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Feature Articles


December 2006
Italian Anti-Mafia Commissions

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


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

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"Mafia (perhaps from the Arabic word Mahia—meaning arrogance) is a union of persons of every social class, every occupational level, of every type with no apparent continuous and regular relationships among them, yet united in reciprocal interests that are pursued with no consideration given to laws, justice or the public order. The mafia mentality involves a medieval sentiment that believes that it can provide safety and protection to persons and their possessions and property through the personal influence of the mafioso, independent of reliance on legitimate authority or the legal system in which he has no trust. The mafia is not always criminal in scope; sometimes it engages in that which is good, that which is just, but the methods that it adopts are always immoral and criminal." (Enrico Mestica, Dizionario della lingua italiano, Torino, 1941)

     The precursor of the Italian antimafia struggles dates back to 1867 with the institution of the first Commissione d’inchiesta, or Commission of Inquiry.

     The word mafia, a term that was basically an invention of journalists and politicians to refer to Sicilian criminality, appeared for the first time in a report by the prefect of Palermo, Filippo Gualterio, in April of 1865, with reference to an associazione malandrinesca (criminal association) in league with public officials.

     During the early years after the unification of Italy in 1860, Sicily experienced an alarming spike in the number of crimes, especially homicides. The concern included alarm that the crime wave was a threat to the public order. Yet it became apparent that the typical judicial action against those arrested and indicted was not justice but mostly absolution of charges or mild punishment

     This state of affairs was not unusual in Sicily. While the island was under Bourbon rule, before Italian Unification, there was wide popular support for criminal bands. One document, a report of the attorney general of the Gran Corte Criminale of Trapani, in western Sicily, Pietro Calà Ulloa, in August 1838, found collusion between outlaws and "aggregations of Sicilians." Such cooperation to counter governmental interests and illegal ends was a direct challenge to Bourbon sovereign authority, and could not be tolerated. These secret societies by all appearances were making their presence felt in the governance of the State, at least at the local levels, forming a convergence of interests of the so-called alta mafia and the bassa mafia (criminal class) at loggerheads with the Bourbons.

     It was out of this force of Sicilian revolutionaries and mafia regulars that was born a plot that carried to the Palermitano revolt of 1866. To investigate the roots of that public demonstration, a "Commission of Inquiry on the Moral and Economic Conditions of the Province of Palermo" was brought to order. The Commission gathered information through a series of hearings with politicians, magistrates and professionals. The Commission’s report was to have scant impact on official policy.

     In 1874, Girolamo Cantelli, the Interior Minister, presented a law to give the government exceptional powers in those Sicilian provinces where the peace was "gravely disturbed by the frequency of murders, robbers, blackmailers" in the company of "associations of brigands, scoundrels, cutthroats, camorristi, mafiosi." Noted is the very broad brush of the legislation that covered any number of evildoers, many with no association with any strict sense of the concept of mafia. Such distinctions would be made later.

     The legislation was considered too draconian by some politicos. The political Left, which contained deputies who harbored mafioso sympathies, sustained that since 1860 Sicily had been almost continuously under military control, and that the public security law of 1871 already provided sufficient powers, with warnings employed as substitutes for more severe judicial actions. Further repressive legislation, it was deemed, would only further aggravate pre-existing fervent anti-government sentiments.

     One critic, Diego Tajani, a former attorney general of the Palermo Court of Appeals, noted that the mafia strings were being pulled by influential people: "The mafia is not dangerous, nor is it by itself all powerful because it is merely an instrument of local government."

     The final report of the 1874 Commission gathered a considerable amount of documentation. (The report was not made public until 1968.) The meetings were closed with these provocative thoughts by Romulado Bonfadini, a deputy from the region of Lombardy: "The mafia is not an association that has a stable form and special functions; nor is it a temporary union of criminals with transitory or definitive goals; does not have statutes, does not divide earnings, doesn’t have meetings, doesn’t have recognizable capos, if not the strongest and the most able. Rather, it is the development and perfection of bullying directed to every kind of evil; the solidarity is instinctive, brutal, with an eye to the main chance, that unites against the interests of the State, of the laws and the regular organs, all of those individuals and those social classes that prefer to draw their livelihoods and comforts, not from work, but from violence, fraud and intimidation." In other words, the mafia is quite an amorphous creature, yet on close inspection recognizable for what it is, mainly a cultural product that is an enemy of the State.

     Although the idea of mafia was a slippery concept and indeterminate, there was a conviction by the Commission that there did exist associations of malefactors, bands of brigands, as well as the so-called manutengoli (accomplices, supporters—the alta mafia), an essential component of the phenomenon that protected (and profited from) the criminal class. But there was not a mafia as solidity, a structural substance, with the required characteristics of a long-term multi-generational permanency.

     During the same period that the Commission carried out its duties, two scholars, Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino, traveled south for their own private investigations of the "Sicilian Question." Franchetti focused on the mafia, referring to an "industry of violence," engaged in mostly by "ruffians of the middle class," which had become "a tireless group with its own interests, a social force set apart, and looks to the dominant class for its advancement. Franchetti revealed a contradiction in the actions on the island. "In Sicily," he noted, "the State finds itself in a painful dilemma, that in fulfilling its primary duties as a modern entity, the maintenance, that is, of material order, it does not uphold the laws, but the arrogance and the abuse of power of a portion of the citizenship to the disadvantage of the majority. In fact, the government is very efficient and swift in quelling proletariat disorder, but are miserably impotent against threats like brigands and mafiosi, who elevate themselves above the well-to-do, or at least above the segment that is dominant." In brief, those who engage in corruption and those who work outside the system seek to advance themselves.

     Mafia groups in the latter part of the 1800s came into contention with bloody results. (As one example, in 1874 in a Palermo neighborhood of 800 inhabitants there were 34 homicides.) Despite many arrests and often-solid evidence, many of the indicted escaped justice. This despite the growing realization that there did exist "a vast association of malefactors, organized in sections, divided into groups, each with its own chief, under the direction of a supreme capomafia."

     Events came to a head with the shocking assassination of Emanuele Notarbartolo, in 1893, an ex-mayor of Palermo and director general of the Bank of Sicily. The murder became a cause célèbre. After a series of highly publicized trials and judicial actions, the accused, a legislative deputy (and probable mafioso) Raffaele Palizzolo, after being condemned to a thirty-year stretch in prison, was absolved by the Bologna Court of Appeals, in 1904. He returned home to the cheers of his Sicilian constituents.

     Some argued that the notion of mafia was less an entity than an attribute of personality, a component of sicilianismo, considered to be a summation of island cultural values, "neither a sect nor an association, but a mentality" that internalizes an "exaggerated quality of strength" in the individual Sicilian.

     Other observers underscored the role of the political Left in favoring candidates that had adopted mafiosi methods to create una mafia del governo that regenerated and rendered most powerful the mafia dei cittadini. This last phrase, "the citizens’ mafia," suggested a revolt of the common folk against a government that represented the interests of the elite few against the majority of Sicilians, who were getting a belly-full of inequality.

     In Sicily in the 1890s, with the collapse of the economy, there was a bloody repression of the Fasci siciliani, a labor movement that pressed for radical reform. The mafia, which as a criminal class was essentially reactionary, moved to repress the Fasci, as did the government. One consequence was the beginning of a massive emigration of poverty-stricken and exploited workers and landless peasants to the New World. Among those emigrants were criminals, some on the run from the law, others looking for other chickens to pluck, who were to play a primary role in the history of organized crime in the early 1900s in the United States.

     In the years before the First World War the issues posed by Sicily in the minds of the authorities were given less attention. The phenomenon of the mafia had been given too much Press, and thus much exaggerated out of proportion to its significance. To quote one source, this "…fiction of a vast organization that like a monstrous octopus with its tentacles has grasped the entire island in a mortal embrace" was nothing more than "the generic product of an otherwise generic sicilianismo," a cultural artifact unique to Italian history.

     In the 1920s the Fascist regime took up the struggle to "rid that cancer at the toe of Italy," to quote one of Mussolini’s famous phrases. Because totalitarianism does not tolerate anything but unwavering allegiance, the mafia with all its arrogance represented a parallel government that had to be smashed. Although Il Duce vowed to cleanse the island of the menace, the war against the mafia was a limited effort that succeeded to a degree in the repression of the bassa mafia. The alta mafia, the untouchables, whom Mussolini needed if Sicily was to be pacified, were spared and easily co-opted into the Fascist ranks. Of the large numbers arrested there were the innocent, a few capos of importance, with the majority "soldiers" in the mafia ranks and local mafia supporters. The mafia was struck a hard blow, but it was not fatal.

     The post-World War Two era witnessed a rapid resurgence of the mafia clans, some submit because of the complicity of the American military that governed the island after its liberation in 1943. More likely, the mafia bided its time during the Fascist years. With the Liberation, the mafia saw its opportunities and took them, and it would have happened with or without an American lax policy regarding mafiosi.

     The government was awakened from its slumbers by the large increase in violence during the mafia wars in the early 1980s. People of importance were being assassinated. Antimafia legislation for the first time made l’associazioni di tipo mafioso (associations of the mafia type) a crime, and introduced measures for the sequester and confiscation of mafia wealth and property.

     Those years were notable for the diligent and heroic efforts of the Palermo antimafia pool magistrates, in particular Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both of whom became mafia targets and eventual martyrs, in 1992, to the antimafia campaign.

     The pool utilized various investigative techniques, among them "following the money trail" and penitent declarations from an increasing flow of mafiosi collaborators.

     In 1991 the Direzione investigativa antimafia (DIA) was born. The DIA director was charged with the responsibility of "rendering effective the coordination of the investigations, to guarantee the functionality of the judicial police and to assure the timely completion of investigations that are the province of the district antimafia offices." The DIA continues its operations to this day.

"Never underestimate the power of the mafia."

"My biggest preoccupation is that the mafia will always succeed in maintaining the advantage."

"In Sicily the mafia strikes the servants of the State that the State is unable to protect."

"The most revolutionary thing that one can think to do for Sicily is simply to apply the law and punish the guilty."

     (Quotes by Judge Giovanni Falcone, in Cose di Cosa Nostra, by Giovanni Falcone and Marcelle Padovani, 2004)


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