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Is the Mafia Still Powerful in Italy?

Even people who have never been to Italy have probably heard of Italy’s infamous mafia organized 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 just 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 about Italy’s progress on the mafia front. You can find out what I discovered here: Italy’s Mafia Issue – Is Mafia Power Growing or Diminishing?

Update July 2015: Press reports in Italy, such as this one which recently appeared on the Il Fatto Quotitiano website, indicate that the ‘ndrangheta mafia appears to have established a presence in Italy’s northern Emilio-Romagna region. Read on for more information on the powerful ‘ndrangheta.

Update December 2014: A new mafia has been uncovered in Italy and it has reputedly been running the nation’s capital Rome for years. Investigations into the operations of the Rome mafia are still underway but what is becoming clear it that certain corrupt relationships existed between the mafia and Rome’s city hall. Not only this, but national level politicians appear to have been cooperating with those behind this recently revealed criminal organization. After hesitating for a few days, Italy’s current prime minister Matteo Renzi vowed to take on the corrupt. A number of Mr Renzi’s own people have been caught in the Rome corruption net though so by cracking down on corruption, Italy’s prime minister could, potentially, cause his own political party to implode.

Those believed to be behind the Rome mafia have actually claimed that Mr Renzi’s party has already been destroyed. The situation is still evolving.

Update November 2014: Incidences of extortion and racketeering on the increase in Milan in Italy’s north. 30% of the cities businesses have received requests for protection money, other approaches or threats. The mafia – not clear which one- may be behind some of the extortion.

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.

In the past, the Sicilian mafia amassed so much power that Italy is currently investigating whether it attempted to blackmail the Italian state back in the early 1990s. Did it succeed? The answer to that question is not entirely clear, though investigators are seeking an answer. In order to unravel the mystery, Italy’s serving president, Giorgio Napolitano, was called to testify in court in the Autumn of 2014.

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, but its operations appears to have been dented by the activities of Italy’s law enforcement bodies.

The ‘ndrangheta- Calabria – Very Healthy

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In terms of power and operations, the ‘ndrangheta once played second or third fiddle to Sicily’s cosa nostra.  After various crackdowns, the camorra was regarded as 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.

There is a difference in the ways 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 originate in Italy’s toe – which is otherwise known as the Italian region of Calabria.

Then there are the two other lesser known mafias.

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 reportedly no longer as well-coordinated as the big three mafias. The SCU is still operational though as arrests in late 2014 attest.

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, 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 Italy’s anti-mafia bureau 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.


Wikipedia – Italian and English entries on mafia.

Further reading: The Pizzo – ItalyChronicles.com

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