During the summer I read John Dickie‘s fascinating best-selling book, Cosa Nostra, which is all about that scourge of Italy, the mafia.
Dickie’s first book on Italy’s complex criminal organisation delves into the origins and history of the infamous Sicilian mafia.
Over 750,000 copies of Cosa Nostra have been sold around the world, 40,000 of which, I was told by Dickie himself, were sold in Italy. Dickie’s book has been translated into many languages, including Italian.
As you would expect from a book written by an academic; John Dickie is a professor of Italian studies at University College London in the United Kingdom; the research behind Cosa Nosta is meticulous. Dickie has spent many hours examining reams of documents relating to the Sicilian mafia.
On Italy Chronicles I have touched upon the sticky, extremely murky and complex subject of Italy’s mafias a few times. Why Mafia plural? Simple. There are quite a number of mafias in Italy which is something I have previously written about:
Virtually every day in Italy’s press, some reference or other is made to Italy’s mafias. Either there are articles on the rounding up of yet another elusive mafia boss who has been on the run for years, or, and as increasingly seems to be the case, there are stories about millions of Euros worth of mafia assets being seized throughout Italy.
Mafia in the News Now in Italy
Just this week it has emerged that a regional level politician in Milan has been arrested on charges of acquiring votes – 4,000 of them, at €50 a pop, to ensure he was voted in. The gentleman involved is reportedly well under the thumb of the mafia and has had his life threatened too. The mafia in the Milan case is not Cosa Nostra, but the ‘ndrangheta, the mafia of Italy’s Calabria region.
To be honest, the mafia is rarely out of the news in Italy. It is as omnipresent as the Vatican.
Tactical Mafia Killings
Cosa Nostra, as I’ve aleady mentioned, is all about the Sicilian mafia and its origins.
The book is as shocking as it is fascinating and its pages are littered with grizzly murders, most of which were tactical killings. The Sicilian mafia employed, and still does to this day, killing as a tool of its criminal trade.
The Sicilian mafia has had its fingers in just about every commercial activity in which Sicily has been involved – from citrus growing to sulphur mining.
In more modern times, the mafia has been taking cuts from lucrative public works contracts, as well as extorting protection money from most businesses. Drug trafficking helped the mafia boost its financial resources, and therefore power, many times over.
Dickie explains how the extreme violence and brutality of these ruthless killings surrounding the mafia’s business interests was always strategic.
When the Sicilian mafia kills, it is sending a message. Sometimes the message is to other mafiosi, other times, as in the case of the killings of journalists or pioneering anti-mafia investigators such as, among others, Falcone and Borsellino, that message is aimed at Italy’s establishment.
Violence Reached Intollerable Levels
The blatant murders of Falcone and Borsellino generated much outrage, and the open display of mafia power frightened people in high places enough to give birth, albeit after well over 100 years, to increasing attempts to bring the mafia to heel, if not to stamp it out.
After many years, Italy created specific organisations to coordinate anti-mafia actions, and laws were introduced to curtail the traditional mafia practice of mafia bossed running their criminal empires from within the walls of Italy’s prisons. Nowadays, as Dickie concludes, the Sicilian mafia has become distinctly wary of high profile assassinations.
Long Standing Links to Politics in Italy
As you will discover if you read Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia has had links to politics in Italy ever since Italy was united a little over 150 years ago. Those links continue until this day.
The Sicilian mafia knows very well that political power is the key to furthering the aims of its criminal empire. Others, including unscrupulous Italian politicians have benefited from connections with organised crime, which, in quite a number of instances, has placed bottoms on seats in Italy’s national parliament.
As well as infiltrating national politics in Italy, the Sicilian mafia has been manipulating local politics on the charming Italian island with a very dark heart for many, many a year and continues to do so.
Rumbling in the background in Italy’s press today, are suspected mafia-government negotiations which took place in the early 1990’s at around the time of the spectacular exterminations of Falcone and Borsellino. It is suspected, though has not been demonstrated, that Italy’s current president may have been caught up in the mafia-state negotiations.
The many aspects of the Sicilian mafia covered by Dickie in Cosa Nosta, leave many unanswered questions.
Here are but a few:
- Why, until relatively recently, was the existence of the Sicilian mafia not acknowledged by Italy’s authorities?
- Why have successive governments in Italy who have known about the Sicilian mafia phenomenon for 150 years, only decided in the last 30 years to attempts to do something about it?
- Why, prior to Falcone and Borsellino’s work, were very few of those responsible for committing mafia-related crimes ever conclusively convicted by Italy’s courts?
As well as provoking such questions, Dickie’s study of the Sicilian mafia also managed to answered a question which had come to my own mind after following mafia issues more closely. It had always struck me that the Sicilian mafia was an incredibly sophisticated and, if you like, an intelligent, criminal organisation.
How, I asked myself, could bunch of semi-literate thugs have created such a ruthlessly efficient and powerful criminal business machine? Well, Dickie has answered this conundrum: Certain members of the Sicilian mafia are far from ill-educated.
Among its numbers, are lawyers, businessmen, politicians, priests, policemen, judges, and more than a few doctors. In the past, Italian aristocracy which more or less ran Sicily, also had close ties to the mafia. It is clear to me now, thanks to Cosa Nostra, just where the mafia’s intelligence originates.
Insight into Italian Culture
There is, however, more to Dickie’s study of the Sicilian mafia than its examination of a criminal organisation, for Dickie’s book also offers plenty of insight into Italian culture and the, at times, Machiavellian workings of the Italian mind. A question Dickie does not answer, is just why the Italian mindset is the way it is.
Morally Disturbed Italians
A good number of Italians, though by no means all, appear to believe that extreme violence is a acceptable price to pay to both obtain and maintain wealth and power. Not all of these Italians with such a warped sense of morality are mafiosi by any means, and Dickie even intimates that former Italian prime minister Giulo Andreotti was part of the, er, morally disturbed group of Italians who felt that murder was no more than another handy tool in the power game in Italy. Some politicians in power today, which includes Andreotti, still feel the same way, one is certain.
Mafia More Astute than Politicians
What has also become crystal clear is that the Sicilian mafia is many times more politically astute than the vast majority of Italy’s many politicians. At times, Italy’s government has ’employed’ the services of the Sicilian mafia, and probably believed it was controlling the criminal organisation. It is, however, much more likely, that this is exactly what the Sicilian mafia wanted the politicians to believe. The Sicilian mafia never lifted a finger unless it’s own dark objectives were being met.
As someone who has lived in Italy for well over 10 years and who has been an Italy watcher since 2005, not everything in Dickies book was new to me. For those with less knowledge of Italy, the virtually blood spattered pages of Dickies book may prove rather shocking. This should not put anyone off reading Cosa Nostra in any way, indeed, quite the opposite. I would encourage anyone with an interest in Italy, which includes those considering setting up businesses in Italy, and particularly in Sicily, to read this book.
If you have lived in Italy for over five years or so and are intending to stay, and you have not read Dickie’s book, now would be a good time to do so. Having some knowledge of goings on in Italy will enhance your appreciation of Dickie’s work.
I have also read Dickie’s second book, Mafia Brotherhoods (also entitled Blood Brotherhoods), which is the first of a two part volume examining Italy’s major mafia organisations – the Camorra of Naples, the ‘ndrangheta of the tip of Italy’s toe and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
In late spring 2013, John Dickie will be releasing the ominously entitled second volume – Mafia Republic, and I shall obtain a copy.
Incidentally, in 2007 John Dickie received a Italian honour, which, as he himself put it in an interview in the ItalyMag.co.uk website, he received for demonstrating that Italy is run by gangsters!
John Dickie’s books on Italy’s mafias can be found here:
- Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia
- Blood/Mafia Brotherhoods: The Rise of the Italian Mafias
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