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The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Mafia in America

 

At first the
American Mafia ignored this new business opportunity. Steeped in the traditions
of the Sicilian „honored society,“ which absolutely forbade involvement in
either narcotics or prostitution, the Mafia left the heroin business to the
powerful Jewish gangsters-such as „Legs“ Diamond, „Dutch“ Schultz, and Meyer
Lansky-who dominated organized crime in the 1920s. The Mafia contented itself
with the substantial profits to be gained from controlling the bootleg liquor
industry.(8)
However, in
1930-1931, only seven years after heroin was legally banned, a war erupted in
the Mafia ranks. Out of the violence that left more than sixty gangsters dead
came a new generation of leaders with little respect for the traditional code of
honor.“

 

Image: Salvatore Lucania, alias Lucky Luciano.

 

The leader of
this mafioso youth movement was the legendary Salvatore C. Luciana, known to the
world as Charles „Lucky“ Luciano. Charming and strikingly handsome, Luciano must
rank as one of the most brilliant criminal executives of the modern age. For, at
a series of meetings shortly following the last of the bloodbaths that
completely eliminated the old guard, Luciano outlined his plans for a modern,
nationwide crime cartel. His modernization scheme quickly won total support from
the leaders of America’s twenty-four Mafia „families,“ and within a few months
the National Commission was functioning smoothly. This was an event of historic
proportions: almost singlehandedly, Luciano built the Mafia into the most
powerful criminal syndicate in the United States and pioneered organizational
techniques that are still the basis of organized crime today. Luciano also
forged an alliance between the Mafia and Meyer Lansky’s Jewish gangs that has
survived for almost 40 years and even today is the dominant characteristic of
organized crime in the United States.

With the end of
Prohibition in sight, Luciano made the decision to take the Mafia into the
lucrative prostitution and heroin rackets. This decision was determined more by
financial considerations than anything else. The predominance of the Mafia over
its Jewish and Irish rivals had been built on its success in illegal distilling
and rumrunning. Its continued preeminence, which Luciano hoped to maintain
through superior organization, could only be sustained by developing new sources
of income.

Heroin was an
attractive substitute because its relatively recent prohibition had left a large
market that could be exploited and expanded easily. Although heroin addicts in
no way compared with drinkers in numbers, heroin profits could be just as
substantial: heroin’s light weight made it less expensive to smuggle than
liquor, and its relatively limited number of sources made it more easy to
monopolize.

Heroin,
moreover, complemented Luciano’s other new business venture-the organization of
prostitution on an unprecedented scale. Luciano forced many small-time pimps out
of business as he found that addicting his prostitute labor force to heroin kept
them quiescent, steady workers, with a habit to support and only one way to gain
enough money to support it. This combination of organized prostitution and drug
addiction, which later became so commonplace, was Luciano’s trademark in the
1930s. By 1935 he controlled 200 New York City brothels with twelve hundred
prostitutes, providing him with an estimated income of more than $10 million a
year. (9) Supplemented by growing
profits from gambling and the labor movement
(gangsters seemed to find a good deal of work as strikebreakers during the
depression years of the 1930s) as well, organized crime was once again on a
secure financial footing.

But in the late 1930s the
American Mafia fell on hard times. Federal and state investigators launched a
major crackdown on organized crime that produced one spectacular narcotics
conviction and forced a number of powerful mafiosi to flee the country. In 1936
Thomas Dewey’s organized crime investigators indicted Luciano himself on
sixty-two counts of forced prostitution. Although the Federal Bureau of
Narcotics had gathered enough evidence on Luciano’s involvement in the drug
traffic to indict him on a narcotics charge, both the bureau and Dewey’s
investigators felt that the forced prostitution charge would be more likely to
offend public sensibilities and secure a conviction. They were right. While
Luciano’s modernization of the profession had resulted in greater profits, he
had lost control over his employees, and three of his prostitutes testified
against him. The New York courts awarded him a thirtyto fifty-year jail term.
(10)


Luciano’s arrest and conviction
was a major setback for organized crime: it removed the underworld’s most
influential mediator from active leadership and probably represented a severe
psychological shock for lower-ranking gangsters.

However, the
Mafia suffered even more severe shocks on the mother island of Sicily. Although
Dewey’s reputation as a „racket-busting“ district attorney was rewarded by a
governorship and later by a presidential nomination, his efforts seem feeble
indeed compared to Mussolini’s personal vendetta against the Sicilian Mafia.
During a state visit to a small town in western Sicily in 1924, the Italian
dictator offended a local Mafia boss by treating him with the same condescension
he usually reserved for minor municipal officials. The mafioso made the foolish
mistake of retaliating by emptying the piazza of everyone but
twenty beggars during Mussolini’s speech
to the „assembled populace.“(11) Upon his return to Rome, the outraged Mussolini
appeared before the Fascist parliament and declared total war on the Mafia.
Cesare Mori was appointed prefect of Palermo and for two years conducted a reign
of terror in western Sicily that surpassed even the Holy Inquisition. Combining
traditional torture with the most modern innovations, Mori secured confessions
and long prison sentences for thousands of mafiosi and succeeded in reducing the
venerable society to its weakest state in a hundred years.“(12) Although the
campaign ended officially in 1927 as Mori accepted the accolades of the Fascist
parliament, local Fascist officials continued to harass the Mafia. By the
beginning of World War II, the Mafia had been driven out of the cities and was
surviving only in the mountain areas of western Sicily.(13)

 

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