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Organized crime bust: How does the 'old school' Mafia work today?

The indictment of 46 people included charges for classic mob crimes, including racketeering and extortion, as well as more 'modern' crimes such as credit card fraud and health care fraud.

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    Vincent Thomas (c.) leaves federal court in New York, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. Declaring that the Mafia is not just the stuff of movie scripts, federal prosecutors charged nearly four dozen people Thursday with being part of an East Coast crime syndicate, including an old-school mobster in New York and a reputed mob chieftain in Philadelphia who has been pursued by the government for decades.
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In New York on Thursday, 46 people were charged and 39 were arrested for crimes allegedly tied to mafia activity, allegedly including major mob bosses from both New York and Philadelphia.

Several members of the original Sicilian-American Mafia families were implicated in the arrests for a combination of modern and traditional mob crimes including extortion, racketeering, arson, loansharking, casino gambling, firearms trafficking, sports gambling, credit card fraud, and health care fraud.

All of which has people wondering if the clock has been rolled back to decades ago when the Mafia ruled mean city streets. But the Mafia remains a present threat, says US Attorney Preet Bharara.

“Today’s charges against 46 men, including powerful leaders, members, and associates of five different La Cosa Nostra families, demonstrate that the mob remains a scourge on this city and around the country,” Mr. Bharara told the Los Angeles Times.

According to the indictment, the organized crime ring uncovered by investigators reaches from Massachusetts to Florida and included threats to “whack” people or “pipe” their knees – dialogue that seems better suited to a gangster movie than the 21st century.

Pasquale Parrello, a notorious member of the Genovese family, and Joseph Merlino, alleged head of the Philadelphia mob, were both arrested. Mr. Merlino, who has been charged with murder but never convicted, has been described as the closest thing the current day mafia has to a classic Mafia don like John Gotti or Lucky Luciano.

But for the most part, the mob has lost a lot of its power and appeal. Increased security and advances in technology have made mafia members more wary of violence and less likely to bring their children into the “family business.”

“The world changed,” Louis Ferrante, author and former mafia member, told Vice last summer. “At one time, Italian immigrants had few ways to earn a living and provide for their families. Today, Italians have the same opportunities to advance as anyone else.”

Ferrante also said that legal gambling, legal alcohol, and easily available bank loans have eroded public demand for traditional mafia business.

Yet despite all this, the FBI still categorizes La Cosa Nostra – an Italian phrase meaning “our work” and the name for the five original Sicilian-American Mafia families – as “the foremost organized criminal threat to American society.” 

"But this is only the surface; behind these lies an enormous and illegally amassed economic power, which is camouflaged and laundered until it becomes legal," Roberto Saviano, a journalist and author of several book on the Mafia, writes in a column for The New York Times. "As difficult as it is to track the routes of drugs, it is even harder to follow a money trail in the era of online banking and cyberfinance."

Today there are an estimated 3,000 active mafia members across the country, still concentrated largely in New York City, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.

Edward A. McDonald, a former federal prosecutor in charge of organized crime prosecutions in Brooklyn in the 1980s, told The New York Times that the main thing to be taken away from these arrests is how much has changed over the past few decades.

“The Mafia is just not engaging in the significant criminal activities they were involved in the past,” McDonald said “I’m not saying the war has been won, but it’s pretty close.”

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