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The New Mafia

The Gotti Tapes: Including the Testimony of Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano

foreword by Ralph Blumenthal, afterword by John Miller
Times Books, 388 pp., $5.99 (paper)

War on Drugs: Studies in the Failure of U.S. Narcotics Policy

edited by Alfred W. McCoy, edited by Alan A. Block
Westview Press, 358 pp., $45.00

The BCCI Affair: A Report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Operations

by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International
US Government Printing Office, 794 pp.


The recent trial and conviction of John Gotti on murder and racketeering charges marked not just the fall of the country’s most celebrated living mobster but the decline of the American Mafia as a whole. The proceedings served as a showcase for the troubles besetting this once invincible organization. The deed at the center of the government’s case—Gotti’s part in murdering his rival, Paul Castellano—was one of many deadly feuds to have wracked La Cosa Nostra in recent years. The decision by Gotti’s underling, Sammy Gravano, to testify against his boss showed the extent to which the once-sacred code of silence has lapsed. Most telling of all, perhaps, were the secret FBI tapes played at the trial. That the government could penetrate the Ravenite social club in Little Italy, where Gotti held court, showed just how vulnerable the organization had become.

The tapes themselves revealed Gotti as a paranoid lout with a genius for implicating himself. They make clear that even he sensed the end was near. “It’s us against the world,” Gotti remarks at one point. “It’s over,” Gravano says. “Not only it’s over,” Gotti replies. “Where the fuck are we going from here?”1

Even as the old Mafia is declining, though, a new underworld is taking shape. Today, many different mafias are at work in America—Colombian cartels, Chinese “triads,” Jamaican “posses,” Dominican crews, Vietnamese “tongs,” as well as gangs of Haitians, Pakistanis, and Nigerians. Like the Italian paisanos who arrived on these shores earlier in the century, the new groups are made up mostly of recent immigrants. And, like the Mafia, they rely on ethnic ties to give their enterprises a sense of coherence and loyalty.

But in other respects the new syndicates differ markedly from La Cosa Nostra—in their use of violence, for example. The Italians’ brutality has always been tempered by Old World notions of honor. If, for whatever reason, a Mafioso had to be eliminated, the deed was to be carried out professionally, without injury to innocent parties. Wives and children, in particular, were strictly off-limits. The new syndicates, by contrast, don’t hesitate to gun down a rival’s family along with the man himself.

The new gangsters are further distinguished by their concentration on drug trafficking. The Mafia has always had a diversified portfolio, including racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion, prostitution, and gambling, not to mention the organized looting of Kennedy Airport and other international airports. Narcotics, too, have proved profitable, but the Mafia has never completely overcome its traditional distaste for drug-dealing, and so this has remained one among many lines. Most of the new syndicates, by contrast, rely on drug trafficking as their primary source of income.

More generally, the huge increase in drug use during the last fifteen years has given rise to an international criminal network of unprecedented scope and sophistication. The Colombian cocaine syndicates manage a 5,000-mile pipeline involving hundreds of thousands of people, including cultivators, chemists, quality-control experts, communications specialists, pilots, couriers, security forces, distributors, accountants, bankers, and lawyers. Heroin is smuggled into Western Europe by an equally complex network involving Afghan poppy growers, Pakistani refiners, Iranian smugglers, and a fleet of truckers who run the drug through the Balkans—all under the supervision of the Turkish mafia. In Asia, Chinese traffickers working out of Hong Kong move heroin from Burma and Laos through Thailand and southern China, and across the ocean to San Francisco and New York. Lebanese groups conduct a thriving business in hashish, Sicilian Mafiosi are laundering drug proceeds in Europe, and Nigerians everywhere are passing through airports with heroin-filled condoms in their stomachs.

There are not only more syndicates than ever, but more cooperation among them. This was one of the lessons of “Green Ice,” a three-year antidrug operation that ended in late September with raids in six countries. Among the two hundred people arrested were leading members of the Cali cartel and the Sicilian Mafia, which, in contrast to its American counterpart, seems more powerful than ever. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the two groups were working out an agreement by which the Colombian traffickers—lacking reliable connections in Europe—sold cocaine to the Sicilians for local distribution. In return, the Colombians received help in laundering their drug profits through Mafia-controlled companies. The sums involved were staggering. In London alone, the operation seized twenty-nine cubic yards of foreign currency—an amount that took three weeks to count. From all this, American and European authorities have concluded that an ominous new era of cooperation has begun among the world’s drug traffickers.2


Like law enforcement, the movie industry is trying to keep up with changes in the global underworld. Typical of the new gangster films is Marked for Death, in which Steven Seagal plays a DEA agent who pursues a Jamaican drug lord. In Rush, two undercover agents attempt to penetrate a cocaine ring run by a motorcycle gang. In New Jack City, New York City police detectives battle an inner-city crack gang. The most controversial of the new films is Bob Roberts, in which Tim Robbins plays a guitar-strumming right-wing candidate for the US Senate who spouts antidrug messages, a cross between Bob Dylan and William Bennett. The candidate’s campaign manager—a former covert operator in Central America—seems modeled on Oliver North. Throughout the movie, a reporter for an underground newspaper asks Bob Roberts questions about how his manager helped the contras smuggle cocaine into the United States. The not very subtle message is that those politicians who most exploit the drug issue are the same ones helping to flood the country with cocaine.

Bob Roberts received mostly favorable reviews—not, however, from A.M. Rosenthal in The New York Times. “The movie stuck in my throat,” he wrote. With its “left-wing paranoia,” he asserted, the movie treated viewers like “political morons.” Rosenthal also disliked the way the movie “kept snickering at the attempt to fight drugs, making it all part of right-wing propaganda, just something to con the polyester crowd.”

Tim Robbins, who also directed and wrote the movie, responded with an angry letter to the Times: “Why is it that any time there is a voice suggesting there might be a connection between drug trafficking and rogue elements of our Government, there is a powerful one like A. M. Rosenthal’s…to deny this voice with catch phrases like ‘left-wing paranoia’,” he wrote. The war on drugs “cannot be won” because “there is no will to find the source”:

Mr. Rosenthal may not believe that the source is in any way connected to rogue operatives within Government, but a great many people do, and until he is able to refute these beliefs in more definitive terms than taking cheap shots at movies, people will continue to believe the charge.

On this last point Robbins is undeniably correct: many Americans do believe that officials of the US government are involved in the drug trade. Drugs could not enter the country in such vast quantities, they are convinced, unless the government wanted them to. The CIA, in particular, has been widely blamed for contributing to the nation’s drug problem by allowing its covert allies around the world to engage in trafficking.

To assess the credibility of these claims, one might begin with War on Drugs: Studies in the Failure of U.S. Narcotics Policy, a collection of essays delivered at two academic conferences in 1990 and 1991. The contributors include several leading proponents of the view that the CIA bears a heavy responsibility for America’s drug problem. “Over the last century, narcotics trafficking has elaborated into a global commodity too complex and resilient for effective law enforcement,” Alfred McCoy and Alan Block write in the opening essay. “Of equal importance, the priority given to national security operations in the drug source countries during the Cold War has, at certain critical points, compromised the U.S. interdiction effort.” More specifically, McCoy writes in a separate essay, “government intelligence services, particularly the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), served as protectors of Southeast Asia’s key opium traffickers, indirectly contributing to an initial expansion of production and the failure of later interdiction efforts.”

Peter Dale Scott, a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, takes the analysis a step further. In his essay “Honduras, the Contra Support Networks, and Cocaine: How the U.S. Government Has Augmented America’s Drug Crisis,” he writes:

It is true of Washington, as it has been of other world-dominating capitals before it, that governments themselves, and the links they develop with major traffickers, are the key both to the drug-trafficking problem and to its solution…. Washington’s overt and covert alliances overseas have been the most significant factor in generating changes in the overall pattern of drug flow into the United States.

The analysis advanced in War on Drugs to support these charges is highly complicated, with obscure names, dense statistics, and long acronyms. As well as I can make out, it goes something like this:

The first modern drug epidemic in the United States—the widespread use of heroin of the late 1960s and early 1970s—coincided with US involvement in Vietnam. In those years, the CIA was carrying out many covert operations in Southeast Asia, most notably in Laos, where the agency directed a secret army made up of Hmong guerrillas. The Hmong were deeply involved in the opium trade, and the CIA tolerated it in return for the guerrillas’ cooperation.

CIA officials went so far as to allow opium shipments to be transported on Air America, the agency’s proprietary airline. The opium was refined into heroin in laboratories set up in the remote region where the frontiers of Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet—the so-called Golden Triangle.

These laboratories were operated under the protection of Nationalist Chinese generals in Thailand and the commander-in-chief of the Royal Lao Army—both allies of the CIA. The heroin produced in these laboratories ended up supplying the habits of US servicemen in Vietnam, as well as addicts on the streets of US cities. Without the presence of the CIA, these supplies would never have been produced, and heroin use would never have become so grave an American problem.

By the mid-1970s, the heroin epidemic had begun to wane, the result in part of the withdrawal of US forces from Southeast Asia. The election of President Carter in 1976 contributed to this trend. His decision to reduce the size of the CIA and cut back on its covert operations denied the drug lords their customary shield, and so the drug problem at home faded. In 1979, however, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA gave support to the Mujaheddin rebels, who, under the agency’s protection, began to produce large quantities of opium. After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, meanwhile, the CIA stepped up its covert operations in Central America. The contras, the Honduran military, Manuel Noriega, and other CIA allies were brazenly able to ship cocaine to the United States since they knew the CIA would protect them. The result was the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.

  1. 1

    See Ralph Blumenthal’s foreword to The Gotti Tapes, p. xxii.

  2. 2

    World’s Mafia Expanding Cooperation, Spheres of Influence,” The Washington Post, October 5, 1992, p. A12.

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