By Clarence Walker, Investigative Reporter (Houston, Texas)
Remember this public service announcement? "The Marines are looking for a few good men." Now, can anyone believe this? The American (Italian) mafia is also looking for good men. They are desperate to recruit fresh blood.
Overthrown by mafia turncoats, aggressive law enforcement and (Rico) prosecution of mafia brothers, across the nation has left the Italian crime families in America decimated in recent years. Famous traitors like informants Sammy "Bull" Gravano, Henry Hill, Ralph Natale, Angelo Lonardo, and the murder and imprisonment of hundreds of Mafiosos have, in fact, galvanized crime families into desperation. As the saying goes, "no honor among thieves". It seems there's no silence and honor among some of America's toughest Mafiosos which has given law enforcement, for years, access to penetrate mafia organizations and flip soldiers to break the mafia silence code and betray their masters and bosses.
"The American mafia is a shell of what it used to be," says Captain Steven O'Donnell of the Rhode Island state police. Donnell infiltrated the Patriarca family for six years by posing as an associate. Mafia godfathers may turn in their graves but the American mafia is seeking new talent, preferably of Sicilian origin, to recruit into the crime family organizations. Highly in demand are Mafiosos willing to die than break the 'omerta' code of silence, willing to kill enemies, rivals; if necessary, kill American government officials. This is no exaggeration. According to FBI and foreign investigators, the Italian mafia, to find their perception of good men, are reaching across the globe into their homeland of Sicily, Italy, to find honorable men to uphold principles of the 'real' mafia. U.S. and Italian organized crime investigators indicated the American mafia is recruiting Sicilian mafia criminals because they now believe their counterparts in Sicily "are more honorable to mafia principles than Italian Mafiosos in America." Sicilian mafia criminals migration into America has alarmed U.S. authorities. Authorities are highly concerned the Sicilian mafia, known in the past for gunning down police and blowing up judges and prosecutors might bring this kind of handiwork into the American mafia. FBI officials discussed the high-alert topic in Washington D.C. and New York a few weeks ago.
"This type of phenomenon (recruiting in Sicily) was born when American authority's action grew stronger and more effective, which, in recent years reached a crescendo in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York," the chief of Italy's anti-mafia commission, Senator Roberto Centaro, said during interviews in New York with the FBI, DEA, the U.S. Protection for Mafia Informants and the Justice Department. "These are the areas where the families move to recruit in Sicily." Recruitment of Sicilian mafia criminals into the American mafia were exposed over a year ago when a top Sicilian mafia informant revealed the secretive information to Italian and U.S. law enforcement, "that was confirmed by U.S. and Italian wiretaps," said Centaro. Dozens of Sicilians between ages of twenty and thirty, according to intelligence sources were sent from towns of the Palermo area to help shore up the ranks of clans in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Using phone taps, U.S. authorities have heard new arrivals discussing attacks on American investigators and judges. The FBI and U.S. Justice Department have declined to confirm or deny the information regarding possible attacks on American government officials. Matthew Heron, Assistant FBI Agent in charge of the organized crime branch in the FBI's New York office, provides insight into the Sicilian recruitment. "A combination of turncoats and convictions," Heron explains, "created 'leadership vacuum' in some crime gangs, particularly the Bonannos and they have reached into Sicily to bring some people over to fill gaps, the rationale being the Sicilians are more inclined to maintain the sacred vow of silence," Heron recently stated in a telephone interview with reporters from New York. "It's not accurate to say they have assumed leadership roles within the family. Yet the fact they are here, they are establishing themselves. In the foreseeable future, it's safe to say we expect to see them assume leadership." Heron noted the fact the American Italian mafia has always avoided attacking U.S. law enforcement. "From what we've been told, that's not the case with the Sicilians. While authorities try to monitor what tactics the American mafia will make next, they are sending local recruits to Sicilian Island for lessons in thuggery, according to Italy's (ANSA) News agency, which reported details of the interrogation of a Sicilian informant by Italian investigators. The informant provided a goldmine of information. "They (the American mafia) send recruits over to Sicily to make them become honorable men, to train them, because in America there's this attack on the values, there's no respect any more," ANSA News quoted mobster Antonio Giuffre as telling investigators. "The American mafia is different and they need some of our qualities." Giuffre's account was confirmed by chief Palermo prosecutor, Piero Grasso. "Every now and then, they'll send someone whose origins are in these areas so they can do serious Mafia lessons," Grasso stated.
"The Sicilian and American Italian mafia have affected each other reciprocally, according to circumstances," said Professor Salvatore Lupo, a mafia expert at the University of Palermo. "They have a common heritage. From what we know, they're not the same thing." During the 1960s, if not earlier, the Sicilian and Italian mafia were distinct organizations but due to family ties and business interests, they often linked up to score 'dirty' money.
For example: during the 1980s, U.S. and Italian prosecutors discovered a link between the Sicilians and the American mafia involvement in a massive drug ring called The Pizza Connection. Unlike the Sicilians, the Italian mafia agreed to never kill law enforcement or government officials. Showing no mercy or restraint, the Sicilian mafia of the 1980s and 1990s launched the 'massacre strategy', killing anyone brave enough to oppose it. This deadly operation caused the 1992 slayings of two nationally admired prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both killed in bomb blasts. Italians were outraged and a major crackdown followed. As for the new Sicilian recruits migrating onto American soil authorities are keeping close tabs on their activities. "These folks coming over from Sicily are of a different mindset," FBI Agent Heron says. "It's not outside the realm of possibility, and it's something we want to keep a close eye on."
For decades, the Sicilian mafia engrained its glamour, secrecy, wealth, ruthlessness and fear into the culture of everyday life in Sicily, Italy. Throughout history, many stories have foretold the mafia creation. (Read Mike LaSorte's five-part historical series about the Sicilian mafia on Americanmafia.com.) Also known as 'La Cosa Nostra', this lingo is an Italian translation called, 'this thing of ours'. These groups joined forces to oust the Spanish invaders of Sicily. It's debatable whether or not if the term 'mafia' traces back to Sicilian vespers in 1282, when the Sicilians overthrew the French occupation in their country and formed their own protection society because they distrusted law enforcement. No doubt, through, mafia is a Sicilian word that described organized crime across the globe. Mafia exists in only two places: Sicily and the United States.
During the twentieth century, the powerful rise of the Sicilian mafia grew into a booming business. They controlled most of the country's economic resources - land, agriculture, estates, manufactured goods and even served at mediators for peasants, landowners and foreign traders. Sicilian mafia dominance was so fearful even the police asked permission to travel into certain areas of the islands, particularly in Palermo, a breeding ground for notorious mob bosses. Their dominance soon triggered a backlash when Italy's fascists rose to power, dictator Benito Mussolini, coveted the territory and challenged the mafia's influence. Mussolini enlisted the help of Cesar Mori to assist an operation dubbed the iron prefect. Mori rounded up scores of Mafiosos and sent them to prison. Others fled the island to Brazil and America which marked the infiltration of Sicilian gangsters into the U.S. Two famous Mafiosos, Joseph Bonnano and Lucky Luciano, were among those who migrated to America under the fascist's regime. Earning hero status, Mori was immortalized as the man who saved Sicily from the mafia. But U.S. government usurped Mori's legacy when U.S. Allied troops invaded Sicily during World War II to liberate the island under the fascist regime.
To regain political and economic clout, the Sicilian mafia helped U.S. troops to take control of the island. Allied forces upheld their agreement and gave the island back to the Sicilians and mafia criminals. Mafia bosses and their associates became town mayors, administrators and held other political positions to reclaim the island's resources.
Until the 1950s, the Italian mafia operation was located in rural areas but subsequently, the operation expanded into the cities, e.g. Palermo. Membership into Sicilian mafia is akin to joining a religion, once you're in, it's for life. There is no retirement from the mafia. The only escape is death.
Four mafia groups reign in Italy. The most powerful is the Sicilian mafia based in Palermo. This group has over 5,000 members divided among 186 families, 67 located in Palermo. Additional groups are: Ndrangheta in Calabria, Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, Camorra in Naples. The hierarchy of these families is structured this way:
Sicilian mafia was so fascinating and revered throughout the world, notably the Corleone gang. Who can forget the award-wining movie, based on Mario Puzo's book, The Godfather? In the movie, the late actor Marlon Brando played the role of Don Corleone, the fictional godfather.
Still unified despite the loss and murder of many members, as time moved forward into a new era, the Sicilian mafia, at least some groups took subtle roles to operate crime enterprises. Law enforcement recalls during the 1980s and 1990s, a series of internecine "gang wars" in Italy led to several prominent mafia members being brutally murdered.
Thereafter, a new generation of Mafiosi engaged more into white-collar criminal activity, as opposed to traditional racketeering enterprises. The new Sicilian breed, according to investigators, operates commercial enterprises, securing government construction contracts, owning technology businesses and hotels. It's no secret organized crime and movie-making connects. The mix of fame, glamorous lifestyles and financial risks make the stars and production firms, fatally attractive to the mob. Consider the recent arrest of several Mafiosi's attempt to extort money from an American movie production firm shooting a film in Trapani, Sicily, called Ocean Twelve, a movie starring
Under close surveillance, police watched the gang as they mingled around the set where the production team was filming Brad Pitt. "They were sent," said Investigator Enzo Mignosi, by the mafia boss of Castellamare del Folfo to extract "pizzo", to squeeze money from the American production company, unaware themselves were filmed by 'pro-active' police to crack a classic mafia extortion scheme.
Police were successful. Twenty-three people were arrested, including a police officer. One novel twist: the senior Mafioso were two women, one identified as Antonella Maria di Graziano, age 45. She is the acting head of the Castellamare clan. Investigators acknowledge that mafia wives rarely took important roles within the organization recently, though they have taken prominent roles due to internal conflicts among bosses and renegade members. "They've learned very well," an investigator told reporters who cover the mafia crime beat.
For many, Sicily's mafia connections carry a stigma that gives people a misconception about one of the world's most beautiful island. In Corleone, home of notorious crime bosses, the village immortalized in The Godfather, residents are campaigning to change the name of Corleone Village. Campaign Chairman Antonio di Lorenzo said, "We are collecting signatures to petition the council. It's no longer acceptable that the name of Corleone should be associated with the mafia."
Mayor Nicolo Nicolosi is against the idea. "It's utter madness. You can't eliminate mafia associations by changing the name." Proposals also include to restore the original name, Cour di Leone. Nicolosi added, "You can't eliminate mafia associations by changing the name. We must work together so that Corleone can be appreciated for its fight against the mafia." As Sicily tries to shake-off the mafia image, the Sicilian mafia, perhaps more low-key, yet they remain detrimental to society. "Some Mafiosos today are less violent but more infiltrated into daily life," said Silvana Saguto, a judge residing in Palermo. Saguto, a judge for 23 years, has sent many mobsters to prison. "No economic activity is untouched by the mafia," the judge stated.
According to a Roman think-tank, the Cosa Nostra, this year alone, including the mafia clans located in Calabria, Campania and Puglia, will earn billions of euros from drug trafficking and other financial operations. A report by the Eurispes Research team documents the following evidence:
"The figures should cause reflection," said Giuseppe Lumia, former president of Italian anti-mafia committee. "Mafiosos continue to kill in a country, wanting to call itself civilized." Recruitment of Sicilian mafia by American mafia, investigators concede, is nonetheless comparable with an understaffed company or even the military in desperate need of help. The American mafia does need more good men. To paraphrase the lines of actor Gene Hackman in the movie Mississippi Burning, when dark evil is brought to light, criminals feel defeated and became desperate. Like Hackman said, "Looks like rattlesnakes are committing suicide."
Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at:
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