A FEDERAL GRAND JURY in New York has indicted nine mafia figures, charging them with multiple crimes such as extortion, labor racketeering and complicity in murder. Last year, there were more than 3,000 indictments of organized crime figures nationwide, but this case is different. Prosecutors say they have, in this one sweep, moved to reach the top leaders of the mafia, an organization which, according to the indictment, has been an ongoing criminal operation in this country since 1900. The investigation was a cooperative effort involving the Justice Department, the FBI, state and city police, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force and the Brooklyn district attorney. Officials here have also received assistance from their counterparts in Italy. Crucial evidence was obtained by state officers who were able to plant a bug in a mafia car. Leadership and determination were provided by FBI Director William Webster, whose decision to make the mafia a top bureau priority is a welcome departure from the policies of his predecessors and deserves praise.

Forget about that nice Marlon Brando worrying about his tomatoes and his grandchildren. Don't be misled by the cutsie names -- "Tony Ducks," "Joe Bananas." These people are charged not only with specific acts of violence and crime; they also run a tightly organized crime empire. More than gambling, drugs, loan-sharking and prostitution are involved. Legitimate industries are nearly captured through the use of force, threats and sabotoge, and forced to pay tribute. The New York indictment, for example, charges that the mafia decided which companies would get large concrete-pouring contracts in New York. They designated the contractor who would make the successful bid, took large kickbacks on the contracts and punished businessmen who wouldn't cooperate by stopping their access to supplies or by creating "labor problems" with the cooperation of corrupt union leaders. The indictment charges mafia leaders with ordering murders of both outsiders and competing bosses within the organization.

The mafia doesn't run all the organized crime in this country. A Florida law-enforcement official appearing on "Face the Nation" a week ago warned that Colombian crime families now controlling cocaine traffic and counterfeiting are, in his opinion, "totally psychopathic . . . cold-blooded killers" who make the mafia look good by comparison. Justice Department lawyers have no illusions about the difficulty of combatting these syndicates. But they are very optimistic about breaking the mafia. U.S. Attorney Rudolph Guiliani says that four or five years of indictments like the ones handed down last week, and prosecutions of successive waves of leaders, will destroy the organization. The department is off to a good start.