As long as humans are weak — has there ever been a time when we weren’t? — there will be someone willing to capitalize on that weakness, often through extralegal means featuring bullets and hasty burials. Criminal enterprises have colored almost every human endeavor that deals with capital, because if crime didn’t pay, it wouldn’t make sense. Sit back and enjoy today’s Daily Dose as we take you on a twisted trip through all manner of mafia.
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large
sunny places for shady people
1. Here, There, Everywhere
With stories of Chinese triads operating in London or Australia, Russian mobsters moving into Coney Island, and the Italian mafia extending well beyond Italy, organized crime is exploiting a globalized world, according to Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. It isn’t all part of a master plan, Varese argues in Mafias on the Move, but rather the result of circumstances and economic opportunity. Witness the ongoing mega-trial of more than 300 — yes, 300 — people connected with the organized crime network ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, Italy. Expected to take at least two years, the trial includes defendants operating across Europe who were trafficking drugs, infiltrating the political system and killing those who got in the way. Allegedly.
2. An Ill Wind That Doesn’t Blow Someone Some Good
COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of ways of doing business, at least the legitimate ways of doing business. But by virtue of their shadow status and the need for semi-stable environments, criminal enterprises have benefited in ways that the lawful world cannot. And they’ve also exerted social controls to address the pandemic in ways that the lawful world has not. From gang-imposed curfews in Brazil’s favelas to South Africa, where gangs have embraced a truce and cooperated in the distribution of humanitarian aid, they’ve been helping hands. But because gangs are going to gang, there’s still crime: Italian mobsters are making inroads in banking and health care, courtesy of COVID-19.
3. And Speaking of COVID Crime...
You remember Orson Welles in The Third Man? He plays Harry Lime, a man who, spoiler alert, sells fake penicillin in postwar Austria. And just like Lime met tragedy and saw opportunity, so it is that bunco artists and organized criminals have jumped into the breach with billions of dollars of identity theft, fraudulent claims and scams. As convicted fraudster Derek Meyer Galanis says, “My crime family fed on the unwary, foolhardy and ill-advised … organized crime now is this.”
4. Vials of Gold
In December, Interpol put out the worldwide bat signal: Organized criminals are coming for the COVID-19 vaccines. Those precious vials created to get us back to normal life have become some of the most coveted items on the planet, so of course the mob would get involved. Police in South Africa recently seized 2,400 doses of fake vaccine, on top of 3,000 fake doses snagged in China, and global law enforcement believes that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our advice: If a guy in a back alley named Rocco tells you he’s got some uncut Moderna, keep walking.
5. Bunches of Wild & Crazy Guys
On Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd played two wild and crazy guys from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Perhaps it was a bit of foreshadowing since, after Slovakia broke from the Czech Republic, all kinds of hell broke loose. Not right away. But after 30 years of playing nice and being a model EU citizen, the covers were yanked back. And police chiefs, prosecutors and deputy justice ministers were swept up amid a corruption probe that included the assassination of a prominent journalist and a stinkeye at the ex-prime minister, Robert Fico.
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If you assumed that the whole Nigerian prince Internet scam was a one-off, you’d be very, very wrong. Rather, cybercriminals dupe the unwitting to the tune of $4 billion a year on the African continent, a transnational criminal enterprise that would make transnational criminals proud. Involving the criminal mainstays of human trafficking, narcotics, organized violence and piracy, African chaos has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for those specializing in ill-gotten gains. And yeah, blood diamonds are still a thing too.
2. El Chapo of Asia: Busted!
What’s the dollar amount of crystal meth commerce that the “El Chapo of Asia” Tse Chi Lop was sitting on top of? Try $70 billion. As the head of a consortium of five Chinese Triads, Tse was just picked up in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. How’d he stay free for so long? At least $2 million in bribes paid out to clear the way for their thriving Chinese synthetics and meth business. So much for Europeans not being interested in speedy highs.
3. Murder, Albanian-Style
“The Russians ain’t shit,” says retired New York organized crime cop Fred Santoro about the changing of the ethnic crime guard. See, when crime-fighting efforts focused on international terrorism, they failed to realize this was a pass for organized crime driven by profit and not religious ideology. And because criminal nature abhors a vacuum, in rushed Albanians. Driving crime waves from Ecuador to Italy of all places, the Albanians distinguish themselves for being wildly ruthless and violent and often still finding safe haven in Albania if necessary.
“There’s no disincentive to the violence and crime,” says Cassius Wilkinson, a security analyst at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis group in Mexico. And nestled right next to the massive American consumer market for almost every drug the human heart could hanker after, there are no signs the crime lords that have rushed to fill the El Chapo void — El 85, El Mencho — will disappear anytime soon. Not with billions of dollars at stake. Billions not just from narcotrafficking either, “but from fuel theft, extortion … and money laundering,” Wilkinson says.
Seeing someone blown up in a movie is very different from seeing someone blown up in real life. Even more so when the person blown up dies in front of you and lays the responsibility on the Mafia. Such was the case of a crusading judge in Italy who was, at the time of his death, fighting the Mafia. His last words — “You finally did it, you bastards! You got what you wanted! You killed me!” — are not exactly the ones any of us would want on our gravestones.
El Salvador has long been known as the world champion of murder. You see, they had a civil war from 1979 to 1992, and then came a gang problem fueled by civil warriors who never gave up their guns. Or, apparently, their love of killing. But the country’s murder rate plumeted in 2020 to its lowest level in more than 20 years. Why? The pandemic kept people off the streets, but there also has reportedly been an informal agreement between the government and El Salvador’s ubiquitous gangs to keep violence down. That means the gangs are even more entrenched, with MS-13 taking over a critical cocaine smuggling route.
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Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was a lot of things, but outside of being the fascist dictator that trundled his country into failed foreign wars, he also had a thing for the Mafia. Considering them a rival power base, he set about driving them out of Italy. And while it helped, Italy still has a mob problem today, and thanks to his efforts, where did the crime he “eliminated” end up? America, thank you very much.
From when Italians first started showing up in America in significant numbers in 1880 to when Mussolini kicked out as much of the Mafia as he could, the mob had a relatively free hand in America. J. Edgar Hoover refused to recognize their existence, and people wanted what they were peddling: alcohol, gambling, prostitution. But that all changed on Nov. 14, 1957. It was the day when a gathering in tiny Apalachin, New York, was busted up by local cops and 62 mafiosos were arrested, putting the lie to Hoover’s claims that there was “no Mafia” and beginning the American mob’s long slide into getting supplanted by the Albanians.
The aforementioned incident in 1957 was bad, but the biggest and last nail for the American Mafia came in 1985 when, under RICO statutes, bosses of each of the five families in New York were convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. So why did the Italians go down but the Albanians persist? “We could never get them to rat on each other,” says Santoro.
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This 2008 Italian film is unsparing in its look at the Mafia absent all of the Hollywood sheen of a Godfather epic. And because of the absence of that sheen, this film, directed by Matteo Garrone, hits in ways that our cinematic depictions don’t.
Robert De Niro directs and doesn’t play a gangster in this one, which, though it has plenty of Hollywood sheen, is drawn from Chazz Palminteri’s real life. It also has one of the greatest scenes ever in a mob movie.
A 2005 South Korean crime drama’s descriptors are the ones you usually see attributed to Korean film: stylish. But here, style is not a distraction or a minimizer of the roughness of the criminal world it depicts.
4. ‘Kiss of Death.’
Technically not a mob movie since “mob” implies organized gangsters and not the disorganized ones, but insofar as this movie has been cited as an influence on real-life gangsters, it makes the cut. Richard Widmark’s psychotic Tommy Udo tops himself in every scene for several oh-no-he-didn’t moments.