FBI Mafia Arrests: The rise of the superindictment.

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Jan. 20 2011 7:35 PM

Big Bust

The rise of the mafia superindictment.

Eric Holder. Click image to expand.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

In 1984, U.S. officials charged members of La Cosa Nostra with using pizza parlors as fronts for a $1.65 billion heroin ring. The "pizza connection" case, as it became known, was one of the biggest mob indictments of its time, targeting 32 mafia members, 18 of whom were convicted.

The last few years have seen a new kind of indictment—the superbust—that targets organized crime on a much larger scale. In February 2008, federal officials rounded up 62 reputed mobsters in the New York area, charging them with the usual slew of mob-related crimes, including murder, conspiracy, drug-trafficking, robbery, and extortion. Three months later, they indicted another 23 people, including one of the highest-ranking Gambinos. Then on the morning of Jan. 20, the FBI and local law enforcement arrested 127 suspected mafiosos.

Thursday's roundup wasn't just the largest bust in recent memory. It was also unique in that it targeted alleged criminals across seven different families, from New York to New Jersey to Rhode Island, for crimes spanning decades. Whereas past crackdowns have generally focused on one family at a time, the 16 unrelated indictments released Thursday name, among others, 13 members of the Gambino family, 14 people tied to the Genovese family, and all members of the Colombo family leadership who aren't currently in prison.

Why one huge arrest, rather than a bunch of smaller ones? "It's a statement," says Jim Wedick, a former FBI agent. "They wanted to say, 'You know what? We are back in town.' " Since 2001, the FBI has shifted its resources away from traditional crime-fighting toward counterterrorism. Thursday's bust is a message from the Department of Justice to organized crime: We haven't forgotten about you.

There are other advantages to a large-scale roundup. By corralling so many people at once, investigators are more likely to get individuals to cooperate. Say the police arrested you and one other partner in crime: The odds of your partner turning informant in exchange for leniency would be relatively low. If they arrest 127 people, betrayal is almost assured. (Not all the alleged criminals arrested on Thursday worked together, of course.) A single turncoat can do a lot of damage to his family and others. When Salvatore Vitale was arrested in 2003 for his involvement in more than 10 murders, he testified against Bonanno boss Joseph Massino. "Mr. Vitale provided lead after lead," said one assistant U.S. attorney. "The results speak for themselves."

At the same time, busts create power vacuums. The bigger the bust, the bigger the vacuum. The struggle for power usually leads to intra- and inter-family violence. "People are now suspicious of each other," says Jay Albanese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Each thinks the other guy got them arrested." Amid all the stress, some people turn themselves in, like Nicholas "Little Nick" Corozzo did after the big Gambino bust in May 2008.

Crime families also tend to change the way they operate after a bust, in case the arrestees turn informant. For example, they may shift their resources toward safer types of criminal activity. Instead of focusing on street-level crime like extortion or loan-sharking, they might focus more on fraud and money-laundering. "These kinds of things are simply less visible and a little more insulated from detection," says Albanese.

The downside of arresting mobsters en masse is there's more room to screw up. Prosecuting one case is hard enough. Prosecuting 16 at the same time is a nightmare for even the most competent U.S. attorneys. The logistics, from discovery to lining up witnesses, takes time. But if the prosecutors don't meet deadlines, the prisoners could go free. "I used to say, don't take the whole pie, let's take a portion that's manageable," says Wedick, who as an FBI official arrested and helped prosecute mobster brothers Joseph and Bill Bonanno in California in the 1980s.

Big busts may reduce certain types of crime but not others. Organized crime typically falls into three categories: goods (drugs, stolen property), services (loans, prostitution), and infiltration of business and government. There's no question that the mob's influence over businesses and politicians has declined over the last 30 years. When the FBI keeps arresting the leadership of a crime family, it's hard to re-establish the relationships necessary to keep up an extortion racket.

But the demand for stolen property, say, or prostitution, hasn't gone away. If one family loses control of the market, another takes its place. That's why the long-term solution to organized crime addresses not supply but demand. It has less to do with busting capos than with treating drug addiction and alleviating poverty. Just look at the success of the federal government's anti-smoking campaign, says Albanese: "We made it a public health issue. The law had very little to do with it." Likewise, the DOJ can prosecute the mob all it wants—that's its job, after all. But only by targeting root causes can they snuff it out entirely.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.