Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 4. SICILIANS AND CALABRIANS
THE INTELLIGENCE OFFICERS discreetly “attending” Vito Rizzuto’s wedding in Toronto on November 26, 1966, failed to arrest the father of the bride, who sat in his car and waited for the end of the ceremony—this in spite of the fact that Leonardo Cammalleri was wanted by Italian authorities for his role in the murder of Giuseppe Spagnolo. They did, however, note the presence of some very special guests, who included Frank D’Asti and, more important, Paolo Violi.
D’Asti, aged fifty-two, was second-in-command to Nicola Di Iorio, who in turn was one of Vic Cotroni’s lieutenants. Di Iorio managed the Victoria Sporting Club, the Mafia’s biggest gaming house in Greater Montreal. He was also a particularly active drug trafficker and had an extensive network of contacts among politicians. Both D’Asti and Di Iorio were under intense police scrutiny as they slowly but surely went about forging solid ties with the provincial Liberal Party. In 1969, they made financial contributions to Pierre Laporte’s run for the party leadership. Laporte lost to Robert Bourassa, but D’Asti and Di Iorio continued to support him in the hopes that he would be appointed minister of justice in a Bourassa government and would thus be well positioned to put a stop to the police’s incessant raids on their nightclubs and gambling houses. Bourassa instead named Laporte minister of labour and immigration. But he also made him vice-premier, the second most important position in the provincial government. When Laporte was kidnapped by members of the separatist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), sparking the October Crisis of 1970, his abductors wrote a manifesto, which was read on Télévision de Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French-language network. In it, the separatists alleged that the Liberals’ election win was “a victory for Vic Cotroni.” D’Asti offered his services to Laporte’s secretary to help find him, but it was in vain: within a week, the minister had been killed by his captors.
In hindsight, the most surprising name on the guest list at Vito Rizzuto’s wedding was that of Paolo Violi, a man who would soon be openly at war with the father of the groom, Nicolò Rizzuto. That conflict would culminate with Violi’s assassination. Years before Violi’s demise, the Quebec Police Commission hearings into organized crime (CECO) had described strife within the Montreal Mafia. “The Commission has heard repeatedly about the Rizzuto incident,” a CECO report reads. “This is a serious dispute that has pitted the leaders of the ‘family,’ Vincent Cotroni and Paolo Violi, against one of their subordinates, the Sicilian Nicholas [sic] Rizzuto.” “Serious dispute” is perhaps an understatement. Forty years later, the Mafia in Canada is still very much feeling its effects.
Two days after Vito Rizzuto’s wedding, police officers observed Paolo Violi and Vic Cotroni again, in Montreal. The police still did not know the exact position Violi occupied within the criminal organization, but they knew what kind of guy he was.
Like Cotroni, Violi hailed from Calabria. He was born on February 6, 1931, in the town of Sinopoli. His father, Domenico, was ostensibly a simple shepherd. In fact, he was considered by Italian police to be the local boss of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian criminal organization. Paolo was classified delinquent by his teen years. A 1947 Italian police report described the then sixteen-year-old as “a dangerous person with an impulsive nature, capable of anything because of his propensity for violence.”
Violi immigrated to Canada in 1951, at age twenty, and settled in Toronto. Nearly penniless, he shared a room with a heroin trafficker, an active member of the French Connection. On May 24, 1955, he had a parking-lot encounter with another Calabrian immigrant by the name of Natale Brigante. An altercation ensued, allegedly over a woman. It escalated into a vicious fight. Brigante brandished a knife and stabbed his opponent. Wounded in the chest, just below the heart, Violi had no choice but to draw a .32 calibre pistol and shoot Brigante four times—at least, that was the version he recounted to police. Brigante collapsed to the ground, mortally wounded. Violi was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Showing the scar from the stab wound as proof, he pleaded self-defence and was acquitted. Nonetheless, the police contended that Violi was acting on orders, settling a vendetta launched in the old country.
The deed enhanced the young Violi’s underworld profile. Giacomo Luppino, the leader of the ’Ndrangheta in Hamilton, took him under his wing. Luppino was an old friend of Violi’s father, Domenico, who had immigrated to the United States and settled in Parma, near Cleveland. Luppino reported to Stefano Magaddino, the Buffalo Mafia boss. The stars were aligning in favour of a rapid rise to the top of the criminal heap for Violi. That ascension included courting Grazia Luppino, his boss’s daughter. The relationship was by all accounts strongly encouraged by Giacomo Luppino, and Violi succeeded in winning Grazia’s hand. They would marry in 1965.
After he moved to Montreal in 1963, Violi changed bosses: he was soon reporting to Vic Cotroni. The boss of the decina liked the young man so much that he agreed to be best man at his wedding and, later, godfather to one of his children. Cotroni needed a Calabrian deputy as counterweight to the Sicilians in the organization like Luigi Greco and Nicolò Rizzuto. Violi became one of Cotroni’s four lieutenants, on equal footing with Greco, Nicola Di Iorio and Frank Cotroni, Vic’s younger brother.
It is difficult to ascertain what Stefano Magaddino thought of Violi’s taking up with a group that answered to his New York rival Joe Bonanno. He may have chalked Violi’s departure into the loss column, but at the same time, he may have seen it as a chance to extend his influence as far as Montreal. At any rate, he was not well pleased when he learned that Violi and Vic Cotroni had met with Joe Bonanno’s son in Montreal. His Hamilton associate, Giacomo Luppino, reassured Magaddino as to their neutrality, however.
When he arrived in Montreal, Violi opened a café on Jean-Talon Street, in Saint-Léonard. The Reggio Bar, and the adjacent Gelateria Violi, provided a good front: “customers” would come in for an espresso or some ice cream, then leave. Sensitive discussions could take place in a small office in the back, while more critical operations were mapped out in the basement.
One day in December 1970, a stranger opened the door to the Reggio. He said his name was Bob Wilson and introduced the blonde who was with him as his wife. They were interested in the apartment above the café; Violi had put up a For Rent sign in the front window.
The café fell silent. A short, stocky man stood behind the counter. Adjusting his glasses, Wilson recognized Paolo Violi, although he had never seen him in person. The café owner surveyed the visitor warily, his beady black eyes staring him up and down. One of his associates began the interrogation. Wilson wasn’t Italian and could provide no references. He said he was an electrician from Ontario. Still, he and Violi came to an agreement; the rent would be $125 per month. Violi, whose earnings were derived from all manner of enterprises, rackets and fraudulent schemes, was not one to look askance at any sum of money. In this instance, though, he was making what was probably the worst mistake of his life. Bob Wilson’s real name was Robert Ménard, and he was working undercover for the Montreal police.
Soon after he moved in, Ménard and a team of technicians fitted the apartment with hidden microphones that would record every word uttered in the café downstairs for the next several years. Violi’s phone was already tapped. From his balcony or his window, Ménard took down the licence numbers of cars that pulled up in front of the café. One day, his cover was very nearly blown when Violi asked him to fix a light bulb that wouldn’t switch on. Ménard knew precious little about electrical work; he had merely taken a crash course from his brother, a master electrician. He pretended to inspect the wiring and connections. “You’ve got a real problem here,” he said to the owner while flipping the switch up and down. “Just one thing left to check.” He climbed up a ladder and examined the bulb. It was simply burnt out.
“Ya shoulda checked the fuckin’ light first, eh, Wilson?” Violi joked.
“Well, I like to complicate things, okay?” Ménard acknowledged. “Hey, I’m fuckin’ tired. Come and have a coffee with me.”
“I hope you’re not gonna charge me for that!” Violi said.
“Well, I hope you’re not gonna raise my rent,” Ménard shot back.
“No, no, no, I won’t,” the owner promised. “You’re a good boy. You’re a good boy, Bob, I like you!”
In time, Ménard and Violi struck up a friendship—a false friendship in the policeman’s case. They would sometimes sit on the steps of the café and make small talk. An angry Violi would rail against the “goddamn separatists” who, in his eyes, were ruining the province. Like many residents of Saint-Léonard, he was unhappy that his children were forced to attend French school. He wanted them to be brought up in English, “the language of business.”
The police had gone so far as to put together a fake criminal record for “Bob Wilson,” garnishing it with convictions for various petty offences. The artifice was designed to dispel any doubts on Violi’s part, should he decide to look into his new tenant’s past. The “wife” who had accompanied the undercover officer to the Reggio Bar soon “broke up” with him. Poor “Wilson” then pretended to be heartbroken. In short, Violi was duped for years. The Reggio recordings were provided to several police forces, not only in Canada but in the United States and Italy as well. When the CECO began disclosing choice excerpts from the tapes, they had a devastating impact. They confirmed what witnesses testifying before the commissioners had already hinted at: Paolo Violi was a vicious, ignoble human being.
Violi ran Saint-Léonard. He systematically extorted every Italian merchant in the neighbourhood, including a small-time window-washer: “At one point, he received a telephone call asking him to prepare a bid for a window-washing contract at the Reggio Bar, owned by Paolo Violi,” states one of the CECO reports. “When he arrived on the premises, two individuals made him descend to the basement of the establishment; one of them identified himself as Jos Macri. There, he was intimidated in Paolo Violi’s name. He was ordered to make out three five-hundred-dollar cheques to ensure the ‘protection’ of his business. Jos Macri pointed a revolver at the window-washer. Paolo Violi then came down to the basement ‘to wrap up the deal.’ The witness begged Violi to intervene on his behalf. Violi let him go after making him sign two cheques.” When the window-washer refused to take Violi on as a partner in his company, he lost the majority of his customers and was forced to go out of business.
Another businessman, Mauro Marchettini, told the CECO what happened after he opened a pool hall at the corner of Lacordaire and Jean-Talon Streets, not far from the Reggio. The problem was Violi already ran a poolroom in the area. Suppliers at first stopped making deliveries to Marchettini, and then the threats became more direct. When Marchettini stubbornly refused to close up shop and go elsewhere, Violi dispatched his brother Francesco, who beat Marchettini with a long paddle normally used for churning ice cream. “I was told I could open that kind of business, but not on Lacordaire Street, and not on Jean-Talon east of Lacordaire,” the unfortunate entrepreneur told the CECO.
Using violence and intimidation, Violi monopolized the sale of Italian ice cream in Montreal’s north and east ends. A CECO witness explained that there was only one other manufacturer of Italian ice cream in the city, but Violi forbade him from selling any outside his own gelateria. “Violi is not one man, he’s a thousand men,” the witness said. The boss also offered his services as a mediator. He told the brothers Lino and Quintino Simaglia, who owned a small business, that he could assist them in settling a dispute with a Toronto-based company. These mediation services, of course, were not provided gratis: Violi ordered that the two brothers pay him one thousand dollars every year, at Christmas. Lino Simaglia told the CECO that they hadn’t dared say no. Neither brother was a rich man, and the “present” they had to give to Violi meant that they couldn’t afford to give their own children any gifts at Christmas.
Italian entrepreneurs in east-end Montreal weren’t the only victims of the godfather of Saint-Léonard. In his testimony before the CECO, one Tony Mucci reluctantly admitted that Violi had suggested that he demand five thousand dollars in tribute money from the owner of a bar called Tre Colori in Chambly, a town on Montreal’s South Shore. When he testified, Mucci was serving an eight-year prison term for the shooting of crime reporter Jean-Pierre Charbonneau in the Le Devoir newsroom. Charbonneau, who escaped serious injury but was wounded in the arm, had been exposing the activities of the Mafia, and particularly the Cotroni-Violi clan, writing column after column about rampant corruption in Saint-Léonard. Had Violi ordered the hit on Charbonneau? Mucci swore that he had not acted at the urging of higher-ups, but the commissioners remained skeptical.
One Saint-Léonard citizen, Frank Tutino, decided to run for a seat at city hall—without asking Violi’s permission. The godfather sent his consigliere, Pietro Sciara, to warn Tutino that his enterprise would be a risky one. Tutino thought about it and paid a quick visit to Violi at the Reggio Bar. The boss began by “asking” Tutino to withdraw his candidacy and went on to threaten his family. Then, somewhat magnanimously, he offered to refund what money he had already spent on his campaign. Tutino stood firm—and hired bodyguards. He lost the election.
Many Mafia historians assert that, unlike Nicolò Rizzuto, who took a broad vision, Violi was narrow-minded. They claim that his ambitions were limited to relatively petty skulduggery and that his turf barely extended beyond the Montreal area. That view is unfounded. The godfather of Saint-Léonard travelled and cultivated contacts abroad. On February 16, 1970, he arrived in Acapulco with twenty or so Mafia bosses and lawyers from Quebec, Ontario and the United States. They met at the Las Brisas Hilton and at a villa owned by former Montrealer Louis Bercowitz, who had been convicted in October 1946 for the murder of gambling czar Harry Davis. Those present included Hamilton, Ontario, capo John “Johnny Pops” Papalia and Meyer Lansky.
Born Majer Suchowlinski into a Jewish family in Grodno (part of Russian-controlled Poland-Lithuania, now Belarus), Meyer Lansky was never a “made” member of Cosa Nostra, which has always been the exclusive preserve of Italians or Italian Americans. He nevertheless provided valuable advice to the organization throughout his life. He guided Lucky Luciano as he deftly manoeuvred his way to the pinnacle of the American Mafia, and deserved credit in part for the creation of the Commission, the Five Families’ regulatory body. He helped his friend Bugsy Siegel muscle in on Las Vegas and contributed to the founding of its celebrated Flamingo Hotel, in which he held a stake. He opened casinos, hotels and nightclubs in Cuba and derived huge profits from them before being forced out by Fidel Castro. Considered a genius of the gambling industry and a master money launderer, Lansky had secret accounts in Switzerland to which he funnelled colossal sums via a complex network of shell and holding companies.
Thanks to electronic surveillance, the RCMP knew about the Acapulco meetings before they even began. They tipped off the FBI, which in turn conveyed the information to Mexican law enforcement. After monitoring their comings and goings, the police in Acapulco interrogated the mob bosses, but they were evasive. The Canadian, American and Mexican police believed the goal of the meetings was to find a way to profit from the advent of casinos in Quebec; the provincial government was planning legislation to allow them. News of the gathering, reported in Montreal by La Presse three weeks after it happened, sparked controversy, since the paper claimed that a prominent criminal lawyer, Raymond Daoust, had been in attendance, along with well-known U.S. Mafia lawyers like Moses Polakoff, who had defended Lucky Luciano.
Gradually, Paolo Violi eclipsed Vic Cotroni’s other lieutenants, starting with the Sicilian Luigi Greco. Violi was leery of getting too deep into the narcotics trade, however, not wishing to attract police attention. He knew that the courts were especially severe when it came to drug dealers and traffickers. “Stick with stealing; it’s less risky,” was his advice to one picciotto—a low-level Mafia soldier—who asked him to finance a narcotics transaction.
Violi was a keen observer of developments within the U.S. and Sicilian Mafias. The diminutive Calabrian craved the respect of the Sicilians. He constantly complained that Nicolò Rizzuto failed to show him the proper deference, accusing Rizzuto of “[going] from one place to another, here and there,” without reporting to Violi, as mob protocol dictated. For Paolo Violi, nothing was more important than respect (il rispetto). He would berate his underlings for swearing in front of the children playing outside the Reggio Bar and the Gelateria Violi. And out of respect for his wife, Grazia, he did not pursue other women.
Violi’s attitude greatly displeased Nicolò Rizzuto, who believed the Montreal decina should be run by Sicilians, especially given the fact that the Bonannos were the most Sicilian of New York’s Five Families. He did not impugn Vic Cotroni’s leadership but having to answer to two Calabrians at once was hard to take. Rizzuto viewed Violi as a man of little importance and had precious little time for imprecations of respect from a man whom he held in such contempt.
Nicolò Rizzuto had been a member of the decina led by the Calabrian Vic Cotroni since the late 1950s or early 1960s but quite naturally gravitated toward his fellow Sicilians, in particular Luigi Greco and other compatriots from his home province of Agrigento. Many had settled in Montreal at the same time as Rizzuto, including his most loyal allies, the members of the Caruana and Cuntrera families, most of whom came from the Siculiana region and whom he had known in his youth.
Immigration Canada reports state that Pasquale and Liborio Cuntrera arrived in Canada in 1951, before Rizzuto, and became Canadian citizens in 1957. The Cuntreras gave the impression of being typical hard-working immigrants, getting jobs as barbers or snowplow drivers, gradually earning enough to open stores or pizzerias. Behind this facade of honesty, they were in fact formidable narcotics traffickers. Along with the Caruanas, they would eventually be known in the Italian press by such names as “the Rothschilds of the Mafia” or “the bankers of Cosa Nostra,” by reason of their considerable expertise in laundering money and investing drug profits in legal economic avenues.
Events in Italy that might be termed historic resulted in a massive influx of Sicilian Mafiosi to various parts of North America, notably New York and Montreal. In 1957, when Lucky Luciano created the Cupola along with Joe Bonanno, Carmine Galante and Tommaso Buscetta during the conclave at the Grande Albergo in Palermo, a segretario, or leader, was chosen, in the person of Salvatore “Ciaschiteddu” Greco. For six years, Sicily was free of Mafia strife. Years later, when Buscetta became an informant, he said he could recall not a single murder of a “man of honour” during this pax mafiosa. There was no reason for squabbling: the Sicilian families were rolling in money and had ousted all of their competitors. They dealt almost exclusively with the Corsicans, who refined four-fifths of the world’s heroin in their Marseilles labs. Through its agreements with the heads of the New York Families such as the Bonannos, the Sicilian Mafia had unfettered access to a vast market. It flooded the United States with heroin.
At the beginning of the 1950s, approximately fifty thousand Americans were addicted to the drug. Their numbers swelled exponentially; twenty years later, there were half a million. These hundreds of thousands of junkies stole and even killed to get their fixes. No criminal activity in history had ever generated such a particular brand of misery. Entire neighbourhoods—Harlem, for example—were ravaged. Life became unbearable for residents, who regularly fell victim to armed robbery and burglaries. No trade had ever generated such staggering profits, either.
Depending on the size of the order, a kilogram of morphine base was worth anywhere from six to nine thousand dollars. Once refined into 90 percent pure heroin, it sold for between forty and fifty thousand dollars a kilo. By the time it reached New York City, the wholesale price was $200,000, and the street value, two million dollars. Traffickers tended to move the drug in shipments of twenty to a hundred kilos at a time. The rapacious Sicilian syndicates clawing at the entrails of North American cities would eventually see their wings clipped, however—victims of their immoderate greed.
Their misfortunes began in December 1962 with the transatlantic shipment of a major consignment of heroin financed by the various Palermo criminal factions. One clan boss was foolish enough to keep the profits to himself, and the leader of another family, the La Barbera clan, took the initiative and had him executed. Ciaschiteddu Greco expelled the La Barbera boss from the Cupola for the unauthorized hit. Settlings of accounts then ensued, at the alarming rate of one homicide per day, in what became known as the First Mafia War.
On June 30, 1963, men stole an Alfa Romeo Giuletta, stuffed the trunk with a hundred kilograms of explosives and parked the car on a street in Ciaculli, the Greco clan’s stronghold in suburban Palermo. After a citizen phoned in a tip about the suspicious vehicle, seven carabinieri were sent to inspect it. One of them opened the trunk. The blast that tore into the afternoon sky pulverized the nearest villa and gouged a deep crater into the street, into which fell what was left of the seven officers and three bystanders.
The carnage had powerful political and social repercussions. Outraged Sicilians demonstrated en masse, forcing the Italian government into action. Ten thousand soldiers were deployed to Palermo and the surrounding area, where they conducted house-to-house searches—no fewer than 1,200 in ten weeks. They seized hundreds of weapons along with millions of rounds of ammunition and arrested nearly two thousand people. An initial anti-Mafia law, “Dispositions against the Mafia,” was eventually enacted, and implemented by a new anti-Mafia commission.
A core group of Cupola leaders, including Salvatore Greco, met and decided to curtail criminal activities until the storm passed. Hundreds of Mafiosi who had not been arrested left Sicily and mainland Italy, scattering throughout the world, notably in Montreal, São Paulo, Caracas, Mexico City and New York. The Cuntrera-Caruana family, also referred to as “the Siculiana clan,” received authorization to continue operations outside Sicily. What appeared at first to be a disastrous blow in fact provided the necessary impetus for the Sicilian Mafia to expand across the globe. The aftermath of the Ciaculli massacre had repercussions as far as Montreal, where Nicolò Rizzuto’s clan would gain strength, to the detriment of Paolo Violi’s organization.
Years later, investigating judge and “Mafia hunter” Giovanni Falcone would deliver a negative assessment of these events: “From this terrifying bloodbath … Cosa Nostra has emerged … stronger than ever, more compact, monolithic, rigidly hierarchical and more clandestine than ever.” The piovra, the “octopus,” now had tentacles stretching almost everywhere in Europe and the Americas.
Ciaschiteddu Greco landed in Caracas and assumed a new identity: Rento Martino Caruso. The Venezuelan capital offered many advantages, not least the heat and sun, which were not especially disorienting for a man from southern Italy. The social and political climate, relatively stable and unaffected by the unrest of the Cuban revolution, was reassuring for investors. The economic environment seemed custom-made for those involved in less-than-legal business dealings: there were no banking laws, no niggling regulations, no extradition treaties with other countries. Moreover, the police corps tended to be poorly educated and underpaid, and therefore easily corruptible. Roads were in good condition throughout the country. Its coastline, which extends for 2,550 kilometres along the Caribbean Sea, made it attractive for exporters of all stripes. More important still, Venezuela has a little-patrolled border with Colombia, where the coca plant blossoms over thousands of hectares. In short, the country was a paradise for men like Greco.
The members of the Siculiana clan also emigrated to Venezuela, and to Brazil and Canada as well. In 1964, its head, Pasquale Caruana, was granted permission by the Cupola to institute a “head office” in Venezuela. The Cuntrera-Caruana family tree, with ties to those of the Vella, Cuffaro and other families, is incredibly complex. As in many Sicilian families, every first-born son and daughter takes the name of his or her grandfather or grandmother, and there is much intermarriage. Alfonso Caruana, for example, was married to Giuseppina Caruana, whose sister was the wife of Gerlando Caruana, Alfonso’s brother. In other words, the two brothers married two sisters, who also happened to be their cousins.
The brothers Alfonso, Gerlando and Pasquale Caruana initially settled in Brazil but moved to Montreal in 1967 and 1968. There they were reacquainted with two dozen or so kin related to them by blood or by marriage, including two sons, a son-in-law and a constellation of cousins. All gravitated toward Nicolò Rizzuto.
Nicolò’s father-in-law, Antonino Manno, eventually managed to immigrate to Canada. He had made repeated entreaties to immigration authorities since 1954, but all were in vain: his reputation as Cattolica Eraclea’s Mafia boss had crossed the Atlantic. He arrived in Montreal on September 11, 1964, armed with special authorization from the Canadian minister of immigration, secured thanks to the intercession of a member of Parliament.
Tommaso Buscetta came to Montreal in 1969, when he was forty-one. Buscetta was a key figure of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, as evidenced by his attendance at the 1957 Grande Albergo conclave in Palermo. Years later, he would gain fame as the most notorious pentito in the history of the Mafia: it was he who revealed the existence of the Cupola to Judge Falcone. Buscetta was a narcissist, supremely confident in his ability to charm. A handsome womanizer, he once boasted of having lost his virginity to a prostitute at age eight, in exchange for a bottle of olive oil. He claimed to have stayed in Quebec under the alias Roberto Cavallero while being treated for a venereal disease. He was also said to be one of the most prolific and efficient hit men in the employ of the Palermo-based La Barbera brothers. In 1968, an Italian court convicted him in absentia for his role in a double murder; but, long since departed for Montreal, he would never be arrested on the charge.
Buscetta’s friend Salvatore “Totò” Catalano, who lived in Queens, New York, introduced him to the Cuntrera-Caruanas in Montreal. He presented Buscetta to Pasquale Cuntrera as a man of honour from the Porta Nuova family. In the same vein, Catalano introduced Cuntrera to Buscetta as a man of honour from the Siculiana family. These quintessential greetings among Mafiosi aimed at building mutual trust. Buscetta moved in with Pasquale Cuntrera for a while, then stayed in a hotel. Alfonso Caruana was his driver. During his stay in Montreal, Buscetta was seen on several occasions with Frank Cotroni; police were convinced that they were discussing the coordination of heroin shipments to North America. The two men also planned the illegal immigration of Sicilian citizens. An intelligence document compiled by the Canadian Ministry of Immigration accused the Cotroni brothers of having helped more than a thousand Sicilians gain illegal entry to the United States through Canada, mostly across the Quebec border. Most of these clandestine immigrants were attended to by New York’s Mafia families and put to work for companies that they controlled: essentially, restaurants, pizzerias and construction companies. Some of them played significant roles in the so-called Pizza Connection, in which dozens of pizza parlours were used as fronts for heroin distribution. Other illegals settled in Quebec, swelling the ranks of the Sicilian faction within the Montreal decina.
Buscetta also met with Nicolò and Vito Rizzuto. He had a serious discussion with the elder Rizzuto about the status of Sicilians in the Montreal Mafia. He concluded that the Rizzutos were not full-fledged members of the Siculiana clan, as the Cuntrera-Caruanas were, but Bonanno family members. He encouraged them to assert themselves: he too felt that it was abnormal for Sicilians to be under the thumb of Calabrians like Vic Cotroni and Paolo Violi. Buscetta travelled to Toronto as well, where he stayed with Leonardo Cammalleri, Vito Rizzuto’s father-in-law.
Pasquale Cuntrera, Buscetta’s host during his sojourn in Montreal, filled him in on the particulars of heroin routes: the drug, he said, “comes by ship to Canada, and from there it gets sent to New York by road.” By that time, the Cuntrera-Caruanas had “become the leading importers of heroin from Canada to the United States,” RCMP investigators noted. Their middleman was Giuseppe Bono, the capomafia of Bolognetta, a municipality not far from Palermo; he would buy the dope in Marseilles.
Pasquale Cuntrera later left Montreal and moved to a suburb of Caracas. He purchased a lavish home protected from prying eyes by majestic pine stands and concrete walls nearly five metres high, with strategically placed surveillance cameras that swept the grounds night and day. Cuntrera invested in narcotics trafficking as well as apparently legal enterprises in the tourism, farming and real estate industries. He also cultivated contacts among the leaders of the major political parties. In 1970, his new base of operations in Venezuela expanded with the arrival of his brothers Paolo, Gaspare and Liborio along with his cousins Pasquale and Giuseppe Caruana.
Nicolò Rizzuto, too, succumbed to the lure of the south. He had previously invested in a residential building on Diane Street in Longueuil, on Montreal’s South Shore, with Pasquale Cuntrera. In November 1971, he joined a consortium that bought a ranch in Barinas, a Venezuelan state well known for rampant political corruption. The other members of the consortium were big wheels indeed: Salvatore “Ciaschiteddu” Greco, the former head of the Sicilian Cupola; Carlo Gambino, a member of New York’s largest crime family; Antonio Napoli, one of North America’s most industrious heroin suppliers; and Gaspare Cuntrera, Pasquale’s brother. The Ganaderia Rio Zappa, as the land and company were known, was officially a cattle company and came with its own airstrip. It was just 160 kilometres from the Colombian border, which facilitated contacts with cocaine wholesalers. In employing this strategy, Rizzuto was hardly a pioneer: operating ranches near Colombia was a popular strategy in his line of business, among other reasons because the smell of manure tended to confuse sniffer dogs. With Tommaso Buscetta, Rizzuto also mapped out the routes and methods for transporting coke from Venezuela to Canada. He recycled an old trick of Joe Bonanno’s, which involved camouflaging the drug in shipments of packaged food items—powdered milk being ideal. Pasquale Cuntrera thought this was a great idea and followed Nick’s example. Rizzuto’s acquaintances and numerous travels to and from Montreal, Palermo, New York and Caracas attracted the attention of investigators. As early as 1970, when he went to Sicily with his wife and mother-in-law, U.S. authorities asked Canadian and Italian police to monitor his comings and goings. By then, Rizzuto had a robust network of contacts in those four cities.
Nicolò Rizzuto and Pasquale Cuntrera travelled regularly back and forth between Italy and Venezuela. Cuntrera went to see Meyer Lansky in Rome. The two men had already met in Toronto. This time, Cuntrera solicited Lansky’s counsel on laundering the profits from the drug connection he had set up in South America. Lansky proffered one extremely valuable piece of advice: invest as often as possible in legitimate enterprises. Cuntrera went about founding and acquiring numerous companies, including an automobile dealership and a grocery store in Italy. He also invested in another building in Montreal with Nicolò Rizzuto, this time on Fleury Street.
When in Italy, Rizzuto stayed at 255 Via Marittima in Frosinone, a suburb of Rome, not far from Ostia, where members of the Cuntrera-Caruana clan held sway. He invested one million dollars in state-sponsored projects with three of them: Paolo Cuntrera, Alfonso Caruana and Salvatore Vella. Tipped off by Interpol, Italian authorities learned that the men were suspected of crimes in Venezuela, including arson and drug trafficking. Except for Vella, who was the only one of the trio who had retained his Italian citizenship, they were deported.
Officially, Nicolò Rizzuto was a simple soldier in the Montreal decina led by Vic Cotroni and Paolo Violi. The rules dictated that he keep them informed of his activities and his travels, but he regularly flouted those directives. When Cotroni and Violi badgered him, wanting to know the reasons for his latest trip to Venezuela or Italy, he didn’t even bother to answer. The CECO correctly grasped the nature of the rift between the heads of the Montreal family and their Sicilian “subordinate”: “This affair, which has resulted in special mediation by foreigners from Sicily and New York, had its roots in behaviour deemed unacceptable by Cotroni and his entourage,” the commission noted in one of its reports:
The main reproaches aimed at Rizzuto were that he was a lone wolf, that he stayed away from occasions where members of the “family” could meet and discuss together, that he showed respect neither to his superiors nor to those placed under his charge, that he lied about his real intentions, that he bypassed the line of command and acted on his own initiatives in important matters, and finally that he would come and go without letting anyone know what he was doing … On numerous occasions, Vincent Cotroni and Paolo Violi have spoken of their intention and their power to expel Rizzuto from the family ranks.
In the Mafia, “expulsion” sounds an awful lot like “execution.” Rizzuto was well aware that his life was in danger, and he admitted to Tommaso Buscetta that this was one of the reasons he had left Montreal.
Far from placating the situation, Rizzuto’s extended absences only kindled Violi’s and Cotroni’s mistrust. On December 14, 1971, the sq got wind of a meeting in the town of L’Epiphanie, northeast of Montreal, organized by Paolo Violi and his brothers Rocco and Francesco. Vic Cotroni was to be in attendance. The gathering was in a home on Imperia Street. A sumptuous lakeside residence, it belonged to Leonardo Caruana but was listed in his son Gerlando’s name. (On the day of the latter’s wedding in Sicily in 1981, Leonardo Caruana was shot dead in front of his home in Palermo. In 2007, Italy’s Direzione Investigativa Antimafia described Gerlando Caruana as the head of the Siculiana clan.) Among the twenty-six invited guests was Giuseppe “Pino” Cuffaro, who had emigrated to Montreal in 1953 from his hometown, Montallego, in Agrigento Province. He was related by marriage to the Cuntrera-Caruanas. Pietro “Zio Petrino (Uncle Pete)” Sciara, a Sicilian fugitive who was consigliere to both Cotroni and Violi, was also there. But one man was conspicuously absent: Vic Cotroni. He had turned back while on his way to L’Épiphanie. Police wondered whether he had been tipped off that they were watching.
The central item on the agenda was the role of Nicolò Rizzuto. Relations with him were worsening by the week. “Violi said that Rizzuto had been jealous of him since Luigi Greco had given him control of operations on Montreal’s West Island, which prevented Rizzuto from wielding greater influence within the Cotroni decina,” an RCMP intelligence brief reads. Violi had reason to feel threatened. Even when spoken hundreds of kilometres away, the seditious words of his rebel soldier had reached his ears. Rizzuto had had the gall to travel to New York, where he’d met the head of a Sicilian faction, Nicolino Alfano, and bad-mouthed Violi. Back in Montreal, he had reiterated his complaints to his uncle Calogero Renda.
It was obvious that, among his lieutenants, Vic Cotroni favoured Paolo Violi. That meant Violi could hope to succeed him one day, while Rizzuto would continue to play second fiddle. Violi sought to persuade his troops that his rival should be banished. “How could discipline be ensured, when one of their members refused to follow orders?” he grumbled. The meeting was a bust; no consensus could be reached. Rizzuto had far too many allies among the guests, including those who, like him, hailed from Agrigento Province. The tensions remained. Over the next five years, five of the men in attendance that night would be killed.
An incensed Violi travelled to Calabria and Sicily seeking support. Judging from the opinion of Antonino Calderone, a Mafia boss in the Sicilian province of Catania, he was greeted there with contempt. Don Calderone, who later became a famous informant, wrote of the disgust he felt toward Calabrians like Violi: “There are no Cosa Nostra families or men of honor in Calabria,” he said in his memoirs, Men of Dishonor: Inside the Sicilian Mafia, written with Pino Arlacchi. He went on:
Paolo Violi didn’t make a great impression on me. He was a braggart, a big, fat man who didn’t seem to have much upstairs. In any case, he was going to Calabria because he thought there were “men of honor” there. Things are different, in fact, in America. American “men of honor” aren’t just Sicilians, but even Calabrians and Neapolitans. It doesn’t matter. At this point one could ask: if Violi was Calabrian and an important Mafioso, how is it possible that he didn’t have a direct channel, that he didn’t personally know ’ndranghestiti [members of the ’Ndrangheta] of Calabria? … We Sicilians, however, did not make Calabrians men of honor … And then the Calabrians would talk, talk, talk. They talked all the time. Not to others, of course, but among themselves. They would have endless arguments about their rules, especially in the presence of us men of honor. They felt uneasy because they knew that in reality they were inferior to the Cosa Nostra, and they would try to confuse men of honor with all those quibbles and verbal snares.
During the same trip, Violi secured an audience with Giuseppe Settecasi, the capomafia of Agrigento Province. Settecasi listened patiently as his guest rattled off his grievances about Nicolò Rizzuto. Then he decided to go to Canada to investigate for himself. He also took the opportunity to attend the May 16, 1972, wedding of Don Giacomo Luppino’s son Domenico in Hamilton, Ontario. The ceremony gave the impression that relations between Sicilian and Calabrian criminal factions were amicable, since the guest list included well-known Calabrians such as Vic Cotroni (not to mention Luppino’s father and son) as well as Montreal-based Sicilian émigrés Giuseppe Cuffaro, Antonio Caruana and Emanuele Ragusa. Settecasi refused to take sides. On the one hand, he felt a far greater kinship with Nicolò Rizzuto, a paesano from his home province of Agrigento. On the other, he didn’t want to risk offending the Americans and touching off hostilities by taking a stand against Violi.
Violi therefore turned to New York, where he sought the support of Natale “Joe Diamond” Evola, the Bonanno family boss. The man had been saddled with the “Diamond” moniker ever since the wedding of Joe Bonanno’s son Salvatore (Bill): the bride’s ring had gone missing and turned up in Evola’s pant cuff. Evola in turn sent emissaries to Montreal: Nicolino Alfano, Nicolò Buttafuoco and Michael Zaffarano were welcomed there by Domenico Arcuri, a Sicilian cab driver who was a member of the Montreal decina and a close associate of Pietro Sciara.
Like Arcuri, the visitors were far more sympathetic to Rizzuto than to Violi. Twenty years earlier, Buttafuoco had taken Rizzuto under his wing when the latter slipped into the United States illegally. Not surprisingly, the Bonanno delegation concluded that the Cotroni-Violi group should keep Rizzuto in its orbit. Violi was informed of the decision in his home on Comtois Street, in Saint-Léonard. The envoys also met with Nicolò Rizzuto, who happened to be in Montreal on one of his infrequent visits. They urged him to keep his superiors better informed about his activities and his contacts, especially with foreigners. A week later, still grousing, Violi filled his boss Vic Cotroni in on the Americans’ visit: “I told them that [Nicolò Rizzuto] goes from one place to another, here and there, and he says nothing to nobody. He does his business and nobody knows anything … He doesn’t want to change … He has nothing more to do with you, and is going to New York.” The New York Mafia Commission ratified the decision made by the Bonanno family intermediaries. Violi had tried in vain to persuade its members to authorize Rizzuto’s elimination. Now it was Violi who had lost face, placing him in a dangerous and potentially fatal situation.
One evening in late fall 1972, Vic Cotroni’s lieutenant Luigi Greco was renovating his restaurant, Pizzeria Gina, on Jarry Street in Saint-Léonard. First mopping the floor with kerosene, he then began to clean off accumulated dirt and grease with a metal scraper. There was a spark and an explosion. Seriously burned, he was taken to hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. Greco was Sicilian but had played a peacekeeping role within the organization. He got along well with the Calabrians and had been magnanimous enough to attend Paolo Violi’s wedding in Hamilton in 1965. His death shook the fragile foundations of the Montreal Mafia. From then on, it was clear that the city wasn’t big enough for both Paolo Violi and Nicolò Rizzuto.
Accompanied by his son, Vito, then aged twenty-six, Nicolò Rizzuto returned to Venezuela. Rumour had it that Violi had put a contract out on him, despite the fact that the Commission in New York wouldn’t back it.
Two of Vic Cotroni’s four lieutenants were out of the picture. Greco was dead, while Vic’s brother Frank had been busted for drug trafficking and would soon receive a lengthy sentence in the United States. A third, Nicola Di Iorio, wasn’t interested in becoming boss of the decina. That left the power-hungry Paolo Violi. In the fall of 1973, events convinced him that he was destined to ascend in the Mafia hierarchy. Natale “Joe Diamond” Evola died of cancer, and an election was scheduled to choose the new head of the Bonanno family. The captains of the clan were summoned to the Hotel Americana in New York; the Montreal decina had a vote. Since Vic Cotroni was barred from entering the United States, Violi was invited to represent Montreal along with Joe Di Maulo. To Violi’s delight, the main candidate (and interim boss) Philip “Rusty” Rastelli wanted his vote. Rastelli knew Montreal well: while on the lam, he had taken refuge there in the early 1960s and had benefited from the Cotroni organization’s hospitality. Violi backed Rastelli, who became the official head of the Bonanno family in February 1974. “One good turn deserves another,” Violi would waste little time in reminding Rastelli.
Two months later, on April 22, the police microphones that Robert Ménard and his crew had installed captured an interesting conversation in the gelateria on Jean-Talon Street. Violi was talking with Pietro Sciara and Giuseppe “Pino” Cuffaro. The latter asked whether he could be inducted into the Montreal outfit, and Violi refused: “No, ’cause you see, Pino, things here—I know all about how it is in America. Someone who comes here from Italy—it’s orders, and you better believe it—he has to stay here for five years under us. After the five years are up, then everyone can see what he’s like. Before we let a picciotto near us, he has to deserve to stay. We’ll know if he is good or not.”
On May 10, Cuffaro and an Italian Mafioso named Carmelo Salemi pressed the issue. Salemi, who lived in Agrigento, was visiting Montreal. He wanted Giovanni Caruana, the former boss of a cantone in Agrigento Province who had emigrated to Venezuela, to have the status of Mafioso when in Montreal. Violi gave up all pretense of diplomacy and took an abrupt tone to show the other men who was boss: “You come here, but you can’t talk about affairs of the family,” he insisted.
“And the business that has gone on for several years, the business of your family?” Cuffaro asked.
“But none of that,” Violi went on. “That’s wrong … They [Italians] come here, change their residence—they come here close to us, they have to wait five years with us and after that they can join. If there is an opening and if we want to give it to them. That’s the way it’s done.”
The snub was particularly insulting to men who felt they had proven their worth. Paolo Violi was out-and-out telling them they would have to submit to a lengthy trial period before their candidacy would even be considered. Salemi, a high-ranking member of the Agrigento Mafia, insisted that Violi recognize Cuffaro, but the self-styled padrone of Saint-Léonard would not capitulate.
“You aren’t part of us,” he explained. “If you belong over there, you can’t just come over here. You can’t talk about your family here. You can’t talk about anything …”
He added that his crew could not vouch for Sicilians who might find themselves in difficulty in Montreal: “Let’s say you take it into your head to do something on your own—something heavy—and you don’t say anything to anybody and something happens to you … Tell me, how do you get out of it then? Do you see how things stand, Carmelo?”
Salemi insisted that Giovanni Caruana be admitted into the organization. “You people in Italy have bad habits,” Violi answered. “He was made in Siculiana, now he’s in Venezuela, suppose he wasn’t to go back to Siculiana, then he wants to come here … You people want your own law here, but it’s different here.”
On May 13, Violi met with the Sicilians again. He repeated that there was unity in Montreal among the representatives of the American Cosa Nostra families: he himself answered to the Bonannos but kept good relations with the Magaddino family in Buffalo, who controlled Ontario. Newly arrived Sicilians, however, were persona non grata: “We here have contacts with all of the families in the United States. We are all friends.”
On May 17, Cuffaro reiterated his plea. He asked Violi to set up a meeting with Vic Cotroni, who had the last word when it came to inducting new members in Montreal. “I would like to meet him,” he said.
“Yes, one day,” Violi replied.
“I am at your disposition.”
“I thank you, and expect that with time, we will be able to arrange it.”
“Consider me like one of you,” Cuffaro went on. “To carry out your orders, and that’s my desire.”
Violi didn’t bend, and the Sicilians remained excluded.
That summer, the CECO cited Vic Cotroni for contempt and ordered him jailed: he was evasive on the stand, giving answers that were clearly intended to be of no use to the court whatsoever. Violi hoped he would be officially named to replace him as head of the Montreal family, but Cotroni had given no clear instructions in that regard. In January 1975, Violi shared his bewilderment with two of his confidants, Salvatore Sorrentino and Pietro Sciara. As with every exchange that took place in the Gelateria Violi, their conversation was recorded. “When Vic was put in prison, he didn’t see anyone about putting someone in charge,” Violi said. “He got out after two days, at Christmastime; he met with me, but he didn’t tell me: ‘Look, while I’m inside, you take charge here and handle the picciotti.’ Since Vic’s inside, now, somebody’s got to take responsibility.” He dispatched Sorrentino and Sciara—the adviser he trusted most—to New York City to ask for instructions from Philip Rastelli, the new boss of the Bonanno family. The initiative bore fruit: Rastelli assented to Violi’s assuming the duties of interim boss. Violi ecstatically shared the news with associate Joe Di Maulo, on January 18, 1975: “He [Rastelli] told me: ‘When Vic gets out, tell him to call me, and if a change needs to be made, I’ll talk to Vic, but for now, you’re taking over.’ ” Cotroni would soon be out of jail, but for the moment, Violi could boast of being his equal, or almost. His satisfaction would be short-lived: he was soon charged with rigging securities on the Montreal Stock Exchange and then with attempted extortion. Worse, the CECO exposed the Expo 67 tainted meat scandal. Vic Cotroni, Paolo Violi, Salvatore Sorrentino and Armand Courville, the wrestler who had given Violi his start in the Montreal criminal world, were co-owners of Reggio Foods, a meat wholesaler that sourced its wares from companies in the business of recovering livestock that had died of disease or natural causes. Though the meat was unfit even for dog food, the carcasses were cut up and processed into sausages and pepperoni.
The public learned that a significant amount of tainted meat had been used to make hamburgers sold on the site of the 1967 World’s Fair. Then, in 1973, Reggio Foods had won the contract to supply the Quebec Summer Games, in Rouyn-Noranda: more than forty athletes fell ill and several events were disrupted. Quebecers were already glued to their TV screens for the CECO hearings when the commissioners began disclosing lengthy excerpts from the ice cream parlour tapes. Paolo Violi’s reputation as a model citizen who donated to charities and gave out free ice cream to neighbourhood kids was reduced to less than zero. Like Cotroni, Violi refused to violate omertà in front of the crime commission. In fact he refused to testify at all, which earned him a jail sentence for contempt, like Cotroni before him. He may have respected the vow of silence, but the Mafia would never forgive him for being so stupidly careless as to let a cop bug his place of business. The recordings, which revealed the full scope of his criminal activities, would eventually prove extremely useful to law enforcement in Canada, the United States and Italy—not to mention fatal to Violi.
Meanwhile, in New York, “Rusty” Rastelli soon found himself in prison as well, just as Carmine “Lilo” Galante was paroled. The latter moved quickly to supplant Rastelli as Bonanno family boss. Galante, too, knew Montreal well; he had lived there. Sicilian-born, he was in favour of inducting his compatriots into the outfit and, unlike Violi, would impose no five-year probationary period. Nicolò Rizzuto paid Galante a visit and asked him to push Violi, whom he felt had become a dead weight and an embarrassment to the family, out of the leadership structure. It is reasonable to assume Galante wasn’t averse to the idea: over the next few years, Violi and his associates would be knocked off one by one. While he waited to be rid of them, Nicolò returned to Venezuela with the brothers Liborio, Pasquale and Gaspare Cuntrera. He opened a restaurant in Caracas and, obviously not above a little dark humour, named it El Padrino (“The Godfather”). He would use this latest South American layover to bide his time and bolster ties to the Cuntrera-Caruanas and the Colombian cocaine cartels. His son, Vito, and family soon made the trip south as well.