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Feature Articles


October 2006
The Mafia Tradition, Camorra, Lucky Luciano

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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"In my Family, some activities are considered out-of-bounds. I did not tolerate any dealings in prostitution or narcotics. I was against extortion. The Family is not the same as a criminal gang. I was a businessman with legitimate businesses. I had old-fashioned views concerning our Tradition. We steadfastly opposed certain immoral practices. The prime example of the new breed of Americanized men entering our world was Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano. He was the forerunner of things to come. Luciano was a product of American ideas. He lived openly and became a celebrity. Charlie Lucky was contemptuous of the old-style Sicilian dons, or Mustache Petes, as they were derisively called. His conversation was not laced with idealistic words such as honor or trust, but with mundane ones such as outfit and syndicate. For us, making money was not the uppermost consideration. Luciano was most interested in monetary results; all that other stuff about Sicilian ideas was phony baloney to him. He had no qualms about working with non-Sicilians. Even southern Italians, from the Naples region or from Calabria, cannot fully appreciate the old Tradition of Sicily. My Tradition goes by many names in this country. Some prefer the term Mafia, others like Cosa Nostra. There never was a formal organization to describe. We’re talking about a tradition, a way of life, a process." (Joseph Bonanno. "A Man of Honor," 1983)

"At the moment, the camorristi have an important role in drug trafficking. The camorristi seem to have come to an agreement with the Sicilian Mafia about sharing the international market of heroin and cocaine." (Umberto Santino. "Mafia and Mafia-type Organizations in Italy.")

     In former days, the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan camorra were two distinct groups with little of significance in common. The mafia, a complex product of rural western Sicily, and the camorra, an urban phenomenon, which arose from the teeming streets and alleys of lower Naples, were forged in different cultural and political environments, with scope and purpose much at variance.

     There was no sense of solidarity or camaraderie between the two, no common cause, no mutual assistance, even in moments of threats to their operations or existence. There was never an instance when a Sicilian boss sought refuge in Naples or a camorrista being invited to Palermo for a brotherly embrace.

     The two groups were at odds as to what was considered proper behavior. Camorristi did not establish boundaries. Mafiosi found offensive that the camorra drew its livelihood from prostitution. To the Neapolitans, it was all the same, selling girls or boys, depending upon the demand at the moment. Naples was in the grip of camorristi, who systematically picked the pockets of every occupational class. From virtually every transaction, the "boys" would extract their percentage. In Sicily, the affiliates of the "Society of Honorable Men" did not see themselves as crooks (they rather took fees for services performed), anymore than when a congressman takes due tribute from those who seek his quid pro quo legislative favors.

     The camorristi committed shameful acts. They kept mistresses, employed women to collect u buttu (payoffs) in the sanctity of the church, and involved wives in their business. Such despicable acts the capomafias deemed inexcusable. For a Sicilian, the goings-on in Naples were the ultimate infamy, unforgivable—a blasphemy! Those were people without honor.

     The hierarchy of the old mafia looked askance at any form of ostentation. They were uomini di pancia, men of few words or gestures, whose countenances betrayed little. In appearance, the mafiosi were modest and reserved. Their dress bespoke of their peasant origins. They were all reticence and discretion, using the tactics of negotiation, with force as a last resort. By vivid contrast, camorristi dressed and acted in the popular image of the gangster: flashy, arrogant and only too ready to get in your face. The Neapolitan penchant to solve disputes by maiming or killing was a manifestation of an inability to control one’s emotions, a characteristic the Sicilians considered womanly. Practices like the zumbata, the custom of the ritualized group stiletto fights, which were tests of manhood and courage in Naples, were unknown in Sicily.

     Mafiosi boasted that they were uomini d’onore, honorable men who were worthy of respect. They were the notabili, persons of prominence, who were to be respected for their ability to exercise their political influence in their strongholds, where legitimate authority was weak or absent, and likely corrupt. In their eyes, they did not disturb the peace; rather, they guaranteed an orderly functioning of life. The traditional l’onorata società was a system of regulation in western Sicily, penetrating the island’s major economies, the agricultural and sulfur businesses.

     The Sicilian Tradition had a higher purpose. The camorristi, by comparison, were adventurers, opportunistic and short of a futuristic perspective. They were quotidian, sustaining themselves from day to day by helping themselves to the proceeds of the labor of others.

     According to the Sicilians, the camorra was composed of mascalzoni, rogues of no account, dedicated to a collection of petty crimes, the sort that the mafia viewed as dysfunctional to the sense of superiority that it sought to inculcate in its members. This attitude was reflected in the refusal of capomafias to have any truck with their counterpart capocamorras. These sentiments would carry over to the United States where the walls of separation remained high but were destined to crumble with the weakening of the Tradition.

     "Cu è chistu?" ("Who is this?"), the boss would ask l’amicu (an associate) when introduced to a picciottu scunusciutu (someone unknown to him). If outside their tight circle, l’amicu would not respond directly or change the discourse. However, if the man was on the "inside," the answer would be a definite n’amicu, cosa nostra è (a friend; he is one of us).

     The above phrase signified that the individual in question was a picciuttu d’onori or n’omu di rispetto. Prominent persons, those belonging to the elite who "favored the mafia," such as magistrates, lawyers, or politicians, were addressed as n’amicu di l’amici, a friend of friends.

     Such distinctions are more than formalities. No one outside the fabled Tradition could be trusted or considered qualified for membership. Unless you were born into the "life" you could not be expected to appreciate and uphold the sacred doctrine of the omertà, a central tenet of honor and silence, as an indispensable virtue. Lapses in judgment would place the family in jeopardy, which is readily apparent when someone turns state’s evidence.

     Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Bonanno, both natives of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, decided that all their affiliates would be "people like us." After Maranzano’s assassination, in 1933, "Cosa Nostra" became the conventional term to indicate a new organization based upon the exclusive Sicilian model. The concept of the "Syndicate" was more of an equal opportunity employer, a criminal organization willing to recruit non-Sicilians.

     Lucky Luciano was a boy when his family arrived from Sicily to settle in New York City. He was to rise in stature to become a pivotal figure in the world of organized crime. Charlie Lucky created the conditions for the modern mafia both in the United States and in Italy. A product of the mean streets of New York and American materialist values, Lucky was uninfluenced by any code of conduct, and certainly not by the so-called Sicilian Tradition. A trafficker in drugs and women, Luciano exploited cash sources that were frowned upon by his more uptight Sicilian conspirators. At the Atlantic City mob meeting, in 1929, many of the mafia moguls were scandalized by the notion that this crude character, who incidentally spoke an awful mixture of American street argot and ungrammatical Sicilian, could become a member of their exclusive secret society.

     In 1946, Luciano’s long prison term for running houses of prostitution was cut short when he was paroled and deported to Sicily.

     He remained in his native island only a short time, transferring with his ballerina consort to the more exciting city of Naples, where opportunities awaited. There he received a warm welcome by the criminal element and went back to his wily ways.

     The illegal narcotics market was beginning to flourish and there was plenty of room for a man of Luciano’s energy and administrative skills, which he had honed with perfection in America, the Land of the Big, Fast Buck. Through legal business fronts in Naples and Palermo, Luciano laid out narcotic trade routes to North America and Mexico, all the while creating an infrastructure to feed the European demand.

     His main man was Pascal Molinelli, who coordinated all of the trans-Atlantic business. A Neapolitan by birth and temperament, Molinelli, a shadowy figure, worked in tandem with several drug barons. These clubby mobster businessmen included Michel De Val of Nice, another in Tangiers, and the likes of the celebrated Tommaso Buscetta of Palermo. (Buscetta was to become disenchanted with the new generation of Sicilian mafiosi, who wanted him dead. He saw them as a bunch of savage degenerates and psychotic killers, which they were, who had betrayed the Tradition. By their actions they were turning the mafia into nothing more than a conventional criminal organization run by a bunch of self-destructive maniacs, who did not stop to consider the consequences of declaring open warfare on the State. By turning state’s evidence, Buscetta opened the secret society to detailed and revealing public scrutiny.)

     Charlie Lucky’s bosom buddy, the Frenchman Vittorio Gatti, managed a clandestine radio-transmitting network out of the island of Corsica. Receivers were installed in Naples and aboard a yacht cruising the Mediterranean. Radio messages coordinated and directed the traffic of "goods" and maintained contact with Sicily, where the illegal drug- refining plants were located.

     Lucky in his own way helped to put an end to the "phony baloney" Sicilian Tradition and to dissolve the barriers between the mafia and the camorra. His legacy lives on today in the form of transnational globalized criminal syndicates, which make the Tradition of yesterday the size of small potatoes, and more than a bit quaint. One wonders whether Joe Bonanno, who was known for his pomposity, took himself a little too seriously.

     Born in the sulphur-mining village of Lercara Friddi, Sicily, Salvatore Lucania, alias Charlie Luciano, died, some say in somewhat mysterious circumstances, at Naples’ Capodichino airport on 22 January 1962.

 


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