By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
“Manhattan U.S. Courthouse. October 24, 1985. The government calls it the biggest drug and mafia case ever to come to trial in the United States. The press calls it the Pizza Connection. A small amount of cash was discovered at the Palermo international airport in a suitcase shipped from New York City. The cash was wrapped in pizzeria aprons. The defendants, all Sicilian-born men and nearly all in the food business, are charged with being part of a RICO conspiracy by importing heroin from the Middle East and cocaine from South America and then laundering profits through Swiss bank accounts. The key defendant is Gaetano Badalamenti, sixty-two. He has vigorously denied dealing drugs. He said, ‘Drugs are bad for business. The money was never worth the risk. Only greedy pigs touched drugs. Not men of honor.’” (S.Alexander, 1988)
Gaetano “Don Tanino” Badalamenti was born in 1923 in the village of Cinisi, Sicily. Nearby the family property the future Aeroporto Punta Raisi, the international airport serving the major city of Palermo a few miles to the east, would be constructed, in the early 1960s. The airport would figure prominently in the family fortunes and Don Tanino’s rise to power in mafia circles.
Gaetano had minimal schooling before he was put to work as a field hand at age ten. Drafted into the Italian army in 1941, he deserted before the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943. Speaking of that experience, he tried to put the best face on his situation but when pressed for details admitted that: “We thought of ourselves as partisans. Really we were only deserters.” In 1947, he fled Sicily because of a murder warrant for his arrest. Stowing away on a steamer, he jumped ship in Baltimore and joined his brother in Monroe, Michigan. There he worked for three years in the family grocery before being detained and deported by the INS. Back home, Gaetano married and setup a business on the family land as a lemon grower.
When the new airport was being planned, Gaetano saw his opportunity. He successfully bribed officials to have the airport built near Cinisi. Cinisi benefited as did the Badalamentis. The project needed large quantities of rock and gravel, which conveniently were to be found in large quantities on the family property. As a result his two construction firms, a concrete plant and a fleet of trucks provided much needed employment for the townsfolk and enriched the Badalamenti coffers. Don Tanino held both the airport and the town under his firm control. When the FBI inquired about him the Italian authorities said: “His power is such that he can call upon almost all the male population of Cinisi to serve him.”
Convicted for tobacco smuggling (once a thriving industry in Italy) and mafia membership in 1968, Gaetano served a two-year term. His stranglehold on Cinisi began to weaken and the Corleonese group, under Luciano Liggio (or Leggio) reached out for total control of the Palermo area. This meant war, whatever the cost, and the message sent by the Corleonese was clear: He is not with us is against us. The first blow was the killing of capomafia Giuseppe Di Cristina, which resulted in the splintering of the Mafia Commission. In 1970, it was restructured under a triumvirate leadership composed of Riina, Bontate and Badalamenti.That structure collapsed with the arrest of Bontate and Badalamenti. After various maneuvers, in 1975 Gaetano secured the post of capo of the Commission. When the Corleone group pumped up the pressure with a new wave of mafia murders, the likes of which had never been seen, Gaetano was ousted from the Commission and his own Cinisi cosca. The Sicilian press dubbed the Gaetano faction in this internecine battle as the “losers,” and he, “capo of the losers.”
For Gaetano, Sicily had become a very unwelcoming place to be. Understanding his perilous situation, he fled Sicily in August 1981, taking his family to Paris. Later he boarded ship for Brazil. When asked at the Pizza Connection trial why he had traveled under an assumed name, he responded, “I didn’t want to leave any clues behind. I was leaving my family in Nice. I wanted to leave no traces. I didn’t want my family’s whereabouts to be known. I didn’t want my whereabouts to be known. I did it for their security, safety, and peace of mind.” Gaetano had reason to be concerned. He lost eleven relatives to the bloodthirsty Corleonesi. A nephew was tortured, shot and cut into pieces in West Germany. Two other nephews were exterminated in New Jersey.
Don Tanino was wanted in Italy for murder and the American authorities sought him because he was considered a drug lord, a kingpin in the flourishing international narcotics market. The FBI discovered through phone taps that Gaetano was to meet a nephew in Madrid, Spain. After seven years in hiding in South America, Don Tanino was about to break cover. He was taken into custody without incident on a Madrid street. Coordinated raids in this country rounded up thirty-two more alleged conspirators in what would be called the Pizza Connection.
“The nephews of Gaetano Badalamenti operated pizzerias—and distributed heroin—out of small mid-western towns. The Sicilians dominated the heroin trade, while the American mobsters received a cut for allowing the Sicilians to operate in their territory. Manufacturers of cheese, olive oil and tomatoes could also be useful export vehicles for smuggling drugs into the United States. Joe Pistone, an FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonanno family, quoted one Bonanno member: ‘The zips are Sicilians brought into this country to distribute heroin. They set up pizza parlors, where they received and distributed heroin, laundered money. The zips were clannish and secretive…the meanest killers in the business.’” (A. Stille, 1995)
Thousands of Sicilian Mafiosi slipped into the country vitually unnoticed. Most who entered illegally were fugitives from Italy on charges ranging from murder to narcotics trafficking. Italoamerican congressmen successfully sponsored a few. During the sixties and seventies these men set up a heroin net. The authorities at first believed that the zips constituted simply the Sicilian faction of the Bonanno family and assumed a purely American operation. They were mistaken—the zips were under no one, a force unto themselves. “If you are made in Sicily, your allegiance is to Palermo.” The American mafia stood by and profited from the drug trade by allowing it to occur under their noses, but the Sicilians were the ones who put the pieces together to develop and then control the international drug conspiracy.
The long and unbelievably complex trail in New York turned into a circus. During the trial, two defendants were killed and one shot. At the end, all the others, but one, went to prison.
March 2, 1987. “We the jury have reached a verdict.”
“How do you find the defendant, Gaetano Badalamenti?”
“Guilty,” the foreman replied.
In June, Gaetano was sentenced to a term of 45 years, with a stipulation that he served no more than 30 years. He was remanded to the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a tomblike underground facility known as the worst lockup in the federal system, which would see such notorious criminals as John Gotti.
Ailing and near death, the frail Don Tanino, who was said to have sanctioned more than 100 murders, was placed in the federal medical facility of Fairton (Boston) where he succumbed on April 29, 2004.
“The Pizza Connection was only a segment of the connection that is still in place. The case succeeded only in exposing a faction in a single American family, working with thirty-odd men on a single Sicilian heroin ring, involving deliveries to a single corner of the U.S. There are a number of intersecting rings delivering heroin to every corner of the country.” (C. Sterling, 1990)
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