Michele Zaza

Michele Zaza (Procida, April 10, 1945 – Rome, July 18, 1994) was a member of the Neapolitan Camorra who was also initiated in the Sicilian Mafia. He was known as "’O Pazzo" (the madman) due to his outspoken and improbable public pronouncements. He was one of the first Camorristi to emerge as a powerful figure in the cigarette contraband industry.



Early career

The son of a fisherman from Procida (the smallest of the three islands in the Gulf of Naples) He grew up in the poor neighbourhood Portici in Naples and had his first brush with the law in 1961 when he was arrested for being involved in a street fight.[1][2] By 1974 there was evidence that he had made a qualitative leap when he was arrested with some top Mafiosi Gerlando Alberti, Stefano Bontade and Rosario Riccobono. Soon after that he was arrested in Palermo with Mafia boss Alfredo Bono for illegal possession of firearms.[3]

Zaza was an extravagant and prolific cigarette smuggler through the port of Naples. He once described his activities during questioning by an investigating magistrate:

“First I’d sell five cases of Philip Morris, then ten, then a thousand, then three thousand, and I bought myself six or seven ships that you took away from me… I used to load fifty thousand cases a month… I could load a hundred thousand cases, US$10 million on thrust, all I had to do was make a phone call… I’d buy US$24 million worth of Philip Morris in three months. My lawyer will show you the receipts. I’m proud of that - US$24 million!”[3]

King of the blondes

As the major Camorra cigarette smuggler of the 1970s and 1980s, Michele Zaza once said: “At least 700,000 people live off contraband, which is for Naples what Fiat is to Turin. They have called me the Agnelli of Naples… Yes – it could all be eliminated in thirty minutes. And then those who work would be finished. They’d all become thieves, robbers, muggers. Naples would become the worst city in the world. Instead, this city should thank the twenty, thirty men who arrange for ships laden with cigarettes to be discharged and thus stop crime!” (The Agnelli referred to is Gianni Agnelli, president of Fiat, the Turin-based car multinational)[4]

Zaza became known as ‘the King of the blondes’, as cigarettes are called in slang, and ran a fully multinational operation together with his brother Salvatore.[1] The two main tobacco multinationals, Philip Morris (Marlboro) and Reynolds (Camel and Winston), through concessionaires in Basel, Switzerland, supplied the merchandise without much questions asked.[5]

Initiated in Cosa Nostra

To secure their share in the thriving illicit industry the Sicilian Mafia initiated Zaza into the Mafia family of Michele Greco in 1974.[3][6] The Neapolitan Camorra and their Sicilian partners were smuggling cigarettes by the shiploads. Zaza later admitted he was dealing in 50,000 cases of Marlboros a month.[5][7]

Twice in 1977, Zaza was discovered in the company of several mafiosi, first at a restaurant with Vincenzo Spadaro and Filippo Messina, and again at a Social Democrat Party branch in Naples, with Bernardo Brusca and Filippo Messina. According to the documents found in his possession, he was already selling 5000 tonnes of cigarettes per year.[8]

Several Camorra and Mafia clans struck a deal on the division of the shiploads of contraband cigarettes at a meeting in 1974 in Marano, the stronghold of Camorra boss Lorenzo Nuvoletta. Zaza’s cunning helped him to slowly emerge from the shadow of his Mafia protectors. The Marano agreement between Sicilians and Neapolitans was wound up at a second Marano meeting in 1979, partly because Zaza had become uncontrollable. Mafia supergrass Tommaso Buscetta remembered: “According to what Stefano Bontade told me, laughing, Michele Zaza used every trick in the book to unload his own cigarettes rather than those of the Palermo families.”[1]

Camorra war

At the end of the 1970s two different types of Camorra organisations were beginning to take shape. On the hand there was the Nuova Camorra Organizzata (NCO) under the leadership of Raffaele Cutolo. The NCO type gangs which dealt mainly in cocaine and protection rackets, preserving a strong regional sense of identity, and the business-oriented gangs linked to the Mafia like Zaza’s organisation, who dealt in cigarettes and heroin, but soon moved on to invest in real estate and construction firms.[9]

Cutolo’s NCO was becoming more powerful by encroaching and taking over other group’s territories. The NCO was able to break the circle of traditional power held by the families. Cutolo’s organisation was just too aggressive and violent to be resisted by any individual families. Other Camorra families initially were too weakened, too divided, and simply too intimidated by the NCO. He requested that if other criminal groups wanted to keep their business, they had to pay the NCO protection on all their activities, including a percentage for each carton of cigarettes smuggled into Naples. This practice came to be known as ICA (Imposta Camorra Aggiunta – or Camorristic Sale Tax), mimicking the state VAT sale tax IVA (Imposta sul Valore Aggiunto).[10]

During the NCO’s highest point of expansion, Zaza had to pay Cutolo’s organisation US$400,000 for the right to carry on operating in contraband cigarettes.[9] However, no hierarchy between Camorra gangs or stable spheres of influence had been created, and no gang leader was likely to agree to taking a back seat without making a fight of it. In 1978, Zaza formed a ‘honourable brotherhood’ (Onorata fratellanza) in an attempt to get the Mafia-aligned Camorra gangs to oppose Cutolo and his NCO, although without much success. A year later, in 1979, the Nuova Famiglia was formed to contrast Cutolo’s NCO, consisting of Zaza, the Nuvoletta’s and Antonio Bardellino from Casal Di Principe (the Casalesi clan). From 1980-1983 a bloody war raged in and around Naples, which left several hundred dead – and severely weakened the NCO.

Drug trafficking

By that time Zaza had moved into drug trafficking as well. He was involved in the Pizza Connection case of the early 1980s, and his name came up in connection with a September 1982 Paris meeting with other Mafiosi in which a 600 kg package of cocaine held in Brazil was discussed.[11] In 1982, with the DEA on his tail, he allegedly was involved in importing 93 kg of heroin to his mansion in Beverly Hills in cooperation with Salamone. However, the DEA could not find the shipment.[12][13] Zaza got his heroin supplies from the Corsican gangster Gaetan Zampa.[14]

In 1982, with police raiding heroin refineries in Sicily and a raging Mafia war, Zaza is rumoured to have set up a refinery on his own in the French city of Rouen, with support of contacts from the old French Connection days and the right tie-ins with the Sicilian Mafia, such as Giuseppe Bono in New York, Antonio Salamone and the Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan.[12] He bought the premises worth $2 million. Zaza hoped to make between $20,000 and $32,000 a day profit until the plan was interrupted by his arrest.[1]

Immensely wealthy

Due to his illicit trafficking enterprises, Zaza became immensely wealthy. When he was arrested police found cheques worth US$950,000 in his pockets. By 1989 the US Treasury Department estimated his assets in the US alone were worth US$3.2 million. At the same time the FBI also estimated that he had US$15 million deposited in Swiss banks. For many years his daughter has been the official owner of a ten-bedroom villa in Beverly Hills, not to mention a Paris flat, a villa just outside Nice and several properties in Naples.[1]

On December 11, 1982, Zaza was arrested in Rome. Immediately his health deteriorated and cardiologists believed his situation alarming. He was placed under house arrest. On February 15, 1983, he received another arrest warrant in connection with the Italian end of the Pizza Connection (with Giuseppe Bono and the Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan as well as his father-in-law Giuseppe Liguori). However, Zaza, fled his house arrest in December 1983 and moved to Paris. There, he was arrested again on April 16, 1984, with Nunzio Barbarossa. He was again extradited to Italy.[13] Due to his heart condition he again avoided prison.

Moving to France

After his release in Italy, Zaza moved his base of operations to the South of France to avoid harassment from Italian authorities (particularly new laws which allow the seizure of assets whose origin cannot be accounted for). Until his arrest in Nice on March 14, 1989 (following the discovery of a lorry carrying 500,000 packets of contraband cigarettes)[15], he appears to have engaged in top-level criminal activity, apparently hosting a Camorra drugs summit at the Elysée Palace hotel in Nice in February 1989.[16] In 1990 Zaza’s associates, in particular his father-in-law Giuseppe Liguori, almost managed to buy the casino at Menton, on the French side of the Franco-Italian border.[1][17]

In July 1991, a French court sentenced him to three years for cigarette smuggling. Benefiting from a French law that facilitates the release of prisoners who already have served half their sentence, Zaza was released in November 1991, while Italian authorities asked for his extradition for Mafia association, drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling.[18]

In May 1993, police dismantled a Cosa Nostra-Camorra ring of 39 people involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering in Italy, France and Germany (Operation Green Sea). Zaza was arrested in Villeneuve-Loubet on the French Riviera near Nice in Southern France.[18] He was extradited from France on March 27, 1994.[19] On July 18, 1994, he died of a heart attack in a Rome hospital where he had been transferred from the Rebibbia prison.[18]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Behan, The Camorra, pp. 130-31
  2. ^ Calvi, L'Europe des parrains, pp. 63-4
  3. ^ a b c Behan, The Camorra, pp. 50-51
  4. ^ Haycraft, The Italian Labyrinth, pp. 199-200
  5. ^ a b (Italian) Relazione sullo stato della lotta alla criminalità organizzata nella provincia di Brindisi, Commissione parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia e delle altre associazioni criminali similari, July 1999, p. 14-15
  6. ^ Sterling, Octopus, p. 164-65
  7. ^ Dickie, Cosa Nostra, p. 356
  8. ^ Behan, See Naples and Die, pp. 73
  9. ^ a b Behan, The Camorra, p. 55
  10. ^ Jacquemet, Credibility in Court, pp. 43-44
  11. ^ Behan, The Camorra, p. 124
  12. ^ a b Sterling, Octopus, p. 271-72
  13. ^ a b Calvi, L'Europe des parrains, p. 77-80
  14. ^ Calvi, L'Europe des parrains, p. 66
  15. ^ (French) L'ombre de la drogue, L'Humanité, June 19, 1991
  16. ^ (French) Le sanctuaire français de la mafia, L'Humanité, April 17, 1991
  17. ^ Follain, A Dishonoured Society, p. 198
  18. ^ a b c Follain, A Dishonoured Society, pp. 195-96
  19. ^ Reputed Naples Crime Boss Extradited in Italian Inquiry, The New York Times, March 27, 1994

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