ZIPS: Sicilian Mafia imports

ZIPS: Sicilian Mafia imports
ZIPS: Sicilian Mafia imports

In the 1970s and 1980s, two groups of mad-dog killers became extremely powerful on the organized crime scene in New York. They were the Westies, Irish gangsters on Manhattan's West Side, and the socalled Zips—young mafioso gangsters imported from Sicily. Both groups caused severe problems for the established crime families.

Neither could be trusted. Of the two the Zips were worse but were tolerated because they generated considerable amounts of money, many millions in fact, for the mob, especially for the Bonanno and later the Gambino crime families. Some of the Zips got so rich that they had to be rather inventive in spending their loot. One gave his young daughter a genuine fur coat for her Barbie doll.

Lefty Ruggiero, a Bonanno soldier once explained to undercover FBI agent "Donnie Brasco" (Joe Pistone) about the relationship between Carmine Galante, the head of the Bonannos, and the Zips: "Lots of people hate him [Galante].... There's only a few people that he's close to. And that's mainly the Zips.... Those guys are always with him. He brought them over from Sicily, and he uses them for different pieces of work and for dealing all that junk. They're as mean as he is. You can't trust those bastard Zips. Nobody can. Except the Old Man."

Actually Galante was not the Zips' only sponsor. Carlo Gambino, head of the largest crime family at the time, also turned to the Zips when he needed reliable killers who could do a better job than the average Gambino soldier. Before his death, however, Gambino started having second thoughts about the Zips, and Galante took full control of the erratic Sicilians.

There is more than one explanation of how the Zips' name originated. One is that it was used pejoratively by other mobsters in reference to the Sicilians' passion for ziti. Another theory says it evolved from their use of silent, homemade zip guns. Other contemptuous underworld terms applied to them were Siggies and Geeps, never of course in face-toface dealings.

The Zips' true power emanated not only from their cooperation with Galante but from their own parent organizations back in Sicily. The Sicilian Mafia cooperated with their American counterparts to import heroin to the United States.

The Sicilians acquired the morphine base from the Middle East, refined the stuff in Sicily and shipped it to New York for distribution. The Zips were a vital cog in the operation and thus vital to Galante since he was determined to put all Mafia drug profits in America in his own coffers.

Carlo Gambino, mafia boss of Gambino family 1957-1976
Carlo Gambino, boss of Gambino family 1957-1976

The American mob supplied support services and territories for distribution, for which the local families collected "rent." This was ideal for the local families since they profited from heroin without getting too involved in the deals.

As the heroin distribution grew, more and more Zips were needed, and Galante ordered reinforcements. By the late 1970s sales of heroin in this country probably topped $10 billion a year. Pressures mounted on the American mafiosi. Bosses had a hard time keeping their soldiers out of more active participation in drugs, and it looked like Galante might start recruiting mafiosi from other families, which would have gnawed away at the Mafia structure.

Just as important, the increasing narcotics traffic drew more attention from law enforcement and threatened the mobs' holds on more "wholesome" activities such as gambling, loan-sharking, construction shakedowns, massive auto thefts and so on, which frequently operated with a certain amount of law enforcement cooperation or at least benign neglect. These law enforcement figures found that narcotics dealings put too much pressure on them for it to be ignored.

In 1979 the only solution seemed to be the removal of Galante. He was assassinated in a spectacular hit in a Brooklyn restaurant. But before he could be killed, the Zips had to be "neutralized." This was done in typical Mafia style. The Zips were recruited to join in the Galante hit. The wild men did so since it clearly meant they would enjoy even greater profits thereafter.

Of course, the Mafia bosses were not trying to crimp the narcotics operation. They simply wanted a bigger slice for themselves and to run the operation less blatantly.

Paul Castellano, successor to the late Carlo Gambino, informed the Zips that most of the spoils had to be funneled to him and, allegedly, his family, despite a death sentence punishment hanging over any family member engaging in the drug trade. That, Castellano determined, did not apply to him—and he could exercise his usual greed and keep much of the profits for himself. The Zips, under their leader Sal "Toto" Catalano, agreed to the new deal.

It soon became clear, however, how little they respected the deal. The Zips started varied operations of their own in Gambino family territory without the godfather's consent, making it apparent that they really only felt obliged to answer to their bosses in Sicily. The Zips' power grew on their bloated drug profits. Castellano recognized the fact that the Zips were becoming more powerful in Brooklyn than were his own soldiers, who resented the Zips and their boss who was swallowing so much of the drug revenues. Something had to be done.

Many killings, carried out in Mafia crosscurrents of treachery took place before matters were settled. Soldiers on both sides died, but a new player entered the picture. Federal authorities started massive prosecutions that were to make the careers of future FBI director Louis Freeh and future New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Numerous arrests were made in what became known as the Pizza Connection case. Some of the players died, primarily Catalano's top aide Cesare Bonventre, whose death may have been ordered by Catalano or Castellano or the pair operating together. The prosecutions resulted in wholesale convictions, Catalano drawing a 45-year sentence. Castellano was murdered in a plot masterminded by John Gotti.

The Zips were not completely eliminated, but their numbers were greatly reduced. And they did take some bad raps. Four months after Gotti seized leadership of the Gambinos, his top aide, Frank DeCicco, was killed in a car bombing. That attack, aimed at killing Gotti also, focused attention on the Zips, since the New York families long ago established a rule against such bombings in the city. Such murders produced too much heat if some soldiers' kin or some innocent bystander happened to be killed. However, the Zips came from Sicily where car bombings were a Mafia way of death.

As it turned out, the DeCicco killing was the work of Genovese crime boss Chin Gigante, who hoped the technique would shift suspicions to the Zips. It was one of the few times the Zips were "not guilty."