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History of the Mafia

Salvatore Lupo

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Paper, 352 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13135-3
$27.95 / £19.50

July, 2009
Cloth, 352 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13134-6
$32.95 / £22.95

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Excerpt from the Introduction


Investigative journalism, sociological and anthropological investigations, even the reports of the Anti-Mafia Commissions, all attempt to establish a context for phenomena and forms of current and relevant behavior, making use of the history of the past hundred years and even beyond that. Unfortunately, however, these sources often use an outmoded approach to historiography that describes nineteenth- and twentieth-century southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno) as a semifeudal society. The region is depicted as entirely agrarian and organized according to the latifundium, or large landed estate, economically and socially inert and immobile, swept by only a single impulse of reform: the peasant movement. In this context, it seems logical to assume that the Mafia served essentially to ensure the subordination and obedience of the peasants to the ruling classes, even though this function does not appear clearly until the years following the First World War and the Second World War—that is, in certain specific moments of the long story of the Mafia. In other cases of latifondismo (that is, an economy based on large landed estates), both in Italy and elsewhere, there is a distinct absence of such a phenomenon, which clearly is not comparable with the theme of the private armies used by feudal landowners and fazenderos to uphold their power around the world. For that matter, the mafiosi who were most specifically considered to be representative of the traditional model, Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo, were hardly the blind and subservient tools of the agrarian power. Rather, they were organizers of cooperatives and won much of their power base by serving as intermediaries in the transfer of land from the large landowners to the peasants, and therefore by placing themselves firmly astride the collective movements precisely in the postwar years following the First World War and the Second World War. Therefore, they were not the guardiani (rural watchmen), but rather the undertakers of the feudo, or large landholding class, and they played a role that could not be imagined outside of the great political and social modernization processes of the twentieth century.

One might very well wonder why the latifundium, or large landholding, is the context that is almost universally discussed, while it is instead fairly obvious that, from the beginning, there has been a compatibility between the Mafia and the fragmentation of large landed estates, and a high degree of integration between the Mafia and prosperous international—and even transoceanic—markets, in the sulphur-mining industries of Sicily and along the coastal areas of the Palermo regions, the Trapani region, and the region of Reggio Calabria, on the mainland side of the Strait of Messina: sectors and periods of economic and social dynamism that southern Italy, however underdeveloped it might have been, still offered in considerable abundance. Fascinated by rural and “primitive” settings, scholars have often forgotten the island’s “capital” and its urbanized countryside, even though many nineteenth-century sources identified those as the center of the Mafia infection. According to Antonino Cutrera (1900), it was here that “the true Mafia is based, the legendary Mafia, the Mafia of the great criminal trials, which has aroused such terror with its great murders . . . a unique feature of the history of crime in Sicily.” We do not necessarily agree with the concept of a “true” Palermo-based Mafia, in contrast with the Mafias of the Trapani or the Agrigento areas, but unquestionably the majority of the most spectacular Mafia crimes and episodes occurred in an area that roughly coincides with the province of Palermoff This area extended from the city’s hinterland, the “rich” agricultural zone of the Conca d’Oro, to the rest of the coastal strip that pushes all the way to the Trapani district, the inland area of the province, the latifundium zone, which established links to the city in the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent in the twentieth century, by the chains of rent, by the movement of revenue from the interior toward the city, and often by the movement of management (ad­ministrators), gabellotti (renters and sublessors of parcels of farmland), and guardiani in the opposite direction. In our history of the Mafia, which focuses on a vast area centering on Palermo, we will find a disconcerting continuity of the groups, places, experiences, and sectors of activity. The power of the Grecos in the borgata , or the outlying suburb, of Ciaculli, and of the city’s mafioso hierarchy has lasted more than a century. In this hundred years, everything has changed in the economy, in society, in politics—everything, one might venture to say, except for the continuity of this territorial control. In particular, in what in the nineteenth century was called the agro palermitano , or Palermo territorial countryside, midway between city and countryside, in the borgate and in the villages of the hinterland, the Mafia groups established a system of control over the territory that set out from the dense network of guardianìe (custodianships). They ultimately seized control of both legitimate and illicit business, cattle rustling, smuggling and contraband, and the early commercial intermediation of citrus fruit and other products of the area’s rich agriculture. In a more recent era, the same area proved to be the more or less natural marketplace for the expansion of real estate and for speculation in that field—age-old locations and age-old power bases finding new op­portunities for profit. The Mafia’s introduction into a transoceanic migratory network and its involvement with long-distance trade, such as the citrus fruit business, simply laid the groundwork in terms of mentalities and abilities well suited to smuggling tobacco and narcotics.

The idea of equating the Mafia with the latifundium, along with the other equivalency—equating small landholding with social progress—represents a way of analyzing the phenomenon as a relatively feudal residue of the past, projecting it toward an obscure past and liberating the future from its murky claim. In the history of the various interpretations that have been offered of the Mafia and of the battle against it, the idea cyclically resurfaces according to which “modern” changes (agricultural land reform, industrialization, education, and the development of more liberal sexual ethics) ought ipso facto to destroy the phenomenon, together with the broth that nourishes. The Italian left wing has put forward such a mind-set and propagated it in good faith ever since the end of the Second World War, and over time, with some instrumental manipulation, nearly everyone has adopted it, with the objective of winning more public funding, more resources to control. Similarly, in the United States, the Mafia has been described as a holdover from a “peasant” culture destined to die out once the Italian community was absorbed into the upper ranks of American society. But it is possible to look further back in time, when the Italian liberals still identified “feudalism” and Bourbon mismanagement of the government as the causes of all the ills of Italy’s south. Many believed that the Mafia would vanish once the sound of locomotive whistles echoed through the villages of the desolate Sicilian hinterland. They were completely unaware that people would still be talking about the Mafia long after the whistle of train engines, the sonic booms of jet planes, and the beep of modern computers had sounded.

Today, more than thirteen decades after the unification of Italy, the context that was once simplistically decried as archaic has changed in all its various components. Yet we are still faced with something that we call Mafia, as we attempt to understand how this phenomenon that at first glance is typical of a “traditional” universe has managed to survive the process of modernization. It is clear, therefore, that the modern does not overwhelmingly clash with a Mafia type of phenomenon, as demonstrated by the case of America and the south of Italy in recent years. Nor does the category of immobility adequately explain either the phenomenon itself or its context. The Sicilian Mafia has remained in the spotlight for over a century, though it remains to be proven that the phenomenon described by this name truly presents, inevitably and universally, a significant degree of homogeneity. The Camorra presents itself in specific moments of history, as if in a series of flash photographs, encompassing the era following Italian unification, the Giolitti regime, and the post–Second World War period. In Calabria, for a brief time the picciotteria , which emerged suddenly and was harshly repressed at the turn of the twentieth century, revealed a dark history that was largely overlooked in the debate of the time, and it is no accident that only recently has it become the subject of historical analysis.

In any case, the Mafia was traditionally a geographic phenomenon characteristic of Palermo and nearly all of the Palermo province, Naples and certain districts of the Neapolitan hinterland, the province of Reggio Calabria, part of the province of Trapani, the inland Sicilian area of the sulphur mines and the large landholdings, with the exclusion of the eastern section of the island. Only in the past thirty years has the infection spread until it covered with some homogeneity three Italian regions, or states—Sicily, Campania, and Calabria—as well as a fourth region, Puglia (Apulia).

This evolution, or perhaps we should say, this regression, calls into question not only the explanation based on the notion of socioeconomic archaism, but also its sociocultural counterpart, which makes Mafia behavior a direct consequence of the anthropology of the Sicilians or, in general, of southern Italians. This culture is said to be characterized by a mistrust of the state and therefore by a habit of taking justice into one’s own hands, by a sense of honor, by clientelism, by a familism that exempts the individual from a perception of his own responsibilities in the face of a larger collective than his immediate surroundings. These characteristics ought to be relatively homogeneous throughout all of southern Italy. It is therefore impossible to explain the uneven distribution of the phenomenon in the past. Nor is it clear how this phenomenon, ostensibly a product of a traditional culture, has been able to extend and become diffused well outside its original territory, in parallel with the modernization of the country, even though a sociocultural hybridization was in fact a crucial and constituent element of the historical transformation.

It should not appear that we are attempting to expunge the cultural element from the explanation of this (and from any other) social phenomenon. If we accept the notion that the depiction of southern Italian anthropology offered here is credible, we should then attempt to distinguish the phenomenon from its context by investigating the way the Mafia organization appropriates cultural codes, instrumentalizes them, modifies them, and turns them into an adhesive to ensure that they remain intact. Let us consider the rejection of the concept of the impersonal nature of the law, the scorn for the police and for those who collaborate with them—traits that were quite prevalent among the common folk, the bourgeois, and the aristocrats in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sicily, but that the Mafia reutilized for its own purposes. Or let us reflect on the image of a moderate and protective Mafia, unfailingly offered by the mafiosi, either through their representatives or directly in person. We shall see the great Mafia capo of the postunification period, Antonino Giammona, described by his lawyer as a uomo d’ordine (literally, a man of order), unwilling to submit to arrogant abuse; we shall also see the defense lawyers of the Amoroso brothers (1883) insist on the lower-class origins of their clients, who were ignorant perhaps but conditioned by an anthropology made up of iron-bound codes of honor, a furious attachment to solidarity, and family hatreds. In 1930 Vito Cascio- Ferro’s lawyer stated that the Mafia, in the person of his client, represented “an attitude of distinctly bold and fearless individualism, devoid of squa­lor, evil, and criminality.” In a broad array of contexts, the Mafia always defines itself in the same terms. As we read in the epitaph engraved on the tomb of Ciccio Di Cristina, Mafia capo of Riesi in the years following the Second World War: “His Mafia was not criminality, but respect of the law of honor, defense of all rights, and great-heartedness.” “Are we interested in defining what the judges and governors call Mafia? It is not called Mafia, it is called omertà , that is, men of honor, who help rather than profiting off of the weak, who always do good and never do evil,” is written in a text confiscated from Rosario Spatola, a Mafia entrepreneur and a leading money launderer of profits from the narcotics trade in the late 1970s.

Therefore, it is first and foremost the Mafia that describes itself as a way of life and a form of behavior, as an expression of traditional society. Every eminent mafioso makes a point of presenting himself in the guise of a mediator and resolver of disagreements, as a protector of the virtue of young women. At least once in his career, the mafioso boasts of the rapid and exemplary execution of “justice” against violent muggers, rapists, and kidnappers. We are, in any case, in the presence of a power group that expresses an ideology meant to create consensus on the outside and coherence and compactness on the inside. In that ideology there is a certain degree of self-persuasion, a great deal of overweening ambition, and an even greater degree of propaganda destined to clash in the great majority of cases with a far different reality. The ideological scheme was at the time saved by a reference to a new Mafia. By this point, it was nothing more than common criminality, which no longer embodied the sense of respect and honor that characterized the old Mafia. Nonetheless, the argument appears suspect when one considers that it appears as early as 1875 in the reports from the delegato di PS of Monreale and, in a different form, in the writings of Pitrè as well (the word indicates a concept that was once good but has now lost its virtue). It has resurfaced periodically throughout the entire period of history in question—in the years of the First World War, when the old-school mafiosi were supposedly replaced by ferocious criminals; in the wake of the Fascist repression of the 1920s, at a time when (according to the recollections of the Sicilian American Mafia capo Nick Gentile) there “died in Sicily an honored society, the Mafia which had its laws, its principles, an organization that protected the weak and . . . its place was taken by . . . people without honor, people who robbed without restraint and killed for pay”; in the United States in the 1930s when, according to the New York Mafia capo Joe Bonanno, the old Sicilian tradition began to give way to the toxins of the New World; during the 1950s, when the honorable old agricultural Mafia supposedly yielded to a ferocious urban gangsterism; and finally, last but not least, upon the advent of the Corleonese, when—according to Buscetta—Cosa Nostra lost its age-old virtues and was disfigured by violence and greed. Greed and ferocity, as will be documented in the pages of this book, are intrinsic characteristics of the Mafia of both yesterday and today, and both Mafias are and were capable of slaughtering innocent people, women and children, in defiance of their codes of honor. The varying quantity and quality of the violence are linked, rather, to political situations (for instance, the years that followed, respectively, the First World War and the Second World War), or to the various generational shifts that brought new leadership and new cadres, giving birth to internal conflicts of a cyclical, rather than an epochal, nature.


The distinction between the old Mafia and the new Mafia, even though it has a merely ideological or rhetorical substance, continues to resurface because it represents an excessively facile conceptual shortcut in the face of the complex cross-breeding of old and new detected in this field. Thus, Pino Arlacchi, in his famous book La Mafia imprenditrice (Italian edition, 1983; English edition, Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , 1987), did his best to preserve the figure of the old mafioso as he might have borrowed it from Anton Blok, Jane and Peter Schneider, and especially Henner Hess. Indeed, Arlacchi reduced the Mafia figure to that of the country notable, poor and in any case scornful of wealth, eager only to win social consideration. Arlacchi contrasted this figure with a modern entrepreneurial Mafia, a creation of the 1970s, eager to amass wealth and especially focused on drug tra.cking, as ferocious as the previous Mafia was moderate. We find this excessively clearly delineated conceptual contrast unpersuasive. As for the past, it should be said that the gabellotti , too, were entrepreneurs; though not particularly innovative ones, still they were definable as “speculators, who use gunpowder and lead as a means of speculation”— in the words of a nineteenth-century landowner—or, to use the words of Franchetti, as “industrialists of violence.” It is indicative that Arlacchi’s misleading description of Calogero Vizzini should derive once again from the mafioso’s intentionally minimizing self-description as a poor, ignorant bumpkin (“I don’t say much because I don’t know much. I live in a village, I come to Palermo only rarely, and I don’t know many people”), while instead the sources depict Vizzini as “a gentleman, a knight of industry, a multimillionaire.”

These sources describe him as working among other places in London in 1922, with other “industrialists” of the sulphur sector, with high executives of the Montecatini Company, with the elite of the world chemicals industry, in negotiations for the foundation of the international sulphuric acid cartel. In the other camp, that of the present-day Mafia, Arlacchi placed excessive emphasis on Mafia entrepreneurship, a supposed “Schumpeterian” characteristic that is both creative and innovative. In the area of the legal economy, it is questionable whether the mafioso can show entrepreneurial abilities that are much more complex than those needed for operating a traditional farming concern, which (leaving aside the great difference in contexts) finds its present-day counterpart in building and commerce, while the introduction into large-scale financial activities, such as that of laundering “dirty” money, makes the mafioso not an entrepreneur but a rentier . In general, the clientelistic structure of the Mafia cosca , which is required to carry out a continual redistribution of funds among its ravenous members and which involves an endless fragmentation of corporate structures with a view to concealing their activities, hardly seems to resemble the rational and vertical structure of the capitalist corporation.

It is evident that a far more substantial continuity in the phenomenon exists. The learned quotes that Luciano Leggio offered from Pitrè, the writings of Spatola, and the statements of pentiti , which included those of the most recent generation, clearly show that there is no fundamental transformation that, with the passage of time, drives the enterprise syndicate to renounce its image, and its protectionist and traditionalist ideology. Yet this does not prevent it—and never prevented it—from seeking money and displaying ferocity. Sicilian and Italian American mafiosi continue to declare their hostility to drugs, which destroy the sociocultural ties of the community, even when they are caught red-handed dealing narcotics. From the prison in which Nitto Santapaola—boss of the Mafia of Catania—was finally confined after an extended run from the law, Santapaola depicted a city that no longer enjoyed security, and therefore, prosperity, because it had been deprived of the safety he and his friends had guaranteed. “Where is the flourishing Catania, where are the businessmen, the shopkeepers who could live and work without fear?” he wondered, forgetting the cost in tears, blood, and corruption caused by the safety and security he had provided.

Taking into account elements of this kind, recently Diego Gambetta again proposed, in a different and far more rigorous context, the theme of the Mafia-as-enterprise, or enterprise syndicate. He stated that a mafioso sells a specific “product,” protection—in a historic context, the protection of Sicily or southern Italy, where trust and confidence are lacking. As the reader will see in the present history of the Mafia, such a concept is evident from the very beginning, in every phase of the story. It has been adopted by magistrates, policemen, scholars, novelists, and—once again—even the mafiosi themselves, who set themselves up as protectors from criminality. In this sense, the heart of the problem, the basic function of the Mafia, can be identified in the racket that protects a legal institution, the business enterprise, using violence to ensure a monopoly for itself—specifically, the verbal and physical intimidation of thieves, traitors, witnesses, and competitors. Mafia wars are largely waged among aspiring protectors. It seems open to question, however, whether Gambetta is not underestimating the extortion factor as opposed to the protection extortion factor. The Mafia d’ordine (order-keeping Mafia) always presupposes a disorder that needs to be organized and kept firmly under control, whether during post-Risorgimento Sicily or during the more recent process of criminal escalation. It is therefore, to a considerable degree, the Mafia itself that helps to create the widespread sense of insecurity on which it battens and which it exploits. Thus, it is reasonable to say that its sole function is a self-determined one, given that ordinary criminals constitute the base from which the cosche (Mafia families) recruit their members. Frequently, the threat is amplified, or even created ex novo, in order to ensure that the insurance policy is purchased. It often happens that in linking the party that explicitly makes the threat and the party that is willing to provide protection to the target of that threat, there is a prior arrangement to play these specific roles, that of extortioner and protector. The division of labor is made within the context of the same organization in order to persuade entrepreneurs, in the past and today, to subscribe to this “insurance” service. The Mafia, as we have already mentioned, is a power, nor does the fact that its blend of violence and ideology that creates consensus prove anything about the substance of its claim that it provides a service. “They act, therefore,” Gaetano Mosca noted as early as 1901, “in such a way that the victim himself, who is actually paying a tribute to the cosca , can flatter himself that this is actually a gracious gift or the price paid for a service rendered, rather than an extortion exacted through the threat of violence.” The same reasoning applies to that sort of ex post facto protection that offers intermediation to arrange for the recovery of stolen objects, an intervention “apparently on behalf of the victim of theft” but that in point of fact is undertaken by organizations featuring nothing more than a “division of theatrical parts,” played by thieves and inter­mediaries. Then there is the interplay of protection and intermediation artificially fomented in order to modify the power relationships among the factions within the Mafia. Let us think, for instance, of the case of Vito Ciancimino, the corrupt politician with whom a great many mafiosi aspired to establish close contact, but who happened to be in “the hands” of Totò Riina: it was impossible to establish contact with Ciancimino except through Riina. Pippo Calò, one of Palermo’s Mafia capos, suggested to Leonardo Vitale the idea of kidnapping Ciancimino’s son, not only to make a little money, but also to attain another goal: “It was expected that, given their relationship, Ciancimino would then turn to Riina and [Calò] would himself be able to play the role of the intermediary, while in reality serving our own interests.”

We should not think that, as in the perfect market of classical economics, supply and demand for protection intersect and that all subjects are on an equal basis. In a class-driven society like that of the nineteenth century, the asymmetry of power among the negotiating parties is at a maximum, though it tends to diminish over time. In any case, both in the past and today, it is difficult to hypothesize a freedom of choice, and therefore any real advantage, for the peasants, the small shopkeepers, or the entrepreneurs who were not in on the game, being forced out of the market or else obliged to limit artificially their range of activities. If any deal exists, it is that of the lion with its prey, and therefore is null and void, as jurists might say. On the other hand, as for both past and present-day large-scale entrepreneurs, the contract for protection actually can be considered to be advantageous. Particularly respectful of the clauses of those contracts were the “continental” companies that came to do business in the infected zones. Such is the case, for instance, of the Standa-Berlusconi group, which the investigating magistrates of the Catania district recently judged especially reluctant to reveal to law enforcement forces the terms of its understanding with local extorters and protectors. The logic of collusion, then, is common to northerners and southerners alike. Indeed, we can say that the outsiders, in not forming part of the local networks of clientelism, tend to off er greater space to their representatives, much as did the old large landholders who lived in Naples, Rome, or even Madrid, since they had never actually seen their lands and gave their administrators the authority to do as they wished. This was the opinion of the economist Carlo Rodanò, who provided an insider’s account of the penetration of the Mafia in the Chimica Arenella, or Arenella chemicals plant, the crown jewel of Palermo manufacturing since 1911, which was owned by a German group and run by a German:

"His behavior was that of a man unfamiliar with the area. Pure-blooded Sicilians, even when they were obliged to have dealings with mafiosi, unless they were complete fools took care not to allow that contact to become very close, because while those good fellows stood out for the agreeable way in which they offered all their potential clients an apparently altruistic form of protection, it remained true that, with the passage of time and the growth of the friendship, they would inevitably find a way of appropriating 100 percent of the possessions that their new protégé had avoided losing by acquiring that protection; ordinarily, the mafioso would also take a substantial chunk of what was left over."

The local governing classes’ skill at “establishing and keeping their distance” points to situations that are still typical of an elitist society. With the passage of time, the associations established to provide services to the dominant class become autonomous, and the cases of major Sicilian entrepreneurs of more recent periods who availed themselves of Mafia protection (the Salvos, the Cassinas, and the Costanzos) point to a much closer relationship to the Mafia network itself.

Finally, the basic element that distinguishes the type of protection linking the Mafia with the establishment is the factor of reciprocity. Just as the questore (administrative director of the district police) of Palermo, Ermanno Sangiorgi, stated at the turn of the twentieth century, “the caporioni of the Mafia are under the protection of senators, members of parliament, and other in. uential figures who protect them and defend them, only to be protected and defended by them in their turn.” Even today—just as in the past—it is the “protection industry” that is obliged to ask politicians and public institutions for protection from the rigors of the law. The truth is that the intertwining of Mafia and politics cannot be reduced to a straightforward “economic” logic, and it is rather futile to try to force that point. Within the physiological and variegated relationship of give and take with the machinery of politics, but especially in major historical turning points such as Italian unification or the post–Second World War years, this interlinking process profoundly determined the very structure of the Mafia. It might also be that the Mafia seeks to condition the government, as has happened in Italy in recent years. The history of the Mafia cannot be reduced to a single scheme, applicable in all situations and all periods.

Protection, however, is not the only “industry” controlled by the Mafia;indeed, protection inevitably constitutes a sort of bridge leading to other activities. The person who holds the keys of security, whether it be the friend of mafiosi or a mafioso himself, is best suited to enter a market such as the nineteenth-century marts of the gabella del latifondo —that is, the market of commercial mediation in the citrus-growing districts in the area around Palermo—or in the construction subcontracting of the twentieth century. As in the past, when the threat of brigands was used to induce the large landowners to entrust to the mafiosi the management of the agricultural enterprise, so it is today that shop-owners are threatened by armed robbery, extortion, and loan-sharking to accept mafiosi as partners. We thus see the transition from the protection business to full control of a company; this is an intrinsic part of the phenomenon. On the one hand, we have a continual transformation of mafiosi into profiteers, and on the other hand an ongoing transformation of “clean” companies into companies—generically—corrupted or “in contact” with the Mafia. This two­fold process was not determined by the intrinsic characteristics of the commercial activities in question, but rather by the Mafia groups’ degree and level of control of the territory. From this power base, the mafiosi went on to control other illegal lines of business (large-scale smuggling and drug trafficking) that in and of themselves have little to do with the protection business and control of the territory.

The twofold nature of the Mafia’s activities corresponds to a twofold organizational model. On the one hand—in the case of Palermo—we see a series of organizations that take their name from the territory in which they operate, that finance their activities through protection/extortion, in some cases paying salaries to their members, and that pay for legal expenses and subsidize the families of those who have been arrested. On the other hand, as Buscetta explained, we see a business network that cuts transversely across the organizations and in which the various affiliated members can participate, under certain favorable conditions, but still risking their own funds and earning money as individuals. To distinguish the first organizational model, based on extortion, from the second organizational model, which is more fluid and profiteering, we might examine the distinction between a power syndicate and an enterprise syndicate proposed by the American historian Alan Block, although that distinction was made in an interpretative context that was somewhat different from the one explored in this study. The two functions, as will become evident, interact, clash, and in any case tend to be linked together. It therefore becomes impossible to distinguish the mafioso from the trafficker, with the mafioso considered the protector (intermediary, guarantor) and the trafficker the protected, in the presence of an opposite or reverse process of the inclusion of entrepreneurs, smugglers, and drug traffickers into the Mafia organizations, within which the roles tended to overlap. It might happen that a camorrista like Cutolo should demand the payment of a pizzo from the Nuvolettas, who were the Neapolitan affiliates of Cosa Nostra, and that in fact they continued to pay that protection fee until they felt they were ready to wage war on Cutoloff This, however, has more to do with the shifting relationships of power between the two alignments, and certainly not with any fundamental difference in their natures.


Police and judicial sources are every bit as rife with ulterior motives as other sources. Those who make use of them immediately venture into a gallery of mirrors involving the battling truths of the prosecution and the defense, of the reputation and the infamy that make up the role of the mafioso. For many years administrative measures ( ammonizione , a special security regimen, or domicilio coatto , an obligatory residence) have been based on public rumor and opinion as interpreted by police and magistrates as well as on the judicial efforts made by the liberal governments, Fascism, and the Italian republic to attack the phenomenon of the Mafia. There has never been anything spontaneous about that public rumor and opinion. It has been instrumentally guided and created by a number of Mafia factions as a way of combating the opposing factions; and then, when the interests of criminal politicians or ordinary politicians pointed toward a repressive crackdown, it was instrumentally adopted by certain state agencies. Credit should be given to the judges of Palermo (Chinnici, Falcone, and Borsellino) for shifting this age-old mechanism to the interior of the structure designed to protect civil rights within criminal prosecution and trial, and for ensuring that through the evidence and testimony provided by those willing to collaborate with the law we have finally obtained a source of information from within. Such sources are no longer filtered—as was the case during the Liberal era or under the Fascist regime—through police reports or the executive branch of the government.

In this case we are faced with a point of view—that of the Mafia determined to surrender and pentirsi , or repent—that cannot exempt us from the need for sophisticated analyses, full-blown reconstructions, and references to broader issues than those that the protagonists themselves, both mafiosi and investigators, have been concerned with or have been willing to present to us. However, taken as a whole, the confessions of Joe Valachi (1962), the memoirs of Nick Gentile (1963), the revelations of Leonardo Vitale (1974), and those of Tommaso Buscetta and so many other mafiosi following in his footsteps have shown us a Mafia that is clearly a secret organization and that as such would subsequently be taken to court and be found guilty.

Evidently, the first of these accounts, by Joe Valachi, focuses on the counter­part of the Sicilian Mafia, located on the far shore of the Atlantic Ocean, in the heart of world capitalism. The leadership of the “five families” of the New York Mafia, which took form in the early 1930s with the creation of the so-called Commission, included individuals nearly all of whom had come to America at very early ages. The one exception was Salvatore Maranzano, who arrived in 1927 at the age of forty-three and who immediately became a boss, certainly because of a power base that he had already built in his hometown of Castellammare del Golfoff American sources indicate that the 1920s was a time of a significant immigration of mafiosi, with the arrival of no fewer than 500 criminals fleeing the prefect Mori. Can we therefore speak of a sort of transplant?

The fact that the Sicilian-born leaders of the six families (Bonanno, Luciano, Gambino, Reina, Lucchese, Profaci) all came from corrupt areas of the western section of the island would seem to favor that interpretation: three of them came from Palermo, and the other three came from Lercara, Corleone, and Castellammare. Or was the U.S. Mafia basically new, considering that it took on an interregional character without counterpart in Italy, and that among the heads of the families we find two Neapolitans (Genovese and Gotti) and two Calabrians (Costello and Anastasia)? Powerful bosses like Joe Bonanno painted themselves as direct descendants of a “Sicilian Tradition,” but that may be nothing more than the product of the well-known ideological self-portrayal. Bonanno himself believed that the “purist” line was defeated with the “Castellammare war” of 1930–1931, in the face of the overwhelmingly evident process of Italian American cross-breeding in which he was personally involved in a leadership role; and that is not to mention the decisive role played in these developments by such Jewish criminals as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin Siegel.

In the United States, the basic unit of the organization, described in nineteenth-century Sicily as a cosca , nassa , partito (party), società (society or company), or fratellanza (brotherhood), was called a family. In actual practice, both in Palermo and in New York, the Mafia family rarely corresponded to the blood family, and in America just as in Sicily, both today and in the past, it may well happen that—in open defiance of the familistic ideologies—in infra-mafioso conflicts, parents and children and brothers and sisters often find themselves on opposite sides and wind up murdering one another. The emphasis on the family appears to be little more than a tribute to the traditionalism found in radically different fields and typical of Italian Americans. It also seems that the name used to designate the organization as a whole—Cosa Nostra—comes from America. As far as can be determined, the name was previously unknown in Sicily and certainly calls to mind an immigrant on a quest for a cosa nostra ”—something of “our own”—clear and understandable, to be preferred to the incomprehensible cose loro ”—their things. This terminology refers to the Sicilian component only among present-day pentiti and can lead us to overturn the cus­tomary thought that Sicily exports its archaic ways, leaving us to wonder to what degree a flow of the archaic is engendered in America and then reexported to the Old World. Here we find an interaction of models, which followed the travel patterns of individuals moving not only from Sicily to America but also from America to Sicily. In this respect, the best known episode occurred after the end of the Second World War when U.S. authorities sent back to Italy sixty-five “undesirables” of Italian nationality, with the intention of returning a group of foreign criminals who had infiltrated American society in an earlier period. In contrast, the Italians saw these deportees as ambassadors and propagandists of a way of life, or of a typically American criminal organization, which they considered to be far more dangerous than the local Mafia. However, a far more frequent and continuous series of movements occurred along the circuits of returning emigrants. For the present let us consider a single case: Nick Gentile built his career in America, where he first arrived from his birthplace of Siculiana in 1903, at the age of eighteen. He returned to Sicily in 1909, 1913, 1919, 1925, and 1927–1930, and then, for good, in 1937, managing all the while to take part in election races in his homeland and various forms of the import-export business, as well as to organize murders, be arrested, and then released, thanks to his contacts and ties among various offcials, including those in the Fascist regime. This introduces the theme, which we’ll come back to later, of international profiteering activities, including drug traficking, “operated by this association [the Mafia] in the United States and in Europe.” Apparently, a document mentions the existence of the New York Commission prior to the revelations of Valachi, Gentile, and Bonanno: a report dated 1940 from the Italian financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, addressed to the U.S. Customs supervisor of New York and to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This document, sent from Italy to inform Americans about an American event, indicates the intensity of the trans-Atlantic relationship, even though it came at the end of a historical phase, the period between the two world wars, when migratory flows from Italy had completely collapsed.

Of course, this does not mean that the U.S. Mafia was not clearly distinct from the Sicilian Mafia. First and foremost, the U.S. Mafia was profoundly modeled on American society, as is emphasized by a number of studies (prevalently democratic and Italian American in nature) that focus on the criminalizing elements of the American society into which these immigrants were introduced, in contrast with the traditional WASP thesis of a foreign conspiracy. This praiseworthy effort to overturn the racist idea that Italian Americans had a predisposition to engage in crime, however, ultimately points toward a model of the Mafia that was nothing more than a form of clientelism in its society of origin—“a system of godfathers and clients exchanging favors, services, and other benefits,” perpetuated by the immigrants when they arrived in the New World, and destined to die out once the Italian American community was fully integrated into the upper ranks of U.S. society. According to the anthropologist Francis J. Ianni, the mafiosi of the Lupollo family were “modest, taciturn people, . . . men of honor” deserving of “sympathy and admiration,” linked together in a “family business” in which legal activities gradually replaced the illegal activities that had once been necessary for advancement for those who came from a world where there was neither law nor justice. In short, theirs was “a vanishing way of life”—yet another variation on the theme, inevitably refuted by events, of a modernity destined to automatically dissolve the archaism of the Mafia. The vertical and highly structured organization described by Valachi was therefore basically a paranoid invention of the authorities and the WASP power structure. The Mafia, as Hawkins asserted, is like God: to believe in it is tantamount to a profession of faith that cannot be sustained by empirical evidence. We should point out, however, that Ianni’s study was based on documents provided by the Lupollos themselves and certainly reflects their point of view; whereas Hawkins, without knowing it, formulated the same equation, Mafia=God, that had already been set forth by Pasquale Sciortino, the lieutenant and “intellectual” of the Giuliano gang, in a polemic with Girolamo Li Causi.

The Americans’ unwillingness to consider the Mafia as a criminal organization, especially (though not only) during the years that followed Valachi’s revelations, profoundly influenced the sociological and anthropological debate concerning the Sicilian Mafia that took place between the 1960s and 1970s. In both cases, the only aspect considered worthy of study was “Mafia behavior,” identified as that of the traditional Sicilian way of life, whereas “the Mafia,” inasmuch as it was a structure independent of that mode of behavior, was not thought to exist at all, since the Sicilians were only capable of identifying with their families and their clientele. These were “natural” and personal aggregations that required no further bonds of association, such as a special oath or a specific ritual. Characteristic in its obstinate persistence in this direction is the work of the German sociologist Hess (1970), who believed that the cosca corresponded to “a series of paired relations that the mafioso establishes with people otherwise unrelated to one another.” The cosca was unstable and was established on specific occasions for specific purposes; the cosca coalesced around the boss’s personal charisma and network of relations, and it died with the passage of those elements. “We are not in the presence of a static association of conspirators,” Arlacchi wrote a few years later, in a paraphrase of the Schneiders’ more balanced formulation, “but rather of a group of friends and relatives that, like any other organization of the sort, often gets together to play cards, go hunting, or to celebrate a birth or a wedding, or to enjoy a schiticchio [banquet among men].”

Once again, we can point out how the effort to reduce the entire subject to the context of Mediterranean anthropology tended to coincide with the interpretation that mafiosi had and offered of themselves; they were content to portray themselves as innocuous country cousins rather than members of dangerous criminal associations. The old boss of Ribera, Paolo Campo, unhesitatingly acknowledged certain forms of behavior and declared himself to be a mafioso, but—as usual—he criticized the mafiosi of his day (1985) who had become nothing more than “common criminals.” Most importantly, he took great care to deny that he had ever become an “associate” with a formal induction (the oath of loyalty): “I never committed criminal acts, nor did I ever associate myself with others to do that. I have to say that I was born mafioso and that I will die mafioso, if by Mafia you mean, as I do, to do good to one’s neighbors, to give something to those who are in need, and to find work for those who are unemployed.” It is a typical defense strategy in Mafia trials, a strategy that, as mentioned earlier, coincides with the emphasis on traditionalist factors: already, during the nineteenth-century trial of the Amoroso brothers, the defending lawyer described the charges of conspiracy or association as “a chimaera,” “a contrivance,” “a mysterious anomaly.” Similarly, Cascio-Ferro was described as an “individualist.” Interpretative schemes like Hess’s, which included references to Pitrè, the “true and unrivaled sage who understood the Sicilian soul,” find their precedent in the theorizing of the lawyerly culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to this theorizing, the traditional Sicilian, a man of the people, a “man of the countryside,” would be incapable of founding an association as complex as the one described by the police, since he was an individualist or, at the very most, a familist.

In 1965, in the aftermath of Valachi’s confession, Robert T. Anderson attempted to preserve the traditional thesis by describing the path that led from Mafia to Cosa Nostra. Originally, Anderson stated, the Mafia was supposedly a coalescing of family groups, but in America, once it came into contact with modernity, it adopted “impersonal” organizational models, centralized governing institutions to prevent a primitive internal violence, primarily because that would be bad for business. The Sicilian organization, Anderson maintained, also followed this path, when confronted with the demonstrated effects of the American model and the similar processes of economic development. Here we encounter the usual opposition between the old Mafia and the new Mafia, in which a naïve and all-inclusive model of modernization relegates culture, clientele, and blood family ties to the traditional world, placing in the world of the present “impersonal” organization, while instead the problem lies in understanding the complex interactions that exist, past and present, between the former elements and the latter institution.

Today, in the wake of the investigations of the last thirty years in Italy and America, nearly everyone is willing to recognize that Mafia organizations are characterized by a level of continuity extending beyond the life spans of the individual members, by a hierarchical structure, and by a membership that is carefully filtered, in accordance with the definition offered by official American institutions. In accordance with Anderson’s approach, however, it is often said that these characteristics have been acquired only recently, whereas it would be more accurate to say that they have only been recently acquired, not so much by the Mafia, as by the mafiologists, or at least by the majority current in that field, because from the very beginning, there have always been those who described “Mafia associations” of this sort. This is the case, for instance, of the two policemen and criminologists, Giuseppe Alongi and Antonino Cutrera, between the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, who made use of the investigative findings of the questura of Palermo in the three decades from 1860 to 1890—analyses that Hess summarily dismissed as “erroneous.” The methods of the division of territory and coordination among the cosche revealed by that documentation were very similar to those on which Buscetta insisted. In particular, in the years between the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, there existed a command structure composed of representatives of these groups, whose acts and rules (as we shall describe below), in the wake of the previously mentioned questore Sangiorgi, resembled the New York Commission as well as the organization in Palermo, which from the 1960s on oversaw the activities of Cosa Nostra, until the further centralizing crackdown of the Corleonese. This does not mean that the Mafia groups of the Palermo area have remained under the control of supervisory institutions from Italian unification to the present day. Indeed, those institutions are unstable, fully exposed to the stress of internal divisions, and have probably had their ups and downs. Moreover, in recent history, the territorial extent of their authority (the city? the province? the region?) has shifted according to various circumstances. However, the relative success of the efforts at centralization in Palermo (as in New York) is likely the result of this age-old proclivity for coordination, since these tendencies are universal in the realm of organized crime but do not always achieve results. In Naples, for example, the attempt in that direction with the Nuova Camorra Organizzata (NCO, or New Organized Camorra) under Raffaele Cutolo ended in a bloodbath, and prevailing today at Reggio Calabria is a horizontal model, or a “swarm model.” In the Caltanissetta and Catania districts, the groups linked to Cosa Nostra have been unable to take full control because of the continuous emergence of new gangs. And the a.liation of the Palermo families with eminent personages of the ’ndrangheta or the Camorra, tending to reinforce business ties established in the context of cigarette and drug smuggling, failed to bring about the expected centralizing effects.

In short, one should avoid falling into the trap of the idea of the Single Great Conspiracy, eschewing the popular image of a piovra (octopus, a term used colloquially in Italy to describe the Mafia— translator’s note ) with one head and a thousand tentacles, with omniscient and omnipotent leadership, a notion that has been simplistically foisted on the public by authorities in both America and Sicily, in particular during the course of the first investigations and inquiries in the nineteenth century. The mafiosi are involved in business dealings that link them with subjects who neither belong to the Mafia nor could they ever do so: intermediaries, criminals of every kind and every nationality, Turkish or Chinese drug traffickers, bankers. In their role as protectors—a role that as we have seen is highly ambiguous—they interact with landowners, entrepreneurs, and shopowners. In their necessary connections with politics and public institutions, they make deals and agreements with notables, professional politicians, policemen, and judges. As we shall see, the individual mafiosi carry on conversations with the outside world, in some cases independently of the Mafia as an organization. This helps us to see, among other things, that the concept of the Mafia as an anti-state is overstated and misleading, and it points us to the theme of the ties linking the Mafia and official power. This field should be carefully considered and entails in fact current implications both in the judicial field (I am referring to the penal category, recently introduced into Italian legislation, of external involvement in Mafia conspiracy) and in the political field. Let us consider, for instance, the attempt to distinguish between the political responsibility and the penal responsibilities of public figures involved in various ways in relationships with organized crime. Stefano Bontate, the Grecos, and other eminent leaders of Cosa Nostra have deemed it useful to find a venue for meeting with their partners from the worlds of politics and economics in the more-or-less secret Masonic lodges. In scholarly terms—as well as political and judicial terms—it is useful to wonder how these fluid and varied networks serve as parallel and overlapping structures to the organization that ties the mafiosi together.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 1996 Donzelli Editore; Translation copyright © 2009 Columbia University Press; Foreword copyright © Anthony Shugar. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

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About the Author

Salvatore Lupo teaches contemporary history at the University of Palermo. His research focuses on Italian history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a special emphasis on fascism and the Mafia. He is the associate editor in chief of the journal Meridiana, the most respected forum for the multidisciplinary discussion of the history and society of southern Italy.Antony Shugaar is a translator and author who received an NEA fellowship for his translation of Nanni Balestrini's Sandokan. His book reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Journal of Modern Italian Studies, and he has translated novels by Stefano Benni, Massimo Carlotto, and Carmine Abate, as well as works of journalism by Carlo Levi. He is the coauthor, with the late Gianni Guadalupi, of Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator, and the author of I Lie for a Living.

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