To smuggle heroin into pizza parlors

The pizza parlor. It is one of many staples in American restaurant culture, serving up plenty of hot, cheesy goodness. At face, the pizzeria an innocuous establishment whose only crime has been satisfying our drooling palates. But past the gooey visage of and dough and deliciousness and lurking in flickering shadows of oven-fires is a not-so-innocent piece of American history.

Pizzerias across America with ties to the mafia became hiding places for the management of cash and drug exchanges. Led by a cohort of Sicilian-born men who used cheese, olive oil, and tomato exporters for smuggling, this 1.65-billion dollar international heroin and cocaine trade operation lasted from 1975 to 1984. When evidence - including suitcases full of cash wrapped in pizzeria aprons – was discovered by Federal Police of this massive smuggling enterprise, 38 criminal mafia suspects were named in New York. This was “The Pizza Connection” – which the government had called the biggest drug and mafia case ever. It was as if 22 trials (for the defendants who were actually brought to court) had been thrown into one huge case. Presented evidence included some 55,000 FBI wiretaps and the 230 witnesses were. A few jurors reportedly appeared to doze off during some proceedings from the sheer length of it.

Mass trials like these, the Justice Department insisted, are “essential” to prosecute cases of organized-crime cases. The benefit probably comes from how legal resources can be consolidated and an entire cartel-operation’s network can be tackled in one sweep. However, The Pizza Connection was “too big… and too long” to effectively deliver justice and uphold public safety, according to oft cited journalist Shana Alexander on the Pizza Connection case. The Pizza Connection cost 50-million dollars, lasted a full 17 months, and had its fair share of harrowing moments to mark the case. Death threats forced a juror to recuse herself; a suspect's body was found in a garbage bag in the middle of the trial. During proceedings, another defendant was shot three times right outside of the Balducci’s pizzeria. And weary of being targeted by associates of the tried mobsters, the presiding Federal Judge told the New Yorker:

“They kill judges all the time in Sicily, and I was counting on the idea of ‘When in Rome,’ you know?”

It is telling of the with notorious and influential crooks on trial that their case was dragged out at such lengths and costs. The Pizza Connection let New York witness the contrast between an unrefined justice system and the powerful mafia. With justice prolonged for so long, the suspicion rises that defendants might’ve been able to pull some strings outside of the courtroom and continue running their rings. With or without the minds behind pizzeria smuggling, though, there was plenty other organized-crime for the mafia to tend to.

The implications of such a high-profile case resonated with future policymakers. Prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani would later implement the controversial “broken windows” policing as New York City mayor. Embodying a sort of zero-tolerance philosophy towards crime, no matter how petty, New York City saw a sharp increase in complaints and cases regarding police misconduct. Regardless, other American cities followed suit and eventually the more confronting “stop and frisk” policing strategy was born. Seeking and following people who gave the impression of suspicion, police across America became and still are part of tense relationships with U.S. citizens. Such harsher policing didn’t necessarily cause a decrease in crime. The completely unwarranted murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and most recently Philando Castile at the hands of police can be traced back to the cloud of public paranoia around cases like The Pizza Connection.

One thing has led to another in the streets of New York and America today. The conduit for the dark business of the mafia that is the pizzeria has helped establish our country’s feverish climate of racial disenchantment and anti-establishmentarianism. Restoring the order through the legal and political responses to the swarms of crime in the 80s has had measured success. Beyond a supplier of swathes of scalding marinara sauce topped with sizzling pepperoni, the pizza parlor has made history in shaping public safety.

This is an opinion piece and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of The Rival.

Originally published by Allen Wang at gw.therival.news on 11.20.17
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