It would seem that this generation of Italians was in a unique position to do away with the Mafia once and for all. We can determine its historic origins and social causes, define the conditions in which it flourishes, and should therefore be able at last not merely to prune a few branches but to strike at its roots. And at the present time all Italian political parties, both in power and in the opposition, consider the Mafia a national shame and are vociferously determined to do what is necessary—conduct investigations, vote ad hoc laws and special appropriations—to exterminate it. We are only the latest in a long line of defeated Mafia fighters. Our forefathers, fathers, and older brothers tried to cure it according to whatever diagnosis was fashionable at the time. These remedies were by no means wrong: But insofar as they were only partially right they produced only partial results. The Mafia was intimidated at times, once in a while driven underground, but never conquered. In fact it always bounced back more powerful and arrogant than before. One hundred and more years of wrong approaches should therefore have made it easy for our generation to determine exactly what is to be done. For some reason, this has not yet happened. At the moment of writing, the Mafia, though hampered and embittered by national and international initiatives, is flourishing more than it ever did in the past.

Our generation should be helped, for one thing, by the vast number of good books now available on the subject. There used to be a few standard authorities that everybody quoted. The best (still the fundamental text) was written in 1876 by Leopoldo Franchetti, called Condizioni politiche e amministrative della Sicilia. Franchetti was the descendant of a distinguished Jewish family from Venice, a man of means, a patriot, a Liberale, who was made a baron by King Umberto I for his many civic acts. He wrote his book on the basis of only one visit to Sicily, but described the phenomenon more or less as we know it today. Every year since World War II more books have appeared, a few written by foreigners, many of them based on painstaking research or field surveys. There are the famous works of Danilo Dolci (Report from Palermo, Outlaws, Waste) which contain a mine of facts gathered at the source. A former judge, Giuseppe Guido Loschiavo, is the author of a learned historic and juridical study called Cento anni di Mafia. The feeling of life under the leaden oppression of the society was described by one of Italy’s greatest living novelists, a Sicilian school teacher named Leonardo Sciascia, in two novels, Il giorno della civetta and A ciascune il suo. There are works by journalists, some of them hurried compilations with lurid covers, and one superior piece of reportage, Michele Pantaleone’s The Mafia and Politics, with a Preface by Carlo Levi, now translated into English.

PANTALEONE WAS BORN in the town of Villalba, one of the most important Mafia nerve centers, the birthplace and headquarters of Don Calò Vizzini, the highly respected Numero Uno until his death a few years ago. Pantaleone learned all about the Mafia in his infancy: It was everywhere around him, in the fear, servility, and resignation of many, the eternal mourning black of the women’s dresses. He learned to hate the Mafia and wanted to do something to free his people from the bloody oppression and degrading protection. He began writing a scholarly treatise, with a dissertation on the probable origins of the phenomenon, but when he got around to current events he could no longer hold his passionate indignation in check. He describes intrigues, complicities, bribes, shady business deals, threats, murders; he names every man who benefited by each killing, and every man who did the actual shooting. As a result, the book is a somewhat disorderly accumulation of terrifying stories, some government-shaking disclosures, others little more than Sicilian faits-divers. The author excuses himself in the Preface: “I have put together various writings…adding only a few essential passages to help co-ordinate them…Perhaps the results may still be uneven and fragmentary: if so, the blame must be attributed to the several parts of the book having different origins, its original nucleus having been completed with pieces conceived as journalistic reportages.” The anonymous reviewer of The Mafia and Politics in the Economist complained peevishly: “Surely a book worth printing is also worth writing.” This is, however, a pedantic objection. In fact, the confusion adds a dramatic and urgent quality to the book; the disorganized and breathless list of crimes and their complicated explanations reaches at times the cumulative effect of an avalanche. The defect of the book is a different one.

Nobody can deny the author’s courage. He denounces the complicity between Christian Democratic leaders and organizers in Sicily and the Mafia, backing his assertions with well-documented examples. He is not even intimidated by the power of the United States: He endeavors to prove that the American Army landings in 1943 had been prepared and aided by the Mafia in contact with American criminals of Sicilian origin, and that Americans are at the back of the Society’s current renaissance. He points his accusing finger at the predominant economic forces, the monopolists, the owners of vast land-holdings, the North Italian holding companies, the Banco di Sicilia, all partly responsible for the prevailing state of things in the island and the preservation of the conditions favorable to the Mafia. The book should have created a scandal and should have forced all concerned to take decisive action. Nothing much happened when it first came out in 1962. Not only was Pantaleone not killed by a shotgun blast of the thick lead pellets usually used for hunting lupi (wolves), called lupara, the efficient weapon employed by the Mafia; he was not even sued for libel. Nobody bothered to issue a denial. No magistrate used the newly published facts to start a new chain of investigations, which might have brought a few of the responsible leaders to justice. Even the anti-Mafia committee of the Italian Parliament filed the book away among its many documents and went on with its own work.


IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE, the impact of the revelations was deadened also because the author’s Marxist views are too simple-minded. His second-hand, optimistic, and adolescent ideas often prevented him from seeing the whole picture and building up a convincing case. For instance, he tells the story of the aid given by the Mafia to the landing of the American Army in 1943; he does not clearly explain, however, that the Mafia aided every successful revolution and landing of foreigners in Sicily, including that of Garibaldi in 1860, because the Mafia cannot afford not to be on the side of the winner in any historic conflict. At the present moment, it is working hand in hand with the Christian Democrats, who now govern the island. The Mafiosi deliver the vote in their districts and intimidate the opposition. Cabinet Ministers do not dislike being seen in public with notorious Mafia leaders or pezzi da novanta. (The pezzo da novanta is literally and figuratively a big shot; it is the last and loudest explosion in a display of fire-works.) The Mafia needs friends in Rome to displace unfriendly police officials or hostile judges, friends in the Regional Government to interpret the laws governing the awards of public contracts and the construction of buildings in new city districts. It must infiltrate all important government bureaus because one of the sources of its power is the sure knowledge of what is going on and what will happen tomorrow. For these reasons it collaborated whole-heartedly with the Bourbons, the Liberali of the Right, the Liberali of the Left, and, for a time at least, with the Fascists. It is therefore conceivable that, in the event of a Communist victory in Sicily, the Mafia will try to place its own men (or men easily blackmailed by it) in key Party positions, and will offer its precious aid to keep the people obedient and resigned to their fate. Pantaleone describes the help given by the Mafia to the landowners of the past, which allowed them, the Sicilian barons, to defend their property from the bandits and to keep the starving peasantry in a docile frame of mind. He does not attach much importance to the fact that now, when these estates are mostly owned or controlled by the Regional Government, the Mafia has successfully gained access to the organizations administering or distributing the land to the same starving peasants. Centralization and political control has, in fact, facilitated its task in many fields. It is not interested in land, poverty, or money as such. It is after power. Long ago it developed a natural technique to conquer and wield power, whatever form power may take at different times and places.

The phenomenon has always been too complex and elusive to be entirely enclosed within the limits of any theoretical scheme. The Mafia is notoriously two things, one of which, common to all Sicily, should be written with a lower-case m; the other—the Mafia with a capital m, the fluid organization, the secret, far-reaching elite which governs everything legal and illegal, visible and invisible—is to be found exclusively in the Western provinces of the island. (Marxists never manage to explain why, economic and social conditions in both parts of Sicily being virtually identical, one end of the island should have developed the Mafia while the other has always been free from it. They are also embarrassed by the fact that some characteristics and techniques of the Mafia were successfully transplanted to the United States, thousands of miles away in a law-abiding, democratic, industrialized society, but never took roots in Messina or Catania, a few hours distant from Palermo.) The two mafie are obscurely related. Surely one could be mafioso without being Mafioso, but a real Mafioso cannot acquire prestige and authority, and rise in the hierarchy of the organization, without being, at the same time, thoroughly mafioso.


THERE ARE NUMEROUS and improbable theories concerning the origin of the word. Giuseppe Pitrè (1841-1916), the greatest authority on Sicilian folklore, simply believed that it came from a dialect term common in the Palermo district of II Borgo expressing beauty and excellence. Palermitani, however, have a particular conception of beauty and excellence. You will hear the word used more frequently to describe a fiery and impatient stallion, a vigorous, multicolored rooster, a proud, overbearing girl with flashing eyes and stamping feet. People will say: “Mizzica! What a mafioso horse (or cock or woman)!” They admire the kind of beauty that is flaunted as a challenge, that is one of the visible aspects of power, the fatal beauty that will damn timid people who try to conquer it. The word first appeared in the criminal sense, with a capital m, in the title of a dialect play, I Mafiusi della Vicaria, by Giuseppe Rizzotto, which enjoyed great popularity in 1863. (La Vicaria was Palermo’s jail.) The approximate translation, at the time, would have been “The handsome and daring men of La Vicaria.” The name stuck. It has been commonly used by non-Mafia men ever since, but the Mafiosi themselves never use it. They prefer to call themselves amici, “friends,” “friends of friends,” and their organization “l’onorata società,” “the honored society,” or “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.

This Issue

September 22, 1966