The Crusade Against Cosa Nostra

Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic

by Alexander Stille
Pantheon, 467 pp., $27.50


A few years ago it was fashionable to deny the reality of the mafia as an organization. In Italy, it was said, Mafia (rather than “the mafia”) was just a set of common values and attitudes which made it possible for Sicilian criminals to communicate and cooperate with one another. The mafiosi worked through informal relationships of kinship, friendship, and clientage.1 This view was a plausible reaction to theories of a vast, all-embracing criminal conspiracy, and was based on the well-founded observation that charges of mafia activity had often been made for political ends. Many scholars dismissed as pure fantasy the revelations of the American mafioso Joseph Valachi2 before a Senate committee in 1963 about the structure of the American mafia.

This minimalist thesis can no longer be supported. As Alexander Stille observes in his excellent book on the mafia in Italy, the skeptics were right on only one, purely nominal, issue. The word “mafia,” as the Sicilian boss Tommaso Buscetta explained in a famous confession in 1984, was “a literary creation.” The real name of the organization, in Sicily as in the USA, was Cosa Nostra (literally, “our thing”). But incontrovertible evidence has emerged that in both countries Cosa Nostra is a highly structured organization with precise rules, procedures for admission, and a hierarchy of authority.

New members have, until very recently, been admitted in an elaborate initiation rite. The finger of the initiate is pricked and his blood is spilled onto a paper image of a saint or the madonna. “The image,” Stille writes, “is placed in the hands of the initiate and lit on fire. The neophyte must withstand the pain of the burning, passing the image from hand to hand, until the image is consumed, while swearing to keep faith with the principles of ‘Cosa Nostra,’ solemnly swearing that ‘may my flesh burn like this saint if I fail to keep my oath.”’ Stille’s account is based on Buscetta’s description, and although there are variations, there is remarkable agreement among the various accounts of the ritual. The earliest comes from Monreale in Sicily in 1877 and the latest I know of was recorded by the FBI in New England in 1990.3

The importance of the ritual has been twofold. The members of the society, the “men of honor,” are clearly distinguished from other criminals who may work for Cosa Nostra. The rite also makes clear that membership in Cosa Nostra is a lifetime commitment from which one may not withdraw. This sharply contradicts theories which portray the mafia as an ensemble of fluid, often ad hoc, relationships. In Italy every man of honor is admitted to a particular “family,” which has jurisdiction over a town, or a neighborhood of Palermo.4 The family is divided into decine (groups of ten), and the boss is elected by all the members. An average family would contain about fifty members. In the province of Palermo, the heart of Cosa Nostra, where from thirty to fifty families operate, they are grouped into ten or more districts (mandamenti), each of which elects a member to the “Commission,” which has authority over the whole province.5

Other provinces do not have intermediate organizations between the family and the province, and it is unclear whether some provinces are represented by a commission or by a single head.6 The overall structure reflects the predominance of Palermo, although the mafia’s control is equally strong in the provinces of Agrigento and Trapani. The notorious Palermo Commission, or cupola, is almost certainly a recent innovation, though not without precedents dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. The most plausible account traces its origins to the inter-mafia summit of 1957 at the Hotel des Palmes in Palermo. At this time, the prestige of the American mafia was high, and the commission was probably modeled on a similar organization in the US.7

The Commission never had the authority of a true government. It may rather be compared to an international organization, or to a feudal parliament, in which each leader reserved the right to use force if his territory or vital interests were threatened. In economic terms, it is a cartel rather than a single firm with a board of directors.8 Its ability to coordinate mafia business was always menaced by feuds among the various leaders, and it has been unable to function continuously. It did not survive the first “war” between mafia families in Sicily between 1957 and 1963. In 1969 supreme authority passed to a triumvirate composed of Totò Riina, Stefano Bontate, and Gaetano Badalamenti. Riina was regarded as the lieutenant of the ferocious Luciano Leggio, the leader of the mafia from Corleone in the Palermo hinterland, who was in prison, and so his status was in theory inferior to that of the other two triumvirs. But Riina revealed himself to be by far the shrewdest and most ruthless of them all, killing off other mafia leaders who threatened his power.

The ambiguous relationship of Palermo to the other provinces is a source of confusion. Even though the mafia chieftains created a regional commission for the whole of Sicily in 1975, the Palermo Commission (refounded two years earlier) remained the seat of power, where the most important and deadly decisions were taken. One must remember that for a criminal organization, even one that for years enjoyed considerable freedom of movement, frequent meetings of a large number of bosses from different provinces were inconvenient. On the other hand, it seems that Riina cultivated alliances with the heads of other provinces to strengthen his authority, and that he used the regional commission to check possible threats from within Palermo.

The evidence cited by Stille and others makes it clear that Cosa Nostra in the US and in Sicily are two distinct organizations, linked only by personal contacts. Members of the Sicilian mafia could not expect to be admitted to the US Cosa Nostra without a long waiting period, and they were not allowed to discuss the affairs of their family of origin. The famous American boss Lucky Luciano, deported to Italy, had no formal status within the Sicilian mafia, and in fact operated out of Naples to avoid any suspicion of interference in its affairs. This separation had important and paradoxical consequences. The FBI’s investigation of the “Pizza Connection” in the early 1980s revealed, surprisingly, that the leading figures in the heroin trade in the United States were members of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, who were granted a franchise by the American organization.9 This agreement may have been concluded at the 1957 summit at the Hotel des Palmes. The American families were then under heavy pressure from the police and were trying to limit their own involvement in the drug trade.

By the end of the 1970s the Americans probably regretted making this concession. But there was no question of their being able to revoke it. While the American Cosa Nostra began to have difficulties recruiting among the upwardly mobile Italian-American community, the Sicilians had no such problems. The Sicilian “zips,” or new members, were younger and tougher than ever. Clannish, secretive, and “the meanest killers in the business,” they inspired fear in their American cousins.10 The Pizza Connection investigation and Buscetta’s evidence helped to convince the US authorities of the need for much closer cooperation with their Sicilian colleagues in the magistracy and the police. Equally important, however, was the immense personal prestige enjoyed by the magistrate in Palermo, Giovanni Falcone, who had successfully investigated the Sicilian–American connection in 1980, and who persuaded Buscetta to give evidence. In the next big investigation into the Sicilian heroin distribution network in the United States, Operation “Iron Tower,” concluded in 1988, Falcone cooperated directly with Rudolph Giuliani and Louis Freeh in the US Attorney’s office in New York.

Alexander Stille’s lucid and fascinating book traces the heroic campaign of the two leading magistrates in Sicily, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, along with other magistrates and policemen, against a mafia whose power by the beginning of the 1980s was more destructive than it had ever been before. Falcone and Borsellino had very similar backgrounds. Both were brought up in modest middle-class families in Palermo; as boys they played soccer together, and they both studied law at the University of Palermo. Both their families had their houses destroyed in the redevelopment, sponsored by the mafia, of the old city center. They never became part of the city’s social elite; both men were acutely sensitive to the danger of compromising contacts. Stille writes that “they declined invitations to most social occasions and always inquired closely to find out who would be present at any event they were supposed to attend.” They breathed an atmosphere saturated by the mafia, but they were not infected by it.

Under the Italian system some magistrates act as prosecutors, responsible for collecting evidence of crime and bringing charges before the courts. When both Falcone and Borsellino were killed in the summer of 1992, this seemed to confirm the extraordinary capacity of the mafia to eliminate those magistrates who had become its most efficient enemies. But the mafia won only a temporary victory. The murders shocked the Italian government into finally mounting a sustained and coordinated drive against Cosa Nostra. The reaction took place only at the eleventh hour. Large parts of three regions of southern Italy—Sicily, Calabria, and Campania—were by then under the control of Cosa Nostra and its counterparts, the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta and the Neapolitan camorra.

In these places democracy had been reduced to a bloody farce in which any politician who challenged mafia control could be killed. Scarcely any region in Italy was altogether immune from the contamination of Cosa Nostra and the other criminal organizations. But the state’s counterattack could not have succeeded had it not been for the crisis of the old political system, in which collusion with organized crime took place right up to the highest levels of government.

The crisis of the Italian republic was set off by the investigations of Antonio Di Pietro and the other Milanese magistrates into hundreds of cases of political corruption (tangentopoli). Beyond doubt, however, public anger against a state that consistently failed to provide adequate protection to its most loyal servants—the magistrates and police officials who were killed after challenging the mafia—helped to force a change. If the issue of corruption brought down the party system in the North, the apparently impregnable bastions of Christian Democrat power in Sicily and Campania were destroyed by public revulsion against the mafia, the camorra, and their political allies.

Corruption and organized crime were quite rightly seen as intimately connected. The mafia and the camorra worked closely with political machines whose principal task was to spend public funds. For the mafia, public works contracts were a source of money second only to the drug trade, and much less risky.11 The mafia’s control of the money and jobs dispensed by state patronage reinforced its own basic territorial structure, whereas the drug trade was far more difficult to manage.

When “men of honor” protest that the mafia does not deal in drugs, there is some truth to their claims. It has apparently been a rule both in the American and the Sicilian mafia that drug trafficking is the responsibility of the individual mafioso, who operates independently from his family. This rule is necessary not only for reasons of security but because the immensely complicated international networks involved in the drug trade cannot be effectively controlled by an organization based in one country. In fact, Sicilian mafiosi have been partners in drug syndicates with Corsicans, Mexicans, Turks, and members of the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta. It seems probable, though, that mafia families have to be paid to protect particular phases of the drug trade that take place in the territory under their control, such as refining heroin, or distributing it to street vendors.

There has been a complicated two-way relationship between the reaction against the mafia and the crisis of the Italian political system. The use of mafia witnesses (pentiti) had been decisive for the success of Falcone’s investigations ever since he got Buscetta to confess in 1984. The witnesses allowed him for the first time to reconstruct a reliable picture of the organization and its mode of operation, and they helped to identify many of its members. But Buscetta had consistently refused to talk about the mafia’s political connections, and the reasons he gave were convincing. In 1988, Stille writes, he told Falcone that he “would talk about the relation between mafia and politics only when the time was ripe.” There was, he said,

a persistent lack of a serious desire to combat the mafia on the part of the state….It would be foolish for us to touch this subject, which is the crucial knot of the mafia, when many of the people of whom I would have to speak have not left the active political scene.

Although Falcone felt that it was his duty to press the pentiti to name politicians, I think that he recognized the realism of Buscetta’s statement. I once heard a television interviewer ask him if the pentiti kept silent about their contacts in politics and government out of fear; Falcone replied that the mafia witnesses could have nothing worse to fear than they had already; they simply felt that taking on the politicians prematurely would be futile and would ensure defeat.12

The pentiti were certainly not disinterested; they were losers in the mafia wars who were using the legal system to take revenge on enemies who had systematically slaughtered their relatives. Falcone was successful in persuading the pentiti to testify because he understood their mentality and even had a certain sympathy with their motives. He insisted that by treating the “men of honor” as common criminals, or denying them respect, you would get nowhere. This rule applied to enemies as well as to friends; even partial success against the mafia depended on entering its culture, reading its signs like an anthropologist,13 and recognizing its formidable resources of morale, esprit de corps, and staying power. “To become part of the mafia,” as Falcone put it, “is equivalent to being converted to a religion.”14 By recognizing that the code of honor of the mafia was a perverted version of common Sicilian values, Falcone was able to appeal to the pentiti’s sense of injustice and betrayal. In this way he won their confidence and, in some cases at least, he induced a genuine “repentance,” that is to say a repudiation of the mafia way of life. The pentiti recognized that the reality of the mafia had little in common with its idealized image. It was a world not only of cruelty and constant fear but of habitual deceit and treachery.

When Falcone was killed by a car bomb on the road from the Palermo airport in the summer of 1992, it affected the pentiti in two ways. They were genuinely shocked by the murder of a man whom they had come to regard as their friend and protector. More surprisingly, in spite of the terrifying technical professionalism with which the attack on Falcone was carried out, they regarded it as a sign of weakness on the mafia’s part. It convinced them that the super-boss Totò Riina and his winning faction, the corleonesi, had lost their heads.15

Falcone’s death and its aftermath vindicated his strategy. At the end of 1991 the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict of the “maxi-trial” of over three hundred mafiosi during 1986 and 1987, a verdict which Falcone had fought for and the mafia leaders had confidently expected to see overturned. The leaders then made it clear that they considered that the contract between the organization and its political protectors had been broken. They did so with the murder on March 12, 1992, of Salvatore Lima, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s lieutenant in Sicily, on a day when he had been organizing an election rally for his leader. For the mafia, the murder is the message, and it was clear that this particular message was a warning to the prime minister of Italy himself.16

Until the 1970s, it was exceptional for the mafia to kill highly placed officials or public figures.17 But between 1979 and 1982 the mafia carried out a systematic campaign to eliminate all politicians and public officials who got in their way. The campaign of the Red Brigades against the state pales by comparison. Cosa Nostra killed the president of the Sicilian Region, the heads of the Christian Democrat and Communist parties in Sicily, two chief prosecutors, and two leading detectives. The climax, which at the time was almost as shocking as the murder of Falcone ten years later, was the murder of the newly appointed prefect of Palermo, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, in 1982.

Dalla Chiesa was famous as the man who had won the fight against the terrorism of the Red Brigades, and he had been assigned to Sicily in response to public demand for stronger action against the mafia. But he never received the special powers that he had requested, and he soon realized, as Stille reports, that he had been “catapulted … into a treacherous environment” without support from a state which lacked “a clear will to fight the mafia.” In an interview shortly before his death, he said, “I think I’ve understood the new rule of the game. They kill the man in power when this fatal combination has come about: he has become too dangerous, but he can be killed because he is isolated.”

Falcone was soon to appreciate the acuteness of Dalla Chiesa’s analysis, even though he had the support of many of his fellow magistrates by the time he died. One of the chief merits of Stille’s book is that it pays considerable attention to the magistracy and to its internal conflicts. The mafia and its friends spared no effort in sowing mutual distrust among the magistrates and in trying to isolate and undermine the ones who were most determined to prosecute the mafia. The mafia was able to manipulate the press, fabricate evidence, and exploit professional jealousies among the magistrates.

Regrettably, Sicily’s most distinguished writer, Leonardo Sciascia, whose early novels had denounced the collusion between politicians and mafiosi, turned against the groups fighting the mafia. He criticized both the reforming mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, and the magistrate Borsellino as “anti-mafia professionals” who had used the fight against the mafia to advance their own careers. Stille shows that while Sciascia had been legitimately concerned about prosecutorial abuses in Naples, he had wrongly assumed they also occurred in Palermo. Sciascia, Stille adds, later apologized privately to Borsellino for relying on misleading information he had been given about him.


The climax of the counter-offensive against Falcone and the Palermo magistrates came in the years between 1988 and 1990. Falcone had successfully brought off the mass trial of many high- and mid-level mafia leaders in Palermo in 1987; but within the magistracy seniority prevailed over merit, and he was defeated in his attempt to become chief prosecutor in Palermo. His new superior, Antonino Meli, was a stickler for procedure and the bureaucratic hierarchy. He showed no understanding of the need for magistrates to share information, and he started to assign routine cases of petty crime to Falcone and his colleagues. He dispersed the investigations of the mafia among small provincial offices instead of centralizing them in Palermo. It might seem that this was deliberate sabotage, but Stille argues that Meli’s decisions can be attributed to his ignorance of the mafia and to his belief that magistrates were prejudicing their impartiality by taking too active a part in investigations, which should, he thought, be left to the police.

By 1989, Falcone had become more and more isolated from his fellow magistrates and other potential allies; a carefully orchestrated campaign of anonymous letters was launched to blacken his reputation. This was the prelude to the first serious attempt to kill him. Immediately after the plot to do so was exposed, Falcone was particularly alarmed to receive a telephone call of sympathy from Andreotti; according to mafia lore, the first person to express his condolences is automatically suspect. Falcone also believed that the head of the investigative squad of the Palermo police, Bruno Contrada—who has since been arrested—had been an accomplice in the attempted assassination.

It is not surprising that in those circumstances Falcone began to look for political protection from both the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. However, many people believed that Falcone had sold out, and when, in 1991, he finally abandoned Palermo to become director of penal affairs in Rome under the Socialist minister of justice, Claudio Martelli, they felt their suspicions were confirmed. In the 1987 elections Martelli, who was not a Sicilian, surprisingly ran for parliament in Palermo as a Socialist candidate and was triumphantly elected. We now know that Totò Riina had ordered mafia families to switch their votes from the Christian Democrats to the Socialists both as a warning to his old allies and because he believed the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi would take a tough line in restraining the magistracy.18

However, Falcone’s transfer to Rome proved to be a brilliant strategic move on his part. Against all expectations, he won the complete confidence of Martelli. Responding also to the growing pressure from public opinion, the Andreotti government took a series of tough measures against the mafiosi, for example restricting the scandalous freedom they enjoyed while in prison. “It was obvious,” one of the pentiti said, “that the government decrees signed by Martelli and Scotti, the minister of the interior, had been entirely inspired by Dr. Falcone.” The men of honor were not unduly worried so long as they believed that there was a “mathematical certainty” that the convictions of the mafia members following the maxitrial of 1987 would be overturned by the Supreme Court. This would be enough to demolish Falcone’s professional reputation and render him innocuous.

The man they counted on was the head of the relevant section of the Supreme Court, Corrado Carnevale, known as the “sentence-killer” for the frequency with which he struck down sentences against the mafia and other criminal groups. But in October 1991 their hopes were dashed when Carnevale’s nominee to preside over the review of the maxi-trial was rejected by the president of the Supreme Court, Antonio Brancaccio. Before he was killed in the summer of 1992, Falcone had prepared the way for this decision by persuading Martelli to carry out a thorough inquiry into the sentences issued by Carnevale’s section. 19

There are good reasons for believing that Carnevale was the key man in the mafia’s defensive system. He has been accused by the pentiti of taking bribes to “adjust” sentences, not only against Cosa Nostra but against other criminal organizations as well. In addition Carnevale exchanged information with Andreotti through Claudio Vitalone, an ambitious former prosecutor who rose to be the Christian Democrats’ deputy foreign minister. The pentiti also claim that the mafia used two secret channels to reach Andreotti to bargain for protection: Salvatore Lima, the head of Andreotti’s faction (corrente) of the Christian Democrats in Palermo, and the immensely wealthy and powerful Salvo cousins, “men of honor” from the town of Salemi in western Sicily, who for many years held the concession for collecting taxes for all of Sicily, charging the government 10 percent for their services. Andreotti’s denial that he knew the Salvo cousins or understood their importance in Sicilian politics appears to be one of the weakest points in his defense against the formal charge that he has mafia connections, a charge first advanced by the Palermo prosecutors in March 1993.

The case against Andreotti is expected to come up for trial this autumn, and only then will the truth of the rest of the prosecution case be clarified. The most famous allegation in the indictment is that Andreotti met Riina in Palermo on September 20, 1987, when the mafia boss kissed him on the cheek.20 This claim comes from Baldassare Di Maggio, a mafioso formerly close to Riina who also provided important information leading to his arrest.

Why should Andreotti, who was then foreign minister and the most prestigious leader of the Christian Democrats, have taken the grave risk of meeting Riina? According to the prosecutors, the explanation lies in the Italian political situation. After Riina had shown his discontent with the Christian Democrats by backing the Socialists in the 1987 elections, the local Christian Democrat leaders feared they might become targets of the mafia. Only Andreotti could renegotiate a modus vivendi. The detail of the kiss may look incredible if seen from Andreotti’s point of view, but from Riina’s it makes sense. According to the Palermo prosecutors’ indictment,

Riina is not a common delinquent. … Riina is the head of a state, the state of Cosa Nostra … he perceives himself as such and relates to Andreotti as the summit representative of the legal state and as a historic ally.

He took the initiative and Andreotti had to submit to it. According to the indictment, it is significant that Di Maggio was told to leave the room only after the kiss; Riina wanted a follower to witness this demonstration of his power.21

Even if the story of this and previous meetings of Andreotti with Cosa Nostra leaders cannot be proved, the evidence most damning to Andreotti as a political leader lies elsewhere. There is overwhelming proof that Andreotti’s corrente throughout Sicily systematically promoted the career of politicans whose ties with the mafia were notorious. For example, in June 1991, during the Sicilian regional elections, Andreotti took part in a meeting in Trapani to support the leading (and successful) candidate of his corrente, Giuseppe Giammarinaro. “Who Giammarinaro was,” the indictment states,

was well known to all the organs of the police…who had several times denounced him for grave crimes, and who for years had investigated his notorious relations with representatives of the mafia.

Among Sicilians Giammarinaro was known as a “creature” of the Salvo cousins.22 There are a number of other such examples. While the criminal responsibility of Andreotti still has to be proved, that he has been politically responsible for advancing mafia interests is beyond question.

It must seem mysterious that a man who was already so powerful and who had been almost continuously in government for the last forty years should have compromised himself to this extent. Stille characterizes Andreotti’s mentality shrewdly: “a bizarre mixture of holy water and Realpolitik.” According to a Christian Democrat colleague, “Andreotti belongs to a certain Jesuitical, clerical tradition in which you accept that in a fallen world you have to work with the material at hand.” It seems clear that only the support of Salvo Lima and the mafia gave Andreotti’s corrente a dominant position in Sicily, whereas previously his following had been confined to the region around Rome. His strength within the party was more than doubled; and by the rules of the Italian political game, power within the party, as opposed to the government, was essential if he was to maintain his position.

Riina has been the Stalin of the mafia. He has managed to subvert the old oligarchy of the “families” by using a secret network of his own personal supporters. The losers in the mafia war of 1981 and 1982, men like Stefano Bontate and Gaetano Badalamenti, were the allies of Lima and the Salvos, but this did not save them. Riina replaced the “refined culture of mediation” that his mafia opponents had relied on with a far more brutal regime, in which “whoever does not respect agreements … is eliminated, whatever his rank.”23 He and his fellow corleonesi broke with precedent by not revealing to other mafiosi the names of the members of their own family. After destroying his opponents Riina turned on his own faction, eliminating members who might be a potential threat. How was Riina able to do all this? Although his success was in large measure owing to sheer ruthlessness and cunning, it also seems possible that he exploited new divisions within the mafia families, some of whose members felt they were not getting their share of the hugely lucrative drug traffic.

Until now, there seems to have been no serious challenge to the dominance of the corleonesi, even though Totò Riina is in jail serving a life sentence, and, unlike previous mafia leaders, in strict isolation.24 The mafia has become far more centralized. Wiretaps of American mafiosi suggest they are convinced that everything in Italy begins and ends with the corleonesi. The mafia, as Falcone already noted, has also become more clandestine than previously. The number of “soldiers” in the families has been deliberately kept low, in the interests both of control and security.

But these changes have come at a high cost for Cosa Nostra. The strength of the mafia has always depended on consent as well as force. The “men of respect” exercised their authority openly, even if they commissioned their crimes in secret. The unprecedented number of pentiti reflects a crisis within the mafia itself; and the successes won in the fight against the mafia have been impressive. Not only Riina but several of the other most important bosses who were in hiding have been captured. The murderers of Falcone have been identified and most of them are in jail. The homicide rate for the whole of Italy was reduced by 42 percent between 1992 and 1994, after a dramatic increase in the preceding years that was almost entirely concentrated in the regions dominated by organized crime. The mafia’s terrorist campaign in 1993, which was responsible for the bombing of the Uffizi in Florence and the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, failed in its apparent aim of forcing the state to stop further prosecution. There seems an opportunity now to reduce the power of the mafia still further.

But strong optimism would be foolish. The atmosphere of fear on which the mafia thrives has not disappeared; nor has the complicity with the mafia of many Sicilians from different classes. As Stille writes, “The extent of mafia control of daily life in Sicily is something that people outside of Italy cannot quite fathom.” It is probably even stronger in the provinces than in Palermo itself. While unemployment remains very high among young people, there is not likely to be a shortage of new recruits. More serious still, the political and social will to fight Cosa Nostra may not remain as strong as it was in 1992 and 1993. There is a danger that the mafia will find valuable allies against the magistrates among all the various interests which have been threatened by the “clean hands” drive against corruption. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which won a major victory in Sicily in the 1994 elections, has absorbed many of the local political and business leaders left homeless by the collapse of the old governing parties. As a new and hastily organized group, it is likely to be particularly vulnerable to mafia infiltration. A police wiretap on Riina’s onetime accountant, Pino Mandalari, has him saying, “Beautiful, all the candidates are my friends, all of them got elected.”

During the last few months Berlusconi’s allies, among others, have mounted an insidious campaign to discredit Di Pietro and his former colleagues in the Milan magistrates’ office. The tactics of this campaign are unpleasantly reminiscent of those used against Falcone, and there is widespread fear among the magistrates that the next target will be the chief prosecutor of Palermo, Giancarlo Caselli, whose indictment of Andreotti has already brought down on him the charge of being a tool of the left. What is at issue, moreover, is not just the direct complicity of politicians or business enterprises with the mafia. A major difficulty is that many Italians active in politics, in the bureaucracy, and in business fear the prosecutors and wish to restrain their power. Even the PDS (the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the successor to the Italian Communist Party) has become much more ambivalent in its line toward the magistracy. The pressures for some kind of compromise settlement of tangentopoli are not entirely unreasonable, especially in view of the extraordinarily lengthy procedures of Italian justice. The magistrates’ practice of imprisoning recalcitrant witnesses poses genuine issues of civil liberty. Can these problems be successfully addressed, and the whole creaking machinery of justice overhauled, without at the same time weakening the ability of prosecutors and police to fight the mafia? The future of Italian democracy is bound up with the answer to this question.

September 7, 1995

  1. 1

    The clearest exposition of this thesis is in the work of Henner Hess, Mafia (Rome, Bari: Laterza, 1973).

  2. 2

    Joe Valachi was an ordinary mafioso of the Bonanno family who gave evidence to the McClellan Commission of the Senate in 1963.

  3. 3

    Stille’s translation of Buscetta’s account is not altogether accurate; he makes Buscetta speak of “this House,” whereas, of course, the Italian refers to cosa (thing), not casa (house). Diego Gambetta lists thirteen descriptions of the ritual in an appendix to his very important study The Sicilian Mafia (Cambridge University Press, 1994). The existence of similar rituals and formal rules in the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta or onorata società is even better attested; there is evidence of regular “statutes” going back to the turn of the century. Nor are these traditions archaic survivals, maintained out of inertia. Recently, the new Apulian “mafia,” the Sacra Corona Unita, was discovered to have a particularly elaborate code of ritual, probably derived from the Calabrian model.

  4. 4

    The word “family” may be of recent and American origin; the usual nineteenth-century term was cosca (literally, artichoke, an allusion to the plant with a single base and many distinct leaves).

  5. 5

    According to Buscetta, quoted by Stille, the families numbered thirty, grouped into ten mandamenti. But in 1989, according to Giovanni Falcone, there were as many as eighteen mandamenti, with three families each. (Interview with Giovanna Fiume, “La mafia tra criminalità e cultura,” Meridiana, Volume 5, p. 202). See also Gambetta, pp. 138–139; in 1987 the carabinieri counted 105 families in the whole of Sicily (forty-six in Palermo, thirty-six in Agrigento, fourteen in Trapani). Another report in 1990 gave slightly higher figures; it seems probable that the number of families increased during the 1980s.

  6. 6

    The critical evidence for the internal structure of the mafia comes from the wiretap, quoted by Stille, of a conversation in 1974 between the Montreal mafia boss Paul Violi and Carmelo Cuffaro, a “man of honor” from the province of Agrigento. Although the transcript was sent by the Canadian police to Agrigento, it was ignored until the Palermo prosecutors found it while preparing for the “maxi-trial” in the 1980s. It decisively confirmed the evidence given by Buscetta, Antonino Calderone, and other mafia witnesses.

  7. 7

    Joe Bonanno, at the time the head of the Cosa Nostra Commission in the US, did not regard its existence as part of the “Tradition” which he had inherited from Sicily. (Joseph Bonanno, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of a Godfather, Simon and Schuster, 1983).

  8. 8

    See the fundamental analysis by Gambetta, pp. 127–161.

  9. 9

    In a tapped phone call in 1984 Badalamenti is quoted as saying: “They need us, they don’t have an import license. We have the license.”

  10. 10

    See Claire Sterling, Octopus (Norton, 1990), pp. 244–245, 308–309. The exact status of the Sicilian mafiosi operating in the United States is still open to question. While the late Claire Sterling argued that they were an integral part of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the historian Salvatore Lupo regards them as forming an independent “enterprise syndicate.” S. Lupo, Storia della mafia siciliana (Rome: Donzelli, 1993), p. 212.

  11. 11

    See Giovanni Falcone and Marcelle Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra, (Milan: Rizzoli, second edition, 1993), p. 142: “I wonder if they [contracts and sub-contracts] are not the most lucrative business of Cosa Nostra….It doesn’t matter if the enterprise which has won the job is Sicilian, Calabrian, French or German: whatever its provenance, the enterprise which wants to work in Sicily must submit to…the territorial control of the mafia.”

  12. 12

    Stille, p. 266: “Falcone believed…that when you aim high, you have to be absolutely certain you will hit the target or it will come back at you, with even greater force, like a boomerang.”

  13. 13

    Stille, pp. 6–7, quoting Falcone, “Everything is a message, everything is full of meaning in the world of Cosa Nostra….The interpretation of signs is one of the principal activities of a ‘man of honor’ and consequently of the mafia-prosecutor.”

  14. 14

    Falcone and Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra, p. 97.

  15. 15

    The leaders of the Corleonese faction—Riina, his brother-in-law Leoluca Bagarella, and Bernardo Provenzano—are all natives of Corleone. But the word corleonesi is now used in mafia circles to denote the winning faction as a whole.

  16. 16

    For the interpretation of the murder, see Stille, p. 384. The mafia’s intentions were not altogether a secret. Some months before Lima’s murder, Calogero Mannino, a Christian Democrat and former minister, suspected of being one of the most important protectors of the mafia, told a police officer “either they will kill me or they will kill Lima.” La vera storia d’Italia (Naples: Pironti, 1995), p. 867. This volume contains the evidence and conclusions of the Palermo prosecutors’ indictment against Andreotti.

  17. 17

    The most notable exception was the murder of the aristocrat and former director of the Bank of Sicily, Emanuele Notarbartolo, in 1893.

  18. 18

    The Socialist vote in the Palermo constituency rose from 9.8 to 16.4 percent, and Marco Pannella’s small Radical Party, also hostile to the judges, won 2.3 percent, receiving substantial financial contributions from mafiosi. The Christian Democrat vote fell by almost 10 percent. The 1987 results are the best index of the number of votes that the mafia leadership could swing. It must be remembered, however, that Riina’s recommendation to vote for the Socialists was not binding on individual “men of honor” who had particular personal ties with Christian Democrat politicians.

  19. 19

    See the testimony of the mafioso Gaspare Mutolo in La vera storia d’Italia, pp. 782–787.

  20. 20

    Not the most serious charge, however. Andreotti is also accused of having commissioned the mafia’s murder of the journalist Mino Pecorelli in 1979; Pecorelli allegedly had damaging evidence of corruption, which he was using to blackmail Andreotti. (See Stille, pp. 393–397.)

  21. 21

    La vera storia, pp. 764–765.

  22. 22

    La vera storia, p. 891.

  23. 23

    La vera storia, p. 757.

  24. 24

    A law was passed in 1992 authorizing the minister of justice to impose special restrictions, including solitary confinement, on mafia bosses. No mafiosi may be allowed parole. One of the main aims of the mafia has been to get this law repealed or watered down.

    The recent arrest of Riina’s brother-in-law, Leoluca Bagarella, will certainly make it harder for the corleonesi to retain control. The third important member of the Corleone mafia, Bino Provenzano, is still at large, and it is said that he has particularly good political connections. He also, however, is known to be suffering from cancer.