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Wednesday
Oct172012

News Muse 10.17.12

Updated on Saturday, October 20, 2012 by Registered CommenterCarl Russo

by Carl Russo

Only the biggest Mafia stories get the Time magazine news splash, so I was surprised to read, “Italy Dismisses Entire City Government over Suspected Mafia Ties.” The forced breakup of a regional capitol city—in this case, Reggio Calabria, the toenail in the Italian boot—is news, but not of the earth-shattering variety. With a population of 185,000, Reggio (as the locals call it) isn't much bigger than Providence, Rhode Island, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Salvatore "Totò" CuffaroOn the island of Sicily alone, forty-four municipalities have been dissolved by the Interior Ministry for reasons of Mafia infiltration since 1991. My own list of such cities covers the last five years or so: Belmonte Mazzagno, Castellammare del Golfo, Roccamena, Salemi, Siculiana, and Terme Vigliatore.

And a list of cities whose leaders were investigated and/or arrested: Carini, Misilmeri, Palagonia, Palermo, and Villabate.

The aforementioned Roccamena is a typical Sicilian town, isolated from the others by vast plains of yellow barren fields. Its peaceful tangle of streets betray a turbulent past. Peasants there fought the Mafia’s brutal estate managers for the right to work the land. Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist Danilo Dolci staged hunger strikes over construction jobs that drew news cameras to its tiny piazza.

I went to Roccamena in 2006, months after its mayor, Giuseppe Salvatore Gambino, was arrested for Mafia association along with Bartolomeo Cascio, the capomafia of the area. Despite a pistol found in Gambino’s desk, which he denied was his, and some incriminating phone taps, the ex-mayor was eventually absolved, avoiding a stiff ten-year sentence. I managed to snap a photo of the city hall before the Chief of Police stepped out of the building to stop me.

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Sunday
Oct072012

News Muse 10.7.12

by Carl Russo

Flush a toilet, thank “Diabolik."

Godfather Matteo Messina Denaro, the super-fugitive from Castelvetrano with a playboy rep, was stripped of $33 million of his estimated $390 billion fortune last week. The booty included a group of eighteen companies that came to light with the recent capture of a frontman for the elusive “Diabolik," proving that the control of public works is still in the black hand of the mob.

Matteo Messina DenaroConstruction contracts worth $65 million kept his concrete pouring at seaports, resorts, highways and even the Palermo airport. The flush of many a hotel toilet came courtesy of the boss’ waterworks.

My only question is, while attending the couscous festival in San Vito Lo Capo some years back, did I lodge at a Messina Denaro hotel or a Bernardo Provenzano hotel? Each boss had his grubby mitts on the beach town’s tourist trade at the time.

Montreal’s former “Teflon Don,” Vito Rizzuto, may be free to roam Canada after a five-year repose in a Colorado prison—extortion, murder accessory, the usual—but he’s still a wanted wanted man in Sicily. His crime was the attempt to launder money through the biggest public project of them all: the bridge that will link the island to the Italian mainland.

Click to see the photosRizzuto will have to return to his native Cattolica Eraclea eventually, at the end of the long day, where he will spend eternity in a concrete crypt. Who gets that cement job?

Last Wednesday, the regional court in nearby Agrigento chose a unique method for the redistribution of ill-gotten wealth. As Giuseppe Falsone—another playboy don of the Messina Denaro mold—begins a long prison stint, his assets will be doled out to the citizens of the region for “existential damages.”

The $130,000 payout will be existential, too, hopefully poured back into drained city coffers in the land of crumbling Greek temples, with another $3.25 million to be fought over later.

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Friday
Aug312012

Paolo Borsellino: The End

by Bluto Ray

One day in that terrible Palermo summer of 1992, already darkened by the recent killing of top anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, two magistrates entered upon a scene that deepened their despair. There at his desk in the Prosecutor’s Office sat their colleague, Judge Paolo Borsellino, head in hands, crying repeatedly, “A friend has betrayed me.”

Paolo BorsellinoIt was disturbing behavior for the heroic public servant who, as Falcone’s right-hand investigator in Italy’s famous maxi-trials, had helped clap the irons on nineteen powerful Mafia bosses for good. Borsellino’s breakdown came from more than just the exhaustion of working day and night to find his partner’s killers. He had been telling everyone: “I’m racing against time. I’m looking directly at the Mafia. I have so much work to do, so much work...”

His work was cut short a few days later. On July 19, Borsellino drove from his villa in a nearby suburb to a modern apartment complex in downtown Palermo, led and followed by the two other cars of his bodyguard team. The judge was coming to fetch his mother for an appointment at her cardiologist’s office. The doctor, a family friend, was unable to make the house call because someone had set fire to his car the night before.

Click to see the photosThe convoy entered the cul-de-sac of Via Mariano D’Amelio where its three drivers went into their familiar defensive positions. Borsellino parked and stepped from his Fiat Croma, lit a cigarette, and smiled enigmatically as the men moved to surround him. They were well-practiced in the “human turtle” formation used to move the judge through public spaces.

At that instant, a great fireball exploded, piercing the quiet Sunday evening and flinging the cars into the air. A column of thick black smoke obscured the men’s severed limbs jettisoned several stories high. People rushed to the scene to discover the horror of the latest Mafia attack: Paolo Borsellino and five of his escorts blown up less than two months after Judge Falcone met the same fiery fate.

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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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