Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 2. VENDETTA
THE NEW MISS MONT-ROYAL was an unpretentious eatery, with a sign out front displaying a selection of its specialties: pizza, spaghetti, shish kebab, charcoal barbecued steak. The establishment had air conditioning and the required permit to sell beer, wine and liquor. It stood at 707 Mont-Royal Avenue East, across from the Church of Notre-Dame-du-Très-Saint-Sacrement, in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal district. In time, a used book and record store would replace the restaurant. But in the 1960s and ’70s, it served simple food to this working-class neighbourhood, decades before a gentrifying influx of arty types and young professionals changed it forever. The restaurant’s co-owner, forty-two-year-old Rosario Gurreri, hailed from the same Sicilian town as Vito Rizzuto: Cattolica Eraclea.
As they filed out of church on Sunday, March 5, 1972, surprised parishioners were greeted by the sight of several police cruisers and a morgue van parked across the street in front of the New Miss Mont-Royal, where many of them liked to go for coffee after mass. Early that morning, Gurreri had left his home on Bouldaque Street in Saint-Léonard, a smallish but booming town in east-end Montreal that was home to most of the city’s Italian community. At seven-fifteen or so in the morning, he unlocked the doors to his restaurant and proceeded to the kitchen to light the stoves for the day. A man, or more likely two, quietly followed him inside and attacked him with a butcher’s cleaver, hacking at his neck and head a dozen times. Before fleeing, the killer or killers sank a hunting knife into Gurreri’s chest.
Half an hour later, a waitress arrived for work. When she got to the kitchen, she found the lifeless body of her boss, sprawled on his stomach, blood pooled around him. She called Gurreri’s brother, who called the police. When the morgue employees turned the body over to lift it onto a stretcher, they saw a gaping gash in the victim’s face. The police found the knife. After a cursory search, nothing appeared to have been stolen from the establishment. The cash register hadn’t even been opened. Police ruled out theft as a possible motive for the murder.
At first, investigators thought it might have been a crime of passion, judging by the way the killer had gone at the victim. But they didn’t rule out the possibility that the restaurant owner had refused to pay his pizzo, or “protection money,” to the Italian mob—though such a breach could hardly have been reason enough for such savage retribution.
A week later, Lieutenant-Detective Guy Gaudreau of the homicide squad informed the press that police were seeking two men, Leonardo Salvo, alias Pollari, age forty, and Leonardo Cammalleri, fifty-two. The suspects were already wanted by authorities in Italy for another murder, that of union organizer and politician Giuseppe Spagnolo, killed sixteen years earlier in Cattolica Eraclea. Back in Italy, Gurreri had incriminated Spagnolo’s killers, and that was the reason why the co-owner of the New Miss Mont-Royal had been so brutally eliminated.
The assassination of Giuseppe Spagnolo speaks volumes about the true nature of the Sicilian Mafia, its history, the way it operates and its ramifications in Canada—beginning first and foremost with the Rizzuto family—as well as Canadian judicial authorities’ incomprehensible indolence toward it. Virtually no one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard of the slain political leader, but in Sicily, his memory endures. Journalist Calogero Giuffrida wrote a book about his life, with a preface by historian Francesco Renda, which was published in 2005 under the title Delitto di Prestigio (Crime of Prestige).
A bronze bust of the farm worker turned activist adorns a building on the Via Enna in Cattolica Eraclea. A wreath is laid there every year. Commemorations are held at regular intervals to remember the man who became the town’s first elected mayor since the founding of the Italian Republic, a man who spent his entire life fighting for the rights of the peasant poor.
The son of a farmer, Spagnolo was born in 1900 in Cattolica Eraclea, located in Agrigento Province in southwestern Sicily and considered a Mafia stronghold. He left school after only two years to work the fields with his father. In the evenings, he taught himself to read and write. The teenage Spagnolo was too young to take part in the First World War. Peasants who had fought in the trenches, though, returned to Sicily imbued with socialist ideas. They began to demand, with mixed success, that the farmlands belonging to powerful barons and other nobles be shared among the workers. Spagnolo joined the fight. He was married and the father of three children, and personally suffered the same injustice as thousands of other farm workers. He barely managed to feed his family, growing wheat, corn and cotton, and picking almonds, pistachios, olives and carob beans in leased orchards.
His embrace of social causes led him to defy the regime of Benito Mussolini, which was protecting the interests of the industrial and agrarian bourgeoisie. In 1935, authorities arrested Spagnolo for anti-Fascist activity and sent him with other peasants to the penitentiary on the island of Pantelleria, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, where he was interned for four years. There, the company of political prisoners helped radicalize him. After the Second World War and the death of Mussolini, he sought the mayoralty of Cattolica Eraclea under the banner of the Zappia leftist front, against the Christian Democrats, a party supported both by the Mafia and the landowning nobility, including Baron Francesco Agnelli, who owned most of the territory in and around Cattolica Eraclea.
Spagnolo won the election. He implemented several initiatives in favour of land redistribution and adopted measures benefiting the poorest citizens—for example, taxing water based on household income, not number of occupants. He would lose the next election, but that didn’t keep him from his activism; he founded a farm co-operative that urged peasants to defy the landowners and the Mafia, and plant crops in fallow fields. His reward was a savage beating at the hands of eight men, with his twenty-six-year-old son Liborio looking on. Later, his home was set on fire in a bid to kill him; the arsonists were never caught.
To protect his family, Spagnolo took to sleeping in the fields on the outskirts of the town, refusing to go home. During the night of Saturday to Sunday, August 13 to 14, 1955, as he lay in a field in the Contrada Bissana between Cattolica Eraclea and Ciancina, a group of men that he knew well approached him and shot him repeatedly at close range.
Carabinieri were patrolling along the Platani River, which flows west of Cattolica Eraclea. In spite of the dim light, they saw three masked men riding horses, or perhaps mules, on the opposite shore, near the spot where Spagnolo had been killed. They also saw that one of them was thrown by his mount, which had a black coat, but he did not try to hold the animal back; it fled.
Spagnolo’s wife and son worried the next morning when they didn’t hear from him. They searched for most of the day. They finally found his body in a blood-soaked haystack. Though shocked and saddened, they were not surprised: more than forty-five unionists and leftist politicians had been assassinated by the Mafia between 1945 and 1955, along with countless peasants. Spagnolo’s wife and son lifted his body into a cart and took him back to town. Dr. Salvatore Marino performed the autopsy and found that Giuseppe Spagnolo had been killed by seven bullets fired from shotguns made in Palermo by the Vincenzo Bernardelli company. The barrels had been sawn off.
Later, during Mass at Sant’Antonio Abate Church, Father Don Dinaro informed the faithful that a black donkey branded with the letters OX had been found wandering in the countryside. One Rosario Gurreri announced that it belonged to him. The carabinieri arrested him and accused him of being one of the three men they had seen on the banks of the Platani, near the scene of the crime. Gurreri initially denied any involvement, but three days later he made a confession.
A month earlier, the prisoner told the police, he had been approached by Leonardo Cammalleri, Leonardo Salvo and Giacinto Arcuri. To hear Gurreri tell it, the three men asked him to take part in Spagnolo’s murder “for reasons of honour”: they claimed Spagnolo had offended Cammalleri’s mother-in-law. The exact nature of the affront remained unclear, but Gurreri intimated that it was a sexual impropriety.
He told the police that he had refused to be a party to the crime, but that he had agreed to lend Arcuri his mule on the evening of August 13. Gurreri had saddled the animal and led it to the shore of the Platani. He also admitted having seen Cammalleri that evening; the man had been wearing a long black cape but carried no weapon. Gurreri then said that he had run into Arcuri on the Via Monsignor Amato, a street in Cattolica Eraclea, the day after the murder. He concluded his testimony by stating that Arcuri told him that he and his accomplices had killed Spagnolo but had lost the donkey as they fled the approaching carabinieri.
The police began to search for the three suspects. They had information suggesting that the men had initially been hidden in the home of Antonino Manno, the unchallenged head of the Mafia over a broad territory bound by the towns of Cattolica Eraclea, Siculiana and Montallegro. Those who knew Manno were convinced that he had orchestrated Spagnolo’s assassination, and that the gunmen were merely doing his bidding. Manno was the father-in-law of Nicolò Rizzuto—who by the time of the murder had already emigrated to Montreal—and lived near the Chiesa Madre (the Mother Church) in Cattolica Eraclea.
A rumour spread rapidly: the fugitives, disguised as women, had taken refuge in the Chiesa Madre, where Father Giuseppe Cuffaro was hiding them in the sacristy. When confronted, the priest claimed that Spagnolo had committed suicide—which would have been a miracle given the fact that his body had seven bullet wounds. Spagnolo’s daughter urged residents to assemble in the piazza in town and demand that the priest deliver her father’s murderers into the hands of justice. The three suspects managed to escape the church, still in women’s clothing. With the help of Antonino Manno and his extensive network of Mafia contacts in North America, they were able to book passage across the Atlantic, fleeing to Canada and the United States.
Father Cuffaro refused to say a funeral Mass for Spagnolo on the pretense that the dead man had been a Communist and thus a non-believer. The ceremony was therefore organized by Spagnolo’s family and friends. Hundreds of people came to pay their respects. The men wore white shirts and the women, black scarves. Francesco Renda, an intellectual who many years later would write the preface to Delitto di Prestigio, the book in memory of Spagnolo, gave the eulogy. The citizens of Cattolica Eraclea had gathered, and several political parties throughout Sicily had sent delegations. A long cortège followed Spagnolo’s coffin to the cemetery.
Gurreri, Cammalleri, Salvo and Arcuri stood trial in the Assizes Court of Agrigento, the capital of the province of the same name. When called to testify, Antonino Manno made no secret of his contempt for the institution and refused to answer the prosecution’s questions. Leonardo Cammalleri and Leonardo Salvo were sentenced, in absentia, to life in prison. But during the trial, a letter from a priest in Montreal had reached the court. The clergyman wrote that Giacinto Arcuri had just been killed in a traffic accident in Canada. What the letter didn’t make clear was that the dead Giacinto Arcuri was not the same man as the Giacinto Arcuri on trial for murder. The Sicilian authorities asked no questions, however, and closed the case, thus confirming the wisdom of the Sicilian proverb “a friend with influence is more precious than a hundred pieces of gold.”
The accused Giacinto Arcuri had not been killed in any road accident. He was alive and well in Montreal and would eventually move to Toronto. (Thirty years later, after his conviction for the murder of Giuseppe Spagnolo had been rendered moot because of his presumed death, he would be among those posting $2.5 million bail for mobster Gerlando Sciascia as he awaited trial on heroin trafficking charges.)
Cammalleri, too, managed to live free as a bird in Canada. He was cautious, however. He posed as a Venezuelan national by the name of Giuseppe Antonio Nardo. In 1966, his daughter Giovanna married the young Vito Rizzuto in Toronto. Cammalleri did not enter the church; he stayed outside in his car for the entire ceremony. No police officers disturbed him as he sat there, despite the fact that he was the subject of an official wanted notice issued by the Italian authorities—and that Maria Spagnolo, Giuseppe’s daughter, who had also immigrated to Canada, had notified the police that her father’s murderer would be among the wedding guests.
Salvo, named in the same wanted notice, hid out in Buffalo, New York. As for Gurreri, he spent four years in a Sicilian prison. He was not convicted of murder, merely of being an accessory to it. Several questions remained unanswered, however. Peasants swore they had seen four men, not three, leaving the scene of the crime on the night of Spagnolo’s murder. Seven shots had been fired. The lupara, the sawed-off shotgun that was the Mafia’s weapon of choice, is a hunting gun with two smooth-bore, side-by-side barrels; it can fire only two cartridges.* Why would one of the three killers have reloaded and fired a third shot? Was it not more likely that there had been four killers? And was Rosario Gurreri the fourth man?
At any rate, on his release from prison, Gurreri emigrated as well and arrived in Canada on July 9, 1962. He opened his restaurant on Mont-Royal Avenue under the name Michel Gurreri, but in the end, he couldn’t hide behind a French-sounding name. Once the Montreal police learned who he was, they had no doubt as to the motive for this man’s murder: he had been the victim of a blood feud—a vendetta, which in Italian means “vengeance.”
The word “Mediterranean” comes from the Latin mediterraneus, meaning “in the middle of the earth.” Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, was thus in the centre of the world as the Greeks and Romans understood it. It was a location that conferred a strategic advantage, as the Allied forces would find in 1943. To control Sicily was to control the Mediterranean. The island’s original inhabitants were invaded by the Phoenicians, formidable seafarers from what is now Lebanon, who perfected naval construction techniques. They were supplanted by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Spanish and Bourbons, not to mention the French, the Germans and even, for a short time, the English and their allies: Americans and Canadians.
That history of unceasing conquests profoundly marked the character of Sicilians, causing them to mistrust strangers and turn always to their families, as the godfather himself, Joseph Bonanno, explained in his autobiography, A Man of Honor:
Sicily has been buffeted by foreign influences for well over two thousand years … Greek genius built the temple at Segesta, but Sicilian genius made it possible to endure subjugation and to survive long after the Greek town fell to ruin. Out of necessity, Sicilians put all their talents and energy into creating a life-style of survival, a peculiar and distinctive way of life that over the years became Tradition. Prevented from participating in the rule of their own land, Sicilians withdrew all the more into their own families. Everyone inside the family was a friend, all outsiders were suspect.
Exploited by colonial laws and cheated by the civil servants of foreign states, Sicilians developed their own laws and codes, and their own ways of doing business, Bonanno continues: “In an unjust world, it was necessary to create one’s own justice. A Sicilian of the old Tradition gives his highest allegiance to his family. Outside of that, however, he’s proudly independent.”
Of course, such a description of the Sicilian character by one of history’s most infamous Mafiosi is an attempt—and a particularly unsubtle one at that—to justify contempt for the law. It is a contempt that has nothing to do with the chivalrous rebellion mythologized by the likes of a Robin Hood, and everything to do with the lure of money and the thirst for power; the “family” was nothing more than a means to indulge one and slake the other. Despite this, the psychological profile of Sicilians that Bonanno draws is not entirely unfounded.
In his autobiography, Bonanno recalls a fable on the origin of the Mafia—which, once again, cast an organization of killers in the choice role. Like many legends, the story of the Sicilian Vespers is partly rooted in historical fact, specifically a popular uprising against their domination at the hands of the French king, Charles of Anjou. The rebellion began in Palermo and Corleone on March 31, 1282—the Tuesday after Easter. Tax collectors were posted outside the doors to churches, accosting the faithful who had come for vespers. Bonanno takes up the story:
As it happened, a young lady of rare beauty, who was soon to be married, was going to church with her mother when a French soldier by the name Droetto, under the pretext of helping the tax agents, manhandled the young lady. Then he dragged her behind the church and raped her. The terrified mother ran through the streets, crying, Ma fia, ma fia! This means “My daughter, my daughter” in Sicilian. The boyfriend of the young lady found Droetto and killed him with a knife. The mother’s cry, repeated by others, rang through the streets, throughout Palermo and throughout Sicily. Ma fia soon became the rallying cry of the resistance movement, which adopted the phrase as an acronym for Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela—“Death to France, Italy cries out.”
In fact, etymologists are lost in conjecture when it comes to the origins of the word “Mafia.” The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française claims it was borrowed from the Sicilian and originally meant “grace, allure, audacity.” That remains to be seen. The word first entered the popular imagination around 1863, when the play I mafiusi di la Vicaria, by the Sicilian writers Giuseppe Rizzoto and Gaetano Mosca, was first performed.
As early as 1828, the chief prosecutor of Agrigento reported to the courts about a group of a hundred or so people bound by an oath of allegiance who were active in various illicit pursuits: theft of cattle, intimidation, extortion of funds both public and private, and murder. The fraternity comprised citizens of all social strata, including property owners, priests, storekeepers and known criminals. They were active in Cattolica Eraclea, Cianciana, Santo Stefano di Quisquina, Palazzo Adriano and many more small towns in the region. The prosecutor never employed the word “Mafia” in his report, however.
Historical conditions were ripe in Sicily for the emergence of such covert brotherhoods. For centuries, the feudal landlords and popes who ruled the island had imposed an arbitrary brand of justice. Little by little, the idea spread that private justice was preferable. Going before the official courts was seen as a sign of cowardice. The nobler method of redressing a perceived slight was to invoke the clan code of honour. Vendettas were encouraged.
Central to this value system is omertà, the code of silence. Foreigners who travel in Sicily will often notice that the shutters on houses are closed. “Whoever is blind, deaf and mute will live a hundred years in peace,” goes a Sicilian proverb. Omertà means much more than merely being able to shut up. It is the first precept of a strict code of honour. Some etymologists believe the word derives from omu, which means “man” in Sicilian. A man who violates this rule is no longer a man; he is a coward. In this system of honour, one’s dignity matters more than one’s life. Omertà is virility taken to the extreme: you are better off dying than forfeiting your true nature as a man.
Under the code of silence it is categorically forbidden to co-operate with the forces of law and order or even to address them, even if one is the victim of a crime. If someone is convicted of a murder he never committed, he must serve his time and never tell the police the identity of the true culprit. Omertà embodies the values of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority. You can kill your worst enemy, but to betray him is shameful. The Mafia made that rule their own and enforced it not only among their kind, the so-called men of honour, but among the entire population.
In the stasis of a feudal system, however, where the all-powerful landowners held the monopoly on economic resources as well as on the use of violence, it was difficult for a parallel criminal organization to flourish. The situation would change with the birth and unification of modern Italy. In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Redshirts landed at Marsala, on Sicily’s west coast, chased the last remnants of Bourbon rule from the island and reunited it with the rest of Italy. A notorious anticleric, Garibaldi famously likened Pope Pius IX to “a cubic metre of manure,” professed ideals of social justice and promised agrarian reforms as well as the abolition of a tax on the grinding of wheat. He drew popular support. Two thousand picciotti (rebellious young peasants, often criminals) had joined his troops in routing the French from Sicily.
Once Garibaldi left, his promises revealed themselves for what they really were: so many words. The anticipated redistribution of lands amounted essentially to an exchange of deeds between the wealthiest landowners. Food prices soared. Riots became commonplace and criminality grew to epidemic proportions. Thugs acted as middlemen, demanding commissions on the sale and leasing of land. Rural leaseholders, called gabelloti, managed the estates for the barons, who typically lived in Palermo or Naples. They were assisted by campieri, armed guards. Together these men formed the structure of the Mafia, which became indispensable to the rich and powerful. The biggest landowners, including the Catholic Church, relied on them to maintain order.
Gabelloti and campieri determined the relations between the landowners and peasants. The peasants paid the campieri for the right to farm, and the owners paid the gabelloti to protect their assets. The campieri would march through the centre of cities and towns and, with the flick of a hand or a nod of the head, identify the men who were allowed to work the land that day, simultaneously snubbing those they wanted nothing to do with. Obviously, the odds of known socialists, trade unionists or indocile workers being chosen were quite slim. During tense periods of social conflict, the campieri trained private armies to enforce the landowners’ will.
The abundance of cheap labour in Sicily deterred mechanization, and the island went on providing agricultural resources while the north of Italy industrialized. Improvements in communications between the island and the peninsula—notably a daily ferry between Palermo and Naples—enabled the Mafia to extend its political influence all the way to Rome. Political parties needed its services to win elections. The right to vote was reserved for landowners and citizens who could read or write—barely 10 percent of the population. In practice, the members of honourable society decided who could vote. Not surprisingly, the winning candidates systematically included Mafiosi or their allies, especially in the western part of Sicily.
The same system was implemented at the local level. Mayors associated with the Mafia were empowered to distribute permits for the sale of tobacco, salt and stamps. The police, prosecutors and judges of Palermo and Agrigento had to show complacency when Mafiosi were suspected of crimes, lest these officials be isolated, threatened or eliminated. The capomafia of each district was an important person, who commanded a kiss on the hand and to whom payment had to be made should one desire employment in the public service. The Sicilian press remained mum about the rampant corruption, claiming that the Mafia didn’t exist.
In the years between 1860 and the First World War, poverty and the crushing of the peasant unions drove 1.5 million Sicilians to emigrate. Most of them went to the Americas, both North and South, and in particular the United States. Among them were highly ranked personages of the Sicilian Mafia, like Giuseppe Balsamo. After arriving in New York in 1895, he built an organization known as the Black Hand, which specialized in extortion, targeting even the poorest of their compatriots.
Up to 90 percent of Italian Americans were threatened with reprisals if they dared disobey the requirements of the Black Hand. Ignazio Saietta, a Sicilian gangster who lived in New York City’s Little Italy, strangled his victims and burned their bodies in East Harlem. A lieutenant in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and pioneer in the investigation of organized crime in the United States, Joseph Petrosino, took on the Black Handers and was eventually sent to Italy to gather intelligence and evidence. Within days, he was assassinated—he is still the only member of the NYPD ever to be murdered overseas. Balsamo was suspected of having ordered the killing.
Italians arriving in Montreal were exploited by immigration agents called padroni, who exhibited typical Mafia behaviour. Cases of abuse became so flagrant that in 1905 the federal government established a royal commission to look into the immigration of Italian workers to Montreal and alleged fraudulent practices by employment agencies.
During the First World War, the campieri of Sicily grew rich on the black market. They supplied the army with horses and mules. Meanwhile, peasants called up to fight died by the thousands in the trenches, or broke their backs working dawn to dusk in the fields. When peace was finally declared, the Mafia’s arrogance knew no bounds. No longer content to function merely as a state within the state, it began demanding exorbitant tariffs from the biggest landowners in exchange for the safekeeping of their property. Woe to those who refused to pay. All this proved too much for the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who dispatched a prefect named Cesare Mori to Palermo to clean up the island’s affairs.
Given carte blanche, vested with virtually limitless powers, Mori had thousands of people, many of them innocent, thrown in prison. His men kidnapped women and children to force their Mafia husbands and fathers to surrender. If that tactic proved unsuccessful, he laid siege to towns, going so far as to have the water supply cut off. His nickname, il prefetto de fero (the iron prefect), suited him like a glove. The Ucciardone in Palermo, a prison since medieval times, acquired the nickname “Casa Mori.” Many members of the Mafia were forced to flee Italy. One of them, who had an arrest warrant issued against him, was Giuseppe (Joseph) Bonanno. He and his cousin Peter Magaddino went to Cuba and, from there, entered the United States illegally.
The landowners naturally applauded the measures implemented by Mussolini and the Fascists, because they meant they no longer had to pay off the campieri. But in fact, the government had merely replaced the Mafia, seizing their monopoly on violent intimidation and wielding it to their advantage.
Il Duce declared victory in the war against the Mafia. In 1929, Mori was appointed a senator and recalled to Rome. His term came to an end just as he was beginning to uncover the relations between the Mafia’s leaders and powerful political figures. Those well acquainted with the underworld organization knew that Mussolini’s thunderous speeches hid an insidious truth: he may have cut off the beast’s tentacles, but the heart and head remained. The “third tier” of the Mafia, made up of seemingly respectable people in high places, went on plotting in the comfort of the shadows—and kept the organization very much alive.
In the meantime, in the United States, the Mafia was experiencing boom years thanks to Prohibition. The Volstead Act had become law on January 16, 1920, and it marked the beginning of a beautiful decade for American organized crime. At first, the Mafia clans ran their own clandestine distilleries, but too many of them were shut down and destroyed by the police. It was far easier, and far more lucrative, to buy the forbidden liquor in a foreign country and smuggle it in as contraband.
That foreign, and friendly, country lay just to the north. The bootleggers imported massive amounts of alcohol from Canada. Their largest supplier was the Bronfman brothers’ dynasty. Driven out of Saskatchewan by public opinion and a provincial government outraged by his family business dealings with mobsters south of the border, Samuel Bronfman settled in Montreal, where he built one of the largest distilleries in the world and eventually bought out another, Joseph E. Seagram’s and Sons. Production was overwhelmingly destined for the United States; only 20 percent of the liquor distilled in Canada was consumed domestically. Around 1930, when the Canadian government began cracking down on exports southward, the Bronfmans set up shop in the French-controlled islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Their agents negotiated with the most infamous of American mobsters, including Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky of New York. Some claim that Sam Bronfman travelled to New York to meet with Lansky, who would eventually become principal counsellor, or consigliere, to Salvatore “Charlie Lucky” Luciano, the founder of the modern Mafia. Near the end of his life, an embittered Lansky asked: “Why is Lansky a ‘gangster’ and not the Bronfman and Rosenstiel families? I was involved with all of them in the 1920s, although they do not like to talk about it today and change the subject when my name is mentioned.”
Be that as it may, the rain of dollars that poured into the Mafia’s coffers during the “dry years” exacerbated inner tensions. The Castellammarese War, which erupted around 1930 in New York, would result in a body count in the dozens and culminate with the implementation of power structures that remain operational to this day, not only in the United States but in Canada as well. The name given to this power struggle between clans referred to Castellammare del Golfo, a small town that sits halfway between Palermo and Marsala, on the western coast of Sicily, and is renowned as the birthplace of many an influential member of the Mafia in America, among them Joseph Bonanno, Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Barbara.
By 1930 the boss of Cosa Nostra in New York, the Marsala-born Giuseppe Masseria, was sufficiently alarmed at the growing threat posed by the Castellammarese faction, led by Salvatore Maranzano, that he ordered his hit men to take out its soldiers one by one. Maranzano struck back. A year later, the bloody turf war had claimed eighty-five victims in both camps. Maranzano briefly became capo di tutti i capi, “boss of all bosses.” On the advice of Lansky and Costello, Lucky Luciano—who had made a fortune with bootlegging rackets and had been Masseria’s lieutenant since 1925—soon manoeuvred deftly to settle the conflict on his own terms. The Castellammarese War had attracted plenty of police response, and that was bad for business. He had Masseria rubbed out, and before long it was Maranzano’s turn.
Born Salvatore Lucunia in Sicily in 1897, Lucky Luciano arrived in New York City at age nine. By the time he was a teenager, he was already a gang leader. He was once severely wounded when his throat was slashed by rivals who left him for dead. He survived but bore long scars of the attack across his neck, leading his men to bestow the “Lucky” sobriquet.
With Masseria and Maranzano out of the way, Luciano took control of the New York Mafia. It was on his suggestion that the “Commission” was created—a sort of board of directors on which the heads of the city’s Five Families sat and were tasked with settling mobland disputes. They were joined by Al Capone, from Chicago, and Stefano Magaddino, from Buffalo.
Some Mafia historians and analysts, however, attribute paternity of the Commission to Maranzano. “Salvatore Maranzano arrived in New York in 1927, saying he had been given a mission by the Palermitan boss to unite the American families under a single chief,” states an analysis document by the RCMP intelligence service. “After a bloody war, in the spring of 1931, in the Bronx, he organized the first official meeting of Cosa Nostra, the name chosen for the American Mafia. At that meeting, Maranzano divided Cosa Nostra into new families, including five in New York. In the fall of that year, Luciano had Maranzano killed, because he was planning to become the boss of bosses in the United States.”
The Five Families survive to this day. In decreasing order of stature, they are the Gambinos, Genoveses, Bonannos, Luccheses and Colombos. There is no longer any “boss of all bosses” per se in the U.S. Mafia, but the head of the Gambino family asserts dominance over the others, in particular the Bonanno family. The latter is not the biggest outfit in terms of membership, but it stands out from the others in more than one respect: it is the most violent and the most intrinsically Sicilian. The Bonanno organization accepts few members who are not from Sicilian families, unlike the Genovese family, for instance, whose longtime head was Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, born in Manhattan of Neapolitan parents.
With the founding of the Commission, the Bonannos inherited control of the largest Mafia branch outside New York: the Montreal crew (Chicago and Buffalo are not branches, as they are headed by independent families). The Montreal Mafia was never considered a “sixth family” on a par with the original five, however. Vito Rizzuto himself, when he pleaded guilty for his role in the three captains murder plot in 2005, told the court he was a soldier in the Bonanno family. This does not mean the Montreal Mafia has never displayed any degree of desire for autonomy from the New York parent, but these vague ambitions have never amounted to any real independence. Ultimately, Montreal remains under the heel of the Commission. Whenever the Bonanno family is in disarray—and it often has been—it is generally the members of the Commission’s ruling Gambino family who are charged with settling disputes, and that includes those in Montreal.
In 1936, Luciano was convicted and received a sentence of thirty to fifty years in prison for running the largest prostitution ring in American history. He was eventually sent to the maximum-security prison at Dannemora, in Upstate New York, twenty-five or so kilometres west of Plattsburgh.
In February 1942, the Normandie, a luxury liner being refitted to carry U.S. troops to Europe, caught fire and sank in the Hudson River. Was it an accident or sabotage? The Office of Naval Intelligence took no chances; New York City’s waterfront had to be protected, so its officers sought the help of the Mafia members who controlled the docks. At their suggestion, the navy later contacted Luciano.
Lucky agreed to help the navy but in return insisted on a transfer to more comfortable digs: the Great Meadows Penitentiary, halfway between Lake Champlain and Albany, the state capital. Though he was now Inmate No. 15684, he still wielded considerable influence among his troops. The extent of his co-operation with the U.S. military remains open to much debate, but the fact remains that there was not a single labour action or act of sabotage in the ports of the Eastern Seaboard for the remainder of the Second World War. Luciano apparently provided the government with invaluable information and, through intermediaries, convinced the Mafia in Sicily not to offer any resistance once the Allies landed on the Mediterranean island.
In fact, the prospect of the Allied invasion quite enthused Luciano, much to the amusement of his friend Meyer Lansky. Years later, Lansky would tell his biographers that Luciano was prepared to take skydiving lessons so that he could join the paratroopers who would drop from the skies over Sicily. “I had to laugh at the thought of Charlie landing in a tree or on top of a court,” his consigliere recalled. “Poor old Lucky—playboy to prisoner to paratrooper in his dreams.” At any rate, Luciano certainly pushed the right anti-fascist buttons with the intelligence officers who interrogated him: “I told ’em somethin’ hadda be done with this guy Hitler. I said that if somebody could knock off this son of a bitch, the war would be over in five minutes.”
Within months of the war’s end, New York State governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on the condition that he return to Italy. In his years as a prosecutor and district attorney before being elected, Dewey had built a reputation as a man of integrity, known for his fierce opposition to the Mafia. He’d sent Lucky to prison ten years earlier; now he sang his praises for having served the nation. “Upon the entry of the United States into the war, Luciano’s aid was sought by the Armed Services in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack,” he explained. “It appears he co-operated in such effort, although the actual value of the information procured is not clear. His record in prison is wholly satisfactory.”
The first Allied landings in Europe, code-named Operation Husky, took place on July 10, 1943, on the south coast of Sicily. Axis troops had just bitten the dust in North Africa. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill had met six months earlier in Casablanca to map out their strategy. As the Phoenicians and Romans had centuries earlier, they saw that control of Sicily was the key to dominion over the Mediterranean. The island was poorly defended. Still, British and Canadian troops fought bloody battles in the eastern part of Sicily against well-trained German battalions. The Americans had an easier time in the west, the Mafia’s stronghold: Lieutenant General George S. Patton would boast of having achieved “the fastest blitzkrieg in history” in marching some three hundred kilometres in four days to reach Palermo, on the north coast.
The U.S. forces were crushingly superior to the unmotivated and ill-equipped Italians. Besides, having experienced bloody repression under Prefect Mori, the Mafiosi had no need of Luciano’s urgings to help drive out the Fascisti. Plenty of things have been said and written about these aspects of the Sicilian campaign, including claims by some authors that the Mafia protected Allied troops from enemy sniper fire along major roads and provided guides on mountain routes.
There are also stories of Mafia bosses, including Calogero Vizzini, playing a major role in the rapid advance of the U.S. troops, but serious historians discount them as pure legend. Regardless, Don Vizzini was named an honorary U.S. Army colonel and appointed mayor of the town of Villalba by occupation forces. The leftist writer Michele Pantaleone, later a prominent anti-Mafia journalist and politician, was a native of the same town, and one of the first to criticize the policies of the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT). In his opinion, “the Allied occupation and the subsequent slow restoration of democracy reinstated the Mafia with its full powers, put it once more on the way to becoming a political force, and returned to the Onorata Societa [the Honoured Society] the weapons which Fascism had snatched from it.”
The Americans preferred to see Mafia members rather than communists heading the town councils and other government organizations of Sicily. After an initial flirtation with separatist ideas, Don Calò Vizzini and the majority of the Mafia bosses sided with the Christian Democrats—as did the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Christian Democrat Party won the elections of 1948 and would rule Italy for the next forty-five years as part of innumerable coalitions. One of the party’s main objectives, which both the Mafia and the U.S. government backed enthusiastically, was to keep the communists as far from the seats of power as possible; the Italian Communist Party was the largest among the member countries of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This strategic alliance with the Mafia would, however, contribute to making Italy one of the most corrupt and indebted of the world’s developed countries.
Don Calò Vizzini’s stature within the Mafia is also disputed. One fact is known: he founded a candy factory in Palermo with Lucky Luciano, who had settled in Naples after his deportation from the United States. The candies were exported throughout Europe as well as to the United States and Canada. In 1954, the Rome daily Avanti! ran a photo of the factory under the headline: “Textiles and Sweets on the Drug Route.” Though they were never able to amass proof to substantiate their suspicions, the police were convinced that the candy trade was a cover for a far more lucrative one: heroin.
Don Calò died that same year of natural causes. The New York Times story on his passing was titled “Sicilian Mafia ‘King’ Dies.” Indeed, many did view him as the capo di tutti i capi; others countered that the title did not exist in the Sicilian Mafia, and they are probably right. At any rate, he received a grandiose funeral in Villalba, the town over which he had reigned supreme. Thousands of black-clad peasants were joined by politicians, priests and Mafia dons including Giuseppe Genco Russo and Don Francesco Paolo Bontade in silent march behind the hearse bearing the man who, when he was alive, had ordered people murdered by the dozens.
“When I die, the Mafia dies,” Don Calò had once said. But his death no more signalled the demise of the Mafia than the eventual closing down of the Palermo candy factory spelled an end to the manufacture of heroin in Italy. On the contrary.
On October 10, 1957, Lucky Luciano stood surveying the lobby of the Grande Albergo e delle Palme, the most exclusive hotel in the history of Palermo. Today swallowed up by the Hilton chain, the Grande Albergo was originally built as a sumptuous private home, north of the lively neighbourhood around the Vucciria market where goldsmiths, scrap metal dealers, shoemakers and pasta merchants had proliferated. Converted into a luxury hotel in the nineteenth century, the establishment had seen its share of famous and distinguished guests within its walls, including Richard Wagner, who stayed there in the 1880s, in a grand suite with a blue ceiling and walls bedecked with huge mirrors, eventually completing his final opera, Parsifal. It was also there that the composer sat for a famous portrait by Renoir.
Over the next four days, Lucky would hold court in this lavish palace, welcoming some two and a half dozen visitors who, though arguably just as famous as Wagner, were rather less distinguished. And indeed it was in the Sala Wagner that this summit meeting of U.S. and Sicilian Mafia bosses was held. The American delegation was headed by Joseph Bonanno. Almost all his men hailed, like him, from Castellammare del Golfo. They included his caporegime Carmine Galante, who had lived in Montreal from 1952 to 1955, and John Bonventre, his vice-capo. His cousins Antonio, Giuseppe and Gaspare Magaddino, whose family controlled Buffalo, were in attendance, as was Detroit boss John Priziola.
The Sicilians were led by the head of the ruling famiglia in Castellammare del Golfo, another man named Magaddino, a relative of the Buffalo family. Others included Don Giuseppe Genco Russo, a unanimously reviled mobster who styled himself the new boss of bosses and successor to Don Calò Vizzini, and men whose importance would become apparent years later: Salvatore “Ciaschiteddu” (Little Bird) Greco, Gaetano Badalamenti and Tommaso Buscetta, who would also spend time in Montreal and, much later, become a high-profile pentito—a “penitent.”
The emissaries of the Sicilian and U.S. Mafias spent those four days mapping out co-operative strategies for rendering the business of heroin trafficking as efficient as possible, taking advantage of existing cigarette smuggling routes. In the post-war years, Luciano had made Havana a profitable hub for moving the drug into the United States. But revolution had come to Cuba’s shores, and new connections were needed.
Luciano and Bonanno suggested that their Sicilian counterparts adopt the model of the Commission, established twenty-six years earlier in New York, and create a structure to regulate the 150 or so clans engaged in bloody infighting on the island. Provincial committees were set up to settle disputes, along with a central, interprovincial commission that was to be called the “Cupola.” The new Mafia would be more urbanized, more aggressive, more business-oriented. Salvatore Greco was appointed segretario, or leader, of the Cupola.
This structural change meant American Mafiosi could deal directly with the Cupola to facilitate the importing of massive quantities of heroin. At the time, the trade in the drug was dominated by the famous French Connection: the main suppliers were Corsicans, and the opium was produced in Turkey—farmers there held permits to grow poppy plants and legally supply pharmaceutical companies, but many sold their excess crops to drug traffickers.
The Turkish opium was transformed into morphine base, then sent to Syria or Lebanon for transfer to the clandestine laboratories of Marseilles and Paris, operated by the Corsicans. Enter highly trained French chemists who knew the techniques for refining morphine base into heroin of exceptional quality. From there, the white powder was bagged and eventually exported to the United States, often passing through Montreal.
On November 10, 1955, the RCMP had found fourteen sacks of heroin weighing a kilogram each in a search of the Saint-Malo, a cargo ship out of Le Havre that had just docked in the Port of Montreal. The street value of the dope was more than fourteen million dollars. It was the biggest haul of its kind ever in North America. “In the early 1950s, the clandestine processing of heroin from morphine base had shifted to the hands of the French Corsican traffickers, along with a substantial share of the import trade into the United States,” a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime reported in 1963. “The advent of the Corsicans as major traffickers brought changes in the smuggling operations; for years, the main port of entry had been New York, but now the French Corsicans supplied the drugs to their French-speaking Canadian confederates for smuggling into the United States.”
During his years in Montreal, Carmine Galante, Joe Bonanno’s right-hand man, had mingled with the Canadian accomplices of the French Connection. He was well positioned to judge the sheer magnitude of the profits to be made in the dope trade. The Mafia leaders agreed to do business with the Corsican syndicates; if they could become their sole client, so much the better. Indeed, illicit labs in Sicily had already begun morphine refining operations before the meeting at the Grande Albergo. These operations would be pressed into greater service.
A follow-up conference was scheduled for a few weeks later, in November, this time in the United States. That month, a routine investigation triggered by a complaint about a bounced cheque led a New York State trooper, Sergeant Edgar D. Croswell, to a hotel in Binghamton, an upstate town halfway between New York and Buffalo, not far from the border with Pennsylvania. Croswell was intrigued by the behaviour of a young man at the hotel reception desk who booked three rooms and informed the clerk that his father would be settling the bill. The young man was the son of Joseph Barbara, an area resident of some repute—not so much as the local distributor of Canada Dry soft drinks but for shadier dealings. Every police officer in the area knew Joe “The Barber” Barbara was a close associate of Buffalo Mafia boss Stefano Magaddino. And it was public knowledge that Barbara handed out generous bribes to local law enforcement. Croswell’s palms, however, were not among those being greased.
On the afternoon of November 13, the eager sergeant, accompanied by state-police investigator Vincent Vasisko, drove to the home of Joseph Barbara, an imposing stone manor fronting a twenty-hectare estate that extended to the top of a hill in the small town of Apalachin, just east of Binghamton. There they saw a dozen expensive cars, some of which had out-of-state plates. Croswell began noting the licence numbers and checking the owners’ identities. Some familiar names, including that of Vito Genovese, were radioed back to him. The trooper then questioned a caterer who was on his way out of the house, and learned that Barbara had put in an order for a hundred kilograms of steak, which piqued his curiosity even more.
The next day, November 14, accompanied by two Treasury agents, Croswell and Vasisko returned to the scene, where by now some thirty cars and limousines were parked in front of the stone house. They set up two roadblocks at either end of the road leading to the estate. The guests panicked. Some, including Vito Genovese, attempted to flee by car but were stopped. Others ran out into the snow, with only shiny leather shoes on their feet, and tried to flee through the woods, at the risk of tearing their expensive silk suits and losing their gold cufflinks. Many escaped in the confusion. Reinforcements were sent and, in the end, the police nabbed a total of fifty-eight mobsters.
Among the guests at the “convention” that day were Joe Bonanno and Carmine Galante. Police still believe that Montrealers Luigi Greco and Giuseppe “Pep” Cotroni—the younger brother of Vic Cotroni, who by then was already the head of the Montreal Mafia—also attended. In all, anywhere from sixty to a hundred Mafia leaders (accounts vary) from all across the United States as well as Canada and Italy had come to Apalachin. When police sorted through the list, they found that half of the captured men had been born in the United States and the other half in Sicily. None of the gangsters was armed. Almost to a man, they assured the arresting officers that they had come simply to visit their friend Joe Barbara, having heard that he had fallen ill. Investigators eventually learned that the guests had been summoned by Vito Genovese, who planned to assert his authority as boss of bosses. But a crucial item on the agenda at Apalachin was the sealing of the deal that would see the Sicilian and American Mafia work together in the narcotics trade, as had been decided at the earlier summit at the Grande Albergo.
As planned, Montreal would get a piece of the action. A choice piece.
* The word lupara is derived from lupo, Italian for “wolf,” the animal traditionally hunted with this weapon. The shotguns’ barrels were sawn off to make them easier to use in vegetation—as well as harder to spot under a coat in an urban setting. The lupara is one of the oldest firearms in existence in Sicily.