Tag Archives: writing organized crime

Followup: The Mafia

Thank you for the Mafia information. You mentioned the American/East Coast Mafia is defunct. Does that mean it would be inaccurate to write about them being active in present day? Because my research still brings up racketeering and drug/human trafficking cases.

It mostly depends on where you’re setting your story. So, there is a mea culpa here; I described as defunct, based on my experiences, and some quick, cursory research focused primarily on verifying names and dates.

In the late 90s, I lived in a city that had been mobbed up, and was still working out Mob influence. In retrospect, I kind of suspect that a few of the restaurants I frequented while there may have been mobbed up.

By 2000, most mafia holdings in the United States were gone. If you lived in one of the cities where they completely folded up shop, you could be forgiven for thinking they were entirely destroyed. This would be a mistake. The very one I made when I wrote the original post. So, for that, I am sorry.

Today, America’s Italian Mafia is a shadow of its former self. They started as East Coast immigrant street gangs in the late 19th century, transitioning into a fairly developed network of criminal syndicates by WWII. The post-war era allowed for explosive growth. American organized crime, effectively founded the modern incarnation of Las Vegas, and even had extensive holdings in Cuba (before the Castro came to power.)

There are a lot of factors which lead to their downfall. These ranged from backlash growing political aspirations, to the war on drugs, the RICO Act was a body blow for the Mafia, as it directly attacked many of their methods of operation. (Specifically, it allowed prosecutors to charge the heads of families for crimes they ordered, but did not directly participate in, closing one of the Mafia’s favorite methods for shielding their upper echelons.)

Today, the Mafia does still exist in a few places. The days when they had families running cities across the nation are gone. If you live somewhere like Texas or California, the idea of Mafia operating in your city is more of a novelty.

With that in mind, the Mafia still has holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The places where they were most strongly embedded, and where they’ve managed to somewhat survive.

The other major difference from the Mafia of today, and the one from 30 years ago, is a transition towards contracting labor, rather than using their own people at street level.

So, with all of that in mind, asking if it’s accurate is a bit of a loaded question, and it’s probably worth evaluating what you’re looking at with the Mafia. I’m going to pull two specific films, because they do an excellent job of establishing the dichotomy of who the Mafia wanted to be, vs who they actually were.

There’s The Godfather, and there’s Goodfellas.

The Godfather is an opera. It’s a massive story about honor, duty, sacrifice, and all of these other virtues, layered over the Mafia of the 50s-70s. It’s also, entirely, a fantasy. I don’t just mean the events, I’m talking about the organization it presents. The Corleone Family is what mobsters idealized themselves as. This sort of shadow nobility, benevolent, and honorable (to a certain degree), never existed in the real world.

If you’re looking at The Godfather and saying that’s what you want, it’s a fantasy. It’s accurate insofar as it presents an idealized self-image of who the Mafia believed themselves to be, but it doesn’t square with the reality of who mobsters actually were.

Goodfellas is not an opera; it’s not even, strictly, fictional. The film follows the life of Henry Hill (who died in 2012), from his introduction to the Mafia as a child, up through his eventual role as a witness against the mob. It’s not completely accurate, because it does abridge a few details. Some characters have their names changed, or are composites of multiple individuals. In one case, the motive behind a crime wasn’t exactly what the film presented, though the inciting incident is accurate.

The vast majority of the film is accurate to the actual behavior and identity of the Mafia. This isn’t the noble image of shadowy benefactors guarding and shepherding their community. It’s a bunch of psychopaths, kept barely in line by the threat of further violence, who have no qualms about turning on one another to save their own skins, or over imagined slights.

In some ways, the Mafia you see in Goodfellas no longer exists. RICO prosecutions, have shrunk their influence substantially.

That said, Organized crime still exists. The players are new, and in many cases it’s transitioned to new techniques, but where there’s opportunity, criminals will find a way. Skimmers, credit card fraud, ransomware, and other cybercrimes are all far more profitable, and less risky, than pounding pavement, and threatening to rough up store owners for the contents of their till in an era when anyone can have a security camera feeding images to off site data storage.

Organized crime has embraced globalization. In some respects, this is nothing new. The cartels were moving product around in large volumes forty years ago, but, things like smuggling and trafficking are far more appealing options for the modern criminal enterprise.

The very short version of modern organized crime is, if you want to do something, you no longer need to be there in person, unless you’re moving product (this includes people) in or out. If all you want is money, you can hide halfway round the world, and let your fingers do the walking.

So, here’s a fun and scary thought: If you live in the US, you’ve got a better than average chance of having been solicited by an organized criminal enterprise in the last decade. I don’t mean a few guys showed up at your front door, I’m talking about emails. In particular, where someone would contact you asking you to accept a wire transfer, and then relay it to them. This was actually about money laundering. You receive the funds from a fraudulent credit card transaction, then move it through your account. When the charges get reversed, your transfer out is fine, but the money coming in doesn’t really exist. Another popular one, from a similar time frame, was to take delivery of items for someone (usually “away on business,”) then repackage the stuff for shipping. Again, you would be used as a cutout, when the fraud was detected. So far as it goes, some of those, “secret shopper,” programs were also not on the level, and you would have been furnished with a cloned card, and sent off to turn that into actual cash.

The trick is to get the money across national boundaries and into a safe jurisdiction that won’t assist in a foreign investigation as fast as possible.

Beyond that, most of the organized crime groups that get brought up do still exist.

The Chinese Triads are real. They’re still around. There’s roughly a dozen major Triads. For reference, the largest (if I remember correctly) is the Sun Yee On, which has somewhere around 55k – 60k members worldwide. They’re active in Asia, North America, and Europe. The Triads derive income from drug smuggling, trafficking, and counterfeiting. (Not just counterfeit currency, but also media, like books, DVDs, ect.)

The Japanese Yakuza is real, and weird. Weird, because it pops up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find organized criminal activity. For example, it’s not uncommon for Yakuza members to own hospitals, or other businesses that usually don’t attract the attention of organized crime. The explanation for this goes back to the 80s. At the time, Japan’s economy was exploding, they were seeing unprecedented economic growth, and had more money than they knew what to do with. Japanese banks were incredibly liberal with loans, because the money was pouring in (from their perspective). This lead to a lot of Japanese businesses purchasing foreign assets, and a general anxiety that they would financially rule the world in the coming century, which you’ll find in media from the late 80s and early 90s.

Around 1991 or ’92, the bubble popped. Before that happened, Japanese banks were happy to pass loans to pretty much anyone, on the idea that it would lead to further profits. This included many members of the Yakuza. (As I recall, there’s a bit of a question whether loan officers knew they were dealing with Yakuza, or if their due diligence was just that lax.) While they did buy into more conventional organized crime fronts, like shipping or construction, they were still left with more money than they knew what to do with, and proceeded to buy their way into other industries as well. Today, Japan is still struggling to clean the Yakuza out of their corporate culture.

When the bubble burst, many Japanese investors were suddenly on the hook for massive debt they’d incurred during the previous seven years. This included Yakuza members. In the face of this some committed suicide, however, many more retaliated, killing bank loan officers and threatening bank officials. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Yakuza (and uncollectible loans issued to their members during the bubble) is still a major factor in their current financial climate.

So, like I said, the Yakuza is real, and weird. If you’re wondering what I meant by “economic” research on them, in the earlier post, now you know.

My reading on the Cartels is spotty. As criminal enterprise goes, they are fascinating, because there’s an entire distinct sub-culture that’s built up over the years, including a distinct musical genre called Narcocorrido (culturally this is somewhat analogous to gangster rap, though it’s stylistically related to Northern Mexican folk music.) Beyond the obvious drug trafficking, kidnapping has also been a major money maker in the region. I don’t know how tightly the Cartels are involved in that industry, but it is worth mentioning.

Major street gangs are another factor. Again, these guys are active, and real. They’re a bit too diverse to quickly categorize, ranging from small, local, criminal groups, up to transnational organizations with worldwide members in the tens of thousands. Depending on circumstances, they may be working for, or with, other organizations, or they could be operating in house.

As I said earlier, the Russian Mob is more of a catch all term for a diverse group of criminals who share a common language, rather than a true organization. That said, there are criminal organizations that come from former Soviet states, but it’s not a single monolithic entity. A lot of the cyber crimes I mentioned above, are popular money makers, particularly for organizations that never left home, and now have access to the world via the internet.

So, no, it’s not inherently inaccurate. At that point any question about accuracy comes down to how you present the thing, not if it exists, or existed.

 

-Starke

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Q&A: Mafia Training

Do you know anything about how the Mafia trains their members?

They don’t, really. At least not in any formalized way. The same is, generally true of most professional criminals. The mafia relied more on able bodies who they could trust, than looking for very specialized skillsets. When you look at the bread and butter operations in organized crime, this starts to make sense. Sending a couple guys into a business to rough up the staff, or engaging in vandalism isn’t going to require specialists. Whatever mooks are lounging around should be able to get those jobs done.

In Mafia families, you’d start seeing people with formal educations higher up the ladder. Again, this wouldn’t be training per say. You might have members who’d been sent to law school and passed the bar, who could operate as lawyers for the family when needed. In at least a few cases, lawyers like this would invoke privileged to impede criminal investigations. Another common profession that you’d see wrapped up in family businesses were accountants. Again, actual accountants who’d been educated, gotten a degree, and then worked for the family.

A third group that would get formalized training were police infiltrators or double agents. These were rarer, but did exist. These were cops. They’d gone through academy training. They may have had a military background. On paper they looked clean and had never been directly associated with the family. The biggest red flag would usually be that they’d grown up in a neighborhood that was mobbed up, though this was not a prerequisite. The most famous example is Special Agent John Connolly who was involved with Boston’s Irish Mob in the 70s, while working in the FBI.

Street level enforcers, or even hitmen couldn’t expect to receive any significant training. At various times, there were Mafia members with military backgrounds. They’d served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, came back, and went back to working for the family, but with far more extensive combat training. In some cases, they’d impart some of their learned lessons to the mobsters they worked with, but this was not the norm.

There is one other exception, but it doesn’t exclusively involve organized crime. Prison functions kind of like graduate school for career criminals. The perk of getting locked up with lots of other felons is that you now have the opportunity to network with and learn from one another in an environment where you can be pretty sure no one’s a cop. Networking was less important for a Mafioso, but access to criminals who had learned specialized trades, and the potential to learn from them, even if that required some form of payment, could be a major silver lining.

Now, I’ve been focusing primarily on the Italian and Irish mobs. East Coast, American, and basically defunct, so let’s grab a couple more off the pile.

As far as I know, the Yakuza doesn’t have any real formalized training either. Their cultural norms are different, so their social role isn’t exactly the same. To be fair, most of my research on the Yakuza has been economic, rather than street level operations. They’re extremely unusual, as organized crime goes, because during the 80s, they started pumping cash into businesses you wouldn’t normally associate with organized crime. This means, in Japan, you can find things like Hospitals or Software companies which are mobbed up. A lot of this folded when their economic bubble popped in the 90s, but some still persist.

The Russian Mob isn’t, really, a thing. Okay, let me back this up and explain. Frequently, it’s convenient to talk about Russian organized crime as a unified entity. Russian criminals willing to work together to achieve their goals are a thing. Large coherent organizations, not so much. These are, ultimately, more like freelance criminals, who came up during the Soviet system, and have that shared experience. This causes them to behave in ways that mimic organized crime elsewhere in the world, but it is ultimately a collection of freelance criminals who are willing to put their differences aside for a paycheck. As with any other group of criminals, you’re looking at a large range of potential backgrounds, which could range from uneducated street kids to ex-special forces, who went freelance when the Soviet Union stopped paying them in the ’90s. On unusual feature of Russian criminals is, they’re unusually well equipped. This dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The government stopped paying employees, and if you were overseeing a state run armory, you had a huge stockpile of weapons, but no food. So, they started selling arms, and bigger things. There’s actually a story floating around from the mid-90s where the Cartels were looking to take possession of a nuclear submarine from the Russian black market, though that deal fell through.

As far as I know, the Triads do not have much in the way of formalized training either. Though, I’ll admit, I’m not particularly well versed on them. Though it is worth noting, these are the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, by a significant margin. The Triads are massive.

Like the Triads, I’m not particularly well versed in The Cartels. As far as I know, there’s not much in the way of formalized training there, and it really is a distinct flavor of organized crime. It’s just one that I’ve never done a lot of reading on.

Finally, North American street gangs are an unusual situation. On the surface it’s similar to the other examples given, no formal training programs. However, in the 90s and 2000s a number of judges revived the old conscription punishment. Sending gang members into the US military. In theory this was supposed to, “set them on the right path,” but, what it actually did was introduce elements of those gangs into the armed services, and gave gang members training and experience on military hardware. When they mustered out, they now had connections that could get them military hardware, and the knowledge to use them, which were also shared with fellow gang members. I’m not sure on the full current status of this situation, but it is an unusual circumstance worth examining.

-Starke

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