Hard-hit U.S. Mafia hiring Sicilian mobsters to fill ranks

Sunday, March 14, 2004

ROME -- Ratted on by fellow wiseguys and hounded by police, struggling American Mafiosi are recruiting Sicilian mobsters, believing the island's hardheaded gangsters are more likely to keep their mouths shut, U.S. and Italian organized-crime officials say.

Authorities worry that the Sicilian Mafia, known in the past for gunning down police and blowing up judges, might also send this approach to the United States.

Top FBI officials discussed these developments with the Italian parliament's anti-Mafia commission at a recent briefing in Washington.

A top Sicilian Mafia turncoat recently told Italian police that U.S.-based mob families were looking to Sicily to recruit members, Italy's anti-Mafia commission chief Sen. Roberto Centaro said.

U.S. mobsters have begun facing serious setbacks as the federal government has applied new racketeering laws and the number of turncoats has increased.

Matthew Heron, assistant special agent in charge of the organized-crime branch in the FBI's New York office, said the combination of convictions and turncoats had led to "a leadership vacuum" in some crime gangs, such as the Bonannos.

In January, FBI agents and U.S. police officers arrested dozens of suspected mobsters linked to the Bonannos after a high-ranking member of the New York City crime family wore a wire.

The U.S. mobsters have "reached out toward Sicily to bring some people over to fill some gaps," Heron said in a phone interview from New York. For one thing, it's thought that the Sicilians are much more inclined to maintain the mob's sacred vow of silence.

Heron said authorities are just starting to see the Sicilian mobsters in the United States.

Heron noted that La Cosa Nostra in America has always avoided going after U.S. law enforcement to keep out of the public eye, but "that's not necessarily the case with the Sicilians."

The Sicilian turncoat told police that American mobsters are sending their members to the island for lessons in thuggery.

"They send them here to Sicily to make them become men of honor, to make them do training, because in America there's this attack on the values -- there's no respect anymore," mobster Antonino Giuffre said, according to remarks published last week by Italy's ANSA news agency. "The American Mafia is different and it needs some of our qualities."

Italian authorities said Giuffre made these remarks during a recent Palermo interrogation with the FBI and local police. Some here question how reliable Giuffre's information is, but anti-Mafia investigators broadly confirm it.

"Every now and then, they'll send someone whose origins are in these areas so they can do a bit of Mafia lessons," chief Palermo prosecutor Piero Grasso said.

Sicilian gangsters infiltrated the United States among the waves of immigrants who arrived at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. After World War II, some were deported back to Sicily, where they are believed to have helped strengthen the local clans, which had been devastated during Mussolini's Fascist regime.

"The Sicilian and American groups have affected each other reciprocally according to circumstances," said Prof. Salvatore Lupo, a Mafia expert at the University of Palermo. "They have a common heritage. But from what we know, they're not the same thing."

By the 1960s if not earlier, they were distinct organizations, but due to family ties and business interests they often linked up.

U.S. and Italian prosecutors discovered in the 1980s during a case dubbed "The Pizza Connection" that the Sicilian Mafia was involved in a massive drug ring in America in cooperation with the U.S. mob.

Authorities say they are monitoring the latest link of U.S. mobsters recruiting Sicilians.

Heron said officials are not aware of any plans to launch attacks on American authorities, but "it's not outside the realm of possibility, and it's something we want to keep a close eye on."

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