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Sicilian Mafia travel guide reveals island’s underworld

By David Amoruso

The Sicilian Mafia emerged from the shadows as a criminal powerhouse that would rule the underworld not just in Sicily but in Italy and North America as well. Secrecy allowed them to grow. Now, author Carl Russo is pointing a photo camera at the places that played a role in Cosa Nostra’s shady history. His new book The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide shows readers where bosses lived, killed, and died. “It’s violent, and it’s still very much a fresh wound for the people in Sicily.”

It is the first of its kind. A travel guide that focuses solely on organized crime. Author Carl Russo spent over six years working on this book which contains more than 200 photos, travel tips, and an extensive history of every spot Russo photographed. This guide will show you the dark side of Sicily without ever having to set foot on that rugged island.

“WHAT MAFIA?”

book years in the making. Russo first visited Sicily in 1999. Back then, he didn’t even know the Mafia still existed, he tells Gangsters Inc. “I thought it was an old thing, a Hollywood thing. I happened to be in downtown Palermo, hanging out at a bar. No tourists around. No one to talk to except the two waiters who had nothing else to do because I was the only guy there. Suddenly this young lady sits down. She was quite striking, black hair, black eyes.” The two waiters tell Russo she is the boss’ daughter. At first he thinks they mean she is the daughter of the man who owns the bar, but they quickly emphasize she is the daughter of another type of boss. “Mafia??” he asks. “Si!” the waiter answers.

Russo: “At that point I realized maybe there is something going on here. It wasn’t until I got back to the States and read a few books that I realized the Mafia is quite prevalent across Sicily and it’s very much alive.”

Still, at that point, writing a book about the Mafia had not entered his mind. He came to Sicily for its rich culture and beautiful scenery. “Sicily is different in that you have all these cultural influences throughout the ages. Going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans you’ve got everything you would want to see on a European trip. And I love the beaches too.”

As he read more and more about the Sicilian Mafia and kept up-to-date on recent news stories coming out of Europe his interest peaked. “I realized that some very powerful, behind-the-scenes criminals had a huge effect on recent history,” Russo explains. “Like the American and European heroin epidemic from the 1950s to the 1980s--it was a deliberate Mafia scheme. Or why Italian politics has been so dysfunctional for so long.”

The photo above shows the Baby Luna bar in Palermo. This is where Cosa Nostra boss (and drug lord) Stefano Bontate met with politician Salvo Lima. Behind the bar was a heroin refinery. Photo by Carl Russo ©

MOB BOSS IS CAUGHT AFTER 43 YEARS ON THE RUN: AN IDEA IS BORN

In 2006, while packing his bags for another visit to the Italian island, Russo saw a news story about the arrest of Cosa Nostra boss of bosses Bernardo Provenzano, a man who had been on the run for 43 years. “The godfather was captured. He had been on the run since 1963. Here he was in this little cheese making hut right above the city of Corleone. The notorious Corleone that we know from the book and the movie. And his story was more bizarre because he had all these saints all over the walls. He was this old man, he smiled and it was all very strange. I thought I have to go and see this!”

It would be the start of a journey that would result in The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide. As he arrived in Sicily he began asking people directions to Provenzano’s hut. But that was easier said, even in Italian, than done. “Most Sicilians don’t necessarily want to talk to a stranger about themselves and certainly the Mafia is something they are ashamed of in most cases,” Russo explains. Most of the people he asked were a bit “stand offish.”

After a tip from a barista sent him driving around the Corleone mountains without finding what he was looking for, Russo finally struck gold when the clerk at his hotel gave him directions that worked. “There it was. And the police were still there. At the entrance of this road. So I just drove past them like I was there on business.”

He got out of his car and took some pictures of the spot where Sicily’s most powerful gangster had been holed up. “That - photo above, © Carl Russo - was my first photograph of any Mafia spot,” he says. Hundreds more would follow in what most would view as mixing business with pleasure.

NO VACATION

For Russo, though, it was a bit more complicated. “It’s stressful as hell and a lot of hard work. You spend all of your day driving, being lost, trying to find these places, double parking in Palermo traffic, and trying to get a good shot at a house. Just finding these locations is tough and a lot of them will elude me for years. It will take three trips back just to find something. That’s why I can never really call it a vacation. I started off thinking I could pull this off in a single trip and write it in six months. Well, it took six years.”

In his travel guide Russo focuses on the western side of Sicily. “I found that most of the momentous events in the history of the Sicilian Mafia took place on the western half. There you have Corleone, the Corleonesi taking over Palermo, you have the horrible assassinations, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, one right after the other, political assassinations, the first Mafia war in the early 1960s, the second Mafia war of the 1980s: it all took place there. And even today, it is the most active, with new boss of bosses Matteo Messina Denaro.”

Messina Denaro has a reputation for being both a playboy and a merciless murderer. He is also a billionaire thanks, in part, to his infiltration of legitimate businesses like wind energy parks and supermarkets. During his trips Russo noticed the young Mafia boss had a lot of support. “I was in Trapani, which is I believe the third largest city, around there the people are still close to the Mafia. Messina Denaro has quite a pull on the people of Trapani. He has gotten them jobs and is seen as a beneficent power, he’s been able to pass out jobs to a region that has very high unemployment. If you view media reports from the area you’ll find people from the streets of his hometown Castelvetrano praising him.”

Praise that is misplaced. “Mafia landmarks are found everywhere in beautiful Sicily, an unfortunate byproduct of the island’s tragic history,” says Russo. “By mapping theses strange sites and telling the amazing stories behind them, I hope to remind readers that the Mafia is not a romantic relic of the past. These people are straight up criminals. My original lurid fascination with the Mafia changed into a real sympathy for the people that were killed. You realize there’s nothing honorable, nothing glamorous about it at all. I hope my book dispels a lot of the glamour surrounding the Mafia, because it’s hardcore, it’s violent, and it’s still very much a fresh wound for the people over there.”

KILLERS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN

As he researched the violent history of the Sicilian Mafia Russo found that two stories had a profound impact on him. Stories also that completely destroy the myth of the Mafia being a brotherhood of men of honor. “ These guys will kill women and they will kill children,” Russo says.

Take the story of Giuseppe Di Matteo whose father Santino was a Mafioso who became a “pentito,” a witness against Cosa Nostra. When the Mafia learned of Santino’s betrayal they decided to kidnap young Giuseppe. “Giovanni Brusca, the boss of San Giuseppe Jato, and his henchmen dressed up like policemen and showed up at the horse stables where Giuseppe took his horseback riding lessons. They invited him into their car and they kidnapped him. They sent secret ransom notes to his father saying ‘We will kill this kid if you don’t shut your mouth. And don’t tell the police.’ The police had no idea that his kid was kidnapped. This drags on for two years. Santino for whatever reason kept talking, he would not recant his testimony. They keep moving this kid around. He’s kept in a basement, effectively a dungeon. He’s very weak because he gets no exercise. The kidnappers are in the farmhouse watching the news where they hear the verdict that Giuseppe Brusca, the head kidnapper, was found guilty based on the testimony of this boy’s father. At that point he says ‘Kill the kid.’ And they did. They strangled him. In cold blood. Hearing about young victims like that is the saddest thing.”

ANTIMAFIA

The murders had a huge impact on the people of Sicily. When women and children became victims a line was crossed. With the murder of honest judges, policemen, and journalists the Mafia continued on with its campaign of terror and in doing so caused Sicilians to rise up against them. They had had enough.

This had happened in the past as well. In his book Russo will, for the first time in English, tell the stories of the left wing peasants who occupied the lands that were controlled by the Mafia. “After WWII there were dozens that were killed all throughout the interior. Every village has a tribute to somebody that stood up. These guys were brave. They just took it upon themselves to stand down the death threats and rally the peasants, the farmers, the people that were starving, who could develop the lands that were laying open and unused. Now of course they paid with their lives, but it struck me how fearless they were. They had nobody to back them up.”

Today, backed by the Italian government Sicilians are rising up. Throughout Sicily businesses that have been confiscated from the Mafia have been turned into Antimafia businesses, operations without any Mafia influences. “I stayed at an ‘agriturismo,’ an old farmhouse, it’s the best way to travel in Sicily,” Russo tells fondly. “You get the best food. Beautiful rooms. It’s usually in a stunning location. This one was confiscated from Bernardo Brusca, the old godfather of San Giuseppe Jato. A young couple runs it. The manager is an exquisite chef and his wife serves the food and talks to the guests. I asked her if she had suffered any type of Mafia intimidation. She said, ‘Well, actually yes, when we opened up they cut down the vineyards outside. Somebody killed the vineyards and we just decided to hold strong and continue going.’”

Russo continues, “In downtown Palermo there are a couple of shops which only sell products made from confiscated lands. We’re talking wine, honey, jam, produce. And I asked one lady working in one of the shops right down in the old center of Palermo, ‘What happens? Don’t you get threats?’ And she said, ‘Well you know we’ve been resisting the Mafia for so long that…they just leave us alone. They know it’s not going to do any good.”

Sicily is home to the Mafia and the Antimafia, like Yin and Yang they make up the personality of this island. Russo has done a superb job at describing the history of both parts to offer readers a complete picture.

SICILIAN SCENERY: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The Italian island is home to both gorgeous nature and picturesque scenery (photo above, © Carl Russo) as well as ugly, hostile housing projects. Like the Zona Espansione Nord, or ZEN projects in Palermo. “Very scary,” Russo admits. “When you do a search you see how horrible they are. Decrepit, they’re not even that old, but they have been completely taken over by the Mafia. They found an underground city under these housing projects where they would package drugs. There’s also an underground shooting gallery for target practice. Mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo controlled this area.”

But then there is the beauty. “Going into the interior where you have these hilltop villages laid out in their original Arabic street forms so they’re just a complete maze, a labyrinth. You find a beautiful church right at the top of the hill. Gangi is beautiful, it’s very small, essentially two streets clinging to a mountain overlooking a drop, just beautiful stuff. That’s part of the intrigue and why I think people will be attracted to the book because it does take you to these out of the way places,” Russo adds.

“I also love Corleone,” he continues. “People tend to knock it, but there’s still enough to see. Things related to the Mafia that make it worth the trip. It’s quite a thriving exciting little city. As you approach Corleone there are three roads into town, sort of in a triangle, and it’s right in the middle of these incredible bluffs. These cliffs that look down on it. When you drive into the old town I always fantasized I could have a live webcam on the hood of my car because just driving through these beautiful old streets, very cramped, I have scraped up my rental car trying to get through some of these little streets. You have little old ladies dressed in black: the widows that will be dressed that way all their lives, mourning their husbands. Kids on their scooters racing around, with spiked moussed-up hair, leather jackets, I don’t know who they’re trying to be. The church in Corleone is beautiful. In fact you still have the name plate of the famous old godfather Dr Michele Navarra. The name plate is right there on the pew. It’s amazing. ‘Dott Michele Navarra.’”

In his book Russo focuses on one hundred tales from Cosa Nostra’s 150-year history backing each story up with one or more photographs. Photographs of the homes, hangouts and hideouts of notorious Mafia bosses, including a world-exclusive look at Italian-American mob boss Lucky Luciano’s childhood home.

Russo: “This is a book for people who are interested in finding out the real story of the Mafia and connecting the stories to the actual places where they took place. It will open people’s eyes to what the Mafia is today. The news kept streaming in while writing so it is brand new and up-to-date and the events in the book lead right up to the summer of 2013.”

Carl Russo also runs his own website called Mafia Exposed, where he posts regular updates. Many stories that were unable to be printed in his The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide will be posted there in the coming weeks and months. You can also follow Russo on Twitter.

His book is available at stores near you and online at Amazon.com, click here to buy his book.

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