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On the way out

Gone are the days of the big mafia boss

Kissing the ring in The Godfather (1972)

Something has changed in the American criminal underworld, says The Economist. Gangs used to operate as “tightly knit, hierarchical organisations”. The likes of La Cosa Nostra (the Italian-American mafia) and the Latin Kings (a massive organised crime group) had a big boss at the top, then powerful lieutenants and enforcers overseeing vast networks of lower-level members. These loyal foot soldiers had to follow strict rules – not taking hard drugs, say – with violent reprisals for those who didn’t. Now, everything is different. Gangs are smaller and much less organised: they typically comprise a few dozen young men “who band together” out of self-preservation. And these “trigger-happy” guys don’t follow the old codes of conduct. Gangland executions have become rarer; random street shootings more common.

The reason for all this is that America’s law enforcement officials have done too good a job. Ever since Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico) in 1970, the feds have used the law to put hundreds of major gang leaders behind bars. There are still criminal kingpins: the drug importers, the brokers, the money launderers. But to reduce their chances of getting collared, they employ far fewer gang members and instead hire “freelance” criminals as and when they need them. As the University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter says: “The gig economy is alive and well in the criminal world.”