Christmas around the world is a time for peace and harmony, but this is not always the case. Many countries have continued violence and the story is no different in Europe. Police in Italy have arrested suspects of Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, in the lead up to the festive period confirming what many already knew; the mafia does not take Christmas off.
Prosecutors have confirmed that the suspects had started collecting a “Christmas pizzo” from shopkeepers and bar owners, or money that they are made to pay to avoid an incident that could cause damage, injury, or even death – including mysterious fires, smashed windows or even a bomb underneath their vehicles. It appears that mafia bosses look at how they can increase their business during the holiday season with strategies created and put in place for the upcoming year, along with crimes and murders being commissioned.
Marcello Bruzzese, 51, was the brother of a former mafia member who had turned supergrass. On Christmas Day in 2018 he was fatally shot, allegedly on the orders of a section of the Calabrian mafia, the “Ndrangheta”, who are one of the most powerful mafias at the moment. Police reports state that the balaclava clad murderers waited near Bruzzese’s flat in Pesaro – located in the Italian region of Le Marche – and shot him at least 20 times.
The growing list of men that the mafia has murdered over the Christmas period is full of reasoning with the killing of an organization’s enemy, police officer, or someone that is loathed by the group as a sort of Christmas “gift”.
Palermo’s Ucciardone prison’s penitentiary police agent, Giuseppe Montalto, was killed on 23 December 1995 by a mafia hit man in front of his wife and young family. Ucciardone prison has imprisoned many top mafia bosses and an investigation concluded that Montalto’s murder was a Christmas present for those locked up under Italy’s “hard prison” rule, which is type of solitary confinement.
Montalto had blocked a message from a mafia boss just months earlier that he had automatically passed onto his employers. In retaliation his killing was ordered to “give a Christmas gift to friends who were in prison,” according to former Mafioso Francesco Milazzo.
However, the Christmas period can also be seen as a time to resolve disputes with other mafia members or clans. In November, Catania district attorneys released specific files regarding an investigation in which Francesco Squillaci – another former Mafioso turned supergrass – admitted that following the revelation that the Ercolano and Santapaola clans had become embroiled in a war which had started after a rival boss was accidentally murdered during a Christmas meal in a cell in the Bicocca prison.
Former anti-mafia prosecutor Sergio Lari, who worked as head of the Palermo anti-mafia directorate for over ten years claimed:
“It is not rare for mafiosi, tied to tradition as they are, to spend Christmas with fellow mafia brothers. The most powerful Palermo godfathers used to do it every year. They’d agree to meet in the home of a boss to exchange holiday greetings and to plan the new year’s criminal strategies.”
During the 1991 Christmas dinner, Totò Riina – head of the Sicilian mafia and thought of as one of the most cold blooded bosses in Mafia history – decided that it was time to start a war on “the mafia’s enemies”.
“In that precise moment the mafia planned the assassination of the legendary anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino,” said Lari.
Apart from murder, gifts, and planning, Christmas also has another “special” meaning to Mafiosi: cash. With spending increasing across the world during the run up to the festive period, the mafia increases their demands for protection money – or pizzo – during the period. Salvo Caradonna is a lawyer for the Addiopizzo association (“goodbye protection money”) and confirmed:
“Paying the pizzo at Christmas has now become standard criminal practice in Palermo. At Christmas, many business owners take in more money, and Cosa Nostra, beginning in late November, customarily visits shop owners to remind them that Christmas is around the corner and they’ll soon have to “set right” their payments. This is why Addiopizzo launches several campaigns in December, to sensitize the shop owners to rebel.”
While most Christmas stories have happy endings, it is not always the case for mafia tales and the mobsters. In 2015 officers from the Carabinieri raided the home of the Palermo boss Mariano Marchese on Christmas evening. Dressed as Santa, Marchese was in the middle of giving his grandchildren gifts and somehow managed to avoid being captured after heading out the back door. However, after being on the run for several months he was finally arrested in March 2016 but died a few weeks later in prison.