Dr Michele Navarra, ‘Our Father’
A grey-roofed town sunk in the mountains and desert-like plains south of Palermo, Corleone cowers as if in fear of being crushed by a gigantic black stone crag which falls sheer to the roofs of the dirty stone houses beneath it. An abandoned prison, built originally as a fortress, and a few straggly crows squat on top of the crag. A Saracen lookout tower is perched on another rocky outcrop, a relic from the time when the town was an important strategic point dominating the road from the Sicilian capital Palermo to the island’s southern coast. Wedged into a hillside, the steep streets are as narrow and twisted as entrails, regularly turned into furnaces by the hot, humid scirocco wind blowing from the Sahara.
In his classic novel The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa described the harsh environment, which peasants like those of Corleone depended upon for a living: ‘this landscape which knows no mean between sensuous sag and hellish drought; which is never petty, never ordinary, never relaxed, as a country made for rational beings to live in should be … this climate which inflicts us with six feverish months at a temperature of 104°’.
In Corleone, the landscape boasts another negative feature: it has much to recommend it to criminals. The thick Ficuzza wood nearby, once the hunting ground of Bourbon kings and ideal hiding-place for cattle-rustlers, has long been popular with those in need of a secluded spot to bury the bodies of their victims. Overlooking Corleone, the 5,300-foot high Rocca Busambra mountain, dotted with limestone caves and narrow gorges, promises safe refuge to fugitives.
Corleone, whose name is believed to derive from Kurliyun (Lionheart), an Arab fighter who conquered it in AD 840, has a proud tradition of standing up for its rights, and violently so; in the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, when the island rebelled against the French occupiers, Corleone killed more of the invaders than any other nearby town and earned the nickname ‘the fiery one’. One of the figures most venerated by the town’s 14,000 inhabitants is Saint Bernard, revered not just for his holiness but for his sword-wielding past. A seventeenth-century cobbler, he became Sicily’s most skilled swordsman, defending the poor and the womenfolk against rich aristocrats whom he challenged to duels, before becoming a Capuchin monk and spending the rest of his life repenting the blood he had spilt.
The Catholic faith has always played an important role in the life of the town which once boasted some 60 churches and a dozen convents, and saw an incredible 74 saints paraded through the streets on the feast day of the Holy Sacrament. The crowds of the faithful walking behind each saint, borne shoulder-high, were so large that the dean and the mayor drew up in advance the order in which the saints were to be paraded and appointed a priest to regulate this holy traffic.
It’s no coincidence that the townspeople called Don Michele Navarra, the founding father of the Corleonese clan which was to overwhelm the mafia like no other in its history, ‘U Patri Nostru’ (Our Father) – just the way they referred to God. Like a deity the doctor, a short, corpulent figure with a bull-like neck and a broad, apparently kindly face, had the power of both life and death over every single one of them.
When Navarra was born in 1905, one of a land surveyor’s eight children, life in Corleone hadn’t changed for decades, even for centuries in many respects. His family was considered of a high social standing in a town of mainly peasants, shepherds and day-labourers. Poverty was so endemic that labourers who could boast ownership of not one but two mules were known as ‘i borgesi’ – ‘the bourgeois’. Most peasants lived in the same ground-floor room as their animals along with the odd pig or hen, often with only a curtain to separate them, allowing the smell of human sweat to mingle freely with the stench of the animals. Families cooked spaghetti and soup made from wild herbs in the bucket of water they also used to wash their feet. A goat was allowed to roam freely through the house as if it were a holy animal because its milk saved the children from dying of tuberculosis.
At dawn, long lines of men on foot or riding on their mules would thread their way out of Corleone along roads of clayey, light brown earth, often travelling for two or three hours in the rugged landscape until they reached a rocky holding of wheat, vines or olives of at most four of five hectares spread among the yellow hills which turned dark brown when the peasants set fire to the common meadow grass. In the evenings the procession of men and mules would return home in time for the Ave Maria prayer, the exhausted peasants stopping at watering places at the entrances to the town so that the animals could drink while the dirt was washed off their legs and hooves.
Navarra was considered privileged from birth not just because of his father’s position, but also because of his family’s links to a secret criminal association in Corleone. His uncle was a member of the Fratuzzi (‘the Brothers’), a deceptively friendly label for the town’s first mafiosi. First heard of in the early nineteenth century, the Fratuzzi’s membership included authoritarian overseers who managed the estates of absentee landowners who preferred to live in Palermo 22 miles to the north. Armed private militiamen, who enforced order on the estates and didn’t hesitate to use violence, also became part of the Fratuzzi.
Navarra’s uncle was among those who took part in an affiliation ritual conducted in the presence of the association’s bosses. With a dagger, a small incision was made on the new recruit’s lower lip, his blood dripping onto a piece of paper on which a skull had been drawn. The recruit then took the membership oath, pledging fidelity to the association. Members made themselves known to each other either with a password, or by touching the incisors in their upper jaw as if they had toothache. Such rituals would be quaint were it not for the misery the Fratuzzi inflicted on the town. They stole cattle, controlled the hiring of farmworkers and collected extortion money from landowners and shopkeepers in return for supposed ‘protection’. Kidnapping and arson were common punishments for anyone who dared to rebel.
When and how, if at all, the Fratuzzi came to be part of the Sicilian mafia, itself born around 1860, remains a mystery. Even the origin of the word ‘mafia’ remains obscure. Some believe its roots lie in the Arab domination of Sicily from 827 to 1061 and the Arabic word mahias (daring) or Ma àfir (the name of a Saracen tribe). In 1658, a witch mentioned in an official Palermo document was nicknamed Maffia, meaning she had a fiery character. In 1863 Palermitans flocked to the Sant’Anna Theatre to see a new comedy, I mafiusi di La Vicaria (‘The mafiosi of Vicaria Prison’), set in the city’s jail and portraying members of a secret association – it was never named in the play – as virtually ruling the prison.
Two years later, Marquis Filippo Antonio Gualtiero, the government’s envoy to Palermo, described ‘the so-called Maffia or criminal association’ as ‘a large and long-standing sore’. From then on, the word was in common usage and in 1875 two Tuscan sociologists carried out the first-ever investigation into the society. One of them, Leopoldo Franchetti, was at first stunned by the beauty of the Sicilian landscape but stories of terrible violence made him feel ‘everything change around him little by little. The colours change, the appearance of things is transformed … After a number of such stories, all that scent of orange and lemon blossom begins to smell of corpses.’
Navarra was only ten years old when his uncle is believed to have murdered, in 1915, the first local hero to have dared to take on the mafia. Corleone has given birth to a series of such courageous figures – more than any other Sicilian town of similar size - as if in proportion to the influence of its mafiosi. Bernardino Verro was a Socialist founder of the Sicilian peasants’ movement which staged strikes and symbolic occupations of the land in an attempt to break the landowners’ hold. His courage and better judgement failed him temporarily in 1893 when he allowed the Fratuzzi to persuade him that enemies were intent on killing him. Believing that the association would save his life if he agreed to join them he submitted to the lip-pricking initiation ritual.
It was a great coup for the Fratuzzi, anxious to preserve the established order which suited them well, and intent on crushing the rebellious peasant movements. But the coup soon backfired when Verro saw the methods they used. He promptly turned his back on the association and later described both the way it functioned and the secret ritual. Verro was the first to expose the mafia as a secret organisation with its own set of rules. Speaking to a crowd in a Corleone piazza, he courageously accused the mafiosi of turning it into ‘the most wretched of Sicilian towns’. Triumphantly elected mayor, he was murdered one year later.
Those accused of his murder, among them Navarra’s father, were all acquitted. Such courtroom victories were to become a triumphant trademark of the Fratuzzi’s heirs – the clan of the Corleonesi.
Navarra’s parents appear to have done what they could to discourage their son from following in his uncle’s footsteps. They ensured he got a good schooling in Corleone before sending him to Palermo to study medicine. After passing his exams, Navarra soon had himself appointed district doctor for Corleone, at a time when the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini was making the fight against malaria and tuberculosis a priority. A decree ordered that all public offices and schools be equipped with spittoons but, because it was short of funds, the town hall could afford only seven.
The young doctor returned to Corleone in time to witness another, much more ambitious campaign launched by Mussolini. Unable to tolerate any obstacle to his authority – the mafia was both a state within a state and a challenge to his totalitarian vision - the dictator pledged to rid Sicily of it once and for all. ‘We must no longer tolerate that a few hundred blackguards overwhelm, impoverish and harm a magnificient people like yours,’ he thundered during a short visit to Sicily.
Mussolini picked as his anti-mafia supremo Cesare Mori, known as ‘the Iron Prefect’ (a prefect is a government envoy) because of his brutal methods. When he galloped through the countryside hunting down bandits, he liked to shoot a few dead himself. He promised to eradicate the mafia ‘as a surgeon penetrates the flesh with fire and steel, until he cauterises the pus sacks of the bubonic plague’. At dawn five days before Christmas 1926, Mori spoilt Corleone’s festivities by sending police to seal off the town and hunt down 150 suspects. Lists of names in hand and led by an enthusiastic municipal police chief, Mori’s squads knocked on the doors of the mafiosi. When they found their man, handcuffs were clamped on his wrists and the squad chief pronounced the ritual formula: ‘By order of His Excellency the Prefect Cesare Mori, I declare you under arrest!’
In a display typical of ‘the Iron Prefect’, the column of prisoners, handcuffed and in chains, was paraded down the main street on their way to prison in Palermo. The display was not as impressive as Mori would have wished. The police had failed to find more than half those named on their lists. Many mafiosi had fled to hide in the mountains, and as news of Mori’s exploits spread some had even chosen to emigrate as far as America; one murderer, who had more experience of death than most of his new compatriots, set up a lucrative funeral parlour.
Throughout Sicily, Mori exploited the mafiosi’s so-called ‘code of honour’ to put pressure on prisoners to make them confess their crimes and to persuade fugitives to turn themselves in. Mori sent police squads to squat the mafiosi’s homes, which in the absence of the head of the household were often inhabited only by women and children. The squads would often stay until the mafioso, exasperated by the threat to his honour implicit in the enforced promiscuity between his woman and the policemen, confessed or gave himself up. Prisoners were tortured, forced to drink jugfuls of salted water, beaten with coshes or whipped, hit repeatedly on the testicles or given electric shocks. The women of suspects who had gone into hiding were raped.
None of this appears to have shaken Dr Navarra’s resolve to join the mafia. What exactly persuaded a young, small-town doctor with a safe, comfortable future ahead of him to take such a step – a medical career spent saving lives could not contrast more sharply with a criminal one spent taking them? Judging by his later actions one likely explanation is that Navarra’s main ambition was power. And in Corleone, the mafia was the fast track to power. Discreetly at first and then with increasing self-assurance, Navarra started to lobby for influence among the criminal organisation’s local bosses, exploiting his uncle’s connections.
In an early display of unprincipled cunning, Navarra went to the Fascist authorities to inform on several bosses and ‘soldiers’ (low-ranking members of the mafia) in nearby towns. This not only cleared the field of potential rivals but also allowed him to ingratiate himself with ruling politicians. To build himself a force of his own, Navarra formed his own clan, recruiting petty criminals and ex-convicts who had slipped through Mussolini’s net.
Plotting a criminal career didn’t stop Navarra carrying out his more worthy duties at his surgery with professionalism and courtesy. He granted his patients many favours, readily referring them for a bed in a Palermo clinic or even waiving his fees. He willingly honoured families by acting as godfather at their children’s baptisms and confirmations. Exploiting to the full the social prestige which his profession carried in a town as small and as poor as Corleone, he also made sure he had friends in the town hall and in the clergy, the latter always a force to reckon with there.
The doctor’s attentions all had a price. Although he never said so in so many words, everyone knew he expected unwavering allegiance in exchange for his favours. He had understood early on that to gain power inside the mafia, he needed the support – or at least the tacit backing – not only of its members but also of outsiders, preferably the notables of the town. Every walk Navarra took through town became a yardstick of his increasing influence; as he paced the clean high street or the smaller alleys where children chased each other barefoot among smears of muledung and pig-droppings, only the animals ignored him. Acquaintances showed him their respect, bowing their heads before bending to kiss his ring. People began to say of him that he could sciusciare (blow), which in the local dialect meant he radiated so much ominous authority that the very air seemed to move in his presence – a quality usually only attributed to a mafioso.
Despite Navarra’s treacherous contribution to Mussolini’s onslaught, the Corleone mafia soon recovered. Thanks to an amnesty and a decree commuting their sentences, many mafiosi returned home from prison and from the islands to which they had been exiled. When Mussolini himself visited Corleone on a trip to Sicily in 1937, the police urged the local Fascist party secretary to throw a few bosses back into jail at least for the day of the visit. The request was rejected and the mafiosi, on horseback, formed part of a welcoming party which escorted the dictator down the main street. Mussolini had repeatedly boasted that he had vanquished the mafia, but in Corleone the show of protection staged by the bosses demonstrated he had done no such thing. Corleone was theirs, and he was their guest.
Across Sicily, Mori’s scalpel proved to have a blunt edge. Although he made thousands of arrests, these were mostly of low-ranking criminals. ‘The Iron Prefect’ realised that he had to aim higher and purge the Sicilian establishment of the mafia’s friends. As he wrote in his memoirs: ‘The mafia is an old whore who likes to rub herself ceremoniously and submissively against the authorities, trying to flatter, deceive and lull them into a false sense of security.’ But when Mori started to pursue politicians and aristocrats, Mussolini sent him a terse telegram recalling him and transferred him to northern Italy – the dictator had no wish to launch an attack on his own party’s blackshirts.
The 460,000 Anglo-American troops who liberated Sicily in 1943 – in what the US General George S. Patton proudly called ‘the shortest Blitzkrieg in history’ – are the latest in the island’s bewilderingly long list of invaders through the centuries. They were given an exceptionally warm welcome. For once, Sicilians lined the streets to cheer, applaud and hug the foreign troops. The largest island in the Mediterranean and a stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, between the West and the Middle East, Sicily has played mostly unwilling host to Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, Bourbons and, in the Second World War, to German forces.
Most of them ruled the island from abroad and without consideration for the interests of the islanders, bartering it in exchange for other lands. The Italian author Luigi Barzini described how the legacy of these foreign occupations shaped what he called ‘a philosophy of life … a moral code’ among all Sicilians – although it would be fairer to say that such a stark outlook applies only to a certain number of them:
They are taught in the cradle, or are born already knowing, that they must aid each other, side with their friends and fight the common enemies even when the friends are wrong and the enemies are right; each must defend his dignity at all costs and never allow the smallest slights and insults to go unavenged; they must keep secrets, and always beware of official authorities and laws.
The chaotic aftermath of the liberation of Sicily proved Mussolini’s downfall – he was toppled by his own party – and Dr Navarra’s golden opportunity. As in many towns across Sicily, the first move of the Allied military government (AMGOT) in Corleone was to appoint a mafioso of the pre-Fascist era as deputy-mayor and two more mafiosi as town councillors. In their anxiety to find anti Fascists to appoint to positions of power, and with a devastating lack of foresight and local knowledge, the liberators overlooked mafia connections. Across the island, 90 per cent of the 352 new mayors named by the Allies were either mafiosi or politicians close to the Separatist movement, closely linked to the mafia.
Lord Rennel, the head of AMGOT, reported back to London with only a touch of regret: ‘I fear that in their enthusiasm to remove the Fascist podestà (mayors) and the municipal officials of rural towns, my officers, in some cases out of ignorance of local society, have chosen a number of mafia bosses or have authorised such persons to propose docile substitutes ready to obey them.’ This cancelled the little impact which Mussolini’s campaign had had on the mafia and catapulted the organisation into the heart of the state system. Perhaps reflecting this new dawn, mafiosi began to refer to their secret society as Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’). Sicily has suffered from the consequences of AMGOT’s actions ever since.
Navarra lacked any anti Fascist credentials, but he boasted privileged relations with the liberators thanks to his cousin Angelo Di Carlo, a mafioso who had been forced to flee Corleone when the Fascist police squad swept into town. Di Carlo had fled to America where he joined both the Marines and the American Cosa Nostra. Promoted to the rank of captain in the former, he built himself a reputation as one of the notorious gangster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s most reliable killers. He forged ties with the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, precursor of the CIA) to whom he pledged that, on his return to Corleone, he would ensure a peaceful transition from Fascism to liberation.
Back in Corleone, Di Carlo arranged for Navarra to meet a senior AMGOT official with the result that the doctor, despite any appropriate qualifications, was granted the exclusive right to all Allied military vehicles abandoned in Sicily. With road and rail transport across the island still suffering from the bombings and disruption of the war, Navarra lost no time in using Allied vehicles to set up a regional bus service which his brother headed. It is still in operation today, under the name AST, and is used by both Sicilians and tourists.
Shortly after the war’s end, the Corleone boss Calogero Lo Bue died of natural causes in his bed. The battle for his succession pitted Navarra against Vincenzo Collura, who had emigrated in the 1920s to America where he had become close to two leading Italo-American gangsters, acting as best man at the wedding of Frank ‘Three Fingers’ Coppola and as godfather at the baptism of a child of Joe ‘Olive Oil King’ Profaci. Planning his return to Sicily following the boss’s death, Collura lobbied friends to win support for his bid to succeed him. When he boarded the ship taking him home, Collura could be forgiven for believing that with such illustrious American sponsors, Corleone would fall into his hands with little effort.
But on his return in 1944 Collura found himself wrong-footed immediately by Navarra. The doctor moved quickly to summon influential mafiosi to his house before his opponent could build up a power base. Navarra’s influence had grown so much that it was at his elegant home, on a piazza in the historic centre of the newly liberated Corleone, that the rebirth of the local clan was organised. Navarra won enough support to be appointed the new boss, at the same time seeking to placate the defeated Collura by putting him in charge of a section of the town, flanked uncomfortably by lieutenants loyal to the doctor. Collura accepted but made little effort to hide his resentment. Navarra didn’t react; he would deal with that problem later.
Navarra had pulled off quite a feat. A provincial doctor just turning 40 and little known beyond his home town, he had managed to outwit his rivals and become a clan chief. His appointment marked not only a personal triumph, it also heralded the birth of what was to become known, and feared, as the Corleonese family.
Navarra’s rule was a bloody one. In just four years, from 1944 to 1948, a total of 153 people were murdered in Corleone; an atmosphere of fear spread through the town and it was often said that ‘people get murdered for no reason at all’. Often it was simply because the victim stood in Navarra’s way, as in the case of the director of the local hospital. Navarra confided to his men that he wanted the job, saying with a sly smile: ‘We’ll find a solution …’ Shortly afterwards, the director was murdered with a volley of buckshot. When investigators suspected him, Navarra dismissed the victim as a Don Giovanni, an incorrigible womaniser. ‘Everyone knew that, sooner or later, someone would make him pay for it,’ he remarked before stepping into his dead colleague’s shoes.
Navarra was always careful to keep his own hands as clean as possible, delegating to his henchmen crimes such as armed robbery, extortion and murder. One of their victims was the municipal policeman who had led Mussolini’s squad to the mafiosi’s houses. This vendetta took place on a piazza in the heart of town. Three shotgun bullets were fired into the man’s stomach. As with most of the murders commissioned by Navarra, it proved impossible to identify the killers. Navarra was fond of joking that such deaths were due to ‘a kick from a mule’.
Word soon spread of the doctor’s criminal standing but his growing number of patients saw no change in his irreproachable bedside manner. Clearly not short of money, he went so far as to have many cared for in private clinics at his own expense. He was always ready to recommend an acquaintance for a job, to meet the cost of a lawyer for a mafioso who could not afford one, or even to find someone willing to lie in court to let a suspect off the hook.
What interested Navarra above all was not the money he earned from either his work or his crimes, but power. He owned only part of the house in which he lived and had inherited some modestly sized plots of land from his father. In contrast, he collected posts of responsibility in the community and beyond with passion. Apart from his post as director of the local hospital, he was also president of the local landowners’ association and chief medical consultant to a national health insurance scheme - in which he set a record for the high number of patients under his responsibility – to the state railways, to an anti-tuberculosis centre, and to a health insurance scheme for small farmers. Not that all this satisfied him. When, despite all his influence, he failed to obtain the post of director of a second, new hospital in Corleone, Navarra took it as an affront to his authority and ensured that for as long as he lived, the hospital never opened its doors.
The doctor’s fascination with power naturally led him to take more than a passing interest in politics but he revealed himself to be an unashamed opportunist. He backed, in turn, a party which advocated independence for Sicily, then the Liberals and lastly the Christian Democrats. To enable his henchmen to follow voters into the polling booth where they would make sure the locals cast the right ballot, Navarra signed hundreds of certificates declaring voters blind. When his Communist opponents discovered the scam and denounced him, a furious Navarra stormed off arm-in-arm with his wife to the polling station where he waved in the air a certificate he had signed himself declaring she was partially blind. He then escorted his spouse into a voting booth. Everyone knew she had perfect vision, but no one dared stop him. In exchange for such unorthodox canvassing tactics, relatives of mafiosi were given various positions of influence in local authorities, while politicians with underworld links were elected to the regional parliament.
THE LAST GODFATHERS. Copyright © 2008 by John Follain. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.