Reviews: Banditry and Organized Crime in Sicily – Nella Cotrupi

Banditry and Organized Crime in Sicily

Speaking Notes, September 2005
Sicily Trip – Classical Pursuits

Nella Cotrupi

Banditry and Organized Crime in SicilyWe have seen from our brief overview of Sicilian history how centuries of exploitation of the land and people of this island by the landed foreign gentry and, in many cases by the Church, resulted in ever widening disparities in wealth and power. Brigandage and banditry developed both in conjunction with this process of exploitation and in response to it.

The absentee landlords of Spain would recruit “strongmen” or enforcers to ensure collection of rents and produce from their peasant tenants. These armies of official bandits acted with impunity both within the bounds of the already skewed laws that were designed to augment and shelter the wealth of the privileged (both lay and clerical), and beyond them for they did not hesitate to make a law of force itself in order to achieve their own ends. So, the roots of the Mafia are feudal. From humble rustic origins the Mafia developed, flourished, and was exported, largely as a result of Sicilian social and economic conditions.

The Language
The origin of the word “mafia” as Leonardo Sciascia humorously describes in the story “Philology” is debated, but it certainly wasn’t used to refer to organized crime until the nineteenth century. There has been speculation that the word derived form the Arabic “mahjas” which means “boasting.’ But the word did not gain currency until 800 years after the Arabs had left Sicily so this is not a convincing explanation. Another theory has the root as the expression,” ma fille” the cry of the mother whose daughter’s rape was said to have set off the Sicilian Vespers. This too goes back many centuries before the first documented usage of the term “mafia” which can be traced to 1865 in the prefecture of Palermo after the unification of Italy (Peter Rob, Midnight in Sicily ).

Spain and Criminal Activity
The first signs of a concerted and organized criminal element in Sicily goes back to the early 16 th Century – around the same time that Spain introduced the Inquisition to Sicily. At this time the bands of armed strongmen acted as the arm of power and officialdom; however, some also played the role of protectors for the small people of Sicily who were victimized by the excesses of the Spanish governments.

Sicily’s aristocratic absentee landlords often entrusted administration of their rural estates to managers called ” gabelloti ” which is a word that can be traced to the Arabic word for tax collector. These tax collectors were also in effect the administrators who oversaw the properties and ensured the incomes of the usually absent landed gentry.

Until 1812, the purchase of a feudal property made its holder the count or baron of that fief, and in this way numerous gabelloti themselves became barons, by purchasing feudal lands from the men they worked for. The methods they used to intimidate the poor peasants into working the estates for poor wages in dire living conditions often entailed the use of local intermediaries who made it their own business to manage such matters. These intermediaries, who today might be considered local Mafia bosses, rarely murdered anybody; they delegated that job to their underlings – if you will pardon the irony, playing the good cop to their bad. This is how the myth of the “benevolent” mafioso who acted as protector or “godfather” was born.

On of the most engaged, wide ranging and courageous books to be written recently (1996) in English about Sicily and it’s best known export, is Midnight in Sicily by the Australian journalist, Peter Rob. Here is how he describes this situation:

…The Mafia was a parasitic presence that grew between the state and its people. The Mafia was outlawed but tolerated, secret but recognizable, criminal but upholding of order. It protected but ripped off the owners of the great estates, protected and ripped off the share-croppers who worked the estates, protected and ripped off the peasants who slaved on them.”(p.57)

The demise of feudalism did not wipe out the scourge. Into the 1800’s the mafiosi were still lining their pockets playing off different interests against each other, all the while collecting handsomely from anyone able to pay for the settling of a score or perceived injustice. This served in some quarters to enhance the perception of mafiosi as “Robin Hoods” who, through their chain of contacts, were able to achieve results. Among the terms used to describe them and their modus operandi: “friends of the friends” and “men of honour.” In fact, there were codes of behaviour, of “honour”, that had to be respected or there would be a price to pay.

Omertà, from the Latin root “homo” literally means “manliness” and refers to the idea of a man resolving his own problems, and defending his honour. But the term has also become synonymous with the Mafia’s code of silence and the bond of secrecy.

It is not surprising, given this code of silence that very little is known of the structure of mafia society and indeed, its very existence has often been hotly denied. Thus, until the 1970’s and into the 80’s definitions of the word “mafia” in the OED described it as “erroneously supposed to constitute a secret society existing for criminal purposes.” By1993 the first part of the definition had been dropped. It is instructive to note that today in the most recent Concise Oxford Dictionary I had at hand, the definition was somewhat different: “1. Hostility to law and its ministers among the Sicilian population; 2. Organized international body of criminals especially in the USA, and originally amongst Italian immigrants; 3. Organization regarded as exerting hidden influence.

My Webster dictionary defines “Mafia” as:

1. a: a secret criminal society of Sicily or Italy b: a similarly conceived criminal organization in the U.S.; also, a similar organization elsewhere <the Japanese Mafia> c: a criminal organization associated with a particular traffic <the cocaine Mafia>

2. often not capitalized : a group of people likened to the Mafia; especially : a group of people of similar interests or backgrounds prominent in a particular field or enterprise.

The definitions, not surprisingly, serve in themselves to give a history of the changes that took place in both the development and our understanding and judgement of mafia.

Transition into the 20th Century
Going back to the end of the 19 th century, it is generally accepted that Garibaldi had the support of Mafia bands during his invasion of Sicily in 1860, though it is very unlikely that they were a decisive factor in his victory. In the same year, it was suggested to King Francesco II of the Two Sicilies that the Camorra, a Neapolitan organization similar to the Mafia, kill Garibaldi and his officers upon their arrival in Naples. The King refused the offer and was soon replaced as a result of Garibaldi’s successful unification efforts by Vittorio Emanuele, the Savoy King.

The involvement of Mafia and organized outlaw elements with established “legitimate” political and economic interests should not be surprising. By 1900, the “black hand” a term emphasizing a less benign face of the Mafia, was once again snaking its way into emerging power channels, ensuring it’s access to and role as “friends of the friends.” With the rise of fascist power, however, the local chiefs or dons found themselves face to face with Mussolini’s strong man in Sicily, Cesare Mori (the “Iron Prefect”). Acting on strict orders to cleanse Sicily of this competing, regional power base, he threw most of them into prison in order to neutralize the threat they posed to centralized fascist power. The reaction on the part of the men of honour? Logical, place the local organization on the path of resistance, offering support to the partisans and spying services and determined collaboration to the Allies.

The wartime collaboration of American expats like Sicilian-born Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano with the United States Navy may have made the Allied invasion of Sicily smoother than it otherwise would have been. But, Mori’s harsh enforcement of the Duce’s laws had already led most mafiosi to take up the American cause, or at least made them hostile to the Fascist one. The early surrender of thousands of Italian troops at Pantelleria, with virtually no resistance, shortly before the main attack on Sicily, made it clear that most Italian recruits were unwilling to risk their lives for what they saw as a battle that was not their’s and possibly a lost cause at that.

The Allies rewarded their efforts by making mafiosi provisional mayors and essentially opening the way to their dominant role in local politics. One such local mayor, more ruthless and ambitious than others, soon became supreme head of the Mafia in Sicily.

With the collapse of fascism however, riots again broke out in Sicily as thousands starved in the post-war hiatus. The new Sicilian elite and its foreign friends were disturbed to see the growth in democracy and in left-leaning politics taking hold in the land. The long time dream of Sicilian separatism was again revived but, as Voltaire had observed long before, Sicilians hate their masters and rebel against them, but they do not make any real effort towards freedom (Robb, p.59). Perhaps given their history and the ensuing cynicism this may be quite understandable – laws are there to serve those in power and help them to protect their interests. Full stop. What some Sicilians were now dreaming up was annexation to the USA – the next centre of power; and the mafia, always good at sensing winning opportunities, was eager to support these inclinations.

In the immediate post-war years, as the Mafia set about the task of re-organizing its activities and objects, several bandit tribes roamed the countryside. The most popular, was led by Salvatore Giuliano, who came closest to the image of a modern Robin Hood. He supported a separatist movement that favoured an independent Sicily, perhaps as part of the United States. Men like Giuliano were not mafiosi. Indeed, the mafiosi resented and feared them because it could not control them through fear and intimidation.

But, as Peter Rob describes the sequence of events, the mafia was a master of opportunism and having played its cards on both sides of the Sicilian deck, Giuliano’s downfall and the demise of the Separatist insurgency did not mean that the mafia was out in the cold. It had put in its oar in the Democratic Christian sea and stayed very much afloat. So reasons Rob, it was the mafia that assisted in setting up Giuliano to commit the massacre of innocent protesters at the Portella della Ginestra, that later arranged Giuliano’s own death in 1950 at the hand of his cousin and second in command, Gaspare Pisciotta, that assisted in the rise of a Sicilian Demo-Christian to the prime minister’s office, and that finally decided it was now giving, not taking, orders from those who wielded political, state, financial and, he suggests, Vatican, power

As anyone familiar with Sicilian folk music will tell you, Giuliano is considered a national hero in many quarters. He epitomized many of the inherent contradictions and conflicting impulses of Sicily itself. A populist and separatist who saw himself as a liberator of his people, he nevertheless allowed himself to be the pawn in machinations and power plays that had little to do with improving the lot of the Sicilian populace. At times too, it was hard to tell where his role as insurrectionary leader broke off and his life of crime and banditry began.

It is not surprising then to find that this larger than life figure captured the imagination of the press not only in Italy but in the internationally as well. The fascination continues to this day. Mario Puzzo’s book based on his life, The Sicilian, was turned into a Hollywood motion picture in 1987 by Michael Cimino. Another was the important political documentary and documentary biography by Francesco Rosi, simply called Salvatore Giuliano .

The real Giuliano’s story is confusing and not yet fully untangled. Was he duped? Was he corrupted? Was he a murderer or a liberator? The answers are hard to find. What is clear is that the separatist movement of which he was most certainly a part did finally succeed in winning some measure of political autonomy for Sicily from the young post-war Italian government. Yet the success did not allow Giuliano to come down from the mountains. Why not? Rosi never discloses the official reason, but simply hints that keeping Giuliano outside the law suited the authorities, who could then use him for their own ends – like keeping the Communists out of power.

But it was the massacre at a populist/Communist rally that brought unwelcome exposure to Giuliano. The national government decided it was all too much, and Giuliano, pinned with responsibility for the massacre, was conveniently killed, ostensibly by the carabinieri. Soon after, his right-hand man, Gaspare Pisciotta, who (according to Rosi and others who have delved into this story) had betrayed and shot Giuliano, was lethally poisoned in prison. Ten years later, the local mafia don who had served as an intermediary between the carabinieri and Pisciotta was also shot dead.

What are we to make of it? Certainly after years of exposure both in news media and in film, no one would blink an eye at the news that the mafia, the landowners, and the government worked hand in hand to defeat the Sicilian Communists. This is Sicily-wide, perhaps even Italy-wide corruption that goes beyond a simple conspiracy and is certainly nothing new in this land of cynical power plays.

The Mafia Today
In many ways then, the Mafia is both the result of and a symptom of Sicily’s endemic political corruption, a phenomenon which has only worsened in recent years. Bribes, kickbacks and outright theft by politicians closely allied with (or actually members of) the Mafia is a fact of life in Sicily. One of the many interesting threads that Peter Robb weaves in his prize winning book on Sicily is the extent to which the Sicilian Mafia has succeeded in penetrating to the very top ranks of Italian political and financial power.

It has been many years since Sicily’s most distinguished anti-Mafia crusader, Judge Giovanni Falcone, was murdered when his car and escort were blown up by a bomb planted beneath the road leading to Palermo’s airport. Today the Palermo airport bears his name and that of fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, also a victim of the Mafia.

Falcone was one of a team of judges and magistrates who led the charge against the Italian Mafia. By the 1980s, following years of bloodshed (with many police officers, judges and other innocent people losing their lives) they were making significant headway. Falcone himself was successful in persuading several important Mafiosi to talk about the Mafia and provide useful information about its activities at home and abroad. Local magistrates and politicians in Palermo, as well as prominent ones in Rome and Milan took offence at Falcone’s findings of corruption in high places, perhaps afraid that these might hit too close to home. Cooperation with American authorities was also cultivated and proved important in bringing many to justice since the Mafia now operates on a broad global level. Before Falcone’s efforts, little progress had been made in prosecuting Sicilian Mafiosi who moved about freely in the United States.

In the USA Rudolph Giuliani, then federal southern district judge for New York, acted to clamp down on Mafia activity on that side of the Atlantic using the provisions of the RICO laws and active cooperation with Italian magistrates and prosecutors.

The Mafia as described this way by one of the heroic Italian judges who took on the Herculean, some might say, impossible, task of bringing the mafia to heel:

“The Mafia is oppression, arrogance, greed, self-enrichment, power and hegemony above and against all others. It is not an abstract concept, or a state of mind, or a literary term… It is a criminal organization regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules… The myth of a courageous and generous ‘man of honor’ must be destroyed, because a mafioso is just the opposite.”

– Cesare Terranova, Italian Magistrate murdered in 1979

How does such an organization survive into the twenty-first century? Nobody knows for certain. It probably has a great deal to do with social factors – things like high unemployment, widespread lack of confidence in the competence of law enforcement authorities, distrust of the state and its representatives rooted in centuries of corrupt and self-serving political and economic policies. In a land so rooted in cynical exchange everything has its price. In such a context, everyone is considered open to be bought, whether judges, politicians, priests or bankers. Everybody expects a substantial kickback for the slimmest of transactions – it is just the way business is done.

Today a new twist has been added to the theme as politicians, “reformers” and community leaders criticize the Mafia out of one side of their mouths while being implicated in projects that continue to operate in the same old way, with bribery, kickbacks, and nepotism. Significant funds pour in from the European Union and the Italian government for anti Mafia and other development projects, but much these resources are dissipated in inflated commissions and salaries with few tangible results emerging for intended recipients. It is impossible to separate the Mafia of today from political corruption. This is really what permits the Mafia to survive in today’s world.

And yet it cannot be denied that economic progress has been made and that economic opportunity has improved in Sicily. Perhaps it is this progress and its associated optimism that will allow a belief in a secure future to take hold. And this, in turn, may gradually allow the cynical stranglehold to be loosened so that people may come to believe that it is possible to the cultivate a society where no one is free to operate above the law – and where the law itself will operate out of this premise.

I want to close with a poem written by Danilo Dolci, a Sicilian by choice who worked for most of his adult life to improve living and working conditions for the most destitute of Sicily’s population from the period after the Second World War until his death in December 1997.

Each of Us Grows
(By Danilo Dolci)

Some teach guiding others by the bridle
Step by clopping step
And perhaps some may be fine
Towing this type of line.

Some teach by finding the good
and singing its praises
And, yes, there will be some
Able to accept such graces.

There are also those who
educate without veiling
The absurdity of the world
Who open to change

Seek out with candour
for others and for self
Tomorrow’s possibilities
Each of us grows only by dreaming

(Translated by Nella Cotrupi, September 2005)