Claire Sterling

The Mafia … A Far Deadlier Menace than the Red Brigade

VTR Date: February 11, 1990

Guest: Sterling, Claire


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Claire Sterling
Title: “The Mafia…A Far Deadlier Menace than the Red Brigade”
VTR: 2/11/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Several times lately we’ve made reference on this program to Europe’s common market, and to the fact that in just two years Western Europe’s internal boundaries will largely disappear, making for economic and other seen changes that will impact mightily upon us all. Perhaps, it is suggested now, in no area more surprisingly and devastatingly than the illegal international drug trade. With customs barriers totally down, passport controls a thing of the past, police roadblocks made even more futile, we are warned, in what today’s guest has written, that in 1992 the Sicilian Mafia will be free to move its men, merchandise, and dirty money throughout Western Europe without further hindrance. It will then be hopelessly beyond the law’s reach unless it is dealt with as the international affliction it is by all the countries it has penetrated or corrupted in passing.

Yet my guest has now compiled an astounding doomsday book, a veritable encyclopedia of Sicilian Mafia drug connections dating back particularly and most effectively over four decades, that makes it seem highly unlikely that the point of no return has not already been reached; even before the common market’s 1992 further dissolution of Europe’s internal trade barriers.

Claire Sterling, author of W.W. Norton’s new Octopus, the Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia has joined me several times before on THE OPEN MIND. From her perspective as an American foreign correspondent based in Italy for four decades, she has written extensively about international terrorism, about KGB involvement in the plot to kill the Pope, now about that long reach of the international Sicilian Mafia. And I want to begin by asking her why this hasn’t long since been her or others’ major theme. Why not, Ms. Sterling?

STERLING: I think that it’s one of those things like other things I have touched, but to a much more serious degree, something so big and frightening that people back off it. They don’t want to know. They really find it not only troubling, but difficult to believe; that there could exist such a tightly organized, hermetically sealed, rigidly disciplined criminal society as the Mafia is. And there are still people today who therefore, who say there is no such thing. The Mafia today…after…the United States, the Commission, the governing body, has…in a body been convicted…as a Commission of the Mafia in the United States; and after 362 top leaders of the Sicilian Mafia have been convicted in an Italian court, describing in detail the obsessive criminality of this organization, its sophistication, its understanding of the uses of power; not just its obsession with money, but its obsession of money and power together, each one feeding the other. It’s a hard thing to take in, especially since it’s a hard thing to defeat. And therefore, rather than face the challenge of trying to defeat it, it’s easier to look the other way.

HEFFNER: Which leads me, of course, to ask you whether you think it…not whether it will be defeated, but whether it can, indeed, be defeated.

STERLING: You know, I’m not sure. I think it could be if there is in the very near future a tremendous awakening to the nature of the problem, which so far, alas, we haven’t seen. It’s interesting, that just in these days, weeks, the Anti-Mafia Commission of the Italian Parliament sent a report to the United Nations Secretary General saying the Sicilian Mafia is now out of control. It’s a problem of such global dimensions and of such frightening concern, that the United Nations must try to mobilize international forces; all the countries involved who are victims or potential victims in order to try to block it. We in Italy can no longer do so by ourselves. Now, you know, I don’t know how many people are aware of the fact that this is the authoritative body of the Italian Parliament, which has been studying this phenomenon in Italy for the last twenty years, and has now reached this conclusion. If that kind of appeal is taken note of, if it’s possible in this next two years, let’s say, for the countries of the common market to wake up to the true dimensions of the problem; and to harmonize their police forces, to establish a common political will, which is the most important thing; to educate the public sufficiently to the nature and danger of this organization, it should be possible to contain it. There are ways to do it. There are ways to track its money. Although, a trillion dollars a day goes in and out of the United States by Telex, or other electronic means; a day. It is still possible for U.S. Customs, or other U.S. authorities…they have done it in the last year…possible to track…they have tracked one organization laundering 1.2 billion dollars, of Narco-Dollars, for the Columbians and the Sicilians…tracked in the United States, and it has lead to Europe, and it has lead around the world. That’s an example in microcosm of what could be done. In this case they did have seven or eight countries working with them. However, whether it’s possible politically to achieve that kind of resolution, and the sacrifice of a certain amount of sovereignty on the part of each country, the exchange of information by jealous police forces; a willingness to submit to a common rule on how to behave; and to harmonize sufficiently police methods to deal with this problem; I don’t know if it’s possible. It is not to be ruled out as utterly impossible. That’s the best I can say.

HEFFNER: You know, you use 1992 as a sort of point of no return.


HEFFNER: And yet, in terms of what you just said, when the barriers go down, won’t there be ever greater opportunities for the various police forces to work together? They have to.

STERLING: Well, so far I don’t…as far as I know there has not been a serious effort to prepare the police forces in these countries to face that problem in 1992, which is just two years away. It’s not just that you need to unify the methods of the forces…the police forces in all the member countries of the common market, because each country has several police forces, and nearly always these forces compete with each other. The idea that you can then compel them to submerge their own internal differences and then submerge the differences between their laws and the laws of the other countries of the common market, and then get the police to share their knowledge with all the countries concerned, is a terribly difficult thing to do if you have any contact with the police, if you see how they operate. Again, I don’t say it’s impossible. But I don’t see that…so far I’ve heard expressions of alarm from certain countries in the common market about…this…about this Mafia without frontiers in 1992, but I have also heard deep, grave expressions of alarm from Italian officials, the governor of the Central Bank, the Minister of the Interior, the head of the Anti-Mafia Commission; grave alarm at the fact that the other members of the common market are not paying sufficient attention to this problem.

HEFFNER: In the years of research that you put into the creation of your new book Octopus, have you come across information relating to the American cousins that should be of interest to our law enforcement…

STERLING: Yes…it really…it has been an extraordinary experience for me. I am used to having…being shocked by a lack of coordination…a use of existing knowledge in law enforcement. And I shouldn’t have expected this, I suppose, but I still was shocked after I…doing the work for four years on this book…And after putting together, matching together the files – old reports of law enforcement agencies in America, and courtroom cases and verdicts, and police interrogation in America – with similar material in Sicily…After putting those things together and seeing the pattern, it was to me appalling that so much time was lost when neither country knew what the other knew. And even today, after…it’s now five years that we have had very high ranking defectors from the Sicilian Mafia collaborating with justice for their own reasons – I’m not saying they’re saints – but they have they have revealed a great deal about this hither-to secret closed planet, which is the Mafia society. And for these…in these five years the authorities in both countries directly concerned have learned a very great deal about how the Mafia operates, and the relations between the Sicilians and the Americans. And yet apart from a tiny handful of law enforcers in this country, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, for example, a very few people in the FBI, a very few people in the DEA, some in the Department of Justice; very, very few…Apart from these I still hear people speaking with the old mindset as if…the United States is the biggest and best of everything, therefore it has to have the biggest and best Mafia, evidently…ignoring the overwhelming evidence pointing to the fact that the true center of Mafia power in the world is not the Mafia of the United States but the Mafia of Sicily; that the center of power is not New York, it’s Palermo. And also, in spite of an overwhelming amount of evidence, I still can find hardly anybody in this country willing to recognize that the American Mafia in 1957, a good long time ago, handed over at a historic summit meeting in Palermo, handed over to the Sicilian Mafia the key to what became the Sicilian Mafia’s tremendous power; that is, the Americans gave the Sicilians the exclusive franchise for importing heroine into the United States, importing and distributing heroine in the United States. And also gave the Sicilians the land, the territory, in which to operate in their own enclaves in the United States, particularly in Brooklyn, the Gambino families of 18th Avenue, the Bonanno families of Knickerbocker Avenue. They just turned this territory over to the Sicilians to operate in creating a nationwide heroine network in America. From this vantage point, the Sicilian Mafia rose to the top of the international underworld.

HEFFNER: To me, it’s one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read, the story of Lucky Luciano’s calling of a meeting in Palermo…


HEFFNER: …in 1957 and what, was it over a period of four days?

STERLING: That’s right. For four days they were holed up in this Baroque, gorgeous (laughs) suite…


STERLING: …of a hotel, the Grand Hotel des Palmes, and Joe Bonnano led the American delegation…they then had the Capo din tutti capi of the Sicilian Mafia Don Giuseppe Genco Russo headed the Sicilian delegation…there were twelve or fifteen from each side…and for four days they sat in these wonderful Damascan gilt armchairs in this Baroque room under these painted ceilings and vaulted ceilings and discussed essentially the fate of our world.

HEFFNER: Why did Luciano really want the Sicilian Mafia to take over the drug trade?

STERLING: Well, there was a really threatening situation for the American Mafia in 1957. This was after the McClellan Commission had its famous…once famous hearings – I think half forgotten now – in which all the top hoods of the American Mafia were berated before television cameras to testify before the McClellan Commission…and the McClellan Commission decided, in fact revealed, made it clear, that the American Mafia at that time was running in and distributing 95% of all the heroine entering the United States. Therefore, not long after that Congress passed a very stiff narcotics control bill which provided for jail sentences for up to forty years for people dealing…proving to be trafficking in heroine. Heroine at that time, of course, wasn’t anything like the problem it is today. It was still containable. But at the time it was considered a very pressing problem in the United States, and the American Mafia was too hot…things got too hot for the American Mafia. Lucky Luciano’s genial idea for saving the organization, the modern Mafia that he had fathered…

HEFFNER: The American one.

STERLING: …the American one, was to shift to the Sicilian Mafia the immediate problem of bringing the heroine into America and setting up a distribution network; because nobody in American knew the Sicilians. They were nameless, faceless Mafiosi who were melting into an otherwise hard-working Sicilian immigrant community. They came and go with throw-away passports. They had no fingerprints on file, no social security numbers. They were simply not known to the police. Their names were unpronounceable. They spoke this incomprehensible jargon. A New York cop…What could you expect him to do? In the 1960s he could hardly be expected to follow the traces of these…of these low profile people who came and went, and looked like a thousand other people, had the same kind of names and who, once they left Sicily, I won’t say forgotten, but were ignored by the Italian police. Once they left Italy the Italian police didn’t follow them either. Therefore, they weren’t really spottable. And, in fact, for 25 years they worked invisibly, right out in the open, under the noses of all the authorities in this country. Nobody in the United States in law enforcement, and not just in the United States…Nobody in Italy either, knew, for more than a quarter of a century that the Sicilian Mafia had an exclusive franchise and that it was doing it.

HEFFNER: That’s the trouble with the whole story. It seems to a reader, to a naïve reader such as myself, impossible. And in fact, I went back to…and I keep a file on Claire Sterling…

STERLING: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …because I’ve admired your writing ever since The Reporter days…And I went back to some of your by-line stories…The Reporter, March 18th, 1952; April 29th, 1952; again ’52, then ’54, and so on…I find nothing that could indicate that anything like this was going on. I find it hard to believe that a reporter such as yourself, didn’t have some sense of what eventually became Luciano’s 1957 turnover, and that the authorities just didn’t know anything.

STERLING: Well, it’s not incomprehensible, first of all because law enforcement simply doesn’t work…it doesn’t think big. It’s simply…it cannot think big, and function if you’re going to have agencies in different areas specialize in different areas of law enforcement. The objective for practically anybody working in any single agency in law enforcement is how many callers does he make? How many arrests can be made to stick? How many convictions can he get? How many of these will lead to his promotion, to a raise in pay, to an improvement in status, and so on? This isn’t just an American problem. It happens all over the world. So the thought process, in the first place, is not one of looking for a large conspiracy. On the contrary, it’s one of running away from the very idea of a large conspiracy because it’s too complicated and it doesn’t pay off. What the agencies want…the going phrase in the game is “Small cases, small problems. Big cases, big problems”. Therefore, as I wrote in my prologue to this book, I found this amazing undercover detective, Doug Le Vien…

HEFFNER: Mm hmm.

STERLING: …who in 1976, by luck stumbled on a fantastic example of the Sicilian Mafia at work in the United States. He didn’t know who the man was, but he knew he was big. He chased him for two years. He worked with incredible resourcefulness, imagination and courage. He gathered reports on every law enforcement agency in the United States and in Italy about this man.

HEFFNER: And nobody paid very much attention.

STERLING: Nobody read his reports. My book, for the first time since 1976, since he did this…This is the first time his reports have seen the light of day. Yet, if law enforces had simply read what he was finding and tried to think conceptually about what this could imply, what it could mean, they could have detected and contained, at least, this heroine network in the United States while it was in formation, just as the heroine supply was coming on stream.

HEFFNER: You’re saying that they weren’t politically shut up and they weren’t bought off.

STERLING: No. Well, I can’t answer for them all. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

STERLING: No. In every situation one assumes that there are some people who are shut up or bought off. There’s no doubt that the Mafia…the great secret to the success of the Mafia always remains terror and money. That’s how…everybody who joined the Sicilian Mafia as a made member has got to kill as being a condition of being a made member and sworn into the organization. That is the primary, elementary condition for joining. The more he kills after joining, the higher…the more prestige he has as a “Man of Valor”, which is the phrase they use. Their use of terrorism is so sophisticated and refined that international terrorists (laughter) really don’t have a clue. I mean, these are the Granddaddy of all the terrorist movements in the world. They understand the principle of kill one-ten thousand better than anybody because it is enough for them to be seen to be ready to kill anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances for them to get their way, even without having to kill.

HEFFNER: Where has Claire Sterling gotten the nerve to write about these people? You know, I felt that way when you wrote about the international terrorists. And I thought to myself, “Claire has got to be a target”, even when you wrote about the KGB and the plot to kill the Pope. How have you gotten away with this?

STERLING: Well, I don’t know whether I’ve entirely gotten away with it yet, but the book is out, which is really the important thing. While I was researching the book…it is not my habit to throw my weight around while I’m researching a book. I generally work quietly. But also, it’s my experience, in this case particularly, as it has been in others in the past, that the Mafia…people in the Mafia really don’t think that a woman can understand what they’re doing (laughter). I mean, they think women are sex objects or they’re past it. But in any case, they’re simply not in the world with men. So it’s possible…I mean, all I have to do is listen with my eyes wide open and say “How interesting” and anything’s fallen my way which may not otherwise do so. But apart from that, the big thing in this book, which…the great deal of really tormenting research, which I think was rewarding…but the great thing was that if one goes through the files, the archives, police archives, going back 25 years, in two countries, across…transatlantically, and then compares them, one can then get an enormous amount of information without one’s having to show one’s face. I mean, I didn’t have to raise my head practically at all to learn almost everything I have in that book, which came from Mafia sources in police records, in court records, interrogations, confessions, and so on.

HEFFNER: Octopus is a fascinating book, and I was particularly interested when Linda Murray, who’s the Associate Producer of THE OPEN MIND, wrote some material. She said “The Mafia seems to have cornered the market on the exploitation of human weakness, capitalizing on our inability to control ourselves”. And I wondered if you would agree that that was ultimately the secret of its success.

STERLING: Absolutely. Absolutely. Human weakness in all its forms; that is greed, cowardice, ambition, hunger, paralyzing fright…

HEFFNER: She was thinking, I think, about those things that the Mafia capitalizes on in terms of drugs, and gambling…


HEFFNER: …the lesser qualities of humankind.

STERLING: Oh, yes, of course, well you mean counting on the people willing to take what it will sell.


STERLING: Anything that it will sell. Yes, I think that’s true. However, I think we have to be careful, a little bit, about this. I mean, we can’t really criminalize everybody who has been a customer, for one or another of the Mafia’s services.

HEFFNER: Why not?

STERLING: Because, for example, I know the prevailing view of the problem with cocaine and heroine today is that the demand creates a supply. That therefore, people are so willing to use heroine and cocaine that anybody…if somebody is knocked out of that game by somebody else who will automatically take his place…because of the demand; when in fact, before the demand becomes so chronic that the supply becomes automatic the demand is created by the suppliers. And in this book you can see from the first big operations of the Sicilian Mafia together with the Corsican Union of Marseilles in the late sixties and early seventies, how they created demand in the United States; how, when Tommaso Buscetta, the first big defector of the Sicilian Mafia was caught with the Corsican ring in Brazil in 1972, they were bringing into the United States enormous quantities of heroine, far beyond the needs of the known addict population, and creating demand by the free fixes…you know, there are standards of creating it…and in heroine, particularly, once you create the addict, he is hooked. Then you create supply. As we see…for example, the most dramatic case I know is in Pakistan, where in 1981 the disruptions in Afghanistan, one of the world’s great producers of opium, morphine, and heroine…the disruption of the Soviet invasion caused a change, a shift in the location of heroine refineries along the Pakistan border, and in the method of export in Afghanistan. So in Pakistan, which had zero heroine addicts in 1981…today there are a million heroine addicts, deliberately created by the Afghan traffickers to cover their losses at the airport. They calculated that whatever they lost…half of their export had to go to local consumption in Pakistan to cover whatever they might lose getting out of the country.

HEFFNER: Claire, in the two minutes that we have remaining, I need to ask you about the articles that appeared in The New York Times mid-February after John Gotti was acquitted. Talking about the depiction of Mafia people as mysterious, charming rogues and the media’s role in creating some mystery about the Mafia…What’s your own…

STERLING: It’s so regrettable. I mean, John Gotti passing for Dapper Don, the gentleman; the gentleman. You have only to listen to his voice in those wire taps to hear…this is a thug and a bully who has an oppressive force for the Italo-American community, who stops at nothing, who…I mean, I don’t know…they didn’t get him on this crime, but he certainly is the head of the most powerful family in the United States in the Mafia, which is still the most powerful criminal organization in America. He has committed so many crimes. He’s a bully and a tough.

HEFFNER: But the media?

STERLING: And the media romanticizes. They…he has a presence. They accept the presence and they don’t really look for…well, it’s not fair to say that they don’t look behind it. But the balance should be shifted. And I think, as a reporter, I don’t like to talk about Dapper Don. So he wears eighteen hundred dollar suits. So a lot of people wear eighteen hundred dollar suits. That’s not the point of John Gotti. The point is that…the jurors will have to choose between the Mafia’s word for something and the State’s word for something and they chose the Mafia’s word for it…unaware of how the Mafia lies, suborns, cheats in order to beat the law, beat the rap, time after time.

HEFFNER: And I must say, Claire Sterling, to find out why and how, one should read Octopus, and I want to thank you so much for joining me today in this discussion.

STERLING: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s fascinating topic, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.