Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them Sam “Mooney” Giancana.
Giancana’s connections to the mob dated back decades. He was a top leader during the 1960s of what was called the “Chicago Family” of La Cosa Nostra. His run-ins with the law, and the sloppy management of his operations, put him at odds with some of his cohorts, and in 1975, three years after my family and I moved to the neighborhood, he was killed in his Oak Park home.
The subject was one of national concern at the time. On March 4, 1983, a US Senate subcommittee convened a meeting in Chicago to tackle the difficult subject of organized crime in the city. It opened with a startling declaration:
“The scope of activities involving the syndicate or mob or outfit in the Chicago area is truly pervasive,” said subcommittee member and Senator William Roth, a Republican from Delaware, told the committee. “Organized crime in Chicago touches practically everyone’s life or livelihood. And the evidence shows that the tentacles of mob activity in this city reach into government, law enforcement, unions, and other legitimate political, social, and economic functions.”1
Witnesses called by the subcommittee went on to describe organized crime’s deep roots in Chicago, its varied legitimate and illegitimate business interests, its enforcement tactics, its influence in society, and its political connections.
“The umbrella which protects the Chicago mob and the lynch pin which holds it together, enabling it to function, is its alliance with politics,” William F. Roemer, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent and a consultant to the Chicago Crime Commission, wrote in a prepared statement. “Nowhere can organized crime operate effectively without the connivance of public officials. This would include law enforcement officers, legislators, judges and key public officials. We believe that nowhere in the country has this been truer than in Chicago.”2
Chicago’s top crime boss, Anthony Accardo, alias “Big Tuna,” lived in River Forest, the town next to Oak Park. Accardo had been in organized crime since the 1920s, when he became an assassin for Al Capone.3 His nickname then was “Joe Batters,” a nod to his penchant for using baseball bats to dispense discipline and terror.4 One witness in the subcommittee meeting in 1983 described Accardo as the “consigliere” to the Chicago Family.5 “He was the best leader the Chicago mob has ever had,” Roemer wrote in his statement.
Everyone in the area understood that Accardo was in the mob. His grandchildren played football with my older brothers, and he would occasionally attend the games with his bodyguards in tow. When we were teenagers, we would drive slowly by his undistinguished one-story house that was rumored to have several underground floors and tunnels to facilitate his escape should the authorities come to arrest him. They never did.
Michael Spilotro, brother of Anthony Spilotro -- made famous by Joe Pesci’s portrayal of him in the movie “Casino” -- lived on the south side of Oak Park. Witnesses in the subcommittee hearing said Anthony Spilatro, with the help of Michael, led the Chicago Family’s “invasion” of Las Vegas and points beyond.6
A friend of mine stole beer from Michael Spilotro’s basement once. When Spilotro found out, he called my friend’s house and threatened his mother. My friend had to take a detour on his way to school to avoid that house until the news that the Spilotro brothers had been found, strangled and beaten to death, then buried in an Indiana cornfield.7 They drove away from Michael Spilotro’s Oak Park home and never returned.8
I tell these stories because there is often a distant feel about the way that journalists and researchers study these issues in other countries. We tend forget how integrated organized crime is in all of our lives. Whether you grew up in Chicago in the 1980s or you are living in modern-day Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua or Colombia -- the four countries in this study -- organized crime is a part of our societies, woven into the places where we make our homes, where we work, play sports and spend time with friends and family.
“You may ask where traditional organized crime is, where can you see it?” then Chicago Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek stated in his written testimony to the subcommittee.
Look around. There are many people in this room right now…Concerned citizens and businessmen, law enforcement officials, legislators, and various representatives of the media. We all have mortgages, belong to pension plans, have friends and acquaintances who we communicate openly with and may feel indebted to. Where do we buy our goods? Who does our dry cleaning or collects the garbage from our business establishments? Do we buy cigarettes or candy every day from certain vending machines? Who owns the parking lot where you park your car. This is totally irrespective of what city you live in, and it is in these questions that we find out where traditional organized crime can be found. Every person in this room undoubtedly has some money in their pocket or purse. Rest assured that a percentage of that money will end up in the hands of the leadership of traditional organized crime.9
We also tend to oversimplify what organized crime is, splitting the characters in the story into “bad guys” and “good guys.” But organized crime exists because it fills needs in our economies and provides the backdrop to much of our social lives. And it benefits many people well beyond those who are directly involved.
Obviously, organized crime is also perverse, violent and destructive. In that regard, the 1983 subcommittee hearing noted a recent spate of murders in the Chicago metropolitan area that it connected to organized crime activity. Between 1919 and the 1983 hearing, the Chicago Crime Commission documented 1,081 organized crime-related murders.10 In terms of deaths, the situation does not compare to that of present-day Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Colombia. Honduras alone -- a country with a population similar to the Chicago metropolitan area -- suffers close to 6,000 murders per year, many of these organized crime-related.
Still, the similarities between the issues presented at the Senate subcommittee hearing and those we encountered in our two-year investigation into elites and organized crime in Central America and Colombia are striking. The subcommittee hearing was about Chicago, but they could have just as easily been speaking about Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras or Nicaragua. “Street taxes,” kickback schemes, corruption in public works contracts, and campaign financing with illegal monies are all part of organized crime in both places.
This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full introductory section (pdf). See other parts of the series here.
More importantly, the main reason organized crime prospers remains the same no matter the place or time period -- corruption.
“The seedbed of organized crime has consistently been recognized to be sophisticated white-collar crime activity coupled with public corruption,” Edward Hegarty, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Chicago office, told the subcommittee. “Organized crime flourishes … because of its relationship to public corruption and sophisticated white collar crimes.”11
These relationships reach to the top of the political and economic food chain. Witnesses noted the deep connections between Chicago aldermen, a few mayors and the Chicago Family. One cited a New York case in which a noted mobster, who was eventually convicted, called as character witnesses the governor of that state, two former mayors of New York City, and the head of the country’s most powerful labor syndicate.12
This is why we at InSight Crime decided to tackle the issue of elites and organized crime. It seems to be the forgotten lynchpin in understanding organized crime activity, whether we are talking about Chicago of the 1980s or modern-day Central America and Colombia. Elites control how our societies, and our political and economic systems, are constructed. They decide where we channel our public resources, how we prosecute wrongdoing, and how we regulate commerce and trade. If they tolerate or engage in corruption and crime to further their own ends, they are participating in the debilitation of the state and laying the seeds for organized crime to thrive.
The result of this corruption and neglect was as evident in Chicago in the 1980s as it is in Latin America today. Like Chicago at that time, local law enforcement agents in the region have inadequate legal and forensic tools and severely resource-limited witness protection programs. In an effort to keep corruption at bay, personnel are constantly rotated, which severely hampers their ability to develop intelligence sources or carry out long, complicated investigations. Those charged with fighting organized crime do not have adequate training, and are in a vulnerable position because they often live in communities alongside underworld figures.
What the subcommittee did note, however, was the necessity of exposing organized crime, and the networks it creates, to the public. The Chicago Crime Commission was the first to declare Al Capone public enemy number one, according to its President Gail Melick, which he said helped bring about the mobster’s eventual prosecution. “Such an open assessment of organized crime figures, and such publicity, was effective then, and could be now,” Melick testified.13
We at InSight Crime -- and our partner investigative teams in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua -- are of the same mind. We are not prosecutors or law enforcement agents. We are a multi-disciplinary team of investigators from different countries who seek to understand the dynamics between organized crime and the elites. Rather than identifying a “public enemy,” we are trying to expose how these elites interact with organized crime, both willingly and unwillingly, and the dangers that this interaction poses to economic development, democratic governance and human rights.
The tone of the 1983 subcommittee meeting was one of urgency and desperation. It is not unlike the tone of public hearings today about the situation in Central America and Colombia. But things can change. Chicago is a good illustration. The government has arrested numerous Chicago Family bosses since then, and the mob is greatly debilitated, albeit still functioning. Corruption and gangland violence have also considerably declined. The changes began with public discussion of these matters, such as during the 1983 subcommittee hearing at the US Federal Court House.
Then, as now, we need to know what, and who, we are talking about before we can tackle elite links to organized crime, and that is the job we have started with this investigation.
 US Senate, “Organized crime in Chicago: Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs,” 4 March 1983, p.1. Available at: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002762658
 Ibid., p. 187.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 See: William F. Roemer, Accardo: The Genuine Godfather (New York, NY, 1996).
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Bill Dwyer, “Details of Spilotro murders revealed in mob trial,” Wednesday Journal, 14 August 2007. Available at: https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/8-14-2007/Details-of-Spilotro-murders-revealed-in-mob-trial/
 Larry Green, “Mobster Spilotro, Brother Found in a Grave in Indiana,” Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1986. Available at: https://articles.latimes.com/1986-06-24/news/mn-20919_1_spilotro-brothers
 US Senate, “Organized crime in Chicago: Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs,” 4 March 1983, pp. 137-138.
 Ibid., p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 10.
The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.