The charge sheets read like a script from the heyday of Hollywood's love affair with the mob, replete with made men, consiglieres and vows of undying loyalty to the boss. In a move that made it seem time had stood still since The Godfather first astonished America in 1972, the FBImafia. today renewed its decades-long battle against the US
In a devastating blow to the organised crime families of the north-eastern US, more than 800 FBI and police officers made the largest roundup of Cosa Nostra bosses and soldiers in US history. Some 127 mafia members and their accomplices were charged.
The arrests in New York, Newark in New Jersey and Rhode Island were both an indication of the mafia's enduring power in the US and of the determination of the FBI to regain the initiative in its struggle with the organisation.
Announcing the arrests, Eric Holder, the US attorney general, said they "send a clear message that we are committed – and determined – to eradicate these criminal enterprises once and for all and to bring their members to justice".
The sweep struck seven families: all five with headquarters in New York – the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese – as well as the largely New Jersey-based DeCavalcante family and the New England branch centred on Providence in Rhode Island and Boston. Among those in custody are top figureheads, including the former boss of the New England branch, Luigi Manocchio, 83.
The scale of the assault on the mafia is underlined by the fate of the Colombo family, which has had its entire leadership other than those already in jail taken down: its street boss, acting underboss and consigliere, as well as four captains and eight of its soldiers.
The charge sheet includes alleged murders dating back to the 1980s. Holder said they included not only "classic mob hits to eliminate perceived rivals" but also senseless murders such as the killing of two victims in a public bar in a dispute over a spilled drink. Other charges run from narcotics trafficking to extortion, illegal gambling, arson, loan sharking and trade union racketeering.
Defendants are listed with their mob aliases and nicknames: Fed Alesi aka Whiney; Anthony Cavezza aka Tony Bagels; Giovanni Vella aka Mousey; Bartolomeo Vernace aka Pepe or Bobby Glasses.
The indictments lay out the hierarchy of families that have changed remarkably little. Cosa Nostra is ruled by a panel drawn from all its families called the "Commission". Each crime family is headed by a boss, assisted by an underboss and adviser, known as a consigliere. They manage "crews" headed by a captain or "capodecina" and consisting of soldiers and associates.
To become a member of the family, or in the vocabulary a "goodfella" or "wiseguy", individuals go through an initiation ceremony in which they commit themselves to a life of crime.
Such a dramatic move against the mob is not just good publicity for the FBI and the justice department, it also signals a change of gear within law enforcement with regard to the mafia. In recent years there has been a perception that the authorities took their eye off the ball, allowing organised crime to regroup.
"After 9/11 the emphasis of law enforcement shifted, with resources going to fight terrorism," said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police captain in Newark. "Investigations died down, allowing the mafia to make a resurgence."
Shane said the law enforcement agencies were now having to make a sustained effort to regain the initiative. "There's always a time lag getting back into the game: players change, operations change."
Last September Holder redirected additional firepower to the fight. As a further boost, yesterday he announced the merger of the organised crime division and the gang unit of the department of justice, to create an elite group of prosecutors devoted to running down the mafia.
The focus of the arrests suggest the crime families have once again tightened their grip on certain areas of the economy, notably illegal gambling, drug trafficking and construction. Holder says their influence amounts to a tax on various sectors.
They also maintain a stranglehold on some unions. Several arrests were made of officials belonging to the Longshoremen's Association working on the New Jersey waterfront, as well as a cement and concrete union prevalent on New York building sites.
The FBI has gained the upper hand by securing the co-operation of a number of high-profile "super grasses", who have been prepared to drop the sacred "omerta" – the eternal vow of silence – in exchange for a plea bargain.
Decline of the family: Mighty mobs that stumbled
At its most powerful under "Teflon Don" John Gotti, the organisation had coast-to-coast reach and was the most influential of New York's five families. But it was penetrated by the FBI, culminating in the 1990s defection of second-in-command Salvatore Gravano.
The family displayed an ambition which, under Lucky Luciano, laid the foundation for a multinational crime empire. In the 1950s, the same ambition sparked infighting that almost crippled the organisation. After this, Frank Costello – having survived a hit – became one of the few mob bosses to retire, dying in his sleep in 1973.
Named after Gaetano "Three Fingers Brown" Lucchese, the family had strongholds in East Harlem and the Bronx. But in the 1990s, former acting boss Alphonse D'Arco turned informer.
Joseph Bonanno's career included gun- running for Al Capone. The family is best known for its infiltration by FBI agent Donnie Brasco and for boss Joseph Massino turning informer in 2004.
Named after Joseph A Colombo, who became boss in 1963. The family is known for its violent internal conflicts, including the Gallo wars of the 1960s and a battle for control in the early 1990s.