Small Wars Journal

The War on Crime: A Historical Comparative Analysis of Italy and New York

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 1:23am

The War on Crime: A Historical Comparative Analysis of Italy and New York

Christopher Cedros

Different regions have different approaches to organized crime in society. Though crime can never fully be erased, some societies and governmental organizations have a history of embracing it, while others combat its existence. This, in large part, is due to creation of the state and its relation to organized crime syndicates. This dichotomy is fully represented when examining the case studies of the Italian state and New York. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both territories have had certain economic, political, and/or social factors influence the creation of gangs. Though both regions have a history that influenced organized crime creation, both has very different histories on organized crime’s enduring legacy.

This paper was broken into two sections. First, it will discuss the evolution of organized crime in the state of Italy, with emphasis on the differences between North and South Italy in early nineteenth century prior to state unification. It will also focus on the history of the Italian government’s inability to create social and political institutions to eliminate these crime syndicates, and ensured their lasting presence within Italian society. Second, it will discuss the evolution of organized crime in the state of New York, with emphasis on several iterations of organized crime throughout the 19th and 20th century, and the varying degree of cooperation among elites that ultimately did not ensure a lasting legacy in state and federal government to the extreme of the Italian state.

The Evolution of Italian Organized Crime

For Italy, several conditions favored the development of the mafia in the first half of the nineteenth century. This process begins with the general differences between the areas of Northern and Southern Italy prior to the unification of the nation-state. The northern part of the Italian region encompassed areas like Florence, Venice and Genoa that benefited from Mediterranean trade and marketing for hundreds of years. As such, this trade in the northern territories catalyzes the development of industrialization, economic dynamism, and engages them in contemporary political affairs of interstate politics.

The southern territories of Italy, unlike their neighbors in the north, were peasant farmer based and feudal and aristocratic in nature. The South also did not enjoy the economic and cultural trade and evolution compared to the northern Italians. As such, the southern territories were viewed by their northern counterparts as primitive cousins to the northern Italians. This provides an economic and social divide between the two regions prior to the unification of the nation-state.

In an effort to keep up with the development of northern Italy, the Sicilian Parliament in 1812 abolished its feudal system—a system that structured society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labor—in favor of the Bourbon Rule.[i] The Bourbon Rule was a model of census monarchy and a system in which political rights were based on income taxes paid. After the disintegration of the feudal system, conflicts emerged from new struggles in relationships.  Immediately a change occurred in social classes and the fledgling state failed to guide the new social process.  Through this structural change in identities, social and juridical hierarchies were redefined, “the political struggle and social tensions resulting from this embryonic process of modernization were not resolved by the political dialectic or market forces but rather outside the framework of legality.”[ii]

The Italian state failed to create a social institution for the interaction of its people.  In addition, the state failed to create proper political institutions by not acquiring a monopoly of force. In place of government hierarchy, violent networks formed to maintain discipline among peasants, known as Costra Nostra or Mafioso.[iii] Often patriarchal and familiar in nature, these “violent entrepreneurs” used forcefulness to mediate over control of land, peasantry, and trade. They also established protective agreements with higher public authorities in government to guarantee impunity.[iv] When the Italian state failed to establish a system in the south that guaranteed the security of its citizens, rules of free trade, and a monopoly of force, these functions were carried out by violent networks in its place.[v]

According to Charles Tilly, there are four processes organized crime syndicates use during the formation of a state: the use violence, war making, state making, protection, and extraction.[vi] During the state unification of Italy, La Costra Nostra exploited three of Tilly’s tasks: state making, protection, and extraction through violence.  The Costra Nostra performed the first task, state making, with the elimination of any group within their own territory that did not allow the Costra Nostra to pursue their own economic activities.[vii] Since the Mafiosi were already among the Sicilian elite, this opened doors for them to profit with the unified northern Italian elite. An example of the second task, protection, can be found with the murder of the garibaldino Giovanni Corrao.  This murder proved that political factions used the violence of a Mafioso type group to eliminate their political opponent.[viii]  The third task of extraction is discerned by the monopoly of force that the Costra Nostra possessed in the region when the process of state unification began between the north and the south.

This hand-in-hand profiting of mafia violence between the land stewards and government representatives of the Italian state helped solidify them within the Italian political system. Although the Mafiosi were ensconced in the Sicilian elite prior to state unification, their capacity to cooperate and endure with different and emerging elite groups cemented them within the developing Italian government.[ix] This cooperative system between organized crime syndicates and the Italian government would remain in place through to the end of World War I.

The Mafioso saw a brief dip in power after World War I with the interwar period and the political break from the Old Italian form of government with the rise of Fascism and its authoritarian leader, Benito Mussolini. His dictatorial approach led to a massive crackdown of the mafisio and the Costra Nostra throughout the nation-state: “In Italy, Benito Mussolini engaged in systematic attempts to destroy the Mafia through imprisonment and deportation of its members.”[x] Despite this fascist repression, the Mafioso endured in a weaker form within the state through Mussolini reign.

Similar to Italy’s unification in 1861, the post-World War II period was characterized with a weak Italian state and political system. After the end of World War II and the fall of Italian fascism, the new Italian Republic government strengthened its associations with the Mafioso. This connection during this timeframe between the two organizations was an extension of the nation’s past, creating a system of government in place similar to what it once was prior to becoming a fascist regime.[xi] The post-World War II economic factor producing a boom of urbanization became the catalyst to empower the mafia, as they connected with the construction industry.[xii] This return of an alliance between the mafia and local and national governments conditioned an economic and social development together.[xiii]

A combination of historical influences that organized crime syndicates have within the Italian government has created a lasting legacy. The evolution of Italy “shows a clear continuity in the development of the mafia phenomenon rather than dichotomies or abrupt changes.”[xiv] The ongoing presence of organized crime in the Italian state is predicated on the recurring features violent modernization alongside politics and economy.

The Evolution of New York Organized Crime

Within the city of New York, several factors led to the creation of organized crime. New York City, with its rising immigration rates during the 19th century, failed to create institutions for its social evolution. One of the most prevalent groups of people that immigrated to New York during that time period was the Irish. The Irish culture was known for its ability to create alliances, agreements, and treaties without a formal conference because of their hospitality and openhandedness.  This caused the Irish to join two groups, street gangs and saloons. Howard Abadinsky writes in his book, Organized Crime, that “throughout much of urban America, the saloon was a center of neighborhood activity, an important social base for political activity, and saloon keepers became political powers in many cities.”[xv] Saloons provided functions for newly arrived immigrants ranging from mail services to public toilets to room for celebration and unwinding from a long day’s work. In regards to street gangs, they became an institution that served immediate needs for newly arrived immigrants. These gangs would provide shelter to those fresh from the boat. Because immigrant’s social needs were not enforced by state or local government institutions, this created the opportunity for other groups to fill that void and meet the needs of the influx of immigrants in New York City.

Another factor that led to the preponderance of organized crime in New York City was the cities inability to provide a voice for the rising immigration population politically. At the time in the nineteenth century, New York party politics main venue was critical to local identity politics. These Irish street gangs that assisted the newly arrived downtrodden immigrant masses socially would evolve to also take an interest in New York politics. In Peter Lupsha’s work, “Organized Crime in the United States,” street gangs would become the recruiting grounds for the machine politics of Tammany Hall.[xvi] Tammany Hall rose to prominence through its member’s ability to meet the needs of the people from connections with state run organizations like the police force, service workers, and its ability to provide up to 40,000 municipal jobs for newly arrived immigrants.[xvii] These services would in turn cost the immigrants electoral support. These “Machine Politics” become something immigrants would learn to support as they were comprised of the Irish characteristics that favored trust within communities.[xviii] If votes were not guaranteed, street gangs would use force to persuade votes: “Tammany’s supremacy at the polls in New York City over the next several decades was in part accomplished by the use of street gangs.”[xix] One of the more infamous of the Tammany gangs was the Five Points, which estimated 1,200 members.

When examining Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” New York crime syndicates exerted two of the four violent tasks: protection and extraction. It is also worth noting that these were not exploited during the formation of the state like in Italy, but during a period of industrialization and a flux in immigration. Tammany Hall used street gangs for protection of the rising immigration population in order to eliminate the opposition politically. Concerning extraction, Tammany Hall used the street gangs for intimidation and to help persuade voters.  

Unlike in Italy, where organized crime endured throughout that nation’s history, New York’s organized crime syndicates power fluxed. Abadinsky espouses that, “In cities dominated by machine politics, a pattern of corruption-reform-corruption-reform was often interspersed with investigations and widely publicized hearings.”[xx] Reformers who combated organized crime syndicates in New York were either business leaders that served their self-interest or nativists that used extreme religious prejudice.[xxi] As an unintended consequence, nativists’ interests would see a rise in organized crime syndicates power in New York.

During the twentieth century, the political act that set in motion the rise and return of organized crime syndicates to power was the Prohibition of liquor. This political reform started with the Mann Act in 1910 that made it a crime to transport sex slaves, and continued with the Harrison Act in 1914 restricting the sale of narcotics, and came to the fore with the Volstead Act bringing about Prohibition. Before Prohibition, organized crime syndicates were at the bottom of the stratified social networks of New York: “Until Prohibition, gangsters were merely errand boys for the politicians.”[xxii] Lupsha explains in his work “Organized Crime in the United States”:

Prohibition opened the door of opportunity for many young street gangs members (many of whom were born or came to the United States as small children), and when they eventually assumed their roles of leadership in organized crime, they were equipped with American values and attitudes.[xxiii]

This political evolution of the state would see men like Frank Costello and Charles “Lucky” Luciano mature through Prohibition into long term leadership in organized crime in New York.[xxiv]

It was not until Prohibition and post-World War II era that the federal government realized they had a problem with crime within the states. A Senator from Tennessesee, Estes Kefauver, was one of the first persons to recognize organized crime. He helped pass legislation to create the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.[xxv]  At this point, organized crime had grown much larger than the small street gangs and political machines; it was a huge organization that had ties all over the United States. The committee helped document widespread corruption at the local and state level of government, as well as tie organized crime and the mafia inextricably, “In this era of McCarthyism, the search for alien conspiracies proved to be good politics.”[xxvi]

Another program that helped combat organized crime in New York and the greater United States was the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The Democratic Party and President Lyndon Johnson, being looked at as “soft on crime,” launched a war on crime. Johnson sought to continue what the Kefauver Committee began and created a commission for the prevention and control of crime.[xxvii] From this point onward in American history, the presidency has kept a keen interest in the elimination of organized crime syndicates. It was further perpetuated by Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs. Nixon sought to deprived organized crime syndicates from their sources of income. The Reagan administration established Executive Order 12435, creating the Presidents Commission on Organized Crime, which advised the president on how to improve law enforcement directed against organized crime, as well as legislative and administrative improvements.[xxviii]

This federal oversight has made organized crime less powerful in New York’s history. However, organized crime in New York remains unique compared to the rest of the United States, as it is the only city in the United States with numerous traditional crime families operating. Though organized crime has waxed and waned through the nineteenth and twentieth century in New York, with various families and alliances achieving varying degrees of power, all that seems certain for the city is that the activity of organized crime groups and their entrepreneurs will continue.[xxix]


Italy and New York both played instrumental roles in the history of organized crime. Both had moments throughout their history where economic, political, and social factors influenced the necessity for crime syndicates to rise up and meet the needs of the regions people. Today, both are still dealing with organized crime in some form or fashion. It is the degree of influence exerted in the region and the lasting legacy of organized crime that differs between both regions. While New York crime syndicates have played a visible role in U.S. history, they had a limited role in the making of the state. On the other hand, organized crime syndicates played a critical role in the creation of Italian state unification. As such, crime in New York has waxed and waned and never seen the degree of control Italian organized crime has had throughout most of the nation-states history.

End Notes

[i]Gianluca Fulvetti, “The Mafia and the ‘Problem of the Mafis’: Organised Crime in Italy, 1820-1970,” in Organised Crime in Europe, ed. Dr. Cyrille Fijnaut and Dr. Letizia Paoli, Studies of Organized Crime 4 (Springer Netherlands, 2004), 10.   

[ii]Ibid., 10.   

[iii]Ibid., 13.

[iv]Ibid., 11.  

[v]Alison Jamieson, “Mafia and Political Power 1943-1989,” International Relations 10, no. 1 (May 1, 1990): 22, DOI: 10.1177/004711789001000102.   

[vi]Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 181.  

[vii]Fulvetti, “The Mafia and the ‘Problem of the Mafia,’”13.

[viii]Ibid., 15.

[ix]Tilly, “Organized Crime,” 181.

[x]Arthur J Lurigio and John J. Binder, “The Chicago Outfit: Challenging the Myths About Organized Crime,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, SAGE Publications 29(2) 198-218, 201, DOI: 10.1177/1043986213485656.

[xi] Fulvetti, “The Mafia and the ‘Problem of the Mafia,’” 22.

[xii]E.U. Savona, “Italian Mafias’ Asymmetries,” in Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World: Responses to Socioeconomic Change, ed. Dina Siegel and Henk van de Bunt, (Springer Publishers, 2012), 5.

[xiii] Ibid., 5.

[xiv] Fulvetti, “The Mafia and the ‘Problem of the Mafia,’”  1.

[xv]Howard Agadinsky, Organized Crime, 7th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2002), 59.

[xvi]Peter A. Lupsha, “Organized Crime in the United States,” in Organized Crime: A Global Perspective, ed. Robert Kelly, (Totowa: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1986), 42.

[xvii]Abadinsky, Organized Crime, 57.

[xviii]Ibid., 60. 

[xix]Lupsha, “Organized Crime in the United States,” 43. 

[xx]Abadinsky, Organized Crime, 63.

[xxi]Ibid., 64. 

[xxii]Ibid., 67.

[xxiii]Lupsha, “Organized Crime in the United States,” 46.  

[xxiv]Abadinsky, Organized Crime, 47.

[xxv]Ibid., 69.

[xxvi]Ibid., 70.

[xxvii]Ibid., 71. 

[xxviii]Abadinsky, Organized Crime, 72-3. 

[xxix]Lupsha, “Organized Crime in the United States,” 46.  


About the Author(s)

Christopher Cedros is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. His tours include serving as Communications and Ordnance Officer aboard USS Klakring (FFG-42) and Damage Control Assistant aboard USS Farragut (DDG-99). Christopher has deployed operationally for United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), United States Central Command (CENTCOM), United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), and United States European Command (EUCOM). These views do not reflect the opinions of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Navy and are solely his own.


Organized crime in the USA has been glorified enough by Hollywood and Las Vegas.
But the federal government was not prompted to take strong action, as I recall, until questionable actions by the Kennedy's who also owed their fortunes to bootlegging, popular myth, were characterized as crossing swords with organized crime. Organized crime also infiltrated unions at their apogee and began a series of attacks not unlike those taking place at Berkely today, fire bombing and otherwise assaulting owners of legitimate business all the way up the chain to national food chains, in attempts to extort money. This created an unspecified effect increasing the burden of consumer costs, and reached such proportions as to notably affect inflation.
It isn't that any proof of Kennedy's assassination was attributable to the mafia but the fact Oswald was in turn assassinated by a known made hood that still excites interest in the mafia's influence in American history that fascinates some people today.
My personal experiences with the mafia in NYC and the metro area was introduced when having my garbage picked up by a known, through his own bragging he was "connected", mafia associate who acquired the route after the former legitimate owner had his trucks fire bombed numerous times, workers threatened and finally his grandmother cut down by a shotgun blast when she answered her door.
I have known murderers, heard them once plotting premeditated murder in a Greek restaurant openly, the DA would not accept my testimony claimed they had already worked out a deal and I would only put myself in danger. And I worked a brief time with law enforcement tasked with a mission directly involving the mob in drugs.
The Godfather is perhaps one of the biggest constipated myths in Hollywood's corrupt history and for me totally unwatchable. Trying to make thugs out to be good "family" men takes a lot for granted.
Same Same the very idea Las Vegas is the mobs greatest invention a gambling, whoring meccca that represents the absolute worse in American values.
The one thing I learned is the law abiding folks who are most likely to be intimidated by these thugs are the most likely to become "liberals".