6 July 2017

Cesare Mori - Mafia buster

'Iron Prefect' who 'eliminated' the Cosa Nostra

Cesare Mori was well known for his hard-line methods
Cesare Mori was well known for
his hard-line methods
Cesare Mori, the prefect of police credited with crushing the Sicilian Mafia during the inter-War years, died on this day in 1942 at the age of 70.

At the time of his death he was living in retirement in Udine, in some respects a forgotten figure in a country in the grip of the Second World War.

Yet during his police career his reputation as a hard-line law enforcer was such that the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini personally appointed him as prefect of Palermo, charged with breaking the Mafia’s hold over Sicily and re-establishing the authority of the State by any means necessary.

Mori was born in Pavia in Lombardy, by then part of the new Kingdom of Italy, in 1871.  His upbringing was difficult.  His first years were spent living in an orphanage, although his parents were not dead and looked after him after he had turned seven.

He attended the Military Academy in Turin and was set on a career in the army but after marrying Angelina Salvi in 1897 he quit and joined the police, taking up a posting in Ravenna.

His first experience of Sicily came with a brief posting to Castelvetrano, near Trapani, where he captured a notorious bandit, Paolo Grisalfi, before moving to Florence in 1915.

Mori was sent back to Sicily after the First World War, at which time the island was becoming virtually lawless, with gangs of bandits able to operate almost with impunity. He was placed in charge of a special force created to tackle brigandage.

Mori was uneasy about the Fascists but agreed to become a blackshirt to carry out his job
Mori was uneasy about the Fascists but agreed
to become a blackshirt to carry out his job
He soon became known for taking a somewhat radical approach to the job, pushing acceptable policing methods to their limits and sometimes beyond. But they worked. In Caltabellotta, a town in rugged, mountainous territory between Agrigento and Palermo, he arrested more than 300 suspected bandits in just one night.

The press hailed the arrests as a "lethal blow to the Mafia", but Mori was aware that these gangs of brigands were not the Mafia, whose presence in Sicilian society was much less visible but far more dangerous, with a sphere of influence that extended into business and local government and even the local police forces.

Mori was actually uneasy about the rise of Fascism.  Back on the mainland, as prefect of Bologna he was one of the few policemen who opposed the suppression of opponents by thuggery that was becoming part of the Fascist culture.  This led him to be posted to Bari, well away from the major centres of Fascist activity. After Mussolini took power following the 1922 March on Rome, Mori took it as his cue to retire, moving with his wife to Florence.

Yet the prospect of eliminating the so-called Cosa Nostra in Sicily continued to interest him and when Mussolini’s Minister of the Interior, Luigi Federzoni, approached him to return to policing in 1924, he accepted the requirement to join the Fascist party as a condition of the job and took up the post of prefect of Trapani.

Just over a year later, having determined that eliminating the Mafia would bring him huge public support, Mussolini made contact with Mori in person, asking him to become prefect of Palermo with 'carte blanche' to re-establish the authority of the Italian government, promising to draw up any new laws he required to carry out the task.

In a four-year campaign, Mori became known as ‘the Iron Prefect’, employing methods that included violence and intimidation on a scale almost the equal of the tactics used by the Mafia themselves.

Joseph Bonanno left Sicily to escape Mori's purge
Joseph Bonanno left Sicily
to escape Mori's purge
His men laid siege to entire towns, humiliating Mafia bosses by dragging them out of their beds in the early hours, and countering the code of silence – omertĂ  – that all members were supposed to follow by using torture to obtain information, even threatening harm to their families if they refused to co-operate.

More than 11,000 arrests were made during his time in charge. Mussolini rewarded him by making him a Senator and retiring him in 1929, his propaganda machine announcing to Italy that the Mafia had been eradicated.

Whether that was true has been the subject of many arguments.  The murder rate on the island dropped sharply in the 1930s as some Mafiosi chose to give evidence to police in return for their own lives and others, such as Joseph Bonanno, relocated to the United States and built crime empires there.

But, according to some historians, too many of Mori’s arrests were of minor figures and a substantial number of bosses simply went to ground, content to lie low in the expectation that the Fascists would eventually fall from power.

This was to come about, of course, with the Allied invasion of 1943, which began in Sicily.  Mafia figures still on the island and in the US took the opportunity to offer their help, both in encouraging Sicilians to turn against the Fascists and in passing on their knowledge of the difficult terrain and often treacherous coastline.

As cities and towns fell and new local administrations were appointed, Mafia figures manoeuvred themselves into key positions and, slowly but surely, their power was restored.

Mori’s story has been the subject of several books and films, notably the 1977 movie, Il prefetto di ferro – the Iron Prefect – directed by Pasquale Squitieri and starring Giuliano Gemma and Claudia Cardinale, with music by Ennio Morricone.

The old part of Trapani sits on a promontory
The old part of Trapani sits on a promontory 
Travel tip:

Situated on the western coast of Sicily, Trapani is a fishing and ferry port notable for a curving harbour, where Peter of Aragon landed in 1282 to begin the Spanish occupation of Sicily. Well placed strategically to trade with Africa as well as the Italian mainland, Trapani was once the hub of a commercial network that stretched from Carthage in what is now Tunisia to Venice. Nowadays, the port is used by ferries serving Tunisia and the smaller islands, as well as other Italian ports.  The older part of the town, on a promontory with the sea on either side, has some crumbling palaces and others that have been well restored, as well as a number of military fortifications and notable churches.

The Certosa di Pavia is notable for its lavish Gothic and Renaissance architecture
The Certosa di Pavia is notable for its lavish
Gothic and Renaissance architecture
Travel tip:

Once a Roman military garrison, Pavia has a well preserved historic centre and, 8km (5 miles) to the north side if the city, the impressive Certosa di Pavia, a monastery complex built between 1396 and 1495. It is the largest monastery in Italian and is renowned for its extravagant Gothic and Renaissance style, a contrast to the plain, austere architecture normally associated with Carthusian religious buildings. Pavia is also home to one of Italy’s best universities, the alumni of which include explorer Christopher Columbus, physicist Alessandro Volta and poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo.

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