By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
“Cosa Nostra is always the same except that it changes its form.”
The current view of the concept “mafia” is that it conveys the meaning of not so much criminality as an organization of power. The emphasis is not only on illegal activities and monetary gains. It is one of gaining influence in community affairs; alliances and collaborations with state functionaries; infiltrating segments of the society and gaining support and protection of certain enabling segments of the population. It is a grab for power and corruption on a wide scale that endures (as compared to such single-purpose criminal enterprises as drug cartels) because it is a combination of high and low racketeering deeds.
New York City mobster Joseph Valachi, an FBI informant, introduced during his testimony, in the early 1960s, the phrase “La Cosa Nostra” (“Our Thing”) to refer to Italoamerican organized crime. The phrase (which could have been a mere invention or at least not an established term) quickly caught on and became a part of the daily vernacular. By the 1990s, the Italians had adopted a variation, “Cosa Nostra” (more grammatically correct, we are told) to refer to the modern Sicilian organized crime, to replace the now outdated “mafia,” which had gone generic, well beyond definition and the shores of Sicily.
The Calabrian ‘ndrangheta phenomenon (also referred to at various times Famiglia Montalbano, Onorata Societa’, Picciotteria) refers to gangsterism in the foot of the Italian boot. A mixture of elements, not a single body, its influence has spread into the provinces of Vibo Valentia, Catanzaro, Crotone and to a degree into Cosenza.
Presently, the ‘ndrangheta stands out as one of the most potent crime phenomena in Italy, expanding its reach into Canada and other European nations. In Calabria at least 150 clans (called cosche or ‘ndrine) have been documented with some 6000 affiliates, many based on long-standing family ties. These cosche have been able to impose their will in the economic sector, drawing profits from money laundering and by infiltrating into commercial and agricultural markets, with the connivance of local and regional racketeering administrators.
The Neapolitan camorra has remained a very active presence in the region of Campania going back before the unification of Italy in 1862. Originating in Naples, in recent decades it has grown with the expansion of the metropolitan area and beyond. As a primarily extortion racket it was known as the Bella Societa’ Riformata. The terms mafia and camorra were in the late 1800s at first used interchangeably. Was mafia an offshoot of the other? No. The two were not the same. Each reflected their different environments and histories: mafia with village roots, camorra an urban phenomenon. The camorra structure has more complexity being composed of many diverse clans with fragile structures, resulting in much power posturing and interclan rivalry.
The word camorra signals a type of mentality fully visible not only in Campania but also generally in the Italian south. The ingrained cultural characteristics parallel the oft-cited mafia mentality of an overbearing provincialism with an imbedded distrust of authorities and outsiders. There are working-class camorra-dominated neighborhoods in Naples that clearly are delinquent breeding grounds with an “F*** you” worldview; territorial enclaves that are no-go zones for the police, neatly summarized by the following: Non vedo non sento non parlo—I don’t see. I don’t hear. I don’t talk.
One can add to the mix La Sacra Corona Unita, in the southern region of Puglia, at the toe of Italy, which in recent years has become an increasing presence thanks to its ties to Albanian counterparts across the Adriatic Sea. They partner in trafficking of drugs, arms, stolen cars—whatever is salable at the moment on the black market. This a far cry from the racketeering of previous decades when a major product was knock-off American cigarettes, manufactured in Turkey, openly sold by little old ladies at temporary street stands at deep discount.
Crime bosses and racketeering were present in Puglia before the appearance of La Sacra Corona Unita. It is believed that the official founding of the LSCA occurred in 1981, when Giuseppe Rogoli, , an affiliate of the ‘ndrina of Belloco, while in the Trani prison in Puglia, “baptized,” or consecrated as in a religious sacrament, a group of select inmates. Puglia was open territory. As a result, and the picture appears complicated, both the camorra and the ‘ndrangheta saw opportunities to infiltrate and perhaps absorb into their ranks the pugliese racketeering structures already in place, which inspired the term Nuova camorra pugliese. In the phrase LSCA, Sacra due to the fact that the new member of the organization is baptized, or consecrated, as in a religious sacrament; that Corona indicates the use of the Rosario (Rosary); and Unita because the affiliates are united and strong as are the links of a chain.
The Corona is the prayer offered to the Virgin Mary. The historical connection is the religious festival in the first Sunday of October in remembrance of the victory of the Christians over the Turks (Muslims) in the sea battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571. The two fleets met off Lepanto, Greece. This Christian victory was of historic importance because it prevented the Turks from gaining supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea.
What mafia? Camorra is most likely a blanket term for warring Neapolitan gangs that recognize no common identity. Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia, despite its creation by convicts, has never become an actual criminal combine. One should be suspect of a continuing need to create overarching concepts that strive to simplify a number of seemingly common parts. The belief in a mafia l’onorata societa’ (the honored society) or the mafia Cupola, mafia hierarchy, may be giving too much emphasis to what has been mere gangsters, village bigwigs and racketeers brought together under a single rubric. Reality is always multidimensional.
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