The Return of the Godfather: The Old Mafia Is New Again

By Barbie.Nadeau@thedailybeast.com (Barbie Latza Nadeau)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

ROME–Five fleshy, bare-chested men in tight swimsuits on a dinghy doesn’t normally garner much attention in the bay of Palermo, Sicily. But it did last August when American mobster Thomas Gambino, 47, and Italian mafioso Tomasso Inzerillo, 72, were among those on board. They were overheard discussing how to divvy up the profits from the suspicious sale of Caribbean property that New York-based Gambino crime family boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali had recently unloaded. 

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Italian investigators working with the FBI had planted bugs to catch anything they might say. Now, finally, the joint operation had a solid lead to a connection between the once omnipotent American crime family and the power-hungry Sicilian clan.

Central command for the joint operation sent officers to the Dominican Republic and redoubled their surveillance in New York and Sicily, launching the investigation dubbed “New Connection” that netted 19 men in raids of both crime syndicates this week in Palermo, Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey. Among those arrested in Italy was Thomas Gambino who happened to be back in Sicily for a “family vacation.”

The police used WhatsApp, the encrypted international messaging service, to launch the raids. “In Palermo, it’s 3am, and muggy. In New York, it’s 9pm and looks like it might rain,” the Palermo anti-mafia police said at a press conference about the arrests. “A WhatsApp message is sent to the joint squad. It’s the sign the Italian police and their FBI colleagues have been waiting for because from Sicily to the U.S., the old Mafia has returned.”

What the cops uncovered during the investigation that led to this week’s arrests was a growing link between the Sicilian and New York mobs that centered on money laundering, drugs and extortion. At one point in phone taps over the last year Gambino can be heard telling his Sicilian counterparts, “We can definitely do business here,” according to police transcripts seen by The Daily Beast. 

But the criminal collaboration—and the joint Italian-FBI investigation—was nearly thrown into chaos when Cali was gunned down in front of his Staten Island, New York, home last March. 

In the hours after the hit, investigators on both sides of the Atlantic were concerned that it could have been a Sicilian mobster warning the American clan to stay away. But as it turned out Cali was gunned down by a Donald Trump-supporting MAGA flunky, Anthony Comello, who allegedly just wanted to date his daughter.

“It was a huge relief that it was so random,” an Italian anti-Mafia investigator told The Daily Beast.

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Cali, who was born in Sicily and married into the Inzerillo family at a young age, was known as the “Ambassador” between clans in New York and Palermo. He was the tie that bound the Gambino crime family and the Cosa Nostra’s once powerful Inzerillo clan, and police waited to find out what his death ultimately would mean. 

With Cali’s support from America, the Inzerillo family was on a trajectory back to power after the boss of bosses Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina died in prison in late 2017. In the 1980s, before his arrest, Riina launched what is known as the Second Mafia War, ordering deadly hits on the heads of the strongest Palermo crime families who threatened his dictatorial power. Among those he killed was the then-powerful Palermo crime boss Salvatore Inzerillo, whose family then fled in self-imposed exile to New York. 

While in the States, investigators say, the Inzerillo mobsters worked covertly with the Gambino crime family to line their pockets and help fund their return to power in Sicily one day—all the while allegedly promising the Gambino crime family its due reward for the help. 

Riina was serving out several life sentences in solitary confinement when he died, but he still held sway among the Cosa Nostra’s fractious clans, and he still wanted all the Inzerillos dead. Riina’s death finally provided the opening the Inzerillos had been waiting for to make a grab for power. Several Gambino crime family members had already moved to Palermo permanently after Riina’s death to reap the benefits of the close ties that were sure to come with the Inzerillo clan’s return to power. 

It was all going to plan until “Franky Boy” Cali was killed. “It could have gone either way, they could have severed ties or made them stronger in his memory,” the anti-Mafia police source said. “In the end they worked harder ‘for Franky’.”

The merged clans soon strengthened their hold on companies dealing with wholesale food supplies, gambling outlets and online betting through which they engaged in extortion, loan sharking and money laundering. More than a dozen businesses, from casinos to car dealerships in Sicily and New York state, were sequestered as part of the “New Connection” joint operation. 

“The investigation has registered the strong bond established between Cosa Nostra of Palermo and U.S. organized crime, with particular reference to the powerful Gambino crime family of New York,” Italian investigating prosecutor Roberto Tartaglia said in a statement after this week’s arrests. “Those Riina wanted dead were creating a special link between Palermo and New York.”

Even with the 19 arrests, no one assumes the battle against organized crime is over. “They were the losers who ran away so they wouldn’t be killed by Riina,” Palermo police commissioner Renato Cortese said when he announced the arrests. “They continue to be losers.”      

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