Monday, June 25, 2018

Organized Crime is Global, and Flourishing: the Mafia Makes Massive Profit from Migrant Crisis

In the spring of 2015, I flew to Sicily to report a story about the European migration crisis. Then, as now, hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East were crowding into small fishing boats and flimsy rubber dinghies in Libya, Egypt and Turkey and setting out across the Mediterranean for Europe. In 15 years, 22,000 had drowned en route. But if the humanitarian crisis was well known and comprehensively reported, I had been tipped off that a central explanation for this catastrophe had received less attention. Anti-mafia prosecutors in Palermo were claiming to have evidence suggesting that one answer to why so many refugees and migrants were heading to Sicily was because the Italian Mafia wanted them to.

In Sicily, I interviewed the prosecutors and reviewed their evidence, and talked to Carabinieri, anti-mafia activists, refugees and social workers. Where the world had seen an unprecedented emergency, Italy’s gangsters had perceived an unrivaled opportunity. North African and Middle Eastern gangs handled the trafficking across the Mediterranean. But once the migrants arrived, mafiosi were making millions from them, sometimes putting them to work on farms for as little as €3 a day, sometimes taking a cut from Nigerian prostitution rackets, but mainly by infiltrating and corrupting Italy’s immigration system. The mafia’s men inside these authorities ensured that mafia businesses were awarded contracts for the construction and management of refugee reception centers. Each migrant earned the mafia €28 per head per day. A three-year contract to run Europe’s biggest migrant center at Mineo in eastern Sicily was worth €97 million. A Carabinieri surveillance team in Rome recorded one mobster, convicted murderer Salvatore Buzzi, boasting in a phone call to an associate: "Do you have any idea how much I make from immigrants? Even drugs aren’t as profitable!"

The story was a startling correction to the idea of the Italian Mafia as historic. It also repudiated any notions of mafia glamor. Here was a vast present-day criminal conspiracy making tens of millions from the excruciating suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and 3,000 to 4,000 deaths every year. This was not the stylish menace of "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" or even Elena Ferrante. This was sordid, venal and deadly.

My last two interviews were in Rome. Through friends, I contacted a journalist in the capital who specialized in mafia stories, Laura Aprati, and asked her to set up two interviews, one with a Carabinieri chief, another with a senior anti-mafia magistrate, both of whom she knew. Laura’s price was €250, plus my mandatory attendance at a showing of a play she had co-written with another journalist and two anti-mafia activists at a school in a run-down, mafia-heavy area on the outskirts of Rome. "You will come," commanded Laura.

The play turned out to be a one-woman show, accompanied by the mournful bow of a single cellist, set against a plain, blood-red backdrop. At the time, I spoke no Italian and understood very little of the drama, but one thing I did manage to catch was the name of the play’s protagonist, Maria Concetta Cacciola. That single name turned out to be the key that unlocked another hidden world. Concetta, as I later read in several thousand pages of judicial documents, had been born into a family that worked for one of the ruling clans in the Calabrian Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, in the toe of Italy. In May, June and July 2011, she had testified against her family in return for entry to Italy’s witness protection program. By doing so, she was following the example of two other ’Ndrangheta women, her friend Giuseppina Pesce, who came from Concetta’s home town of Rosarno on Calabria’s west coast, and Lea Garofalo, who was from Pagliarelle, a mountain village above Calabria’s east coast. Concetta, Giuseppina and Lea all shared the same motivations for giving evidence. They wanted their children to have a different life, away from the blood and killing of the mafia; and they had all been accused of having an affair.

The three women’s testimony blew the secret world of the ’Ndrangheta wide open. Like Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Camorra in Naples, the ’Ndrangheta (pronounced un-drung-get-a and derived from the Greek andrangheteia, meaning "society of men of honor and valor") had been founded in the tumultuous years around the unification of the Italian peninsula in 1861. Like the other two mafias, too, the ’Ndrangheta covered its criminality with a veneer of righteous revolution: their infiltration and corruption of the economy and the state was part, so the mafioso narrative went, of an honorable, southern subversion of the new northern-dominated Italian state. But at the time, little else was known about the organization. For most of its existence, the ’Ndrangheta had been considered a poor cousin to Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, country bumpkins in dusty suits who might extract protection from the local trattoria but never strayed far from their groves of oranges, lemons and olives.

Thanks in part to the three women’s testimony, that caricature was revealed as woefully out of date. In their statements to police and in court, which ran to thousands of pages, the women described a global monster. Eventually, Calabria’s prosecutors would conclude that the ’Ndrangheta had a presence in 120 of the world’s 200 countries and a global income of $50-100 billion at its upper end, around $10 billion more than Microsoft’s annual revenue. They ran heroin, marijuana and 70 percent of the cocaine in Europe. They extorted Calabria’s businesses for billions of euros every year and, further afield, embezzled and rigged contracts from the Italian government and the European Union worth billions more, even cornering the market in the disposal of nuclear waste, which they dumped in the Red Sea off Somalia. Their empire linked a mob war in Toronto to a cocaine-delivering pizzeria in Queens, New York, called Cucino a Modo Mio (I Cook My Own Way) to the reported ownership of an entire Brussels neighborhood to mining in Togo.

Their gun-running business directly affected the destiny of nations: Franco Roberti, head of Italy’s anti-mafia directorate, told me the ’Ndrangheta was selling weapons to several sides in Syria’s civil war. But it was laundering their riches and those of other crime groups from around the world, which the Calabrians did for a fee, that made the ’Ndrangheta a global power. Millions of people worked in their companies, shopped in their stores, ate in their restaurants, lived in their buildings and elected politicians they funded. Giuseppe Lombardo, a Calabrian prosecutor specializing in the ’Ndrangheta’s finances, told me that by buying up the government debt of two Asian countries, Thailand and Indonesia, then threatening to dump it, the ’Ndrangheta had blackmailed entire nations into letting it operate on their territory. Their money, said Lombardo, had elevated the group to a position of invulnerability. They now occupied a "fundamental and indispensable position in the global market," he said, one that was "more or less essential for the smooth functioning of the global economic system."

That almost no one knew any of this until the last decade or so is no coincidence. The secret of the ’Ndrangheta’s success was secrecy or, as they called it, omertà. As I describe in "The Good Mothers," their great flaw turned out to be the claustrophobic family loyalty and murderous misogyny with which they enforced it. The women of the ’Ndrangheta had lives as restricted as women living under conservative Islam. To persuade them to talk, all the prosecutors had to do was offer them and their children an alternative.

The investigations built on Concetta’s, Giuseppina’s and Lea’s evidence brought down several large crime families and shook the ’Ndrangheta to its core. What unnerves me, still, is that such a giant, global enterprise could function for so long without anyone knowing. That revelation sits alongside two other disturbing modern truths: that globalization assists illicit business as much as it does legitimate commerce; and that the era of global, mass connectivity has, paradoxically, decreased how what we know about the world as the conversation narrows to a few common narratives (Trump, terrorism, #Metoo) and the truth is subsumed by noise.

What I discovered about the ’Ndrangheta has made me curious about other, equally unfamiliar organized crime groups. Years of research lie ahead. But I can already say with some confidence that the great hidden truth of our era is that terrorism is a spectacular distraction from the real threat: the rise of global organized crime. From drugs to guns, cyber-attacks to the dark web, political financing to narco-states, people trafficking to child abuse, tax havens to smuggled wine, counterfeit watches to fake news, nail bars to hand car washes and money laundering through property and financial markets from London to New York to Hong Kong to Johannesburg, organized crime is all around us. The most remarkable thing about that? Almost nobody seems to have noticed.

Thanks to Alex Perry.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cook County Circuit Judge William Hooks Frees Accused Cop Killer Jackie Wilson from Prison

After more than 36 years in custody, an accused cop killer who alleges notorious ex-Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge tortured him into confessing was ordered freed Friday while awaiting his third trial on the charges.

Jackie Wilson, 57, was granted a recognizance bond by Cook County Circuit Judge William Hooks, who last week tossed out Wilson’s murder conviction after finding that Burge and detectives under his command had physically coerced his confession to the 1982 slaying of two Chicago officers.

The judge said special prosecutors “utterly failed” in their arguments to keep Wilson in prison, adding that they appeared to want him to view the case “through the lens of a court sitting in 1982 or 1988 without considering the revelations that have come to light over the last three decades.”

Wilson is likely to walk out of Cook County Jail as soon as later Friday.

The ruling to free Wilson comes as special prosecutors filed paperwork earlier this week indicating they will ask an appeals court to reverse Hooks’ decision to toss the conviction and order a retrial.

Wilson has twice been convicted of teaming up with his now-dead brother, Andrew, who prosecutors say fatally shot Officers Richard O’Brien and William Fahey during a traffic stop in 1982. His first conviction was tossed out after an appeals court ruled that he should not have been tried simultaneously with his brother. At the retrial in 1989, a jury acquitted him of Fahey’s murder but convicted him of O’Brien’s. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Hooks held a lengthy hearing Thursday at which a team of special prosecutors laid out their case for keeping Wilson in custody pending a third trial. Prosecutors summarized the expected testimony of several witnesses, including eyewitnesses who implicated Wilson as well as correctional officers who allegedly heard him take credit for the slayings while in custody.

Thanks to Megan Crepeau.

"Cadillac Frank" Francis Salemme and Paul Weadick Found Guilty in Mob Murder Trial

Former New England Mafia boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was found guilty Friday, along with an associate, of killing a South Boston nightclub owner 25 years ago to prevent him from cooperating with investigators targeting Salemme and his son.

The verdict signified long-awaited justice for the family of Steven DiSarro, a 43-year-old father of five who disappeared in 1993, his whereabouts a mystery until the FBI found his remains two years ago, buried behind an old mill in Providence.

Salemme, 84, who became a government witness himself six years after killing DiSarro and was in federal witness protection until his 2016 arrest, will probably spend the rest of his life in prison.

Following a five-week trial in US District Court in Boston and four days of deliberations, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Salemme and Paul Weadick, 63, of Burlington, of murdering DiSarro to prevent him from becoming a federal witness. The men face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Salemme and his late son were business partners with DiSarro in the Channel nightclub, which was located on Necco Street and was demolished years ago.

Judge Allison Burroughs set sentencing for Sept. 13.

DiSarro’s daughter, Colby, cried as the verdict came down around 3 p.m. Friday, and his son, Michael, wiped tears from his eyes.

Salemme, meanwhile, let out a huge sigh when the verdict came down and appeared stunned as he remained standing for a long time in a gray suit and blue tie, taking his seat only after his lawyer told him to.

The once-feared gangster, who had smiled at his attorney when he came into the courtroom to hear the verdict, left court with his head down without glancing at the spectators’ gallery. Weadick shook hands with his attorney before he was escorted out as well. Both men have been in custody since they were arrested in 2016.

Weadick’s lawyer declined to comment outside court Friday.

An attorney for Salemme, Steven Boozang, told reporters that his client, who turns 85 next month, “feels worse for Paul Weadick than he does for himself. He’s just not a self-absorbed guy.”

Boozang also took aim at the government’s star witness, another aging gangster named Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, who’s serving life in prison for 10 murders and who testified that he witnessed Salemme’s son choking DiSarro while Weadick held his legs up and Salemme looked on. Salemme’s son died in 1995.

After the verdict, Boozang called Flemmi an “absolute liar” and said the defense was confronted with “a tough set of facts” but “thought we had overcome them.”

Asked about Salemme’s relatively stoic demeanor in court, Boozang said, “He’s done a lot of time. He was in the gangland wars, so I don’t think much phases him or shocks him. He was hopeful and optimistic” for an acquittal. Boozang said he expects his client to be placed in the general prison population and added that “nobody will bother him. . . . Inside, he’s a pretty decent human being and warm, aside from what he was years ago.”

DiSarro’s family had no immediate comment after the verdict but released a statement on Tuesday as the jury began deliberating.

“The last 25 years have been heartbreaking for us due to the sudden loss of a loved one, coupled with the fact that we were left without any answers as to what happened,” the DiSarro family had said Tuesday.
“Nothing about the circumstances of our father, brother, uncle and husband’s disappearance have been typical. We have been living for years with the idea that a man who was deeply loved by his family, never returned home to those he loved and we never knew why.
“The answers were hidden deep inside a dark, and often violent underworld that we thankfully have never had access to. Of course there have been rumors, speculations, and opinions over the years, but what became forgotten amongst it all is the man that existed and the family and life that he built.”

Thanks to Shelley Murphy and Travis Anderson.

James "Whitey" Bulger, Notorious Boston Mobster, is Arrested #OnThisDay in 2011

On this day in 2011, after 16 years on the run from law enforcement, James “Whitey” Bulger, a violent Boston mob boss wanted for 19 murders, is arrested in Santa Monica, California. The 81-year-old Bulger, one of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives, was arrested with his longtime companion, 60-year-old Catherine Greig, who fled Massachusetts with the gangster in late 1994, shortly before he was to be indicted on federal criminal charges. At the time of his 2011 arrest, there was a $2 million reward for information leading to Bulger’s capture, the largest amount ever offered by the agency for a domestic fugitive.

Born in Massachusetts in 1929 and raised in a South Boston housing project, Bulger, who earned his nickname as a child for his light blond hair, served time in federal prison in the 1950s and early 1960s for bank robbery. Afterward, he returned to Boston, where he eventually built an organized-crime empire with partner Stephen Flemmi. At the time the two men were involved with drug trafficking, extortion, murder and other illegal activities, they were serving, since the mid-1970s, as FBI informants, providing information about rival mobsters in return from protection from prosecution.

After a rogue FBI agent tipped off Bulger that he would soon be arrested on racketeering charges, Bulger disappeared in December 1994. (John Connolly, the agent who tipped off Bulger, was later convicted on charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice and second-degree murder.) Despite an international manhunt, Bulger eluded authorities for over a decade and a half. Then, on June 20, 2011, the FBI employed a new tactic by airing a public service announcement focused on Greig, Bulger’s companion. The ad, which aired in cities across the U.S. where the mobster was thought to have once lived or have contacts, was aimed at female viewers who might have seen Greig, who underwent a variety of cosmetic surgeries, at a beauty parlor or doctor’s office. Based on one of the tips they received, FBI agents staked out Bulger and Greig, then going by the names Charles and Carol Gasko, and arrested them without incident at the modest, two-bedroom Southern California apartment building they had long called home.

Law enforcement officials found weapons, fake identification and more than $800,000 stashed in Bulger’s apartment. He later revealed to them that during his years on the lam he had traveled frequently to such places as Boston, Mexico and Las Vegas, armed and sometimes in disguise.

After their arrest, Bulger and Greig were returned to Boston. In June 2012, as part of a plea agreement, Greig was sentenced to eight years in prison for helping Bulger remain in hiding. The following summer, Bulger went on trial, and on August 12, 2013, he was convicted in a federal court in Boston of 31 of the 32 counts against him, including participating in 11 murders and other criminal acts.

On November 14, 2013, a federal judge sentenced Bulger to two life terms in prison plus five years.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Bugsy Siegel Gunned Down in 1947 #OnThisDay

A drive-by shooter unloads nine rounds through the front window of a Beverly Hills home, instantly killing notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel. A founder of the small but promising Las Vegas casino scene, the pal of movie stars and moguls, and head of the Mafia's west coast syndicate, is dead at 41.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was an American mobster. Siegel was known as one of the most "infamous and feared gangsters of his day". Described as handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first front-page celebrity gangsters. He was also a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. Siegel was not only influential within the Jewish mob but, like his friend and fellow gangster Meyer Lansky, he also held significant influence within the American Mafia and the largely Italian-Jewish National Crime Syndicate.

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