Nicolò Rizzuto: Mafia boss who rose to become head of Canada’s largest crime syndicate

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The Independent Online

Nicolò Rizzuto was the Mafia's "godfather" in Montreal for over 30 years. The patriarch of Montreal's most notorious Mafia family ran an organised worldwide crime syndicate that was the most powerful Canada has known.

His death has raised fears that a turf war is about to break out in Montreal, the most important city in Canada's underworld. Police have been preoccupied for months with the apparent power struggle in the Mafia underworld, marked by hits on the Rizzuto clan. In 2009, Rizzuto's grandson Nick Jr. was shot dead in broad daylight on a Montreal street. Rizzuto's lieutenant, Paolo Renda was kidnapped in May 2010 and is still missing. This summer, Agostino Cuntrera, another Rizzuto associate known as the "Seigneur", or lord, of the St Leonard borough, was gunned down with his bodyguard in front of his warehouse.

Nicolò Rizzuto was born in Cattolica Eraclea, a remote rural village rich in Mafia tradition in western Sicily, in 1924. The young Rizzuto married into the mob, winning the hand of Libertina Manno, the daughter of the region's Mafia boss. Initially, he gained power as a middleman between powerful landowners and their tenants.

In 1954, the couple emigrated to Canada with their two children and settled in Montreal, which was already under the influence of the Mafia, in particular a family from Calabria, across the strait from Sicily in southern Italy. Over the next 20 years, Rizzuto and his associates chafed against the regime of Montreal's Mafia boss, Paolo Violi. At one stage, Rizzuto fled from Montreal to Venezuela in the early 1970s, reportedly to escape a murder plot hatched by Violi. He lived in Caracas in a secure compound while solidifying his drug-trafficking contacts. When Violi and two of his brothers were murdered, Rizzuto achieved the top spot in the Cotroni crime family. It left Montreal firmly under Rizzuto's control and gave him a key role in trafficking drugs to New York.

With the funds from the drugs trade and protection racket Rizzuto made large-scale investments in legitimate real estate businesses, hotels and restaurants, grocery stores, car dealers and, above all, construction businesses. The ensuing years saw him rule with a rod of iron while grooming his son Vito. Rizzuto became a Canadian citizen but never turned his back on his homeland, maintaining links to crime figures in many cities and towns there.

In 1981, Vito was sent to New York to help the powerful Bonanno family quell an internal revolt by killing three renegade leaders; he took over his father's position as crime boss shortly after the millennium. He expanded his father's work, forging allies in Asia, South America, Europe and the Caribbean. However, his tenure was cut short when he was arrested in 2004 and extradited to the US for his role in the triple murder in the '80s.

With this setback, Rizzuto, with his trademark fedora, which covered a horseshoe fringe of dyed brown hair, reluctantly took up the reigns once more, having largely retreated from mob activities after spending brief periods in jail for racketeering and tax evasion. There had also been a number of imprisonments and shootings against his family.

Despite the plethora of crimes he was suspected of, Rizzuto led something of a charmed life. It was not until 2008 that he pleaded guilty to possession of the proceeds of crime as well as gangsterism, marking his first conviction in Canada. At the time of his arrest in 2006, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police declared the Rizzuto organisation, "one of the pinnacles of organised crime in this country."

The charges came after the organisation was penetrated by secret police, microphones and video cameras catching Rizzuto receiving bundles of cash in the backroom of the downmarket cafe he used as his headquarters. He was videoed counting out money in Italian before stuffing it in his socks or pockets for safe-keeping.

He emerged with a two-yearsuspended sentence and probation. The authorities were forced to admit that despite hundreds of thousands of hours of wiretap, they could not directly implicate him in the majority of activities.

Earlier this year Rizzuto pleaded guilty to tax evasion in Montreal and paid $209,000 in fines after $5.2 million in unclaimed income was foundin Swiss bank accounts held in others' names. He was also wanted in Italyfor Mafia association but did notface arrest or extradition there since Canada does not recognise a crime of association, only charges of overt criminal acts.

Mafia watchers believe Vito Rizzuto's extradition, and the 2006 dragnet against Montreal bosses, created a power vacuum that has enticed rival families or crime rings to bid for their turf. Rizzuto was gunned down at his luxurious mansion in an area dubbed "Mafia alley". It is suspected that behind the murder was a coalition wanting to take control of the lucrative narcotics traffic, the construction industry and the extortion business.

Nicolò Rizzuto, businessman and gangster: born Cattolica Eraclea, Sicily 18 February 1924; married Libertina Manno (two children); died Montreal 10 November 2010.