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Nino, Part 4: Criminality, politics and business

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As a prominent member of the Cursoti clan of Italy's Catania region, Nino carried out numerous killings, hold-ups and extortions. He has collaborated with the law since 1984, and is serving a sentence of 30 years for a double murder committed on parole. From 1996 to 1997, for over forty hours, he and Professor Amedeo Cottino met in the prison where he was held. For the first time in English, we can listen to their conversations. Nino affirms that today he is another person. We seek to understand what he was and how he was different, if at all. In Part 4, we will hear excerpts of Nino's observations on the politics and business of organized crime in Sicily. The text in bold is that of Amedeo Cottino.

[L]et’s be honest here, in the underworld... there simply have to be ties with the political world, for so many things! And if the politicians go looking for such ties, it’s because they know that we can deliver the votes, thousands of votes, so this is good for us, because for us we can use them for favors. You have to see who is making the most promises. There was a time, for example when you voted for the socialists, I think it was in ’83 or ’82... There were people in prison, anyhow when there was an election, those guys said to vote for certain people... and to inform their family members and to try to have them vote.

You know, there were some of us who maybe had ties with those guys down at the regional government. Here too, through a certain person, there was a tie to someone in the Socialist party, always at least doing favors, because when there are government contracts up for bid, everyone is going to want to eat.

The Cursoti creed try to corrupt those people, like police officers, like the Carabinieri, like judges or professional types, in order to get what was best for us. So people who were in the public service structure, administrators who were useful to us...It wasn’t that we had to trust them, it was they who had to trust us....But, more than anything, he should be thinking about what he’s doing, the corrupt guy. That is, a guy who wears a uniform and lets himself be bought by criminals! I don’t know what kind of dignity, what kind of morals…! Let’s forget about us - that was our business, what we did - but those who were wearing a uniform, maybe right before they had just arrested someone, then we would go and they would cover up some things for us....And there were some really sleazy people! Maybe they’d say certain kinds of things to you in public and then… sneaky sneaky they’d come to ask you a favor!

So what difference is there really between me, a penny ante crook, and some guy who lives in Rome and is a politician? A crook! We’ll never be able to tell if a politician, even in an indirect way, even just dropping the word, if he has somebody killed. I don’t mean that they’ve said: you have to kill this guy because he is my political opponent… but when the man says if that person weren’t around then I would have more votes, or else I’d win that government tender contract if that other guy weren’t around… This, in Mafia language, these words are a death sentence... So what have we got here? A person who thinks he is better than me? Hey, maybe he is worse than me! I’m just part of the work force that makes a living from crime, the guy who goes out to commit the crime. But I do it for my boss. But my boss, who is it who gave him the order for the crime? And so, how are you going to destroy organized crime, the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, whatever you want to call it?

The Cursoti organization, it’s not that it had always been around. It was born after some stuff that happened... in ’74 -’75, when the Santapaola guys started killing people because they were going for a scorched-earth policy."

This is the description of the start of a war which eventually accounted for thousands of deaths. The picture Nino paints is an apocalyptic one which exaggerates only very slightly the butchery which began in those years and continues to this day.

But there has been a time when we didn’t have all that stuff. Up until ‘73 there were just little incidents because Catania wasn’t ruled by anyone. There were guys who stole. There was criminality but not organized criminality. At the most, they’d form little groups. Four or five guys, they’d get together to go and pull off a robbery. But not really an organization. 

But no, really, on the contrary, with Nitto Santapaola, those guys have always been a larger group. In fact, I’d say that even then, they had a Family. They were seen like Cosa Nostra.

They [the Santapaola clan] wanted to take over the territory, they wanted to conquer the city. They killed people who, for good or bad, were named guys, guys who made themselves respected within the environment. And so, you know,… they thought that the surprise factor created fear and so they gained the upper hand over a lot of people that way. But they failed to take into account that not everyone was an older guy.

The younger guys couldn’t have cared less whether there was Nitto Santapaola or the Ferrara family [cousins of the Santapaolas]. They just wanted to get on with things, and in fact, this is what happened. Because to us that stuff didn’t matter, we couldn’t have cared less about politics. Then came the spark, the fact that they touched a friend of ours, a kid that everybody knew, a guy who had gained respect, he used to help people in prison, particularly. That was the spark that set things off, that started the war. And it hasn’t ever finished...

When I came out of prison, I started to hang out with the group who were outside, just like I had with the Cursoti guys inside, in prison. I knew twelve people, maybe somebody else knew five people. So, bit by bit, the group built up and as guys came out of prison they joined up with the other guys who were already outside.

Nino is very careful to underline the reasons, the ideals we could say, which lead many to join the Cursoti.

The group wasn’t born out of self-interest, or to make money or those kinds of things, but in order to rent apartments, to think about the guys who were in prison and who had families. You bought guns, you bought guns… it wasn’t that we had declared war on the Santapaola clan because we wanted to take over the territory from other people. Our group wasn’t started on that kind of basis at all. 

The spark that causes the conflict to explode is the killing of Salvatore Coppola. The death of this person, who was widely admired for his generosity toward his comrades and their families, has a devastating effect, and not only because it serves as a detonator of the conflict but also because it thrust into conflict young men who have grown up together. From that moment, youngsters become enemies to one another, destined to kill or be killed. The social fabric which has held that generation together dissolved because it was not strong enough to compete with the far stronger solidarity created by the formation of a new social aggregation.

Yeah, sure, we felt bad for those others we went out to kill, you’d know the guys, they were friends… on our side it was all about defence, not about a vendetta. It was a vendetta for them, the Family.

At this point, killing becomes a regular activity in what is a war for both sides involved and is so reported in the media. The men who die, and their numbers beguin to rise, are no longer even remembered by their surname. From the start, the Cursoti fought their war in a way that as different from that of their adversaries, those whom Nino, disparagingly, calls the mafiosi. Their way was an out-and-out man hunt in which all of them took part, without any regard for danger.

Just imagine, in the morning we’d go out with stolen cars, two or three cars would take off, each with two or three people inside and we’d go looking for those guys [men of the Santapaola clan]. And so, we’d drive around looking and we didn’t care if we ran into the police. Nothing: we’d go around and look and when we spotted someone…

But they, those guys were different. They would wait for the right moment… Yeah, they had some hot-headed guys too, guys who ran around and took chances, but they were in a minority of the guys doing that work. Instead for us, there was the desire to become known, to move up, to stand apart from the crowd; we were young guys who didn’t give a damn what we did. Maybe we didn’t even give a damn about life. We went around taking our chances, but more than anything, we had a sense of rebellion against those people. Those guys, they were mafiosi. They were really mafiosi!

People who knew us, maybe people who lived in the 'hood, say, they all respected us. Even the guys who had jobs, guys who had nothing to do with the criminal world, except maybe they hung out with some of us… Perhaps for them, they could feel proud that there were so many guys from a Family who were defending the 'hood from those other guys who were trying to push them around. See, not everybody loved the Santapaola Family. I’ve got to tell you something: after we came, if before plenty of people from different groups came into that 'hood to do anything they wanted to, after we came they didn’t come in any more. And so… a guy could relax a little. Maybe we gave that kind of protection, that sense of security, involuntarily. It’s not that we… but people convinced themselves that that was how things were. And it is a fact that nobody tried to pull off any extortion any more in that 'hood.

Before, those things had happened, but we wanted to keep the local people happy for a whole lot of reasons. For example, let’s say there was a guy on the wanted list, the police are after him, then anybody in the 'hood will let him in the door. But on the other hand, if it was someone who was doing stuff he shouldn’t have been doing, they’d shut the door on him. They’d shut it in his face. And not only - they’d turn him in. So there we are. Honest people, sure, but underneath there’s the cult of omertà. But someone who’s into omertà, he’s somebody who minds his own business, it’s not that he has to be a Mafia guy or a crook… And then, there’s the fear: if I tell the cops about somebody or about some group of people… well, sooner or later… because what kind of protection can the State give me?

The differences among persons in Nino’s world are not described solely in moral terms - for example, those who are valiant and those who are cowardly or those who have a head on their shoulders and others who are unbalanced. Contrary to the commonly held picture (which in the past may have been quite accurate), of a criminal world made up of illiterates drawn in great part from the underclass, in the criminal organizations of today we find men drawn from various segments of the middle classes, many of whom have completed at least their secondary school education.

Anyway, this guy was a university student but at the same time he was one of the best killers they had, back when Santapaola and Ferlito were together. He was very intelligent; then they split into two groups and he went with Pillera, with Calderone. And so, this kid died when they were pulling off an ambush at Santapaola’s house, and the guy who shot him was his own buddy, Ferlito. He fired off a burst while they were assaulting the house, and Ferlito hit his own pal.

As normally happens in contexts and business sectors which are entirely legitimate, here too, very important decisions, like whether or not to kill someone, can only be taken unanimously. And the common sense to which Nino refers here is undeniable: the unanimity rule in decision-making reduces the risk of error by requiring a full airing of contrasting opinions before a decision is taken. And Nino does not fail to underline the democratic nature of the decision-making process of the Cursoti, specifically contrasting it to the authoritarian style of the Mafia Families in general and the Santapaola clan in particular.

How many times, for example, has it been decided to eliminate someone and how many times have I said: but hey, no. Back then we had a rule that if one of us said no then all the others said no too because we didn’t want any disagreement among ourselves. Either everyone is in favor or no one. Why? Because common sense will tell you that, for a thing of that kind, it just isn’t worth it.

....inside the Cosa Nostra, the group which takes the decisions never puts itself out on the front lines. They decide and then they delegate. One of these guys delegates and maybe I’m a soldier, I am a man of honor and some murder is assigned to me, I can’t go to my boss or to the boss of the Family and say: why do I have to kill that person? I am just a man of honor and I have to carry out the orders my boss gives me. But with us, it was never like that at all… That is, if we were all agreed and we’d talked about it and we gave someone the assignment to do the job, then it had to be done. That guy had to do it. Sure, logically, we’d see the people while we were talking about it and we would decide who to send and who not to send. Because there are always some people who have more ability than others. Maybe those others are more gifted in different areas, and, I repeat, we were always in the front ranks ourselves, even us, the guys who took the decisions.

Around here, there was the policy that people who worked, either they quit working or they worked with us, or, if not, they died. Specially those people who sold that garbage, those drugs. That powder was the most dangerous of all and that stuff a guy could cut in a lot of different ways. And this ... was one of those kind of guys who sell drugs even though he was a friend of ... And so, we sent word of this to Roberto M... Roberto, tell this person, make a change! If you want to continue doing this work, change cities. But here, you’d better not sell any more of that garbage. And so, Roberto told him and the guy went right on selling. And so, when we had sat down and we said, hey, this guy is still selling. What should we do? The decision to eliminate this person still had to be taken. Roberto Miano was against this… the guy was his friend… Three of us were in favor and he was opposed. And so it wasn’t done.

The unanimity rule is not the only norm which prevailed within the Cursoti’s operative scheme. Above all, as in the cases referred to above, a decision to be taken meant life or death for someone, the death sentence has to be preceded by a number of steps or measures, some of which display features common to popular culture. We might think, for example, of the prudence which is, as scholars have noted, a characteristic of the classic vendetta as practiced in the interior areas of Sardinia.

Before being killed, these people were called in, they were warned: forget about doing that thing you’re doing or change the way you’re doing that other thing. But extreme evils require extreme remedies... When there was really nothing else that could be done, then the guy was eliminated…

Thus, the universe of the Cursoti gang was not, by any means, a world without rules and thus a world of total unpredictability. In contrast to our own world, however, where there is a widespread ignorance of what our laws really allow or forbid and where casual disobedience to many rules is extremely common, within a criminal organization everyone knows what is allowed and what is not. Consequently, deviance from established norms is (or has been until recent times, thanks to the ballooning number of persons turning State’s witnesses) an extremely rare occurrence. This fact is not surprising when one considers that someone violating the norms of Nino’s world is very likely putting his own life at risk.

Let us now list the main transgressions for which the death penalty is applied. Conceptually speaking, a person pays with his life for infringing upon either of the two fundamental moral goods imaginable: trust and honor...Trust, which is rather scarce within the larger social context, is clearly indispensable in the criminal world to the survival of the organization. But neither can one do without honor, since it lies at the interface between the private and the public sphere, between the image which the individual has of himself and the image others have of him. This conception, which to many of us might seem incomprehensible, has its roots in the archaic world, a moral universe even older than the “traditional” one. In the scheme of the archaic world, where the individual finds himself beset by an inescapable existential uncertainty, those very few certainties upon which he can depend are guaranteed to him by virtue of the recognition of his worth...

There are certain insults which are aimed directly at compromising a man’s honor, for example, cornuto, cuckold, and sbirro, cop....Then there’s the azzampo. Azzampo means that someone is ripping off his buddies...Another serious infraction is molesting the woman of a comrade who is behind bars. And finally, there’s the bicycle or the tragedy. Turi Papale, erroneously believed to have extorted money from whorehouses in Catania fraudulently using Nino’s name, was wounded by Nino. While Nino himself admits that he was trying to kill him, fortunately Papale did not die. The two of them were protagonists in a situation called the tragedy or in more modern argot, the bicycle.

To mount a bicycle (or tragedy) means that he’s saying some things that aren’t true… If I, for example, if I’ve got something against someone or, if not, if I do something other people don’t approve of, then I can say: but it was Joe Blow who told me to do this, that is, I get away with it myself because I say it was Joe Blow who told me to do it. So I’m doing a bicycle, this is a rotten thing, saying something about someone that isn’t true.

Then there are certain rules of conduct which while they imply sanctions in the event of their infringement, do not imply such radical sanctions as the death penalty.

Alcohol and drugs lead to mistakes...If I take drugs, if I need to take drugs before I can go out and commit some crime, I’m unreliable because the day that I don’t have that garbage, I’m going to do anything it takes to get some: I could even sell out to the enemy, I could even sell out to the police!

...The guy in charge of a city has an enormous responsibility. On the one hand, he has the responsibility of running the business, but even more than that, he has responsibility for the people who are close to him. He can’t just go and send people off to the slaughterhouse, to get themselves killed, he also needs to safeguard their lives. By doing the right things. 

Thus, we have seen that the sanctions vary according to the kind of infraction involved. There’s the death penalty, there’s expulsion, there’s the warning. But what is the ideology which underlies the use of the sanction? Is it, simply, the principle of retribution in its most archaic form - the so-called “eye-for-an-eye” - or are there other ideologies underlying the punishments?

There is the concept of a deserved punishment which is inflicted in cases where the offence is serious. Someone has played the informer, ‘the cop’, or has taken money out of the common cash box, or has made illegitimate use of the name of a respected person in order to achieve his own ends. In these cases, when the matters at stake are very high, say the trust or the interests of the organization, the salvage of the individual no longer seems possible. A recourse to the death penalty - which is not automatic, as has been demonstrated in the case of Roberto M’s dipping into the cash box - is made on the basis of a logic of retribution: Joe Blow deserved to die because only the most extreme sanction is equivalent to the gravity of the damage he has inflicted on the organization. In other cases, capital punishment is justified by invoking the notion of deterrence ... Clearly, both of these motivations can be implicit in the same decision.

If, on the other hand, the offence is a minor one, the sanction - unlike the death penalty - is intended to have a preventive effect.


Amedeo Cottino is Professor of Sociology, at the University of Turin; also in his time Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Président of the Comité Scientific du GERN and Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Stockholm. These interviews were first published as a book in Italian as Vita da Clan, 1998, EGA-Edizioni Gruppo Abele; then in Swedish in 2004 as Familjeliv: en maffialedare berättar, Ordfront Förlag. There was also a French version in 2003.

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