Sicilian Cosa Nostra Rebrands Itself, Mafia Academic Says

"The Mafia is oppression, arrogance, greed, self-enrichment, power and hegemony above and against all others. It is not an abstract concept, or a state of mind, or a literary term... It is a criminal organization regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules... The myth of a courageous and generous 'man of honor' must be destroyed, because a mafioso is just the opposite."

-- Cesare Terranova, Italian Magistrate murdered in 1979

Gaetano Riina, brother of Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, after he was arrested in Mazara del Vallo Photo: AP

An interview with Professor John Dickie
Cosa Nostra - rebranding the Mafia: "The mafia, in the strict sense of Cosa Nostra, the hierarchical criminal organization based in Sicily, does not ‘run Italy’ as you sometimes hear people rather glibly say,” explains John Dickie, senior lecturer in Italian at the University of London, and author of Cosa Nostra – a history of the Sicilian Mafia. 

It’s in response to the question, to what extent is an understanding of the Mafia crucial to an understanding of the history of modern Italy? 

“It is no coincidence – though, he continues – that the mafia was born at the same time as the modern Italian State, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then, the Italian state has co-habited with illegal forms of power based on an ability to use violence (that is, with the mafia in a looser meaning). Still today, some areas of southern Italy are not under the full control of the legal government, in the sense that criminal associations create their own ‘legality’, their own shadow state. Understanding how that situation has evolved tells us a great deal about Italy, and about the State’s difficulties in establishing its right to rule.”

Dickie’s work, which is amongst the first serious academic studies on Cosa Nostra published in English, dismisses many of the accepted myths about the organisation, propagated by its own members, as well as through art, literature and film over the last century.

Let’s talk about the name. Do we know what the origins of the name are? When it first came into use? Do ‘mafiosi‘ actually use the term referring to themselves?

Men of honour, as initiated members of Cosa Nostra are called, do not use the word mafia about themselves. That fact alone is enough to tell us that all the etymological speculation that has gone on around the origins of the word is missing the point. That said, the best guess we have is that the word existed in Palermo dialect in the middle of the nineteenth century: it meant a kind of self-confidence and beauty–’cool’ is an approximate English equivalent. The story of how it then came to have criminal connotations, and came to be a powerful political weapon at the same time, is told in an early chapter of my book.

Cosa Nostra exists to protect the credibility of its brand. In other words, to make sure that the threats its members issue are never made in vain. A bit like the Volkswagen brand and its reputation for reliability. Only in the case of Cosa Nostra, protecting your brand identity means being able to kill people and get away with it, rather than just being able to start your car on a damp morning.

Many books on the mafia have been written by journalists and commentators, but relatively few by historians (certainly in English). What are the challenges facing the historian approaching a topic like the mafia?

The first and most serious problem was only overcome remarkably recently. Until 1992 we didn’t know for certain what the Sicilian mafia was! It was in that year that the existence of Cosa Nostra was finally confirmed by the Italian courts. Before then, historians couldn’t be confident that they knew what they were looking for when they went back through the records to research the mafia. That is why the first genuine history of the Sicilian mafia ever written in Italian only came out in 1993–a brilliant work of scholarship and analysis by the Catania historian Salvatore Lupo. It’s a great shame that his book has never been translated into English.

The other, obvious, problem is documentation. The Sicilian mafia is, and has always been, a secret association of murderers and criminals. By its very nature, it does not leave written records. However, because it has always lived in close contact with political power, it has left a great deal of secondary evidence about itself.

What sets Cosa Nostra apart from organisations like the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, or the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia? How is it that the mafia has come to be seen as the template for organised criminal activity worldwide?

Cosa Nostra is quite simply far more organized than the other southern Italian criminal associations. None of the others has anything like the provincial Commissions that act as parliaments and courts for the mafia in western Sicily. None of the others has a boss of all bosses as Cosa Nostra does. The close links with the United States, where the Sicilian model came to dominate over the other criminal associations exported from Italy, has also helped Cosa Nostra become prominent.

One review of your book described it as a “precise and necessary work of rebranding”. Would you agree? What drew you to the subject?

The reference to branding is interesting. It derives from a fascinating sociological analysis of the Sicilian mafia by Diego Gambetta–another one of the breakthrough studies on the subject that came out in the early 1990s. He pioneered the idea that ‘mafia’ could be thought of as a brand–either of trust, or of intimidation, depending on how you view the extortion rackets that are at the basis of Cosa Nostra‘s power.

Cosa Nostra exists to protect the credibility of its brand. In other words, to make sure that the threats its members issue are never made in vain. A bit like the Volkswagen brand and its reputation for reliability. Only in the case of Cosa Nostra, protecting your brand identity means being able to kill people and get away with it, rather than just being able to start your car on a damp morning.

What do you think about representations of the mafia in popular culture – films and literature? Are the portrayals wide off the mark? Also, to what extent do you think that the mafia as an organisation is aware or influenced by these representations? To put it another way, does today’s mafia vainly try to live up to the stereotypes portrayed in films like The Godfather?

I think what the reviewer who referred to ‘rebranding’ had in mind is my attempt to take the mafia seriously. And that is what drew me to the subject in the first place. What most people know about the mafia comes from the US entertainment industry. The whole American mob genre–all the books and films that have sprung from the loins of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather – isn’t really about the mafia at all. Hollywood has used the mafia to talk about what it means to be a man, about the pressures of juggling the responsibilities of family and work, about the dark side of the American dream, or even just to peddle cool images of laconic blokes in sharp suits. And in all that, the fascinating, tragic, scandalous story of what organized crime has done in Sicily has been lost from view. It’s difficult to imagine Al Pacino playing the part of Giovanni Brusca, who dissolved a 12-year-old boy in acid because his father had betrayed Cosa Nostra.

The mafia in Sicily has always been aware of how it is represented, and mafiosi are directly responsible for some of the mystifications that have been spread–like the nonsense about the mafia having Arab origins, for example. Yet the media has also had an influence on the mafia’s own view of itself. It is often said, even during mafia initiation rituals, that the mafia originated as a medieval sect called the Beati Paoli who defended the weak against the powerful and unscrupulous. That idea probably started with a swashbuckling novel about the Beati Paoli published in Palermo early in the twentieth century. In other words, some early mafiosi liked the story, and borrowed it for their own purposes; later gangsters simply began to believe in what had first been spread as the association’s own propaganda.

You take an interesting argument from Franchetti’s Political and Administrative Conditions in Sicily [A study published in 1877], that the Mafia are in essence an entrepreneurial association specialising in the sale of violence. Moreover, it was the absence of a State monopoly on violence that empowered it. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, what was it about Sicily in particular that created the conditions for the Mafia?

Apart from capitalism and a weak State, there are two other key ingredients that went to form the mafia. The first is a strong tradition of political conspiracy. Rather like some members of Republican and Loyalist terrorist groups in Northern Ireland who are also gangsters, many of the very earliest mafiosi were both criminals and patriotic conspirators, or at least moved in that milieu. The second ingredient is lemons, as I explain in my book. In other words, a very valuable and very vulnerable cash crop that tied western Sicily into the world economy.

For many, in the media certainly, the moment when Tommaso Buscetta turned supergrass represented the first breakthrough in the struggle against the mafia [Buscetta, an important figure in Cosa Nostra, gave testimony to Falcone that played a fundamental part in the maxi-trials held in Sicily in the 1980s] . In reality, your book documents the numerous occasions where similar attempts were made, legally and politically, to combat the mafia. What was different about Buscetta’s testimony? Was it as unique as we’re led to believe?

In my book I tell the story of Francesco Siino, the ‘regional or supreme capo‘ of the Palermo area in the 1890s, who turned to the police when he was defeated in a mafia war. (Significantly, it seems to have been his wife who convinced him to talk.) But in court, when it became clear that the case based partly on his confessions was falling apart, Siino retracted. Mafiosi, usually defeated ones, have been talking to the police since the outset. What is distinctive about Buscetta is simply that he was the first mafia supergrass to be believed. He was believed because there was a magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, with the courage, empathy and intelligence to take his testimony seriously. And because of Falcone, Buscetta went into far more detail about Cosa Nostra, and about what it means to be a man of honour, than anyone had done before.

Buscetta’s testimony was history-making in a quite literal sense. It was his insider’s picture of the Sicilian mafia that led Italian historians to look again at the evidence and re-write the story of the mafia completely. It’s the work of those historians that I have brought together in my book.

Unfairly asking you to gaze into the future rather than the past, in a hundred years from now how likely is it that Falcone, Buscetta and the maxi trials will be another footnote in mafia history?
I sincerely hope not. One of the lessons of the history of the mafia is that it has come very close to defeat on a number of occasions. There is nothing inevitable about the existence of Cosa Nostra. If the political will can be found–and that’s a huge ‘if’ in Italy–then the mafia can be defeated.

The mafia is often portrayed as a State within a State. With its involvement in arms and drugs trafficking, how has the post 9/11 war on terrorism affected the organisation? Aside from possible connections through drug trafficking and money laundering to radical Islamic groups, the mafia has proven itself in the past to be a terrorist organisation (if we define that as the targetting of civilians for political purposes). How does it fit in the post 9/11 world?

I’m not sure we can really regard 9/11 as a watershed in the history of the mafia in the way that your question implies. I don’t think the rise of Islamist terrorism means very much to Cosa Nostra, except in the sense that it has probably diverted some police manpower in the US and Italy away from organized crime. The biggest turning points in the recent history of the Sicilian mafia were the verdict of the Court of Cassation in 1992 that finally proved the existence of Cosa Nostra, and the murders of judges Falcone and Borsellino a few months afterwards. Another turning point was the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the old political system in Italy: the mafia could no longer dress itself up as a bulwark against Communism. (Which was the justification for some acts of mafia terrorism in the past.)

One group who are absent from your history, for the most part, are women. Do women play any role in the organisation, other than passive?

There are women in my book: in the chapters on the Sangiorgi Report, for example, or on Peppino Impastato. But to answer your question, yes they certainly do. Women are not allowed to be initiated into Cosa Nostra, but their cooperation is fundamental to the organization’s survival. That’s why Cosa Nostra has so many rules about women’s behaviour, and about men’s behaviour towards women. Almost inevitably, women learn some of the secrets of their criminal menfolk: a mafia wife is the one who has to wash the blood and excrement off her husband’s clothes when he’s been strangling a victim. So Cosa Nostracannot afford to alienate its women in case they betray those secrets. Women bring their children up to admire and emulate mafia fathers who spend a great deal of time away–in jail for example. They lend their names to mafia front businesses. In countless ways they oil the machinery of mafia power.

Occasionally mafia women have also come to exercise power themselves. We cannot be sure whether this is an entirely new historical phenomenon. But any woman who does take an active part in criminal policy-making always does so on borrowed authority–she rules on behalf of an imprisoned husband, for example. A very recent case is that of Giusy Vitale, the sister of the boss of Partinico; she was acting boss of a Family until she turned state’s evidence. But even today, these cases are quite rare–and rarer in Sicily than in the other criminal associations in Italy. Every boss of Cosa Nostra has, or should have, a (male) deputy ready to step into his shoes if he gets killed or imprisoned. Cosa Nostraexists as an organization precisely in order to guarantee continuity in leadership.

The mafia continues to exist partly due to complicity on the part of various important social partners. What role has the Church had in the struggle against the mafia? Would it be fair to say that, at an institutional level rather than on the part of individual priests, the Church has been far from strident in its criticisms of the mafia?

That’s a pretty good summary–although rather generous to the Church! The fact that it took until 1993 for the Pope to come out and declare the mafia an evil speaks for itself. During the Cold War, the Vatican was far more concerned about Communism in Sicily than it was about the mafia. At the local level, there has been a great deal of complicity between individual churchmen and the mafia–as well as some extraordinary instances of heroic resistance.

Many mafiosi also profess a version of the Catholic faith. It helps them live with themselves. As one mafia defector has recently said:

We mafiosi are believers because […] we are made of flesh and blood like everyone else. Of course, the first few times it is bad to see those people dying while we…, well…, we act as executioners. But afterwards it becomes normal.

Religion – or what passes for it – is also the cultural glue that keeps Cosa Nostra compact. It is not just that the dynastic politics of Cosa Nostra‘s leading kinship networks are played out at religious rites of passage like Christenings, weddings and funerals. Becoming a mafioso means taking on a new identity, and a strange form of religious morality is often integral to that identity. ‘I kill you before God’, as one man of honour announced to a petty crook he executed in public a few years ago.

There is a political stereotype of the mafia, particularly after episodes like the Portella della Ginestra massacre [1947 massacre of eleven people at a mayday gathering, by Salvatore Giuliano, reputedly a mafioso], that it has been aligned with the centre-right (most obviously with the DC). To what extent have the Italian left managed to avoid political contact with the mafia?

The best way of avoiding political contact with the mafia is by staying out of power–which is where the Left has been in Sicily for most of its history. The mafia also has a legacy of suspicion towards the Right, which originates in Fascism’s war on the mafia in the late 1920s. Cosa Nostra is very political, but it is not ideological. Its natural political home is the amorphous, amoral centre ground of Italian public life. That’s where politicians are most likely to stay in power, and where the mafia can best strike the exchange deals it relies on to get access to public works contracts and the like.