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Feature Articles


January 2004
Sicily And The Mafia
Part One
What was the Traditional Mafia?

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


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

     "I am not the law, which is the justice of the few; but I am the power, which is the law of everyone…you call this Mafia; at bottom it is nothing but social revolt." (G.A. Cesareo, "La Mafia")

     In 1865 the Italian government was the first to use the term Mafia to refer to a Sicilian criminal organization. The Mafia, the document stated, was bent on threat, violence, corruption and subversion. Five years previously, in 1860, after the War of Independence, lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the island of Sicily had become part of the newly unified Italian state.

     Most mainland Italians, including the political leaders, knew little or nothing of Sicily. Centuries of conquest, neglect and punishing foreign rule had left the sun-drenched island impoverished and backward, isolated from modernizing influences and social reform movements. Palermo, the main city, had once been the jewel of the Mediterranean region, the focus of intellectual and artistic progress. Now the island had become the "Sicilian Problem," with the Mafia at the center of that problem.

     So what was this thing that had taken on the name Mafia? A question more easily asked than answered.

     Many agreed during the long debate that would ensue that the Mafia's identifying characteristic was the profit motive, the reason for its existence. Critics of that hurried conclusion were quick to point out that the Mafia therefore did not differ from common organized crime, which existed throughout Europe. Thus constructing a unique criminal classification called Mafia made no sense.

     The phenomenon of Mafia needed deeper study and it become soon apparent that any examination of the contours of the Mafia represented a challenge. As with all secret societies, the Mafia produced no documents-without a paper trail to follow, no history could be written. A secret society's code of silence makes penetration into its inner core a constant challenge. Not to mention that the information received would be incomplete and often of questionable reliability. What is Mafia and what is not Mafia? The boundaries separating the clandestine from the general society are not easily discernable. If the boundaries are permeable and shift, then the idea of the Mafia as simply a criminal organization is not tenable. The question then turns to a larger inquiry, and that is of Sicilian culture as a source of the Mafia mentality.

     The cultural argument leads ultimately away from specified criminal acts to general patterns of behavior. Much thought was given to the possibility of understanding Mafia as a "state of mind, a philosophy of life, a concept of society, a moral code, a particular susceptibility prevalent among Sicilians. They must help each other, line up with their friends, vanquish the common enemy." Dignity was paramount, insult not tolerated, injury avenged, individualism exaggerated, officials distrusted-pride maintained at all costs. And what would flow from such a "state of mind" would provide ample justification for unlawful actions, when such actions were deemed necessary to uphold the Mafia ethic.

     As recently as 1966 the Italian Anti-Mafia Commission declared the Sicilian Mafia as a "mental state, all pervasive," existing "above all in the atavistic distrust of the laws and therefore not observing them. It is a mentality to be found in everyone, everywhere."

     The stress on Mafia as a state of mind, a moral code, often ignored the criminality aspect. From 1890, we find this conclusion from a Sicilian scholar: "The Mafia is neither a sect nor an association. It has neither rules nor statutes. The mafioso is not a thief. He is simply a courageous and valiant man who does not suffer a fly to sit on his nose."

     In a similar vein, in 1893, another observer found no traces of Mafia. "The word Mafia," he wrote, "has been distorted because of the worldwide popularity of the term. It is not the criminality of the Neapolitan camorra, the Milanese teppa or the Roman bagherinaggio." Rather, of that so-called "legendary Mafia with its solemn statutes, its formidable organization forever intent on evading the police and deceiving justice one cannot find a trace."

     Others on the scene, in the 1870s, envisioned an octopus strangling the island from one end to the other. "The Mafia can be defined as a criminal silence, a brazen courage, impudent mendacity, betrayal of intimate personal relationships and resistance to all moral and civil laws." Furthermore, the Mafia went well beyond the bounds of a mobster mentality for illicit profit. It was anti-establishment, acting at the "expense of the state, the laws and lawful organisms, all individuals and social strata, that prefer to derive their existence and their well-being not from work but from violence, deceit, and intimidation."

     The ranks of the Mafia were filled by more than only the dispossessed, those at the margin of the society. The Mafia mentality permeated all levels of Sicilian society, "from the baron to the sulfur miner."

     The High Mafia used the Low Mafia for its own ends. "The rich man avails himself of the Mafia to protect his person and property. The poor man becomes a mafioso because of his hatred for those who possess more than he, or occupies an exalted position." But even the poor man can rise above his lowly station in life and become a great mafioso leader.

     The literature on the Mafia during the late 1800s pointed to hatred, greed, fatalism, revenge-a host of human sentiments-as the driving forces behind the development of the Mafia mentality in Sicilian society. These sentiments fostered class warfare against the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and opportunity, against systemic corruption and arrogance in high places, against bureaucratic inertia-giving rise to a deep and abiding cynicism in the population.

     The mentality called Mafia coalesced into what Joe Bonanno, who came from a family of "men of honor," called "The Tradition." "Out of necessity," he stated in his 1983 autobiography, "Sicilians developed a way of life called The Tradition. Because their land was ruled by others, Sicilians withdrew into their own families. Frustrated and angered by the inequities of state justice, Sicilians adopted a personal sense of justice based on the individual and the family. This subcultural system of justice did not overthrow the official order, but existed alongside it. In an unjust world it was necessary to create one's own justice."

     The consequences of this Mafia tradition on daily Sicilian life were well expressed in a report on the "Troubled Island," in 1876, by a member of the Italian parliament:

     "Someone who has just arrived might well believe that Sicily was the most pleasant place in the entire world. But if you stay awhile, read the newspapers and listen carefully, bit-by-bit everything changes. You hear that the guard of an orchard was killed with a rifle shot because the owner hired him rather than someone else. Another owner heard a bullet whistle past his head. He decided not to rent his groves after all. Another man who set up nursery schools in Palermo was shot at. Certain people who dominate things here don't want the poorer classes benefited by someone who might gain thereby influence among the poor. The violence takes strange forms. A former priest, who became the crime leader in a town near Palermo, administered the last rites to some of his own victims. After you hear a certain number of these stories, the perfume of orange and lemon blossoms starts to smell of corpses."


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