Mafia has a broader meaning than just the Italian-American gangs many people associate with the term. Some define it as a criminal group that uses the protection racket as its prime means of raising funds, others any gang that follows in the influential footsteps of the original Sicilian bad guys, mixing criminal activity and political influence through corruption, bribery and intimidation. A mafia will certainly be organized too, almost a shadow state with its codes of conduct, oaths and hierarchies.
It’s common now to hear of, say, the Russian Mafia, and many gangs are keen to use the name as a hat tip to the most influential organized criminals in history.
Here are 10 stories that might have you worrying about the ruthlessness and reach of these crooks, whatever their name might be.
1 – The gangster who was minced and eaten for lunch
The Serbian Mafia has a particularly fearsome reputation. This is partly because of their country’s bloody birth in the brutal wars that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart after the fall of Soviet communism and brought the horrors of ethnic-cleansing and even the specter of genocide back to the Europe.
Organized crime pre-dates the wars of course, but both the wars and the sanctions against Serbia provided a perfect backdrop for chaos, violence, the widespread availability of weapons, the spreading of corruption into official government channels and the rise of ultra-nationalism.
In 2003, the Serbian Mafia was worried about the reformist ambitions of the new head of state and assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić.
One of the men probably involved in that crime came to a nasty end himself. Milan Jurisic was killed in 2009. The execution itself wasn’t that gross – they smashed him up with a hammer – but then his killers minced up his body, ate it for lunch and made a mask out of the skin of his face.
The man who did it, Sretko Kalinic, has the appropriate nickname of “The Butcher” and his story seems to be true – police in Madrid are searching for what traces they can find.
Jurisic’s death – which took five days to clean up after – is probably down to that favorite mafia pastime, the bloody internal feud. He’s believed to have fallen out with Luka Bojovic, the leader of the Zemun Clan, possibly over a woman.
Mafia rule number one – keep your eye off the boss’s lady.
2 – The film critics
Joe “Pegleg” Morgan seems an unlikely name for a member – probable co-founder in fact – of a Latin American street gang, but Morgan was there at the birth of the Mexican Mafia, now one of California’s most powerful street and prison gangs.
By the time he was 17, Morgan had murdered his first man and established a pattern of offending and escaping from prison.
While they talk a lot about freedom, gangs are often at their most powerful in prisons and the Mexican Mafia was founded in a California correctional institution to protect themselves from other gangs. From that simple beginning La eMe as it is called in Spanish has grown to take on the traits of a proper mafia, organizing protection, drug running and killing and is a sort of umbrella organization for many Hispanic street gangs in the US.
Morgan’s drug connections helped turn the gang into major narcotics smugglers.
The Mexican Mafia do all the sorts of things you’d expect of a big drugs gang, including killing anyone who gets in their way. That has included some pretty direct film criticism. In 1992, a film called American Me took the story of the gang as its foundation. The director had tried to see Morgan to get his blessing and input, but Morgan gave him short shrift and even launched a lawsuit against a film he claimed was inaccurate. But legal redress or boycotts aren’t enough when a gang disapproves of a piece of cinema – nope, at least two killings have been put down to this artistic displeasure, the victims gang members who did offer advice to the film makers.
Rule two of mafia life – get clearance for outside work.
3 – Hacked to death on his way from hospital
I suppose Mouse Shing was at least close to possible medical assistance when he was attached with axes and meat cleavers outside a Hong Kong hospital in 2013. He had been visiting doctors to get treatment from a previous attack.
His killers seemed to have little fear of arrest or interference, attacking in broad daylight in front of horrified on-lookers, one of whom said, “His belly was open and his intestines were just hanging out.”
Because of the differences in culture, Triad gangs have attracted all sorts of myths and mystiques in the west, not all of which stand up to much scrutiny.
However, they do have roots stretching back to the 17th century, when secret societies sprang out of the persecution of Shaolin Monks. The triangle badge arrived in the 18th century when the Triad’s chief aim was political – they wanted to restore the Ming rulers to China.
The gangs spread with Chinese emigration, massively increased by the upheavals of the revolution, and are now particularly strong in Hong Kong, where many fled after the communist takeover. In the 1950s there were thought to be up to 300,000 members in the territory. Now most of the attention focuses on nine powerful triad gangs, who are involved in smuggling, counterfeiting, prostitution, drugs and so on.
Mouse Shing was a leader in Wo Shing Wo, one of these nine gangs and police thing he’s another victim of inter-gang feuding. Unlike many mafias, the triad are a relatively loose grouping of largely independent organizations.
As well as losing a high level boss, Wo Shing Wo has been under attack from Hong Kong police. Eight of its members were recently arrested, including one 13-year-old, showing the gang’s reach into all areas of Hong Kong society.
4 – The mafia with a state behind it and subs to sell
The Russian Mafia particularly scares law enforcement people. American experts reckon that the Soviet Union pulled a trick on them and when they were supposed to be allowing out dissidents during a 1970s warming in relations they instead took the chance to export some of their worst criminals.
The Russian Mafia are supposed to be more ruthless and violent (often in the words of people who want to sell books about them) than other organized crime groups. However, it is true to say that the fall of communism in their home land put them in a great position to exploit a state that was falling apart.
One of the most famous Russian Mafia crimes was the attempted sale of a complete Russian navy submarine to Colombian drug runners. Fortunately the FBI were onto it and the cartel didn’t get their perfect smuggling machine.
Ludwig Fainberg tried to sell the sub, complete with crew and captain, for $35 million from his strip club in Miami. That sale got shelved by the feds, but he’d already shipped six military helicopters to the biggest of the South American drug smugglers.
Armed to the teeth to face its Cold War enemies, Russia after the collapse of communism became something of an arms market, packed with hard-up military men with access to the very best weapons that money could buy. Many of them sold them – by 1995, the DEA said it had spotted 47 Soviet and Soviet ally aircraft in the possession of Colombian narco lords.
Vladimir Putin is a very mixed blessing to outside observers, but one of the reasons he became so popular in his home country was that he promised to crack down on crime. It’s needed, the sub Ludwig was trying to sell was due to come from an admiral who was quite happy to show the buyers round his base to take their pick.
5 – Heads outside a School
The Mexican drug cartels could fill this list on their own. As usual with gangs, there may be a lot of talk about honor and courage, but at the end of the day it’s about money, the money that can be earned by smuggling drugs across the Mexican/American border.
They kill when they feel like it – policemen, politicians, journalists, other drug cartel guys, their own drug cartel guys – and since 2006 the conflict between the state and the cartels has been classified as a war with a death toll of between 60,000 and 100,000.
Drug cartels like to send a message and they’re particularly fond of cutting people’s heads off. In 2011, as the army continued to crack down, the cartels were feeling the pressure and diversifying into extortion. In Acapulco, that meant a demand that teachers – some of the country’s best and most regularly paid people – should all hand over 50% of what they earned to a cartel.
In order to make their point, five male heads were delivered to an elementary school in Acapulco in September 2011 along with a note on how to avoid more of the same. Local teachers went on strike in fear for their safety and in support of better security for them and their pupils.
6 – The Real Italian Mafia who never Break Their Code of Silence
The Sicilian “Cosa Nostra” Mafia may get the publicity and the films, but the Ndrangheta of Calabria is now getting the money, estimated to be around 3% of Italy’s entire GDP by one American diplomat.
Calabria is rural and old-fashioned. In fact, it’s very like Sicily and has the perfect habitat for a strong underground criminal organization to flourish.
Until the 1970s they remained a local phenomenon. Then an inter-clan civil war killing around 300 people got the rest of the country’s attention. In the 1990s they got into the international drugs trade, which is still the source of most of their cash. In 2012, a whole city government was dissolved to get it out of the hands of the crooks.
The good news is they’ve now linked up with Los Zetas, a particularly nasty Mexican drug cartel and have really started to go international. One particular rumor has them buying a whole Brussels neighborhood and the Duisburg Massacre which left six dead in a German shootout introduced them to the headlines.
While the Mafia was built on its code of silence – Omerta – in fact the Italian and American governments have been fairly successful in getting mobsters to speak up. Almost all the big arrests and prosecutions are based on someone turning against their bosses.
This problem has yet to hit the Ndrangheta who keep things extra tight by only recruiting relatives and cementing relationships with intermarriage. While around 1,000 Italian Mafiosi had informed before 2006, with double that number from the Camorra, only 42 Ndrangheta had turned on their colleagues. So tightly are they integrated into Calabria – the “toe” of the Italian boot – that according to a WikiLeaks cable, the Americans considered the region a “failed state” kept alive only by its links to Italy.
7 – The Worst of the Yakuza
Japan is a very different society from, well, anywhere else. Its gangsters are a bit different too. Yakuza gangs helped out after the tsunami in 2011 and one even published their own magazine. They work in the usual areas that organized criminals exploit – drugs, guns, protection – but in a particularly Japanese way.
The Kudo-kai are something of an exception and are marked as such by the Japanese police, who have tried to have anti-gang laws altered to take account of this particularly unpleasant and violent bunch.
While many Yakuza groups keep things in house when it comes to violence, the Kudo-kai are noted for attaching civilians, including politicians and business leaders. They tend to use hand grenades or Molotov cocktails. When power companies were in their sites they went to the homes of the leaders of the local electricity and gas companies and bombed them. Shinzo Abe – who was to become prime minister of his country – was also attacked with bombs and guns. When the local TV station reported on the attacks on the gas company they were told they were next.
A local campaigner – perhaps thinking that the Kudo-kai had made the change that most Yakuza had and were only interested in symbolic violence to property – helped organize demonstrations against the group. He was shot and the campaign office bombed.
Witnesses in trials against them tend to change their testimony and only one of the Kudo-kai (the guy who tried to burn down the future PM’s house) has been punished. And gang that has the police wanting to change the law must be doing something very right, or very wrong.
8 – The Highest Murder Rate in Europe
Where would you go to look for the continent’s most deadly location? Surely not the holiday paradise of Corsica, a beautiful island run by one of the oldest and most peaceful states in the world, France. Well, yes, and it’s all down to the organized criminals who continue to feud like nowhere else on earth.
With a population of just 300,000 Corsica saw 39 murders in the year from November 2011. By May 2013 there had been 11 more. Most of this is down to feuding mafia gangs. Vendetta is something of a way of life in Corsica – any biography of the island’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, will mention his own feuds – and has reared its ugly head again.
In 2013, the gangs are doing what they’ve always done, trying to gain control of lucrative money laundering and protection schemes. Corsica’s also a beautiful island that’s ripe for more building, bringing a whole new industry to corrupt and extort. Even politics can get violent, with a movement that would like to see the island made independent of France also involved in violence and organized crime – most of the killings in 2012-13 were of separatist-linked figures.
Since 2007, more than 100 people have been murdered on Corsica as gangs feud.
9 – The Mobsters with Ties to Al Qaeda
The Albanian Mafia seem to inspire fear and hatred in everyone who encounters them, and that includes other mafias who don’t like dealing with the guys from one of Europe’s most backward and isolated countries because they’re too violent and too unpredictable.
Like many of our mafias, they are the product of a chaotic, even broken state. Albania was more isolated than any other communist country in Europe and when it came to an end it came to a bad end with economic collapse, abandoned military weapons and so on.
Albanians are thought to be massively involved in people smuggling, drug running, sex slavery and pretty much every other area that organized crime loves.
The Kosovo chapter of the Albanian Mafia are said by Interpol to run the heroin markets in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Norway. Italian mobsters are said to hate dealing with them, saying “there’s no talking to them” and suggesting a bullet straight away.
Some law enforcement officials think of them as being like the Italian mafia in its early days, before it became more business-like. The New York Gambino Family used to hire Albanians to do their killing for them. When they arrived in Italy, local justice officials were amazed that Albanian criminals were prepared to take on the local mafia, and have even taken prostitution out of the hands of the Ndrangheta in some parts of the country.
Many Albanians are Muslims and some are thought to have sympathies and links to Al Qaeda. The FBI says that Albanian Mafia groups help finance terrorist. A Director of the House Task Force on Terrorism says they support terrorism. The Kosovo Liberation Army has been targeted as a recruiting ground by Al Qaeda and more militant forms of Islam are moving into the country.
10 – Still Slaying, the Original Mafia Carries On
Some of these posts might make you think that the original Mafia are now all growing fat behind beautiful desks. There’s a certain truth to that. The Mafia was an outlet for those who couldn’t make it in society and going legitimate is simply the sensible thing to do – why risk arrest or killing if you don’t have to.
The Mafia still kill though, still run illegal businesses and get the guns out when it’s called for. In 2013, the Canadian city of Montreal was the scene of feuding that spread to Mexico and back to Italy as power passed from one family to another.
The Rizzutos had been running organized crime in the city for decades. They took their power violently and they’re losing it the same way.
Vito Rizzuto ran the family, but was convicted of killings in America in 2007 and sent to prison. Once he came out in 2012 he returned to his home base where nine murders thought to be related to mob feuds were carried out by the end of 2013. The two events are not unconnected.
Rizzuto is considered to be a “peacemaker”.
Vitto died last year and since he did his family has been dropping dead too. His son, brother in law and father have all been killed. Twenty people have died in the feud so far – some in Sicily, one in Acapulco.
When the Rizzutos took over in Montreal they ousted a Calabrian faction, it could be that the Ndrangheta are trying to take their city back.