Tommaso Buscetta – Responsible for the Maxi Trials

Turncoats are increasingly a staple of organized crime these
days; Mafiosos, facing lengthy prison sentences, agree to cooperate with the
prosecution and finger their fellow mobsters in exchange for lighter sentences.
Sammy “the Bull” Gravano’s testimony against John Gotti
in the early 1990s is perhaps the best example of this.  However, it wasn’t always that way. Up until
the late 20th Century, most gangsters refused to cooperate with law
enforcement when they were nabbed; Omerta, the code of silence, was the
rule, out of a sense of honor as much as fear.

Tommaso Buscetta changed all that. The late Buscetta, as the
first major Sicilian Pentito, or mob informant, was the first Mafia boss
to ever reveal the criminal organization’s inner workings. His testimony and
support to prosecutors in the 1980s led to the arrest and conviction of
hundreds of gangsters and forced Buscetta and his family into a life of
hiding.  He also set a precedent that
many desperate mobsters have since followed: cooperate with the authorities in
exchange for lighter prison sentences or a life in hiding. While it has been nearly
two decades since his death in 2000, an upcoming documentary on Bruscetta, Our Godfather,
will no doubt spark renewed interest in the dramatic life of the original Pentito.

Life in the Mafia

Tommaso Buscetta was born in Palermo, Sicily in the late 1920s to a poor family. As a young man, he earned a living in the black market that thrived in Palermo during World War II and was a full-fledged member of the Mafia by the end of the war.[ He established a name for himself as a gangster, traveling to Brazil to help establish the Mafia’s drug trade there and in the lucrative cigarette smuggling racket, where skills Buscetta learned during the war years proved quite handy.  

By the early 1960s, pressure from law enforcement and the friction between rival Mafia families caused Buscetta to flee Sicily and live abroad. For a time, he lived in New York and worked closely with the Gambino Family. Later, he returned to Brazil to strengthen the Mafia’s narcotics business there, but was arrested and extradited to Sicily, where he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Buscetta escaped incarceration during an ill-conceived prison day pass and fled abroad again but was recaptured in Brazil and returned to Sicily. After a failed suicide attempt – and perhaps due to the killing of two of his sons and several family members in ongoing turf wars – Buscetta had become disillusioned with the Sicilian Mafia. As prosecutors escorted him from the airfield in Sicily following the escape, he told them. “I am a Mafioso” and did not stop talking to them about the Sicilian Mafia for the next 45 days.[

The Maxi Trial

Buscetta’s decision to turn on his Mafia brethren proved to be a windfall for Sicilian prosecutors. The former mob boss detailed the inner workings of the Sicilian Mob, naming the key players and describing the various rackets that they controlled. This information led to hundreds of arrests of alleged Sicilian mobsters, including kingpins like Salvatore Riina. The arrests led to years of organized crime trials, which the public dubbed the Maxi Trials. Buscetta was the prosecution’s star witness in many of these trials, and his testimony led to the successful conviction of over 300 Sicilian mobsters and proved once and for all the existence of the Mafia.[

While the Sicilian prosecutors emerged victorious in most of these trials, their joy was short lived. The Mafia soon retaliated against law enforcement, killing several of the top prosecutors and judges; many had to live with around-the-clock security for years, always looking over their shoulder. Buscetta, meanwhile, provide key testimony in New York in the “pizza connection” trial, which helped break up a major mafia drug ring. The young prosecutor in this case, Rudolph Giuliani, would later become the Mayor of New York City and a prominent American politician. In exchange for his testimony, Buscetta was granted American citizenship and entered the U.S. Witness Protection Program, and remained in hiding for the rest of his life.[

Aftermath and Death

Following his testimony and Sicily and New York, Buscetta became a celebrity of sorts. His polished testimony and sartorial choices in the courtroom even made him a fashion icon of sorts; in the early 1990s, fashion house Dolce and Gabbana even released a clothing line inspired by Buscetta, perhaps making him the original Dapper Don.[ He provided additional expert testimony to law enforcement and official government organizations; he also spoke to several journalists over the years about the Sicilian Mafia, his face usually obscured by shadows or computer pixels.

Mostly, however, Buscetta lived a private life under an assumed identity with his remaining family members, who were also in hiding with them. He was an excellent cook and a member of his American security detail recently admitted he still relied upon Buscetta’s recipes while preparing his own family meals. At Christmas he dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out gifts to his children. It was a second act that many of Buscetta’s Mafia confederates didn’t get, and occasionally it grated on the public when they glimpsed the former mob boss in his new life; there was a minor uproar when paparazzi secretly snapped a photo of Buscetta sunbathing on a cruise ship.[ In the end, while he avoided Mafia retribution, he still could not outrun fate. Tommaso Buscetta died at age 71 on April 2, 2000, after succumbing to cancer. 

Parting Thoughts

Buscetta’s precedent as a pentito has been often repeated in the ensuing decades and has been a powerful tool for law enforcement. Thousands of gangsters, for their own reasons, have followed Buscetta’s example and cooperated with prosecutors. Their testimony has been critical to dismantling organized crime both in the United States as well as abroad. So, while Buscetta may have been a violent criminal and mafioso, his role as a pentito may done more damage to organized crime than any law enforcement action ever has.


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