Read The World's Most Evil Gangs Online
Authors: Nigel Blundell
To Juliet Morris
for her dedicated research into some of the world’s most frightful dens of iniquity
rime DOES pay. There’s no denying it. And in pursuit of riches and power, those outside the law have always tended to band together – spawning today’s murky, brutal world of organised crime.
The origins of the archetypical, modern gangster can be traced to 1920s America, when Prohibition turned
hoodlums into rich and powerful businessmen. But today, highly organised and ferociously protective gangs are prevalent throughout the world – their labyrinthine networks affecting every aspect of our lives.
How did these secret societies first evolve? How did they become so all-powerful? By what fearsome means do they control their empires? And how do they evade the massive forces of law and order arrayed against them? Another question worth asking reflects our own viewpoints as law-abiding citizens: Why, despite their despicable deeds, do they hold us in such enduring thrall?
It’s an enigma that warrants exploration because it’s all too easy to glamorise gangs and gangsters, and what this book aims to do is the very opposite – to show them for the grubby, grasping, often barbaric villains that they really are. We are rightly horrified by their activities, yet stories about gangland culture never fail to fascinate. Perhaps it is because it’s the ‘bad guys’ who always star in the best narratives. ‘The Devil,’ it is said, ‘has all the best tunes.’ From the works of William Shakespeare to Mario Puzo, the villains of the piece take centre stage.
Which might be why so many of them get away with it. We, the law abiding public, are forced to accept the existence of a criminal subculture as a fact of life. Unwittingly or otherwise, we become consumers of the crooks’ tainted services. And ultimately, when civilised society turns a blind eye, these criminal cancers fester, creep out of the gutter and end up influencing mainstream society.
That is how the rural, peasant-run Italian Mafia grew to global pre-eminence. Its power allowed American Mob mogul Meyer Lansky to boast: ‘We’re bigger than US Steel!’ That was in the 1950s. Today it wouldn’t even be a boast. Crime organisations that have evolved out of the old Mafia now run economies bigger than those of entire nations. One-time drug peddlers control armies. Bent bankers bring down governments.
In short, gangs and gangsters have ‘grown up’. Even the nuances of the terms have changed. A ‘gang’, after all, was what kids traditionally joined to play games. ‘Gangsters’ used to be those cool dudes in cheap movies. But both terms nowadays encompass the underworld’s bigger players.
As will be seen, the first chapters of this book are devoted to the Mafia and its offshoots, simply because that
organisation represents the largest grouping of gangsters of all time. They have taken over entire industries, controlled organised labour, manipulated showbusiness superstars, influenced presidents (one of whom they may have helped assassinate) and even hired themselves out for international invasions. Their wisest leader was the inspiration for the character of Il Capo di Tutti Capi (The Boss of all Bosses) in Puzo’s The Godfather. But under Carlo Gambino’s low-profile management of the Mob, by the mid-Seventies when the frail 73-year-old died peacefully in his bed, the Mafia had apparently vanished into the woodwork.
So where does that now leave the most pervasive criminal organisation the world has ever known? Their ill-gotten billions didn’t just evaporate; they were long ago laundered into legitimate businesses. And the pot still grows. The difference is that instead of seeing blood on the streets of the western world’s cities, the public now suffers a secret ‘taxation’ by the Mafia bloodsuckers.
Sadly, of course, there are many crime centres of the world where blood still stains the city streets, and they are fully explored in this book. In the former Soviet Union an extraordinarily wealthy breed of super-crooks have carved up an entire country. From the Far East, the Chinese Triads and Snakeheads have spread their particular brand of extortion and people-trafficking into every continent. In India, gangs have developed ‘specialised’ markets, from contract killing and smuggling to kidnapping and child-snatching. And in Brazil’s shanty towns, where murder has reached epidemic proportions, gangbusters face an Olympian task in the run-up to the 2016 Games.
Across the developed world, terrifyingly tattooed biker
gangs rule the roads (and the backstreets) from Brisbane to Berlin. As for the Eurozone, it might be in financial meltdown but it’s still boom time for crime across Europe’s illegal markets, boosted by an influx of street-gang migrants from the ex-communist eastern states. In Britain, where once the capital suffered the curse of the Kray and Richardson gangs, new, even more merciless families have seized control. And in Italy, from where the Sicilian Mafia once spread across the globe, a new ruthless mob has quietly assumed power – the ’Ndrangheta, described in a recent government report as ‘the country’s richest firm’.
Sometimes a shift of power in the global hierarchy of the underworld reduces the influence of one category of
, but usually only in favour of a successor. That is what has happened in Colombia where the crushing of the old warring drugs cartels was welcomed by law enforcement agencies around the world. Sadly, however, even more violent villains were waiting in the wings. The ultimate control of the international drugs industry has switched from Colombia to Mexico, where the government has been shamed by its inability to control the crime lords who terrorise the country with seeming impunity. Mexico has become a battleground, with a military offensive against the cartels costing a six-year death toll of more than 70,000 police officers, traffickers and civilians. Decapitated corpses are regularly found at roadsides. Commuters drive under the bodies of men and women hanged from highway overpasses. Fourteen human heads were delivered in cooler boxes to a city hall. A cartel put a ‘warning’ video on the web showing the execution of two of its own members, beheaded by chainsaw while still alive.
Yet, as author of this book cataloguing so many accounts of
brutality, one story seemed to stand out. It was a brief news agency report that made a couple of paragraphs in the press just as this book was to go to print. Wiretaps, it was reported, had led Italian police to uncover a new method of drug smuggling by international gangs. Cocaine produced in South America was sealed in packets which dogs were then forced to swallow. In some cases, Mexican vets carried out surgery to cram larger quantities around the animals’ organs. The dogs were then flown to Europe as prospective ‘pets’. Police discovered that a consignment of 48 animals had recently been imported through Milan’s Linate airport. Once safely through customs, the drugs had been retrieved – by butchering all the dogs.
That’s how today’s gangsters treat animals. They don’t treat humans any better. But somehow we expect that.
The story of the butchered dogs is a tiny but very telling example of the criminal mindset. Greed is the driving force that justifies to gangsters unconscionable excesses of callousness, cruelty and corruption. Given this globally gruesome state of affairs, it might be expected that the comparative fate of 48 butchered dogs would fail to shock us. But we should be glad that it still does, because it at least sets us apart from the darkest depths of the underworld, into which we delve in this book exploring the world’s most evil gangs.
f you’re an American, you don’t have to deal with the Mafia. All you need do is refrain from drinking, smoking, doing drugs, looking at porn, gambling, investing in the stock market, travelling, buying clothes, living in apartments and eating. In other words, the Syndicate has its greasy fingers in everything.
‘We’re bigger than US Steel,’ said Mafia financial whiz Meyer Lansky, mogul of the Mob and brains of the underworld, who died in 1983, aged 80. He made that comment in the Fifties. Today his boast would be a terrible understatement. Organised crime costs America well over a trillion dollars a year. It is estimated that two cents of every dollar spent in the US goes into Mafia pockets.
The notoriously gun-toting days of the Mafia’s rise, the Roaring Twenties and Thirties upon which legend thrives, were certainly exciting. But were they really profitable? The big
inroads into all aspects of American life came only after World War Two. It was then that the Mafia moved in on the giant American trade unions and, through terror tactics, dominated them. Even back in the Chicago of 1928, Al Capone had gained control of 91 trade unions and companies. Today this power base has mushroomed. It has given the Mob the ability to use the unions as a weapon against the employers for the benefit, not of the workers, but for their own enrichment. ‘Things cost a lot more because of the Mob,’ said ex-prosecutor and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. ‘In fact, nationwide there are hidden taxes on all kinds of goods and services – all imposed by the Mafia.’ And because of the Mafia’s control of many American unions, he added: ‘You want the job done? You pay the Mob’s price.’
It is estimated that one quarter of the cost of many construction contracts goes directly to the Syndicates. The Mafia’s evil tentacles snake out everywhere. They’re into banks, airlines, construction, real estate development, the oil industry, the fashion business, car repairs, waste disposal, the music business, the list is endless. They even reach into Wall Street stockbroking firms, where the Syndicate’s fantastic wealth can be sifted back into the system for even greater profit.
Mafia investors infiltrate law-abiding firms and use them as fronts, while the really bad boys operate the main, illegal, money-spinning businesses from behind the scenes. And they don’t always see the need to strong-arm their way into a legitimate company. With vast resources from their criminal activities, they can afford to lay out cash where others would have to scramble for credit.
Nationwide, the Mafia’s illicit operations and the use of tax shelters cheat the US Treasury out of untold billions. It is thought
that some 50,000 people are involved in Mafia-linked trade. So, from the day an American is born to the day he dies, anything he touches will have been touched in some way by the Mafia before him. It’s a brilliantly organised operation that has the whole of the world’s richest nation in its grip. In the old days, a mobster picked up by the cops would protest: ‘I’m a businessman.’ True in a way, then. Very true now. For organised crime is in the hands of men who’ve had their training at prestigious business schools.
The FBI estimates that the Mafia own, control or exert influence over some 20,000 legitimate major businesses, ranging from pizza restaurants to banking. No one can escape – not even the FBI itself. The Bureau was fleeced by the Mob when administrators at New York’s FBI headquarters were found to have paid way over the odds to have furniture moved from one of its offices to another. The contract had been rigged by the Mafia!
So how did it ever get to this stage? Why was civilised society turning a blind eye while a criminal ‘cancer’ festered as it gradually grew out of the slums?
The Mafia has been America’s most costly import. Italian immigrants brought both the Mafia and its Neapolitan equivalent, the Camorra, across the Atlantic with them in the late 1800s – and it was in the city slums of the US that the two groups merged.
According to the official FBI history of the American Mafia, a villain named Giuseppe Esposito was the first known Sicilian Mafia member to emigrate to the US. He and six other Sicilians fled to New York after murdering the chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province and 11 wealthy landowners. He was arrested in New Orleans in 1881 and extradited to Italy.
New Orleans was also the site of the first major Mafia incident in the US. On 15 October 1890 New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessey was murdered in a planned execution. Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested and 19 were eventually indicted for the murder but their eventual acquittal generated rumours of widespread bribery and intimidated witnesses. Outraged citizens of New Orleans organised a lynch mob and killed 11 of the 19 defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped.
Ironically, this gave an early boost to the fledgling secret societies in exile. The government paid $30,000 compensation to the widows and families of the hanged men but the money was expropriated by the criminal brotherhood. With further massive influxes of southern Italians around the turn of the century, the Mafia took its hold on immigrant ghettoes of the major cities.
It was there that the huddled masses of poverty-stricken Italian immigrants first felt the need to assert their power, particularly in New York, where they were terrorised by the city’s most preponderant group, the Irish, who dominated politics, police and the legal system. From their early days as street vigilantes, the Mafiosi grew to become a protection agency – offering security at a price. Then their activities spread to illegal gambling, loan sharking and prostitution.
The American Mafia evolved as various gangs assumed – and lost – dominance over the years. The Black Hand gangs operated in New York around the turn of the century. The city’s earliest Mafia ‘family’ were the Morellos, led by Peter ‘Clutching Hand’ Morello for 30 years until his murder by mobster rivals. The Five Points Gang were the dominant racketeers in New York through the 1910s and 20s, their
most feared operator being Ignazio ‘The Wolf’ Saietta. Related to the Morellos, ‘The Wolf’ ran a notorious ‘Murder Stable’, where he systematically tortured and butchered his victims. (Almost uniquely, he was allowed to retire from the Mafia and went into small-time business, dying of natural causes in 1944.) From the 1920s, the focus switched to Chicago, where Al Capone’s Syndicate controlled America’s new crime capital through bribery and corruption of police, lawmakers and city officials.
The introduction of Prohibition in 1920 was probably the biggest single factor in the success story of the Mafia. The market in bootleg liquor to help America drown its sorrows through the Depression was seemingly limitless. Every one of the several, fragmented, ill-organised Mafia families spread across the nation worked together to fulfil that demand and generate enormous profits.
It was this decade that produced gangsters like ‘Scarface’ Capone, ‘Bugs’ Moran, ‘Legs’ Diamond, ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn, ‘Deanie’ O’Bannion and ‘Dutch’ Schultz – names that have gone down in American folklore, portrayed in films, in books and on television as somehow glamorous characters, sometimes even turned into heroes. However, the truth about these gangsters of the Twenties is far from glamorous. They lived vile lives and most died violently, an exception being the most notorious gangster of the age, Al Capone, who died peacefully but mad from syphilis.
While Chicago seemed to produce the most dramatic examples of Mob mayhem through the Roaring Twenties, two of the hoodlums mentioned above brought an unwelcome taste of the Windy City’s style of gang warfare to the streets of New York. They were Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond and ‘Dutch’ Schultz.
Both were brutal killers yet lived flamboyant lifestyles, both changed their names to glamorise their image – and, almost inevitably, both died by the gun, cold-bloodedly executed by their own kind.
‘Legs’ Diamond was born John Noland in 1896 in Philadelphia but moved to New York in his teens and, after an apprenticeship of petty crime, was enlisted in the early Twenties as a hitman by racketeer Jacob ‘Little Augie’ Orgen.
Diamond earned enough to enjoy a lavish lifestyle, supporting a string of mistresses and earning the nickname ‘Legs’ from a brief spell as a professional dancer. He bought shares in a number of nightclubs and eventually purchased a top nightspot of his own. When in 1927 his boss Orgen was assassinated and Diamond himself wounded, he ‘retired’ from gang warfare and set himself up in the illicit booze business.
His partner in this enterprise was an established bootlegger who went by the name of ‘Dutch’ Schultz but who was born Arthur Fliegenheimer in New York in 1902 and had followed a similar criminal career to Diamond. Indeed, ‘Legs’ and ‘Dutch’ were so similar in character that they spent most of their partnership trying to cheat one another.
One night, Diamond killed a drunk in his club and had to flee town. Schultz took over his business, so Diamond retaliated by hijacking Schultz’s liquor trucks. Diamond felt safe from further retaliation having teamed up with another gangland figure, New York gaming club and brothel owner Arnold Rothstein. But just as he had lost a friend in the assassinated Orgen, so he did again in 1928 when Rothstein was murdered in a poker club after welching on a $320,000 debt.
Now it was Schultz’s turn to get his own back on his
. He dispatched a hit squad to kill Diamond, whom
they found in bed with his mistress. They sprayed the room with gunfire but, although five bullets entered his body, Diamond survived. Two further attempts on his life failed. Finally, in December 1931, unknown hitmen, possibly Schultz’s goons, finally got their man. They followed Diamond home from a girlfriend’s apartment, waited until he had retired to bed, then smashed the front door off its hinges and shot him dead.
Schultz now believed he had a free reign to openly run his liquor, gambling and protection rackets, which together brought in an estimated $20 million a year. But his
style of business was inimical to the new, rising breed of Mafia leaders, like Myer Lansky, who were trying to inhibit the excesses of the old-style New York gunslingers.
There was further embarrassment when Schultz went on a bender to celebrate the result of a sensational tax evasion case, in which he was acquitted after succeeding in having the trial moved to a small upstate courthouse. During a drinking binge, he accused one of his gang, Jules Martin, of ‘skimming’ money collected from his New York restaurant protection rackets. A witness to their dispute later related what happened next:
‘Dutch Schultz was ugly; he had been drinking and suddenly he had his gun out. Schultz wore his pistol under his vest, tucked inside his pants, right against his belly. One jerk at his vest and he had it in his hand. All in the same quick motion he swung it up, stuck it in Jules Martin’s mouth and pulled the trigger. It was as simple and undramatic as that, just one quick motion of the hand. Dutch Schultz did that murder just as casually as if he were picking his teeth.’
Prohibition had ended and the rip-roaring days of casual public shootings, such as those regularly orchestrated by
Schultz, were embarrassing to the new Mafia leaders. On 23 October 1935, ‘Dutch’ Schultz was dining with three friends at a Newark, New Jersey, restaurant when two men with
entered and shot them all. The last of New York’s old-style gun-slinging gangsters was out of action for good.
It took just as many years to rid Chicago of the scourge of its street-war gang leaders, epitomised by Al Capone, who was responsible for the most brutish villainy of the age. Head of some of the cruellest cutthroats in American history, he inspired gang wars in which more than 300 men died by the knife, the shotgun, the tommy gun and the pineapple, the gangster adaptation of the World War One hand grenade.
Alphonse Capone was born in Naples on 17 January 1899, the son of an impoverished barber who emigrated, with his wife and other eight children, to New York and settled in Brooklyn. A street-fighting thug who gained his nickname ‘Scarface’ while working as a bouncer for a Brooklyn brothel, he looked up to an established Brooklyn hoodlum named Johnny Torrio, who was 17 years his senior. When Prohibition was imposed in 1919, making all manufacture, purchase, or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal, Torrio moved to Chicago to go into the bootlegging business and, short of tough minders, sent for the ‘Fat Boy from Brooklyn’.
As it happened, Capone urgently needed to get out of New York, where he was wanted for questioning over the death of a policeman. He arrived in Chicago to find that Torrio was not his own boss but under the thumb of an old-time Mafioso, ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo, who ran labour and extortion rackets as well as about 100 brothels in the city. The one business he did not seem to be involved in was bootlegging.
At this time, Torrio fell out with Colosimo, not only over his
lack of interest in the illicit booze trade but because he divorced his first wife, who happened to be Torrio’s aunt, and married a singer, Dale Winter. Colosimo and his new wife held court nightly at his restaurant on South Wabash Avenue, surrounded by minders as well as politicians and entertainers. On 11 May 1920, Torrio arranged to meet his boss there to sign for a delivery of whiskey. As Colosimo waited in the empty restaurant, Al Capone stepped out of a phone booth and, acting on Torrio’s orders, shot Colosimo dead, then took his wallet to make the killing look like a robbery. Both Capone and Torrio mourned at Colosimo’s funeral – then took over his crime empire, added bootleg liquor to the criminal portfolio and set about amassing a fortune.
The bloodshed had only just begun, however. And Capone’s creed – he once said: ‘You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun’ – meant it would continue for another decade.
In the early Twenties, Chicago’s underworld was shared between the Mafia gang run by Torrio and Capone and the mainly Irish gang of Charles Dion ‘Deanie’ O’Bannion. A baby-faced ex-choirboy once destined for the priesthood, O’Bannion’s childhood friends included future gangsters Hymie Weiss and George ‘Bugs’ Moran, all members of a strong-arm crew called the Market Street Gang. They started in a small way during what became known as the ‘Chicago Newspaper Wars’, in which the city’s competing newspapers hired thugs to beat up paperboys who sold the competition’s journal.