Secret Rituals and Sacred Oaths : Mafia Informer Gives Insider’s View at Trial

Times Staff Writer

Testifying for the first time in a U.S. courtroom, a former Mafia leader turned informant has begun providing a key insider’s view to the strict rules, secret rituals, sacred oaths and deadly punishments of the powerful criminal organization known as La Cosa Nostra.

Tommaso Buscetta, whom prosecutors have called the highest ranking Mafia leader to become a government witness since Joseph Valachi in 1963, also has identified four of the 22 men charged with smuggling more than $1.6 billion worth of heroin into the United States in the so-called “pizza connection” drug smuggling case.

Among those Buscetta pointed out in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, the second day of trial, was Gaetano Badalamenti of Cinisi, Sicily. The 16-count indictment identifies Badalamenti, 62, as the former head of the Sicilian Mafia and a chief of the drug smuggling scheme. He sat quietly in the first of four rows crowded with the 22 defendants and their lawyers.


Defendant’s Position

“What position did he have in La Cosa Nostra?” Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard A. Martin asked Buscetta.

“All of them,” replied a translator for the stout but stylish 57-year-old Buscetta, who spoke softly in his native Sicilian dialect. “Underboss. Boss. Member of the Commission. Boss of the Commission.”

Buscetta also named defendant Salvatore Lamberti as a member of the Sicilian underworld, and said he recognized two more defendants, Vito Badalamenti and Vincenzo Randazzo, as relatives of Gaetano Badalamenti.

Prosecutors contend that an international Mafia ring smuggled more than a ton of heroin from Sicilian laboratories around Palermo into the United States between 1975 and 1984. The drugs were distributed through a network of pizza parlors in the Northeast and Midwest, prosecutors said, and the money laundered through banks and stock brokers in New York, the Bahamas and Switzerland.

First of Four Trials

Buscetta’s testimony, which began Tuesday, kicked off the first of at least four major Mafia trials scheduled to begin here in coming months. Federal prosecutors have called the cases the nation’s strongest and deepest attack ever on the traditional organized crime groups. More than 100 defendants currently face trial.

Buscetta, the first Sicilian don to break the traditional Mafia code of silence, has already given information that led to the arrest of scores of Mafia suspects in Italy last year. He began providing evidence in 1983 after fierce gang wars in Palermo killed seven relatives, including two sons.


Most of Buscetta’s initial testimony has focused on his own early Mafia career and the organization’s command structure in the Palermo area.

He said he was “invited” to join the Mafia after World War II and was initiated into the secretive group by four men in 1948. He said the initiation rite involved pricking his finger, rubbing the blood on a small picture of a saint, and reciting an oath of silence as the saint’s picture was set on fire.

‘My Flesh Would Burn’

“I had to pronounce the oath whereby I was to say that should I betray the organization, my flesh would burn like this saint,” Buscetta said.

“I was reminded to behave in the appropriate manner,” Buscetta added. “To be silent, not to look at other men’s wives or women, not to steal and especially, at all times when I was called, I had to rush, leaving whatever I was doing.”

Asked the penalty for disobeying those principles, Buscetta replied: “Death.” He later said that he had initiated one man into the Mafia using the same ritual.

Buscetta said he was suspended twice from the Mafia in Palermo in the 1950s. The first time, he had smuggled cigarettes without telling his bosses. The second suspension, he said was more serious.

Betrayed His Wife

“I had done something under Mafia rules that I was not supposed to do--namely betray my wife.”

Buscetta suggested that he later grew disillusioned as the Mafia grew from a village-based society of what he called “men of honor” into an international criminal organization dealing in murder, drugs, prostitution and the like.

“Whereas before it was an order in the defense of the weak, in 1955, ‘56, ‘57, it became an order in defense of one’s own person,” said Buscetta, dressed in a neat, gray suit, his hands clasped at the witness table. “And the old oath was forgotten.”

Judge Pierre N. Leval has ordered that the names of the 12-member jury be kept secret for their protection. Leval has told lawyers he expects the trial to last six to eight months.

Twenty-Six Murders

Elsewhere in the 30-story Foley Square courthouse, another Mafia trial also has begun. The indictment charges Paul Castellano, reputed head of the Gambino crime group in New York, and 24 defendants, on counts including 26 murders.

Another case charges Carmine Persico, identified in court papers as heading “the Colombo organized crime family of La Cosa Nostra,” and 13 others, on racketeering counts involving extortion, bribery, gambling, loan sharking and drug trafficking.

Both Castellano and Persico are also scheduled to go on trial in a case that charges the reputed heads of all five New York Mafia groups with operating a “commission” governing organized crime.