly. This from the same girl whose father never went to jail for shooting a man in the heart…I try to get along with the family.)
The Italian mafia has made it abundantly clear that trying to oppose them comes at a cost. The 80s alone included the assignations of a governor, a police chief and several prominent political leaders. In 1992 the mafia blew up the car of anti-mob prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, killing him, his wife and three members of security detail. Two months later, his colleague was murdered the same way. Since then, few politicians have dared to come out against the mafia, an act that is made further difficult by the deep corruption in Italian politics.
There has been some progress made in combatting the Italian crime organizations. Last year 84 members of the ‘Ndrangheta family were arrested across several countries, and Cosa Nostra had one of its bosses and 45 of its members nabbed by Palermo’s anti-mafia unit. Recently another sting raided 48 of ‘Ndrangheta’s businesses in Canada and Italy. Still, that’s a drop compared to what’s going on in Southern Italy.
The killing of Gambino boss Cali probably means that things are livening up in NewYork’s Five Families. Still, if you want to see some real made-for-movie drama, better look across the ocean.