Feature Articles

March 2004
Sicily And The Mafia
Part Three
Men of Honor, Omert�, and the Cosca

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

"Omert� is the attitude which assumes that recourse to legal authority in cases of persecution by private enemies is a symptom of weakness, almost cowardice. It is an exaggeration of the sentiment, more or less common in Latin countries, that appeal to law against offenses involving personal insult, for instance adultery, is unmanly and the duel is the proper means of recovering lost honor. Sicilian circles affected by mafiist psychology held that offenses must be avenged by personal action or by that of relatives or friends. Common theft, for example, was considered a sign of lack of respect indicating that the thief did not fear vengeance." (Mosca, 1933)

     La cosca. By the 1890s the word cosca was being used to designate a small, tightly knit criminal group operating within the bounds of a specified territory. There was at least one cosca for every village, suburb or city neighborhood. Historically, cosche (plural form) grew out of fraternal organizations, political groups and revolutionary movements. The capocosca (leader) could be a priest, a noble, a physician or a peasant. Blood and marriage ties were important in the composition of the group.

     The cosca operated as an alternative, a parallel ruling universe, one might say, to legitimate authority, both operating in self-interest, the former corrupt, the other corruptible. The cosche would specialize in the most promising rackets in their territory. In Corleone it was agriculture, in Castellammare del Golfo fishing, in Palermo commerce. The ability to subvert willing officials was essential to the success of their operations. Law-abiding citizens such as judges, politicians, and landowners would attach themselves to a cosca for protection and personal gain. The citizens paid the price of double taxation: once by the government and again by the cosca.

     Citizens saw the advantage of cooperating with the cosca. The cosca members offered protection and regulated street crime. Common thugs were punished. Rapists were killed. Adultery was not tolerated. Women would be dealt with as well as men. The lupara, the sawed-off shotgun, was the means for vengeance, maintaining power, and social control.

"Men have a taut stomach-they keep to themselves what they know.
Women have a loose stomach-they chatter and gossip."

     The capocosca had under his command the picciotti, the foot soldiers. They were the executioners, the enforcers and the thieves. Booty was shared. The code of honor stated that anyone founding cheating in the sharing of the spoils was punished. From the outside, the cosca might have looked like a fortress. In fact the cosca structure was brittle, often riddled with disputes, killings, and arrests. Wars among the neighboring cosche were commonplace as each jockeyed for dominant status.

"Keep your secrets close, your enemies closer."

     How did the picciotti earn their keep? They engaged in opportunistic ventures-extortion, kidnapping, stealing farm stock, etc. Animal theft worked this way. Your cows would disappear one night from the pasture. A person would approach you to say that he could get them back for one-half their value for his trouble. You understood that he had taken them, and if you wanted them back you had to go along with the game playing.

     If you did not go along, the picciotti would cut your olive trees, damage your grapes, or kill your stock. To stop the destruction of your livelihood, you would have to put up with their fleecing you on occasion. In some instances the price included hiring the picciotti to guard your property. From that would develop an on-going relationship between the cosca and the farmers and landowners, who found it to their advantage to hire those who otherwise would do them harm.

     This form of protection allowed the cosca to increase its influence and profits by becoming indispensable to the landowners. It was the cost to be paid for controlling unruly peasants and a promise of prosperity. In these situations, the cosca became the mediator, or middleman, a position of power, between the lower classes and the (often) absentee landlords who left the running of their farm estates to managers who received their jobs through the cosca.

"The best word is the one not spoken."

     The Corleone cosca. Michele Navarra came from a comfortable middle-class family. His father, a teacher and small landowner, hobnobbed with the social and political elite in the town of Corleone. Michele became a physician. His practice covered a large section of the nearby Ficuzza forest, a perfect place to hide and butcher stolen livestock and from there take them to the Palermo wholesale market.

     His father's family had no Mafia antecedents. However, Dr. Navarra was related by marriage to the Riela family, some of whose members were part of the Corleone cosca. He would rise to the position of capocosca in the 1930s.

     Navarra exploited the opportunities offered him through his respected social position and his education. The Allied occupation of Sicily, in 1943, increased his options. From the Americans, Navarra got permission to collect the military vehicles abandoned by the army. He established a Sicily-wide trucking company managed by one of his brothers.

"The fruits of your labor stay in the family."

     Nothing stood in the way of his ambitions. He gained complete control over medicine in Corleone by replacing the previous hospital administrator, Dr. Nicolosi, who was murdered by persons unknown. In another incident, Placido Rizzoto, who was the leader of the peasant movement for agrarian reform, and thus a threat to Mafia interests, disappeared.

     The next incident would prove to be Navarra's undoing. One night outside of town a shepherd boy witnessed a shotgun murder by two men. He was in an extreme state of agitation when he reported to the police. Unable to calm him sufficiently to get a statement, the police took him to the Corleone hospital. Dr. Navarra decided the boy needed to be sedated and gave him an injection. Shortly thereafter he died.

     Navarra and his lieutenant, Luciano Liggio, were suspected. Liggio became a fugitive. Navarra was arrested and sent into external exile, but soon bought his way out.

     Navarra's cosca continued its numerous illegal activities. The cosca controlled the hiring of workers, the protection rackets, and crimes of all kinds, provided they resulted in profit or intimidation.

     As Liggio's influence in the cosca increased by bringing picciotti over to his side, he and Navarra had a falling out. Navarra's attempt to liquidate Liggio failed. Liggio's revenge did not. Michele Navarra was murdered on August 2, 1958, while returning to Corleone from a nearby town.

     Luciano Liggio was the first major capocosca of the post-World War Two era. He was anything but an impressive figure. Thin and sickly, he suffered from a severe curvature of the spine requiring the wearing of a plaster girdle under his shirt. Nonetheless he was to be feared. "He liked to kill," remarked one of his henchmen. "He had a way of looking at people, that could frighten anyone, even people like me. The smallest thing would set him off. Then a strange light would appear in his eyes that created silence around. You had to be careful how you spoke. A wrong tone of voice, a misconstrued word, all of a sudden that silence. You could smell death in the air."

"To hatch revenge in silence is sweet."

     After Liggio's arrest, Bernardo Provenzano assumed command. He also controlled through terror. "Provenzano was a killing machine. My brother used to call him 'u tratturi [the tractor]because of his capacity for slaughter."

     The next Corleone capocosca was Tot� Riina, the most dangerous and diabolical of them all. His objective was to bring the cosche of Palermo and the surrounding area under his control. His reign unleashed a period of terror, including the slaying of judges, never before seen in the history of the Mafia. He was utterly ruthless and apparently devoid of conscience.

     Behind his back Riina was called "u curtu" (Shorty). Riina came from a very humble peasant background. For a capocosca he was unbelievably ignorant, but possessed intuition and shrewdness. He was difficult to fathom and hard to predict.

"The man who speaks a lot says nothing; the man who speaks little is wise."

     Savagery was his calling card. His philosophy was that if someone's finger hurt, it was better to cut off the whole arm just to make sure. Tot� followed the simple code of the brutal, ancient world of the Sicilian countryside where immediate force was the only considered solution.

     He was soft-spoken, highly persuasive and curiously sentimental. He cried about his mother who could not visit him in prison during the 1960s because she could not afford the cost of a bus ticket to Palermo.

     Riina wanted to marry a certain Ninnetta, but there were complications with the engagement process-her relatives disapproved of him. Of this, he said, "I don't want any other woman than my little Ninnetta. And if they don't let me have her, I'm gonna have to kill some people." With some haste, the relatives relented. The lovebirds married and had four children.

     Riina broke parole and became a fugitive. He hid out in Palermo in plain sight. When his children were baptized he used his real name on the baptismal certificates. After twenty-three years on the lam he was quietly arrested on the street and remanded to prison. He expressed complete amazement that he had been Public Enemy No. 1 all those years, as did his neighbors.

"The truth you say only to your confessor."

     Omert�. The consequence of omert� is to facilitate the formation of active bands of malefactors because the police would be hampered to crush such criminals for lack of informants. Citizens who were witnesses to slayings on the streets in broad daylight had seen nothing when questioned by the police. They feared reprisal. More to the point, it was an automatic reaction-if family members were not victims it was not their affair. Rarely did the sense of identity and loyalty by the citizens extend beyond the family structure to the community.

"It was dawn when I entered Corleone. On the side of the road was a crowd, immobile, looking without expression at a corpse in the road with three bullet holes in its skull. It seemed like a scene from a film. The silence was complete. More like a photo fixed in time. I approached one of them and this conversation ensued: 'Who is he?' I asked. 'A lawyer,' was the response. 'So what happened?' 'He's dead.' 'Why?' 'They shot him.' 'Who shot him?' 'Someone.'"
(Giuseppe Fava, journalist, 1950's.)

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