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Charges against mob boss show Mafia alive and well in New York

NEW Yorkers have been given a rude awakening to the continued presence of the Mafia in their midst with the arrest of Danny "the Lion" Leo, the reputed boss of the city's most powerful crime family.

Many had assumed the tide of prosperity pouring through New York had washed away the Mafia clans who once terrorised their city.

Instead, it appears the mafia is very much alive.

Prosecutors say that Leo, 65, arrested on charges of loan sharking and extortion, is head of the powerful Genovese family, one of the so-called "five families" that ruled the Mafia in New York for half a century.

"Two hundred or so members of this violent, ruthless criminal organisation can only commit acts of violence with the approval of the acting boss," said Eric Snyder, the assistant US attorney. "That's the type of power he holds."

Leo's indictment reads like pages from Mario Puzo's bestseller The Godfather. There are "soldiers", the hit men, "capos" or captains, and defendants with colourful nicknames. Prosecutors claim that Leo's right-hand man is "Fat Charlie" Salzano, a 26 stone enforcer caught on wiretaps threatening to shoot his victims.

Leo has been charged with conspiring to demand $250,000 (125,000) protection from a Harlem taxi company owner, with Salzano promising in the wiretap evidence that he will "turn you out" if the money is not paid.

Leo, who lives in a 1 million mansion in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York, insists he is innocent, pleading not guilty to all charges.

His supporters point to his almost unblemished criminal record: he has a single conviction, 25 years ago, for contempt of court when he refused to testify in a murder trial.

But prosecutors say he is proof of the continuing existence, and prosperity, of arguably the biggest and most successful criminal organisation in history - the infamous five families.

They were first revealed to the world in evidence in a 1959 investigation. The five families had been set up before the Second World War as an arrangement whereby the city's crime gangs attempted to rationalise their organisations. Killings of justice officials were banned, a "commission" set up to regulate disputes, and the omerta, the Sicilian vow of silence, was cemented in place with a promise of execution against any member breaking it.

The Genovese family, named after its founder, Vito Genovese, was arguably the most powerful, smashing its way to the top by bringing mass heroin smuggling to the United States.

Leo is accused of taking the mantle of leader from the former Genovese boss Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. When Gigante died in prison two years ago many assumed that his "family" - actually a grouping of several families - would plough their money into legal enterprises and leave the gangster life to the newer, hungrier, gangs from Russia and Central America.

Leo's arrest comes a fortnight after the justice department announced a separate trial of two men accused of being from the same crime family, charged with conspiracy to murder.

And New Yorkers are waiting to see if it will mark the start of a new campaign by the authorities against organised crime.

Mr Synder insists that the Mafia remains potent and that the trial will expose the hold that criminal gangs - effectively a 50 billion industry - have in the US.

 
 
 

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