This Modern Mafia

Jonathan Steinberg

A Calabrian who now lives in Rome told me a revealing story about the Mafia. An uncle, aged 90, rang up from the ancestral village absolutely furious. ‘Do you know, Vincenzo,’ he spluttered, ‘they actually threatened me?’ There is more than a casual connection between the insulted old gentleman and the murdered General Dalla Chiesa. Both are signs that the old Mafia is gone, a Mafia which, no matter how brutal and violent, knew its betters. The traditional mafioso treated the galantuomo, the signore, the man in the white suit who sipped his coffee in the piazza at night, with the guarded deference of a peasant before his lord and he never murdered policemen unless it was absolutely necessary.

The new Mafia has severed many of its ties to locality and to a given social order. It is big, impersonal, corporate and international. In a speech introducing Anti-Mafia legislation in May 1980, Pio La Torre observed:

Mafia is a terrifying cancer ... that is, a network of relations. We have to find out where certain lines lead and what is behind them. Instead there is total darkness. Maybe we are afraid to reach out to touch something which may turn out to be who knows what.

In April of this year the Honourable Pio La Torre (all Italian Deputies are ‘honourable’) was murdered in broad daylight in Palermo, the second Communist Deputy and member of the Anti-Mafia committee to die that way. The old Mafia never killed Onorevoli.

The killing itself has become epidemic. In Naples the death toll for the first three months of 1982 stood at 140. Last year it was 235, the highest murder rate of any city in the world. Palermo must be running it a very close second, and the Sicilians make up for slightly lower numbers with bigger and more sensational crimes. Over the last five years, the Mafia in Sicily have eliminated two famous Members of Parliament, several judges and magistrates, the president of the regional Parliament, a number of journalists, the deputy chief of police, Captain Giuliano, and now General Dalla Chiesa. This is in addition to the hundreds of less prominent victims of Mafia violence. ‘And the Mafia: what is this Mafia which the newspapers talk about?’ asks a character in Leonardo Sciascia’s novel, Il Giorno della Civetta. ‘What is Mafia? Well, that’s very complicated to explain,’ replies the hero. ‘It’s just unbelievable. That’s all.’ Even Sciascia’s vivid imagination could not have invented the Mafia boss, Don Giacinto Castronovo, Franciscan friar and head of a Palermo monastery, who was murdered in September 1980. When the police entered the monastery, they found six terrified, elderly Franciscan friars, huddled in little cells upstairs, who hadn’t seen anything, hadn’t heard anything, and didn’t know anything, while downstairs the bloodstained corpse of Don Giacinto lay in a sumptuous ten-room flat, lavishly furnished and decorated with his collection of whips. Don Giacinto had a wide circle of clients, lived grandly and enjoyed excellent relations with local businessmen and politicians. Police suspected that he had been operating a Mafia graveyard, for the monastery cemetery, which was, of course, beyond the reach of the law, was a jumbled ruin, an ideal dump for embarrassing corpses.

The Mafia is complicated, but it is not a secret society with rites of initiation, mysterious identities and tight discipline. The Mafia is now and always has been a part, and an identifiable part, of the status quo. ‘In Palermo,’ the son of General Dalla Chiesa told a journalist from La Repubblica, ‘everyone knows who the mafiosi are and what they do.’ In the little town of Gioia Tauro in southern Calabria, a friend showed me half the local Mafia at one go. The entire Piromalli ‘family’ was standing amiably in the forecourt of the AGIP garage they own. Lined up behind them were the huge lorries of their fleet. As we drove slowly along the wide streets of Gioia Tauro, my friend pointed to the hotels, restaurants and office blocks, owned by either the Piromalli or the Mammoliti, their rivals, or, since the two cosche combined forces in the early Seventies to form a joint construction company called ‘Mapir’, one might more accurately call them business associates. Mafia violence does not interrupt social relations. A former mayor of Gioia Tauro, driven from politics by the Piromalli, who planted a bomb at his house, continued to enjoy the respect of Don Momo Piromalli, the chief of the clan. If the former mayor was dining out, Don Momo came over to his table to pay his respects. The huge purple palazzo where Don Momo died peacefully, honoured by Church and State, stands on a side street, almost a local shrine. In 1977, little Gioia Tauro, with its 18,000 inhabitants, had a homicide rate above that of New York and New Jersey, twice the American and four times the Calabrian average.

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