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Letters from Rome

The Unmaking of the Made Men of Sicily?

Judith Harris (February 10, 2008)

The crackdown on Mafia shows Italy at its best. Southern Italian cities, though plagued by many serious problems, no longer seem to be suitable places for a good mobster to hang out. That, at least, is progress.

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Rome – Finally, a sincere word of praise for beleaguered Italy. As the Indian mystic in E.M.Forster’s Passage to India said to Dr.

Aziz, on trial for molesting an English maiden but acquitted thanks to his accuser’s own, unexpected testimony, “Who’d have thought that your enemy would be the one to save you?” In this case the welcome words showing Italy at its best came from a cell in Palermo’s l’Ucciardone prison. The room was bugged, but last summer one of the bosses, recently returned from 20 years in the U.S., Francesco Inzirillo, had visitors, his sons Giovanni and Giuseppe. Francesco, the man nicknamed “ù truttaturi” (my guess is the name means Il Trittatore, The Chopper), let himself go with a lament that literally thrilled the eavesdropping police of Palermo. “They’ve got our names on their list, we’ve got to get out of Sicily, out of Italy, we gotta get out of Europe. You have to go to, oh, Central America, South America,” he said, “a long way from here…”

Too late. On February 9 some 300 police made a sweep of Palermo, arresting 19 alleged Mafiosi (the New York Times gave the number as 23) while at the same time, albeit not strictly in conjunction with their U.S. allies, or so they say, the FBI indicted 80 in New York, reportedly including the entire Gambino family hierarchy. Many of those arrested on the U.S. side were connected to the trucking industry and heavy construction.

The reaction in Italy has been justifiable pride and enthusiasm, with Sicilian police saying that the Cupola—that Mafia board of directors—has been wiped out. At the very least, an attempt to relaunch the particularly brutal Sicilian Mafia’s control over a huge portion of the international drug market has been nipped in the bud.

The Sicilian Mafia has had several such historic moments, worth—I hope—reviewing quickly, so as to understand what may happen in the future.

The prewar Sicilian Mafia was agrarian. The threat of violence mattered more than the number of haystacks burnt or men murdered. The Mafiosi, middlemen between town and countryside, dined on red wine and fellowship and sausages while meting out traditional justice.

During World War II the contraband opportunities, thanks to the Allied occupation with its PX goodies, attracted country-bumpkin Mafiosi, who created newly sophisticated clandestine networks. The famine that swept Sicily in 1947 brought more of the unemployed and hungry to Palermo, easy prey.

The postwar building boom of the 1950’s provided enormous opportunities which the Palermo city powers-that-be did not fail to exploit. It was mostly about building permits, but a Mafia firm had the first on-site lunchroom for construction workers; and when a Sicilian nobleman refused to sell his family home on Viale della Libertà to buyers planning a big apartment block, the house was simply blown to smithereens. Court acquittals were the rule when alleged Sicilian Mafiosi went on trial close to home. The Church, resisting Marxist atheism and an aggressive Communist party, fumbled into a virtual alliance with politicians working hand-in-hand with mobsters.

In 1968 a huge, serious sweep headed by the then-General Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa radically cut back Mafia power. Many, including Liggio, fled to North Italy, where they discovered kidnapping for profit and drug refining, which then bankrolled the mobsters’ return and the Sicilian Mafia’s taking over from Marseilles as capital of the drug traffic after 1978, following President Nixon’s “war on drugs,” which curbed the Marseilles-Istanbul connection, unleashing one much worse.

Initially the heroin profits seemed so immense that a pax Mafiosa was in place. Everyone had fun. Forget the godfather: this was the New Mafia, all Champagne and amusing torture and high-stakes poker and fancy restaurants and acid baths for children and, for the first time, Kalashnikovs. A certain portion of the port of Palermo, notoriously filled with skeletons, was known as Mafia Cemetery. The French chemist who could convert 1 kg of opium base into 1 kg of heroin earned $1 million for every three-day stint in a heroin kitchen at Taormina or Cefalu.

The so-called New Mafia’s murderous war over control of the heroin traffic to the U.S. peaked in 1982, when Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, once again in Sicily as its top police officer, was murdered. Two rival alliances had been formed, and nine members of the Buscetta family, including Tommaso’s  two sons, were killed in the heroin feud. Like the Buscettas, the Inzirillo clan was among those under assault from the rival  Corleonesi, headed by Luciano Liggio, with Bernardo Provenzano and Totò Riina as backups. To escape Corleone wrath, Francesco Inzirillo—that Francesco whose unwitting compliments to the Italian police were overheard in his cell—quietly disappeared from Italy into the safer wilds of New Jersey.

Times must have grown tough there, too, however, for in 2003, just five years ago, Francesco and several of his fellow Inzirillo males on the make, nostalgic for those good old 1980’s days of really big money, began to slip back home. They made a show of being bold, moving right into their old home in Palermo’s Passo di Rigano, the modern quarter pitched on the lower slope of Monte Cuccio. Needless to say, everyone who counted knew the Inzirillos were back, to the point that Francesco himself eventually found himself in prison (one wonders which Palermo tribe led police to him).