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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.

  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.”

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