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Feature Articles


October 2007
Rural Sicilian Mafia

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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     The first Sicilian mafia, the rural mafia, also known as the Tradition, arose before the unification of Italy in the 1860s. The conditions of the island fostered its genesis: It was a time of foreign domination and official indifference, especially to the interior of the isle, corruption, alienation and chronic impoverishment. Power and protection of property and person were crucial issues. When General Garibaldi and his red-shirt volunteers first stepped upon Sicilian soil, in 1860, to liberate the island from the Bourbons, the mafia responded to a new era.

     The mafia took root within the context of a society of limited governance and lack of the concept of progress; it remained a backward society relative to the rest of Italy. The result was a turning inward of the populace, rejecting the State as the guiding principle and accepting the extended family and immediate community as supreme, and places of refuge. Confidence in the State and loyalty to the State had always been problematic in Sicilian history. Sicily was a society in which daily injustices were the norm, and in which the accumulation of wealth in a few hands and miseria—the extreme poverty and hopelessness of the multitude—had become institutionalized. The reactionary elite feared reform while the landless yearned for ownership, self-respect and upward mobility. But for the latter the future was as bleak as the present; the island was mired in a time warp of an archaic feudal economy and culture.

     In this predominately agrarian population, ten percent of Sicilians were composed of a propertied upper class. These were absentee landlords who lived in the cities while overseers managed their plantations. Along with public officials, merchants and the church hierarchy, they represented the privileged classes, with little fear of going without. The majority--an assemblage of the illiterate and semi-literate, fishermen, sulfur workers, small shop owners and farmers, sharecroppers and field hands-- represented the disfranchised, with little expectation that their lot in life would noticeably change for the better.

     Under such circumstances, survival meant creating their own subculture to gain control over their own lives and to devise their own means of employment, justice and a form of self-governance. It is from these needs that we see the rise of the rural mafia in the villages as certain families gained control of village life and were able to establish and maintain their own form of governance.

     Peasant unrest and bursts of violence were a constant threat to the well-to-do. They had much to lose and were in dire need of protection. Travel was hazardous and bandits numerous. Especially unpredictable were the so-called cafoni, a pejorative term indicating the wretched underclass destined to work the soil for starvation wages, which were always on the edge of rebelling against their sad status. When aroused these lost souls were capable of frightful savagery. To cite one occasion, as the Bourbon soldiers retreated in disorder before Garibaldi’s army, passing through one village the Bourbon stragglers were ambushed by its citizens, their farm implements poised to wreak havoc on their oppressors. The barbarity was so complete that even the veteran General Garibaldi was shocked at the sight of the dismembered and mangled corpses; a veritable abattoir, he noted.

     Thus it was for good reason that mafiosi were recruited to defend private property against the intrusions of the dangerous classes. The mafia was regimented and capable, unlike the Bourbon police that could not be trusted to maintain the peace. So the task was given over to persons who would impose their own codes of law and order, with lethal and immediate force if necessary. Who was to stop them? The effectiveness of mafia justice was seen when a herd of cattle was stolen from a large farm, in 1858, by a crew of brigands. (Cattle-rustling—abigeato—was a common means of earning quick cash in rural Sicily.) The cattle were butchered in a nearby forest with the beef to be sold in the Palermo markets. The outraged farmer approached the district capomafia and demanded justice. A few days later the thieves were found shot dead and laid out in execution style, their hands bound behind their backs. They had been rounded up and giustiziato (executed) by a firing squad composed of the farmer’s employees, who were affiliates of the local mafia clan.

     That kind of swift frontier justice was preferred by many. Mafia efficiency, from the beginning, imposed two rules. The first was death for all crimes, and the second a tight-lipped silence and secrecy. From its initial function of the protection of goods and property of the gentry, and certain services to common folk, the mafia extended its reach to other economic affairs until the Tradition was able to reach into the State mechanism itself, enabling the manipulation of political power for others and itself.

     As the phenomenon evolved into the 20th century, the concept of mafia began to spread into the emerging middle class. This new breed of capimafia, the so-called white-collar mafiosi, was found among lawyers, magistrates, doctors, farmers and parliamentarians. The mafia spirit was so apparent in the judiciary that, as one example, of the 142 homicides committed in Palermo in 1899 not one person was brought to justice. The regional government brushed aside the statistic, declaring, "The situation of public order in Sicily is not dissimilar from the rest of the nation." Criminal crackdowns did occur, but overall denial of the "Sicilian Question" usually led to pro forma debates and no sustained action beyond committee reports. The one exception was the punishing Fascist campaign against the mafia in the late 1920s, and even that effort was limited.

     One of the most colorful capos of the rural mafia era was Calogero "Zu Calò" Vizzini (1877-1947), the patriarchal and autocratic mayor of a modest village in the sparsely populated Sicilian interior, Villalba. In outward appearance Vizzini belied what he represented. A photo of him in middle age reveals a type common to that period seen in village piazzas throughout the Italian south: a slovenly dressed peasant without a scintilla of sophistication. One observer described Zu [uncle] Calò as "a man of small stature, with almost white hair, a protruding belly, always dressed in black, with a black tie, black shoes and a black cap." He spoke the local dialect only. Though illiterate and culture-bound he proved to be one of the shrewdest, if not always the smoothest, of the Sicilian capimafia. ("Peasant shrewdness" was a phrase often employed to describe the peasant mentality.) Outwardly, his demeanor was paternalistic, earning him the sobriquet Buonanima—gentle soul, which of course he was not. By contrast, another capo of the period, Don Vito Cascio Ferro, also of humble origins, became a fashion plate and chum of Palermo notables.

     While his brother took to his books and became a priest, Calogero was not at ease in the classroom and quickly took his leave. His peasant father married into a family a step-up socially from his own. In doing so, he improved his standing and prospects in a community of underemployed day laborers and sharecroppers by acquiring through his wife’s dowry a plot of farmland. (In that world social status was important and clear distinctions were understood among the sharecropper, the landless peasant, and the landowning peasant farmer.)

     In western Sicily there were many villages like Villalba, most of them remaining under the yoke of servitude. In his study, Honored Society, Norman Lewis placed these village populations into a functional context: "Their purpose was to breed and house the labor for the great feudal estates, and to condition the minds to subjugate the bodies of that labor. The absentee landlord may still rule from his palace in Palermo, through his stewards and armed guards, but more commonly he will have leased his estate for a number of years to a gabellotto [in this sense, meaning foreman, estate manager] who is traditionally mafioso and who will not work the land himself but parcel it out to sharecropping small farmers on the most extortionate terms he can impose."

     As a delinquent teenager Calogero was already demonstrating a penchant for single-mindedness and vengeance. He joined a group of outlaws and became its capobandito. At age 21 he was detained on a murder charge and later released for "insufficiency of proof." This juridical phrase meant that those who had initially come forward as witnesses either went missing or recanted previous incriminating testimony.

     By 1914, Zu Calò was the uncontested mafia chief in the province of Caltanissetta. He was the "Big Shot," a pezzo di novanta, a term deriving from a siege artillery piece that launched a 90 millimeter shell.

     The advent of Fascism after the First World War and Benito Mussolini’s war against the Sicilian people put a crimp into Calogero’s career path. There is an interesting anecdote from those days that some claim might have elements of truth and was in keeping with his parochialism.

     Don Calogero Vizzini was friends of deputies, senators and ministers. Their ambitions depended upon strategically placed capimafia like the Don to deliver the votes, which they did, with reciprocation expected. This was heady stuff for Villalba’s favorite mayor. Setting his sights beyond the village, Calogero got a little carried away with his sense of self-importance and asked for an audience with Prime Minister Mussolini. He had a statement of importance to deliver to Il Duce.

     Calogero was received by Mussolini in the Sala del Mappamondo, a large room with a world map on the wall in front of which sat his eminence at an elevated desk. In walks this "small mysterious man dressed in black, with his hat on and wearing a new pair of squeaky shoes."

     Il Duce looked perplexed. Don Vizzini spoke: "Baciamo le mani. ["We kiss your hands;" a salutation of respect in Sicily to a person above your rank.] I am the head of the mafia. Your highness should not be preoccupied with Sicily. We will see to it that all Sicilians will become fervent fascists, for we command there!"

     The dictator was not amused. After a few seconds to recover, he summoned the captain of the Carabinieri, and said, "Arrest this man. Take him to an uninhabited island. And arrest everyone in his village that dwells within a half kilometer from his house!" Buonanima disappeared from circulation and a week later a large squad of Carabinieri and police emptied the village of Villalba of fifty percent of its population.

     The Fascist crackdown on the mafia in the 1920s resulted in thousands of arrests and the displacement of many civilians. Some mafiosi fled Sicily while others were found guilty of mafia association. Calogero Vizzini was sent into confino and released after five years by the intervention of a highly place Fascist official who had in the past become indebted to Calogero for offering him protection in a time of need. (Confino is a traditional form of punishment that obliges one to a forced stay for a period of time somewhere in the country, such as one of the Italian islands, or a remote village, that is removed from the home residence.)

     The following was a statement attached to the Villalba village church door, on 11 July 1954, to commemorate the death of Carlò Vizzini, mafioso and member of the Christian-Democrat political party:

"Calogero Vizzini, with the qualities of a genius, rose above the fate of his humble origins, sagacious and dynamic, never faltering, he saw after the welfare of those who worked the soil and the sulfur mines, always for their benefit, and developed a reputation highly prized in Italy and abroad. Through his travails, which he transcended, always smiling, and today with the peace of Christ in the majesty of death, from his friends and adversaries he received the most sincere affirmation. He was a gentleman. An enemy of all injustices, he demonstrated by his words and actions that the mafia is not delinquency, but respect of the law of honor, protection of every right, and the glory of the spirit. He was love."


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