GOING AFTER AN EMPIRE. Gains will be lost without pressure on Mafia, law enforcers say

The investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of members of organized-crime families in the United States during the past decade have been unprecedented - and highly effective, law enforcement officials say. Laying bare the leadership, going after entire families rather than individuals, and - recently - using federal laws of forfeiture to reduce mob control over labor unions and legitimate businesses are all part of the aggressive strategy that local, state, and federal law enforcement officials have used against organized crime.

``The structure of La Cosa Nostra has definitely been shattered,'' says a high-up Federal Bureau of Investigation official. ``Their credibility is weakened, their leadership is weakened. There is turmoil in the ranks.''

Notes a top US prosecuting attorney, ``Many more Mafia figures have been convicted and sent to prison in the last two or three years than ever before.''

Starting with the case against the Gambino control of dock unions 10 years ago to the current trial of 21 alleged organized-crime members in Newark, N.J., successes have greatly outnumbered defeats. Despite the acquittal of alleged Gambino-family boss John Gotti last month in Brooklyn, law enforcement officials say they are on their way to permanently disrupting the Mafia in the US.

But two key players in this campaign - FBI section chief Frank J. Storey and US Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani - warn that unless the effort continues, the crime families could regain power. They also point out that law enforcement officials should not make the same mistakes with new crime families and drug cartels that they did with the Mafia.

Mr. Storey, former head of the organized-crime section of the FBI and now in charge of drugs, says La Cosa Nostra (LCN) had a 50-year head start on law enforcement, which did not begin to pursue organized crime aggressively until the 1960s. Then federal statutes began to be passed, giving law enforcement more tools to take on families.

At first the new statutes, particularly RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act of 1970), were seen as complex. RICO allows broad grounds for bringing conspiracy charges and prohibits an enterprise from operating through a pattern of racketeering. By the mid-'70s, officials had developed cases and found out the statutes were easy, Storey says. At the same time, investigative efforts stepped up, more-advanced technology allowed more surveillance, and more informants stepped forward.

Mr. Giuliani, US attorney for the southern district of New York, says individuals were targeted for technical violations such as tax evasion or gambling. With current federal laws like RICO, ``they've been convicted for precisely the full range of crimes that they commit,'' he says. That includes murder, loan-sharking, gambling, drug trafficking, extortion, and labor racketeering.

While arrests of individuals disrupted activities, ``the enterprise continued to function,'' Storey says. Today, using the criminal RICO forfeiture laws and the civil laws that enable the government to monitor allegedly corrupt unions, the idea is to reduce the Mafia's empire.

``When we send the head of the family and a large group of people to prison, we don't leave in place their financial resources and their property,'' Giuliani says.

Another soft spot for organized crime, says Storey, is that new leadership has not come forward, in part because of changing demographics in the Italian-American community.

There has been speculation that indictments and convictions would spark violence within the mob. Indeed, there have been several cases in New York in the past year. Alleged Gambino head Paul Castellano was gunned down in Manhattan, and soon Mr. Gotti emerged as the presumed leader. During the recent ``pizza case'' in New York, where members of the Sicilian Mafia were being tried for drug trafficking, one defendant was murdered and one was shot during the trial.

But Storey and Giuliani say there has not been as much violence or power struggles as expected, in part because law enforcement officials have infiltrated the organization.

``They have to be saying `If we do something, if we meet together ... there's more of a chance now that somebody could be tape-recording it, ... testifying about it, ... informing about it.' That has to have a dampening effect,'' Giuliani says.

Has the crackdown had an effect on the high cost that organized crime exacts on the general public? Storey says there has been some positive effects, particularly relating to embezzlement of unions funds. Giuliani is reticent.

``I think the organized-crime families are being more careful right now, because I think they believe that they are in a waiting period,'' Giuliani says. ``If the emphasis [from enforcement] was decreased, they would ... start doing it again. This is an institution; it's not just like dealing with a group of 50 criminals.''

Giuliani says it is important that all aspects of the current drive on organized crime - the continued surveillance, use of RICO, cooperation with other countries - continue. If these lessen, he says, the hope that the US could permanently reduce the power of the Mafia will change.

Both men also pay close attention to newer groups, largely involved in drug trafficking, which include Cubans, Colombians, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Israelis, and Russians.

``We're trying to address [the emerging drug cartels] before they become a significant problem,'' Storey says.

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