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. ”