Boss Rule and Political Corruption
By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
"When the mafia is strong, it is impossible for a candidate to win a parliamentary or local election unless he promises it his protection. Thus it has its patrons in the Senate and chamber, who use it for political and worse ends; and the government has its well-understood relations with the mafiosi grand electors. The gangs are allowed free rein; they have licenses to carry arms, while honester citizens are denied them; they know that there will be no interference with a discreet blackmailing, provided that they terrorize the opposition voters at election time." (B. King, 1901)
The politics of Sicily 100 years ago was a nest of intrigue, sinister intentions, violence, and "purchased" votes—with the mafia in the midst of it all, doing favors, receiving same, and infiltrating municipal offices. The links of corruption reached to Italy’s Prime Minister seated in Rome. Because the politicians and the government needed local support, criminals were allowed a wide freedom of action. Historians of the period agreed that the mafia was "the most distressing problem in Sicily." And the situation was allowed to fester well after the Second World War, as witnessed by the judicial revelations over the past few decades.
More than any other incident, the highly publicized murder of the Marquis Notarbartolo in 1893 highlighted the seriousness of a problem that defied easy solution. Notarbartolo was made Director of the Bank of Sicily after embezzlement and political corruption in the bank’s operations were uncovered. An honest man, once he dug into the mess he was summarily dismissed, having gotten too close to the perpetrators. Ignoring a warning of retaliation by the mafia, he was kidnapped and forced to pay a considerable ransom for his freedom. Years later, he persisted by passing incriminating information to the government. The confidential memo was immediately leaked to influential persons who had good reason to be worried. Notarbartolo had to be dealt with. He was brutally murdered while on a train, the crime having all the earmarks of a mafia assassination.
The Notarbartolo affair dragged on for years without resolution—the authorities were in no hurry to bring the case to court, albeit the gathered evidence pointed to a likely suspect. Finally, in 1899 the case went to trial. A certain Palizzolo was convicted. But the judgment was conveniently set aside. In 1903, another trial resulted in an open verdict when witnesses decided for reasons of health to change their testimony. After Palizzolo was acquitted, he returned home, a local hero.
As long as the politicians received the support they needed, they tended to turn a blind eye to the imbedded local corruption that was part of everyday life. Attempts at reform were futile—where would the initiative come from? A fatalistic cynicism took hold among the populace. In such an atmosphere attempts at reform were futile and cynical remarks were the language of everyday life. The only solace was in the mutterings of one’s dissatisfaction. One tale that made the rounds involved a Sicilian town that succeeded in avoiding the payment of taxes by bribing the corrupt bureaucrats to list it as "missing and untraceable." The sensible attitude was to avoid offending mafia rule and accepting the inevitable with good grace.
One might say that politics in Sicily was not a matter of governmental regulation and policy as much as mob rule radiating from a powerful man, a boss. He had at his command the so-called bravi, a traditional term for thugs who did a powerful person’s bidding. Because of the bravi presence a constant threat of violence hovered over the island. Once fear and respect were established, anyone wanting a service, a gun license or a lower tax assessment, had to deal with the power brokers. You waited patiently as a sign of respect for your betters and you presented a "gift" for a state service that should have been yours for the asking. The law of the mob, once in place, made the boss indispensable to the Prefect as a controller and deliverer of votes and a curb on petty crime. Notorious persons would become rich, votes and local taxes manipulated, jobs allocated to favored persons and relatives, jury compositions supervised, village farm land—once held collectively—requisitioned, efforts at unionization of workers stamped out, and so on.
The impact of this corruption by selfish persons who thought only of their own gain was evident especially in western Sicily. Education suffered for lack of funds, resulting in a continuing high rate of illiteracy. Roads remained unimproved, many mere donkey tracks, as they had been for centuries. Ports were not updated, restricting the export of Sicilian products. Malaria remained endemic, crime out of control, improvements in agriculture neglected—all resulting in extreme poverty, bitterness, alienation, and backwardness reminiscent of third-world countries. Much of the blame for Sicily’s woes was laid at the doorstep of the government in Rome that deliberately ignored Sicily in favor of the North, which was true. But more to the point, as others have concluded, boss rule created the "peculiarities of Sicily’s political system." No wonder that when given the opportunity, at the turn of the 20th century, waves of Sicilian peasants fled the island for greener pastures across the Atlantic.
"Sicilians and non-Sicilians alike evidently found the local atmosphere unhelpful and sinister. The presence of the mafia, the relics of feudalism, the lack of a large literate class, all this was unattractive. It was easy to be bored by a world that was closed and provincial. Sicilian deputies were called to order in speaking of ‘Sicily’ and ‘Italy’ as though they were different places; northerners spoke in exactly the same way, only no one noticed. Indeed, though great numbers of Sicilians crossed the straits of Messina on military service, very few Italians knew Sicily at first hand, and this helped to accentuate the sense of isolation and inferiority." (D. Mack Smith, 1968)
Political corruption on a large scale continued well after the Second World War. The most recent prominent person indicted for consorting with the mafia is the notable and venerable seven-time Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, of the Christian Democratic Party.
"In 1990, the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti remained at the center of power, as he had throughout his nearly 50-year career. Now Andreotti stands accused of collusion with the Sicilian mafia. Prosecutors in Palermo and Perugia claim that for more than 20 years Andreotti used his power to fix organized-crime cases and met with the mafia bosses, and that he commissioned—or, at least, consented to two murders. Andreotti insists that the charges are absurd—that they are the mafia’s vendetta for his government’s firm stand against crime. A Palermo judge has ruled that Andreotti must stand trial. Over the years I can recall Italians saying with a mixture of horror and pride, ‘He’s behind everything, but he’s so smart he never gets caught.’"
"Andreotti belonged to the Christian Democratic Party. The CD turned a blind eye to the obvious infiltration of the Party in the late Forties. It happened this way. Some people in the Party approached the separatists whose backbone were the capi mafia bosses and invited them to join the national parties. The mafiosi were looking for the road to power, to secure the support they needed for their economic affairs. They weren’t criminals. They were local party potentates, neighborhood bosses, proud men of prestige, their crimes were basically economic—fraud, forgery, illegal appropriation of property—but they dislike real crime." (A. Stille, 1995)
On 30 October 2003, Italy’s highest court of appeals cleared Andreotti of ordering a mafia hit on a journalist, Carmine Pecorelli, who was gunned down on a Roman street in 1979. The verdict allowed no room for further retrial. The case was largely built around the testimony of a mafia turncoat. Was the trial just another miscarriage of justice as many others had been in the past? Some think so. In response to the verdict the chief prosecutor remarked, "For some 20 years, thanks to Andreotti’s patronage, the mafia was able to build its criminal capabilities, becoming the only organization in the world that could exercise its power over a legal state."
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