Mafia Research Paper

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1. The Setting

The term ‘mafia’ comes originally from Sicily, where it refers to the private use of violence in public domains. Despite its feudal and patrimonial dispositions, mafia is a modern phenomenon. Mafia developed in the slipstream of Italian unification when a modern state structure imposed itself on a predominantly agrarian society still largely feudal in its basic features. In the absence of effective central control over the means of violence, mafia took shape as an instrumentum regni of Italian politicians, who chose to rule Sicily through its dominant class of absentee landlords most of whom resided in Palermo, the center of wealth and power of the island.

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Mafia presence was particularly strong in and around this city, in the adjacent citrus fruit area of the Conca d’Oro and the vast hinterland of the western interior. This was the area of large cereal-pasture holdings (the so-called latifondi or ex-feudi), the management of which the absentee owners entrusted to ruthless local, upwardly-mobile leaseholders and overseers who had a reputation for violence. These local bosses and their retainers formed the backbone of the rural mafia, which consisted of looselyconstituted coalitions, called cosche or ‘families.’ Each family or cosca controlled its own territory—a village, a town, or an urban neighborhood—and imposed a tribute on all economic transactions. The typical mafioso was a mediator or power-broker, who thrived on the gaps in communication between landlord and peasant, seller and buyer of commodities and services, political candidate and electorate. Ultimately, he held sway over the links between state and local community.

2. Profile

Mafiosi controlled local resources like property, markets, services, and votes. They operated in collusion with members of the elite, most notably urban-based landlords, politicians, government officials, and businessmen. This ‘contiguity’ involved mutual protection. But the protection which mafiosi offered was sometimes difficult to distinguish from extortion and the boundaries between victim and accomplice were often likewise blurred. In the no-man’s-land between public and private domains, mafiosi were left a free hand in the management of local affairs.

Although they exacerbated class tensions between landlords and peasants by their rent-capitalist management of the estates and appropriating land and becoming landowners in their own right, they also controlled these tensions by carving out channels of upward mobility for ambitious and ruthless peasants and shepherds. In Sicily, as probably elsewhere under similar conditions (Brogan 1998, Tilly 1997, 2000, Varese 1994), mafia and politics provided ‘carrieres ou ertes aux talents’ (Fentress 2000, p. 149). Toward the large mass of landless peasants and shepherds, from whose ranks they usually originated, their attitude involved undisguised disdain and exploitation. When indicted for violent crimes, mafiosi were usually acquitted for lack of evidence because of high-level protection and because no local witness would testify against them. This greatly helped to enhance their power and their reputation as ‘men of respect.’ Inspired by both fear and admiration, the local population drew up a ‘wall of silence’ (omerta), which ultimately blocked effective prosecution of mafiosi. Until recently, the power of mafiosi, although surrounded and buttressed by silence, was openly displayed. It illustrated the peaceful coexistence between mafia and the State.

Far from being ‘a State within a State,’ as magistrates and journalists often represented the phenomenon, mafiosi successfully infiltrated public institutions, including political parties, local governments, the judiciary, banks, and legal firms. They did so through their own personal networks of ‘friends,’ rather than as members of a centralized organization. With the extension of the suffrage, they enlarged their grip on the electorate and controlled more votes. With the extension of postwar government aid to ‘develop’ the country’s southern peripheries, mafiosi swallowed up ever more funds, most notably in the urban construction industry, always capable of placing themselves with cunning and force between State and citizen. Sicilian mafia appears as the violent alternative to civil society. This was the price the Italian State eventually had to pay for the pragmatic accommodation which later became known as ‘pollution’ of public institutions—the other side of peaceful coexistence.

3. Representations

The persistent and popular representation of mafia as ‘a State within a State,’ as a centralized monolithic organization, is wide of the mark. It makes too much of the organization and too little of it at the same time. Presenting mafia as a single unified structure ignores the organization’s fluid character as well as its parasitic relationship to the State. To understand how mafia works is to start the investigation at the local level, because what mafia in Sicily comes down to is local cliques, structured by ties of kinship, marriage, and friendship, that control local resources with violent methods while enjoying a large measure of impunity because of their contiguity with powerful protectors at higher levels of society who need local strongmen as managers of their properties and as canvassers of votes (Blok 2001). The relationships between these ‘families’ are characterized by conflict and accommodation—strikingly similar to relations between States—rather than being supervised, coordinated, or controlled from the top by a commission of sorts, as current expressions like Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’) and ‘The Mafia’ suggest. In this respect the alliances of mafia families in the United States (largely of Sicilian extraction), from whom the Sicilians adopted this denomination, showed greater stability (Sterling 1990).

The idea that the Sicilian cosche operated like sovereignties is neatly illustrated by the failed attempts to coordinate their relations from above. When the socalled ‘Commission’ of Cosa Nostra was put together to contain intramafia violence and to impose a pax mafiosa, as happened for the first time in the late 1950s and again on several occasions in the 1970s, it fell apart because representatives of the various factions could not agree about overall policy, or else tried to outmaneuver each other and dominate the Commission. In 1963, what had remained of this board blew up in the notorious Ciaculli affair, which brought an end to the first mafia war and heralded an era of antimafia policy. The second mafia war unfolded around 1980 and ended in the near extermination of one of the warring factions (Sterling 1990, Catanzaro 1998, Stille 1995, Jamieson 2000). These failings alone clearly demonstrate that Sicilian mafia cannot be understood as a single unitary organization. An analysis of these episodes suggests the image of a fluid network that regulates a changing configuration of alliances in and between local ‘families.’ In all these instances, incipient hierarchy gave way to segmentation.

4. Transitions

Since the 1970s, mafia in Sicily gradually lost its role as a pragmatic extension of the State and assumed the character of a hidden power. Mafiosi disappeared as public figures with public identities. Mafia’s peaceful coexistence with the State came to an end. Terror replaced accommodation. Like outlaws elsewhere, mafiosi had to hide from the law (if they did not cooperate outright with the judicial authorities), living clandestine lives in modest accommodations. Several factors are responsible for this major transition.

First, beginning in the early 1970s, Sicilian mafiosi moved into the international narcotics trade which produced huge and fast profits but entailed high risks. These ventures, like the building boom in the early 1960s, resulted in internecine struggles between rival factions—between upstarts from the Palermo hinterland, like the Corleonesi led by Luciano Leggio and Salvatore Riina, and the urban establishment in Palermo of which Stefano Bontate was the most striking figure. State interference provoked campaigns of terror against state officials, politicians, magistrates, and policemen. This new development brought mafiosi into open conflict with the Italian State, which could not stand back and accept open warfare on its territory and close its eyes to the massive infiltration of drug money into its economy. Nor could the government ignore the pressure from neighboring States and other countries to take a strong position against the drug traffic and money laundering. The narcotics trade changed the Sicilian and American mafia. Although it became the mafia’s most lucrative enterprise, it has also generated more murder, violence, and betrayal than any other criminal activity. As the profits spiraled, so did the need to protect them (Shawcross and Young 1987, p. 307).

The extent to which the tables had been turned on politicians who had either directly or indirectly protected the interests of mafiosi in exchange for electoral support can best be illustrated by the following anecdote. After the first Sicilian politicians and magistrates who tried to withdraw from the mafia or to combat it with determination were assassinated in public places in 1979 and 1980, to be remembered as the first wave of ‘excellent cadavers,’ Stefano Bontate, the flamboyant mafia leader in Palermo, warned the then prime minister Giulio Andreotti on his visit to the island in February 1980 with the following words: ‘We command in Sicily and if you don’t want the DC [Christian Democrats] to disappear completely you’ll have to do as we say. Otherwise we’ll take away not only your votes in Sicily but also votes in Reggio Calabria and the whole of the south of Italy as well. You’ll have to make do with the votes in the north where everyone votes Communist’ (Jamieson 2000, p. 222).

Yet helped by a new generation of magistrates and special legislation (which included the coinage of the term associazione mafiosa), the Italian State, from the early 1980s onwards, started its crackdown on the mafia, which culminated in effective proceedings (the so-called maxi-trials) against hundreds of mafiosi. The prosecution was substantially helped by mafiosi from losing factions who, partly for reasons of revenge and partly in order to survive, repented, turned state’s evidence, and helped build a case against their former peers (Stille 1995).

Behind all these changes lurked an even larger transition. This was the demise of communism in Europe, which unintentionally undermined the mafia’s raison d’etre. Since the immediate postwar years, mafiosi had always supported political parties that opposed communist and socialist parties. Faced with the largest communist party in Western Europe, the Italian Christian Democrats could not forgo the support of an informal power that provided huge blocks of votes and thus effectively staved off what was perceived as ‘the danger of communism.’ With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the situation radically changed and the shield of protection that kept mafiosi out of prison began to fall apart. The situation resembled the crackdown on the mafia under Fascism. Prefect Mori’s large-scale operation in the late 1920s took place after the Sicilian landed classes had obtained more effective and less costly protection of their property from the new government. This turn exposed mafiosi and left them without protection (Duggan 1989).

One cannot help notice another parallel in the different ways the Italian State proceeded against the mafia. In both cases, prosecutors represented the mafia as a corporate organization, as a single, unified, hierarchical organization controlled from the top by one or more super chiefs, who coordinated the relations between local ‘families.’ As noted above, there is little evidence for this so-called ‘monolithic theorem.’ Although recurring tendencies toward centralization were not lacking, their very failure shows the strength and structural continuity of local groups tied together by links of kinship, marriage, and friendship. Indeed it has been argued that the absence of a centralized organization at the regional level served the mafia well and helps account for its remarkable longevity in modern society; it reflects the same paucity of communication that made it possible for mafiosi to place themselves at decisive junctions in the relationships between local and national levels (Blok 1974, Catanzaro 1988).

5. Conclusion

Today, the term ‘mafia’ is widely used as a synonym for organized crime. A still larger conflation of the term includes (ironic) references to any coterie wielding illicit power in formal organizations and institutions, including governments, business firms, and universities. To contain the growing inflation of the terminology, one may restrict the use of the term

‘mafia’ to denote a form of organized crime that includes collusion and contiguity with people representing public institutions. If we agree that mafiosi are agents who operate with violent methods in the border zone of public and private domains to enrich themselves and convert their wealth into honor and social status, there is no need to widen any further the meaning of the term, because the private use of violence in public places has lately expanded on a world scale and has blurred the familiar boundaries between private and public spheres in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, and various African countries. All these cases are unique, but one cannot help noticing their family resemblances.


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  2. Blok A 2001 The blood symbolism of mafia. In: Blok A Honour and Violence. Polity, Malden, MA
  3. Brogan P 1998 The drug wars (Colombia). In: Brogan P World Conflicts. Bloomsbury, Lanham, MD
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  10. Shawcross T, Young M 1987 Men of Honour. The Confessions of Tommaso Buscetta. Collins, London
  11. Sterling C 1990 Octopus. The Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia. Norton, New York
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