The Honoured Society

Edward Luttwak

  • Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse: Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ’Ndrangheta from 1946 to the Present by John Dickie
    Sceptre, 524 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4447 2640 4

I was infuriated by the title before I started the book. The problem is not with ‘republic’, though ‘oligarchies’ would be more accurate, but with ‘mafia’: an ugly word used only by ignorant continentali. As a child in Palermo, living in the via Villareale, a few steps from the stylish Piazza Politeama, twenty minutes by car from the splendid beach of Mondello (my father had a car, few did), I knew exactly who the continentali were: the non-Sicilians of the mainland whose inability to understand our ways was incurable, as exemplified by their belief that the members of the honoured society, l’onorata società, were mere gangsters and protection racketeers, as if the lawyer N. who lived across the street, the notary C., his cousin, and our own doctor S. would ever dream of extorting a few lire from tavern-keepers. The lawyer, the notary and the doctor were all members of the honoured society, each with his own mandamento – the command of a given quarter of Palermo. They did have strong-arm underlings to keep everyone in line, but that mostly meant clamping down on petty crime by common thieves or street-corner toughs. They were colleagues of the police on that front, parting ways only when particular outrages – the violent rape of a woman, the robbery of a protected business, or worse, acts of overt defiance towards or disrespect for the honoured society – called for much more drastic punishment than the law would have prescribed. And of course no statute outlawed the mancanza di rispetto, the lack of respect that only swift and harsh punishment could expunge. Even in these cases, however, no firearms were used and there was no outright killing: for that there was the corpo armato, which received its orders not from lawyer N., notary C. or doctor S. but from the top leaders in conclave, the cupola. I don’t remember hearing that word at the time – it could be a journalistic fabrication like so much else – but I knew there were people senior to the people I knew.

Those who are still taken in by the ‘maxi-trials’ that preceded and followed the murders in 1992 of the prosecutors (near enough for procuratori) Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and which identified two near illiterates, Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina (convicted with another villager, Giovanni Brusca) and Bernardo Provenzano, as successive ‘chiefs of the mafia’, are left to puzzle over the peculiar inversion that has lawyers, notaries and doctors obediently taking orders from wretched peasants hiding out in the countryside. Naturally, that is just another continental fantasy, as are many beliefs about Sicily and its peculiar criminality: none is more revealing than the clichéd depiction of the mafioso as a rustic who kills with his lupara. The continentali believe this is some special Sicilian gun for hunting non-existent wolves (lupi), but the correct term is colpi di lupara, which merely denotes shotgun slugs as opposed to birdshot.

Unsurprisingly, the social status of the top leaders has never been lower than that of lawyer N., notary C. and doctor S. In my Palermo childhood there was very occasional talk of a particular prince and a prominent politician being top leaders, but no one was eager to find out more. I don’t doubt that Riina and Provenzano, who are now elderly prisoners, were guilty of many crimes. In Riina’s case that included the murders (with Brusca) of the endlessly commemorated prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino (tourists now fly into Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport). But I am equally certain that they were never more than corporals in the honoured society, and errant corporals at that. It is telling that each was arrested after a denunciation, Riina 23 years after he was first declared a fugitive from the law, Provenzano after a fantastical 43 years of nominal outlawry. It was very nominal: each lived perfectly normally with their families – Riina in Palermo, Provenzano not far from Corleone – until their superiors shopped them.

I met Falcone not long before he died, when he was visiting Washington as a guest of the then director of the FBI, William Sessions. Over dinner, we asked him about his personal security procedures. But Falcone turned aside the implied offer of a professional audit, declaring that the security arrangements provided for him were excellent. Actually they were comfortable, even luxurious (he flew to Palermo in a private jet), but desperately insecure (his jet advertised his arrival since there were hardly any other private jet flights into Palermo). Falcone, his wife and three policemen of his escort were victims of the pervasive unprofessionalism of the Italian state, for which form routinely outranks substance.

No structure whose middle echelon consists of lawyers, doctors and notaries could possibly have endorsed the direct attack on the state launched by Riina and his fellow peasants, and indeed the leaders of the honoured society warmly welcomed the emergency troop deployment known as Operazione Vespri siciliani, which began with the arrival of three hundred paratroopers in Palermo on 25 July 1992, six days after the car bomb that killed Borsellino along with the five policemen of his security escort. Soon more than 15,000 troops had arrived to operate the patrols, guardposts and checkpoints of a military occupation. Critics claimed it was a futile gesture on the part of a feeble government that had done nothing in response to the killing of Falcone two months earlier. That murder was spectacular: to destroy Falcone’s car, an entire segment of the four-lane Palermo-Trapani autostrada was blown up.

But for the chiefs of the honoured society Operazione Vespri siciliani was very useful. Policemen had to arrest any wanted men who drove their way if the checkpoints had been tipped off, and they were tipped off on a vast scale: hundreds were arrested. It was an easy way to get rid of the undisciplined tough guys who were defying the hierarchy by emulating Riina. Riina himself had been obedient enough until he trafficked some heroin on his own account and was amazed to earn 100 million lire, about £110,000: hardly a huge sum for a ‘mafia boss’ but obviously a big payday for him, and that is another revealing bit of the truth. Indiscipline aside, the need for tough guys was rapidly diminishing because the society’s business model was changing, from extortion – the pizzo exacted from all businesses, whether fruit pedlars or wholesalers – to the direct tapping of the Sicilian region’s large and rapidly growing healthcare budget; and from heroin distribution in slums with its meagre returns to money-laundering for the cocaine smugglers of Calabria.

In Gioia Tauro, at the tip of the peninsula, the Italian state built a port on a pharaonic scale to supply coal and iron ore for a giant steel mill. The steel mill was never built and the port lay idle for years until enterprising northerners equipped it to handle containers. Gioia Tauro soon became the largest container port in the Mediterranean and the largest point of entry for cocaine, which was becoming the drug of choice for bright young things and many others with steady middle-class salaries, in contrast to the miserable incomes of most heroin buyers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, cocaine markets expanded greatly, further increasing the traffic from Gioia Tauro, which by now supplied most of the cocaine consumed in Italy, Germany and across Central Europe to Stockholm, and all the way east to Vladivostok. The Calabrian family gangs (again the meaningless journalistic term ’Ndrangheta blurs their diversity) who delivered the cocaine northwards were and are incapable of coping with the reverse flow of used euros, zlotys and rubles. Their first need was to pay the Colombian suppliers, who refused to accept cash because it was no good for investing in Miami real estate or local hotels and restaurants. The Calabrians needed real money: not bundles of paper but deposits in bank accounts that could be wired to the Colombians. Their second need was to have their own laundered money, to invest in property: Umbria became a particular favourite, as did the high streets of major cities. Ignorant of foreign languages, unfamiliar with international banking practices, the semi-literate Calabrians could supply cocaine to distributors but turned to the Sicilians to launder their profits. With a century of experience in the export trade and the fluent English of educated men, the Sicilians organised the system – still operating today – that sends banknotes from Calabria to Beirut, Dubai, Kaliningrad and other places where money-changers will accept vast sums in many currencies, paying for them with personal cheques that can be deposited in local banks. Funds can then be wired to commercial accounts in Western Europe, perhaps by way of an additional passage (Cyprus was a favoured way until the Sicilians were scared away by those formidable bank robbers the European Commission and the ECB).

With the many millions that could be skimmed off the Sicilian healthcare budget – more than €9 billion in 2012 – and many more millions in money-laundering fees, the honoured society no longer needed a dense network of extortionists (though the pizzo was still collected in some places by local toughs ‘for the families of convicts’). It could even cope with the sharp fall in its formerly large take from public works spending. Budget cuts imposed by Italy’s disastrous entry into the Eurozone were severe, even before the crisis in public finances essentially stopped spending on construction projects, with appalling consequences for Sicily’s crumbling infrastructure and tottering economy.

The continentali, including prosecutors and police, have continued to misunderstand the nature of the honoured society. They keep looking for outlaw leaders hiding in the countryside: now it’s Matteo Messina Denaro, who’s been anointed by the media and Italy’s chatterbox prosecutors as the capo della mafia. Decades may have passed since my childhood in Palermo but it’s as improbable as ever that its chief would be a rustic outlaw. The evidence that proves the continuity of high-level leadership begins with Salvatore ‘Totò’ Cuffaro, until January 2008 president of the Autonomous Region of Sicily, an office that gave him wide discretion over the vast budgets allocated for the health and welfare of five million people, as well as the power to appoint many of the hugely overstaffed regional government’s officials. Cuffaro is now in prison: he received a seven-year sentence for aiding criminals who were being investigated by the police, after the prosecution tried and failed to convict him on the more serious charge of ‘external association’ with organised crime.

It’s a slippery charge and would be condemned by British jurists for its lack of specificity. But that defect is seen as a virtue by Italy’s prosecutors, because almost anyone can be accused of ‘association’, including the slew of former Christian Democrat politicians who have been charged and prosecuted. The most prominent Sicilian politician, the former minister (multiple times) and later senator Calogero Mannino was tried several times on that charge before his case finally reached the country’s highest court, the Cassazione. Each time he was found innocent the prosecutors appealed, and then kept asking for endless postponements, leaving Mannino dangling. He spent 18 years in and out of court and has now been charged again.

In Cuffaro’s case, however, the lesser accusation of having helped criminals evade the law, favoreggiamento aggravato, had a sound basis. He was sentenced to prison because it was proven that by way of Salvatore Aragona and Domenico Miceli, two solidly bourgeois medical doctors, he had warned Giuseppe Guttadauro, a surgeon and the boss of the mandamento of Brancaccio, that the police had placed a bug in his study. The point of this story is that Cuffaro, though elevated to the office of president of the region, felt duty-bound to risk all to warn Guttadauro. This tells us where each was placed hierarchically, and it would be passing strange if above Guttadauro there were a killer-outlaw, rather than someone of still higher social status.

Antonio D’Alì Staiti of Trapani was recently cleared of the charge of associazione esterna for the period after 1994, with pre-1994 events legally proscribed; he is not only a sitting senator but was undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior between 2001 and 2006 with particular responsibility for supervising the police. In this context, what’s more significant is the social status of his family. Owners of oil presses, land and the only local industry (the vast salt pans that stretch along the coast from Marsala to Trapani), the D’Alì family also founded the Banca Sicula, the largest private bank of Sicily in its day. Antonio D’Alì headed the bank for a while before it was sold after (unproven) allegations of money-laundering to the Banca Commerciale Italiana, which later merged with Banca Intesa, Italy’s largest bank. Its director general, Gaetano Miccichè, also comes from Sicily. His brother Gianfranco, currently an undersecretary in Enrico Letta’s administration and a self-confessed cocaine user (not a crime in Italy), once attracted criticism for deploring the naming of Palermo’s airport after Falcone and Borsellino, suggesting instead Archimedes of Syracuse.

How can the honoured society exist at all? One obvious reason is the failure of the Italian state to govern Sicily effectively since unification put Sicilians, along with all southerners, in thrall to northern manufacturers, who were protected by high tariff barriers: the southerners were cut off from cheaper imported goods, while their own infant industries were unprotected from northern competition. Today Sicily is afflicted by the euro: in the municipality of Bagheria unemployment runs at 40 per cent (with most of the remaining 60 per cent employed by the state, the region, the province or the municipality), because the lemons grown there must be sold in the overvalued currency of BMW and Mercedes, in hopeless competition with Moroccan lemons priced in dirhams. Sicily is remote from Europe’s economic core, with high transport costs adding one more inefficiency, but instead of competitive (i.e. lower) wages, Italy’s national unions impose equal pay on all parts of the country, which is dandy in theory but destructive in practice because it destroys the only possible incentive to manufacture in Sicily. True, Sicilians are responsible for the grotesque inefficiency of their own regional and municipal governments, but Italy’s own dysfunctions are so great that when the local mayors are creative their initiatives are blocked rather than supported. Sicilians have solid reasons to resent the persistent economic damage that Italian institutions inflict on them, but in addition there is a purely emotional resentment.

I remember once visiting Rome and being impressed by the refulgent uniforms and shiny brass helmets of the Corazzieri who stood guard in front of the presidential palace on the Quirinale Hill. I asked if they were Americans – the only smart uniforms I had seen until then were the spotless whites of US Navy shore patrols – and was amazed to hear that the splendid soldiers were a unit of the Carabinieri, then as now Italy’s gendarmerie, because in our parts the Carabinieri were not decorative at all but rather grimly hostile. They went around in watchful patrol teams in green battledress with submachine guns at the ready, unless they were riding in armoured cars with belt-fed machine guns. For us they were undoubtedly the enemy: we sided with Salvatore Giuliano, the fearless bandito of Montelepre, hero of many romantic episodes and colonel in the notional army of the island’s separatist movement. As children we didn’t know that Giuliano was himself operating under the direction of the honoured society much of the time, or that the society was itself strangling Sicily’s economy by strangling competition: all the salt pans of the province of Trapani, and all the Partinico plants that distil ethyl alcohol from grapes (the only cash crop for many farmers) were and are each under one monopolistic owner. Many villages could only have one bar – or none in places where the pizzo was set too high. What we did know was that Italy was the enemy occupying power, as it still is: Sicily could certainly be far more successful economically as an independent Mediterranean island state than in its present condition as the most peripheral appendage of a high-cost economy with Germany at its centre.

No such contentions are advanced in John Dickie’s potboiler. He attempts an overview of organised crime groups in the Italian south (and its northern extensions) under their colourful but deeply misleading regional monikers: Cosa Nostra (Sicilian-American, but not Sicilian); and Camorra, a blanket term for warring Neapolitan gangs that recognise no common identity; ’Ndrangheta, which does have an official leadership but a farcical one because it controls next to nothing; and the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia, a pretentious name invented by a bunch of convicts in 1978 for what has never become an actual organisation. For all my prejudice, I have to admit that the book has its merits: Dickie has added no errors to those of the published literature he has studied – much of it necessarily journalistic, very little of it scholarly – and he has endeavoured not unsuccessfully to extract plausible stories from bundles of contradictions. He isn’t taken in by the rule-of-law claims of the Italian justice system with its habitual human rights violations and prosecutorial abuse. He is an efficient storyteller but he is also a continentale.