The Nation: THE MAFIA Big, Bad and Booming

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Big, Bad And Booming

New Orleans Mafia Boss Carlos Marcello has doubled his force of bodyguards and shipped his family to a safe haven out of state. New York Don Aniello Dellacroce confuses his enemies by sometimes having a look-alike impersonate him in public. James ("the Weasel") Fratianno, a high-level mobster in San Francisco, rarely goes anywhere without two hulking companions. Other Mafia chieftains start their cars by remote control just in case bombs are wired to the ignitions.

Fear has always been a palpable part of life at the top in the Mafia, an almost feudal society in which men rise by murder and treachery and can never feel secure. But these are days of even greater tension than usual. The crime organization is going through one of its most crucial internal struggles since Prohibition, when the fight for control led to the bloody Castellammarese War (named for the Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo, birthplace of many of the leading thugs). Only when the smoke cleared from that battle and a nationwide commission of Mafia dons was set up to coordinate criminal operations did the closed brotherhood, which was imported by Sicilian immigrants in the 1860s, begin dominating the American underworld.

The present turmoil is centered in New York City, where ex-Mafia Executioner Dellacroce is struggling with Drug King Carmine Galante over leadership of the city's five crime clans. Mafiosi from coast to coast will look on the winner as the don with the most "respect," the capo di tutti capi (translation: boss of bosses); in a word, the Godfather. The loser may wind up dead.

The unrest within the Mafia—and the effect this has on all levels of organized crime—reaches far beyond the sidewalks and back alleys of New York. In Chicago, young toughs who are fighting over lucrative jobs in the organization have produced the worst intramural bloodbath since Al Capone seized control in the 1920s. The toll since December 1973: 21 dead. Observes Peter Vaira, chief of the Justice Department's anti-Mafia strike force in the city: "The younger faction wants more power and a bigger piece of the action. There will be more killings." At the same time, mobsters from New York and Chicago are invading California, shouldering aside the state's aging dons and grabbing a large share of the West's lucrative rackets.

Two developments have caused the underworld upheaval:

1) The death last fall of New York Don Carlo Gambino, who as capo di tutti capi had brought a measure of peace to the nation's Mafia families through guile, diplomacy and strong-arm discipline. His elaborate funeral marked the end of an era, for he was the last of the graybeard Godfathers who dominated the Mafia in the 1950s and 1960s. The others are either in their graves or living in expensive Sunbelt retirement homes in Florida, Arizona and Palm Springs, Calif.

2) A revolt by vicious young mobsters outside of New York against many of the remaining Mob elders, who had been spooked by repeated federal investigations from the 1950s until the early 1970s. For fear of letting in undercover agents, the old dons "closed the books" in 1965—that is, they stopped admitting new members. To keep a low public profile, they put the brakes on their men. To evade police wiretaps, they operated furtively from phone booths.

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