By Thom L. Jones
There is only one Mafia, neither old or young, neither good nor bad, there is only the Mafia that is a criminal association.
Cesare Terranova. Order of Indictment gainst Luciano Leggio+115 August 1965, Antimafia: Doc.,Vol 4, t. XVII, pp 506ff.
Antonino Calderone, the under boss of the Catania Mafia clan in eastern Sicily, described Luciano Leggio to the authorities, as he was being debriefed by them in 1987, following his decision to cooperate with the law:
‘He liked to kill. He had a way of looking at people that could frighten anyone, even us Mafiosi. The smallest thing set him off and then a strange light would appear in his eyes that created silence around him. When you were in his company you had to be careful how you spoke. The wrong tone of voice, a misunderstood word, and all of a sudden that silence. Everything would instantly go hushed, uneasy, and you could smell death in the air.
John Dickie in his book Cosa Nostra recalled, ‘his features were an emblem of capricious terror
Another who knew of him, said he was a ‘dog with no master, ready to go for a priest, an old woman, a policeman or anyone else.
He ruled the small town of Corleone like some feudal lord of the manor, and became at times, the driving force of the Sicilian Mafia in the second half of the twentieth century, with power so absolute, he was able to exercise his will over it at times, even from the confines of a prison cell. If the pathology of power was exercised across the island by forces legal and illegal, none did it better than the man with more nicknames than any character dreamed up by Theodore Seuss, the most appropriate by far being il sanguinoso -the bloodthirsty one!
Corleone translated from the Sicilian Cunigghiuni, in English means something close to ‘Lionheart.’ But the small, undistinguished community, established in the ninth century by Muslim invaders, squatting beneath rocky crags, a thousand feet above sea level, had the look more of a ghost town, with its shuttered windows, houses narrowed in on each other, crumbling buildings, and a minatory procession of deserted streets and blind alleyways scoured dry in the summer months by the hot Sirocco wind blowing in from North Africa and the Sarah Desert. Outside the town, as Tomasi di Lampedusa described it in his iconic novel on Sicily, Il Gattopardo:
‘lay the boundless countryside of feudal Sicily, desolate without a breath of air, oppressed by the leaden sun
The town square stood guarded by an imposing statue of St. Francis, its hands raised to the skies, ostensibly in hope, in reality, probably in desperation. It was a place that had lived in perpetual hopelessness, as generations of its men folk had either become part of the Mafia, or had been destroyed by it. The people who lived here, measured the passing of days by the dates of men killed on the streets rather than passing of seasons.
Il Giorno del Morti-the Day of the Dead- is celebrated throughout Sicily in November. Here. in the dismal nightmare of Corleone, every day would be an anniversary day. People accepted egregious behaviour as the norm rather than the exception.
The cemetery was the most colourful place in town, only a short distance from the town centre. Immaculately kept, filled with flowers, its rows of graves and avenues of tombstones testimony to the busiest industry in the area.
It took a writer from Brooklyn called Mario Puzo, and a Hollywood movie director called Francis Ford Coppola, to shape the name into something more, romanticizing the bleak in-hospitality of this lost part of the mezzogiorno into a fable of gangsters with heart, using the appellation of the town as a synonym to perpetrate a great myth about the Mafia.
The fictitious Don Corleone of ‘The Godfather’ and the real Corleone of central-western Sicily (photo below) have commonality only in the imagination of the most ardent romantic dreamer. For the hundreds of men who died in and around this Sicilian heartland, the town’s name evoked images of a darker nature.
And none epitomized this darkness more than Luciano Leggio.
He was born on a misty, winter morning in January 1925, in a hovel at 2 Via Lanza, close to the police barracks, the fourth of seven children of Rosa Maria Palazzo and Francesco Paolo, an itinerant peasant, who scraped out a living in the countryside outside the town of 11000 people.
His siblings were:
Maria Antonina born in 1910
Girolama, born in 1913
Carmela born 1921
Carmelo, who was mentally retarded, born 1927
Salvatore born 1930 and
Bernarda born 1935
When he was eighteen, perhaps inducted by the Mafia doctor, Michele Navarra, Luciano Leggio joined the Corleone cosca, or Mafia family, which although numbering less than a hundred members, was long established as the major political and social force in the region.
Agostino Vignali, a sergeant in the squad that policed the town and surrounding area in 1945, drew up a list of suspected members which totals over forty. These were people he believed to be men of honour. He knew that for every Mafioso, there was one or more of the tough young men, cagnolazzi, waiting to fill up the numbers.
Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, a young captain in the carabinieri, commanding the Corleone squadriglia or squadron of the military police, (Italy has a bewildering range of police departments. In addition to the military, there are: city, state, financial, forestry, border and penitentiary police,) posted to the town from northern Italy in the 1940s, recorded in his notes:
……the Mafia-their unscrupulousness and reputation for violence...both are key elements in a vast network
In October 1949, he produced the first post-war comprehensive dossier on the Sicilian Mafia, creating a breakdown of the Corleone cosca and indicting Dr. Navarra and Leggio in the murder the previous year, of trade union leader, Placido Rizzotto.
Thirty years later, this network would destroy him and many other key figures in the judiciary, as it determined to impose its will on the government of Italy.
Leggio’s talents as a killer without conscience, were quickly recognized by an organization that could never get enough men like him on their books. He had dropped out of school in the fourth grade, to avoid his parents’ plans to have him enter the priesthood, and did not learn to read or write until he was well into adulthood. By the age of 12 he was an excellent marksman, and could handle almost any firearm he was given.
He soon became known locally, as cocciu di tacca, literary ‘bean on fire,’ or hot-head. He was also often referred to by his name in the Sicilian dialect: Lucianeddu.
Shrewd, ruthless and cunning, but unable to read and write, there is a story handed down over the years that in his late teens, he laid the barrel of his pistol on her breast and ordered a young teacher to instruct him, and she did.
All his life he was troubled by Pott’s disease, a tubercular spinal ailment-tuberculosis spondylitis-(probably caused by drinking un-pasteurized goat’s milk as a child,) that forced him into wearing a cumbersome wooden brace, which he later replaced with a solid silver one. He walked with a pronounced stoop, leading some people to refer to him as mulacciuni, in the Sicilian dialect, ‘hunchback,’ but never to his face. He was a sickly, frail, semi-cripple, pale as a sheet, Arrested in his youth, a police officer wrongly transcribed his name, and for the rest of his life, he was often referred to as ‘Liggio.’
In 1989, in a television interview with Enzo Biagi, he confirmed the correct pronunciation of his surname, saying he was happy to have people believe his name was Liggio (right). Disinformation is after all, the trade-mark of a good Mafioso.
Leggio was at the beginning, simply a peasant-scassapagghiara-literally a thief stealing sheaves of wheat, and this is what brought about his first killing.
Calogero Comaianni, worked as a guardia campestre-a rural watchman. He and two other guards-Pietro Splendido and Pietro Cortimiglia- caught Leggio and Vito Di Frisca stealing wheat, loading it onto the back of a mule, and as one source claims, Comaianni kicked the little runt’s backside all the way to the carabinieri barracks in town.
Leggio served three months in prison for this and as he always did, never forgot. Six months later, on March 27th 1945, he tracked Comaianni across Corleone and shot him dead outside his home in Via Sferlazzo. Although the crime was witnessed by the victim’s wife, Maddalena Ribauda, and her son, Carmelo, and an accomplice of Leggio’s called Giovanni Pasqua, who later confessed and implicated him, the case against Leggio dragged on for eighteen years, and he was acquitted twice. Comaianni may have been his first mark, although it is possible he was killing before this. He was just nineteen years old when he pulled the trigger on his rifle that rainy, dark spring morning.
A month after killing Comaianni (photo left), on April 29th, he murdered Stanislao Punzo who was the campiere, or estate guard of land owned by Doctor Corado Carruso. This guard had caught him stealing a bag of grain. He brazenly assumed the dead man’s position, and soon after forced the doctor to hand over the estate to him. He became the youngest gabelloto, or estate manager in Sicily.
He was the prime suspect in a third killing that of Leolucca Piraino, killed on February 7th 1948, although Leggio was acquitted of this murder on June 21st 1950.
A month later he became involved in a homicide that would have repercussions across Sicily for years to come.
Leggio was the prototype of the new Mafia. He and his followers had nothing in common with the older generation of Mafioso who controlled the secret society across Sicily. For Leggio, it was all about money, making his name early as a phenomenally successful cattle thief. He was something quite new to the world of the Sicilian honoured society: a hybrid between the local home brewed mobster and a fusion of American-style gangsterism repatriated to Sicily from the United States.
Italian jurist, Piero Calamandrei, believed that Sicily should be considered the ‘central incubator of American criminality.’ He could have been right. And if it was, Corleone was not just part of the incubator, but the insemination centre as well.
Giuseppe Morello, born here in 1867, may well have been one of the earliest ‘mob’ bosses in America, forming a gang of criminal associates in New York around the end of the 19th century, which has since morphed into what is to-day known as The Genovese Crime Family. Gaetano Dragna, born twenty years later, moved to California, and as Tom Dragna, headed up the West Coast Mafia for many years. Gaetano Reina born the year after Dragna, came to lead the powerful Mafia clan in New York known to-day as the Luchese Family. Calogero Rao, and Giovanni Schillaci and Giacomo Amari and countless more, upped-stakes and left the town for fresh pastures in America, helping to transplant and nurture the criminal virus of the Mafia that would come to find such a welcome host in major cities across the United States.
The Sicilian Mafia had no formal name, as members saw no need for one. Nonetheless, in many Italian publications the term Cosa Nostra was and is used to distinguish the Sicilian Mafia from other criminal networks that are also sometimes referred to as ‘Mafias’ (such as Camorra, the ‘Neapolitan Mafia.’)
When the American Mafioso Joseph Valachi testified before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1962, he revealed that American Mafiosi referred to their organization by the term Cosa Nostra (‘our thing’ or ‘this thing of ours’.)
At the time, it was understood as a proper name, fostered by the FBI and disseminated by the media. The designation gained wide popularity and almost replaced the term Mafia. The FBI even added the article to the term, calling it La Cosa Nostra (in Italy this article is not used when referring to the Sicilian Mafia).
Italian criminal investigators did not take the term seriously, believing it was only used by the American Mafia. Then, in 1984, the Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, revealed to the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the term was used by the Sicilian Mafia as well. (Dibattimento. Volume 1, P. 104.) According to Buscetta the word ‘Mafia’ was a literary creation. Other defectors, such as Antonio Calderone and Salvatore Contorno, confirmed this.
It was claimed the term Cosa Nostra was exported to America by expatriated Mafioso in the early 1920s, but it is also quite conceivable that the expression actually came back into Sicily from the United States as its place of origin, with people like Charles Luciano, Frank Coppola, Angelo Di Carlo, Frank Garofalo, Vincenzo Collura and others who had been banished from America for their criminal activities.
Leonardo Messina, the pentiti stated in his testimony at the Anti Mafia 11th Legislature in December 1992:
It is not the first time that Cosa Nostra has changed its name or skin!
Mafiosi introduced known members to each other as belonging to Cosa Nostra (‘our thing’) or La Stessa Cosa (‘the same thing,’) e.g. ‘he is the same thing, a Mafioso, as you.’
The Sicilian Mafia and its predecessors, has used a bewildering collection of names to describe itself throughout its history, such as La Fratuzzi-‘Little Brothers’ or Stuppagghiari-‘Cork Stoppers’ or Fratellanza-‘Brotherhood,’ or Mano Fraterna, or Scalione or Zuggio, or Fontana Nuova.
Mafiosi are generally known among themselves as ‘men of honour’ or ‘men of respect.’
For Leggio’s Mafia family boss, things were different. For him, the life was a matter of power and prestige, and being a man of substance and honour. Money was important, but came somewhat low on the list of his desires. He may have been a man apart from his peers in this generation, as according to Salvatore Lupo, author of History of the Mafia, the ‘old Mafia’ of dei giardini, worshipped two gods: wealth and the vendetta.
In post war Corleone, 30 miles south-east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, Doctor Michele Navarra was the mayor, chief medical officer, director of the local hospital, inspector of health for the area, head of the local Social Democratic party, president of the Cultivator’s Association of Corleone, a decorated Knight of Merit of the Italian Republic, medical adviser to the State Railways; more eggs than an average basket could carry.
Born in Corleone on February 5th, 1905, the eldest of eight children to Giovanni, a middle-class teacher and land surveyor, he had graduated as a medical doctor in 1929 after first studying as an engineer at Palermo University. He took up a position in 1931 as a doctor at the hospital in the town. He served during the war in Trieste as an officer in the medical corps, rising to the rank of captain.
On his return to Corleone in 1942, he set up as a practice doctor, and dabbled in politics, first with the Liberal Party then switching sides to the Christian Democrats, which rose rapidly to power following the 1939-45 war. To many observers, the ascension of the C.D. party was based almost entirely on the Sicily vote block which was guaranteed them by the various Mafia capos across the island, in addition to the votes in Reggio Calabria and all of southern Italy. In return of course, there would always be favours that would be required.
In two short years, he consolidated his power base and rose rapidly to become a major figure in the town. It seemed he had everything, but he lusted after something else and so Navarra mortgaged his soul to the Mafia in return for a position of absolute power, and was soon to be one of Sicily’s top ten bosses, according to an Italian anti-Mafia Commission hearing held in 1971, helping run the town, collecting taxes and ministering to the needs of the community, mainly for his benefit as well as that of the local, wealthy landowners.
The top men under the previous Mafia rappresentanti, Calogero Lo Bue, agreed to work under the doctor. These were: Carmelo Lo Bue, the brother of the previous don, Pietro and Calogero Majuri, Angelo Ciro, Fancesco Vintaloro, Giovanni Tromadore, Angelo Di Carlo, Michele La Torre, Giovanni and Pasquale Lo Bue, Giovanni and Antonino Majuri and Carmelo Pennino. Their acceptance of Navarra as the new boss brought the rest of the cosca into line.
It is unclear just when Navarra assumed the leadership of the Corleone family. Calogero Lo Bue did not die until 1954 when he finally succumbed to diabetes. It seems reasonable however, to assume that as age and illness took their toll on him, he handed over control to the doctor some years before his death.
A tall, heavy and corpulent man, unkempt and with a florid expression, Doctor Navarra went through life with a sensitive and haunted expression, and always looked as though life had done him wrong. A truly lugubrious person, he had a habit of gently clapping his hands very softly together as if in time to music, when he wanted to accentuate a point he was making. He had a passion for cards and hunting, good food and wine and the pursuit of the dynamics of diadem.
The people of Corleone believed he radiated sciusciare. In the local dialect it meant that a powerful man created such authority that the very air seemed to move in his presence. It was a quality almost unreservedly bequeathed to a man of the Mafia. They also referred to him as omo de panza, omo de stanza-man with a belly, a man of substance.
His face was marked by the habit of command, born from greed and arrogance. Letizia Battaglia the famous Palermo based photographer of the Mafia, recognized this look twenty years later, as she travelled the city, taking black and white images of the dead as they fell onto the streets in their hundreds, their wives prostrated with grief, and the men who made it all happen.
Navarra (right) would arrange the cure of sick people on the one hand, but on the other, organize to have some of them killed when it suited his agenda. The Corleone Mafia and indeed the people in the town, referred to him as U Patri Nostra, ‘Our Father,’ and when people said his name, they made the sign of the cross.
Apart from running the Ospedale dei Bianchi, the Bianchi Hospital, the management of which he assumed after the sitting head, Dr. Carmelo Nicolosi, was murdered, allegedly on his command by Leggio on April 29th 1946, (shot dead with the lupara, the sawn-off shotgun favoured by shepherds when protecting their flocks. A rumour spread that the murdered doctor had been playing loose with married women in the town, hence his sudden and extreme demise) carrying the candle on all his extra-curriculum activities and heading up the local branch of the Sicilian Mafia, he had a major interest in an illegal slaughter house located in the huge, rambling Ficuzza Forest that girdles the north and eastern slopes of the Rocca Busambra, the highest peak in Western Sicily, just to the north-east of the town.
Abigeato, clandestine slaughtering of livestock, was big business in rural areas of the island after World War Two. In 1952, a raid here in Ficuzza by the carabinieri, discovered a stash of illegal stock numbering 900 cows, sheep and pigs, an enormous number for such a poor and deprived area.
The doctor also operated one of the largest transport companies in the region, AST (Azienda Siciliana Trasporti) which was run by one of his brothers, Giuseppe. His two other brothers held down good jobs in the ‘real’ world. One was a banker, and the other, Salvatore, was on the medical faculty at Messina University, respected as a renowned pathologist.
Dr. Navarra lived with his wife in the Piazza Sant Orsola, a little square just down the street from the Chiesa Madre, the Mother Church of the town, which stands at the junction of Via Bentivegna and Via San Martino. This church is unique in one very particular way. Fitted to a pew, five rows back from the alter, is a brass plaque commemorating the good doctor for his dedication to the poor people of Corleone. He is almost certainly the only Mafioso in history who has been so honoured by the Catholic Church.
During his first two years as mayor, there were 57 murders in the town, all attributed to the business of crime. One of the more celebrated, was the killing of Placido Rizzotto, the trade unionist, dispatched by Leggio and two associates on the night of March 10th 1948. The killing was witnessed by a twelve year old sheep herder, Giuseppe Letizia, who then rushed screaming into the town’s square, babbling to the crowds gathered there, about the horror he had witnessed:
A group of men dragging another man into a disused farm house, beating him repeatedly then one of these men shooting him over and over again.
Taken to the hospital the next day, he was attended to personally by the good doctor, who calmed him down and administered an injection to soothe his terror. The boy died within hours. Navarra declared it was the result of ‘toxicosis’ and the youth was cremated without an inquest being held.
Navarra was assisted by another hospital doctor, Ignazio Dell’Aria, who wrote out the death certificate, but was so distressed by what had happened he left the town shortly afterwards, and immigrated to Australia. Rizzotto had been killed on Navarra’s orders, to prevent union problems developing among the workers who serviced the estates that surrounded Corleone. Young Giuseppe was simply collateral damage.
Corleone had been the strategic centre of the peasant reform movement Fasci Siciliani dei Lavoratori, ‘The Sicilian Leagues,’ since the movement was created in the1890s, supported by between three and four hundred thousand workers across the island. The first union contract with the agricultural workers and employers was drawn up here in 1893. The poverty of farm workers and their families in Sicily is hard to comprehend to-day. Some, lived and died without ever eating meat. Families of six would exist for a week on the amount of food one person would consume in to-days civilized world in one twenty-four period. According to author John Follain, ‘families cooked spaghetti and soup made from wild herbs in the same bucket of water they also used to wash their feet. A goat was allowed to roam freely through the house as if it were a holy animal because its milk saved the children from dying of tuberculosis.’
Journalist Adolfo Rossi, visited Corleone in 1893. He wrote for La Tribuna, a major Italian newspaper based in Rome. On his return to his office, he put out a number of reports about what he had seen on his visit to Sicily, and in one said:
‘In this island, in the middle of areas that are heaven on earth, there are others that seem like Africa, where thousands of slaves labour on land belonging to a handful of great lords. Indeed, they are worse off than those ancient slaves, who had least had their bread guaranteed.
A young, altruistic believer in the freedom of the working man, Placido Rizzotto had no room for the mythology of the Mafia and their so called code of honour, even though his father Carmelo, was associated with the Corleone cosca and had been for over thirty years.
Placido had arranged to meet Dr. Navarra who he thought was returning this evening on the last bus in-bound from Palermo. They were to discuss details regarding farm labourer lists that covered the Ficuzza district. It was of course, a setup. The doctor never turned up.
Instead, kidnapped from the heart of the town on a busy, unusually warm March evening, thirty-four year old Placido Rizzotto (photo below left) was bundled into a Fiat 1100 parked outside the church of San Leonardo and taken north to a deserted farm estate in the Malvello district where he was shot three times by Leggio, according to the testimony of one of the men involved in the kidnapping. He was the 35th union organizer to have been murdered by the Mafia in Sicily.
There was only one eye-witness to the abduction, a young man called Luca.
Now 85, he recalled that night when interviewed by La Sicilia newspaper in 2005. He remembered three men manhandling Rizzotto and the unionist shouting, ‘That’s enough, let me go.’
They didn’t of course, and the rest became part of Sicily’s history.
Carmelo, his father, along with Giuseppe Di Palermo, Placido’s brother-in-law, went the next day to the carabinieri barracks. With heavy heart, Ccarmelo reported his son missing. He feared he had been kidnapped and murdered by the mafia. He knew only to well how the honoured society worked. After all, he was one of them.
Placido’s remains were subsequently recovered six hundred and forty four days later, on December 14th 1949, from a chasm in the granite mass fronting the slopes of the Rocca, along with pieces of Michelagelo Randisio and Angelo Gullota, and traces of the son of Mateo Capra, the son of Angelo Gullotta and bits and pieces of many more. Victims of the Mafia, left to rot in their own special burial place.
They sent Pio La Torre to replace Rizzotto. Another young, idealistic believer in defending the rights of the poor and oppressed. The Mafia waited thirty-four years to kill him, but in the end, in 1982, they did.
Although Leggio’s accomplices, Pasquale Criscione and Vincenzo Collura junior, the son of a recently repatriated American hoodlum, who had been closely connected to mobsters in New York, subsequently confessed to the murder, implicating him in the crime, he was never convicted, his case being heard by three different judges over the next thirteen years, who all acquitted him.
The tip-off on the abduction and killing came from an informant, Giovanni Pasqua, (the same man who had been with Leggio when he killed Calogero Comaianni,) interred in the Uciardone Prison in Palermo. He passed on to the prison governor that Criscione and Collura were linked into the kidnapping and in turn, they confessed when arrested and taken to a carabinieri barracks outside Corleone.
In the court of appeals, held in 1959, Leggio’s lawyers, Dino Canzoneri, Girolano Bellavista, Tommaso Romano and Giovanni Ruvolo, successfully argued that the confessions of Criscione and Collura in the murder of Placido Rizzotto had been obtained by the use of police brutality at the Bisaquino carabinieri barracks, on December 4th 1949, and were therefore, inadmissible. Accordingly their client Leggio, could not be part of any disclosure made under duress. He was never convicted for his part in the murder of the union activist.
Navarra was arrested on April 13th 1948, (following a front page disclosure in the newspaper L’Unita that the young boy had died in mysterious circumstances,) for his involvement in the death of the boy, Leitizia, but not convicted.
On the recommendation of the carabinieri officer in charge of Corleone, Colonel Alfredo Angrisani, he was sent into compulsory internal exile in Gioiosa Ionica, (Reggio Calabria), for five years. However, thanks to his contacts with friendly politicians and men in power, in particular Angelo Vicari, soon to be head of the Palermo police, he returned to Corleone in 1949. In Calabria, forming one of the first partnerships between the Sicilian Mafia and mainland organized crime, he established close relationships with charismatic 'Ndrangheta boss Antonio Macrì who headed up his own ‘ndrine, or family mob clan, in Siderno.
The killing of Rizzotto had been ordered by the doctor, who had a biological thread linking him into the first killing of a union activist in Corleone, that of Bernardino Verro, who was gunned down in the town in 1915.
Verro’s place in the history of the Sicilian Mafia is guaranteed on two counts:
He had actually joined the Corleone branch of the Fratuzzi, the precursor to the Mafia, and worked with them against the reforms being instigated by people such as himself, before experiencing his own personal epiphany and then breaking off his connection, and when he was killed, the authorities found in his home, notebooks and diaries that were filled with information about the illegal organization, including what may well be the first ever account of an initiation ceremony, very similar to what we understand happens in the Mafia of to-day.
Twelve years after his killing, on August 13th 1927, the Civil and Criminal Court of Palermo in its proceedings against Santo Termini and Vito Todaro, well-known Mafiosi in western Sicily stated in its findings:
There is a vast criminal organization commonly known as ‘maffia’ seeking enrichment of its members by any means that are successful. To impose itself on the hard-working people, to exploit and keep them in a state of awe and terror.
One of Verro’s killers was believed to be Angelo Gagliano, Navarra’s uncle, although he and ten other men suspected in the plot to murder the labour unionist, were never convicted of the murder, which came as no surprise to the long-suffering inhabitants of a town that featured violent death as the special on its menu of daily despair.
Gagliano’s time came in 1930 when he himself was gunned down in the never-ending struggle for domination in the Corleone underworld.
Vincenzo Collura senior, the father of the man involved in the killing of Placido Rizzotto, had fled Corleone following the fascist ‘cleansing’ of the Mafia on the island in the 1920s.
Benito Mussolin became Italy’s 40th prime minister in 1922. He appointed Cesare Mori as Prefect of Palermo, charging him with the eradication of the Mafia in Sicily. Over 11000 people were arrested between November 1925 and June 1929, and a countless number died in mysterious circumstances or simply disappeared while in police custody. Like a witch hunt that belonged in the Middle Ages, or a return of the Holy Inquisition of Spain, that had terrorized Sicily from 1601 until 1782, anyone remotely connected into anyone who may have been involved with the Mafia was fair game. Mori was like a cyclone sweeping across the Mafia landscape of Sicily, sucking up everything in his path.
He had been present at Mussolini’s visit in 1924 to Piana dei Greci, when the mayor and local Mafia boss, Ciccio Cuccia, dismissed the need for police protection as he would ‘personally guarantee Il Duce’s safety,’ implying he was more powerful than the head of government, called his attack on the Mafia, ‘Plan Attila,’ and proceeded with wild abandon to implement whatever he seemed to think was necessary to his strategy. As many Mafia killings took place by men shooting from behind walls, he ordered that all walls on the island be reduce to three feet or less within twenty-four hours. He decreed that all stabbing or cutting weapons be barred, but allowed herdsmen to keep on carrying their short-handled axe. What followed of course, was an epidemic of murders caused by this type of weapon!
People would refer to Mori who became known as ‘The Iron Prefect,’ as ‘the man with hair on his heart.’ His name actually translated literally into English as ‘die.’ He went to Bisaquino, south of Corleone, the fiefdom of the famous Mafia don, Vito Cascioferro, and gathering the people into the square, declared, no doubt with tongue in cheek:
‘My name is Mori and delinquency must disappear or I shall have people killed. If Sicilians are afraid of the Mafia, I'll show them I'm the meanest Mafioso of them all
Working in partnership with Luigi Giampietro, the Prosecutor General of Palermo, who tried and convicted many notable Mafia figures, such as Vito Cascioferro and Calogero Vizzini, according to author Salvatore Lupo, amidst terrorist excesses, the conviction of innocent defendants and political persecutions, they met and soundly beat the Mafia.
As Norman Lewis remarks, however, in his inestimable account of the Mafia, ‘The Honoured Society,’ the effect of the Mori repression could only be temporary, as at best is scythed the heads off a crop of weeds when what was needed was a change in the soil and climate that produced the crop.
Mori harvested well though, in one particular town.
At dawn on December 20th 1926, a massive combined force of state police and carabinieri swept into Corleone to round up the known Mafiosi and their associates in the town. A list of 150 names, turned up only half, the rest having been forewarned, escaping into the mountains of Western Sicily, or finding their way out of Sicily either to the mainland, or to America. In all, during the Mori purge of Sicily, as many as 800 Mafioso created their own Diaspora of despair into New York and other major cities in the United States.
The huge law enforcement roundup collected the suspects, and in chains, the men were led through the streets of the town like shackled animals, and gathered at an open area called Piano de Borgo north of the Via Bentivegna where they were loaded onto trucks and dispatched to the huge Ucciardone prison in Palermo, which became known as ‘Villa Mori’ as it filled up with his prisoners.
In the years ahead it would develop another appellation: ‘The Mafia University,’ as it filled with mobsters, old and young, novices and battle-scarred vets who passed on their knowledge and experience to the tyros, helping them mature their skills and develop the skin of deceit and treachery needed for a successful career in the biggest industry on the island.
One of these shackled and humiliated men, chained and sent to prison for 4 years and seven days was Carmelo Rizzotto.
The man in charge of the arrest exercise was Corleone police chief, Ansalone Liborio.
Sicilians have long memories, and in a country where vendetta is almost part of the island’s DNA, Liborio must have surely realized he was living on borrowed time. It ended for him on September 13th 1945. Collecting a bag of groceries, he was crossing Piazza Nace on the way to his apartment in the Institute Canzoneri, when three rifle shots echoed across the square and he fell dead onto the cobbled street, next to the fountain.
Although no arrests were made ion connection with his murder, there was no way anyone would kill a top police officer in the town without the approval of the local Mafia don-Michele Navarra. The god doctor often jokingly commented that these kinds of deaths were caused by a ‘kick from a mule.’
Following a government decree created on November 5th 1932, which was in fact an amnesty, fifty-six of the Mafiosi who had fled the purge of Prefect Mori, returned to the Corleone area. These included dominant characters like Salvatore Pennino, Pietro Mairui and Salavtore Gennaro, who quickly re-established themselves back into the fabric of the Mafia tapestry of the town.
There were still years of conflict and confusion ahead, but according to Francesco Spano, who had been a young commissario under Cesare Mori, in his memoir, ‘Faccia a faccia con la Mafia,’ a meeting was held in September 1945 at the Tasca estate of Lucio Tosca Bordanoro, the mayor of Palermo, near Villalba, the seat of Mafia don, Calogero Vizzini, at which, ‘the ancient society of the Mafia, in which all the cosche of Sicily were represented, was duly reorganized,’ following the upheaval caused by World War Two.
Vincenzo Collura had settled in New York, where he became a close associate of Mafia boss Giuseppe Profaci (to the point that he became a godfather to one of his children,) and other New York Mafiosi, in one instance, officiating as best-man at the wedding of Frank Coppola. He was deported back to Sicily in 1936 setting his sights on taking over the leadership of the Corleone cosca, but it was not to be.
Although he was apparently recommended and endorsed for this post by an Italian-American gangster who was perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of his time-Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, a man himself to be deported from America back to his birth country-Sicily- in February 1946, and he was the nephew of the incumbent boss Lo Bue, Navarra perhaps had a strong ally in the form of a man called Angelo Di Carlo. (For more on this, check out Lucky's Luck
Born in Corleone in 1891 and a Mafioso, (as a young butcher, he had been a suspect in the killing of Bernardino Verro in 1915) he was one of the many who had fled Mori’s purge, sometime in 1925 or 1926 when he arrived in New York at the age of thirty-five. He had lived in America for almost twenty years. A tall man, with brown eyes and a heavy build, he ran a travel agency with his brother, Galogero, in New York. The FBN targeted him as a drug trafficker, among other things, using the business as a front. It’s interesting to speculate that Di Carlo may have been instrumental in helping Dr. Navarra’s campaign to take over the Corleone cosca.
AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories) commander Charles Poletti, was encouraged to recommend the re-placing of mayors into towns and villages as an urgent measure following the allied force’s occupation of Sicily. Many of these were also Mafioso. In fact, 90% of the 352 newly appointed mayors were either Mafioso or people linked into the Separatist movement which was inextricably allied to the Mafia.
While AMGOT was busy helping re-establish the Mafia, wittingly or otherwise, the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) had recognized the dangers inherent in this. Captain W.E. Scotton, early in 1944, produced a report on the Mafia presence in Sicily warning of ‘the signs of Mafia resurgence and its perils for social order and economic progress.’
The OSS had allied with the Mafia as part of the invasion strategy of the Allies in their assault on Sicily, and the agency kept close to them in order to check the growth of the Italian Communist Party on the island. There was also the very real danger that the Sicilian Separatist Movement, led by Finocchiaro Aprile, in alliance with the Mafia, would use the turbulent times to try to free itself from Italian hegemony.
Di Carlo was allegedly a captain in the US Marines who was assisting in this re-establishment exercise, and would have obviously supported Dr. Navarra who was in fact his cousin. It would have been a short step from backing a mayor to backing a new boss of the other side of Corleone. There is, however, doubt that Di Carlo was even in Sicily, as he was deported back to Italy sometime after 1947.
Until his death twenty years later, at the age of seventy-six, he seems to have kept a relatively low profile. At one time he was involved in the management of the Palermo Racecourse at Park Favorita, and had some connection into Leggio’s activities on his estate near Corleone. He was warned by the courts in 1964 for conspiracy and meeting with ‘delinquents’ including Leggio, but nothing seems to have come of this.
Antonino Sorci, known as Ninnu u Riccu, ‘Nino the Wealthy,’ from all the profits he made as a drug dealer, may well have been, along with his brother Pietro, the instigator of the ‘Mafia war’ which ravaged the centre of the city of Palermo for two years in 1956-57 as the mob struggled to control the Mercati Generali, or general produce markets, resulting in dozens of deaths. He was the personal assistant and representative of Charles Luciano, in Palermo, and confirmed at a Mafia hearing that Angelo Di Carlo was definitely a ‘man of honour.’
Following his ascension to Mafia family boss of Corleone, as a concession, Navarra granted Collura control over what was known as ‘The Lower Area’ while maintaining one of his closest confidants, Antonio Governalli as head of ‘The Upper Area.’
These areas referred to ‘The Stacks of Corleone’ the two huge limestone crags that dominate the town-Castello Soprano and Castello Sottano-that were formerly guard castles linking the walls of the medieval city.
Governalli was backed by Giovani Trombadore, and Collura by Angelo Vintaloro and Antonino and Giovani Majuri, all men loyal to the doctor. He recognized Collura for what he was-a threat and a danger to his position as the boss of the town. From the day he arrived, Collura was a stone in the shoe of Michele Navarra.
Fourteen years later, he would sort it.
Michelangelo Gennaro had been the capo of Corleone’s Mafia until his death in 1924. Born in 1864, he was, like so many of his peers across western Sicily, an estate manager. In 1920, he created the Corleone Agricultural Club, ostensibly where like-minded farm managers could meet and discuss business. It was in fact a social club for the local mob until Cesare Mori closed it down on December 17th 1926.
When Gennaro died, his place was taken by Angelo Gagliano, (another suspect in the murder of Verro,) who in turn was followed by another doctor of medicine, Marcellino Benenti, who fled Corleone in 1930 to avoid arrest by the carabinieri, and he himself, was replaced by 41 year old Calogero Lo Bue, who had been capo of the Mafia cosca in Prizzi before taking over Corleone.
Before Gennaro there were others of course. When Danilo Dolci the famous author and reformist visited the town in the late 1940s, he was told of some of these. There were Mariano Coletti, and Vincenzo Crisciune, and before him, Cici Figattlu, and before him Piddu Uccedduzzu and then before him Mariano Cuddella.
Giuseppe Battaglia had been a boss as far back as the late 19th century and before, having been born in1846. There had been capos of criminal groups, and bandits and then the Mafia, or as it was called the Fratuzzi, ‘Little Brothers,’ as long as memory recalled.
Gagliano’s sister was Navarra’s mother, so the doctor’s pedigree helped ensure that he stepped into the job when it became vacant. His promotion was endorsed by possibly the three most powerful Mafiosi on the island-Calogero Vizzini, Genco Russo and the fearsome Vanni Sacco, boss of Camporeale who had the mayor of his town, Pasquale Almerico, shot so full of holes that when they lifted up his body, the bullets fell out like coffee beans spilling out of a bag. One hundred and eleven in all.
Antonino Calderone, the pentiti from Catania, claimed Biaggio Carnevali alias ‘Funcidda’ was really the head of the Corleone family and that Navarra was simply a rising star in conflict with this meteor called Leggio. It may well have been the truth.
Lampedusa in his book, describes the instability of truth in Sicily: ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily: a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, annihilated by imagination and self-interest: shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves on the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.’
That, and the other thing certain about Cosa Nostra, was and is, its uncertainty for its members.
Luciano Leggio went quietly about building up his own crew within the family, and developing his Abigeato sideline.
At some time in his late teens, he had joined up with the notorious cattle rustlers, the Barbacia family. They came from Godrano, a small village on the other side of the Rocca Busambra to the east of Corleone. They had been carrying on a vendetta with the Lorello family, also rustlers since 1918. Over sixty men would die before the feud died out itself with the shotgun murder in 1959 of ten year old Antonino Pecoraro, the last male on the Lorello side who would have been forced to carry on the grudge, had he survived.
In 1944, shortly after Leggio became part of the gang, Francesco Barbacia, ‘lu zu Cicciu’ the head of the clan, disappeared and Leggio became the leader. He was only nineteen, and already known throughout the town and surrounding countryside as a sanguinoso, a bloodthirsty youth, already showing a glimpse of his violent and psychopathic nature.
By his early twenties, he had amassed enough money to buy a farm of his own, a place on the vast hinterland of Corleone-Piana della Scalla-a sprawling estate lying in the shadow of the Roca Busambra mountain. His rise from peasant to power force and enforcer in the Mafia had been spectacular to say the least, most of it riding on the reputation he built up as a ruthless killer. In his early days, in the gang he was forming, his closest aides were Giovanni Ruffino, Giacomo Riina, and Calogero Bagarella.
Giacomo Riina was the oldest member of the gang. Related by marriage to Leggio (through one of his sisters) and Toto Riina’s uncle, he was bon in 1908. Leggio and Giacomo Riina had been arrested in 1942 for cigarette smuggling. He had been one of the forty or so Mafiosi identified by the police sergeant in the Mafia Corleone list of 1945. Many Italian investigative reporters believed he was the brains behind the ‘new Mafia’ that emerged following the events of 1958. He was for many years, closely connected to Eminflex, the largest mattress manufacturers in Italy, and it was thought he used their billions of turnover as a conduit to launder mob cash. Law enforcement had investigated him in connection with drug smuggling, illegal arms dealing through Croatia, counterfeit currency trading, and a hijacking and a bank robbery ring involving Vincenzo Pozio, Salvatore D’Angelo, Antonio DeLuca and Angelo Pavone.
It was thought by police agencies that Riina headed up the ‘Northern Branch’ i.e.
the area of Milan and northern Italy, of the Corleonesi faction within the Sicilian Mafia.
Italian journalist Christian Lovatelli Ravarino claimed Riina was unfathomable and among other things, perhaps the most evil Mafioso whoever lived, which is saying something! Ravarino was the only journalist to interview Giacomo Riina (right), and he recorded it on video in a restaurant in Budrio, near Bolgna in Northern Italy, where the old man was living out his time in exile.
Driven by a desire to expand the parameters of his life outside the confines of a small, bucolic town like Corleone, Leggio moved into new rackets-slot machines, transport and trucking and cigarette smuggling-while maintaining a grip on the extortion and other traditional activities that were the backbone of the Mafia. He strong-armed his way into the grain and wheat markets, collecting up to 20% of every sale made in the province, and eventually cornered the market on pinball machines in the province of Palermo, running thousands of them, cranking out maybe as much as a billion lire a year from this venture alone, the equivalent of US $1.5 million, a huge amount for those days. Police Commissioner Angelo Mangano claimed Leggio simply ‘gushed money.’
His standing in the claustrophobic town of Corleone was so fearsome that on one occasion when he visited a barbershop for a shave, removing his dark sunglasses, the barber took one look at his almond-shaped eyes and fainted in fear. A story perhaps apocryphal, and recalled by journalist Marco Nese in his book Nel Segno della Mafia.
Years later, called to give evidence against Leggio, the hairdresser, sclerotic, trembling uncontrollably, shrieked in fear:
Nienti sacciu, ‘I don’t know a thing.’
Leggio would stroll around the main square, the sun reflecting off his moon-shaped face with its thick, sensuous smirking lips, strutting his arrogant disdain for the carabinieri troops patrolling the town (below), who would watch him cautiously, as they nervously fingered their automatic rifles. Everyone knew that among the so-called men of honour, violence is the tool of power.
As far back as 1886, Giuseppe Algoni, in the first ever essay on the Mafia, his study:
La Mafia nei suoi fattori e nelle sue manifestazioni, wrote:
The Mafioso dresses shabbily, adopts a demeanour of naïve, foolishly attentive geniality, patiently suffering insults and injuries, but at night, he shoots you.
Following the disappearance of Rizzotto, and the furore it created, Leggio made himself invisible, a phenomenon that he would create many times in the years to come. His ability to disappear almost at will, resulted in the media creating a special myth about a man they began to call La Primula Rossa, the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ of Corleone. While he was absent from the town, his cousins, Francesco and Leoluca Leggio, managed his affairs.
He moved to Palermo and took up residence- under the personal care of Doctor Gaetano LaMantia, who surprisingly was a gynaecologist - as ‘Senore Gaspare Centineo’-at the Ospizio Marino, a private nursing home near the waterfront at Aquasanta, Here, he was waited on hand and foot by Dr. Marino an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Pizillo a radiologist and nurses Millj Plaja and Maria Aiello . This was a place he routinely used in the years to come to have medical treatment for his various ailments, and lie low from the bothersome police.
He travelled between Palermo and Corleone organizing his business interests, and early in 1955 he was the driving force behind another murder in the small town up in the hills.
Late in the evening of February 5th 1955, Guido Lambertina found a body, about 50 metres from the mouth of the newly built road tunnel on State Highway 118 south of Corleone. The face of the corpse had been smashed in with a heavy object and then shot numerous times, a classic sign of Mafia revenge.
By the time the police arrived there was no traces of evidence that would lead to the killers. The man was identified as Claudio Splendido, and he had been killed sometime between 4:30 pm and 8:30 pm when the body was discovered.
He was employed by the contractors developing the highway, as a night-watchman and guard.
His wife, Lucia Mannina and his five sons could offer no reason as to why he had been murdered.
Two men, Antonino Addamo and Michelangelo Lo Bue were arrested and questioned by the police. They had been involved in thefts from the construction site in October 1954 and Splendido had reported them to the police as potential suspects. The investigation dragged on, and the men were eventually released.
At the end of August 1955, magistrates investigating the killing of Splendido concluded death by assailants unknown, and the case, like so many before it, was shelved.
On November 1st 1966, Angelo Mangano, director of the Regional Police, based in Palermo, received a tip-off from the wife of Luciano Raia, who was in prison for criminal association and extortion, that her husband had information for him on the killing of Splendido.
Raia claimed that when he was in prison in Palermo in September 1963, he had heard a conversation between Vincenzo Riina and another prisoner. They were talking about the killing of Splendido.
Leggio and his gradigghia, or gang of at least twenty men, would meet on land near the construction site Splendido guarded, and Leggio, concerned that the night-watchman had overheard incriminating conversations, and based on his previous co-operation with the local police over the thefts in 1954, ordered that he be killed.
Rassettarsi la testa-Mafia slang for keeping quiet-was all important if the brotherhood were to manage its business without interruption. Men like Claudio Splendido were a constant threat and had to be removed. To Leggio, killing someone made no more impression than killing a goat.
Although he was indicted for this murder fourteen years later, Leggio would wriggle free as he did on almost every homicide indictment he faced, except one.
His success in avoiding prison lay in the prerogative of Italian courts to find a defendant neither guilty or innocent, rather acquit him for insufficient evidence. Based on the Scottish law of ‘Not Proven’ which dates back to 1728, in Italy it was finally abolished under a new judicial code in 1988. It was not too difficult for people like Leggio to render the evidence as insufficient by simply having witnesses removed. He was also helped by the lack of law enforcement interest or urgency in dealing with the phenomena of the Mafia.
The courts of Palermo were staffed by judiciary who were in turn, fearful, cautious, anxious and lazy. There was also so many of them that investigations and trials turned into legal swamps. There were more judges and court bureaucrats in Italy than full-time firemen!
The level of corruption that existed within the system was also legendary. Gaspare Pisciotta, Salvatore Giuliano’s chief aid, at his trial at the Court of Assizes at Viterbo had shouted from the dock:
‘We are all one thing: bandits, Mafia and police, as the father, the son and the holy spirit.
The anti-Mafia Commission, appointed for the first time in 1963, often blamed the ‘repressive apparatus’ by accusing its members of negligence, superficiality, incompetence and lack of training. In a report of 1976, which analysed the failure of the Palermo chief of police to gather information about a Mafia summit, the anti-Mafia Commission wrote that:
'the complete lack of useful information is the consequence of the police forces' tendency to minimise the phenomenon of the Mafia. However’
- the Commission carried on - ‘the fact that nobody had any interest in thoroughly investigating an issue which, at first sight, ought to have stirred into action the dullest policemen of Palermo, is incredible and cannot be justified even by the most indulgent and understanding observer.’
Luciano Raia was a soldier in the Corleone cosca, and the first acknowledged post-war informant in the history of the Sicilian Mafia. I Primo Pentito, the first penitent. He was subsequently judged insane, and sequestered in hospitals and asylums, before being released. Giving evidence at the trial of the 114, in Catanzaro in 1969, defence lawyers claimed his evidence was unreliable on the grounds that he was a homosexual. Following the trial, he fled Sicily and moved to Piedmont.
The only publicised informants in the Sicilian Mafia that preceded Raia in the 20th century, were Vincenzo Di Carlo, the boss of Raffadali in Agrigento, identified by the carabinieri in 1963 as a collaboratore di giustizia, Dr. Melchiore Allegra, who had made a long and detailed confession to the carabinieri in 1937, although it did not come to light until it was published by the Sicilian newspaper, L’Ora, in 1962, and Giuseppe Gassisi who had testified against Don Vito Cascioferro in 1929.
Pentimento had of course existed as long as the Mafia itself. Men of honour had always talked to the law, when it suited their purpose. They regularly accused each other of being spies, or tragediatori-truth-tellers. Leonard Vitale, another informant who testified in the 1970s, killed a member of his cosca who was spreading rumours that Vitale’s uncle (whom he revered) was a police informer.
In the sense that it came to be known in the late 20th century, it was about repentance or conversion, which encompassed regret, remorse and a recognition of guilt. These standards were supposed to be met by informants against the Mafia. In practice however, the prosecutors just wanted enough solid facts to help them get the bad guys and put them away.
The Mafia doctor of Corleone watched Leggio grown in stature, making alliances with powerful men outside the town, and keeping close to one in the town who had been a thorn in Navarra’s side for fourteen years. One day the doctor would fix that particular problem.
On the dark, cold evening of February 24th 1957, a police officer, Nicolo Maggio, returning home from his shift, heard gun shots, and found Vincenzo Collura senior lying on the road outside number 8 Via Sant Agostino, a narrow, cobbled lane, not far from the main town square. Although still breathing, he died soon after. The autopsy indicated he had been shot three times, by three different weapons. His brother claimed he had been killed by the brothers Giovanni and Innocenzo Ferrara, who had followed Collura down the street from the square. He made his statement to the police in Campofiorito, a small, rural town, ten miles south of Corleone, as he claimed Mafiosi were always watching the police station in Corleone to see who was dealing with the law. However, like so many people had done in the past when called to give evidence, he retracted his statement and no one was indicted or charged with Collura’s murder.
He was the last of three men Doctor Navarra wanted removed permanently from the landscape. Men who were close to and important to Leggio. The others were Nicola D’Allesandro, boss of Aquasanta, in Palermo, and Nino Cottone who ruled Villabate like a feudal lord. They had backed and supported Leggio in his disputes with the doctor, and traded with him on deals involving stolen cattle and hijacked commoditise. D’Allesandro went down in 1955 during a dispute involving the relocation of the citrus fruit produce market from Ziza to Aquasanta, and Cottone was bowled over by two men wielding machine guns as he arrived at his summer villa in 1956. Collura made it a trifecta and Dr. Navarra must have been feeling very comfortable as the year came to a close.
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