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Netflix's Fear City's gripping true story - from RICO to Lucky Luciano and The Commission

The new documentary explores the New York-Italian Mafia in the 70s and 80s

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia
Published: Thursday, 23rd July 2020 at 6:13 pm

Netflix has added new documentary, Fear City: New York vs The Mafia to their extensive roster of true-crime documentaries.


The three-part series focuses on the lives and crimes of five mob families in The Big Apple, who ruled with a “bloody fist” in the 1970s and 1980s.

Unlike many other mob-related films or programmes, Fear City gives voice to the FBI agents who investigated The Five Families and overcame the challenges of infiltrating organised crime rings.

The series also includes interviews from former Mafia members, evidence collected in FBI surveillance, archival footage and reconstructions to show the power the Mafia held within New York during these times.

With the true story spanning several decades, we put together a list of terms and events which preceded the documentary.

Here's everything you need to know about the story which unwinds in Fear City.

What did the Mafia do?

The Five Families - Fear City (Netflix)
The Five Families - Fear City (Netflix)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Mafia built control through intimidation and threats that allowed organised crime to thrive across several industries and facets of life, including control over labour unions and a large stake in construction and real estate, at a time when federal agents did not have a solid approach to investigating them.

“Bank robberies, hijackings, drugs, murder, extortion, loan sharking, gambling, you name it—organised crime controlled virtually everything you can think of,” FBI agent Lin DeVecchio says in the series.

Each Mafia family was structured in a way to evade law enforcement, as actual crimes were committed by “soldiers” working for the families.

Often the boss or the second-in-command of each family was too well-protected and had too little knowledge of the crimes to give an officer cause to arrest them.

“The lower-level guys were out there committing the criminal acts and kicking the money up to the higher-ups,” DeVecchio added.

“The average ‘wiseguy’. We knew what he was doing. We’d put him in jail for a year but it didn’t solve the problem. Whatever their money-making scheme was went right on, virtually without interruption. Cause there were a lot of guys waiting in the wings to take his place.”

What is The Commission?

Fear City shows how the FBI managed to gain information on the Mafia by bugging the homes of high-ranking members.

In one reconstructed scene, an agent is on a mission to bug the house of Paul Castellano, the former head of the Gambino crime family.

After law enforcement tampered with the TV reception in Castellano’s house, the agent pretended to be a cable repairman and installed a surveillance device in the TV under the guise of fixing the fuzzy connection.

By installing bugs in Castellano’s home and in other Mafia properties, federal agents discovered the existence of The Commission, and found that the Five Families operated as a giant criminal group - meaning they could now be tried at the same time.

Fear City families
Fear City families Netflix

The Commission is the governing body of the American Mafia, formed in 1931 by Charles "Lucky" Luciano following the Castellammarese War - which saw a bloody power struggle for control of the Italian-American Mafia in New York in the 1930s.

The Commission replaced the capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") title, held by Salvatore Maranzano before his murder, with a ruling committee that consisted of the bosses of the Five Families of New York City, as well as the bosses of the Chicago Outfit and the Buffalo crime family.

The purpose of the Commission was to oversee all Mafia activities in the United States and serve to mediate conflicts between families.

Throughout the history of the Commission, the body has been involved in several incidents including the Apalachin meeting in 1957, which was reportedly held to discuss various topics along with dividing the illegal operations controlled by the recently murdered Albert Anastasia, and the 1985 Mafia Commission Trial.

What is Fear City: New York vs The Mafia about?

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia
Fear City: New York vs The Mafia

The new Netflix series follows the Five Families of New York, who came to power in the 1930s, but ruled “Fear City” in the 1970s and 1980s.

They initially claimed power in the 1920s Prohibition period, it wasn’t until the 1930s they were brought together in The Commission by Charles Luciano.

The “board of directors” was brought in to oversee all Mafia activity within the US, and consisted of the heads of the Bonnano, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese families (The Five Families), as well as Chicago’s Al Capone and Buffalo family head, Stefano Magaddino.

Who was Lucky Luciano?

Lucky Luciano
Lucky Luciano Netflix

Charles "Lucky" Luciano is an American mobster who split New York City into five crime families, heading the Genovese crime family himself, and initiated The Commission.

Luciano moved to Havana and was later deported to Italy, living out his final years in Naples.

What happened in the Mafia Commission Trial?

Rudy Giulliani Fear City
Rudi Giuliani (far right) at the The Mafia Commission Trial Getty Images

The heads and high-ranking members of each mob group were indicted in the 1985 Mafia Commission Trial, under charges of extortion, labour racketeering and murder.

The criminal trial essentially brought an end to The Commission’s golden era, although the Mafia still operates in the United States.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani - who features in the Netflix documentary along with US president Donald Trump - indicted 11 organised crime figures, including the heads of the Five Families, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO).

“I always hated the Mafia,” he says in the doc. “They do terrible things to society. They began by exploiting Italian immigrants, like my grandfathers … The minute they established a little business, made a little money, [the Mafia would] come in and say, ‘Give us 30 per cent.’”

Giuliani says that once he realised how much power The Commission held, he wanted to find a way to use the RICO Act to go after the bosses of each family in “one very big case.”

“If you can kill the monster from the head, this is our one chance to do it,” Giuliani says in the series.

What is RICO?

While the Mafia was at the peak of their control of New York and were revelling in their power, the agents in Fear City say Law enforcement struggled to get into their circles.

As the documentary shows it took a lot of planning and very strategic placement of bugs to surveil high-ranking members of the Mafia and effectively gather any evidence against the families.

Investigators found an opportunity to get at the bosses and leaders of each family through the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act.

RICO is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organisation.

Fear City Netflix
Fear City Netflix

The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering and allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes they ordered others to do or assisted them in doing, closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed someone else to, for example, murder, to be exempt from the trial because they did not actually commit the crime personally.

The Act enabled law enforcement to try leaders of crime syndicates on charges that they ordered crimes to be committed.

After years of simply arresting the mob’s foot soldiers without any lasting results, federal agents learned to use the RICO Act to establish proven links between mob bosses and their henchmen.

While its original use in the 1970s was to prosecute the Mafia as well as others who were actively engaged in organised crime, its later application has been more widespread.

Beginning in 1972, 33 states adopted state RICO laws to be able to prosecute similar conduct.


Fear City: New York vs The Mafia is available to stream on Netflix. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.


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