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.
John Gotti
John Gotti; drawing by David Levine


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…

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