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How Some Criminals Evade the Cops for Decades

Most crooks eventually get caught, but some members of Italian organized crime syndicates remain on the lam for decades. How do they do it?

Whitey Bulger, basis for the villain in The Departed, after his 2011 arrest. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/US Marshals Service

Every so often, authorities capture a member of an Italian organized crime syndicate who's been on the run for many years. They come from all the major organizations—the once-dominant Cosa Nostra of Godfather and Sopranos fame, the up-and-coming 'Ndrangheta, and the slow-and-steady Camorra. And they pop up all over the world, from rural farmhouses in Italy (where one Cosa Nostra boss who managed to lay low for 43 years was caught in 2006) to mild-mannered English suburbs, all the way to Recife, Brazil, where local police made the most recent high-profile bust late last month, taking down a Camorra boss who'd managed to start a new family using a new face and a new name for 28 years.

If you read about these long-term fugitives often enough, it's easy to feel like staying on the lam for decades is no big deal.

But for almost any other criminal, even ten years on the run is extraordinary. When, in 2011, American law enforcement finally managed to arrest notorious Boston Irish gangster James "Whitey" Bulger—the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed—it was considered miraculous and unusual that he'd managed to stay hidden for 16 years, a fraction of what some Mafiosi fugitives achieve.

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Not every Mafioso is adept at evading the law, of course. In 2014, for instance, Italy managed to round up well over 100 members of the 'Ndrangheta. And not every Mafioso tries to escape justice by fleeing and assuming a new identity. In 2011, one member of the 'Ndrangheta was found trying to outwait the heat on him in a cushy bunker built a junkyard.

Still, the sheer number of Mafiosi who escape for so long raises serious questions as to whether or not these Italian mobsters are just better at hiding than other criminals—and if so, how they pull it off.

Eager to figure out why we hear so much about decades-long Mafiosi fugitives, I reached out to Howard Blum, a former New York Times investigative reporter and author of Gangland: How the FBI Broke the Mob , which centers on John Gotti of the American-Italian Gambino mafia and his evasion of justice. I also reached out to Richard Lehr, a former investigative reporter at the Boston Globe and author of Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family , and Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss , for some comparative perspective on the fugitive life of non-mafia criminals.

VICE: Are Italian mafias better than other criminal groups at spiriting people underground or out of the country for prolonged periods of time?
Richard Lehr: They certainly have an organization that a lot of criminals don't have. A lot of street-level criminals who go on the run, they're basically on their own, which is the case of Whitey Bulger as well. But the mafia certainly has the kind of international organization where, if someone has to go on the run, he can resurface in some foreign village or someplace and live a different life.

William Blum: I don't think that there's any organized program of spiriting people away. There are two things: One is common sense. You change the way you look and you stay away from the people you usually hung out with. Two is if you're found out, you engage in intimidation. You use fear.

Why is it so hard for ordinary criminals to just sever their ties and walk away?
Blum: I think it's basically a psychological fortitude that certain people have. They can put the past behind them. They can walk away from ties to family. They can walk away form ties to the mob and just be isolated. If you can stop living the gangster's life, you have a much better chance of succeeding in your new identity.

Lehr: That's one of the biggest challenges for any fugitive. And that is remarkable when anyone has managed to stay out there for 20 or 30 years, because when you think about it, they're used to being the big man.

When you're on the run, not only do you have to cut ties, but you've got to someone find a way to calm [that ego] down or find different ways to satisfy your egomaniacal ways. And a lot of people, I think if you did a study you'd find, are caught rather quickly. They don't know what they're doing. They really don't know their way around the world after they leave their neighborhood street corner. So they call their old neighborhoods [saying], "I need help." And the US Marshals are all over them. So it requires a whole bunch of discipline in all different kinds of ways.

Why does the mafia has such a good track record of breeding people who can fully sever their ties and then evade justice for years or even decades on end?
Blum:
I think the structure has some role in it. It is a mob and you have a role in the mob. It's your identity as a mobster by being part of the group. You're a soldier. You're a capo. You're someone in a regime. Once you separate yourself from that group, once you don't have that identity, you have a new definition of self. And you live with this new definition of yourself.

Perhaps you're still a tough guy. But you're not a tough guy as part of the mob. You don't have the mob to back you up. So you live a bit more cautiously, more prudently.

How do Mafiosi manage to flee so far and survive so well away from their gangs?
Blum: People who have access to funds can go further and live longer in hiding.

Lehr: [Whitey was] brilliant in anticipating that someday he might have to take off. So he hid money in safety deposit boxes. If you're smart about it, you're planning ahead for that sort of thing. [In the mafia] if you can find a back channel and you're still in good standing, they can help to take care of you, get you what you need.

But not a lot of non-mafia [have that]. They tend to be on their own and it's risky and bad to make a call back to the old neighborhood and say, "Hey, I need some support."

How exceptional it is for your average criminal to escape justice for decades?
Lehr: I don't have numbers or data, but getting a sense from dealing with the US Marshals whose job it is to find fugitives, I think [Bulger] would be in the category of a minority of people who manage to stay out there as long as he did without tripping up.

How many more crooks and Mafiosi might be floating around, uncaught, for long periods of time?
Blum: I think there are a lot of them. The longer you're away from home, if you can get away without missing [your old life], you'll succeed.

But ultimately many of them can't change who they were.

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