Feature Articles

April 2004
Sicily And The Mafia
Part Four
Mussolini Takes On the Mafia

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

     "The Mafia dominated and controlled the whole of social life. Its orders had the force of laws and its protection was more effective and secure than that which the State offers its citizens." (Italian government official, 1920s)

     "The Mafia is not a union of persons with criminality as its goal. Rather it is a mental illness, together with other good qualities and defects of the Sicilian people, a phenomenon also of sicilianism, an anti-legal degeneration of a rebellion against the norm of law." (B. Mussolini, 1924)

     Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was the Italian dictator and leader of the Fascist movement. He became premier in 1922 and ended parliamentary government in 1928. By 1924 he had control of the State. That same year Mussolini visited Sicily. He was angered by the reception he received. Mafia capos treated him as a mere guest, nothing more. They told him that he was under their protection. The dictator would have none of it. Opposition to his regime could not be tolerated. The Mafia, Mussolini avowed, had to be neutralized, just as the socialists, communists, and other anti-fascists had to be. In their methods to suppress the Mafia, the Fascists would prove to be more mafioso than the mafiosi, defeating them on grounds of honor and violence.

     The first Fascist officials appointed to Sicily were murdered. In October 1925, a furious Mussolini named Cesare Mori (1872-1942) as Prefect, the chief administrative official of the island. No quarter was to be given. Mussolini ordered Prefect Mori to crack down with ferro e fucci (steel and fire). Because Mafia power was equal to the power of the State, dire measures were needed. This was to be an invasion of western Sicily, not simply a police action. Between 1926 and 1928 eleven thousand suspects were to be arrested.

     In the 1930s, Cesare Mori wrote two books to justify his methods. He noted that one should not confuse the Mafia with the Sicilian people. Sicily was not mafiosa. Rather, the island had suffered the Mafia because the State had been absent. Poor governing or lack of government had created the menace. The Mafia had filled that vacuum of power. His aim was to annihilate the Mafia, eliminating the system of connivance that protected them, and encouraging Sicilians to break the chains of unlawful oppression.

     Furthermore, Mori wanted the criminals to appreciate that the State was stronger and more resolved. He would bring the self-proclaimed "men of respect" to their knees and humble them for their vanity and arrogance. With his extraordinary powers, Mori wrote, "My function was to coordinate and direct the activities intended to protect public safety in Sicily towards a single end."

     Mori began his suppressive action by striking out at all forms of crimes by subjecting to strict regulation those activities from which criminals and banditry profited.

     He took from the Sicilian magistrates the power of the judicial process. They had connived regularly to free criminals for insufficient proof. This was the convention by corrupt magistrates. Mori replaced them.

     Mori�s men moved quickly to arrest all persons under the suspicion of "association for criminal purposes." Large numbers were rounded up, found guilty and imprisoned, while others fled Sicily to other countries. (As many as five hundred entered the United States, some illegally, with the aid of their American cousins.) Torture was employed to extract confessions, and violence to persons and properties was commonplace. Entire communities were encircled to ensure that the guilty did not escape. That the innocent were sometimes caught up in the dragnets was of no concern. With the Fascists intent on a smashing victory, it was a time of terror for Sicily.

     Mori�s words matched his actions. At one public meeting in a village piazza he declared: "My name is Mori and I will have people killed. [This was a play on his name that means death.] Criminality must disappear just as the dust in this piazza is carried away by the wind." One week later he returned with his men to carry out his promise.

     Guilt was often assumed and severe interrogations were applied to wrench confessions from the recalcitrant. In the words of one victim:

     "There were two boxes, placed on top of the other, about a meter long. My legs were extended on the top of the upper box and secured with two iron rings. Then my arms were tied behind me and a leather belt, which was attached to the box, was tightened over my thighs. With my legs on the box and my back on the floor, I was fixed in place by a cord. A gas mask was applied to my face with the tube leading to the interior of the mask, left open. The torture began when one of the sbirri [cops] took a large can of salt water and poured the liquid into the tube of the mask. At the same time, another sbirro hit the bottom of my feet with a whip while another grabbed my testicles and twisted them. I was so fearful of suffocating in that mask filled with water that I barely felt the pain from my testicles and feet. I swallowed the water and when they calculated that my stomach was full, they untied me, took off the mask and one of the sbirri pressed on my abdomen so that I threw up the liquid. Was I ready to confess? they asked. When I said I wasn�t, they repeated the procedure." (D. Dolci. Racconti siciliani, p.79)

     Mori utilized an array of tactics to flush out his prey. One case involved the elusive Gaetano Ferrarello, one of the bosses in the mountainous Madonie. He had taken refuge in the vacant barracks of the carabinieri. To bring Ferrarello out into the light, Prefect Mori broadcast a challenge to the "man of honor." "I will meet you in a duel," Mori announced, calling him a no-good coward. Angered by the insult to a man of his caliber, Ferrarello appeared ready to run the Prefect clean through. Much to his dismay, he was instead escorted to prison. As he was being placed into a cell, he broke away from the guard and leaped into the nearby staircase well, a suicide.

     When Mori extended his reach to bag highly positioned Fascists with mafioso sympathies, a campaign was launched to discredit him. The noted Fascist journalist Alfred Cucco wrote a scathing article denouncing Mori as too violent in his methods. Mori had earned the hatred of the people with his arbitrary actions, Cucco wrote. He was not a true Fascist and had arrested too many "good" people. Mori went on the offensive by uncovering documents demonstrating collusion between Cucco and certain "men of respect." After Cucco, the wily one, sidestepped that charge, Mori induced others to denounce Cucco for accepting payments from persons who sought to avoid military conscription. That was too much for the Fascist hierarchy and he was expelled from the party. Not for nothing did Mori earn the sobriquet il prefetto di ferro (the Iron Prefect).

     Prefect Mori could not have been more delighted when his men bagged Don Vito Cascio Ferro. Don Vito was alleged to be the "greatest capo the Mafia ever had." This victory was certain to strike fear and consternation in the Mafia ranks, not to mention increasing Mori�s status as supercop to his superiors in Rome.

     Don Vito, who was born in 1862 in Bisaquino, a village in the province of Palermo, was the first legendary head of the Sicilian Mafia. He was wanted on two continents. In 1883, he took refuge in Tunisia, where a Mafia base had been established. When in 1898 in Sicily he was sought for kidnapping--a specialty in which he was expert--he fled to the United States, returning in 1904. Semiliterate, bearded, with the appearance of an aristocrat, he was figure of eminence in the territory he controlled. Village mayors would rush into the street to pay him homage as he passed through. Several of his "students of crime" immigrated to America. During his career, Don Vito was accused of 69 serious crimes, of which twenty were murders. In 1909, Don Vito became a suspect in the slaying on a Palermo street of the high-profile New York policeman Joe Petrosino, who had been sent to Sicily to gather information on Mafia links to the United States. Petrosino had made a name for himself as the commander of the New York "Italian Squad," an elite group that pursued the city�s Italian American mobsters.

     Mori was sitting at his desk when Don Vito was brought in. Standing beside the Prefect was the chief of the Palermo police who for the previous three days had been interrogating Don Vito without extracting a confession.

     The Don stood silently while Mori glanced over some papers before him. After a suitable pause, Mori raised his head and said, "You know you are the capo of the Mafia on this island."

     The Don responded by saying, "I, eccellenza, do not know what the Mafia is."

     Mori came to his feet, reached over, grabbed the knot of Vito�s tie, pulled him forward, and slapped his face. "With sua eccellenza I advise you to use other words."

     Then the Prefect made a hand gesture, as if to indicate that Don Vito�s denials had no importance. "You have been jailed eleven times for various crimes. And in each case you have been absolved for lack of evidence. Now the Mafia is finished, you are finished."

     "With what charge will I be condemned, eccellenza, what proof?" asked Don Vito.

     "Under this new government there is a moral certainty of your guilt."

     Don Vito was dismissed. As he was being escorted to his cell he encountered the capomafia of Monreale, a city in the hills behind Palermo. The man�s face was swollen and bruised from a police beating. Placing a hand on Don Vito�s arm he gave a smile of encouragement.

     That evening the Don had his turn in the torture chamber. He would submit to what was called the "cassetta." This torture consisted of cramping both legs into a wooden box until the pain became too much to bear.

     After two hours of this exquisite torture Don Vito could no longer endure. "Enough, take me out of this. I admit to being the capo of the Sicilian Mafia."

     During the trial that followed Don Vito remained silent. After being found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, he was asked by the judges if he had anything to say. "Signori, not being able to prove any of my numerous crimes, you have been reduced to condemning me for the one crime I never committed."

     In short order Mussolini announced to Sicily, to the nation, and to the world that the Mafia was dead, that no force "ever again would be able to revive it." Several nations sent congratulatory telegrams and the dictator�s popularity soared.

     After Mori was recalled to Rome in 1929, where he was nominated a senator, many of the imprisoned were released after giving their allegiance to Fascism. With the liberation of Sicily, they forgot about that allegiance and went over to the Allied side.

     The end of Fascism for Sicily came in 1943 with the American military occupation of the island. The mafiosi saw their opportunities and took them. In virtually every town they were named as mayors. Vito Genovese, a New York capomafia, who had fled to Italy in 1936 to escape conviction, was the interpreter for Charles Poletti, the U.S. Army Superintendent for Sicilian Affairs. Genovese and other "men of honor" took to infiltrating the political sphere while moving into the rackets and black marketing.

     Despite Mussolini�s victory dance, the Fascists did not kill the Mafia. To be sure, a severe blow was dealt to the local cosche, but did not destroy the conditions that made them possible. As long as the true Mafia, the so-called alta mafia, which represented the "vital structure" of the Mafia machine, remained untouched, the spirit of the Mafia would prevail.

     "Organized crime in Sicily is a manifestation of millennia of occupation that, except for a few golden ages, inflicted poverty, stifled the development of institutions and national consciousness, and called for informal means of protection against the threat of even worse anarchy." (R. Kaplan, 2004)

     "Mori was a scourge of God here; he swept up all and sundry, guilty and innocent, honest and dishonest, according to his own whims and his spies." (L. Sciascia, 1964)

     "I drove the mafia underground all right. I had unlimited powers and a couple of battalions of Blackshirts. But how can you stamp out what is in a people�s blood?" (C. Mori )

     "Is it really possible to conceive of the existence of a criminal organization so powerful that it can dominate not only half Sicily, but the entire United States of America?" (L. Sciascia, 1964)

     "The only institution in the Sicilian conscience that really counts is the family; counts more as a dramatic juridical contract or bond than as a natural association based on affection. The family is the Sicilians� State. The State is extraneous to them, merely a de-facto entity based on force." (L. Sciascia, 1964)

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