Q&A: The Difficulties for Organized Crime Going Legit

How realistic is the Godfather trope of turning a mob family legitimate? I don’t mean “bad people becoming good,” I mean “taking a criminal empire and turning it into a purely corporate, political, or otherwise ‘aboveboard’ one.” Less about switching sides, more about leveling up.

To be honest, The Godfather isn’t realistic, it’s opera. This, also, isn’t what’s going on in the film. Now, as a brief aside, I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s novel, my only exposure to these characters was through Francis Coppola’s adaptations.

Regarding the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pachino), he stayed out of the family business growing up and appeared legitimate. Vito hoped his son would go into politics, providing influence to his family. While the character is more complex than this, keeping specific individuals associated with organized crime enterprises legitimate in order to infiltrate society in places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to is a real strategy. It’s not that the family is legitimate, it’s that certain members have no visible, criminal affiliations, and can operate covertly.

If it seems implausible that a member of a major Mafia family could get elected to office, I’d remind you of William Bulger, brother of Whitey Bulger. Whitey Bulger was the infamous leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. No connection between William and his brother’s criminal enterprise was ever proven, but William was responsible for installing John Connelly into the FBI (via a personal letter written to J. Edgar Hoover.) Connelly would go on to be Whitey’s tamed fed, who kept him appraised of any investigation into his activities, and allowed Whitey to avoid arrest and prosecution for decades. (There’s way more to this than I’m getting into. The Bureau’s Boston field office had some serious corruption problems in the 60s.)

So, it does make sense for a character like Michael to have a deniable background, where he appears to be a legitimate member of society, while still being affiliated with the family. Ironically, the films are an inverse of the normal redemption arc, as Michael makes decisions which irrevocably tie him into the family, which he could have escaped.

The purpose for an entire family to, “go legitimate,” is more about the illusion rather than the reality. For a investigator, it’s much harder to prove a crime occurred when it’s hidden behind legitimate financial activity. Front businesses (particularly ones that deal with cash) are ideal, as they can also be used to launder illicit funds.

I’d argue that it is actually necessary for an illicit organization to have multiple legitimate fronts. It gives the organization a way to pay its members with funds that have already been laundered. It allows the organization to own or rent property (because, “rented by the local mob,” would raise eyebrows), in many cases it’s a critical step to further corruption (such as shipping skimming, though the New York gas tax fraud comes to mind.)

There is a lot of money to be made in illicit enterprise, and organized crime is adept at identifying exploitable situations. They identify points in the economy where there’s a lot of money moving around without much attention or oversight. Then, they use force (or the threat of same) to “muscle” their way in, and that is why they can never go legit.

Under normal circumstances, modern states exercise, and jealously guard monopolies on violence. A significant chunk of modern laws either build into, or articulate this idea. You, as an individual, do not have the authority to inflict violence on others, in exchange you’re protected (at least in theory) from having violence inflicted upon you. (At least, by non-state actors, with the caveat that said, “protection,” is often only deterrence, and any actual state response will likely to be after the fact, or posthumous.)

The problem is that organized crime aspires to become the state. Now, granted, very few criminal enterprises actually want the headache of becoming a nation in their own right. They’d be content with a simple patron/client system, which actually comes pretty close to how most organized crime operates. It is aspiring to be a small, feudalistic, government, operating autonomously under the nose of the legitimate state.

One of the authorities that organized crime (almost universally) seeks to usurp is the use and regulation of violence. Violence is used as a coercive tool, much like in many oppressive regimes, and is used as a form of, “foreign policy,” when interacting with other criminal organizations.

That last paragraph is why an organization can never, truly, go legit. It has a history of using violence as one of its methods of foreign policy. If it didn’t, it would have been obliterated by its competitors. This remains true, even if the organization never openly engaged in violence, and merely used the threat of same.

If one criminal enterprise disarms, it will be consumed by its competitors. In fact, this is a serious risk when there’s any weakness (including a regime change) within an organization. Aggressive competitors will look at that organization, it’s resources, and it’s inability to effectively protect them, as an opportunity.

There is an internal issue with using violence as a control mechanism. If your organization only keeps people in line at gun point, you’re going to have problems the moment you take that threat off the table. A criminal organization swearing off violence, would proceed to (figuratively) eat itself alive in shockingly short order. When the organization abdicated it’s monopoly on violence, that authority spilled down to the individual members, and it can’t (realistically) be returned to the legitimate state. (Worth noting, that a criminal organization who simply “refuses to use violence,” has abdicated control over it.)

Once your organization claims the authority to inflict violence, it is incredibly difficult to safely divest yourself of that.

So long as you maintain authority over violence, you cannot go legitimate. It’s illegal, and you can’t abdicate that authority without being murdered. (Either by your competitors, or your own people.)


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