FROM MADE-UP TO ‘MADE’ MEN

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - ANTONIO NICASO

Fic­tion, af­ter all, is what makes the Mafia at­trac­tive – both the fic­tion cre­ated by the Mafiosi them­selves to le­git­imize their lives, and the fic­tion cre­ated by Hol­ly­wood and the me­dia to make them look even more at­trac­tive and ex­cep­tional than they them­selves could ever have imag­ined.

The ex­plo­sive trial of Domenico Vi­oli – the Cana­dian al­leged to be a top mob­ster – re­veals how pop cul­ture and pub­lic im­age have be­come cen­tral to the Mafia iden­tity

Au­thor and an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ex­pert on or­ga­nized crime. He teaches So­cial His­tory of Or­ga­nized Crime and Mafia Cul­ture and the Power of Sym­bols, Rit­u­als and Myth at Queen’s Univer­sity.

In Novem­ber of 2017, po­lice ar­rested Domenico Vi­oli, a Hamilton fa­ther and sales­man, on drug-traf­fick­ing charges. Mr. Vi­oli’s trial ex­ploded his rep­u­ta­tion: Courts heard that he had told an un­der­cover agent that he had been pro­moted to un­der­boss of the Buf­falo-based To­daro crime fam­ily – “the No. 2 man in charge of the ‘whole thing,’” he said in an au­dio record­ing – one of the North Amer­i­can Mafia fam­i­lies of­ten re­ferred to as La Cosa Nos­tra.

In Mr. Vi­oli’s own words, he and his crime fam­ily were tak­ing over the whole city of Hamilton with the bik­ers. He had par­tic­i­pated in an ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony that took place at a Hamilton ho­tel in the pres­ence of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Bo­nanno crime fam­ily from New York, in an ef­fort to so­lid­ify re­la­tions with Amer­i­can fam­i­lies; in the 1990s, Mon­treal Mafia boss Vito Riz­zuto, with the sup­port of the Musi­tano broth­ers, mas­ter­minded the elim­i­na­tion of the On­tario representatives of La Cosa Nos­tra, cre­at­ing an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian Mafia. Mr. Riz­zuto’s death, from lung cancer in 2013, sparked a fullfledged violent mob war in Canada, even as the Mafia’s usual cor­rupt ac­tions, from laun­der­ing money through knowl­edge­able pro­fes­sion­als or pur­chas­ing real es­tate through shell com­pa­nies, con­tinue.

And along­side all that cine­matic-feel­ing drama, Mr. Vi­oli re­port­edly lived the Mafia life. Dur­ing a search of his home of­fice, po­lice found mar­i­juana, a brick of hash, bun­dles of cash, sev­eral com­put­ers and cell­phones, ledgers, a re­ceipt book­let, a debt list, busi­ness cards with a list of po­lice ve­hi­cles, a po­lice ve­hi­cle tracker, two boxes of am­mu­ni­tion wrapped in a T-shirt – and, also, a signed poster of the cast of The So­pra­nos.

That dis­cov­ery – and the en­su­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, too – high­lights how, even as tech­nol­ogy has in­fil­trated ev­ery cor­ner of ev­ery­day life and progress seems to hap­pen ex­po­nen­tially, the tropes, busi­ness strate­gies and rit­u­als of the Mafia seem to re­main un­touched by time. But then again, it’s no real sur­prise that Mr. Vi­oli was a fan of the ac­claimed HBO se­ries. Fic­tion, af­ter all, is what makes the Mafia at­trac­tive – both the fic­tion cre­ated by the Mafiosi them­selves to le­git­imize their lives, and the fic­tion cre­ated by Hol­ly­wood and the me­dia to make them look even more at­trac­tive and ex­cep­tional than they them­selves could ever have imag­ined. With­out these twin fic­tions, the per­cep­tion of the Mafia as an hon­ourable so­ci­ety of heroic fig­ures would dis­si­pate, its al­lure eas­ily ex­cised from the do­main of pop­u­lar cul­ture. Fic­tion is the main rea­son why po­lice cru­sades against the Mafia have proven largely in­ef­fec­tual in erad­i­cat­ing it from the so­cial radar screen. Peo­ple have al­ways used fic­tion as a mirror of re­al­ity, com­bin­ing cred­i­ble fac­tual el­e­ments with imag­i­nary sit­u­a­tions and in­ci­dents.

And for the Mafia, fic­tion masks the truth: That it is a ruth­less or­ga­ni­za­tion, its con­cept of fam­ily twisted into some­thing crim­i­nal and violent.

In 1972, Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s The God­fa­ther be­came an overnight hit, mainly be­cause it por­trayed “men of hon­our” as de­fend­ers of the tra­di­tional con­cept of fam­ily. This was ap­peal­ing for peo­ple at the time; by the early 1970s, the United States had en­tered into a post­mod­ern mind­set, a world­view that chal­lenged, and con­tin­ues to chal­lenge, tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues. The God­fa­ther re­as­sured au­di­ences that the tra­di­tional fam­ily was still valid, no mat­ter how deadly Mafia fam­i­lies might ac­tu­ally be. They es­poused the prin­ci­ple of the fam­ily, no mat­ter how bru­tal they were. The im­age of mob­sters as “men of hon­our and tra­di­tion” be­came iconic through­out the United States, and as they be­came em­bed­ded into Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture through es­teemed pop-cul­ture clas­sics such as The God­fa­ther and Goodfel­las, it cre­ated an aes­thetic tone and cul­tural mythol­ogy, and al­lowed vil­lainy to falsely be cast with a hero nar­ra­tive.

But it is dif­fi­cult to see through this when it is be­ing glo­ri­fied by Hol­ly­wood and Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. True-crime shows and films tan­ta­lize peo­ple, much like car crashes and hur­ri­canes do. Ac­cord­ing to crim­i­nol­o­gist Scott Bonn, “The pub­lic is drawn to crime be­cause it trig­gers the most ba­sic and pow­er­ful emo­tion in all of us: fear. As a source of pop­u­lar-cul­ture en­ter­tain­ment, it al­lows us to ex­pe­ri­ence fear and hor­ror in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment where the threat is ex­cit­ing but not real.”

The real Mafiosi know how to de­ploy that tan­ta­liz­ing blend. Mafia cul­ture has al­ways been aware of the emo­tional power of sym­bol­ism, even be­fore Hol­ly­wood en­tered the pic­ture. The Mafia has al­ways por­trayed it­self as an “hon­ourable so­ci­ety,” adopt­ing a code, called omerta, based on sym­bols, rit­u­als, rites and myths, that al­lows it to en­dure across gen­er­a­tions. With this code, mur­der be­comes di­vine jus­tice, vi­o­lence a sa­cred bat­tle and be­trayal a sac­ri­lege. With­out the in­tox­i­cat­ing mythol­ogy, mur­der would just be gut­less homi­cide, vi­o­lence bru­tal sav­agery and be­trayal, a com­mon ba­nal­ity.

The num­ber of re­search stud­ies on the so­cial con­di­tions lead­ing to or­ga­nized crime mem­ber­ship is stag­ger­ing, as are the the­o­ries put for­ward to ex­plain the al­lure of crim­i­nal life­styles, from so­cioe­co­nomic vari­ables to a la­tent “vi­o­lence in­stinct” in the hu­man psy­che. These frame­works seem want­ing: So­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus and even ed­u­ca­tion seem to play di­min­ish­ing roles in at­tract­ing young peo­ple into the lure of gangs to­day. But if in­deed gang­ster­ism is, as film critic Robert Warshow sug­gests, a form of art, based on a look, walk and talk that ex­udes power, control and en­joy­ment, then it’s these forms of sym­bolic self-con­struc­tion – in­clud­ing cloth­ing and tat­toos – that Hol­ly­wood and the mass me­dia both tap into and in­flu­ence the Mafia in turn. There re­ally never was a Mafia dress code, for in­stance, but there is one now – and it looks sus­pi­ciously like the one seen in movies about fic­ti­tious mob­sters.

Miss­ing the im­por­tance of sym­bol­ism means we miss the root causes of Mafia cul­ture. This can be dan­ger­ous: For a long time, it was be­lieved that the Mafia was an or­ga­ni­za­tion linked to South­ern Ital­ian eth­nic­ity, a ques­tion­able idea of oth­er­ness that has gen­er­ated con­tro­ver­sial so­ci­o­log­i­cal the­o­ries, such as the “alien con­spir­acy” – the idea that the im­mi­grants brought crimes with them. But the Mafia is not a virus that in­fects healthy ter­ri­to­ries: It is a cul­ture that grows by spin­ning its own al­lur­ing tales, but is also, at its core, about net­work­ing.

In­deed, it is the up­per world – in­hab­ited by up­right lawyers, char­tered ac­coun­tants, bro­kers, bankers, bu­reau­crats, politi­cians, po­lice of­fi­cers, judges and labour union representatives work­ing le­git­i­mately – that sus­tains and sup­ports the un­der­world. Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with an un­der­cover po­lice agent, Mr. Vi­oli spoke about pay­ing off a judge and be­ing well-con­nected to im­por­tant peo­ple. His brother Joey pleaded guilty to drug-re­lated charges and last June was sen­tenced to 16 years in prison. At his tri­als, char­ac­ter ref­er­ence let­ters were sub­mit­ted by the head of the lo­cal paramedics union, as well as a hos­pi­tal man­ager and even a priest; the for­mer head of the Hamilton air­port vol­un­teered to be a surety.

“Hu­man cap­i­tal” or “so­cial cap­i­tal” – the abil­ity to count on co-op­er­a­tion with out­side sub­jects – is the back­bone of the Mafia’s power. With­out them, the Mafia would be like milk with­out lac­tose, or cof­fee with­out caf­feine; the vi­o­lence in­her­ent in crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions tether them­selves es­sen­tially to power. That is what the Mafia is all about – it is core to its es­tab­lished im­age – and that is why it is very dif­fi­cult to dis­rupt it in­ter­nally or ex­ter­nally – es­pe­cially if there is no po­lit­i­cal will to fight it.

For Canada, the fight against Mafia crimes has never been a po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity. Le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana or pro­mot­ing a for­mer po­lice chief to fed­eral minister who is re­spon­si­ble for the fight against or­ga­nized crime won’t help. We talk about the Mafia only when some­one is killed or some­one is ar­rested or con­victed. Of­ten, talk shows ap­pease au­di­ences for en­ter­tain­ment, rather than le­git­i­mate in­ter­est in build­ing con­cern and aware­ness.

The money gen­er­ated by drug traf­fick­ing is ap­peal­ing to many, es­pe­cially to the bank­ing and fi­nan­cial world. In 2016, a bank – un­named at the time, but later re­vealed to be Toronto-head­quar­tered Man­ulife – failed to re­port 1,200 sus­pi­cious trans­ac­tions and was fined only $1.15mil­lion. This was the first and only time a bank has been pe­nal­ized for this kind of of­fence.

A 2017 re­port from Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, a Ber­lin­based or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to stop cor­rup­tion around the world, high­lighted a loop­hole in Canada’s laws that could fa­cil­i­tate money laun­der­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the real es­tate sec­tor: “An in­flux of over­seas cap­i­tal is one of sev­eral causes of ris­ing prop­erty prices, but the ex­tent and im­pact of for­eign in­vest­ment re­mains un­known since very lit­tle data is col­lected on prop­erty owners. In­di­vid­u­als can use shell com­pa­nies, trusts and nom­i­nees to hide their ben­e­fi­cial in­ter­est in Cana­dian real es­tate.” Nowa­days, crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to grav­i­tate to ju­ris­dic­tions with weaker stan­dards. In Canada, for­eign com­pa­nies can buy prop­erty with­out pro­vid­ing any in­for­ma­tion about their real owners or their cor­po­rate struc­ture, only a ti­tle holder which can be sim­ply a trust or shell com­pany. Re­search by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional Canada shows that this prac­tice is most preva­lent in the lux­ury prop­erty mar­ket.

Al­fonso Caru­ana, a no­to­ri­ous drug traf­ficker, once said that Canada was the per­fect coun­try for crim­i­nals – aside from the weather.

Noth­ing’s changed about the cold. Or the crim­i­nals.

This au­to­graphed poster of the cast of The So­pra­nos was one of sev­eral items seized by po­lice in a search of Domenico Vi­oli’s home of­fice in 2017.

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