By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Down a narrow alleyway off the Via Alloro, in The Kalsa District of Palermo City, is a building that was once a convent. Built in 1601, it now houses the state archives, over a million documents, files, manuscripts, papers that tell the history of Sicily over the last five hundred years. In among this mountain of historical resources, is a red-leather binder containing a report filled with densely packed information about a government campaign against the Mafia, that remained lost and forgotten to the public domain for seventy years. A story of a place and a time that seems far away and yet has been repeating itself, generation after generation, like an endless metronome.
The report covers the investigation of 175 suspects, during the period 1933 to 1938, accused of conspiracy to commit crimes. It runs to 179 pages, and refers to over 200 attachments which are filed individually by case, and as yet, not examined, or at least published.
This is what the report shows:
In the mid to late 1930s, the Italian government went to war against the Mafia for the second time in a decade.
In September 1926, the Italian Chamber of Deputies introduces a bill for the suppression of the Mafia in Sicily. A career law enforcement officer and politician, the government appoints Cesare Mori, as prefect (the states representative in a province,) first to Trapani and then Palermo, supervising a massive campaign to arrest, charge and imprison known offenders. The operation receives a lot of media attention, in Italy and worldwide. Many of the guilty and a lot of the innocent go to prison, some exiled on islands off the coast of Sicily. Guilty or innocent, they all go into the same legal wood-chipper. Figures vary from 11,000 to 30,000. A number escape to Europe and the Americas in particular where they re-establish links with former Mafiosi who have already migrated during the great Italian diaspora and set up their own criminal families across the country.
Benito Mussolini had been the boss of Italy since 1922, creating the Fascist Party to support his political aspirations. It’s generally accepted that the attitude of a Sicilian mayor offended the Italian prime minister when he visited a small town called Pianna die Greci in May 1924 to inaugurate the opening of a new water-drainage system for the town and surrounding area. Water is one of the most precious assets on an island subject to extreme summer weather patterns. Whoever controls the water exercises power on a considerable scale, something a Mafia boss would understand only too well, which is why so many of them did.
The story goes that the mayor, Don Francesco Cuccia, also the local Mafia boss, chided Mussolini about all his bodyguards, inferring that as long as the prime minister was in his circle, his safety was a given. Mussolini, a dictator in the making, knew another one when he saw it, and thought enough is enough. However, the Mafia was on Mussolini’s radar as a vexation long before his visit to Sicily, and the confrontation with the mayor was simply confirmation of a problem that needed the fix.
The first war against the Mafia was over by 1929, and that seemed that. Antonino Calderone, a Mafioso from Catania, claimed he was told as a child, “The music changed under Mussolini (right). The Mafia had a hard life.” In fact, not that bad. Many of the sentences handed down were for five or fewer years, and from the beginning of the 1930s, men were returning from prison or exile and re-building their crime family structures across Sicily.
The music would change again, one more time.
Although Mori “stripped and pruned the Mafia tree, its roots remained intact.” One significant driver for this was that it had imbedded many of its members in professional occupations, high social classes and political positions at both provincial and state level. Hiding behind opera masks of polished men, they assured society the worst of the criminal past was over, while quietly rebuilding the Mafia’s structure, ensuring its weakness became its strength while surreptitiously undermining the state. In the Mafia land of Sicily of the 1930s, you cannot see the boundaries, but those that needed them knew exactly where they lay. This lasagna of criminal conspiracy comprises layers of complicity and devious forces at work, creating dynamic paradigms of control, just as they had for generations past.
Giovanni Falcone, the famous magistrate killed by the Mafia in 1992, claimed, “There is always a new Mafia ready to supplant the old one.”
By 1933, it was either in place, or nearly there.
The state knew it had the problem of the Mafia and its control over law and order looming again on that island in the sun, but seemed to lack the urge to face it. As it had re-emerged from the Mori purge, it had become more dangerous, aligning with powerful forces in big business and politics.
However, in September, Italy created a special task force to investigate and report on criminal activity in twelve designated areas across Sicily, each reporting to a Palermo headquarters agency. The force comprises forty-eight officers, leading investigators from the Public Security police and the Carabinieri, the Italian Military Police, formed in 1814 by King Emmanuel of Sardinia. Officers of the State police and the Palermo Squadra Mobile (Flying Squad) created in 1931 were also engaged in some investigations.
This time, there will be little or no media publicity, at least generated locally. There would be too much embarrassment for Mussolini and his fascists to admit their campaign had failed to wipe out the enemy, first time around. As one writer claimed, “The Mori Operation turns out to be the most elaborate lie in the history of organized crime.”
The New York Times, however, on November 20, 1937, headlined, “A Surge in Violence,” noting there had been eighty arrests in Sicily following police activity.
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The combined force, The Royal Inspectorate for Public Security for Sicily, will carry out operations in Sicily for almost four years, although a lot of its effort will concentrate in the Palermo Province, which historically has been home to the most concentration of Mafia clans. In charge of the enterprise will be Giuseppe Gueli (right), a police inspector general, appointed by Italy’s Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini, assisted by carabinieri Colonel Alessio De Lellis.
Gueli, a Sicilian, was a senior police officer who had served under Cesare Mori during the campaign against the Mafia in the 1920s, and he aimed his first campaign shots in the north-west of Sicily, in the Province of Trapani.
An area least-affected by the Mori purge, it was a dangerous region, plagued by stock-rustling, extortion, organized thieving and violent bandits. By 1924, Trapani was averaging 700 homicides a year. Then there was the Mafia!
Criminal groups controlled wide swathes of the rural districts, with intimidation extending into urban areas, resulting in the murder of Domenico Perricone on Jan 30, 1929. The mayor of Vita, a small mountain town near Salemi, he had run afoul of the local Mafia Boss, Salvatore Zizzo, with a predictable outcome.
As The Inspectorate slowly covers the island, they develop intelligence on the structure, activities and dynamics of the Mafia clans they investigate. The task force, in some ways, a precursor to today’s Ant-Mafia Directorate, the DIA, can operate with freedom across territorial boundaries, employing tactics not seen before in criminal investigations.
Sometimes, it is hard going and they are not averse to the odd bit of torture when trying to extract information from particularly stubborn prisoners. In 1938, a lawyer claims The Inspectorate responsible for the killing of his nephew, one Giuseppe Martino, under “heavy” questioning in the main Alcamo police station, but they declare that he in fact committed suicide. Suicide by cop, long before the term became popular.
They make arrests in Messina on the eastern seaboard of the island, discover over 250 Mafiosi operating in Caltanissetta Province, in the south, bring stability to the Trapani area and learn of a 300 strong livestock-smuggling ring network supplying the slaughterhouses of Palermo, that covers most of western Sicily controlled by Francesco Settana, Rosario Madonia and the notorious Pantuso brothers of Carini, Giovanni, Gaetano and Gaspare, reported as “unscrupulous hit men of the Mafia.”
Long before cigarette and drug smuggling became staples of Mafia income generation, there was abigeato, cattle rustling, a crime that had plagued Sicily since the 12th century. Between 1905 and 1910, there were over 3,000 convictions for stock theft, each year preceding the previous. Cattle theft, big or small on scale, would have needed Mafia approval.
The investigation officers also discover that Mafia families operating in the Agrigento area have close links to ones in and around Palermo. There is a communal bridge of some sort, allowing passage of information and people between the two areas, not that easy with limited transport facilities in a journey of over one hundred miles across some of Sicily’s wildest and dangerous terrain.
In the summer of 1937, Inspectorate agents from their Alcamo base arrest Melichiorra Allegra, a doctor who runs a medical practice in Castelvetrano, a town in Trapani Province, which has Mafia roots dating back generations. The current Boss of Bosses, Matteo Messina Denaro, who has been on the run for almost thirty-years is based here or somewhere near, and authorities currently consider the town the tax-evasive capital of Italy.
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Made into a Mafia family in 1916, they introduced Allegra to fellow members who range from fish-mongers to Parliamentarians and aristocrats from long-established noble families. The law stores his file away in Palermo’s archives, but a journalist will discover and published it in L‘ora, the Palermo daily newspaper, in 1962. The man who publishes the story, Mauro De Mauro, will himself become a victim of the Mafia, who kidnap and murder him in September 1970.
Castelvetrano is also famous as the place where the notorious bandit Salvatore Giuliano dies in July 1950. His death, like much of his life, is a mystery. It’s alleged that he and his gang carried out the massacre of agricultural peasants and their families, who gathered to celebrate May Day 1947, near Portella dell Ginestra, just two miles to the south of Pianna die Greci. Eleven men, women and children die, and dozens injured.
Standing on the hill of Mount Pizzuta, looking down on the scene, there could have been a man who will play a major role in The Inspectorate investigation. He may well have helped in organizing the attack on behalf of political figures in Sicily and Rome, desperate to remove the power of the communist party, growing stronger in Sicily following the end of the second world war. He is one of the most interesting of the Mafia leaders who emerges following the great Mori purge.
His name is Ernesto Marasà and will come to figure as a major target in the investigation. Thought by law enforcement to be the youngest of three brothers, it turns out he is the eldest of four. Born like his siblings in Palermo, he avoids Mori’s campaign, slipping effortlessly under the radar. Like many formidable criminals in Sicily, he networks political allies and builds strong relationships with men of influence, creating a stronghold in Boccadifalco, a town midway between Monreale and Palermo.
Originally a gabellotto, a kind of estate manager, he and his brothers build a substantial business of land-holdings, livestock and citrus orchards and they are also running the local Mafia cosca, the family. He has been its boss since 1910. The Inspectorate will come to refer to him as generalissimo. The investigators rate his wealth in millions of lire. A measure of his power is that until the report emerged in 2007, we knew almost nothing about the brothers Ernesto, Francesco, and Antonino (the fourth brother is unknown in the report) and their place in the history of the Mafia. There are no photographs, newspaper reports, or any other government documents to lead us into their back stories. The Inspectorate are the ones who flush him out and discover his links into the politics of the Mafia and the other, equally deadly politics of affairs of the state.
Ernesto sets his sights on more than just local domination. His aim is to be the head of all the Mafia in Sicily. “By poising the political system, they carried out their shady criminal activities and stayed hidden in the shadow of baronial and princely coats of arms,” claims one statement about the brothers included in The Inspectorate Report.
Although the Mafia pledge of allegiance taken by all new recruits includes never cooperating with the law, evidence will emerge that Ernesto was prepared to feed information about his rivals to the police in both the Mori campaign and during the years of the inspectorate inquiry to help him remove his rivals. It’s alleged he may have been the source that leads authorities to arrest Vito Cascio Ferro during the Mori expedition in the 1920s.
As investigators keep digging, they unearth one little gem of a case involving men from Boccadifalco.
Giovanni Battista and the brothers, Salvatore and Ignazio Taturi, leave the town and head for Palermo on foot. A distance of about four miles. There, they hang about and catch a bus south to Bagheria, where they meet with Salvatore Pelitteri, the obvious organizer of the caper. The four men head back north to Brancaccio, a southern suburb of Palermo where they commit a robbery at the premises of one Eleonora De Luca. This far removed, it all seems rather quaint, following a bunch of low-life villains on one of their daily jaunts in criminal malfeasance doing the hard-yards on foot or by public transport. Hardly the expected image of organized delinquents at work. A much more modest kind of Mafia than we think of today.
There were, however, plenty of thugs and killers across the province of Palermo that will occupy the agents who are now unravelling cases that keep pointing them to new ones. They will find a feast of Fabergé Eggs, mainly out in the countryside. The outskirts to the west of Palermo City.
Pianna dei Colli (Plain of Hills) emerged and grew towards the end of the 18th century. A hinterland of Palermo City stretching from the seaboard in the north, down in a sweeping crescent to Bagheria, it becomes home to Palermo’s aristocracy, who builds summer residences and develops orchards and citrus groves and stock grazing pastures.
Small hamlets and communes emerge to house the share-croppers and laborers needed to work the estates. In 1861, over 10% of Palermitan live in these outlying communities. Six years later, during a hearing in May 1867, Giovanni Maurigi, advocate general of The Court of Cassation of Palermo, states: “Every village near Palermo has two or three bosses. They are involved in theft and illegal mediations. The authorities have often reached a compromise with the Mafia, and its members have grown proud and become emboldened by this.” Seventy years later, the problem has only become bigger and more intractable,
By 1930, the area between Monreale to the west, Tommaso Natale to the north and Bagheria to the south and east is home to 20 Mafia clans. At least three, Noce, Porta Nuova (within the boundaries of Palermo City) and Monreale had been targets for the Mori campaign that had ended in 1929.
As the agents of The Inspectorate examine reported crimes and trace suspects, they determine the structure of Mafia families, the territories they control and how they interact with each other. One suspect they arrest becomes of particular significance to their investigation. He is the first pentito, a man who will unburden himself to the law and open their eyes with his revelations. An informant to the law. The worse kind of sin a Mafioso can perpetrate.
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His name is Salvatore Anello, and he is part of the family of Tommaso Natale. Although a Mafioso called Salvatore D’Amico had testified against his clan in Monreale in 1878, and Rosario La Mantia cooperated with the law in 1883, disclosing his part in the Mafia of Porto Montalato, an inner-city family that was the focus of the first major Mafia war in the 1870s, Anello is the first known made member to break the confession of omerta, the oath of secrecy in the 20th century.
Or perhaps not. That may have been another man, part of the same crime family as Anello, someone who wanted him gone, and so killed his protector, his uncle, Rosario Napoli, the boss in 1934, when turmoil was unfolding in this northern arc of the Pianna. It’s a complicated story, as is often the case when greed, jealousy and revenge form the principal ingredients. In there somewhere, is Ernesto Marasà doing his bit to make sure whatever the outcome, it will favour him and his ambitions.
Rosario Napoli had conflicted with Salvatore Cracolici for over ten years, whose enemies had murdered his brother on Napoli’s instructions. Cracolici and a man called Francesco Di Trapani, the boss of the Mafia clan of Pallavicino, have Napoli killed and take over his Mafia family. They then finger Anello for the crime, who turns to the law for help after being wrongly arrested and indicted for the murder of his uncle and godfather. There is a side-story involving an affair with his uncle’s wife which his enemies claim is why the murder took place. It runs like a soap opera, except in this one, the water is blood. This is towards the end of 1937.
Three months later, Cracolici is the one stepping forward to offer the police his help after they arrest him, and it’s suggested that he was the originator of the term pentito. He claims confession is an anchor of salvation, while posing as a victim of prosecution. Besides these two, The Inspectorate will, over the course of their investigation, enrol the help and support of another dozen men of honor who will find the urge to unburden themselves and become government witnesses, although in due course, they will all, either be dead or have recanted their testimony as the courts tie up the loose ends, almost eight years later.
Anello offers much detail and background on the Mafia as a criminal institution. He explains about the inauguration of men in each family, what they call giuramento: reading the oath of fealty, pricking a finger and sprinkling blood on an image of a saint as it burns in the hand. All are brothers, men of honour and obedience to the boss is blind. They must swear never to disclose their crime family, never cooperate with the law, never raise their hands against a fellow member, on and on and on. Revenge against violations was forever and could be exercised anywhere, anytime.
He talks about the pyramid system of each clan-boss, underboss, counsellor, captain of ten. The soldiers and associates that do all the grunt work, all the stuff that will become common knowledge, but not for almost another fifty years, because his declaration, along with all the other teeming details of organized crime in Sicily The Inspectorate collects, is going into a folder, which authorities will store on a shelf or into a drawer to feel the sound of silence for the next seventy years.
As this is going down in Tommaso Natale, to the south, the agents of law are busy watching and tracking the brothers, Marasà, especially Ernesto. They tail him, moving around between towns, and villages and the city. He visits Hotel Vittoria in the Albergheria district of Palermo, always using room 2 to hold meetings with his cronies and allies. Then, with his bodyguards, will head off in his little red Fiat Balilla car (left), to do death and destructions somewhere as he clears the decks of opposition and declares himself capo di tutti capi, boss of all bosses. His only opposition is Calogero Vizzini a historical Mafia boss of Villalba in the Province of Caltanissetta, although he is somewhat distant from the field of play.
History and events will limit Ernesto’s time in office. He and his brothers are prime suspects in the case being prepared by The Inspectorate. They arrest Francesco and Antonino, who then are released on bail awaiting charges. The eldest brother slips through the system just as he did in the Mori campaign. He may well have been spending his years of freedom living it large in the famous Hotel et des Palms, in the middle of Palermo until the war ends and whatever state is normal returns to Sicily. In 1943 both his brothers die, one, Francesco, killed by an exploding bomb during the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the other of natural causes.
Ernesto will last until 1948, when his time to go arrives. By nature or force is unknown. Salvatore Anello, the Mafioso who lead such a troubled existence, found no peace in death. Someone ends his life with a shotgun on August 12, 1947.
By the early days of 1938, The Inspectorate had finished their job. Its report filled with names, places and events that have long passed into history is in some ways, to quote William Shakespeare, “Much Ado about Nothing.” The almost four years of the campaign to break the Mafia did little to change the sciamachy that had infested Sicily as long as anyone could remember. Antonino Ferrante, another informant uncovered during the inquiry, claimed in his statement that it had existed in one form or another since the time of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, in the 9th century.***
Of 190 individuals finally arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy along with assorted acts, then reduced to the 175 listed in The Inspectorate report, only 96 face indictment for trial. This reduces to 83, some being separated and folded into other judgements. The Court of Palermo hands down sentences on June 30, 1942. One of the highest, just under eleven years, is against Francesco Settana, boss of Monreale. Most defendants get five or fewer years as punishment for their crimes. It appears there is no press coverage; everything is about the war raging around the world.
It seems the politics of criminality is more the criminality of politics in Fascist Italy. Disturbing calm waters will often unleash really dangerous fish. In Italy, the only thing more dangerous than a Mafioso appears to be a politician.
The Inspectorate report lost to the world for seventy-years is proof of something long known-history repeats itself, and often, for all the wrong reasons.
*** The origin of the word Mafia has, and will continue to frustrate historians. There is a reference in Palermo’s court archives to an alleged witch, Catarina la Licastia, dated 1658, in which the word maffia appears. Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Zúñiga, a Spanish nobleman and vice-royal of Naples, in a report of 1536, claims that many nobles in Sicily hired bandits, using them as small, personal armies to protect their lands and interests. Almost certainly a forerunner of the criminal entity which will emerge over the decades that lie ahead, although not recognized by this specific noun until the 1860s.
Cocco, Vittorio. Relazioni mafiose. La mafia ai tempi del fascismo, XL edizioni. 2010.
Cocco, Vittorio. La Mafia, il fascimo, la polizia: Centro di studi ed iniziative culturali Pio La Torre. Palermo. 2012.
Ariacchi, Pino. Men of Dishonour: William Morrow & Co. New York. 1993.
Dickie, John. Mafia Brotherhoods: Sceptre. London. 2012.
Lupo, Salvatore. History of the Mafia: Columbia University Press. New York. 2009.
Giornale di Sicilia. May 29/29. 1927.
Schneider, Jane C. & Peter. Reversible Destiny: UC Press. 2003.
Adragna, Vito & Antonio and other defendants. August 12, 1941. Archivo di Stato, (ASP) Palermo. Tribunale Civile e Penale. Pages 264-265.
Statement of Salvatore Anello to the officers of the judicial police, Palermo, December 23, 1937, in ASP, TCP, Pp, b. 4135, attachment 115.
Falcone, Giovanni. Cose di Cosa Nostra: Milan. 1991.
McLaren, Colin. Mafioso: Hachette. Australia. 2022.
La Delinquenza nello Sicilianelle sue Forme piu Gravi o Specifche: Girgenti, 21-25 May, 1911. Tomasso Mercadante, head of Congress.
Duggan, Christopher, La Mafia durante il Fascimo.: Rubbetino Editore Soverino Manneli. Cosenza. 1987.
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