Over four days, between October 12–16, 1957, the American gangster Joseph Bonanno allegedly attended a series of meetings between some high-level Sicilian and American mafiosi in the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in Palermo, Sicily – the most splendid in town at the time. The so-called 1957 Palermo Mafia summit has become a legendary landmark in the international illegal heroin trade in popular Mafia non-fiction. The question is if it ever took place. The details of it are still shrouded in mystery. According to some, one of the main topics on the agenda was the organisation of the heroin trade on an international basis. The FBI believed it was this meeting that established the Bonanno crime family in the heroin trade.
The protagonist of this "heroin summit" legend is journalist Claire Sterling: "Although there is no firsthand evidence of what went on at the four-day summit itself, what followed over the next thirty years has made the substance clear. Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are persuaded by now that the American delegation asked the Sicilians to take over the import and distribution of heroin in the United States, and the Sicilians agreed." However, she fails to back this claim with solid evidence. Sterling even has the dates of the alleged meeting wrong.
At the time, although the Sicilian Mafia was involved to some extent in the heroin business all through the 1950s and 1960s, it never had anything more than a secondary role in the world drugs system. According to the McClellan Hearings, Sicily was no more than a staging-post in the shipment of French-produced heroin to the USA. Until the 1970s, Sicilian mafiosi were prevented from acquiring any oligopoly on the heroin market because they were not competitive in comparison with other European criminal groups, in particular the French Connection by Corsican groups in Marseille.
The first mention of the "summit" in the United States was during the McClellan Hearings on October 10–16, 1963. Among the American mafiosi present were Joe Bonanno, his underbosses and advisors Carmine Galante, John Bonventre and Frank Garofalo, as well as Lucky Luciano, Santo Sorge, John Di Bella, Vito Vitale and Gaspare Magaddino. While among the Sicilian side there were Salvatore "Little Bird" Greco and his cousin Salvatore Greco, also known as "l'ingegnere" or "Totò il lungo", Giuseppe Genco Russo, Angelo La Barbera, Gaetano Badalamenti, Calcedonio Di Pisa, Cesare Manzella and Tommaso Buscetta.
There are no first-hand accounts of the meeting, except for the version of Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, who denied a summit ever took place at all. According to Buscetta, Bonanno did stay at the Grand Hotel des Palmes and received many guests all the time, but there was no summit as such. In his memoirs, Joe Bonanno mentions his trip to Palermo, but says nothing about a summit.
According to Buscetta a gathering took place in a private room at the Spanò seafood restaurant on the evening of October 12, 1957, where Bonanno was fêted as the guest of honour by his old friend Lucky Luciano. Among the other guests were Bonanno’s underboss Carmine Galante, the brothers Salvatore and Angelo La Barbera, Salvatore "Little Bird" Greco, Gaetano Badalamenti, Gioacchino Pennino, Cesare Manzella, Rosario Mancino, Filippo and Vincenzo Rimi, and Tommaso Buscetta. According to Buscetta, it was at this dinner that Bonanno suggested to form a Sicilian Mafia Commission to avoid violent disputes, following the example of the American Mafia that had formed their Commission in the 1930s.
The Italian police had been following Luciano and in so doing found out about the meetings. They observed the gatherings. However, the report was buried in some filing cabinet in Palermo. A copy was sent to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in Washington. Only eight years later the report was used to indict the participants and some of their associates in Palermo.
In August 1965, the Palermo public prosecutors indicted 17 main participants associated with the Sicilian and American Mafia by judge Aldo Vigneri for criminal conspiracy and narcotics and currency rackets that allegedly started with the 1957 Palermo summit. Among the indicted were Bonanno, Bonventre, Galante, Sorge, Magaddino, John Priziola, Raffaele Quasarano, Frank Coppola and Joe Adonis. The Court of Palermo dismissed the charges in June 1968 because of lack of evidence.
What can be said about the events in October 1957 in Palermo is that the gatherings reforged the links between the most Sicilian of the American Five Families, the Bonanno Crime Family, and the most American of the Sicilian Mafia families. It was not a conference between "the" Sicilian Mafia and "the" American Cosa Nostra as such.
Heroin trafficking between these two groups might have been discussed, but there certainly was not a general agreement on the heroin trade between "the" Sicilian Mafia and "the" American Cosa Nostra. The important result of 1957 Palermo gatherings was that the Sicilian Mafia composed its first Sicilian Mafia Commission and appointed "Little Bird" Greco as its first "primus inter pares".