7. The Mafia Was Always Heavily Involved in Drug Trafficking
There is a widespread notion, popularized by movies and works of fiction, to the effect that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics. It is often asserted that the mafia had a long-standing prohibition against drug trafficking – either because of morality or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is bunk. The notion that the mafia stayed away from drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather. Dealing with drugs has always been one of the mob’s biggest moneymakers.
The mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, pioneering Mafioso Lucky Luciano became America’s – and one of the world’s – biggest narcotics kingpins. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine supplanted heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top billing as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
6. Carmine “The Cigar” Galante, a Major Mob Drug Trafficker
Bonanno crime family boss Carmine “The Cigar” Galante (1910 – 1979) earned his nickname because he was seldom seen without a cigar. Diagnosed as a psychopath by prison psychiatrists while incarcerated in the 1930s, Galante had formed a juvenile street gang in the Lower East Side in his early teens, and became a leading mob enforcer by the time he was twenty. He had a cold dead-eyed stare that scared both gangsters and cops, and by 1940, the NYPD suspected him of involvement in over eighty murders.
As seen above, the mafia was the main importer of narcotics into the US until the rise of the South American cartels. By the 1950s, Galante was a major drug trafficker, which earned him a twenty-year sentence in 1962. Released in the mid-1970s, he rose to de facto command of the Bonanno family, but his psychopathic ways alienated everybody. On July 12th, 1979, while having an open patio lunch in a Bushwick restaurant, three hitmen, wearing ski masks, walked up to the patio and opened fire with shotguns and pistols, offing Galante and two underlings. He passed with a cigar in his mouth.
From the early 1930s to early 1940s, the Italian-American mafia’s oversight board, The Commission, kept a coalition of Italian and Jewish gangsters as retained contract killers. Dubbed “Murder Incorporated” or “Murder Inc.”, the hitmen were the mob leadership’s on-call execution squad. During its existence, Murder Inc. enforced The Commission’s will and regulated the underworld by taking out the troublesome, which made them the mob’s literal troubleshooters. Murder Inc. was formed in the early 1930s, after a period of chaotic gang warfare that had greatly disrupted mafia activity.
When the dust settled, the Italian-American mafia was reorganized into a more streamlined structure. The goal was to enable the mafia to pursue its illicit activities in a business-like manner, with as few disruptions as possible. That was accomplished by setting up what came to be known as “The Commission” – a collective leadership council, akin to a board of directors – to oversee broad strategy and settle disputes. Murder Inc. was the muscle that did the actual dispute settling.
Murder Inc. was the brainchild of Jewish-American labor racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. It was a streamlined contract killing system, intended to isolate mafia members from any connection with the necessary murders that went with their line of business. Murder Inc. operated out of a 24-hour Brownsville coffee shop called Midnight Rose. There, the killers whiled away the time, ready at a moment’s notice to go out on a job once word came down. After it was founded in the early 1930s, Murder Inc. was initially led by its creator, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, until he was arrested in 1936.
The execution squad was then taken over by the colorful Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, also known as the “Lord High Executioner”. Much of Murder Incorporated’s work took place in and around New York City, but the retained killers’ reach was nationwide, and they carried out hits as far away as Detroit, southern Florida, and Los Angeles. The organization existed for barely a decade, from its founding in the early 1930s to its exposure in 1940. In that relatively brief period, the Murder Incorporated’s hitmen carried out an estimated 1000 contract killings.
3. When the Mob’s Streamlined Murder Machine Began to Come Apart
Murder Inc. began to unravel in 1940 when Harry Rudolph, a career criminal and police informant, was held as a material witness in a 1933 murder of a minor teenaged gangster. Rudolph implicated three Murder Inc. hitmen, and one of the trio, Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles, was flipped by the authorities. He agreed to testify against his colleagues in over 200 murders. Until then, the authorities had been unaware of the mob’s streamlined contract murder system, let alone its scope and extent.
Abe Reles’ flipping was thus the moment when the smelly stuff hit the proverbial fan. Worse, for Murder Incorporated’s leaders and contract killers, Abe Reles turned out to be some kind of savant, with a freakish photographic memory of nearly every moment of his entire life. As applied to Murder, Inc., it meant that Reles could provide detailed testimony of every murder he had been involved in or heard of. That included dates, participants, where the killings had occurred, and how they had been carried out.
Omerta, the mob’s code of silence, was always a myth. Once Abe Reles began to sing, other Murder Inc. killers saw the wisdom of cutting a deal with the authorities. Eventually, four other hitmen turned state’s evidence, and joined Reles to testify against their former colleagues. The first trials began in May of 1940, and with the testimony of Reles and the other canaries singing, the convictions came in quick succession. They included the conviction and condemnation of Louis Buchalter, Murder Incorporated’s founder, his chief lieutenants, and other hitmen. Within a few years, Murder Inc. had vanished, with most of its members executed or imprisoned.
Reles and the other hitmen who had turned state’s evidence were stashed by the authorities in a secure location, the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Early in the morning of November 12th, 1941, shortly before he was to testify against Murder Incorporated’s second leader, Albert Anastasia, Reles fell to his demise out the window of his sixth-floor hotel room. Police explained it as an accidental death. However, the circumstances were such that it was clear that the mob had gotten to Reles’ police bodyguards, and that one or more of them had pushed him out. As one mobster put it: “The canary could sing, but he couldn’t fly“.
Mafia boss Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano (1915 – 1985) was head of NYC’s Gambino crime family from 1976 until his passing. The son of a mobster in the Mangano family – forerunner of the Gambinos – who ran a numbers game, Castellano dropped out of school in eighth grade to become a hoodlum. By the 1950s, he had risen to become a capo. Although up to his neck in mob rackets, Castellano acted as if he was a legitimate businessman – an affectation that annoyed many of his hoodlum underlings, who had no delusions about their careers.
The disgruntled underlings of the Gambino boss included an ambitious capo named John Gotti. When Castellano failed to attend a prominent subordinate’s funeral in 1985, it offended many Gambinos, and disgruntlement soon grew into rebellion. On December 16th, Gotti organized a hit squad that waited for Castellano’s outside one of his favorite restaurants, Sparks Steak House, in midtown Manhattan. As Castellano exited his car, Gotti watched from across the street as the hitmen rushed the mob boss, and gunned him down.