Vito Rizzuto was the Steve Jobs of organized crime. Charismatic, visionary and shrewd enough to run a billion-dollar enterprise with tentacles reaching from Montreal to New York, South America and Europe.
Because of its location along the St-Lawrence river and proximity to US markets, Montreal has always been a major point of entry for drugs, guns and basically whatever else you can fit into a shipping container.
And for the good part of three decades, Rizzuto had his hand in almost every racket in the city, heading a "consortium" of organized crime which included Colombian cartels, Irish gangs who controlled the city's port and Hells Angels who took care of distribution of drugs across Quebec and Ontario.
Rizzuto's death in December 2013—from natural causes—has left many speculating about his replacement and sources we spoke to hinted at a dramatic decline in the Sicilian Mafia's power in Montreal and Canada since his passing.
With the rise of Haitian street gangs, the imminent release of numerous Hells Angels from prison, and rival Italian factions, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories surrounding Vito Rizzuto's replacement. Chief among those theories is that the Ontario-based Calabrian mafia, also known as the 'Ndrangheta, is moving in and getting revenge after having been violently pushed out of the city by Vito's father in the 1970s.
But this line of thinking is deeply flawed, said RCMP Staff Sergeant Chris Knight, because it assumes that Vito Rizzuto can even be replaced.
"No one's got the credibility, no one's got the clout and certainly no one has the charisma that Vito Rizzuto had—and I've met him—to make allies out of enemies. No one has that right now," Knight told VICE.
Knight has been with the RCMP for 34 years and works with local, provincial and international law enforcement to monitor organized crime in Quebec. His squad has seen no sign of rival Italian gangs moving to replace the Rizzuto's, as certain media and observers have speculated.
"We haven't seen attempts or power moves from Hamilton or Toronto on establishments or persons here. And we haven't received any information on the street to that effect either. It's a myth. I've always heard these things about New York and Toronto controlling Montreal but nothing could be further from the truth."
Antonio Nicaso agrees. He has authored 27 books about organized crimes and acted as a consultant for the government on these matters. In his most recent book Business or Blood he writes extensively about the final years of Rizzuto's life and the implications of a post-Vito world.
"I don't see anyone with the same vision as Vito Rizzuto. His mafia was the real one, not a cheap imitation," Nicaso told VICE. "Rather than fighting over turf, they are now trying to create a balance of power where different organizations will work together. So it's a group of people rather than one person like Rizzuto who was a master mediator capable of striking alliances and reaping huge profits through criminal enterprises."
What is certain, for both Knight and Nicaso, is that the Sicilian Mafia no longer wield the power they once did in Canada. All signs point to a decentralization and instability—not a replacement.
"Their monopoly or their stranglehold is not what it used to be. It's greatly diminished. They have lost a lot of power and there have been a lot deaths in the family," said Staff Sgt. Knight.
"You're going to get struggles for street corners like you see in New York. In New York, it's basically whoever has the biggest gun or the most soldiers gets the street corner for the distribution of narcotics and other organized crime activities."
In 2010, Vito Rizzuto's father and his son, both named Nick, were gunned down within months of each other. The murders took place during a period of intense fighting wherein rival Italian factions, namely New York's Bonanno family tried to take advantage of the power vacuum created after Rizzuto's imprisonment in Colorado. He had been deported and was serving time for his involvement in the triple murder of Bonanno family captains in 1981.
Earlier this month, Raynald Desjardins pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the murder of Sal "the Iron Worker" Montagna. Desjardins was Rizzuto's right-hand man during the golden years of his reign and, according to wiretaps, one of the only two non-Italians to be "made" in the Mafia.
Montagna was the acting head of New York's Bonanno crime family who tried—and failed—to replace Rizzuto as the boss in Montreal. Obviously, their relationship soured and Desjardins' car was showered with AK-47 fire north of Montreal in 2011. Two months later, Montagna's body was found floating in the Assomption River.
Desjardins' case is a salient reminder of just how complex and delicate the balance of power can be for organized crime in Montreal. The city has seen a period of relative calm in recent months but that doesn't mean that it's stable or lasting. Based on the RCMP's analysis, all signs point to splintering drug turf and increased instability.
"It's very volatile on the street. Whereas ten years ago, if there's one thing that Vito Rizzuto had it was the ability to gather people, negotiate truces and make arrangements that everyone made money. With him being gone, it's more volatile now."
Ironically, this volatility is directly linked to the effective police work done by the RCMP who arrested almost 100 suspected mobsters in Project Colisée and pretty much every Hells Angels patch member during Operation Sharqc.
Obviously, these arrests did nothing to curb the demand for drugs and, according to sources who spoke with VICE, all of that demand was absorbed by notoriously unstable Haitian street gangs who are plagued with internal Bloods-Crips rivalries and have effectively replaced the Hells Angels on the street. Sources also pointed to the fact that the notoriously racist Hells Angels will want their old drug turf back and will not be pleased with the fact that black gangs are now in control. There's trouble a'brewing in la métropole.
"The Hells Angels will definitely become more and more important, that goes without saying," said Antonio Nicaso.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Knight agreed. "They're going to want more territory and more cheap drugs and a monopoly over extortion or illegal gambling. There will be conflict for sure. It's all about money and power. And the more players you have, the less you have to go around."
Without Rizzuto's unifying and stabilizing influence, the current period of relative calm is likely to be short-lived. And in order to survive in a post-Vito world, the Sicilian Mafia will have no choice but to rebrand. Unlike stereotypes propagated in the media, the Mafia in Montreal isn't all about guns, drugs and prostitutes—it's actually more boring than that.
Last September, the Charbonneau Commission wrapped up. The inquiry heard testimony from almost 200 witnesses and exposed a massive criminal conspiracy involving the mob, construction companies, unions and high-ranking municipal employees—a reminder that crime in Montreal was able to fester in an environment of political collusion.
In fact, the findings of the Commission led to the resignation of mayor Gerald Tremblay and to the arrests of Laval's former mayor and Montreal's interim mayor on gangsterism and corruption charges, respectively (all of which makes Rob Ford seem pretty benign, Toronto).
"The Mafia is strong and powerful because they were capable of infiltrating our society and our politicians. What they used to do with the gun, they now do with corruption, relationships and contracts," Antonio Nicaso said.
"They are not as strong and powerful anymore mainly because they are not able to replace Vito Rizzuto but without connections to those who hold the power and money, the Mafia would just be a bunch of hooligans."
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