The three biggest Italian mafias remain a powerful presence, with tentacles reaching deep inside Italian business and politics. The historian, author and academic John Dickie busts the myth that it’s all in the family.
Rather than referring to the Italian mafia, would it be more accurate to talk about Italian mafias, given that there are a number of criminal organisations operating in the country?
Yes it would. There are three powerful mafias in Italy: the Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian mafia as it is known today; the ’Ndrangheta of Calabria in the far south of the country, and the Camorra in the Naples and the Campania region. The Cosa Nostra and the ’Ndrangheta are quite similar. The easiest way to define a mafia is as a freemasonry of criminals – it’s the freemasons for murderers – and that’s what the Cosa Nostra and ’Ndrangheta are. The Camorra is different in that it’s a catch-all term for a much less centrally coordinated archipelago of gangs that range from city drug dealers to clans that look much more like the Sicilian mafia, like the Casalesi – who threatened to kill the journalist Roberto Saviano.
Those are the three major ones, although there are smaller ones too. As I say in my book Mafia Brotherhoods, Italy doesn’t just have a mafia, it has a criminal ecosystem in which existing mafias evolve and new ones come into being.
When did they first take root in Italy?
Their origins are tied very closely to the emergence of Italy as a unified state. Italy only became one country formally in 1861. The long process leading up to Italian unification – il Risorgimento – is really the key explanation of the emergence of the mafias. Put very briefly, in Southern Italy il Risorgimento was much more of a revolution and was more violent than it was in the rest of the country. Revolutions need an armed wing, and the idealistic patriots who were conspiring to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – as Southern Italy and Sicily were called – and unite it with the rest of Italy, formed an alliance with violent criminals whom they used as revolutionary muscle. Our best guess at why the mafias are organised like freemasons – with admission rituals, hierarchies, internal courts and codes of behaviour – is that they learnt that way of organising themselves from these patriots, many of whom were freemasons or involved in Masonic-style secret societies.
There are a couple of riders to that theory. Firstly, the ’Ndrangheta arrived slightly later – in the 1880s. The Camorra also died out at one point, principally because of a huge trial in 1911 to 1912. Since that point, Camorra has actually meant a number of different things, as I have already mentioned, ranging from common-or-garden smuggling gangs to much bigger, more formally structured crime groups. The Camorra in the form of an Honoured Society re-emerged in the 1970s, in Raffaele Cutolo’s remarkable Nuova Camorra Organizzata. Cutolo probably borrowed the ideas for his organisation – the most numerous in Italian mafia history – from the ’Ndrangheta, into which he was initiated, as well as from books about the old Neapolitan Honoured Society he borrowed from prison libraries.
In terms of their power today, how does it compare to, say, 25 years ago?
In the late 1970s and 1980s, large parts of Sicily looked like they would become narco-provinces. The Cosa Nostra was controlling the wholesale heroin market in the United States and making rivers of dollars. It had the organisation, wealth and firepower to confront the Italian state directly – quite literally to kill anyone who stood in its way. Add to that, it had also heavily infiltrated the Italian state. The two Salvo cousins – who were probably both Men of Honour, as mafia initiates are known – ran the company that collected most of Sicily’s taxes and pocketed about 10% of the island’s tax revenue. This gives you some idea of the level of infiltration in the 1980s.
There have been enormous strides since then. The streets are not filled with bodies to nearly the same extent as they were 20 or 30 years ago. Italy – largely because of the sacrifice of heroic policemen and women, magistrates and carabinieri – has far better organised and professional law enforcement than it’s ever had. The entire historical leadership of the Sicilian mafia, for example, is behind bars apart from one man – Matteo Messina Denaro.
That doesn’t mean that the mafia is dead – far from it. One of the reasons that the Sicilian mafia is organised as it is, is that somebody is always ready to step into their boss’s shoes. But nonetheless, it’s a crisis that the Cosa Nostra is now living through and it’s having to find different strategies to survive and prosper. To some extent that’s also true of the Camorra and ’Ndrangheta, where the magistrature has also enjoyed some success. But we are still talking about deep-rooted organisations able to collect protection money. Last year alone, more than 140 journalists were threatened by them and there are still very high-level politicians being investigated for mafia links. So there’s still a long way to go.
Your books talk about myths and misconceptions of the mafia in Italy. What are they?
There are so many, and they are often so contradictory. One of the biggest is the widely held view outside Italy that the criminal organisations of Italy are not really organisations, but are an expression of the family and culture of southern Italy. That’s complete nonsense. Historically the mafias have developed very specific forms to suit their business activities.
The Cosa Nostra and the ’Ndrangheta have a dynastic politics that resemble the royal families of medieval Europe. In other words, they keep their women at home and they use them as pawns in the diplomatic game. When a war is about to be fought, alliances are made by marrying off your daughter to the son of another family. Or if a war has just ended, you seal the peace with a marriage. Southern Italians just don’t do that. This is a very specific mafia form of behaviour to do with the politics of the organisations and with finding ways to project their power and wealth down through the generations. It’s remarkably far-sighted, and one of the things that differentiates mafias from mere gangsters.
For many people outside Italy, perceptions of the mafia come from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. This is a book you’re not keen on, are you?
It’s spectacularly and often comically wrong. Not only is it very badly written, but it also gets the mafia wrong in one crucial respect – it thinks it is about family and not about organisation. It falls fully for that myth of the ancient culture of southern Italy which defends itself by forming this entity called the mafia. The mafia is a criminal organisation and always has been.
The Godfather is a “three bears” story about the three sons – Sonny, Michael and Fredo. Sonny is too macho and too violent, and Fredo is too wimpy. Michael is just right – he’s the calculating family man. The book makes uncomfortable reading because it uses sex and sexuality as a metaphor for all of this. Fredo is dissipated and a bit of an aesthete, while Michael only ever has sex in the missionary position. Sonny is basically a walking male member – the novel talks an awful lot about the dimensions of his virilia. So The Godfather has that kind of comic aspect to it. It’s a really strange novel and it seems extraordinary that it has managed to sell 21 million copies, given how clunky and weird it is.
It’s more than a quarter of a century since Giovanni Falcone was murdered by Cosa Nostra. Can you remind us who he was?
Giovanni Falcone was an epoch-making figure in the history of the Italian mafia. He was a prosecuting magistrate who – assisted by his close colleague Paolo Borsellino, who was also murdered in 1992 – developed a new method for investigating the mafia. It was based around, in the first instance, following the money trail. They then assembled the prosecution case in the most important mafia trial of all time – the Maxi trial in Palermo – which ran from 1986 to 1987. It was a massive trial that saw more than 400 mafiosi charged. But more importantly than that, it aimed to establish a legal precedent for the existence of the Sicilian mafia. It may seem bizarre, but Italy did not recognise the existence of the mafia until the Maxi trial. In fact, it did not formally recognise the existence of the Sicilian mafia until January 1992, when Italy’s Supreme Court issued a ruling approving the verdict of the Maxi trial. It’s no coincidence that Falcone and Borsellino were murdered within weeks of that ruling – they had proved the mafia existed and the mafia reacted by killing them.
Falcone also did something very important which is often forgotten. In the last phase of his career, when he was working in Rome, he set up the national coordinating structures for investigating and prosecuting mafia crime based on his methods. Everybody today who is involved in fighting the mafia now works according to the Falcone method.
Please tell us about his book, Men of Honour.
It’s based on an interview with a French journalist a few weeks before Falcone was blown up on 23 May 1992. It’s basically a theme-by-theme account of what the Cosa Nostra is and how it works, by somebody who knew it better than anybody else. You get a sense of the man’s extraordinary lucidity and humanity in the way he describes it. He famously says that the mafia is a human creation and like all human creations it has a beginning and will have an end. So he certainly didn’t subscribe to the theory that the mafia was hard-wired into the Sicilian psyche and couldn’t be separated out and defeated.
He really understood the mentality of mafiosi, especially the hidden meanings in their mannerisms and gestures, didn’t he?
That’s principally because he was the first magistrate who actually took seriously the testimonies of mafia defectors – seriously in the sense that he didn’t just want to take bits and pieces of their evidence that he could use, but he wanted to find out about the whole mafia system, its way of thinking and the rules that governed its internal behaviour. A lot of what he learns comes from Tommaso Buscetta, who in his own way made history just as much as Giovanni Falcone. Buscetta turned state’s evidence in July 1984 after most of his family was murdered by his mafia enemies. It was Falcone’s debriefing of Buscetta that set the Maxi trial in motion and gave Falcone a real grasp of the human reality within Cosa Nostra. He said Buscetta was like an interpreter who allowed him to finally speak and understand the language of the mafia. Falcone shows in this book that he really was the first non-mafioso to master that language.
The title of your next book comes from the phrase Cadaveri Eccellenti – used to describe high-profile mafia victims. Please tell us more.
Alexander Stille is an American-Italian journalist and this is a remarkable piece of journalism. It’s a narrative of the investigations of Falcone and Borsellino from the crucial years of the 1980s – when the Sicilian mafia was filling the streets of Palermo with bodies – right up to their murder in 1992. It’s an extraordinary and passionate piece of journalism about the most dramatic and important moment in the history of organised crime in Italy. You can’t get a better witness to it than Alexander Stille. There are relatively few books on the mafia by outsiders – if one can really call Stille an outsider – that become classics in Italy, and this is one of them.
Stille puts the story of the Sicilian mafia in the context of postwar Italian politics, doesn’t he?
That’s right. The remarkable parallel narrative to the story of Falcone and Borsellino is of course the end of the Cold War and the virtual collapse of the Italian political system. The parties that had ruled Cold War Italy – the Communists and the Christian Democrats – folded and a new political reality emerged from the chaos of mafia bombs and corruption scandals. It was a very dramatic time and Stille is very good at placing things in that wider political context.
I have to add that the title of Stille’s book has always annoyed me. No one ever says “excellent cadavers” in English – it’s just not a very good translation. It really should be “Eminent Cadavers” or “Eminent Corpses”. But that one small problem aside, it’s a fantastic book.
You have described Salvatore Lupo as the pioneer of mafia history.
Salvatore Lupo is a friend of mine and an extraordinary historian from Sicily. In some senses my book CosaNostra’s unifying thread is Lupo’s research, although it does draw on many other sources as well. I was trying to make his research – as well as a lot of other stuff – accessible to an English-speaking audience of non-specialists.
Please tell us more about his book The Two Mafias: a Transatlantic History 1888-2008.
Lupo’s most recent book examines the transatlantic relationship between the mafia in Sicily and the mafia in the United States, particularly New York. His argument is that we cannot conceive of how the mafia became so powerful on both shores without examining the dynamic relationship between the organization’s two branches—one in America and one in Sicily. It’s an extraordinary work of scholarship. People tend to forget how tricky it is to write reliable history when some of the sources are mafiosi themselves—many of whom are born liars. Lupo shows real forensic skill in sifting out the lies from the truth, and in showing how the lies can still be very significant in their own way.
Please tell us about Roberto Saviano and his book Gomorrah, which has left him living in fear for his life.
Roberto Saviano is a young Neapolitan journalist and the author of Gomorrah, which is about the Camorra. As a result of its success and his public pronouncements against them, he was condemned to death – there was phone tap evidence that the Camorra planned to kill him. So he, like an awful lot of other people in Italy, is living under armed guard.
This is a book with many virtues and one or two faults. It’s flawed, but I think that only this book could have made the impact that it did at the time that it did. It was also a book that desperately needed to be written. For a long time the Neapolitan Camorra was much more difficult to write about than the Sicilian mafia. The Sicilian mafia makes good copy – you’ve got the Godfather and the figure of the boss of bosses – and is easier to write about. As I have said, the Camorra is a much messier phenomenon – it’s a name for all sorts of gangs that come and go. Nobody – even in Naples – has more than a very partial idea about what’s really going on and this makes it very difficult to alert the public to just what a danger it is.
Saviano is viscerally enraged and disgusted at what the Camorra is and what it’s doing. The book has a colour, noise and emotional power in its descriptions that had a huge impact and helped create a public sense of the importance of legality and the fight against organised crime in Naples and Campania in the same way that Falcone and Borsellino did in relation to Sicily in the 1980s and 1990s. It has made the Camorra into a national issue, which is exactly what it should be. The Camorra is a national phenomenon. Its politicians sit in the national parliament and government. It runs trucking and construction companies that are in business right across the country. It is involved in drug trafficking across Italy. These are national problems, not just Neapolitan folklore. It took Saviano to raise public awareness of this.
Unfortunately, it’s badly translated into English. Apart from the ugliness of the prose, the translator has people robbing banks with air rifles and driving tanks down the streets of Naples rather than bulletproof cars – all sorts of silly mistakes. Also, the figures quoted in lire in the Italian version are converted directly into euros in the English version – so a billion lire becomes a billion euros, which is completely wrong. So the translation does turn some of the book into nonsense. Saviano’s prose is also difficult. If you look at it in the cold light of day, some of it is a bit over the top.
Yes, I have just finished his later book BeautyandtheInferno, which makes me feel guilty for touching anything Italian in my local supermarket lest it be tainted with the blood of mafia victims. But what I find so shocking from reading his books is that this widespread and brutal criminality is still going on – for example, toxic waste being dumped across southern Italy by the Camorra and giving people cancer.
Absolutely. Before Saviano, the people who knew about this just hadn’t found a way to break through and make people understand. They sure understand now. That’s the enormous merit of this book. Its strength and weakness is that he puts himself at the centre of the story – that’s what holds it together in this diffuse, confusing, chaotic, violent, amoral world of organised crime. He puts his own reactions and his own persona at the centre of it. That can be seen as producing a cult of personality and he’s attracted some criticism for that. But it’s precisely that tactic that gives the book its immediacy and allows you to feel his disgust.
I know that one of the themes of your book Mafia Brotherhoods is how the mafia exploits women and family relationships. Please tell us more about your final choice, Clare Longrigg’s Mafia Women.
In a way there is a missing book. I would have liked there to be a sixth book and that’s one that makes the ’Ndrangheta understandable to everybody, but it hasn’t been written yet. The ’Ndrangheta has yet to find its Giovanni Falcone or Roberto Saviano but it’s extremely important and even more ignored than the Camorra.
That said, I wanted to include another book that is well written and not just a bad translation. Mafia Women is a great piece of journalism and another one of those rare books on the mafia written by an outsider that commands respect in Italy. It picks on an issue that is fascinating and historically very important – it’s about what the mafia does to women and the role that they have. We’re all fascinated by the figure of the female gangster, but Longrigg shows that there are many more dimensions to women’s roles within Italy’s criminal organisations.
When you look up close, it’s not the active gun-toting women who are the most fascinating – it’s the women whose existence is dominated by the task of breeding mafia sons and passing on to them the values of honour and violence when their fathers are in prison or dead. They live under extraordinary psychological pressure and it’s a story that we have only just begun to find out about.
Is this book a collection of individual stories?
The basis of it is stories about individual women, some of whom are as much victims as perpetrators. One that sticks in the mind as powerfully moving is the story of Rita Atria. She was a daughter of a mafioso and her brothers were mafiosi. She turned state’s evidence after her brother was killed. She was only a teenager at the time and had to unlearn the mafia brainwashing that she had undergone since birth. A number of mafiosi were convicted on the basis of her evidence.
While going through this whole process she attached herself very closely to Paolo Borsellino, who became something of a surrogate father to her. Tragically, exactly a week after Borsellino was killed in July 1992, Rita Atria jumped to her death from the window of her safe house. It’s a horrible story that just gives a sense of the extraordinary stakes involved in being a woman inside that mafia culture.
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