NEWARK, N.J. – Law enforcement officials have called the stretch between Port Newark and Newark Liberty International Airport the most dangerous two miles in America.
A series of recent court cases shows that despite increased attention on airport security since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, another security concern — a homegrown one — persists at the ports: organized crime.
Experts differ on what mob infiltration of the ports means in a post-9/11 security climate, or how large and influential organized crime syndicates remain after decades of law enforcement efforts to root them out.
Some say a badly diminished mob has waning influence on the docks, as modernized technology, stricter identification requirements, and improved federal maritime security-related legislation have significantly undermined the traditional strongholds of organized crime.
Others say it takes only one corrupt official paid to look the other way to jeopardize security at one of the nation's main gateways for goods from all over the world.
"We pursue the mob wherever they may be, but it just so happens that the port is rife with organized crime," said Stephen Taylor, the director of New Jersey's Criminal Justice division. The recent spate of federal indictments — and those unsealed this week in New Jersey in an ongoing investigation of port corruption — concern law enforcement, even though they did not directly implicate port security, Taylor said.
"There is always the potential, when you have a criminal element in an area, that it may at some point become a security breach and a significant security issue," he said.
Robert Buccino, chief of detectives at the Union County prosecutor's office, has studied — and prosecuted — the mob for decades. He says despite the recent high-profile indictments, there's a big difference between the activities that organized crime factions have traditionally engaged in — such as loan sharking, extortion, worker shakedowns or hiring fixes — and permitting terrorists access to the ports or allowing illicit, potentially dangerous cargo through.
"The mob isn't what it used to be," Buccino said, adding that the ports operate differently today than in the past, when powerful unions had more direct control over cargo. "I don't see it as any threat to our security, and the crimes associated with Cosa Nostra never really impacts on terrorism."
Buccino said the Mafia has always drawn the line at anything that could jeopardize homeland security.
"They do raise the American flag in front of their house, and they participate in American society," Buccino said. "I hate to say it, but they are patriotic, and they believe in the American way."
Others say it's a short leap between running numbers and turning one's back on illicit cargo shipments of drugs or counterfeit handbags, to allowing more dangerous materials through.
"I don't believe the old idea that they're loyal Americans," said Joseph King, who teaches classes on terrorism and organized crime at New York's John Jay College. "They're in business, they don't care what it is, they're looking for money."
King, a retired customs official, said dockworker duties have changed over the years, with workers having less direct access to cargo as in the past. But many still hold positions of influence in determining which containers move off the piers.
"Everybody says: they (the mob) would never do that," King said of allowing terrorists access to the ports; "But if you agree to get a container through for a guy and he says: 'It's hashish,' what about the second time, when it could be nuclear material? They don't exercise customs, they don't open it and say: 'Yes, it's all hashish, thank you very much,' — they let the cargo through."
In a January raid the FBI called one of the largest Mafia takedowns in history, 127 defendants were named in 16 indictments stemming from separate investigations in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Among those indicted were several members of the International Longshoremen's Association in New York and New Jersey who allegedly compelled union workers to kick back a portion of their holiday bonuses to known crime syndicates such as the Genovese and Gambino families. Several of them also face related state charges.
The majority of the ILA's more than 65,000 workers — about 4,000 of whom work in the Port of New York and New Jersey — are hardworking, honest union members with no connection to organized crime, according to Kevin Marrinan of the New York City-based Marrinan & Mazzola, the ILA's general counsel. The union, Marrinan added, has made several organizational changes and removed members suspected of corruption from local branches, even prior to recent law enforcement actions.
"Obviously the ILA is concerned, and I think the fact that they're concerned is demonstrated by some of the steps they've taken," Marrinan said, referring to the alleged presence of organized crime in the ranks.
The ILA adopted a code of ethics in 2003, created ethics oversight positions staffed with a retired judge and former U.S. Attorney to investigate corruption in the ranks, established an anonymous complaint hotline for concerned workers, and strengthened its rules on suspending workers who are arrested on corruption allegations, among other actions, Marrinan said.
"Organized crime is in society — like people say about Wall Street — it goes where the money is," he said. "The ILA has taken aggressive steps to protect its members."
New Jersey's Criminal Justice Director Taylor said that the billions of dollars in cargo that passes through the Port of New York and New Jersey every year makes them a tempting target.
"It is not only a target for terrorists, but certainly a target for more traditional types of criminals, like the mob, whenever you have that amount of money and available jobs like you do at the ports," he said.
The federal indictments detailed alleged schemes that stretch back decades. Law professor James B. Jacobs of New York University said the ports of New York and New Jersey, "have been a place of organized crime strength for much of the 20th century," despite efforts to clean them up.
The corruption, Jacobs said, includes union leaders, dock workers and politicians who take campaign contributions from dockworker unions or officials who endorse patronage hiring.
"The corruption is a problem, but it's not the same problem as al-Qaida terrorism," Jacobs said.
Organized crime experts like professor King say La Cosa Nostra has proven its longevity.
"The mob has been buried more times than Dracula, yet every night they pop up and go in search of blood," King said. "They've been buried hundreds of times, in the 20's and the 30s', but it's a way of life and they're not going to give up any source of income."