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 Carl Russo
MY LOCAL VIDEO STORE has something Netflix doesn’t: a beautifully rendered bootleg DVD of The Day of the Owl (a.k.a. Il Giorno della Civetta, a.k.a. Mafia; 1968). I’ve waited years to see this filmed version of Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia’s greatest work. Considered the first accurate depiction of the Mafia in fiction, the crime novel was a hot controversy when it was published in 1961—years before the existence of the criminal organization was officially acknowledged in Italy.
The film has all the trappings of a sixties international co-production: a widescreen format, slightly garish Technicolor, a dub job of varying accents and an international cast. The Hollywood name attached to the project was Lee J. Cobb, the great heavy who plays untouchable godfather Don Mariano Arena. His American-accented baritone is the only original voice you hear in this English-language version of the film. (I’d like to see and hear the Italian version as well, but then I’d lose Cobb’s essence.)
Claudia Cardinale plays the wife of a disappeared Mafia lackey. Fending for herself, she expresses fear, rage and dignity at once with a furrowing of her brow. (The sixties icon, born of Sicilian parents in Tunisia, commanded the screen five years earlier as the demure Angelica in a more famous coproduction, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, based on Tomasi di Lampedusa’s celebrated Sicilian novel).
by Carl Russo
PALERMO SOCCER STAR Fabrizio Miccoli apologized to his city, to his family and to the family of Giovanni Falcone for calling the slain anti-Mafia prosecutor “filth.” The word he used, captured on an intercepted phone call, was “fango”—literally "mud.” But when used as invective, it means something closer to “merda.”
The blasphemy was the tipping point for the pudgy-in-pink captain of Palermo's Serie A team, a goal-kicking striker (Italians prefer the English term “bomber”) already under investigation for alleged Mafia association and attempted extortion. “He needs a change of scenery,” said Palermo soccer president Maurizio Zamparini, who declined to renew Miccoli's contract when it expired June 30.
Miccoli’s red-card foul came after the discovery of his very close friendship with Mauro Lauricella, son of Palermo boss Antonino Lauricella, a.k.a U Scintilluni (“the Big Shiny Guy,” for his polished shoes), whose September 2011 arrest was a festive occasion. The 33-year-old Miccoli is charged with sending Lauricella Junior to shake down tardy creditors. Miccoli readily admits to his brotherly bond with Lauricella but claims ignorance of the man's Mafia links. Frank Sinatra made the same claim about his pal Lucky Luciano.
by Carl Russo
Italy’s trial of the century will probably last for another century. But, unlike past Mafia trials that prosecuted hundreds of mobsters at the same time, this one is down to only ten defendants. And they're not only mafiosi but also high-placed public officials who are being charged.
The crime? Brokering a secret deal in the early 1990s: in exchange for lighter punishments for its members, the Mafia would stop killing so many of those high-placed public officials. You can read the details of the historic trial—the so-called Trattativa (Negotiation)—here.
This video was shot outside the Palermo courtroom hosting the trial. Nicola Mancino, Italy's Interior Minister during the years of the alleged Trattatvia, is jeered by protestors shouting, "Shame! Shame!"
Mancino is accused of hiding evidence of the covert talks from prosecutors. Earlier, on the stand, he bristled at appearing "in the same trial as the Mafia," i.e., in the company of reviled godfathers like Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. Mancino wants to star in his own trial, maybe?
Those red books being waved by the demonstrators represent Judge Paolo Borsellino's missing journal, swiped from the wreckage of his assassination site twenty years ago.
by Carl Russo
Here’s my final letter, dated February 27, 2013, sent from Sicily to the patrons of my photo shoot. The images mentioned will appear in my upcoming book, The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide.
Escape from Palermo! As much as I love the intrigue of the capital city of Sicily (and the Mafia), three days of maneuvering the confusing streets with cut-up squares of a city map on my lap and no street signs is tedium, not adventure. The saving grace is that it's not roaring hot as in previous trips. If the technology were cheap, I would've attached a live web-cam to the hood and broadcast the ride.
At any turn, you go from a speedway to ancient labyrinthine souk where the cobblestones crack into dirt, and you find yourself face-to-face with an old man shoeing a horse. Add to that cars coming at you from blind corners at all moments. Cross traffic at intersections is a free-for-all, the driver in front of you screeches to a halt in to buy artichokes from a roadside vendor, pedestrian wander into traffic, and yet it all works, without American-style road rage.
Let me catch you up on one uncomfortable moment I mentioned at the close of my last letter. I was parked across the street from the palazzo of Massimo Ciancimino.
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.
Nangano 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.