The Tribeca Film Festival ended last month with screenings of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II.” The purpose was to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first film, which pumped new life into a genre that had dominated the movie industry in the 1930s. Released at a time when the American Mafia was losing its hold on the underworld, the movies offered a romanticized version of “the life,” a version that celebrated “men of honor” and omerta. In many ways, the movies have served as training films for second- and third-generation Italian American gangsters, who moved from the urban centers of their immigrant grandparents to homogenized suburbs where Sunday dinner is served at the Olive Garden and espresso comes in four flavors at Starbucks. The movies have also reinforced several myths about the Mafia that, ironically, the actions of those in the next generations quickly dispelled.
In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone became a gangster after his brother Sonny was brutally slaughtered on the causeway in a dispute over drugs. Don Vito Corleone’s avowed opposition to narcotics trafficking helped create the perception that drug dealing was against the rules. Testimony at real-life mob trials reinforced that canard. “Our policy was against drugs,” mobster turned government witness Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano said while testifying against mob boss John Gotti in 1993.
The reality is that as far back as Lucky Luciano, the mob has been in the drug business. In 1959, Vito Genovese — who gave his name to one of the five New York families — was imprisoned on drug charges, as was his low-level crime family soldier Joe Valachi. Drugs have generated billions of dollars in income for the mob over the decades. The “Pizza Connection,” for instance, was a Sicilian Mafia heroin ring that dominated the trade in New York and other East Coast cities between 1975 and 1984, bringing an estimated $1.6 billion worth of heroin into the United States, according to federal authorities.
FBI documents do indicate that bosses such as Paul Castellano and Vincent “the Chin” Gigante in New York and Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia banned members of their organizations from getting involved in narcotics. But that wasn’t based on a moral opposition to drug dealing. Rather, it stemmed from the realization by those bosses — who already had more money than they could count — of the tremendous legal jeopardy that came with narcotics as the federal government amped up the war on drugs in the early 1970s. And gangsters have testified that bosses such as Gotti, who banned narcotics, still knowingly accepted tribute payments from underworld drug dealers. The hypocritical message: Don’t deal drugs, but if you do, I get a piece of the action.
The idea that the Mafia’s code of silence is unbreakable is a centerpiece of pop culture about the mob, in movies, books and TV shows.
In reality, that code was broken decades ago, when Valachi, the Genovese crime family associate, told a Senate subcommittee in 1963 that the syndicate called itself “Cosa Nostra,” or “Our Thing.” Over the next 20 years, a half-dozen made members, including Angelo Lonardo in Cleveland, Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno in Los Angeles and Vincent “Fat Vinnie” Teresa in Boston, became government cooperators. By the late 1980s, omerta was shattered. In city after city, members of the mob began to realize that they could get out from under their criminal problems by cutting deals with federal prosecutors and heading for the witness stand.
In part, this was a result of the Americanization of the Mafia. Doors that had been closed to Italian immigrants in the 1910s and 1920s because of prejudice and bigotry were kicked open two generations later. Today, the best and the brightest in that community are doctors, lawyers, educators, entertainers, scientists and judges. Many of those who now make the Mafia a career choice are driven primarily by economics. These mobsters, unlike earlier generations, never embraced Cosa Nostra as a way of life. For them, it was a business, a way to make money. And when they found themselves under indictment and facing 20 years to life, they made a business decision: How do I cut my losses?
For years, the rite of passage into a Mafia family — known as a making ceremony — was a closely guarded secret. The formal ritual was sacrosanct and seldom discussed, even among members of the crime families. “Once a bullet leaves that gun, you never talk about it,” mob boss Joseph Massino said of an oath he took at his initiation ceremony in 1977.
Of course, Massino said this from the witness stand in 2011 after becoming a government informant, despite the vow he had taken. He joined an ever-growing list of “men of honor” who have openly discussed — usually in courtrooms, but also in books and in television interviews — the secret rite. Today, accurate reenactments can be seen in mob movies, and FBI documents provide detailed accounts of the process. The ceremony usually takes place before a celebratory dinner and is conducted by the boss or the underboss of the crime family. It begins with a formal, almost Baptismal-like questioning of the candidate, whose trigger finger is pricked with a pin. The blood is then wiped on a religious card depicting a saint. The card is crumpled, cupped in the initiate’s hands and set on fire, while the inductee swears an oath to live and die for the crime family, pledging to “burn like this saint” if he betrays anyone in the organization.
The FBI secretly recorded one ceremony in 1989 by planting electronic listening devices in a home in suburban Boston where members of the Patriarca family were to be made. A year later, a New Jersey mob figure who was cooperating with the state police wore a body wire to his own initiation. The mobster, George Fresolone, later co-authored a book titled “Blood Oath.” After the fact, Mafia leaders ruled his ceremony invalid, even though four of the five initiates that day had no idea what Fresolone was up to.
Joe Pistone, the FBI agent who spent six years undercover as Donnie Brasco, building cases and then testifying against the mob, put it best in a 1997 Washington Post interview: “What concerns you is the cowboy, y’know? Somebody who wants to make a name for himself within the mob.” Pistone’s comments came in response to reports that the mob had put a $500,000 contract on his head. Murder is the tool used to enforce the code of conduct in the underworld. Pistone, as Donnie Brasco, had violated that code.
But the Witness Security Program means it’s safe to break with the Mafia. Cooperating witnesses and their families have an opportunity to walk away from the life. Run by the U.S. Marshals Service since 1971 and commonly but incorrectly referred to as the Witness Protection Program, the service provides relocation, a new identity and a financial stipend to help a witness get reestablished in another part of the country. The program has set up new lives for more than 8,600 witnesses (not all of them Mafiosi) and 9,900 of their family members.
The stipend doesn’t last forever — it usually ends after about a year. The downside, and one reason some cooperators eventually opt out, is that witnesses and their families can never return to visit with friends and relatives they have left behind, a hardship that many find too difficult.
Most film and TV depictions of the Mafia show it operating completely on its own. And indeed, when they were the big dogs in the game — from the late 1940s through the 1970s — Italian American Mafia organizations rarely interacted with other criminal groups. The one exception was an occasional overlap with the Sicilian Mafia, but then they were criminal cousins whose roots went back to the same family tree.
Today the American Mafia, while still a player, is no longer the monolithic underworld power that it was in the days of Luciano and Al Capone.
Michael Franzese, a Colombo family capo, described his dealings in the 1980s with Russian mobsters in a multimillion-dollar gasoline tax fraud scheme this way: “The Russian mob from Brighton Beach in the gas business — the best partners I ever had.”
Mafia figures in various cities have been linked to the methamphetamine trade with members of the Pagans motorcycle gang. And leaders of the Lucchese and Colombo crime families dealt on a regular basis with Leroy “Nicky” Barnes , a notorious heroin trafficker out of Harlem.
At the end of the day, the Mafia isn’t about pride, it’s about money — how to get it, how to keep it and how to make more of it.