Feature Articles

July 2007
Mafia Bianca:
White-Collar 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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Palermo, Sicily. "The health business is a growth industry and the mafia has taken the initiative in investing in private hospitals. They are similar to the public hospitals that are financed by the Italian regional governments. Sicily has 1800 private hospitals, more than any other Italian region. Because the public hospital system functions badly, an increasing number of patients seek care in the private sector. The proprietors of the private hospitals are unknown and the quality of care is questionable." (La Stampa, 4 May 2007)

     The prevailing need in Sicily historically was protection�protection against the sudden attacks of invaders or a revolting peasantry, against sudden and unwarranted demands of government officials or even against the legal but too onerous extortions of the rulers. The protection that the government normally furnished could no longer obtain. People needed protection wherever it could get it, and pay the price demanded for it. Given the failure of government to perform one of its most primary duties lead to conditions that created in Sicily associations of persons with reciprocal interests (mafia clans) that pursued such interests with no consideration of laws, fairness, the public welfare or order, except their own. As the sociologist Napoleone Colajanni noted in his analysis of the origins of the "Society of Men of Honor," "It was the only means available to the humble folk, the disfranchised, to gain respect and be feared."

     Since the 1860s the Sicilian mafia has passed through three stages: the rural mafia (1860-1946); the urban mafia(1946-1977); and Cosa Nostra international (since 1977).

"Cosa Nostra is the most important mafia organization in Europe and among the most important in the world. It has a paramilitary hierarchical structure and precise rules of comportment. It exercises a sovereign territorial function and imposes an illegal fiscal tax, the so-called pizzo. Its principal home bases are in Sicily (Palermo, Trapani, Marsala, Agrigento, Catania), and has ramifications, beyond those in many Italian regions, in the United States, in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, and Russia. There are about 5000 affiliates and at least 20,000 fiancheggiatori [supporters or co-conspirators]." (An excerpt from an official Italian report, no date.)

     In past years Cosa Nostra has been called the "invisible mafia," an expression suggesting the idea of a non-existent mafia or one that is less forceful than previously.

     There were the bloody years of the 1980s and early 1990s. Mafiosi came out into the open to express their will and the result was a noticeable public awakening to the mafia menace and a resulting crackdown by the authorities. The mafia was dealt deadly blows with a series of arrests, well-publicized mass trials, and harsh prison sentences of both noted capos and rank and file mafiosi. The remaining bosses learned quickly that there could no longer be business as usual. The clans were thinning and large numbers of the criminals were ignoring the traditional code of omertà, which kept the ranks in line and from turning state�s evidence. Violence was becoming an outmoded tactic; it was time now to reconstruct the organization (into Cosa Nostra) and formulate fruitful relations with the legitimate society rather than resorting to sledgehammer tactics.

     Open mafia actions to force its will have lost appeal as a gut-level response to threat because it produces a public-opinion backlash and gives life to anti-mafia and anti-racket social movements. A low profile decreases exposure whereas visibility increases negative press coverage and general condemnation. "If the mafia does not shoot, the mafia does not exist," expresses the notion well. The word "mafia" comes to mind and engages the public�s attention whenever citizens are brutally assassinated, and its arrogance becomes a national disgrace when these persons are high ranking public servants, especially those who have become charismatic and carry the affections of the public for their selfless service. Previous mafia deniers, of which there have been many in Sicily, turn into advocates for radical political reform and uprooting official corruption among mafia fiancheggiatori.

     A popular Sicilian point of view has been that the mafia phenomenon is a fixture in Sicilian culture, one that engages in a multiplicity of activities, with a complex structure and has a reason for being. The anti-mafia law of 1982 defined a mafia-type association as a "secret association whose members avail themselves of the force of intimidation through group solidarity, under the condition of omertà, to commit crimes, acquire directly or indirectly the operation and control of economic activities, of concessions, of authorizations, contracts and public services or in order to realize profits or take illegal advantages for itself or for others."

     The mafia is many things, its various aspects converging upon corruption, criminality, the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of political clout; a subculture with its own governing norms and an organic solidarity and consensus. Mafiosi do not function in a social vacuum; they blend in to such an extent that it is not apparent that they are any different than anyone else. Is that person a true and proper mafioso or a co-conspirator who operates in the shadows? Who knows? Such people are found at all social class levels, in the professional, business and political spheres. They are part of the entrepreneurial mafia, what has been called the mafia bianca, an essential component in the criminal network, a supporting wing that blends seamlessly into the middle and upper-middle classes. (The concept is not new; even the rural mafia had its fiancheggiatori among the propertied classes.)

Palermo, Sicily. "The president of the region of Sicily, Salvatore Cuffaro, is accused of aggravated favoritism and violation of his office by the Procura of Palermo on the basis of testimony by mafia state�s witness Maurizio Di Gati, a former member of the Agrigento mafia clan, who was arrested in November of 2006. Di Gati testified that two mafia bosses, Domenico Virgo and Leo Sutera, told him, �Everyone in Cosa Nostra, all of them, voted for Cuffaro in the 2001 regional elections. I was told that if we help Cuffaro win the election that we would have no problems with anything regarding jobs. We could slip into positions�and then I was told that regarding the Public Health Service there would be no problems.� Leo Sutera, who has been incarcerated since 2002 on charges of mafia association, is a former lecturer at the Technical Institute of Palermo." (Adnkronus, 12 June 2007)

     Mafiosi do not typically hold the technical expertise, the necessary education, to successfully direct complex projects without the cooperation of "associates" within the community. These associates�corrupt bankers, administrators, technicians, etc.�are complicitous, a party to the infiltration of mafia influence in an activity, whether it be money laundering, subverting a port�s facilities, fixing elections or complex extortion scams.

     Mafia participation in the area of public works, one of its favorite targets, has been profitable because of the existence of fiancheggiatori civil servants and those who control contracts and work sites. An anti-mafia investigation in 1993 warned of a "cohabitation" between organized crime and politicians, a cozy in-bed arrangement that has existed from the time of the rural mafia clans. Several prominent politicos have been suspected or accused of mafia association. Although adequate evidence has often proven weak and convictions few, there can be little doubt that the mafia bianca is more than just a hypothetical construct. The mafia/mafia coconspirators nexus has been essential to the survival and success of the Sicilian mafia.

     If the mafia bianca is a reality and such an operational nexus exists (in both the political and commercial spheres), than the nexus is positioned inside of Sicilian society as an institutional structure. To take Umberto Santino�s statement, Cosa Nostra satisfies all the characteristics of a political institution: it influences norms of behavior; has a territorial dimension; the ability to apply persuasion; and in a position "to assure the observance of the norms and to exercise coercion." The one conclusion to draw from this argument is that mafia is an embedded societal feature. That is what a government minister meant when he remarked, "Bisogna convivere con la mafia." ("We have to coexist with the mafia.")


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