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Cosa Nostra: U.S. Diplomacy and the Italian Mafia, 1954-1992

The Mafia in American culture is a source of inspiration for books, movies, and television. The Godfather, The Sopranos, a raft of de Niro movies, are just part of a growing genre. But to many Foreign Service Officers working in Sicily in the 1950s and 60s, these wise guys often had a kinder, gentler side and were more good fellas than Goodfellas. This is because, as Rozanne L. Ridgway explains, “They were not to mess with American consular officers. The Mafia didn’t believe that we were really essential to their activities.” Years later, however, the situation was vastly different:  one FSO got a death threat after he turned down a Mafioso for a visa while magistrates who stood up to Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”) were gunned down mercilessly in the 1990s. (Photo by Paramount/ Getty Images)

The original Sicilian Mafia (which roughly translates as “swagger”) began in the early 1800s with no crime connotation but as an organization of people and families who were suspicious of the central authority and wanted to carry out their own justice and protection. This later warped into more criminal and violent activities, such as protection racketeering and extortion, marked by a specific code of conduct, such as omerta, the oath of secrecy. The flood of Italian immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century resulted in the growth of the Mafia in New York and elsewhere, which led to cooperation between the Sicilian Mafia and its American counterpart on ventures like international narcotics trafficking. However, as Ambassador Peter F. Secchia observes, it was not until much later, with the murder of key anti-Mafia crusaders, that Italy finally toughened its laws to  find and prosecute Mafiosi.

Paul K. Stahnke was interviewed in June 1994 by Thomas Dunnigan. Rozanne L. Ridgway was interviewed in June 1991 by Willis Armstrong. The rest were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy: H. Freeman Mathews, Jr. in April 1993, William C. Harrop starting in 1993, William B. Whitman in July 2004, Michael A. Boorstein starting in 2005, Peter F. Secchia in June 1994.


My Gardener, the Godfather

Paul K. Stahnke, Special Officer, Palermo, 1954


STAHNKE:  While workers in the rest of Italy found in the Communist party a source of support and help; in Sicily, this was primarily provided by the Mafia. While we regard the Mafia primarily as a criminal organization which it now is also in Sicily, while I was there, it still was truer to its original purpose — a vehicle for the common man in protecting him against the landowners and “foreign” authorities, the latter being Naples when Sicily was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and later Rome after Italy was unified. While the Sicilians didn’t much like the Rome authorities, they were strongly attached to the monarchy, hence Sicily was a stronghold of the Monarchist party, even after the monarchy was abolished…. 

The Mafia while I was there was a far more benevolent group than it was in  the States and has now become in Sicily. It had originally been created as something like a citizens benevolence society and I saw much of that side while I was in Sicily. My gardener, as I soon learned, was the head (godfather) of the local Mafia and therefore I never had any thievery, never had to lock the door to our house.

I talked with him often about the Mafia. He was pessimistic about its future, seeing the younger generation more interested in making money, usually through criminal activities, than in protecting the interests of the peasants and workers and maintaining the once strict code of honor of the organization.

While the Mafia elsewhere had become much less a benevolence society, my gardener’s district retained its original focus. An example: When a local tradesman was killed by lightning, leaving a wife and three children, the local Mafia took up a collection for them, assuring the family that they would never want. Of course, one risked reprisal if one did not contribute but the cause was a good one. A hasty disclaimer: I was not then, nor am now, a supporter of the Mafia which even during my time in Sicily was primarily a criminal organization; however, the small world of the Godfather I knew well and with whom I formed a strong friendship was the better for his presence.

Vengeance for Stolen Pajamas

Freeman Matthews, Vice Consul, Palermo, 1954-1955


MATHEWS:  Our personal contacts with the Mafia in Sicily were in essence very amicable. They seemed more a local vigilante group.

The place that we rented in a village called Mondello, sort of a beach resort for Palermo, was a very pretty little house, and the garden was postage stamp size. But when we rented it, the owner said, there’s one condition, you have to hire these two gardeners, Salvatore and Giovanni. I remonstrated and said, there doesn’t look like there’ll be enough work here for half a gardener let alone two. He said, that’s all right, you’re going to be very happy with them and that’s the condition under which you take the house.

It turned out of course that they were very low-level local members of the Mafia, but very nice men. The result was, that we were only robbed once, when somebody stole some Dr. Dentons [baby pajamas with feet in them], off the clothesline. These guys were horrified that somebody had the nerve to steal them, so they posted a man with a shotgun in our garage for the next several weeks. That was about the extent of our own direct involvement with the Mafia.

But there was no doubt they were very influential in Sicily. In terms of what we did, in issuing and denying visas, it was very hard to detect Mafiosi. Anybody who was convicted of course we were able to exclude. But there were a lot of people who were simply under suspicion and it was hard to tell if they were truly Mafia or not.

Actual Goodfellas

William C. Harrop, Consular Officer, Palermo, 1954-1955


HARROP:  The Mafia, at that time, was a very active organization. Its role in World War II in connection with the landings in Sicily has been well recorded, but the every day presence of the Mafia was something which we hadn’t quite expected. I don’t mean that in the sense that one felt a concern for physical security, as you would in Central Park in New York or in parts of Washington, D.C., today, but non-violent crime was common.

For instance, one officer’s home was robbed. All the goods in it were stolen, including the furniture, while he and his family were away. The police and security forces, who were interested in having good relations with the United States, wanted to resolve the case quickly.

So they arrested the local Mafia leader, whose identity was no secret. Within about 18 hours the real criminals came forward and all of the booty was recovered. I don’t think that the Mafia had had anything to do with the theft at all, but the power of the organization was such that the police could use them to find the real thieves.

“They said that they would ensure that the young man would not bother me any longer”

Rozanne L. Ridgway, Vice Consul, Palermo, 1962-1964


RIDGWAY: The Mafia was really not a concern. My one experience with that group had to do with a young man whose visa I had refused. He was about 18 years old. After I refused the application, I got a call from someone who told me that the young man worked for the Archbishop of Palermo. I was pretty sure that despite his efforts to disguise his voice, the caller was the applicant himself.

Then I got some threatening letters which were made to appear as if the writer was a member of the Mafia; it had caskets and crosses all over the page. That got ugly and continued over the New Year. Someone even shot a bullet through a window in my apartment. The word then got out that I was having some problems with this applicant. I received an invitation through a travel agent to go to the town of Corleone, where the Mafia leadership wanted to inform me that they had nothing to do with all the unpleasantness that I was encountering. So, on a Sunday afternoon, I went to Corleone and walked into a house off the main piazza….

As I understood the Mafia rules at the time, they were not to mess with American consular officers. The Mafia didn’t believe that we were really essential to their activities; if they wanted someone to enter the U.S., they had their own means, which did not include a U.S. consular officer. We assumed that a Mafia person just went from Palermo to Tunis, and then to Marseilles, and perhaps from Marseilles to Florida or New York. We never saw applicants that were deemed Mafia members.

In the course of this incident, I was briefed by Mafia emissaries on life’s realities. They said that they would ensure that the young man would not bother me any longer. He didn’t. He probably got to the States through the devious path I described earlier.

“What the Mafia could do for you…”

William B. Whitman, Consular Officer, Palermo, 1962-1964


WHITMAN:  One day there was an American woman who came into the Villa Igiea Hotel — best hotel in town — she passes the concierge desk and she’s just distraught, tears and everything.

The concierge said, “What’s the matter?” and she said, “Well, I was just downtown and someone snatched my purse and everything I had was in it. My passport, my traveler’s checks, my credit card, I mean everything I have. I don’t even think I can pay you when I check out of this hotel.”

And the concierge said, “Well, where were you?” She named the street corner she was at, and he said, “What time did this happen?”

So she said, “Oh, 11 in the morning.”

He said, “Look, go upstairs, try to pull yourself together, get a rest and I’ll see what I can do.”

About two or three hours later, there’s a knock on her door, it’s the concierge, “Can I come in?” She said “Sure.”

He has the suitcase with him, and he opens the suitcase on the bed and he says, “Which of these is your purse?” And she points it out and there it is, everything is intact. And of course the hotel had a deal with the Mafia. They knew exactly who was snatching purses on that corner at that hour. So they got it — that’s an example of what the Mafia could do for you.

My villa had a garage and a chauffeur’s room…Giacomo, an old man in his seventies,…lived with his mangy dog. Never bothered me, I’d see him usually drunk. And during that time in Mondello there were a lot of break-ins. Because it was mainly a summer place, there were houses that were unprotected by police during the winter.

But the whole time I was there I never was robbed. And the reason was that I was Giacomo’s retirement plan. He had been a former Mafia capo from the town up the coast. And the landlady, to ensure that I didn’t get broken into and her house didn’t get damaged, hired Giacomo to live in the garage in exchange for protection.

And that’s the way it was. So no one touched me. Houses right and left being broken into, trucks backing up to haul off the furniture. That’s what they did.

“La Vecchia Mafia Vive”

Michael Boorstein, Administrative Office, Palermo, 1971-1973 


BOORSTEIN: [We] went off to this place, Valle del Belice in the mountainous region of Sicily, we were met by a local priest. He took us around and showed us the houses and talked about –basically he thought it was a scandal of how mismanaged the effort to help the displaced people and how the Mafia skimmed the money.

One of the things I’ll never forget is that we came in a consular car, but the two of us got into his little Volkswagen to go around the area and the first time he got in the car, he puts the key in and he says to us sort of in an offhanded way, he said, “You know for a split second whenever I turn the ignition on, I wonder if the car is going to blow up.”

He then proceeded to turn the key. You don’t forget something like that….

I was the administrative officer in Palermo, the first officer assigned there for a full two-year tour as administrative officer in recent history…. Probably about halfway through my tour…I went down to the non-immigrant visa section as the chief of that unit….

During my time there, there was a natural gas explosion in Long Island and it killed 35 or 40 workers, most of whom were illegal Italian immigrants (at left, photo: AP). One day shortly after that terrible incident, accident an elderly gentleman with his travel agent whom I knew showed up and he applied for an emergency visa to fly to New York to reclaim his nephew’s body and fly him back to Italy for burial.

In doing the name check on this elderly gentleman it was discovered in the mid ‘50s under the Refugee Relief Act he was denied an immigrant visa on the basis that he was found to be a member of the Mafia, under Section 212.A27 of the Immigration Code. That’s a very rare finding. It means that they really had evidence that he was a participant in Mafia activities.

So, I went to the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Services] officers for guidance and they said, “You are the official empowered to either issue the visa or deny it. You’re looking to us for advice, our advice to you is not to give a visa even though there are extraordinary humanitarian type reasons to do it, so this man’s record is such that even though he is elderly this would not be the thing to do.”

I took their advice and I turned the visa down. This all happened over a period of a day or two. I turned the visa down and he was weeping in my office and he was going on and on. He said he had raised his nephew as his son because his parents had died and this and that. I was unmoved and I stuck by my decision.

About two or three weeks later in my mailbox at home, I lived in an apartment complex, so I had a lock type box for all local mail. I would only check it once a week or so because we had the Military Postal System and there in my mailbox…was a small piece of paper and written in blue ink were the following words:

“La Vecchia Mafia Vive,” meaning “The old Mafia will live or still lives.”

Then, also in blue ink, was a small crudely drawn picture of a knife and then in red ink there were little drops of blood that were put below the tip of the blade.

I thought to myself, hmm, this is something I should be concerned with. I immediately thought of the turndown of the visa for this elderly Mafioso. I took it into the office and showed it to the head of the consular operations and then ultimately it was shown to the Consul General. He got on the phone with the Chief of Police and that same afternoon I had 24-hour coverage in front of my apartment by the Italian police. We had a police officer escort my wife and daughter to her nursery school every morning.

There was an investigation. The old gentleman was called in. He denied everything and then eventually the protection was lifted and here I am to tell the tale.

It was deemed to be highly unusual for the Mafia to move against a foreigner. This was in the era where the Mafia had not yet gotten into the illegal drug trade. So, pretty much whatever violence they committed was against other Italians, revenge on a killing others in the Mafia. That was a rather disconcerting event and a product of my experience as a consular officer for six weeks.

“It was the beginning of the end for the Mafia”

Peter F. Secchia, Ambassador to Italy, 1989-1992


SECCHIA: The week I left, [at left, Salvatore] “Toto” Riina was arrested, who was the Mafia kingpin they had been after for 28 years. I would like to think that we had a lot to do with that because after the explosion [in Palermo] that blew up Giovanni Falconi, the prosecutor and his wife and three security agents….

Judge Giovanni Falconi had been our best contact with the Italian relationship on prosecutorial and anti-Mafia activities. We had dinner with Giovanni just before he was blown up. We had dinner with him on Thursday night at Villa Taverna; on Friday my wife and I went north. On Saturday morning, Giovanni Falconi hung a picture on his wall of him and me together and told his secretary (who announced this, crying on television after the explosion), that I was his closest friend and that we worked together and how wonderful was our relationship.

Giovanni Falconi was one of those people who was able to talk to the Pentiti [the squealers, the talkers]. He was one who was able to send witness protection persons to the United States and then interview them. He understood American law and tried to change the Italian law so that they too could prosecute.

When he was blown up on a Saturday afternoon, I was in Portofino. We flew back…we borrowed a car. We had given our driver the weekend off and I have to travel in an armored car, but we didn’t wait, we just took a friend’s car and drove to the airport without police security. We took a Navy jet and flew to Palermo….

Italy worked with us to change the law after that. Martelli was the Minister of Justice and being a Socialist he always feared offending the large bloc of Communist vote. The left-wing vote had never wanted to tamper with the post-Fascist year of laws which said there would be no wire-tapping, no surveillance, no police that aren’t in uniform, you cannot trace private money. There were many laws that they had put in after the Fascist years to give people individual liberties. The Liberals on the left would never give those up.

But until the government had permission for wiretaps, surveillance, and undercover police work, all of that was being done by our people for them. Because they couldn’t do it, that’s why they couldn’t capture their Mafia people who were always able to be one step ahead. With no money tracing, no electronic transfer of documents, etc. So we changed that law.….

Meanwhile the Queen of England had visited the site. There had been chartered buses, the Italian tourist associations were selling tickets. By the time we got our forensic people in there, the evidence had been destroyed. Two months later when [anti-Mafia magistrate Paolo] Borsellino was blown up (he had been Falcone’s associate), our forensic team was waiting at the airport in Washington. It happened at 5:00 and by 9:00 that evening we had permission to bring the forensic team in.

Within months we had discovered who stole the car, where it came from, what kind of explosives, who provided them. It was the beginning of the end for the Mafia. At the same time Martelli agreed to try to change the laws and he did change the law.

My friendship with Falcone (at right), his family coming to see me at the embassy, his family writing letters to the press that said, “Ambassador Secchia is the only person we trust, our own government couldn’t protect my uncle,” that kind of thing…they sent me a pen from his personal belongings. It brought big emotion. The Communists and the left had changed their name now to PCI, they agreed to support the reform so they changed the laws.

I would like to think we had a lot to do with that. When I left Italy, the Italians personally presented me with the papers when they arrested Toto Riina after 28 years. So having captured the “boss of bosses” of the Mafia, who today has more and more people turning on him.