Brave New Underworld


April 07, 1992|By JUAN GONZALEZ

NEW YORK. — With mob boss John Gotti trading in his silk suits for a lifetime of polyester prison garb, Tommy Gambino permanently banned from the garment industry and Vic Orena facing a murder rap, the current generation of Italian gangsters is mostly filed in the garbage can of New York crime history.

Who will all those veteran detectives and FBI agents who built careers tracking the inner workings of the five families go after now? And what area of crime will those Hollywood producers glamorize next?

Welcome to the brave new underworld.

It is a largely uncharted frontier where organized crime means Chinese gambling and heroin networks, Colombian cocaine cartels, Dominican crack dealers, Jamaican drug and murder posses, Russian jewelry and credit-scam gangs.

It is a world where the five Mafia families long ago became relics from another era, still carrying some deadly force but largely peripheral to the new criminal organizations taking control of this town.

During the long trial of Gotti, the underboss turned informant Sammy Bull Gravano revealed that Gotti got as much as $1.2 million in a year from the family's concrete operations.

Chump change.

In late 1990, Hector Delgado, an Ecuadoran businessman and naturalized U.S. citizen who runs a string of travel agencies in Queens, New Jersey and Miami, was charged with running a money-laundering operation that funneled $230 million to the Colombian cartels and with making $22 million as his percentage.

Delgado pleaded guilty to a count of illegal transfer of funds and is back on Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, running a lucrative travel and money-order business.

In 1990, the feds indicted 18 alleged members of the Cali cartel in Queens and on Long Island. The ring, led by Ricardo Espinoza, was charged with distributing nearly 3 tons of cocaine in just four months. That's $54 million worth, wholesale.

Last year federal agents nabbed 44 alleged members of the Cali cartel and seized $1.6 million and $1.2 million in cash during May and September in two vehicles driven by the defendants, as well as nearly a ton and a half of cocaine at four different locations.

But the arrests are only a small part of the vast drug business in Queens. Most of the time, the largely Anglo narcotics officers and federal agents probing these operations are like fish out of water -- they don't know the language, the players or the customs of the criminals they're investigating.

Each of the dozen or so gangland killings in the most recent Italian mob war -- the fight for control of the Colombo family -- has been reported in the press with excruciating detail. There is no shortage of lawmen who can explain them.

Yet more than 200 murders have been committed during the past two years in Jackson Heights and Corona -- half of them unsolved and many linked to turf battles between Cali and Medellin assassins. Drug-enforcement agents and police are still groping in the dark, and there is not one reporter in New York who could even begin to describe the structure of the Colombian drug rings.

Only the Spanish-language journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, who was cut down by an unknown assassin's bullet March 11, had even gotten close to understanding the structure of the city's most dangerous criminal operation. Long before police even heard of their existence, Mr. De Dios began writing about a mysterious group of drug traffickers and money launderers named the Nine Kings, who masquerade as prominent Queens businessmen.

The scandal of law-enforcement ignorance grows worse with Chinese or other Asian gangs, who now are the dominant force in heroin, because law enforcement has been slow to hire agents who could penetrate and understand the groups.

Out of 27,000 city cops, only about 200 are Asian or Pacific Islanders. Chinese gangs who speak dozens of dialects are virtually immune to electronic surveillance or infiltration because there may be no cops who speak the language.

Then there are the Jamaican posses, possibly without equal in terms of sheer violence. They have a stranglehold on crack in the inner city.

So while white cops and reporters keep the spotlight on fashionable relics like John Gotti, this town is being drugged and robbed blind by a brave new underworld. And nobody knows their names, much like the jury that closed the curtain on Gotti's wardrobe.

A5 Juan Gonzalez writes for the New York Daily News.

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