Feature Articles

September 2008
That Thing Called Cosa Nostra

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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"An association is of the mafioso type when its members commit crimes availing themselves of the force of intimidation, of the condition of domination and of omerta, with the goal of acquiring directly or indirectly the operation or controlling of economic activities, concessions, authorizations, contracts and public services or to realize illegal profits and advantages for themselves or for others, or with the aim of hindering the free exercise of the vote or to procure votes for themselves or others on occasions of elections." (The Italian legal definition of an organization of the mafia type.)

"From a single crime, know the nation." (Virgil, 70-19 B.C.)

     The mafioso mentality is not necessarily restricted to a recognizable criminal clan but is rather a way of life that pervades and envelopes commercial segments of the society. Otherwise legitimate persons take part and profit. The noted Italian social reformer Beppe Grillo was a witness to a culture of corruption as a youth. He grew up in San Fruttuoso, a lower-middle class neighborhood near the port of Genoa, in northern Italy. Everyone at the port, he recalled, was on the take. "There were smugglers who dressed in carabinieri uniforms to steal the loads of their competitors�cigarettes, coffee, bananas. The Guardia di Finanza [the police force of the finance ministry] took five percent, and another five percent went to the longshoremen, who stole from the sacks. Sealed containers hadn�t been invented yet, and merchandize was sent in sacks, so you could steal just five percent. You�d go there and see everything imaginable�drug dealers, contrabandists, whores, transvestites, everything." (New Yorker, February 4, 2008)

     Much has been written about the symbiosis of Cosa Nostra and the state. The state needs the mafia and, in turn, the mafia needs the state in order to survive and prosper.

"The relationship between Cosa Nostra and politics cannot be seen as a simple collaboration or a series of episodes that regard a few bosses and politicians and administrators, but must be seen as a result of the encounter between institutionalized crime and criminal institutions working with the state." (Umberto Santino, mafia expert)

     The mafioso credo is, "Always within the state, never openly against the state." Cosa Nostra must work from within and not upset the social equilibrium. Most of all, for mutual benefit, it must coexist with authority rather than challenge it directly. The tactic is to manipulate the state mechanism, with sufficient advantage to both parties. To that end, mafia councilors have roles both within and outside the association. Not only is there a lawyer/advisor who is inside the family�the consigliere, there is also an advisor called the consigliore, who represents mafia interests outside the association.

     The spirit of the mafia is said to reside in the state, the Church, and the culture. To the extent that that is true, the societal institutions are compromised and become mere handmaidens of Cosa Nostra. Mafia intrusion is greatest where the state is dysfunctional. The proposed solution to the weakening of mafia presence and giving back to the state the monopoly of power is to make the state work. "Where the law is uncertain" the saying goes, "there is no law."

     The actual placement of mafiosi in political offices as counselors, mayors or aldermen results in the direct acquisition of local power by mafia members, or informally through dealings with others that cooperate with Cosa Nostra.

     The linkage between the state and Cosa Nostra is best demonstrated by the mutual advantages that accrue with mafia infiltration into the political system. The mafia uses politics to carry out its business, and politics uses the mafia to reinforce its power. Thus, the state finds it necessary to protect mafiosi if the goals of political parties are to be maximized.

     Some mafia capos, like Toto Riina, were no more than criminal terrorists. The true capomafia is more like a statesman than a mere mobster. The true mafia, in this sense, resides inside the state: it doesn�t make war against the state and doesn�t create havoc, but seeks to comfortably coexist with the police, magistrates, and politicians. It is within this environment that one finds the true mafia, where mafia bosses, the capi dei capi, have their greatness, earn respect from the elite society and achieve their "nobility," which translates into the political capacity to command.

     Extortion in its various forms has long been the traditional means of earning money for organized crime. The sums extracted from citizens for "protection" might be considered small potatoes in today�s criminal markets where millions can be earned, yet it serves many vital functions for mafiadom. It Italy, the term is il pizzo, and it plays a vital role as a cash box as well as a tactic for asserting control over territory through the criminal equivalent of taxes. The neighborhood gets to understand who is running things. The funds are used to pay lawyers to represent arrested mafiosi and to give monthly subsistence payments to families whose men are imprisoned or have been killed. This assistance is both a form of social security and to ensure the continued loyalty of family members to the mafioso spirit and the code of honor and silence. The mafia finds strength and safety in omertosa, the passive mental state of omerta, and in the sacred and impregnable structure of the family, the one secure place because "only blood does not betray."

(Two pistoleeros entered the Don Camillo coffee bar in the northern Italian village of Brescello situated on the banks of the Po River. They asked the owner, Angela Angese, for two espressos, and then added a request for 1000 euros in an envelope. Rather that accede to the blatant extortion demand, Angela closed the bar and vowed not to reopen. The village mayor�s response was to demand that she unshutter the shop at once or face revocation of her license to operate. The stubborn businesswoman refused: "Two threats in the same week were too much. This is absurd.")

     Men of honor are not talkative. They speak an abbreviated language, using terse expressions that have meanings beyond the words spoken. The interlocutor, if sufficiently acute, can fill in what is inferred from the few utterances. This language of omerta, where verbosity is discouraged, is based on the essence of things. Details are not of interest to men of honor; they don�t appreciate them. The less said the better. Nor are questions encouraged. Silence is considered the golden rule of conduct, a virtue. "If all the fish in the sea kept their mouths shut, they�d never get caught," is a mob maxim. The emphatic machismo in the mafioso worldview find few males eligible for true manhood. In descending order there are uomini (men, most notably themselves), mezzi uomini (half men), uominicchi (piddling little men), and at rock bottom those beyond salvation who gab too much, the quaquaraqua (quacking ducks).

     Organized crime needs protectors and consumers. It feeds from corruptible officials and a disorganized political system. It relies on sustained enlistment whereby "stand-up guys," the seasoned members, instruct the young (who seek a place of respectability and camaraderie) about "the life we chose" and swearing unwavering loyalty to the criminal code.

     Survival of the association is a function of upholding the expectations of honor and silence. Once members break their vow that the fate of the association is more important than their individual fates, the brotherhood, which is sustained through solidarity, will not hold. The bonds that embrace each man to the others, "�till death," will unravel, and that which was a secret society, an elite subculture unto itself where there is respect among thieves, will degenerate into common criminality. No honor, no secret society, no glamour�no mafia.

     The concept of the "made man" is essential to that required solidarity. After a successful trial period, the novice who has shown promise is initiated into the association as a full-fledged member. The initiation ceremony is central to mafia culture. The ceremony is part of the "Tradition," to use Joe Bonanno�s word for "this thing of ours." Because the Tradition antedates the modern era, such initiations may seem quaint and perhaps somewhat incomprehensible to the modern viewer, especially their obvious religious underpinnings. Yet they prevail as a part of an honorable heritage, although, we suspect, in diminished form, particularly when such initiation ceremonies in the United States and Italy are compared.

     Below are descriptions of two mafia initiation ceremonies. The first of Antonino Calderone (a former Catania, Sicily, mafia boss); the second, the New York Lucchese family�s initiation of Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso in Brooklyn in 1994.

     "One evening I was driven to a village on the slope of Mt. Etna. We stopped in the courtyard of a small house. The owner was a member of the mafioso family, obviously. At a certain point Uncle Peppino Indelicato entered and said to us, �You boys stand over there,� indicating a corner of the room. �Dear young men,� he began, �we are here this evening to present to you a nice gift. You know the mafia? But look, the true mafia is not the same mafia of which others speak. This is Cosa Nostra. It is called Cosa Nostra. Now for the rules. First thing, if you ever encounter a man of honor who is on the lam, you have the obligation to hide him, even in your own house, if necessary. Woe to the person who approaches his daughter, or wife of another man of honor. He who does must be killed. Third: it is prohibited to steal. �At this point Uncle Peppino took a needle, a big one, and asked me, �Which is your shooting hand?� �With this,� I responded. He pricked a finger, causing my blood to drip onto a small picture of a sacred image. I looked at it. It was the Madonna dell�Annunziata [Our Lady of the Annunciation], the patron saint of Cosa Nostra, whose holy day falls on the 25th of March. Uncle Peppino lit a match and set aflame a corner of the sacred image asking me to hold the burning paper in my hand until it turned to ash. According to the rule, if an affiliate betrays the commandments of Cosa Nostra, he must burn like Saint Annunziata. Once the oath of allegiance was completed, all those in attendance came forward to kiss me. I had become un uomo d�onore." (From Arlacchi�s book, Gli uomini del disonore)

     "There was a wooden table in the center of the room. On it was a knife and a loaded blue-black pistol, each there to symbolize the most important tools in this trade�deadly force. Gaspipe stood at the table with the gun and knife and a picture of St. Peter. Vinny Beans intoned the oath as Casso repeated: �I, Anthony Casso, want to enter this organization to protect my family and to protect my friends.� He was then ordered to never betray the family or break his vow of silence. Casso�s trigger finger was pricked and blood dripped onto an image of St. Peter. The image was set aflame with Casso holding the burning paper until it turned to ash." (From Philip Carlo�s book, Gaspipe, 2008)

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