By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
Waiting for Brando. Busloads of American tourists walk the streets of Corleone with hope of catching a glimpse of the cinematic godfather. Respectable Corleonesi remain indoors until evening. (Oggi, 2000)
Some people came all the way from countries such as Denmark to get married here to say they got married in a mafia town. That’s why I want the name changed. (Antonio Di Lorenzo, Corleone lawyer)
It’s true that many Sicilian immigrants brought to the United States along with their poverty also their mafioso mentality. Nevertheless, in any Little Italy in America you can’t compare what happened there with towns in Sicily like Corleone, Monreale or Mistretta. To speak of the mafia outside of its natural ambience makes absolutely no sense. Certainly the Sicilian immigrants continued to communicate with relatives and compaesani who remained on the island. But to conclude that there were organic connections between Sicilian crime and its ramifications to New York or Chicago or San Francisco is farfetched. Sicilian mafia and American gangsterism are two totally different phenomena. (Aristide Spanò. Faccia a faccia con la mafia, 1978)
La mafia muore ogni giorno e ogni giorno rinasce—The mafia dies each day and each day is reborn. (Domenico Novacco. Mafia ieri mafia oggi, 1974)
Forty-two miles from Palermo, in the Sicilian highlands at 2000 feet, midway to Agrigento on the south shore, Corleone had historically controlled one of the main arteries and was one of the most strategic locations on the island of Sicily. The surrounding land, part of the Belice River valley watershed, is very fertile having been transformed over the centuries into farms growing grain, forage and stretches of orchids and pasture land. The territory was ripe for the local mafias to gain leverage over the sources of wealth.
The town was originally a Saracen settlement. Frederick II, King of Sicily, in the 1200s introduced a Lombard colony. Once a walled town, Corleone is circled by cliffs that constitute a unicum that time had modeled in the shape of fortifications and towers. Remnants of the old city can be seen in the two medieval castles and a lookout tower built a thousand years ago known as Saracena.
The population after the Second World War was about 20,000. Beginning in the 1950s the most important Corleonese pezzo da novanta, or capomafia, was the medical surgeon Dr. Michele Navarra, who resided in via del Calvario. His three brothers also were persons of repute. Although they remained free of mafia association, the brothers’ prominence was certainly enhanced by Don Michele’s power position. Giuseppe Navarra was president of the regional entity Azienda Siciliani Trasporti. Another was director of a banking establishment; the third was on the medical faculty at the University of Catania and one of the most esteemed pathologists of Italy.
How Michele Navarra became a capomafia is shrouded in mystery. One fact however is certain: he assumed the reverential term "Don" after the death of Don Calogero Lo Bue, the big capocosca of Corleone, who managed the Donna Beatrice farm complex. As the story goes, while on his deathbed Lo Bue summoned the men of his onorata società to convey his final wish: "Quannu st’occhi si chiurunu io haiu a continuari a viriri cu chiddi di Michele Navarra." ("When I close my eyes I want to be able to still see with those of Michele Navarra.") In substance, the old Don was passing his baton of command to the new boss, Don Michele. There was to be no argument, certainly not an internecine struggle for the reins of power.
The tradition of transfer varied in its particulars. In another instance, when Giuseppe Guercio, the Monreale capo, died in 1908, his corpse remained in his home for several days, despite its progressive putrefaction waiting for the arrival of Calogero Vizzini, who had the privilege of closing with his own hands the eyes of Guercio, and to kiss his forehead. With those symbolic gestures Vizzini transferred the power of the defunct to himself. Calogero Vizzini assumed the title of Don Calò at age 35 and for forty years was the recognized capo dei capi of all the mafia cosche in Sicily.
The successor to Don Calò, who died in 1958, was Giuseppe Genco Russo, of Mussomeli. During the funeral procession, the red cord attached to the black mantel covering the corpse was held in Genco Russo’s right hand, close to his heart, indicating that the linfa (body fluid) of command was being carried via the cord from the heart of the deceased to successor.
For fifteen years Don Michele was Corleone’s most distinguished citizen. He was director of the local hospital, dei Bianchi, president of the Coltivatori diretti, inspector of the Cassa mutua malattie for the towns of Corleone, Mezziuso, Campofelice, Roccamena, Misilmeri, Bolognetta, Lercara Friddi (the birthplace of Lucky Luciano), Godrano and Marineo. Not to mention health officer of the state railroad. The Corleonesi went into the voting booth with Don Michele’s choices in mind.
His authority was evident throughout the territory. He succeeded in boycotting a dam on the Belice River, projected for some time in the locality of Piano della Scala, because it was not in the interest of those he represented. The water would irrigate hundreds of farms and would give thousands of farm workers the possibility of a decent livelihood instead of being forced to emigrate in search of a decent day’s wages.
Although Don Michele had a firm grip on the Corleone mafiosi, there was a group of thugs led by Luciano Liggio that aspired to displace Michele from leadership command. Liggio was a young man who by all accounts was of extraordinary intelligence. Had he been raised outside of that ambience he would certainly have become a successful merchant or even a great captain of industry.
It was a grave error to be fooled by Luciano’s sickly and frail appearance. He was a picciottu di ficatu (figuratively, a guy with "balls"), who was reckless and fearless and capable of extreme violence. Luciano would think nothing of shooting a man in the public piazza at high noon in front of hundred witnesses. The capicosca of Corleone called him cocciu di tacca, a firebrand, who would destroy animals, haystacks and orchards of farmers who so foolhardy as to resist mafia "requests." If there was anyone to take on Dr. Michele Navarra in his entrenched position that person was Luciano Liggio.
Liggio was aware that he had the qualities of a capomafia; he did not intend to remain in the ranks as a mere picciotto getting a salary for doing the dirty work of others who benefited both in wealth and privilege. The next step for him was to grab a job as foreman of a large farm, a tactic of long standing in the world of the Sicilian mafiosi of that era. But the leaders of the various local cosche denied his request to build his own nest egg. Ignoring them, he took matters into his own hands by confronting the farm owner, a Thompson submachine gun pointed at his chest, and forced the man to sign a foreman’s contract. Liggio was twenty years old.
Luciano and his boys had big plans. They sought to bring down the old order and establish themselves at the top of the mafia hierarchy. The scheme was to purchase at an undervalued price the land of the Piano della Scala (the location of the projected dam) and sell it to the State at a neat profit. The deal fell through when the proprietor, a mafioso friend of Navarra, refused to negotiate. Liggio’s next move was to humiliate and challenge the old mafia by forming a cattle association in the shadow of Rocca Busambra, a sinister, arid and bleak 1613 meter mountain a few miles east of Corleone. He could realize a steady income by stealing flocks of sheep and cattle herds and selling the butchered meat in Palermo on the black market without paying the required excise taxes. The object was to cut into some of the Navarra rustling business and to discredit him by upsetting the delicate equilibrium of affairs that the doctor had worked so hard to establish. War was declared.
Liggio’s offensive and the damage to the hapless farmers was such that Don Michele decided to eliminate the young pretender to his throne. With the excuse to discuss the question of the dam, Luciano was invited by the Don to una parlata--a face-to-face-- in the open country. Fifteen gunmen were strategically placed to cut down Liggio. But the ambush failed and the cagey young tough decided to return the favor—he would take out the good doctor and then proceed to annihilate the old guard.
The vendetta was brutal. The first victim was Don Michele himself. The capomafia was riding in a "1100" auto with a colleague from Palermo, Dr. Giovanni Russo, on the afternoon of 10 August 1958, the feast day of San Lorenzo, near Portella Imbriaca. The two physicians found the road blocked by a truck. When Russo applied the brakes five armed men from the truck and five others from a car jumped out and opened fire with Thompson and Breda automatic weapons and pistols. Seventy-seven rounds struck the car. Dr. Russo was innocent of any involvement with organized crime.
A penal process was initiated at the Corte d’Assise (criminal court) in Palermo against the Liggio gang. Liggio, who went into hiding, was condemned absente reo to a thirty-year sentence while four picciotti suspected of participating in the double homicide were acquitted for reasons of insufficient evidence.
A few weeks’ later Liggio’s assassins went house to house in Corleone searching out Navarra associates. Three close intimates of the Don were dragged from their homes and massacred, another gravely wounded. The gunfire also struck a child, a woman and an elderly man. The inhabitants were terrorized and the authorities were shocked. Things got too hot for the gang: the men dispersed, the cattle association was dissolved and cocciu di tacca, the stone cold killer who shot dead a field guard as a youth to take his job, was on the run from town to town.
The mafia war between the navarriani and the liggiani was terrible and cruel with casualties on both sides, in even proportion; twenty dead each from the two gangs. Some eminent Corleonesi went missing. One was Dr. Vincenzo Desti, director of the town’s mutual aid society. He was taken for a one-way ride.
In September of 1963, after a brief period of quiet, three Corleonesi were fatally shot-gunned by use of the traditional lupara. One of them, Don Antonino Streva was the spiritual successor to Don Michele.
In perspective, from 1944 to 1948 there were about fifty homicides. Among them were farm owners, including the Baron Mangiameli, and the socialist union leader Placido Rizzotto, who was taken from his home in March 1948. Years later his remains were discovered in a grotto on Rocca Busambra. Luciano Liggio served two years in Ucciardone for the crime and then released for lack of sufficient proof.
Two other persons are of interest in the play of events. Antonio Governale, 54, was deemed by his supporters and the police to be in direct line to the throne of the late Don Michele. Giovanni Trombattura, 70, was the consigliere and mediator between the two warring factions. Two weeks after they disappeared their wives received the same anonymous letter written by the same hand with a signature of a cross traced in red ink, stating, "Your husband is in good hands. He will not return. You are to keep quiet."
Governale’s wife said this when questioned by the police commissioner: "He left the house at five in the morning of April 5th. He said he was going out to the country and would be back that evening. He was wearing work clothes. If you find him please take him into custody. Better he be with you than locked in a prison cell."
The word on the street was that the two men had been assassinated during a mafia conclave called by Trombattura to negotiate a peaceful settlement between his cosca and that of Luciano Liggio.
Most likely the meeting was a device to entrap and kill them. Their corpses were probably transported to a deep grotto in the mountains, hands and legs bound with wire, or thrown into the Belice River.
On 22 May 1957 the Corleone chief of the carabinieri received a telephone call from a Vincenzo Maiuri who had information regarding the killing of Vincenzo Collura, a property owner. Collura was known as "Mister Vincent" because he had lived in the United States for a few years. Apparently the old beef against him, his reason for flight, had been settled. The chief invited Maiuri to come to the barracks, which he did in the dead of night to avoid prying eyes.
Maiuri was a nervous, elderly man who got quickly to the point. "I’ll give you the names of the killers and those who gave the order," he said, "but you’ll have to lock me up otherwise they will kill me. I have decided to talk because I was involved in the homicide, but being that I was only half involved they want to kill me for fear that I will talk." One of the names he listed was that of Dr. Michele Navarra.
Maiuri read his deposition, signed it without hesitation and was escorted to Ucciardone prison. (In those days protective custody was not practiced.) His confession would have led to the issuing of arrest warrants for those culpable. So what happened? Discovering Maiuri’s cantata (his singing), Don Michele passed word to his henchmen inside the walls to inform Maiuri that he was going to have an accident if he continued his collaboration with the authorities. Navarra’s suggested solution to Maiuri’s dilemma was for him to feign a mental collapse, ask to see a psychiatrist forthwith, forget about his confession and claim that his eroding emotional state had rendered him without memory.
No fool he, Vincenzo Maiuri put on an Oscar-winning performance, was transferred to an asylum on 25 May 1957 and released July 8th, with the following diagnosis: "Depressive state improved, but still evident. Psychomania from probable ischemia cerebrale [low blood flow to the brain]."
Mafia associates and supporters (often bribed) were everywhere. The long arm of the mafia reached Maiuri and the authorities were once again stymied.
The Maiuri family doctor however could not be bought off. Dr. Giuseppe La Veruta declared that his patient after discharge from the Palermo Psychiatric Clinic was not exhibiting a manifestazione neurastenica—that is, any neuropathology.
The police report made no bones about its conclusion: "Maiuri’s claimed loss of memory is totally without concrete reality. Realizing his life was in grave danger, Maiuri took the advice to simulate a state of insanity. It is evident that the machinery of intimidation was put into operation and thus it will not be possible to quickly conclude the investigation. He no longer wants to be approached or questioned. He claims to have no memory of any colloquy with the carabiniere commander."
The Don’s scheme to keep Maiuri’s lips sealed impeded the process of justice. Maiuri, in court to be deposed, said to the president of the Corte d’Assise, "Cavaliere, it is useless that you interrogate me because, as you know, I have a certificate in my pocket consigning me to the manicomio [madhouse] because I’m pazzo."
On the Belice River plain the cosca of the town of Camporeale had always been in accord with the Corleonesi, specifically the group headed by Don Michele. The two cosche had formed a pact against the construction of the proposed dam. At the time, the Camporeale capo was the terrible Vanni Sacco, a relative of Don Michele and an ally in the deadly struggle against Liggio’s Young Turks.
The Camporeale mayor, Pasquale Almerica, an elementary school teacher, was a fierce advocate of the dam, thereby signing his own death warrant. On the evening of 25 April 1957 as he left the Italia club to walk home the streetlights went out. (The central electric station attendant was forced to cut the power by armed picciotti.) At that moment a squad of gunmen on horseback appeared from a side street and riddled the mayor. It was a night of terror—the citizens huddled in their homes. The next day 114 machine gun and seven pistol rounds were extracted from what remained of the schoolteacher.
Arrests were made. The judicial process dragged out for some time. Finally, Vanni Sacco, accused of ordering the assassination, and the alleged killers were set free for lack of conclusive evidence. The mafia was the winner—the dam did not go up.
Luciano Liggio had accumulated substantial wealth. He had extensive land holdings and owned luxurious villas. His hands were into everything, from drug trafficking to construction. While on the lam he moved frequently, disguising himself in one instance as a priest, in another as an Italian American tourist, a woman, even a policeman.
The search for the elusive Luciano ended on 14 May 1964. After sixteen years as a fugitive from justice he was located in the Corleone house of a woman, Leoluchina Sorisi, a stone’s throw from police headquarters.
Liggio’s arrest was the masterwork of Dr. Angelo Mangano. The commissioner of Public Security of Corleone, Mangano was not an ordinary small-town cop nor was he corruptible. He was an able and savvy functionary. Through a series of arrests and interrogations he demolished one by one the many circles of protection surrounding Liggio, leaving him alone, weak, vulnerable and probably tired of the game of hide and seek. (Informers helped to clear the path to Liggio’s front door. Two brothers, Carlo and Alberto Ancona, who had slipped insider information to the commissioner for years, were to finally suffer mafia justice on 12 May 1973.) For the Primula rossa, the primrose bandit, as he was dubbed in town, the noose was tightening.
That the fugitive was found in the house of Leoluchina Sorisi was a supreme surprise to all. She had been the fiancée of Placide Rizzotto, the union leader who Luciano had so unceremoniously dumped into a grotto and left to die of hunger. She had sworn vengeance, announcing that "Whoever killed him, I’m going to crack open his chest and eat his heart!" Perhaps the boss, always astute, knew that her house was the last place anyone would think to look for him.
Liggio had situated himself in a small, back apartment in Leoluchina’s house. She was his housekeeper and her sister, Maria Sorisi, prepared his meals and acted as his "nurse." Luciano required regular injections to ease his chronic medical condition, which had rendered him more or less immobile. To hold off suspicious gossip, Leoluchina had told her neighbors that the apartment was unoccupied, awaiting the arrival of relatives from America. She even moaned about the loss of rental income to make her story appear plausible.
At 6 o’clock in the evening Dr. Mangano and five agents surrounded the house. His knock on the door was answered by "Who is it?" from Leoluchina. "Friends," replied the commissioner, "Open up or we will break the door!" The door opened and Mangano pistol in hand, rushed into the house, pushing aside the panicked Leoluchina. From the back room, Luciano shouted from his bed: "Come in. I’m here. Leave the poor woman in peace."
"Dr. Mangano," Liggio continued, "put the pistol away. Can’t you see that I am little more than a cadaver? Here, take my pistol," pulling out a "Colt" from the cabinet beside his bed.
"I’ve been waiting for several days. Now you can take me to jail. With this damn sickness that has inflicted me for years I can’t walk. I need assistance. Sorry for the trouble."
The prisoner was dressed, placed in an ambulance and a growing fleet of cars followed to Ucciardone. The sensational arrest of Italy’s most wanted criminal made national news. Several reporters were soon on the scene at the prison, including Enzo Perrone of L’Ora newspaper. He had followed the events in Corleone for ten years. The articles were critical and contemptuous of the supercilious capo.
When the reporters were allowed in for an interview, Liggio asked whether Enzo Perrone was present.
"I’m Perrone, over here."
Luciano Liggio glared at him, and said, "I want to say one thing to you. You are one big cornuto." (Cuckold—in Sicily a crowning insult.)
The trials for the crimes committed during the late 1950s and early 1960s were held in Catanzaro (Calabria) and Bari (Puglia) in 1968 and 1969 on the grounds that a fair trial could not be possible in Sicily. On 23 December 1970 Luciano Liggio and his lieutenants were found guilty on multiple counts. Four, including Liggio, received ergastolo, life sentences. He was allowed to reside at home. Instead, Liggio left Corleone for a private health clinic in Rome and then to Milan, where he established a profitable kidnapping ring in collaboration with the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta until his rearrest in 1974.
Both the Navarra and Liggio gangs were brought to justice and effectively destroyed. Some fled abroad—a few eventually were brought back and imprisoned. New leaders arose from the ashes. The Primula rossa died of natural causes in 1993.
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