When Mussolini’s Mafia Buster Cleaned Up Sicily — and Sent Mobsters to America
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes cracking down on crime just makes it spread.
By Tim Bissell
Gangi, Sicily. The Mafia chief peered through his window into the deserted serpentine streets below. More than 100 of his thugs were hiding in their darkened houses scattered throughout the mountaintop town 50 miles southeast of Palermo. Then footsteps echoed through an alley, and a boy emerged out of the shadows and yelled: “The telegraph says, ‘I summon the latitanti to give themselves up within 12 hours, on the lapse of which I shall proceed to extreme measures.’”
The mob boss barked at the crier, asking who had issued the threat.
“It’s him … Mori!”
Mori — il prefetto di ferro, “the Iron Prefect” — continued his roundups, nabbing hundreds of Mafia suspects at a time.
Cesare Mori, a stout man with silver-flecked hair, had worked assignments in Sicily since he was a young cop in the early 1900s. He famously caught many latitanti (wanted criminals) during his time on the volcano-studded island, but few of them belonged to the protected ranks of the Mafia. When Mori was sent back to Sicily in 1925, it was for the sole purpose of crushing organized crime — on the orders of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini’s hatred for the Mafia likely formed during his tour of the island in 1924. It was then that he had a spat with Don Ciccio Cuccia, a Mafia head who moonlighted as a small-town mayor. Cuccia supposedly questioned Mussolini’s use of armed escorts, assuring Il Duce that in Sicily he was under Mafia protection. Mussolini was insulted, and a row ensued. As a result, Cuccia made sure Mussolini’s speech later that day was delivered to a near-empty piazza. In another town, the Mafia are alleged to have stolen Mussolini’s hat.
Incensed by the personal slights and concerned that the Mafia was a powerful state within a state, Mussolini called on Mori to break the mob’s back and bring Sicily in line with the rest of Fascist Italy.
According to his 1931 memoir, The Last Struggle With the Mafia, Mori had witnessed mobsters’ expertise in evading capture long before he was appointed prefect of Palermo. To halt these disappearing acts, on his latest tour of Sicilian duty he put entire towns under siege, which is what he did in Gangi.
For his first retate (roundup), Mori spent days surrounding the town with his men, blocking off outer roads and then ordering police units to creep into the inner streets. When the town’s 150 latitanti saw the cops move in, they retreated into their houses, slinking into secret hiding places.
After the gangsters ignored a second call for surrender, Mori occupied their homes. Hidden beneath beds and floorboards, the latitanti began hearing shots. Mori was slaughtering their livestock, which he then auctioned to long-suffering townsfolk. With nowhere to run and Mori’s threat of “extreme measures” in the air, the humiliated mafiosi surrendered.
After Gangi, Mori — now dubbed il prefetto di ferro, “the Iron Prefect” — continued his roundups, nabbing hundreds of Mafia suspects at a time, often in a single night (and usually with little to no evidence). Mori also tore up suspected Mafia land agreements and business contracts to destroy the syndicates’ income and encouraged law-abiding citizens to take up arms against their tormentors. Sicily soon became too hot for crooks to handle. In 1923, the year before Mussolini launched his Mafia vendetta, there were 224 murders and 312 robberies in Palermo. In 1928 there were 35 killings and 14 robberies.
Fortunately, Sicilian gangsters had somewhere else to go.
Since the 1880s the Sicilians who had been emigrating to America were mostly peasants fed up with Mafia extortion back home. Wannabe gangsters also made the trip, but real mafiosi had no reason to leave prior to Mori’s crackdown.
When heavy-hitting murderers and kidnappers were forced out, they arrived in New York to find poor imitations of Mafia clans run by low-level hoods they called percia pagliara (“lurkers in straw stacks”). The new arrivals quickly swallowed these rackets and went on to become the most feared criminals in the country.
“No question Mori led to an exodus of future American mafiosi,” says Selwyn Raab, former organized crime reporter for The New York Times and the author of Five Families. “This included luminaries such as Carlo Gambino, Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci and Vincent Mangano.”
This generation of mafiosi was rampant in 1930s America. By then, back in the home country, Mori had retired, considering his job done.
Even in Sicily what passed for relative peace didn’t last long. In 1943 160,000 Allied soldiers invaded the island and defeated its Axis defenders in a six-week campaign. Sicily then acted as a springboard for the Allies to liberate all of Italy.
After the fascists were defeated, the Mafia regained control of Sicily, a takeover from which Italy is only just recovering. Some experts suggest that the anti-fascist Mafia gangs were pivotal in setting up the island’s liberation, thus influencing the outcome of World War II.
Others say no. “Claims of Mafia involvement in the Allied invasion of Sicily are exaggerated and inaccurate,” says Raab. One of the generally debunked claims is that Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the imprisoned don of the Genovese crime family, connected U.S. Naval Intelligence with Sicilians who scouted Nazi defenses. Experts say there may be some proof that Luciano directed stateside Mafia clans to protect New York City harbors from saboteurs.
So, it’s a stretch to attribute Mussolini’s fatal fall directly to his persecution of the Mafia and the effectiveness of his Iron Prefect. What’s without doubt, though, is that Mori, despite the title of his book, did not eradicate the Mafia. His ruthless but effective methods were only a temporary cure for Sicily — one that also served to spread the latitanti to new lands, where they thrived.
- Tim Bissell, OZY Author Contact Tim Bissell