"Anybody who thinks that the Mafia is breathing its last breath is just wrong," says Matt Heron. Heron oughta know--he's just finished running the FBI's Organized Crime Section in New York and is moving down to FBI headquarters in Washington this month to oversee its anti-mob operations nationwide. The Mafia, Heron says, has "had over 100 years in this country, but we didn't start successfully dinging them until the last 20 years. We've still got a lot of work cut out for us."
There's good reason to think the Mafia is down and out. At its height, the American mob wielded influence from labor unions to presidential elections, with big interests in longshoring, trucking, gambling, construction, waste disposal, and garment making. But the wiseguys have been reeling since the 1980s, with one set of indictments after another. Once boasting 26 families nationwide, the mob is down to 11, half of those confined to the New York area. And in recent years, every top boss of those five New York families--the heads of the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese gangs--has been indicted or imprisoned or has passed away. So scarce are the godfathers that the Commission, the Mafia's ruling council, hasn't met for a decade, investigators say. And, though far from the front pages, the arrests go on. Since 2004, more than 70 members and associates of just the Bonanno family have been prosecuted in New York.
Those kinds of facts make it tempting to ignore the mob in this age of terrorism. But the cases also suggest just how active the Mafia remains. "We've hit them very hard, but they keep adapting and regenerating," says Tom Metz, acting chief of the FBI's Organized Crime Section. There's also a new generation of smarter, more educated mobsters. "They're not like their fathers and grandfathers and uncles," adds Heron. "Some of these people have law degrees, business degrees." Call it the New Mafia--their members tend to avoid thuggish acts like extortion and murder in favor of white-collar crimes, like Internet and stock market frauds. In January, a Gambino Family soldier was sentenced for running sophisticated telephone and Internet porn frauds that investigators say raked in an extraordinary $650 million. "Just when you think you've seen it all, they come up with another scheme," says Metz.
Moreover, the Mafia's influence still extends far beyond New York. There remain active families in Chicago, Detroit, New England, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Miami. Last year, the feds arrested reputed mob figures in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona for 18 unsolved murders spanning four decades, including that of notorious Las Vegas hitman Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. As part of the indictment, prosecutors offered a fascinating history and description of the entire "Chicago Outfit"--Al Capone's old gang--for the first time formally charging it as a criminal "enterprise" under U.S. antiracketeering laws. The names of those indicted read like an episode of The Sopranos. There's Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, Paul "the Indian" Schiro, and Frank "Gumba" Saladino. (Gumba didn't make it--when the cops arrived to arrest him, they found Saladino dead in a hotel room, with tens of thousands of dollars in checks and cash beside his body.)
The wiseguys may be down, folks, but don't count them out just yet. There's too much money to be made. "It's an organization that's wounded but not dead," says Heron, who's worked Mafia cases for 20 years. "It will never be dead."