The release of Vito and the climax of the mob war in Montreal (January 23, 2013)

(Vito Rizzuto extradition to USA, Image obtained from La Presse, 2013)

As 2012 fades into memory it is easy to become positive or negative about personal, national and global prospects for the new year. Optimistic people become imbued with a sense of promise, energized by the possibilities of new opportunities, while the people who are characterized by the old “glass-half-empty” paradigm continue to overwhelm themselves with the things they have no influence over. Somewhere amidst these two perspectives often lies the truth, which, as is the case with the supposedly internecine mafia conflict in Montreal, often remains obscured by the biases and lack of self-awareness most people operate under for the duration of their lives.

In December, 2011, the Canadian public was becoming increasingly shocked at the brazen incidents of violence that seemed to be emerging each week from the seedy underworld of Montreal. At this point in time, prominent Mafia researchers, such as Anthony Nicaso, were repeatedly promoting the idea that a small, beleaguered Mafia group in Montreal was finally being usurped by powerful street gangs throughout the city. As PanAmerican Crime reported then, the ridiculousness of this assertion was essentially mind-blowing to people who are educated on criminal organizations in Canada. Yet, to the untrained eye, Nicaso’s claims may have appeared to have some merit. The son of long-time Montreal don Vito Rizzuto and the supposed heir apparent, Nick Rizzuto Jr. (42), had been killed outside of his construction company in December, 2009. Throughout 2010 the killings piled up. In May, 2010, the reputed Consigliere of the organization, Paolo Renda (70), was kidnapped in Montreal – his body has never been recovered. Agostino Cuntrera (66), a key Capo (captain) and his bodyguard Liborio Sciascia (40) were both shot to death a month later. In September, 2010, Ennio Bruni was gunned down in Laval, just outside of Montreal. The coup de grace came with the execution of former Montreal don Nick Rizzuto Sr. in his home in front of his wife and family in November, 2010. Each of these killings involved high-level members of the Montreal mafia organization and apparently signalled the death-knell of the Montreal mob. But, if the Montreal Italian crime family was indeed finished, as is repeatedly claimed, then why have the killings of Italian criminals – such as Lorenzo Lopresti in October, 2011 – continued unabated throughout the city and its surrounding environs?

The answer to this important question is multifaceted and complex, but it rests with the fact that what is definitively happening in Montreal is an ongoing violent struggle between the two large factions that comprise the Montreal mafia. Since the war began with the murder of Nick Rizzuto Jr., the Sicilians, under the Rizzuto hegemony, have remained loyal to the remaining leadership of their besieged faction. Their staunch enemies – the Calabrian faction – have shown even greater resolve in many respects despite being likely outgunned and having less access to crucial international connections. However, the situation on the ground in Montreal has changed. While murders and assaults appear to be occurring at an even greater rate, this shift in momentum signals the likely end of the conflict rather than a renewed struggle. The Sicilians have weathered the storm and appear to have regained control of the streets in Montreal. Two crucial events figured in this development. The first was the release of Sicilian leader don Vito Rizzuto from the American SuperMax penitentiary in Colorado on Friday, October 6, 2012. The second was the death of reputed Calabrian faction leader Joe di Maulo on Sunday, November 4, 2012. Di Maulo, often described in popular media as a “diplomat” or a figure that bridged the divide between the Sicilian and Calabrian factions since the 1980s, was shot in the head by a silenced, low-calibre pistol at close range in his driveway. Again, street gangs don’t assassinate people outside of their local geographic area of control and they don‘t do it with silenced weapons, which are difficult to acquire in Canada – (Di Maulo lived in Blainville approximately 45 minutes outside of Montreal). Clearly he wasn’t the peacemaker the media claimed he was.

In order to understand the seriousness of these events it is important to understand the history of the Montreal mafia and its various factions. A more complete overview of Montreal’s importance to the North American and therefore global underworld is available at PanAmerican Crime under “The Montreal Connection,” but the crucial ingredient that needs to be taken from the turmoil in the Montreal mafia during the 1970s and early 1980s is the rise of the Sicilian faction of the Montreal mafia at the expense of the Calabrians. On January 22, 1978, Paulo Violi, the Underboss for the Montreal Mafia and de facto head of the Calabrian faction was murdered in an Italian ice cream parlour in Montreal. The assassination was conducted by shotgun, a well known Sicilian calling card. The nominal head of the family, Vic “the egg” Cotroni was a part of the Calabrian faction but he was spared because of the respect and deference he enjoyed from members of the New York mafia families, especially the Bonanno Crime Family. His brother, Frank “the big guy” Cotroni replaced Violi as the public head of the Calabrian faction upon his death. While Violi’s other brothers were murdered and his family fled to Toronto and Hamilton under the protection of other Calabrian mafia clans, Frank Cotroni continued to be the figurehead for the Calabrian faction in Montreal under the Sicilian hegemony. (As mentioned earlier, a more complete synopsis of the history of the Montreal mafia and the early stages of the current conflict are available on PanAmerican Crime in the “Montreal Connection” as there is not enough time to go over it all here).

Over the following decades the Sicilians separated themselves from the self-destructive Bonanno’s in NYC and enmeshed themselves in the criminal and cultural fabric of Montreal. The city resumed its status as the paramount entry point for illegal narcotics into Canada, most importantly for cocaine via Venezuela, which remains just one of the Sicilians’ international bastions. Consequently, the family grew in size and wealth, and peace was assured by the powerful presence of the Sicilian patriarchs in Montreal and the wealth that was available to all factions of the family. Then came 2004, one of the most significant years in terms of understanding the current struggle. In August of that year the surviving elder statesman of the Calabrians, Frank Cotroni, died peacefully in his sleep. The peace Frank made with his Sicilian rivals had ensured relative peace within the organization, but his death removed that stabilizing presence. It should be noted that while Frank Cotroni had his grievances against the Rizzutos and the Sicilians, the change in power in the 1970s had not resulted in attempts on his life or that of his family. The rest of the Calabrians did not fair so well, with many being murdered in the purge following the ascendancy of the Rizzutos in the 1980s, including both of Violi’s brothers. This violent legacy did not evaporate but instead simmered under the auspices of cooperation between the two groups for some time. Perhaps more significantly, 2004 saw the arrest of Vito Rizzuto on charges that he participated in the murder of three rebellious Bonanno Crime Family captains in New York City in the 1980s; (the three were Alphonse “Sonny Red“ Indelicato, Dominic “Big Trin” Trinchera, Phillip “Phil Lucky” Giaccone and the event is part of the Hollywood movie “Donnie Brasco“). Thus, 2004 saw the removal of the operational head of the crime family and its Sicilian faction and the death of a key leadership figure within the Calabrian faction; perhaps the only two who could have held the divisive organization together.

But the events of 2004 were not the only cause of the renewed hostilities between the Calabrian and Sicilian factions. The Sicilians still maintained a grip on the importation of drugs into the city and the country, and all of the powerful captains under Vito on the Sicilian side remained in the game. This all changed with the advent of Projet Colisee in 2006. This campaign by the Canadian government focussed on the mafia’s importation of illicit narcotics through Pierre Elliot Trudeau international airport in Montreal, which, similar to the port of Montreal, had apparently grown in importance for international smuggling. Projet Colisee resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of key Sicilian captains Francesco Arcadi, Francesco del Balso and Lorenzo Giordano, among others. Significantly, Arcadi was the captain of a large Sicilian crew in the family that reputedly dealt primarily with enforcement. Also arrested were other Sicilian captains, such as Rocco Sollecito, and other important earners and button men, such as Giuseppe Fetta. In the aftermath of this police operation over 90 people, mainly from the Sicilian factions, were charged and went to prison to serve varying sentences. More importantly, it left the organization in operational turmoil. Mobsters nearing retirement, such as Sicilian leader Paolo Renda, were forced to step up and fill the leadership void while other parts of the family, such as the Calabrians began to operate with greater autonomy. During this period the Calabrian faction had also experienced a changing of the guard, with important mob figures in Hamilton – the home of two Calabrian mob factions that may or may not still be connected to the Cosa Nostra family in Buffalo – receding into retirement or death. The death of Hamilton mobster Vincenzo Luppino in 2009 likely removed much of the control that had been exerted over the Calabrian members in Hamilton, many of whom, such as Paulo Violi’s sons Domenico and Guiseppe, were apparently still eager for revenge against the Sicilians in Montreal and have since been implicated in several of the recent murders of Sicilian mobsters there.

Then, in 2009, the Calabrians and their N’Drangheta allies struck. Dozens of shootings have occurred since then and double-crosses on both sides have clouded the air in Montreal as people struggle to choose sides. Initially, it appeared as if the Calabrians were on their way to victory. Under the leadership of Joe di Maulo and others with a long memory and a desire for vengeance against the Sicilians for their purges of their friends and family members in the 1970s and 1980s, the Calabrians attacked and removed the top echelon of the surviving Sicilian leadership, including top captains and their hit men. With Vito and his key supporters and enforcers in jail, the Sicilians appeared powerless to stop the assault against their faction. But then, as mentioned in “The Montreal Connection,” something happened, or rather, failed to happen. The Sicilians, unlike the Calabrians in the 1970s, refused to capitulate. It was here, during the confusion of the initial killings in 2010 and 2011, that the media and its reputed experts began to discuss the possibility of other criminal groups taking control in Montreal. While this assertion is false, it demonstrates how the secrecy surrounding the criminal organization was not shattered by defections or police informants, again demonstrating the power of the organization. Revealingly, some of the first Sicilian casualties, while also significant leaders in the Sicilian camp, were all associated with the 1978 murder Paolo Violi. Both Agostino Cuntrera and Paolo Renda are believed to have been the shooters on that fateful night and, nearly 30 years later, their actions came back to haunt them. (Domenico Manno and Giovanni Dimora were both also charged and convicted in the slaying; Manno has been in and out of prison ever since, having just been released at age 79 in 2012).

After the initial outbreak of hostilities in December 2009, the Calabrian game plan had been to isolate and eliminate the remaining Sicilian leaders and then proceed to absorb their rackets. These efforts were all meant to be completed by the end of Vito Rizzuto’s prison sentence sometime in 2012, thereby providing him with little means to counterattack or counter-act the various schemes of the Calabrians. The plan initially seemed to work. Only Sicilians were killed in the initial assault, demonstrating that the Sicilians were either confused or paralyzed by who was attacking their top leaders. Another significant Calabrian accomplishment was in getting Raynald Desjardins to join their side. Raynald Desjardins is perhaps the most powerful non-Italian criminal in Montreal and possibly Canada. A long time drug dealer, Desjardins’ power stems directly from his association with Vito Rizzuto, and it is rumoured that Desjardins was responsible for overseeing the Rizzuto investments. While he was competent at overseeing the money side of the family, including the corruption and money laundering operations that are the lifeblood of any established organized crime network, Rizzuto‘s trust in Desjardins was apparently misplaced. Besides being Rizzuto’s friend, he was married to Calabrian leader Joe Di Maulo’s sister, and thus the seeds of his betrayal were laid well before the event itself. It should be noted that the Province of Quebec is rightly considered the most corrupt province in Canada, and possibly North America. The levels of corruption, as seen by the recent Charbonneau Commission in Montreal, demonstrate that, as is true with the State of Illinois or the country of Mexico, there is really nothing that isn’t for sale in Quebec – from judges to government contracts and bureaucratic positions. Desjardins, while not personally responsible for all of this, is a symptom of this immense problem and his rejection of don Vito in favour of the Calabrians was rightly seen as a tremendous blow to the Sicilians.

The final important player in the Calabrian attempt at usurping control came in an unexpected form: a deportatee from the United States. Salvatore Montagna was born in Canada, moved to Castellemare del Golfo in Sicily as a child – a historically significant mafia breeding ground for the Bonanno Crime Family – before settling in the Bronx as a young man. Sal “the iron worker,” so called because he owned several industrial sites in NYC that covered up his illicit wealth, was a member of the Bonanno Crime Family in New York. The ongoing assault on the Bonannos by the American government in the first decade of the new millennium netted former boss “Big Joe” Massino, who turned into a government informant to save himself from a possible death penalty conviction. Massino, in turn, fingered Vincent “Vinnie Gorgeous” Basciano, the acting Bonanno hierarch, leaving the Bonannos in shambles. In an effort to rebuild secretly, the crime family picked a young, little known wise guy who had a reputation for making money to be the boss: Sal “the iron worker” Montagna. However, Montagna’s reign would be short lived. Upon hearing that the latest Bonanno boss was actually a foreigner, the Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately launched deportation proceedings and Montagna soon found himself in Montreal looking for a job.

Montagna arrived with notoriety and a good underworld pedigree in Montreal in 2009. While at first attempting to re-enter the United States, Montagna then began to pester then interim mafia leader Nick Rizzuto Sr. (Vito’s father – Vito was in jail at this point) to step aside in favour of letting other mobsters fill the vacuum. Nick Rizzuto refused, and was killed just a month or so after Montagna first approached him to step down. Montagna represents the final piece in the grand scheme against Rizzuto and the Sicilians. By the end of 2010 the Calabrians had managed to remove key Sicilian figures through murder or prison, they had secured the loyalty of the Sicilians’ financial overseer and had developed a relationship with or incorporated the former don of a prominent New York Crime family into their faction. They were also supposedly supported by the Hamilton N’Drangheta clans. Victory seemed assured.

But in 2011 all of this confidence came crashing down. As has been said before, the Sicilians refused to capitulate. Throughout 2011 several prominent Calabrian faction members were murdered; however, the most important problem for the Calabrians was the disintegration of the pact between the Calabian faction leader Joe di Maulo, Raynald Desjardins and former Bonanno boss Salvatore Montagna. The problems began with an attempt on the life of Desjardins in September, 2011, which he barely survived. Next to suffer from the apparent Sicilian counter-attack was Sal “the iron worker,” who was found murdered in a river north of Montreal on November 24, 2011. Yet, in a strange turn of events it was not a Sicilian faction member who was charged with Montagna’s murder, but Raynald Desjardins and other members of the Calabrian faction, who were arrested and charged a month later. In reality, Montagna, a native Sicilian, was a strange bedfellow for Calabrian leader Joe di Maulo and his Hamilton N‘Drangheta cohorts, and it is likely that the relationship soon soured after Montagna’s introduction into the group as his own personal motivations and loyalties became apparent. Rather than uniting the disparate Sicilian faction under Di Maulo and the Calabrians, Montagna was apparently more concerned with re-establishing himself as a boss, this time in Montreal instead of New York. As a result, Di Maulo ordered him removed from the picture.

While 2011 had started so promisingly for the Calabrian war effort its end was less than impressive. However, the Calabrians’ struggles were just beginning. Their blitzkrieg against the Sicilians and their rackets was designed to be finished before the release of don Vito and his other Sicilian allies. It should be remembered that the Montreal crime family has potentially hundreds of members, and far exceeds the membership and wealth of any of the prominent New York mafia families – a fact the now-deceased Montagna failed to recognize. With such a large roster both on the street and behind bars, especially following the Projet Colisee arrests, there has been an ongoing river of Montreal wise guys being released into the city since 2006. The majority of these parolees and ex-cons are from the Sicilian faction, as they were the hardest hit in the 2006 crackdown, and, consequently, the Sicilians’ numbers have swelled despite their wartime losses. One of the most significant new releases is capo Rocco Sollecito, who was a staunch supporter of Nick Rizzuto Sr. when he was the don of the family and it is said that upon his release he “bunkered down in his house in Montreal with bodyguards to await the release of his don, Vito.” Perhaps the most accurate media description of Sollecito is that he will continue to support his don, “in life and in death.” With this influx of new soldiers and the collapse of the Calabrian leadership group there was essentially no way for the Calabrians to achieve outright victory in 2012.

Vito Rizzuto himself was released on October 6, 2012. And, on November 4, less than one month after the don‘s release, his arch-enemy, Joe Di Maulo (72), was murdered. The great Calabrian revenge that took almost 40 years to enact was defeated. The murder of Di Maulo, the reputed Calabrian faction head, signifies the nominal end of the leadership struggle in the Montreal mafia and a Sicilian victory; however, it does not that the violence itself is complete. Already, there are signs that the purge begun by Vito against his surviving enemies is in full swing. On December 8, 2012, known Calabrian mobster Emilio Cordileone (50) was killed in his White Range Rover while parked on a street in the neighbourhood of Ahuntsic in Montreal. Cordileone and his father, Domenico Cordileone, had long standing ties to Calabrian mobsters through reputed Calabrian hit man Moreno Gallo. Cordileone’s killing signifies that while the struggle for who controls the family has expired, the struggle for who will survive the coming year has begun. As a rule, just because a war is over doesn’t mean the violence is. An internal conflict in the Colombo Crime Family in NYC lasted between 1991 and 1993, during which over 12 men were killed and many more assaulted. However, years after the final shots were fired William “Wild Bill” Cutolo, a feared captain in the rebellious faction was ordered killed by acting boss “Allie Boy” Persico, the son of imprisoned mob boss Carmine “the snake” Persico. This killing eventually resulted in “Allie Boy” going to jail for life, but it demonstrates that powerful figures who rebel in the mafia are not necessarily spared in the aftermath of the violence. There is simply too much money and power at stake to allow potential enemies to begin plotting again. As the current Montreal was demonstrates, revenge can take decades and mobsters memories are long. Don Vito may also have a need to exact revenge on Sicilian faction members that he believes did not perform well in his absence or whose loyalty is in question. There are also likely still Calabrian faction members who are willing to continue the fight against the Sicilians and Rizzuto, in spite of the death of their leaders. Already several Sicilian faction members have been shot since Don Vito’s return, including Giuseppe Fetta, a known hit man and member of Francesco Arcadi’s Sicilian crew who was shot and wounded on December 17, 2012. While it is impossible to speculate at this point on who may have pulled the trigger, this assault points to the fact that while the main war may be over, the violence is far from finished.

Besides access to money and wealth, the main motivations on both sides of this conflict are the ongoing personal tragedies. The Calabrians achieved a measure of revenge over thirty years after they themselves had their power and position usurped through violence. Just as their passions ran high from a war over thirty years prior, so too was this the case for the beleaguered contemporary Sicilians. Fathers, sons, brothers, friends, grandfathers and cousins were killed, leaving a lasting desire for revenge that the Calabrians could not stamp out in the current conflict through intimidation or violence. A perfect example is the case of Liboria “Poncho” Cuntrera, whose father, Agostino Cuntrera, was murdered in the initial stages of the Calabrian assault. The younger Cuntrera now runs his father’s Sicilian crew and is said to be gearing up for revenge with his father‘s old companions. Mafia loyalties run deep; they can prove treacherous, but the mafia’s ongoing practice of recruiting based on family connections assures that any level of violence will undoubtedly become personal – not just business.

The mafia in Montreal is nearing a new stage in its existence. Many of the prominent leaders that guided it for decades and the upcoming chosen successor are now dead and gone. New wounds have been opened as old ones have regained prominence once again, and the aftermath of this process will likely take years to complete. The turmoil is not over in Montreal and it is possible that violence between the factions will continue for months, if not years, as rebellious members continue the struggle or suspected traitors are purged. Yet, the success of the organization now rests with its ability to put aside the past troubles and concentrate on the future, which may not be as rosy as many believe. The Charbonneau Commission has briefly thrown the light onto the incredible power wielded by the mafia in corrupting and profiting from public work projects. The result of this discovery – which shouldn’t shock anyone who’s driven through Montreal and glimpsed the disintegrating road work – will likely be a renewed police crackdown on the mafia and its operations. As has been seen over the last decade, leadership shake-ups of any sort have the potential to lead to destabilization as well as violent competition, and it is possible that Montreal may soon see another large mob conflict in its immediate future.

Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

Resources:

 Daly, Brian, “Mob associate gunned down north of Montreal,” The Toronto Sun, November 5, 2012, http://www.torontosun.com/2012/11/05/mafia-associate-gunned-down-north-of-montreal

Perreaux, Les, “Montreal man with mafia ties, Joe Di Maulo, killed in front of his home,” The Globe and Mail, November 6, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/montreal-man-with-mafia-ties-joe-di-maulo-killed-in-front-of-his-home/article4913822/

“Reputed mobster’s body found near Montreal,” CBC News, November 5, 2012, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2012/11/05/montreal-mafia-murder.html

“Who’s killing the Rizzutos – Timeline,” The Fifth Estate, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, November 23, 2012, http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2011-2012/whoskillingtherizzutos/timeline.html

QMI Agency, “Don Vito’s allies dwindling – Sources,” Canoe News, http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Crime/2012/10/04/20259236.html

Edwards, Peter, “Vito Rizzuto doesn’t have to follow Mafia murder codes now: Police expert,” The Toronto Star, November 17, 2012, http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1289384–vito-rizzuto-doesn-t-have-to-follow-mafia-murder-codes-now-police-expert

“Two arrested in Montreal’s fifth homicide,” CBC News, January 23, 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2013/01/23/montreal-fatal-shooting-homicide-mafia.html

Humphries, Adrian, “Alleged Montreal Mafia bodyguard survives gunshot as underworld warfare continues,” The National Post, http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/12/18/alleged-mafia-bodyguard-survives-getting-shot/

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