Feature Articles

February 2006
The Fourth Mafia:
La Sacra Corona Unita

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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(EVENIMENTUL ZILEI, 5-14-2002) Giuseppe Cellamare prepared the launching of the Raimond cigarette smuggling ring in Romania. He is an important member of Sacra Corona Unita. A mafia boss from Bari, he was arrested in 1998 in Montenegro. Before that date, Cellamare’s presence in Bulgaria was noted; he is on the list of 500 most dangerous criminals in Italy. At that time the Italian magistrates asked Romanian colleagues to gather information about his activity in the international cigarette and arms traffic led by Sacra Corona Unita.

(POLIZIA DI STATO, 10-9-2004) Twenty-five persons in Salento (Puglia) have been accused of being members of the mafia organization La Sacra Corona Unita. Fabio Franco, who was apprehended and detained in Brazil last February, led the men. From Brazil, his trafficking in hashish, marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy extended into Holland and Italy. The criminal organization also operated clandestine gambling establishments and engaged in aggravated extortions on businesses, using dynamite to force payoffs. The investigations, conducted by the police of Lecce, revealed that Boss Franco had formed a fringe group of the Sacra Corona Unita. The arrestees, who included some already imprisoned for other crimes and others without criminal records, were unmasked by gathering evidence through telephonic and ambient monitoring.

     The Sacra Corona Unita (SCU) is a coalition of criminal groups formed in the early 1980s. Although it has characteristics of urban gangs, the SCU is more correctly defined in terms of a gangsteristic-mafioso phenomenon. To the extent that it does have a code of conduct and an elaborated hierarchical structure as well as an ample capacity for the manipulation and infiltration of institutions, SCU units can qualify as a true and proper system of integrated mafia clans.

     The SCU, located in the region Puglia, in the "heel" of the Italian peninsula, is called the Fourth Mafia, because it was formed in recent decades, unlike the much older and well-established Sicilian, Calabrian and Neapolitan mafias.

     The founder was the camorrista Raffaele Cutolo, who decided to expand his operations into Puglia, thereby gaining access to the Adriatic seaport cities, and to seek the collaboration of the local delinquent gangs. As a result, at the end of the 1970s the Nuova Grande Camorra Pugliese was created, with a resemblance to the Camorra. With the subsequent downfall of Cutolo a few years later, this affiliation with the Pugliesi was dissolved and replaced by a working relationship with the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta, whose leaders did not demand a share of the illicit profits.

     The criminal group quickly evolved into an autonomous organization under the control of its first true capo, Giuseppe Rogoli. Rogoli founded the SCU in 1984 while incarcerated in the Bari prison. He sought to fuse together a mob that reflected Pugliese interests and opportunities, while introducing into the mix an adaptation of certain traditional mafia practices and rituals. The criminality began by invading the wine and olive oil interests (which Puglia produces in abundance), committing a series of frauds, swindles and extortions, and engaging in arms and drug trafficking. As SCU grew in scope and boldness, international alliances were contemplated and developed with its counterparts in Albania, Rumania, Russia and among the Slavs.

     The Fourth Mafia has shown a remarkable ability to infiltrate institutions, especially those of contracting and subcontracting. Selected companies have been singled out for mafioso penetration, as has been the case in the cities of Terlizzi, Gallipoli, Modugno and Surbo. Workers in the construction trades appear to be "in the eye of the cyclone," according to testimonies of SUC informers. Hundreds of SUC affiliates are now functioning in Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce. The Fourth Mafia structure is horizontal, giving a certain freedom of action to the individual clans, which control a number of financial firms. A two-year investigation, called Centurione, uncovered a thriving drug enterprise across the Adriatic Sea to Puglia directed by a combine of a SUC clan, Tornese di Monterone, and Albanian criminals.

     The vendettas of the Pugliese gangs have been very violent and meant to send a dire message to other potential transgressors. The assassins have been known to follow a precise ritual. As reported, "Often the victim’s body is brutally tortured in a procedure of death and revenge. Gouged eyes, severed tongues or genitals, each method of killing corresponds to a sort of Dantesque passage that reveals the ‘sin’ that irreparably stained the sinner."

     In the past few years, delinquents, with colorful nicknames, have emerged focusing on contrabanding. Some of them have founded a splinter group called the Sacra Corona Libera, an offshoot of the SCU. Disgruntled former SCU members have joined these youngsters. Their methods differ from SCU, declaring their association as a more accessible and unencumbered criminal society. The Sacra Corona Libera exploits impressionable boys for the dirty street work, and rejects any rituals of initiation as dated and of little consequence. At least partially, as a result, these undisciplined renegades have been easily "turned" by the authorities, supplying information detrimental to their former comrades. The future prospects of the Sacra Corona Libera are presently unclear. What is clear is that organized crime in Puglia has been in a state of flux with apparently independent or quasi-independent criminal units forming, splintering or being substantially weakened through arrests, outstanding warrants, and imprisonment.

     From all appearances, the Sacra Corona Unita has the makings of a mafia, true and proper, as seen by its precise set of rules, a shared and valued criminal subculture, and a structure that is developing along strong hierarchical lines.

     The SCU is composed of three società, or groupings: Società Minore, Società Maggiore, and Società Segreta. To each of these ranked orders---Minor, Major, Secret—there are corresponding doti, that is, grades or statuses within the organization, which are interconnected in a hierarchy of command, and each carrying defined functions, obligations, and norms of behavior.

     Members, if declared worthy, can graduate from Minor to Major to Secret—one dote to the next—by accomplishment, through the rituals of the riti battesimali, the rites of baptism. (Notice the religious connotations, which strongly influence language and action.)

     At the lowest, entrance level, the Società Minore, is found the dote of picciotteria or camorra (a reference to the apprentices called picciotti), who do the street work, and perform on the promise that "to serve today in order to be served tomorrow"—meaning an equal opportunity employer with advancement opportunities for all. On entering the criminal brotherhood, all picciotti have the possibility of reaching positions of dominance and command. Picciotti perform the functions of worker or soldier. They are many, the turnover great. Those who aspire to enter the brotherhood are motivated by a desire for social and economic mobility and, often as not, by the need to seek communion with a close-knit "family" of like-minded persons of similar backgrounds.

     Before the bestowal of the dote of camorrista, the person must go through a probationary period of forty days, to demonstrate that he has the necessary prerequisites for a criminal career, and has no connection with the police. On successful completion, the candidate is formally inducted into the organization as a manovalanza, a worker.

     In accepting the grade of Società Minore, the candidate must state as follows: "I swear on the point of this fist, to be faithful to this formal societal body, to reject father, mother, brothers and sisters, up to the seventh generation; I swear to divide hundredth per hundredth and thousandth per thousandth until the last droplet of blood, with one foot in the grave and the other chained in order to give a strong embrace to prison." There are no other affiliations before me—the candidate renounces all worldly relationships and turns to complete and utter fidelity in the SUC and its members; he drops out of the conventional life to enter the confines of the underworld subculture that his new comrades represent.

     A picciotto can, in the course of his criminal career, succeed to the second category, the Società Maggiore, which has two statuses, Lo Sgarro and La Santa. The first dote is given only to those who have committed at least three killings as ordered by the SCU. Once a Sgarro, the affiliate can only leave the organization on pain of death. He now can form a filiale, a branch or clan of picciotti, who report to him and occupies a designated territory. Sgarro affiliates can recognize each other by a rose tattoo on the right foot or the position of a Neapolitan playing card in a predefined position.

     The Santa grade is conferred at midnight by capos of superior grade. The rite of bestowal of the dote include the consignment of the following objects to the nominee: a cyanide pill, a rifle or a pistol, a lemon, a wad of cotton wool, a needle, three white silk handkerchiefs, and the so-called spartenza (in the sense of division of spoils).

     The cyanide is to be used in case of difficulty, in order not to betray the society. Death is preferable to collaboration with the authorities. The firearm is a symbol of fidelity, to be used on oneself in case of failure to live up to the exacting expectations of the SCU. The cotton represents Monte Bianco (Mont-Blanc in the western Alps at 4708 meters), considered sacred. The lemon represents the obligation to attend to the wounds of one’s comrades. The needle is to puncture the index finger of the right hand, mixed with lemon juice, another sign of fidelity. The handkerchiefs represent purity of spirit, and the spartenza consists usually of a gift of cigarettes.

     By reaching the third, and ultimate, level, the Società Segreta, the affiliate is now in the core of the criminal organizational structure. There we find the General Council, composed of the all-powerful, decision-making members. Only those individuals who possess those well-honed criminal and administrative instincts essential to leadership and the actualization of criminal ventures attain the top grades.

     Those who reach the apex of the organization swear an oath of trustworthiness, to never betray the padrino or the other men of honor. "I would rather rip out my heart and hand it to my padrino, have it sliced and distributed to the General Council than betray my sacred brotherhood. I swear, moreover, solemnly, in both good and bad, in calm and tempest, my padrino is inviolable, my brother of blood, and not even a universal flood can put an end to this union, sealed with our blood."

     Among other reasons, the vows of honor taken by SCU members are meant to prevent the infiltration of the police into their ranks as well as to prevent any member from disavowing all honor, and turning state’s evidence. What is known about the SCU at present is largely due to evidence given by turncoats. As foolish as these swearing-in ceremonies may appear to some, there is a good rationale. For if they are not broken, any attempts to gather sufficient evidence for indictments would be seriously hampered.


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