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The Commission – The Backbone of the American Mafia

Dominic Grimaldi

The Commission - The Silent Authority Behind the American Mafia

In the annals of organized crime, few entities have wielded as much power and influence as the Commission. Established in 1931 by Charles “Lucky” Luciano, this governing body served as the linchpin of the American Mafia, particularly the Five Families of New York City. The Commission’s role in mediating conflicts, approving new members, and overseeing criminal enterprises has made it a subject of fascination for historians, criminologists, and the general public alike. This article delves into the formation, purpose, and decline of the Commission, offering a comprehensive look at its impact on American society.

The Genesis of the Commission

The Castellammarese War had not only left the Mafia in disarray but also created a vacuum of power that was detrimental to the criminal enterprises they ran. The war had been a drain on resources, lives, and most importantly, on the Mafia’s ability to conduct its illicit businesses effectively. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a visionary in the criminal underworld, recognized that the Mafia’s traditional ways of doing things were outdated and unsustainable. The old guard, represented by Salvatore Maranzano and Joe Masseria, clung to a hierarchical, almost feudal system that led to internal strife and inefficiencies.

Luciano saw the bigger picture. He envisioned a Mafia that was not just a loose collection of families fighting for territory but a well-oiled machine that could maximize profits while minimizing conflicts. To achieve this, he needed to remove the existing barriers, which in this case were Maranzano and Masseria themselves. Luciano’s alliance with Meyer Lansky wasn’t just a partnership of convenience; it was a strategic move. Lansky, who was not Italian and therefore could never be a “made man” in the Mafia, brought a different skill set to the table. His understanding of finance and logistics made him the perfect ally for Luciano, who was the strategist and the enforcer.

Together, they planned and executed the assassinations of Maranzano and Masseria with military precision. These were not acts of impulse but calculated moves designed to eliminate the biggest roadblocks to Luciano’s vision. Once the duo had removed these impediments, Luciano wasted no time in setting up the Commission. It was not just a new governing body; it was a revolutionary concept that would change the face of organized crime in America.

The Original Members

The initial composition of the Commission was a carefully thought-out decision. The inclusion of the Five Families of New York was a given, considering their geographical and operational centrality to Mafia activities. However, the addition of the Buffalo Mafia and the Chicago Outfit was a nod to the national scope that Luciano envisioned for the Commission. These were powerful criminal organizations in their own right, and their inclusion was aimed at creating a more unified, national network of organized crime.

The concept of each family having one vote was groundbreaking. In a world known for strongman tactics and autocratic rule, this was a move toward collective decision-making. Luciano, despite assuming the role of chairman, made it abundantly clear that this was not a return to the old ways. He was not a supreme ruler but a facilitator, a coordinator who would help reach consensus among equals. This was a seismic shift in the power dynamics within the Mafia.

The collective decision-making process was not just a theoretical construct; it had practical implications. For instance, it eliminated the need for violent confrontations between families, as disputes could now be settled through dialogue and negotiation within the Commission. This was a win-win situation for all involved, as it allowed families to focus on expanding their criminal enterprises rather than wasting resources on internal conflicts.

Luciano’s role as chairman also had another subtle but significant implication. By not assuming absolute power, he set a precedent for future leaders, signaling that the era of autocratic bosses was over. This was a calculated move to ensure the longevity and stability of the Commission. Luciano knew that the only way the Commission could survive and thrive was by evolving, and collective decision-making was a step in that direction.

In this new setup, the Commission became more than just a governing body; it was a forum for innovation and strategic planning. It allowed for the pooling of resources and intelligence, creating synergies that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The Commission was not just Luciano’s brainchild; it was his legacy, a lasting contribution to the world of organized crime that would endure long after he was gone.

The Commission’s Role and Functionality

Mediating Conflicts

The Commission’s role as a mediator in family disputes was not just a matter of convenience; it was a strategic necessity. The Mafia, by its very nature, is a competitive environment where multiple families vie for control over lucrative criminal enterprises. This competition, if left unchecked, could easily escalate into full-blown wars that would not only result in loss of life but also attract unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. The Commission acted as a neutral ground, a sort of “United Nations” of organized crime, where bosses could come together to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.

This peaceful resolution of conflicts had a ripple effect on the entire criminal ecosystem. It allowed families to allocate resources more efficiently, focusing on growth and expansion rather than on internal strife. The Commission’s mediation also had a psychological impact on the members of the Mafia. Knowing that there was a higher authority that could intervene in conflicts gave them a sense of security and stability, which in turn led to increased loyalty and productivity. The Commission’s role as a mediator was not just about preventing bloodshed; it was about creating an environment where criminal enterprises could flourish.

Approving New Members

The Commission’s role in approving new members was a game-changer in the world of organized crime. Before the Commission, the recruitment process was haphazard at best, with each family having its own set of criteria and vetting processes. This lack of standardization was a significant risk factor, as it increased the likelihood of recruiting individuals who were either incompetent or, worse, potential informants for law enforcement agencies.

The Commission’s involvement in the recruitment process added a layer of quality control that was previously missing. It was not just about ensuring that new recruits were competent; it was about ensuring that they fit into the broader ecosystem of organized crime. The Commission acted as a gatekeeper, setting minimum standards for recruitment and ensuring that new members had the skills and temperament to succeed in this high-stakes environment. This was not just about filling the ranks; it was about building a team of professionals who could take organized crime to the next level.

Overseeing Criminal Activities

The Commission’s role in overseeing criminal activities was a complex but crucial aspect of its functionality. The Mafia is not just a social club; it’s a multi-billion-dollar enterprise with diverse revenue streams ranging from loan-sharking and gambling to narcotics trafficking and extortion. Each family had its own set of businesses, and without proper coordination, there was a high risk of overlap and conflict.

The Commission acted as the invisible hand that guided these various enterprises. It ensured that territories were clearly demarcated and that each family had its own niche. This was not just about preventing conflicts; it was about optimizing operations. By coordinating activities, the Commission allowed families to specialize in specific types of crime, leading to increased efficiency and profitability. For example, if one family had expertise in running gambling operations, it made sense for them to focus on that area while leaving narcotics trafficking to another family that had the necessary connections and know-how.

This division of labor had another significant advantage: it made the entire operation more resilient. If one family came under scrutiny from law enforcement, it would not jeopardize the entire enterprise. The Commission’s oversight ensured that the Mafia was not just a collection of independent operators but a cohesive unit that could adapt and evolve in the face of challenges.

The Five Families and Their Influence

The Five Families of New York—Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese—were not just participants in the Commission; they were the architects of a criminal empire that extended its tentacles into every facet of American society. While the Commission provided the framework, it was the Five Families that filled in the details, turning abstract concepts into concrete realities. Their influence was not confined to the underworld; it permeated the very fabric of American life, from the economy to politics.

The Five Families were not just criminal organizations; they were business enterprises that understood the value of diversification. They invested in legitimate businesses, using them as fronts for their illicit activities. This gave them a level of financial stability that was unheard of in the criminal world. It also provided them with a veneer of respectability, allowing them to forge alliances with powerful individuals and institutions outside the criminal sphere. The Five Families were not just about brute force; they were about finesse, about building a brand that transcended the limitations of their illegal activities.

Labor Unions and the Mafia

The Mafia’s control over labor unions was not just a revenue stream; it was a strategic asset that gave them unprecedented leverage over both the public and private sectors. Labor unions were the backbone of the American economy, representing millions of workers in industries ranging from construction to healthcare. By infiltrating these unions, the Mafia gained the ability to manipulate the labor market, effectively holding the economy hostage.

The Commission played a crucial role in coordinating these activities, ensuring that each family had a specific sector or union to focus on. This was not just about reducing conflicts; it was about creating economies of scale. By specializing in specific industries, each family could develop expertise that would make their operations more efficient and effective. For example, if the Gambino family specialized in construction unions, they could focus on building relationships with key stakeholders in that industry, from contractors to politicians. This would give them an edge over their competitors, both legal and illegal.

But the Mafia’s control over labor unions had another, less obvious benefit: it gave them a social license to operate. By positioning themselves as champions of the working class, they gained a level of public support that acted as a buffer against law enforcement activities. People were less likely to cooperate with the police if they believed that the Mafia was providing them with jobs and economic security. This was not just about making money; it was about building a social contract that would protect them in the long run.

The Mafia’s Political Reach

The Five Families’ political connections were not an accidental byproduct of their activities; they were a deliberate strategy aimed at creating a protective shield around their operations. By forging alliances with politicians, they gained access to a level of power and influence that was otherwise unattainable. This was not just about bribing officials; it was about becoming stakeholders in the political process, about shaping policies and legislation that would benefit their enterprises.

The Commission acted as a clearinghouse for these activities, vetting politicians and coordinating contributions to ensure that they were aligned with the Mafia’s broader objectives. This was not just about buying influence; it was about buying the right kind of influence. The Commission’s involvement ensured that the Mafia’s political activities were not just effective but also sustainable. By focusing on long-term relationships rather than quick wins, they built a political machine that could withstand the ups and downs of electoral politics.

The Five Families’ political reach extended beyond the corridors of power, influencing public opinion through their control over media outlets and cultural institutions. They understood that power was not just about making laws but about shaping narratives. By controlling the flow of information, they could manipulate public perception, turning themselves from villains into heroes in the eyes of the public.

The Decline of the Commission

The Impact of the RICO Act

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 didn’t just make it easier for prosecutors to go after the Mafia; it fundamentally altered the legal landscape, turning organized crime into a high-risk, low-reward venture. Prior to RICO, law enforcement agencies had to build cases against individual members, a time-consuming and often futile exercise given the Mafia’s code of silence, known as Omertà. RICO changed the rules of engagement. Now, prosecutors could target entire organizations, holding leaders accountable for the actions of their subordinates. This was a seismic shift, as it pierced the protective veil that had shielded the upper echelons of the Mafia for decades.

But the impact of RICO went beyond the courtroom. The threat of long prison sentences created a climate of fear and mistrust within the Mafia, eroding the bonds of loyalty that had held these organizations together. Informants, once a rarity, became increasingly common, as members turned against each other in a desperate bid to save themselves. The Commission, which had acted as a stabilizing force, found itself powerless to stop this tide of betrayal. The very structure that had made the Mafia so effective—its hierarchical, highly organized nature—became its Achilles’ heel, as RICO turned the Mafia’s strengths into weaknesses.

Moreover, the RICO Act had economic implications that are often overlooked. The act allowed the government to seize assets derived from criminal activities, striking a blow to the financial foundations of Mafia families. This led to a liquidity crisis, as families found it increasingly difficult to fund their operations or bribe officials. The Commission, which had acted as a sort of central bank for the Mafia, facilitating financial transactions and investments, found itself hamstrung, unable to provide the financial support that families needed to survive.

The Commission Trial of 1986

The United States v. Salerno, better known as the Commission Trial of 1986, was not just another legal case; it was a surgical strike aimed at decapitating the American Mafia. The trial targeted the bosses of the Genovese, Lucchese, and Colombo families, but its implications were far-reaching, affecting every stratum of organized crime. The charges were not limited to traditional Mafia activities like extortion and loan-sharking; they included a wide array of offenses, from racketeering to murder, painting a picture of an organization that was not just criminal but also inherently violent and dangerous.

The trial was a media spectacle, capturing the public’s imagination and putting the Mafia on the defensive. The Commission, which had always operated in the shadows, found itself thrust into the spotlight, its activities dissected and analyzed in excruciating detail. The trial also had a psychological impact on the Mafia, shattering the aura of invincibility that had surrounded these organizations for decades. The convictions were not just legal setbacks; they were symbolic defeats that signaled the end of an era.

But perhaps the most devastating aspect of the Commission Trial was its impact on the Mafia’s business operations. With the top leadership either in prison or on the run, families found themselves leaderless and directionless, unable to make critical decisions or resolve disputes. This created a power vacuum, leading to internal conflicts and turf wars that further weakened the Mafia. The Commission, which had been designed to prevent such scenarios, found itself incapacitated, its members either incarcerated or too preoccupied with legal battles to provide effective leadership.

In the aftermath of the Commission Trial, the Mafia found itself in a state of disarray, its power and influence greatly diminished. The Commission, once the nerve center of organized crime in America, became a relic of the past, a symbol of a bygone era. The legal onslaught had achieved what decades of police raids and gang wars had failed to do: it had shattered the empire that the Mafia had spent decades building. And in doing so, it had turned the Commission from a formidable adversary into a cautionary tale, a case study in the perils of hubris and the transient nature of power.


The Commission was more than just a criminal enterprise; it was an institution that brought structure and order to the chaotic world of organized crime. While it may never regain the power and influence it once had, its impact on American society remains a subject of ongoing interest and study. From its role in shaping the American Mafia to its decline in the face of legal challenges, the Commission serves as a compelling chapter in the history of organized crime.

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