What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

THE LEADER OF the Philadelphia field division of the FBI’s organized crime unit, Pete Kowenhoven, wouldn’t confirm or deny the rumored pending indictment of Joe Ligambi. But he positions the organization as being more powerful than it might seem. He says that when mob associates are included, meaning criminals who earn money for the enterprise without being official members, the Philly mob’s ranks swell to 150 men. And he (dis)credits the Italian mob with gambling, loan-sharking and extortion. “Real people do get hurt,” he says. “They’ve been good at keeping quiet, and they aren’t as big a deal as some of the other things we’re investigating, but they’re still bad guys.”

My talk with Kowenhoven makes me think of the old cartoon where the guard dog and the wolf punch in at the same time clock, and spend their days trying to outwit each other. Like the wolf and the dog, the feds and the mob have been at this for years. And some criminologists think it’s time to move on. “In comparison to the Latino drug organizations, pretty much everything is a small operation,” says Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The old mobsters just aren’t in the same league, especially when you consider reports that these Latin cartels are aligning themselves with terrorists.”

High-level crime, it seems, has truly become an international phenomenon. The National Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia division lists more than 20 most-wanted fugitives online. Right now, that list consists of people born in Russia, Jamaica, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cambodia, all of whom apparently came to Philly to do bad things, on behalf of organizations that reach across national borders. These are the people filling our streets with the drugs that lead to turf wars and homicides.

By way of comparison, the Philly mob is most active in all the things our country seems most conflicted about. Loan-sharking is bad, but between punitive late fees and sudden rate hikes, credit card companies also seem to be engaged in usury. Our government once treated gambling as a true social evil. Now we hold daily lotteries, the Pennsylvania state legislature rammed casinos down our collective throat, and Delaware just legalized sports-betting. Even prostitution — and I got conflicting information about whether the Philly mob is sponsoring prostitution — is legal in two states, Nevada and Rhode Island.

A former interim U.S. attorney for this district, Laurie Magid, wanted to reshape the Philadelphia office, wedging the force dedicated to organized crime into the drug-trafficking division. But a parade of ex-law enforcement officials denounced the idea, and she tabled the plan. Kenney says he understands, from a purely psychological perspective, why the proposed change sparked so much opposition. “It’s hard to let go,” he says. “You get a synergistic relationship that develops between bad guys and good guys, and the passage to another time isn’t easy for either of them. ”

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  • Matt

    Came across this article today. I live very near the "social club" on 13th street, and always had my theories on just what type of place it is. Now I know. Good read. And for the record, most of the clients there are good people, just the younger crowd making a ruckus at 3am that's a problem.

  • Jill

    I moved from Center City to 11th and Wolf a couple of years ago. I walk my dog past the club on 13th Street all the time. Like the previous commenter, I always had my suspicions, but the guys outside have always been courteous, even complimenting my dog. Oh, and the food at Bomb Bomb is really, really good. I'm really enjoying the neighborhood, which seems easier to do without Merlino-type antics happening.

  • Suite jimmy

    The Philadelphia{MOB} has always been an entiny unto itself,however, reporters will never get the true story straight it remains hidden for over a hundred years…EMERTA is alive and well!!!

    • Philly

      Omerta you mean. Code of honor / code of silence… Very powerful and the way to live. My grandpop always said keep your mouth shut no matter what!!

  • Pasquale

    Plain and simple…Uncle Joe has brought respect and stability back to this city's La Cosa Nostra. He's a proud man who have survived several regimes and is quite frankly "The Last Man Standing." He's smart in that he's learned from the mistakes the other have made. Good job Uncle Joe! We love ya!

  • Brian

    Anyone have any idea where the Grays Ferry steak and veal spot is? I can't think of anywhere on the street that Mr. Ligambi could have been talking about.

  • meat

    The only thing I can think of would be Gaupp Meat at 33rd and Dickinson,though it's wholesale. Of course, I am sure Mr. Ligambi could make that work.

  • BUCK

    I MYSELF COMMING AND GROWING UP IN ALL ITALIAN NIEGBORHOOD LIKE S.PHILLY; WALKED INTO THE BOMB BOMB BY CHANCE, LOOKED LIKE A PLACE I WAS USED TO AND WAS RIGHT, AT FIRST THERE WERE SOME SUSPISIONS PUT SOON SUBSIDED, THEY ASKED IF I WAS FROM S.PHILLY I SAID NO BUT A PLACE SIMALAR TO THIS, I DROPPED BY AFTER A DOCTORS APP. AT HUP. I TRULY THINK YOU HAVE TO BE, ITALIAIN TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE, AND HOW PEOPLE ARE I LOVE THE PLACE AND GO OFTEN AND NOT LOOKIN FOR A THRILL OF SEEING "MOBSTERS"

  • DINO

    ITALIANS ARE ALL OVER AND NOW WERE EVERYWERE PEOPLE ITALIANS ARE GREAT IN EVERTHING NOT JUST FROM BEING FROM SOUTHPHILA MY FATHER FROM SOUTH PHILA HIS FATHER FROM THE MOTHER LAND MY MOTHER FROM NORTHEAST HER PARENTS FROM ITALY THE MOTHER LAND YES IAM ALL ITALY SO WHAT IAM SOUTHPHILA ITALIAN WERE MY FATHER GREW UP OR JUST ITALIAN ITS CRAZY LOVE ALL ITALIANS GOD BLESS US ALL

  • Anonymous

    MY NAME IS NICKY AND I RELIZE THAT PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO GET RID OF ARE KIND BUT TO BE HONEST THAT AN’T STOPING ME FROM WHAT I DO AND AN’T STOPING THEM FOR WHAT THEY DO JUST GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE AND MIND YOUR OWN FUCKING BUSINESS AND GO BACK TO WHATEVER YOU FUCKING CAME FROM.

    • Danny Philly

      BADA BING. BADA BOOM. STFU.

  • erik “stick man”

    I lived in the 300 block of Wolf St. in the mid to late 80′s and early 90′s. i miss those days! I hope to soon come back with my wife and children to show them my old stomping grounds!

  • Robert Rura

    I need to know where i can find the italian mob. I’m 50% italian and i have no where else to go, i got a dui and my parents are kicking me out of the house. I grew up @ 12th and Moore and use to know people in the mob but have lost contact with them over the years. Please help me regain access to them. 215-301-7815 is my number

    • Danny Philly

      dude. stfu.