Is the Mafia Still Powerful in Italy?

Even people who have never been to Italy have probably heard of Italy’s infamous mafia organised crime groups.  Just how powerful are Italy’s mafia groups today?

Groups? Yes, groups. There are several. Indeed, in Italian, the word ‘mafie’ – mafias – exists.

When I came to Italy a good few years ago, I had heard of the mafia, but thought it was one criminal organisation centred in Sicily.  It was seeing the Godfather films which probably implanted this impression in me.

Before setting foot in Italy, I was aware the mafia was quite a powerful criminal organisation, and that it corrupted politicians too. However, I did not really think the mafia was much more than a localised bunch of hoodlums.

Then I came to Italy, and discovered that I was completely wrong.  I came across a mafia bar in Milan; former mafia members walking the streets of the same city were pointed out to me by Italian friends. I even witnessed what I suspect may have been a mafia soldier picking up weekly protection money – not while I was on holiday in the south of Italy, but up here in the heart of northern Italy: Milan .

In my mind the mafia went from being Hollywood fiction to solid reality. After living in Italy for a while, I discovered that there was not one mafia, but several.

What follows is a list of all the mafia groups which afflict Italy.  Why write about this age old Italian problem?  Well, it does look as if this age old Italian sickness is being eradicated. Actually, when I wrote this in 2010, that appeared to be the case, though today in 2014, I’m not so sure the mafia problem is being dealt with. Indeed, I spoke to a member of Italian anti-mafia organisation, Libera. You can find out what I discovered here: Italy’s Mafia Issue – Is Mafia Power Growing or Diminishing?

Update September, 2014: Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano launches a new section dedicated to news about Italy’s mafias: Mafie

Update: Well, it did look as if the problem was being eradicated, but now in 2013, the mafia seems to be as powerful as ever it was, if not more so. Italy’s police are forever confiscating large globs of mafia money and arresting lots of mafioso too, but the problem still remains. The title of John Dickie’s 2013 book – Mafia Republic – indicates just how deeply entrenched organised crime is in Italy.

Presently, the most powerful of the mafia organisations you are about to read about is the  ‘ndrangheta which has successfully expanded into northern Italy, and, some suspect, infiltrated Italy’s , formerly, south loathing Northern League – Lega Nord political party too. The ‘ndrangheta is also very active in Germany and in other nations too.

Now read more about the ‘mafias':

Cosa nostra – Sicily – Battered

Once Italy’s number one mafia, at least by reputation, the power of the cosa nostra mafia is being eroded in Sicily.

A campaign against the payment of the pizzo protection fee, which was a major source of income for the Sicilian mafia, does appear to have been successful.

Then there has been the arrest of suspected mafia bosses Bernardo Provenzano, Totò Riina and Leoluca Bagarella which may well have irreparably damaged the capability of the Cosa Nostra to organise itself.

The Italian authorities seem to consider that the activity of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra is more or less under control. This may not be the case though.

Camorra – Naples and Campania region – Dented

In terms of power, the camorra may have been second to Sicily’s cosa nostra.  Lot’s of supposition in this post, I know, but then it’s not easy to find concrete statistics relating to the mafia. It is not known for keeping records.

After all the publicity writer Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah book attracted, there seemed to be more reports about the arrest of senior camorra bosses in Italy’s media.

The camorra is still operational apparently, but it appears to have been dented by the activities of Italy’s law enforcement bodies.

The ‘ndrangheta- Calabria – Very Healthy

In terms of power and activities, the ‘ndrangheta seemed to play second or third fiddle to Sicily’s cosa nostra.  After various crack downs, the camorra came to be regarded as being more powerful than the Sicilian mafia.  However some Italians believe that the camorra has never been as powerful or as influential as Calabria’s secretive ‘ndrangheta mafia.

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There is a difference between the way in which the camorra and the ‘ndrangheta operate.  That difference is that while the camorra seems to do its thing in and around Naples, it has not really ventured far into the north of Italy. On the other hand, the ‘ndrangheta has not been afraid of stretching its legs and moving further north in search of new markets, as well as operating well beyond Italy’s boundaries.

Rumours that the ‘ndrangheta are very interested in becoming involved in the construction of buildings in Milan in connection with the 2015 Expo are legion here in Milan.

Like its Neapolitan counterpart the camorra, the ‘ndrangheta knows that huge amounts of money can be siphoned off construction contracts, and that such contracts offer prime opportunities for money laundering too.

More recently (2011 on), sales of gold via a network of gold dealers and income from slot machines have been boosting ‘ndrangheta income.

As you will now be aware, there are three main mafias in ItalyCosa Nostra from Sicily, the Camorra from Naples, and the ‘ndrangheta who occupy Italy’s toe -which is otherwise known as Calabria.

Then there are the two others:

Other Mafia Organisations in Italy

Sacra Corona Unita, (SCU) or United Sacred Crown – Apulia

Occasionally news of SCU activities makes it into national news, but generally not much seems to be written about this relatively low key Italian mafia organisation.  Its operations generally do not reach beyond the Apulia region of Italy.

The Wikipedia entry on the SCU indicates that this mafia had its power seriously reduced in the Apulia region of Italy after the Italian army was sent in to curb illegal immigration back in 1995.

As a result of military intervention, the SCU was effectively decapitated and although it still exists, it is no longer effectively coordinated.

Stidda – Sicily

Much smaller than cosa nostra, the stidda seems to limit its business to certain areas of Sicily, such as Agrigento.  Not much is written about stidda activities at a national level in Italy.

The Stidda began as a spin-off of the Cosa Nostra.

Other Mafia Spin Offs

From time to time, Italy’s press carries stories about the eco-mafia and agro-mafia. The so called eco-mafia specializes in the disposal of industrial waste, a service it offers at knock down prices. Reportedly, businesses in Italy’s north have been using Mafia Waste Disposal Inc. As one might expect, mafia waste disposal activities are not regulated and have led to the creation of areas in Italy like the infamous Triangle of Death. Naples’ camorra mafia is thought to be the criminal organization behind the eco-mafia.

Agro-mafia, on the other hand, concerns mafia infiltration into agricultural activities and food production. An example from 2014 of agro-mafia activity is in this article: Mafia Inc Invests in Slow Food and Obtains EU Funding. The mafia does rather well at this illegal ‘agricultural’ activity which is said to be worth €14 billion a year. Agro-mafia activity is on the increase.

What is not entirely clear is just which mafias are behind the illicit eco and agro activities. However, this Italy watcher suspects that the ‘ndrangheta may well be running agro-mafia operations.

Bye, Bye Mafia?

The official line in Italy is that all flavours of the mafia but the ‘ndrangheta have been diluted. Not everyone would agree with this though.

At a popular level though, Italians do not really believe that the mafia – in any of its forms – has been beaten. And they are not sure it ever will be. Italy’s anti-mafia bodies don’t believe the power of Italy’s mafias has been diminished significantly either  – I’ve heard two anti-mafia prosecutors say as much on Italian television, and I have a source with contacts in the anti-mafia bodies who told me the same thing.

The mafia is, therefore, still very much a force to be reckoned with in Italy, even if Italy’s government would like to have you believe differently.

Sources:

Wikipedia – Italian and English entries on mafia.

Further reading: The Pizzo – ItalyChronicles.com

 

Comments

  1. S says

    Hi!

    I’m Italian from Venice but I lived in the Uk for some years and in the Usa as well. I have family in the South too so I can say that I’ve experienced some of the differences between North and South.

    First of all I largely doubt that Mafia picks up protection money in the North of Italy and especially in Milan. That happens but only in the South. I doubt that a person that has lived in Italy only a few years can know whether they are or not picking up protection money, even if that actually happened you have to be directly involved with them to discover it or own a business and witness the act. Where you involved with the Mafia or did you own a business there( such as a shop or restaurant)?

    I really don’t see other ways you could be suspecting it.

    As an Italian person from the North I do hear of the mafia only on tv but that’s all I’ve seen, I doubt that a foreing person would be able to recognize them ( just because it would already be hard for an Italian person).

    Most likely they would be speaking in a Southern dialect which is really difficult to understand from an Italian from the northern and central parts.

    I do condemn the mafia but I can also see that many English speakers that come to Italy unfortunatly they come up with stereotypes that they heard in their own country.
    They come here they imagine things ( like for ex. you were saying you THINK you’ve seen protection money being exchanged).

    They make statements that are highly questionable like that of you saying in the article that the Mafia being well irradicated in the North. The mafia at times tries to infitrate in the North, althought most times the police stops it.

    I hope that the mafia will become less and less powerfull in Italy and I deeply condem it, but I also can say that it is indeed a well organized crime organization and it rarely involves violence in the street it is mostly dealing with it’s problems and does involves normal people.

    In Italy also we don’t have phenomenons such as street gangs ( besides a little bit in Naples) because the type of crime we have there is well organized and very intelligent ( in a bad way obviously).

    Thanks

    S

  2. Jon says

    I agree with Fabio, the mafia is as strong as ever, I am not surprised that the Cosa Nostra has infiltrated Italian parliament they have always had strong political support, just look at the investigations that came out of Falcone and Borsellino’s investigations just look at the investigations into Giulio Andreotti. the mafia have simply tried to cut out as much violence as possible from their operations so that they fade from Italian public memory (this was a strategy pioneered by one of the most recent boss of bosses: Bernardo Provenzano). Also bear in mind that the Maria’s move onwards more white-collared crimes may also be because many mafia bosses’ sons are now receiving very good educations because their fathers were very rich, and many are now taking this professional knowledge into the family business.

    • says

      Well, Jon, I wrote this back in 2010. Today, the mafia is just as strong as ever it was, if not even stronger, alas. Not only does it hold south Italy in a vice like grip – which has brought about an ecological disaster near Naples, but it’s power, that of the ‘ndrangheta is greater than even up in Italy’s north. Stories of mafia people penetrating local government in north Italy appear virtually every day.

      The problem is being fought but it sounds as if the battle is far from over and for now, the mafia appears to have the upper hand.

      Alex

      • vanni di ponzan says

        Well then you weren’t looking hard enough. since Andreotti’s days their power has never waned. Just ask Silvio and he has been there these past 20 years.

  3. Blueshark says

    Pane e coperto to me sounds like carpaccio, soaked in blood. Bread my ass. Having just returned from Naples the Mafia are everywhere. Where else would you have a city that has a guy selling I-pads, name your price on the street outside your hotel with no police interest.(Do not buy one, it is a scam) Where else do you have Pane e coperto that is not mentioned on the menu. I really felt for the waiters who were brilliant and knowledgeable, yet my wife insisted on no tip due to the ridiculous Pane e coperto charges at a certain restaurent that served brilliant food with brilliant service. Hotel taxes, where do these taxes go to?? After leaving Capri I paid no hotel taxes as the group before me were local and they paid no taxes and the owner forgot, even though I reminded him. Coming from a city full of terrorists I get the impression the mafia look after their own but are a drain to everyone else with little the government can do as they have gained their seats with help. Up North in Italy it is so different compared to down South. Leagues apart.

  4. Qasim Akhtar says

    Hey, Great publish, The Mafia are very good to people and very friendly (my experience) whilee on holiday I come across 3 gentlemen that I happened to make very good friends with, being new to Italy I got a job from them and if it wasn’t for them I would be in poverty.

    • says

      OUCH! QASIM! you’re really throwing the black cat among the honest pigeons there old son. I think you just summed up why that scum sucking cancer on this country continues to thrive. And won’t they be rubbing their hands with the latest fresh batch of young hopefuls blowing in from Tunisia last weekend…

  5. Fabio says

    Hi Alex,

    I didn’t want to be aggressive, but, being a sicilian myself, I take these issues much at heart.
    I can assure you that most sicilians are honest people, at the same time I don’t believe that it is so easy to get mixed with Mafia by mistake. On the other hand, if you want to reach some high position, (not necessarily in politics) you need to get favours from the right people.
    (Which is also the reason why many young sicilians end up leaving the island, and eventually the country itself, if they want to succeed honestly).

    You ask, what can be done ? Well, a good start could be to provide correct information.
    As long as the mainstream media are in the hands of few ones that have lots to hide, (to the right and to the left) most people will keep thinking that all these stories of allegations with crime must be false (this is what TV and newspapers keep repeating, at nauseam).

    Unfortunately I know plenty of honest people that truly believe that Mr. B. is an honest man, who worked his way to riches the hard way, and that a bunch of envious communists are conjuring against him inventing stories etc.

    Until the press will keep siding for the criminals and against the prosecutors, there won’t be much to do.

    But if we manage to open the eyes of most of the people and tell them how things really are, maybe, some day, voters will decide with their heads and cast their vote for an honest candidate.

    Said that, what makes me angry the most, these days, is that they are trying to convince the population that the Mafia is being eradicated, after that, they can dismiss the Anti-Mafia, and go back to the situation of 25 years ago, when Mafia didn’t officially exist, nor the crime of Association with it (whose introduction was the main weapon of the real Italian heroes of last century: Falcone, Borsellino and all the many other honest Sicilians that died while trying to make this country a better place).

    • says

      Hi Fabio,

      First, I did not think you were being the least bit aggressive! No need for apologies whatsoever.

      As you may have understood, I do live in Italy, and have done for a long time. I know that there are good honest people here. I do feel sad when I keep hearing about people wanting to flee Italy in order to get a fair stab at life. This is awful.

      With regard to what can be done, information can help. However, the mafia knows that this weapon is highly effective, and this is why information is so tightly controlled in Italy. It is exceedingly difficult to obtain good honest information here. Investigative journalists are killed, which must put off a good few other journos too. And it is difficult to know how to pass such information on to the people when most of the sources are ‘monitored’.

      I tend to think Grillo is Italy’s biggest hope, which is rather worrying.

      You could be right on the ‘convince the people the mafia is no more’ line. It would make good sense too. It would also suggest that everybody at the top is not to be trusted. Again, this is worrying, er, terrifying.

      There is hope for Italy, but it does not come from within the country.

      Kind regards,

      Alex

  6. says

    @Fabio,

    OK, OK, it does look as though Italy’s justice minister, of all people, may well have connections to the mafia.

    I cannot be sure, but I suspect that Sicilians of a certain social level end up meeting mafia members virtually automatically. I suspect too that it is virtually impossible to avoid some contact with these people.

    However, you would expect the justice minister of any country to be above suspicion with regard to connections with organized crime. Well I would expect this, but then I do not have a Ferrari, and nor do I have billions in banks, so what do I know.

    There does seem to be quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the mafia has moved upwards and onwards, and has managed to take control of Italy. Not sure if this is right.

    I had a brief look at the Grillo piece. Again, it supports your opinion.

    Question is, what can be done? Not a fat lot by the looks of things.

    Funny country Italy. Maybe it will grow up one day.

    Best,

    Alex

  7. Fabio says

    Mafia is these days stronger than ever.

    They are so strong that they don’t need to shoot anymore.
    They keep a stronghold on the country and on the government in particular.
    (The majority party, Forza Italia, was founded by Cosa Nostra men, through Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s right arm, this has been established in the Dell’Utri trial in the last few years, but ties between Berlusconi, Dell’Utri and Cosa Nostra go back to the ’70s, as proved in various other trials, not just from “pentiti’ but with strong evidence like several recorded phone conversations between mafiosi and politicians).

    Many laws have been approved in these days to favor Cosa Nostra: last but not least the law that now allows to auction the confiscated goods from Mafia (so that bosses can buy back real estate and other properties that justice might have confiscated from them).

    Did you notice how Justice seems to be the biggest problem in Italy these days ? That’s because the government can not fully control it (that’s why, every now and then, Justice manages to bring some trial to conclusion, and to arrest some bosses, even though every attempt to chase some politician is promptly blocked).

    Another interesting thing to notice is that many of the lawyers and attorneys that used to work for Mafia families are now sitting in parliament, writing laws in the interest of their clients (one example for all, the speaker of the Senate, Renato Schifani who has been associated with various people condemned for mafia in the last three decades).
    Also the current minister of Justice, Alfano, is from Sicily and has suspicious ties with Mafia families.

    I expect that within 5 to 10 years, Mafia men will begin to be elected directly (instead of sending trusted people to the parliament).
    In fact, the strongest weapon that the various Mafia organizations have, in Italy, is control of votes. Specially in the poorest regions (all the South of Italy) Mafia has been able to deliver millions of votes to the parties with which they had deals, over the years (until when, after the major parties dissolved in 1992, with Mani Pulite, they decided to play for them selves, founding their own party, called Forza Italia).
    This giveslocal people the illusion that Mafia does actually do some good (Mafia can provide public jobs, statal subsidies etc. in exchange of the votes), but at the same time the Mafia has all the interest in keeping the local economy to a bare minimum, crippling any possible business activity in those areas.

    Another interesting thing is that, now that they own the country, when they have some internal reorganization and decide to change their “Boss of the Bosses”, instead of calling a war and killing a few men, they call the police and have the old boss arrested (this is what happened with Toto’ Riina before, and Bernanrdo Provenzano later, according to what a few informers are telling these days, and this actually matches the circumstances in which those arrests were made, for example, the fact that when Riina was arrested, his house was not searched).

    So, don’t even think that the Mafia is being eradicated, far from it.

    • says

      Hi Fabio,

      Thanks for the long and detailed comment.

      It does appear that you wholly disagree with the picture being painted in the Italian media that the mafia has just about been brought to its knees in Italy (with the exception of the ‘ndrangheta).

      From your evidence, what you are saying is that, basically, Italy is being run by the mafia! That’s quite an assertion. I wonder how many others agree with you. It will be interesting to hear.

      Best,

      Alex

      • Fabio says

        Remember that most of the italian media is controlled by Mr. B.
        And also supposedly independent journals like il Corriere della Sera are not so independent after all.
        If you read less popular newspapers, like Il Fatto Quotidiano you can get a better grasp of what is actually happening in Italy.

        • says

          Hi Fabio,

          Note that the post above refers to the official line as taken by the mainstream press in Italy.

          I do read Il Fatto Quotidiano -not often enough though. My worry with Il Fatto Quotidiano is that it leans too far in the opposite direction, and that maybe it is not as independent as it likes to think it is. Italy is full of ‘interest’ groups!

          One final thing. You state that “minister of Justice, Alfano, is from Sicily and has suspicious ties with Mafia families.” Have you any examples? It is rather worrying that Italy’s minister of justice, of all people, is has connections to the mafia! What a thought. Surely this is not possible.

          Thanks for popping back.

          Alex

          • says

            I would agree largely with Fabio…based on nothing but my own suspicious mind. Just the car bomb loaded up the other day for Napolitano should tell you as much. The Mafia, or, not as organized, but the loose bands of hoodlums (much like our “Al Qaeda” operating model), are involved in everything.
            I think it’s less about the huge arrests and more about them switching into cleaner businesses is why the mafia, as you are thinking, appear to have a lesser impact.
            From minor sales outlets to winning major govt contracts, they have never been outdone. And Italy’s south is the equivalent of the much more hyped Pakistani lawless regions…
            My due centesimi.

            a presto!
            burntbythetuscansun

          • Fabio says

            You can find some leads on his Wikipedia page, where there are mentions of ties between Alfano and the family of Palma di Montechiaro (near Agrigento). For example he was at the wedding of the daughter of the local boss, Croce Napoli, in 1996 (at first he denied, but then, he had to admit it, after showing up on the wedding pictures, of course, he said he didn’t know that Croce Napoli was a mafioso).

            A Google search for “Alfano Croce Napoli” yields a number of interesting articles on this topic.

            This is not so surprising, as at that time, Alfano was in the entourage of Calogero Mannino, the lead figure in the DC in the Agrigento area, whose ties with mafia have been proved in various trials in the last ten years. (Here’s another intersting bit: it was proved that Mannino had deals with mafia and that he collected votes from all the mafia families in the Agrigento province, but, in the end, in 2008, the Corte di Cassazione cancelled the sentence, saying that there was not enough evidence that Mannino gave something back in exchanges of those votes. Now he still sits in Parliament. Of course the fact that his former pupil is now minister of Justice has nothing to do with this outcome.)

            BTW, have you read this ?

            http://www.beppegrillo.it/en/2010/01/lets_adopt_the_antimafia_magis.html

            Cheers,

            Fabio

  8. says

    Hi Alex,

    Good Blog post. I was in Calabria this weekend. It is amazing; you never see the presence of the mafia but you know it is there. I actually believe, and so do a lot of the people around the region, that the mafia do a lot of good down there and are part of the reason that Italy hasn’t really suffered too badly from the Global downturn – they won’t let it affect them (but by the same token, they never let it have explosive growth in the good times either)

    The glorified mafia is no longer; you don’t see the violence that you used to (though when you do it is highly publicised) but they are very astute financially and from a business perspective – you don’t see the mafia but you always know they are involved in everything.

    Really interesting dynamic.

    James

    • says

      Hi James,

      Thanks for dropping in. Glad you liked the post.

      What you say is true – more often than not you cannot see the mafia, but they are there. People do think they do a lot of good, but they also thought the same of the Cray twins! I’m not too keen on extortion and murder as business tools though. This is the side of the mafia which is not so beneficial to society.

      However the people down in mafia areas do feel that the mafia does more than the government in Italy ever has. I think this says a lot about government in Italy!

      The way the mafia does business does have an effect on Italy’s economy -it is difficult for honest business to compete with mafiaconomics!

      Not sure that the mafia kept Italy out of the global mire, but I know others do think this.

      As for the Hollywood mafia no longer existing, you may well be right in that the mafia has adapted to the ways of the world and violence attracts too much attention.

      To become a mafia boss you have to be ruthless, but also not lacking in intelligence. I imagine that those who are at the top of the mafia profession would do very well as traditional businessmen. In fact, some have made the transition.

      As you say, really interesting dynamic.

      Best,

      Alex

    • angelo santapaola says

      Hi pleas does idiots who think that Cosa Nostra trail behind the Ndrangheta do not know what they talking about.Cosa Nostra is World wide extremly powerfull and less violante.Also Cosa Nostra they fight 10 times as strong as any other Mafia Group and still not even a dent is been made to Cosa Nostra,because Italian Goverment is Cosa Nostra.Mafia Calabrese is the Bitch of all other Italian Mafias and that is a fact,also the only Italian Crime Organisation who has not structure very much like Biker Gangs,violante drug dealers and Street Hustlers,what worked for Cosa Nostra 70 Years ago.Please befor going around and listen to bullshit media about Ndrangheta research facts and look who are the powerfull players from Canada to NY to Switzerland .

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