The Chicago Syndicate: Castellammare del Golfo Exports Mobsters to New York?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Castellammare del Golfo Exports Mobsters to New York?

From the turquoise Mediterranean lapping its shore to the winding streets where old men soak up the sun on rickety chairs, a tourist would never know this one small town has produced many of New York's most notorious gangsters. Then again, the narrow-eyed suspicion with which outsiders are greeted might be a tipoff.

So it is fitting that New York's latest mob boss has roots in the same western Sicilian town that has exported some of the city's toughest mobsters for generations. His name is Salvatore (Sal the Ironworker) Montagna, 35, the reputed acting head of the Bonanno crime family.

Like the legendary Joseph Bonanno, model for "The Godfather," Montagna was born in Castellammare del Golfo. His family immigrated first to Canada (he has cousins who run a gelato business there) and then to New York.

It was last week that the Daily News exclusively reported that law enforcement authorities determined the Bonanno family, its ranks decimated by prosecutions, has turned to the youthful Montagna to take the leadership reins.

A hardscrabble fishing village clinging to a mountain rising steeply out of the sea 40 miles west of Palermo, Castellammare has been a stronghold of the Mafia for centuries, its men known for their pride, clannishness and violence when crossed.

Now a town of 20,000, its name - translated as the Castle at the Sea - comes from a ruined but still forbidding Saracen fortress near the small marina. The marble mausoleums clustered in the town cemetery bear many family names that became famous in New York: Bonanno, Profaci and Galante chief among them.

Questions about the Montagna family are greeted with some hostility. There is one Montagna listed in town, but no one answered the phone and asking around in his neighborhood wasn't fruitful. "I know him, but he's dead," said one of the old men lounging over coffee at a cafe. "Sorry."

During Mussolini's brutal crackdown on the Mafia in the 1920s, scores of Castellammarese fled to America, many settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The immigrants' ties to the land, each other and the Old World codes of honor gave rise to powerful, insular gangs that cornered the market on bootlegging, gambling and then-lucrative ice deliveries. Men from the town also went to Buffalo and Chicago, where they started their own mobs.

In the 1930s, New York was rocked by the Castellammarese War, which pitted immigrant mobsters from the town - led by Bonanno, Joseph Profaci and then-boss Salvatore Maranzano - against factions from Calabria and Naples, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese and Frank Costello. The bloody war ended when Maranzano set up an organizational structure for La Cosa Nostra and divided New York City into five families.

At 26, Bonanno was nearly a decade younger than Montagna when he came to head his own family. Then, as now, immigrants from Castellammare were prized soldiers.

BonannoA Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, in his autobiography, "A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno," wrote of their discipline and the importance of ancient family ties. He told a family legend about his Uncle Peppe ordering a younger man to strip off his shirt and take an undeserved lashing with a whip. "It's one thing to say you're never going to talk against your friends, but it's quite another not to talk when someone is beating you. I wanted to see how well you took a beating," Bonanno recalled his uncle saying.

His affection for his birthplace was evident: He spoke of playing in the fortress as a child, the taste of fresh mullet caught in the gulf nearby and the smell of lemons on the wind. When he died in 2002 at the age of 97 in Arizona, his funeral cards bore the image of Santa Maria del Soccorso, the patron saint of Castellammare del Golfo.

Another Castellammarese, Joseph Barbara, hosted the notorious Appalachian Mafia Conference of 1957, which was raided by the cops and began the mob's long slow decline.

In the past decade, Italian authorities have made a great effort to crack down on gangsters, and Castellammare is now thriving, with new six-story blocks of condos going up on the outskirts of town and fewer poor laborers leaving in search of a better life. But the port city is still a major center of Mafia activity in western Sicily.

The crew filming "Ocean's 12" in nearby Scopello in 2004 were caught up in it when 23 people - including a local police commander - were busted after a year-long probe of a sprawling Castellammarese extortion racket that included surveillance of the film set. Producer Jerry Weintraub later hotly denied widespread Italian news reports that the film crew was being shaken down with threats of arson on the set and that film's stars - George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones - might have been in danger.

The national daily newspaper Corriere della Sera said the local Mafia is known for targeting moviemakers and has a lock on the hiring of extras.

While the ancient codes still hold sway, the gangsters are keeping up with the times and enforcement has gone high-tech. When producers of a recent feature wouldn't cooperate, thugs broke into the production offices and erased the moviemakers' hard drive's to make their point.

There have been other signs of modernity. Two of the highest ranking Mafiosi arrested in a big 2004 Castellammare bust were women - the wives of the town's top Mafia chieftains. Italian authorities said it would have been unheard of even a few years ago for women to get involved in protection rackets, but bragged that their prosecutions have been so successful that most of the men are now behind bars.

In New York, parallel crackdowns on the mob have put half the Bonanno family soldiers behind bars. So once again, the family has looked to the tough men and closed mouths of Castellammare del Golfo's crooked streets.

Thanks to Helen Kennedy

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