By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
- Revelations 6:4. New International Version.
Historians referring to the second Mafia War in Sicily believe it to have been triggered by an event. But if so, which one? Being the Mafia, it involves violent death, treachery, and an abundance of confusion. ***
Various narratives point in different directions:
The killing of Francesco Madonia, head of the clan of Vallelunga Pratameno, in the province of Caltanissetta, in March 1978, is the first of three mob bosses who will fall in a year. A close associate of Salvatore Riina, boss of Corleone, Madonia, dies at the hand of another Mafia boss, Di Cristina. Revenge for this murder may have been the trigger.
Giuseppe Calderone, the boss of the Catania Mafia, goes down to the bullet later in the same year, in September. Sources have suggested his death as the opening salvo. His position as boss is being contested by one of his men, who is close to Riina.
Giuseppe Di Cristina (right), the capobastone of the Riesa Family, in Caltanissetta, who had murdered Madonia with the help of a Catania gunman called Salvatore Pillera, is himself gunned down in May 1979, on a busy Palermo street, during the morning rush hour. One of the shooters is the brother-in-law to Riina and killing him on the turf of a major Mafia boss, Salvatore Inzerillo, shows a high level of disrespect and contempt. Maybe this was the event?
In Sicily, they call happenings like this, tragedia: a drama about unfortunate events with a sad outcome.
Riina, a savagery cunning manipulator, had suggested to Mafia chiefs that Cristina was the killer of Calderone, then after murdering Di, Christina, tried to lay the blame with the boss of the district where the murder occurred, Inzerillo, who is a close ally of Stefano Bontate, another major boss on the south side of Palermo, with a family name that is confusingly referred to as Bontà or Bontate and again, Bontade.
Di Christina, like the others to die, is a danger to Riina’s (right) plans because of his links with powerful Mafia families in Palermo, who are the ultimate targets in Riina’s grand scheme to transform the world's most notorious criminal organization into his own fiefdom, or something close. The short, squat, unimposing peasant from the hills of central Palermo Province was patching together a quilt of many devious shades.
Merging his allies in other cosche (families) across the island into a cooperative that will become known as The Corleonesi, ready to attack the Parlamitans and destroy the Mafia old order, replacing it with a version that will generate more death and destruction than ever seen since the criminal organization emerged as a known entity in the middle of the 19th century.
Each of these acts could have been the first step in Riina’s orchestration, except perhaps it was another murder that was the catalyst. Mafia killings send signals as well as remove enemies.
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This had occurred in August 1977 with the assassination of a recently retired colonel in the carabinieri, the Italian military police, a man called Giuseppe Russo. He and a friend are shot dead one warm evening while walking in the Ficuzza Forest near Corleone. The killers were Riina, his brother-in-law, Leoluca Bagarella, and a young assassin called Giovanni Brusca from another nearby Mafia clan in San Giuseppe Jato. Three of the most merciless killers in the Mafia they murdered scores of victims over a period of almost twenty years. Killing a senior police officer, even one on the retirement list, shows something serious is in the wind.
Riina believed that Colonel Russo was or had been working with Bontate, the boss of the clan based in Villagrazia, at this time, numerically, the biggest Mafia family in Sicily. If the Corleone boss is going after Palermo and its allies, the Villagrazia mob is a logical starting place.
And so, we arrive at the last direction in a search for the starting point in this conflict that will kill hundreds over the next few years. One of the great known unknowns of the war is the story of Fra Giacinto.
Men of or associated with the Catholic Church have been connected to the Mafia for generations.
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In the 1950s, the Mazzarino Friars, members of the Capuchin Order, with alleged links to the Mafia, terrorized the small town in Caltanissetta as a powerful crime covenant.
Salvatore Riina, while on the run from the law, marries in 1974, in a Palermo church, officiated by Agostino Coppola, a cousin of notorious Frank “Three Fingers” Coppola, a Mafioso of long heritage in America and Italy.
Father Cusamano, the parish priest of Cinisi, had hidden a Mafia fugitive, Nino Badalamenti, in his sacristy for seven months.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, there is Father Azzara the parish priest of Partanna, a major industrial area of Palermo, close to Salvatore La Barbera, uncle of Angelo, one of the most infamous Mafiosi of his generation, a general in “the sack of Palermo” when corrupt politicians and Mafiosi turned one of Europe's most enchanting cities into a concrete jungle.
In a wiretap, in the early 2000s, the Mafia boss of Brancaccio, Giuseppe Guttadauro, a medical doctor on intimate terms with the governor of Sicily, talks with a friend about his priest-confessor, explaining the priest said being part of the Mafia is a sin, to which the boss replied, “The sin of ‘Mafia’ doesn’t exist. Where is it written in the Bible? You need to find an intelligent priest who understands these things.”
Fra Giacinto (Brother Hyacinth) was clearly one of these priests.
Stefano Castronovo is born in Favara, a town in the Province of Agrigento, in the south of Sicily.
Sources claim either 1919 or 1916 as his year of birth. By the early 1950s, having become a member of the ancient Franciscan Order, he has moved to Palermo, and there, in due course, is part of the religious order of the church of Santa Maria di Gesu, constructed in the 15th Century.
Photo: Church of Santa Maria di Gesu.
A sprawling complex of buildings and graveyards scattered across the lower hills of Mount Grifone, in the south-east of Palermo, it is the religious heart of the district, located just off Via Falsomiele. In 1980, it is also home to a crooked brother of the church, who will officially practice as Fra Hyacinth and unofficially as Fra Lupara, which is the cut-back shotgun carried by shepherds in rural Sicily to guard their sheep against wolves, animal and the other kinds; and also a weapon of choice favoured by Mafiosi killers.
Many rumors will circulate about him in the years to come. He is a womaniser, who loves to party. A money-lender, who travels the night streets of the city, meeting with ambiguous shadows who are his debt collectors. A man who gains a reputation for sheltering fugitives and arranging body disposals for his Mafia friends, using secluded areas of the church’s cemetery. He has links into the right people, the politicians and law-makers, and businessmen who run a city lodged in an island state brimming with so much corruption it would leave Shylock breathless. He travels extensively, within Italy and abroad, something unheard of in someone of his rank within the friar's brotherhood,
He is also close to the Mafia clan which controls this area across to Villagrazia, and north to Guadagna, the biggest and most significant bunch of criminals on the south side of Palermo. His connecting point here is the boss of the family, Francesco Paolo Bontate, who had assumed the mantle on the death of his father, Stefano. As in many Mafia clans, very much a family affair. All Mafioso are created equal, but as in every endeavour, some are more equal than others.
His dealings with men of the Mafia include Luciano Leggio, the fearsome Corleone killer who on the run, is being tracked by Angelo Mangano, a senior officer in the state police who had been sent to Sicily to capture him. His investigations lead him to the convent and Fra Giacinto in 1964 following an underworld tip that the mobster was in hiding, although a search revealed nothing. Mangano would capture Leggio in the most unlikely of places, his home town, Corleone, later in the same year.
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Castronovo is tall, handsome, a commanding, athletic figure with a mane of silver hair. Some compared him to a movie star rather than a pious monk. Although his attitude to the others in his order is one of superiority and indifference, he is sleek and charming, a gracious host, a kindly father-figure to the peasants who line up for his benedictions. A good chum to the mob killers who haunt the outskirts of a city, rapidly losing its touch with God.
Sometime between eight and eight-thirty on the morning of September 6, 1980, two men arrived at the convent and asked to see Fra Giacinto. Someone directed them to his rooms on the first floor. One was thirty-ish, short, stocky, black hair, dark skin. The other a man in his forties, same description. Probably fit close to a million men in Sicily. Both men wearing identical colored linen suits, probably to confuse witnesses.
They went up to his floor, knocked on the door and when he opened it, they shot him dead. Two in the body, then two in the head. The make-it-certain ones. Revolvers, so no loose shell casing to leave behind. They simply left and vanished into Palermo’s teaming masses.
Police investigators discover that the murdered man occupies the entire first floor of apartments, while the rest of the brothers fill the second floor with their monastic cells. He has a bedroom with closets stocked with the latest civilian clothing, a modern bathroom, a living area, stocked with the latest-model television set, and a fully stocked bar with only the best and most expensive brands, along with cigars and French perfumes, and rooms to use as consulting spaces for his flock, and especially his closest friends in politics and the Mafia. Police wondered if he used his chambers for secret meetings with the heads of various Mafia families. In a drawer, they find two loaded handguns, the thing every Franciscan brother carries in his satchel. He also used a pellet rifle to shoot at birds, a somewhat singular detail of behavior for a Franciscan monk.
And that was that. The cops rummaged about, presumably carrying out some kind of investigation, but the murder of Fra Giacinto became a case so cold it morphed into frigid. Antonino Cassarà, lead detective on the Palermo Flying Squad, tries his best, but gets nowhere.
Castronovo’s life and death become a cipher written in a cryptic code and no one knows the key. Even the pentiti ignored him. Of the hundreds of Mafiosi and associates who will turn into government informants, no one even mentions his name.
Rumours spread after his death that he was a police informant, paid by them to drop tips on villains and thieves, but never Mafiosi. His being, like the fogs that descend sporadically on the church, emerges then dissolves, more a whisper than an image. If there are truths in hell and lies in paradise, his violent end will only serve to create more confusion.
Stefano Castronovo, the mysterious brother, shotgun or flower, depending on how much he meant to others in the convent, had more than his fair share of power for a lowly religious mendicant, but whether he bathed in the glory of his chosen order, is hard to estimate. A period filled with grim and grief for the people of Sicily will follow his murder. Years of lead they would remember, especially in Palermo, bodies falling like winter leaves in a storm of almost biblical proportion.
The church farewells the brother in a ceremony led by Fra Timothy, head of the order, at the cathedral in Palermo, and they buried his remains in the cemetery of Santa Maria di Gisu. He will share this consecrated ground, one of the oldest cemeteries in the city, with some famous and infamous people:
Nino Agostino and his wife. The police officer and Ida Castellucci shot dead by a Mafia assassin.
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Paolo Borsellino and three of his bodyguards, victims of the infamous Via D Amelio massacre.
Emanuele Notarbartolo, one of the Mafia’s earlier victims, murdered by Mafia killers in 1893..
And one of the most unusual to occupy a graveyard here, American citizen Joseph Regan O’Dell, buried with full ceremony by the Palermo council in July 1997, after his execution for the murder of a woman in Virginia, in 1985.
Was the murder of Fra Giacinto payback for being a police informant, or had de done one shady deal too many? Maybe it was a warning to Palermo’s Mafia from the peasants up in the hills.
Samurai swords don’t have a blood gutter that makes a tiny hush when the weapon moves. Their blade has to make no sound in its arc of death. If the assassin is sneaking up from behind, the first the victim knows of his death is when the head hits the floor.
The Corleonesi are the Samurai swords of the Mafia war that was soon to begin, silent, deadly and, above all, really good at disposing of their enemies.
Buddhists say it’s hard to know the difference between how things appear and what they are.
It all begins making sense on the evening of April 23, 1981, when they murder Stefano Bontate (right), (who had taken over the family from his father Paolo, in the early 1970s,) late at night as his car stops at a traffic light. He's just celebrated his birthday, and his travelling to his baglio, a farm in Magliocco. The victim of a double, double-cross, betrayed by his brother, Giovanni, and his right-hand man, Pietro Lo Iacono, he is the first major player to fall from Palermo, and will be followed in May by Salvatore Inzerillo, Kalashnikoved to death by Riina’s fire-team, leaving the home of his mistress.
In Palermo’s Mafia, they call it puliziata di perdi, washing the feet, a symbolism perhaps borrowed from the Masonic Order, very much an act of power and glory, the cleansing before the killing.
A month before the killing of Bontate, the boss of Casteldaccia, Giuseppe Panno disappears, a white shotgun, as they say, in the mob. These events herald the opening act in a production that will run for the next twenty-plus years.
In the Mafia, power is based on the capacity to either create or utilize violence. In this strange and disturbing world, the men most worthy of respect by members are often the most vicious as well as the most shrewd. Salvatore Riina is all of this and more as he moves his pieces in the great Mafia war.
Doctor Michele Navarra, the capo Mafia of Corleone until his murder in 1958, was once heard remarking, “Only a saint, a mother and a man of honor are capable of acting disinterestedly.”
Whether it was a police officer, a mob boss, or a Franciscan monk, those men who died, perhaps had in the strange and convoluted way of Cosa Nostra, allowed Salvatore Riina to remove “the pebbles” in his shoe.
He was ready to wash his feet.
*** Most sources claim The First Mafia War erupted in June 1963, although there had been a period in the mid-1950s which could also have been seen as a war between mob families, this one over the control of the fruit and vegetable market of Palermo.
L’Unita: April 16, 1993.
L ‘Espresso: April 15, 1980.
Le Monde: September 10, 1980.
trrpa://avocedinerwyork.com April23, 2021.
Dino, Allesandro: La Mafia devoto. Palermo: Processione a Collesano. 1993.
https://newyorker.com: The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia. Alexander Stille. June 24, 2004.
L Únita: L’anno che uccisero Padre lupara. Salverio Lodato April 16, 1993.
La Repubblica: July 24, 1997.
Bolzoni, Attlio, White Shotgun. Milan: RCS Libri. 2008.
Sterling Claire, The Mafia. London: Hamish Hamilton. 1990.
Stille, Alexander, Excellent Cadavers. London: Jonathan Cape. 1995.
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