Life's Little Mysteries

Does the Mob Still Run New York?

Early in the morning of Jan. 20, FBI agents arrested more than 100 reputed mobsters at multiple locations in and around New York City. The raid brought down small-time soldiers representing all five of New York's crime families, as well as some heavy hitters, including the entire leadership of the Colombo family.

Many of those arrested are "past the age where they could file for Social Security," New York organized crime investigative reporter Douglas Century told Life's Little Mysteries. "These are traditional guys who grew up in the real heyday of the Italian-American organized crime scene." A scene that, according to Century, is slowly dying.

The Mafia (also known as La Cosa Nostra) has engaged in drug trafficking, money laundering and illegal gambling since its rise in the late 19th century. Drugs get the most play in the movies and indeed, drugs were big for the mob in the 1970s and '80s, until two major drug busts in the '80s limited its business in that realm but for over half a century, the mob's steadiest stream of business has been labor racketeering.

[Infographic: How the Mob Works ]

In the late 1920s, the five crime families of New York Genovese, Gambino, Colombo, Luchese and Bonanno divvied up their control of local labor industries. With union leaders and political representatives acting as their puppets, the families used public works to make billions of dollars for themselves.

Organized crime in New York has traditionally had a stranglehold on the garbage- removal industry. "Manhattan garbage was Gambino. Brooklyn was Genovese," Century said. In both boroughs, mobsters, who collected fees from the union, would order union workers to go on pay strikes, and then force politicians to acquiesce to the workers' demands and raise their wages. When that happened, the mob would then collect more fees from the union.

"Taxpayers would end up paying way too much for garbage removal, and most of the extra money actually went to the mob," Century said.

The garbage-hauling industry got cleaned up in the 1990s, thanks to NYPD detective Rick Cowan. He spent years undercover as a mobster named "Danny Benedetto," collecting the evidence that helped put away some of the top mob bosses in the business. Cowan's experience is detailed in the best-selling book Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire," co-written by him and Century.

The construction industry, also traditionally under mob sway, is now coming clean as well. "Even 20 years ago, you couldn't put up a building without paying exorbitant prices, because all the construction companies belonged to the mob and all their bids were enormously inflated," Century said. Today, nonunion construction workers are common in New York. "In the past, they would have been killed."

However, law enforcement officials and local union monitors have not yet been able to wrest the construction industry completely free from the mob's influence. This may be because corruption takes subtler forms in construction than it does in garbage removal. "It's very difficult to prove that construction bids are rigged," Century said. "There are lots of companies that look legitimate but they're not."

The mob maintains its tightest grip on Local 1235 of the International Longshoremen's Association the labor union of dock workers on the Brooklyn waterfront. This holdout has thus far proved difficult for new, uncorrupted companies to break into.

But besides that last remaining vestige of control, the short answer is "no"; the Italian mob no longer runs New York. "Each family used to have 250 or 300 soldiers, and each of them had five or six crew guys. But the ranks have seriously thinned," said Century. "The young assimilated American guys aren't interested in joining anymore - they've got too many options." So if the show's mostly over, why all the recent arrests?

"The mob used to maintain order with a strict hierarchy and rules. One was the 'code of omerta'no talking," Century said. "But as the old guard goes, the old rules go with them. Guys talk now. Probably what happened is some underboss got caught, and he's helping the feds solve a lot of old murders to get leniency."

After the recent arrests, George Anastasia, a veteran reporter and organized crime expert, told ABC News that although he had never seen such an extensive FBI operation, the mob will likely never truly vanish and perhaps that's for the better, as other ethnic gangs would fight to fill the power void.

"They're all players in the underworld. As the traditional Mafia declines, these different groups will fill different vacuums," Anastasia said. "It may be worse that way... because what we may have is disorganized organized crime, which is more violent and more disruptive than organized crime."

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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.