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A symmetry of violence in the Montreal mob Add to ...

It was a time of tumult in the Montreal headquarters of the Canadian mob, when a series of bloody murders signalled the end of one clan's rule and the beginning of another.

Three decades ago, as now, few could name the men who were pulling the triggers, let alone the ascendant kingpins who were pulling the strings.

In 1980, the coup de grâce came when Rocco Violi, the lone survivor of three Calabrese mobster brothers, sat down for a family dinner. As his wife and two young sons looked on, a sniper's bullet smashed through a window and killed Mr. Violi. While elders of the Cotroni family who ruled over the Violis were allowed to live out their days in prosperity, their reign was over.

At suppertime on Wednesday, Nicolo Rizzuto, the aging Sicilian godfather of the Montreal mob believed to have orchestrated the deaths of the Violi brothers, met an end almost identical to the one that befell Rocco Violi. Two women in Mr. Rizzuto's suburban Montreal mansion watched as a sniper's bullet pierced the glass of his enclosed verandah and struck him in the head.

The murder was the culmination of a series of hits on Rizzuto associates, including Mr. Rizzuto's namesake and grandson, Nick, last December, and the kidnapping and presumed murder of his son-in-law and right-hand man, Paolo Renda, in May.

As in the 1980s, police are struggling to understand who is orchestrating the destruction of the Rizzutos. As late as 1982, the Rizzuto name barely registered in a Montreal police report entitled "The State of Organized Crime," despite the Violi murders and the family's position at the centre of an exploding heroin trade.

"The parallels are striking," said crime writer André Cédilot, commenting on the demise of the Violis 30 years ago and the Rizzutos today.

Mr. Cédilot is the co-author of Mafia Inc., a new book recounting the rise and fall of the Rizzuto family and the mob's infiltration of legitimate Quebec and Canadian businesses, particularly in Montreal. His book and others have chronicled Mr. Rizzuto's 86 years. Punctuated with flashes of mirth and cinematic audacity, it's a story written in blood.

Born in Sicily in 1924, Nicolo Rizzuto was nine years old when his father was shot dead in New York by fellow gangsters. In 1954 he came to Canada with his son, Vito, as a major mob shakeout was taking place in Italy.

In the early 1970s, with the Calabrese clans holding sway and tensions building with Sicilians like the Rizzutos, Nicolo Rizzuto went into exile in Venezuela. He teamed up with members of Caruana/Cuntrera families to create a global organization that would flood North America and Europe with heroin, cocaine and hashish, funnelling much of the drugs and cash through Montreal where he maintained a strong foothold.

Mr. Rizzuto returned to Montreal as the Violi brothers were slaughtered in succession. Strongman Francesco was shot at his office in 1977; leader Paolo was gunned down with a double-barrelled Italian shotgun at his favourite hangout in 1978. An associate named Pietro Sciarra was shot outside a theatre as he left a viewing of Godfather II.

Like any good crime saga, the Rizzuto story has its darkly comic episodes as well, from the wads of cash Mr. Rizzuto was caught on tape stuffing into his socks, to his wife turning up at a Swiss bank, posing as a humble chicken farmer trying to withdraw money from accounts holding millions.

While dozens of mob associates and opponents have died violently over the decades, less well known are the hundreds of legitimate small-business owners who have been threatened into offering up the protection money that is the staple of organized crime - and suffering a beating, or worse, if they refuse.

The phenomenon is playing out on an almost daily basis in Montreal, where nearly three dozen cafés, pizzerias and hair dressing salons have been firebombed in recent months, including two on the night of Mr. Rizzuto's murder. While some of the victims are involved in their own shady dealings, Mr. Cédilot says many others are simply getting caught in a fight over turf in the protection racket as the Rizzutos lose their once-unchallenged control.

While the violence plays out on the streets, Quebec has been in the grip of a string of revelations about the corrupting influence of the mob on the construction industry.

"People don't realize the pernicious effect this has," Mr. Cédilot said. "It starts with cafés and shop owners who are forced to display favoured products, and it moves right up to the 5-per-cent kickback construction companies are forced to pay. Competition is crushed. Nothing worries me more than the effect on the legal economy."

A general picture is emerging of the power struggle overwhelming the Rizzutos. It's likely that Calabrese families, largely based in Toronto and backed by big players in New York State, are seizing control after the Rizzutos pushed them aside, say Mr. Cédilot and other experts. Sicilian underlings who have waited 30 years for their turn to take charge may also be involved.

"The Rizzutos angered a lot of people when they tried to come into Toronto. They angered people in New York for failing to bow down to New York. The opportunity to avenge the Violis was irresistible," said Lee Lamothe, co-author of The Sixth Family, another book about the rise of the Rizzutos.

Vito Rizzuto, Nicolo's 64-year-old son who was the clan's boss when he was imprisoned in the United States in 2007 for his role in the murder of three mobsters more than 25 years earlier, is due for release some time next year. Mr. Lamothe says a comeback is less than likely.

"He doesn't have any options. He's a dead man walking," Mr. Lamothe said. "He's a very smart man, he may pull something out of the hat, but there is no power left to gather around him."

Mr. Lamothe says it's unlikely Montreal's underworld will ever again have a single old-school boss like Nicolo Rizzuto, with his disarming smile and ever-present fedora. Mr. Cédilot notes the anomaly that was the 30-year reign of Mr. Rizzuto.

"The New York families have gone through four generations of leadership during this time," he said. "What we've seen here is extremely rare."

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