What Happened to the American Mafia?

The FBI says that the mob is still an existential criminal threat in America. We asked some former Gambino family soldiers and two La Cosa Nostra experts if that's really the case in 2015.

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Jul 13 2015, 4:00am

Al Capone after an arrest in Chicago in the 1930s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Italian-American Mafia is embedded in our popular culture. Hollywood movies, books, reality shows, video games—we just can't seem to get enough of the "mob." From Lucky Luciano to The Godfather, from John Gotti to The Sopranos, history has been juxtaposed with fiction to produce a rich national pastime.

Goodfellas, among the greatest American mob films, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall—and continues to pop up in real news headlines.

Of course, the Mafia isn't what it once was: a power structure capable of influencing national politicians and making historic heists at major transportation centers. But the FBI maintains that La Cosa Nostra—the sprawling group originally steered by Sicilian immigrants that we hear about most often—is the "foremost organized criminal threat to American society." The feds estimate that various Italian Mafia groups have more than 3,000 members scattered throughout the country, with their largest presence in New York, southern New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

A recent New Jersey case demonstrated the mob's endurance, as acting state attorney general John J. Hoffman said his investigation into the Lucchese crime family "revealed that traditional organized crime remains a corrosive presence in the US and continues to reap huge profits through criminal enterprises."

VICE reached out to some onetime mobsters like Gambino family soldiers John Alite and Louis Ferrante, along with La Cosa Nostra experts Christian Cipollini and Scott Burnstein, for their take on where the Mafia's at after all these years.

VICE: What's the present state of the Mafia in America?
John Alite: It's going back to the old ways of [stay] underground and stay quiet and build up. Make money and stay low key.

Scott Burnstein: The Mafia in America today is still surviving; however, [it's] not thriving like it once was. Serious mob activity still exists, although not as "greased in" to the high levels of political power and the country's infrastructure as in the Mafia's golden era of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Traditional mob hotbeds like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, and New Jersey are still operational and functioning at a consistent level (some have been hampered by legal assaults in recent years), while other cities with a rich mob history like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, LA, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay are either defunct altogether or heading quickly in that direction.

The Mafia lineage is not being passed on down to the younger generation as it had been in the past, and a lot of members of the Mafia—unlike in the mob's heyday—are refraining from bringing their sons into the "family business."

What caused the Mafia's decline?
Louis Ferrante: The world changed. At one time, Italian immigrants had few ways to earn a living and provide for their families. Today, Italians have the same opportunities to advance as anyone else.

Christian Cipollini: Times change; they ebb and flow. The Mafia in the United States was absolutely an amazingly long-standing organization that thrived, adapted, and survived for over a century. The downfall was going to happen no matter what, when considering history's epic tales of virtually every empire rising and inevitably declining. The American Mafia had based a lot of its progress on the assistance of politicians, the supply of contraband, and rackets across the board. As time went on, there were fewer people taking payoffs, younger and more savvy organizations excelled in the drug trade, and many of the rackets the Mafia dominated—well, they just don't exist anymore. Then, of course, the deadly blow of RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] and the fact that a loyalty is merely a word now, not an oath.

A Mafioso faced with decades in prison or switching sides isn't even a dilemma anymore—they talk and walk.

Is there any way for the Mafia to regain some of its old luster?

John Alite: The power is still there as far as the money-earning capacity in all the same industries, but the fear is being lost because of the reluctance of being as violent on mobsters' parts because of all the technology.

Scott Burnstein: No, they will never achieve the status it did in the mid 20th century. Modern law enforcement and the American legal system have too many safeguards in place. The "talent pool" has been dwindling for decades at this point. They'll never cease to exist, but they'll never ascend to prior heights, either.

The feds might like to claim credit for dismantling the mob through RICO cases. What's your take on that?
Louis Ferrante: In part, yes. They've made a lot of people think, "Is this worth it?" No law enforcement has a clear understanding of how it works and therefore how to stop it. Moreover, gambling is legal. Alcohol is legal. And just about anyone can get a loan from a bank. Ordinary people no longer need the Mafia. And with no demand, the organization is unnecessary.

Christian Cipollini: I believe that RICO was indeed a massive blow to organized crime as a whole, once the statute had actually been wielded properly and with frequency. Some may not realize RICO had been instituted in 1970 when Congress passed the act, but frequent and effective use of the tool didn't really happen much until the 1980s. As for the government being the be-all, end-all—there were many other inevitable factors at play. Yes, the RICO application was devastating to the mob, but so was the lack of trust internally, disorganization in hierarchy, the dissolution of once-lucrative rackets, insiders turning state's witness, and the influx of other, more readily adapted crime organizations.

Will there ever be any more Mafia dons like John Gotti or Lucky Luciano?
John Alite: My honest opinion is John Gotti Sr. was the worst thing ever for the mob. The public doesn't understand how much damage he did to it by his arrogant ways. The mobsters do! Especially now, looking back. But guys like Lucky were great, they had earning capacity. He also understood politics back then. You have to adjust to the times, and Gotti never did that. His demise and the mob's was his ego over this thing. This thing was supposed to be way bigger then any man or ego.

Scott Burnstein: Yes, there is at least one in existence today. His name is "Skinny Joey" Merlino; he's the boss of the Philadelphia Mafia and is a gangland icon in my opinion, [one] you can put up there with the most dynamic, gutsy, and ambitious mob leaders of all time.

Why do you think popular culture is so rife with mobster tales?
Louis Ferrante: My lawless years were undoubtedly the most free I've ever felt. I think everyone has a part of them that wishes they could do whatever they want. Imagine someone aggravates you at work today, and you can just pistol-whip him. Lots of people like to fantasize about things like that.

Christian Cipollini: The romantic notion of gangsterism will always enthrall us as a culture. To live vicariously through the stories, fictional and true alike, of people who made their own rules, or held unfathomable power—it 's sort of mesmerizing and makes for irresistible pop culture candy. There just seems to be an endless craving or curiosity about what life would be like in the underworld. The flip side of everyday life, the telling your boss to shove it, never having a bill collector bother you, just wine, dine, dress impeccably, count the money, and maybe kick some ass with no repercussions—it all seems so appealing when having a bad day or [you] just need a mental escape.

Stories about the mob, or kingpins, or just outlaws in general tap into that psychology, I think, but the romantic notion is just that—a notion. Those in the know are well aware very few happy endings occur in the underworld, and that 's not even scratching the surface of all the darker realities, [like] prison, death, paranoia, [and] addiction.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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