NEW YORK – In early 2004, mob veteran Vincent Basciano took over as head of the Bonanno crime family. The reign of the preening, pompadoured Mafioso known as Vinny Gorgeous lasted only slightly longer than a coloring dye job from his Bronx hair salon.
Within a year, the ex-beauty shop owner with the hair-trigger temper was behind bars — betrayed by his predecessor, a stand-up guy now sitting down with the.
It was a huge blow to Basciano and the once-mighty Bonannos, and similar scenarios are playing out from coast to coast. The Mafia, memorably described as “bigger than U.S. Steel” by mob financier Meyer Lansky, is more of an illicit mom-and-pop operation in the new millennium.
The mob’s frailties were evident in recent months in Chicago, where three senior-citizen mobsters were locked up for murders committed a generation ago; in, where a 97-year-old Mafioso with a rap sheet dating to the days of Lucky Luciano was imprisoned for racketeering; and in , where 80-something boss Matty “The Horse” Ianniello pleaded to charges linked to the garbage industry and union corruption.
Things are so bad that mob scion John A. “Junior” Gotti chose to quit the mob while serving five years in prison rather than return to his spot atop the Gambino family.
At the mob’s peak in the late 1950s, more than two dozen families operated nationwide. Disputes were settled by the Commission, a sort of gangland Supreme Court. Corporate change came in a spray of gunfire. This was the mob of “The Godfather” celebrated in pop culture.
Today, Mafia families in former strongholds like, and are gone. — our thing, as its initiates called the mob — is in serious decline everywhere but . And even there, things aren’t so great: Two of New York’s five crime families are run in absentia by bosses behind bars.
Mob executions are also a blast from the past. The last boss whacked was the Gambinos’ “Big Paul” Castellano in 1985. New York’s last mob shooting war occurred in 1991. And in Chicago, home to the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the last hit linked to the “Outfit” went down in the mid-1990s.
The Mafia’s ruling Commission has not met in years. Membership in key cities is dwindling, while the number of mob turncoats is soaring.
“You arrest 10 people,” says one New York FBI agent, “and you have eight of them almost immediately knocking on your door: `OK, I wanna cut a deal.'”
The oath of omerta — silence — has become a joke. Ditto for the old world “Family” values — honor, loyalty, integrity — that served as cornerstones for an organization brought to America by Italian immigrants during the era of Prohibition.
“It’s been several generations since they left Sicily,” says Dave Shafer, head of theorganized crime division in New York. “It’s all about money.”
Which doesn’t mean the Mafia is dead. But organized crime experts say the Italian mob is seriously wounded: shot in the foot by its own loudmouth members, bloodied by scores of convictions, and crippled by a loss of veteran leaders and a dearth of capable replacements.
The Bonannos, along with New York’s four other borgatas (or families), emerged from a bloody mob war that ended in 1931. The Mafia then became one of the nation’s biggest growth industries, extending its reach into legitimate businesses like concrete and garbage carting and illegal pursuits like gambling and loan-sharking. The mob always operated in the black.
Things began to change in the mid-1980s, when the Mafia was caught in a crossfire of RICO, rats and recorded conversations. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act handed mob prosecutors an unprecedented tool, making even minor crimes eligible for stiff prison terms.
The 20-year sentences gave authorities new leverage, and mobsters who once served four-year terms without flinching were soon helping prosecutors.
“A good RICO is virtually impossible to defend,” insistslaw professor G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the law while serving as counsel to Sen. John McClellan in 1970. The results proved him right.
The first major RICO indictment came in 1985, with the heads of three New York families and five other top level Mafiosi eventually convicted. It took nearly two decades, but the heads of all five New York families were jailed simultaneously in 2003.
Authorities around the country were soon using Blakey’s statute and informants against Italian organized crime in their cities.
• In, where the mob was so widespread that immortalized the 1981 killing of Philip “Chicken Man” Testa in his song “ ,” one mob expert estimates the Mafia presence is down to about a dozen hardcore “made” men. Their number was once about 80.
• Themob claims barely two dozen remaining made members — about half the number involved 25 years ago. The underboss awaits trial.
• In Chicago, home of Al Capone, the head of the local FBI office believes fewer than 30 made men remain. That figure stood at more than 100 in 1990. The city’s biggest mob trial in decades ended recently with the convictions of three old-timers for murders from the 1970s and ’80s.
• In, there’s still a Mafia problem — “La Eme,” the Mexican Mafia. An aging leadership in the Italian mob, along with successful prosecutions, left most of the local “gangsters” hanging out on movie sets.
• The Florida family dominated by Santos Trafficante, the powerful boss linked to assassination plots targeting President John F. Kennedy and Cuban leader, is gone. The beachfront Mafia of the 21st century is mostly transplanted New Yorkers, and money generated by the local rackets isn’t kicked up the chain of command as in the past.
“You have guys running around doing their own thing,” says Joe Cicini, supervisor of the‘s South Florida mob investigations. “They don’t have the work ethic or the discipline that the older generation had.”
The decline of “Family values” is nothing new. Back in January 1990, a government bug caught no less an expert than Gambino boss John Gotti wondering if the next generation of mobsters was equal to their forebears.
“Where are we gonna find them, these kind of guys?” Gotti asked. “I’m not being a pessimist. It’s getting tougher, not easier!”
During the same conversation, Gotti questioned the resumes of a half-dozen candidates for made man: “I want guys that done more than killing.”
Even harder, it would turn out, was finding guys who could keep their mouths shut.
“Mob informant” was once an oxymoron, but today the number of rats is enormous — and growing with each indictment. And the mob’s storied ability to exact retribution on informants is virtually nonexistent.
“There is no more secret society,” says Matthew Heron, the FBI’s Organized Crime Section Chief in Washington.
“In the past, you’d start out with the lowest level and try to work your way up,” Heron continues. Now “it’s like playing leapfrog. You go right over everybody else to the promised land.”
Basciano, 48, the one-time owner of the “Hello Gorgeous” beauty parlor, faces an upcoming trial for plotting to kill a federal prosecutor. The case was brought after his old boss, “Big Joey” Massino, wore a wire into a jailhouse meeting where the alleged hit was discussed.
By the time Massino went public with his plea deal in June 2005, another 50 Bonanno associates had been convicted in three years. The number of colleagues who testified against them, going right up to Massino, was in double digits. Basciano now faces the rest of his life in prison.
The Bonanno family is now led by the inexperienced “Sal The Ironworker” Montagna, just 35 years old, according to the FBI. Montagna shares one trait with his family’s founder: He, too, is a Sicilian immigrant.
The mob of the 21st century still makes money the old-fashioned way: gambling, loan-sharking, shakedowns. Three Genovese family associates were busted this month for extorting or robbing businessmen inand , making off with $1 million.
There are other, more modern scams: The Gambino family collected $230 million in fraudulent credit card fees linked to pornographic Web sites. Another crooked plan grossed more than $420 million when calls made to “free” phone services triggered unauthorized monthly fees on victims’ phone bills.
After getting busted, mobsters are quick to offer advice to the FBI about allocating the agency’s investigative resources.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone to arrest people, and the first thing a wiseguy says is, `You should be going after the terrorists,” said Seamus McElearney, head of the FBI’s Colombo crime family squad in New York. “They say it all the time: `You should be doing that.’
“And leaving them alone.”