Late this January some 800 federal agents arrested 127 suspected members of the Italian Mafia in one of the largest-ever operations targeting the organization.
Attorney General Eric Holder made a trip to Brooklyn to announce the arrests, and the FBI moved processing from its lower Manhattan headquarters to a gym in Fort Hamilton to accommodate the overflow of defendants.
It was perhaps an appropriate shift in venue given the extent to which the Italian mob has dominated the borough's underworld over the years—infiltrating unions, shaking down dockworkers, running gambling rackets, selling drugs—but while indictments from the investigation suggest the Mafia is still plenty active in the area, it's also clear that compared to its mid-century glory days, the current incarnation of La Cosa Nostra is looking a lot less like Michael and a lot more like Fredo.
"The Mafia just doesn't have a stronghold on crime and the streets like they used to," says Lou Savelli, former commander of the NYPD Detective Bureau's Gang Division Major Case Squad. "It's really been diminished. There have been some very significant investigations [against them] by the FBI and the NYPD and the Department of Justice."
Italian crime families continue to control stretches of the city's waterfront and still operate from traditional strongholds like Bensonhurst and Ozone Park, but generally speaking, their power has been on the downslide now for close to half a century. Following on a 2008 bust that rolled up 61 members of the Gambino family, this year's sweep is just the latest lurching step in the long, slow decline of the mob.
Which raises the question: Who, exactly, is running Brooklyn today?
The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on where you're asking. In spots like Coney Island and Brighton Beach, for instance, the Russian and Ukrainian mobsters who pushed out the Italians several decades ago continue to dominate. In northern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and Brownsville, on the other hand, Bloods typically control the turf. Crips predominate in South Brooklyn areas like East Flatbush and Marine Park, while the Latin Kings primarily operate in parts of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Park Slope. Of late, the most significant change to Brooklyn's criminal landscape has come from "the proliferation of Mexican gangs," Savelli says, noting that as immigration from Mexico to New York has increased in recent decades, Mexican gangs like "18th Street" have emerged in areas like Sunset Park between 30th and 50th streets as well as parts of Coney Island and Brighton Beach.
More established, but growing at a similarly rapid clip, is the Dominican gang Trinitarios, which formed in Sing-Sing in the late 80s and counts Bed-Stuy's Marcy Houses as one of its main power bases. From there the gang has spread to other New York neighborhoods like Washington Heights, as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware.
"They're not new," says Savelli, "but they've become very powerful on the streets. They're pretty big on the radar right now."
Being a big deal in Brooklyn, though, isn't what it used to be. In fact, notes Ric Curtis, professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when it comes to gang activity, the borough—and New York City in general—is actually something of a backwater. It's surprising given its carefully cultivated image as a rough-and-tumble town, but, Curtis says, the city "just doesn't have much of a [street] gang problem."
While places like Los Angeles and Chicago have struggled for years with well-organized, multi-generational groups of Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings, street gangs in New York and Brooklyn have typically been loosely-run, rag-tag affairs. Local outfits may call themselves Bloods or Crips, but they generally have little to no contact with those gangs' national organizations, Curtis notes.
"It's just a brand name that they're taking on," he says. "Most of them don't have any connections to Los Angeles or Chicago, and the ones that do are rare birds. It's just mythologizing this sort of gang stuff that goes on elsewhere."
Savelli agrees. "The Bloods we have here are without a doubt less organized than they are in other parts of the country. They're very violent—they've actually been responsible for the majority of the cop killings we've had over the last ten to fifteen years—but they seem to attract a more disorganized type of gang member."
"The Crips are a little bit more organized, but probably not as organized as they are out in LA. I think what a lot of people are confused about is that with a lot of these gangs there's really no national connection. It's not like there's a guy from Los Angeles in MS-13 who's traveling out to New York to meet with the MS-13 guys there."
What exactly is to credit for New York's relatively low levels of gang activity is something of a mystery, Curtis says—one that he and several of his colleagues are currently applying for grant money to explore. "We want to see what we have here in New York that other places don't," he says. "What have we done here that other cities haven't?"
There are a variety of theories, none of which, he suggests, seems at a glance particularly convincing. Oftentimes members simply age out of being in gangs, but there's no reason that should disproportionally affect New York-based organizations. Likewise, an improving economy can decrease membership, but it's not like the economy—especially for young, poor men—has exactly been going well. The work of the NYPD could be responsible in part, but, Curtis says, he can't imagine that's the whole story.
New York street gangs started disappearing in the 1960s as corporate-structured organizations began to squeeze them out of the drug trade. These new outfits were typically family-run, and while management was often all drawn from same ethnic group, low-level workers were hired with no particular regard for ethnic or gang affiliations—much like employees of any legitimate business.
"Just like how at Ford the boardroom is dominated by people with the last name Ford, these organizations were dominated by family members at the top, and then the higher level of management would be people of the same ethnic group as themselves," Curtis says. "And then the laborers would just be whoever. They'd just be hired help."
Recently, he notes, criminal activity in New York has shifted to more of a franchise model, with organizations "divesting themselves of their lower-level employees and setting up franchised businesses instead." Under this type of arrangement, large dealers provide packages to smaller operators on consignment, who are then left to distribute the drugs in whatever way they choose.
The switch to this sort of structure has coincided with another change in New York drug trafficking—the replacement of street dealing with a delivery-service model. From the early 60s to the early 90s, most of the city's drug dealing was done publicly out in the streets. Over the last two decades, though, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies have made this sort of selling considerably more difficult. As a result dealers have largely taken their business indoors.
There are downsides to this model, though—in particular, reduced volume and increased barriers to entry. Dealers can't just go into the street and wave down cars anymore; they first have to develop a clientele list. And having a clientele list means having a defined, limited set of customers. And that, in turn, means fewer sales, which means less money. And lack of money, Curtis suggests, is likely one big reason New York street gangs haven't historically been major players in the first place.
"The gangs have never been very sophisticated vis-à-vis their money-generating activities," he says. "A boy could get in there and fight with other boys, but over the long run you have to make money, too, and they've never really been very good at that."
To a large extent this is because retail drug dealing—which according to Savelli roughly 95 percent of street gangs are involved in—is simply a lousy business. Particularly over the last decade, Curtis says, the market for hard drugs like heroin, crack, and cocaine has been flat.
"No one wants to get into that. There's too little money and not enough clientele."
The one type of crime that apparently does still pay, he notes, is selling marijuana.
"That's where the real money in the last ten years has been," he says. "That's where the action has been and where you've seen some activity in public housing projects. I think that's the only part of the drug market that has really had any impact on gangs or gang formation. It's really the only growth area of the drug market we've seen."
That market could be headed for hard times as well, though. In the last three months, Curtis says, "the bottom has dropped out of the price of high-end marijuana," a drop that he suggests is due to product being brought into the city from the West Coast.
While New York's marijuana has traditionally come in from Mexico and British Columbia, medical marijuana laws in states like California and Oregon have recently brought on a dramatic increase in supply, making life hectic for the city's dealers.
"It looks like it's coming from many different sources now as opposed to a single source or a few big sources. It's leaching from every pore," Curtis says.
"I don't know what that's going to do to the New York City market, but all of a sudden everyone is scrambling around."