The Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi is a Catholic sanctuary in the heart of the Aspromonte mountain range that runs north to south along the middle of the toe of Italy, near San Luca in Calabria. Founded by Roger II, King of Sicily in 1144, the church and monastery are situated in a spectacular setting at the bottom of a gorge that is surrounded by high mountains on the east side of the 6000ft Mont Alto, the highest peak of the Aspromonte.
Like other pilgrimage destinations, such as the Haj for Muslims or Amarnath and Sabrimalai for Hindus in India, the inflicting of fatigue and pain upon the pilgrim is considered essential, in order to give him a sense of having ‘earned’ the right to spirituality. Somehow, kneeling in the corner of your prayer room at home isn’t the same thing. This is in spite of the widespread belief that God is omnipresent and is not necessarily found only in Jerusalem or Mecca or Sabrimalai.
Like the abovementioned pilgrimage destinations, the Polsi sanctuary too is difficult to access and cannot be reached by mechanised transport. The pilgrims, like any others around the world, feel that they have to trudge up to have a glimpse of the Santa Maria and bask in the momentary reflected piety. I have never understood this, but then I am not a religious man.
In September every year, around 200 leading members of arguably the most powerful organized crime group in the world, join the pilgrims in the long hike up the Aspromonte mountains, ostensibly to visit the sanctuary and express their devotion to the Virgin Mary.
I say ‘ostensibly’ because the real reason for their pilgrimage is not devotion, but to have a tête-a-tête. Since the 1950s, the chiefs of the locali have been meeting there during the September Feast. These annual get-togethers, known as the crimine, have traditionally served as a forum to discuss future strategies and settle disputes, under the auspices of the Catholic church.
In those days, the Catholic Church was as involved in hosting and laundering money for the Mafioso as fucking little boys and girls.
A 100 miles to the north, is a sleepy town called Cosenza that is bathed year round in bright sunlight. In January, with clear, azure-blue skies and a balmy 15°, Cosenza could well have been a tourists’ paradise.
One such day in January 2014, brought to the world an unspeakable horror that the locals are still trying put behind them and move on……
For 3-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, it had promised to be an exciting day. Coco had just been strapped into the car-seat in the back of the 8-year old Fiat Punto by his grandfather, Guiseppe Iannicelli, who drove while his Moroccan companion, 27-year-old Ibtissa Taoussa, sat in the front passenger seat. Taoussa was ‘Aunt Betty’ for Coco.
As the tiny car negotiated the busy thoroughfare, Coco’s head constantly swivelled round and round, as every child’s does, when he’s being taken on an outing. When he noticed a motorcycle keeping pace just inches away to his right, he gazed out at it in awe. The bike was one of those heavy Yamaha racing motorcycles.
Sitting astride were two men, dressed in leather from head to toe, with black helmets, their visors pulled down. When the man riding pillion turned his head to look at him, Coco waved wildly at the man and he even waved back. The motorcycle then speeded up, overtaking the Fiat and positioning itself in front. It remained there till the next intersection, where the bike came to a sudden halt, even though the light had turned green.
The old man was slow in reacting. He slammed on the brakes and fought to bring the skidding Fiat to a halt, barely managing to stop inches away from the tail lights of the Yamaha.
As the pillion rider twisted his torso, this time completely around facing the Fiat, the old man growled something in Calabrese that, roughly translated, meant, “Get the f—k out of my face, ars—le.” Grandpa Joe was a man with a mercurial temper.
The two seconds that the pillion rider took to unzip his jacket front and draw out a Beretta 7.62mm automatic would have been enough for a younger man to immediately put the car in gear and ram the motorbike, possibly run the two riders over and make his escape. Even if it had taken three seconds instead of two, he would probably have still made it, since the pillion rider would be too startled to aim accurately.
But Coco’s nonnino was old, no longer that murderous young button man with a leopard’s instinct for survival as he had once been. He just stared dumbly ahead till a third eye appeared in the center of his forehead. Immediately, the aged drug trafficker slumped forward on the wheel, pressing the horn down, setting it off.
The traffic around the two parked vehicles began to scatter and passersby did what this town had trained them since childhood for – they dived for cover. Just as well, because the pillion rider got off the bike and ambled over to the passenger side and peered in for just a second, before he brought the gun up once more and shot the terrified moll too, right between her eyes, at point blank range, the gun’s muzzle hitting the woman’s forehead before the round exited in a fiery flash.
Coco was beside himself by now, hopping up and down, restrained by his car seat, unable to comprehend what was unfolding in front of his eyes. He kept repeating, “Nonnino! Nonnino!” over and over.
The pillion rider didn’t get back on the bike. Instead, he strolled round to the rear of the hatchback and stood there for a while, not moving, his head swiveling around till he was satisfied there was no emerging threat. There couldn’t be. The outfit that he worked for owned this town.
Stretching out his right arm, he brought the Beretta up one last time, it’s muzzle bumping against the rear window of the car, six inches from the back of little Coco’s head. His expression impassive, the hit-man fired two shots in quick succession and Coco’s head exploded like a melon. The toddler slumped forward, his upper torso hanging in front, restrained by the car seat’s harness.
In the deathly silence that followed, the pillion rider casually walked over to the driver side, opened the door, dragged Iannicelli’s corpse out onto the pavement and out back, opened the trunk and stuffed it in. The bike revved up, the Fiat’s engine fired and the two-vehicle convoy began moving forward unhurriedly. At the next corner they took a sharp left and disappeared from view.
Iannicelli was a convict on nocturnal payrole and when he didn’t call in for a couple of days, the cops went looking for him. Then, a few days later, a hunter spotted the burnt-out skeleton of a small hatchback inside the compound of a derelict building at the edge of town and alerted the police who discovered the macabre scene inside.
There was a body in the trunk, charred beyond recognition and another in the front passenger seat, similarly cooked. In the back seat, the investigators found the charred remains of a tiny body, still strapped to a blackened car-seat, unrecognizable as the remains of a human being.
A shiny 50-eurocent coin was found on the roof of the burnt-out car, a known custom of the criminal group that owned the town, a message that meant that it was a vendetta for an unpaid drug debt.
Welcome to the world of the ‘Ndrangheta, the deadliest organized crime group in the world, with annual revenues from drug trafficking and murder of over $80 billion, a tidy sum which also happens to equal 3.5% of Italy’s GDP and double that of the auto behemoth, Fiat.
Guiseppe Iannicelli had been a card carrying member of the ‘Ndrangheta. Till he ran afoul, trying to make a drug sale on his own, without sharing the proceeds with his bosses, a capital offense to the ‘Ndrangheta. He too made those knee breaking pilgrimages to the Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi Catholic sanctuary in the hope that his Catholic God would choose to be on his side. Obviously he had been misled.
In the last decade alone, over 80 children and some 800 innocent bystanders have fallen for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In a way, Coco Campolongo never had a chance; at least not at leading a normal life. Born into a family of drug pushers in ground zero of ‘Ndrangheta territory in southern Italy, the only occasion when the toddler had seen his parents was when someone found the time to take him to visit them in prison.
Naturally there were cries of horrified indignation at the January 2014 killing of Coco. Even for a country that has numbed itself to willful blindness at organized crime hits, the deliberate murder of a 3-year old looked like it was going to be a tipping point. From his pulpit, Pope Francis cried, “How could anyone kill an innocent little boy of just three years in this way?”
Then, as if to square things up, to show the world that evil always loses in the end and to thereby reaffirm the ‘law of conservation of spiritual entropy’, Pope Francis confirmed gravely that the child would surely go to heaven. He must know. After all, he is believed by Catholic suckers all over the world to be God’s own rep on earth.
The Pope went even further. “You, the mafia, are hereby excommunicated from the Catholic Church”, he announced, even though excommunication from the Catholic Church is a lengthy bureaucratic process and cannot be carried out by just an announcement. Still, the Pope put every bishop in Italy on notice. Henceforth, no mafia money should be accepted as donations and no mafia sponsors shall be sought for spring festivals like the Pasqua Processiones (Easter processions) that are organized every year by the church and sponsored by mafia money.
Two decades back, when the old Mustache Petes ruled the Italian organized crime syndicates, the Pope’s excommunication of organized crime members would have been a body blow to the mobsters. That’s because these guys, besides being very devout Catholics themselves, believed that they depended upon the goodwill of the hoi-polloi in order to thrive. You couldn’t run an illegal loan sharking operation or a protection racket if the folk who needed those services didn’t trust you.
The Catholic Church had it’s fingers on the goodwill switch and the power to negate that trust. It provided the Italian organized crime syndicates with an umbrella of legitimacy that made these monsters look warm and fuzzy in the eyes of the common folk. Bishops and cardinals were in the payroll of at least one of the four main crime groups. As a religious institution, the Catholic Church was dirty to the core.
Except for John Paul-1, the Pontiffs who came before Francis either never did consider breaking with the Mafia a priority or were themselves in league with organized crime. Indeed, some Popes, like the 15th Century Borgias, were heads of their own crime syndicates, no kidding.
There was another thing that the Catholic Church customized for the conscience of the mobster – the confessional. It was and still is a most ridiculous farce, a very convenient way to shrug off the burden of one’s sins. The confessional is where the Catholic priest takes the confessor’s sins upon himself, like Jesus Christ once did, though the justice behind it escapes me to this day.
And it is safe too. Like with a doctor, a statement made in a confessional to a priest is protected under most privacy laws and inadmissible in any court of law. You murder someone and then go to your priest and confess and you walk away, feeling cleansed. In exchange for a sham mea culpa, the priest helps you cut a deal, with the Catholic God. Where is the penance, the repentance?
The priest doesn’t really give a damn. Years of listening to all sorts of sin every day have made him immune to sin tales. He himself has either done those things that he hears through the partition or at least fantasized doing them. A priest is human too, He forgets about your confession the moment your ass is out the door, gets himself a beer with the fiver you left in the donation box and goes back to the choirboy in his bedroom. You got a clean slate, the priest got his beer money and boy and the god of the Catholics is appeased. Who gives a shit what you did to a guy who deserved to get whacked anyway?
The times however have changed, even for the ‘Ndrangheta. An Ndranghetisti today doesn’t give a flying fuck about image or trust or how the common Calabrian Joe feels about the brutal way it conducts it’s business. While earlier, the killing of family members of a marked man or innocent bystanders was a strict no-no, little Coco is a stark reminder that the rules have changed, that there are no longer any rules. The stakes are just too high now. Nine out of ten sachets of Columbian cocaine that change hands in Europe, a market work $80 billion, come from the ‘Ndrangheta.
It is debatable if there is anyone that ‘Ndrangheta would hesitate to harm. Probably there is only one man – the Pope, but that is no longer a sure thing. The same goes for the other three crime syndicates that together virtually own Italy – the Sicilian Costa Nostra, the Sacra Corona Unita of Apulia and the Camorra from Naples.
It is not as if the Pope has always been above the organized crime’s reach…….
Shortly after 5am on September 28, 1978, just 33 days after his election as Pope, John Paul-1 was found dead by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. Simple at heart and charged with a burning desire to rid the Vatican of it’s links to organized crime and usher the Catholic Church out of it’s criminal ways into a path of true spirituality, he was known to the world as the ‘Smiling Pope’.
It is widely believed that the coffee he was handed was laced with strychnine, that he was assassinated by one of his own senior staff, for trying to reform the mafia-ridden Vatican Bank which had turned itself into a money laundering enterprise for the Italian organized crime syndicates. It is not known as to which one of the four syndicates was responsible for the killing.
The safety net of religion and it’s nexus with organized crime is not restricted to just the Italian organized crime.
When he was declared a global terrorist by the US, his hosts (Pakistan) used the opportunity to tighten the screws on Indian-born Dawood Ibraham. Still alive and ever prospering, he is no.3 in the Forbes list of the world’s ten most dangerous criminals, Ibrahim has a personal net worth of $50 billion.
After he was found to be directly responsible for the series of powerful bomb blasts that killed 350 and injured over 1200, in Mumbai in 1993, the US moved to tag him as a wanted terrorist and the pressure on Pakistan to cough him up grew. Ibrahim, by then ensconced in the tony Karachi colony, realized it was now a matter of time before he became, to the Pakistani establishment, expendable.
But this is where his astuteness came into play. He knew before anyone else that Pakistan was soon going to be overrun by religiosity of the most virulent kind – Islamic fundamentalism.
In his early avatar in India, Dawood Ibrahim was known to be a secular mob boss, with a right-hand man who was a Hindu named Chota Rajan, but he decided to get a make-over and take refuge in religion. He began distributing largesse in the form of millions, to rogue Pakistani terrorist outfits like the Markaz-ud Dawa, the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, fuelling their gargantuan growth, laundering their funds from his bases in Europe and Southeast Asia, gaining their support and through them, the assurance of sanctuary by the equally rogue Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI.
Dawood Ibrahim’s generosity toward the terrorists changed the dynamics of Pakistan’s politics and ensured that he would never be touched. He continues to lead a brazen existence amid opulence, in an elite neighborhood of the Pakistani city of Karachi, where he is known simply as ‘Sultan Shah’. He lives inside a heavily guarded compound that goes by the name of ‘White House’ and has five sprawling single-storied bungalows in it.
Inside the sprawling White House complex, Dawood is reported to have built his very own mosque, where he takes time every afternoon, to read from the Quran, his visage suitably grave and penitent. He too has found sanctuary in religion. Ibrahim even conducts conferences inside that mosque, planning hits and drug shipments, the holy environs of the mosque imparting some kind of legitimacy to his nefarious mindset. Just like the church does, for the ‘Ndranghetisti.
When he was controlling all the madka (numbers) rackets in the 70s, the Mumbai underworld don, Varadaraja Mudaliar (1926-1988), known to everyone as Vardhabhai, once caught one of his numbers runners cheating on a customer who had put the equivalent of 10¢ on a winning combination. It would have paid the guy off – $ 250.
Before he had the runner tossed out of the 20th floor of the Oberoi Trident Hotel in Nariman Point, Vardhabhai is reported to have told the man, “ On your way down, I want you to keep repeating ‘trust’, ‘trust’, ‘trust’.”
The don didn’t give a flying fuck about the customer who had lost his winnings, though he did make sure that the man was reimbursed in full. He just wanted to send out a message to all those poor sods, those daily-wage laborers who paid into the system, in nickels and dimes, hoping for a windfall. A message that the madka racket was a fair one and there was always a chance they would hit the jackpot if they kept playing and if a runner should cheat them, they’d be reimbursed their winnings, come what may.
Mudaliar, was an extremely pious man. He was never seen without those thick vibhuti lines on his forehead, made from sacred ash from holy wood burnt according to vedic rituals. Like Dawood and his backyard mosque, Vardhabhai too had a massive temple inside his compound.
Mudaliar liked to hedge his bets as regards his relationship with the Almighty. He made it a point to visit the dargah of Bismillah Shah Baba in Mumbai often, to offer food to the poor, an essentially Muslim ritual. Being on the right side of the every God mattered to Vardhabhai. Likewise, Haji Mastan Mirza, another legendary don and a contemporary of Mudaliar, derived his name ‘Haji’ from the frequent Haj pilgrimages that he undertook, to cleanse himself of his sins.
For the criminal mind, immersion into religion is like a catharsis that he has to go through, in order to be able to live the life that he lives. It is much like biting into a twist of a lime after a shot of tequila, to take away the taste.
Monasteries and churches like the one in Polsi, dot the hills and dales of Calabria. Understandable. Like the deadly lupara, the Calabrian version of a sawed-off shotgun, religion too is an essential accessory. The Catholic Church secures his soul. Albeit, for a generous donation. Monks got ta eat, right?
In Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, terrified that he might go to hell for all his black deeds, Don Vito Corleone’s lifelong friend and consigliere, Genco Abandando, cries out from his death bed to the Don, “ Stay with me, Godfather. Help me meet death. If he sees you, he will be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings, eh? We’ll outwit that bastard as we outwitted all those others.” Deep inside, he must have realized that all the thousands that he gave away as donations to churches and charities were probably not going to help now.
Whom did Genco Abandando refer to as “the bastard”, I wonder. Was it God or the Satan?