In the history of organized crime in America, the story of James
"Whitey" Bulger already has the feel of a bygone era.
A pivotal moment in his alleged criminal career - for which he
goes on trial Tuesday - sounds like a scene from a "Godfather"
It was 1972, and Mr. Bulger was an ex-convict with his career,
and his life, on the line. Two Irish-American crime gangs were
fighting over Boston turf, and the group he belonged to was losing.
He stepped through the door of a Boston restaurant for a meeting
with other gang chiefs, including some who had tried to kill him.
Bulger sought a truce - and a continuing slice of local rackets.
"We had four guys with machine guns two blocks away and, we found
out later, so did Whitey," Patrick Nee of the "Mullen" gang later
The two sides cut a deal that ultimately enabled Bulger to
consolidate power, with alleged operations ranging from gambling to
cocaine distribution to extorting "protection" money from local
Thus began a nearly quarter-century reign for Bulger as an
underworld power in New England, with his South Boston base scarcely
a mile from the state capitol where his brother, William "Billy"
Bulger, served more than 30 years, including 16 as Senate president.
Now, with the wheel come full circle, Whitey Bulger resides in a
cell in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. Captured in
California in 2011 after a 16-year manhunt, his trial begins Tuesday
in a US district court on charges that include 19 murders.
The trial, and Bulger's tumultuous back story, is partly a local
affair, yet it carries wider significance on several fronts. It
dramatizes law enforcement's nationwide success bringing down once-
powerful mob bosses even as, symbolically, it serves as a trial of
the Federal Bureau of Investigation itself for lapses in its use of
alleged criminals - including Bulger - as informants.
But in some ways the Bulger trial also marks the passing of an
era. Old-style crime bosses - rulers of hierarchical but relatively
small geographic fiefdoms - are increasingly giving way to criminal
groups that are more fluid, more likely to span international
borders in their activities, and more reliant on modern
"We certainly have much more diverse organized crime in the US
than in the past, much more transnational, much more linked to
computers," says Louise Shelley, a crime expert who directs the
Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason
University in Fairfax, Va.
Despite law enforcement's headway against the American Mafia in
recent decades, she says, organized crime remains a significant long-
Yes, domestic terrorism looms as the largest concern for agencies
like the FBI. But a 2011 Obama administration strategy document on
transnational organized crime notes that the risks today include not
just longstanding challenges, such as human trafficking for
prostitution, but also manipulation of financial or commodity
markets, and aiding terrorist groups in obtaining weapons.
"Criminal networks are not only expanding their operations, but
they are also diversifying their activities, resulting in a
convergence of transnational threats that has evolved to become more
complex, volatile, and destabilizing," the strategy document says. …