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?
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 Rudolph 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 from 5,000 to 3,500 over the past few years [source: Goldhill]. Even the killings are down. The Mafia's murder rate in Italy fell by 80 percent between 1992 and 2012, and law enforcement officials say violent organized crime is down in the U.S., too [source: Davies Boren]. 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. This is evident in Italy, where La Cosa Nostra controls one in five businesses [source: Tsai]. Here in the U.S., it's easy to get a sense of the Mafia's business activity through its influence in New York City, where it still hauls trash and erects skyscrapers.
Let's take a look at some of the business and industries that have historically been controlled by the Mafia — and whether they are still connected today.
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].
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 throughout the 1990s of members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families.
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].
The trend continues overseas. 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.
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, 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. Even casinos have gone corporate.
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]. More recently, 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].
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), and 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 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].
It seems the Mafia remains a part of construction companies and unions today. Mafia-linked subcontractors continue to build projects in Manhattan, including the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center. As buildings pop up all over the city, it's assumed that the Mafia still takes part in the city's continued growth [source: Marzulli et al.].
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].
This Mafia-backed wind power extends beyond Italy, with Italian wind developers looking to source turbines and equipment to other regions of Europe.
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.
In another unexpected twist, relaxed lending practices by major banks and mortgage companies before the bust actually helped the loan sharking business. People apparently turned to home equity loans to erase mob debt [source: Smith].
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].
Today, mob-run pizzerias, restaurants and cafes are everywhere. A recent sweep of Rome, for example, resulted in the seizure of 27 restaurants and cafes, plus assets worth 250 million euros. This included the extremely popular Pizza Ciro, which had been in business for more than 10 years and was said to be used to launder money from drugs, loan sharking and extortion. An estimated 70 percent of restaurants and bars in downtown Rome are thought to be in the hands of organized crime, producing more than $1.35 billion euros per year. Even Germany is home to more than 300 mob-run restaurants. And it's not always easy to tell that you're in a mob-run establishment. Unlike the dingy, tacky or smoky joints of the past, these fronts have high standards and good reputations [source: Conti].
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 ran similar spots in other cities around the country.
In fact, the Genovese family 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.
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. And while Fat Tony reportedly paid the cops up to $1,200 a month to stay away, 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 LGBT community today isn't reliant on the mob's (or anyone else's) subpar services.
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 as video cassettes took over the market, Hollywood realized it could tap the vast profit potential and Times Square got a family-friendly makeover that no longer included coin-op porn [source: Gallo].
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 and then billing extravagant charges to their customers' credit cards. The scheme brought in so much money, profits were invested in a phone company, a 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 trafficking sex slaves from economically poor areas in the Ukraine and Romania [source: Weiss].
Anyone who's seen "Jersey Boys" (the movie or the 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 Sintara'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 put a gun to bandleader Tommy Dorsey's head on Sinatra's behalf [source: Kleinknecht].
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.
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, 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, as the industry has become more corporate and less lucrative, the music Mafia seems to have gone quiet.
There was a time when eating a seafood dinner in New York City would cost you a pretty penny. OK, fish is still pretty expensive around the country; but if you've had fish anywhere along the East Coast, you've probably paid a premium to the Genovese crime family or its colleagues.
Since the 1930s, Genovese Mafiosi have run the Fulton Fish Market, one of the oldest and most important fish wholesalers in the country. Fulton Fish, to this day, provides fresh seafood to much of the East Coast. The mob considered it another cash-friendly spot for money laundering, loan sharking and no-show jobs. Then New York City District Attorney Rudy Giuliani exposed the operation in the 1980s, and proposed a government takeover of the market in the 1990s. At the time, the market sold an estimated 125 million pounds of fresh fish every year, worth more than $1 billion [source: Raab].
The Fulton Fish Market has since moved to the Bronx, and efforts to keep out organized crime continue. Whether anything has changed has yet to be reported.
More recently, in 2014, members of the Gambino and Bonanno crime families were found to be involved in a scheme with the Italian 'Ndrangheta syndicate, which was shipping cocaine through New York inside wholesale frozen fish. The plan wasn't so much about fish, however. In fact, fish were abandoned at one point in favor of frozen pineapples [source: Marzulli].
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Author's Note: 10 Businesses Supposedly Controlled by the Mafia
Growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, I always thought of the Mafia as a Hollywood construct. The characters were great, but too boldly drawn to seem real. After living for the past 20 years in New Jersey and New York, I'm here to report that the mob does in fact live among us. Friends talk of growing up with the children of Mafiosi as casually as I might discuss mingling with the children of Hollywood stars. They tell tales of how mild-mannered types running pizza places might suddenly disappear. Or how one kid once claimed to have seen a body stuffed into the back of a trunk. The stories may have been exaggerated or even completely made up, but what's interesting is that, for them, the Mafia is as much a part of America's cultural history as Hollywood or Ford's assembly line.
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