Alex Constantine - July 9, 2014
Riccobono's tale is a modern Roaring Twenties movie with all the accompanying brutality, sociopathic evil, and murder. Jon Riccobono was conceived into the perfect black hole of the mafia idol's eye with an illiterate father raised on a Sicilian mafia ethic who never had any normal fatherly interaction with his son except to train him for mafia business. Bred with contempt for society his childhood is a downward path of seeking all the worst of that society including crime and drugs. First without a father, then without a mother, Riccobono was raised by the devil himself as a purebred mafia son. Even when he was taken away from the city hell that formed him Riccobono knew normal society was not for him and he was destined for lower things. His mafia family peer group had damned him and permanently formed him as a dangerous criminal whose main strength was brutal intimidation and murder overseen by Gambino mafia role-model uncles.
Some have questioned Riccobono's Viet Nam accounts. I think, as sick as they are, they are true. Evan Wright shows that further investigation proves they are corroborated by the records of others who were involved. This book is interesting because a good researcher will see evidence of more serious things in its contents. For instance, the fact Wright could find no Army service record for Riccobono is a serious red flag that the covert activities he speaks of later in the book are real. So much so that the government removed his service record to lower his profile like it does with such persons. Less savvy persons say this sheds doubt on Riccobono's stories. More insightful analyzers recognize the opposite.
While this book translates its message in an unashamedly anti-social street medium it does have a deeper message that Riccobono consciously impresses. He tries to say that although he is damned and practices an evil ideology that the rest of society is hypocritical because it is directly linked to it and interacts with it. Riccobono goes out of his way to show how connected some famous Americans names are to the mob and how dependent they are on the gambling, drug underground the mob represents. Riccobono is a case study in his moral schizophrenia. On the one hand he's repentant of the things he's done, but at the same time he scoffs with contempt at his victims and almost relishes the superiority of his methods. There's a visible conflict or rift between his sadistic tutoring on the right way to break bones with your boot, or how to bash somebody's brains out with a pistol grip, shoot kneecaps the right way in order to inflict maximum damage, or even set-up drug buyers for robbery, while at the same time regretting who he is and what he's done. An therein lies the open theme of the book that never quite gets resolved or expiated by the telling. The book almost drags you in to root for Riccobono up until you realize the evil ethic Riccobono harbors leads to his betraying or murdering people who he was just pal-ing around with as friends in the previous paragraph. The bottom line is no matter what message he is giving it is underlain by a godless, inhuman law of the jungle that is the basis of the mafia mindset he practices. You feel guilty reading the book because, as with Riccobono, the glorification comes at the expense of the terribly victimized people the accounts are based on. Even Riccobono himself admits his religion and doings are Satanism. In the end, while entertaining, both you and Riccobono are struck with the awareness that the book should be sealed and used as a stone around his neck to sink him in hell.
The book is a psychological study because while having contempt for those who betray and "rat out" Riccobono turns around and does that very thing himself on the next page. His use of his mob ethic to hide and justify that to himself is the unstated theme of the book and is that which always comes back to consume and destroy everything Riccobono builds to try and counter it. Riccobono's simple brutal mob ethic is so evil it manages to illustrate a very complex existential human condition at the heart of darkness commonly seen throughout the ages. He's a good example of why they put the "ill" in illegal. He represents a sick morality that those who flirt with criminality are fair game on the anything goes playing field he pulls them into.
Those with a more researched understanding of what Riccobono talks about view the book in terms of its greater surroundings. Riccobono was so connected that he crossed paths with many famous events and characters. This is always interesting because you can triangulate and verify the stories of other famous people versus Riccobono's accounting like sort of a truth sonar. A good litmus test is Riccobono's description of Albert San Pedro's crooked eye. Riccobono speaks of how San Pedro's crooked eye was a poor replacement eye implanted after a gun battle in Miami. Friends of San Pedro said the gun battle story was something he made up in order to avoid admitting a cross eye birth defect. While not being something you would expect Riccobono know, his relaying the false story makes you question his relaying of other important accounts in the book. He does this again when he says Griselda Blanco was assassinated immediately upon arrival in Colombia. Griselda was deported to Colombia in 2004 and was assassinated in 2012 after Riccobono's death.
On the other hand those employing that greater truth sonar see Riccobono detailing a nest of corruption of some very high official figures in Miami and the government. If Riccobono's book is unredeemable this coverage of the extent of corruption makes up for it. There's no doubt he's trying to impugn society in general by showing how money and cocaine is a common denominator. He's like Michael Corleone telling the Nevada senator that we're both in the same business. When you see the extent of corruption Riccobono details and how many authorities were on his payroll there's little argument against it. Evan Wright reinforces this in the footnotes. Riccobono has no idea that the state attorney he parties with, Dick Gerstein, is tied to the major CIA/mafia BCCI Bank. Another touchstone is the Meyer Lansky mob infrastructure Riccobono adopts to cocaine smuggling. The footnotes are almost better than the book. One of the best examples is the serious crossroads Ricky Prado represents. It leads directly to CIA recruitment of Riccobono in the Contra campaign. Prado was a Cuban enforcer for San Pedro who went on to head Bush's illegal CIA death squads in the War On Terror. Cubans learning how to smuggle from their Bay of Pigs training and Barry Seal also expose a notorious interface between CIA and organized crime. He is so deep into the underworld that he crosses paths with and touches some of the most powerful covert organizations of the time connected to things far beyond cocaine smuggling. This book is valuable for those who understand the bigger picture and how even Riccobono isn't aware of the depth of what he experiences.
It's important to note that when describing the clandestine airports Barry Seal used neither Riccobono or Wright mention Mena, Arkansas by name. Instead they say an airport in Arkansas. This is important because it serves as a barometer of how much Riccobono is telling. Wright doesn't have any trouble giving out such informing detail elsewhere in his footnotes. Mena is a place where CIA directly smuggled cocaine for Contra funding. Wright and Riccobono are also silent on Lt Sabow and his death related to similar smuggling.
While most others did 10 year sentences or more Riccobono's 300 year sentence was reduced to 3 years. Probably not because he turned-in Noriega and Prado but because he had the goods on CIA. CIA exposed their concern for this when they set-up Barry Seal for assassination with the Medellin cartel in order to shut him up about their gun running to the Contras.
One of the most important parts of the book is when Riccobono is figuring what he can disclose to the feds and what he can't. This is very important because it serves as a good gauge on the information Riccobono provides about other important events like the Jimi Hendrix kidnapping. Judging from information Riccobono avoids in other parts of the book I'd say he held back on the Hendrix kidnapping and knew a lot more than he told.
There's an obvious question that begs to be answered at the end of the book. Since Riccobono claims he was wiped-out of all the millions he saved, where did the money come from for Riccobono's beach side house in Hollywood? That lifestyle wasn't cheap at that address. So where did Riccobono get the money to afford it?
Finally, I share the sentiment of another reviewer who complained that the book just drops off at the end with no summation or concluding thoughts. Evan Wright should know his writing loses quality for doing that. Though with the information and characters he's dealing with I might not blame him for not wanting to upset anyone with any possibly provocative judgments. He lost a star because of it, along with my refusal to give 5 stars to evil.