All posts by Isabel Davern

The Sicilian Mafia: An Offer the Italian Government Can’t Refuse

When you think of the mafia, you probably think of gangsters and mobsters with guns and Marlon Brando calling the shots. In reality, it isn’t just a bunch of Italians shouting and shooting at each other. They are actually very involved in Italian society, politics, and the economy. The Sicilian Mafia are basically a state within a state; they have their own citizens , land, and laws. The Mafia offers physical protection and security, which the Italian government hasn’t been able to promise since their reunification in the 1860s. Today, the Sicilian Mafia actually works alongside the Italian government as a governing power.
The Sicilian Mafia originated in the 1800s. Sicily, the southern island of Italy, was a prime location and target for raiders to come and try and take over the land. Sicilians came together to form groups in order to protect themselves from invaders. Later, these groups became private armies called the “mafie.” They extorted protection money from landowners and eventually become the violent “Sicilian Mafia,” or in Italian, Casa Nostra, meaning ‘our thing,’. Sicily became a unified part of Italy in 1861, but the Sicilian Mafia acted as a government while the Italian government struggled. The Italian government was established in Rome, and the distance and geographical circumstance of the island of Sicily made it difficult for the government to gain a hold there. In the 1870s, the Italian government asked the Sicilian Mafia to go after dangerous criminal bands that were causing them trouble. In exchange, the government would ignore the Mafia’s taxing of landowners. The Italian government thought that this would be a temporary fix to their problem as they tried to establish their government. However, this allowed the Sicilian Mafia to gain more power and further engrain themselves in Italian society, politics, and economy. For example, the Mafia started threatening people to vote for certain politicians who supported the Mafia. The Catholic Church even hired the Mafia to watch over land holdings and keep farmer tenants in check.
Today, the Mafia consists of an estimated 1,500 men categorized into 67 ‘families’ just in the province of Palermo, Sicily. A regional committee governs the Casa Nostra, and under that is a provincial committee. Then, there is a colonel who watches over three families. Each family has power over a certain territory. The families each have a chief, counselor, deputies, sergeants, and soldiers. The families are somewhat kin-oriented. Members of the family tend to be extended through from father to sons, uncles to nephews, and through godparenthood. However, talent is a big part of the job, so some sons of cosca members who are thought to lack the criminal abilities (cough cough, Al Pacino, cough cough) are passed over in favor of promising delinquents from unrelated backgrounds.
The Mafia is extremely integrated in Italy’s economy and politics today. They account for about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, making it Italy’s biggest business. Popular professions include professional tailors for high fashion companies in Milan, pirating DVDs, fishermen, and brewmasters. Their role in politics is also extensive. Antonino Giuffre, number two in the Sicilian Mafia, recounted after his arrest that former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was associated with the Mafia, saying that “Relations between the Christian Democrats [CD] and Cosa Nostra were serene for at least a decade, there was absolute peace.” The Mafia support certain candidates and often rig elections so they win, and in return, they receive political impunity for their violence and crimes. It assumes some government functions such as protection and works parallel to the government when it elects its supporters to key positions. Palermo Prosecutor Giancarlo Caselli says that this is possible because the Sicilian Mafia has a “fifth column” in Sicilian life.
So, it doesn’t seem like the Mafia will be going anywhere anytime soon. Between an inept stateno stable government, and deficient public service system, Italy seems to need the Mafia. The weak Italian government aside, “The mafia-dominated corruption that entangles the country is so deeply rooted that it is all but impossible to reform (or preferably eliminate). Such reform could today only come about by eliminating the central government,”. The Mafia’s idea of honor is still held by many Sicilians who wouldn’t dare support the elimination of the Mafia. The Mafia’s strong roots have supported its control of Italy since the 19th century. Its extensive role in Italian society, economy, and politics demonstrate its role as essentially a shadow government.