Feature Articles

October 2009
Cosa Nostra Power In Sicily

      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 tentacles of the mafia penetrated deep into every aspect of life, including public institutions and many businesses. The evidence of the depth and breadth of penetration was overwhelming."

     Some would contend that the above quote by a Cosa Nostra observer tends to be excessively alarmist. Given that, the impact of the criminal footprint in Sicily by all signs was clear. Infiltration did not occur only through the sheer will of mafiosi. Vital were both the passiveness and evident collusion of many segments of the society.

"For historical and ethnographic reasons, Sicily for many years suffered a social vice understood with the name mafia. This vice has retarded development and has compromised its civilization." (Antonino Cutrera, La mafia e i mafiosi, 1900)

     The problem one confronts in defining organized crime is not the word crime but in the word organized. Although society in general separates certain comportments and actions as criminal, there is no standard idea on the conditions that define a criminal group as organized. The fact that an activity criminally organized is not necessarily organized crime further confounds the definitional challenge.

     Organized crime includes three components: the criminal group; its  protectors (that is, those who defend the interests of the group); the specialists (those who knowingly render services to promote the interests of the group).

     In particular, the criminal group is a continuing structure of persons that utilizes illegal methods, and violence and corruption, to earn and conserve power and profit. The group, however, becomes precisely organized crime when it reaches the threshold of power and profit, where it can avail itself of protection (on the part of public officials, businessmen, etc.) making possible the acquisition of expertise necessary to further sustain organized crime activity.

     One cannot comprehend the essence of mafia subculture without understanding that it became entrenched into the very fabric of Sicilian society. Persons from all social levels and professions colluded in one form or another to elude or corrupt the state's statutes for personal gain. Common criminality combined with white-collar crime made for a deadly combination, which together with a weak state response gave the criminal element and its allies much allowance in the pursuit of their ends.

     The mafia support system was essential for its continuity and progress over the decades. A case in point was the detailed evidence gathered on Bernardo Provenzano, the alleged capo dei capi of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, captured on 11 April 2006 after many decades on the run. Anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso: "He was protected by professionals, politicians, businessmen, law enforcers. We found all of them in our investigations. Provenzano was under the protective umbrella of his criminal colleagues and more importantly by entire sectors of society. It was not a single politician who served as his protector all those years. It was the political system."

     Cosa Nostra's contacts throughout the system were deep and lasting. There were working relationships between powerful mafia bosses and politicians at the highest levels. Businessmen, professionals, journalists, directors of public administration, and prominent police officials were on the mafia payroll. Mafiosi carefully cultivated links to various institutions to launch mutually advantageous programs. Networking by capos, both among clan leaders and outside contacts, was essential to maintaining interclan peace and a steady cash flow. Non-mafiosi became beholden to bosses as they themselves sought to network with clans that operated in their communities. Bringing various publics into play was the modus operandi by which the mafia has historically exerted social control.

     Once a clan secures territorial hegemony, it no longer needs to resort to persuasion to impose its will. The clan comes to represent another social institution like any other. The capo's presence and word are enough to engage in a business arrangement on terms favorable to him. The community comes to accept this reality; one dealt with organized crime as one dealt with anyone in the economy.

     "Our priority is to do business." In the 1990s, a massive shopping center was planned in Villabate. The local mafia pushed it through with a developer from North Italy. The clan acquired the land, resolved all bureaucratic issues and pulled all the right strings. For his efforts, the boss was in a position to structure the deal. He held all the cards. Twenty percent of the hired employees would be controlled by the boss as well as 30 percent of the office space in the complex. The boss took large kickbacks for cutting through the intricate red tape. All went according to plan until the authorities stepped in, made arrests and secured convictions of mafiosi and non-mafiosi alike. The center was never completed, a testimony to the occasionally successful counterforce to mafia power.

     Cosa Nostra's infiltration into the world of Sicilian politics has been well documented. The mafia has not had as one of it goals to replace the state. Rather, it has sought to subvert the political system for its own profit. Sicilian politicians cultivated criminals to deliver the vote at election time; by this process the mafia was able to gain access through corruptible politicians to the island's political machinery. The most significant and long-term relationship was with the Italian Christian-Democrat party, the dominant political force for a long period after the Second World war. With its demise, the bosses turned to a new party, Forza Italia!, lead by the very wealthy Silvio Berlusconi, a figure who has walked a fine line with his deal making. One informer told the authorities that "the leaders of Cosa Nostra had made contact with a very senior figure in Berlusconi's entourage, someone beyond suspicion. In exchange for their support in the elections, they received certain guarantees."

     From delivering votes for a political party, the next move for the clans was to run their own candidates and place them into the system itself. Mafiosi have been elected directly to political office in more than one jurisdiction.. Local councils in mafia strongholds have seated mafia men. As one example, in Villabate boss Nino Mandala as a councilman successfully strong-armed mafia-backed projects.

     The machinery of the Cosa Nostra power thrust has been opened to public view through investigations, and also by insiders who have confessed their misdeeds. There are those like Giorgio Riolo, a working man, who decided to become a mafia associate for the extra cash it provided. He was a government electronic surveillance technician who informed mafiosi when and where listening bugs were to be installed by the carabinieri. He received a seven-year sentence. In court, Riolo confessed that he felt "ï¿œutterly contemptible. I let myself be drawn into a world of power games, money and crime, which had nothing to do with me. I stupidly believed I could do my job and still be able to use my [mafia] contacts to build myself up and curry favor with important people." Collusion often went much deeper with greater damage when high officials went on Cosa Nostra's payroll; a prime example involved Palermo's minister of health.

     Many towns have been traditional strongholds going back several generations. One was Bagheria. "Nothing," it was declared, "moved without the mafia's say-so, because the nerve center of life in the city was a mafia bailiwick. Whole departments were completely under the control of Cosa Nostra. If a candidate for mayor did not get the go-ahead from Provenzano and his people, you can rest assured the man would never get into office. To get anything done in Bagheria, full knowledge and consent of Cosa Nostra was a necessity. Otherwise, forget it."


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