Mafia’s ‘grey panthers’: Pensioners postpone retirement to continue running Sicilian crime syndicate

Older generation of mobsters cling to power instead of handing the reins to their ‘flashy young gun’ sons

They’re known as the Mafia’s grey panthers, the pensioners who are still calling the shots among the most powerful clans of the Sicilian Mob.

Authorities have this week alleged that these Cosa Nostra figures in their seventies and eighties have continued to run the group’s nefarious activities and are determined to defend the ailing crime syndicate to their last breaths.

Police arrested 62 people on Wednesday and dealt severe blows against two of Palermo’s oldest clans – the Villagrazia-Santa Maria di Gesu and San Giuseppe Jato families – and seized businesses and property. Those arrested are accused of familiar-sounding-charges, including Mafia association, extortion, and weapons offences.

But it was the structure of the clans – and in particular, the identity of those said to be in charge – that showed the battle of the generations within Italy’s oldest Mafia group is still going on and, if anything, the grey panthers are coming out on top.

The two alleged godfathers arrested this week were Mariano Marchese and Gregorio Agrigento, aged 77 and 81, respectively. Prosecutors said their continued top jobs after lives spent in and out of prison, suggested tradition has not bowed to attempts by flashy young guns to take over. “The organisation continues to observe the time-honoured rules,” according to the prosecutor, Francesco Lo Voi, who oversaw the 62 arrests.

Mafia experts and prosecutors say these contemporaries of the jailed and notorious 1990s super boss, Toto Riina, still dream of the old-style Cosa Nostra structure, with a boss of bosses and a measure of decorum. 

“The future of Cosa Nostra is in the hands of octogenarians,” the author and Mafia expert Attilio Bolzoni said in La Repubblica. He added if it were not for the grey panthers, what is left of Cosa Nostra would “already be drunk on mojitos, or stoned on cocaine, whizzing around Mondello Bay on jet skis, in displays of vulgarity”. He said the older bosses would continue “until they’d given their last breaths”.

Mariano Marchese, 77, was arrested on extortion and arms charges

Two years ago extensive video surveillance by Sicilian law enforcement agencies showed how the sons of jailed Cosa Nostra leaders were trying to reform “la Cupola” – the regular gathering of Mafia families from across Sicily to discuss business plans. 

With Cosa Nostra weakened by a succession of arrests, the growth of rival crime syndicates and the lack of a boss of bosses of the stature of Bernardo Provenzano or Riina, young clan figures appeared to be trying to regroup and strengthen the organisation – and enjoy themselves at the same time, during extravagant dinners with lobster and Dom Perignon.

But it was not clear to what extent the crime syndicate was benefiting from the activity or whether the Mafia’s young guns were just playing at being gangsters. 

This week’s developments suggest that it was more show than substance. Mr Bolzani said that instead Mr Marchese and Mr Agrigento had stepped in and reorganised the districts to give a little “order to the families and some criminal decorum to the crime syndicate”.

The resilience of older Cosa Nostra figures was demonstrated in January this year by the centenarian mobster Procopio di Maggio, who celebrated his 100th birthday in style, with a noisy fireworks display – despite attempts by authorities to ban the festivities. The white-haired Mafioso, who survived some of the most violent years in the history of Cosa Nostra, lived it up on the big day, greeting locals and visitors from the US, to the anger of local authorities in his home town of Cinisi, near Palermo. 

Mafia pundits said the survival of Cosa Nostra’s octogenarian bosses, chimed with the famous comments by the Mafia boss Giuseppe Bonanno, known in the US as Joey Bananas, who said: “I was born into a world that had its own tradition and this tradition is the flower of our culture ... it guides the youth in their journey towards maturity… our tradition shows us the way to live.”

The author and criminologist Corrado De Rosa said: “What Joe Bananas said was the essence of the Mafioso. It dictates the thoughts of its affiliates; for those inside, nothing else counts.”