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Feature Articles


November 2004
Organized Crime In Italy

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

     "Ortuna a Mare. Thirty-two kilos and 250 grams of pure heroin were discovered by the Guardia di Finanza on an Albanian ship docked at the Adriatic port of Ortona. The crew, all of them Albanians, was arrested. The cargo has been sequestered. The operation is under the leadership of the Direzione Investigativa Antimafia of the port city of Bari, in collaboration with the police and military of the Chieti province command of the Guardia di Finanza. Last week, in the same port, another 21 kilos were found aboard an Albanian merchant ship. Seven crew members, all Albanians, were taken into custody." (l’Ansa, 5-2-01)

(NOTE. The word mafia is used generically to mean Italian organized crime. The quattro cupole, or four mafias, are referred to as Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia. Their moneymaking schemes include racketeering, extortion, loan sharking, illegal immigration, money laundering, cigarette smuggling, and arms and narcotic trafficking.)

     Today the four mafias have been transformed into enterprises. They invest their capital reserves obtained from illegal activities, and appropriate more and more of the national economy to themselves. Flush with cash, the capos look for a way to "wash" their ill-gotten gains into legitimate businesses. The cover of an import-export firm, a real estate or construction company or a financial services brokerage business can constitute a channel through which illicit goods or finances emerge with those of the legal sector.

     The Direzione Investigativa Antimafia is the investigative agency responsible for uncovering mafia activities. Recent reports have indicated the following disturbing trends:

     "Firm control of the economy to that of the institutions is a short passage. It is necessary that the entire civil society rise up to eradicate a cancer that is corroding our economic and social fabric. To think that to contest the mafias solely through the courts and the police is a profound error.

     "The mafioso can no longer be viewed as a man of the old school clothed in characteristic garb and wearing the Sicilian peasant cap [the traditional mafioso symbol, il cappello del padrino], but rather as a shrewd white-collar entrepreneur. In the zones where organized crime is dominant, he constructs villas, and invests and recycles dirty money in stores, supermarkets, ports, racecourses, tourist villages and holding companies. Action must be taken now, not after the damage has been done.

     "Often the mafioso group penetrates enterprises through a legitimate and unsuspecting businessman who then invests money from multiple criminal activities. This technique is a ‘clean’ mechanism that leaves no trace, thereby avoiding the risks of making their activities known to the authorities and to any eventual aggressions by competing mafia clans."

     Before his murder by Cosa Nostra in 1992, Giovanni Falcone, a prominent judicial investigator, had delved deeply into their activities by following the money paper trail and establishing a strong rapport with mafia informants. His take on extortion is revealing. Extortion is a traditional money-raising venture, extensive in scope, easy to apply, and hard to abolish. (In 1998, 70 percent of shops in Reggio Calabria and 80 percent of shops in Palermo and Catania, Sicily, were being extorted.)

     "Extortion is one of the most delicate aspects of repression because very often there is a confusion between activities that are ‘purely’ mafia and activities that are the result of intimidation by the mafia. For example, the businessman who is subject to protection by the mafia very often gains some benefit from it. Then being deemed trustworthy, he is used, for example, to bid for public works contracts—because it’s well known that they are a lucrative source of funds, and in this way he starts to draw some benefit from being in a state of subjection. To define the border between a victim of and a participant in mafia activities is one of the most delicate problems that we have to deal with. Often we witness the process by which a businessman begins as a victim of the mafia and then actually becomes a mafioso himself."

     Ambitious warring mafia clans have produced much violence. Recent statistics show that the level of homicides reached in some areas of the nation is a product of the numerous and cruel internecine struggles among criminal bands staking out new territories to fleece and competing for the lucrative trafficking enterprises.

     In the five-year period, 1999 – 2003, close to 700 homicides have been attributed to the four mafias. Looking at the data by region, Campania tops the list with 46.7 percent of the total homicides, followed by Calabria (21.6 percent), with lower numbers for Puglia and Sicily. Within the regions, at the provincial level, the murder capital of Italy, Naples, registered 234 deaths, and in the nearby city of Caserta the Camorra murdered fifty-seven. The city of Reggio Calabria, on the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Foggia and Bari, in Puglia, had forty or more homicides.

     Within the same five-year period, the quattro cupole have been as busy as beavers filling their coffers with cash. Official figures range well into the tens of billions of dollars, perhaps as much as forty billion, although such estimates are just that, and always subject to overestimation due to bureaucratic motives to raise alarm among the public. More than half the profits are said to flow from drug trafficking, followed in descending order by illegal business enterprises, sales of arms, prostitution, extortion and usury. Each mafia has its own specialty. Cosa Nostra has the leadership in infiltrating the business world, the ‘Ndrangheta in prostitution, the Camorra in arms trafficking, extortion and loan sharking, and the Sacra Corona Unita in illegal immigrant and cigarette trafficking. These activities are not restricted to Southern Italy. They are international in scale, and often in collaboration with non-Italian criminal groups.

     Also noted in the studies is the widespread use of boys and young men in the mafias. They stand at the bottom of the mob hierarchies, doing the street work, while providing a shield of protection for the capos, who delegate downward through layers of organization. Although their arrest rates are high, well into the thousands, these youthful picciotti remain in plentiful supply. Few cooperate with the authorities because of strict adherence to the bond of blood brotherhood, actual or ritualized through initiation, or fear of deadly reprisal from their criminal comrades.

     The penetration of mafia influence is most evident in the areas of chronic high under- and unemployment, where there is little trust in the effectiveness of the public institutions, and where the authorities tend to turn a deaf ear to corruption and the socioeconomic issues around them, viewing criminality as discrete acts of street crime. "They tend to examine the marginal aspects, the micro-criminality, rather than comprehending that between micro- and macro-criminality there are interrelationships, that the first is often the son of the second."

     Critics have stressed, often with frustration, that criminal intervention is not enough to defeat the mafia because the concept of mafia transcends mere criminality, which only requires for its control decisive police action. "The mafia is not a super band of criminal organizations. It is a culture. It is an alternative state. If it is not destroyed, it will infiltrate every corner of the nation, and undertake to subvert the state. Remaining invisible, naturally, in order to follow its affairs. If the state does not intensify its aggression against this submerged empire of wealth, the antimafia struggle has little hope." In The Mafia of a Sicilian Village (1988), Charles Tilly imagines the process of a mafia takeover of the island: "If one mafia network managed to extend its control all over Sicily, all concerned would begin to describe its actions as ‘public’ rather than ‘private,’ the national government would have to come to terms with it, outsiders and insiders alike would begin to treat its chiefs as their legitimate authority. It would be a government; it would resemble a state. With outside recognition of its autonomy, plus the development of differentiated and centralized instruments of control, it would be a state." Historically, in Sicily, at the village level, there were occurrences of complete mafia dominion, where by providing security and protection, cosche and their capos have often substituted themselves for the Italian state.

Confessions of a Picciotto

     My name is Luca Bandiera. I’m 27 years old. I was born in Milan and moved to Rome to get away from my father. My father was a bastard. From the time I was a child he always beat me. That was the only memory he left me with, doing nothing other than beating on my mother and me. When I was six or seven years old and I would hear his steps come into the house, I was so terrified that I would seek out a secure hiding place.

     The gang I joined in Rome was made up of guys between the ages of 16 and 23. My duty as a member of this bunch was a number of things. You might say that I was a kind of joker. At times I engaged in arms trafficking, at times delivering heroin, and there were occasions when it was necessary to threaten someone who didn’t want to pay the extortion rent…we’d go in the middle of the night. Each day I was earning three or four million lire. [At that time one million lire equaled about $500.] On a monthly basis my pay amounted to 70 or 80 million. I was living high; I bought what caught my fancy. If I saw something in a shop window I liked—perhaps jewelry for 60 million—I bought it. I hung out at expensive restaurants, places that were frequented by important people.

     On occasion I would break away from the gang and take strolls in the central part of the city. When I would notice a young couple, "straight" people, taking a walk, hand-in-hand, I would scrutinize that nice girl. She was from another world, completely different from me. I would wonder if one day I fell in love with such a person what I could possibly talk about and what she would think of me.

     The worst act I committed was to shoot a guy. I shot him in the legs. In truth, according to the law I lived under I was supposed to kill him—two shots in the head. He deserved it. But I could not bring myself to do that. I gave him some tough talk. I told him to "Beat it, get lost, before I change my mind!" I felt good about not finishing the job I was given to do. For the first time I learned to respect my own ideas and not those of others. I was told he had to die—I decided he had to live.

     Luciano Arena and I were fast friends; we grew up together. As a boy he never knew about family, he never had a chance to live in one. He was four years older—I was 27, he was 31—when on the evening of December 16th I was told he was gone, riddled with bullets. I arrived at the scene to see his body sprawled on the sidewalk. They had made an example of Luciano, slaughtering him in the true sense of the word. When the mortuary van pulled up to collect the corpse, I took the bloody sheet that had covered him. I tore off a piece where the blood had soaked through, put it in my mouth and chewed it, as if to say, "I swear I will avenge you any way I can." My oath was to remain unsatisfied when that same evening I was arrested for the shooting of that guy. For two and a half years while in prison I brooded, swearing I’d kill everybody on my release, so great was my anger.

     With my approaching parole, I had a change of heart. I concluded that it would be useless to shed more blood. I would not become like them, even though I had good cause to avenge my friend. No, rather I decided to collaborate with the authorities.

     They put me in an apartment where I had to remain for further interrogation and eventual appearance to testify. The solitude was oppressive, leading me to change my mind a couple of times, all the while knocking my head against the wall, but finally I was deposed by the judiciary.

     I had made my choice. I was proud to have done so because it was the one fine thing that I had accomplished in a lifetime of dirty deeds. I had committed so many simple-minded acts and this time I did something good that no one could take away from me. Even if tomorrow they kill me, it will not matter. They can take my life from me, but that which is inside of me nobody can take. I am now sure they can’t win, because these are circumstances where there are neither victors nor losers, only thugs without conscience.


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