My dear traveller, today I wanted to discuss with you about a phenomenon that many people consider as a typical Sicilian custom, namely the Sicilian mafia. In reality, behind this term, there are many misleading opinions and wrong ideas. First of all, the one according to which the Sicilians would be all members of the Sicilian mafia and the second that the criminal organization called The Mafia is only a Sicilian phenomenon.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll show why these opinions are utterly wrong and what is the difference between the real criminal organization called “Cosa Nostra” and the ancient, rural Sicilian mafia. I invite you to read them, before visiting my beautiful Sicily.
Sicilian Mafia. What is it?
The term mafia means a particular custom that pushes people to give out privileges, protection and benefits in return for money. This custom is outlaw and illegal because treats fundamental human rights as merchandise, such as getting a job, political assignments , medical treatments, business growth and so on. These favours are managed by people called “Mafiosi”. However, they don’t give only privileges in return for money, they force entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and politicians to pay a fee in return for their protection or favours. This illegal fee is called “pizzo” in Sicilian, namely “extortion money”. If people reject the protection by the Mafiosi, they can also be intimidated with violent harassment or killed. Over the years, many Sicilian entrepreneurs have been forced to pay a fee to continue working and getting customers for their shops and firms. Many denounced the money extortion and have been killed, such as the Sicilian entrepreneur Libero Grassi, other people continued denouncing and others not, because they feared to be killed by the Mafia. This fear also caused a despicable phenomenon called “ rule of silence” or “omertà”, in Italian.Those who fear die every day. Those who don't fear die only once. Paolo Borsellino Click To Tweet
Omertà means a behaviour according to which those who gained benefits from the Mafia denied to having met it. Indeed, many people who were suspected to deal with the Mafia and arrested often said to the policemen: “ Nenti sacciu, netti vitti” or “ I know and see nothing” , even though they saw their neighbor killed by the Mafia in front of their eyes! That is, in short, a rough description about the criminal organization called “Mafia” . Indeed, this word means bossy, snooty and boaster behavior performed to manipulate others , through menaces and intimidation. Just think that in the ancient time, instead, the word Mafia meant a bold man and a charming and seductive woman. At that time, hence, this word had nothing to do with its current meaning. The modern mafia also relates to a particular mindset of some people who practice arrogance against other people, public officers and legal rules.
The Mafia people despise law and justice and work only for the benefit of their personal interest and of small groups of people affiliated with them. This particular mindset permeates our society globally, by now, and it is not a Sicilian phenomenon. Indeed, economical, social and financial manipulation (in order to gain a personal benefit or interest) is spread all over the world and not only in Italy or Sicily. Just think to international trade agreements, or globalization, those are agreements all made through rules similar to the one of the Mafia, namely made only to foster small groups of people. However, the history of my loved Sicily has been marked heavily by the Mafia crimes committed by the Mafia bosses. But at the early stages of the Sicilian history, the mafia was completely different from this cruel organization. Indeed, in the history of Sicily, we can find two different epochs relating to the Mafia: the one of the rural mafia and the one of the criminal mafia called “ Cosa Nostra”, “ Our Thing”.
Sicilian mafia history
The ancient history of the Sicilian Mafia was characterized by the so called” rural mafia”. The rural mafia was a local phenomenon that was born in the 1860, when Sicily joined the Italian State. Before this date, in the island was in force a feudal and medieval lifestyle arranged by barons and counts who entrusted their lands to their own relatives or trusted foremen. After the unification of Italy, the new State entered the capitalism, namely a new economic pattern where people could sell their lands to private buyers. But these private buyers were unable to protect their lands from thieves. From another side, the new Italian State was unable to provide a sufficient number of policemen to oversight the lands that endured too many robberies.
For this reason, the Sicilian landowners turned to private people available to protect and defend them and their lands from thieves. These people usually worn a typical Sicilian hat and took up a typical Sicilian rifle to intimidate thieves and force them to escape. This is the first description of a person who is globally known as a Sicilian Mafioso. In reality, those were private defenders and protectors of Sicilian landowners. Hence, the one you know as an ancient Mafioso was a defender or land keeper hired by the landowners.
These owners endured too many robberies at that time. Indeed, you must know that after the Unification of Italy, Sicilian people were very poor. They couldn’t to afford basic necessities such as meal and bread and many of them were forced to steal pigs, chickens and grains to landowners. In the past, in Sicily, there was also the misconception that these thieves were the real mafia people. This is the first misconception to dispel. They were poor and desperate people who tried satiating their starvation. They were called simply “chicken thieves”, “arrobba iadduzzi” , in the Sicilian language. The Sicilian Mafiosi were those who defended landowners from chicken thieves.
These defenders became more and more influential and were contacted from other people having any kind of issues. For instance, if one was harassed or offended by his neighbor, he got in touch with a Sicilian defender who, in turn, invited the mischief neighbor to apologize for his bad deed. The ancient Sicilian defenders (known as the rural mafia) were different from the modern Sicilian Mafia. They were people who followed a behavioral code to defend persons in trouble without forcing them to pay in return for protection. Their only rules were to pacify the disputes and cast out outlaws and thieves. Due to primary rule followed by these defenders, namely defending helpless people, they were also called “men of honour”. Groups of Sicilian men of honour also formed the so called “ honoured society” or “onorata società” in Italian. In short, the ancient Sicilian mafia took care about legal issues of common people and replaced policemen and law officers who were lacking in Sicily after the Unification of Italy.
How did the mafia start?
But, then, how did the Sicilian Mafia start their criminal activity or rather, how it turned into the criminal organization called “ Cosa Nostra”? The answer is simple: the Sicilian mafia became the cruel organization called Cosa Nostra because the ancient Sicilian defenders of the landowners became accustomed to replace policemen and this made them develop the idea of impunity for any activities (legal or illegal) they undertook. Due to the growing local influence, they were contacted by many people who turned their attention to them to get any kind of favour, such as customers for their shop, a job, a surgery intervention of a good doctor and any kind of human right that in the Sicilian culture became a benefit or rather a privilege to receive only through the Sicilian Mafia and above all by paying a fee or giving a vote to politicians appointed by the Mafia.
This culture was always fostered by the bad heritage that Sicily found after the Unification of Italy. In the Middle Age, Sicilian people fought to free themselves from many dominations, I suggest that you read the glorious history of The Sicilian Vespers, they weren’t helpless or in need of favours. They had a high idea of dignity and a lot of self-esteem. After the Unification of Italy, Sicily was practically abandoned and treated much differently in comparison to the rest of Italy. It was assigned poor economic opportunities and poor control of the central State about what was happening in the island.
I strongly believe that Sicily would be a great independent island without the rest of the boot, but this is another issue. Even though it is apparently a region with a special statute, in reality Sicily is tied strongly to the rules of Italy. The special statute works only to increase the salary of Sicilian politicians and this bad law can be changed only with a law issued by the Italian Parliament. Hence, the independence of Sicily is actually false or incomplete. But, let’s leave this dissertation and let’s go back to the primary topic, namely to understand why the rural Sicilian mafia started its criminal businesses.
Due to the missing control from Italy, the Sicilian defenders became the most influential people in Sicily. They decided everything in the fullest impunity. They understood that they could manage every economic and social field of Sicily and that they could gain much money from the needs of people, forcing them to pay a fee in return for their protection services.
From this stage, in the early years of the past century, they devoted their lives to smuggle, especially drug, money extortion, public procurement manipulation and vote buying for politicians. They did all this freely without the risk to be imprisoned, because they started menacing those who wanted to escape this racket and forced them to stay in silence and away from policemen. Furthermore, the usage of Justice in Sicily was underestimated from Italy.
From the Sicilian mafia to the American mafia
Since then now, the Sicilian mafia has worked in all the criminal businesses I mentioned in the paragraphs above. This kind of mafia endured a strong halt during the Fascism and the hard repression wanted by Benito Mussolini between 1925 and 1929. At that epoch, Mussolini bestowed the prefect Mori with the power to start a repression against the mafia in Sicily. Tons of mafia bosses were arrested and deprived by their criminal businesses. Many of them were forced to confess through beatings and tortures and those who were still free escaped to the United States. This is the beginning of the American Mafia. Thanks to this strong and effective suppression of the Mafia, the Sicilian landowners received the protection of the policemen for their properties and many mafia men remained practically unemployed. Among these, Carlo Gambino and Joseph Bonanno fled to the USA, while Nicolò and Vito Rizzuto went to Canada.
The famous movie the Godfather, tells just about the rise of the American mafia. This new mafia gained a strong revival in Sicily in the Second World War, in 1943, to be exact, during the Allied occupation. After the fall of Fascism and the destruction of the war, Sicily was without legal control again, without politicians, without buildings and without jobs. The black market grew very much and the American army had to restore a new order from scratch. Since many fascist mayors were deposed, the Allied replaced them with new people who presented themselves as political dissidents and communist fighters.
These new mayors, unfortunately, were Mafiosi. At that time, Sicily ended up in the hands of the Mafia, again. This criminal organization thrived between the 1960 and 1980s the most. It had powerful relationships with the American Mafia and these connections, above all linked to drug smuggle, gave rise to the most famous international investigation and trial against the Mafia called “Pizza connection”, where the most important relationships between the Italian and the American mafia were explored.
This investigation was also followed by the Italian prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who, along with the colleague Paolo Borsellino, started the most effective fight against the Sicilian Mafia , bringing many mafia bosses to the Maxi trial held in Palermo in 1986.
The most influential and dangerous mafia bosses were convicted to the 41 bis prison regime. This was the greatest victory against the Sicilian Mafia and I am proud of this. Due to their indefatigable commitment , Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered by the Mafia in two different attacks in 1992. Before them, other courageous Sicilian men, women, policemen and politicians fought the Sicilian Mafia, their arrogance and their criminal businesses. An ancient history of poverty and indifference of Italy toward Sicily created the Mafia, that is why the Mafia is Italian, not only Sicilian! The Mafia is also in other regions of Italy and in other places in the world, such as China, Mexico and Colombia. For example, in Mexico the Mafia is called Los Zetas.
Beware: bad historical conditions don’t justify the existence of the Mafia. This evil that worked as a cancer to spoil and muddy everything, must always be hated and fought!
The Sicilian Mafia today
My Sicily has been spoiled by the bad customs of the Mafia, but today Sicilian people don’t accept this phenomenon, anymore, such as the ancient landowners. During the economic crisis, Mafia also undertook the business of loan sharks, but many Sicilian entrepreneurs denounced these moneylenders of the Mafia. Furthermore, many properties of the Sicilian Mafia have been seized by the Italian judges and turned into museums and nature parks. They are being used to promote tourism and nature in Sicily. Many of them belong to Sicily region. You can see many of these properties in Palermo, Agrigento and Trapani. The crimes of the Mafia were not able to kill the beauty of my Sicily. Today, many mafia bosses are dead, such as Bernardo Provenzano and Totò Riina, many of them are in prison, such as Nitto Santa Paola, Leoluca Bagarella and Salvatore Lo Piccolo. The latest mafia boss who must be still imprisoned is Matteo Messina Denaro.
Today, the Sicilian Mafia is not Sicilian, anymore. We heard about the Mafia in Rome, the Mafia in Milan, the Russian Mafia. As I said, the Mafia is a global phenomenon, now. The most known bosses (dead by now) were Sicilian, from Corleone. Today, this Sicilian village hosts a museum about the fight against the Mafia. I invite you to visit it, because it is an international center of the movement against the Mafia. You can also visit a similar museum in Salemi, a pretty village in the province of Trapani which also has a stunning Norman castle. I am sure you know about the mafia thanks to the movie of the Godfather or because you visited Savoca, the town where the Godfather movie was shot. Unfortunately, Mafia is not a movie, but a reality the Sicilian people have been fighting for years.
They are not members of the Mafia, they are not Mafiosi. Mafia is the most despicable criminal phenomenon that tons of honest Sicilian people( including me) fought firmly. Read my story, to deepen this. Also visit the Saint Domenico Church ( see the image) in Palermo , where the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone is buried or the cemetery of Palermo, where you can find the grave of the prosecutor Paolo Borsellino. This grave is not in the monumental cemetery of the city, but in another cemetery called Belvedere , next to a convent. I think these Sicilian heroes deserve your visit as an homage for fighting against the mafia and teaching to people how to refuse this awful criminal phenomenon. I don’t want to talk further about the Mafia, because you can find excellent and comprehensive sources at this link or here. This is a place to talk about Sicily and I want only to invite you to visit it, because the human cruelty or the Mafia will never destroy its beautiful places and the common sense of equality and justice that the true, honest Sicilians will always have.
Photocredits in order of appearance:
Corleone Sicily: Luca Lodi – Flickr
The Godfather Scene: Marco Deksen – Flickr
Carlo Gambino – Wikimafia
Salemi Sicily: http://livesicilia.it
San Domenico church: Bartolo Chichi Flickr