While Americans have long believed that the mafia exists, Italians haven’t. Well, they did believe that Cosa Nostra existed in the United States, just not in Italy.
That’s because the mafia traditionally hid behind a smokescreen, says British professor of Italian studies John Dickie, author of Blood Brotherhoods: Italy and the Rise of Three Mafias. “And that smokescreen involves saying, ‘Ah, the mafia as a criminal organization doesn’t exist,’ ” Dickie explains. Rather, the mafia is a state of mind that all Sicilians have. “It’s this culture of truculence towards authority.”
According to Dickie, whose research is used as a mafia handbook by everyone from Italian law enforcement to Russian mobsters, as well as Italian Mafiosi, “that sort of ragbag of nonsense has a very specific history. It was born in the mid-1870s”—approximately 10 to 20 years after the mafia began in the Italian prison system—“and it was basically the product of people who were sympathizers with the mafia—members of Sicily’s ruling elite who were working with the mafia and the mafia’s lawyers.”
That smokescreen, says Dickie, wasn’t blown away until 1992, when Italian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino lost their lives after years spent exposing and convicting members of Cosa Nostra. Borsellino’s murder is still unsolved. “So in that sense this is still an open history,” Dickie says. “Italy still debates what the mafia is and how to tackle it and whether it’s been tackled.” And Italy needs to be reminded of that public history, he adds.
Over the course of 728 pages, Dickie doesn’t simply remind, but—like Falcone and Borsellino—he exposes the mafia, as well as teaches its complicated history, explaining that the mafia isn’t just Sicily’s Costa Nostra, but that it is three mafias: Costa Nostra; the camorra, which began in the Campania region that includes Naples; and ‘Ndrangheta, which began in the Calabria region and now spreads across the world, having far surpassed in power the now weakened (thanks to Falcone and Borsellino) Cosa Nostra.
Still, it is the Cosa Nostra the garners much of the world’s attention as former Italian Prime Minister/sex-obsessed, billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has often been accused of having ties to Cosa Nostra. “Even his most favorable biographers identify a kind of unexplained gap in the sources of the capital that allowed him to make his leap from being just sort of a local construction entrepreneur to being a media magnet between the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that’s the crucial time when a known Mafioso was serving in some mysterious capacity in his house,” Dickie says.
“That’s also the time period when Berlusconi’s number two in both business and politics, a man named Marcello Dell’Utri, was working closely with Sicilian mafia.” Dell’Utri recently was sentenced to prison for seven years for working with the mafia (his case is subject to an appeal to Italy's Supreme Court), while former Prime Minister Berlusconi—who was politically supported by Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta, according to Dickie—has been convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to a mere one year of community service in an unrelated case.
But Dickie emphasizes that Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, and the camorra are “not interested in being the government and having to deal with health policy or social security or foreign affairs or anything like that.” What they want is to be close to politicians out of a need for impunity—to get police transferred and get trials interrupted—and to influence government spending. Like HBO’s The Sopranos, the Italian mafias are involved in construction and garbage removal, as well as tobacco, heroin, and cocaine smuggling.
And authorities can’t find the mafias unless they understand their histories, Dickie insists. Therefore if one studies their histories, one discovers that the mafias thrive during periods of recession (they have cash “burning a hole in their pocket because it needs to be laundered,” which “gives them a great way of infiltrating lawful businesses that might be in trouble”) and during periods of political stasis.
In Blood Brotherhoods, Dickie describes Italy’s current stasis as “badly drafted electoral laws designed to promote bipolarism,” “minor parties, able to blackmail larger ones by threatening to withdraw their support” and “disagreement over economic and social policy,” among other insights.
“While Berlusconi’s attracted a lot of headlines, the real story of Italy over the last 20 years is a complete stasis, complete failure to introduce radical reforms that are needed,” Dickie says. “But paradoxically in this last 20 years, Italy has made greater strides against the mafias than it has in the whole of its previous history. Now that’s odd. It doesn’t mean that the mafias are being beaten. There’s still a long, long way to go. But given the appalling failure to beat the mafias over the previous century and a half of Italian history, it’s not saying a great deal to say that they’re doing better than they have ever done before, but they are. They are.”
Suzy Spencer is the author of the New York Times bestselling true crime book Wasted.