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Special Report: Mob-murders Cools Off in Italy

Special Report: Mob-murders Cools Off in Italy

And other Historical Stories about the Sicilian Mafia.

By Clarence Walker, Investigative Journalist, Houston Texas.
Posted on October 8, 2007

Is it a myth or reality that mob-related murders are at its lowest decline in Italy's history of organized crime? Italian authorities and prominent research teams has found that mob-related murders throughout Italy declined in recent years due to less internal disputes and rival conflicts between Costa Nostra families and other organized crime groups. Recent statistics showed that Italy’s homicide rate involving organized crime decreased to 121 murders in 2006. Experts point out the fact since the 1990s mob-related murders has steadily cooled off. Example: Authorities say when a comparison is made between the 121 murders in 2006; 143 in 2005, 212 in 2004---with the 340 mob connected murders in 1992, the year Sicily’s Costa Nostra executed a reign of terror by killing political officials and if the numbers are correct the murder rate shows a considerable decline. Italy’s Interior Minister Guliano Amato attributed the lower numbers of body counts to a “Pax Mafioso” whereby the players in the mob game try to score tons of money without getting their hands bloody. “Without a doubt (there is) a “Pax Mafioso,” a change in direction of the Mafia”, Amato says. “The decline of homicides by Costa Nostra was part of a precise strategy”, says anti-Mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso who is based in Rome. “Fewer homicides don’t mean the mob is weaker. It means there are fewer internal disputes.” But a vicious and long-running mob war between two interrelated crime families may well jinx the numbers.

On August 15th, six members of the Strangio-Nirta family were executed outside a popular restaurant in Duisberg Germany by suspected members of the Pelle-Romeo family. Both clans are members of the notorious “Ndrangheta Calabria Mafia. based in San Luca. The murders marked the first time that a mafia syndicate carried out a revenge attack on foreign soil. Police say the men were gunned down outside a popular restaurant called Da Bruno. They were celebrating the 18th birthday of Tommaso Venturi who died enroute to the hospital. Among those shot to death were: (1) restaurant owner Sebastino Strangio, 39, (2) Francesco Giorgi who is the nephew of Strangio. Two brothers: (3)Francesco, 22, and Marco Pergola, 20. (4) Marco Marmo, 25. Police investigation indicated the assassins fired more than 70 shots at the scene---striking the victims also armed with weapons multiple times. Last week investigators arrested several suspects but none has been charged in the slayings.

The murders shocked this west German city but there is another sinister picture. Authorities say the homicides shows the strong presence of the 'Ndrangheta Mafia in Germany. "It is disturbing---first because of the sheer number of the dead", the acting director of Italy's National Anti-Mafia bureau, Carmelo Petralia, told the BBC news media. "We knew that the 'Ndrangheta had deep links to Germany to launder the proceeds of its criminal activities from the prying eyes of Italy's Mafia investigators,” Petralia said. Italian and German newspaper stories has reported that hundreds of the ‘Ndrangheta syndicate from San Luca has emigrated over the years to Germany and Europe where they operate drug trafficking and other lucrative organized crime activities. Luigi de Sena, deputy director of the police in the Calabria region told the Italian news agency ANSA the murders were “an unprecendented settling of scores, particularly because the murders took place in a foreign country for the first time”. Sena added the fact that “the presence of the Calabrian mafia in Germany is very strong, but until now they always kept a low profile, trying not to attract attention”. Police has refused to comment publicly if the restaurant where the victims were murdered has been identified as a secret location for meetings between mob players and a money laundering operation.

San Luca village located in southern Italy was described in 2005 by Italy’s domestic intelligence agency as “the cradle of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. Above the town is the shrine of “Our Lady of Polsi” which is a symbolism of religion. Anti-mafia authorities has secretly documented the presence of ‘Ndrangheta crime bosses who travel from all over the world every September to pay respect to the shrine. Enzo Ciconte, the author of several books on the ‘Ndrangheta mob and a consultant to Italy’s anti-mafia commission is considered an expert on Italy’s organized crime. Referring to the Strangio-Nirta and the Pelle-Romeo family, Ciconte told reporters: “It is the families of San Luca who decides if other families are a part of the ‘Ndrangheta.” Ciconte explains this point: “Let’s say, you wanted to set up a new locale in Britain, Holland or Germany and you don’t get the approval of the ‘Ndrangheta in San Luca, then your gang is not part of the ‘Ndrangheta”.

Blood War

When the six men of the Strangio-Nirta crime family were murdered on August 15th by suspected members of the Pello-Romeo clan---both from the ‘Ndranghetha mob---authorities knew immediately the motive was a spillover feud between the families. According to Mafia investigators the deadly fireworks started in 1991 when the Strangio-Nirta and Pelle-Romeo families had a fight at a carnival in San Luca after both sides hurled eggs and insults at each other. The brutal fight left two men dead and others injured which triggered retaliation acts known throughout Italy as the “vendetta of San Luca”. This vendetta brought on many murders between the warring factions. Over the years since the carnival affair authorities contributed 15 or more murders among the families. After the carnival brawl a string of ‘hit-versus-hit’ murders went down until 2000 when investigators believed the dispute had been resolved. But the tranquility was shattered last year on Christmas eve when Maria Strangio, 33, the wife of boss Giovanni Nirta, was shot to death at her mother’s home in San Luca. Strangio’s father, Antonio, is also among the victims murdered in this bloody drama of vendetta killings. Renato Cortese, chief of Calabria’s flying squad investigated the feuds and said the attacks had been carefully timed. “They like to pick dates with meaning and this happened on the eve of Ascension day, as a follow-up to the Christmas killing of Maria Strangio,” Cortese said.

‘Ndrangheta Rap Sheet

Unlike other powerful Mafia syndicates in Italy---the Costa Nostra of Sicily, the Camorra of Naples, and the United Holy Crown of Puglia---the Ndrangheta operate a loose clan system with unified command. This organization differs from other Italian Mafia syndicates that are organized into families, the ‘Ndrangheta arrange marriages among relatives to bring members into their circle. The name ‘Ndrangheta is steeped in legend. Historians say the tracing of the name derives from the greek word ‘andragathos’ meaning ‘brave man’. Calabrian was an area of Byzantine greek settlement which suggests the organization or its social culture is older than the original Costa Nostra. Depending which numbers are accurate authorities say the circle has up to 100 families who specialize in cocaine and heroin trafficking, money laundering and contract killing. Foreign authorities describe the ‘Ndrangheta mob as the most wealthiest and deadly crime syndicate in organized crime and more powerful than Sicilian Mafia. Recent investigation reports pointed out the fact more than 70 per cent of Calabrian businessmen pay the ‘Ndrangheta mob protection money. The remaining 30 per cent of all businesses and shops are controlled by the mob.

Drug Business

Pietro Grasso, Italy’s anti-Mafia commission said the killings in Duisberg is evidence that the ‘Ndrangheta mob is operating globally. Grasso said it is clear the group has “taken control of the economic power from other crime syndicates involving international drug dealing”. Drug investigators have uncovered evidence to show the ‘Ndrangheta clan controls most of Colombia’s cocaine exports to Europe which flows through the port town of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, southern Italy. “This organization is all over Europe and even has a hand in politics,” Grasso said. He added that “no country in the world” can stop them, until the international banking system becomes less opaque.”. “We can find the drugs and the people, but we cannot track the money. There is no doubt that money is moving to Colombia, so why we can’t see it?” Grasso added: “We have increased the number of our raids and checks enormously, but the strategy is useless. The people who traffic drugs make sure they do not violate the banking laws over the transfer of capital, and they act openly with the help of major financial experts.” Anthony Nicaso, the author of ‘Blood Brothers’, a book about the ‘Ndrangheta, said the group is the only true global Italian crime syndicate. “The ‘Ndrangheta has been very adept at modernizing itself. They use the internet to recycle money from its activities and keeps a monopoly on Colombian cocaine into Europe”. “They have direct links with the Colombians and terrorist organizations. They are also in the UK as well, Nicaso said. A 2004 Italian government report estimated the group earned over $22 billion dollars from the drug trade. “Pressure by law enforcers on Costa Nostra has helped the ‘Ndrangheta expand drug operation and thanks to their tight family structure, there are few turncoats to help police,” said Franceso Forgione, head of Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia commission. Mafia bosses, including those from San Luca clans, have reinvested drug earnings in hotels, restaurants and construction in Germany. Investigator Cortese also told reporters that both the Strangio-Nirta and the Pelle-Romeo families were powerful forces in the ‘Ndrangheta’s drug business which elevated the Calabria mafia to become Europe’s top-level narcotics supplier with the aid of the Colombian drug cartel.

Authorities suspect the ‘Ndrangheta group murdered Francesco Fortugno, vice president of Calabria’s regional government. Fortugno was murdered last year by two masked gunmen in the small town of Locri shortly after he voted in a national primary ballot to choose a leader for the center-left opposition. No arrest has been made.

Sicilian Mafia History

According to historical accounts the so-called mob, "Man Of Honor" or Sicilian Mafia developed either from the 1700s or 1800s eras'. Controversy stems from the creation of Italy's criminal underworld because research by experts have pointed out truth and half-truths mixed with inaccurate and confusing details about the beginning of the Sicilian mob. Overall, one fact stands out. A Rome research group reported years ago that from (1860-1876) the beginning of the real Sicilian mob began after Sicily became part of the nation of Italy after decades of unfettered rule by the country of Naples. Naples was part of the Bourbon Kingdom. Bourbon ruled most of Southern Italy that Sicily was a part of. During turbulent periods between the (two) the Sicilians who lived on islands formed a small group of men who resisted and set out to exact vigilante justice against the oppression imposed by the Kingdom. Sicily's history further show that it wasn't until the Red shirt army led by Giuseppe Garibaldi fought a 'bloody' war with Neapolitano warriors that Sicily won its liberation from Naples and subsequently integrated the country of Italy that gave birth to the Sicilian mob. Despite other questionable versions of the creation of the Italian mob many historians discovered evidence the group did not become a well-structured organization until the late 1800s. The phrase Costa Nostra---"our way"---was used to describe the lifestyle of a Mafioso in Sicily. Secrecy that surrounded Mafia activities in Sicily became known as the "Omerta"---the silence code. The practice of recruiting men into the Mafia by administering the oath and a test of one's ability to carry out mob-related duties also originated from the Sicilian mafia.

Following Garibaldi's legendary defeat over the Bourbon Kingdom group that once ruled the Sicilian island---over 2.4 million Sicilians migrated into Italy's mainland. To win liberation from their conquerors, the Sicilians' epic victory over the Kingdom duplicate stories we often hear today about poverty-stricken people who challenged insurmountable odds to achieve the "American Dream". Unfortunately, what seemed as a dream come true for the Sicilians, the victory over the Bourbon Kingdom soon turned into a nightmare. Relationships between the Sicilians and the Italian government soured. Sicilians who invested profits into the revolutionary battle to claim independence from the Kingdom accused the government of denying access into the political mainstream to have government assist the Sicilians to earn sufficient capital to redevelop the deplorable conditions of the islands where they once lived. Members and close associates of the Italian government fired back. They accused the Sicilian islanders of thievery, dishonesty, including their associations with predatory criminals that threaten to undermine and possibly overthrow the government. Fed up with unfairness and discrimination a group of Sicilians formed their own government called "our way". From the beginning, during the 1800s, the Italian Mafia infiltrated and exploited every business, political groups, and the social and the economic fabric inside of Italy's infrastructure that spreaded across the globe and its power impacted the world. It’s no secret. They are known as the most notorious and widespread of all underworld criminal enterprise. The Italian Mafia, like other organized crime groups, are into traditional crimes such as extortion, running protection rackets, gambling enterprises and takeover of territories where money flow from various activities. In recent years, Italy's Mafia groups has become more sophisticated by diversifying their activities into other areas such as drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, and the bribery of political leaders and judges. Investigators and prominent members of trade associations reported that between 2000-2005--- the Italian Mafia controls one in five businesses in Italy. Members of the association in Milan said the Mafia owned 20% of all businesses with an annual turnover of $133 billions, the equivalent of 15% of GNP. Reports further showed the money made by the Mafia was "enough to pay off public debt with the ball and chain around Europe's ankle". Sergio Billie, the president of Italy's business association, indicated not enough was being done internationally to combat organized crime. A police official said that countries allowing offshore banking is responsible for the growth in OC criminal activities. Milan chief prosecutor Gerardo d'Ambrosion weighed in on the issues. "In order to beat the Mafia, we need the cooperation of businessmen, and they don't always give us concrete facts to act upon".

History of La Costa Nostra (LCN)

As stated earlier, the Sicilian Mafia is the original mafia of all mafia' throughout the world. But it is commonly known as the roots of La Costa Nostra based in Italy is pivotal to Italian organized crime---though LCN has been separate organization for many years. Documented history by journalists and government archives reveals that Giuseppe Esposito was the first known Sicilian Mafia member to immigrate to America. Esposito and six other Sicilians fled to New York after they murdered the chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province and 11 wealthy landowners. Esposito was arrested in New Orleans Louisiana in 1881, extradited to Italy and convicted. New Orleans was also the first city in America involving the murder of a police officer allegedly at the hands of the Mafia. The murder of New Orleans police chief David Hennessey sparked a riot when Sicilian Joseph P. Macheca and other Italian defendants were acquitted of Hennessey murder by a jury. A vigilante group broke into the jail where the Sicilians were being held and killed nine of the men. None of the killers who either hung or shot the Italians were prosecuted. To get the full story read the book Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia written by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca.

The Sicilian Mafia is notorious for brutal assaults on Italian law enforcement officials. In Sicily the word “Excellent Cadaver” is used to distinguish the assassination of prominent government officials from other criminals and ordinary citizens killed by the Mafia. High-ranking victims include police commissioners, mayors, judges, police colonels, generals, and parliament members. On May 23rd 1992, the Sicilian Mafia struck Italian law enforcement with vengeance. Approximately 6:p.m, Italian Magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three police bodyguards were killed by a massive bomb. Falcone was the director of criminal affairs in Rome. The bomb made a crater 30 feet in diameter in the road. Falcone’s murder became known as the Capaci Massacre. Two months later on July 19th the Sicilian mob killed Falcone’s replacement, Judge Paolo Borsellino in Palermo, Sicily. Borsellino and five bodyguards were killed outside the apartment of Borsellino’s mother when a car packed with explosives was detonated by remote control. Both murders of the officials ignited an all-out war between authorities and the Sicilian gangsters. Several mobsters and their associates were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in Italy.

Italian Mafia Groups

(1) 'Ndrangheta: Calabrian Mafia Location: Southern Italy. Known as "The Honored Society", Fibbia or Calabrian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, for many years, toiled in the shadow of the more popular Sicilian Costa Nostra. But not now. The 'Ndrangheta, the word pronounced "en-drang- ay-ta", according to Italian government authorities, is the most richest and powerful organized crime syndicate in Italy and throughout the European country. Informant Calogero Marceno told authorities the 'Ndrangheta Mafia splits into two levels: (1) the "maggiore" which is the senior level and the "minore" is the junior level. These separate positions creates a barrier between low-level common-type crimes and higher-level political and white-collar crimes. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, which is organized into families with a pyramid structure, the 'Ndrangheta clan is based on blood relationship, inter-marriages, or being a godfather. Each group is named after the village where they reside, or after the family leader. With an estimated 10,000 'made' members compared to three-to-four thousands in Costa Nostra, Italian police secret intelligence division concluded years ago there are at least 100 or more clans within the 'Ndrangheta mafia. Recent investigation reports has estimated that the annual income by the ‘Ndrangheta mob has an annual turnover of $35 billion Euro. "We are faced with the most powerful Italian criminal organization that extends its influence from Calabria to the rest of Italy, and into various European countries and across the oceans", says Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu.

(2) Camorra: Neapolitan Mafia: LOCATION: NAPLES, ITALY. The Camorra mafia started as a prison gang in Naples during the mid-1800s. Once the group was released they started their own clan family and continued to grow in power. This group made a fortune in reconstruction after a devastating earthquake ravaged the Campania region in the 1980s. Considered the second largest International organized crime group with over 200 clans and estimated 7000 'made' members. They specialize in cigarette smuggling and take payoffs from other criminal syndicates for any cigarette trafficking through Italy. During the 1970s, the Sicilian mafia intervened with the Camorras' operation. The Sicilians had a plan with the dope game. They wanted the Camorra to convert the cigarette smuggling routes into drug smuggling routes with the assistance of the Sicilians but many of the Camorra leaders refused. This disagreement caused the two families to war against each other. The violence claimed the lives of 400 or more members from both sides. Many of the deaths were the Camorra group. But they rebounded from the losses and continued to control the cigarette trafficking. International organized crime investigators and the FBI in the united states has documented at least 200 Camorra affiliates in the united states. Many immigrated to the USA during the Camorra wars.

(3) Sacra Corona Unita: Location: Apulia, Italy Like the Camorra, the Sacra Corona Unita (SCU) started as a prison gang and once the members were released they settled in the Puglia region and eventually linked their operations into other Mafia networks. According to intelligence units the Corona has approximately 50 clans with approximately 2000 members. SCU leader Giuseppe Rogoli instituted a pyramid structure for the organization: Soldiers were known as a "camorristi" which was at the bottom; and an "sgarristi" was known as an enforcer. Other levels of membership are: (1) Santisti (2) Evangelisti (3) Trequartino. Informant Cosimo Capodeci said the SCU used "the Crown (Corona) because it resembled a crown, which reflects the rosary typically used in church to carry out the work of Jesus Christ and the cross. Capodeci further indicated the word United (Unita), was used because of its necessity to be "connected to one another". (As quoted in The Global Mafia Report). Investigations by foreign government agencies reported the SCU had links to the Colombian drug cartels, other Italian crime syndicates, including the Russians and Asian organized crime organizations. Based on intelligence reports published in American and Foreign media outlets the SCU were the key players in the mass smuggling of thousands of Albanian women and young girls into Italy for prostitution. They are even referred to as "modern-day slave traders" due to their role in illegal human trafficking. Their activity involves cigarette smuggling, drugs, firearms, and human trafficking. Mixed into their operation is the payoffs from other criminal groups for landing rights on the southeast coast of Italy. This territory is a designated route for smuggling to and from post-Communist countries like Croatia, Yugoslavia, and Albania. Although the FBI haven't identified too many Sacro Corona mafiosos in USA but there are some links in Illinois, Florida and New York.

(4) Stidda: The Star: Location: Sicily Italy Mafiosos Giuseppe Benvento and Salvatore Calafato, both from the province of Palmi di Montechiaro, gave the organization its name La Stidda (Sicilian star). Over the years, the Stidda has extended its influence into Italy's mainland provinces such as Milano, Genova and Torino. Members are called stiddari in the Caltanissetta province and stiddaroli in Agrigento province. sStidda members identify each other by a tattoo of five greenish marks arranged in a circle, forming a star called "I punti della malavita" or "the points of the criminal life". When the Costa Nostra waged war against other factions in the 1970s for control of the southern and eastern parts of Italy the feud brought the Corleonesi clan and it's ruthless leaders Luciano Leggio, Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano into power---which caused a severe disruption inside the traditional power base of Costa Nostra. The continuing chaos within the families left the Stidda clan to try to balance the main power base of Costa Nostra such as those loyal to slain Capo Giuseppe DiCristina who defected from the ranks due to the bloodthirsty reign of the Corleonesi clan. From 1978 to 1980, former Corleonesi leader Capo Toto Riina fought against the Stidda and other Cosa Nostra members that left over 500 men in Costa Nostra and at least 1000 La Stidda members dead, including Stidda Capos Calogero Lauria and and Vincenzo Spina. When authorities captured Toto Riina in 1993 and a few other gangsters loyal to Riina the Stidda has gained superior status, influence and credibility among other criminal organizations in Italy. The Stidda is sometimes called the "Fifth Mafia".

New Generation

Sicilian Mafioso Bernardo Provenzano was captured last year after 43 years on the run and lingering questions persisted: Who would replace him? And whether or not if more bloodshed from different mobs factions in Italy would take place to choose a suitable leader to control the Sicilian Mafia. "There are a generation of 50-somethings ready to carry on", says Antoino Ingroia, a leading anti-Mafia magistrate in Sicily, told reporters at a press conference where news of Provenzano arrest was announced. Investigators say there are two people qualified to replace Provenzano-----Salvatore Lo Piccolo and Matteo Messina Denaro. They, too, like their master Provenzano, have been fugitives for decades----Lo Piccolo since 1983, Messino Denaro since 1993. Lo Piccolo, a boss from the Mafia's Resuttana district in Palermo, is 64, and considered "old school". Authorities reported he'd been closest to Provenzano as an ally. Messina Denaro, from the grim western Sicilian province city of Castelvetrano, is now 47. He is known as the 'playboy boss' because he loves fast cars, pretty women, and gold watches. Whether a war breaks out or not depends on what investigators call "the internal equilibrium" of the Mafia. Asked if he feared a clan war, Piero Grasso, the national anti-Mafia prosecutor, told reporters: "I am Sicilian. I will do everything in my power to avoid it. But soon, the vacuum left by Provenzano arrest will be filled". Over the past 13 years that Provenzano controled the Mafia, investigators said he forged a "kinder, gentler style", to give the Mafia a lower profile to take the police spotlight off organized crime. Ingroid added, "In an organization like the Mafia, a boss has to be one step above the others---otherwise it all falls apart". As stated earlier, the last Mafia wars in Sicily took place in the 1980s when Toto "the beast" Riina, Provenzano, Leoluca Bagarella and Luciano Liggio destroyed hundreds of mob enemies. At the cemetery in San Luca, the grave of Maria Strangio, the victim killed by mafia ambush in December 2006, her tombstone shows the photograph of a beautiful woman with lush, dark hair wearing pendant earrings. The inscription reads: “Your beautiful youth was shattered when everyone was smiling at you. Death carried you far away. It separated you from loved ones who repeat your name silently every hour.” “God help us,” an unidentified man said during interview with a reporter. He makes his living watching over the cemetery where the dead sleep. “We hope for peace. But this is a land forgotten by God and man alike”. Only time will tell if the mob-related murders in Italy cools off or heats up again. Lets wait and see.

Any comments: Contact Journalist Clarence Walker at Cwalker261@excite.com or Mafia101@myway.com

References and sources used for this story: (1) Italy crime news (2) Mafia-news.com (3) FBI government records (4) Reuters wire service (5) Guardian newspaper (6) Global Mafia Reports. (Germany News media services)

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Comment by Fabio Mazzara on January 18, 2017 at 5:57am

Excellently composed and informative.

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