The American Mafia, also known as ‘the Mob,’ has attained the status of pop icons within American culture. This outcome has been due to movies which have depicted members of the Italian Mob as ruthless but likable individuals. Many films centered on the Mafia have a scene where a group of tough-looking mobsters sit around a table playing a game of poker. This famous scene is probably why many people associate casino table games with the Mob. Is the Mafia involved in gambling? To answer this question, we should first gain an understanding of who the Mafia are.
History of the Mafia
The term ‘Mafia’ primarily refers to an intensely hierarchical Italian American criminal society that has existed in the US from the 1900s. Members of the organization are predominantly of Italian origin because the Mafia is an offshoot of the much older Sicilian Mafia. Sicily is in Europe and has been an autonomous part of Italy from the time of the Romans.
As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has been conquered and ruled by multiple empires. This successive occupation by oppressive regimes is the reason why the people on the island acquired their rebellious streak. The Sicilian Mafia could itself be a descendant of revolutionary groups formed to oppose the foreign occupation of the island.
The Mafia in America
The Mafia emerged in poor immigrant neighborhoods of major American cities on the east coast in the late 1890s and early 1900s. During this period, the fascist dictator Mussolini was in power in Italy and was hell-bent at eradicating all opposition to his regime. The outcome was political upheaval in Italy, marked by the arrest and execution of members of the Sicilian Mafia. The result was a significant departure of Sicilian immigrants from the Island to the Americas. Some immigrants ended up in Brazil and Argentina while a notable majority arrived on the shores of the USA.
The harsh living conditions and high unemployment escalated crime in ghettos like New York East Harlem. As a means of protection and as a way to pool meager resources together, residents in Sicilian neighborhoods began to form loose coalitions made up of skilled and unskilled laborers. The government opposed the formation of such groups because they represented opposition to the rule of law in the ghettos. This outcome caused the loose coalitions among Sicilian immigrants to morph into a hierarchical underground organization. The membership grew to include Sicilian immigrants from all major ghettos on the east coast.
This is how the American Mafia came into being. The essential unit of the Mafia was, and still, is the ‘family’ whereby family refers to each distinct underground criminal organization in the Mob. Because New York ghettos were at the epicenter, the first five leading Mafia families were all from New York. These Mafia families are Lucchese, Gambino, Genovese, Bonnano, and Colombo. These Mafia families were involved in both legit and illegit businesses. The organization had vast networks of legit grocery stores, restaurants, and clubs. It was also involved in several underground criminal activities, which included illegal bookmaking operations, illegal gambling pools, illegal gambling halls in addition to drug and liquor trafficking.
The Mafia and Legal Gambling
The Mafia had been involved in illegal gambling in major east coast cities before the government legalized gambling in 1931. The government had the desire to entice the Mafia to move their gambling operations to the state of Nevada and away from the east coast. In this way, the administration hoped to put a leash on the Mafia’s gambling revenue stream as well as lower crime in east coast cities. The 1931 gambling legislation turned out to be a genius move by the federal government.
By 1940 major Mafia families from New York and Chicago had set up bases in Las Vegas. Major Mafia families did not waste the opportunity to enter legal business and were among the first groups to investments in Las Vegas. The Desert Inn, the Thunderbird, and Flamingo are some of the earliest and best-known casinos with certified ties to the New York Mafia. By 1946, the Mafia had been playing a pivotal role in the transformation of Highway 91 to the glamorous Las Vegas strip.
The Chicago Mob was not to be left behind for long and by 1950 was behind the creation of the Stardust, Fremont, Sahara, and Riviera. By this time, Las Vegas was the number one gambling destination in the US. An increasingly large number of tourists came from the west coast and southwest as compared to the east coast in the early days. This could be because the involvement of the Mafia was mostly unknown in the west. The infamy of the Mafia did keep tourists from visiting Las Vegas early on, but this changed as the reputation of their casinos spread.
By 1970, the Mafia families that had been in Las Vegas from its inception found a way to recoup their investment. This opportunity was in the form of the legislature that allowed public corporations to own and run casinos. The families made colossal profits by selling their casino establishments to other public and private investors. A good example is when a New York Mafia family sold the Desert Inn Casino to multimillionaire Howard Hughes. It is worth noting that a substantial number of Las Vegas casinos do not have any affiliation with the Mafia. Private mega-corporations, with no ties to the Mafia, now own most of the casinos.
The Mafia in Italy
Despite the attempts of Mussolini to purge the island of Sicily of the Mafia, the original Sicilian Mafia has evolved to become a significant political power in Italy. Well-known Mafioso has gone on to hold significant positions in government and industry in this Mediterranean Nation. However, even in their home country, the Italian Mafia is no stranger to controversy. The group has been linked to known attempts to undermine the government’s gambling monopoly in Italy.
A national-wide new feature has exposed that the Italian Mafia is behind a scheme targeting government-approved slot machines. The group is said to have sought the aid of foreign hackers in rigging the slot machines connected to the Italian government gambling control network. The outcome was that a percentage of the money from the slot machines was diverted to Mafia offshore coffers. Computer hackers were able to install links to external gambling platforms by creating a parallel networks to those controlled by the government.
Further investigations have revealed that the Italian Mafia has been involved in the manufacture, supply, and installation of cloned slot machines across the nation. The affected gaming machines have included well-known brands, including Rischiatutto and Normandia 2 slot machines. The Italian government asserts that it has taken steps to eliminate the Mafia backed slot machine smuggling ring. The government has also promised that gambling within the country is to remain under the firm control of the administration.
The present-day Mafia in the United States is known to be still active in northeastern cities, including New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and New England. The Mob is also present in several cities in the Midwestern United States, including Chicago, Kansas, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. The organization has a minimal presence in the south and west coasts in cities including Denver, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. However, the Mafia today are not as involved in the gambling arena as they were once were. Any affiliation of a gambling establishment to the Mafia is more likely professional than criminal.
Other than the USA and Italy, there is hardly any other country in which the Mafia has been directly involved in gambling. This, however, does not mean that there aren’t other equally organized criminal organizations that might be interested in gambling. These groups may be active in the gambling sector within their country of origin.
This can be said of such countries such as Russia, India, Malaysia, and a vast host of other countries the world over. Such criminal groups could be involved in the manufacture and distribution of gaming equipment. They may also be involved in the creation of legal or illegal gambling establishments. The involvement could also be higher up in government where a criminal group can influence legislation affecting gambling. It is virtually impossible to rule out the involvement of criminal groups in gambling because of the undeniable lure of huge earnings. However, you need not fear when visiting a legal betting establishment anywhere in the USA.