Washington — The American Mafia is in a period of unprecedented turmoil. Both large-scale prosecutions and the deaths of high-level crime figures (some of them violently) have exacted a stiff toll on the leadership of crime families across the country. The murder of mob boss Paul Castellano in New York City Monday is but the latest in a series of major setbacks for the so-called ``La Cosa Nostra'' organized-crime families that have long ruled the criminal underworld in virtually all major American cities.
The Castellano murder comes at a time when United States law enforcement officials are experiencing widespread success in a nationwide crackdown aimed at putting La Cosa Nostra out of business.
Armed with a new approach to a 15-year-old anti-racketeering law and beefed-up federal investigations, US prosecutors are setting their sights on the nation's most powerful mob bosses in an effort to put both them and their illicitly acquired wealth out of circulation.
``We have indicted, prosecuted, or convicted the hierarchy of every significant organized-crime family in this country,'' says Floyd I. Clark, assistant director of the criminal investigative division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
``Never at any one point has such a broad spectrum of the leadership of La Cosa Nostra been put under this kind of pressure,'' says James D. Harmon Jr., executive director of the President's Commission on Organized Crime. ``It is certainly bound to destroy any incentive of moving up the leadership chain.''
Frank Storey, chief of the FBI's organized-crime section, adds, ``They will never be as effective as they were before, there is no doubt about it.'' He notes, ``The La Cosa Nostra really was a finely tuned machine. Emerging groups may come in and take their place, but they never will operate the way La Cosa Nostra did.''
The leaders of at least 17 of the 24 La Cosa Nostra families have been indicted or convicted in federal court within the past four years, according to FBI statistics. In addition, several of the aging ``dons'' have died in recent years. Among them: Raymond Patriarca, reputed leader of the New England crime family; James T. Licavoli, reputed Cleveland crime boss; Carl Civella, reputed Kansas City, Mo., boss; and Dominic Brooklier, reputed mob leader in Los Angeles.
In the past four years, organized-crime bosses in Cleveland; Denver; Kansas City; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; New Orleans; and Pittston, Pa., have been convicted. More recently, indictments have been returned against organized crime bosses in Buffalo; Boston; Chicago; Milwaukee; New York; St. Louis; and Tampa, Fla.
In years past, law enforcement officials were often frustrated by the Mafia's success in keeping its leaders an arm's length away from federal charges. Recent investigations have cast a wider net by focusing on entire crime families as ``criminal enterprises.'' With the more effective use of electronic surveillance, undercover operations, and informants, federal agents have been able for the first time to link top Mafia bosses to the street crimes they sanction and from which they draw their profits.
In addition, the government is taking an increasingly active role in confiscating Mafia assets and profits alleged to have been gained through criminal acts.
The prospect of significant prison terms for the entire leadership of crime families and the threat of bankruptcy in the process are exerting new pressures on the La Cosa Nostra. No longer can organized crime figures expect a standard five- to seven-year sentence and a guaranteed position in the crime family upon release, specialists say.
As one federal official put it, there is no longer any light at the end of the tunnel for prison-bound mobsters. Experts say that, as a result, the Mafia's code of silence appears to be crumbling.
``We have businessmen now who are willing to testify at our trials. That has never happened before,'' says the FBI's Mr. Storey. He adds, ``The mystique is not there anymore.''
Mr. Clarke also observes: ``Very rarely did we ever prosecute the boss of a family, and it was unheard of that you ever had a boss of a family who becomes a federal witness.''
He noted that Angelo Lonardo, the former underboss of the Cleveland Mafia, recently testified in Kansas City against eight alleged organized-crime leaders accused of skimming some $2 million in profits from Las Vegas casinos.
``They now know they not only have to fear the investigative efforts by the FBI, they not only have to fear wiretaps, they now have to fear their own people testifying against them,'' says Clarke. He adds, ``That is a pressure point, and by having this happen it is a domino effect.''
Some officials have speculated that Castellano's murder was prompted in part out of concern in the underworld that he might become a federal informant. Earlier this month, after Castellano's alleged underboss, Aniello Dellacroce, died, reports circulated that Dellacroce had served as an FBI informant for 20 years.
Castellano was facing charges in two separate cases in New York, one alleging that he called the shots in an auto-theft ring that carried out a series of murders to cover up its activities. The other case charged that Castellano and four other alleged New York bosses were members of an organized-crime governing board, or ``national commission,'' that set Mafia policy and settled disputes among crime families.
Castellano was the reputed boss of the Gambino crime family. The Gambino organization, named for former boss Carlo Gambino, who died in 1976, is considered to be the largest and most powerful criminal syndicate in the US, with an estimated 200 ``made'' members and some 1,000 criminal ``associates.''