The Mafia and Drugs

There is evidence that some Mafia dons were unwilling to let their soldiers dabble in narcotics. Paul Castellano barred the Gambinos from dealing, though that did not stop John Gotti and his crew from trafficking in heroin. Buffalo don Stefano Magaddino wanted to give his soldiers a bigger cut of the profit to steer clear of drugs. But the allure of easy, and big, money was too much to avoid.

The Chinese Connection

Prior to the Mafia's entrance into the drug business, most of the heroin consumed by America's addicts came from China. A smaller supply came from the Middle East and the Corsican gangs in Marseilles, who would ultimately team up with the Mafia. During World War II this whole network was nearly broken by the fortunes of war. The fighting on land and sea in and around Europe and North Africa and Japan's invasion of China effectively dismantled the source of the heroin's manufacture and the trade routes over which the drug was shipped. Since the supply was not there, the demand diminished in the United States. Then the United States intelligence community made it possible for the Mafia to become extremely wealthy drug kingpins and flood the land with the addictive poison.

Just as the Sicilian Mafia had problems when the fascist government of Mussolini came to power, so too did Chinese organized crime fail after the Chinese communist revolution of 1949. The peasant class suffered either way, whether it was from the menace of the criminals or the cruelty of the totalitarian regime.

Just Say Yes

Even before the Supreme Court decision made these drugs illegal, the Mafia had dabbled in drugs. Mafiosi acted as though it was beneath them, but they greedily salivated at the money to be made. The New Orleans Mafia was dealing drugs, including marijuana, in the nineteenth century. Marijuana was popular in the local African-American community in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. The Mafia talked a lot about keeping it away from children and from Italian and Sicilian neighborhoods. There was always racism within the Mafia in addition to its deep insularity, so it did not much care what drugs did to destroy other ethnic groups.

Business Opportunity

The Mafia crime families in the North were slower to jump on the narcotics bandwagon. The old guard from the Old World wanted nothing to do with it. There was plenty of money to be made in the bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution rackets. These were regarded as “harmless” vices by many people, even law enforcement officials, who often turned a blind eye when these activities were going on right under their noses.

Drug trafficking was another matter altogether. When the Young Turks wiped out the old guard in the Castellammarese War, the new leaders of the Mafia reconsidered staying out of the drug trade. They had a peripheral role in the business anyway. Their Jewish pals such as Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, and Legs Diamond were already involved in the heroin business in the 1920s. The new Boss of Bosses, Lucky Luciano, decided that the Italians should get a piece of the action.

Meyer Lansky

Courtesy of AP Images

The vagrancy charges against Meyer Lansky, fifty-five-year-old gambler and who is reputed to have large gambling interests in Cuba, were dismissed, February 26, 1958, after a short trial before magistrate Reuben Levy in New York City's Manhattan Arrest Court. When Lansky arrived from Cuba on February 11, he was followed by a detective to midtown Manhattan where he was taken into custody and charged with vagrancy.

The Bureau

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 after the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Mafia turned its sights on the heroin racket. The decision made good business sense. Though there were fewer drug addicts than drinkers in the country, the profit margin would be much higher, and drugs would be easier to smuggle. Packets of powder do not noisily clink-clank in crates when being unloaded off ships in the dead of night.

As the Mafia's power and influence has dwindled, other forces have moved in to take up the slack. The Mexican cartels are supplanting the Colombians as suppliers of cocaine. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are manufacturing methamphetamine. Israeli mobsters control the ecstasy trade. Italian-based crime groups control both cocaine and heroin in Europe.

Part of Luciano's plan was to turn the approximately 1,200 prostitutes (who earned him $10 million a year) under his control into heroin addicts. They would not create problems, and they could be easily manipulated that way. The prostitutes would work to support their habit and buy the product from the Mafia. They would be immediately returning the pittance they earned back into the pockets of their Mafia masters. During his exile in Italy, Lucky Luciano masterminded the modern heroin trade.

Cops in the Know

The first federal law enforcement agency to realize that the Mafia were the new bad boys on the block was not the FBI, but rather the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the precursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The FBN compiled extensive lists of major drug dealers and financiers across the country. In addition, rather than hiring all Ivy League WASPs, the BNR hired agents of Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent to effectively infiltrate the drug underworld. By the 1960s the FBN had a far more extensive database of mobsters than any other law enforcement agency.

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