The Mafia of Montréal: A Short History

By Pierre de Champlain (author of the book Mobsters, Gangsters and Men of Honour)
© 2005 by Pierre de Champlain - All rights reserved.


Italian organized crime has been in activity for almost a century in Canada. Members of these crime groups immigrated in Canada after the Second World War and settled in major urban centres such as Montréal, Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor. There are two main mafia-type organizations operating: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, the latter mostly predominant in the province of Ontario, and particularly with the Toronto-based Commisso crime family, known as the "Siderno Group".

The Sicilian Mafia is regarded as the most influential and pervasive criminal organization. For several decades, Montréal is still the key centre of organized crime activities in Canada. In these 2-million inhabitants' city, there have been active crime groups such as the Dubois brothers, a group of French-Canadian mobsters, the West End Gang, an Irish-made gang who controls the Montréal seaport, the Hells Angels, the Asian and Colombian groups, and finally the Italians. Of all these ethnic crime groups, the Italians have been forming the most dominant and influent of all in every facet of crime.

Calabrians against Sicilians

The Calabrian faction led by brothers Vincenzo (picture on the right) and Giuseppe Cotroni has been operating in Montréal since the late 1940s. It has been responsible for hundreds of shipments of heroin destined to the world's most important market: New York City. The Cotroni brothers managed to form an alliance with Corsican traffickers and Marseille-based clandestine laboratories, where French chemists refined morphine-base into high grade purity heroin. In the 1950s, Montréal became one of the important points of entry of heroin in North America where the drug transited before being smuggled to New York. At that time, the Montréal borgata (family) was taken in charge by Carmine Galante, then underboss to Joseph Bonanno, the founder of that crime family. Galante's mission was to oversee not only the heroin trade but as well all the rackets (gambling and bookmaking operations) run by the Cotronis.

It was in this context that members of the Sicilian Mafia and their families arrived in Montréal. First, there were the Cuntrera brothers, Pasquale, Paolo, Liborio and Gaspare, who immigrated between 1951 and 1958. They subsequently all moved to Caracas, Venezuela, in the late 1960s. Then, about the same period of time, came the Mannos, the Rendas, the Cammalleris and the Rizzutos, followed, in the late 1960s, by the Caruana brothers, Gerlando Alfonso and Pasquale. All these people came from Siculiana and Cattolica Eraclea, small villages situated in the province of Agrigento, a reputed stronghold of Cosa Nostra in Sicily. They were "men of honour" carrying a long Mafia culture inherited from their grandfathers and fathers.

However, the Sicilians were not greeted with enthusiasm by the Cotroni group. They were told by Paolo Violi (picture on the right), then underboss to Vincenzo Cotroni, that they could not immediately become part of the Montréal borgata. According to the rules of the American Mafia, the Sicilians had to submit themselves to a five-year period of probation before being recognized by the Bonanno family. Then, only after, they could join and get involved in the drug trade. The rule did not please the Sicilians, in particular Nicolò Rizzuto. He took exception to that rule and claimed his right to participate in criminal activities in Montréal.

In the late 1960s, Paolo Violi's prestige and influence within the Canadian Mafia circles was at its height. He had emigrated from his native Calabria in the 1950s and settled in Hamilton, Ontario. In July 1965, he married the daughter of Giacomo Luppino, at that time, one of the most influential ‘Ndrangheta leaders in Ontario. Luppino had also a close ally in the person of Stefano Magaddino, the powerful Cosa Nostra boss of Buffalo and cousin of Joseph Bonanno.

Almost immediately a mutual resentment surfaced between Paolo Violi and Nicolò Rizzuto who had by that time already joined the Cotroni family. Violi became more and more critical of Rizzuto's conduct. He often complained about Rizzuto's lack of respect toward Vincenzo Cotroni whom he did not keep informed of his whereabouts. As a matter of fact, Rizzuto often travelled to Caracas and Sicily where he met with his Sicilian counterparts. As for Rizzuto, he denounced the Montréal borgata as not very well organized. Cotroni summoned Rizzuto but the latter refused to come forward. Violi demanded that Rizzuto be expelled from the Montréal borgata. But Cotroni was hesitant to take such a drastic action. "You are a caporegime, you have the right to expel him", urged Violi to Cotroni, during an intercepted conversation at Violi's ice-cream parlor. But the wise-advised Cotroni rather preferred the mediation. He sought advice from mafiosi of New York and Sicily. During Spring and Summer of 1972, several "sit downs" took place in Montréal where the case of Rizzuto was discussed at length. The capoprovincia of Agrigento, Giuseppe Settecasi, came to Montréal to take part in the mediation. Then, in September 1972, two long-standing members from the Bonanno family, Michael Zaffarino and Nicolino Alfano, both caporegime, arrived in Montréal. After hearing each party they rendered their decision: Nicolò Rizzuto would stay in the Montréal family. Violi had lost face.

But despite Rizzuto's victory, tensions persisted between him and Violi. It came to Rizzuto's ears that Violi had put a contract on him. Fearing for his life, Rizzuto fled to Caracas where he joined his close ally, Pasquale Cuntrera. With him he engaged in the setting up of an international heroin pipeline. According to Tommaso Buscetta who had sojourned for two months in Montréal in 1969, the main heroin supplier for the Cuntreras was Giuseppe Bono, the boss of the Bolognetta family, near Palermo.

In the mid-1970s, the Quebec Government set up the Commission of Inquiry on Organized Crime to scrutinize organized crime activities in Montréal. Several key members of the Montréal family were summoned before the crime probe. Vincenzo Cotroni was sentenced to one year of jail for his evasive answers. During Cotroni's incarceration, Paolo Violi became the "acting boss". In 1975 Violi was called to testify. He too refused to answer questions and was sentenced to one year of jail for court contempt. While the Calabrians were under public spotlights, the Sicilian faction managed to stay in the shadows, preparing minutely the overthrow of the Violi brothers.

The hearings of the Commission of Inquiry proved to be fatal for Paolo Violi. The Commission uncovered in detail the dispute between Rizzuto and Violi which had been monitored by police for years. Worse, it was learned that a Sicilian, Pietro Sciarra from Agrigento, had sided with Violi against Rizzuto. Sciarra was a latitante (fugitive) who sought refuge and protection from the Montréal borgata at the end of 1960s. Sciarra was summoned before the Crime Commission. While on the stand, a livid Sciara replied he did not know the meaning of "Mafia" when asked by the Commission prosecutor. Less than three months after his testimony, he was gunned down on February 14, 1976 as he left a movie theatre where he had seen the Italian version of "The Godfather". One year later, in February 1977, Paolo's brother, Francesco, who had took over the Montréal family, was shot to death. The killing took place while Paolo was in jail for contempt. It was the signal that Paolo's end was near. He knew he had fallen in disgrace with New York. Then, on January 22, 1978, two months after his release from jail, Violi got a call inviting him to play cards at his former café-bar that he had sold, incidentally, to a Sicilian. Two masked gunmen entered the bar by the back door and shot the dethroned Calabrian boss. Three men were later arrested in relation with the Violi's killing. They were Domenico Manno, brother-in-law of Nicolò Rizzuto, Giovanni DiMora and Agostino Cuntrera, a cousin of the Cuntrera brothers. They were charged with murder, but the latter plead guilty to a lesser charge, that of conspiracy to murder. Warrants and murder charges were nullified against a fourth suspect, Paolo Renda, son-in-law of Rizzuto, who had fled to Venezuela.

The last Violi brother, Rocco, was shot to death in October 1980. The Violi dynasty was over. As for Vincenzo Cotroni, the old Calabrian boss, his life was spared because of the immense prestige and status he enjoyed within the Montréal underworld. Cotroni died in September 1984 of natural causes. The reign of the Sicilians could now begin.

A New Era

Following the purge of the Violi brothers, the Sicilians gradually made their come back in Montréal. Vito Rizzuto, who had been in forced-exile in Caracas, spent the following years in reorganizing the crime street operations with the assent of his father. He established peace and order among the other Mafia groups in Canada, as well with non-Italian crime groups such as the Hells Angels. As for his father, Nicolò (picture on the right), he would make frequent but short visits in Montréal in order to make sure that every thing were under control, but he remained in Caracas. In February 1988, he was arrested for being in possession of 1,5 kilo of cocaine. He returned in Montréal in June 1993 after serving 5 years in prison.

During the 1980s the Rizzuto crime family made its fortune by arranging major shipments of multi-ton for hashish and cocaine, using the Atlantic East cost as drop-off. In 1987 and again the following year, Vito Rizzuto was arrested and charged for allegedly masterminding two of these multi-ton shipments of hashish. Twice, he was acquitted while his involved-underlings were sent to prison.

With the proceeds of drug trafficking, the Rizzuto organization managed to invest massively in many legitimate sectors such as hotels, restaurants and real estates. The organization expanded its operations well beyond the Montréal area.

In May 1997, the kingpin boss of the Southwestern Ontario province, was gunned down in front of his office in Hamilton. John Papalia, who was a made member of the Joseph Todaro Cosa Nostra family of Buffalo, had been a central figure on the Ontario organized crime scene for decades. A few months later, in July 1997, Carmen Barillaro of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and a trusted lieutenant of Papalia, was also murdered.

Information are that the Sicilians had given the Musitano family, a Calabrian Hamilton-based crime group, the contract for killing Papalia and Barillaro. Pasquale Musitano and his brother, Angelo, were later arrested and charged with first degree murder. They all plead guilty after the hired-hitman, Kenneth Murdock, decided to cooperate with police. Papalia and Barillaro both gone, the Sicilian of Montréal and Toronto could spread their influence over the Mafia groups in southern Ontario. The implications of the murder of Papalia simply meant that the Canadian Sicilian Mafia established once for all its hegemony in Canada.

The Downfall

Vito Rizzuto's (picture on the left) reign on the Montréal Mafia could have lasted forever. But destiny decided otherwise. On January 20, 2004, at 6 o'clock in the morning, members of the Antigang Squad of the Montréal Police knocked at the front door of Rizzuto's luxurious mansion house in Northwest of Montréal. They announced the Mafia boss that he was under arrest as the U.S. authorities has issued an order for his extradition in relation to his alleged participation into the murder of three Bonanno captains on May 5, 1981. U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies had long suspected Rizzuto's involvement into the killings, as revealed a FBI surveillance picture showing the young Rizzuto leaving the premises of a Bronx motel the following day of the murders, but police were unable to prove a direct link to the Montréal mafioso. The missing link would be supplied by Salvatore Vitale and Frank Lino, two ranking members of the Bonanno family, who were already charged for other murders and who had decided to cooperate with police. In July 2004, Vitale was the key government prosecution witness against his brother-in-law, Joseph Massino, implicating him in seven murders of members of the Bonanno family.

Then, a year after his arrest, another blow stuck Vito Rizzuto's head. In January 2005, news filtered that Joseph Massino, against all expectations, decided to become a government informant. The defection of Massino will be crucial for the Rizzuto's defence at his trial, in the sense that Massino will be in position to point at Rizzuto as being one of the shooters of the three Bonanno captains.

Since his arrest, Rizzuto has remained incarcerated and was denied any bail pending the conclusion of the extradition legal proceedings that are now debated before Canadian courts.


The final straw came from the Italian police, on February 11, 2005, when the Direzionne Investigativa AntiMafia charged Vito Rizzuto and four other of laundering proceeds of crime in bids for the super contract for the construction of a 7-billion dollars bridge linking Sicily to Calabria. Italian authorities have not yet requested the extradition of Rizzuto.

Should Rizzuto be extradited to the United States and after that found guilty of all charges and sentenced to a long prison term, will it mean the end of the Rizzuto crime family? The answer may lie in how the next generation of Sicilians is going to behave once Vito Rizzuto is gone.

About his book Mobsters, Gangsters and Men of Honour:

It’s an organization that continues to intrigue us, shrouded in secrecy and mythologized in movies and television shows. But few people are actually privy to the highly ritualized and organized set of rules that governs the North American Cosa Nostra as it goes about its daily business of gambling, prostitution, and drug-trafficking.

Pierre de Champlain is one of those few, and what this RCMP intelligence analyst has discovered after 20 years of research and inthe- field work is illuminating, often shocking, and always insightful. Mobsters, Gangsters and Men of Honour methodically deconstructs the rules and regulations of this family-run organization, at the same time bringing them vividly to life—and death— through fascinating snap-shots of members’ past and present behaviors.

De Champlain explains how prospective Cosa Nostra members are expected to participate in a murder before being inducted. But one member was excused when he became part of a rush recruiting wave that saw the number of new recruits far exceed the number of people the Cosa Nostra needed to be murdered. Another important code dictates that respect toward family bosses is essential. One inductee discovered this the hard way when he insulted a senior boss in front of others at a restaurant. The upstart’s body was later discovered encased in the cement floor of a nearby social club.

De Champlain destroys many mafia myths and reveals lesser-known philosophies and codes. He also offers a compelling analysis of the often seemingly contradictory split between an established rule and actual behavior. From the structure of the organization to initiation ceremonies, from codes of conduct and territories of jurisdiction to criminal activities, from the Cosa Nostra judicial system to the complex code of murder, Mobsters, Gangsters and Men of Honour is the ultimate, comprehensive exposé for true-crime enthusiasts, law-enforcement agencies, criminology students, and anyone who is intrigued by the inner life of a members-only club.

About the Author
PIERRE DE CHAMPLAIN was born in Rimouski, Quebec. He was a former intelligence analyst with the RCMP’s Criminal Intelligence Directorate in Ottawa and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and a general certificate in law. He has published four books on crime in French and has also written articles for Le Devoir. He lives in Hull, Quebec.

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