What ever happened to the Mafia? In this age of terrorism, it's easy to forget about our homegrown demons. Foremost among them surely ranks Tony Soprano's real-life cousins, who for a half-century wielded their own unique brand of terrorism over American cities. The mob is no longer the power it once was, when 26 families ran billion-dollar rackets and wreaked havoc from New York and Tampa to Kansas City and Las Vegas. Only 11 families are still around, the FBI tells me, and many of their members are in jail or inactive. But like a stubborn infection kept at bay by antibiotics, it doesn't take much for the disease to spread again. And that's what has the FBI's mob fighters worried these days.
Many of the FBI's best organized-crime sleuths were moved to counterterrorism after 9/11, but those who remain are quietly working with Italian cops on what they're calling a new Pizza Connection, a reference to the infamous 1980s case in which the Mafia used pizzerias to distribute some $1.6 billion worth of heroin. The operation was tied to New York's Bonnano family, but the Pizza Connection was largely run by Sicilian émigrés. Although the Sicilian and American mafias are distinct groups, a steady stream of the more ruthless, often penniless thugs from Sicily emigrated here, and by the late 1970s, the Sicilians--dubbed "zips" by their fellow mobsters--were throwing their weight around the American mob. U.S. authorities eventually caught on, and the resulting prosecution was a milestone in helping curtail the Mafia's power in both America and Italy. The case also helped make the careers of a then little-known federal prosecutor named Louis Freeh, who went on to lead the FBI, and his boss, then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Now comes a new "Pizza Connection," investigators say, in which Sicilian mobsters have plotted to resurrect ties between the old country and the new, rebuild the strength of the U.S. Mafia, and usher in a new era of leadership in Sicily. No evidence of pizzerias yet, but like the original case, this one revolves around drugs; this time the focus is not on Asian heroin but on South American cocaine, shipped through New York and on to Europe's lucrative dope markets.
At the center of the case, allegedly, are two brothers from the Sicilian capital of Palermo--Rosario and Francesco Inzerillo. The Inzerillos reportedly had set up shop in the New York area and were cousins of John Gambino, grandson of the legendary Carlo Gambino, godfather of the once dominant Gambino family. The Inzerillos are said to have made investments in businesses across metro New York: construction, supermarkets, pizzerias, and more.
My colleague Leo Sisti, one of Italy's top investigative journalists, offers details of the case in the July 13 issue of the weekly L'Espresso. "It is an ambitious, powerful plan," writes Sisti ... "To reconnect ties between the two Mafias, the parent Sicilian company and the rich American 'branch.' A Mafia refounding that is also a return to the past: to recover the apex of the power, supplanting the old guard (and) avenging the murdered men of their family. For this they are ready to risk all, and to trigger another blood feud in the honored society."
The Inzerillos once wielded major power in the Sicilian Mafia but were on the wrong end of a murderous gang war in the '80s, targeted by the more powerful Corleonese family--of the town of Corleone. (Yes, Godfather fans, there really is a Corleone, and it's ground zero for the Sicilian underworld). Many of the Inzerillos fled to the United States, but that didn't stop the Corleonese killers from tracking them down. A third Inzerillo brother, Pietro Inzerillo, was found dead in New Jersey in 1981, dollar bills stuffed in his mouth and around his genitals. (For more on the Corleonese-Inzerillo vendetta, check out Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers,)
Defeated and exiled, the remaining Inzerillos eventually were allowed back in Sicily. But after the return of Rosario and Francesco--one in 1997, the other in late 2004--rumors began flying in the Sicilian mob about a move to power by the brothers, bankrolled by a new cocaine connection through America. Alarmed by the prospects of another gang war, Italian cops moved in last June and made over 50 arrests, including Francesco and the heads of 13 families. The FBI is working with Italian authorities in Palermo, digging into just how far the Inzerillo brothers may have gotten with their alleged scheme. My sources say to expect more arrests.
Wanna hear what the wiseguys in America have been up to? Check out next week's blog.