The Mafia. The name alone conjures shadowy images of underworld activity – debts and allegiances, honor and respect, family, power, and death. Add to that the popular cinematic exploits of Hollywood Mafioso as portrayed by Brando, De Niro, Pacino et al, and there is a romanticism associated with ‘the men of honor’ that is difficult to reconcile with the facts – the murders, chaos and corruption that surround their history and their members. The ‘don’ or ‘boss’ is usually the mastermind controlling this chaos; pulling the strings, making sure the deals get done, and above all else protecting his family, and himself, by whatever means necessary…
The following ten bosses are all still alive and have in their own ways displayed the ruthless conviction and fierce brutality necessary to rise to the top of their ranks.
Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina (b. 1930-)
Salvatore Riina is arguably the most feared of all the Sicilian Mafia’s bosses of bosses. Born and raised in Corleone, Sicily and nicknamed ‘The Beast’, he is believed to have personally killed around 40 people and ordered the assassination of hundreds more. In one of the most destructive periods the Sicilian underworld has ever known, during the 1980s and early ’90s Riina waged war on rival mobsters and the state on behalf of his family, the Corleonesi. It was Riina who ordered the killing of anti-Mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino in 1992. This eventually brought about his capture and many revelations (from a number of informants or ‘pentito’) regarding the Mafia’s hierarchy and power structure.
Bernardo Provenzano (b. 1933-)
Following ‘Toto’ Riina’s imprisonment in 1993, Bernardo Provenzano became capo di tutti capi – ‘boss of bosses’ – of the entire Sicilian Mafia. Nicknamed ‘Binnie the tractor’ because, according to one informant, he “mows people down”, Provenzano also built his reputation on an ability to keep various factions under his control in difficult circumstances. It is estimated that, between his indictment for murder in 1963 and his capture in 2006, he was on the run for an unprecedented 43 years. Apparently, he moved from one safe house to another in the Sicilian countryside, always one step ahead of the authorities. According to one collaborator, he went to meetings in Palermo “in an ambulance.” Famous for his pizzini – typed, hand delivered notes – and studied style, Provenzano’s reputation as a ruthless, highly trained executioner should not be clouded by the image he gained as a diplomatic boss in later years.
Vittorio ‘Little Vic’ Amuso (b. 1934-)
Vic Amuso is said to be the boss of the Lucchese family, one of New York’s notorious Five Families. After making his name with the Colombo family as a shrewd and tough enforcer, Amuso defected to the Lucchese family following the power struggle that stemmed from the assassinations of Joe Colombo and Joe Gallo. Amuso was rumored to have murdered acting Lucchese boss Anthony ‘Buddy’ Luongo in 1986 in order to gain control of the family. He went on to have a bloody career as boss and was implicated in the murder of Gambino family underboss Frank DeCicco (although the target was allegedly boss John Gotti). Amuso was imprisoned in 1991 but continued to lead the Lucchese family from jail, ordering hits from his cell. Even at the age of 76, Amuso is still officially the boss.
Salvatore Lo Piccolo (b. 1942-)
Salvatore Lo Piccolo, also known as ‘the Baron’, is one of the most powerful bosses of Palermo, the capital of Sicily and home to much of the island’s Mafia activity. Until his arrest in 2007, Lo Piccolo had been a fugitive since 1983 running his affairs from hiding places with a grim and deadly determination. One of the most intriguing aspects of Lo Piccolo’s arrest was the one page document police attributed to him: the ‘Ten Commandments.’ This was a list of rules for any would-be Mafioso to learn, and included such lines as “Don’t go to bars and clubs” and, “When asked for any information, the answer must be truth.”
Nicodemo ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo (b. 1929-)
With a reputation for being vain, arrogant and cold-hearted, Nicodemo Scarfo in many ways conforms to the common perception of the mob boss. His nickname comes from his height – 5ft 6in – but few would be brave enough to use it to his face. After becoming leader of the Philadelphia crime family, Scarfo became notorious for his use of extreme violence and murder in implementing his ‘street tax’, whereby any criminal operating outside the Mafia had to hand over half of their earnings or face the consequences. Scarfo loved the limelight and would scour the newspaper and media for reports of his work.
Carmine ‘The Snake’ Persico, Jr. (b. 1937-)
Currently serving a life sentence for murder and racketeering charges, Carmine Persico, also known as ‘Junior’ or ‘Immortal’, has been boss of the New York crime family the Colombos since the 1970s. His involvement in crime began at the age of 17, when he narrowly avoided going down on a murder charge (his elder brother confessed). After being inducted into the Profaci family – which became allied to the Colombos – in his twenties, Persico went on to build himself a reputation as one of the family’s most efficient killers. Following the unsolved murder of Joe Colombo (who lived on for a coma for 7 years), Persico eventually became the outright boss of the family in 1971. He was imprisoned in 1986 and is believed to socialize with fellow infamous inmate, the mega-fraudster Bernard Madoff.
Giovanni Brusca (b. 1957-)
The name Giovanni Brusca will always be synonymous with the Sicilian Mafia. It was Brusca that carried out the slaying of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992 (an explosion that also killed Falcone’s wife and five bodyguards). This in turn eventually led to the opening up of many of the Mafia’s internal secrets. Brusca, nicknamed ‘The Pig’ because of his greed and shabby looking appearance, once claimed to have killed between 100 and 200 people. This could be put down to braggadocio, but what cannot be denied is Brusca’s direct involvement in the abduction, grisly torture and dissolving in an acid bath of the 11-year-old son of a rival leader and informant. Brusca went on to collaborate with the authorities and is serving a life sentence.
John ‘No Nose’ DiFronzo (b. 1928-)
John DiFronzo, the reputed head of the Chicago Outfit, gained his unusual nickname after slicing off part of his nose while jumping through a window during a robbery. After his nose was re-cast, he was more likely to be called Johnny Bananas (to his face, at least). After the Five Families, the Chicago Outfit is thought to be the largest and most powerful mob in America. Despite having been arrested more than twenty times, DiFronzo avoided being indicted in the trial of top Chicago mob leaders in relation to 18 unsolved murders. He has been out of jail since 1994.
Giuseppe Falsone (b. 1970-)
Giuseppe Falsone (sometimes spelled Falzone) is thought to be one of the Sicilian bosses of the ‘Cosa Nostra’ (‘Our thing’). Falsone was on Italy’s most wanted list for over ten years. When Falsone’s father and elder brother were murdered, Falsone became head of his family at the age of just 20. He went on to kill the murderer in retaliation and then went on the run. However, he was eventually arrested – despite undergoing plastic surgery – in June 2010 on charges of murder and international drug trafficking. He is currently serving a life sentence.
Vito Rizzuto (b. 1946-)
Vito Rizzuto, also known as Montreal’s ‘Teflon Don’, is head of the Rizzuto crime family and was once alleged to be the overall boss of the Sicilian Mafia in Canada. Rizzuto was arrested in 2003 on charges of loansharking and racketeering and for his involvement in the 1981 murder of three rival Bonanno family captains – as fictionalized in the movie Donnie Brasco. In a series of attacks on the family, Rizzuto’s son Nick Jr. was murdered in December 2009. Rizzuto himself is due for release from federal prison in 2012.