When Quebec’s first Pizza Hut franchise was planned for Montreal’s Little Italy it suffered a bedeviling launch. The “opening soon” sign was torched to the ground. That warning was ignored and, when construction started, the place was firebombed; when plans continued, it was dynamited in the night.
The opening was almost scrapped in 1990, until Pizza Hut’s corporate owner, PepsiCo at the time, one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, stepped in to help, covering the franchisee’s canceled insurance and demanding action. A letter to the city asked: Who’s in charge of Montreal, the Mafia or the police?
The mystery behind the violence was simple. The chain’s presence upset a businessman across the street: Agostino Cuntrera, a man who sold pizza but was also a prominent member of the Mafia.
“I guess not everyone plays by the rules,” a former senior manager of that Pizza Hut told me later. While the Pizza Hut eventually opened, it’s a dramatic demonstration of when mobsters use violence.
Usually it’s about business. Business in the underworld, however, is not always just about money.
Sometimes violence is spontaneous, stemming from anger or feeling insulted or a thirst for revenge, but even then there is a level of calculation. Not responding to an insult can devalue a mobster’s share price on the street. Striking hard can raise it.
At the recent trial of Mafia boss Giuseppe (Pino) Ursino in Toronto a prosecutor asked Carmine Guido, a mob insider who was testifying, if a mob boss increases his power by killing.
His answer was simple: “Yes.”
Police wiretaps in that case revealed how quickly mob violence sometimes happens.
“A guy owed some money,” Guido is heard on a police wiretap, recounting an incident to Ursino, “so we call him up, eh, come meet me over at Tim Horton’s Weston and the 401.”
Guido and a mob colleague waited inside, by the door.
The man seemed to think he could talk his way out in short order. It was not to be. The mobsters were out of patience. What they didn’t know, however, was the man brought his baby with him and left the infant strapped in a car seat in the parking lot.
The moment the man walked in, they “f—ing get into it (a beating) in front of everybody, put him in the hospital,” Guido said. An ambulance was called and the man was taken away on a stretcher, unable to speak. No one knew about his child.
“The baby was there for five hours, they didn’t even know,” Guido said. “F—, that guy deserved it, but the baby? Why would he do it?” he said of bringing a child to such a meeting.
Ursino, the old boss, knew: “For protection,” he said. “Sometimes people do it for protection. They know we’re not going to hit someone in front of his kids or his baby.”
Other mob enforcers were caught on their own security video punching, kicking and twisting the legs of a gambler who had failed to pay his debts when he showed up at a gambling den in Richmond Hill, Ont. He, too, was hospitalized.
Both men were targeted and both had stood between a mobster and his money.
Money is the prime motivator behind organized crime, but, sometimes, money merely acts as the justification for violence that a mobster deems necessary for other reasons.
A number of years ago, during an investigation into a mob boss’s murder, a veteran mob guy was asked what amount of money could bring about the mobster’s death. “Under the right circumstances,” he replied, it “could happen over six cents.”
At the higher levels of organized crime, beyond young toughs in street gangs just fighting for raw reputation on the street, there are typically fewer bystander injuries. While intended targets are usually business related or direct underworld rivals, past tragedies prove that innocents are inevitably caught in the crossfire at some point, either through mistaken identity, carelessness or poor marksmanship.
Louise Russo was buying food for her daughter when she was hit and paralyzed by a stray bullet in 2004 when gangsters sprayed a crowded Toronto restaurant with bullets in a bungled mob hit. In 1995, in Montreal, 11-year-old Daniel Desrochers was killed when struck by shrapnel from a car bomb during a biker war.
Money was the root of both: The bikers fought over control of lucrative drug distribution and the botched Toronto shooting sparked by a gambling debt.
The higher up a mobster is in the criminal food chain, the more calculation usually goes into deciding when to strike and when to just let people worry that he will.
A smart mob boss weighs when violence will be good for business and when it won’t.
“Wiseguys use violence as a means to an end,” said Paul Manning, who worked undercover infiltrating Ontario mobsters for the Hamilton police. “It’s a tool for them to accomplish a goal. And that goal is always to make money.”
An ingenious study by university researchers in Italy uncovered why the mob turns to violence against politicians even when it becomes so high-profile and inflammatory.
The Mafia is not always subtle — firebombing a politician’s car is more common in Italy’s south than a simple threatening phone call. The range of violence against politicians runs the spectrum from a threat through sending an animal’s head in a box to murder, arson and assault.
The study, led by Gianmarco Daniele , showed the Mafia’s political violence increases considerably immediately after elections, when newly elected officials begin negotiations over priorities during their term in office. The mob’s strategy focuses on policy outcome, not political result.
In other words, it is business, not ideology. Peak violence isn’t before a vote to influence it, but afterwards, suggesting the mob doesn’t care who wins as long as the winner understands they have to accommodate them.
In Canada, political violence is rarely so blunt. There is more carrot than stick.
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, however, Quebec Hells Angels boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher challenged society to an alarming degree, not only massacring underworld rivals and having moles in the police , but two prison guards were shot dead and Michel Auger, a crime reporter, was shot five times in his newspaper’s parking lot. It seemed a concerted effort to destabilize the province’s judicial system, law enforcement and freedom of the press.
It took far too long, but eventually there was a hard response from the public, putting pressure where it was needed: Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto brought the rival bikers to a truce. Their violence had become bad for everyone’s business.
There are times — and Canada is in the midst of another wave — when Mafia violence becomes more erratic and brazen. This typically comes when leadership is in flux.
It is often said that a quiet underworld is a well-functioning underworld. When the hierarchy is in disarray, things get noisy.
From his base in Montreal, Rizzuto had seized control of Quebec’s underworld in the 1980s by purging the rival mob faction. He then slowly became the dominant underworld figure in the country; even the Mafia clans of Toronto conceded.
Empires do not last forever , and Rizzuto was extradited to the United States in 2006 for three gangland murders (ironically in a power struggle among New York mobsters). His absence was a shot of adrenaline for his enemies and his once untouchable family and organization have been under attack since. His death in 2013, from natural causes, kicked the war for control into overdrive with victims on both sides.
It continues today, most notably in and around Montreal and Toronto.
Many of the recent Mafia murders are a different lesson in mob violence, but just as clear as the Pizza Hut outrage: While it is usually about money, when the fight is a war for survival or power, the careful calculations are often muted or forgotten.
Organized crime starts to lose some of its organization.