All the main Mafia families in the eastern United States were reeling yesterday after what was termed as one of the "largest mob round-ups in FBI history," with more than 100 alleged mobsters taken into custody to face charges ranging from murder to loan sharking.
Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, said he hoped the arrests would at least "disrupt" Mafia activity which persists even after years of government efforts to stamp it out. "We are committed and determined to eradicate" organised crime in the US, Mr Holder told reporters.
The take-down of so many suspects at once is a reminder that the mob industry is not confined to the pages of paperback novels or episodes of overheated television dramas. All the clichés of Mafia doings, from rubbing out perceived rivals, controlling unions on the merchant-ship waterfront or doing the rounds of small businesses and shaking them down for protection money, are still going on in real life.
Caught in the net this time, according to prosecutors, are figures as lowly as the street bullies doing the mob's bidding to keep the cash flowing, all the way to the top-rank bosses – the consiglieres, capos and "made men".
Nearly the entire leadership of the Colombo family, who are already in custody, was taken in. Less touched, but sure to be weakened, were the four other New York families: Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese and Bonanno.
"Early this morning, FBI Agents along with our law enforcement partners began arresting over 100 organised crime members for various criminal charges," FBI spokesman Diego Rodriguez confirmed. Also hit were the New England Patriarca clan and New Jersey's top Mafia family. One of the arrests was in Italy.
A total of 16 indictments were unsealed by the Justice Department. They will form the basis of the cases it hopes to bring against almost 130 suspects in total, only a few of whom remained at large last night. While some of the crimes alleged are more or less contemporary, others reach back over decades.
The US Attorney General showed the significance he attached to the sweep by travelling to New York himself to publicise it. In his remarks to reporters, he pointed in particular to charges that will be brought against Bartolomeo Vernace, a Gambino captain, for his alleged role in a double shooting in the Shamrock Bar in the Queens district of New York in 1981 that started "with a spilt drink".
Prosecutors believe that it was Mr Vernace who unloaded the bullets that led to the deaths of John D'Agnese, who was behind the bar, and Richard Godkin.
The biggest catch may be Luigi "Baby Shanks" Manocchio, the reputed head of New England's Patriarca crime family, who was arrested on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The indictments detail Mr Manocchio allegedly collecting payments from strip-club owners in return for Mafia protection.
No one in organised crime is likely to be more devastated by the arrests than the Colombo family. Only last week, its underboss, John "Sonny" Franzese was sentenced to eight years in prison on racketeering charges for shaking down the Hustler and Penthouse strip joints in Manhattan. Mr Franzese is 93 years old and in frail health and therefore unlikely to see freedom again.
The government's main weapons in its long-running war against the families are the turncoats who become government witnesses. Most famously in the early Nineties, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, a Gambino underboss, defected to give testimony that eventually led to the conviction of the so-called "Teflon Don", John Gotti.
Almost every criminal activity associated with the Mafia was featured in the indictments that were unsealed last night. They included not just homicides and extortion but also drug trafficking, money laundering and gambling.
The documents also showed that the government has still not been successful in ending the grip of the mob in some unions involved in the cement, construction and dock-working industries.
The cases being brought against Colombo family leaders, for example, touch on the illegal influence they allegedly still exert over a branch of the Cement and Concrete Workers Union. Meanwhile, a separate indictment that was handed up in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday charged 14 people with racketeering and extortion over a union branch of the International Longshoremen's Association, whose members work the docks in the area.
Even by the standards of the government's relentless anti-Mafia campaign, yesterday round-up effort was unprecedented in terms of sheer scale and complexity. Officials said that more than 800 FBI agents and other law enforcement officers were involved in arresting more than 100 suspects across several states.
The gangster clans
The Gambino family
One of New York's infamous "five families", the group was most influential in the 1980s but remains strongly linked to a range of criminal activities from drug trafficking to prostitution. Two alleged bosses were arrested yesterday.
The Genovese family
Thought to be specialists in construction racketeering, the Genovese family is one of the strongest of New York's top five. Just last month, authorities seized more than $50,000, believed to be a Christmas "gift" for the family from a union.
The Bonano family
This gang is partly famous for being infiltrated by an undercover FBI agent in the 1980s (forming the basis for the 1997 film Donnie Brasco). It continues to be weakened by convictions.
The Colombo family
One of the smaller of New York's top five, the family formed in the late Twenties and is known for brutal power struggles. Most of its bosses already run the group from behind bars. The US Department of Justice stated that the rest of the leadership were caught in yesterday's raid.
The Lucchese family
With a membership of around 130, the group remains strong despite being hit hard by the convictions of five of its bosses in the 1990s. Two stand-in leaders later became turncoats and another is serving life for murder.
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