End of a wiseguy

April 14, 1992

The Teflon finally wore off. John Gotti, the thug of thugs, the murderer of murderers, the corrupter of the corrupted, has finally got his comeuppance. Dubbed the "Teflon Don" because he eluded justice three times in the past six years, Gotti has been found guilty of enough crimes to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

Like many organisms that flash their most brilliant colors as they are dying, the flamboyant Gotti was a spectacular example of a vanishing species. Armed with stronger legal weapons, federal prosecutors have been beheading organized crime gangs around the country for the past decade. Several of New York's notorious five Mafia families have already been truncated by the imprisonment of their leaders. So have major gangs in a half-dozen other cities. How Gotti's gang, the old Gambino family, will react is not yet clear. But the point is that it really doesn't matter any longer.

The old-fashioned gangs evolved from tenement districts populated by immigrants, flourished on their helplessness and prospered on illegal booze. They are now anachronisms. Their greatest weapon, the fear of retaliation against anyone who defied them, has been blunted. The strongest evidence against Gotti was a snitch who had been close to the throne, combined with Gotti's own words captured on microphones hidden in his headquarters. What's left of the Mafia high command will spend the rest of its days looking over its shoulders and conducting business in open fields.

Still, law enforcement officials can't rejoice too much. The Mafia may be dying, but large-scale crime still thrives. The cancer of narcotics not only eats away at this country's social fabric but it also injects corruption into the body politic. Murderous gangs with newer immigrant roots, nourished by many of the same conditions that afflicted earlier arrivals at the turn of the century, flourish in many metropolitan areas. White-collar crime has become equally insidious. John Gotti may be headed for jail, but his $500 shoes will be filled.

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