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Saturday
Jun302012

Road Rage

by Bluto Ray

Captain Mario D’Aleo bore a grudge and everyone knew it. The head of the carabiniere unit in Monreale, near Palermo, spent the better part of his working days nosing around the village of San Giuseppe Jato. The hillside township with its surrounding pastures and unnamed backroads kept Mafia secrets tucked safely out of view. The greatest secret was the one the captain yearned to know most: the whereabouts of Bernardo Brusca, the area’s domineering crime boss.

Captain Mario D'AleoWhenever D’Aleo crossed paths with a member of the Brusca family, he nabbed him. Bernardo’s son Giovanni bore the brunt of the officer’s diligence; he was thrown into the barracks on more than one occasion to be questioned about the company he kept or the circumstances of a car set ablaze. “Be careful, because you insist on persecuting our family too much,” warned Giovanni’s aged grandfather, Emanuele. D’Aleo knew a threat when he heard one.

Captain D’Aleo was newly appointed to lead the Monreale station, a Roman-born careerist ten years on the job yet still in his twenties. He had stepped into the boots of Captain Emanuele Basile, assassinated by the Mafia in 1980, and, without missing a beat, continued his predecessor’s vigorous investigation of the Brusca family’s shady interests. Like Basile before him, the impertinent D'Aleo was a threat to the Bruscas, but the family’s high position on the Mafia’s company chart guaranteed them a hearing by the Commission on the matter.

Click to see the photosLike many decisions deliberated by the Mafia Commission—controlled at the time by the violence-prone capo from Corleone, Totò Riina—the Bruscas’ cop problem would end in a death sentence. In the early 1980s, Riina’s murderous juggernaut was claiming ever more victims; police officers fell like tin soldiers.

Despite the obvious danger, D’Aleo trudged on, collaborating with Lance Corporal Giuseppe Bommarito. Bommarito was a Sicilian native in his thirties who had previously worked alongside Captain Basile until his superior met his untimely death. A few years later, D’Aleo and Bommarito, patrolling the same treacherous beat, surprised a group of Mafia suspects in meeting. The presence of Monreale boss Salvatore Damiani, a close associate of Bernardo Brusca, led the officers to believe that a series of unsolved murders in the area—including that of Captain Basile—were traceable to these men. But the investigation came to an abrupt halt.

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Thursday
May172012

Hotel Mafioso

by Bluto Ray

The Mafia, it can be argued, begins and ends in prison. Creation myths abound about the criminal organization as a widespread social phenomenon, the most mystical and romantic tales believed by many self-justifying “men of honor” over the ages. The reality is no less colorful: a motley crowd was cast into Sicily’s dank jail cells during the tumultuous nineteenth century—street toughs and town bosses, revolutionaries and soldiers of lost causes—creating a peculiar Petri dish of hybrid criminal culture.

Gaspare PisciottaNumerous violent uprisings jolted the island after Ferdinand III consolidated the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1816. The royal descendant of the Spanish branch of Bourbons (who changed his name to Ferdinand I of Sicily) was viewed as only the latest of conquerors by a people who had known oppressive foreign occupation for millennia. Fittingly, Ferdinand’s most lasting legacy is a massive stone fortress in Palermo that has served as a prison since 1837. Originally called La Vicaria, its current name evokes the notoriety of Sing Sing or Alcatraz to Italians: Ucciardone Prison.

Though the Bourbon regime fell in 1860 after Garibaldi’s forces raided Sicily and Naples, thus pulling the two kingdoms into the country we know today as Italy, Sicily remained a powder keg politically. Revolutionaries split into pro-unity and Sicilian autonomist camps, with Bourbon loyalists conspiring at the edges. Battles in the streets of Palermo broke out in a lawless bandit-ridden landscape. An autonomist rebellion in 1866 waged against government soldiers erupted both outside and inside the walls of Ucciardone, where imprisoned rebels battled the guards. It was, according to the city’s prefect at the time, a Mafia-led uprising.

Click to see the photosMafia. The buzzword of the 1860s that encapsulated both the tough-guy swagger of dandified hoodlums and the secret “brotherhoods” that provided stronger community protection than a brutal or distant government. The term spread beyond Sicily with the smash success of a stage play debuted in 1863 called I mafiusi di la Vicaria. The plot concerns the Sicilian patriotism shared by a revolutionary lawyer and his mafiosi cellmates in Ucciardone. The theme resonated with audiences; the prison populations of Sicily and Naples were known to be surrogate states run by the underworld bosses housed within.

James Fentress’ crucial history, Rebels and Mafiosi, characterizes the period’s strange bedfellows:

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Saturday
Apr282012

My Latitanza

by Bluto Ray

Time Off for Good Behavior Dept.: This blurb is a little sneak for my mammoth piece on the prisons of the Cosa Nostra, coming in a few weeks. You see, I’ll be “latitante,” a fugitive from the blogosphere, the object of whispered rumors and imagined sightings at illicit betting rooms in Palermo.

Actually, I’ll be out in the field through mid-May, but I’ll be back with photos of a few prisons all too familiar to the Mafia. If successful—for one should never attempt to take pictures of a maximum-security penitentiary in Italy—I’ll present the new images along with my shot of the notorious Ucciardone Prison, which you may have seen in an earlier post.

A list of the personalities covered in the upcoming essay, titled “Hotel Mafioso,” should, I hope, entice avid Mafia observers to return: Gerlando Alberti, Gaetano Badalamenti, Tommaso Buscetta, Vito Cascio Ferro, Matteo Messina Denaro, Giovanni Falcone, Salvatore Giuliano, Luciano Leggio, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, Francesco Madonia, Giuseppe Marchese, Cesare Mori, Gaspare Mutolo, Gaspare Pisciotta, Totò Riina and more.

If those names just flitter past like the credits of an old spaghetti western, then come back for the stories; they’ll depict 150 years of Mafia life under lock and key. But here’s one more teaser: Which of the characters listed above created this Sicilian-themed painting in his secret studio? The winner will receive a goat’s head.

Buon primo maggio a tutti!

 

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Friday
Mar302012

Valley of Bones

by Bluto Ray

The Occupy Wall Street meme of late 2011 found a vociferous welcome in Sicily last January as workers occupied highways and byways for five long days. The mass blockade—a general strike of truckers, farmers, craftsmen, shepherds, breeders, and students—was devised to cause maximum disturbance to island commerce. The Pitchforks ("i Forconi"), as the protesters call themselves, pitched a fit over high fuel prices, road tolls, and income taxes. The most bilious rage was reserved for Mario Monti, the interim prime minister of Italy, who seeks to enforce austerity with a whack of his Goldman Sachs tentacle.

Placido RizzottoJust as the occasional stabbing at an American OWS encampment is met with howls of conservatives eager to paint the 99-Percenters as violent anarchists, the Pitchforks have faced an image problem with the arrest of alleged Mafia-connected protesters. The regional president of the country’s largest trade and services association, Confindustria, was quick to cast aspersions on the movement:

 

"We have evidence that, in many demonstrations of blockades that are creating such difficulty in Sicily, there were proponents of the Mafia. This doesn't mean that the Mafia is inside the demonstrations, but we are worried about a real uneasiness in the people of the island; that things are controlled by persons without credibility and with dubious pasts, by infiltrations of organized crime and by other phenomena that only end up increasing a general rebelliousness that doesn't resolve problems."

 

Click to see the locationsGiven that much of Sicilian commerce, notably trucking and the building trades, is yoked by the Mafia, it is no stretch to imagine that crime bosses would embrace any pushback to economic change. Political parties from left to right, many standing to lose power with Monti’s sledgehammer economics, have tossed in their support of the strikes. But, in fact, the rank-and-file Pitchforks have loudly condemned the gridlocked policies of all corrupt elites—elected or mafiosi.

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Saturday
Feb182012

Shock Doctrine

by Bluto Ray

The word "polemicist" was invented for people like Vittorio Sgarbi, the conservative art critic and, until next week, mayor of Salemi, Sicily. A typically polarizing Sgarbism came during the winter holidays when he announced—echoes of “bunga bunga”—that his vice mayor should be a young woman with no political strings attached.

Vittorio SgarbiEver the curator, Sgarbi opened a Mafia museum in the middle of Salemi's old center in 2010. More Halloween spook-house than cultural institution, the attraction that bore a blood-splattered logo was made adults-only after the “slaughterhouse cabin” display reportedly sickened two visitors.

To his credit, the mayor refused a judge’s order to remove a newspaper blowup from the museum’s wall depicting the arrest of Salemi natives Ignazio and Nino Salvo. Nino’s widow had made the initial request, adding that her husband, though indicted, had died days before his trial. (The Salvo cousins, entombed in the town cemetery, were decidedly mafiosi per investigations.)

Yet Sgarbi the freedom fighter has threatened to sue art critics over unfavorable reviews. The headline-stealing curator who holds the contemporary art world in contempt made a keen mockery of it when he curated the Italian exhibit at last year’s Venice Biennale. According to a write-up,

 

“”The resulting display has the sprawling randomness of a flea market. There are works featuring sex, religion, violence, nudity, as well as a giant pomegranate and a polar bear. Also on show are multicoloured mummies in flagrante, and a beaten-up doll next to a sign that declares 'I'm a warrior not a doll.' In the middle of it all there are occasional gems such as Giovanni Iudice's depiction of refugees, Humanity, 2010, but unfortunately these get lost in the visual mess. Many are wondering if Sgarbi's exhibition is an ironic gesture—or an attempt to undermine Italian contemporary art.”

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Sunday
Jan292012

Homecoming

The kid who took on the Mafia's toughest killers

 by Carl Russo

Sutera, an isolated town in Sicily’s hinterland, is a captivating hodgepodge of adobe dwellings and baroque churches decaying quietly off the beaten tourist path. The picturesque locale, dominated by the jutting Mount San Paulino, was sufficiently antique for filmmaker Michael Cimino to use it as a stand-in for Salvatore Giuliano’s village in The Sicilian. Like the legendary bandit, Sutera’s favorite son eventually came home in a wooden box—minus the paparazzi and headlines.

Calogero Zucchetto

Calogero Zucchetto couldn’t wait to become a cop. He left his sleepy village of Sutera at a young age for the excitement of the big city. Before his twentieth birthday, he was on the team of bodyguards escorting Judge Falcone through the streets of Palermo. But the earnest and gangling “Lillo,” as his friends called him, was anxious to step out into the field as an agent—deadly work in the early 1980s, the hunting season of Cosa Nostra.

As soon as Zucchetto made the ranks of Palermo’s Mobile Squad, he insinuated himself into environments foreign to him: the bordellos and betting rooms of the city where he was sure to rub shoulders with the Mafia.

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