Feature Articles

June 2008
Basilischi: The Fifth 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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     There is Cosa Nostra in Sicily, �Ndrangheta in Calabria, Camorra in Campania and Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia. A fifth mafia has been added, the Basilischi, in the region of Basilicata (also called by its former name, Lucania).

     The southern Italian region of Basilicata has a population of about 600,000 inhabitants. It borders on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the southwest and the Gulf of Taranto on the southeast. The region forms the instep of the Italian "boot." The city of Potenza is the capital and there are two provinces: Potenza and Matera. Agriculture has been the mainstay of the economy. Because of the region�s history of crushing poverty and backwardness, there has been a steady outmigration stream to foreign countries and to the cities of the north. The term "Basilischi" is derived from the region�s name.

     The Basilischi clans arose after the defeat of a small group of criminals in the cities of Potenza and Matera. During the mid-1990s, the remnants of the gangs developed a relationship with their Calabrian counterparts to bring under their control the illicit activities in the region, namely drug and arms trafficking, extortion scams, money laundering and robbery. This mafia combine was headed by Giovanni Luigi Consentino, a well-known outlaw who built his "Brotherhood" by recruiting younger generation members. There was skepticism that Basilicata, of all regions, could be seen as fertile ground for mafia pickings, albeit this possibility had been advanced by the Antimafia Commission years earlier. A series of notable arrests in 1999 demonstrated that the region was indeed not immune to organized crime infiltration.

     Crime and rebellion were hardly of little concern to the south. The area had witnessed a long and turbulent history of brigandage, wandering bands of pillagers, and death and destruction. Lucania was no exception. But that criminal past was put to rest by the late 1800s after the political unification of the Italian peninsula.

     The four Italian mafias in the other regions appeared as remote and somewhat alien phenomena to the Basilicatans. Like the historical brigandage, the concept of gang criminality was something that belonged to the rural past and did not fit the present. Brigands (and occasional explosions of peasant wrath) had their roots in the miseries of poverty and the outdated unjust postures of autocratic rulers. The mafia traditions, however, represented a different kind of criminality. Now that modernity and a measure of prosperity had come to Basilicata, associations of the mafia type and manifestations of the mafioso mentality were appearing.

     The mafias had been leaving their home bases for years. Since the 1980s �Ndrangheta made its presence known in the Puglia region, which borders Basilicata on the east, in the form of the Sacra Corona Unita, demonstrating that traditional mafias are exportable. �Ndrangheta has shown a capacity for expanding into susceptible virgin territory, founding new clans and infesting local institutions.

     Such infiltration into Basilicata, coming after the damaging earthquakes of 1980s, commenced with the region�s economic boom. It was further enhanced a decade later with the opening of a Fiat factory in the city of Melfi and the continuing development of industrial parks in Matera province.

     An interesting aside is that as the economy evolved from rural to urban, Basilicata also become the temporary home of convicted mafiosi who were sent there to serve their sentences (called soggiorni obbligati, or house arrest) with the intention of rendering them powerless by removing them from their areas of influence and control. These mafia leaders, it has been reasonable suggested, might have initially formed the nucleus of the new mafia clans. (The same phenomenon occurred in the northern cities where other mafiosi were relocated.)

     "Basilicata is at high risk," so declared mafia expert Pantaleone Sergi, in 2001. Given its squeezed geography between Puglia and Calabria, and Campania to the north, how could it not. There is "a strong presence of delinquent activity of the mafia type, tied to narcotrafficking, as evidenced by the many interclan murders." The presence of mafiosi has intensified. "Of certainty, potent clans have taken root that manifest classic mafioso cultural characteristics." These include the old standby aggressive extortions as well as illicit drug marketing, infiltration of public works and ongoing corruption of officials, but not, Sergi emphasizes, to the point of mob monopoly.

     Investigations suggest that the Basilischi phenomenon is a �Ndrangheta initiative. Pentiti (the Italian term for confidential informers) have stated that the Fifth Mafia begins with Calabria. The Morabito �ndrina (family) has interests in Basilicata. Its capobastone, or boss, is Giuseppe Morabito, nicknamed �u tiradrittu (meaning, "to continue forward"). Giuseppe was born in 1934 in the hamlet of Casalnuovo di Africo. Affiliated as a youth to the Bruzza-Palamora clan, he was first arrested in 1952 for theft and arms violations, and injury to persons.

     During the post-World War II period the Calabrians entered into the illicit drug market. When business spread beyond the region�s border into neighboring Basilicata, the local criminals expressed a willingness to enter the heroin and cocaine markets in Matera province. Not only was the Morabito �ndrina peddling goods in Basilicata, investigators uncovered the entrance also of the De Luca �ndrina of Crotona, Calabria.

     Because of Basilicata�s geographic location, the region has become transit point for contraband, flowing from east to west. That route is called la via lucana. The transportation of principally heroin, marijuana and hashish is under the domain both of local criminal units and the Albanians, who are skilled narcotraffickers and have been a growing presence in southern Italy. The Albanians export high-quality locally-grown marijuana, moving shipments through the Adriatic ports and along the via lucana through Basilicata into Calabria.

     Over the past decade the Polizia di Stato and the Italian Carabinieri have conducted operations resulting in many arrests. Interrogations of suspects have garnered a fuller comprehension of the growing problem. As one example, operation "Basilischi" bagged eighty-eight persons from six Lucania towns. What emerged is a criminal structure of the mafia-type, running drugs and arms and intimidating businessmen with the intent to extract payoffs and takeover businesses. The authorities brought to light for the first time a commingling of traffickers from Potenza and Matera provinces with the goal of consolidating a single criminal enterprise that would exert control of criminality in the region. A police undercover investigation termed "Hippos" exposed and dismembered a combine composed of elements of the Famiglia dei Basilischi and the Serraino clans, both specialists in armed robberies.

     As the so-called Fifth Mafia, the Basilischi represent a melding of Italian mafia characteristics with an evolving native criminal culture. The process of modernization in Basilicata has created opportunities for organized crime, while its geography has brought to the region an aggressive transnational trafficking network.

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