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Return of the Wiseguys: The American Mafia’s Uncanny Resilience

As the outrageously strange story continues to unfold regarding the March 13th murder of Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali (the alleged Gambino Family Underboss), the world has again become fixated on the elusive, sinister and fascinating subject of the American Mafia.

Anthony Comello

Anthony Comello in court this week. Still courtesy USA Today Network

The alleged perpetrator, Anthony Comello, appeared in a New Jersey courtroom earlier this week. He will return to face charges in Staten Island, where the murder occurred.

The killing, at least so we’re told, was not Mafia-related.

According to police, Comello, 24, a virtual nobody turned cocky, camera-mugging, MAGA proponent, was angry at Cali for trying to halt a relationship with his niece.

But the murder provides a chance to reflect on the history of organized crime, particularly in New York, and the wildly bizarre world it inhabits—and the question that seems to be surging again in a number of places, in light of this, and a slew of other recent gangland-related headlines, including the Newark dope bust and the El Chapo conviction.

“Does the Mafia really still exist?”

 Short answer: yes.

The long answer is a bit more complicated.

The mob in America is a living, breathing entity firmly entrenched in the landscapes of both U.S. crime and pop culture.

Regarding the former, there’s been decades of steady decline in power (obviously no ruling power ever remains at the top forever) and it’s certainly not the mob of the past.

On the latter, it’s not the stuff of Hollywood’s celluloid grandeur, but it will forever be a delicious guilty pleasure to live through vicariously.

Editor’s note: In 2017, the “Today Show” celebrated the 45th anniversary of The Godfather” with an interview with some of the film’s surviving stars.

The American Mob, Italian version, has always been “alive”—albeit on life support at times— and now the subject itself has been treated to a bit of a resurrection or resuscitation of sorts. While the facts in the Cali murder mystery keep getting weirder by the day, more questions remain than any logical answers.

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(L-R) Seymour Magoon, Dasher Abbandando, Happy Maione. Murder Inc. wiseguys, 1940

The characters change, the places differ, but you can bet on this: things are never as they seem, and there are always three sides to every story. We only need to recall the freakishly macabre antics and stranger-than-fiction revelations that emerged during nearly every era since organized crime became tightly-woven into the thread of New York and beyond:

The murder or overthrow of gang bosses certainly isn’t a new concept. What’s the common denominator?

Mystery.

We still don’t technically know the “whole” truth of any of it. History, and the mob itself, has a funny way of never letting all the cats out of the proverbial body bags, at least not all at once. What can be verified however is this: the American Mob never ceases to mystify, adapt and survive despite the daunting task it, or anyone or anything really, endures trying to remain elusive in this age of technology.

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Scene of a Camorra murder, Italy, 1998. Photos from Cippolini Collection.

Put aside, for just a moment, the unusual events and circumstances that (and will continue to) emerge during the investigation of New York’s most recent headline-making crime story. The truly critical factor demonstrated in the wake of Frank Cali’s murder has everything to do with his importance on a deeper level, a global scale.

Cali, it’s been reported, was considered an “‘ambassador” or “liaison” between the mafia here and abroad. The Sicilian mafia (along with the other criminal organizations of Italy and Europe) have made key alliances with, for example, the Latin American narcotrafficking cartels.

The equation here speaks volumes. Suffice to say although the Italian-American Mafia is no longer at the top of the crime food chain, rest assure it hasn’t taken a dirt nap, and will always adjust to maintain its survival, even if only holding on to a mere sliver of the slice the godfathers once ruled.

As long as “vice” commodities are in demand, the mob here and elsewhere will, in all likelihood, forever endure.

As for the sensational and still-unfolding tale of Frank Cali and Anthony Comello, if history taught us anything it’s that only a select few know what is really going on, as in really know.

I assure you it is not the public, not the media, not the outlying law enforcement agencies, and not those of us deemed “experts” and “historians.”

So, beyond the victim and the perpetrator, who does likely know if this was a case of coup d’etat or, as some clues are pointing, a crime of passion—or an example someone using a “mark” or “fall guy” to carry out a brazen and dangerous job?

Christian Cipollini

Christian Cipollini

Wiseguys probably know, and law enforcement agencies that specifically keep tabs on organized crime know much more than what will ever be delivered during press conferences.

This story probably didn’t begin with the murder of Cali, and it most certainly isn’t over with the arrest of Comello.

Additional Reading: NYC Mafia Familes More Powerful Than They’ve been in Years: FBI

Christian Cipollini is an award-winning organized crime historian and a collector of rare crime related photographs & artifacts. Readers’ comments welcome.