||Villalba| Calogero Vizzini
Born: June 24, 1877 - Villalba
Dead: July 12, 1954 - Villalba
Calogero Don Calò Vizzini was the Mafia boss of Villalba in the Province of Caltanissetta. Vizzini was considered to be one of the most influential Mafia bosses of Sicily after World War II until his death in 1954. In the media he was often depicted as the "boss of bosses" – although such a position does not exist in the loose structure of the Mafia, and later Mafia turncoats denied Vizzini ever was the boss of the Mafia in Sicily.
Don Calogero Vizzini was the archetype of the paternalistic "man of honour" of a bygone age, that of a rural and semi-feudal Sicily that existed until the 1960s, where a mafioso was seen by some as a social intermediary and a man standing for order and peace. Don Calò once explained how he saw the mafia when he was interviewed by Indro Montanelli (Famous journalist. 1909 - 2001) in the Corriere della Sera (October 30, 1949): "The fact is that in every society there has to be a category of people who straighten things out when situations get complicated. Usually they are functionaries of the state. Where the state is not present, or where it does not have sufficient force, this is done by private individuals." Vizzini’s onetime criminal dossier included 39 murders, six attempted murders, 13 acts of private violence, 36 robberies, 37 thefts and 63 extortions
Mafia in Villalba
Vizzini was born in Villalba, a village in a poor region of Sicily, where most people lived off subsistence agriculture. The Mafia of Villalba was of relatively recent origin. It does not go back to the 1860s, considered to be period when the Mafia emerged around Palermo. It started as a form of private protection and has little to do with large estates as was the case in many other rural areas where many mafiosi started as caretakers and lease-holders (gabelotto) for absentee landlords.
Around the 1890s some people – including the young Calogero Vizzini – decided to do something about the absence of peace and security in the countryside. The state police at the time was as much a danger as the brigands. The Villalba Mafia thus emerged as an alternative social regime centered around the membership in church-sponsored associations that generated considerable social capital. It later transformed into a protection racket, victimizing villagers and landowners alike through violence, intimidation and omertà. Although Vizzini throughout his lifetime acquired extensive land holdings, the Mafia historian Salvatore Lupo considers him to be the undertaker of the large feudal estates rather than the protector of that system. Vizzini also made sure that local peasants (in particular the ones organised in catholic cooperatives) got their share of land, once he had secured his cut.
Calogero Vizzini’s father was a peasant, but managed to marry into a slightly more well-off family that owned some land. A member of his mother’s family had risen to high eminence in the Catholic Church. Calogero’s brothers, Giovanni and Giuseppe, both became priests. Giuseppe Vizzini became the bishop of Muro Lucano.
Calogero Vizzini, however, was semi-literate and did not finish elementary school. He became a cancia – an intermediary between the peasants who wanted their wheat milled into flour and the mills that were located near the coast. The mills were controlled by mafiosi that did not tolerate any competition. In the case of Villalba the mills were some 80 kilometres away. To get the grain safely to the mills over roads infested by bandits was no easy task.
Vizzini was protected by the bandit Francesco Paolo Varsallona whose hide-out was in the Cammarata mountains. Varsallona, an alleged "man of honour", also supplied manpower to noble landowners to repress farmers' revolts. Vizzini enrolled in Varsallona’s band while conducting his cancia business. Both were arrested in 1902 when Varsallona’s band finally fell into a trap set up by the police. Vizzini stood trial with the rest of the band for “association to commit a crime” – but he was one of the few to be acquitted.
The episode had little negative consequences. In 1908 Vizzini was able to acquire a substantial part of the estate Belici when he brokered a deal between the owner, the duke Francesco Thomas de Barberin who resided in Paris, and the local rural bank Cassa Rurale, whose president, the priest Sgarlata was Vizzini’s uncle. Vizzini held 290 hectares for him self and generously left the rest to the bank to lease out to catholic peasants.
World War I and after
By 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Vizzini was the undisputed head of the Mafia in Villalba. The war provided the mafiosi with new opportunities for self-enrichment when the Italian Army requisitioned horses and mules in Sicily for the cavalry and artillery. Vizzini came to an agreement with the Army Commission to delegate the responsibilities to him. He collected a poll tax on the animals whose owners wanted to avoid requisition. He was also the broker for animals that were rustled for the occasion, buying at a low price from the hustlers and selling at market prices to the Army.
However, too many horses and mules died of diseases or old age before they even reached the battlefield and the army ordered an inquiry. In 1917, Vizzini was sentenced to 20 years in first instance for fraud, corruption and murder, but he was absolved thanks to powerful friends who exonerated him. He made his fortune on the black market during World War I, and expanded his activities to the sulphur mines. As a representative of a consortium of sulphur mine operators, Vizzini participated in high-level meetings in Rome and London concerning government subsidies and tariffs, next to such men as Guido Donegani, the founder of Montecatini chemical industries and Guido Jung, Finance minister during Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Don Calò further established his fortune in 1922 when he led disgruntled peasants who grabbed land from the aristocratic absentee landlords. In Villalba every peasant got a plot but Don Calò, with characteristic forethought, kept more than 12,000 acres (49 km²), for himself, according to a local villager.
In 1931, during Fascist rule, when the prefect of Palermo, Cesare Mori (1872 - 1941), was granted special powers to prosecute the Mafia, he was banned for several years from Sicily. According to the police he was involved in several crimes and had connections with other Sicilian Mafia bosses. He returned to Villalba in 1937, welcomed and respected by the entire village.
In July 1943, Calogero Vizzini allegedly helped the American army during the invasion of Sicily during World War II (Operation Husky). In the US, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) had recruited mafia support to protect the New York waterfront from Axis Powers sabotage since the US had entered the war in December 1941. The ONI collaborated with Lucky Luciano and his partner Meyer Lansky, a Jewish mobster, in what was called Operation Underworld. The resulting Mafia contacts were also used by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the wartime predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – during the invasion of Sicily.
Popular myth has it that a US Army airplane had flown over Villalba on the day of the invasion and dropped a yellow silk foulard marked with a black L (indicating Luciano). Two days later, three American tanks rolled into Villalba after driving thirty miles through enemy territory. Don Calogero climbed aboard and spent the next six days travelling through western Sicily organizing support for the advancing American troops. As General Patton's Third Division moved onward the signs of its dependence on Mafia support were obvious to the local population. The Mafia protected the roads from snipers, arranged enthusiastic welcomes for the advancing troops, and provided guides through the confusing mountain terrain.
Many historians are inclined to dismiss this legend nowadays. A version that is probably closer to the truth is that Vizzini simply led a delegation of locals to meet an Allied patrol whose commander had asked to speak to whoever was in charge.
Mayor of Villalba
The American Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) looking for anti-fascist notables to replace fascist authorities made Don Calogero Vizzini mayor of Villalba, as well as a Honorary Colonel of the US Army. Because of his excellent connections, Vizzini also became the ‘king’ of the rampant post-war black market. AMGOT relied on mafiosi who were considered staunch anti-fascists because of the repression under Mussolini. Many other mafiosi, such as Giuseppe Genco Russo, were appointed as mayors of their own home towns. Coordinating the AMGOT effort was the former lieutenant-governor of New York, Colonel Charles Poletti (1903 - 2002), whom Luciano once described as "one of our good friends."
Michele Pantaleone, who first reported the legend of Luciano’s foulard, observed the Mafia's revival in his native village of Villalba. He described the consequences of AMGOT's policies: "By the beginning of the Second World War, the Mafia was restricted to a few isolated and scattered groups and could have been completely wiped out if the social problems of the island had been dealt with ... the Allied occupation and the subsequent slow restoration of democracy reinstated the Mafia with its full powers, put it once more on the way to becoming a political force, and returned to the Onorata Societa the weapons which Fascism had snatched from it."
A peasant told the social activist Danilo Dolci in the 1950s how the situation was in Villalba after the Americans had landed: "They robbed the storehouses of the agrarian Co-op and the army’s storehouses; sold food, clothes, cars and lorries in Palermo on the black market. In Villalba all power was in their hands: church, Mafia, agricultural banks, latifundia, all in the hands of the same family … One used to go and see him and ask ‘Can you do me this favour?’ even for a little affair one had with some other person."
The Italian author Luigi Barzini, who claimed to know Vizzini well, described his stature and daily life in Villalba in his book 'The Italians': "From the shadows along the walls and narrow side streets emerged people who had arrived earlier, some from far away, and were waiting to talk to him. They were peasants, old women with black veils on their head, young mafiosi, middle class men. They all walked along with him in turn, explaining their problems. He listened, then called one of his henchmen, gave a few orders, and summoned the next petitioner. Many kissed his hand in gratitude as they left." Vizzini’s magnanimous and protective manner, the respectful greetings of passers-by, the humbleness of those approaching him, the smiles of gratitude when he addressed them, reminded Barzini of an ancient scene: a prince holding court in the open air.
Vizzini, a staunch anti-Communist who opposed the fight for land of Sicilian peasants, organised his own peasant cooperatives in his area during both post-war periods, through which he deflected the appeal of the left-wing parties, maintained his hold over the peasants, and guaranteed his own continued access to the land. He was in a fierce dispute over the lease of the large estate Miccichè of the Trabia family in Palermo. with a peasant cooperative headed by Michele Pantaleone who had founded the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI) in Villalba.
On September 16, 1944, leaders of the Blocco del popolo (Popular Front) in Sicily, the communist Girolamo Li Causi and Pantaleone, went to speak to the landless labourers at an election rally in Villalba, challenging Don Calò in his own personal fiefdom. The communists, worried that Pantaleone would lead them in trouble, had contacted Vizzini who assured them there would be no trouble as long as they did not touch on local issues.
Li Causi first denounced the unjust exploitation by the Mafia. But when Li Causi started to talk about how the peasants were being deceived by ‘a powerful leaseholder’ – a thinly disguised reference to Vizzini – the Mafia boss hurled: It’s a lie. Pandemonium broke out. The rally ended in a shoot-out which left 18 people wounded including Li Causi and Pantaleone. Six months later Vizzini acquired of the lease for the Miccichè estate. (Don Calò and his bodyguard were accused of attempted manslaughter. The trial dragged on until 1958, but by 1946 the evidence had already disappeared. Vizzini was never convicted because by the time of the verdict he was already dead.)
The Villalba attack inaugurated a long series of Mafia attacks in Sicily on political activists, trade union leaders and ordinary peasants resisiting Mafia rule. In the following years many left-wing leaders were killed or otherwise attacked, culminating in the killing of 11 people and the wounding of over thirty at a May 1 labour parade in Portella di Ginestra. The attack was attributed to the bandit and separatist leader Salvatore Giuliano. Nevertheless, the Mafia was suspected of involvement in the Portella di Ginestra massacre and many other attacks.
Supporting the separatists
Vizzini initially supported the separatist movement in Sicily and its main protagonist Salvatore Giuliano. On December 6, 1943, he participated at the first clandestine regional convention of the Sicilian separatists movement of the Movement for the Independence of Sicily (MIS) in Catania. Other prominent Mafia bosses like Giuseppe Genco Russo, Gaetano Filippone and Francesco Paolo Bontade did not hide their sympathies for the separatists either.
They soon changed sides, however, joining the Christian Democrat party (DC – Democrazia Cristiana) when it became clear that an independent Sicily was not feasible. Bernardo Mattarella, one of the party’s leaders, approached Vizzini to abandon the separatists and join the Christian Democrats. He welcomed Vizzini's joining the DC in an article in the Catholic newspaper Il Popolo in 1945. Vizzini’s support for the DC was not a secret. During the crucial 1948 elections that would decide on Italy’s post-war future, Vizzini and Genco Russo sat at the same table with leading DC politicians, attending an electoral lunch.
In the middle of the start of the Cold War, the 1948 elections were a triumph for the Christian Democrats, who would govern Italy for the next 45 years. Don Calò allegedly helped to capture and kill Giuliano in 1950, who had started to threaten to kill Vizzini after Giuliano had lost his support.
Links with US gangsters
In 1949 Vizzini and Sicilian/American Mafia boss Lucky Luciano set up a candy factory in Palermo exporting all over Europe and to the US. Police suspected that it was a cover for heroin trafficking. The laboratory operated undisturbed until April 11, 1954, when the Roman daily Avanti! published a photograph of the factory under the headline "Textiles and Sweets on the Drug Route." That evening the factory was closed, and the laboratory's chemists were reportedly smuggled out of the country.
In 1950, Lucky Luciano was photographed in front of the Hotel Sole in the centre of old Palermo – often the residence of Don Calò Vizzini – talking with Don Calò’s bodyguards. The photographer was beaten up, but he never denounced the fact after receiving an expensive new camera and cash. Vizzini’s tentacles reached the United States where he knew the future family boss Angelo Annaloro of Philadelphia, known as Angelo Bruno, who was born in Villalba.
Don Calò Vizzini died on July 10, 1954. Thousands of peasants dressed in black, politicians and priests took part in his funeral, including Mussomeli boss Giuseppe Genco Russo and the powerful boss Don Francesco Paolo Bontade from Palermo (the father of future Mafia boss Stefano Bontade) – who was one of the pallbearers. Even the New York Times reported the news of the death of this local Mafia chief (Sicilian Mafia 'King' Dies, July 13, 1954).
Villalba's public offices and the Christian Democratic headquarters closed for a week in mourning. An elegy for Vizzini was pinned to the church door. It read: "Humble with the humble. Great with the great. He showed with words and deeds that his Mafia was not criminal. It stood for respect for the law, defence of all rights, greatness of character: it was love." He left approximately two billion lire (on million euro) worth of sulphur, land, houses and varied investments.
"When I die, the Mafia dies," Vizzini once told journalist Indro Montanelli. However, with the death of Vizzini the old-fashioned traditional rural Mafia slowly passed away as well to be replaced with a more modern, often urban version of gangsterism.
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