NEW YORK — THE nation's battle against organized crime, largely written off as a loss just ten years ago, is scoring some major new gains.
Mob bosses have been moving behind bars at a record pace. Flamboyant Gambino crime-family boss John Gotti, handed a life sentence here June 23 on a murder-racketeering conviction, is only a recent example.
Since 1981 some 24 bosses of La Cosa Nostra families have been convicted. The list includes Nicholas Bianco, who was prosecuted last year while head of Boston's Patriarca family. Acting Luchese crime-family head Vittorio Amuso was convicted here June 15 on 9 murder charges and 54 racketeering, extortion, and loan-sharking charges.
The leaders of New York City's five major organized-crime families, the nation's largest, now are all either in jail, awaiting a sentence, indicted, or dead.
Yet Jim Moody, who heads the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) organized-crime section, notes that the 40 to 50 organized-crime family members convicted each year are outnumbered by those inducted to replace them. He says a genuine victory over La Cosa Nostra, the agency's top target, could take another decade or more.
"If we continue with the same intensity of investigations and prosecutions, I think we can have a significant effect," says Moody.
G. Robert Blakey, a professor of law at Notre Dame University, says that if the government gives organized crime the "same emphasis" over the next five to ten years, "the mob simply will not be on the radar screen anymore."
The organization is in "deep trouble," in his view. The mob is "in transition" in most major metropolitan areas, its leadership is largely behind bars, and in some cases, he says, family membership is down to the point where he doubts it will revive.
Relatively new legal tools, such as the federal racketeering law and the federal witness-protection program, are widely credited for much of the progress made in convicting organized crime bosses over the last decade.
A decisive shift in FBI strategy away from arrests of individual mob members - a practice that often had little effect on the organization - is also a factor. The FBI began to focus instead on taking down organized-crime groups as whole entities - from seizing ill-gotten gains to prosecuting the leadership.
WHEN those at the top who have the most institutional knowledge and management skills are taken out, says the FBI's Moody, the leaders who try to follow may have a tougher time adapting and might even think twice about taking the job.
Robert Kelly, immediate past president of the New York-based International Association for the Study of Organized Crime, says it involves "making people see that if you move up to a high rank, which is very lucrative, you run the risk of incarceration and law- enforcement harrassment."
The new generation of American-born organized-crime recruits also is playing a role. Many are more interested in money and in staying out of prison than in loyalty, a traditional crime-family value. Alphonse D'Arco, for instance, the former acting boss of the Luchese family who provided much of the incriminating testimony against Mr. Amuso, decided to testify for the prosecution after concluding he was likely to be killed by the family for botching a murder.
Federal officials say they are making progress in freeing American unions from the clutch of organized crime. They point to the recent democratization and election of a president last December by secret ballot in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, as part of the settlement of a civil racketeering case. And some cities like New York are taking legal steps to ensure that contracts are scrutinized more carefully for underworld connections before bids are granted.
Still, new challenges arise. Many organized-crime families are leaving riskier street activity - such as gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking - to infiltrate profitable legitimate businesses.
Street gangs and other criminal organizations usually quickly fill any vacuum left. Asian gangs with ties overseas have become particularly active. The FBI's organized-crime task force of 800 has spun off a few dozen agents to focus wholly on Asian organized crime.
And successfully combating an organized-crime group headquartered outside the US is much more difficult than nabbing one inside US borders, notes Richard Laskey, a field operations specialist with New York's Organized-Crime Task Force.