antonio la torre mafia
Illustrations: Lily Lambie-Kiernan

When the Italian Mafia Moved Into Aberdeen

The strange story of Antonio La Torre, an Italian mobster who set up shop in the north Scotland city.
October 26, 2020, 3:27pm

Back in the mid-1990s, there were few reasons for Antonio La Torre’s neighbours in Aberdeen to believe he was anything but what he said he was. On the borders of early middle age, with thick black hair, a jovial smile and the first hint of a paunch, the Italian seemed every inch the respectable local businessman.

Along with his Scottish wife and their three children, Antonio had long been established on the northeast coast of Scotland, in the country’s oil-rich third largest city. There was nothing unusually glamorous about the family’s circumstances: they lived above a butcher’s shop in a first floor tenement flat in Rosemount, a cheerfully unremarkable district not far from the city centre.

However, in Antonio’s birthplace of Mondragone – a modest town of under 30,000 people, about an hour's drive northwest of Naples – his surname carried a very different kind of weight.

The La Torres were an infamous Camorra dynasty, a mafia clan that inspired fear and commanded respect, responsible for dozens of murders and a daily regime of extortion, violence, drug trafficking, robbery, fraud and public sector corruption. According to Italian prosecutors, Antonio was no bit-player, but one of the clan's undisputed bosses, along with his younger brother, Augusto.

Of course, in his new life hundreds of miles away from Mondragone, these were not details Antonio was all that keen to share.

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An alleged member of the La Torre clan being arrested in Caserta, near Naples, in 2008. Photo: NUNZIO MARI/AFP via Getty Images

Sometime in the early 1980s, Antonio La Torre met his future spouse, settled into a relationship and, a couple of years later, decided to make the move to her home country. It's the kind of thing people do for love all the time – but those early months must have come as a shock for Antonio; few people have ever confused the windswept Granite City with southern Italy, in either climate or culture.

Things quickly took off for the couple, right at the peak of Aberdeen’s boom years. From 1970, the discovery of vast oil deposits in the North Sea had transformed the city and its surrounds beyond imagination. The region’s population had skyrocketed, with several new suburbs rapidly built to house the influx of workers wanting their slice of the pie. Property prices exploded and construction boomed, as the pubs started to fill with Texas oilmen, clad in stetsons and cowboy boots.

It didn't take long for the image of the young Aberdonian man in his luxury car to become a common one, in a city that recently enough boasted the highest concentration of millionaires in the UK.

If La Torre wanted his own piece of the action, it was there for the taking: there was room for some authentic Italian food in Aberdeen, and plenty of customers willing to pay for it. Pavarotti's opened its doors on Union Terrace, a prime city centre location, in the early 1990s. It was Antonio's first restaurant, and quickly became a local favourite. Reports from the time tell of an interior bathed in candlelight, “with prints of sun kissed Italian fishing villages on the wall and tables covered with deep Mediterranean blue tablecloths”.

Before long, Pavarotti’s was joined by Sorrento, on nearby Bridge Street. Business was good – better than good – as Antonio's food importation sideline flourished (few others were bringing fresh mozzarella to the city back then). In 1994, he became a naturalised British citizen.

Coronavirus Has Only Made the Mafia Stronger

Things were looking rosy for the La Torre family – until, in 1996, a quick business jaunt to Amsterdam resulted in Antonio’s arrest on decade-old mafia association charges from his home country. Italian law enforcement hadn’t been unable to get their man while he was in Scotland: extradition proceedings weren’t a possibility then, as Scots law didn’t recognise mafia association as a crime.

After serving half of a two-and-a-half-year sentence in an Italian prison, Antonio returned to Scotland. If the La Torre clan’s operations in Amsterdam were important for drug connections, Aberdeen was the same for their finances. The legitimate businesses were a perfect way to launder their criminal proceeds from back home, at least until Italian law enforcement launched a massive operation in the early 2000s, alleging that Antonio was controlling his “family” back in Italy by phone, able to extort and threaten from hundreds of miles away.

Phone taps had thrown up conversations between Antonio in Scotland and his business associates in Italy, arranging for dirty cash to be pumped into his businesses in Aberdeen. They spoke in code. Money was “sausages”, large-scale banking transactions were “movements”. Investigators also had recordings of him liaising with South American drug importers.

In 2004, Antonio was sentenced to 13 years in prison in his absence, for crimes including robbery, racketeering, extortion and the production of counterfeit money. In 2005, he was found hiding in a friend’s flat in Aberdeen and sent back to Italy to serve his time.

If friends, customers and business associates in Aberdeen were shocked, they had every reason to be. Antonio – christened the “Don On the Don” by the Scottish press, after the river that flows through Aberdeen – hadn’t lived like anyone's idea of a mafia chieftain.

Dr Felia Allum is a senior lecturer at The University of Bath, and one of the UK’s leading experts on the Camorra. Over several months, we spoke at length about Antonio’s time in Scotland. Felia told me the only dealings oblivious local police officers had with Italians in those days were with young men who’d been driving their Ferraris too fast around town.

The La Torres were never the biggest nor the most powerful clan. Their roots were provincial, in the relative backwater of Mondragone. Antonio and Augusto’s father, Tiberio Francesco La Torre Snr, the clan’s shrewd, old school founder, was big on family. He bound the brothers and many other relatives into the clan’s business operations, as the most reliable way to consolidate power. The old patriarch knew how to build alliances, another crucial skill for surviving in the region's cut throat, over-saturated criminal underworld.

In 1985, an ageing Tiberio handed over leadership to Augusto, his youngest son. For the next 12 years, he ruled with an iron grip in Mondragone. In Felia’s words, the charismatic Augusto’s managerial style was “authoritarian, determined, decisive and territorial”. Violence came easily to him, however extreme, with over 40 murders to his name. In 2003 he was jailed for 22 years for murder and extortion.

In comparison to his ferocious younger brother, Antonio was never really the muscle of the operation – but that didn’t mean he wasn’t just as capable or ruthless. That said, there’s no evidence that violence was part of the process in Aberdeen; threats sufficed when they had to, according to La Torre’s cousin and the co-owner of Pavarotti’s, Michele Sicilinao, who Felia interviewed in 2010.

It’s an eye-catching tale: a ruthless mafia cell laying roots in an unsuspecting British city. Aberdeen's Camorra cell even got its own chapter in Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, first published to shock and acclaim in 2006. Fourteen years on, it remains the best known non-fiction work ever published about the Neapolitan mafia.

In Saviano's telling, the Scottish cell was almost omniscient, having worked its way into the very heart of the coastal grey city. “It was,” Saviano writes, “Antonio La Torre who set up a series of commercial activities in Scotland. His success had made him one of Scotland’s top businessmen in Europe.”

Allowing for some poetic license, this is an overstatement that doesn’t exactly correspond to reality. Even the toughest and most enterprising organisations can’t escape the constraints of their time and place – and in Felia’s view, Aberdeen of the 1990s was still artisanal in scale.

“When I look at some of the more recent clans I've been studying, some of them have managed to invest in property in Rome, in Capri, in Los Angeles. And they don’t just own one or two restaurants – they own 15,” she explained. “[But] you have to put it in context. I think [the La Torres] were still doing things that could be considered quite avante garde [for the era], even though they didn't really succeed. Perhaps they weren't that great at it, but they were moving in the right direction.”

The clan knew that success hinged on cultivating a network of local associates in Aberdeen, just as it later did for Gennaro Panzuto, a Camorra member who ended up in Lancashire, another unlikely corner of the UK.

However, as Felia explained, it didn’t quite work out that way. The La Torres thought they'd find a local Scotsman to transfer the money back home, but the ideal figure never materialised. Instead, members from the old country would courier suitcases stuffed with dirty money all the way to Scotland, ready to be washed through one of Antonio’s businesses. “They were,” Felia added, “still quite crude at times.”

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Felia’s 2016 book, The Invisible Camorra: Neapolitan Crime Families Across Europe, spells out the main attraction of the UK for any enterprising, international criminal: it has long been a good place to hide or clean illicit funds. Indeed, few other countries can match the UK for its peculiarly friendly attitude towards dodgy capital. As Felia explained to me during a later conversation, it’s more than likely that sophisticated Camorra clans now launder their money in the UK, using the sort of useful third parties the La Torres failed to cultivate.

Dr Andy Clark, a research associate in Oral History at Newcastle University, has researched the impacts of organised crime in Scotland. During fieldwork in the north-east of the country on the history of gangland activity, La Torre wasn’t a name that cropped up, another sign of how low-key the clan’s operations were.

"In other places in Scotland, people know who the big players are and how dangerous they are. That wasn’t [what we found] in the north-east, generally speaking,” Clark explained over the phone. “The recent history of organised crime in the region is very interesting. It’s the mix of extreme affluence and areas that have been untouched by that. Organised criminals have definitely taken advantage of the offshore industry, though that’s mainly [dealing] cocaine and trafficked sex workers.”

Luca* is a well-known Italian restaurateur in Aberdeen, who remembers La Torre from the 1990s. He told me the fallout from the saga was a stain on the reputation of Italians in Aberdeen – and everywhere else, for that matter. “We are not all mafia. People don’t treat other groups in this same way,” he stressed. “You wouldn’t say that all people from the Middle East are terrorists. This is the same kind of offence: it is discrimination against Italians.”

Though he was quite willing to talk openly, Luca didn’t want his real name to appear in this article, partly because he didn’t want it being publicly associated with the old mafia stereotypes. He grew up in Naples in the 1980s, in a family with several members working in law enforcement; he even wanted to be a police officer himself, but an underlying heart condition resulted in a failed medical.

“[The police] were my idols, you know,” he said. “I still remember where I was when [Giovanni] Falcone [an anti-mafia judge assassinated by car bomb in May of 1992] was killed and the feeling that gave me.”

Having lived in Aberdeen for over 25 years, Luca got to know La Torre a bit, in the same way everyone in the small Italian community knew everyone else. No, he didn’t suspect anything, and no, they weren’t particularly close. “He was older, you know? We talked about football and cars and women, when we saw each other.”

To this day, Luca still can’t understand why someone in that line of work would pick Aberdeen, when they could be on the beach somewhere instead. “I suppose he came here for the quiet life. The journalists here [were happy], because it was something notorious to sell papers,” he said. "They don’t want to write about Italian doctors or honest people who aren’t exciting.”

Excitement is the last thing Luca associates with life in Aberdeen these days. The boom times are over, in his view, with the restaurant trade in a bad way, not helped by the crushing effects of the pandemic. “It’s over, it’s really over. There is no tourism, nothing at all. It is better in Inverness [for business],” he told me, bemoaning a city centre full of pound shops and vape emporiums.

Though slightly overblown, it's true that Aberdeen today is not the same city it was at the turn of the millennium, or even a decade ago. In 2014, the price of crude oil collapsed, a shock that gutted the offshore industry. There were even reports of former oil executives suddenly having to rely on food banks, in a city already marked by stark inequality. But things have stabilised in the last six years, even if the city’s post-COVID future is as uncertain as anywhere else.

Several police officers with knowledge of the La Torre saga turned down requests to be interviewed for this piece. It was too long ago, they had moved somewhere else in the force, or they felt unsettled by the topic. In 2014, an EU-funded report suggested that Aberdeen was an Italian mafia stronghold. Though it was good for a few popcorn headlines, those I spoke to were generally dismissive, while noncommittally acknowledging the possibility that there might be a grain of truth to the claims.

After sending off a list of specific questions to Police Scotland, I received a few generic answers. Yes, Scotland might have a lower number of convictions for money laundering offences in proportion to the rest of the UK, but no, it certainly wasn’t any “reflection on how seriously police take offending of this nature”. When it came to continued Camorra presence in the country, the answer was decisive: it’s not something they are able or willing to provide any comment on.

These days, the La Torre clan are a long way from the Granite City. The last time they made the headlines was in 2018, when it was reported that Antonio was on remand in an Italian prison, accused – alongside Augusto – of plotting to murder two anti-mafia prosecutors, as well as charges of attempted extortion and robbery, and the illegal possession of firearms. By the end of the year, all of the charges but the firearms accusation had been dropped, and Antonio now reports daily to a police station in Mondragone.

As for Antonio’s other family, he and ex-wife Gillian divorced years ago. In 2007, not long after the extradition hearing, she protested her innocence and maintained she knew nothing about her former husband's double life. "I do not see him now," she told reporters. "I do not write to him and I do not want to get involved. I am a hard working woman from a decent family. I believe he is innocent, but do I want him? No. I want to live in peace."

The La Torre family is long gone from Aberdeen now, but who knows what the future holds for the city. After the Sorrento restaurant shut, another Italian spot quickly took its place on Bridge Street, though journalists at the time were quick to stress its squeaky clean ownership and lack of any connection with wrongdoing.

Coincidentally, it just happened to be called Soprano’s.

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