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Buried in concrete: how the mafia made a killing from the destruction of Italy’s south

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If you ask Maurizio Carta what the mafia looks like, he will take you to the residential areas of the Sicilian capital of Palermo. There, hundreds of desolate, nondescript grey apartment blocks scar the suburbs and a vast part of the historic centre.

It is the result of a building frenzy of the 1960s and 1970s, when Vito Ciancimino, a mobster from the violent Corleonesi clan, ordered the demolition of splendid art nouveau mansions to make space for brutalist tower blocks, covering vast natural and garden areas with tonnes of concrete. It is one of the darkest chapters in the postwar urbanisation of Sicily, and would go down in history as the “sack of Palermo”.

The Sicilian mafia had declared that urban planning in Palermo was to be controlled by Ciancimino, who in 1959 was nominated head of public works by the public administration. “The word ‘sack’ was not randomly chosen to describe that period,” says Carta, professor of urban planning at Palermo University. “Like plundering barbarians, mafiosi devastated the city with cement, disfiguring its parks, landscape and natural beauty.”

Rubble from demolitions and building materials were dumped on the coast, causing the pollution of beaches, many of which remain inaccessible to swimmers today.

Palermo’s skyline is now dominated by brutalist tower blocks after the mafia’s demolition of the city’s grand art nouveau mansions. Photograph: Alessio Mamo

“With the sack of Palermo, the mafia exhibited its enormous criminal power,” says Carta. “They sent a message to the institutions, making it clear that they, the bosses, had the power to change not only the laws that regulated the urban planning projects and the shape of the city, but also the local climate.

“Palermo had been built to allow the breeze to rebound off the mountains and swirl back down to cool the city. With those towering constructions built along the coast and at the foot of the mountains, Palermo became a hot, muggy, suffocating city.”

He adds: “The bosses also sent a message to the thousands of citizens who were homeless after the second world war: if those families had found a home, it was thanks to the mobsters.”

Three centuries after Pope Urban VIII entrusted the architectural and urban planning of the Catholic church to Gian Lorenzo Bernini to represent the Vatican as a triumphal force, the mafia was using architecture to display its power.

Mobsters changed the shape of Italian cities, ravaging landscapes with concrete to affirm their authority. Because mafia architecture, like all activities of the clans, has its own syntax, logic and function.

Bernini designed the splendid Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome’s Piazza Navona and St Peter’s Square. Ciancimino, who was neither an artist nor an architect, authorised the construction of 4,000 apartment blocks in Palermo, almost half of which were built by companies with direct ties to Cosa Nostra clans.

The Observer travelled to Italy’s southern regions with a history of organised crime. Evidence of the mafia lies in the replacement of exquisite 19th-century residences with concrete blocks, and in the dozens of unfinished and dilapidated constructions on the shores of spectacular beaches, where mobsters with ties to public administrators were permitted to build. And there one can see what is the mafia by looking at the shameless, gaudy villas of bosses, each one a demonstration of strength, just like monarchies and dictatorships.

Like plundering barbarians, mafiosi devastated the city with cement, disfiguring its parks, landscape and natural beauty

The sack of Palermo is perhaps the most classic example of how the Sicilian mafia has not only murdered and impoverished, but also tarnished the landscape through construction projects that, after having taken the money for their completion, were usually left unfinished.

At the end of the 1970s, the mafia super boss Michele Greco, nicknamed “the Pope”, and head of the Cupola, the Cosa Nostra’s governing body, fixed his ambition on Pizzo Sella, a splendid cape on the gulf of Palermo that dominates the city and the beach in Mondello. According to prosecutors, Greco gave his blessing for the construction of 314 illegal villas here. When the authorities began to investigate the scheme, it was already too late. Half had been built and the other half remained unfinished.

A scene from the TV crime series Gomorrah, which was inspired by the Camorra clans.

Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/Beta Film

Today, Pizzo Sella, known as the “hill of dishonour” is a place of slowly decaying skeletons of 170 villas, some of which were confiscated by the authorities, but never razed, and which have become an open-air rubbish heap occupied by rats – a deep scar on one of the most beautiful promontories in Sicily.

Architecture for the mafia is not just a display of power, but also a highly profitable business for the clans, which, thanks to corruption in the public works sector and construction firms directly or indirectly linked to organised crime, have amassed millions over the years supplying building materials and “unfortified concrete” – comprising a disproportionate amount of sand and water, and very little cement – to build streets, schools, hospitals and bridges in places prone to landslides or flooding, along cliffs, and in high-risk hydrogeological and seismic areas.

In Castel Volturno, about 30 miles northwest of Naples in a landscape of uncommon beauty between Mount Dragone and the island of Ischia, 24,000 illegal constructions have been built, many on the seashore. Thousands have been confiscated or seized and the ruins of others are spread over 17 miles of beach – like archaeological artefacts from a post-apocalyptic disaster.

Things change when the bosses build their own homes. Mafiosi villas reflect the personality of the residents and the character of the clan they represent. The villas of Sicilian and Camorra bosses, for example, were designed to communicate power from an aesthetic standpoint – majestic villas that resemble those of princes or grand dukes.

In the town of Casal di Principe, territory of one of the most powerful Camorra clans, which inspired the TV crime series Gomorrah, boss of bosses Walter Schiavone had a villa built that was the precise model of the home of Tony Montana, the fictional gangster played by Al Pacino in the Brian De Palma film Scarface – and is even known as Villa Scarface.

Stefano Bontate, a Sicilian mafia boss, lived in a series of luxurious apartments and villas in Palermo and along its provincial coast. He was gunned down in 1981 with a Kalashnikov by one of the most hardened Cosa Nostra killers, Giuseppe “Scarpuzzedda” Greco.

Scarpuzzedda, who boasted of having killed almost 60 people, owned a villa nearly 40 metres high perched on a cliff on the coast of Mongerbino. The villa, now confiscated and abandoned, has a stairway leading directly into the sea.

Scarpuzzedda was killed on the orders of the boss of bosses of the Corleonesi clan, Salvatore “Totò” Riina. He too owned several villas, but chose to maintain a residence in the centre of Corleone, where he was born. Even here the message was clear: bosses could build anywhere in the world, but they chose to build their homes in their territory, even if doing so was less glamorous.

The Camorra boss Gennaro Marino, nicknamed “McKay”, fell in love with the traditional Russian dacha. With a fortune amassed in cocaine trafficking, he could have easily bought one in the splendid Ruskeala Mountain Park, 185 miles from Saint Petersburg. Instead, he chose to build one in his stronghold, the Secondigliano quarter, one of the most degraded areas in Naples. Amid the rubbish and disrepair, Marino built a Russian chalet surrounded by expensive Libyan palm trees.

Four minutes from Marino’s dacha, Another powerful Camorra boss, Cosimo Di Lauro, known as “the Designer Don” for his flamboyant passion for modish clothes, lived in a villa in the style of ancient Pompeii, surrounded by a terrace with views of Mount Vesuvius.

But not all mafias like to show off through architecture. Bosses of the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world, take a different approach. Calabrian clans have a philosophy which is diametrically opposed to that of their Sicilian and Campanian counterparts.

The ‘Ndrangheta knows that an exquisite or imposing home generates envy, a sentiment that Calabrian bosses want to avoid within the general population. One of the bloodiest Calabrian bosses, Antonio Pelle, lived in a drab home that looked like a giant cement cube in the town of San Luca. Pelle wanted camouflage, one reason the ‘Ndrangheta prefer bunkers to luxurious seaside villas.

For decades, the Calabrian mafia has planned and built elaborate mirror cities underneath its villages. An underworld of sliding staircases, hidden trapdoors and manholes linked by endless tunnels that merge and separate, leading to escape routes among the sewer system or amid the brambles of a riverbank. In the last 30 years, the Italian authorities uncovered more than 400 bunkers in Calabria, described by investigators as “works of superior engineering”.

“At first sight, the bosses’ homes seem completely normal,” says Major Carmelo Aveni, a former commander of the Cacciatori – or the Hunters – an elite commando unit trained to smoke mobsters out from their bunkers. “Nothing would lead you to believe that there are tunnels or an underground bunker. Then you begin to inspect every nook and cranny of the house: walls, floors, stairs can hide a tunnel. We have even found walls wired to an electrical device. Just push a button to move the wall.”

Pasquale Marando, of the ‘Ndrangheta, built a secret bunker whose entrance was the mouth of a pizza oven. Less than 10 miles away, Ernesto Fazzalari, who allegedly enjoyed trap shooting with the heads of his decapitated victims, lived in a hideout measuring 10 sq metres in the southern Italian mountains. When the authorities came for him in 2004, Fazzalari had already escaped through a tunnel under his kitchen sink.

Mafia bosses spend much time at home, far from the eyes of their rivals and of the authorities. In their houses they organise meetings, forge alliances and meet with politicians; for this reason, the mafiosi’s home must reflect another important demand: comfort. Interior design may be less important for the Calabrian mobsters, but it is crucial for the Camorra bosses, whose houses are filled with sumptuous luxuries.

Neapolitan boss Pasquale Fucito, nicknamed “the Martian”, fitted his home with porcelain lions, gold door handles, Swarovski crystal doorknobs, and towel racks studded with precious stones.

When in the early hours of 27 October 1991 a terrible fire – the work of arsonists – ravaged the centuries-old Petruzzelli theatre in Bari, Camorra boss Maurizio Prestieri sent some of his men to the site of the disaster to plunder anything they could find, including the priceless 17th-century upholstery. He had it cleaned and installed in his home – the charring did not matter.

The same day the Petruzzelli theatre was destroyed, dozens of Italian soldiers raided the mega villa of the powerful Camorra boss Pasquale Galasso. His house, in an area of 30,000 sq metres between Poggiomarino and San Marzano, with football pitches, saunas and a warehouse where he kept his collection of Ferraris and Porsches, also held his personal art museum.

Stolen works of art from around Italy had found their way there. Among the paintings, Louis XIV antiques and ancient statues, investigators were stunned to find a solid gold throne. The throne, it emerged, had once belonged to Francis II of the Bourbon dynasty, the last king of Naples.

Just like the landscape that has been so brutally scarred with the ugly follies and threatening displays of mafia wealth, Galasso had placed his own excessive symbol of power in the middle of his immense living room.

When he turned informant for the Italian judiciary the house was handed over to the authorities. Partially used now as barracks of the Guardia di Finanza, most of it, like so much of Italy’s mafiosa architecture, now crumbles away slowly in the sun.