What The Mafia Does Nowadays Will Surprise You
What does the mafia even do anymore? Let's find out!Society
Back in 2010, Vito “Lord of the Winds” Nicastri, a prominent Italian businessman, was relaxing in his lavish Sicilian home when he heard a loud knock at the door. It was the police. It turns out, Nicastri had strong ties with the mafia, and he was about to have a record-breaking $1.3 billion worth of fraudulent assets seized from him.
But what had he been up to? What does the mafia even do anymore? From fixing sports games to selling you fake food, it turns out it still does a whole lot. So, grab your Fedora, because we’re about to step deep into the criminal underworld.
First things first when people say “mafia” they’re not referring to a single organization. It’s more of an umbrella term, describing any of several groups of gangsters whose origins can be traced back to southern Italy.
While loads of organized crime syndicates throughout the world also get called “mafias”, we’re only interested in the real OGs. That is, the American mafia, which was started by southern Italian immigrants, and the southern Italian mafia itself.
During their heyday in the 1950s, the American mafia could pull strings all over the world. They had a vast network of 26 gangs, or ‘families’, residing in a multitude of US states and corrupting everything they touched.
Throughout the 1960s onwards though, the US government doubled down on its efforts to destroy them. More and more prominent mafiosos got taken down, and many of them opted to blab on fellow members to reduce their prison sentences.
So, nowadays, the American mafia has nowhere near the influence it once had. However, that’s not to say they’ve disappeared. In fact, the so-called “Five Families,” which are the five most powerful mafia families in New York City, have been keeping themselves very busy.
What Does The Mafia Do?
At its core, the mafia only cares about one thing: making money. And they have no qualms about how they do it. Back in the day, that meant street violence, public hits, and protection rackets, where they’d guarantee you no harm as long as you paid them cash.
The problem with all of those methods is they’re not very subtle. So, in response, the US government passed the RICO Act in 1970. This meant anyone caught working for criminal organizations would suffer far more severe penalties than crooks flying solo.
Since then, the mafia have largely hung up their guns in favor of crimes that are harder to prosecute, like fraud, financial crimes, and trafficking. And considering these shady dealings are worth about $160 billion every year, I doubt they mind the switch in tactic!
However, financial crimes aren’t new for the Mafia, they’ve just had to adapt to the times. Take gambling; the mob first invested in casinos way back in the early 1930s. Las Vegas was literally built on mob money!
But the scene has changed a lot since then, and the advent of online gambling in the 1990s is largely to blame. However, online gambling is illegal in New York, where the Five Families are based.
So, what did they do? Well, they just established online casinos abroad in places where it is legal, like in Costa Rica. From there, they can process bets placed all the way back home in New York!
And because the mafiosos’ computers bounce the data through different servers, law enforcement has a tough time keeping track of the dodgy operations. By doing this, the mafia earns some serious buck. Between 2010 and 2011, it brought in a sweet $1.7 million for the Gambino crime family alone!
But if you thought the chain of ill-doing ends there though, you couldn’t be more wrong. Gambling opens the door for another immoral source of income: loansharking. That’s where someone offers you money but expects you to pay back way more than they lent you.
Gamblers can quickly run up huge debts if luck isn’t going their way. And if they’re blowing their paycheck as soon as it comes in, no bank will lend them a dime, only Mr. Mafioso will! With one catch; an outrageously high interest rate of 200%.
It’s the perfect ploy; get people hooked on your gambling sites, then when they’ve given you all the money they have, plunge them into even more debt by offering them predatory loans. There’s one glaring problem with loaning money to people who’ll gamble it all away, however: they won’t be able to pay you back.
But of course, the mafia know this. In fact, they’re relying on it. If you owe them a debt you can’t pay back with money, they’ll force you to settle it another way. That’s exactly how the secretive syndicate started rubbing shoulders with sportsmen.
Mafia members have been known to track down athletes with gambling problems, give them hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed their bad habits with, then offer them an easy way to clear their debt: fixing games.
Often, that means the corrupt athletes purposefully play worse than bookies expect, to push the game into an unlikely outcome that mafiosos have bet big bucks on.
And this has been going on for years. Indeed, Chicago bookmaker and mafia associate Donald Dawson confessed to fixing over 30 NFL games back in the ‘50s and ‘60s!
But how does a dodgy dealer even get that close to the players though? Well, it’s easy when they’re already close to the owners of the teams! By 1989, it was discovered that 26 past and present NFL team owners had ties to gambling and organized crime. These guys didn’t just turn a blind eye either, they almost definitely had a hand in fixing the matches themselves!
And when the authorities came sniffing around their suspicious side hustle, their investigations often ended up being suppressed or shut down with no official explanation. Those awful owners were obviously up to a lot more than they were letting on!
You’d think the people directly responsible for keeping matches fair would stay out of it, but nope, even officials are prone to corruption! Tim Donaghy retired from being an NBA referee in 2007 after the league found out he was on the Gambino Family payroll, altering the results of games.
The disgraced Donaghy revealed that the Gambinos had threatened to harm his wife and children if he ever told anyone about their deal. So, he became no more than a puppet, forced to keep silent while the Mafia utilized his position of power.
21st Century Mob
Nowadays, match fixing is rarer in the top sports leagues, but the smaller, less policed leagues are still very prone to corruption. In 2021 alone, there were nearly 400 European soccer matches with suspiciously stacked up odds, and almost half of those occurred in the lowest leagues.
Rumor has it, they’ve even started fixing the betting on e-sports too, on competitive videogaming like Call of Duty and Fortnite.
They’ve obviously not come out and admitted to anything, maybe they don’t want to be called geeks, but in 2020, suspiciously stacked e-sports bets increased by a whopping 150% over the previous year!
Even though sports fixing nets criminal organizations over $120m every year, that’s nothing on the $1.7 trillion a year the industry makes in total! So, in the grand scheme of things, the Mafia ain’t getting much.
Adding insult to injury, over half of the US states have now legalized some form of sports betting, so the mafia has lost more of its grip on the online gambling scene. But considering online payments leave traces the police can track, how do the mafia even operate online at all?
Well, they take advantage of a certain encrypted financial market that allows money to be exchanged completely anonymously! While "Mafiacoin" might not be lining the digital shelves anytime soon, the boys in black have been buying Bitcoin to launder proceeds and purchase illegal goods internationally without leaving a trace.
Criminal gangs washed around $8.6 billion in dirty money through cryptocurrency in 2021, a huge 30% increase from the previous year. And in the depths of the so-called “Dark Web”, there have even been reports of hitman organizations who’ll settle your scores the old-fashioned way, for just over $10,000 in Bitcoin.
However, while some of these online hitmen could be legit, most are probably just scams run by neckbeards looking to make an easy killing. Remember, the mafia generally stay away from violent crimes nowadays. In fact, they often hide in plain sight, by infiltrating legitimate businesses and corrupting them from the inside.
Believe it or not, the fearless fraudsters have been in the garbage industry since way back in the ‘50s! That’s because US cities stopped collecting commercial waste, and private contracts suddenly came up for grabs. As the mafia don’t shy away from dirty work, they snapped loads of these contracts straight up, becoming literal garbage men.
They don’t particularly like sharing their profits with legitimate competitors though. When waste management company Browning-Ferris Industries came into New York’s market in 1993, the wife of one of its executives found a gift on her lawn: a dog’s head with a note saying “Welcome to New York”.
More recently, there are signs the New York gangs are losing their grip on the garbage trade though. 30 members from the Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families were arrested in 2013, and they were all linked to the litter! But the same can’t be said for the families operating in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where state officials claim the mafia is still a prominent presence in the garbage business.
Philadelphian mob boss, Joe Ligambi, held down a stable job for seven years between 2003 and 2010, earning $1,000 a week and free health insurance. His position consisted of doing nothing, letting his lackeys do all the work! That’s pretty trashy, if you ask me. Ligambi doesn’t run that particular hustle anymore, but it’s almost certain that others do in his place.
These dirty tactics aren’t limited to the garbage industry, though. The mob in New York infiltrated the construction industry too, back in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, mafia bosses had the final say in a colossal 75% of all construction projects across the city. And when you consider the industry generates around $10 billion a year, that translates into a lot of power and money.
Today, they don’t exercise the same level of control, however, they’re far from out of the game. Mafia-linked subcontractors continue to build projects in Manhattan and were heavily involved in Freedom Tower, the building at the former site of the World Trade Center.
As recently as 2021, The Gambinos were caught in a huge bribery scheme that spanned the whole of New York City. A corrupt, mafia-linked subcontractor had been bribing the employees of multiple companies in exchange for higher pay-outs and more work. The mob managed to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from development projects throughout the city before they were found out.
By infiltrating “legal” industries like construction and garbage, mafia members can claim to have a legitimate income if they’re ever investigated. Because since the RICO Act, getting caught means curtains, so it’s much safer for them to keep a low profile and hide behind legal smokescreens.
But if you’re a mafioso, that doesn’t always guarantee your safety. Frank “Franky Boy” Cali was the bigshot mob boss in charge of the Gambinos back in 2019. But he didn’t make it into 2020. One day, as he was relaxing in his New York home, a loud crash suddenly came from outside.
He went out to investigate and realized a pickup truck had smashed straight into his Cadillac. But before he could react, he was taken out. But if Cali was trying so hard to stay low, then who had he riled up enough to go after him?
It turns out it was neither law enforcement nor a rival mobster. Cali was taken out by a total nobody. 24-year-old Anthony Comello was arrested and charged with the crime. Comello had become obsessed with a wild conspiracy and believed Cali was in a secret order, manipulating the US government.
As much as Cali might’ve liked that idea, he definitely did not have that kind of power. And so, the boss of the once-most-powerful crime family in the USA was taken out by a rogue loon, weakening an already weakened American mafia even further.
The Italian Mafia Nowadays
While the American Mafia might be a shadow of their former selves, across the pond in Italy, it’s a whole different story. There are three main organizations in the Italian Mafia: the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, and the ‘Ndrangheta. And the latter might just be the most powerful organization you’ve never heard of.
How powerful? In 2013 alone, they were the largest money-making enterprise in the whole of Italy, raking in over $53 billion in a single year. Unbelievably, that’s almost twice as much as McDonald’s did! And these ones are a little more sophisticated than their US counterparts.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian businesses were hit hard, and many people were struggling to get by. So, guess who swooped in to help? Surprisingly, the mafia! Mafioso were seen in the streets of Palermo in southern Italy, handing out food and small business loans to anyone who wanted them.
How lovely! But no, the mafia wouldn’t do anything for free. And by the time local elections rolled around, Mr. Mafioso came by those same people who he’d helped out, demanding they vote for his favorite candidate.
Suddenly, those small loans turned into serious influence over election outcomes. What’s more, once the mafia have given a business money, they’ll steadily begin to take over said business and use it as a way of laundering dirty cash.
They don’t aim small either. There’s convincing evidence that the ‘Ndrangheta have gone as far as to infiltrate Italy’s healthcare industry! The Italian government’s pandemic plan focused on getting their healthcare workers vaccinated as early as possible. But figures from the first wave of vaccinations are suspiciously large in the south, where the mafia has a tighter grip.
So, it’s likely that the mafia were coercing healthcare staff to vaccinate those closest to them first! But this meant vaccines were going to corrupt lawyers, politicians, and judges, instead of the elderly and vulnerable, with sadly fatal consequences for the latter.
The Italian mafiosos aren’t content to take everyone’s vaccines though. Just like their American counterparts, they’re after people’s money more than anything else. And they’ve taken inspiration from one of the US mafia’s biggest ever schemes to get it.
Back in the 1980s, Michael “Yuppie Don” Franzese ran an outrageously lucrative scam. Thanks to a clever network of overseas companies, he supplied between one-third and one-half of all gas to the entire New York Metropolitan area.
And he paid zero tax on any of it. We’re talking about selling half a billion gallons of gas every month! Because of this, some reports claimed Yuppie Don was raking in a stupendous $10 million a week.
Wind Farms and the Mafia Windfall
Jump to Italy 20 years later, and we’re back with Italian businessman Vito Nicastri, the guy mentioned at the start. Nicastri clocked the huge amount of money in the energy industry too. But gas is old school. Instead, Nicastri got into the renewable energy sector, namely, windfarms.
Investigators claimed Nicastri built relationships with mafiosos to expand his power and wealth. Before long, he’d apparently got so entwined with them that his entire energy business had become one massive front to launder dirty money!
But he was found out, jailed, and a breath-taking $1.3 billion in assets seized from him. That’s a whole lot of beans, even for a guy who was nicknamed “the Lord of the Winds”.
Though ultimately no vast network of mafia links could be proven, it was discovered that Nicastri had one Matteo Messina Denaro on his bankroll, and Denaro happens to be the head honcho of the Sicilian Mafia. That’s a pretty tough one to talk your way out of.
Denaro’s been on the run since 1993 after setting off multiple explosions around Italy, and he’s firmly on the international most wanted list. Unsurprisingly then, there’s no way he got involved in windfarms for the environmental benefit, like Nicastri, it was purely for the moolah.
EU laws require all 27 member countries, including Italy, to have one-fifth of all their energy consumption come from renewable sources. So, the Italian government started dishing out big money to companies that built windfarms. As such, those companies became cheap, effective ways for the mafia to launder money!
And the good times keep rolling or spinning, if you will! The authorities in charge of all the legal mumbo-jumbo with these companies are slacker than those 2nd Grade pants your mom said you’d grow into. That means the mafia have been allowed to run amok relatively unchecked!
Imagine you’re a mafioso for one second. There’s a new, highly lucrative industry, where no one watches what you do, and the government pay you to get in? It’s a no brainer. Plus, the industry’s only set to grow, with estimates putting it at nearly $200 billion by 2025, so it’s getting even more attractive to the mafia.
While we don’t know exactly how much of that would effectively be mafia-money, over 92% of all Italian windfarms are built around the Islands and Southern regions where the mafia is most prominent. So, you can bet it’s a hell of a lot.
But what happens when legitimate rivals set up windfarms on the mafia’s territory? Well, local entrepreneur Salvatore Moncada did just that, and back in 2007, arsonists set fire to one of his wind farms, causing a brutal $4 million worth of damage. Mafia were almost definitely behind the attack, and it could very well have been old Vito Nicastri that gave the order!
The Food Mob
The Italian Mafia have infiltrated industries that regular folk like you and me need every day to get by. Craziest of all though, this even extends to the food inside your fridge. The mafia made an eye-watering $22.4bn in 2018 from the food industry alone. Their big scheme is so simple, yet so entirely legal, you wonder how officials didn’t see it coming.
It’s all started from the 2008 financial crash. This battered the Italian economy, so the government started leasing off farmland at criminally discounted prices, to try and write off their debts. As little as $40,000 could get you almost 2,500 football fields worth of Italian countryside.
The problem with criminal prices though is you attract, well, criminals. So, after buying the land for cheap, some clever mafiosos realized that they could also claim up to $1 million in government farming subsidies once they had it. That’s literally free money!
Of course, those farming subsidies don’t go on improving the farms though. In fact, farms on mafia owned land are often incredibly unsafe. That’s because mafiosos can make over $20 billion a year in waste disposal contracts by simply burying the toxic chemicals on their land.
Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t bode well for the animals grazing that same land. In 2008, the buffalo herds of 66 dairy farms had to be quarantined when high traces of dioxin were found in their milk.
Dioxin is a chemical that’s been linked with multiple life-threatening health issues, and the scandal caused mozzarella sales to drop up to 50% across Italy. All fingers pointed to the Camorra, the mafia family who’d taken control of the waste disposal industry around Naples and turned the place into their own personal dump.
And bad dairy is just the tip of the iceberg. Food fraud has been polluting all kinds of Italian staples for years! Mafia members were found buying up cheap African olive oil and deodorizing it with chemicals to get rid of any odd smell or taste. Then, they rebranded it as more expensive Italian extra virgin olive oil before sending it off to be sold in the US!
Luckily, the counterfeit oil was discovered before their plan could be completed. But that was just one attempt, and olive oil is far from the only problem.
They also tried to flip over 40,000 gallons of cheap red wine in a similarly slippery scheme. By slapping a nicer label on the bottle, they’d intended to pass it off as the world-famous Brunello di Montalcino and could’ve earnt a substantial $5m in total profits.
However, the wine was found by police in Tuscany and the ruse foiled. Unfortunately though, not all of the mafia’s plots are foiled so swiftly. They’ve been known to pour citric acid onto rotten seafood to cover up the rancid smell, before selling it on.
And that’s not all. They also artificially whiten cheap cheese with detergent, so it passes for mozzarella! Pineapple or no pineapple, we can all agree no one wants a soapy pizza. So, shock horror, the Italian Mafia are quite happy to put innocent people’s health at risk for a quick buck.
And they’re also happy to enlist the help of other mafias. In 2014, the ‘Ndrangheta got busted for scheming with the Gambinos and Mexican cartels to try and smuggle illegal goods into New York.
By bribing port officials with over a quarter-of-a-million dollars to turn a blind eye, they hoped to move over 1,000lbs of the stuff into the city, hidden in frozen fish!
Other shipments were found as far as Malaysia and contained over $7 million of unlawful product. Indeed, closer to their home, the ‘Ndrangheta control a whopping 80% of illegal goods smuggling routes into Europe, meaning next-to-nothing goes in or out without them knowing.
These European trades alone are their biggest source of income, making over $27 billion every single year.
The US mafia might be significantly less powerful than they once were, but the Italian mafia are so insidiously established that it's hard to see a future for Italy without them in it.
As recently as 2019, police arrested over 300 people under suspicion of membership of the ‘Ndrangheta. Worryingly, these included a mayor, a political party official, and even a police commander!
But will all these arrests even make much of a difference? This isn’t a few bad apples; this is widespread corruption from the top down! When they get one guy, another pops up somewhere else. Like a giant game of Mafia Whack-a-mole. Talking of moles, I should probably stop now. You never know who could be reading