Mus­solini vs. the mafia

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Carl Dansk Il­lus­tra­tor Lorenzo G ritti





No mat­ter who you are, what you’ve wit­nessed or how you’ve been wronged, never re­veal the iden­tity of an out­law to the au­thor­i­ties. At­tempt vengeance by our own means if you wish – that’s your omertà-given right. But never, un­der any cir­cum­stance, should you tat­tle.

Still, omertà is a lit­tle less pre­scrip­tive about whether you should bed down with these same au­thor­i­ties if do­ing so might be good for the mob as a whole. Which is how, in the early 20th cen­tury, the Si­cil­ian mafia found it­self cosy­ing up with not one but two na­tional govern­ments, to see if the un­der­world might func­tion a lit­tle bet­ter out in the open. Un­for­tu­nately for those in­volved, the strat­egy didn’t pan out as hoped.

Ben­ito Mus­solini had been Prime Min­is­ter of Italy for two years when he made the call to swing on down to Si­cily. The year was 1924 and, hav­ing ab­sorbed Italy’s armed forces into his own com­bat squad, Il Duce de­cided it was time to spread his Fas­cist ideals south. Gain­ing the sup­port of Si­cily – Italy’s least po­lit­i­cally en­gaged re­gion – would be a real feather in the hat of the Fas­cist cause, and Mus­solini was op­ti­mistic. The is­land, he’d bragged, was “Fas­cist to the bone mar­row”. Af­ter task­ing his min­ions with craft­ing a travel itin­er­ary, he packed his favourite hat and headed south.

“Fas­cist to the bone mar­row”, most his­to­ri­ans now agree, was some­thing of a stretch even by Mus­solinian stan­dards. Fas­cists had won zero seats in the is­land’s two pre­vi­ous elec­tions, and of the 25,000 who’d joined Mus­solini’s March on Rome, fewer than

100 hailed from Si­cily. The prob­lem, the main­lan­ders griped, was that the Fas­cist ide­ol­ogy was a north­ern phe­nom­e­non, while Si­cil­ians were loyal only to fam­ily.

Whether this was true or not re­mains an open ques­tion. (Per­haps the Si­cil­ians, who had his­tor­i­cally been ne­glected and abused by off­shore pow­ers, were merely wary of ab­di­cat­ing power to the state.) Less de­bat­able is the fact that, by 1924, Si­cily’s mob­sters were the big­gest Mus­solini fan­boys the is­land had go­ing round. As the rul­ing au­thor­i­ties in ev­ery sense but the le­gal one, the mob looked to Mus­solini as a chance to se­cure some po­lit­i­cal clout. It seemed like a match made in heaven; the only thing left to do was meet.

Alas, it was far from love at first sight. To en­sure Il Duce’s safety on his tour of the mafia badlands, Mus­solini’s men ar­ranged for him to share a ride with Piana dei Greci’s mayor-slash-Mafia boss, Don Cic­cio Cuc­cia. By all ac­counts, things were truck­ing along tol­er­a­bly un­til Cuc­cia, amused at the heav­ily armed mo­tor­cade ac­com­pa­ny­ing their pro­ces­sion, ribbed Mus­solini about “all these cops” he’d brought along. Il Duce was his guest, Cuc­cia in­ti­mated; his safety was there­fore as­sured. Look­ing then to re­ally drive home his point, Cuc­cia turned to his men and an­nounced, “Let no man dare touch a hair of Mus­solini's head. He is my friend and the best man in the world.”

While many would have taken such a quip as a com­pli­ment, or at worst a touch be­lit­tling, for Mus­solini’s mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal tem­per­a­ment the tease was tan­ta­mount to sac­ri­lege. What ex­act words Il Duce em­ployed by way of re­buke isn’t known, but the Mafia don ended up feel­ing equally put out. Things turned awk­ward, frosty, and then down­right petty. His feel­ings hum­bled, Cuc­cia or­dered his towns­peo­ple to shun Mus­solini’s next pub­lic speech, and in­stead had his cronies cor­ral in a mea­gre au­di­ence of un­in­ter­ested beg­gars and boot polishers. At a re­cep­tion in an­other town, a Mafia stooge is said to have pinched Il Duce’s hat.


On his jour­ney back to Rome, hat­less and hu­mil­i­ated, Mus­solini swore a vendetta. Loath to have the Mafia op­er­at­ing as a state within a state – his state, no less – he dis­patched a few Fas­cist deputies to Si­cily, all of whom shortly turned up mur­dered.

Next, he re­called from re­tire­ment Ce­sare Mori, the for­mer head of Si­cily’s spe­cial forces against brig­andage. Mori’s task, Mus­solini ex­plained, was to snuff out the Mafia by what­ever means nec­es­sary.

“If the laws still in force hin­der you,” he’s said to have ad­vised, “this will be no prob­lem. We will draw up new laws.”

Mori ar­rived as pre­fect of Tra­pani in May 1924, and didn’t faff about in broad­cast­ing his in­ten­tion. “My name is Mori,” he in­formed a leery pub­lic, “and I will have peo­ple killed.” The guy’s fond­ness for killer puns aside ( Morire is the Ital­ian verb for ‘to die’), Mori did know a thing about the foun­da­tions of Mafia power. If he was to suc­ceed in over­throw­ing the mob, he had to: a) present the state as a strong and trust­wor­thy au­thor­ity; b) es­tab­lish a direct bond be­tween it and the pop­u­la­tion; and c) de­feat the Mafia on their own terms. Mori’s open­ing gam­bit was to kick out Si­cily’s largely cor­rupt mag­is­trates and re­place them with his own – though whether the new ju­di­cial pro­cesses were any more ex­act­ing is a mat­ter on which the jury then, as now, is still out. Sus­pected Mafiosi were sum­monsed on charges rang­ing from mur­der to cat­tle-rustling to the de­lib­er­ately vague “band­ing to­gether for crim­i­nal pur­poses”. They were then hauled be­fore spe­cial tri­bunals and tried in pur­pose-built cages, where they were dis­played like an­i­mals.

Those who didn’t front up soon learned that their wives and chil­dren had been taken hostage. In the vil­lage of Gangi, when the hoods he was af­ter failed to emerge on com­mand, Mori or­dered his men to start slaugh­ter­ing their live­stock and to sleep in their beds. As well as em­ploy­ing Mafia-es­que tac­tics, the wily old pre­fect wasn’t averse to a bit of old-fash­ioned trick­ery. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions he went strolling the streets him­self, call­ing out his sus­pects for du­els, de­nounc­ing those who failed to heed his chal­lenge as cow­ards, and then ar­rest­ing those who did.

Once his tar­gets were in cus­tody, Mori of­ten ex­tracted con­fes­sions through tor­ture and con­vic­tions handed down on scant ev­i­dence. That the in­no­cent were some­times caught up in the drag­net in­curred lit­tle hand­wring­ing. (It’s been al­leged Mus­solini wel­comed these lax pro­cesses of law as a con­ve­nient way to put away his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.) Ac­quainted with these tac­tics, but not too much on the re­ceiv­ing end, the Mafia were soon forced to con­cede that in Mori they’d met their match. While some pro­fessed a grudg­ing ad­mi­ra­tion of Mori’s tac­tics, count­less mob­sters fled to the U.S., where some went on to found new crim­i­nal rack­ets. The im­pu­dent Don Cuc­cia, mean­while, wasn’t one of them. De­nied even the dig­nity of a trial, he ended up be­hind bars within two months of hav­ing made his gaffe. Af­ter five years as Si­cily’s over­seer, Mori and his team of vig­i­lante po­lice­men were es­ti­mated to have made some 11,000 ar­rests. Suss land agree­ments and busi­ness con­tracts were torn up, and Mafia ac­tiv­ity sharply re­duced. Where in 1923 there had been 224 mur­ders, in 1928 there were 35 – a stat that, in ad­di­tion to im­prov­ing the lives of every­day Si­cil­ians, made for stu­pen­dous Fas­cist PR. Amid soar­ing pop­u­lar­ity on the home front, sev­eral na­tions sent Mus­solini tele­grams of con­grat­u­la­tion. The Mafia, Mus­solini crowed to the world, was “dead” and no force would “ever again be able to re­vive it.”

Suf­fice to say, Mus­solini turned out wrong on both counts. Pin the ul­ti­mate cause of his down­fall to what you will – stu­pid­ity, con­ceit, turpi­tude – Il Duce’s come­up­pance came when, throw­ing in his lot with Hitler, he de­clared war on the U.S. And if you trust pop­u­lar lore, the Mafia played a hand in it. By the 1940s, sev­eral of the mob fam­i­lies who fled Mori’s purge had set up shop in Amer­ica, and they were now, as you might ex­pect, anti-Fas­cist to the bone mar­row. So when the U.S. Gov­ern­ment came seek­ing in­for­ma­tion that might help the Army lib­er­ate Italy from Mus­solini, the Mafia saw it as an of­fer they couldn’t refuse. The Amer­i­can mob­sters called on their fam­i­lies in the old coun­try, and to­gether laid down the in­tel­li­gence net­work that would pave the way for an Al­lied ar­rival in Si­cily.

Ex­actly how much of Mus­solini’s fall can be traced back to that fate­ful drive with

Don Cuc­cia de­pends on which his­tory books you con­sult. (Schol­ars dif­fer, with wildly ex­ag­ger­ated hand ges­tures.) What’s not up for de­bate, though, is this: some 75 years af­ter the Al­lied in­va­sion, only one vi­o­lent, au­thor­i­tar­ian regime still ex­erts any power over Italy. And its leader never lost his favourite hat while cam­paign­ing in Si­cily.

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