What is the first time period you think of when you hear the word “mobster”? Perhaps it is the Roaring '20s and the era of Prohibition, or maybe it is the Cosa Nostra as depicted in the The Godfather. Colombian drug cartels, anyone? Mobs, mobsters, gangsters – these groups are known as “organized crime.” But what if your own government is something of an organized crime? Are you a villain or a hero when you rebel and take justice – or injustice – into your own hands?
Yes, these gangsters really are bad guys. Legendary mobsters are among the worst people imaginable. Still, did you ever watch a film like Bonnie and Clyde and root for the outlaws? Take a TV series like Dexter. Dexter is a forensic technician and a serial killer who hunts sadistic murderers. Is he good or bad? Sometimes, it’s not about who is bad, but who is worse. So, play along with us for a moment. As you read through the following list of criminal gangs and their eras, choose which you think is the best and most productive for organized criminal activity – and which you'd have most likely signed up for.
The Mafia In Prohibition America
When And Where: Organized crime groups increased during the early decades of the 20th century. Perhaps the most infamous was the group of Italian Americans who formed the Mafia, or the American Cosa Nostra. As was the case with other immigrants, Italians banded together to fight oppression and rise above poverty.
To do this expeditiously, their methods included selling stolen goods, extortion, prostitution, and other illegal activities. Mafia “families” were recognized and feared, but it wasn’t until the 1920s and Prohibition that they made their true mark.
Why It Was Great For Mobsters: The prohibition of alcohol provided the opportunity for profitable bootlegging, and many Mafia men became millionaires overnight. Although rival Italian crime families occasionally worked together in the production and distribution of alcohol during this nation-wide ban, it was common to resort to violence to vie for leadership in the lucrative alcohol trade.
The most infamous of these brutal showdowns occurred in Chicago on February 14, 1929. Members of Brooklyn-born Al Capone’s gang posed as policemen in what came to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Alphonse “Scarface” Capone’s Mafia family pulled machine guns from their jackets and gunned down seven rivals from the Moran crime family. This left Capone and his men free to live like kings and rule over the city, until he was arrested and convicted on charges of tax evasion in 1931.
The Commission - Mid 20th Century America
When And Where: The Castellammarese War (1930-1931) was a bloody and vicious struggle for control of the Italian-American Mafia. When it ended, Mafia families had strong incentives to establish a clear structure to prevent future clashes. Enter Charles “Lucky” Luciano who is considered the father of modern organized crime in the United States.
Luciano established a board of directors to be known as “The Commission” to oversee all Mafia activities and mediate disputes between families. The Commission consisted of seven family bosses: the leaders of New York’s Five Families, and the Chicago and Buffalo families.
Why It Was Great For Mobsters: Under the Commission, which is still reported to exist today, the Mafia expanded its reach to any business that can turn a profit. And, the profits were enormous. Today, that includes gun and drug trafficking, loan-sharking, sports gambling, health care fraud and cybercrime. After 9-11, law enforcement shifted its limited resources from organized crime to terrorism. Perhaps now is as good a time as any for productive and lucrative criminal activity?
Murder, prostitution, theft, and money laundering aside, you have to hand it to them for their nicknames. Here are just a few: Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo, and John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico. If you joined up, what would your handle be?
The Mafia In Sicily – The Early Years
When And Where: Despite what you might have heard, “Mafia” does not stand for the Mothers and Fathers Italian Association. The word is derived from the Sicilian for “boldness” or “bravado.” The Sicilian Mafia is also known as the Cosa Nostra (“our thing”). Rather than a single group, the Mafia is made up of individual groups from different towns in Sicily. Being a secret organization, made up solely of Sicilian men, its roots are sketchy.
The Mafia seems to have originated around 1860, when Sicily was annexed to Italy. Up until that time, Sicily had little organized government. This meant it was either every man for himself, or you formed groups to protect yourselves. After the annexation, large areas of public and church lands were distributed to the populace. As commerce grew, so did crime and the need for protection by the property owners. With the scarcity of law enforcement, hired protectors stepped in to do the job. Subsequently, they organized themselves into the first Mafia clans.
Why It Was Great For Mobsters: By 1900, the Mafia had gone from the protection racket to counterfeiting, kidnappings for ransom, murder, and robbery. Since the government and law enforcement was so ineffectual, it was a perfect time for criminals to thrive. The Mafia exerted its influence on easily bribed officials, thereby becoming some of the most powerful people in Italy. In just half a century a group of people had gone from poverty to great wealth.
The Yakuza - 20th Century Japan
When And Where: The Yakuza is the name given to transnational crime syndicates originating in Japan. Much like the American Mafia, the Yakuza is not a single organization but a collection of separate gangs or clans. These gangsters have infiltrated all walks of Japanese life, from the usual crimes of gambling and prostitution to high-level bank fraud and political intrigue. Still, it may surprise you to learn that the Yakuza have come to the country’s aid, such as when Japan was hit by an earthquake.
Yakuza originally referred to a person who was a gang member, but now also refers to Japanese organized crime as a whole. Although its roots may go back hundreds of years, the clans really began to organize by the end of the 19th century. Today there are an estimated 102,000 members, mostly divided among four major families.
Why It Was Great For Mobsters: The largest family is the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate. Its heavily tattooed members are among the world’s wealthiest gangsters. Every year they rake in billions of dollars from extortion, gambling, the sex industry, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, real estate, and construction kickback schemes. They are also involved in stock market manipulation and creating explicit internet content.
If you are wondering, the word “Yakuza” originates from the traditional Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu, in which the goal is to draw three cards that add up to a value of nine. The worst hand you can draw is ya, ku, and za – respectively eight, nine, and three in Japanese - which, according to how points are counted, adds up to zero. Thus, the name means “worthless” or “pointless.” Why? That’s anybody’s guess, but if you are into being filthy rich and have a weakness for full-body tats, you might want to check them out.