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How The Mafia Has Survived And Is Involved In International Crime Today


The last time a reputed mafia boss was killed in New York, it was 1985. So the death of Francesco Cali, shot dead outside his home on Staten Island Wednesday night, is getting a lot of attention. Cali was believed to have led the Gambino crime family, best known for its former flamboyant leader John Gotti. He was sent to prison in the mid-'90s. That was the period when racketeering laws were used to convict high-ranking mobsters. Cali's death has raised questions about the state of organized crime here in the U.S. For more on that, we turn to Oxford University professor of criminology Federico Varese. He's speaking to us from Rome. Welcome to the program.

FEDERICO VARESE: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Has the news of this death reached Italy? Is this something that's been in the news at all?

VARESE: Yes, very much. It was front page news yesterday. It still continues to be much discussed in Italy, especially in Palermo because he was very closely associated to a particular faction of the Sicilian Mafia, the faction that had lost the mafia war of the '90s. So there are rumors and speculations that his murder in New York might have been ordered in Palermo.

CORNISH: That brings us to the question of the connection between the Italian American and Italian crime organizations. Was Cali or - is this a sign that that connection is still strong?

VARESE: It's very - it's very strong, especially in the case of Cali himself. He had married a woman who was an Inzerrilo, which is also a major mafia family. He was very close to a faction of the Sicilian mafia, which actually lost the mafia war of the '90s. But this mafiosi from Sicily very recently came to the U.S. to meet him and considered him to be the big boss. Yes, so he was very close to Sicily. And the two organizations are separate. And so in order to join one, you have to go through the rituals in New York, go in Sicily. So there are separate rituals. And yet, the collaboration is very strong.

CORNISH: Cali had been arrested once about 11 years ago. And it was in an extortion case that involved the Gambino family's trucking operation. Can you talk about the areas of business where the mob is involved here still in the U.S.?

VARESE: Well, it's still involved in extortion - low-level extortion, rigging contracts. But Cali also was involved in a major inter-continental, transnational drugs operation involving Italy and New York and Latin America. So he was trying to get back into the drugs trade, which is where the big money are.

CORNISH: Right. You're talking about essentially, a more international business. What does that look like?

VARESE: Well, this is - basically selling drugs or buying the drugs in Latin America and brokering between Latin America and Italy so that the drugs would arrive in Europe. And he was at the center of an attempt to do that. And so the Sicilian Mafia, which with he was very close to, was trying to re-enter the drugs trade thanks to him.

CORNISH: Can we talk about law enforcement? Do you think that the Mafia is still on the radar of U.S. law enforcement in the way it once was?

VARESE: Well, it still is considered by the FBI a serious a threat in a sense that there is less attention - at least, that's what it appears to be the case. And yet, of course, the Italian American Mafia continues to be in the radar. Now, RICO, which you mentioned the law that has been passed in the U.S., is very effective. And it makes it harder for the mafia bosses to meet. So for instance, the Commission, which is the committee where all the bosses of the Five Familes meet, has not met in the past several years, in fact, has not met. And yet, of course they still communicate and operate on the ground.

CORNISH: Oxford professor Federico Varese, thank you so much for speaking with us.

VARESE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.