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Talking to the Feds

The chief of the FBI's organized crime unit on the history of La Cosa Nostra

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The final season of "The Sopranos" begins April 8. But don't count the bureau's Matt Heron among the millions of viewers—he's seen enough in his 20 years on the beat. Instead, Heron tells Smithsonian.com about the mafia's rise to power, its most influential character and its first big rat.

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Why did La Cosa Nostra come over from Sicily?
It started in the early days as a strictly Italian thing, a Sicilian thing. Over time that morphed into the term "mafia," a Sicilian term that has since become generic, like Xerox. They started coming over into this country in the latter part of the 19th century, in the 1880s or so. The first indication I'm aware of was down in New Orleans. Everyone thinks it's New York, but it wasn't.

Why did they come over to this country from Sicily? One, to escape economic hard times in Italy. Also, to get away from the oppression being forced on them by the ruling government in Rome. Sicily is one of the most conquered pieces of land on the face of the earth. Consequently, it's a mixed bag of cultural influences. Sicily for the longest time was looked upon as the red-headed stepchild of Italy, especially once Mussolini came to power. The concern was keeping the Sicilian mafia under control, so lots of guys said "we're out of here."

What were some of the early gangs in America?
The original Black Hand gang is what later became known as La Cosa Nostra. They populated themselves in the ethnic Italian neighborhoods in New York. There was also the Five Points gang. The five points is in the fringes of Little Italy in New York. There's an intersection where five streets come together.

In the late 1920s, early 30s, you had fierce competition in New York among rival Italian enterprises for control. In terms of influential people, one of the most in that time—and maybe all time—was Lucky Luciano. Lucky Luciano was a master organizer. He set up La Cosa Nostra in this country as we still know it today, with five families and the ruling Commission. He formed alliances with other enterprises, such as the Jewish mob. He was very close friends with Meyer Lansky, the preeminent Jewish gangster in New York during that time. Lucky Luciano basically did away with the title "Boss of Bosses." There was no single individual who ran the whole show.

How did they come to power?
Their influences reigned in ethnic neighborhoods. Over time they branched out into other parts, as their power and influence grew. They moved from preying on their own ethnic community to preying on the community at large.

There were some watershed moments in this country that facilitated them, the most significant of which was Prohibition. It's all a matter of supply and demand. There's a demand for what they have to offer, and as long as that's there, they'll find a way to supply it. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the manufacture and distribution of alcohol in the United States, but it did nothing with regard to demand for alcohol. People still wanted their liquor, and since it was no longer acquired legally at that time, here was a rich environment, an opportunity for these criminal enterprises to take advantage of the situation and satisfy the demand. And enrich themselves.

When people hear Prohibition they think Al Capone. What made him such a memorable gangster?
Capone was a New Yorker. He got transferred to Chicago to work under the offices of the leading gangster out there, Johnny Torrio. Capone was a muscle guy, an enforcer in New York. When Torrio got killed, that created Al Capone's moment of opportunity.

He was not unlike John Gotti, in the sense that he was a flashy person. He was also very vicious and violent. It was, as the saying goes, his way or the highway. The Mustache Petes, early-on gangsters, kept low profiles. They didn't do anything to draw attention to themselves. Capone, like Gotti, liked the spotlight.

How has organized crime changed since that time?
Once Prohibition was over, the sphere of influence had moved out of Italian neighborhoods and moved into society. At the end of the day, enterprises exist to generate revenue. They dealt in narcotics; they controlled labor unions, politicians. There are plenty of people out there who want something, and these guys want to facilitate that.

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