Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse by John Dickie
The Times - May 18, 2013

Italians often complain that foreigners are obsessed by the Mafia, turning a localized problem of organized crime into a stereotype that damages the image of a whole nation. Yet as John Dickie, a historian of Italy at University College London, shows in this chilling and eye-opening book, the real problem is that the stereotype is correct. The romanticisation of the Mafia by Hollywood may have been damaging, for the truth is squalid and tragic. Yet the worst, and most damaging, romanticisation has been that by Italian cinema, television and literature itself, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.

The point is not that all Italians are mafiosi, of course. Rather, it is that the strength, scale and endurance of the country’s three main mafias are fully and sadly representative of Italy’s broader national weaknesses: disregard for the rule of law, frail state institutions made frailer by the self-centred power games of the politicians and parties that inhabit them, and the frequent failure of Italians themselves, grand or humble, to care or to do much about it.

That failure both caused and prolonged the phenomenon that is hardest of all for outsiders to comprehend: the pretence that the Mafia organisations did not really exist. They had in fact existed for more than a century, albeit as secret societies intermingled with equally secret networks of freemasons. But their crimes were evident for all to see. And as their operations spread or matured from mainly local extortion to cigarette smuggling, kidnapping, drug dealing and then more conventional businesses such as construction, waste disposal and even hospital supplies, their effect on the national economy became more and more evident too.

At the heart of the national weaknesses that explain both the crime and the pretence, as Dickie outlines, has lain a close relationship between organized crime and politics: two networks of power coming to depend on one another for support and protection. That has been especially true in the three southern regions that are the three mafias’ respective home bases—Sicily for Cosa Nostra, Campania for the Camorra and Calabria for the ‘Ndrangheta—but it has also been true both at national level and in rich northern regions such as Piedmont and Lombardy where the southern mafias have also put down roots.

The most devastating period since 1945 for this collaboration between crime and the state was in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period brought recently back to many minds by the death earlier this month of Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat politician who dominated government during that period. It was a time when terrorist outrages by extreme left and extreme right groups coincided with wars within the Mafia, a blood-drenched period that culminated in the massacres in Palermo in 1992 of the two brave anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were leading the first ever real fightback against organized crime.

The Christian Democrats’ party organization in Sicily, and especially the part of it controlled by Andreotti, had long worked closely with Cosa Nostra and had skillfully suppressed judicial and police efforts against organized crime on the island. Yet the extraordinary spate of killings, including many “eminent corpses”, during the 1980s had also brought the previously hidden worlds of the three mafias out into the open and stimulated the fightback against it.

Out of that dark and deadly period, and especially out of the still-not-fully-resolved murders of Falcone and Borsellino, came however both the progress and the hope with which Mafia Republic closes. The progress has come from new anti-mafia powers and laws that have led to the severe disruption and weakening especially of Cosa Nostra in Sicily. The hope has come from growing popular resistance to organized crime from civil society groups and, most notably, business groups such as Confindustria, the Italian equivalent of the CBI and which for years denied the mafias’ existence.

Yet there is a huge amount more to do. The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, in particular, remain hugely powerful and have networks stretching all around the world. The Neapolitan Camorra, made much better known by the bravery of the writer Robert Saviano, retain a tight grip on their region. And the economic power of all the mafias—as sources of jobs and even finance, and as barriers to open competition—remains extraordinary. The battle against them may have begun, but the war is very far from being won.

 



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