The Mafia in the Modern Age

An Exclusive Interview with Ralph Salerno About the Illicit Loves that Makes Organized Crime the Biggest Business in the United States

    icon Nov 07, 1983
    icon 0 Comments

”And one thing I might depend upon, that they would certainly tell me truth, for lying was a talent of no use in the lower world; but again they considered, that the stench of so large a carcass might produce a plague in the metropolis, and probably spread throughout the whole kingdom.”

- Jonathan Swift, 1726


Mention the word Mafia and a panoply of connotations come to mind for the American public: money, loan sharking, protection, drugs, prostitution, gambling – a list of objects & desires that form a package of illicit loves that hang upon our American heritage like lethal ornaments from a diseased Christmas tree – presents that cater to the core of corruption born of dread and delivered by the laws of supply & demand; diversions that liquidate lives and offer the disenfranchised an opportunity to cash in on the undressed conceits of the American Dream.

Ralph Salerno knows about this corruption of the American Ideal. He also knows that our silent acceptance of the power wielded by organized crime, grounded in the misconception it is invincible, allows it to carry a spreading cancer on the very precepts of the Constitution that frames the laws of our country.    

Salerno has the reputation of knowing more about the Mafia than any person not a member. One of 11 children of immigrant parents, Mr. Salerno grew up in New York’s East Harlem during the 1920s. He first learned of organized crime from his mother’s talk of “hits in the stables” – contract murders carried out in Upper Manhattan livery barns.

Salerno joined the New York Police Department, became a specialist on organized crime, and left the force with the rank of Supervisor of Detectives in the Intelligence Division. He retired because “I wanted a greater freedom to say things.”

Ralph Salerno was a major witness in the McClellan Committee hearings in 1963, which investigated mafia ties to organized labor. In 1966 he was the only police officer to serve as consultant to the President’s Crime Commission Task Force on organized crime. He has been a consultant to the U.S. Department of justice and the Attorney Generals of several states.

This exclusive interview was conducted on November 2nd at the Temple Theatre, prior to Mr. Salerno’s lecture on Organized Crime, how it works, and how it affects us.


Martin: I’d like to start with how you specifically became involved with organized crime. How were you exposed to it?

Salerno: I went into the NYPD in 1946. Midway into my training a man was beaten on the way to a voting precinct. This Election Day homicide turned out to be the result of a minor political double-cross with organized crime. He was ordered beaten up as a favor to a politician.    

I learned at the age of 21 about the connections between organized crime and politics and this is why I gave it a higher priority, because of the fact organized crime is connected with American politics. With only six weeks in the police department, I became involved and stayed with the subject for 20 years. I’m actually highly overspecialized in that I’ve been at this for 37 years.


Martin: How many different organizations are there? Who are the key families and what do they specialize in?

Salerno: We talk about traditional crime groups that are long standing and recognized – Italian, Jewish, Blacks, Mexicans, Columbians, and Cubans who have become quite sophisticated and worthy of the name and image associated with organized crime. The important thing is that we are talking about growing problems that never occurred before in Asian communities and Chinatowns. Some of our new minority immigrants such as the Vietnamese are becoming organized in forming crime syndicates. So you see we are duplicating exactly what happened in immigrant Italian & Jewish communities 70 years ago and have not dealt with the old organizations, let alone the new ones coming on the horizon.


Martin: Why is that?

Salerno: Because 70 or 100 years ago society at large did not care what was going on in immigrant communities. They still don’t. People could care if a bunch of Dagos were throwing bombs in their neighborhoods. Immigrants were being victimized by some of their own people who in fact were gangsters and now sixty years later they’ve developed sophistication to the point where they affect not only their own community, but also the nation as a whole. We are allowing the same thing to happen with new immigrant groups.


Martin: How severe is the political involvement?

Salerno: Far too severe. I’ll give you a recent case in point. In Illinois, people in organized crime made a serious attempt to bribe current U.S. Senator Cannon from Nevada. They sold some real estate to him at an extremely cheap price so he and his investors could profit, provided he could take the trucking deregulation bill away from Senator Ted Kennedy’s committee, get it into his own committee, and kill it entirely. This is what the political scientists don’t know about American politics, and they should.

Then you have the case of Anthony Scotto, who’s a Lieutenant of the Costa Nostra family of Carl Gambino and President of the Longshoremen. He was indicted in New York as an organized crime figure and yet the news printed his photo with then president Jimmy Carter in 1976. The caption under the photo said: This photo was taken in 1976 when Mr. Scotto as Kings County Chairman for the election of Mr. Jimmy Carter. At his actual trial 10 years later the seated Governor of New York, Hugh Carey, appeared as a character witness for Scotto. John Lindsay, the former mayor of New York who was running for Congress at the time, appeared as a character witness for Scotto.

Lane Kirkland the new president of the AFL CIO appeared as a character witness. That means that organized crime figures had political IOU’s out to all these very important people. When Scotto thought they time was right, he called them all in.

Those are two examples that I’m afraid are not exceptions but the general rule.


Martin: Is the political corruption of organized crime really that rampant?

Salerno: Yes, this is happening throughout the 50 states. I told a fellow colleague once that the world of organized crime could delivery 27 votes in the House of Representatives without any problem at this point in time and he told me that he felt that figure understated.


Martin: Do you see any major inroads being made in combating organized crime?

Salerno: It’s all peaks & valleys. When President Reagan recently announced a special Presidential Commission to look just at organized crime, I was elated. This is the highest priority ever given the subject. But then I lost confidence when one of the designated appointees to the commission turned out to be one Sheriff Duffy from San Diego County in California.

San Diego is where Ed Meese, the presidential assistance, came from. So I’m sure he had something to do with making that recommendation. A Grand Jury has already criticized Duffy because of his open friendship with organized crime figures in the State of California. Now if you have to pick 20 people out of 200 million to sit on that commission, why chose Duffy?

As I say its all peaks and valleys.


Martin: You sat on the McClellan Committee that was a key force in investigating the involvement with organized crime when Bobby Kennedy was gunning for Jimmy Hoffa. How entrenched is organized labor with organized crime?

Salreno: I’m afraid the labor movement and organized crime’s power is much stronger today than in the 1950s, because organized crime has learned all the benefits involved with being associated with the labor movement.

First, anybody they can get elected to a key office allows them to work with big expense accounts and salaries and there is no violation of law. Second, they can get control over pension funds and decide who gets loans and who receives kickbacks. This is the patronage factor. If they can control a union they can control who works and deserves loyalties. Right now they have union leaders write parole boards and get convicted felons out of prison by stating they have a job lined up for the prisoner. Once he gets out, they put him back into circulation.

The labor movement gives organized crime tremendous political clout and we haven’t worked enough to reduce it. It’s a sad state when you have the current leader of the Teamsters touting to the rank and file he is proud of that fact that “I haven’t been indicted yet.”


Martin: What about Jimmy Hoffa? What do you think happened to him?

Salerno: It’s no secret. He asked for the endorsement of old friends in organized crime so he could take back control over his union and they turned him down. He did not take no for an answer and had to be eliminated, so he disappeared from the face of the earth.

This should be a very important message to the American people. An American president ruled Hoffa could not be involved with his union until 1980 and he challenged this in the Courts and was going to circumvent this edict and run as a nominee. So what’s the lesson? You can defy Presidential orders one way or another, but you cannot defy the orders of organized crime. This suggests that at a given moment in our history, organized crime was stronger and more powerful than the office of the President of the United States.


Martin: How have leaders and tactics changed over the years?

Salerno: Well, this is one thing in our favor. The old Dons are dying off or in prison and the next echelon is not as smart, patient, or clever as the old guard. This means they are having difficulty in becoming as politically entrenched. The quality of leadership is definitely deteriorating.


Martin: How much monetary influence does the mob wield in America today?

Salerno: For an answer to that I refer to monetary experts, not crime experts. According to Forbes Magazine, organized crime has overall gross business receipts second only to the oil industry. They have already surpassed that of the auto industry. Looking at oil, 9 percent of the gross is kept as net profit, so this would amount to $29.7 billion dollars (in 1983 levels of valuation). And the mob spends nothing on research and development.


Martin: Is this solely from gambling, prostitution, drugs and the like?

Salerno: No, not at all. They make as much in legitimate business as illegitimate business. Products can vary from cheap shirts that you buy in stores to bootlegged records. I discovered last year that $4 billion dollars was sitting in Florida bank accounts alone that was unaccounted for. It would be safe to say that if you went through all the banks in Florida, the figure would be four times that.


Martin: How can people be effective in hoping to combat such power?

Salerno: By understanding how they are affected by it. Burglars are more of a concern to the American public than the mob, but if they know most burglaries are committed by heroin addicts needing money and that heroin is brought in by clever market networks set up by the mob, they will soon understand that by not doing anything about this problem that has evolved over a hundred years, they are helping a burglar come in their window tonight. The other thing people can do is look for it. Examine the relationships between elected officials and ask more questions about it.


Martin: Do you think that decriminalization of certain drugs is a key to combating organized crime?

Salerno: I feel no new approaches are being adopted today and our approach to fighting organized crime is no different than it was 30 years ago and we know that approach has not worked. 27,000 people are being employed by government agencies to follow that tired approach and it is all wasted money as far as I’m concerned. 10 people are being paid to study new approaches, so what does that tell you?

I do believe that legalization and careful public control of gambling and certain drugs could be a powerful weapon in the fight against organized crime by severely cutting into its revenues. This has worked in New York with the lottery and I know the same is true with the Michigan lottery.


Martin: Something that has always bothered me is the foreign policy influence of the Mob. I always felt one of the reasons we lost Cuba was because of the fact Mob was there and Castro had the courage to kick them out, with very little support from the U.S. government. It seems we virtually handed Cuba over to the communists by not siding with the insurgents and siding with mob business influences infiltrating their country.

Salerno: Yes, aren’t we in a sad position when we can say the greatest defeat of organized crime in this century came from a Communist dictator who overthrew a right wing dictator and kicked the mob out of Cuba?

The thing you must understand is that organized crime will make an attempt to corrupt wherever it operates. Wherever there is a need for it. So the mob sent to the Bahamas after Cuba, bribed the Governor’s Council, gave Sir Stafford Sands $2.5 billion dollars, and he gave them casino licenses. They did the same with a royal crown colony as they did with Batista. They’ll corrupt Republicans & Democrats, it doesn’t matter. They are only looking for corruptibles.


Martin: What about the Kennedy assassination? Was the mob involved there?

Salerno: I worked on the House Select Committee of Assassinations and would have been delighted to find some sort of connection, but I ended up being frustrated because I proved to myself that though organized crime was the principal beneficiary of his death, there was no hard evidence to establish a link.  This is depressing; especially if you consider the alternative argument that one lone kook did organized crime the biggest favor in history.


Martin: So what is the biggest misconception about organized crime today?

Salerno: They organized crime is not indigenous to America. The problem is a peculiar American problem. It’s a natural thing for people to want to feel good and they delude themselves the same as a heroin addict does with a fix. They invent ideas and words to feel good about organized crime. They associate it with the ‘underworld’, which is a lie. There is nothing ‘under’ about it. What Americans want they will supply. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about how he and Zelda danced on tabletops in speakeasies during prohibition. This was no underworld. There was a demand for booze so the mob supplied it.

It’s the same with the word ‘Mafia’. Americans love it, yet no one is certain of its origin. It is not an Italian word. The closest origin we can find is to the Arabic language, but it sounds foreign so we like it.

In Sicily you’re lucky if you can find 100 people hooked on drugs on that island. Narcotics, labor rackets, there are all vices particular to America. In Europe you have legalized gambling all over, here we are only starting.

During the early union battles between organizers and Henry Ford, what has become known as the Battle of the Underpass – union leaders got tired of being hit by pipes. Ford had guns and was shooting people, so organized crime came in and said we will protect you. We will sell you guns. We’ll show you how to fight these corporations. And that is what introduced the one to the other.


Martin: Can you tell me anything about organized crime in Michigan?

Salerno: I can tell you that Michigan has an excellent law enforcement official working for the Attorney General right now named Vincent Piersante. When he was Chief of Detectives in Detroit he was fired by then Mayor Jerry Kavanaugh because he led a huge raid against organized crime in Detroit. He collected books and records and among those was a payoff list to people in the police department. Kavanaugh said, ‘Why that son of a bitch’ and fired him.


Martin: What about your own safety? Don’t you need bodyguards 24 hours a day?

Salerno: If I were more effective I’d be less safe than I am. I’m safe because nobody pays any attention to what I say and my greatest enemies are not in organized crime but in the government who feel criticism about how poorly they are doing their job. I’ve been shot down more by public officials than organized crime.

Share on:

Comments (0)

icon Login to comment