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Letters from Sicily

by Carl Russo

On March 2, I returned from a very productive photo shoot in Sicily, the last such trip to gather locations for my upcoming book, The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide. The opportunity was made possible by a generous group of donors to my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. Below are excerpts from my near-daily reports sent to these contributors by email.

Gaetano BadalamentiFEBRUARY 20: I touched down on my beloved Sicily a few hours ago. On the very day that two former CEOs of Alitalia were indicted for "alleged wrongdoing" during the airline's bankruptcy in 2008, I feared the worst for the JFK > Rome > Palermo leg of my flight. But everything went off without a hitch: no delays, a very decent chicken dinner with a restaurant-worthy tiramisù, a fascinating effervescent red wine (gratis, of course), and an escort to lead us across the daunting Fiumicino airport in Rome to connect with the final flight. Take that, United!

Maybe I read the Italian papers too much, but I seemed to be the only one who noticed that Pier Ferdinando Casini was on board our flight to Palermo. He's the former president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies and perennial centrist politician possibly implicated in a recent bribery scandal…

To land in Palermo is to be immersed in the Mafia. The name of the airport is Falcone-Borsellino, the two judges blown up weeks apart in 1992. The reason the airport is where it is—too far from the city and too close to the sea for proper landing strips—is because the Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti owned the land and steered all the building contracts his way.

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Love is Cold

by Carl Russo

Of the two Sicilians killed by gunmen on motor scooters this week, only one was a member of the Mafia. It happened in the notorious Brancaccio quarter of Palermo, site of the 1993 assassination of anti-Mafia priest Pino Puglisi. In fact, the victim, a 50-year-old man named Francesco Nangano, was considered close to hitman Gaspare Spatuzza, one of the cleric's murderers.

Gaspare SpatuzzaNangano was driving along Brancaccio's waterfront yesterday when two men on a scooter caught up with him. One fired six bullets, stopping him cold in front of the neighborhood gelateria.

Though only a mid-level mafioso, Nangano has had his fair share of media attention. After serving a few sentences for Mafia association before going on the lam, he was caught, tried and sentenced to life for a murder he didn't commit. Released after nearly five years behind bars, the Italian state cut him a €270,000 check to make up for his "unjust detention."

But there's a soap-opera element to Nangano's story. As a fugitive, in 2001, he carried on a love affair with a social worker who served on the jury of a number of Mafia trials. She defended her man, believing him innocent of every charge they threw his way. Naturally, the woman was relieved of her juridical duties.

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Go-Go-Going Back to Sicily

With just a few days left on my Indiegogo campaign, it is unlikely that I’ll meet my entire crowd-funding goal. But I’ve raised enough for plane tickets, so there’s no turning back. Cosa Nostra, here I come!

Click to enlargeThe book will be published, and it will contain the photos I take in this final shoot in Sicily. But it’s not too late to join the campaign and help offset expenses.

My two biggest challenges on this trip (besides money, and the unexpected) will be snowy mountain passes and trying to photograph locations in two mob-heavy cities I’ve never visited: Cannicattì & Favara.

Advance praise: “Carl Russo’s The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide is a seminal piece of work that manages to bridge the gap between John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra and Lonely Planet Sicily. Only exhaustive research and the scalpel-like observations of an Italian-American could create such a unique hybrid. The insights into The Mob are at once fascinating and lurid, made all the more appealing by the in-your-face reality of the many iconic images of the raw underbelly of Sicily. If you’ve followed the infamous tourist trails of the fictional novels, then how much more will you want to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by this odyssey into the true Mafia underworld? They say fact is stranger than fiction—take this journey with Russo and learn that it is also more perilous.” — Crozier Green, author of The Fratellanza Contract and Gladio Resurrection.

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The Old Switcheroo?

by Carl Russo

The mystery in Corleone just got weirder. When the townsfolk opened the loculus to remove the remains of Bernardino Verro for transferral to a spiffy new crypt, they found two skulls—an adult's, with a bullet hole, and a child's.

Bernardino VerroBut Verro, the Socialist mayor of the city murdered by the Mafia in 1915, had been shot four times in the head, not once. (The smaller noggin might belong to Verro's son, who died at the age of four months.)

Then somebody seemed to remember that Verro's daughter had exhumed his remains and moved them to a Palermo cemetery in 1959 without notifying police. This would seem to bolster the story of Mafia turncoat Antonino Calderone, who claimed Verro's tomb was used to dump the body of Calogero Bagarella, killed in the Viale Lazio massacre of 1969.

Click to enlargeThe cemetery of Corleone is said to be full of hidden crimes and switched bodies. Verro's new crypt sits next to a twin compartment belonging to Placido Rizzotto. It took sixty-five years to properly identify the remains of the celebrated activist—a victim of godfather Luciano Leggio's vengeance—and place him in the cemetery of Corleone.

And godfather Leggio? Rumors place his corpse in the tomb of a relative. The one person able to shed light on these enigmas, Corleone's mortician, isn't talking. He was killed in 1976.

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Day of Reckoning

Updated on Wednesday, January 2, 2013 by Registered CommenterCarl Russo

Updated on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 by Registered CommenterCarl Russo



 The new Indiegogo campaign has launched!

by Carl Russo

There is light at the end of the tunnel! The project known as Mafia Exposed will come to a tidy conclusion with a book to be published in January 2014. In a year's time, you can have your very own copy of The Sicilian Mafia: An Illustrated Travel Guide published by Strategic Media Books. 275 pages, 200 black-and-white photographs, softcover, bestseller. Come on, I gotta think big!

Temporary mock-up. Actual cover pending.Like much of this blog, the book's focus will be the western half of Sicily. The nineteenth-century origins of the Cosa Nostra. Mussolini's Fascist crackdown. The postwar return of the bosses and the slaughter of peasant activists. The Sack of Palermo. The Mafia wars. The rise of the Corleonese Mafia. Totò Riina's war on the state. The "excellent cadavers." The maxi-trials. The anti-Mafia movement. The secret State-Mafia negotiations. You crime buffs know many of the stories. Soon you'll be able to match them all to the locations.

And if that stuff is like a foreign language to new readers, well, you've got a fun read ahead with the world's first geographic history of the original Cosa Nostra.

With a July 2014 deadline, I have my work cut out for me. And I'm hoping to squeeze in one last journey to Sicily. Several Mafia locations have come to light since my last trip. Those, along with recent newsworthy events that would make the book absolutely up to date.

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Boondock Saint

by Carl Russo

A famed anti-Mafia priest gets the Scooby-Doo treatment in the animated kiddie show, “La Missione di 3P.” (After all, “anime” is Latin for “soul.” ) 3P is Padre Pino Puglisi, whose impolitic sermons against the gangsters of his outpost parish in Brancaccio earned him a fatal “rosary of gunshots,” as they say in Italy, in 1993.

As seen in the trailer below, the RAI-TV series adds hair to the ecclesiastic and casts him, appropriately, as a crime fighter. The jazzy show-tune theme has a catchy chorus anyone can translate:

Pino PuglisiIo parlo con Dio, Dio parla con me.

Pio, amico mio, Pio parla con te.”

But the production is cheap—farmed out to a Korean animation house?—and the didactic tone won’t earn too many young converts. (For junior do-gooders with A.D.D., I'd recommend the new book, Invasion of the Cockroaches: The Mafia Explained to Kids.)

Puglisi is in the spotlight on terra firma as well. His remains will be transfered to Palermo’s grand cathedral and Pope Benedict plans to beatify him in May 2013. I’m all in favor of canonizing a cleric who demonstrated bravery instead of magic tricks, but if kids actually tune in to “La Missione di 3P," we’ll have the miracle, too.

Click to see the photosI’d also like to see sainthood bestowed on another 3P, Pastor Pietro Panascia, even if he wasn’t a Roman Catholic. Panascia organized a protest in 1963 after a car bomb in Ciaculli blew up seven officers of the carabiniere. His demonstration, which he titled “An Initiative for the Respect of Human Life,” was shrugged off by Palermo Archbishop Ernesto Ruffini as “a ridiculous attempt by a speculative Protestant.”

That was the same Ruffini who considered the Mafia to be nothing more than simple Sicilian delinquency and/or a communist plot.

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