‘Pizza Connection’ legacy examined

• Convicted local pizza maker moved back to Italy after 1992 prison release

Twenty years ago this month, Oregon, Ill., pizza maker Pietro “Pete” Alfano, who operated Alfano’s Pizza and Spaghetti restaurant, walked out of an apartment house in Madrid, Spain, accompanied by a man called “The Uncle”— Gaetano Badalamenti, former head of the Sicilian Mafia.

On April 8, 1984, police apprehended Alfano and Badalamenti along with 29 others in Spain and the United States on charges that they participated in a multinational, $1.65 billion heroin/cocaine smuggling and money laundering conspiracy. The conspiracy stretched from poppy fields in Afghanistan to banks in Switzerland, ships in Bulgaria and Turkey, pay phones in Brazil, and pizza restaurants in New York, Oregon, Ill., and Milton, Wis.

Alfano no longer operates the restaurant, which is still in business in Oregon.

The conspiracy would become known as the “Pizza Connection,” the successor to the 1950s’ and 1960s’ “French Connection.” The real-life drama would include names such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giulianni, who headed the team that prosecuted Alfano and others involved with the Pizza Connection, and John Gotti, the now deceased but then-powerful chief of New York’s Gambino crime family in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

The legacy of the Pizza Connection raises many questions. Do current revenues from the sale of Afghan heroin or other drugs finance terrorism today? What roles are played by the CIA, terrorist groups, the military, crime syndicates, law enforcement officials and our neighborhoods in this complex geopolitical process?

How it worked

After federal agents broke the French Connection in the late 1960s, newly arrived Sicilian immigrant Mafia members eventually took over heroin distribution in the United States. These new groups of Sicilian Mafia were negatively referred to by American mobsters as “Zips,” who operated from Brooklyn’s Knickerbocker Avenue.

The Zips’ heroin importation and distribution was coordinated through a business named Pronto Demolition.

Shana Alexander, former CBS news commentator and author of The Pizza Connection: Lawyers, Money, Drugs, Mafia, wrote in her 1988 book that “the business partners in Pronto funded the initial purchases of drugs from their Mafia suppliers in Sicily. The drugs were believed to have been distributed through a series of pizzerias in the East and Midwest.”

Dominic Iasparro, Rockford Police Department deputy chief and head of the Rockford area Metro Narcotics task force—a joint venture among local, state and federal law enforcement officials—has been with the department for about 32 years. Iasparro recalled drug trafficking during the time of the Pizza Connection.

“As I understand it, the drugs weren’t coming out here—they were staying in New York,” Iasparro said in an April 12 interview.

Yet, an April 10, 1984, New York Times article said Badalamenti’s “relatives were accused of using pizza restaurants in the Middle West to distribute heroin in this country.” The article also quotes New York Attorney General William French Smith saying, “The ring distributed heroin in such major urban areas as New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Newark.”

The Pizza Connection heroin was grown in the poppy fields of Southeast Asia, primarily Afghanistan. The morphine base manufactured in Afghanistan was then transferred to Turkey and processed into heroin in Sicily. From there, the heroin was shipped to mobster outlets in New York and other cities, including the pizza restaurants throughout the East and Midwest. The drugs were then distributed from the pizza parlors to unknown destinations, most likely street gangs. The proceeds from the sale of the drugs went back to New York and then to the Swiss bank accounts of Sicilian mobsters.

As Alexander wrote in her book: “Mountains of cash earned from the drug trade were collected and boxed by a subsidiary group of restaurant and pizzeria owners in New Jersey. These men, also recent Sicilian immigrants, used their contacts in Italy and Switzerland to set up a money-laundering operation that moved millions of dollars into the secret Swiss bank accounts of the Sicilian Mafia warlords.”

Legacy of drugs

Arguably, the legacy of the importation of tons of heroin and cocaine from 1975 to 1984 to this area and throughout the United States may be playing a role in the Rockford area’s current heroin/cocaine epidemic—especially among users that are older than 40 years of age (see last week’s article, “Drug epidemic plagues area”).

As Kathleen Kane-Willis, researcher at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, said, users older than 40 years “became initiated to heroin during the 1970s, and this group had the second highest increases,” in Rockford’s current heroin epidemic.

Precisely determining where the cocaine and heroin was distributed at street level during the Pizza Connection is difficult to ascertain.

Defendants as ‘go-betweens’

Alfano, his three brothers-in-law, and the husband of his cousin, were all defendants in the Pizza Connection trial.

They were found guilty in March 1987 on charges such as racketeering and drug conspiracy. Emanuele Palazzolo was Alfano’s brother-in-law and Badalementi’s nephew, who operated a Milton, Wis., pizza parlor. Giuseppe Trupiano operated a pizza restaurant in downstate Olney, Ill., and was also Badalamenti’s nephew.

Giuseppe Vitale was husband to Badalamenti’s niece, who ran a pizza parlor in Paris, Ill., about 25 miles south of Danville near the Indiana border. Salvatore Evola, a construction worker from Temperance, Mich., was also husband to another of Badalamenti’s nieces.

The defendants were described by federal authorities as “go-betweens” for Badalamenti’s drug smuggling and money-laundering operation. Alfano was described by authorities as Badalamenti’s primary Midwest contact for the operation, which Badalamenti ran from pay phones in Rio de Janeiro.

Badalamenti called Alfano at a pay phone outside the Pineway Liquor Mart in Oregon, Ill., or at Alfano’s restaurant, where they exchanged coded messages that detailed telephone numbers and quantities of heroin and cocaine.

Coded references spoken in Sicilian included drug synonyms: salted sardines, pants, shirts, suits, cotton, acrylic and a telephone number code, “TERMINUSA,” in which “T” represented the number one, “E” represented the number two, etc.

The Rock River Times was unsuccessful in its attempt to interview Alfano for this article, but was informed Alfano “retired and moved back to Italy,” after serving five years in a Springfield, Mo., federal prison on narcotics conspiracy and Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges.

Badalamenti, 81, is incarcerated in a federal medical facility in Massachusetts. Mitch Huffman, spokesperson for the Devens Federal Medical Center, said “staff was unable to secure Mr. Badalamenti’s consent for an interview,” and could give no further details about Badalamenti’s condition.

Background and mob hit

Alfano, now 68, immigrated to the United States between 1963 and 1967 from Cinisi, Sicily, a town about 8 miles west of Palermo near the Mediterranean Sea.

Cinisi is also the hometown of Badalamenti, who was born in 1923. Badalamenti became head of the Sicilian Mafia in 1969, but fled for his life to Brazil in November 1978 in the wake of the “Mafia wars.”

Alfano survived three bullets shot into his back in an attempted contract killing during the October 1985 to March 1987 Pizza Connection trial. The failed assassination attempt on Feb. 11, 1987, outside a Greenwich Village restaurant—which was allegedly arranged by Gotti’s associates—left Alfano paralyzed below the waist and confined to a wheel chair.

Richard Blumenthal is a New York Times reporter and author of Last Days of the Sicilians: The FBI assault on the Pizza Connection. He alleges in his 1988 book that an “informant” said “the contract had been arranged by Pasquale Conte, Sr., the Key Foods official listed in FBI records as capta

in in the Gambino family, and Vincenzo Pullara.”

Blumenthal alleged the informant was Salvatore Spatola, a convicted heroin and cocaine smuggler, who later refused to work with officials to convict Conte and Pullara.

The exact motive for Alfano’s shooting appears to be a mystery. However, Blumenthal wrote that convicted New Jersey bank robber Frank Bavosa told the FBI and New York police he and two other men were paid $40,000 to kill Alfano “allegedly because of his continuing drug-trafficking activities.”

Sentence and plea bargain

Alfano was found guilty on March 2, 1987, of one count of narcotics conspiracy charges and 10 counts of operating a narcotics criminal enterprise.

Alexander wrote that Alfano was specifically found guilty “of organizing eight people, including his wife, and committing 45 offenses, including attempted importation of the 22 containers [of 22 kilograms of South American cocaine into Florida], and 42 instances of telephone facilitation of drug dealing.”

However, Alfano’s attorney Pat Burke won a mistrial for Alfano on July 17, 1987, because Alfano was absent for part of the trial while he was recovering from his wounds.

Burke negotiated a deal with Louis Freeh, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (Freeh would later become FBI director in President Bill Clinton’s administration; he resigned early during the Bush administration). To avoid a new trial, Alfano would plead guilty to the narcotics and RICO charges, and the government would drop the more serious charges of continuing a narcotics criminal enterprise.

Alfano agreed to the deal and pleaded guilty via telephone Aug. 14, 1987, from his room in an unidentified Rockford hospital.

On Oct. 21, 1987, Alfano appeared in Manhattan federal court and was sentenced 15 years for his part in the Pizza Connection. As a result of the deal, Alfano’s family did not have their property seized, including the Oregon, Ill., restaurant.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons’ records, Alfano was released from prison Nov. 20, 1992.

Badalamenti was sentenced to 30 years and is scheduled for release in 2011. Vitale, 62, was released in 1990. Evola, 66, was released in 1996.

At time of publication, it is not known what became of Giuseppe “Joe” Trupiano, who is about 53 years old.

Turncoats and new recruits

Alfano, Badalamenti and 15 others were convicted in large part due to the testimony from Mafia turncoat Tomasso Buscetta, who is now in the federal witness protection program. Buscetta turned on Badalamenti in a manner similar to how Sammy “The Bull” Gravano turned on Gotti in the early 1990s. Gotti was sent to federal prison in 1992 in Marion, Ill., where he died of cancer in 2002.

Mafia defectors have taken their toll on the strength of the American Mafia. As a result, the Associated Press reported March 14, 2004: “American Mafiosi are recruiting Sicilian mobsters, believing the island’s hardheaded gangsters are more likely to keep their mouths shut, U.S. and Italian organized-crime officials say. …

“A top Sicilian Mafia turncoat recently told Italian police that U.S.-based mob families were looking to Sicily to recruit members, Italy’s anti-Mafia commission chief Sen. Roberto Centaro said. …

“‘This type of phenomenon was born when the American authorities’ actions became much stronger and more effective, which in recent years reached a crescendo in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York,’ Centaro said.”

The 2004 Associated Press report about new Sicilian Mafia recruits to America appears similar to the Zips’ arrival in the 1960s and 1970s.

Pizza Connection drugs and the CIA

Peter Dale Scott, professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley, and Jonathan Marshall, economics editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote Cocaine Politics: Drugs, and the CIA in Central America, their updated 1998 book that was originally penned in 1991

As to the suppliers of the heroin for the Pizza Connection, Scott and Marshal wrote: “Unlike the French Connection, however, this Sicilian ring got much of its heroin from Afghanistan, the single largest exporter of opium in the world by the mid-1980s and the source of half the heroin consumed in the United States.

“The chief smugglers of Afghan opium were (and as of this writing still are) CIA-backed, anti-Soviet guerrillas working together with Pakistan’s military intelligence service,” the authors wrote.

The New York Times also reported in its April 10, 1984, article: “Most of the heroin originated in Southeast Asia, particularly Afghanistan.”

Alfred McCoy is a professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is author of the highly acclaimed book, The politics of heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade.

McCoy, who was interviewed several times for this article, wrote that as with other anti-Communist efforts by the CIA since the 1950s, when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the agency protected “highland drug lords and international smugglers” because stopping the drug trade was not part of its covert Cold War objectives.

McCoy wrote: “The CIA’s involvement thus revolves around tolerance for, or even complicity in, drug dealing by its covert action assets—not, in most instances, direct culpability. …

“In the Afghan war of the 1980s, the CIA’s regional assets exploited its protection to make the Pakistan-Afghanistan border into the world’s largest source of illicit heroin.

“Simultaneously, CIA operatives in Central America, many of them veterans of these Asian campaigns [such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam], tolerated the involvement of their regional allies in the cocaine traffic that passed northward toward the United States. Once the CIA’s covert war comes to an end, its legacy persists in the form of steadily rising narcotics production,” McCoy wrote.

In response to questions that were raised by media reports concerning primarily the Iran-Contra affair, CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz said in a March 1998 report to Congress he found “absolutely no evidence to indicate that the CIA as an organization or its employees were involved in any conspiracy to bring drugs into the United States,” an assertion not alleged by the media against the agency.

However, Hitz added, “there are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking or take action to resolve the allegations.”

Drugs and terrorism

McCoy wrote: “The upsurge of opium production in Afghanistan during the 1980s relied upon the logistical support of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, the protection of a CIA covert operation and the services of Pakistani banks, notably the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).

“As the opium moved down country laboratories and urban markets, the CIA also found anti-Communist allies among crime syndicates and corrupt officials,” McCoy wrote.

The Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, and the CIA’s efforts recently switched to the War on Terrorism.

The reign of the Taliban brought a draconian prohibition on opium production that began in 1999, and was enforced with mass arrests. As a result, the CIA reported Afghanistan’s opium production plummeted from 4,042 tons in 2000 to 81 tons in 2001.

By banning the crop, McCoy argues Afghanistan was teetering on the brink of economic collapse. “When the U.S. bombing began in October 2001,” in reaction to the 9/11 attacks, “it probably played a catalytic, not a causal role—accelerating an ongoing internal collapse that may have eventually swept the Taliban from power. …

“During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan…the CIA recruited regional warlords as the main U.S. ground force for an attack on the Taliban, and then encouraged them to seize local power. …Since these warlords were also drug lords, opium and heroin production soon dominated the world market. …

“On Septemb

er 26 [2001], only two weeks after the Twin Towers attack, a senior CIA agent from the Directorate of Operations helicoptered into the Panjshir valley north of Kabul [Afghanistan] carrying a suitcase with $3 million in nonsequential $100 bills, the first of $10 million paid to the Northern Alliance” war/drug lords.

A Dec. 29, 2003, report on National Public Radio quoted First Lieutenant Ross Berkhoff of the 317th Calvary, 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, saying they rarely find weapons but do find drugs during vehicle searches. However, Berkhoff said U.S. soldiers have been ordered to not seize drug shipments because it is not part of the objectives for the War on Terrorism.

Blumenthal writes that during the time of the Pizza Connection, unidentified “intelligence reports” said Bulgarians [a U.S. ally in the current War on Terrorism] were selling narcotics that their border agents had seized, and used the “proceeds for arms purchases to aid terrorist groups.”

The Bulgarians were known as expert facilitators or middlemen for KGB actions against U.S. interests during the Cold War.

According to the U.S. State Department’s Web site, Bulgaria now has “donated and airlifted arms and ammunition to the Afghan National Army,” during the War on Terrorism.

To read more about the economics and motives for street gangs to deal drugs, read the April 18, 2004, Chicago Tribune article “On streets, drug trade the only game in town.”

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