Five Families

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Many people have an unrealistic view of American gangsters. Motion pictures such as The Godfather (1972) and popular television series such as The Sopranos do portray the violence committed by gangsters against other gangsters, but such works of fiction do not convey to viewers the terrible damage to American society as a whole and the destruction of entire neighborhoods as a result of organized crime. In the excellent history Five Families, Selwyn Raab describes quite well the unglamorous criminality of amoral Mafia gangsters who caused so much avoidable suffering during the last eight decades of the twentieth century.

In 1931, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and heads of other criminal “families” created a national “commission” that settled matters of national interest to Mafia leaders and strove to lessen competition between different Mafia families so that all the gangsters could profit from criminal activities such as loan-sharking, gambling, protection rackets, manipulation of labor unions, drug trafficking, prostitution, political corruption, stealing cargo, and manipulation of certain essential industries such as garbage pick-up, construction, and shipping. Each Mafia family was organized into a specific structure, designed to protect each level from prosecution for crimes committed by gangsters at a lower level in the chain of command. At the head of each family was the head, or godfather; below him were his “underbosses,” and below them were the “capos,” or captains, who implemented the head’s wishes and controlled the “soldiers” who actually committed the crimes or murders for their bosses. The tradition of omerta, or silence, required all gangsters not to cooperate with police and prosecutors.

From the 1920’s until well into the 1970’s, this system worked effectively for the criminal organization that has often been referred to as the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra. Police officers would regularly arrest Mafia soldiers for specific crimes, but it was almost impossible to convict the capos and godfathers who received shares of the profits from each crime. In the 1960’s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) received the authority to tap the telephone wires of suspected criminals, but wire tapping was not entirely effective because the information acquired that way could be used against only those who actually spoke on recorded intercepts and unwittingly admitted the commission of specific crimes.

In 1970, an attorney named G. Robert Blakey, who had worked in the Justice Department investigating the activities of organized criminal syndicates, served as the chief counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures whose chairman was Senator John L. McClellan. Blakey and McClellan shepherded through Congress the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 that contains an important provision which has come to be known as RICO, for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations section. The RICO provisions authorize prosecutors to indict those at all levels of a criminal syndicate if the prosecutors can prove both a pattern of criminal activity and the existence of a criminal enterprise.

Raab explains quite clearly that in the 1970’s neither prosecutors nor criminals understood the breadth of the RICO provisions. Prosecutors were hesitant to bring a RICO indictment because of serious questions about the constitutionality of the RICO provisions. Mafia bosses, underbosses, and capos did not take seriously the RICO provisions, thinking they amounted to an empty threat that would never be used against them. They thought themselves to be insulated from criminal convictions because of the multitiered nature of their criminal enterprises. Traditionally, each criminal in a Mafia organization would claim to have no connection with other criminals, and if a Mafia soldier was indicted for a specific crime, his or her Mafia family would pay for his legal representation at his trial, and his wife and children would have their financial needs met if the soldier had the misfortune to be convicted and sent to...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 102, no. 2 (September 15, 2005): 12.

Entertainment Weekly, September 16, 2005, p. 95.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 12 (June 15, 2005): 674.

Library Journal 125, no. 14 (September 1, 2005): 162.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (September 11, 2005): 9.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 22 (May 30, 2005): 48.