Godfather IV

In the empire of crime, the U.S. mafia is just a supporting actor

Thanks to Hollywood, the worldwide image of organized crime has had a “Made in America” label since the 1930s, when Edward G. Robinson defined the classic cinema mafioso in Little Caesar, a thinly veiled biography of Al Capone. Nearly half a century later, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy was still convincing audiences from Singapore to Helsinki that the American mob was the final word in gangsterism.

In fact, the U.S. mafia is just a supporting actor on the international scene today — ready to do business with its Sicilian cousins, or the Colombian and Chinese cartels, but hardly in the same league as the rulers of the Empire of Crime. Part of the explanation lies in successful police efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to break the ties that linked the Castellammare clans to their distant relatives in New York.

But the deeper causes have to do with business acumen, pure and simple: The European, Latin American, and Asian crime machines have been far quicker to recognize — and exploit — the possibilities of the global economy. Like the chief executives of many U.S. corporations, America’s godfathers have been absorbed in domestic business, leaving the vastly larger profits of multinational commerce to more imaginative entrepreneurs overseas. Nor have American crime syndicates shown much interest in politics; unlike the governments of Italy, Russia, and Mexico, for instance, Washington remains innocent of widespread organized crime influence.

By contrast, the American consumer market remains as critical to the health of the Empire of Crime as it is to every other major exporter. Every twist in U.S. drug enforcement policies is immediately echoed in the production figures, costs, and transport logistics that regulate the dark underworld of the global economy.

The Empire of Crime can’t do without the United States, which is why the United States can’t afford to view the Empire as someone else’s problem.