The First Family and The Snakehead

By Mike Dash
By Patrick Radden Keefe

“I believe in America,” is the first line spoken in The Godfather. What the speaker, a mortician out for vengeance, is referring to is his belief in America as a land of economic opportunity and a flexible rule of law. The latter point in particular helped make the fortune of men like Don Corleone, since opportunity comes in many forms and there are many different ways of “making it” in a new country.

In The First Family, Mike Dash chronicles in some detail the early days of the Mafia in America. From lowly roots as part of a criminal gang in the impoverished Sicilian village of Corleone (the gang’s main business was livestock rustling), Giuseppe Morello – known as the “Clutch Hand” because of a deformity – established himself in New York’s Little Italy as the head of a secret organization of blackmailers, extortionists, counterfeiters, and murderers which has some claim to being the American Mafia’s “first family.” To some extent it is the world of The Godfather, with the familiar code of honour and the conceit of crime as being the family “business”, but this is accentuating the positive. In Dash’s realistic account the Mafia are not seen as community benefactors and defenders of the poor. “The truth was that Morello and his henchmen were parasites who terrorized their fellow countrymen, exploited the weak, and dealt in fear. . . . There was nothing remotely heroic about the things they did.”

Still, crime did pay. And with the advent of Prohibition the good times were really ready to roll. Morello, however, was ill-positioned to take advantage. Though at one point he was the de facto boss of bosses in New York, a lengthy term in prison led to the growth of rival families in his absence. With the explosion in opportunities that Prohibition offered, in-fighting among the various gangs also exploded. Morello himself, along with most of his family, was a casualty – dying in a hail of bullets that ripped through every part of his body but failed to knock the gray fedora from his head.

The Snakehead is a more contemporary immigrant success story, and one more directly concerned with immigration policy. The term snakehead refers to a figure Patrick Radden Keefe politely describes as an “immigration broker”: someone who gets paid to smuggle people out of China and into other countries. Such smuggling took off in the 1980s as waves of migrants from China’s Fujian province began pouring into America, and it wasn’t long before one snakehead in particular, “Sister Ping,” had established a reputation as the best in the business. She also made a personal fortune estimated at around $40 million. But with the spectacular loss of the Golden Venture in 1993, a ship filled with starving Chinese immigrants that ran aground off a Queens beach, her mostly under-the-radar operation became a political hot potato and Sister Ping found herself the target of an international investigation.

The FBI found Fujianese organized crime differed in fundamental ways from the paradigms developed over decades of studying the Sicilian Mafia. Chinese organized criminals were less fixated on hierarchies and loyalty. Rather, they “thought of themselves as entrepreneurs and opportunists, driven above all by a mercenary sense of self-interest and by the exigencies of the circumstance.” It was, in the language of The Godfather, only business. And, in the case of the snakeheads, was that business such a crime? Keefe has divided feelings. America is, famously, a country of immigrants and China a repressive state. The snakeheads are facilitators for thousands of American dreams.

But as with the Mafia, the business of human smuggling has little to do with honour and helping poor people in need. It is a criminal racket, exploiting the weak and the vulnerable. Neither Sister Ping nor the Clutch Hand are heroes in these books. Despite their different backgrounds, however, they both believed in America and found it a land of opportunity.

Review first published online July 19, 2010.

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