Recent homicides in Sicily point to Mafia turf war

ROME — The hit was classic mob. There were shots to the face and to the abdomen. The killers used a Lupara, a sawn-off shotgun that is the traditional weapon of choice for Mafia executions. The target was Giuseppe Lo Baido, 36. He was gunned down on July 13, near his house outside Palermo, Sicily.

The Italian police are not treating the Lo Baido case as just another mess to be scraped off the street in the heartland of the Cosa Nostra, the name for the Mafia’s Sicilian branch. His was one of four recent killings. All of the victims were thought to be members of the Corleone family.

Some of Italy’s Mafia prosecutors think the killings could be the start of a new internecine war. “The homicides of recent weeks may be a sign of a potential war between the families,” said Maurizio De Lucia, the Palermo state prosecutor.

Francesco Forgione, president of the Italian parliament’s anti-Mafia commission, has a similar view. “We are in a dangerously unstable situation,” he said in an interview. “There’s a battle for power within the families that by now is only resolvable by war.”

The war, should it come, probably has its roots in the infamous Sicilian slaughter of the 1980s. Two Mafia factions battled for control of the island, the so-called Palermo families and their Corleone family enemies. The Palermo families were known for their power and wealth; the Corleones were ruthless killers.

About a thousand bodies later, the Corleones eventually won the war. Newspapers said the city of Palermo, where most of the killings took place, was “like Beirut.” The Inzerillo family was the Palermo family that suffered the most damage. Between 1981 and 1983, most were wiped out: the bosses, their children, sisters, brothers, cousins.

Salvatore (Toto) Riina, also known as The Beast, who was head of the Corleone family from the early 1980s until his life imprisonment in 1993 on more than a 100 counts of murder, had this to say of the Inzerillos: “Not even a seed of theirs must remain on the face of the Earth.”

The war ended with an agreement: The Inzerillos left standing were to depart Sicily. Many went to the New York area and joined forces with the Gambino family.

Now it might be time for revenge. Prosecutors think the trigger event might have been the arrest on April 11, 2006, of Bernardo Provenzano, who was considered the absolute head of the Corleones and the most powerful Mafioso in Sicily. He had been wanted by the police since 1963. The power vacuum would be filled. When he was arrested, Mr. Provenzano told the police, “You have no idea what you’ve done.”

The man thought most determined to replace him as Sicily’s top Mafioso is Salvatore Lo Piccolo, the alleged boss of Tommaso Natale, one of the Palermo families. He has been a fugitive since 1983. He is said to want to eliminate the Corleones and has allies: the Inzerillos in the United States and possibly a mysterious Italian-American known as Frank Cali, who may have had communication with Mr. Lo Piccolo. The Italian newspapers have recently reported that Mr. Cali may be the “ambassador” bridging the American and the Sicilian Mafia.

The connection between Mr. Lo Piccolo and the Inzerillo family surfaced in a wiretap recording of Corleone family member Antonino Rotolo before his arrest last year. In the recording apparently made to his soldiers he said, “The dead Inzerillo will always haunt you.” He went on to say: “Have you understood yet or not that he, Lo Piccolo, is already using the Inzerillo?”

The possible alliance between the Mr. Lo Piccolo, Mr. Cali and the Inzerillo family of the United States has grabbed the attention of police on both sides of the Atlantic. Italy’s national newspaper, La Repubblica, reported on July 12 that the RCMP, the FBI and the Italian police are jointly investigating their relationship.

One theory is that the Palermo families want to see the return of the Inzerillos because of their useful, on-the-ground American connections. “The Mafia has already made an agreement with the Italian-Americans in view of shared opportunities,” said Pietro Grasso, Italy’s national anti-Mafia prosecutor, at a press conference. “In this new strategy, the American connections, the Inzerillos, are indispensable.”

Of course, the Inzerillos and the Corleones will have trouble sharing power in Sicily. The recent murder of Mr. Lo Baido and the other Mafiosi suggests the turf war could get ugly.

Recent homicides in Sicily point to Mafia turf war – LORENZO TONDO AND ERIC REGULY – Lorenzo Tondo is a freelance journalist based in Rome – July 31, 2007 –