Mob watchers in Canada are going ape-shit these days. And with good reason. In Montreal, the traditional home of the Sicilian Mafia, the provincial Charbonneau Commission is looking into the deep and uncomfortably cozy relationship between the mob, the construction industry and the government, and the results are spectacular. Montreal’s alleged mob boss, Vito Rizzuto, is back home after eight years behind American bars, and fireworks and body counts may be coming to the streets of otherwise placid Canadian cities. Montreal’s mayor seems more out of touch and confused than ever, even as testimony alleges his own political party benefitted from kickbacks.
So Montreal’s back to its old ways, a crime-sodden cesspool that the Canadian media establishment loves to shit on, right? It would appear so—except that no one in the highest echelons of said Toronto-based establishment was taking a close look at what’s going on in their own town. Toronto, it turns out, is more infested with gangsters, mobsters and Mafioso than anyone ever wanted to admit. It took news investigations and testimony by law enforcement at the Charbonneau Commission last month to wake everyone, including a startled and skeptical Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, up to the fact that Toronto’s corruption problem is as bad, if not worse, than Montreal’s.
“I’m surprised about the surprise,” says Toronto-based author and lecturer Antonio Nicaso. According to the recent revelations, the top criminal organization in Toronto is the ‘Ndrangheta, the criminal syndicate based in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot (the other big familiar organizations are the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, based in Naples, and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia, the boot’s heel). “In Ontario, the ‘Ndrangheta has been around since the early 1900s,” says Nicaso. “Canada has always been a stronghold, a place they’ve always invested their profits. It’s like a vault for a bank.”
Over the years, the ‘Ndrangheta has become the biggest criminal operation in Italy and perhaps even the world. “They’ve quietly ousted the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra. They won the control of the European cocaine market and they were one of the first criminal organizations to anticipate globalization,” says Nicaso. “The cocaine they import is almost completely pure, it’s like a trademark.”
As a rule of thumb, Montreal is a Sicilian town and Toronto a Calabrian one. It’s far more complicated of course, with alliances and factions of both operating among the two, and there is no clear regional-based division between the two. One important difference, however, is the makeup of the organizational structure.
Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta is based on small cells called locali. Each locale is structured hierarchically but there is no overarching boss that controls them all, and each one is composed of members who are related either by blood or marriage. This gives the ‘Ndrangheta “more flexibility compared to the Sicilian Mafia,” says Nicaso. “There is a ruling board, so that conflicts can be avoided, but it’s more of a federation than a monarchy.”
Another difference is the profile the ‘Ndrangheta keeps. Unlike Montreal’s Rizzutos, the Toronto Calabrians enjoy public disinterest in and ignorance of their reach and influence. “By and large they have been ignored by the politicians, the police and the media,” says Julian Sher, a Montreal-based reporter for the Toronto Star and author of several books on organized crime. “One reason is the always comforting idea of Not In My Back Yard. Fairly or not, the Mafia is associated with Montreal. There are a lot of killings and arrests here, so it’s natural to associate Montreal with the Mafia and the Mafia with Montreal, and that’s very convenient for the Mafia in Ontario.
“Secondly, the ‘Ndrangheta is particularly prone to working in the background. The Italian authorities call it the ‘liquid mafia’ because it filters into any hole and fills it.”
It would be a mistake to pin the recent spate of fire-bombings, murders and disappearances of Montreal mafia figures over the past few years on the Toronto ‘Ndrangheta, say both Nicaso and Sher. Those were a combination of grudges, internal power struggles and personal issues that had little to do with the competing organizations and more to do with capitalizing on the Rizzuto empire’s perceived weakness. With Vito back in Montreal, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.