Feature Articles

March 2008
Vito Ciancimino:
Palermo's Mafia Mayor

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

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     Vito Calogero Ciancimino (1924-2002) was a part of what Sicilian journalist Nino Amadore called the zona grigia, the "gray zone," composed of members of the professional class at the service of Cosa Nostra and on its payroll.

     Ciancimino died of a heart attack at age 78, on 19 November 2002, in his panoramic Rome apartment, where he was serving a sentence for mafia association while under house arrest. Vito spent his last years in relative comfort. He was allowed to go shopping and enjoyed chauffer-driven rides in the nearby Alban hills.

     The government was anxious to sequester as much of his criminally-acquired assets as possible. Among other findings, magistrates discovered that Vito held bank deposit books under false names or in Canadian banks. When the Palermo city council sought 150 million euros from him, allegedly embezzled during his stewardships, in March of 2002, the ex primo cittadino (first citizen) of Palermo let his flamboyance get the best of him: "Do you want it all in cash?"

     Capomafia Tommaso Buscetta, in 1984, was the first top-ranked mafia informer to open up the secret society to public scrutiny. He tagged Vito as an "organic" part of the powerful Corleone clan. The magistrates who investigated the former Palermo mayor defined his criminal deeds as effecting the "most explicit infiltration of the mafia into the public administration." Ciancimino represented the "blackest page in Palermo political history." A history, one might add, that has had many shadings of gray.

     In 1984, Vito was arrested in Palermo on evidence provided by the turncoat Buscetta that linked him with two of the most notorious capos of that era: Salvatore Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. After the usual drawn out judicial proceedings, Don Vito was brought to trial, and in 1992 was convicted of being a mafia affiliate and laundering millions of dollars through a Canadian bank. Up to that point, Ciancimino had been among the untouchables as far as the law was concerned.

     As assessor for public works Vito Ciancimino oversaw the destruction of Palermo�s green belt and the classic villas that gave the city its architectural splendor. In their place were constructed large apartment blocks (which can be seen while entering the city from the airport). Within five years he signed 4000 building leases for a price, more than 2000 of them in the names of three pensioners. Later he would say, "Without bribes, Italy cannot function," which certainly had the ring of truth. "It�s as though someone wanted to remove one of the four wheels of the car." The building spree became known as the "Sack of Palermo."

     The �50s, �60s and 70�s were decades of rapid urban sprawl in the Conca d�Oro, the valley in which the city is situated. With mafia influence and the willing connivance of men like Ciancimino, citrus groves were uprooted, to make way for construction, and older structures of great artistic and architectural merit submitted to the wrecking ball, structures that had given the city a reputation as one of the most beautiful in Europe. In their place rose row on row of characterless concrete piles, creating crowded living spaces for the city�s proletariat, but little else. Only a scattering of the celebrated "Liberty" style buildings remain standing. (Liberty was a complex architectural form popular in Europe and the United States between 1890 and the First World War, readily identifiable by its elaborate vegetable and floral embellishments in stone carved in high relief.)

     Vito Calogero formed a tripartite junta that quickly aroused a political reaction that spread from Sicily to the mainland. From Palermo, the Antimafia Comission�s report was discussed in the Italian Parliament. The Leftists in the Sicilian regional assembly, certainly no allies of Vito and his ilk, lost no time in presenting a motion of no-confidence. The motion failed and Ciancimino continued his march to the mayoralty.

     Ciancimino was elected mayor of Palermo on 13 October 1970. A principle member of his cabal was Giuseppe Trapani, a member of the mob clan Santa Maria del Gesù, headed by Pippo Calò. That relationship placed the mafia into the mayor�s office. This connection with Cosa Nostra caused a polemic of such seismic proportions that the newly-elected primo cittadino was forced to resign, after the briefest of tenures, on December 8th.

     Vito�s history of mafia affiliation was an open secret in officialdom, and his enemies feared the worst on his elevation to the mayor�s chambers. Prefect Angelo Vicari said simply, "It�s a scandal." A member of Vito�s party, the Christian Democrat Luigi Cattanei, president of the Antimafia Commission, declared that it was a direct "challenge to antimafia and to the citizens of Palermo." The city administration had become a criminal enterprise. Cattanei knew that the Commission had accumulated a voluminous dossier on Don Vito�s nefarious doings. Many mafiosi were part of his circle of friends and business partners, among them the capo Carmelo La Barba (Palermo�s powerful boss), Angelo Di Carlo, and Carlo Antonio Sorci, who with Vito�s spouse founded a construction firm with mafia-tainted funds. Despite a long record of dubious actions and less than wholesome affiliations, the first mafia mayor and the shortest-term-served mayor remained steadfast, declaring: "I am not a mafioso."

     Vito used his jobs to amass a formidable sum of money. When ten billion lire (the equivalent of five million euros) were confiscated from him, he said in court the amount was half of his fortune. Privately, he boasted that the court had "sequestered only a single hair from my balls."

     Massimo Ciancimino, Vito�s youngest son, remembers his father as a taskmaster who would tether the child Massimo on a chain to a desk�with allowance to reach the bathroom�so the boy would do his lessons rather than wander outside to play.

     Massimo also recalled his early encounters in the house with a certain gentleman. "I was 17 years old when I finally suspected that the man I knew as the engineer Loverde was in fact Bernardo Provenzano [a fugitive from justice at the time] who came to our house in Palermo to talk with my father. Father would take a nap in the afternoon and I would answer the telephone. My instructions were that I was only to awaken him if it was this Loverde, even if it was his secretary or the mayor�s office calling. Everyone had to wait except the one who called himself Loverde. He was always alone. They would drink a cup of camomille. They met once or twice a month, and also in the summer at our villa in Mondello." (Mondello is a village outside the city.)

     When it struck Massimo that Loverde was in fact the infamous Provenzano, capo dei capi, he asked Vito why he was doing business with that sort. His father replied, "Yes, it�s true. The fault is mine. As assessor of public works I had dealings both Riina and Provenzano. But I�m only 50 percent at fault. The other half belongs to the government that permitted such people to knock at my door." (Meaning that he was but a detail of a corrupt political system.)

     Presently, Massimo Ciancimino, 44 years old, has found himself facing a sentence of several years for money laundering and secreting the remains of his father�s ill-gotten gains. Massimo denies these charges and has protested his innocence to the press. "I am supposed to show penance but I don�t know of what. I�m already doing a life sentence for being my father�s son. The sins of the father are not to be visited on the son." Massimo claims he�s in debt.

     Don Vito was born in Corleone in 1924, a Sicilian town south of Palermo, notorious as the traditional center of substantial criminal activity and producer of some of the most legendary mafia chieftains and killers.

     Vito and Provenzano were boyhood chums. His early years revolved around the family barbershop, where the youthful Vito had daily contacts with the village notables, who would drop in for a chat and shave. The family immigrated to the United States before the Second World War, where Vito learned English. Back in postwar Sicily, he interrupted his engineering curriculum at Palermo University to work as an interpreter for the Allied military government.

     Ciancimino embarked on a political career with the Christian Democrats that then held sway over island politics with the generous help of the mafia. Vito would become a figure to be reckoned with in the wild and wooly political environment, from which often emanated the odor of institutionalized bribery and criminal self-interest.

     Don Vito became a member of the secretariat of the transportation ministry, where he artfully snared a lucrative rail transport concession favoring his socio (business partner) the mafioso/businessman Carmelo La Barba. His cut from the deal marked the beginning of his so-called tesoro (treasure) that he would continue to augment during his years as mafia facilitator.

     In 1952, he was elected as the Palermo party secretary; in 1956, the city�s consigliere comunale; and from 1959 to 1964 served as the assessor of public works for the Comune di Palermo. In the latter post he was to facilitate the aforementioned "Sack of Palermo" and cement his organic affiliation with mob bosses.

     Vito Calogero Ciancimino was a mafioso in full regalia, a royal eminence claiming the rights and privileges of a monarch. Ignoring the stated obligations of a public servant, he defined "public" as that very narrow stratum of Sicilian society within which dwells the criminal component. Favoritism, bribes, extortions, flagrant abuse of office, he (and others) in the zona grigia gave Cosa Nostra its power status. Without that everyday collusion, organized crime cannot operate. The former Palermo mayor, Leoluca Orlando (1985-1990), noted what the pentito (state�s witness) Antonino Giuffrè said: "Our [mafiosi] relationships with politicians are a necessity, but one should not ignore the question of pride."

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