Mobsters, A Field Guide

From the Albanian mob to the Japanese yakuza...

Coffee bar restaurant, Albania. 2015. Enri Canaj. Copyright Magnum.

Each Wednesday, our newsletter takes readers around the world, exploring a single theme through a number of places. We call it our Field Guide. In honor of James Caan and Tony Sirico, two iconic actors best known for their portrayal of gangsters who both recently passed, we’re devoting this week’s Field Guide to organized crime, from the Albanian mob to the Japanese yakuza.

Disorganized Crime

How the Albanian mafia went global

By Alex Hannaford

The takedown happened over five days in the chilly spring of 2009 in suburban New Jersey. The main targets: the two ringmasters of a 26-strong Albanian organized crime gang—Kujtim Lika, a baseball cap-wearing gambler who went by the name Timmy, and Myfit “Mike” Dika, who sported a conspicuous tattoo of a bald eagle on his left bicep and the words “Death Before the Sun” on his right.

Jim Farley, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI, likes to describe his role as similar to that of Joe Torre, former manager of the Yankees baseball team—to keep his team focused and happy; “Make sure the players were really doing the job.” But if Operation Black Eagle failed, the buck stopped with him. And as the largest undercover infiltration of Albanian organized crime in the FBI’s history, Farley knew failure wasn’t an option.

This was the culmination of a four-year investigation into Lika and Dika’s gang’s plan to smuggle over 220 lbs of heroin from Albania into the port of New Jersey in shipping containers, under the guise of a front company that sold furniture. During those four years, Farley’s agents infiltrated the Albanian gang, buying heroin, marijuana, oxycontin, steroids, counterfeit sneakers, guns and jewelry. Like the Italian-American mafia, Albanian organized crime gangs were tight-knit and hard to penetrate. But what made it even harder was that there was little evidence of any real structure or hierarchy.

What Operation Black Eagle brought into sharp relief was just how much of an outsized impact such a tiny country in the middle of Europe had on organized crime abroad. Today, Albanian organized crime is the fastest-growing criminal threat in Europe, responsible for distributing up to 40 percent of the heroin consumed there, and it has tentacles in the United States, Australia and the Middle East.

But how and why did this happen?

Read the full essay here.


Did you Know?

Russia’s mafia, or bratva, can trace its origins to the Stalin regime, when millions were sent to Soviet labor camps, or gulags. In those labor camps, criminals established their reputations, becoming vorami v zakone  (or, “thieves-in-law”) if they were lucky. But when Stalin began recruiting soldiers from the gulags to fight in World War II, these emerging criminals were forced to choose between betraying the thief code of never working with the government and finding an early way out of prison.

There is a genre of walking tours in Medellín, Colombia that cover the stomping ground of the famous drug king Pablo Escobar. Many glamorize the drug lord’s life, but Carlos Palau’s (pictured) tour is different. As a police officer during the narco wars, when he was part of the team that spent years tracking Pablo Escobar, Carlos says what propelled him was seeing a future for the country without Escobar. “I believed in Colombia,” he says. So on the tours he now gives with his company, Medellín Paradise Travel, Carlos is determined to ensure his customers are aware of the blood that was shed in the hunt for the notorious Escobar.

Did you Know?

In Afghanistan and the “Golden Triangle”—a region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar borders meet—organized crime is largely built around trafficking opium, a drug grown in both regions. In Asia, traffickers move opium from the Golden Triangle to Hong Kong, where it enters the market for illegal consumption.



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Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

The judge, a formidably heavy-featured man, rolled up the sleeves of his black robe as if to physically chastise the two young men standing before the bench. His face was cold with majestic contempt. But there was something false in all this that Amerigo Bonasera sensed but did not yet understand.

—Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Kuniko took a deep breath the moment she had escaped Masako’s house. The weather was showing signs of improvement, and there were even patches of blue sky here and there. The air was still damp, but it felt clean and fresh and it seemed to revive her a little. What spoiled it all, though, was this black bag she had with her, containing fifteen more bags full of the most horrifying stuff. At the thought, she gagged, her face twisting in a scowl. Even the air in her lungs which had seemed so clean a minute ago now felt warm and sickening.

—Natsuo Kirino, Out



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