HomeNewsAnalysisNew Book Presents Critique of US Organized Crime Policy, Then and Now

New Book Presents Critique of US Organized Crime Policy, Then and Now


A new book presents a blistering critique of both the origins of the US approach to organized crime and the application of the current policy.

Michael Woodiwiss's "Double Crossed: The Failure of Organized Crime Control" offers a convincing portrayal of American anti-crime strategies as rooted in hypocrisy and xenophobia, which has led to a thoroughly counterproductive approach today.

These are not entirely novel conclusions, but Woodiwiss, a history professor at the University of the West of England, brings to bear an unusual wealth of historic evidence. Throughout the book, he traces American conceptions of the word "mafia" back to the assassination of the New Orleans police chief in 1890, allegedly as a result of a rivalry between Italian and Sicilian gangs. The murder sparked a period of collective hysteria and bloodlust; local leaders exploited fear of foreign criminals to justify a dubious prosecution and lynchings of the city's Italian-born residents, though without any evidence that these actions truly punished the guilty parties nor solved any public problems.

*Click here or see below to read Woodiwiss' response to this review.

This episode marks one of the first of many occasions in which officials -- in this case, New Orleans Mayor Joseph Shakespeare -- attempted to turn an isolated incident into an urgent danger that a criminal cabal presents to the broader public. In so doing, they frequently painted outsiders as the villains. Even national political leaders began to voice worry about the growth of an "oath-bound, murderous society" operating in the United States, despite scant evidence that the murder had anything to with what we typically consider a mafia organization.

Woodiwiss shows great nuance and rigor in testing popular assumptions related to criminal groups, and had he applied the same appreciation of subtleties in discussing official policies, including the errors, the book would be stronger.

As Woodiwiss amply demonstrates, American politicians, often with help from journalists, have time and again built up the threat from criminal organizations in pursuit of their own personal interests. Following in Shakespeare's footsteps were Charles Dawes, a prominent Chicago banker and anti-mafia politician who served as Warren Harding's vice president; Richmond Pearson Holmes, an Alabama Congressman and prominent prohibition advocate; and various others.

Their advocacy often resulted in dubious crime policies -- first pursued at home, and later around the world -- stemming from morally bankrupt foundations. Prohibition stemmed, in part, from the belief among politicians that "liquor will make a brute" out of African-Americans. A renewed push to eradicate the American mob during the 1930s was largely the product of fawning coverage of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's efforts to stamp out the Sicilian mafia, notwithstanding the questionable relevance of a model pursued by a fascist dictatorship in a liberal democracy.

Woodiwiss' account highlights several common features of US crime policy over the length of the past century. One is the tendency to use false data to justify policy decisions. In the 1930s, influential figures around the government propagated a story in which a rapid nationwide purge of the mafia's old guard precipitated the ascendance of a young Charles "Lucky" Luciano to the head of a nationwide organization. There is no documentary evidence that such a purge ever occurred. Elsewhere, during mob disputes in the 1970s, which were the justification for redoubled federal anti-mafia efforts, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was quoted saying, "It's all bullshit. We don't really know what's going on."

Reading these and other anecdotes, one is reminded of an alarming anecdote Peter Andreas included in his 2010 book, "Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts":

One DEA agent describes his desk job in the Latin America headquarters: "The other half of the job is makin' up fact sheets and briefing papers -- you know, statistical bullshit, how we're winnin' the war -- so one of these clowns can go on TV or testify before Congress." When asked where he got the statistics, he laughed. "Outta yer head, where else?"

Perhaps the most striking element of the US approach to organized crime throughout the past century has been the tendency to personalize the struggle. Some 75 years ago, politicians and journalists obsessed over the outsized influence of figures like "Lucky" Luciano and Mayer Lanksy. Twenty years ago, American officials saw Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel as the unquestioned kings of the cocaine trade. More recently, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was the bogeyman whose name kept American officials up at night.

In these and other cases, not only did the United States adopt an exaggerated concept of its enemies' strength, but it acted as though if only these men were removed, a broader societal ill would be cured. The so-called kingpin strategy represented the culmination of the assumption that such a key villain's arrest or killing would automatically pacify the society in question -- whether Bogota or the Bronx. This belief was emphatically incorrect.

This all amounts to a virtually indisputable argument for a rethink of American strategy. It also represents a call for humility for any analyst of crime policy; we often know far less about the current circumstances, to say nothing of future contingencies, than we ideally would.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

The book's substantial virtues are balanced by two authorial missteps. One is that Woodiwiss has placed his criticism of the global drug regime within a broader leftist critique of the liberal market economic system that the United States husbanded to global preeminence. This results in chapters-long attacks on, for instance, the US government's failure to prosecute banking executives after the 2008 financial collapse. Neoliberalism generally also receives a bit of abuse, and readers are even treated to the somewhat head-scratching complaint about bankers being "keen on money," and therefore less likely to crack down on laundering.

The problem with these sections isn't that they are wrong, but rather that they don't fit. Both the Department of Justice's prosecutorial priorities following the financial crisis and neoliberalism generally are fascinating issues that have inspired endless argument. There are reasonable cases for each side, but none of this has much to do with organized crime, and while reading this, one can't avoid the sense that there are other books better positioned to tackle these topics.

Another of the book's unfortunate aspects is its persistent tendency to treat US policymakers not merely as often mistaken, but malicious. For instance, Woodiwiss goes too far in accusing US officials of latching on to organized crime myths as a justification for the "building of America's national security state." He approvingly cites an analyst who accuses the United States of neglecting completely any study of US prison gangs, when in fact US agencies have published and funded a substantial amount of research on this topic. At one point he presents the "American intelligence community" as a credulous monolith, taken in by charlatans over the objections of "serious researchers."

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Narco Culture

This occasionally leaves the reader with a simplistic idea of American policymakers as racists, rubes, or both. Such sections add little to Woodiwiss's entirely justifiable conclusion that US crime policy is wracked by inanity, and it ignores the substantial evolution in American crime policy over the past eight years. It also fails to consider the many brilliant people who work in the US government, pushing a massive bureaucracy away from its more pernicious habits.

Woodiwiss shows great nuance and rigor in testing popular assumptions related to criminal groups, and had he applied the same appreciation of subtleties in discussing official policies, including the errors, the book would be stronger.

But if "Double Crossed" isn't perfect, it remains an incisive and thought-provoking consideration of the pathologies infecting US organized crime control. Anyone interested in the subject, especially the men and women charged with crafting US strategy, would do well to ponder its conclusions.

*Shortly after this review was published, Woodiwiss reached out to InSight Crime to provide a response. His letter appears below. It has been lightly edited.

Dear editor,

The following is a response to a review of my book "Double Crossed: The Failure of Organized Crime Control" written by Patrick Corcoran and published by InSight Crime on July 5. I emphasize response rather than rebuttal because I believe that Patrick and I agree on many more aspects of organized crime and its control than we disagree. Particularly, I would agree that there is "a virtually indisputable argument for a rethink of American strategy" on organized crime.

The journey to the writing of "Double Crossed" began in 1983 when I was in Washington, DC. I was able to interview an assistant counsel for the Reagan Commission on Organized Crime. This had recently been set up and was about to begin three years of hearings. I first asked him about how the commission was going to approach the issue of corruption and organized crime. Every competently researched study had demonstrated that the two phenomena were inextricably intertwined. The counsel, however, started to get irritated. He said that the commission was only going to investigate "organized crime"; "corruption," he said, was for others to look at. I then asked him about prison gangs. I thought the question was not unreasonable since, weeks earlier, Reagan's Attorney General had identified prison gangs such as La Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood as among the most significant "emerging organized crime threats." He refused to answer and suggested that the interview was over. I was only able to stay in the room by switching the questioning to Triads, a safely foreign "emerging organized crime" threat.

The Reagan commission's main achievement was in making anti-money laundering a key component in organized crime control strategy. Its first report included a draft of the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986. This insisted that it was the government's intention to protect the financial community rather than police it. Money laundering, it argued, had a damaging effect upon the financial community. As a result bankers were deputized as sheriffs to stem the flow of "dirty" money into their institutions as the key component of what became an international anti-money laundering regime. Three decades later this effort has achieved very little. There are regular reports of major banks found to be involved in the laundering of drug profits, for example. Money managers have since proliferated and make it easy to clean dirty money. There are also "secrecy havens" dotted around the world with the potential to protect the ill-gotten gains of every possible variety of organized criminal, operating from anywhere in the world. Despite the good intentions of the effort, anti money laundering laws and practices can be evaded by simple processes that could begin with the words "offshore banking" typed into a search engine. UK governments in recent decades, with their failure to manage their Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, bear much responsibility for this kindness to criminals. I have elaborated on this point in a piece written with my colleague Mary Alice Young for a Tax Justice network blog.  

In "Double Crossed" and my earlier book "Gangster Capitalism" (2005) I offer a history of organized crime that explains how fables woven round the careers of Depression-era gangsters were circulated by opportunistic politicians and career bureaucrats, notably Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, to distract attention from failed moral reform policies and corruption in high places. Organized crime mythology always had a function -- Al Capone mythology justified the federal government moving into law and order matters previously reserved to the individual cities and states. Lucky Luciano mythology helped justify the Hale Boggs act of 1951 that introduced the concept of mandatory minimums for drug offenders into law and thus paved the way for the mass imprisonment of recent decades. Luciano mythology also lay behind the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 which was the template not only for organized crime control efforts in the US itself but also for similar efforts around the world. Meyer Lansky mythology was at its peak during the 1970s and in the run up to the Reagan commission's hearing. This helped justify the American and international response to money laundering.

I don't believe that American policy makers are "racists, rubes or both" as Patrick suggests. Rather I believe that US government thinking on organized crime has been clouded by repeated misrepresentation and obfuscation. The issue of organized crime today has been predefined by the likes of Charles G. Dawes, William Randolph Hearst (heavily influenced by Mussolini's alleged successes against the Mafia), Estes Kefauver, John McClellan, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Anslinger and Richard Nixon -- all long dead but, in terms of organized crime control policy, all much more influential than the living. I would agree with Patrick about the many brilliant people who work in the US government, "pushing a massive bureaucracy away from its more pernicious habits." However, isn't it possible, likely even, that these brilliant people would also agree, off the record, that they are hamstrung by predefinitions and deep-rooted but wrong-headed assumptions that hold sway within their bureaucracy?

I should also have made clear that although US agencies have indeed published and funded a substantial amount of research on the topic of prison gangs these groups do not usually appear under the category of "organized crime" -- a simple search of the FBI's website will confirm this. In fact clicking on the section called "Organized Crime" gets you straight to "Transnational Organized Crime" and includes detail on plenty of foreigners but few, if any, organized criminals born or nurtured within the US, aside from some reference to "La Cosa Nostra" families. Prison gangs are on the site but tucked away in a separate section despite being involved in activities that are not unlike those of Capone, Luciano and the rest. Allowing career criminals to network and interact with younger opportunists continues to have a negative impact outside, as well as inside, prison walls.

Because I am a historian I can work with a literal definition of organized crime -- systematical illegal activity for power or money, rather than one constructed by xenophobic moralists. I therefore believe that the tidal wave of mortgage fraud and foreclosure fraud in recent years should be considered as "organized crime." These crimes undoubtedly had devastating consequences -- foreclosure fraud, for example, kicked millions of families out of their homes based on false evidence by mortgage companies that had no legal right to foreclose. I think also that the patterns of illegal behavior within large corporations involved in environmental and health and safety violations should also be considered "organized crime." I would not advocate draconian prison terms for white collar offenders, however. This would simply overstretch an already overstretched prison system and perhaps add layers of sophistication to criminal networks that originate in prisons. I would advocate organized crime control policy being based on reducing the extent of criminal networks and taking away opportunities for successful illegal activity. A start could be made by smarter checks and balances on business behavior accompanied by a complete overhaul of current drug prohibition policy, minimizing rather than maximizing the harm that some substances can cause.    

Since the Reagan commission issued its reports in the 1980s the US has given the rest of the world the idea that American organized crime control policies "have contained or marginalized organized crime" to use the words of a supportive academic. I would suggest the word "normalized" as more accurate. Rich countries like Britain and poor countries like Mexico have sadly followed an organized crime control template that was made in the USA and built on xenophobic conspiracy theories. Organized crime control policies therefore need to be constructed again from scratch and built strictly on evidence and rational thought. The aim should be to decrease, rather than increase, corrupt possibilities. Such a paradigm shift might take a while!

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