Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
Fooled you, huh? You thought I was talking about illegals crossing the Mexican border. No, I’m talking about legal citizens who do illegal things, specifically members and associates of traditional organized crime whose roots begin hundreds of years ago in Sicily. Why that group? Because it was the most powerful organized criminal group in the history of the United States, and now it’s old and tired at a time when we can better use resources to combat more brutal new gangs and the thing that threatens us all: terrorism.
How and why Sicilian-rooted organized crime peaked for such a long time is based in its history. Every immigrant group that arrived on our shores were forced into ghetto areas and had criminal gangs. Read Herbert Asbury’s classic study, "The Gangs of New York," or watch Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name, and you will understand how powerful and pervasive Irish gangs with names like the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Five Pointers were in Lower Manhattan in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. As a matter of fact, by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when immigrants from Southern Italy were replacing the Irish in their former ghettos as the latter moved up in society, the transitional leader of the Five Points Gang, Paul Kelly, was actually named Paolo Vacarelli. He was the bridge between remaining Irish criminals and new Italian gangmembers. The Five Points Gang, operating out of Lower Manhattan, turned out major mob names, including that of Lucky Luciano.
There were plenty of Jewish gangsters also that came out of inner city ghettos in the early to mid-part of the Twentieth Century. Monk Eastman, Lepke Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and most members of Murder Incorporated, were all of Jewish descent. They were not all one group. Siegel and Lansky had their own Manhattan based Bug & Meyer Mob aligned with Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello (later called the Genovese Family), while Murder Incorporated, under the banner of Albert Anastasia (later called the Gambino Family) were primarily from Brownsville and East New York areas of Brooklyn.
Why then, did all these Irish and Jewish mobsters fade from the public consciousness while Italians/Sicilians did not? History and perception. Irish and Eastern European Jews always had problems with oppression, but it had been consistent oppression. Russian Jews had been brutalized for centuries by Russians. They were as much as foreigners in their Russia. Irish Catholics and Protestants had battled in the old country, with foreign Brits allied with their own countrymen. Sicilians, on the other hand, had always been at the mercy of foreigners who ruled their land. French, Spanish, Arab, and Greek military forces had dominated their island for nearly a thousand years. Sicily’s architectural diversity attests to the various invaders who left their mark. Where were Sicilian natives supposed to get justice? They didn’t even speak the languages of the various troops or, more importantly, courts. The answer: a sub-rosa government (Mafia), with the ability to tax (extortion, kidnapping, etc.), and the means to enforce the law (violence or death). When Sicilian and other Southern Italian immigrants landed in the United States, they found a familiar situation. They were considered the lowest element in society (many Americans wanted them deported back home), didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t get justice. They also found a familiar sub-rosa government in their areas to get that justice from; to go to when a daughter had been violated, as portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic film, "Godfather."
What that did was continue history for them, and, in turn, give them a different perception of crime from the other groups. Irish and Jewish mobsters, in large part viewed their criminal activities as a vehicle to get them from poverty to affluence, with the idea that their children and grandchildren would not have to follow that path. Sicilians/Italians saw crime as a way of life; something to be handed down to their sons and their sons’ sons. I know descendents of Lansky, Shapiro, and others. Sam Jacobson was a major star in Lansky’s organization. Sam’s son went to college and was, when I saw him last, a distributor of packaged bakery products to supermarkets. Henry Shapiro, Gurrah’s son, owned a trendy men’s clothing store when I first met him. Max "The Jew" Schrager was part of the same Lansky group and ran a Williamsburg, Brooklyn numbers bank. His son went to law school, became a partner in the legendary Studio 54, and now is a world class hotel entrepreneur. On the Sicilian/Italian side of the coin, Joe Colombo Sr.’s father was a mobster, Joe himself became the namesake of the former Profaci Family, and two of Sr.s sons are presently on trial. Same with the Persicos, where three generations are all in prison today. Unfortunately, the latter are by no means anomalies.
All of the above brings us to the present time. From my inside view of organized crime, I know it’s done for. Some bodies still standing, just waiting to die in bed. The younger generation with hopes of mob glory? Fuggetaboutit. There’s no mob worth getting involved with, and you wannabes aren’t up to snuff if there was. Why? Because conditions create toughguys, not dreams or bloodline. None of you grew up in conditions where, when that prison gate clangs behind you, you can honestly say to yourself, "This isn’t as bad as where I grew up." Historically, if you look at the heyday of the mob with big names like Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, and Al Capone, you also see a bunch of big name fighters coming out of the same ghetto areas, like Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, and Joey Giardello. Mob guys were saying, "Shoot me, lock me in jail, I don’t care, but I ain’t going back there." Fighters coming out of the same areas, through actions said, "Hit me, bang my face up, do what you want, but I ain’t going back there." See any number of Italian prizefighters? What does that tell you about mobsters? There is no more "back there" to turn out effective participants in either life in any significant number. Those with hopes of becoming mobsters take heed. Old timers who even consider dealing with young new members and associates take more heed. Your lives depend on it.
Getting back to the point of amnesty, the mob today can be compared to gunslingers of the old Wild West. Gunslingers had their moment in time; mobsters had theirs. One day the gunslingers were shooting it out on the streets of Dodge City; a short time later Dodge had high-rise buildings and automobiles. Same with the mob. Conditions when they immigrated to America and especially Prohibition vaulted them into decades of power and wealth. Had it not been for Prohibition, those Sicilian/Italian gangs would have been just that: gangs. Prohibition gave them enough money and influence to continue on for decades, without considering the fact that the United States was not Sicily; that their children would speak the language and meld with American society; that there would be no further need of a sub-rosa government. At one time, given conditions at the time, there was minimum exposure to punishment and maximum profit. Today, it’s the complete reverse.
There was one big difference at the end of the Wild West from today. Authorities at that time were forgiving. They periodically issued amnesties to the gunslingers if they would hang up their weapons. It worked. There was no overcrowding of western prisons. Old gunslingers just faded into the sunset with no fuss. Today, with organized crime on its last legs, the time has come to offer a conditional amnesty to mob members and associates if they come forward and agree to retire. There would be immunity for past crimes outside of murder, a financial declaration, and a suspended amnesty sentence that would automatically be enforced if another crime was committed. If the conditions were right, plenty of real mob figures would flock to the U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country to sign up. The wannabes would have no place to be. They’d just be called wannas. Traditional organized crime, as we knew it, would be completely dead. R.I.P.
The problem is that organized crime is a cash cow, not for the criminals any more, but for the authorities. There remains a dangerous aura about the mob that government officials can exploit for various reasons. A short while ago a totally bogus story was given to the media about government fears of organized crime figures hooking up with terrorists. Wow, headlines, a call for more funding, a little intrigue. Just ask yourself how many FBI Agents and U.S. Attorneys around the country are working on catching bookmakers, shylocks, and mob swindlers? Wouldn’t their expense and effort be better utilized in protecting Americans from terrorists? Not as cushy an assignment as a mob that’s got one leg in the coffin. Traditional organized crime figures as a rule do not harm federal agents, while terrorists might target them. Not as glamorous either. One organized crime figure was just offered a plea deal of twelve years on a fraud case, while an attorney who carried terrorist messages from the sheik who participated in the first World Trade Center bombing received a mere twenty-eight month sentence when convicted. Recently, a bunch of mobsters were so old when arrested that the newspapers dubbed them the "Mob-fogies." Give me a break.
The time has come to move federal authorities out of the organized business and into the more difficult and dangerous task of protecting us from terrorism. Forget amnesty for illegal immigrants, the real benefit of an amnesty is one for organized crime figures.
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Other Features by this author:
The Best True Mob Story
In the case of traditional organized crime, you're watching American history unfold.
Sonny Girard, a former mobster, decided to have his protagonist be caught between three agencies: the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the FBI, and…you guessed it…the mob.
SONNY GIRARD BIOGRAPHY:
Though born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Girard spent most of his formative years in the Red Hook and Navy Yard sections of South Brooklyn. Making little use of an IQ of close to 150, he instead chose to follow the path of the only people in that desperately poor neighborhood who seemed to have money: "wiseguys."
By the time a three-and-a-half year undercover operation by New York’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, targeted at Sonny Girard, was culminated with the arrest of seventeen, Girard was characterized by the New York Post as "…a middle echelon member" of one of New York’s five mob families. As a result of the arrest, Girard was sentenced to three years in State Prison, which he served to maximum time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Downstate, and Arthurkill.
In 1985, Sonny Girard was convicted of racketeering, under the RICO statute, by Rudolph Giuliani’s office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. During that term, which he also served maximum time on, Girard became interested in writing. Along with another inmate, who had sold a manuscript to a major publisher, Girard helped form a fiction writers’ workshop. It was during that time that Girard completed his first novel, BLOOD OF OUR FATHERS (Pocket/Simon & Schuster, hardcover, June, 1991; softcover, May, 1992).
Due to his experience in and ability to communicate about organized crime, the author has been in demand from various television shows and newspapers as an expert on various crimes, including organized crime activities. He recently appeared on Fox Network’s "National Enquirer T.V.," to analyze the authenticity of HBO’s hit show "Sopranos," Fox News Channel’s "The Edge," with Paula Zahn, to discuss John Gotti’s legacy, and "The O’Reilly Factor," regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and ABC’s "Politically Incorrect," with Bill Maher, for "Mob Week." He was also called in to consult with the screenwriter of record on "Mickey Blue Eyes," starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and James Caan. Italy’s RAI T.V. has done a biographical piece on Girard, as have Italian national newspapers "Corriere Della Sera" and "Il Tempo."
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