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Mafia decline robs police of glory

February 12, 2008

By Guy Dinmore and Daniel Pimlott
Published: February 12 2008

Cosa Nostra from Sicily and their New York cousins in organised crime were seriously hit by combined US-Italian police operations last week. But analysts and insiders questioned whether the media had themselves been the victims of an overhyped blitz.

In Rome, police officials and prosecutors from both sides of the Atlantic staged a well-rehearsed press conference close to Thursday evening deadlines. Comparisons were made with the two big transatlantic anti-Mafia operations of the 1980s, Pizza Connection and Iron Tower.

A simultaneous, but more low-tech, news conference was held in New York where state and federal indictments were levelled against 87 people, largely aimed at the Gambino mob. Charges included seven murders, of which three dated back more than 25 years, as well as racketeering, construction extortion and state gambling charges. “Unprecedented” was how John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, and Benton J. Campbell, the prosecuting attorney, described the busts.

But Mafia experts said that given the decline of Cosa Nostra over the years both in Sicily and in New York, and the parallel rise of far more powerful organised criminal gangs from Russia, China and eastern Europe, the importance of the arrests was overplayed. One expert, who declined to be named, said Italian and US police were under pressure to justify their transatlantic co-operation programmes against Cosa Nostra.

“The imminence of an election in Italy always makes me suspicious,” commented Vittorio Zucconi, who writes for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper. However, Francesco Grattieri, the senior police official who led the Rome press conference, strongly denied suggestions of hype.

Francesco Messineo, prosecutor for Sicily’s regional capital, Palermo, said the “important” operation had broken an attempt by “exiled” Mafia leaders in the US to return to Italy to fill a power vacuum left by internal wars and police operations. But Mr Messineo also agreed that the operations of the 1980s were far more important.

Analysts said the Gambino prosecution in New York emphasises the continued reliance of the Italian Mafia in the US on its traditional crime networks: the construction industry, unions and illegal gambling.

However, other prominent crime organisations in the US have emerged in recent years to rival or even exceed the importance of Italian organised crime. The Latin Kings, the Bloods and the Crips, which started out as local street gangs on the west coast and the Midwest, have assumed an important role in national US drugs trafficking, according to the US Department of Justice. Meanwhile Russian mobsters are involved in arms trafficking and cyber-crime.

“The Russian mafia are the most feared group,” said Paulo Alteri, a criminal justice professor at Jefferson Community College in New York. He said the very size of the prosecution was a sign of the weakening of the Italian Mafia in the US. “A hit like this would never have gone down 50 years ago.”

Such was the publicity given in Rome to the arrests that the unrelated capture in Naples of suspected Camorra crime boss Vincenzo Licciardi went almost unnoticed. Mr Licciardi was on the top 30 wanted list and his arrest was more significant, a police insider said.

But there were signs in the New York indictment that the Italian Mafia still hold sway in major public projects and were branching out into in new avenues of income. Among those charged was Anthony Delvescovo, director of tunnel operations and project manager for Schiavone Construction Company, who was accused of extorting money from one of the prosecution’s key informants.

Last year Schiavone Construction was one of three contractors that jointly entered the only bid for a $1.15bn (€793m, £590m) project to build the No 7 Subway extension on Manhattan’s west side for the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Earlier in the year Schiavone had won a $337m contract to help build the tunnel for the 2nd Avenue Subway extension.

These successes came even as Schiavone Construction, as part of a joint venture, is involved in contracts worth $1.3bn to build tunnels for the New York Department of Environmental Protection and after a $261m project to build a Subway station for New York City transit in 2005.

“The department of investigations has advised us that there is no reason to terminate the contracts as things stand,” said an environment department spokesman.

The company refused to comment.

In a separate indictment the Gambino family was also linked to an illegal gambling business, partly operated over the internet out of Costa Rica, that netted nearly $10m in wagers over 2 years.

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