Juan Ramon Fernandez seems at ease wherever he goes, whether sipping espresso in a café in Toronto, serving hard time in prison, representing Mafia bosses in Montreal or threatening a drug baron who owes him money.
Even, it is now alleged, when negotiating with senior mafiosi in Sicily, the birthplace of the Mafia.
As Italian police swooped in on a mob-run drug cartel in Bagheria, a Mafia stronghold outside Sicily’s capital of Palermo, Wednesday, among their main targets was Mr. Fernandez, who has been deported from Canada three times.
Apparently escaping the dragnet, Mr. Fernandez was named as a lynchpin of a Sicily-to-Canada drug network and dubbed “Cosa Nostra’s Canadian ambassador.”
In fact, an Italian prosecutor told the National Post: “He was taking over in the Cosa Nostra family of Bagheria due to his tight links with the boss, Sergio Flamia.”
In Canada, Mr. Fernandez was considered the right-hand man of Vito Rizzuto, the Mafia boss from Montreal who is originally from Sicily.
Handsome, well dressed and strong, he attracts and frightens people in equal measure.
After his deportation from Canada last year at the completion of a prison sentence, Mr. Fernandez disappeared until police in Canada learned he was living in Bagheria, where he ran a martial arts gym. Always a fitness buff and a black belt in karate, it was a natural way for him to rebuild.
Now 56, Mr. Fernandez seems to have lost none of his dynamic persona.
He fit in there, according to a report in La Repubblica, a newspaper in Italy, like a native.
He would go for long walks around town in designer clothes and meet many people who would pay him respect.
Italian police secretly followed him for months, tracking him as he met leading figures in Sicily’s Mafia, including the heads of several Mafia clans. His ties to Mr. Rizzuto, who authorities allege maintains an organization in Italy, would likely aid his introduction.
Police moved against the organization early Wednesday, arresting 21 men in what it called a pact between Palermo and Canada. Nine others remain fugitives.
Mr. Fernandez was one of those not found. Fleeing with him, according to reports, was another Canadian who had come to stay with him.
In Italy, Mr. Fernandez is wanted for drug trafficking, accused of arranging shipments of oxycodone pills from Sicily into Canada. During the investigation Italian police seized thousands of the powerful painkillers.
He is also accused of planning to import cocaine directly to Sicily from South America.
“He is a perfect gangster.”
Authorities allege the men were part of a reorganization of Mafia clans in response to the previous arrests of other mobsters. Authorities implicated the Rizzuto organization as a part of the scheme.
Police seized 30-million Euros in property and businesses, including a nightclub, construction companies, supermarkets and a betting agency.
Despite being able to turn on the charm, Mr. Fernandez maintains an unsavory past. He once punched his 17-year-old girlfriend so hard she died in hospital.
Mr. Fernandez was a senior envoy of Montreal’s Rizzuto organization, even though he is Spanish rather than Italian and his lineage prevented him from being an inducted member of the Mafia.
“He was sitting at the right hand of God,” a Canadian police investigator once told the National Post of his ties to Mr. Rizzuto. “He is a perfect gangster,” said another.
When the Montreal Mafia needed a strong hand to bring Ontario under its control, Mr. Fernandez was dispatched. Adopting the name Joe Bravo because he was in Canada illegally, he settled in seamlessly, quickly making friends and alliances with Hells Angels, businessmen and mafiosi.
“They’re just cops, babe; just relax.”
After a large police operation in York Region, north of Toronto, Mr. Fernandez was the top target for arrest — and he seemed fine with that.
In May 2002, he and his girlfriend were pulled over while driving on Highway 407; a heavily armed police tactical team surrounded the car with guns drawn. A wiretap hidden in his car recorded it all.
“Put your hands up. Put ‘em up. Put ‘em up high,” an officer shouted as police dogs barked loudly. Mr. Fernandez remained cool and reassured his girlfriend there was little to fear.
“They’re just cops, babe; just relax,” he cooed.
He was convicted on drug, fraud and counselling-to-commit-murder charges in 2004.
In prison, he was soon at the top of the food chain, muscling his way to prominence. Rumours abounded that his Latin looks had charmed female jail guards. Other guards reported he had threatened to kill them.
Rather than try to be moved to a lower-security institution, he seemed content in a maximum-security prison. And, while behind bars, he still managed to arrange hash shipments from Jamaica, tamper with a witness testifying against him and orchestrate an attack on an inmate at another prison, authorities alleged.
Mr. Fernandez was denied parole because he was deemed too dangerous to release. Instead, he was held in prison until the end of his sentence and, in April 2012, deported to Spain.
Police in Canada expected to see him back here, eventually.
“Right now Vito is a man in need. There are few people he’d rather have rallying to him than Fernandez,” a veteran organized crime investigator said.
But, if Italian authorities are correct in their allegations, the Montreal Mafia didn’t so much need his muscle in Canada as his presence forging new opportunities in Sicily.