MONTREAL — How Montreal’s Italian Mafia reacts to the brazen slaying of the first-born of its jailed leader Vito Rizzuto will reveal whether the once powerful operation is truly in shambles, experts say.
As homicide detectives continued their probe into the slaying of Nick Rizzuto, 42, in a gritty west-end neighbourhood, the aftermath of an unprecedented and violent message sent to the leadership of the Canada’s most powerful Mafia clan will be telling.
With most of the clan’s top lieutenants behind bars, and Vito Rizzuto himself serving out a prison term in the United States until 2012, there appears to be a takeover attempt by rival groups.
Opinion is divided as to whether it is strictly the work of street gangs trying to take advantage of a destabilized Mafia, or if the gangs are working in tandem with another Mafia family at a time when the ruling clan is at its weakest.
“There is no one accepted by all remaining members of the Mafia, no one that can call the shots,” said Antonio Nicaso, an author and journalist who specializes in the Mafia.
Vito Rizzuto, the reputed head of the Montreal Mafia, is in a medium-security prison in Colorado serving a 10-year sentence for racketeering, relating to three underworld murders in Brooklyn in 1981.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons said Tuesday that Rizzuto could request to attend his son’s funeral.
Spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said the warden at the Colorado facility where he’s housed would have to authorize the request.
“If he’s allowed, he would have to incur the costs associated with it,” Ponce said, adding that such requests are confidential.
Rizzuto, 63, is scheduled to be released on Oct. 6, 2012.
Many of his closest associates were rounded up during the RCMP’s Operation Colisee and are still behind bars. And at least two people with ties to the clan were killed earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Montreal police were still looking for a suspect in the shooting death of Nick Rizzuto.
On several news websites, people claiming to be friends and acquaintances wrote messages of condolence for Nick Rizzuto, a father of two.
“He was involved in investment, he was not a boss or acting boss, but he was the eldest son of Vito, so this is an unprecedented challenge to his authority or his power,” Nicaso said.
The Rizzuto family has been firmly entrenched since taking power in 1978 with Vito Rizzuto acting as a sort of underworld power broker.
“Vito Rizzuto was the mediator who was the architect of the consortium, the strategic alliance between the Hells Angels, the Mafia, street gangs, Colombian cartels and the Irish Mafia when the order of the day was co-operation,” Nicaso said.
But sources say that alliance between street gangs and the Mafia has began to fall apart in recent years, with neither one wanting to work with the other.
Julian Sher, investigative journalist and author of books on the Hells Angels and organized crime, said the loss of charismatic leaders like Hells Angels boss Maurice (Mom) Boucher and Vito Rizzuto can be devastating to criminal organizations.
“That can lead to instability because you don’t have clear leadership patterns, you don’t have people to settle disputes,” Sher said.
“It’s not just the power to command but it’s the star power, the stature, the ability to not only declare war but to negotiate peace.”
In recent weeks, there was a spate of Molotov-cocktail attacks against mostly Italian-style cafes in Montreal, which police said was authored by street gangs.
But one expert said these attacks don’t appear to be the work of street gangs acting on their own, since they tend to operate more recklessly and with less regard for innocent victims.
Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani, an expert on street gangs, said she thinks there could be an alliance between street-gang members and disgruntled Mafiosi.
“It’s just too well organized, almost surgical precision and not impulsive,” Mourani said.
“I think there is a conflict within the Mafia, but that clan is allied with a street gang.”