• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Society of Friends’

There is nothing complicated about the first, or lower-case, mafia. A man who wants to preserve his self-respect must personally defend his dignity and honor without turning to the authorities and the law, especially when the affront to be punished is an open challenge or an unacceptable insult to his family. To turn to the authorities and the law for aid is considered dishonorable, and it is more than dishonorable to inform the police about the activities of anyone forced to defend his prestige or punish an outrage in the only way open to him. This imperative, known as omertà, is a sacred duty, made even more sacred by the knowledge that people who talk to the police sooner or later are found riddled with bullets behind a dusty hedge of prickly pear. The code is similar to that of many isolated archaic societies, probably influenced by vague memories of the code of chivalry, whose oral tradition is very much alive in Sicily. It has been perpetuated by the puppet theater, a popular form of entertainment, dedicated to the gallant adventures of the noble knights at the court of Charlemagne. The code therefore has points in common with customs that prevailed until not long ago among gentlemen everywhere, Southern plantation owners, members of the Paris Jockey Club, Prussian cavalry officers, or Monto Carlo gamblers. It was particularly useful in Sicily, where the distances were vast, the roads few, the public institutions practically non-existent, the police and courts impotent, all governments discredited as having been for a long time instruments of foreign oppression, and a man had to look out for himself. He could expect aid only from his relatives. The family was the source of his strength. His duty was to protect it, make it prosper, enlarge it by producing vigorous male children, widen its sphere of influence by allying it to other families, and cultivating influential friends.

There is one means by which a man assures the security and prosperity of his family in a country like Sicily. He must make himself respected, farsi rispettare. People must know that he has the power to retaliate for any offense done to him. He must be able to threaten a rival’s reputation, his job, his income, and, as a last resort, his life. A man’s position in society ultimately depends on the fear he casts in the hearts of envious people. To be sure, an able man does not resort to murder. The mere fact that he can order another man’s death (and the suspicion that he might have done so in the past) is enough to ensure all the respect he needs. Here, of course, runs the blurred borderline between the mafia and the Mafia, between a code of primitive behavior and a criminal conspiracy. There is a point where a man becomes powerful enough to command the loyalty of thieves and killers, and to live entirely without the law, obeying only his own primitive idea of justice. He is a Mafia leader. In lonely villages such men, propelled by their own qualities, come out on top, above all rivals. They learn the art of frightening everybody into submission. Their families steal cattle, kidnap stubborn landowners, cut the vines or set fire to the hay of all the farmers who refuse to collaborate and pay a tribute, kill rivals and traitors. Everybody around has to come to terms with them or leave. Other people have to do what favors are requested, hide stolen sheep for one night, shelter a fugitive from justice, in exchange for tranquility. Favors done give a man the right to request favors from the Mafia in turn, or protection from rival Mafia families, and this is why it is almost impossible to tell whether or not a man is a bona fide member of the Society. Franchetti shrewdly noted that many Sicilian who did not belong boasted of being Mafiosi while real Mafiosi very often emphatically denied the fact.

The recognized chief of the family [Pantaleone writes] is its most authoritative member, even if, as sometimes happens, he is the youngest. The power of a family depends not only on the number of its members but also on the highly placed friendships made by its chief outside the village. The higher and more qualified these connections the higher his reputation and the respect given him by his followers. More than one family can exist on good terms in the same center only if their activities do not compete: for instance, one family might concern itself with the sale of agricultural and horticultural products while the other dealt with the slaughtering of animals; or one with the letting of arable or pasture land and another with robbery and the kidnapping of people.

A NUMBER OF FAMILIES often formed a loose coalition called cosca. Cosca is the heart of an artichoke. “A cosca,” Pantaleone explains, “consists of a number of families…concerned with the same activity which must never clash with the interest of other cosche, or an armed conflict is bound to take place. In the days of huge latifundia and feudal lords, the various cosche agreed on the limits of each one’s area of activity, and if the agreement was infringed, a feud began which led to a series of murders spread over many years.” City cosche are slightly different. They are the degenerate forms of ancient guilds: They regulate the functions of particular markets, flowers, meats, fruit and vegetables, flour and bread, fix prices, prevent competition, exact a tribute on all transactions, and enforce their decrees first by threats, random shots, kidnappings, and finally, in extreme cases, murder. In the country and in the cities, the power of the cosche is such that they constitute states within the state, and control everything. No contract for public works is awarded, no farm is sold, no pasture land rented, no girl is married, no official is elected without the local cosca’s consent. There are no hard and fast rules. Pantaleone notes that

the hierarchy, if such a term can be used, is established through the respect that each individual member can gain for himself. A real Mafia chief must be daring, cool-headed, astute, and violent at the same time; he must be quick-witted, and, if the occasion arises, even quicker-handed…Above all he must have connections in all levels of society. If he is isolated he cannot be strong; even if he is the most feared and violent man in the family or cosca, and the most experienced killer, he will never become a chief and will never carry any weight in the consorteria.

Consorteria is the alliance of various cosche. All this forms a fine network which encloses every activity in Sicily. Whatever a man does, water his garden, buy a book, take a ride in his automobile, he pays an invisible tribute to some Mafia or other.

The Bourbons considered the Mafia merely as an obstinate form of banditry, and tried to exterminate it with brutality. Entire families suspected of illegal activities were arrested, deported, or killed; villages were evacuated and destroyed, sometimes burned with all their inhabitants; property was indiscriminately confiscated on the strength of hearsay information without the pretense of legal forms. The Mafiosi were often forced to find shelter in wooded mountains and to behave with extreme caution. But the activities of the forces of order were sporadic, communications were slow and bad, roads almost nonexistent, and the government men scarce and isolated. The temptation to come to terms with the bandits was strong: They could assure a semblance of social peace and avoid disorders in exchange for almost insignificant favors. After the unification of Italy, General Giuseppe Govone, a Piedmontese, was sent in to pacify the island with twenty battalions of bersaglieri. He considered the Mafiosi reactionary armed rebels against the government of the new unified Liberal Italy. He treated them accordingly: Like his predecessors he killed thousands of people in the hope that among them were members of the Society, burned crops and villages, spreading terror everywhere. The problem was only partially solved, but the general’s ways provoked cries of indignation from the press and Parliament. The Liberali governments adopted more humane methods that accorded with the prevalent ideas of the nineteenth century, and were based on a Parliamentary investigation and Baron Franchetti’s report.

THE MAFIA, according to the view current at the time, was the product of the general backwardness of Sicilian life and of the bad governments which had ruled the island for many centuries. The Liberali slowly and parsimoniously started building roads and railways, schools, ports, bridges, promoted commerce and industry as well as they could, disseminated carabinieri posts in the villages, and set up courts to defend private property, and tried to govern Sicily as if it were an ordinary Italian region. Once again the Mafia prospered. The mildness of the new ways was mistaken for weakness. The Mafia not only resumed its old activities, but boldly enlarged upon them, exploiting the modest new wealth produced by new investments, subsidies, and public works. Ambitious politicians who wanted to be elected deputati discovered how convenient it was to be on not too unfriendly terms with the local chief and treated him with some complaisance if not outright amiability: In troubled times, times of famine and social unrest, he kept the district peaceful and avoided all sorts of complications. He was always tactful, reliable, discreet, and kept in the background, dressed in his inconspicuous peasant velvet clothes. He was rarely associated with any crime. Eventually the Liberali had to admit that centuries-old social conditions could not be changed in a matter of decades.

The Fascists were helped to power by the Mafia. The “friends” well understood their use of paternalistic protection for the docile, and ruthless persecution for the rebellious. In the Mafia style also was the vigorous and manly appearance of the young blackshirts and their flashy uniforms. But Mussolini was too much like a Mafia leader himself to tolerate the secret existence of a parallel and rival organization. He decided to break its power and sent to Palermo a resolute high police official, Cesare Mori, with orders to do whatever was necessary within or without the law. Mori was successful for a time, arresting and deporting a number of Mafia leaders. Pantaleone admits: “Only a dictatorship can adopt such methods and achieve such results, because only a dictatorship can operate in the silence afforded by the suppression of information and criticism…After Mori’s repressive measures people were able to go into the country without fear of attack…and they praised the new regime.” The society lost prestige and authority. But the big Mafiosi did not panic: They waited, as they had waited before under the Bourbons and General Govone. Their day came in 1943, when, as Pantaleone points out, the newly landed Americans named most of the Mafia leaders mayors of their towns and villages: They were all officially classified as political victims of the Fascist tyranny.

AFTER THE WAR, the new democratic Republic attacked the problem on all fronts. All the past remedies were applied with new energy and new ones tried for the first time. The island acquired home rule, autonomia regionale, so that nobody could again say that the government and the laws represented the will of foreign oppressors. Land reform laws broke up the latifundia and destroyed what was left of the power of the barons. A flood of billions of lire, including American grants and loans from the World Bank, promoted public works, the creation of new industries, schools, roads, land reclamation, and irrigation projects on an unprecedented scale. The cities swelled out of their old boundaries, modern quarters were constructed for the new and affluent middle class. (The absence of a middle class was considered by Franchetti one of the factors determining the growth of the Mafia.) Meanwhile, sociologists, historians, economists, and political experts probed the deep causes of the phenomenon. The press played up Mafia crimes. A Parliamentary committee was formed with the broad powers necessary to investigate, provoke government action, and promote ad hoc legislation. The police forces and the carabinieri in Sicily were almost as numerous as the soldiers of General Govone; they acted within the law most of the time, and were furnished with modern equipment, automobiles, radios, radar, walkie-talkies. The result of all this was somewhat discouraging, surely out of proprition to the money spent and the efforts made. The number of Mafia murders has steadily increased. The Mafiosi have infiltrated or control indirectly the nerve centers of the regional government, have a stranglehold on public contracts (they built most of the roads which were supposedly to spell their doom), and eventually exacted a tribute from the new activities of modern, industralized, democratic Sicily. Their collaboration is still considered indispensable at election time and some candidates, the more successful ones, will do anything to secure it. As a result, if the Mafia now has more enemies in Rome than ever before, it also has more powerful friends. Some illegal activities, like dope smuggling to the United States and the introduction into Italy of contraband cigarettes, have opened opportunities for vast and regular gain in comparison with which the profits from stealing mangy sheep and kidnapping insolvent barons are insignificant. The old peasant Mafiosi are disappearing. There is now an urban, well-dressed, well-traveled, well-educated, slick, middle-class Mafia, which knows how to muscle in on big legitimate business deals, organize “protective societies,” and rake in billions of lire in cuts and kickbacks. Many of them, the best and most powerful, have no visible connection with the Mafia. Their legal past is without a blemish. They are however more unscrupulous and ruthless than the older Mafiosi. They literally stop at nothing.

ALL THIS IS KNOWN to the police, the authorities, the members of the Parliamentary committee. Obviously most remedies tried were once again only partial. Some turned out to be no remedies at all, but incentives. Obviously the Mafia can exist even without poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, feudalism, latifundia, and foreign rulers. Like all other activities, it prospered, in fact, when backward social and economic conditions were removed. Probably too much emphasis was put on its criminal activities, which are the main subject of Pantaleone’s book. This is not to say they are not important. But the killers are the last men in a long chain of command, the expendable foot soldiers, whose sergeants are the cosca chiefs, and whose captains are the pezzi da novanta. They all take orders from above and, as in all well-regulated empires, are employed when everything else has been tried in vain. For every man killed in Sicily there are thousands of cases in which violence was not used because it was not necessary. Obviously it is the silent intimidation of the multitudes that makes the Mafia what it is.

The men responsible are the great policy makers, the generals and statesmen, the apparently respectable businessmen, the corrupt politicians who control entire sections of Sicilian legitimate activities. The best (as Mafia men have always done) do not employ force. They do not have to. But everybody knows that their power springs from the old Mafia roots: They can still condemn any man to death and can count on omertà to keep their secrets from the police. Pantaleone suggests that a vast press campaign should change the moral climate of the island. He is right, of course, but only partially right. A vast press campaign is going on, not only in Sicily but in the rest of Italy, Europe, and the world, which eventually may produce results. But press campaigns are seldom enough. The government should continue to do what it has been doing, encourage investments in industry and agriculture, disseminate schools, courts, police stations, along a network of roads. It will take time, but all this will eventually produce a more prosperous and modern society, in which younger men may consider Mafia murders and omertà intolerable anachronisms.

Results are slow because several factors are still hindering the process of transformation. To begin with, some of the best Sicilians, the resolute ones who refuse to play the Mafia game, have for decades been leaving the island for more tranquil surroundings in continental Italy and the rest of the world. Then too the Rome government is not so efficient and free from corruption as it should be to set things right in Palermo. Finally, in recently industrialized areas, where the economy is largely influenced by politics, the power struggle characteristically produces methods for the intimidation and defeat of rivals that are similar to the modern elusive Mafia techniques. Here the new middle-class Mafiosi find themselves at home. Will the Mafia ever be eradicated? The old, illiterate, peasant, criminal Mafia is already doomed. How much longer will the new Mafia endure? It will be destroyed only by time, if at all. Italy is more and more becoming a Southern province of a uniform, homogenized Europe, and Sicily a tiny island adjunct to it. Palermo is no longer a far-away exotic city. It can be reached in only a few hours from Rome, Paris, or London. The ways of the Mafia may slowly, very slowly, go the way of all primitive and quaint folk habits, curious traditions to be recounted to tourists and evoked by decrepit old men.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print