The Case of the Exiled Mobsters

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Jin Lee / AP

An alleged Gambino crime family associate is escorted by FBI agents to a police vehicle in New York City, Feb. 7, 2008

The operation took place in two countries, netting nearly 80 alleged mobsters in New York and Sicily. Spanning the Atlantic, the joint FBI-Italian police action was dubbed the "Old Bridge." But the name isn't simply a bit of bureaucratic poetry: it is a reference to the conclusion of a brutal gang war that saw the losers flee to America two decades ago to avoid extermination. And now, just when some of the exiles thought it was safe to go back across the water, the authorities have swept them up.

The Inzerillo mob family of Palermo has long been referred to by a somewhat wistful moniker: gli Scappati, the Runaways. More than 20 years ago, the surviving Inzerillos had been "allowed" to flee their home island by the then Sicilian boss of bosses Toto Riina. The bloodthirsty capo had killed dozens of their brothers, cousins, uncles and fathers in a mob war in the early 1980s, a conflict that cemented Riina's Corleone clan as the supreme rulers of Sicily's crime syndicate, also known as Cosa Nostra. Mafia experts say Riina was on his way to exterminating the rest of his rival clan when their American relatives and associates — including members of New York's Gambino family, of whom John Gotti, the infamous dapper don, was a member — intervened on their behalf. The ruthless Corleone leader was convinced to spare the remaining Inzerillos in exchange for a pledge: neither they nor their offspring would ever again set foot on Sicilian soil. A top Palermo investigator summed it up to me this way: "One part of the clan was decimated, the other part was exiled."

But with two decades gone by, the Runaways were in the process of quietly coming home to Italy — or so the authorities believed. The exiles had good reasons: Gotti was dead and buried in the States; and Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, his successor and lifelong Corleone paesano, are both serving life terms in Italy. They were allegedly about to rebuild their "Old Bridge" between America and Sicily, reestablishing the business and drug trafficking ties between the Sicilian and American mobs. For a while, that relationship had been paramount in the netherworld as the Gambinos reigned supreme in the 1970s and 1980s. Arriving in the early '80s, the exiled Inzerillos were content to lie low under the protection of their powerful relatives. But the Gambino era would not last for long. In the mid-80s, 22 Sicily-born defendants were tried in the Pizza Connection case on charges of using New York pizzerias as fronts for importing heroin and laundering profits. The Gambinos suffered hit after hit and never recovered.

Meanwhile, drug trafficking and international ties have been expanded by other Italian crime syndicates, notably the 'Ndrangheta of Calabria and the Camorra in the Naples area. At the same time, however, the Cosa Nostra was assaulted again and again by major Italian police crackdowns in the 1990s. Police believe that Salvatore Lo Piccolo, Provenzano's successor as Boss of Bosses, was trying to revive the Sicilian mob's fortunes by linking back up with American mobsters through the old Inzerillo connection. Lo Piccolo's arrest in November is believed to have brought more of the "Old Bridge" operation to light.

Inzerillo family members and their associates were among those taken down in Thursday's massive roundup, which netted 58 arrests in and around New York City and 19 in and around Palermo. Gambino, Genovese and Bonanno family members were also taken into custody in the investigation, which includes charges of murder, extortion, embezzlement and drug trafficking. Alleged Gambino hitman Charles Carneglia, who was arrested in the round-up, is charged with five murders dating to 1976, said U.S. authorities. Italian police allege that a key member of the network was Frank Cali, an American son of Sicily natives who Italian papers say was married to an Inzerillo daughter. Also arrested on Thursday in New York, he is suspected of being a transatlantic conduit for laundering money through construction contracts and food distribution.

"Organized crime still exists," New York state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo told a news conference. "We like to think it's a vestige of the past. It's not. It is as unrelenting as weeds that continue to sprout in the cracks in society." The scappati may be back, but a lot of them are now back behind bars.