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Nino Part 5: family values, military culture and vendettas

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As a prominent member of the Cursoti clan of Italy's Catania region, Nino carried out numerous killings, hold-ups, kidnappings 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 heard about the business culture and politics of organized crime. In Part 5, we will hear about the ideology of the Cursoti family and why Nino sees them as different from the Mafiosi. What emerges is an extraordinary account of family values and a military culture within a permanent state of war within the ghettoes. Nino does not consider himself to be either a bloodthirsty person or a madman, yet for a period of almost 15 years, he played a leading role in the gang. How was it possible for him to do what he did? And how does he judge, today, his actions in the past? Do the vendettas still hang over him? Why is death the only answer to life in that kind of gang/family/war culture?  

The text that follows in bold is that of Amedeo Cottino, the rest is Nino talking.

The Cursoti’s vision of the world, as it emerges from Nino’s narrative, is that of a group which is tightly drawn around certain fundamental values ... an ideology... the insistence on its own specific formulations as opposed to other creeds or conceptions which existed in that same social context...there were a number of values which had - at least at the beginning of the history of the Family - a strong unifying power.

I have spoken earlier of trust and of honor. I can mention a few others here. I am thinking.. of the urgency ”to become somebody”; or of the principle of unanimity in decision-making; or, again, the value of friendship or of brotherhood...with all the implications such values could have... when the shooting started. Or the chance to achieve monetary gain. Here, Nino’s awareness of the importance of the type of socialization, whether to work rather than to the easy money of crime, is complete and on the same level as his awareness of the difficulty of retracing his steps.

If I had been a worker, someone who earned a living working honestly… maybe I wouldn’t have given the matter as much importance as I did… But, since I had always lived according to this model, well then, the more money I made… And then it’s difficult to turn back.  

The respect for those values was widespread and deeply rooted. Perhaps because... they were strongly internalized. 'You would never abandon a guy! Even if the guy was dead, we would carry him, we wouldn’t leave him there.' Or, perhaps, these values were so widely respected because, as has been noted many times, refusing to honor them came at a very high cost indeed....

The Cursoti Family differed significantly from the Calderone, Santapaola and Ferlito Families in that the world of the latter three groups was characterized by rituals for admission.

The Cosa Nostra was different from us; there, you cut yourself, you let the blood flow out, the ritual thing... With us, that kind of thing didn’t happen, because we knew one another, you could see what a guy was capable of doing. In particular, you could just tell that if that person was a guy who could never be a traitor… We weren’t Mafiosi because the Mafia ethic is completely different from that of organized crime...

Us, for example, we’d do a robbery. But we’d divide it all up between us, you all helped each other. On the other hand, those other guys, [the mafiosi, Ed.] they never did it like that. The boss took his part and it was the biggest part. Then the under-boss took his cut, I mean, there was a hierarchy. That’s Cosa Nostra...

I use the term Family because what we had really was a family! I’m telling you again, a guy would go out there and die for another guy! I would go out there ready to give up my life for another person, I would risk my own life, like I would do for my son or for my brother!… And that’s why I’m saying that we didn’t lie to each other, except if it had to do with someone we already knew had to die, with a traitor. Because then I couldn’t say: look here, you’ve been a traitor…I was proud to belong to that group, no question about it.

We are talking about a value system which belongs to a particular culture, the military culture, which even today is an important element in the development and conditioning of young adults. Nino’s language is permeated with the vocabulary arising from military culture. They are fighting wars in the course of which enemies are eliminated. These killings are inevitably seen on the basis both of the principal “mors tua vita mea” [your death my life, Ed.] and that of “vim vi repellere licet” [force must be dealt with by force, Ed.]. Here in Nino’s world we are dealing with wars which are fought in the name of values, such as brotherhood and honor.

Dishonorable situations do exist, above all delation [laying information against someone, Ed.] and betrayal. And since there is a state of war, the penalty established for these crimes, as in the case of many national penal codes in time of war, is the death penalty.

A man takes part in war in the name of an ideal or to defend a cause (the reader will certainly have noted the emphasis Nino gives to the assertion that the Cursoti did not come into being for reasons of monetary gain or base self-interest but to strive for justice).

The parallels between the moral code of the professional soldier ... and that of Nino can be further reinforced by a comparison between the criminal ethos and that of the military. The common aspects ...are: the idea of a moral responsibility; the moral imperative of guaranteeing the safety of one’s companions; the reciprocal solidarity between comrades and the importance of trust; the rule of never asking a subordinate to take a risk one is unwilling to take oneself; the virtues of a commander of warriors (boldness, courage and leadership) as a role model for one’s subordinates.

[T]he undertaking of a criminal life implies the assumption of a number of moral responsibilities; there is the enormous responsibility of bosses vis à vis their subordinates: as Nino has already reminded us, the person in charge of a city… is responsible for all of his personnel: he can’t just send people off to be butchered, to get themselves killed, he has got to save their lives by doing the right things. Furthermore, colleagues and companions are responsible for one another: you never leave a buddy lying there… Underlying both the criminal and the military ethos is the imperative of total trust between comrades which must be maintained no matter what personal sacrifice that entails...the man in command may not require his men to take on burdens which he himself is not willing to bear.

It should be noted, and I think it is important.. although the point may seem obvious, that neither of the two value systems described above, the military or the criminal, really comes to grips with the problem of the “other”. The norms contained in each ethos refer either to relationships among “us” or to those between the individual and his own conscience. Basically, the “others” don’t exist: they are the enemy.

But talking about the context I lived in… maybe all of them [the deaths, Ed.] were inevitable or maybe we should have killed more people...that is, in the sense that there was a war going on… I knew that those guys there, if they got to me, they would kill me… I tried to act before the other guy could, just like everybody did.

There is only one case in which his action, by his own admission, is not in any way justified by the presumed category of “acts of war”... To this day, Nino feels a sense of guilt for this [killing of a man and his girlfriend, Ed.].

It was perhaps the first time that I had any remorse for that kind of thing. About the others, no, because I went out and did a thing that I thought was right. For me, it was right.

But this affirmation of the inevitability of the killings, in the sense that Nino’s actions, his murders, can only be explained in terms of that climate of war which didn’t offer either side in the conflict any alternative to killing, does not necessarily imply a rejection of responsibility.

If I have done some things I’m sorry now that I did, when I did them I thought I was doing the right thing… And so a guy could say, turning back to the past: a lot of things I wouldn’t do another time. But many other things, yes, I would, because I saw them as right, those things.

He knows that the alternative to killing is not killing, but he kills for self defense or for personal benefit, and he knows that there is no difference between the one who inflicts torture and the one who watches it being inflicted, and yet he doesn’t lift a finger to save Franco Grasso. He knows he could save two people from serving many years in prison for a crime which they didn’t, but he did commit, but he remains silent.

In none of these cases does he invoke extenuating circumstances or postulate a situation of force majeur. Even within that climate of war in which the two sides act according to the principle of mors tua, vita mea, the killing of an enemy still represents a choice. And as Nino has told us, there were people who avoided attending those meetings were decisions were to be taken as to whether or not to kill someone.

It is as if he wants to say: the problem is not so much that of understanding so as to justify or to condemn a particular criminal action, but rather that of understanding the context, both social and criminal, in which those actions were made possible. It is the underlying choice which makes no sense, which cannot be justified. But once the various premises have been accepted, even the bad actions... have their reason for being. Seen with the eyes of today, those actions cannot be justified but they can be explained.

Nino, while on a visit to a friend, comes across a young man from a rival clan who shows him his pistol. Here, one sees two profoundly different ways of conceptualizing one’s profession. To Nino’s sense of responsibility - he has almost always known why he was going out to kill someone - we find contrasted a total lack of awareness on the young man’s part. He is ready to kill without knowing the reasons why, just to make a name for himself.

I say to him: hey, do you know why they gave you a pistol? They tell you, go out and kill Joe Blow and you don’t know why you are going to kill him. You go to get noticed, to let them see that you are up to it… Or does it just seem like an ordinary thing to you?

And also:

So, do you know why you did start all these things? He goes: no.

And so then what? Why do you have to do this stuff? Just get the hell out now!

Have you stolen? Stolen? Go ahead and steal on your own, if you can. But get out of this stuff if you can, because here you’re just risking your skin.

From here, we move to the more general reflection that: in today’s world, human life doesn’t have any meaning anymore. Really, ... like I keep telling you, these kids are telling me about all these murders they’ve committed, but for nothing. Besides this, they even killed amongst themselves, just because two guys don’t like each other. So I hear them talking: that one has done 50 murders, 100 murders. So I think… these people go out of the house already with the thought that the first guy who comes along, they’ve got to kill him… kids of 20, 25 years old, 30 years old, and they done all these things. And then if you say to them: for what reason did you do that? They don’t know how to answer you! They say: I got told to kill that guy and so I went and did it.

Not that there was even, Nino observes, the prospect of a substantial payoff [one of Nino's kidnappings brought in several billion lira; ed.]:

So why did you do it?… You came in maybe 4 years ago, maybe 5 years, you’ve got 30 murders under your belt. And for what? For a million lire a month? And they tell me: a million, a million and a half a month we earn. And then, if they want to go do a robbery they have to ask the boss for permission and then they have to give him his cut.

And then there are some who ask me: what about you, why did you do it?

But I knew, when I came in, because I was fighting: because I couldn’t go along with guys lording it over other people, being so domineering. And so the Family of the Cursoti was formed… but you, you got started without knowing, just to strike a pose…

So many kids have died just to be able to say: I’m a member of the Santapaola clan or I belong to some other clan!

Nino, as we have seen, has distanced himself radically from the violent actions of the past, actions which, at the time, he considered to be justified on the basis of a number of arguments, the principal among which being the reference to a state of war. But those deaths - those people who, if unwillingly as he maintains, he still was obliged to eliminate - do they weigh upon his conscience today? And if so, in what way? And finally, in the presence of tragic events like that of violent death, is there a possibility for reconciliation with the families of the murder victims?

During our conversations, I haven’t spoken of the families of the victims… most of all because I do not know the families.

Now, for me, I’m sorry, I feel pain for all of this… logically, if I went back in the past, I wouldn’t do everything I did before all over again, partly because I’ve changed my mentality...

Certainly I can imagine the pain they must have felt: it is always some family member, a father, a son who dies, there is always pain felt then. But in certain respects and for plenty of people, those victims did some bad things too. 

I suffered a wrong. They shot at my father, fortunately he didn’t die in that ambush. If I still reasoned today the way I once did, the only way to deal with this person who committed this crime was to kill him. And even today, I believe that it is very hard to talk with someone who has wronged you.

Today, I don’t really know what I would think about it if someone did me a wrong of that kind. That is, I don’t know how I could react coming up against the killer of a relative of mine or my friend… No, perhaps with a friend the thing could be overcome. But with the murder of a relative, having the killer there in front of me, I couldn’t find a way to dialogue… 

If my father or my brother or whoever, I don’t know, had wronged you very badly, then I could even understand. Because there have been these cases; ... and so the thing ended there. It’s not that they went on together as best pals, all hearts and flowers. But the problem finished right there, because one guy wronged the other and that guy killed him for it.

The fact remains, according to Nino, that few people would accept a discussion of that kind.

It’s another situation if I am a killer for hire. They say: go out and kill that person there and I’ll give you 100 million lire… I go to some person I don’t know… it could be anybody. And then it would be; hey, I did it for the money, I’m a professional killer, I do it for the money, even if that doesn’t excuse what happened, right?

There have been people who, when they killed their brother, he prayed a whole lot for those people who killed his brother. But that was a priest and so that is different.

The model of justice of exchange reappears when Nino imagines himself face to face with the relatives of his victims.

I don’t know, if it happened to me… I would confront someone, one or even all of the relatives. Confront not in the sense that I would try to be in the right but in the sense of explaining why it was done, that there wasn’t hatred for that person who isn’t alive any more; that it was a question of self-defense, that if I didn’t do it first, then sooner or later he would get me… So trying to get them to understand that for a guy who lives in that environment…

But the difficulties are not only those, well known to scholars studying mediation, of finding forms of compensation which are commensurate with the wrongs suffered. Quite rightly, Nino observes that the “culture of forgiveness” is a culture which still needs to be further developed, I think, by everyone.

We see it in what people say about terrorists: what a scandal! They let that one go and she was a killer. And these are educated people… We are not talking about the relatives of criminals here… Because it is very, very difficult to sit down together face to face; it isn’t difficult to forgive, because forgiveness, yes, that can be there… to be forgiven, maybe for your mistakes, for those things which later on you realize, were wrong…

And then forgiveness, perhaps it’s good for the offended party, that they are liberated. He says. That guy there, he could give a damn about my forgiveness but maybe for me, this forgiveness is something that sets me free.

I think that forgiveness is something a person has to feel inside of himself and I think these things don’t show on the outside. On the other hand, it is very important to be forgiven by others. This I think is important.

Yet we must not underestimate the symbolic [and material - Ed.] gratifications Nino received from the criminal world. We must not forget that he was a “named guy”. It is no coincidence that young fellows looking for “work” came to Nino. Or that he was the person who was asked to intervene to settle controversies. He was a person who could afford to do a favor - as in the case of the builder from Catania threatened by extortionists - without asking for a favor in return immediately. His name induced fear and respect - one can think of the Madames of the bordellos in Catania menaced by the extortion attempts of a man pretending to be Nino. He was appreciated for his professionalism and for his ethical code - he was a guy who didn’t take advantage of the weak.... Nino enjoyed a high income and the widespread admiration and esteem of his fellows. And so, why should he abandon his criminal activity?

But for the person who reads the book [here Nino refers to the interviews behind this text, Ed.] it is very difficult to accept that today I am a different person… Professor, not everyone accepts this, not everyone understands that now Nino is another person!

As Nino says, the choice to collaborate with state prosecutors has marked his fate:

You never stop being afraid that they’ll get back at you; you can never let your guard down. Never! Our lives are marked. Yeah, unfortunately, that’s how it is. I made a choice, and because of that choice…Danger can come from many sides: first of all, from those whom one has accused.

Well, I, in my statements, there must be a hundred people who I named! And it’s not only Santapaola who will never forgive! There are a whole lot of people who have got life sentences.

And then, there is the revenge of those whose friend or family member was killed by Nino.

There are a whole lot of people whose family member I killed or maybe only their friend. This too. Even if it’s just a friend. And so the danger… , because if it was just one guy who wanted revenge, then you say, ok, I can keep my eye on that guy there! But you don’t really know where the danger can be coming from.

According to a logic of justice which is that of the vendetta, Nino accepts the fact that his life now is in constant danger...

Neither Nino’s father nor his brother were exempt from attempts at vendetta. Fortunately for them, neither of the ambushes had a lethal outcome:

My brother made it by the skin of his teeth, you could say. My brother had a butcher’s shop in Catania and his brother-in-law, called Rosario, he worked there too. And so my brother steps out of the shop with his father-in-law. And just when my brother leaves, three or four minutes later, the killers come in. They come in and that kid is there lining up the meat. They call him:

Rosario! And the kid turns around - because Rosario is my brother’s name too - so he turns around and they shoot him with the sawed-off shotgun. Later they had to amputate his leg.

It was the first warning… Then they saw that it was a mistake so they turned on my father.

They shot at my father! During the trial! He was lucky because just at that moment, an ambulance was going by: the killers thought it was the police so they took off. My father was hit in the lungs. He was hit in the head. He was lucky because they didn’t get out to finish him off.

However Nino had warned his family members not only that they would be the targets of reproofs [censure, Ed.] from various people for his betrayal but also targets for possible acts of revenge by members of the organization.

When it got out about my collaboration, you know, people said, hey look what that guy is doing! And the humiliation that they [Nino’s family members, Ed.] suffered… It was predictable that they would try to get revenge, my friends would. In fact, I said to my family: get out of Catania, even if you don’t want to come to where I am, anyhow, get out of there. 

However, neither Nino’s pleas nor the fact that he narrowly escaped succumbing to an attempt on his life, prevent Nino’s father to express a profound disapproval to his son, who’s turned into a cop.

Once my father had got better and we saw each other, I explained that there were no ways out...; but he couldn’t understand that. He even said to me: it’s not important.! You did those things you did, but you shouldn’t have betrayed your companions, you should have rather served a life sentence than done that! You just don’t betray your companions!

The war - that war which he had cited and had carried out for many years, a war of aggression - now continued as a defensive war. And perhaps in this fact lies the significance of the phrase the only way out of the organization is through death. This determines a constant state of alert and of tension:

You see, Professor, the only kind of protection is this. At least for the moment, it is this: try to avoid as best you can that they find out where your family members are. Because even if they don’t go looking for them actively, if they find someone right there in front of them, you know… So a guy is always under stress, always under tension, because he thinks: and what if they find out where they’re living? And the rest of my family down south there? Understand? And this is not just my problem. It’s a problem for everyone.

Sure, my opinion is this: they are not going to spend money going looking for me. Because now the trials are over and all of that. And so there isn’t any of that going hunting. Maybe, though, I ought to change my name and my appearance. And so it could be that when I meet some people, they don’t say anything to me, they don’t recognize me. But if one guy starts to remember, if they see me, well then…!

It’s a war now for me, a psychological war. For me, it’s a psychological war.

In conclusion, the risks never end, even after years and years… I’ll tell you something, about Calabresi, those people there. I’m talking about murder. You have got to murder some person who 20 years ago did something wrong to you. Twenty years before! And this guy, for twenty years he’s been persecuted, poor guy… They’ve blown up his car, they put bombs around; they’ve shot at the guy… And they haven’t ever managed to finish him off. And so they come to me about it but that time I was not willing to do it. But I’m saying, after 20 years!

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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