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The mafia

by Domenico Airoma


1. A definition

"A complex of small clandestine associations (the cosche: gangs) governed by a code of silence (the omertà) and being in control of some business activities and of party patronage in the administration of the Region of Sicily": so reads a dictionary of the Italian language – the Devoto-Oli – for the headword "mafia". The most widely accepted etymology makes it derive from the Arabian mahias (braggart, insolent), and with such a meaning it appeared in 1658 for the first time.


2. The origins

"The mafia – writes historian Paolo Pezzino – is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory [ …] . It is therefore a form of criminality implying some conditions: the existence of a modern state claiming the exclusive right to legitimate monopoly over violence; an economy that is free of feudal bonds [ …] ; the existence of violent people able to operate on their own, imposing their mediation even on the ruling classes".

The quoted definition gives a rather complete description of the phenomenon, based on the observation of the conditions in which Sicily finds itself after the abolition of the feudal system, proclaimed by the Sicilian Parliament in 1812. Several factors originated the transfer of most of landed properties to an emergent "burgeoisie", such as the progressive urban migration of the aristocracy and the alienation of the nobles’ land in favor of the excisemen (the capeddi or gabelloti), who were previously entrusted with the administration of the large estates and therefore with the relationships with the sharecroppers in the absence of the nobles. Furhtermore, the encroachment of municipal properties and the acquisition of expropriated ecclesiastical lands were brought about by the end of feudal bonds and by the abolition of community rights. The failing of the traditional repressive system, mostly remitted to the aristocracy, and the rising centralization of the administration pursued by the governments led by the so-called "enlightened absolutism", made the new owners resort to private militias ("bands" or "squads"), indispensable mean to accomplish territorial control. The tasks of these "unions or fraternities", "small Governments inside the Government" – as the King’s Attorney General Pietro Calà Ulloa (1802-1879) defines them – were: control of cattle-stealing; proposal of "mediation" between thieves and victims of thefts, and, more generally, between labourers, smallholders and the new proprietors; settlement of quarrels; protection of affiliates; corruption of government officials. Moreover, the progressive success of the cosche as "aid institutions" – deep-rooted in the local communities – was due to the systematic use of violence, to the ability to overcome the organs of the State in every conflict, to the silence (the omertà) of the mafiusi (mobsters), to their "being men", and especially "men of honor" – that is fearless and smart, capable of heinous crimes and – at the same time – respectful of the traditional morals, especially concerning family.

The years following the unification of Italy, namely starting from 1860, saw the completion of the mafia’s "institutionalization" process and the first coordination experiments among the gangs. Many factors enabled the mafia to penetrate legal institutions, and helped to justify its power in the eyes of the Sicilians: the underestimation of the mafia phenomenon by the central government, reluctant to undertake an effectively repressive action; the arrangement between local politician and "mafiosi", through which the former assured themselves electoral consent among the people, while the latter gained control of the collection of taxes; the opportunity to influence the finance of municipalities and the police forces, conditioning their investigations; the resort to the cosche to defeat the rebels against the new State (the so-called Brigantaggio).


3. Fascism and the post-war years 

The repression campaign against the mafia – required by Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) after a visit to Sicily in May of 1925 and committed to prefect Cesare Mori (1872-1942) – was organized on both repressive and social levels: on the repressive level, there was a massive resort to drastic police measures – such as internment and seizure of properties – aiming to root out the mobsters from the territories they controlled and to attack their ascendancy over the people; from a social point of view, the action was directed to neutralize the weight of the excisemen (the gabelloti or also campieri), committing the mediation and representation duties to bureaucratic organs, abolishing local and general elections and giving the State all the economical protection and regulation powers.

"By these means – observes German sociologist Henner Hess – the power of the mobsters was soon broken, on the one hand prosecuting them, on the other hand making them useless". American journalist Claire Sterling (1918-1995) concludes: " "Mussolini has strangled the monster in his lair", stated the Times of London [...]. With the fall of Mussolini, at the end of World War II, the mafia reappeared like magic. The "men of honor", all fervent antifascists, moved straight from jail to public offices ". As a matter of fact, most of the mafiosi had survived the fascist repression escaping to the United States of America, where they set up the Sicilian Union, later called "Cosa Nostra".

Although the existence of pacts of impunity in favor of the mobsters who had contributed to the success of the Allies’ landing in Sicily is debated, the re-emegence of the power of the mafia in the post-war period is demonstrated; its structure and functions remained unchanged, again for the absence of mediation and representation organs in the fabric of society. Cosa Nostra proved to be a versatile and interclass body: sometimes joining forces with the separatist front, other times supporting the landowners or otherwise the farmer movement. It was still inseparable from a given territory, although the american period had provided the mafia with an invaluable international network. 


4. From control of tenders to drug traffic 

The increasing State intervention in the economy planning – through the creation of institutes

as the Southern Italy Development Fund (Cassa per il Mezzogiorno) and the Hydrocarbon National Board (E.N.I.) – was decided in the fifties by the party having the relative majority at the time, the Christian Democrat Party (D.C.), with the support of the main opposition party, the Italian Communist Party (P.C.I.); the mafia changed then from "rural" to "urban", attracted by new sources of income, such as building trade, general markets and tenders. At first, the mafia introduced itself in these fields under the usual appearance of protector – imposing bribes to the entrepreneurs – then it became able to manage the entrepreneurship on its own, by having at its disposal effective means to "discourage" the competitors and by hoarding government’s grants in aid. Those were the years when the relationship between the cosche and the political parties became very deep. The mafia had no "ideological" interest in the parties, and limited itself to turn the electoral consent to the political alignment that could offer the best chances to preserve its power, also economical. "The mafia was the guilty secret of all political parties – wrote C. Sterling - , though it was more guilty for some than for some others. Even the communists had their little sins". For the same reason, some mobsters joined masonic lodges, aiming to extend their network especially to financial circles and judicial power.

In the late sixties, the mafia faced the first trials in Catanzaro and Bari with no structural damages. During the following decade, it took advantage of the Government’s effort against terrorism to carry out a huge strengthening of its organization with the goal of making it fit for the changed criminal perspectives. In fact, during that period, the contraband of foreign tobaccos at first, and then the drug traffic, provided a massive inflow of liquidity and forced the various gangs to estabilish an operative connection, now essential to avoid "conflicts of jurisdiction". The various "families" – each one ruled by a "representative" – were gathered into groups following the criterion of territorial contiguity and committed to a district-boss (the capo-mandamento). The district-bosses formed a superior corporate body, the Committee or "Cupola" . The rigid oligarchic structure, the inflexible code of practice and the enormous profits make the "punitive" action unfailing whenever the safety of the criminal organization is under menace, be it internal or external.

Even the relationship with the institutions begun to get more conflictual – although still in the perspective of an utilitarian "cohabitation" – and providing for the violent elimination of the representatives of the public authorities as the only alternative to corrupting them. The methods are now terroristic and have the purpose of making more and more palpable the State’s impossibility to control the territory.

Meanwhile, Cosa Nostra entered into relationship with foreign criminal organizations, the most important being the Russian – having mainly political origins – and the Turkish "mafias", the Chinese triads and the Japanese yakuza. The sicilian mafia is now an organizational paradigm to them, in spite of its unchanged nature of territory-rooted organization. This fact openened "the extremely dangerous perspective of a standardization of the models of criminal organization", observed magistrate Giovanni Falcone (1939-1992). In the presence of such a qualitative and quantitative extent of the mafia phenomenon, legislative and executive powers react following the "funeral logic", that is to say interventions through emergency measures , basically aiming to calm down the general opinion – especially after slaughters of judges and policemen – instead of tackling the problem radically. Substantial judicial successes were registered only through the systematic resort to the so-called "pentiti", that is criminals who turn state’s evidence, enabling the investigators to penetrate the structure of Cosa Nostra. The first judicial defeats and the "implosion" of the political parties’ estabilishment led Cosa Nostra to seek for new political references, considering those used till then no more able to assure the "arrangement" of trials and the access to public funds.


5. Some critical remarks 

The history of the mafia phenomenon reveals the fallacy of any "reductionist" interpretation: it can’t be analyzed through one-sided criteria as it is an "extralegal social system" – according to sociologist Leopoldo Franchetti (1847-1917). The essence of mafia lies neither in the violent means, in the acquisition of capitals or in the underdevelopment of the community, nor can it be described as "a cancer proliferating in a healthy tissue by chance" – observes G. Falcone. The mafia constitutes an answer to the need of "protection" of people "stripped" of all the social aggregation habits that were typical of a given area. It is an organized answer, not necessarily violent, but basically complete and therefore alternative to the institutions; the effect is an indissoluble and absorbing bond, while the only aim is the advantage of the organization in itself.

Deepenings: for the historical context: Paolo Pezzino, Mafia: industria della violenza, La Nuova Italia, Firenze 1995; Henner Hess, Mafia and Mafiosi, The Structure Of Power , Heath Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass.1973; general documentation: see Giovanni Falcone, with Marcelle Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra, Rizzoli, Milano 1991; Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia (Anti-mafia Parliamentary Committee), Mafia e Politica, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1993; chronicle: Claire Sterling, Cosa non solo nostra, Mondadori, Milano 1990.