December 03, 2007

From Sicily to New York

While Italian law enforcement has seemingly dealt serious blows to the Mafia, there is evidence that a new and more formidable Mafia is now emerging.

Commentary by Eric J Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (03/12/07)

With the two most powerful Sicilian Mafia bosses behind bars and the illicit criminal network's domestic sources of income curtailed, it at first seems that Italian law enforcement has dealt several serious blows to Italy's most notorious secret crime society.

But it now appears that in its weakened state, the Cosa Nostra is strengthening ties to New York's Gambino crime family, a move that has fostered the return of one of Sicily's most notorious clans and which may bolster revenue, decentralize decision making and make the job much tougher for Italian investigators and prosecutors.

The last 18 months have been tough ones for the Sicilian Mafia.

In April 2006, police raided a remote farmhouse in Sicily and captured "boss of bosses" Bernardo Provenzano, a member of the famed Corleone faction of the Mafia who had been the organization's top figure for 13 years. Provenzano had famously transformed the Mafia into a less visible but equally potent organization after the 1993 arrest of Salvatore "Toto" Riina.

The arrest sparked a period of infighting in the Mafia between the Palermo and Corleone factions. In June, police arrested 45 suspected mafia members in Palermo, and another 14 were apprehended near the city in August. Slowly, the violence died down with power finally resting in the hands of Palermo boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, who was himself captured in a dramatic raid in early November.

In the latest development, police on 30 November apprehended a key Lo Piccolo ally, Palermo Zen district boss Michele Catalano, who was arrested in his girlfriend's home while watching a television drama on the exploits of the jailed Riina, Provenzano's predecessor.

Lo Piccolo did a lot in his short time in power: There is compelling evidence that he reached out to the Gambino clan, one of the "five families" that control organized crime in the New York area.

According to Piero Grasso, Italy's top anti-Mafia prosecutor, the 14 mafiosi taken into custody in August had information on them indicating that Sicilian bosses had been illicitly investing in the Brooklyn real estate market. And ranking Sicilian and Gambino bosses have been spotted together in the US, Canada, Sicily and, most recently, in the Dominican Republic, where it is believed they have set up a joint food import and export business to act as a cover for drug trafficking.

This is not the first time the Gambino family has partnered with its Sicilian counterparts: In the 1970s, Palermo's Inzerillo family teamed with the Gambinos to transport Sicilian heroin to the US.

That set the Inzerillos on a collision course with the powerful Riina, the head of the Corleone clan and a rising Mafia figure at the time. In 1981, Riina ordered what became known as The Second Mafia War - an all-out attack on the Inzerillos, sparked by the killing of kingpin Salvatore Inzerillo in a hail of bullets that left him unrecognizable. Within two years, 200 members of the Inzerillo clan were dead, including Salvatore's brothers Santo, who was strangled in Sicily, and Pietro, who was shot to death in New Jersey.

Riina allowed the last remaining Inzerillos to flee to the US under Gambino protection on the condition that they never return to Italy. The deal pushed the Palermo faction out of power in favor of the Corleone faction, and it ended cooperation with the Gambinos.

His reign over the Sicilian Mafia was among the bloodiest on record, resulting in the murder of several highly visible government officials - most notably General Carlo della Chiesa in 1982, and prosecutors Giovanni Falcone in 1992 and Paolo Borsellino a year later - and coordinated terror attacks far from the Sicily base in Rome, Milan and Florence in 1993. But with Riina's capture that year, Provenzano took control and the Mafia evolved into a behind-the-scenes force funded by extortion money, a period known in Italy as the Pax Mafiosa.

But with Provenzano's capture, power shifted back to the Palermo faction under Lo Piccolo, setting the table for renewed ties to the Gambinos and the return of the notorious Inzerillos - who came back to Sicily after 25 years, ostensibly with the blessing of the Corleone faction eager to dip into the cash flow from the Gambinos.

With Lo Piccolo joining Provenzano behind bars, it is not yet clear who will rise to the top of the ranks of organized crime in Sicily.

But with the Corleone and Palermo clans inching closer, the peace with the Inzerillos, and the increased ties with the Gambino family, infighting seems less likely than it was in the wake of Provenzano's capture.

And the Mafia that emerges seems sure to be more international, richer and harder to fight than the one that existed only a few months ago.

Eric J Lyman is ISN Security Watch's correspondent in Rome.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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