The Montreal Connection… Refuting the myth of the Montreal Mafia’s demise (December 14th, 2011)

With so much going on in the World it is often easy to forget about the criminal troubles of cosy, insulated Canada. By far one of the most socially stable and economically prosperous countries on the planet, Canada has provided a safe home for millions of people who have sought a better life or new opportunities. Canadians themselves love to expound their own virtues of acceptance and resourcefulness, with the vast majority of the population engaging in resolute ignorance in regards to the thriving criminal underworld that operates quite openly within their midst. Gang wars have rocked the country from coast to coast over the past decade, all the while being followed with intense interest by local and national news sources, which, like the general public, seem to enjoy the excitement of the violence and conspiracies in a country where violence, poverty and gangsterism are often perceived to be problems that Canada does not have. These beliefs and assertions are simply not true and there exist numerous recent examples to demonstrate this fact.

The Hell’s Angels, a well-known and powerful criminal entity throughout North America, is best known in Canada for their deadly war with the Rock Machine in Quebec during the early 1990s. This conflict ended with the arrest of the Angel’s charismatic leader “Mom” Boucher, whose apprehension was used by the media and public as an example of how safe Canada truly was. However, the Angels are multinational and the gang soon managed to launch a bloody takeover in both the Greater Toronto Area as well as Winnipeg throughout the last decade, leaving dozens of bodies in their wake. The violence in Vancouver between the Red Scorpions and United Nations drug trafficking organizations continues to simmer even though Police and politicians declared the conflict over in 2009. In a revealing turn of events, Jonathan Bacon, eldest of the infamous Bacon brothers and a reputed leader of the Red Scorpions, was murdered in August, 2011, being shot numerous times with high-calibre automatic weapons in a Kelowna, British Columbia. These events all transpired recently and demonstrate the continuing organization capabilities, lethality and commitment of Canada’s organized criminal elements. However, the most dangerous and least well known criminal organization – in terms of its strength and reach – remains the Montreal Cosa Nostra, or mafia. This group has remained shrouded in mystery and continues to run illegal operations throughout Quebec, eastern Canada and Italy that create billions of dollars for its membership, despite repeated attempts by law enforcement to dismantle the organization.

Canadian law enforcement, politicians and the media have talked for years about the diminished strength of this group, using the recent the arrest of its leader, prominent murders and wholesale roundups of Mafiosi in Montreal as evidence of the collapse of this once powerful structure. Here at PanAmerican Crime such claims are treated with derision and truly are ridiculous. The most recent demonstration of the ignorance the Canadian public have for the Montreal Cosa Nostra began with the murder of Nick Rizzuto Jr. on December 28, 2009, eldest son of Vito Rizzuto who had become the recognized head of the organization. Following his in the early morning outside of a construction company office that he owned, so-called “experts” on organize crime began to talk on national television about the “death of the mafia” or the retraction of the organization in the face of growing pressure from street gangs, who were seeking a greater hand in the distribution of illegal narcotics throughout Montreal. This hypothesis is unfounded and untrue, what was occurring was the beginning of a “mob war” between the Sicilian and Calabrese (different regions of southern Italy) factions of the extremely well-funded and well-armed Cosa Nostra in Montreal. In short, what had begun was an attempt by the Calabrians to retake control of the organization from the Sicilian element, an action which would have an effect on both the drug distribution networks within Canada as well as the relationship this group now has with powerful five mafia crime families in New York City. However, to fully understand this conflict a brief description regarding the history of the Montreal underworld must first be undertaken.

Montreal has long served as the head of Canada’s mafia families, powerful Cosa Nostra elements continue to exist in Hamilton and Toronto, but these groups have always paled in comparison to the Montreal entity in terms of both numbers and economic resources. The reason for this is twofold: geography and history. Montreal sits at a strategic point on the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the traditional gateway to Canada for nearly half a millennia. It has maintained a relatively prosperous urban environment as well as traditionally being the last deep-water port along the Seaway before the St. Lawrence River became too treacherous for large, ocean-going vessels. This is no longer the case due to the building of canals, locks and dams along the St. Lawrence River in recent times, however, Montreal’s port continues to be one of the busiest in Canada. Montreal is also the closest Canadian port city to traditional centre of organized crime in North America, New York City. It are these two attributes – the port and its proximity to New York – that would forever influence the development of the Montreal Cosa Nostra.

As stated earlier, the history of traditional Montreal organized crime also continues to shape the criminal underworld of the current city. The first criminal element of Italian heritage in Montreal began under the leadership of Vic “the egg” Cotroni. Cotroni was born in 1911 in Calabria, Italy, and immigrated to Canada at a young age. Cotroni, with his two younger brothers Frank and “Pep,” established a hold on the lucrative prostitution rackets of Montreal and, by the 1950s, “The Egg” was considered the crime boss of Montreal. This period was also one of great economic and political success for the New York crime families, who were growing to unprecedented heights during the postwar era. Major importers of all contraband, the New York mafia had thoroughly enmeshed itself in the city’s waterfront. The Genovese Crime Family controlled the docks in New Jersey and Manhattan, the Gambino Crime Family had control of most of the Brooklyn waterfront and the Colombo Crime Family had a stranglehold over the docks of south Brooklyn, the home of its leader, Joseph Profaci. This division left the other two groups, the Lucchese and Bonanno crime families, without control over any of the important waterfront areas. The Lucchese Crime Family was unconcerned, due to its control of the extremely lucrative Garment District, however the Bonnanos were looking for a place over their own where they could import and export at will without relying on their NY mafia rivals. This need caused the Bonanno patriarch, Joseph Bonanno, to look north to the bustling port of Montreal.

In 1953 Bonanno sent his top capo (lieutenant) Carmine “Lilo” Galante – one of the most infamous Mafiosi in the history of the NY underworld – to Montreal to see if they could muscle in. Finding the Cotroni operation running smoothly, Bonanno and Galante decided to partner with Cotroni, for all intents and purposes making the Cotroni organization a part of the Bonanno Crime Family. This was an important development for several reasons. Firstly, Canada was always considered part of the territory of the boss of the Buffalo mafia, Stephano Maggadino, who insisted on placing a key lieutenant of his own in the Cotroni organization, Paolo Violi. Secondly, it is important to note that the Bonanno Crime Family was, in essence, Sicilian in membership, a characteristic it largely maintains to this day. Vic Cotroni was Calabrian and so was his soon to be second in command, Paolo Violi. This Calabrese-Sicilian rivalry did not initially affect business but it would come to be a crucial issue in the upcoming disputes within the organization. The Sicilian faction in Montreal was led at this point by Luigi Greco, who, as far as history reports, respected Cotroni and served him loyally. However, the involvement of the Sicilian Bonnanos significantly raised the profile and connections of the Sicilian faction, who began to import new members from their homeland, including the Rizzuto clan.

By 1955 Bonanno’s emissary Galante had been deported back to the United States (US) from Canada, yet he had established in his wake a pipeline for illicit drugs in his wake. Galante’s scheme, later immortalized as the “French Connection” in the 1970s movie, was to ship heroin into the port of Montreal and then smuggle it over the Canadian border into NYC, where it could be distributed to the other crime families and their dealers throughout the boroughs. This operation was extremely successful and the pipeline he established is still in operation today, although the players and methods no differ somewhat. The Cotroni organization also began to profit immensely from this relationship, however it was here that the first friction began to emerge. The Sicilians under Greco, especially the newly arrived Rizzutos, soon began to resent the profits the Calabrese faction was enjoying. Cotroni continued to anger the group by stating that they could not import their own drugs, nor could they sell the family’s illicit merchandise in Montreal itself. Cotroni, for the most part, simply sent his drug shipments south, never selling them within his own criminal kingdom. In spite of his attempts at control, by the late 1970s a new drug called cocaine had begun to emerge, and Cotroni could not stop his membership from becoming involved in the extremely profitable enterprise.

The Sicilian faction, now led by Nicolo Rizzuto, had begun to use their family connections in Italy and Venezuela to ship large amounts of cocaine into Montreal and, rather than shipping it south, they started to sell it in Montreal. An faction of the organization, known as the Caruana-Cuntrera clan, smuggled thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the harbor of Montreal, with the vast majority of the proceeds going to the Sicilians. As the Sicilians’ power began to grow so too did the resentment of the Calabrese faction, which viewed the sale of cocaine in Montreal as a direct challenge to the patriarch Cotroni. Consequently, Cotroni and his enraged underboss, Paolo Violi, tried to have Rizzuto murdered and south the sanction of the Bonanno Crime Family in NY. By this time, however, the Sicilian connection between the Rizzuto faction in Montreal and the traditionally Sicilian Bonnanos had grown too strong to break. Numerous appeals from Violi went unanswered or were flat out refused. Indeed, the power of the Rizzutos was such that by the end of the 1970s they had emerged as the pre-eminent leaders of not only the Sicilians in Montreal but also of the entire Cotroni Crime Family. On January 22, 1978, Paolo Violi was invited to play cards in a Montreal ice cream parlour and was subsequently shot in the head with a shotgun, a well-known weapon in Sicilian organized crime. Vic Cotroni would not be murdered, being simply too well respected in NY for the Montreal Sicilians to risk assassinating him; instead, he quietly managed his affairs until his death in 1984, by this point merely a figurehead behind which the Rizzutos maintained power. Both of his brothers would meet bloody ends and, by the 1980s it appeared that Rizzuto dynasty was well entrenched in Montreal. Importantly, as payback for their support of their Sicilian counterparts in Montreal, the Bonannos demanded several hitmen for the assassination of three rebellious capos. Vito Rizzuto, the son of the new boss Nicolo, as well as two other members travelled to Brooklyn in 1981 where they participated in the murder of the three Bonanno interlopers, a move that would come back to haunt the organization. Interestingly, this assassination is portrayed (incorrectly) in the Hollywood movie “Donnie Brasco.”

During the next 25 years the Rizzutos would enjoy unparalleled success in the fiefdom of Montreal. The still active Calabrese faction seemingly accepted the leadership transition and money from the organization’s drug, gambling, prostitution and extortion schemes flooded in. The Rizzutos invested heavily in construction and political protection throughout Quebec, generating millions of dollars. In fact, Swiss banks recently seized 700 million dollars, which was said to have been stored there for the organization by Vito Rizzuto’s wife and other accomplices. Notably, the organization was also implicated in the corruption associated with the construction of the bridge between Sicily and Italy, located in the Strait of Messina. It is also reportedly responsible for the theft of gold bullion that had apparently been stolen from the Philippines by the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Such events merely demonstrate the incredible wealth and reach of the contemporary Montreal Cosa Nostra.

As the Rizzutos and the Montreal mafia rose in prominence their former overseers in NY, the Bonanno Crime Family, began to lose their power. In fact, during the 1990s, as Vito Rizzuto replaced his elderly father as head of the Montreal Cosa Nostra, the Bonanno leadership found itself increasingly in prison and beset by police and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informants. Such realities were immediately recognized by the now powerful Montreal crime family, which gradually severed most working ties with Bonanno Crime Family. It seemed at this point as if the Rizzutos and their organization were untouchable. Their membership was larger than any of the NY mafia families as was their wealth, and the Canadian government had not launched the type of crackdown on traditional Italian organized crime the US government had. Yet the FBI’s investigations would soon come back to haunt the Rizzutos. In 2004, as part of a continuing crackdown on the Bonanno Crime Family, the FBI announced that Joseph Massino, the longtime boss of the Bonannos, had turned state’s evidence to avoid a murder charge that may have resulted in his execution. During his testimony, Massino revealed that Vito Rizzuto had been a shooter in the 1981 triple homicide in Brooklyn. After fighting extradition, Vito took a plea deal that sent him to US prison for ten years. While this was a blow to the organization in Montreal it by no means influenced its operations and the transition from Vito as the boss to a commission of trusted capos who would hold the reigns for him went smoothly. However, this was the first important step in the current Montreal mob war.

After Vito’s initial arrest in 2004 the Canadian government announced its own investigation on the Montreal mafia had borne fruit. Named “Projet Colisee,” the operation focused on the importation of cocaine at Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montreal and resulted in the incarceration of 90 members of the organization. Significantly this included key Sicilian capos, including Francesco Arcadi, Francesco del Balso and Lorenzo Giordano. Despite the supposed size of the indictment it did not include any major informers and no charges involving major jail time resulted for many of the members. This event is significant not for its takedown of organized crime in Montreal but because it netted mostly members of the Sicilian faction of the Montreal Cosa Nostra. Yet, certain key members of the diminished Sicilian faction were still operational and, consequently, life simply went on for the Montreal mafia.

However, “Projet Colisee” was the final step in providing an opening for the Calabrese faction to attempt to retake control Montreal. The membership of the Calabrese faction, including their reputed leader, Joe di Maulo, have seemingly never forgotten or forgiven their Sicilian rivals for their violent takeover of the city’s rackets over twenty years ago. The first shots in the new war began with the December, 2009, murder of Vito’s son, Nick Rizzuto. However, the violence wouldn’t stop there and the dead continue to pile up on the Sicilian side. Vito’s close ally and friend, Paolo Renda, was abducted and presumably murdered on May 20, 2010. On June 30, 2010, Agostino Cuntrera, of the infamous and still active Caruana-Cuntrera clan, as well as his bodyguard were both shot dead. Perhaps most importantly, in an extremely impressive feat of marksmanship, the former Sicilian patriarch, Vito’s father Nicolo Rizzuto, was murdered in his own house by a shot fired from a high-powered sniper rifle on November 10, 2010. Other members of the Sicilian faction have also reportedly been assaulted or abducted and the it appears as if the assault by the Calabrese on their rivals is still continuing with Sicilian member Antonio di Salvo being found dead on February 1, 2011.

***

However, it would again be useless to surmise that the Sicilian faction has been wiped out and that the conflict is over. The Rizzutos had initially refused membership in the Montreal organization to the acting Bonanno boss, Sal “the Ironworker” Montagna. Montagna was born in Montreal but grew up in Italy and whose family is from Castellemare del Golfo in Sicily, the home of the Bonannos. He returned to NY where, after the arrest of Vincent “Vinnie Gorgeous” Basciano in 2005, he was elevated to the top spot in the Bonanno hierarchy. However, by 2009, he was deported from the US to Montreal because of his criminal record and due to the fact that he was not a American citizen. In Montreal the Rizzutos apparently denied him entry into their group, yet he proceeded to pressure the patriarch Nicolo Rizzuto for entrance into the Montreal mafia and to step down from his post to let younger blood into the organization. Rizzuto refused, but upon his death Montagna began to align himself with Joe di Maulo, the reputed leader of the Calabrian faction.

“The Ironworker” was found murdered on November 24, 2011, in a river outside of Montreal. Witnesses claim he was thrown from a van and shot. At this point it is useless to offer any confirmation on moitve but it is clear that one of the factions, Sicilian or Calabrian, wanted him dead; but, given the history of his actions and his apparent joining with the Calabrians after being spurned by the Sicilians it is likely that the Sicilian faction removed him from the picture. Besides the murder of Sal “the Ironworker” Montagna, Raynald Desjardins, a key supporting member of the Calabrian faction, was the victim of a botched hit on September 16, 2011. While both of these events are by no means a serious retaliation by the Sicilian group, they do demonstrate that there remain those who are committed to the fight on both sides.

Another series of events often unmentioned in the press is the connection between the string of arsons at local Italian restaurants and eateries throughout the city of Montreal. These locations reputedly served as drug warehouses and distribution centres for mafia crews on both sides of the conflict and their destruction reveals that each side is attempting to destroy the financial backbone of their rivals. Dozens of locations have been firebombed over the past two years in what is clearly just another facet of the ongoing mob war.

Thus far the Sicilians have received several major blows to their operations and it is likely that such attacks will continue in the near future. However, even if a period of relative peace pervades for the next several months the violence is likely to continue in the long term. Vito Rizzuto, the once all powerful mafia don of Canada, will be released from US prison on October 6, 2012, and there is no reason to believe that he will not seek revenge for the deaths of his father, son and other close associates. Vito’s other son is still alive and active in the Montreal underworld and the Sicilian faction, despite taking numerous hits, is also very much alive and kicking. Their international reach is still extensive and while the quality of the membership may not be what it was two years ago there are still many members who will also be seeking revenge as well. It is also important to note that the membership that was jailed during “Projet Colisee” will soon be heading home, with many already close to completing the majority of their sentences. This development means that within the next two years Montreal will again see an influx of dangerous and angry Mafioso, who all will wish to have their say in the new underworld hierarchy.

Contemporary mafia historians, crime reporters and, of course, politicians love to speak of the reduced capabilities of the modern mafia, both in the US and Canada. Descriptions regarding the rise of street gangs and other ethnic criminal groups are usually heralded as revealing the collapse of traditional organized crime. These assertions are simply ludicrous. The Cosa Nostra in Montreal today is extensive, maintaining at least 200 “made” members, but most likely more. This means that there are at least 200 members who have sworn a life-long allegiance to the organization as well as at least one thousand associates – people who pay taxes and commit crimes for the made members of the organization. The extensive corruption of municipal contracts and construction projects throughout the Montreal area as well as the seizure of billions in illicit overseas funds illustrate the truly global reach of this organization. Indeed, rather than operating as a faction of the once mighty Bonnano Crime Family, the Montreal mafia is now senior enough to murder an acting boss of their former overlords. Over the past decade the powerful mafia factions in Montreal have been seen using public spaces, such as the provincial courthouse in downtown Montreal as a safe meeting place due to the presence of metal detectors. Coupled with this blatant usage of public property, Italian organized crime has also been implicated in the ongoing corruption present with Quebec’s construction industry. Indeed, both Nick Rizzuto Jr. (now deceased) and Joe di Maulo, as well as numerous other important Mafioso, owned extremely successful construction firms, which received lucrative construction contracts from both private and government sources.

What the murders, kidnappings, arsons and corruption demonstrate is how powerful the Cosa Nostra has become in Canada. Street level disputes do not involve dozens of arsons and multiple murders, including a high-profile sniper attack on a mafia chieftain in his own home. Such an attack in itself reveals the dangerous capabilities of the organization – normal criminals do not possess the trade craft for long range sniper attacks in residential neighbourhoods. Rather than being defunct or replaced, the Montreal Cosa Nostra is continually successful, its size allowing for its continual rebound from the arrests and deaths of key members. As this conflict continues it remains to be seen who will be triumphant and, while the Sicilians are down they are not out. The violence seen over the last two years may only be the first phase in another long and destructive criminal war throughout La Belle Provence.

– Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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