Mobsters tend to evolve out of inner city poverty. The young look around and notice the people in the neighborhood with flashy lifestyles, who don’t go hungry, who lord it over ordinary citizens. They resemble the intimidating bullies in their own circles who ham-fistedly appropriate their lunch money and humiliate them in other ways. The limited options visible on their horizon tempt the young and some inevitably are drawn into criminal apprenticeship.
Adult gangsters of whatever ethnic persuasion traditionally provide “protection” to small businesses, run numbers, hijack trucks, mug citizens, commit armed robbery, murder for hire, burgle, organize prostitution, trafficking, gambling, kidnapping, home invasions, drug dealing and other illegal contraband and counterfeiting at all kinds of levels. Eventually the most successful expand into legal businesses, often as fronts for laundering illegal gains. They also tend to spend time in prison, an extreme form of networking, where they advance their education and are further desensitized, distanced from any natural ability to empathize they might possess. Like their counterparts chasing money and power along legal corridors, they seem to become addicted, seeking ever more profits, even after accumulating more wealth than they can possibly spend, even considering their often extravagant life styles.
The United States has suffered various waves of criminal immigrants, always a minority of any group but a significant one. Irish, Jewish, Italian, Latino, Black, Chinese, Vietnamese… mobsters of all stripes have variously dominated neighborhoods, cities, regions in an ebb and flow paralleling periods of immigration. They sort themselves out by the merging, warring or jittery co-existence. Of course there are home-grown criminals also and rural bandits all over the world. The white collar and political thieves, tycoons and corporate malfeasors we will set aside for now except where they interact, as underworld victims or collaborators. Robert Friedman, in his bookRed Mafiya, comments, “The Russian Mafiya is made up of multipurpose, entrepreneurial master criminals, flush with billions in cash doing every shape, manner and form of global crime.”
When in the 80s it became evident that the Soviet Union was falling apart the leadership there met and concluded there were two possible courses: a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. (!) or, loot the country. Gorbachev wanted to create a Scandinavian-type socialist nation but he was soon got rid of, with U.S. support of course, and the looting began. The enormity of the job soon became evident and high-ranking government officials, KGB, etc; turned for help to the criminal element… which of course soon more or less took over, conducting the largest exodus of national treasure in history. Russia was in effect lawless so, to safely stash the spoils, accounts were set up in the west. Though our civilization was fortunate the nuclear option was foregone, this monumental theft has perilous repercussions that will not be easily reversed. It is said that Putin consolidated his power by selecting one of the oligarchs of this exodus, putting them in a cage, on very public trial. The other oligarchs approached Putin asking what it is he wanted. 50% was the answer. This deal made him the wealthiest man on the planet, estimated at $ 200 billion. Friedman is quite persuasive in his claim that dealing with Russia is dealing with Mafiya.
A U.S. center for the Russian mob is in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Brighton Beach, densely populated with Russian immigrants. There criminals prey on small business and the local citizenry. They enter into collaborative projects with already existing gangs though their comfort with violence intimidates even hardened veterans of the streets. This partially is accounted for by the move Russian mobsters made to rid themselves of a particularly psychopathic criminal named Ivankov, who they talked into “invading” the U.S. Taking along a cadre of his most hardened lieutenants, he soon took over the Brighton Beach neighborhood, ratcheting up violence to a level the competition couldn’t match. To him other criminals were no different than small businesses – pay up or die. Defy us? We’ll murder your whole family. That’s what works in Russia, why wouldn’t it work here? Brighton Beach police are out-gunned and out-funded, if not corrupted themselves. One couple declining his proposal to buy their antique shop, at a bargain basement price, simply disappeared. Another couple, in Miami, accepted the ridiculously meager buyout of their Deli and fled terrified to Canada. The new owner had little interest in antiques or deli food but an acute need for money laundering. Brighton Beach, Denver and Miami, cities with dense Russian immigrants, were beach heads for Ivankov’s “invasion.” Like billionaires in general, these criminals are not going to rest until they have it all. Israel’s policy of accepting Jews from Russia (or those who claim to be Jewish) has affected the country severely. Officials estimate that as much as 12% of their 500,000 Russian immigrants are criminals. From Israel they have easy access to Western Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Drug running is a highly lucrative endeavor, usually thought of as the domain of mobsters. But terrorists have realized drugs can be a means to fund their operations. And states such as North Korea engage in international criminality to supplement their annual budget, not to mention gold bathroom fixtures. Another state not usually associated with criminality, in fact usually seen as one of the more enlightened states in terms of rule of law, not flawless of course but all is relative: as one Russian gangster said, “I love the United States. It is so easy to steal here.” And this is one of their safe havens as far as safely banking ill-gotten proceeds. Friedman’s description of a Russian invasion of the U.S. by absolutely vicious criminals, is disturbing enough at just the street crime level. Add to that their branching out into sophisticated Wall Street, Banking and internet cons, and the investigation of Russian meddling U.S. elections, the firing of FBI Director Comer, the apparent maneuvering to fire investigative head Robert Meuller, and the knowledge that the modus operandi of these criminals stops at nothing, freely and imaginatively employing violence and extortion – luring victims into situations where they are either hopelessly indebted or they and their families are terrorized into corruption, or both. Israel’s government, Friedman claims, is the most compromised nation by Mafiya outside of Russia, that whether it can be considered a democracy (aside from its suppression of Palestinians and theft of their land) is seriously in question. When many of these mobsters own condos in Trump Tower and rumors persist of ominous relations between the Trump Administration and Russian figures, there is the danger that the time is not far off where the same can be said of the United States.
I draw on three books for these ruminations: Red Mafiya by Robert Friedman; Organized Crime by Michael Lyman et al. (an actual text book); Angels, Mobsters and Narco-Terrorists by Antonio Nicaso et al.