La Cosa Nostra in the United States

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La Cosa Nostra in the United States

Government report

By: James O. Finkenauer

Date: October 1, 2005

Source: Finckenauer, James O. "La Cosa Nostra in the United States." Available at: 〈〉 (accessed January 8, 2006).

About the Author: James O. Finckenauer, Ph.D, is a member of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is based in Washington, D.C. The NIJ is the research, evaluation, and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The NIJ has a number of responsibilities, the most comprehensive of which is the assessment of national criminal justice programs and technologies. The NIJ also plays an ongoing role in relation to Homeland Security initiatives, and it also maintains relationships with international organizations such as the United Nations.


La Cosa Nostra (LCN) is one of three popular synonyms for organized crime in the United States; it is an expression used interchangeably with the terms "Mafia" and "the Mob." These terms refer to the place that organized criminals of Italian-American descent have occupied in both the criminal underworld, as well as broader American society, for almost a century. The acronym LCN has been the official term employed by law enforcement officials since 1970, when then Attorney General John Mitchell (1913–1988) ordered federal law enforcement personnel to refrain from all references to the Mafia and its ethnic origins in all official correspondence.

La Cosa Nostra, which took its name in America from the Italian phrase meaning "Our Concern," is an organization with roots in the Sicilian Mafia, a semisecret criminal organization that rose to prominence in the ports of Sicily in the mid-nineteenth century. Large scale Italian immigration to the United States in the early 1900s, particularly to the cities of New York and Chicago, was the impetus for the establishment of the American variant.

The Volstead Act of 1919 prohibited the sale and distribution of alcohol throughout the United States; the sale of illegal liquor during Prohibition provided the primary stimulus for the growth of the LCN. Mobsters such as Al "Scarface" Capone (1899–1947) and the Gambino family of New York were public and notorious figures. The strict hierarchical nature of the LCN, with each "family" headed by a don whose control was virtually absolute, created strict lines of authority within each LCN organization. Violations of the rules of the family were swiftly resolved on an internal and often violent basis. Gambling, extortion, prostitution, and protection became the cornerstones of all organized crime business when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. By the 1960s, the LCN had grown to wield national influence; elements of the LCN not only directed the expansion of the city of Las Vegas and its gambling-based economy but also exercised de facto control of pre-Castro Havana in the 1950s. The suspected involvement of the LCN in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the disappearance of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (1913–1975?) in 1975 has been the subject of intense and persistent national commentary.

As with many successful corporate enterprises, the LCN was quick to seize any available opportunities that were consistent with its core business. The largest of these diversifications was the entry of the LCN into the international drug trade in the 1960s, spearheaded by Charles "Lucky" Luciano(1897–1962).

For the first several decades of its existence, the LCN had thwarted most law enforcement efforts aimed against it, in part due to its ability to corrupt various police and prosecutorial agencies. The passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, better known as RICO, was the first coordinated federal government effort to deal assertively with organized crime. A number of LCN members have been successfully prosecuted under this act, the most notable being the "Teflon Don," John Gotti.



La Cosa Nostra or LCN—also known as the Mafia, the mob, the outfit, the office—is a collection of Italian-American organized crime "families" that has been operating in the United States since the 1920s. For nearly three quarters of a century, beginning during the time of Prohibition and extending into the 1990s, the LCN was clearly the most prominent criminal organization in the U.S. Indeed, it was synonymous with organized crime. In recent years, the LCN has been severely crippled by law enforcement, and over the past decade has been challenged in a number of its criminal markets by other organized crime groups. Nevertheless, with respect to those criteria that best define the harm capacity of criminal organizations, it is still pre-eminent. The LCN has greater capacity to gain monopoly control over criminal markets, to use or threaten violence to maintain that control, and to corrupt law enforcement and the political system than does any of its competitors. As one eminent scholar has also pointed out, "no other criminal organization [in the United States] has controlled labor unions, organized employer cartels, operated as a rationalizing force in major industries, and functioned as a bridge between the upperworld and the underworld" (Jacobs, 1999: 128). It is this capacity that distinguishes the LCN from all other criminal organizations in the U.S.

Each of the so-called families that make up the LCN has roughly the same organizational structure. There is a boss who controls the family and makes executive decisions. There is an underboss who is second in command. There is a senior advisor or consigliere. And then there are a number of "capos" (capo-regimes) who supervise crews made up of "soldiers," who are "made members" of Cosa Nostra. The capos and those above them receive shares of the proceeds from crimes committed by the soldiers and associates.

Made members, sometimes called good fellows or wise guys, are all male and all of Italian descent. The estimated made membership of the LCN is 1,100 nation-wide, with roughly eighty percent of the members operating in the New York metropolitan area. There are five crime families that make up the LCN in New York City: the Bonanno, the Colombo, the Genovese, the Gambino, and the Lucchese families. There is also LCN operational activity in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the Miami\South Florida area, but much less so than in New York. In other previous strongholds such as Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh, the LCN is now weak or non-existent. In addition to the made members, there are approximately 10,000 associate members who work for the families. Until the recent demise of much of its leadership, there was a Commission of the bosses of New York's five LCN families that coordinated control of labor unions, construction, trucking and garbage hauling companies, and that resolved disputes between families.

La Cosa Nostra does not enjoy general social acceptance and support. With the exception of a few ethnic Italian neighborhoods where certain of the more brazen exploits and some of the community "good deeds" of bosses are admired, Italian organized crime reinforces a stigma that most Italian-Americans want to get rid of. Along with the effectiveness of law enforcement, the absence of support for the LCN means that recruitment has become difficult. Some families have disappeared, and others are only 50 percent to as little as 10 percent of their size 30 years ago. At the same time however, as with all organized crime, it is the community's desire for illicit goods and services that continues to help fuel the survival of the LCN.

Becoming a made member of LCN requires serving an apprenticeship and then being proposed by a Boss. This is followed by gaining approval for membership from all the other families. Once approved, there is a secret, ritualized induction ceremony. Made membership means both honor and increased income. It also, however, entails responsibilities—in particular taking an oath of omerta. Omerta demands silence to the outside world about the criminal affairs of the family, never betraying anyone in the family, and never revealing to law enforcement anything that might incriminate anyone in organized crime. The penalty for violating this oath is death. Any wise guy who takes a plea without authorization by the family runs the risk of the death penalty. That death is indeed used to enforce internal discipline is evidenced by the execution in 1998 of a capo in the Genovese crime family for pocketing money that should have been passed on to his superiors. An underworld source said about this missing capo: "The people they're looking to send a message to is not the general public. It's the mob itself, which totally understands that the guy is gone." At the same time, the fact that there are over a hundred members in the Federal witness protection program suggests that omerta is not nearly as effective as it once was.


La Cosa Nostra, over many years, established its reputation for the ruthless use of violence. This violence has occurred mostly in the form of beatings and killings. Personal violence, and to a lesser degree violence against property, e.g., bombings, arson, explosions, is the typical pattern of the systematic use of violence as a tool of doing business.

That violence continues to be an LCN tool is evidenced in several cases within the past three years. The first two incidents were carried out at the behest of the former head of the Gambino crime family in New York, John Gotti. In a 1997 trial, a member of the Gambino family testified about a torture killing that had been ordered by Gotti. The victim had apparently fired a shot at Gotti. He was tortured with lighted cigarettes and a knife, shot in the buttocks, carried in the trunk of a car, and ultimately killed with five shots to the head. In the second example, the same John Gotti, from his federal prison cell, contracted with two members of the white supremacist group the Aryan Brotherhood to kill the former consigliere of the Gambino crime family who had threatened to kill him.


Jacobs (1999) believes that one of the LCN's major assets is its general business acumen. They are best described, he says, as being entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and adaptable. They find ways to exploit market vulnerabilities, while at the same time maintaining the necessary stability and predictability that business requires to be profitable. One of the ways they do this is by taking over only a piece of a legitimate business—and providing a service in return—rather than taking over the whole business. The latter would, of course, require a management responsibility that they do not want and possibly could not handle, and that would in addition likely upset the business climate necessary for success.

La Cosa Nostra's illegal activities cover a wide range. Gambling and drugs have traditionally been their biggest money makers. Loan sharking is often linked with the gambling and drugs, and is an area that exemplifies the role played by the credible use of violence. The same is true of extortion. The other more traditional crimes also include hijacking, air cargo theft, and of course murder.

Then there are a set of crimes that have become specialties of the LCN, and are unique to them in the United States. Although some of these criminal activities have had national effects, they have been carried out almost exclusively by the five crime families in New York City since LCN penetration of the legitimate economy elsewhere in the U.S. is minimal. The specialties of the New York families include labor racketeering, various kinds of business racketeering, bid-rigging, business frauds, and industry cartels. It is in these areas that the LCN demonstrates its most aggressive and effective penetration of the legitimate economy. Labor racketeering involves organized crime control of labor unions. With this control, gained by the threat and use of violence, vast sums of money are siphoned from union pension funds, businesses are extorted in return for labor peace and an absence of strikes, and bribes are solicited for sweetheart contracts. Another speciality, business racketeering, has occurred in New York City in the construction, music, and garbage industries. The LCN controls unions, bars, strip joints, restaurants, and trucking firms. The five families have also controlled at various times the Fulton Fish Market, the Javits Convention Center, the New York Coliseum, and air cargo operations at JFK International Airport, among other targets. Again the principal tools of control are extortion and the use of violence.

One of the best examples of an LCN cartel was their monopoly of the waste hauling industry in New York City for almost 50 years. La Cosa Nostra used its control of local unions to set up a cartel (Jacobs & Hortis, 1998). The cartel monopolized the industry by threatening business disruption, labor problems, and personal violence. As a result of its monopoly control, the LCN forced participants and consumers to pay inflated prices for waste hauling—a practice known as a "mob tax." Over the years this mob tax cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

In part in reaction to effective law enforcement actions in many of the areas mentioned above, La Cosa Nostra has diversified its activities and extended its penetration in legal markets by switching to white-collar crimes in recent years (Raab, 1997). They have carried out multimillion dollar frauds in three areas in particular: health insurance, prepaid telephone cards, and through victimizing small Wall Street brokerage houses.


As has already been indicated, La Cosa Nostra is today much less powerful and pervasive than it was in the past. A loss of political influence has accompanied its general decline. In its heyday, the LCN exercised its political influence mostly at the local level, through its connections with the political machines that operated in certain U.S. cities such as New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia. With the demise of those machines, and with the advent of political reforms stressing open and ethical government, many of the avenues for corrupt influence were substantially closed. Today, the LCN exercises political influence in certain selected areas and with respect to certain selected issues. For example, it has attempted to influence the passage of legislation regulating legalized gambling in states such as Louisiana.

In one of the most notorious cases in recent years, in Boston a former FBI supervisor admitted (under a grant of immunity) to accepting $7,000 in payoffs from two FBI mob informants. The two mobsters were major figures in the New England Cosa Nostra. A second FBI agent was subsequently convicted in the case in 1999. The two FBI agents were charged with alerting the informants to investigations in which they were targets, and with protecting them from prosecution.

There has never been any evidence that La Cosa Nostra has had direct representation in the Congress of the United States, nor in the U.S. executive or diplomatic service. Neither is there any evidence that it has ever been allied with such armed opposition groups as terrorists, guerrillas, or death squads. In this respect, the LCN exemplifies one of the traditional defining characteristics of organized crime in that its goal is an economic rather than a political one. Where there has been political involvement, it has been for the purposes of furthering economic objectives.


Law enforcement, and particularly federal law enforcement, has been tremendously successful in combating La Cosa Nostra over the past 10 years. Crime families have been infiltrated by informants and undercover agents, and special investigating grand juries have been employed in state and local jurisdictions. Especially effective use has been made of investigative and prosecutorial techniques that were designed specifically for use against organized crime, and in particular against La Cosa Nostra. These latter techniques include electronic surveillance, the witness protection program, and the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The RICO statute has clearly been the single most powerful tool against the LCN. There are now state RICO statutes as well as the federal one. RICO enables law enforcement to attack the organizational structure of organized crime and to levy severe criminal and civil penalties, including forfeitures. It is the threat of these penalties that has convinced many made members of the LCN to become informants and/or to seek immunity from prosecution in return for becoming a cooperating witness. They are then placed in the witness protection program. Civil remedies have included the court-appointment of monitors and trustees to administer businesses and unions that had been taken over by the LCN, to insure that these enterprises remain cleansed of corrupt influences.

Two of the latest weapons against La Cosa Nostra penetration of sectors of the legitimate economy are regulatory initiatives. Because La Cosa Nostra is mainly a domestic operation, there is little international cooperation in its investigation and prosecution.


The rise of La Cosa Nostra is an event of remarkable significance in American social and legal history. From a localized Italian immigrant protection organization in eastern American cities, the Mafia acquired a public reputation not simply as a criminal element, but as an entity that transcended all conventional American legal structures—the Mob was essentially a law unto itself.

The LCN achieved its position in society through the combination of old country traditions of honor and brotherhood, sometimes referred to as the omerta, and the application of time honored business principles. In every city where it has operated, the LCN created a strict organizational structure, operating businesses that sold commodities (such as alcohol) and services (including prostitution, gambling, and protection) that had an obvious and definable market. It was an LCN strength that the general public was rarely affected in a direct fashion by the more violent aspects of their operations; most Mafia violence was internal, and the illegal sale of alcohol, as an example, was to willing buyers.

The LCN prospered because it was operated with discipline; the Mafia family structure, in addition to the preferences given to members of Italian descent, placed the concepts of obedience, honor, and respect above all others. This tradition runs counter to the individual-based, almost libertarian views of modern business and society at large.

One of the most significant aspects of the Mafia's rise through the mid-twentieth century was the manner in which it became rooted in the consciousness of the American public—not only as a synonym for organized crime, but also as an efficient, influential organization that attracted a measure of admiration and respect. The 1974 motion picture The Godfather does not glorify either crime or the LCN, but there is no question of the aura of presumed power and influence that radiates from the criminal world it portrays. Later Hollywood films that have popularized Mafia methods and influence include Good Fellas and Get Shorty.

This perception of the LCN has not been restricted to Hollywood. An enduring irony of American law enforcement and prosecutorial history is that the most notorious Mafia gangster in history, Al Capone, operated a vast and notorious bootlegging and multi-dimensional criminal empire in Chicago and elsewhere for many years; he was never prosecuted for any of the serious crimes associated with his organization, including numerous killings of Mafia rivals. Al Capone was indicted and successfully prose-cuted for the more pedestrian offence of income tax evasion.

The lingering significance of the Mafia has been diminished to a degree by more zealous federal prosecutions of high-level LCN leaders since 1970. RICO is a part of that initiative. However, the modern Mafia also must be considered in the context of a much changed American society. As adaptable as the Mafia has been—its beginnings in simple protection rackets transformed into holdings in the trucking, construction, and technology industries—America is increasingly less homogenous. The cultural diversity of modern America has diminished the ability of the LCN to achieve both notoriety and respect. However, the Mafia has left one certain legacy—in the American lexicon. There are now references to the "Russian Mafia" and "Chinese Mafia"; the Mafia has become a descriptor for any ethnically based crime group, a testament to the influence of this original American criminal organization.



Cummings, John. Goombata: The Rise and Fall of John Gotti and his Gang. New York: Little, Brown, 1990.

Mass, Peter. The Valachi Papers. New York: Harper Collins, 1968.

Pileggi, Nicholas. Wise Guys. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

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