Italians know Corleone as a small, inland town of about 12000 inhabitants, situated in the highlands of Western Sicily, approximately mid-way between Palermo and Agrigento.
We mostly know Corleone as the name of a fictitious Mafia boss-Don Corleone- the central character in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather. Although the use of the town's name as a gang leader is thought to originate with Puzo, it is pre-dated back to 1938 when British author Graham Greene, whose 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, was made into a film in 1947, featured a mobster called Colleoni (phonetically almost a perfect match) who terrorized a seaside town on the south coast of England.
The judiciary in Palermo and the state and military police of Sicily know Corleone as the heartland, maybe even the epicenter, of the Sicilian Mafia.
But who were the Corleonesi?
Originally, the word referred to citizens of the town, used as a plural version of the proper noun. By the end of the 1970s, it was taking on a much darker connotation.
According to Wikia:
The Corleonesi is the name given to a faction within the Sicilian Mafia that dominated Cosa Nostra in the 1980s and the 1990s. It was called the Corleonesi because its most important leaders came from the town of Corleone, first Luciano Leggio and later Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. The Corleonesi coalition managed to take over the Sicilian Mafia Commission and imposed a quasi-dictatorship over Cosa Nostra, waging war against rival factions (also known as the Second Mafia War) from 1978-1983. The more established Mafia factions in the city of Palermo grossly underestimated the Mafiosi from Corleone and often referred to the Corleonesi as i viddani - "the peasants".
Corleonesi affiliates were not restricted to Mafiosi of Corleone. The Corleone Mafia bosses initiated “men of honor”, not necessarily from the town, whose status was kept hidden from the other members of the Corleone cosca and other Mafia Families. Members of other Mafia Families who sided with Riina and Provenzano were called Corleonesi as well, forming a coalition that dominated the Mafia in the 1980s and 1990s, and that can be considered as a kind of parallel Cosa Nostra.
The “other members” that made up the Corleonesi comprised cosche, or clans, from Palermo City and province, and the provinces of Trapani, Agrigento, Caltanissetta and Catania. There were at least twenty-three, maybe more, alliances that formed this coalition or grew into it over a period of time. It developed out of the ambitions and demands of Luciano Leggio who murdered the boss of the Corleone Mafia in 1958 and went on to make this small, relatively obscure and insignificant Mafia clan, into a juggernaut that had the whole of Sicily and eventually the state of Italy, convulsed with fear and trepidation.
Massimo Ciacimino, son of Vito, the Corleone-born corrupt politician, claimed “the rustic clan was depicted as a gang of criminals motivated by an atavistic hunger that caused them to be arrogant and greedy, wanting to make up for the wrongs they suffered in the past when the self-importance of the politico-Mafia power base of the 'capital Palermo' had alienated Luciano Leggio and his viddani.”
Leggio created the concept of amalgamation for mutual benefit, but it was his regent, Salvatore Riina who made it work to a level of unprecedented efficiency and murderous power, along with Bernardo Provenzano, the man who up until 1995, always seemed to be waiting in the wings.
And it was Giuseppe Di Cristina who gave notice to the world about its existence.
A Mafia boss, ruling a town in the province of Caltanissetta, on the southern edge of the island, the son and grandson of Mafia bosses, he knew the rules: No talking to police. No collaboration with the authorities. No pentimento, the act of penitence, the cleansing of the soul.
Whatever you do, keep away from the sbirro, the cops
But, by April 1978, he’d had enough. He was scared to death.
I viddani were after him. The peasants wanted him. He was a marked man. Six months before, they had tried to kill him.
And so he did the unthinkable. He went to the police for help.
From the moment he was born, in 1923, Giuseppe Di Cristina (right) was part of the Mafia.
His father, Francesco, born in 1896, was the capo or boss of Riesi a small town of about 15000 people. Francesco's father, also Giuseppe, had controlled the area for many years before he passed it on to his son, in 1938, dying at the age of 87 after ruling the town since the turn of the 20th century. He had married Angelina Capizzi and she had borne him five children.
Francesco, the eldest, dressed modestly, lived low-key and was quiet and almost obsequious with everyone he dealt with. He married Rosina, the daughter of his uncle Salvatore. He operated what was known as la Mafia dell ordine, the Mafia of order, and hardly needed to raise his voice, when a quite nod was enough to have someone killed.
With this kind of pedigree in place, it was almost inevitable that the grandson would follow his birthright.
He takes over the family in September 1961, on the death of his father, at the age of 65, not from the gun or knife or bomb, but in bed, from asthma, and Giuseppe becomes known in Riesi, and throughout Sicily, as Peppe Il Tigre-The Tiger.
He has grown up in a countryside of vineyards that produce ink colored wines, and abandoned sulphur mines; of limestone cliffs and rolling pasture lands crisscrossed with gullies and disused railway lines and small, ancient townships filled with churches and monuments as old as history itself. It is also a land filled with feudal strife that dates back a thousand years. Where violence is the main arbitrator in disputes and where the Mafia has filled the vacuum created by the absence of any kind of state-controlled law and order since anyone can remember.
In his induction ceremony, the punciuta, his “shooting” finger is pierced by a gold pin, the same one handed down from generation to generation of Mafiosi in Riesi, and his blood is spilled onto an image of the Madonna of the Annunciation, the patron saint of Cosa Nostra.
As a paper, I burn you, as a Saint I worship you.
Di Cristina will turn out to be ferocious and cunning, but there is a seismic shift in his perception of human resources, and over the next seventeen years, he closely aligns himself within Cosa Nostra to all the wrong people.
It will be the death of him.
Up until 1977 he follows the well-trodden path taken by his peers: criminal activity, followed by arrests, or banishment and prison sentences. He is into every scam available, involving transport, prostitution, sub-contracting, road maintenance, car-parking, cigarette smuggling, extortion, hijacking and, of course, drug-trafficking.
He searches out and creates relationships and business links with the Rimi's of Alcamo and the Buccellato's of Castellammare del Golfo and Gaetano Badalamenti of Cinisi. He becomes close with the Bontate and Inzerillo families of Palermo and with Pippo Calderone, boss of Catania, who will be best man at Di Cristina's wedding, and Tommaso Spadaro the Mafia's biggest drug dealer who grows up playing street soccer in the Kalsa district of Palermo, with Giovanni Falcone who one day will grow up to be a magistrate and send hundreds of Mafiosi to prison. Before they kill him..
Di Cristina's admired and honored by all of these people (maybe not Falcone so much); he is intesto, a man listened to and respected within the Mafia. However, he makes enemies of the ones who seem the least important, but will turn out to be the fiercest and most dangerous of all, the clan who run the town of Corleone, three hours by road to the north-west of Riesi.
The Tiger became Il boss dal colletto bianco, “The White-Collar Boy” when he acquired a legitimate job, a necessity in the world of Cosa Nostra to keep The Guardia Finanza, the Financial Police at bay. He had originally worked as a bank clerk at the Casa di Risparmio, but when they found out his night job, he was asked to leave. Now, he is made the treasurer of So.Ch.Mi.Si. a branch of Ente Minerali, a State enterprise created in the late 1940s to try and stem the crisis in the sulphur mining industry. At the height of the worldwide demand for sulphur in the 19th century, two-thirds of all Sicily's production came from the region of Caltanissetta. By 1950, demand had dropped so much, most of the mines were closed.
Di Cristina will be based at the Trabia Tallarita, the largest sulphur mine in Sicily, which opened in 1730, and is located a short drive north of the town of Riesi, near Sorchimisi. On the days he attends the office, he would be driven there in a BMW by his personal bodyguards, Carlo Napolitano and Giuseppe De Fede. His job is a sinecure, organized by Graziano Verzotto, an Italian politician with a background as murky as any man in the Mafia.
Over the years of his stewardship of the Riesi clan, Giuseppe Di Cristina will lead a busy life.
He marries Antonina Di Legami, the daughter of the Communist Mayor of the town, on September 2nd, 1960. She is a school teacher. They have two children. It's the perfect Mafia family, biological wise.
Like most of the men of the Mafia, he works hard and puts in long hours to avoid legitimate employment, except when absolutely necessary. He is part of the “old guard” men of honor. They are a dying breed across Sicily, but no one has told them this yet. They have no idea what is about to king-hit them.
In 1962, he is linked into the death of leading industrialist, Enrico Mattei who dies in a mysterious place crash. The Mattei affair is a complex, deeply plotted story of intrigue and murder on an international scale.
In brief, he was a major figure in the oil industry, president of Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, whose actions were creating massive problems for the “Seven Sisters,” ( a term coined in fact by Mattei in the 1950s) the major oil companies that dominated the global petroleum industry for over thirty years.
Lured to a hunting trip near Catania, while on a business visit to Sicily, while out shooting wild animals, a bomb is placed in his aircraft, a Morane-Saulnier 760 B, 4 passengers jet-executive, and it explodes as it descends late in the evening of December 27th to land in Milan. Investigations carried out in recent years, based on information from a number of leading Mafia informants, indicate that the Mafia in America had been approached to help. Using Angelo Bruno, the boss of the Philadelphia crime family as a go-between, it was decided to kill Mattei using the resources of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.
Enrico Mattei and his aircraft
Bruno had been born in Caltanissetta in 1910 and emigrated to American when he was five years old, with his mother and sister. They were on their way to join the father who was then living in Kansas City. In December 1956, Bruno was deported to Europe by the American Government. He returned, illegally to the Americas in October 1963, landing in Puerto Rica, and was again deported, in January 1964.
He was most certainly in Europe at the time of the Mattei affair, but just how much input he had into it is open to conjecture.
Rather than shoot Mattei, leaving evidence at the crime scene, the bomb scenario was created to generate an unsolvable mystery. Graziano Verzotta, who was a major executive with Agip, the Italian petroleum company, and therefore a natural link, became the Sicily connection between Mattei and Cristina who set up and arranged the placing of the bomb in the aircraft undercarriage while Mattei was away on his hunting trip.
At least this was the generally accepted theory until 2009 when Donato Firrao and Graziano Ubertalli of the Politecnico di Torino, determined by their investigation, that someone by entering from a small manhole on the right of the forward fuselage, that could easily reach by hand, had planted a small explosive charge behind the dashboard in the centre of the back of it.
Ironically, some weeks before his death, Mattei had received a warning from Russian KGB agent, Leonid Kolosov, that the American oil industry had put a contract on his life.
According to the evidence of four Mafia informants: Tommaso Buscetta, Gaetano Iunni, Salvatore Riggio and Francesco De Carlo, the killing of Mattei was the first political crime sanctioned by The Commissione, the Mafia's ruling body, after it was formed in 1957 or 1958.
Di Cristina was sent into banishment in Turin following the Ciaculli Massacre of June 30th, 1963, which occurred on the outskirts of Palermo, when five police officers and two soldiers were killed in a car bomb explosion, The law descended on Sicily with a vengeance, and over 2000 Mafiosi were arrested and either imprisoned, or sent off-shore into exile for varying acts of criminality.
The savage attack on law enforcement also helped to trigger the constitution of the Anti-Mafia Commission, although the first Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on the Mafia phenomenon in Sicily (Commissione parlamentare d'inchiesta sul fenomeno della Mafia in Sicilia) was created in February 1963, under the presidency of Paolo Rossi of the Italian Democratic Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Democratico Italiano, PSDI.)
However, nine special laws were passed as an amendment to the bill in August, following the massacre at Ciaculli, including soggiorno obbligato cautelativo (exile under surveillance banishment) and it was this that sent Di Cristina to Turin
While in northern Italy, he had formed a “decina” or small faction in Turin. It had been structured using men who had moved, over the years, onto the mainland from Riesi, and had gathered under an old geezer who had been a Mafioso in Caltanissetta. Di Cristina decided to adopt them and incorporated the group into his family back in Sicily. A kind of off-shore entity.
Between December 1967 and December 1968, he was a defendant in the famous “Trial of the 114” held in Catanzaro in Calabria; it was nicknamed “the trial of the New Mafia.” In fact, only 75, not 114, were actually present in court throughout the proceedings. An indecisive indictment of such luminaries as Alberti, Coppola, Rimi, Buscetta, Leggio, Riina, the various Grecos, Scaglione and of course, Di Cristina himself, who was one of many found not guilty.
In 1969, Di Cristina supplied one of the shooters that formed the killing squad involved in the Viale Lazio massacre. One evening two weeks before Christmas, six men dressed as police officers. stormed a construction company office in a western suburb of Palermo City and shot dead Mafia boss, Michele Cavataio (right) and three of his men. It was he who had started the first Mafia war which had resulted in Ciaculli.
The killing of Cavataio was approved and signed off by The Commissione, then, made up of twelve family heads, of which he himself was a member. Presumably he didn’t get to vote on this decision!
The man Di Crista allocated to the multiple family hit-squad, Damiano Caruso, was a butcher by profession, who somehow, mysteriously, had become a soldier in the Riesi cosca, as he lived in Villabate on the other side of the island, closer to Palermo that Caltanissetta. He came into the family of Di Cristina under the radar. Di Cristina loved him as a brother and often referred to him as “my pupil.” He was considered a most efficient soldier and was used in many instances where the tough stuff was required. Caruso was, in fact, a buffoon, although brave and fearless to the point of stupidity.
He was used by Di Cristina in another act of violence, this one with almost comic undertones, except for the victim, of course.
Candido Ciuni found himself in the middle of a feud between Riesi, Ravanusa and Campobello di Licata Mafiosi that went back to 1946 and he was heard bad-mouthing Di Cristina over the murders of Stefano Vangelista and Vito Gattuso. Vangelista was the capo of the Ravanusa Mafia. Ciuni was also doing something badly wrong in connection with the very lucrative smuggling ring run by the Mafia clan in Riesi, something that was affecting the cash flow and profits, and nothing more disturbs a Mafioso than stealing his money, unless it is loose lips.
Also check out: La Primula Rossa: The Story of Luciano Leggio
Ciuni ran a bar called The Sicilian, at number 20, Via Marqueda, on the corner of Via Mura di Sant'Agata, right in the heart of Palermo. He's in there, on the evening of the 21st October, 1970, when about 8:00 pm all the lights go out. Power failure. When they come back on, he's lying on the floor, bleeding out from multiple stab wounds. His wife, Antonina Orlando, calls the police and they get him to a hospital, the Ospedale Civico, two kilometers away, where surgeons save him and stitch him up.
All looking good except for one thing.
The man who organized the attempted murder, Giuseppe Di Cristina, had been reading a recently published book called The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. In the book is a scene where the Godfather, after being shot and wounded, is rushed to hospital and then his son, Michael, discovers a plot afoot to murder the old man, Don Corleone, while he is lying there recovering from his wounds.
Cristina thinks this is quite brilliant, so seven days later, Damiano Caruso, along with Rafael and Pasquale Bovè, Pietro Ciotta and Gioacchino Marrone, (the men who tried to stab Ciuni to death originally,) dressed in long white, doctor's coats, concealing weapons, march into the hospital, at 10:30 PM up to Room 6 where Candido (right) is stretched out on bed, bandaged up and tubed everywhere, and proceed to gun him to death. Killed again.
It took four years for the case to come up for trial in Agrigento. In March 1974, Di Cristina and the killers were found not guilty for insufficient evidence. Di Cristina swore under oath he had not been near Palermo the week Ciuni was killed. Ciuni's wife gave evidence that she had laundered a pair of his pants, which he forgot to take when he checked out of the inn.
In 1988, an almost duplicate killing took place in Caltanissetta, a thirty-minute drive north of Riesi.
Rosario Ribbisi was shot and injured in September 1987. A year later, October 4th, his brother, Carmelo was visiting him at the hospital Sant Élia. About 11:00 pm, a man walked into the ward and shot both men to death. When staff rushed to the ward, they found Rosario dead in bed, and his brother sprawled in a huge pool of blood on the floor. Maybe the killer got his inspiration from following the court case of Di Cristina which had been held in the Palace of Justice in Agrigento.
Or maybe he was a fan of Mario Puzo!
This particular “death by hospital” was the result of a feud between a Mafia clan based in Palma di Montechiaro and the notorious Stidda a quasi Mafia-type organization that sprang up in the late 1970s. Many of its original members were ex Mafiosi from the family of Di Cristina. One of them may even have been the killer, who was never identified.
While Di Cristina and his crime family were struggling through the complexities of the Ciuni affair, he was already deeply involved in a political earthquake that could well have changed the course of history in Italy.
The Golpe Borghese was an Italian coup planned for the night of December 8th, 1970 to take over the sovereign state of Italy. This neo-fascist activity would also require the support of the Sicilian Mafia and the leaders had approached Luciano Leggio to ask for his support.
Di Cristina visited Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, former World War Two commander of the infamous X-MAS Naval Flotilla, Italian commando frogman unit, the instigator and leader, in Rome to discuss Sicily’s part in the coup, but as events unfolded, it became obvious that the attempt to overthrown the legitimate government was a no-brainer from the start. They needed up to 3000 men to aid in the plan in Sicily alone. Luciano Leggio claimed when the proposal was presented to him he turned it down flat. He also claimed that Italy's democracy survived because of him. The leading figures in the coup were soon arrested, and Borgese fled to Spain where he died four years later.
By the middle of the 1970s, the impact of the Mafia was being felt even in the Catholic Church. At the highest level. Pope Paul in his New Year's Day speech for 1974 deplored the effect the organization was having on the “good name” of Italy. Giuseppe Di Cristina and his allies were getting more and more concerned about other things than their good name, going on within the honored society,
Luciano Leggio was captured by the law, in Milan, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. He would die there, in November 1993. Salvatore Riina was now in charge of Corleone, and setting his sights on the master plan he and Provenzano had been developing. 'Toto' the short, one had high hopes and maybe, just maybe, felt he would never achieve them with Leggio as the chairman of the board. Some sources suggest it was Riina himself who “dropped a dime” on his boss in order to have a free hand to pursue his dreams of becoming the Godfather of Sicily's Mafia.
Closer to home, Di Cristina was worried about one of his neighbors and potential adversaries. A man called Francesco Madonia who ran a Mafia clan in Vallelunga Pratamento, a small town of 4000 people about 90 minutes by road to the north-west of Riesi. Close to Villalba and Mussomeli, two towns dominated for generations by powerful Mafia heads, Vallelunga and the surrounding area had been the setting for fearsome inter-clan battles in the 1950s that had left dozens of corpses spread across the landscape. Madonia had allied himself to Corleone and made no bones about the fact that he wants to be numero uno in the province. Di Cristina was increasingly concerned what this relationship might mean for him.
He found out in 1977.
On the morning of November 12th at their usual time, 7:30 am, Carlo Napolitano and Giuseppe De Fede arrived at the villa of Di Cristina to pick up their boss for his journey up to the sulphur mine offices. However, he was in a meeting with Nino and Pippo Calderone, over from Catania for the morning, so he sent the two men on ahead, telling them he would get a lift later in the day.
De Fede was driving, and wearing a beret, looking a bit like Peppe the Pimp, and Carlo Napolitano was riding shotgun. Nino Calderone remembered later, how much De Fede looked like Di Cristina, at least from a distance.
About 7:45 am, driving north towards Sommatino, about four kilometers out of town, their BMW saloon was involved in a collision with a white Fiat 127. Men leaped out of the smaller car firing shotguns and .38 caliber revolvers. Napolitano tried to return the fire but was blown out of the car to lie dead alongside it, spread-eagled and shot to bits; De Fede was blasted to death behind the wheel.
The three killers in the Fiat were Giovanni Brusca from San Giuseppe Jato, Leoluca Bagarella from Corleone and Antonio Marchese from the Corso dei Mille area of Palermo.
A fire-team made up of men from the Corleonesi.
It was subsequently determined that the attack on Di Cristina (for this was surely a hit with him in mind) was planned by Francesco Madonia with the full support of Riina and Provenzano. The men who shot the victims dead are a good cross-section of the killers of the Corleonesi:
Giovanni Brusca is known as ù verru, The Boar. At 19, he murders his first victim, Gaudenzio Giammalva. In the course of his Mafia career, he will murder between 100 and 200 people. He remembers the names of everyone he kills. In 1992, he will put his thumb on the detonator that blows up Judge Giovanni Falcone.
Leoluca Bagarella is perhaps displaced in the lacuna between the ears. In a prison exercise yard, he is seen trying to kick a soccer ball with both feet, simultaneously. He walks the fine line between madness and frenzy, and kills people with gay abandon, as though there will never be a tomorrow. Buscetta who thinks Bagarella doesn't belong in the human race, says he has killed 300. He helps Brusca in his first job with a gun. A technical advisor. Like on a movie set. Maybe he reads the words of Charlie Chan: “Murder can be like a potato chip-cannot stop at one.” His late brother Calogero, shot dead at Via Lazio, was courting Arcangella, the younger sister of Riina. Leoluca will rise to the top of the administration more by killing than acuity. His brother-in-law, Toto Riina, married Bagarella's sister, Antonietta, which helps.
Antonino Marchese is married to Agata de Fillippo. His brother Giuseppe, is Riina's driver. He had been made into the Mafia by Riina when he was only 18. His sister Vincenzina, marries Bagarella. Agata's brothers, Emanuele and Pasquale become pentiti. Giuseppe turns to pentisimo also, in due course. Vincenzina kills herself because of the disgrace. Bagraella stops murdering people for twenty-eight days. A moratorium in memory of his wife. It may be all in the family, but in a bad way for Cosa Nostra. This is what the future holds.
For now they have done a good job but killed the wrong men. Bagarella's turn will come though. He will get a second chance seven months down the line.
Following the killing of his two close friends and bodyguards, Di Cristina is determined to seek justice. He knows that Madonia is behind it, and behind him, the dreaded Corleonesi. He plans revenge. He meets with his close friend, Pippo Calderone, and they work out a plan of attack.
Killings in the Mafia are complex, complicated acts of planning and resource control. It will take five months before everything is in place. And then Giuseppe would look at Pippo and say, niscemunnie, a saying the Mafia would use often:
“Let's get it over with.”
They got Madonia in the classic Mafia way. Someone close, someone he trusted, organizes for him to attend a meeting at a farmhouse belonging to Antonio Ferro, the capo of Canicatti, in the Falconara district. It's April 8th, 1978. He is driving on the road from Butera to Gela and is ambushed and shot dead by two men, Gateano Di Billo and Salvatore Pillera. One threat down, but so many more to contemplate.
So many in fact that Giuseppe Di Cristina makes the most fateful of all the decisions he has ever made in his life. He turns cop as they say in Cosa Nostra.
He contacted a Sergeant Di Salvo at the carabinieri station in Riesi who arranged for Di Cristina to meet a more senior officer in the military police, who headed the station in Gela, about 40 kilometers to the south of the town. They will meet on the evening of April 16th..
The police officer is Captain Alfio Nino Pettinato, and the two agree to rendezvous at a deserted cottage, three kilometers outside of Riesi on the road up to Mazzarino. Di Cristina was accompanied by his brother Antonio, who will one day be the mayor of the town, a leading Christian Democratic politician, and in ten years, will be shot to death in broad daylight in the main square. A Mafia killing.
Captain Pettinato comes with Sergeant Di Salvo, although when the talking starts, it's only the boss cop and the mob boss in the discussion.
Pettinato recalled that Di Cristina seemed like a hunted animal, desperate to untangle himself from a doomsday scenario that was squeezing the life out of him. It's dark as the police officer sits on a tree trunk in front of the cottage, the black sky overhead filled with a million stars, and listens for over an hour as the Mafia boss unburdens himself.
“I don't believe it,” the captain says to himself.
The words tumble out, filling the space between the two men with the very first confession, ever, in the history of the Sicilian Mafia, of a capo famiglia. He talks about a Cosa Nostra that has seemed to have lost all reason. Things had gone berserk. Families were tearing each other apart. Sicily was in the grip of a plague that was invading and infecting society at every level.
The words tumble out:
Luciano Leggio is planning an escape from prison.
He was arranging the murder of Judge Ciro Terranova. (He will die at the hands of the Mafia in 1979.)
He had already killed Judge Pietro Scaglione in 1971.
The Corleonesi had organized the hit on Lieutenant Colonel Giuseppe Russo, the carabinieri officer murdered the previous year in August, in the Ficuzza Forest, near Corleone. The first Mafia murder of a senior police officer. They are the killers, not the three shepherds who have been arrested as the prime suspects.
Salvatore “Toto” Riina and Bernardo “Binnu” Provenzano were the two most dangerous Mafiosi on the island. And they were driving the Corleonesi, this mob of dangerous killers, in the most dangerous co-operative law enforcement would ever have to deal with.
They had wiped out a five-man gang from Trapani for the kidnapping of Nicola Campisi in Sciacca in July 1975.
Bernardo Brusca the capo of San Giuseppe Jato was the greatest ally of the Corleonesi, along with Leonardo Greco, the boss of Bagheria. Riina has both men in his heart.
Leoluca Bagarella, the brother of Calogero who had died in the Via Lazio Massacre, headed up a fire-team drawn from at least fourteen different clans. They were on standby, to move at any time across the island and carry out assassinations required by Riina and his administration. They were killing people everywhere.
What he called I'll gruppo leggiano, were nothing more than a band of fools and criminals with no principles; capable of the most heinous crimes, simply for criminal gain.
Di Cristina provides an organizational chart of the Corleonesi: who does what and why. The clans that have joined together into this unholy alliance. The names of the bosses and key men. An alphabet soup of incredible flavour that has never, ever, been offered to law enforcement.
The revelations went on and on.
"Their criminal strategy, while crazy, has its rewards," Di Cristina told the carabinieri officer. "It provokes police activity but primarily against the 'old Mafiosi' who are easy to identify; it causes their terrifying prestige to grow and undermines that of the 'traditional' Mafia and the principles on which it depends on. It attracts to them, either through fear or through the appeal of such daring undertakings, new recruits and new forces."
The most prophetic information concerns the unleashing of a war within the Mafia. Something on a cataclysmic scale that will sunder the honorable society into a confetti of disunited pieces which will then be re-assembled into a matrix to the design of Leggio and Riina and Provenzano, who will turn Cosa Nostra, our thing into Cosa Loro, their thing.
It's all too much.
Captain Pettinato returns to Gela and contacts Major Antonio Subrani at head office in Palermo. He is the commander of the investigative department. The report from Gela is undervalued and not widely understood by the top brass in Palermo. Like any bureaucracy, the carabinieri needs to cover itself in case of any future complications. Most of the evidence from Di Cristina is hearsay and without a massive exercise in terms of manpower to carry out investigations, that is how it will stay. Subrani knew, however, just how important this confession was. In his report submitted in August of 1978, he said:
“The information provided by Giuseppe Di Cristina reveals a hidden and truly paradoxical truth; it reveal the chilling reality that parallel to the authority of the state, there is a more incisive and efficient power that acts, moves, makes money, kills, and even makes judgements-all behind the back of the authorities.”
It is the first official document about the Corleonesi. They have been found. But nobody wants them. If only the guys with all the gold braid on their caps had taken note.
Instead, on August 28th they file the report away: Fot 452614 and Fot. 452800. And there it sits to this day in the office of the public prosecutor.
Alexander Stille pointed out in his book Excellent Cadavers, the mistakes and missed opportunities of the Palermo Palace of Justice during the lost decade of the 1970s when government inertia or outright collusion allowed the Mafia to grow to unheard-of levels of power.
It could all have been stopped or certainly highly curtailed if only they had listened to Giuseppe Di Cristina.
But as Roger Whittaker said: “I don't believe in if any more; if's an illusion if is for children.”
While Di Cristina and Pettinato were huddled in their deep conversation outside of Risei, another meeting was taking place. One that would have dire consequences for the Mafia boss in Caltannisseta. This one was held in a house near the ring road in Palermo. There were four men in this huddle: Salvatore Riina, Bernardo Provenzano, Luigi Ilardo and Leoluca Bagarella. It was held after the murder of Madonia.
Ilardo was his nephew. He had acted as a driver and bodyguard for his uncle, been part of the activities of the Vallelunga Mafia family, and desperately wanted to avenge the killing. An informant in the Riesi family had confirmed to Riina that Di Cristina was coming to Palermo. When he would be arriving, and where he was staying.
The four men worked on their project until they were satisfied it was a go.
All they had to do was wait for the day.
That was May 30th. Fifty-two days since Francesco Madonia had gone down in a hail of bullets.
Di Cristina travelled to Palermo the day before and checked into a second-floor apartment on Via Leonardo da Vinci. It belonged to a building contractor named Piazza, a close, personal friend of Salvatore Inzerillo, the boss of the Passo di Rigano Mafia family that controlled this area in the city.
Staying at the apartment were Pippo Calderone and Alfio Ferlito from Catania and a man called Franco Romeo who was an expert with a blow-torch. The group had gathered in Palermo to carry out a robbery on a branch of the Banco di Sicilia. The chief cashier was a Mafioso from Sambuca, a small town near Castelvetrano and was the inside man” on the job.
At about 7:45 am on the morning of May 30th Di Cristina and Romeo head off to check on the bank. A few minutes later, Pippo hears the sound of gunshots echoing up from the street. Looking out of the apartment window, he sees Di Cristina, crouched and kneeling on the footpath firing his revolver at two men who are attacking him and Romeo. The men are retreating under the hail of bullets, then stop when they realize that Di Cristina's gun was clicking on empty. They close in and empty their own revolvers into him. His body buckles under the shots and collapses onto the pavement. The two killers scramble back into their car which screams off into the morning rush-hour traffic shambles that is Palermo, on a good day. Romeo escapes, somehow unhurt. and makes his way back to the apartment. The shooting scene, in front of The Regional Department of Agriculture building, is chaos.
In one of the great ironies of the history of the Sicilian Mafia, fifteen years later, just meters down the street on the Piazza Albert Einstein, Salvatore Riina, now the Boss of Bosses, is captured by a special ROS commando unit of the carabinieri, as he is being driven to an appointment in a Golf saloon. He had been on the run for twenty-three years.
The shooter's getaway car was found abandoned in Via Ignazio Silvestri, a ten-minute drive away. The front seats covered in blood. Di Cristina had managed to severely wound one of his attackers, who was taken to a spitaleddu, a Mafia first-aid post, a private medical clinic which handled delicate jobs like this, for a price, where his spleen was removed.
The two gunmen were later identified as Leoluca Bagarella and Nino Marchese,
When the police checked the body of Di Cristina at Ospedale Villa Sofia, they found a watch, 260000 lira in cash, a cheque for five million lira, signed by Salvatore Inzerillo, and two promissory notes for ten million lira issued by the Bank of Naples, dated may 22nd. There was also a notebook, filled with the names and telephone numbers of many well-known people, including Nino Salvo, one of the richest men in Sicily, and closely linked to Stefano Bontate, the Prince of Villagrazia as he was known in mob circles.
Di Cristina may also have been in Palermo to collect his share of the 500 million lira ransom paid for the release of Nicolo Di Nora an Italian film producer who had been kidnapped in January 1977 in Milan, and released near Gela. It was at this time, the biggest ransom ever paid to kidnappers in Italy.
At the crime scene, police recover two revolvers: a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson, holding two unused rounds, and a Colt .38 caliber, empty. They assume this is Di Cristina's weapon.
Boris Giuliano, of the Palermo Flying Squad, is the lead detective on the case, and follows the money trail for 13 months. Just as he seems to be getting close to solving the crime, he is shot in the back while drinking his morning coffee at The Bar Lux, by a white-faced man with shaking hands: Leoluca Bagarella.
The ubiquitous hit man.
Salvatore Inzerillo told Tommaso Buscetta he suspected one of his men, Salvatore Montalto as being part of the plot to kill Di Cristina which had been signed off by The Commissione on the grounds that Giuseppe Di Cristina had become a police informer. The only member of the panel that refused, was Rosario Riccobono, the boss of Partanna Mondello. Four years later, Riina has him strangled to death.
According to Buscetta, Inzerillo was bothered greatly by the apparent perfidy of Montalto on a number of levels.
Firstly, he was close to the man. They had built summer homes on adjacent sites. Their families socialized. Inzerillo was angry that the killing of Di Cristina had gone down in his Borgata without him receiving any advanced warning, making him look foolish in the eyes of his peers. And he was greatly perturbed that Montalto would involve himself in the crime without consulting him in advance. Four years in the future, Inzerillo will die, one of the first victims of consequence in The Great Mafia War.
Montalto had lusted after the leadership of the cosca of Villabate then headed by Giovanni Di Petri. On Christmas Day 1981, he was murdered in an ambush in Bagheria. Not long after, Montalato assumed control of the clan.
A personal recommendation to the members of the Corleonesi by Salvatore Riina.
The day after the killing of Di Cristina a meeting is convened. In attendance were Calderone and his brother, Antonino, Stefano Bontate, Alfio Ferlito, Salvatore Inzerillo and Rosario Di Maggio, his uncle, an ageing don who ruled Toretta, a small commune to the north-west of Palermo. During the meeting, Michele Greco, the boss of Ciaculli and one of the most senior Mafioso on the island, arrives and reveals that Di Cristina had been identified as a police informant, and that the killing has to be accepted. There can be no revenge. No blood will wash blood over this shooting.
After the authorities had finished with him, they shipped the body of Giuseppe Di Cristina back to Riesi. To the land dotted with shabby little farms, ravines and deserted plains, tired vineyards, sulphurous hills and abandoned mines. The paisi, the village, in fact, turned out in force, to say goodbye to the man who had helped shape their lives for the past seventeen years. Peppe the Tiger had given his soul to God with the help of a firearm, and the town would do him proud in its send-off.
Seven thousand of the town's ten thousand population attend the funeral. By order of the mayor, an official day of mourning is observed. Christian Democratic politicians from all over the island and Rome turn up. Shops, offices and public services close down for the day, as do the schools. Even the bars and taverns. Seventeen municipal workers, four doctors, the five-strong postal service, the four school janitors, two hundred students, the two employees of the local tax department, all add their weight to the processions from church to graveside. The local office of the CD Party drapes a flag of mourning from the office balcony for three days and nights. The police film it all for the record.
Not everybody wanted the day off. 52 complaints were lodged with the police for the interruption of public services.
Giuseppe Di Cristina was perhaps the most important pentito in Sicily’s war against the Mafia, but will never be recognized as such. He was the first sitting boss to talk with the police and disclose a road map that could have led them to the start of the second Mafia War. Had the carabinieri realized the full significance of Di Cristina's revelations and acted on them, they may well have changed the course of history and saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. The men who followed him as informers would simply confirm and enlarge on his disclosures and as important as they would be, in essence, the magistrates like Falcone and Borsellino and their successors, would be working from a model that had already been offered and rejected. Di Cristina had given the law a jig-saw puzzle with most of the pieces in place, but they preferred to play scrabble instead.
There was a precedent in place for ignoring advice from a man of the Mafia. The justice department had already rejected another informant, five years earlier.
Leonardo Vitale had walked into the headquarters of the Palermo Flying Squad on a balmy, March evening in 1973, asked for Bruno Contrado, head of the unit, and confessed to being a Mafioso. He was of the Altarello di Baida cosca. He revealed facts and information about the structure of Cosa Nostra and The Commissione, it's ruling body; the Mafia's links into the political machine of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, and named names, years before the arrival of Tommaso Buscetta. The judiciary had no idea what to do with Vitale, so sent him off into exile, to an insane asylum.
Known as Il Primo Pentito, he was the first major Mafia informant since Melchiorre Allegra, a Castelvetrano based physician, who had spilled the beans thirty-six years earlier. It's just over one hundred years since the very first man came forward. Rosario La Mantia had an epiphany on his return from America in 1872 and surrendered himself to the Italian Consul in Savagozza, Spain. He handed over documents confirming the existence of a Mafia-type organization with branches not only in and around Palermo but also overseas, call Stoppagliere. Whatever it was called, the Mafia was alive and well in the 19th century. Maybe even the 18th and further back than that.
The Mafia in the 20th century had no doubt what it wanted to do with Vitale.
Six months after his release in 1984 from the institution, Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, in Messina, (following Buscetta's evidence, the famous 'Buscetta Theorem,' that Cosa Nostra was a unified hierarchical structure ruled by a Commission, and that its leaders could be held responsible for criminal activities that were committed to benefit the organization, supporting almost everything Vitale had disclosed ten years earlier,) he went to Mass one Sunday morning, December 2nd, with his mother, Rosalia and sister, Maria. Leaving the Church of the Cappuccini, as the group arrived at their house, they were met by two member of his former Mafia family, Domenico Ganci and Domenico Gugliemini, who shot Leonardo twice in the head with a .38 revolver. Mortally wounded, he was rushed to the hospital and died there, five days later, on the morning of December 7th.
His murder was a message to all the new pentiti from Buscetta, Salvatore Contorno, Antonio Calderone, Francesco Marino Mannoia and onwards, that Riina and the Corleonesi would track them down wherever they were.
The world was changing, and not for the better.
The Corleonesi are a special horde who will come down from La Rocca Busambra and humble Palermo with plots, lies and the sound of silence. It is an unwritten law: all Mafiosi must tell the truth. Except the Corleonesi. Everything for uncle Toto is a secret.
The locus of power will shift from the big city to the boondocks. Salvatore Riina will stand on the heights above Corleone and look down across The Plains of Albania towards the smog fudge on the horizon that is the city of Palermo.
The world is not run from where you think it is.
One day, he knows, his peasants will take over those peasants. One day, the island will belong to him. His boys, the Corleonesi, will come down from their villages and eat up Palermo. It will not be a war between rival clans, it will be a manhunt on their enemies. It will be a conflict based on deceit and subterfuge, plots and tragediamenti, the fueling of suspicion by telling lies.
Salvatore Riina, like his old family boss twenty years before, Dr. Michele Navarra, has passed over his soul to Cosa Nostra and the devil, for a good price. Norman Lewis, the famous British writer recognized this when he visited Corleone to write about the Mafia in 1960.
Francesco Di Carlo, a soldier in the Altofonte Mafia family, and a pentito claimed, “Riina was a little beastie, burrowing away underneath you and you don't even know he's there. A woodworm.”
His army of killers will come out of the countryside, slipping quietly into Palermo and its suburbs, laying down fields of fire that link hundreds of killings into a matrix that will eventually form the template of his newly emerging force that will come to dominate Cosa Nostra for the next twenty years.
Terra Braciata it will be referred to. Scorched earth. His philosophy isn't so much divide and conquers, as simply overwhelm and reconstruct. He lays the groundwork that will transform Cosa Nostra from the pluralistic and banausic confederation that it has been for generations, into his own hegemonic fiefdom. The killings to come of Stefano Bontate and Salvatore Inzerillo and the events that follow, mark a watershed in the history of Cosa Nostra..
To paraphrase the Greek poet Archilochus:
In the hospitality of war, he left them their dead to remember the Corleonesi.
It could all have been avoided. Perhaps.
There has been a long tradition of family tombs in Italian cemeteries, allegedly promulgated by Giuseppe Parini, an eighteenth-century poet who praised them as a symbol of the presence of the dead even after they had been buried. A way that the living could try and hold onto the past through a connection more substantial than a mere plot in the ground and a headstone to mark it.
The tomb of Giuseppe Di Cristina stands in the graveyard of The Cimetro di Riesi which is located on rising ground to the north of the town. It is a walled city of the dead, holding the world of the living at bay. Around it is hard scrabbled land of wind bent trees and stunted vineyards, and overhead the main power lines hum day and night. Everywhere, is a land of moral desolation, where men have died from acts of violence: Mafia killings. Vendettas. Family feuds. Sicily is a place cursed by a people who arbitrate by gun and knife rather than by conciliation.
The burial vault is big, and solid, built to defend, against the sun and the rain and the wind, huddled in amongst the other mausoleums, and outside, it carries the simple message: The Cristina Family.
On his casket is the inscription:
La Mafia sua non fu delinquenza, ma rispetto della legge dell’onore, difesa di ogni diritto, grandezza d’animo:
“His Mafia was not one of delinquency, but respect for the law of honor, the defense of right and the greatness of the soul.”
The mausoleum is one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, across the country that pay testament to lost causes and failed endeavors. Of people who searched for everything, and found nothing. Of criminals who sheltered behind a myth. believed in God, yet offered only death or violence or despair to their fellow men.
Giuseppe Di Cristina found the Corleonesi. To his fateful cost.
He was no eight-foot tall paladin like Roland with a magical sword called Durindana, capable of epic deeds. All they had in common was that they were both Italian. Giuseppe, unfortunately, was a mere mortal. That works badly when you have to face down two professional gunmen who aren't leaving the stage until they have killed you.
Leonardo Messina, a seventh generation Mafioso and a pentito, from Caltanissetta, described how the Corleonesi organized their rise to power:
"They took power by slowly, slowly killing everyone. We were kind of infatuated with them because we thought that getting rid of the old bosses we would become the new bosses. Some people killed their brother, others their cousin and so on because they thought they would take their places. Instead, slowly, (the Corleonesi) gained control of the whole system. First they used us to get rid of the old bosses, then they got rid of all those who raised their heads, like Giuseppe Greco 'the Shoe', Mario Prestifilippo and Vincenzo Puccio. All that’s left are men without character, who are their puppets."
Salvatore Riina had turned the Sicilian Mafia on its head through his ambitious plan to create a new and more aggressive version of the honored society. A murder of venomous crows, his men flew through Sicily like sand through a sieve, killing their enemies and political targets with the efficiency of jackhammer’s working on roads made of egg custard, and yet for all the people they killed, and the agony and despair they created, all it ultimately achieved for Riina was a ten by eight concrete cell, in some miserable prison, where he will live out the rest of his life.
Sicily disturbs and makes you angry. In silence. But never in peace.
You can read more of Thom L. Jones stories at his Mob Corner at Gangsters Inc.
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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.
My friend Mr. Jones, you did it again. The article is fantastic. I watched the you-tube tube story on Toto Riina but reading this, of course, was much more informative. Mr. Jones as always you write I'll read it.