22 years ago this week, on the 23rd May 1992, the courageous Italian prosecutor, Giovanni Falcone, was assassinated by a car bomb that was so powerful it registered as an earthquake on local monitors. Falcone, along with his tireless partner, a magistrate Paolo Borsellino, had made it their lifelong crusade to suppress the Sicilian mafia, and they were killed for their work.
Two decades later, a number of notorious mafia groups retain a stranglehold over stability, politics and the economy in Italy: the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria; the Cosa Nostra from Sicily; the Camorra from Campania (Naples) and the Sacra Corona Unita from Puglia, as shown in the map to the right.
The roots of the mafia in Italy run deep into the history of Italy, and as with many organized crime groups, their genesis began as a social and political movement. As the development of Italy bifurcated between the richer, industrialist North, and the poor agricultural South, the mafia was a means to antagonize the largely corrupt Southern government. Evolving in the 1600s from the system of landholders and the nobility who relied on militia groups to protect their power and influence, these groups provided protection, economic opportunity and social services in the absence of the state, by “taxation” (extortion) of the citizens in their region. Rather than considering themselves criminal, the members of the mafia families have traditionally referred to themselves as “uomini d’onore” – men of honour – providing a civic good. This has evolved and sustained a long-standing polarisation between the Italian State and the mafia, which is anti-State.
There are many accounts of the rise and fall of various mafia groups, but all of these demonstrate that the mafia has proven itself to be quintessentially resilient. The profits of criminal enterprises have been laundered into political campaigns and legitimate businesses, making it increasingly difficult to eradicate. Moreover, they are quickly adaptive to prevailing political, social and economic characteristics of the environment. Historical analysis shows that the most advanced forms of crime, such as the mafia, are cyclically born, come to a climax, decline and then physiologically re-emerge in different outward forms that are better suited to the environment.
According to mafia analysts, including in the latest report of the DIA (Italian Anti-Mafia Directorate), organised crime in Italy is going through a period of transition – and arguably decline – due to a number of external shocks that have reduced the viability of the traditional business models. While the mafia remains a potent economic force – the total value of all organised crime in Italy is estimated at more than $190 billion per year – several years of the economic recession that has affected all of Europe, and a number of major asset seizures by Italian law enforcement, have significantly reduced operating margins. Cosa Nostra boss Giovanni Di Giacomo was recently recorded in prison, complaining about the collapse of protection and extortion rackets. Public procurement contracts, another typical mainstay of mafia groups, have also slowed to a trickle as the economy declines. Even drug trafficking suffers from reduced demand in Europe, as clients see themselves with less disposable income available for recreational drugs, and West Africans have become increasingly engaged in the trade higher up the criminal economy chain.
As a response, the mafia groups have had to seek new revenue sources. All of the groups have tried to reactivate and consolidate relations with groups overseas, or to use their incredible liquidity to penetrate new markets, both in the North of Italy, but also in Eastern Europe or further afield. For most, however, this has entailed going back to basics. The Cosa Nostra has returned to its roots: the extortion of landowners, merchants, and even, incredibly, the theft of livestock and the allocation of social housing. For example, last January, the mafia family based in the town of Gela was investigated for their involvement in construction projects, and leveraging this to control or tax the allocation of social welfare housing in favor of its affiliates. Similarly, in April last year, the police arrested members of the Montelepre mafia family of Palermo for stealing cattle in the district. In the last week, the Police of Adrano, a village in the province of Catania, arrested two young men for extortion of 21 small landowners in the district using mafia methods. The young men belonged to the the Scalisi clan, who have historic connections to Benedetto “Nitto” Santapaola from Catania and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
The ‘Ndrangheta have arguably been proved the most adaptive, in focusing on penetrating local politics through corruption, and specializing in money laundering, they have managed to penetrate broadly across the economy of the country as a whole, whilst maintaining a tight grip on local power dynamics in their region of origin, Campania. However, as the primary controller of most of Europe’s cocaine trade, their finances have probably suffered the least. The Camorra, by turn, have proved the most vicious in their survival methods. Analysts have noted a sharp increase in violence, and have also observed that the Camorra have made efforts to sustain an aura of insecurity and fragility for local residents, to ensure their endemic dependence on the Camorra for economic and social goods.
After years of survival through the commission of low profile, low profit crimes, in the last year, there has been a distinct shift to try and regain some of the power and prestige of their halcyon days. The classic mafia model survives on networks of patronage, and without the profits to sustain “the family”, the model is increasingly under threat.
The Corleone family, under Salvatore Riina, dominated the Sicilian Cosa Nostra in the 1980s and 90s, was responsible for a ruthless campaign of violence targeted against rival groups as well as the State. It was their bombs that assassinated Falcone and Borsellino two decades previously. Under public pressure, Riina was arrested in 1993, triggering a major lashback of terrorist acts aimed at civilians, churches and heritage sights. The resultant public outrage and government clamp-down that followed spelled the end to this reign of terror, but also of the family’s hegemony over mafia groups.
With the fall of the Corleone family, the entire patronage structure that supported the Cosa Nostra suffered a backlash that has reverberated through its operations of the Sicilian mafia for the following two decades. Power has fragmented, as different groups have sought to dominate the Cosa Nostra, and there have been challenges from rival clans from neighboring provinces. In this more fragmented environment, some of the salient features of the Italian mafia have been eroded. As a result,membership has become more permeable, and less centered around the family structure and territorial control that has previously characterized the Italian mafia.
While in recent years there have been attempts to reconstitute the classic structure, but in aggregate form through an alliances of the three largest families, from the provinces of Trapani, Agrigento and Palermo, and return the mafia to its glory days, but tight profits have made sustaining an allegiance a difficult challenge.
In Palermo in recent months, there appears to be a smoldering of a new mafia war: on April 19 the police arrested eight suspects in Palermo for mafia-type association. The case, monikered “IAGO” by the police, showcased a struggle for control of the district of Porta Nuova in the heart of the city, of pivotal importance since it includes some of the most famous shops, the three historic markets of Ballarò, Capo and Vucciria, and most critically, Palermo’s harbour. In March, Giuseppe Di Giacomo, a senior figure of one of the three mafia families active in the city was gunned down on the sidewalk of Via dell’ Emiro, in the historic district of Zisa in Palermo. The investigation revealed that Giuseppe’s brother, Giovanni , ruler of the district of Porta Nuova until his arrest, had planned to anoint his brother as leader in his stead. Wiretaps revealed that his succession plan also included the murder of two rival gang leaders, Vittorio Emanuele and Orazio Lipari. The police intervened before the planned retaliation by his brothers could trigger another conflict to echo the glory days of the Corleone era.
Giuseppe Di Giacomo of the Cosa Nostra, dead on the pavement in Palermo, Sicily
The above analysis offers two lessons.
Firstly, it highlights the importance of studying the structural elements of the crime environment, and understanding in a nuanced way the political-economy and the shifting power relations. For national law enforcement keen to address organized criminal activity, this kind of framework must underpin the analysis of daily criminal acts in the territories. Assessing individual crimes out of the broader context will prevent the identification of more sophisticated and structured crime network or mafia-like structures. Furthermore, without a basis for analysis and monitoring of trends will result in a consistently reactive, as opposed to proactive, approach to the onset of criminality. The mafia, in Italy or elsewhere, will only be defeated “by an army of teachers” as the great Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino once said. Thus, law enforcement, policy makers and all those with a desire to break mafia influence need to set themselves up as students. A combination of experience, coupled with historical and cultural knowledge of these phenomena can form the basis of a pro-active strategy that remains the most effective tool to combat this form of crime.
Secondly, it emphasizes the need to look beyond criminal justice and law enforcement responses to counter mafia style organised crime. Falcone and Borsellino posthumously fulfilled their quest, not through prosecutions and indictments, but as martyrs, mobilizing public opinion and awareness to the scale and destructiveness of mafia influence. Mafia groups leverage on local dependency to gain legitimacy and entrench themselves deeply into the fabric of society. Into that environment, punitive law enforcement action can trigger local resistance and strengthen mafia groups rather than weakening them. Instead, mafia groups need to be attacked through the levers they themselves employ: reducing their profits; reducing their influence on politics, and finally reducing their legitimacy in the eyes of the closest constituents.
In conclusion, it is clear that the fight against mafia groups, in Italy or elsewhere, will be neither easy nor swift. It will require the courage and integrity of a great number of anti-mafia crusaders. But it remains unquestionably a fight worth making.
And in the case of the Sicilian mafia groups, the current environment might just be right for a hard strike.