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Entries in Ninni Cassarà (3)

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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Saturday
Jul232011

The Pools of Palermo

by Carl Russo

Earlier this year, a court prosecutor found an old cassette in a box she hadn’t opened since her college days of the early 1980s. The tape contains the voice of a lecturer, tinged with a rural Sicilian accent, warning a group of students about drugs. His speech was not a harangue by an abstinence zealot but a dire warning about Mafia hegemony. The speaker was Rocco Chinnici, one of the world’s foremost experts of organized crime:

Rocco ChinniciThe greatest danger there is today is resignation in the tendency to view the Mafia as an unavoidable evil in our time. We need to react. We need to make young people in particular understand that the Mafia, with its manufacture and sale of drugs, has exceeded itself in the criminal power that has always been its trademark. . . . There’s a need for citizen responsibility. . . . In a city like Palermo, so much is permeated by the Mafia. And the overwhelming majority, the silent ones, the fearful, are really on the judge’s side when he does his duty.

Each year thousands of Italians march in tribute to a pair of beloved judges martyred by the Mafia in the 1990s, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Politicians make speeches and dedicate streets in their honor. Schoolchildren lay wreathes on their statues. But often overlooked is the man who hand-picked these brilliant men to work in his anti-Mafia pool: Chief Prosecutor Chinnici, who speaks from beyond the grave on that cheap cassette recorded four months before his murder, in 1983.

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Sunday
Mar132011

Pushback

by Bluto Ray

You’re late for an appointment in downtown Palermo. The traffic was insane, the one-way streets ran you in circles, but, at last, you’ve found a space in a dark alley just big enough for your car. As you open the door and step out, a young man approaches.

“How long will you be?” he asks, smiling. You’re taken aback. You realize he wants money and you’re intimidated.

Vincenzo Conticello“About fifteen minutes,” you respond. It’s a lie but he might be a car thief. “How much is it?”

“Whatever you want,” he says with a shrug. You cough up a few euros and he thanks you graciously.

After an hour passes, you rush back to find your car safe and sound. As you pull out of the alley, you pass the young man who nods and flashes another smile. You feel taken and curse him under your breath. But as time goes on, you start to look for illicit parking attendants like him, and even feel uncomfortable leaving your car without paying somebody to protect it.

In southern Italy, paying the pizzo (in Sicilian, “u pizzu”) can feel like the natural order of things. The nineteenth-century grain farmers who turned over most of the harvest to overlords were expected to give an additional scoop, the pizzu, or beakful, to the estate guards. Thus, “wetting the beak” (“fari vagnari u pizzu”) became the tribute paid to the middlemen--the mafiosi who guaranteed distant landlords a smooth operation under threat of violence.

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