Giuseppe Genco Russo was the Mafia boss of Mussomeli in the Province of Caltanissetta.
Genco Russo, also known as "Zi Peppi Jencu", was a uncouth, sly, semi-literate thug with excellent political connections. A vulgar man – he used to spit on the floor no matter who was present – he was often photographed with bishops, bankers, civil servants and politicians. As such he was considered to be the arbiter of Mafia politics, and regarded as the successor of Calogero Vizzini who had died in 1954.
Although by then a wealthy landowner and Christian Democrat politician (DC – Democrazia Cristiana) he still kept his mule in the house and the toilet outside, which was little more than a hole in the ground with a stone for a seat and no walls or door, according to Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta.
Traditional mafiosi, like Genco Russo and Calogero Vizzini, Mafia bosses of in the years between the two world wars until the 1950s and 1960s, were the archetypes of the "man of honour" of a bygone age, as a social intermediary and a man standing for order and peace. Although they used violence to establish their position in the first phase of their careers, in the second stage they limited recourse to violence, turned to primarily legal sources of gain, and exercised their power in an open and legitimate fashion.
Genco Russo was of peasant origin and, through a career of violence stretching from the 1920s to the 1940s, established his position as a "man of honour." After World War I, Genco Russo managed to control two large estates, one being 2,000 hectares or 20 km² (the estate Polizzello) owned by the princes of Lanza Branciforti of Trabia. Once established he became a "man of order."
Both Genco Russo and Vizzini organized peasant cooperatives during both post-war periods, through which they deflected the appeal of the left-wing parties, maintained their hold over the peasants, and guaranteed their own continued access to the land. When land reform was finally enacted in 1950, mafiosi were in a position to perform their traditional role of brokerage between the peasants, the landlords, and the state. They exploited the intense land hunger of the peasants, gained concessions from the landlords in return for limiting the impact of the reform, and made substantial profits from their mediation in land sales.
During the fascist rule Genco Russo was arrested repeatedly on charges ranging from theft and extortion to membership in a criminal association, and 11 murders and several attempted murders, but with one exception, regularly acquitted on grounds of "insufficient evidence" (the mark of a successful mafioso). Nevertheless, he was sentenced to three years in prison for criminal association and submitted to special surveillance between 1934-1938. In 1944 the court granted Genco Russo a decree of rehabilitation for his one conviction, thereby allowing him "to recreate a moral and social virginity, acquiring a respectability which will permit him to undertake even political activity."
Persecution by the fascist authorities proved a blessing in disguise when the regime of Mussolini was toppled and Allied Military invaded Sicily in July 1943 (Operation Husky). The American Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) looking for anti-fascist notables to replace fascist authorities made Giuseppe Genco Russo of his hometown Mussomeli. Coordinating the AMGOT effort was the former lieutenant governor of New York, Colonel Charles Poletti, whom Lucky Luciano once described as "one of our good friends."
His political activity consisted initially in support for the Separatist and Monarchist causes (he was awarded the honorific title of Cavaliere della Corona d'Italia in 1946), and then for the Christian Democrat party. During the crucial 1948 elections that would decide on Italy’s post-war future, Genco Russo and Calogero Vizzini sat at the same table with leading DC politicians, attending an electoral lunch. In 1950 when Genco Russo's oldest son married, Don Calò Vizzini was a witness at the ceremony, just as the Christian Democrat president of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Genco Russo became a local christian-democrat leader and town councillor in the 1960. In 1962 he was forced to step down after he was denounced in the press.
Heir of Vizzini
Giuseppe Genco Russo was considered to be the heir of Calogero Vizzini when
Don Calò died in 1954. Genco Russo had been at the right-hand side of Don Calò's bier: the ancient sign that the heir-apparent was taking the place of the deceased. In the media both mafiosi were often depicted as the "boss of bosses" – although such a position does not exist in the loose structure of the Mafia.
Genco Russo was present at a series of meetings between top American and Sicilian mafiosi that took place in Palermo between October 12-16, 1957, in Hotel Delle Palme in Palermo. Joseph Bonanno, Lucky Luciano and Carmine Galante were among the American mafiosi present, while among the Sicilian side there were – apart from Genco Russo – Salvatore "Ciaschiteddu" Greco, his cousin Salvatore Greco, also known as "l'ingegnere" or "Totò il lungo", Angelo La Barbera, Gaetano Badalamenti and Tommaso Buscetta. One of the outcomes of this meeting was that the Sicilian Mafia composed its first Sicilian Mafia Commission and appointed "Ciaschiteddu" Greco as its "primus interpares".
In the aftermath of the First Mafia War in 1961-63 and the Ciaculli Massacre that prompted the first concerted Antimafia efforts by the state in post-war Italy, Genco Russo was among the many mafiosi arrested (on February 6, 1964). His appearance at the big Antimafia trials and the end of the 1960s made many of the island’s establishment very nervous. When showing up in court, Genco Russo presented petitions from prominent politicians, priests, bankers, doctors, lawyers and businessman who declared to testify on his behalf. His lawyer threatened to publish telegrams from 37 Christian Democratic deputies – one a cabinet minister – thanking Genco Russo for helping them to get elected. Minister and prominent DC politician Bernardo Mattarella denied that it had been sent by him. Genco Russo was sentenced to five years confinement by the Court of Caltanissetta, and sent to Lovere, near Bergamo.
His forced retirement as town councillor of Mussomeli, his arrest and years of confinement initiated the decline of Genco Russo’s power. Within the Mafia a new generation of mafiosi was coming to the forefront. Genco Russo represented the old rural and semi-feudal Mafia that based their power on access to land openly acknowledged community power. The new generation was more entrepreneurial and made their money with cigarette smuggling, drug trafficking, skimming off public contracts and speculating in real estate.
Genco Russo never was the "boss of al bosses" as the media depicted him. He certainly had leverage providing voters for the DC at a local level, but it is hardly imaginable that the Mafia was ruled from a small and isolated town in the interior of Sicily, and not by the powerful Mafia families in Palermo. The fact that Salvatore "Ciaschiteddu" Greco – a representative of the Palermo based Mafia – was made 'secretary' of the first Sicilian Mafia Commission and not Genco Russo was a clear sign that his influence was limited. Genco Russo probably only was present at the Grand Hotel des Palmes Mafia meeting in 1957 because one of his relatives from the US, Santo Sorge, was there as well.
Genco Russo apparently irritated other Mafia bosses because he was too much in the media spotlight. "Did you see Gina Lollobrigida in the newspaper today," a mafioso once said, referring to the notoriously ugly appearance of Genco Russo. The new generation of mafiosi did not share the style of openly exercised power. Instead they preferred to operate in clandestinity and detested publicity.
Giuseppe Genco Russo died peacefully at the age of 83 in 1976.