Battered by aggressive investigators and weakened by incompetent leadership, most of America's traditional Mafia families appear to be fading out of existence, law-enforcement officials and independent experts say.
The Mafia remains potent in the New York City area, where officials say it is hard to uproot because it has five separate and large crime families, and in the suburbs of Chicago.
But in most other areas, where prosecutors have to contend with only a single family, the legendary mob that once controlled whole labor unions, city governments and criminal enterprises has clearly lost its grip.
Officials say the convictions of top Mafia leaders and their hierarchies have dismantled thriving underworld organizations in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New England, New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
In Los Angeles, investigators speak of the "Mickey Mouse Mafia," saying the mob is so enfeebled that illegal bookmakers refuse to pay it for the right to operate.
In Cleveland and Denver, where Mafia gangs once flourished, officials of the FBI say each city is left with a lone mobster who was "made," or formally inducted in a secret ritual.
Many experts and officials say it is premature to write the Mafia's obituary, and they emphasize that its decline does not mean that organized crime has been banished: Other groups are moving in to take the Mafia's place.
But experts say the recent defeats of the Mafia will nevertheless mean real gains for the public, reducing the financial and social costs of rigged public contracts, of domination of labor unions like the Teamsters and Longshoremen, and of influence in the construction, trucking, trash-collection and garment-manufacturing industries.
While there is wide agreement that the Mafia is declining, there is much disagreement on the causes.
Law-enforcement officials generally credit a long-term strategy adopted by the Justice Department and the FBI in the early 1980s: developing cases against the top leaders of organized-crime families and relying largely on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, as a courtroom tool.
By concentrating on enterprises rather than individuals, federal prosecutors in the past five years have removed the high commands of families through the convictions and long prison sentences of almost 100 top Cosa Nostra leaders.
The chief architect of the RICO act, G. Robert Blakey, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, admits he was surprised by its impact.
"It was sort of like George Kennan's containment policy of the bTC Soviet Union," he says. "We tried it and, by God, it worked."
But two other experts, Peter A. Lupsha and Howard Abadinsky, say demographic changes, too, have helped undermine the Mafia.
Lupsha, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who is a consultant on organized-crime matters for federal and state agencies, and Abadinsky, founder of the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime, a research organization, cite these factors:
* The dispersal of white populations away from urban neighborhoods. This diminished both the Mafia's political influence and the surreptitious protection that organized-crime bosses often got from the local police and political machines.
* A new generation of Mafia leaders who took control after the convictions or deaths of previous bosses and capos, or captains, but were less competent than their predecessors.
* The disintegration of traditional Mafia loyalties, with members breaking the code of silence to become informers against leaders.
* The emergence of rival crime groups -- including Asians, Jamaicans and Colombians -- who dominate drug trafficking and illegal gambling, especially in the inner cities.
Many experts say the American Mafia lacks the nerve and ability to compete violently with the new underworld rivals.
"The new drug gangs are wild groups, and the old-timers don't want any confrontations with them," says Ralph F. Salerno, a former New York detective who is a consultant to congressional committees on organized-crime matters.
The largest Mafia concentration, 1,200 of about 2,000 "made" members nationwide, is in New York City, Long Island, the suburbs north of the city and in Northern New Jersey. With five families, New York is the only area where so many factions have co-existed for half a century.
Law-enforcement officials maintain that the campaign to eradicate the Cosa Nostra in New York is hampered by the mob's large numbers, its extensive illicit networks and an ample supply of recruits to replace convicted capos and soldiers.
Since 1985, however, the bosses and underbosses of the five families -- Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Bonanno and Colombo -- have been slain or sentenced to long prison terms. The changing of the guards within such a short period has created feuds, sapping the strength of every family.
The reputed bosses of the Genovese family, Vincent "Chin" Gigante, 62, and of the Lucchese family, Vittorio Amuso, 56, along with their top lieutenants, were indicted in May on charges that they had taken part in rigging bids for $142 million in window contracts at New York's Housing Authority.
In 1986, the FBI identified John Gotti as the new boss of the Gambino family, the largest and most powerful Mafia family in the country, with 400 to 500 members. Since then Gotti, 50, has twice been acquitted on separate federal and state criminal charges.
Based in Philadelphia, the Bruno-Scarfo family in the early 1980s was rated by law-enforcement experts as Pennsylvania's premier underworld group.
The gang's gambling, loan-sharking and labor rackets extended into Atlantic City, other parts of New Jersey and Delaware.
"Today they are a limping relic," says Frederick T. Martens, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, a state agency.
When Nicodemo Scarfo took over as boss of the family in the early 1980s, he inherited 75 "made" members and more than 500 associates.
Because of prosecutions and internal strife, the number of active "made" members has dropped to about 10.
Law-enforcement officials say that Scarfo's mismanagement and ruthlessness damaged the family's operations and encouraged defections. Five of Scarfo's cronies became turncoats and are cooperating with investigators.
Scarfo, 60, and 15 gang members were convicted in 1988 of federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. He was sentenced 69 years in prison.
Chicago's traditional organized-crime family is called "The Outfit." Unlike other Cosa Nostra groups, it shuns secret rites.
"They're different here," says Robert E. Walsh, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago bureau. "Instead of a swearing-in ceremony for new members, they have a banquet in a good restaurant."
Walsh says intelligence reports place the Outfit's strength at from 100 to 150 members, compared with more than 200 five years ago.
Law-enforcement officials and independent researchers say the Outfit has little influence in Chicago and now runs and manages its operations in an arc from the northern and western suburbs to southern Wisconsin.
In 1986, the Outfit's boss, 78-year-old Joseph J. Aiuppa, and most of his top lieutenants were convicted of skimming $2 million from gambling casinos in Las Vegas.
The convictions and deaths of other veteran leaders, says Walsh, "left them in disarray."
The Outfit's main activities are sports bookmaking and loan sharking, conducted through suburban gambling dens.
For 35 years in New England, law-enforcement officials acknowledge, the Patriarca family conducted an extensive web of rackets in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The founder and boss of the family, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, died in 1984 and prosecutors say he was succeeded by his son, Raymond J. Patriarca of Providence, R.I.
Last March, after a five-year investigation by the FBI, grand juries in Boston and Hartford, Conn., indicted the 45-year-old Patriarca and 20 other men on RICO charges involving murder, extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and gambling. Prosecutors said the 21 were the active leadership of the family in New England.
The FBI asserted it had penetrated the inner sanctum of the Patriarca family with an informer who taped a secret induction ceremony in 1989.
According to an affidavit, four new members burned a holy card with the image of the Patriarca family saint, pledged to uphold the code of silence and then intoned in Italian: "As burns this saint so will burn my soul, my soul. I want to enter alive into this organization and leave it dead."