NEW YORK (Reuters) - Authorities arrested 119 organized crime suspects on Thursday in what the FBI called the largest single-day operation against the Mafia in history.
The roundup, conducted with the help of former mobsters turned informants, shows the Mafia remains a threat despite decades of crackdowns that have sent its hierarchies to prison but also that the famed "omerta" code of silence is largely a myth, officials said.
More than 800 federal and local law-enforcement officials detained suspects in at least four states plus one in Italy, targeting New York's five Mafia "families," one in New Jersey and one in New England.
Sixteen grand jury indictments charged 127 suspects with murder, drug trafficking, extortion, gambling, loan-sharking and other crimes going back 30 years, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference in New York.
Five of those indicted were already in prison, putting the total number detained at 124, and three others were not in custody, the Justice Department said.
The Italian-American Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra with its roots in Sicily, maintains a hold on American popular culture thanks to decades of movies and television shows including "The Godfather" in 1972.
Some of the suspects were known by colorful nicknames typical of the Mafia such as "Tony Bagels," "Vinny Carwash" and "Junior Lollipops," according to the indictments.
But Holder called them "among the most dangerous criminals in our country."
"Some allegations involve classic mob hits to eliminate perceived rivals. Others involve senseless murders. In one instance, a victim allegedly was shot and killed during a botched robbery attempt. And two other murder victims allegedly were shot dead in a public bar because of a dispute over a spilled drink," Holder said.
The FBI said it worked with the Italian National Police to apprehend and charge one suspect in Italy.
STRENGTH OF MOB DISPUTED
Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York Division, sought to dispel the notion that the Mafia had been debilitated or was less violent than in the past.
"Arresting and convicting the hierarchies of the five families several times over has not eradicated the problem," Fedarcyk said.
New York-based criminal defense attorney Bruce Barket disputed that claim, saying much of the strength of La Cosa Nostra was eliminated long ago and has been replaced by others such as Albanian and Russian organizations.
"Privately, law enforcement officials will tell you there isn't anybody left," Barket said. "Many of today's arrests are of older mobsters for crimes committed a long time ago."
Among those charged in New York were leaders of the Colombo and Gambino families including the Colombo street boss Andrew Russo, 76, acting underboss Benjamin Castellazzo, 73, and consigliere Richard Fusco, 74, authorities said.
Two of the Gambinos charged included consigliere Joseph Corozzo, 69, and ruling panel member Bartolomeo Vernace, 61. New England boss Luigi Manocchio, 83, was also arrested.
Howard Abadinsky, an organized crime expert from St. John's University in New York, said the sweep would likely only have a short-term effect.
"There are definitely dangerous people that have been taken off the streets," Abadinsky said. "But the sweeps provide an opportunity for the up-and-comers that have been toiling in the trenches to move up."