I’ll say this for the mafia: They have good taste. Standing outside a gated, balconied mob-boss palazzo on the southern coast of Italy last week, I could almost understand the lure of laundered money. Once inside, amidst tapestries, marble and the kisses of boisterous gravy-stirring grandmothers, the sinister side of all the luxury began to fade a little. In the heart of mob-land, the land of my roots, I was given a crash course in the horrors of the old family business.
In Italy, the balance of power swings in favor of the mafia more often than not. This month, the Italian government announced a new effort to squelch two branches, the Camorra of Napoli and the Drangheta of Calabria, but they have their work cut out for them. Italians know the gravity and power of the organization.
In America, despite the occasional headliner like the Joey Merlino case, we see the mafia in glamorized Hollywood lights. But even here, where the FBI and the government have some semblance of control, it’s nothing to take lightly.
When Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale, 69, turned informant to lighten his sentence, he became the first boss to stoop so low. Despite testifying in four cases, including the Merlino trial, he was still sentenced to 13 years in prison on Friday. He rode the top of the mafia wave for a long time before the FBI brought him down through another informant.
There are obvious reasons to offer incentives to mob turncoats. Letting a few bad guys walk seems a small price to pay if it loosens tongues and tightens the noose around the mafia operation in the U.S. In organized crime, it can be the only way to get names, and hey, the terms come so close to bribery that it is certainly a language criminals understand.
There’s another reason I tend to support negotiation of this kind. We’ve all watched Al Pacino’s battle as the Corleone who never wanted to be a Don. It’s a frighteningly accurate portrayal of how families work. Corleone says, “Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in,” and this sums up the mafia vice grip.
Outside the gates of the Italian palazzo, my cousin tells me, “I opted out. I’ve decided I want to live to see 40.” His freedom to choose a path of legitimacy came at a high price: the murder of another of our brood, a number two man in an epic war of mob families.
Most times, though, the law of the lawless dictates that you follow in the family business, like it or not. I figure that’s a shoddy kind of inheritance if you’re not into the kind of friends who just might shoot you in the back tomorrow.
For the guys who find themselves in this kind of bind, it’s nice to think that they can tattle their way out if they so choose.
Somehow, though, Ralph Natale doesn’t strike me as a victim of family connection. He seemed pretty content with his lot when he was wracking up his rap sheet of frauds, arsons, drug deals and hits.
Natale was proud to be a boss, eager to rake in the dough for his outfit and unconcerned about the lives he blotted out along the way. He had an intriguing life, but not one that was worthy of sympathy in my book.
The Philadelphia Inquirer cites a revealing statement picked up by the FBI. On informants, Natale said, “You hate them, I hate them. Everybody in the world hates them.” And now he’s testifying.
Natale is no Michael Corleone, roped in against his will, and his testimony is not indicative of a change of heart. In fact, it hasn’t even been all that useful to the FBI.
So I say, take what he gave us and let him rot Corleone style; you know, “leave the gun, take the cannolis.”
Elizabeth Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.