crime

Here’s What’s Likely Behind the Montreal Mafia’s Civil War

A series of firebombings has revealed a crisis for Montreal’s ruling organized crime family.

by Patrick Lejtenyi
Jan 10 2017, 10:13pm

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

The Streakz Coiffure hair salon in Laval, the sprawling island suburb north of Montreal, did not burn down alone early Monday morning. Caught up in the blaze that destroyed it were a convenience store, a bakery and an ice-cream shop. According to one TV report, a gas canister was tossed into the salon, and nearby propane tanks added to the fire's ferocity.

The salon was the second of two Streakz Coiffures to burn in the span of a week. The first, also in Laval, was hit just a few days earlier, at around 2AM on Thursday, Jan. 5. Police at the time said firefighters could smell accelerant at the scene.

Both were owned by Caterina Miceli, the wife of Carmelo (Mini-Me) Cannistraro, a 46-year-old who led a bookmaking ring with ties to the once-dominant, now-embattled Rizzuto crime family. He was arrested in 2006 as part of the Project Colisée investigation and pleaded guilty in 2011.

The salons are just the latest in a string of suspected arsons targeting Rizzuto-related businesses. According to a report in La Presse in December, there have been over 13 arsons and attempted arsons linked to the Montreal Mafia, 12 of them since September. Eleven of them have been against suspected Rizzuto businesses.

The attacks aren't just limited to the burning of a few stores. Three high-ranking Rizzuto family members were murdered last year: Lorenzo Giordano, 52, in March, Rocco Sollecito, 67, in May and Vincenzo Spagnolo, 65, in October.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of reputed mafia boss Vito Rizzuto from a church in Montreal, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. Photo via THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

To outsiders, this suggests that the Rizzuto crime family, which ruled Montreal's vibrant crime scene relatively smoothly for almost 40 years, is besieged by enemies who have left it reeling on the defensive since the death of its patriarch, Vito Rizzuto, just over three years ago. But who, exactly, is starting the fires, planting the bombs and murdering the members of the dwindling group of Rizzuto loyalists?

There are several theories. Some have speculated that Toronto's Mafiosi might be working to weaken the Montreal family; others think that the Hells Angels might be involved. Or that the Montreal Mafia is riven by internal differences, broadly along lines related to geography. This last theory proposes that a so-called Sicilian faction of Rizzuto loyalists is coming under attack from a Calabrian faction, made up of those whose loyalties have always lied with the Cotroni crime family that ran the city until it was bloodily supplanted by Nicolo "Nick" Rizzuto, Vito's father, in the late 1970s/early 1980s. (Nick was subsequently murdered in 2010.)

READ MORE: Latest Montreal Mob Hit May Have Buried the Rizzuto Family for Good 

To Antonio Nicaso, the Toronto-based author and university professor who specializes in organized crime, it is clear that the conflict gripping the Montreal mob is coming from within. But he doesn't think it's based so clearly along a Sicily-versus-Calabria rivalry.

"It's like having many roosters in a henhouse," he told VICE Tuesday. After Rizzuto's death from lung cancer in December 2013, following a lengthy stay in a US prison for his role in a 1981 triple murder in Brooklyn, the wheels came off the tightly-controlled Rizzuto family.

"There is a clash between the old guard and what we can call the renegades," says Nicaso. The renegades, he says, "don't like the idea of replacing Rizzuto with another person and re-establishing the type of Mafia monarchy that controlled Montreal for over 30 years."

They want a more "democratic structure," he says, one in which leadership is not concentrated in the hands of a small group of individuals or a single boss.

Nicaso believes it is possible that the so-called renegade faction is being funded or otherwise supported by an Ontario-based alliance between the Quebec Hells Angels and the Ontario branch of the 'Ndrangheta, the criminal organization based in Calabria. There's no evidence to support the claim, but he believes it makes sense from a strategic point of view.

READ MORE: How the Hells Angels Conquered Canada

"They like the idea of replacing the Mafia monarchy with a confederation of clans," he says. "Because they won't have to deal with a strong, big organization like before. It's better to be in a criminal landscape in which they are peers, rather than have someone at the top who is controlling and giving direction to everyone."

Family members Leonardo Rizzuto (right) his sister Bettina and mother Giovanni Cammalleri (centre) leave the funeral of reputed mafia boss Vito Rizzuto in Montreal, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

But he says that while it is temptingly easy to view the conflict tearing the Montreal mob apart geographically, with sides choosing their loyalties to either Calabria or Sicily, the reality is much more complex. He points out that, for instance, one of the highest-ranking members of the Rizzuto family, until his break with it, was Raynald Desjardins, a French-Canadian.

Yes, he says, there are Calabrians who are trying to destroy the Rizzutos. But, he adds, "The people who are challenging the old guard are not all Calabrians." The Rizzutos made a lot of enemies over the decades, but they also created a very wealthy organization in the meantime. With the clan leaderless and weak, the timing to strike a lethal blow and divvy up the spoils couldn't be better. He believes an alliance of convenience made up of various groups, each with their own motivations, has formed with the intention of destroying the Rizzutos' hold on criminal activity in the city.

Nevertheless, he says, violence is and always has been bad for business, and the sooner it ends, the better for everybody involved. But when the shootings and the bombings and the arsons stop, it may very well mean that the centralized power of the Rizzuto crime family has been broken forever.

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