Nicolò Rizzuto: The Story Behind the Man and the Mafia's Empire in Montreal

Isabelle Dufresne-Dubé

Screen shot 2022-02-03 at 1.10.42 PM.pngHistorians trace the origin of La Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, back to 1838. Though its influence in Italy is intense, the reach of its power is worldwide. We might not know much about this secret organization, but the Mafia and its members exert a powerful control on the city of Montreal. As of late, important Mafia figures have been murdered in our midst, and numerous fires set ablaze in Italian coffee shops. These incidents and the assasination of Nicolò Rizutto on November 10th 2010 aroused the attention of the press and the population of Montreal. It's becoming increasing apparent that poor provincial and federal regulations have allowed the Mafia to infiltrate the legal economy of Montreal to launder money from criminal activities. Montreal citizens are blissfully unaware of how much the Mafia affects them on a day-to-day basis, and how they unknowingly contribute to the prosperity of this clandestine organization. Read on to learn about the Mafia's history, code of conduct, customs, structure, impact on our lives and the strategies used by authorities to abolish this supremacy.

The History of the Montreal Mafia

The Mafia's history in Montreal, like all histories of conflict, is very complex. It is the classic tale of war between clans and battles to reach complete control. In the 1940s, many Italians immigrated to the urban regions of Canada because of World War II. Unfortunately, the massive waves of immigrants included many members of the Italian Mafia. In order to build a strong and structured empire of the Mafia in North America, five families put down roots in New York City, which eventually became their headquarters. A few years later, the families assigned other divisions in major regions of Canada, including Montreal. The Rizutto clan is the most notorious in our city, and have been at the power for the last decades. However, the Cotronis maintained control over Montreal for many years before passing the reins to the Rizuttos. At that time, the Bonnano family, which was located in New York City, was responsible of the Montreal division and they elected the Cotronis (Vincenzo and Giuseppe) as a subset to their family.

Nicolò Rizzuto only joined the Montreal Mafia in 1954 when he left his small village of Cattolica Eraclea in Sicily, Italy. The Rizuttos' history with the Mafia started in Italy when Nicolò's dad, Vito Rizutto married Maria Renda, which was the sister of a Sicilian Mafia Don.

Even though crime was somewhat tolerated in Cattolica Eraclea, Nicolò Rizzuto acquired a bad reputation of outlaw at an early age. With a career of thief starting at a young age, it was inevitable for Nicolò to eventually get arrested. Actually, the first time Nicolò got caught for his wrong doings was in 1945, while he was about to sell an important quantity of wheat on the black market (Cédilot 50). When he turned 21, Nicolò Rizutto married Libertina Manno, the daughter of a very affluent mafia boss in Italy named Don Antonino Manno. Therefore, when Nico married Libertina, he also married the mafia (Cédilot 51). In 1952, the Rizutto family moved clandestinely to the United States, but they did not stay for a long time because they got sent back to Italy. Due to this failure, Rizutto moved to Venezuela where he lived for some time until he finally decided to return to Sicily. At that point, he started procedures to immigrate legally to Canada. The Rizutto family decided to establish Montreal as their home because there was already a good Sicilian community settled in that part of Quebec, whereas the Calabrians preferred Ontario. Vito Rizzuto, one of Nicolò's children married Giovanna Cammalleri, who gave him three children including Nicolò born in 1967, named after his grandfather. Even though Nicolò Senior was a very successful godfather of the Montreal Mafia, his predecessor, Vincenzo Cotroni also had a lucrative career with the Mafia.

Vincenzo Cotroni , the principal rival of Rizutto was born in 1911 in Calabria, located in the south of Italy. Cotroni dropped out of school at a very young age, but it never stopped him from being a very lucrative businessman either in legal and illegal business, such as prostitution, gambling and bookmaking (Cédilot 56). When Nicolò Rizutto arrived to Montreal, it did not take long for both clans to develop a strong rivalry.

Code of conduct and customs

Members of the Mafia are constrained in their actions by a strict code of conduct and customs which must be respected, otherwise severe sanctions are applied. In order to obtain special permissions, a Mafioso must seek the approval of a superior. To maintain a climate of order and obedience, the Mafia has a clearly defined code of conduct, which is carefully respected by every member, because the ultimate penalty is death (Ianni 148). In his book, A Family Business, Francis Ianni provides a summary of the first code of conduct of the Mafia written in 1892. There is also a revised version of the same code of conduct written in 1900, which still applies.

The Mafia Code

In 1892 the following mafia code was established:

1. Reciprocal aid in case of any need whatever.

2. Absolute obedience to the chief.

3. An offense received by one of the members to be considered an offense against all and avenged at any cost.

4. No appeal to the state's authorities for justice.

5. No revelation of the names of members or any secrets of the association. (Ianni 136)

In 1900, the code was revised to include the following:

1. To help one another and avenge every injury of a fellow member.

2. To work with all means for the defense and freeing of any fellow member who has fallen into the hands of the judiciary.

3. To divide the proceeds of thievery, robbery and extortion with certain consideration for the needy as determined by the capo. 4. To keep the oath and maintain secrecy on pain of death within twenty-four hours. (Ianni 136)

In brief, this code explains the most important values of the Mafia, which are discretion, honor and cooperation. Likewise, in her book Mafia Brotherhoods, Letizia Paoli summarizes the main ideas related to the basic values of the Cosa Nostra. First, the clan fulfills the criterion of any Mafia's organization and follows its own rules and structures according to biological families (Paoli 16). Second, when they recruit new members in the organization, they require from the recruit complete devotion to their new cosa (band) and the elimination of any previous relationship with other allegiances. If necessary, the recruits have to be willing to sacrifice their own life for the good of the Mafia. This means that the mafia can always count on its members to be faithful and obedient until the end. These two rules provide an extreme power to the chiefs of the clans, because they can use their subordinates to fulfill their own personal goals. With the aid of a strict code of conduct, the Mafia can peacefully pursue their daily activities but, they carefully structure the organization to ensure a proper flow.

Structure of the Mafia

The structure and authority are crucial in the organization and can never be contested. The backbone of the structure of the Montreal Mafia in the 1940s was directly linked to the five families in New York City, which were the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Colombo and Bonanno. These families operated the Mafia and controlled all the activities of the North American divisions. Subsequently, the Montreal Mafia was divided in two major branches, the Calabrian led by Cotroni and the Sicilian who eventually challenged the power of the Calabrian, led by Rizutto. However, they both had to report to the head chief of the Bonnano family in New York. When the Rizutto and other families arrived in Montreal, the Cotroni felt threatened.

A representative of the Cotroni's family, Paolo Violi, declared that the new families had to pass a five-year probation before being accepted by the Bonanno family and participating in the Mafia's activities. The Rizzuto did not like the restriction and Nicolò, the leader of the Rizzuto, wanted to start his activities in Montreal right away. Because of this disagreement, Nicolò Rizzuto and Paolo Violi became enemies. In fact, Violi complained about Rizzuto's attitude and lack of respect towards Cotroni and in return Rizzuto qualified the Montreal division of not being well organized. After long discussions about the Rizzuto case and its role in Montreal, higher ranked members decided that the Rizzuto clan was permitted to remain in Montreal and pursue their activities. Later on, nothing seemed to get better between the Sicilian and Calabrian; Rizzuto had had enough and ordered the killing of Paolo Violi in 1978. From that point on, the Rizzutos took over the control of the Montreal Mafia. The infighting among the Montreal mafia provoked a transfer of power from the Calabrians (Cotroni) to the Sicilians (Rizzuto). With the arrival of the Rizzuto, the Montreal Mafia became stronger and more organized than ever before and they even became more important than the Bonanno family in New York. Another important, albeit silent feature of the Mafia's structure is the role played by women in the organization.

Women in the Mafia

Although we often hear about Men of Honor, women also bring an important contribution to the prosperity of the Mafia. They never represent a public figure, they always stay in the background and their main role consists in tying strong bonds within the family. They raise their children by teaching them respect and obedience, which facilitates the cohesion in the clan when they grow up. Sometimes, women can also participate in various sorts of crimes. For example, the mother of Nicolò Rizzuto Senior participated in the wheat black market (Cédilot 50). One could think of the role of the women as superficial, but they are actually highly respected and necessary to the development of the Mafia. In the next excerpt, the author explains how women are almost considered as divine and it illustrates the crucial role they play.

The figure of women seems to be ambivalent; though they are socially subjugated by the power of "men", they represent power within the family organization through the function of matriarchy in deciding their children's future. The woman-mother can push her sons into committing any violent action (e.g., revenge) in order to perpetuate the ancient family culture and her daughters' futures as women-mothers capable of ensuring family integrity. (Fiandaca 95)

Basically, without women in the Mafia, the cohesion and discipline would not be as present and strong as it is now.

From another point of view, women have a vast ambivalence when it comes to the organization. In the following excerpt, the author explains that women are used strategically at all times: "Women become goods for exchange; as in the old aristocracy, the offer of virginal blood, when a woman marries a man from another family, consolidates new alliances and seal ties through blood relations. " (Fiandaca 94) This illustrates the fact that women do not hold any direct form of power and control in the organization, but without them, the Mafia would not be as organized and men would not have as much opportunities to create and maintain strong partnerships.

Finally, women fulfill many emotional functions in relation to the mafia:

  • They reinforce the bonds within members of the mafia families.
  • They play a crucial role in the educational and socializing processes.
  • They manage the religious education and institute the importance of the Church.
  • They participate strategically in the communication processes.
  • They provide a positive and respected image of the Mafia in general.
  • They provide equilibrium of normality in the organization.
  • They are the most relied on figures in case of emergencies.
  • They play a strategic role when it comes to avoiding troubles with authorities.

(Fiandaca p.75)

Women essentially occupy strategic and educational roles in the Mafia. They are necessary to the proper development of the organization.

The impact of the Mafia

The Mafia has an important impact on our lives. In fact, without being aware of it, everyone contributes to the prosperity of the organization. Throughout the years, the Mafia infiltrated the legal economy and gained power and control. For instance, the authorities have discovered that the Mafia has corrupted the construction industry (Gravel). The Mafia threatens many entrepreneurs over the phone by telling them not to bid on certain contract, otherwise they would get hurt. After receiving complaints, the police investigated and discovered the collusion in the industry and related it to the Mafia.

In order to gain such a huge control over the construction industry, the Mafia used constant corruption and violence for many years. On a regular basis, they decide who gets very important construction contracts and once they assign a contract to a certain contractor, the latter is forced to pay a 5 % cut off the contract (Gravel). Storage of such important quantities of cash often becomes one of the biggest problems incurred by the Mafia. In order to launder their dirty money and increase profits, the Mafia runs legal businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and used cars (Masson). Unfortunately, many citizens contribute everyday to the prosperity of the Mafia by buying their products in legal businesses.

Another alarming fact about the Mafia is their ease in importing and exporting drugs and illegal products through Canadian borders. At one point in time, the Mafia controlled the Dorval airport and many of its members worked at the airport to monitor the import and export of drugs, weapons and other illegal products. Any sellers interested in import or export had to notify the Mafia and pay a tax to ensure safe traveling of illegal substances. The tax paid by the seller could be an exchange of merchandise or monetary compensations. If the sellers were cooperative, they would avoid any troubles with the organization.

In order to increase profits on a regular basis, the Mafia charges a tax to many small entrepreneurs in Montreal in exchange of a promise that the latter will be allowed to peacefully operate their businesses. The pizzo tax is a tax paid to the Mafia to have a right to run a business (Masson). It also protects the entrepreneurs from other criminal organizations. If the owners of a business refuse to pay, the Mafia will either burn down the shop or use violence to convince them to disburse the sum required.

The descending power of the Mafia

In the past decade, the Mafia has significantly lost power and control in Montreal. The Mafia has been hurt by police interventions and especially by the imprisonment of the head of the Montreal Mafia, Vito Rizutto. Two major interventions took place in 1994 and 2006 to eradicate the power of the Mafia. The first intervention, Opération Compote, conducted in 1994 had for goal to stop the massive laundering of money made by many members of the Mafia. Undercover police officers set up a fictive bank to attract the Mafiosi looking to launder money (Cédilot 167). During the investigation, the Mafia transferred over 165 million dollars of drug money. In August 1994, the police arrested 46 mafiosi in relation to tax evasion.

The second intervention, called Opération Colisée, necessitated 700 police officers, who started the arrests at six o'clock on the morning of November 22nd, 2006. On that day, they arrested 73 out of the 90 suspects wanted. Nicolò Rizutto was among the 73 members arrested, along with Paolo Renda, Rocco Sollecito, Francesco Arcadi, Francesco Del Balso and Lorenzo Giordano, all very important members of the Sicilian mafia. The main charges consisted of gangsterism, import and export of marijuana, illegal gambling, corruption and tax evasion. Besides massive arrests, the police also seized over 6 million dollars, 800 kilos of cocaine and 40 kilos of marijuana (Cédilot 342).

In addition to the numerous arrests of 1994 and 2006, Vito Rizutto, the head of the Mafia, was imprisoned in 2004 in United States where he still is since he pleaded guilty to a triple murder he had committed back in 1981 in New York City. Not only had they lost the head of the Mafia, but also important figures of the Montreal Mafia were murdered in the past year. In December 2009, Nicolò Rizutto Jr., Vito's son was murdered in Montreal in the middle of the day. Since then, the police has been trying to find the murderer without success. Nicolò Rizutto Jr. was supposed to take the lead of the Mafia in following years, since his father was in jail. Also, Paolo Renda got kidnapped in May 2010 and Agostino Cuntrera was murdered in June 2010. They were both very close acolytes of Nicolò Rizutto.

Because of all the attacks on the Sicilian clan, Nicolò Rizzuto Sr. was scared for his life. In fact, Nicolò was shot by a sniper on November 10, 2010. The Godfather of the Montreal Mafia was murdered in front of his wife and daughter in his kitchen while having supper. The crime is still under investigation and police authorities have not yet found the murderer.

Many hypotheses have been mentioned, such as street gangs or other Mafia clans. However the way Nicolò was murdered goes against the Mafia's standards. In fact, it is very unusual for Mafiosi to kill someone in front of the victims' family. Usually, murders occurred in public places without the presence of family members, like the murder of Nicolò Sr.'s grandson, Nicolò Rizzuto Jr. Another factor contributing to the decrease of power in the mafia is infightings among different clans.

The most important infighting occurred when Rizutto fought to gain power of the Montreal division. More recently, the murder of Nick Rizutto raised suspicion in regards to a new fight between the Sicilians and Calabrians. However, the probabilities are very minimal since the Mafia has learned to work in teams, instead of against each others (Myles Le Devoir).

The Mafia suffers from serious threats from other criminal organizations, which are trying to gain power, territory and control over the illegal businesses in Montreal. In the past year, many coffee shops in the North of Montreal have been attacked with Molotov cocktails. One hypothesis of the possible instigators are street gangs. Since the murders and imprisonment of important figures of the Mafia, street gangs have been trying to enlarge their territories and strengthen their power in Montreal. When Vito Rizutto got arrested in 2004, he claimed to be a peacekeeper in Montreal. According to him, he was the only one able to maintain order between the Mafia, street gangs and biker gangs. Vito said that the streets of Montreal would become epic without his supervision. Besides street gangs, the Mafia is also threatened by biker gangs, such as the Hells Angels. In fact, all criminal organizations are constantly fighting to gain territory and increase their profit. Once again, because of the big hits on the Mafia, other organizations are trying to be opportunistic and take advantage of the present weaknesses of the Cosa Nostra. However the Hells Angels have also been hurt by police interventions in the past years, so the main threats of the Mafia remain the street gangs.


In conclusion, the Mafia was able to build an empire in Montreal without arising suspicion. The origin of the current Montreal mafia is in Italy, both from Sicily and Calabria. The structure of the Mafia is the best organized out of any other criminal organizations in Canada. Members of the Mafia are all confined to secrecy and blind obedience. The impact of the Mafia is enormous, but discrete, in Montreal. However, authorities are looking into the Mafia's activities and are discovering proofs in order to proceed to many more arrests. Hopefully, in a near future the Mafia will be tamed, weakened and will stop invading our economy with tax evasion, fraud and illegal gambling. However, maybe we should expect an increase in violence due to the empowerment of street gangs and bikers.

Works Cited

Cédilot, André, and Noël André. Mafia Inc. Montréal: Les Éditions de l'Homme, 2010. Print.

Cédilot, André. Interview by Marc André Masson. RDI Matin. Radio Canada. Montreal, 26 October 2010. Television.

Charbonneau, Jean-Pierre. Auger, Michel, ed. La filière canadienne. Montréal: Éditions trait d'union. 2002. Print.

Edwards, Peter and Michel Auger. The Encyclopedia of Canadian organized crime: from Captain Kidd to Mom Boucher. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2004. Print.

Fentress, James. Rebels & Mafiosi: death in a Sicilian landscape. New York: Cornell University Press, 2000. Print.

Fiandaca, Giovanni, ed. Women and the Mafia, female roles in organized crime studies. Trans. Stephen Jackson. Italy: Dipartimento di Scienze e Crimminologiche, 2003. Print.

Ianni, Francis A.J. A family business. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972. Print.

Myles, Brian. ʺNick Rizzuto craignait pour sa vie.ʺ Le Devoir 12 November 2010. Print

Paoli, Letizia. Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized crime, Italian style. Oxford: University press, 2003. Print.

William I. Macadam, James R. Dubro and Pierre De Champlain. "Organized crime." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion, 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

"Collusion frontale: pratiques douteuses dans l'industrie de la construction." Alain Gravel. Enquête. Radio-Canada. Radio Canada, Montreal, 15 October 2009. Television.

"Mafia et Construction." Alain Gravel. Enquête. Radio-Canada. Radio Canada, Montreal, 11 November 2010. Television.

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