10 Businesses Supposedly Controlled by the Mafia

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus & Melissa Phipps  | 

The Mafia means business. HBO/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most interesting episodes in the HBO series "The Sopranos" was in season 6: Two Mafia goons, Burt and Patsy, try to shake down a new coffee shop in a neighborhood where their crew collects money in exchange for "protection." But the coffee place is a corporate-owned franchise, and the manager explains that he has no access to the money; he couldn't give it to them if he wanted to. When they threaten him, he explains threats to the store or to his own safety probably won't matter much to the larger corporation. Leaving the shop empty-handed, one of the mobsters hangs his head and says, "It's over for the little guy."

The scene illustrates perfectly the outlook for the little Mafioso, too. If the past two decades have taught us anything, it's that corporate control and efficiency are just the things to loosen the Mafia's grip of extortion. But is the same true for traditional Mafia-run businesses?

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Organized criminals have long invested in legitimate business as both a base of operations and a means of laundering money from illegal activities such as drug trafficking, weapons dealing, prostitution, smuggling, counterfeiting and robbery. The Mafia favors unregulated or cash-based businesses that require the strength and stomach to do things members of polite society avoid. Waste management, for example, has become so strongly tied to organized crime that in some parts of the country the term "sanitation crew" might as well be synonymous with "the Mob."

Even as Mob types have gained higher profiles on TV and in movies, there's still the perception that the actual Mob is less present or relevant than it was in the past. In the digital age, cash businesses are more transparent, which makes it harder to strong-arm the competition. The law seems more adept at catching these criminals, and a slew of high-profile indictments have made headlines, beginning with the famous cases brought by Manhattan attorneys Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s and Robert Morgenthau in the 1990s, and leading up to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's 2011 historic roundup of members of New York's "Five Families" (Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese) [source: Rashbaum].

Membership in the Italian Mafia, aka La Cosa Nostra, is said to have dropped to 3,000 in Italy and another 3,000 in the U.S. [sources: Goldhill, The Week]. Even the killings are down. The Mafia's murder rate in Italy fell by 80 percent between 1992 and 2012 [source: Davies Boren]. In 2020, just 28 murders in Italy were Mafia-related, compared with 527 between 1988 and 1992 [source: Frate]. Law enforcement officials say violent organized crime is down in the U.S., too. Given this information, it's easy to get the impression that some of the Mafia's power has diminished.

That impression, it turns out, is a myth. While traditional criminal activities have waned, the Mafia has adapted to the times and is finding ways to thrive in today's economy. It might have a lower profile, but in some industries (and union halls and political back rooms) the Mafia still has sway. Let's take a look at some of the business and industries that have historically been controlled by the Mafia and see whether they are still connected today.

10: Garbage Hauling/Waste Management

Naples garbage
A woman covers her nose past uncollected rubbish on June 11, 2008 in Pozzuoli, near Naples. Eleven entrepreneurs suspected of links with the Naples-area Camorra Mafia were arrested on June 11, 2008, accused of illegally burying household rubbish and sometimes toxic industrial waste. MARIO LAPORTA/AFP via Getty Images

The connection between the garbage-hauling industry and organized crime goes back decades. In the U.S., La Cosa Nostra has been part of New York's commercial sanitation system since the 1950s (personal trash is hauled by the city's Department of Sanitation). Carters, as trash haulers are known, have always been able to carve out and sell routes to one another, making the system vulnerable to strong-arm tactics.

The Mafia entered the industry through the Teamsters union, gaining influence over certain routes and using unsavory tactics to keep competition at bay. When a national waste-industry leader, Browning-Ferris Industries, entered the market in 1992, an executive's wife found the decapitated head of a German shepherd on her lawn. In its mouth was a note: "Welcome to New York" [source: Keenan].

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Law enforcement in New York has made ongoing strides to, ahem, clean up the industry. It was one of Rudy Giuliani's top priorities as New York City mayor, and he and attorney Robert Morgenthau oversaw indictments of members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families throughout the 1990s.

Still, the Mafia presence persists. As recently as January 2013, 30 people were indicted for extortion in New York City. The group included members and associates of three different Mob crews — the Gambino, Genovese and Luchese crime families — all connected to the garbage-hauling business [source: Margolin]. While Mob involvement in garbage collection in New York City has declined, it still continues in other places like Philadelphia and New Jersey [source: Soniak].

The trend continues overseas, too. The Italian Mafia's Camorra group is said to have controlled garbage in the city of Naples since the early 1980s. The badly run system gained worldwide attention back in 2008, when uncollected garbage piled up on the city's streets for more than two weeks because the Mafia left the dumps closed. But even when the dumps weren't closed, Naples' streets were famous for being trash-filled due to Camorra mismanagement of the waste system [source: Wanted in Rome]. In addition, the Camorra Mob has been illegally dumping and burning toxic waste for decades, which has had disastrous consequences for the environment, agriculture, food production and human health [source: Deitche].

9: Gambling

Flamingo Hotel
The outdoor swimming pool at Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1947. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mob history tells of two famous occurrences in now-famous locales. The first was in 1929 when, under the guise of celebrating mobster Meyer Lansky's honeymoon, organized crime figures met up in Atlantic City to discuss Prohibition. Specifically, they discussed how the Mafia could profit from the end of Prohibition by investing in casinos and nightclubs [source: Harper]. As the other story goes, Lansky and his right-hand man, Bugsy Seigel, looked at a Las Vegas desert and saw its potential as a gambling Mecca. In life and in lore, the Mafia and casinos are inextricably linked. It makes sense: Odds are designed to be on the side of the house, regulators are paying less attention than they might be in other industries, and the Mafia has the muscle to make the sometimes-volatile gambling business run somewhat smoothly.

The Mob connection helped build Las Vegas into the multi-billion-dollar tourist destination it is today. But aside from in the occasional museum, theme restaurant or run-in with one of the locals, tourists aren't likely to see evidence of the Mafia in Vegas these days. The twin effects of the Black Book (a list of suspected mobsters and others excluded from entering casinos by Nevada's gaming commission) and corporate casino owners moving in have decimated Mafia interests in Nevada casinos [source: Henry].

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But mobsters have adapted to the times and taken their act online. These days, they are more likely to be busted for online sports gambling. In 2008, a Queens district attorney charged the Gambino family with illegal sports and casino-style gambling operations. Players were allowed to borrow gambling money at 200 percent interest [source: Bonner]. In 2014, members of the Genovese family in New Jersey were indicted for making millions of dollars each year through illegal gambling operations [source: Ivers].

In Europe, officials have raised concerns over the vast amounts of money being laundered by the Mafia through online gambling, particularly sites based in Germany, where there are no penalties for illegal gambling activities [source: Walther]. And in Italy, where online gambling surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are investigating more than 300 individuals tied to an online gambling scheme [source: Ford].

8: Carpentry and Construction

construction site
The Mafia infiltrated the construction industry via unions. Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

Similar to its waste-management strategy, the Mafia made its way into the building business through unions. Typically, construction companies make bids for jobs that include union crews. Mafia-run construction companies are known to include union rates in the bids and win the contracts — then pay far less to their workers. Inside the union, Mafia cronies get top jobs, shake down the legitimate crews and sell jobs to the highest bidders (rather than the most skilled carpenters). There are even threats of physical violence. They also invest in and own companies that provide materials like steel or cement to other construction crews (the cement shoes trope clearly exists for a reason). These companies pile on the costs, making the price of building expensive.

The Mob has taken a piece of several of New York's real-estate booms. Giuliani's office tried leaders of all five Mafia families in 1986 for controlling concrete labor unions and demanding kickbacks that cost the city millions [source: Long]. In 1990, the five families were up on federal charges in Brooklyn for receiving kickbacks and fixing bids on a $150 million job with the New York City Housing Authority [source: Gardiner].

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It seems the Mafia remains a part of construction companies and unions. Mafia-linked subcontractors continue to build projects in Manhattan, including the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center. And in 2021, nearly a dozen alleged members of the Gambino family pled guilty to a construction bribery scheme involving a luxury condo tower and other projects [sources: Brenzel, The Standard].

7: Wind Energy

wind turbines in Italy
Wind turbines are pictured in the village of Patirnico, Italy, on Sept. 15, 2010. The seizure of a record $2 billion from a Sicilian businessman known as "Lord of the Wind" on the same day put the spotlight on Mafia money-laundering through renewable energy ventures. MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP via Getty Images

Talk about an ill wind. In countries across Europe, criminals are investing in wind farms and other types of green energy as a way to launder dirty money. In fact, a growing "eco Mafia" in Italy is taking advantage of environmental grants offered by the Italian government and the European Union by entering the wind business.

A combination of factors makes wind power attractive to criminals. There is a lack of regulation in the industry, a high price for the product, complicated financing — and government subsidies. Wind power sells for a higher price in Italy than anywhere else in the world, which is why there are now so many windmills dotting the Sicilian hills. While the country's citizens have to look at a propeller-filled landscape, they keep quiet for fear of retribution. Meanwhile, legitimate wind providers get muscled out of licenses to build working farms, or they are unwittingly sold licenses by the Mafia without knowing exactly what kind of businesspeople they're dealing with [source: Squires and Meo].

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This Mafia-backed wind power extends beyond Italy, with Italian wind developers looking to source turbines and equipment to other regions of Europe. One mobster who was sentenced in 2018 told officials that he had half a million euros (more than $1 million U.S.) earmarked for regional authorities to get permits for new wind farms and that he would make more than 15 million euros (about $17 million) from selling these permits to large companies in the sector. It's clear officials will need to keep a close eye on potential fraudulent activity in this sector [source: Traileoni].

6: Real Estate

buildings
Real estate is attractive to the Mafia for many reasons. Artur Debat/Getty Images

The Mafia might not exactly control real estate, but mobsters do like to invest in property. And when there's easy money to be made in real estate, it's even easier to find a Mafia connection with a scam.

During the run-up to the housing bubble in 2008 and after the subsequent crash, it was Dominick DeVito, connected to the Genovese family, who was finding new ways to make bad deals for homeowners. DeVito was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for his particular real estate scheme, which involved buying up big houses in Westchester County, the suburbs just north of New York City, and selling them for outrageous profits. He and his associates lied to get the mortgages, then used the new homes as collateral for more mortgages, which eventually went into foreclosure — but not before they cashed in on some insurance money for things like broken pipes (freshly and very deliberately broken by the Mafia). When the housing market took a dive, the Genovese crew was there flipping foreclosures in the same way [source: Smith].

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In another unexpected twist, relaxed lending practices by major banks and mortgage companies before the bust actually helped the loansharking business. People apparently turned to home equity loans to erase Mob debt. More recently, Canada's Charbonneau Commission discovered the Mafia here made plenty of money in the real estate business by staying on the sidelines, working as consultants and arbiters. Essentially, Mob members would assist with negotiations between business partners, help secure financing and more, then enjoy a slice of the profits [source: Banerjee].

A 2015 study of Italian mobs, published in the British Journal of Criminology, noted that real estate was attractive to the Mafia for many reasons: It provided a base for activities such as gambling and prostitution; there was no regulatory authority overseeing it (as with the stock market); and properties could be rented out or used for legal businesses. Real estate could also be prestigious and allow the family to be seen as socially prominent in an area [source: Dugato, et al].

5: Restaurants and Pizzerias

Umberto's Clam House
Umberto's Clam House is blocked off with police tape in 1972; reputed mobster Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo was slain there while celebrating his 43rd birthday. Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images

Anyone lucky enough to have eaten at a famous Mob hangout, like Rao's in the Bronx or Umberto's Clam House in lower New York City, knows the Mafia is connected to some delicious restaurants. Even the lesser-known Mob spots, like PortuCale Restaurant & Bar in Newark, New Jersey, — allegedly the former base of money-laundering operations for more than $400 million brought in by the Genovese family — supposedly serves really delicious meals [source: Golding].

The Mafia's foodie reputation has an even richer history. In the 1980s, for instance, the Sicilian Mafia relied on the so-called "pizza connection" to ship heroin and cocaine to mob-run pizzerias in towns throughout the U.S., using cans of San Marzano tomatoes. Even cheese and olive oil makers could be shaken down to export heroin [source: Lubasch].

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Today, Mob-run pizzerias, restaurants and cafes are everywhere. Coldiretti, a major Italian consumer organization representing agricultural entrepreneurs, estimates at least 5,000 restaurants throughout Italy alone are run by the Mafia. It also warns the Mob is extending its reach into Italy's entire food chain — the "agromafia" — including farmland, livestock and markets, in addition to restaurants. Their take? More than 22 billion euros ($25 billion) in 2018 alone. Chillingly, they're earning some of this money by ignoring health and safety issues, putting people and the environment at risk [sources: The Local Italy, Roberts]. If this is going on in Italy, it's likely occurring in other countries, too.

4: Bars

Stonewall Inn
Stonewall Inn: The Mafia invested in gay bars during the 1930s-1970s. Emily Anne Epstein/Corbis News/Corbis

As early as the 1930s, when homosexuality was illegal in the U.S., Mafia-connected establishments were around to provide gay and lesbian customers a place to meet, mingle and spend money. At one point, the Mafia had a monopoly on gay bars in New York City, and probably operated similar establishments in other cities around the country.

It was the Genovese family who ran Manhattan's Stonewall Inn, the site of the infamous 1969 Stonewall riots, which took place after patrons fought back against police raiding the bar. Investing in the former straight bar, Tony "Fat Tony" Lauria purchased and transformed The Stonewall in 1966, seeing more potential in the neighborhood's growing gay community.

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His motives were far from pure. Because customers were forced to live in the shadows, the Mob could keep standards low. Drinks were overpriced and watered down, and conditions were not hygienic or well-maintained. Drinking glasses were sometimes not even washed between uses. And while Fat Tony reportedly paid the cops up to $1,200 a month to stay away, the Stonewall's owners still made big profits by extorting customers in exchange for turning a blind eye to their illegal behavior.

Another Genovese guy, Matthew "Matty the Horse" Ianniello, had a hand in running more than 80 bars, restaurants and discos in the 1970s, many of them catering to the gay community. He also ran holding companies offering an array of services (from the obligatory money-lending and garbage collection to topless dancing and interior decorating). These companies served as money-laundering fronts until the law caught up with him, and he went to jail for tax evasion [source: Vitello].

As gay activism gained ground, the connection between gays and the Mob weakened [source: PBS]. There are likely still Mafia members connected to bars and clubs in cities across the country, but the LGBTQ community today isn't reliant on the Mob's (or anyone else's) subpar services.

3: Pornography

adult movie theaters, Times Square
A view of several adult movie theaters on 42nd Street in the heart of Times Square, Manhattan, during its porn film heyday, 1971. Walter Leporati/Getty Images

The Mafia has long been connected to the production and distribution of pornographic movies, books and magazines. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Colombo family reportedly ran coin-operated machines showing 8mm films in New York's seedy Times Square. During the same era, Mafioso types owned and controlled most of the adults-only movie theaters, X-rated distributors and labs processing 35mm films. "Mickey Z" Zaffarano of New York's Bonanno family started a successful nationwide chain, Pussycat Cinemas, before the FBI caught up with him in 1979. And the connected Peirano family made the wildly successful breakout porno movie "Deep Throat." (The film's tragic star, Linda Lovelace, would later claim she made the movie under the threat of Mob violence.)

The Mafia's connection to porn waned in the 1980s and 1990s, when video cassettes took over the market, Hollywood realized it could tap into this vast profit potential and Times Square got a family-friendly makeover that no longer included coin-op porn [source: Gallo].

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More recently, high-profile connections between organized crime and internet pornography have been uncovered. In 2005, Gambino family members were brought up on fraud charges for offering free tours of adult websites, then billing extravagant charges to their customers' credit cards. The scheme brought in so much money that the profits were invested in a phone company, bank, and more than 64 shell companies and foreign bank accounts.

While the 2005 arrests were the last high-profile internet porn bust, it's assumed that several Mafia groups are involved in sex trafficking that results in the creation of pornography. Members of the American Mafia have been brought up on sex trafficking and prostitution charges, while the Russian Mafia is said to favor the high-profit margins found in sex trafficking enslaved people from economically poor areas in the Ukraine and Romania [source: Weiss]. And in 2021, one of the main sources of income for the Nigerian Mafia, which is spreading throughout Europe and works with the Italian Mafia, was human trafficking, often via prostitution [source: DW].

2: Music Recording

Jersey Boys
Hayden Milanés, who plays Frankie Valli, performs at the Jersey Boys media call on March 23, 2021, in Auckland, New Zealand. The real Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had Mob connections. Dave Rowland/WireImage/Getty Images

Anyone who's seen "Jersey Boys" (the movie or Broadway musical) knows something about the Mafia's recording industry history. It tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' connections to Gyp DeCarlo, a Genovese-tied mobster from New Jersey. Years earlier, another Genovese guy named Willie Moretti had a hand in building Frank Sinatra's career. A scene in "The Godfather," where Luca Brasi puts a gun to the head of a bandleader to get a singer out of a contract, is reportedly based on a 1943 story, in which Moretti shoved a gun down bandleader Tommy Dorsey's throat on Sinatra's behalf to get him out of his contract [source: Doyle].

The Mafia has been a force behind some of the best recordings and recording artists of all time. But even as it promised to protect artists, the Mafia would eventually intimidate and extort them, too.

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Take the Genovese family's Moishe "Morris" Levy, known in some circles as the Godfather of rock-and-roll. (He also founded famed New York jazz club Birdland for his friend, Charlie "Bird" Parker). As a producer of classic hits, including "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?," Levy's contracts were notoriously one-sided, keeping everything that could generate long-term money, including copyrights and publishing royalties [source: Sucher]. Mafiosi like Levy not only controlled artist management, but they also owned the concert venues, then eventually the record labels, record-processing plants and even the record stores. Levy founded the Strawberry record store chain in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, organized criminals reportedly bought record-pressing plants, allowing them to duplicate copies of a master recording and flood the market with lower-priced copies. Since then, the industry has become more corporate and less lucrative. Most of the revenue comes from digital sources, leaving less opportunity for cash transactions and bootleg copies [source: Mishra]. The music Mafia seems to have gone quiet.

1: Drugs

Police ambush the Camorra
Police ambush the Camorra Mob in Naples, Italy, Oct. 30, 2018. The Camorra runs a huge drug operation. Paolo Manzo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A few decades ago, there was a persistent belief that no matter how insidious the Italian Mafia, it at least stayed out of the drug trade. But that belief was false. In 1959, for instance, Vito Genovese was imprisoned on drug charges. And today more than ever before, the Mob is involved in trafficking and selling narcotics. In Italy alone, the Mob earns some $34.70 billion annually from drugs. In addition, the country's notorious 'Ndrangheta Mafia, based in Calabria, now dominates the global drug trade, mainly via cocaine [source: Scherer].

In Europe and Canada, for example, the 'Ndrangheta is the force behind their endless supply of South American cocaine [source: Humphreys]. The group also distributes cocaine to Italy's other Mafia groups. In 2014, members of the Gambino and Bonanno crime families in the U.S. were involved in a scheme with the 'Ndrangheta syndicate, which was shipping cocaine through New York inside wholesale frozen fish, then frozen pineapples [source: Marzulli]. And in Spain, there's been a huge rise in marijuana trafficking, courtesy of the Eastern European Mafia, along with hashish from Morocco. In 2019, narcotics officials intercepted 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) of South American cocaine hidden in a submarine [source: El País]. If money can be made from an industry — any industry — the Mob will be there.

Originally Published: Feb 27, 2015

Mafia Business FAQ

Does the Mafia still exist in 2021?
While traditional Mafia presence and activities have waned since the late 90s, they still exist today, though they generally keep a low profile. However, in some industries, such as gambling, drugs, restaurants and bars, they still have a significant influence.
How does the Mafia control carpentry and construction?
The Mafia made its way into the construction industry through unions. Once they win business contracts, they get top jobs within the union, get rid of legitimate workers and sell projects to the highest bidders. Some Mafia groups also start their own construction companies and sell their products and services at high costs.
What does the Mafia actually do?
The Mafia is involved in many illegal activities, such as organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, prostitution, arms dealing and counterfeiting.
Which Mafia is the most powerful in the world?
Currently, La Cosa Nostra is the most powerful Mafia group in the world and controls one in five businesses in Italy and many businesses in other parts of the world, including the U.S.

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