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.

Thinking about the Mafia begins in the Italian South, the Mezzogiorno, the eternal poor relation of Italian life. It starts in the complex and varied world of peasants. Out of the tensions and traditions of peasant society the main variants of the Mafia have grown: the Sicilian variant, the proper ‘Mafia’; its Calabrian variant called the ’ndrangheta from a Greek word meaning ‘superiority’; the banditry of central Sardinia; the predatory, parasitic Camorra of old Naples, the capital of the Mezzogiorno. The traditional Mafia emerged from traditional agriculture. The village Capo-Mafia was often (and sometimes still is) the local butcher. Sometimes he was a cattle dealer. He was rarely very wealthy. The Capo was by choice the uomo medio, the middle man in two senses: in the middle between the peasantry and the signori, and in the middle as the reconciler of disputes, dispenser of instant justice and embodiment of certain elements of the traditional culture, its machismo, its concept of honour and family. The leading mafiosi came from the bottom strata and rose by force, fraud and audacity. Don Momo began his career as a cowherd.

Pino Arlacchi, in his Mafia, Peasants and Great Estates (to be published by Cambridge University Press in the spring of 1983), argues that the Mafia is best understood as a form of behaviour, what he calls comportamento mafioso, which arose in certain social settings. There was comportamento mafioso in traditional Western Sicily and in the ‘Greek’ part of southern Calabria, but not, for example, in the tightly-knit peasant communities of northern Calabria. Mafia behaviour expressed and modified certain sorts of social tensions. Where they were lacking or where alternative solutions were to hand, the mafioso as a social type never emerged.

The Italian state, unified very imperfectly in the 1860s, tolerated and exploited the Mafia. The Risorgimento imposed a liberal parliamentary regime on peasants whose only forms of political action were deference or wild rebellion. The House of Savoy with its Frenchified ways demanded French-style uniformity of administration. No provision was made for backward local economies. No whiff of regional autonomy was permitted and the Napoleonic prefectoral system was imported to the ninety-odd provinces. For the South, unity brought a double catastrophe. Liberal economic policies exposed primitive Southern agriculture, commerce and artisan production to devastating competition, and governments from that of Depretis in the 1870s to that of Andreotti in the 1970s turned the Southern poor into voting fodder. Northern élites have used central government agencies to manipulate Southern populations under every regime throughout the tragic history of Italy. The Mafia played an important but subordinate part by disciplining and delivering the vote and by eliminating threats to the status quo. The Mafia led in the struggle against Communists and other trouble-makers.

Mussolini, who was horrified by the stench of Sicily on his 1923 ‘pilgrimage’ to the South, launched a brief campaign against the Mafia and in 1926 he sent a predecessor of General Dalla Chiesa, the prefettissimo Giuseppe Mori, to root it out. Mori arrested hundreds of cattle thieves, hooded bandits and other savage rustic mafiosi and hurled them into prison. Totalitarian states have certain advantages in such matters. Like Dalla Chiesa, Mori knew that the Alta Mafia (the ‘High Mafia’) was still beyond his reach, the Mafia of the titled nobility. When he attacked them, it turned out that not only were leading lights of the Fascist Party in Sicily among the prominent protectors of the Mafia but a certain duchess enjoyed more than ideological relations with Michele Bianchi, a Calabrian, and, at various stages, Mussolini’s second-in-command. The ‘Iron Prefect’ Mori was recalled in 1928 and made a Senator.

Mori accomplished two things. Murders in the province of Palermo declined from 268 in 1925 to 77 in 1926 and kidnappings went down from 298 to 46. He also turned the Mafia into devout anti-Fascists, especially the lower echelons. When the Allies landed in Sicily in 1943, they found ready to hand friendly, efficient, often English-speaking mafiosi with spotless records of opposition to the regime. Mafia mayors in Sicily and Calabria became common and were not notably more corrupt than their galantuomo predecessors.

Regional status or even secession from Italy became the goal of a part of the Sicilian establishment and its Mafia allies. In the end, they gained the regional statute of 1947, which has provided Sicilian banks and financial institutions with a measure of exemption from surveillance by the Bank of Italy and kept the precise relationship between central and regional power suitably confused for the past 36 years. General Dalla Chiesa ran into this barrier from the beginning and during the summer complained bitterly that he had not been given full powers by Rome. It may have cost him his life. His successor, Emanuele De Francesco, will have more power on paper, but will face shrill cries that regional rights have been invaded.

The 1950s and 1960s brought the ‘great transformation’ of the Italian South. Millions of poor peasants moved north to the industrial triangle of Genoa-Turin-Milan or sought work in Northern Europe. Traditional rural society crumbled and collapsed. Italy began a Japanese-style industrialisation with real rates of growth of up to 10 per cent per annum. The Mafia went into a crisis which, for a while, looked as if it might be terminal. It was saved, as always, by its place in the social order of the Mezzogiorno, for while the North joined the modern world, the South fell behind. The Christian Democratic regimes which governed Italy throughout the period resorted to the traditional devices of collecting Southern votes in exchange for money, public works, investment encouragement and the like.

A vast trough of corruption was set up. Billions of lire passed through the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno to finance industry and enterprise in the South, to build super-highways, aqueducts, roads and sewerage. A construction boom began, fed by the state, the remittances of emigrants and the growth of mass tourism. Many new rackets opened up and the Mafia began to transfer from the countryside to the new jerry-built towns, to what the economist Sylos Labini has called the ‘antechambers of modernisation’. Whole regions were depopulated and thousands searched for any sort of housing in cities and towns which grew overnight. Edilizio abusivo, building without permission, became a necessity, especially in Naples. To wait for the creaking machinery of the Italian state to issue planning permissions based on antiquated and incomprehensible laws was to condemn tens of thousands to permanent homelessness. Mafiosi entered the illegal building business, bid for contracts and ultimately pushed out legitimate enterprise. When Mapir announced that it no longer wished merely to ‘protect’ the local building firms (i.e. extort the customary 5 per cent) but to bid for contracts, the legitimate firms faced a challenge they could not meet. Not only were Mafia firms able to operate with lower costs (no social security, no unions, labour controlled by fear), but they had a disagreeable tendency to liquidate other bidders. The vast port project in Gioia Tauro, intended to be second only to Rotterdam in Europe, became a huge, inexhaustible source of funds for the new ‘entrepreneurial’ Mafia.

While the Mafia was transferring its operations from the primary sector to the tertiary sector of service, tourism and manipulation of para-state agencies, it kept up its traditional acts of violence. Kidnapping flourished in southern Calabria, where the new rich, as in Sardinia, had invested in seaside villas. Locri on the Ionian coast has seven or eight kidnappings a year. The local prosecutor, an elegant young man in an apartment full of chic Milanese furniture, told me that he knows who is responsible but can’t get anywhere. The kidnapped are taken into the Aspromonte mountains where a Mafia-controlled infrastructure supports captives and captors. State forestry employees use their jeeps and binoculars to warn the mafiosi by radio that the police are coming. Peasant families can earn 20,000 lire a time (roughly ten pounds) for providing meals for victims and captors, doing the laundry, fetching and carrying: the village of San Luca lives off the trade.

The growth and transformation of the Mafia took place at the very time when the Italian state lost its power to control law and order. Red and black terrorism of the 1970s shook the credibility of the Police, and an almost uninterrupted string of scandals at every level of government and civic life reduced the will and reliability of bureaucracy. The state lost that ‘monopoly of violence’ which Max Weber had seen as its distinguishing characteristic. Terrorism opposed the status quo, while Mafia violence, in a way, supported it, but there were moments when the two met as allies. Ciro Cirillo, the Neapolitan regional councillor, kidnapped by the Red Brigades, was freed by the local Christian Democrats, who used the Neapolitan Camorra as a conduit. This scandal of 1981, like so many others, has still to be clarified.

The biggest change, the leap to a new level of operations, came in the middle of the 1970s. The Sicilian Mafia gained control of the drug trade which had been in the hands of the ‘French connection’ and had passed through Marseilles. Several elements combined to give the Sicilian Mafia its great opportunity. The French police had cracked down on the factories which transformed raw opium into heroin, a process which increases the value of a kilo from roughly 8000 dollars to roughly 250,000 dollars, a profit margin which has made the game worth the candle and the sacrifice of many lives. At the time when the drug traffic was in disarray, the Sicilian banks were awash with funds allocated to various development schemes that had not even been started. The banks, because the regional statute protected them, escaped the scrutiny of the Bank of Italy. Many small banks were Mafia-owned anyway and the big ones had a just respect for their less salubrious clients. The Mafia itself had begun to generate a considerable cash flow from its entrepreneurial activities in tourism and services as well as from its traditional illegal and violent enterprises. The parallel rise of Michele Sindona, the Sicilian banker now serving a long term for fraud in a US penitentiary, helped them. Sindona’s chain of banks and companies provided access to international markets. As in the case of Roberto Calvi and the Banco Ambrosiano, very large sums could be shunted by Sindona, the ‘Pope’s banker’, from Sicilian banks through the Vatican or through shell companies with overseas subsidiaries in his own empire. By the early 1970s Sindona owned the largest chain of banks on Long Island, the Franklin National. As a good Sicilian, he knew that there was no such thing as the Mafia, and that his customers with hard faces and strange nicknames were all legitimate entrepreneurs who just happened to want to make huge payments in Ankara or transfer even larger payments from Jersey City.

The capital needed to meet the entry costs, the infrastructure required to operate in the international field, the familial networks which linked Sicilian villages to Miami, Chicago, Detroit and New York, the constant coming and going of numberless emigrants, the connivance of the traditional upper strata of Sicilian society at the deeds of ‘their’ mafiosi, the fragility of the Italian state, its corruptibility and inefficiency, the disarray in the various police forces, the chaos caused by terrorism, the huge legitimate ‘black economy’, dominated by very large enterprises in which everything is done for cash and no taxes are paid, turned Sicily, and ultimately the mainland of Italy, into a paradise for drug traffickers.

The sums involved grew and stagger the imagination. A serious magistrate told me that the annual through-put of the drug industry amounts to ten billion dollars. Other estimates range from 600 million at the lowest end to a few billion in the middle. Think of what those sums mean in a poor society like Calabria or the Neapolitan hinterland, areas which have now plunged into the deepest of recessions. In the greater Neapolitan area, 250,000 out of roughly four million are unemployed and, worse, without hope of employment. The Neapolitan Camorra, upset by the earthquake of November 1980, which destroyed the old economy of the slums, the bassi, has suddenly tapped two inexhaustible money gushers: the 10.5 billion dollars granted the Neapolitan region to rebuild after the earthquake and the as yet smaller sums which the transport of drugs from Sicily and Calabria has to offer. Naples has better port and airport facilities than Palermo, many more international flights and a sophisticated population who have a millennium of smuggling expertise to put to the service of the new trade.

This is today’s Mafia, the Mafia which has the nerve to murder the highest official of the republic in Sicily, which must by now own or control every major financial institution on the island, a Mafia of entrepreneurs and international connections. Francesco Martorelli, the co-sponsor of the Anti-Mafia Bill of 1980, described the new Mafia to the Chamber of Deputies: ‘The director is a person who frequents the best salons in Rome or Milan. The director is a person who speaks Italian correctly, who has been abroad, who knows foreign languages, who probably has a degree, who sits on boards of directors and may even be the chairman.’

This modern Mafia is now facing the state in a final battle at the very moment when it is fighting the bloodiest of civil wars within its own ranks. We can distinguish two types of murder: those of prominent opponents of the Mafia and those of rival mafiosi or camorristi. In Naples, Don Raffaele Cutolo, who writes poetry and meets all the criteria set out above, wages war against all the other families in the name of the ‘New Organised Camorra’. Mafia bands have been caught in a dreadful dilemma. Their base is still familial, territorial and local, but their crimes and their enterprises have become corporate, abstract and international. Hence they no longer observe, because they no longer see, the frontiers which divided one family from another and allowed truces to be settled. The sheer scale and liquidity of the drug trade has produced a perfect Darwinian struggle for survival. The Mafia may kill itself off.

The Italian state is less likely to suppress the Mafia than the Mafia is likely to destroy itself. The state would have to eliminate large chunks of its own ruling élite to eradicate the Mafia. Just as the peasant infrastructure supports the kidnappers, so the political and economic superstructure permits the Mafia to operate and profits from its doings. Think of how many architects, civil engineers, building inspectors, bankers, employees at the electricity company, men from the water works and so on have to connive at the construction of a block of illegal flats in a Neapolitan suburb, and there are thousands of such flats, thousands of such hotels, casinos, lidos or tourist villas in every part of the Mezzogiorno. Now try to imagine the organisational scale required to manage the billions in the international drug trade.

My Calabrian friends are pessimistic. The Mafia has all the advantages in the war against the state. It is fast, brutal, ruthless and efficient. Anybody who has ever tried to buy a stamp in an Italian post office will know that the Italian state, though it may sometimes be brutal, is neither fast nor efficient. The only encouraging sign is that there are so many perfectly ordinary people who go on fighting. I sat in a car next to the widow of a Palermo magistrate, murdered by the Mafia. The driver and other passengers were also magistrates and they chatted about who had been killed and why, who had been threatened, who was working on which risky case, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It may be naive, but I cannot think that a country so well served by so many will just succumb.