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Feature Articles


October 2006
Tommaso Buscetta:
Sicilian Mafia Witness

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

"Before Tommaso Buscetta became a pentito we had not even a superficial idea of the mafioso phenomenon. Through him, we began to look inside. He gave us information on the organizational structure, the recruitment process and the functions of the Cosa Nostra in Sicilian society. But, above all, he gave us the key to the inner sanctum, a language, a code. He was for us a professor of a foreign language who taught us how to speak it. Perhaps other pentiti gave us more significant information, but he was to teach us the method for evaluating that information. Buscetta took us to the brink of the precipice." (Judge Giovanni Falcone, a leading member of the Palermo Antimafia Pool)

PENTITO (plural: pentiti) designates people who collaborate with the judicial system in order to help investigations. (The English equivalent is "supergrass.") A program first created in the 1970s for Italian terrorists, the technical name in Italian is collaboratori di giustizia.

     In 1983, the magistrate Antonio Caponnetto created the pool antimafia, composed of four or five judges who would work fulltime to gather information on the members of Cosa Nostra. The two crucial figures were judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. They were able to persuade several mafiosi to furnish useful information on criminal activity.

     In exchange for their testimonies, the pentiti were given guarantees of lenient prison sentences and favorable treatment. The Italian government promised them protection from mafia vendetta, new identities, sufficient funds, and a new life.

     The first and most important supergrass was Tommaso Buscetta (AKA Don Masino). Don Masino talked for several weeks, detailing mafia crimes and the composition of the Cupola, a commission of sorts that was meant to bring together the Family capomafias. The Cupola had the task of assuring the respect of the rules of Cosa Nostra and, above all, to settle disputes among the Families. (That the Cupola was able to function for any period of time effectively was from the beginning problematical.)

     Buscetta gave testimony against his former mafia associates in the so-called Palermo maxi processo. The maxi processo was a massive trial in the 1980s of 470 mafia suspects. They were accused of a total of 120 murders, drug trafficking, extortion, and the crime of "mafia association." The trials resulted in 344 guilty verdicts, worth a total of 2665 years in prison. (Later, several verdicts were reversed or time-to-serve was reduced.) (Don Masino also was called to New York to testify in the "Pizza Connection" heroin smuggling trial in the mid-1980s.)

     This was the first instance in Sicily that someone who had dedicated his life to the mafia, rising to a pinnacle position, had broken the sacred rule of omertà. But Tommaso had his reasons. Fourteen of his relatives were tortured and murdered. Pippo Calò, whom Don Masino had nurtured as an up-and-coming young mafioso, killed two of his offspring and a brother. Tommaso was particularly incensed at the gruesome killing of his first son, Antonio. Pippo was the boy’s godfather and had developed an uncle-like relationship. "This Cosa Nostra, this thing of ours, which we cherished, has changed for the worse," Don Masino sadly concluded. The old ways had been breached. These "men of respect" with their pompous notions of the manliness of omertà and honor are nothing more than "ferocious beasts" with not a scintilla of humanity.

"The Sicilians’ tendency to discretion, not to speak of muteness, is proverbial. In the ambit of Cosa Nostra it reaches levels of paroxysm." (Judge Giovanni Falcone)

"In my ambience no one asks direct questions, but your interlocutor, when he considers it necessary, makes you understand with a phrase, with the nod of the head, with a smile…even simply by his silence." (Tommaso Buscetta)

     Buscetta’s testimony against Pippo Calò insured a life sentence in maximum security. For Tommaso, he was a prominent symbol of what the "secret society" had become. "Calò was a cold-blooded killer without scruples, a man without God, who was capable of executing someone who had been simply late to an appointment.

Palermo newspaper, 24 September 2001. "Pippo Calò has disassociated himself from the Cosa Nostra. With a letter to the judges of Caltanissetta and to the Court of Appeals, he made some interesting statements. However, he said he had no intention of becoming a pentito and would not name names. He admitted to being a member of Cosa Nostra and the Commission but sustained that the Commission did not make important decisions and was not responsible for every homicide. Since April of 1981 the Commission for all intents and purpose has not existed."

     Tommaso Buscetta was born on 13 July 1928 in Palermo, Sicily. His father, Benedetto, worked in the glass industry. The mother, Felicia Bauccio, was a native of Agrigento. As a youth Tommaso exhibited a precocious intelligence, marrying at sixteen years of age to Melchiorra Cavallaro. The year was 1944, the Allies had liberated Sicily, and there were quick profits to be made in the black-market, during those hard times. Buscetta traded in black-market flour and exploited the rationing of goods then in effect. By 1948, with two youngsters in tow and looking for a more secure future, he relocated to Naples, where he opened a glass shop, the Conca d’Oro, named after the valley where his native city is situated. Failing to make a sufficient livelihood, he returned with his family to Palermo in 1957.

     The city had changed much in the intervening years. Palermo was expanding and with the rapid development came many opportunities for mafia penetration into the building trades and the wholesale markets. Don Masino joined the family of Angelo La Barbera, boss of central Palermo. The La Barbera brothers were developing a potent urban gang and there was money to be made. The Cupola president was Salvatore Greco.

     Quarrels became frequent among the Families and the Cupola proved incapable of preventing the violence that was to follow. The first internecine mafia war broke out in December of 1961. When Buscetta realized he was under close police surveillance, in 1962, he fled the city and took refuge across the Atlantic in Rio De Janiero, where he remained until 1972.

     During that period, he married two more times and was to sire a total of seven children. In Mexico, in 1964, he met Vera Girotti, the companion of a musician. Using a false passport, under the name of Manuele Lopez Cadena, Buscetta journeyed to New York with Girotti where they were wed in a civil ceremony.

     Don Masino also secured illegal papers to bring his first family to New York. In 1968, now known as Roberto Felici, he married the Brazilian beauty Cristina de Almeida Guimares. He was 40 and she 21. On 2 November 1972, the Brazilian police arrested the man of many aliases for trafficking in illegal narcotics.

     The Brazilian authorities extradited him to Italy to be processed. Buscetta was found guilty and imprisoned in Palermo’s infamous Ucciardone prison, with many others of his ilk, until 13 February 1980.

     While in confinement, Masino maintained a regular schedule. He awoke early and dedicated an hour to calisthenics. His meals were catered by one of Palermo’s finest eateries.

     Once released on parole, Tommaso found that much had changed for the worse in his absence. There was death in the streets—magistrates, investigators, journalists, even innocent citizens were being gunned down as the mobsters sought to contest territory, to terrify the citizenry and bring the city to its knees. With the killing of the key figure Stefano Bontade and others of his generation, and having escaped mortal ambush more than once, he understood that he was being targeted for removal. With his future prospects in Sicily decidedly dim, on 8 June 1980 he went into hiding, resurfacing in Brazil via Paraguay, a country that was lax and accommodating to adventurers like himself.

"Tommaso Buscetta, one of the most powerful capomafias, brains of the cocaine traffic between South America, the USA and Italy, was arrested in San Paolo, Brazil. Captured also were Gaetano Badalamenti and eight other persons." (Messaggero, 25 October 1983)

     Don Masino was back in harness, but not for long. On 24 October 1983 a large squad of police surround his residence in San Paolo. Slapped in handcuffs, the drug baron was brought before the police chief, and said to him: "I’m rich. I can give you all the money you want. All I ask is that I be released."

     Not persuaded by the generous offer, the Chief had other ideas. In June of 1984, Giovanni Falcone in the San Paolo prison visited Don Masino. The pool antimafia magistrate was eager to get this prized catch to open up and reveal incriminating information on his notorious colleagues. But the Don would admit to nothing. Then, as the Judge rose to leave the cell, Buscetta left the door open a crack by remarking, "I hope that we can see each other again."

      Prone to fits of deep depression and thoughts of self-destruction, Masino turned suicidal and swallowed one-half milligram of strychnine. Brought back from the brink of death, after four days of hospitalization the now tragic figure landed at the Rome airport on 15 July 1984. Three days later, before Judge Falcone in Palermo, he confessed, saying what no self-respecting member of the "The Honorable Society" had ever said: "I am a mafioso." He unburdened himself for forty-five days before the magistrate, detailing a life that many Italian journalists have said would make an excellent film.

     Can pentiti be trusted to be forthcoming or do they bring their own agendas to interrogations, just as interrogators bring their own preconceptions? Stefano Bacci had this to say about Don Masino, the informant: "It was difficult not to believe Buscetta. He gave the impression of knowing perfectly well what he was saying--a credible man with a great sense of theatricality. I had the feeling of being a testimony to a page of history."

     After appearing at the Palermo and New York trials, Tommaso Buscetta spent the final fourteen years of his life ensconced in New York as an American citizen in the U.S. Witness Protection Program. Facial plastic surgery, it was said, made him unrecognizable as he walked the streets of New York, safe from hit men hoping to make a payday. However, that unusual face of his was easily recognizable from a photo of him and his family snapped on a Mediterranean cruise ship, a photo that made the rounds of the Italian newspapers.

     On the 4th of April 2000, at the age of 72, Don Masino died after an extended bout with cancer. At his death, Luigi Ligotti, his lawyer, remarked, "Without him, we would be light years behind in the struggle against the mafia."

 


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