Don Croce Malo was born in the village of Villaba, a little mudhole he was to make prosperous and famous all through Sicily. It was not ironic, to Sicilians, that he sprang from a religious family who groomed him for priesthood in the Holy Catholic Church, that his first name had originally been Crocefisso, a religious name given only by the most pious parents. Indeed, as a slender youth he was forced to play the part of Christ in those religious plays put on in celebration of Holy Easter and was acclaimed for his marvelous air of piety.
But when he grew to manhood at the turn of the century, it was clear that Croce Malo had difficulty accepting any authority other than himself. He smuggled, he extorted, he stole, and finally, worst of all, he impregnated a young girl of the village, an innocent Magdalene in the plays. He then refused to marry her, claiming they had both been carried away with the religious fervor of the play, and therefore he should be forgiven.
The girl's family found this explanation too subtle to accept and demanded matrimony or death. Croce Malo was too proud to marry a girl so dishonored and fled to the mountains. After a year as a bandit, he had the good fortune to make contact with the Mafia.
"Mafia," in Arabic, means a place of sanctuary, and the word took its place in the Sicilian language when the Saracens ruled the country in the tenth century. Throughout history, the people of Sicily were oppressed mercilessly by the Romans, the Papacy, the Normans, the French, the Germans, and the Spanish. Their governments enslaved the poor working class, exploiting their labor, raping their women, murdering their leaders. Even the rich did not escape. The Spanish Inquisition of the Holy Catholic Church stripped them of their wealth for being heretics. And so the "Mafia" sprang up as a secret society of avengers. When the royal courts refused to take action against a Norman noble who raped a farmer's wife, a band of peasants assassinated him. When a police chief tortured some petty thief with the dreaded cassetta, that police chief was killed. Gradually the strongest-willed of the peasants and the poor formed themselves into an organized society which had the support of the people and in effect became a second and more powerful government. When there was a wrong to be redressed, no one ever went to the official police, they went to the leader of the local Mafia, who mediated the problem.
The greatest crime a Sicilian could commit was to give any information of any kind to the authorities about anything done by the Mafia. They kept silent. And this silence came to be called omerta. Over the centuries the practice enlarged to never giving the police information about a crime committed even against oneself. All communications broke down between the people and the law enforcement agencies of reigning governments so that even a small child was taught not to give a stranger the simplest directions to a village or a person's house.
Through the centuries the Mafia governed Sicily, a presence so shadowy and indistinct that the authorities could never quite grasp the extent of its power. Up until World War II, the word "Mafia" was never uttered on the island of Sicily.
Five years after Don Croce's flight into the mountains, he was well known as a "Qualified Man." That is, someone who could be entrusted with the elimination of a human being without causing more than a minimal amount of trouble. He was a "Man of Respect," and after making certain arrangements, he returned to live in his native town of Villaba, some forty miles south of Palermo. These arrangements included paying an indemnity to the family of the girl he had dishonored. This was later heralded as the measure of his generosity, but it was rather the proof of his wisdom. The pregnant girl had already been shipped to relatives in America with the label of a young widow to hide her shame, but her family still remembered. They were, after all, Sicilian. Don Croce, a skilled murderer, a brutal extorter, a member of the dreaded Friends of the Friends, could not comfortably count on all this to protect him from the family that had been disgraced. It was a matter of honor, and if not for the indemnity, they would have had to kill him no matter what the consequences.
By combining generosity with prudence, Croce Malo acquired the respectful title of "Don." By the time he was forty years old he was acknowledged as the foremost of the Friends of the Friends and was called upon to adjudicate the most desperate disputes between rival cosc h e of the Mafia, to settle the most savage vendettas. He was reasonable, he was clever, he was a born diplomat, but most important of all, he did not turn faint at the sight of blood. He became known as the "Don of Peace" throughout the Sicilian Mafia, and everyone prospered; the stubborn were eliminated with judicious murders and Don Croce was a rich man. Even his brother, Beniamino, had become a secretary to the Cardinal of Palermo, but blood was thicker than holy water and he owed his first allegiance to Don Croce.
He married and became father to a little boy he adored. Don Croce, not so prudent as he was later to become, not so humble as he later learned to be under the whip of adversity, engineered a coup that made him famous all through Sicily, and an object of wonder to the highest circle of Roman society. This coup sprang from a bit of marital discord which even the greatest men in history have had to endure.
Don Croce, because of his position in the Friends of the Friends, had married into a proud family who had recently bought patents of nobility for such a huge sum that the blood in their veins turned blue. After a few years of marriage, his wife treated him with a lack of respect he knew he had to correct, though of course not in his usual fashion. His wife's blue blood had made her disenchanted with Don Croce's no-nonsense, earthy peasant ways, his practice of saying nothing if he had nothing to the point to say, his casual attire, his habit of rough command in all things. There was also the remembrance of how all her other suitors melted away when Don Croce announced his candidacy for her hand.
She did not of course show her disrespect in any obvious fashion. This was, after all, Sicily, not England or America. But the Don was an extraordinarily sensitive soul. He soon observed that his wife did not worship the ground upon which he walked, and that was proof enough of her disrespect. He became determined to win her devotion in such a way that it would last a lifetime and he could then devote his full attention to business. His supple mind wrestled with the problem and came up with a plan worthy of Machiavelli himself.
The King of Italy was coming to Sicily to visit his devoted subjects, and devoted they were. All Sicilians hated the Roman government and feared the Mafia. But they loved the monarchy because it extended their family, which consisted of blood relations, the Virgin Mary and God himself. Great festivals were prepared for the King's visit.
On his first Sunday in Sicily the King went to Mass at the great Cathedral of Palermo. He was to stand godfather to the son of one of the ancient nobles of Sicily, the Prince Ollorto. The King was already godfather to at least a hundred children, sons of field marshals, dukes and the most powerful men of the Fascist party. These were political acts to cement relationships between the crown and the executives of the government. Royal godchildren automatically became Cavaliers of the Crown and were sent the documents and sash to prove the honor given them. Also a small silver cup.
Don Croce was ready. He had three hundred people in the festival throng. His brother, Beniamino, was one of the priests officiating at the ceremony. The baby of Prince Ollorto was baptized, and his proud father came out of the cathedral holding the baby aloft in triumph. The crowd roared its approval. Prince Ollorto was one of the less hated of the gentry, a slim handsome man; looks always counted for something in Sicily.
At that moment a crowd of Don Croce's people surged into the cathedral and effectively blocked the King's exit. The King was a little man with a mustache thicker than the hair on his head. He was in the full gaudy uniform of the Cavaliers, which made him look like a toy soldier. But despite his pompous appearance he was extremely kindhearted, so when Father Beniamino thrust another swaddled infant into his arms he was bewildered but did not protest. The surging crowd had, on Don Croce's instructions, cut him off from his retinue and the officiating Cardinal of Palermo so they could not interfere. Father Beniamino hastily sprinkled holy water from a nearby font and then snatched the baby out of the King's arms and handed it to Don Croce. Don Croce's wife wept tears of happiness as she knelt before the King. He was now the godfather of their only child. She could ask no more.
Don Croce grew fat and the bony face grew cheeks that were huge slabs of mahogany; his nose became a great beak that served as an antenna for power. His crinkly hair grew into a barbed-wire gray. His body ballooned majestically; his eyes became lidded with flesh that grew like a heavy moss over his face. His power increased with each pound until he seemed to become an impenetrable obelisk. He seemed to have no weaknesses as a man; he never showed anger, never showed greed. He was affectionate in an impersonal way but never showed love. He was conscious of his grave responsibilities and so never voiced his fears in his wife's bed or on her breast. He was the true King of Sicily. But his son – the heir apparent – was struck with the strange disease of religious social reform and had emigrated to Brazil to educate and uplift savage Indians along the Amazon. The Don was so shamed he never uttered his son's name again.
At the beginning of Mussolini's rise to power, Don Croce was not impressed. He had observed him carefully and had come to the conclusion that the man had neither cunning nor courage. And if such a one could rule Italy then it followed that he, Don Croce, could rule Sicily.
But then calamity fell. After a few years in power Mussolini turned his baleful eye on Sicily and the Mafia. He recognized that this was not a raggedy set of criminals but a true inner government that controlled a part of his empire. And he recognized that all through history the Mafia had conspired against whatever government ruled in Rome. Rulers of Sicily for the last thousand years had tried and failed. Now the Dictator vowed to strike them down forever. The Fascists did not believe in democracy, the legal rule of society. They did what they pleased for what they regarded as the good of the state. In short, they used the methods of Don Croce Malo.
Mussolini sent his most trusted Minister, Cesare Mori, to Sicily as a Prefect with unlimited powers. Mori started by suspending the rule of all judicial courts in Sicily and bypassing all legal safeguards of Sicilians. He flooded Sicily with troops who were ordered to shoot and ask questions later. He arrested and deported entire villages.
Before the dictatorship, Italy had had no capital punishment, which left it at a disadvantage against the Mafia, which used death as its chief enforcing tool. All this changed under the Prefect Mori. Proud Mafiosi, who adhered to the law of omerta, resisting even the dreaded cassetta, were shot. So-called conspirators were exiled to small isolated islands in the Mediterranean. In a year the island of Sicily was decimated, the Mafia destroyed as a governing force. It was of no consequence to Rome that thousands of innocent people were caught up in this wide net and suffered with the guilty.
Don Croce loved the fair rules of democracy and was outraged by the actions of the Fascisti. Friends and colleagues were jailed on trumped-up charges, since they were far too clever to leave evidence of their crimes. Many were imprisoned on hearsay, secret information from scoundrels who could not be tracked down and reasoned with, because they did not have to appear in open court and testify. Where was judicial fair play? The Fascists had gone back to the days of the Inquisition, of the divine right of kings. Don Croce had never believed in the divine right of kings, indeed he asserted that no reasonable human being had ever believed in it except when the alternative was being torn apart by four wild horses.
Even worse, the Fascists had brought back the cassetta, that medieval instrument of torture – a terrible box three feet long, two feet wide, which worked wonders on stubborn bodies. Even the most determined Mafioso found his tongue as loose as the morals of an Englishwoman when subject to the cassetta. Don Croce indignantly boasted that he had never used torture of any kind. Simple murder sufficed.
Like a stately whale, Don Croce submerged himself in the murky waters of the Sicilian underground. He entered a monastery as a pseudo Franciscan monk, under Abbot Manfredi's protection. They had had a long and pleasurable association. The Don, though proud of his illiteracy, had been obliged to employ the Abbot to write necessary ransom letters when early in his career he had followed the trade of kidnapping. They had always been honest with each other. They found they had common tastes – loose women, good wine and complex thievery. The Don had often taken the Abbot on trips to Switzerland to visit his doctors and sample the placid luxuries of that country. A restful and pleasant change from the more dangerous pleasures of Sicily.
When World War II started, Mussolini could no longer give Sicily his closest attention. Don Croce immediately took this opportunity to very quietly build up lines of communication with the remaining Friends of the Friends, sending messages of hope to the old Mafia stalwarts who had been exiled on the tiny islands of Pantelleria and Stromboli. He befriended the families of those Mafia leaders who had been imprisoned by the Prefect Mori.
Don Croce knew his only hope, ultimately, was an Allied victory, and that he must exert all his efforts to that end. He made contact with underground partisan groups and gave orders to his men to aid any Allied pilots who survived being shot down. And so, at the crucial hour, Don Croce was prepared.
When the American Army invaded Sicily in July of 1943, Don Croce extended his helping hand. Were there not many fellow Sicilians in this invading army, the sons of immigrants? Should Sicilian fight against Sicilian for the sake of the Germans? Don Croce's men persuaded thousands of Italian soldiers to desert and retire to a hiding place prepared for them by the Mafia. Don Croce personally made contact with secret agents of the American Army and led the attacking forces through mountain passages so that they could outflank the entrenched German heavy guns. And so while the British invading force on the other side of the island met with huge casualties and could only advance slowly, the American Army accomplished its mission far ahead of schedule and with very little loss of life.
Don Croce himself, though now almost sixty-five years of age and enormously heavy, led a band of Mafioso partisans into the city of Palermo and kidnapped the German general commanding its defense. He hid with his prisoner in the city until the front was broken and the American Army marched in. The American Supreme Commander of southern Italy referred to Don Croce in his dispatches to Washington as "General Mafia." And so he was known by American staff officers in the months that followed.
The American Military Governor of Sicily was a Colonel Alfonso La Ponto. As a high-ranking politician in the state of New Jersey, he had received a direct commission and had been trained for this particular job. His greatest assets were his affability and knowing how to put together a political deal. His staff officers in military government had been chosen for similar qualifications. The headquarters of AMGOT consisted of twenty officers and fifty enlisted men. Many of them were of Italian extraction. Don Croce took all of them to his bosom with the sincere love of a blood brother, showing them every mark of devotion and affection. This despite the fact that with his friends he often referred to them as our "Lambs in Christ."
But Don Croce had "delivered the goods," as the Americans often said. Colonel La Ponto made Don Croce his chief adviser and boon companion. The Colonel came often to dine at his house and groaned with pleasure eating the familiar cooking.
The first problem to be solved was appointing new mayors for all the small towns in Sicily. The former mayors had been Fascists, of course, and had been thrown into American prisons.
Don Croce recommended Mafia leaders who had been imprisoned. Since their records clearly showed that they had been tortured and jailed by the Fascist government for resistance to the aims and welfare of the state, it was assumed that the crimes of which they were accused were trumped-up charges. Don Croce, over his wife's superb fish and spaghetti dishes, told beautiful stories about how his friends, murderers and thieves all, had refused to surrender their beliefs in the democratic principles of justice and freedom. The Colonel was delighted at finding so quickly the ideal people to run the civilian population under his direction. Within a month most of the towns in Western Sicily had as their mayors a set of the most diehard Mafiosi to be found in Fascist prisons.
And they functioned superbly for the American Army. Only a minimum of Occupation troops had to be left behind to preserve order over the conquered people. As the war continued on the mainland, there was no sabotage behind American lines, no spies roamed. Black-marketing by the common people was held to a minimum. The Colonel received a special medal and promotion to Brigadier General.
Don Croce's Mafia mayors enforced the smuggling laws with the utmost severity and the carabinieri patrolled the roads and mountain bypasses ceaselessly. It was like old times. Don Croce gave orders to both. Government inspectors made sure that stubborn farmers turned in their grain and olives and grapes to government warehouses at officially set prices – these, of course, to be rationed out to the people of Sicily. To ensure this, Don Croce requested and received the loan of American Army trucks to transport these foodstuffs to the starving cities of Palermo, Monreale, and Trapani, to Syracuse and Catania, and even to Naples on the mainland. The Americans marveled at Don Croce's efficiency and awarded him written commendations for his services to the armed forces of the United States.
But Don Croce could not eat these commendations, he could not even read them for his pleasure, as he was illiterate. The backslappings of Colonel La Ponto did not fill his enormous belly. Don Croce, not trusting to the gratitude of the Americans or the blessings given by God for virtue, was determined that his many good works in the service of humanity and democracy be rewarded. So these cram-filled American trucks, their drivers armed with official road passes signed by the Colonel, rolled to quite different destinations designated by Don Croce. They unloaded at the Don's own personal warehouses located in small towns like Montelepre, Villaba and Partinico. Then Don Croce and his colleagues sold them for fifty times their official prices on the flourishing black market. So he cemented his relationships with the most powerful leaders of the resurgent Mafia. For Don Croce believed that greediness was the greatest of all human failings, and he shared his profits freely.
He was more than generous. Colonel La Ponto received magnificent presents of antique statues, paintings and ancient jewelry. It was the Don's pleasure. The officers and men of the American Military Government detachment were like sons to him, and like any doting father he showered them with gifts. These men, specially chosen for their understanding of Italian character and culture, since many of them were of Sicilian origin, returned his love. They signed special travel passes, they maintained the trucks assigned to Don Croce with particular care. They went to his parties where they met good Sicilian girls and became entwined in the loving warmth which is the other side of the Sicilian character. Taken into these Sicilian families, fed the familiar food of their emigrant mothers, many of them wooed Mafioso daughters.
Don Croce Malo had everything in position to resume his former power. Mafia chiefs all over Sicily were in his debt. He controlled the artesian wells that sold water to the population of the island at prices that would give him a good profit. He created the monopolies on foodstuffs; he levied a tax on every market stall that sold fruit, every butcher shop that sold meat, the cafes with their coffee bars, and even the strolling bands of musicians. Since the only source of gasoline was the American Army, he controlled that also. He furnished overseers to the huge estates of the nobility, and in time planned to buy their lands at cheap prices. He was on the road to establishing the kind of power he wielded before Mussolini took over Italy. He was determined to become rich again. In the coming years he would, as the saying goes, put Sicily through his olive press.
Only one thing truly troubled Don Croce. His only son had gone mad with the eccentric desire to do good deeds. His brother, Father Beniamino, could have no family. The Don had no one of his blood to whom to bequeath his empire. He had no trusted warrior chieftain, young and tied by blood, to be a mailed fist when his velvet glove proved unpersuasive.
The Don's people had already marked young Salvatore Guiliano, and the Abbot Manfredi had confirmed his potential. Now more legends of this young boy's exploits were sweeping Sicily. The Don smelled an answer to his only problem.