Mussolini vs. the mafia
WHEN IL DUCE TRIED TO BRING FASCISM TO SICILY, THE MAFIA THOUGHT AN ALLIANCE WAS ON THE CARDS.
BUT THEN SOMEONE SHOWED NO RESPECT.
IF YOU WERE TO REDUCE THE MAFIA CODE OF OMERTÀ TO A SCHOOLYARD DICTUM, IT WOULD BASICALLY BOIL DOWN TO THIS: DO NOT DOB.
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.
THE DON ORDERED HIS PEOPLE TO SHUN MUSSOLINI’S SPEECH, AND INSTEAD CORRALLED IN A MEA GRE AUDIENCE OF UNINTERESTED BEGGARS AND BOOT POLISHERS.
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.