Giuseppe Greco’s death from a tumor last February garnered more press than his movies ever did. The obituaries read like a string of bad reviews, casting the filmmaker’s career in the shadow of the Mafia. The plot points are damning: he served a four-year sentence for laundering illicit money through his productions; he borrowed a deluxe Mercedes 500 from Palermo’s crooked mayor, Salvo Lima, for a film shoot; and, after jail, he wrote and directed a family saga that romanticises the Mafia of old Sicily.
But the piece of publicity that stuck to him most was the kind you can’t buy and wouldn’t want to: Giuseppe was the son of Michele Greco, the infamous “Pope” of the Mafia.
Don Michele Greco, the debonair silver fox whose ever-present Bible and prayer cards lent him a pious air, was the toast of Palermitan society in the 1970s. His estate, “Favarella,” in the eastern suburb of Ciaculli, was a lush expanse of tangerine orchards with plenty of wild game to excite the sportsmen among the local elites. Many of the rooms in Greco’s lodge had giant ovens and barbecue grills enjoyed by the business leaders, politicians and policemen who were frequent guests. Favorites were given a key to the gate.
Yet the virtuous world of Greco the country gentleman was illusory. The best parcels of land were not inherited but wrenched from nobility by intimidation tactics that whittled the selling price to a symbolic fee. The neighbors were also coerced into selling cheap.
The Grecos of Ciaculli and the Grecos of the adjacent Croceverde Giardini—related by marriage—were not gentry but a criminal dynasty. A violent history that included a mid-century feud positioned Don Michele to assume the role of the region’s “emperor,” a word he preferred to “pope” for its hereditary connotation. Favarella was the throne of his empire, supported by roguish relatives like the psychopathic killer, Pino “Little Shoe” Greco.
Michele Greco’s aggressive land acquisition was not an attempt to corner the tangerine market but rather to control the water below the surface. Though the public owned a large portion of it, Greco and his fellow mafiosi sold to Palermo a third of its water supply at a premium. The city coffers were siphoned most heavily during the dry season. Such a scheme would be impossible without the help of able profiteers like Mayor Lima and his public works chief, Vito Ciancimino, both of the Mafia-friendly Christian Democratic Party.
Favarella was much more than a weekend playground for Greco’s well-heeled crowd. Deep among the citrus trees was a building used for refining heroin by the syndicate from Corleone, run by godfather Luciano Leggio and his lieutenant Totò Riina. A network of tunnels was dug below the orchards to allow escape during a raid.
Ascendant in power around Palermo, the Corleonesi pushed a member off the ruling Mafia Commission to make room for Greco, whose legitimizing presence and papal diplomacy would sway decisions in their favor. He also became a spy for Riina at numerous Mafia summits held on the estate.
Riina’s constant impulse was to eliminate perceived threats in the most final of terms. Dozens of enemies came to an end on Favarella following Greco’s secret debriefings, including his drug-trade competitor Rosario Riccobono, despised for killing an old friend. As the successful boss slept off a sumptuous Christmas dinner hosted by Riina and Greco, “Little Shoe” crept up and strangled him. Several of Riccobono’s men were likewise slaughtered on that evening in 1982, reduced in acid and buried on the grounds.
The bloodbath only increased as the power-mad Riina declared war on a new generation of government prosecutors intent on ending Mafia corruption. Carried out by Greco and his clan, the streets of Palermo became strewn with the “excellent cadavers” of anti-Mafia officials: General Dalla Chiesa, Judge Chinnici, Judge Falcone and many more.
After police caught up with the fugitive “Pope” Greco, Bible in hand, he assumed the role of a victimised small farmer: “I’ve been ruined by this mistaken identity with the Grecos of Ciaculli; I belong to the Grecos of Croceverde Giardini. Violence is beneath my dignity. I mind my own business, tending the trees and the land…. The Mafia I know is the Mafia everybody knows. Even to talk about drugs disgusts me. All that I possess is the fruit of my labor and the heritage of my parents.”
When asked by a reporter how a self-proclaimed peasant could run with such an affluent crowd, he said, “At sixteen I began to go trapshooting. Now I’m sixty-two—do the math. There [at Favarella], I met the best class of Palermitan society. I made friendships that have lasted all my life.”
But aside from a temporary prison release decreed by a “friendly” judge nicknamed “the sentence killer,” none of his friends could help him. In a cage at the historic Mafia maxi-trial of 1987, charged with seventy-eight murders, Greco delivered a typically cryptic invocation to his prosecutor that was half blessing, half threat:
“I wish you peace, Mr. President…because peace is tranquillity of the spirit, the conscience. And for the duty that awaits you, serenity is the foundation on which to judge. Those aren’t my words, they’re the words of our Lord who commanded Moses: ‘When you must judge, decide with the utmost of serenity.’ And I wish, Mr. President, that this peace accompanies you for the rest of your life.”
Greco died in prison at the age of eighty-three, with a Bible by his side, on February, 13, 2008. His son Giuseppe, the director who never lived down his family’s reputation, died three years later in friendly territory: Croceverde Giardini.