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RICO Organized Crime's Last Stand?

RICO, mafia.

February 14,1929,

It's St. Valentine's Day in Chicago, Illinois. The Windy City is indeed windy today; a stiff breeze provides a harsh supplement to the frigid winter temperatures. Seven men are sitting nervously inside the S-M-C Cartage Company warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street. They're sitting nervously because they're awaiting a shipment of illegal liquor from a Detroit bootlegger. An eight man is running late. He turns the corner to head for the warehouse, then quickly darts away. A police cruiser has pulled up alongside the warehouse. Four men clad in police uniforms, accompanied by two more men in civilian attire, exit the car and head inside the warehouse. They announce to the seven stunned men that this was a raid and to line up against the wall. The seven men dutifully do as they're told-and are then summarily executed with Thompson sub-machine guns.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was the final, grisly climax to what would become known as "The Bootleg Wars", a long, bloody struggle between Chicago's two most powerful mafia leaders, Al Capone and "Bugs" Moran(The eighth man that was running late), for control of Chicago's vastly lucrative illegal liquor business. Prohibition, The Eighteenth Amendment, had catapulted the American mafia from a peripheral, underground organization into mainstream society. Americans were going to drink whether against the law or not, and the mafia was only too happy to appease them. "Speakeasies", illegal drinking establishments cleverly disguised as legitimate businesses, sprang up all over Chicago as well as the rest of the country. Colorful mafia characters, such as Chicago's Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano, from New York, emerged, becoming more famous than any celebrity.

In these early years, the mafia pretty much had free reign on the cities that they ruled. Along with liquor, the mafia also became heavily involved in other vices, such as prostitution and gambling. The mafia provided the public with easy access to activities they continued to engage in despite their illegality, and thus the mafia did not have to concern itself with public outrage. Police and politicians also presented little or no interference. Bribery ruled the day in the 1920s. Police and politicians, many of whom enjoyed illegal playing themselves, were easy to buy. So easy, in fact, that Chicago Police Chief once lamented: "Sixty percent of my policemen are in the bootleg business." If bribery was easy, it certainly wasn't cheap. Luciano, for instance, earned twelve million dollars in profit one year from bootlegging alone, six million of which went to ensure his safety from law enforcement. The criminal justice system at the time was a patsy. At the very least, it was powerless to stop the mafia from engaging in their activities. At the very worst, it was complicit.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre finally transformed the public's perception of the mafia. For the first time, Americans became disgusted with the bloodshed and demanded governmental action. The mafia's violence was bad enough. The cost to the economy was even worse. The mafia's infiltration and demands for protection money from almost every conceivable business in a particular city was dramatically raising the price of the products they sold. In short, Americans were fed up with the mafia lining their pockets with dirty money while they had to struggle just to break even.

These demands for legal action continued for many years, especially after the narcotics trade sparked a bloody mafia renaissance in the 1960s. It was easy for the public to pester the government-but much more difficult for the government to carry out. Mafia prosecutions were rare, even impossible, due to lack of evidence. Potential witnesses were reminded that it might be in their best interest to keep quiet. Another problem for law enforcement officials was the practice by mafia bosses to distance themselves as much as they could from the activities they were ordering. For example, a mafia boss could order a murder in New York, then quickly whisk himself away to Florida to provide a rock-solid alibi. On the rare occasion that a mafia member was brought to trial, convictions were rare due to jury tampering, and the convictions that were handed down were for far lesser crimes than what the government had sought. Capone, for example, despite his widespread reputation as a ruthless killer, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to only eleven years in federal prison.

In 1970, however, that all changed. That year Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Most commonly referred to as RICO, the act gave the government a wider spectrum in which to investigate and successfully prosecute members of the mafia. Instead of having to focus solely on the individual mafia member, the government now had the ability to target the "fronts", or legitimate businesses that they operated.

Simply put, RICO "makes it unlawful to acquire or maintain a business or enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity." "Racketeering activity" involves the many crimes that the mafia has engaged in for decades, such as murder, gambling, arson and extortion. For example, if a business owner was delinquent on payment to a loan shark, the loan shark may demand the victim's business in exchange for letting him live. The victim, in obvious fear for his life, transfers his business to the mafia, who assumes control over that business and collects all income on the business while the victim remains the owner "on paper." The mafia has acquired and maintained a business through a pattern of racketeering activity and is thus in violation of RICO. Under RICO the government can criminally prosecute and imprison a mafia leader even if that particular mafia boss had never directly committed a crime. The mafia boss can be sent to jail simply for operating a business or enterprise that engages in criminal acts.

RICO can also be utilized to bring civil suits against the particular mafia in an attempt to recoup the money that the mafia had extorted from him. For example, an extorted businessman can sue a mafia boss under RICO for the money that was extorted from him. If the victim is victorious, he can be awarded three times the extortion amount. If the victim was extorted for five thousand dollars, the court would award him fifteen thousand. However, to prevent frivolous RICO actions, the plaintiff must prove that he was a victim of the mafia and a pattern of racketeering activity.

While RICO has been successful in eradicating many higher echelon mafia members such as John Gotti, it is still a work in progress. Many critics of RICO contend that RICO simply puts a dent into the mafia rather than destroy it. Establishing a pattern of racketeering activity is extremely difficult because the mafia is very good at covering its own tracks. Even if a mafia boss is convicted and imprisoned under RICO, he can still control his mafia family from inside. Another problem with RICO is that the triple damage rule for extortion violations created an explosion of frivolous lawsuits from non-government entities that had nothing to do with the mafia, such as the suit filed by Greyhound Bus Lines against its union, the Amalgamated Transit Union for "extorting wages and benefits from Greyhound", even though the union was engaged in a lawful strike.

It's difficult to gauge the true impact that RICO has had on the mafia. While sometimes resoundly successful, RICO has thus far failed in its intended goal: the destruction of the mafia. Although crippled, the mafia still exists in America and is still the subject of much public fascination (The Sopranos,etc). The mafia has been evolving for generations to avoid the wrath of the federal government. The federal government will have to continue evolving too.
Published: 2006-06-28
Author: Mike Brown

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