The Life and Times of Cesare Mori, the Scourge of the Mafia
By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
In the relationship between mafia and fascism in Sicily during the 1920s there were three distinct phases. In the first, 1922-25, when Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and his Fascist party began to dominate Italian politics, although the mafia was seen as a threat to the spread of Fascism to Sicily, the two were uneasy partners. An example of this collaboration of two strange bedfellows was during the elections of 1924, when the mafia controlled votes as it had in previous decades. They were difficult moments for the Fascist party that had to accept assistance from any source, be they criminals or Sicilian politicians who colluded with the mafia.
In the second phase (1925-29), Fascism, as it eliminated its enemies, could no longer tolerate the mafia. There was no longer any place for a parallel government. All had to be in the State and nothing outside the State, Il Duce declared. Totalitarianism could not by its very ideology abide any competing party. The State affirmed the monopoly on force, appropriating to itself the functions of politics, putting into its bureaucracy all organs of administration and all aspects of Italian life.
The third phase, from 1930 to the Allied invasion and liberation of Sicily in the summer of 1943, represented a phase of pacification and quiescence, relatively important, in as much as Fascism ignored the mafia, which remained weakened if not functionally destroyed.
"The failure of Public Security in Italy derives from two factors: the precariousness of the legal system that was formed after the Italian Unification in 1860, and to the open hostility of the people [particularly in Sicily] to the police, who represented for them generations of servitude under foreign rule, a symbol of repression and injustice at every turn. The historical memory of the Italians is very sad: They are memories of arrogance, arbitrary actions, surprises of every type, of pain, of blood…that their fathers have suffered, creating in their souls a hatred of the police, of tyranny."
The author of the above was the "supercop" Cesare Mori, who would become the "Iron" Prefetto of Palermo, sent to Sicily by Mussolini, in 1925, as the "bloodhound" to pursue and deal a crushing blow to the mafia, that "state within a State" that held Sicily in its bloody grip. (A Prefetto was governor or magistrate—military or civilian.) Mori had earned his spurs as a tenacious cop who always got his man…brilliant, ambitious, controversial and most of all feared by every malefactor so unlucky as to cross his path. Given an assignment, Supercop never failed to do his duty to the utmost, bending regulations, and applying the letter of the law and often going beyond. In a nation where policemen were often considered dishonest and laggard in their duties, professionals like Mori were few and far between.
Born in the northern city of Pavia in January 1872, Cesare Mori passed his first seven years in an orphanage before his engineer father, Felice, and mother, Rachele Pizzamiglio, officially acknowledged the boy as their biological son. Bound for a career in the Italian army, "height five feet seven inches, brown hair, brown eyes, reddish complexion, healthy teeth," he entered the Accademia militare di Torino in January 1889.
As a young lieutenant his first posting, in 1895, was in the southern seaport of Taranto. In this Pugliese city he met his future wife, Angelina Salvi. According to the regulations of that era, a future wife of a military officer had to be of "good family" and with an appropriate "military dowry." She had the first requisite but lacked the second. Mori, already revealing his resolute and individualistic personality, did not hesitate to resign his commission so that he could marry his dear angel, Angelina.
The year previously he had earned the medaglia militare al valore after disarming a pistol-waving malafattore delinquente who had shortly before in a postribolo (brothel) stabbed a soldier in an argument over a prostitute.
Mori took the Public Security placement in 1889, scoring first out of 107 participants. From his first posting in Bari, he was sent to Ravenna where he distinguished himself.
During his years in Ravenna, the Prefetto of the northern city evaluated Mori’s performance. "Cesare Mori is worthy of every praise. Energetic, resolute, prudent, he knows his job very well, especially politics, party doctrine and the habits and deportment of the politicians. He has initiative, discernment, an attitude of command, and an eye for evaluating things."
Mori’s posting at Ravenna was cut short when he was accused by the local newspaper, La Libertà, of manhandling the city’s assessor, who was carrying a concealed knife, a misdemeanor, for personal protection against certain political enemies. The publicity and the gossip that inevitably followed placed the policeman in an awkward situation. He certainly would not apologize or make some lame excuse. The law was the law, and he intended to continue to do his duty. He finally said to hell with it and asked to be sent as far away from Ravenna and its world-renown mosaics as possible. To use a mafioso expression, his pugnacious temperament was not about to "suffer a fly perching on his nose."
It was in March of 1904 that he entered Castelvetrano in southwestern Sicily, a village up the road from the ancient Greek Acropoli of Selinunte. Present in town was an unscrupulous politician, one Nunzio Nasi, a schemer and supporter of the mafia, who held the political cards in the area. Surrounded by the kind of corruption and intrigue common in those days in the Sicilian political landscape was not demoralizing to Mori. He thrived in this climate of corruption, adding to his knowledge of things Sicilian, combating the mafia and the officials who worked hand-in-glove with them. Many of the police who worked in Sicily were of northern Italian origin. To be posted to Sicily was to many a cultural shock. They adjusted by doing little and allowing the mafia to continue to dispense its own form of justice. Mori was cut from another cloth. He had no intention of taking the easy way out and folding to mafia intimidation; in fact, he relished in the fight.
Despite Mori’s arrogance in the performance of his duties, and complaints from persons who wanted to maintain the status quo, the Prefetto of Trapani had only praise when Mori applied for the exam for promotion to the grade of commissioner of Public Security. "Mori," he wrote, " is an optimal functionary, in all aspects, every intelligent, of great activity and courage, full of zeal to distinguish himself, he does his duty with full passion." Others saw his actions as "exciting disorder that threatens to degenerate into grave tumult." It was during these years as he combated all forms of delinquency and the corrupt local politics that he acquired a deep appreciation of Sicilian customs and the entrenchment that the mafia had in the body politic.
As his duty on the island rolled to an end, Mori asked for a new posting that was "una sede più calda," by which he meant being in the middle of the action. That happened to be in the northern industrial city of Turin, when he was promoted to Questore (a supreme official of Pubblica Sicurezza under the Prefetto). In 1918, with the First World War raging to its end, Turin had become "one of he most difficult cities in Italy." After the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto, which caused a political crisis and a deepening decline in Italian morale, the city had become the scene of worker strikes and street manifestations, ignited by the socialist party. Mori introduced "draconian" methods to put down the demonstrations.
Mori moved on to Rome, where on 24 May 1920 he led the police against a student revolt that resulted in a notable number of dead and wounded. A year later he was at the Prefettura of Bologna. That Emilian city in those turbulent postwar days was at the epicenter of scuffles between the Fascists and the Leghe contadine, a communist farm workers movement.
By the time Mussolini and the Fascists had solidified their power in Rome, Mori was losing his. He had become a liability for the Fascists. Fresher approaches were needed. Finding himself a persona non grata, he and his wife retired to Florence, the Renaissance city of the Medici.
Compared to the other Italian regions, the Fascists were late in setting their footprint in Sicily. The Fascists’ strongest support had always been in the northern regions. It was lukewarm in southern Italy and definitely hostile in Sicily. The island still had vestiges of the feudal order, an impoverished peasantry, often on the edge of rebellion, and a vehement distrust of anything foreign. Fascism had nothing to give to the Sicilians that they had not seen before. To prove the point, in the elections of 1921 the politicians who ran on the Fascist ballot did not succeed in winning one seat in the national Parliament.
By 1924, Il Duce, recognizing that his party was not winning over the hearts and minds of the Sicilians, decided to make a tour of the island to convince them that he was concerned with their betterment. His stump speech went along these lines: "You have need of much, I understand, of roads, water, public works as well as your need to guarantee property rights and the safety of working citizens. Thus, I declare to you that I will take all means necessary to protect the landowners from crimes. You no longer will have to tolerate the few hundred criminals that overpower, impoverish and damage a population as magnificent as yours."
Mussolini had contemplated a leisurely two-week visit. But he remained only five days when he realized that he was not being welcomed with open arms. Five days were more than enough after receiving cold and disconcerting receptions in mafia strongholds such as Trapani, Girgenti (the future Agrigento), and especially Piana dei Greci, where Francesco Cuccia, capomafia and mayor, treated the new Italian premier with utter disrespect, the same sentiment he would show any downtrodden peasant.
Il Duce’s speech in Palermo was more specific in regard to the "few hundred criminals" reference, above. "The mafia is not a union of men with a criminal purpose, but a mental illness, a congenital state, combined with other good qualities and defects of the Sicilian people." Mussolini was referring to the alleged phenomenon called sicilianismo, that is, a degenerate, anti-legal attitude, leading to contempt for the concepts of law and order imposed from without, and a rejection of the legitimacy of a centralized government. Sicily was the enemy of the State.
The anti-State sentiments of the Sicilians also included a long standing anti-militarism. During the First World War many men deserted and others simply went to ground to avoid the draft. Italy’s war was not their war; Italy’s history was not their history. Many of these engaged in banditry and filled the ranks of the mafia. Crime increased, including a flourishing black market in scarce goods and theft of military equipment. The war had weakened the judicial system, enabling miscreants to enrich themselves. The time of unrest continued into the post-war period with the return of disgruntled veterans who became radicalized, demanding reform and land, issues which the State was unable or unwilling to adequately address.
For Mussolini, the mafia not only represented an (illegal) state within the (legal) State, a violation of the constituted order, the criminal association also represented an expression of separatism that collided headlong against the basic ideology of fascism, namely the precepts of unitarianism and totalitarianism.
Although the Fascists were clear on the existence of the mafia and its threat to the State, many prominent Sicilians continued to maintain that the concept of mafia as a unique criminal association did not exist. There was a mafia mentality but it was not to be confused with common delinquency. Sicilian politician Vittorio Emanuele Orlando’s speech in the famous Teatro Massimo in Palermo, in July 1925, eloquently makes this point and slyly moves the discourse to mafia as an honorable state of mind, the essence of what is good in sicilianismo.
"Now I say that if by mafia we mean the sense of exaggerated honor, the insufference against every paroxysm, the generosity that affronts the strong and indulges the weak, the fidelity of friendship, stronger than anything, even death, if by mafia we mean all these sentiments and these attitudes, even with their excesses, in that they indicate the spirit of sicilianismo, then mafioso I declare myself, and I am proud to be one.
"Now, instead, by mafia we mean that common delinquency that we have, and all of Italy has, and the world, then, in that case I will limit myself to say this: That, in as much as there are persons that follow their own path, it’s evident that they can’t be of us, because we certainly have nothing to offer them."
The idea of mafia, for Mori, had little to do with honor and values, but more to do with the usurpation of power that was the prerogative of Rome. "La mafia," he asserted, "has created in the State a state, in the Regime a regime: The regime of mafia with its own laws and its own tax of money and of blood, its own penal sanctions. It fully invests in and exploits the activities of the island to the detriment above all of the State, damaging above all the population, which, without freedom of selection, between the true State, far away and inert, and the other, close and operating, must surrender itself to this and suffer from it."
This was, according to Mori, the situation in Sicily before the advent of Fascism. He continues by saying that "the population asks above all for security, tranquility, freedom to work. Mussolini promises these immediately and completely. The hour of liberation has come; in the name of the will of Il Duce we are finally going into action."
Mori described two types of mafia, the one more reckless and threatening than the other. "The old mafia enriched itself, dressed as gentlemen and declare themselves conservatives. The other, the new mafia, which emerged from proletariat criminality, views those of the old school as traitors to mafia traditions. They have gotten soft with their riches and perquisites. The young turks want the liberty of action against all, beginning with the older generation of capimafia, who still believe in their superiority and cannot understand why the picciotti have no discipline and will not heed their wiser elders."
On 28 May 1924, Cesare Mori received a telegram asking him to return to Sicily, to Trapani, with the unstated understanding that he was destined after a short stay to be ordered to Palermo to organized the fight against the mafia. He was the man of the hour, the only man for the task, despite opposition to Mori as, in effect, the "superprefetto" of Sicily, a position of extraordinary powers. Mori the Dictator, thus his nickname "Hail Cesare," an obvious reference to the salute given to the Roman
On 23 October, Mori notified the Pubblica Sicurezza of the new orders. A city patrolling force was organized, certain occupations, such as cab driver, were placed under close scrutiny and the most modern telephonic system was installed. He wanted a police/military force with the ability to strike quickly and forcefully. Mori the dictator, thus his nickname, "Hail Cesare," an obvious reference to the salute given to the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.
The first operation against the malefactors occurred on 13 December when the notorious brigand Salvatore Patti was killed in a firefight with the Pubblica Sicurezza. The next day 142 suspects were arrested in the territory of Piazza Armerina. The roundup revealed an intricate network of interprovincial delinquency that operated with impunity, protected by the mafia. These picciotti were mostly street thieves, working in groups, preying on innocent citizens.
The first large-scale action, which Mori labeled "a plan of war and combat," occurred in the area of Gangi, in the Madonie Mountains, east of Palermo. The Prefetto sent the Gangi mayor a telegram that read that all latitanti (fugitives from justice) must surrender by a designated hour otherwise stern measures would be taken against their families and property. (In extreme cases, where compliance was not forthcoming, families were taken to Palermo and housed in temporary quarters.) Copies of the telegram were affixed to the walls of the town. In addition, the village crier, at the beat of his drum, shouted out the telegram along the streets so that the banditi would be advised of Mori’s threat as they crouched in their hideaways.
The threats against families and possessions, and the rumor that the military unit Regi Carabinieri would have their way with the women of the bandits, had their desired effect. After thirty-two years of dominating Gangi as its own fiefdom, the Andaloro-Ferrarello gang was destroyed. On 4 January 1926, the newspaper Sicilia Nuova reported that the Gangi venture had all the aspects of a war. "A state of siege in all of its forms…the city cordoned off with no escape…the military in position and at the alert…the color of war…a very exceptional police action."
The bandits’ hiding places, once uncovered, were found to be comfortable apartments, with all the amenities, containing caches of guns and munitions. On January 7th, Giuseppe Andaloro gave up after the Pubblica Sicurezza sequestered and sold to the Gangi citizens his livestock. The other capomafia, Salvatore Ferrarello, nicknamed "Sciroccu," because wherever he went he was as destructive as the hot and sandy wind, the scirocco, that blew in from Africa, and previously condemned to fifty years confinement, was last to surrender. But not before he penned a letter to the local Questore swearing that "they will find me dead. But first I want to satisfy my heart and kill that Prefetto Mori." Mori was unfazed: "Then I will take him alive."
The controversy about Mori’s war continued. A major concern was its effectiveness in rendering the mafia an impotent force. Fundamental doubts were expressed in the newspaper La Fiamma. "One thing worries us: Once the war is over the small wars will continue. That with the elimination of delinquency, the capimafia will remain untouched and their secret and oblique maneuvers will continue to affect the moral life and substance of Sicily. Let us not delude ourselves: the common rural and urban criminality is but a symptom, but the sickness is the mafia. The major state of the mafia has its ramifications in the principle economic, industrial and administrative functions, and even the State." The waves of complaints reaching Rome were ignored. (No doubt factions favorable to the mafia engaged in propaganda in an attempt to throw an unfavorable light on the campaign.) Mori was as good a politician as he was a policeman. He took the grumbling in stride, knowing that his fortunes depended only on Mussolini, and Il Duce was satisfied.
Arrests continued to be executed in town after town. Mori publicly announced that the offensive would continue to the end. "It is useless to think that it will be only a puff in the wind; it will be an authentic cyclone that will sweep everything away, from the roots to the tops." Results were documented. The society of agriculturists noted that the campaign had "increased production by finally making work in the fields possible by creating conditions of security and tranquility."
In March, there were 295 arrests in the mafia hotbed of Termini Imerese, just east of Palermo. Three hundred more latitanti were taken into custody in April, including a lawyer, a monk and a pharmacist. The most successful operations that month were in Mistretta, a center of crime with connections to the entire island, with the arrest of lawyer Giuseppe Ortoleva. In Piana dei Greci, Don Ciccio Cuccia, a major player in many mafia escapades, was brought to heel. In later months, more than 300 men were arrested in the territory of Palermo and consigned to the notorious Ucciardone Prison.
At the end of 1926 public opinion championed the indefatigable Mori as the "liberator." A minority reviled the man, the devil incarnate.
Mori’s battle continued along two lines: one repressive, the other educational. The mafia was to be combated in the schools. "We must educate the youth to the repugnancy of every form of omertà," he intoned. The resocialization of the population, a daunting task, could best be done in the younger generation where the mafia mentality had not yet fully rooted itself. (Mori defined omertà as a heightened sense of self-love, an exaggerated and rapacious egoism, a very vigorous and arrogant masculine spirit, practicing self-defense, self-justice, and a silence for solidarity with those who rebel against social justice, the laws of the land, and public order.)
What were the results of the Mori operation? Crimes decreased in all categories. Many of the guilty were brought to justice, including several major crime figures. The operation was not only a massive police roundup, it was an action that involved the entire population. Many of those caught up in the web were innocent of any form of association with the mafia, if indeed, the Fascists saw any Sicilian completely without guilt. Mori knew that to succeed arrests were not enough. He hoped that the Sicilians would participate in the struggle against their oppressors, the onorata società, willingly. Mori understood the soul of the Sicilian—his sense of pride, his suffering from injustice, his utter distrust (with good reason) of legal authority. He had to convince the Sicilians that this new State, this Fascist State, was not like those that had gone before, that the Fascists would dispense justice and equality for all. And, most importantly, to convince them that the symbol of State repression, the sbirro (policeman), was not the enemy and omertà as appropriate behavior was dysfunctional.
On more than one occasion, Mussolini confirmed to the nation Mori’s vital role in Fascist control of Sicilian politics. "Prefect Mori, I reaffirm, is the highest authority. All citizens must collaborate with him." But the time would come when of Mori’s usefulness would come to an end. The mafia war could not continue indefinitely; it had to be limited and a semblance of peace and order had to descend on the island. With that aim, in 1929, Il Duce replaced "Hail Cesare" with a committed Fascist, the urbane and diplomatic Umberto Albani. Mori’s complete opposite, Albani was a man of accommodation and evenings at the opera. The Iron Prefect had completed his tour of duty and was recalled to Rome and into retirement. As far as Rome was concerned, Mori had delivered a mortal blow to the mafia; there was no longer anything to fear from that quarter and there were more pressing concerns of State. Once Mussolini announced victory to the world, then victory it had to be. For his cult of personality was such that even the city walls proclaimed in bold script, "Il Duce ha sempre ragione"—"Mussolini is always right."
Copyright © 1998 - 2005 PLR International