Vanni Sacco: The Mafia and the Politics of Power

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

Camporeale is a mediocre town in a landscape filled with the emptiness of broken dreams. It lies twenty-two miles to the south and west of the city of Palermo.

On the island of Sicily, a place of endless despair on the edge of Italy, that makes you angry, in silence but never in peace, it’s a way-station en route to destination nowhere.

Tomasi di Lampedusa, perhaps Sicily’s most famous author, described a setting that typifies the scene:

“Boundless countryside of feudal Sicily: desolate, without a breath of air, oppressed by the leaden sun.”

In the 1950s, about 8000 people lived in Camporeale, their daily existence controlled and governed by poverty and a devil’s triangle of church, state and the Mafia.

Less than one percent of the population, this criminal cancer were the worst of the worst and terrorized the town and surrounding countryside as they had for generations.

12393115090?profile=RESIZE_180x180Giovanni Sacco (right) better known as Don Vanni, led the clan, Although an elderly man in his eighties, he is dangerous, menacing and above all, terrifying. A true pezzo da Novanta, a mighty boss. Always around, showing himself as the lord and master he is. Presence is power for a Mafia leader.

The adjective-terrify-means causing great fear or dread, according to Oxford Languages, the world’s leading dictionary publisher. Almost every reference, calls Sacco terrifying, and yet, compared to other Mafia leaders before and after him, how bad was he?

This man who is described as “being dry as an anchovy, with his black Coppola (cap) and dark clothing to match his feelings, taciturn, and sordid as a grudge.”

How did he compare to Michele Navarra, the medical doctor, Mafioso, and boss, who killed or had killed countless people and controlled almost everything that touched the lives of those who lived in the town of Corleone?

Calogero Vizzini, one of the most influential and legendary Mafia bosses of Sicily after World War II until his death in Villalba, Caltanissetta, in 1954.

His successor, Giuseppe Genco Russo.

The mysterious Ernesto Marasà of Boccadifalco.

Salvatore Riina, Bernardo Provenzano and Leoluca Bagarella, three of the worst ever killer kings to emerge from the slums of Corleone. The mad dogs that controlled some of the most fearsome families in the city of Palermo: Men like Michele Cavataio and Filippo Marchese, and the brothers, Giuseppe and Filippo Graviano.

Nitto Santapaolo, the ferocious boss of Catania province.

Giovanni Brusca, of San Giuseppe Jato, known as” The Christian Killer”, who murdered so many, he lost count of the bodies left in his wake.

And of course, Vito Cascioferro, who did not become the Sun King of the Mafia without creating death and destruction as he carved his own path into criminal history.

Vanni Sacco goes down in the history books because of his alleged involvement in the killing of two trade unionists, one in 1948 and the other, nine years later. Whatever other evils he perpetuated, these two murders are his trademark, forever protecting his intellectual property, defining his place in Mafia biographies.

The Mafia boss builds his power on a system of relationships with business leaders, administrators, entrepreneurs, important institutional figures, and above all, politicians. A Mafia boss could not chair public tenders or influence civil institutions. They needed others to help them lever the wealth they sought. One way to this end was the control or direction of politicians.

Letizia Battaglia, who spent almost her whole working life photographing and recording the images of the Mafia, said:

“The Mafia are prisoners of rules, prisoners of false myths, of pagan gods that are money, naturally, but also certain rules within society. And politics has legitimized these principles, making them their own. Before, the Mafia supported the politicians to manage the contracts, to have protection. Then the Mafiosi didn't trust them any more, and they became politicians themselves.”

Salvatore Riina, perhaps the most powerful Mafia figure in the last forty years, did this, almost as an art.

Sacco, who may have taken control of the Camporeale mafia family following the purge by Cesare Mori* knew a thing or two about politics, both national and at mob level.

12393115655?profile=RESIZE_180x180Bernardo Mattarella (right) had an excellent relationship with the Mafia.

Problem was, he was the undersecretary to the Minister of Transport in the Christian Democrat Party which had ruled Italy since 1946. Born in Castellammare del Golfo in the Province of Trapani, he became an elected deputy in the party for this western area of Palermo.

A lawyer by profession, he was, according to government informant Francesco Di Carlo, the ex boss of Altofonto, not only close to gli amici, as the Mafia referred to itself, but one of them, made into the family of Castellammare del Golfo. His wife Maria Buccellato came from a family imbedded into the mob, for centuries in the province of Trapani.

Di Carlo had visited them at their home on Via Segesta off Piazza Virgilio in Palermo City in the early 1960s, and membered it well. The Anti-Mafia Commission considered Di Carlo one of the more reliable pentito, a repentant offering intelligence on the Sicilian underworld in return for perhaps a lighter sentence, or better conditions, while serving a prison term.

12393115098?profile=RESIZE_180x180In the years following the end of the war, there was chaos of the highest order across the north and west of Sicily. A lot of it because of Salvatore Giuliano (right).** One problem involved transportation.

In August 1947, a group of men gathered at the Campo Cafe on Piazza 4 Novembre in Alcamo, 20 kilometers to the north-west of Camporeale.

Mattarella, the politician and a bunch of Mafia bosses including, Peppino Cottone, the local capo, although now retired and living in Palermo City, his right hand-man, Vincenzo Rimi, Vanni Sacco, Domenico Albano the boss of Borgetto, and a bunch of other mob chiefs from the region, that included Plaja and Magaddino and Buccellato, Muna, Vitale, Mancini, Bonventre, the Gallo brothers and Stefano Leale.

All of them dangerous criminals with long-playing records, who would lie like Persian carpets without blinking an eye. The one who wasn’t there was Santo Fleres, boss of Partinico.

They were there to sort out the trouble involving Giuliano, who came under the protection of Fleres.

They were a powerful, ambitious group. Rimi, along with Salvatore Zizzo, boss of Salemi, would become the undisputed rulers of the Mafia in Trapani province.

However, Vanni Sacco was primus inter paras with no doubt. The first among equals.

Segesta Transport Company of Alcamo ran a bus service between the town and Partinico en route to Palermo. The bandit and his gang were preventing its journeys and making passengers return without completing their destination. It was creating not only an inconvenience for the public, but costing the bus company dearly. They called in Mattarella, who naturally sought the help of his contacts within the Mafia to resolve the problem.

The morning following the meeting, a bus left the town, its passengers, the politician and a threatening of Mafia chiefs. It travelled without a problem to its destination and from that day on the road was open forever. Here was a classic example of Mafia and politics working together to solve an issue and creating beneficial results.

A year later, another problem was to be solved, but this one came loaded with terror and grief.

It was April Fools’ Day, but it was no joke.

12393115484?profile=RESIZE_180x180On the first day of the fourth month of 1948, Calogero Cangelosi (left) would breathe his last breath, late at night on a dark and miserable street. He was 41 years old when he died. A Sicilian trade unionist and politician, Secretary of the Chamber of Labor and the local Socialist Party, he dedicated his life to justice, working on behalf of peasants reduced to poverty and exploited by the large estates, most often owned by absent landowners.

Don Serafino Sciortino, a lorsignori, master of his fiefdom, owned one of the largest and the man he called on for help was Vanni Sacco. He was the gabello (manager) of the Parrino fiefdom (estate) of 3200 hectares on the banks of the Belice River, then in Trapani until the borders changed and it became part of Palermo Province in January, 1956. Because of the influential political trading by Sacco and his contacts in the big city.

Sacco, who was the most prominent Mafia leader in the interior of western Sicily, generated his early wealth from his control and manipulation of the estate’s taxes.

Cangelosi was a share-cropper on Sciortino’s estate and caused problems with his demand that the local landowner meet his legal obligations in terms of wealth sharing.

Fausto Gullo, the Italian minister of agriculture, had issued a series of decrees from July 1944 that attempted to shift the balance of class forces in the Southern countryside. The decrees issued by Gullo encouraged peasants to form co-operatives and take over poorly cultivated land. Agrarian contracts were to be reformed so that the peasants’ share of the crop would be at least 50%. The CGIL–Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro—the second largest trade union in Europe—was pushing for new laws that would regulate and improve the terms of labor hiring.

Sciortino having first tried to bribe Cangelosi with a free one-way trip to America for him and his family, which failed, then having him kidnapped on March 28 by Sacco and his men, a plan that went wrong when the unionist was rescued by a pack of farm laborers armed with shotguns, the outcome was almost inevitable.

There had been a labor meeting that day, and afterwards, everyone gathered in the main square. After ten in the evening, Cangelosi decided to return to his home on Via Perosi, about 500 meters north of the square, all uphill. Because of his conflict with Sacco, four friends, member of his union, decide to accompany him on his journey and the group left the office of The Chamber of Labor which was on the square. Waiting at the house was his wife, Francesca Serafino, and their four children. For the rest of her life, she will keep the tie her husband was wearing this night, infused with bullet holes, and stained, forever, with his blood.

Their primary route was up Via Minghetti, and as they reached its junctions with Perosi, a group of killers waiting in the shadows ambushed the men. Two of the union men, Vito Di Salvo and 18-year-old Vincenzo Liotta, are injured. Two somehow survive the hail of bullets raining down on them, but Cangelosi receives multiple hits in the head and body, resulting in instant death.

Investigators have never established how the killers knew when and where Cangelosi would be. Forty-four years before mobile phones became available, the only logical solution is that someone was tracking his movements that night, and was quick to get between the target and the shooters.

They never bring anyone to trial. The town knows who the killers are, but finding evidence and proving guilt is, as almost always the case in Mafia murders, an elusive dream.

A month before the murder of Calogero Cangelosi, another young, determined union organizer met his death at the hands of Mafia killers in the small town of Corleone. Placido Rizzotto is perhaps the most famous martyr in the troubled history of Sicilian labor relations that were a constant source of irritation and frustration for Mafia clans across the island. His kidnapping and then murder by Luciano Leggio, a piciotti, or young thug making his bones in the local Mafia clan, was a message from the evil side of town that there was only one master in Corleone, and he was Dr. Navarra.

Standing in the flow of history without being flattened by it, Vanni Sacco networked his Mafia connections across Sicily, developing friendships not only with political allies but with other mob bosses. He was close to Michele Navarra. They were, in fact, related. Both men had a common interest in preventing the construction of the proposed Belice River dam.

Controlling the distribution of water was one of the rural Mafia’s principal source of revenue and they guarded it fiercely. Leggio’s determination to profit through control of construction and transportation requirements partly triggered the war in Corleone between warring factions of Navarra’s clan because of the strong desire of Navarra to prevent the development of the project. They completed the dam's construction in 1968, ten years after the good doctor died in a hailstorm of lead on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere. The killing of Navarra also, according to some sources, ended the pactum sceleris between the State and the Mafia.***

Sacco was also tight with Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo, two of the most powerful Mafiosi in the pre and post-war years. A Parliamentary investigation in 1971 called Russo, “a bloody criminal capable of any atrocity.”

Although the two men headed clans in small towns, Villalba and Mussomeli, in the province of Caltanissetta, their power and strength came from the way they controlled their political connections at provincial, state and national level.

12393115491?profile=RESIZE_180x180In 1957, Vanni Sacco knew just how important this was, so he killed another socialist trade unionist, Pasquale Almerico, whose story is linked to Maria Saladino (left), a young woman from Camporeale. Despite her father being a part of the Mafia, Maria Saladino fights against them all her adult life. Her father would walk away from the criminal underworld at thirty, and although legend tells us, no one does that and lives, he would die, peacefully, at the age of ninety-seven.

Maria, born in 1920, would claim that she grew up in a town where the streets were stained red with blood and someone committed a murder almost every day. She would become a teacher at the local school, where Almerico also taught children who were often so hungry they cried. She became a Mother Teresa of the town, although not so much healing bodies as souls. The poor had to stay that way and were always in debt to the Mafia. Control of territory and everyone in it is a basic Mafia doctrine.

Almerico was 43 years old when he died. Born and raised in the town, he became a schoolteacher, elected mayor of the town for three years and then, secretary in 1950, of the local branch of the Christian Democratic Party. (CD.) It was this position that lead to his death at the hands of a man who was his cousin.

12393155654?profile=RESIZE_180x180Sometime early in 1955, Vanni Sacco switched his allegiance from the Liberal Party to the Christian Democrats. He approached Almerico (right), requesting membership, claiming he could bring with him 300 members, all almost certainly either in, or associated with Mafia clans across Palermo and Trapani provinces. He was denied membership and from that point on, Almerico was the traditional dead man walking. There are threats, accusations, political machinations at state level as the CD Party in Sicily, under provincial secretary, Giovanni Gioia, struggles to justify using Mafia votes to maintain its power in Rome. In his last months, he likely felt isolated and must have become aware of impending danger.

Sacco ordered no one should speak to Almerico, not even a look or a nod of the head. The Mafiosi spread lies and slander. They said: “Almerico is against honorable people because he is mad; he is crazy because he carries in his blood, from birth, something that makes you crazy; they heard him swear, they saw him get angry and hit his head against the wall of the town hall.”

It’s an orchestrated campaign to discredit an honourable man. The thing the Mafia does with their eyes shut. The enemy at the gate was waiting for Almerico. It would not be long.

On March 2, someone ambushed and shot his uncle in Camporeale. Pasquale confides to a friend, Brigadier Berlingieri of the local carabinieri unit, the instigators and perpetrators are Vanni Sacco, his son, and also Benedetto and Calogero Misuraca, a family long embedded in Sacco’s mob. In fact, two brothers, Gaspare and Vincenzo Scardino, are arrested and held on bail awaiting charges for this attempted murder.

Almerico attended the Circolo Italiano social club on the evening of March 25. After watching television coverage of the signing of the Treaty of The European Common Market, he and his brother Liborio are walking home towards Via Minghetti (the same street that had featured in the killing of Calogero Cangelosi nine years before,) when someone guns them down in the town square. Conflicting reports suggest multiple killers and the number of bullets fired into Almerico.

Accounts range from 2 killers, on foot, to five on horseback. The number of machine-gun bullets hitting Almerico is 52, 104, 111, 114 or 140. The one thing that is constant is that one killer, then shot the bullet-riddled body seven times, with a pistol. Somehow, he clings to life for minutes, at least.

When the medical examiner conducted an autopsy on his body the next day in the post-mortem room at the town cemetery, bullets fell out of the body like beads off a broken rosary.

Maria Saladino remembers Almerico: “Pasquale and I were colleagues. I also taught like him, and I loved him very much. I respected him, we got along well, we often worked together. The most extraordinary thing about him was the incredible love he had for children and schoolchildren. In addition to being mayor of Camporeale, he was also president of the ECA, a welfare body, and finally he personally took care of the school meals."

“That evening I met him on the street, kind as always, but almost overcome by a strange anxiety. I knew what was happening to him and I didn't dare ask him any questions. I went to a friend's house.

At seven in the evening, we heard an endless series of shots. At that time, as there was no telephone, shooting in the air was used to call for help as quickly as possible in cases of danger, let's say a fire or the collapse of a house, or any other type of disaster. For this reason we immediately thought of a fire. Then suddenly the light went out throughout the town and we remained in the typical helplessness of the sudden darkness for a few minutes.

Suddenly someone began to knock violently on the door and a voice shouted that they had killed Professor Almerico. I rushed onto the street screaming in terror...

I ran towards the corner of the square. They had already loaded Pasqualino into a car because they wanted to take him to the hospital in Palermo. No one yet understood that that poor body had been wounded by hundreds of bullets, that his life was irreparably destroyed by hundreds of wounds. I managed to stick my head in the window: he was very pale and had blood all over him. Pasqualino, I told him, pray with me: My Jesus, mercy, my Jesus, mercy. I heard him repeat those words. Then he said nothing more. I grabbed his hand, he probably died at that moment. They took him away."

The attack seriously wounded Liborio Almerico. One of many stray bullets kill Nino Pollaci, a tractor driver walking by. A 17-year-old boy, a young girl of 4 and a 58-year-old man are injured in the hail of lead that fills the street like frenzied bees.

The law decided Vanni Sacco had orchestrated the killing of Pasquale Almerico. The law arrested him and held him in Ucciardone Prison in Palermo. Eventually, authorities sent him into exile for five years to Veneto in Northern Italy. His health deteriorated and his doctors had him transferred to Filiciuzza Hospital, in Palermo, often referred to as “The Grande Hotel” by the mobsters who wrangle their way in.

Along with Sacco, authorities took into custody three of his men—Calogero Benedetto, Giovanni Misuraca, and Vincenzo Scardina—and held them on suspicion.

On 21 July 1958, the Court of Appeals in Palermo acquitted Vanni Sacco of all charges because of insufficient evidence. He died in his own bed, at 2 am, in his home in Palermo on April 4, 1960.

Lúnita, a major Italian newspaper, reports, “Vanni Sacco, an old mafia boss, died yesterday in Palermo.”

His family would not be so lucky. The killer king of Corleone, Salvatore Riina, triggered a vendetta that resulted in the murder of two of his sons. He and his Corleonesi will wipe out the leaders of Camporeale’s Mafia and have them replaced by ones they favour.****

Calogero, who had taken over the clan after his father’s death, is the first to go. On July 5, 1983, he and an associate, Vincenzo Amato, visit a building site in the city and disappear. The Mafia call it “white shotgun,” when they make someone vanish. The politics of murder with a corpse present versus murder with nobody to show are as complex as the reasons for the killing.

A year later, almost to the day, it’s the turn of Giovanni, aged 68, the new boss, at least until early on the morning of July 7, as he leaves his home on Via Umberto in Camporeale. He’s greeted by two gunmen who blast him in the head and chest, killing him.

In a state where even the land cried out for justice, it is easy to relate to the words of Bertold Brecht when he said, “Simplicity is very difficult.”

The Mafia, as a criminal entity, was everywhere in Sicily. A simple fact. Why could the government never destroy it? Why does it still exists, decades after these events? Difficult, very difficult. The mafia has across time proven to be polymorphic and entrepreneurial and has sewn itself into and out of different political parties, social classes and economic sectors.

If we look, maybe we see the entire unfolding of history in a story.

Vanni Sacco was one of dozens who spent their lives changing the balance of power in Sicily by terror, Machiavellian cunning and, above all, the manipulation and control of political forces. Like all Mafia chieftains, his strength lay in his ability to manipulate the dynamism that linked statecraft to maintaining social order. As early as 1920, Don Silvestro Gristina, the Mafia boss of Prizzi, was killing union activists like Nicola Along and Giovanni Orcel to maintain the same domination.

Following the murders near the town square in 1957, the Christian Democratic Party will invite Sacco and his acolytes, all 300 of them, to join as members. The city council will rename that same square to commemorate Calogero Cangelosi on April 2, 1998. In the sometimes weird, ironic nature of context displacement that links Mafia events, running south from the square, an artery pumping people and traffic, rather than blood, is a street called Via Sacco.

Sacco, the Mafia boss, understood above all, that a political party or the head of a criminal fraternity cannot live only on ideals, on moral revolutions, on fancy aims, but above all, needs power.

He would get his the easiest way. By killing people.

 

                                                                                     Nothing is Mafia if everything becomes Mafia.

                                                                                                                                 Michele Pantalone.

* Cesare Mori was appointed by Benito Mussolini to destabilise the Mafia in Sicily. Between 1924 and 1929, he conducted mass arrests, besieged entire towns, arrested and took hostages while destroying property and livestock in order to track down criminals. His campaign of terror resulted in the arrests of hundreds of innocent people, along with the guilty. In retrospect, using the operation to eliminate many of his own political opponents, the fascist government simply replaced the Mafia by acting as the new enforcers for the Sicilian landowning class.

When fascism collapsed, following the end of World War II, the Mafia quietly re-emerged from the woodwork and carried on, carrying on.

** Salvatore Giuliano, born and raised in Montelepre, was a Sicilian bandit who, after the war, became an important player in Sicily's guerilla independence movement. Sometimes referred to as Sicily’s Robin Hood, he was dead at 28, allegedly shot by the police, in a courtyard of a house in Castelvetrano, a town ruled by another savage Mafia boss, Francesco Messina Denaro. His son, Matteo, would become one of the most famous wanted Mafiosi of the twenty-first century, on the run for over thirty years, until his capture in Palermo and then death by cancer in 2023.

*** pactum sceleris is the agreement between different powers aimed at committing illegal acts.

**** The conflict between Riina and his Corleone Family and Camporeale begins with the murders of Stefano Loria and Ignazio Mule, whose bullet-riddled bodies are discovered in a burnt-out car on February 1, 1981. It concludes with the removal of the Sacco's Mafia control and the promotion of Biagio Montalbano as the new boss.

Sources:

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Santino, Umberto. Studying Mafias in Sicily. Il Mulino-Rivisteweb. Doi: 10.2383/35872. 2011.

Mafia e Politica tra fascismo e postfascismo. Guistina Manica. 2010.

La Repubblica. Veneto. The Great Mafia Invasion. September 30, 2017. 

https://www.wikiwand.com/it/Vanni_Sacco.

L’Astrolabio. 10 September, 1967.

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New York Times. March 19, 1976.

19luglio1992.com.html 4 January, 2018.

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https://www.isiciliani.it/apertura/13 May, 2023.

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Iazzi-Pickering, Robin. Mafia and Outlaw Stories. Toronto Press. 2008.

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Pantalone, Michele. The Mafia and Politics. London. Chatto & Windus. 1961.

http://www.instoria.it/home/index.htm Before Piersanti. February, 2015.

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https://www.antimafiaduemila.com/19 July, 1992.

Senato delle Repubblica. l’Astrolabio. September 10, 1967. 

Lúnita. July 1, 1973.

https://www.ritaatria.it/chi-siamo/A Sicilian Story.

Marino, Giuseppe Carlo. Historia de la mafia: un poder en las sombras. Ediciones. Barcelona.

https://www.cambridge.org/core. Hands over the City. 16 June, 1992.

 And I Padrini. Newton & Compton. Roma. 2001.

Dolci, Danilo. The Man Who Plays Alone. London, McGibbon & Key. 1968.

I Siciliana. January 1984.

Parliamentary Committee 20 Dec, 1962, N1720 of enquiry on the Mafia phenomenon in Sicily.

Ulisee. April 1969. Il banditisimo in Italia.

Casarrubea, Giuseppe. Secret History of Italy. Milan. Bompiani. 2007.

Zullino, Pietro. Guida Al Misterie e Piacerie di Palermo. Milano. SUGARcoEdizione. 1973.

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Monica, Guistina. Mafia e Policia fra Politica fra Fasicismo e Postfascimo 1924-1948. Mandora, Bari-Roma. 2010.

La Repubblica. The Last Heir. 7 August, 1984.

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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