Is it last call at the hotel Lucky Luciano made famous?
by Carl Russo
AFTER WORLD WAR II, America’s population of junkies swelled to hysteria-inducing numbers, courtesy of the New York Mafia families that pushed French-made heroin. The Narcotic Control Act, passed by the US Congress in 1956, took a sledgehammer to the illegal trade: two hundred gangsters suddenly found themselves serving forty-year prison sentences. Their brethren in Sicily, while finding it lucrative to smuggle morphine in orange crates, were still more invested in peddling contraband cigarettes. Lucky Luciano’s Mafia summit of October 1957 changed all that. The Sicilian-born gangster, recently booted from America, summoned New York boss Joe Bonanno and his associates to Palermo for a four-day convention with the leaders of Cosa Nostra.”
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.
Just 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."
Given 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.
by Bluto Ray
Some years ago, an old man opened a musty little shop of Mussolini souvenirs in the abandoned ruins of lower Ragusa. All your Fascist needs were priced and on display, from a painted antique trunk commemorating the dictator to postcards depicting his visit to the baroque city to black cigarette lighters bearing his face. In the collective memory of Sicilians, the Fascist reign over the island was an epoch of extreme repression and violence that followed Mussolini’s 1922 inauguration as the Prime Minister of Italy. But many old-timers still hold a flame for the Blackshirts who struck a decisive blow against the Mafia.
The crime bosses enjoyed a boost of prestige as the politicians they controlled were courted by early Fascists eager to align themselves with Palermo’s conservative leaders. But Mussolini’s suspension of electoral democracy in 1925 suddenly choked off their access to local politics.
Sicily was an unruly child in the mind of the Duce, and the only cure would be the firm hand of Fascist discipline. His methods had subdued the left-wing parties of the north--a success that increased support for him on the mainland. But reforming Sicily was essential if the strongman were to realize his dream of a totalitarian state. He had caught a glimpse of the island’s unique power structure a year earlier on the official state tour that passed through Ragusa.
by Bluto Ray
Chalk up another disappointment for Sicilians in the unpunished murder of Placido Rizzotto. A pile of bones believed to be the remains of the trade unionist failed to produce a DNA match with the exhumed body of his father when tested last October. Regardless, the annual gathering to commemorate Rizzotto will take place, as it has every March since his death in 1948, in the central piazza of Corleone. Eulogies will be delivered on the very spot where he took on the Mafia singlehandedly.
Though he belongs to a tradition of peasant activists assassinated for challenging the Mafia’s feudal estate system--thirty-five were killed before him--Rizzotto was one of the most authentic and homegrown men of the bunch. The third-grade dropout did not arrive at an ideology through books but by observation and experience. His mafioso father Carmelo was an estate boss who was thrown into prison for nearly five years, leaving the young Placido in charge of a brother, five younger sisters and the family cows before reaching his twelfth birthday. His bed was a mat of straw.
Rizzotto’s political education grew after he was drafted as a Fascist soldier to fight in the Venetian region of northern Italy. After Mussolini’s fortune reversed in 1943, Rizzotto joined the partisans fighting Nazis in the region. He returned to Corleone two years later with a new view of the Mafia’s power monopoly. His perspective could find traction in today’s political debates:
by Bluto Ray
A tiny dot on the map of Sicily called Villalba was a locus of Mafia activity thanks, in no small part, to the American Allied occupation of the island during World War II. With the Fascists in retreat, local Mafia bosses--effectively stifled under Mussolini--were being tapped by US commanders to fill the power vacuum and restore order. In rural Villalba the mayoral post was given to Calogero Vizzini, known to the peasants who kissed his hands as Don Calò.
This barely-literate, cartoon-like mafioso with rubber features, fedora, and balloon pants hiked over his enormous belly had nevertheless been the territory’s most skilled powerbroker since the early twentieth century. The archetypal estate boss, who deftly manipulated the black markets in both world wars, was legitimized by a family of Catholic priests entrenched in local politics.
Though accused of dozens of murders and lesser crimes, Don Calò was reliably cleared with clergy support. (Part of his sizable fortune came from a land sale he brokered for a Parisian nobleman and a local bank run by his uncle, a priest. Don Calò kept five hundred acres as commission.) He was equally at ease cutting deals with industrialists in London or providing marital counsel to neighbors in Villalba, where he was respected, loved and feared
by Bluto Ray
The baron versus the peasant. It was a plot that played out for centuries on the scorched plains of Sicily. The farms and grazing lands owned by the nobility fed its sumptuous lifestyle in Palermo and other rich cities, far from the dust of labor. Though European feudalism was officially abolished in the eighteenth century, the peasantry’s traditional right of common land use devolved into a dependent form of sharecropping that choked off much of its income and food supply.
But the plot changed. From the teeming pool of landless laborers arose what many have described as the prototypical mafioso known as the gabelloto, a lease-holding boss. He was selected for his ability to manage the lands and quell revolts with a heavy hand, usually one that held a shotgun. Those decadent absentee landlords often lost their lands to the monster they created. The gabelloto soon controlled both the property and its workers, as well as the politicians who curried his favor for ill-gotten votes.
Though land reform had been debated and decreed by Rome many times over this period, it was a law pushed through by the Communist deputy Fausto Gullo in 1944 that allowed peasants two chief rights: a greater share of the crops and the right to cultivate mismanaged land. A left-right struggle ensued across rural Sicily, where workers occupied farmlands as their own. This upset the power balance that benefitted the Mafia. In the southern city of Sciacca, a former banker named Accursio Miraglia led the radical charge.