Feature Articles

November 2014

      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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�Mafia is a specific economic enterprise, an industry which produces, promotes, and sells private protection. The mafia represents this industry as it has developed in Sicily over the past 150 years. The same industry is present in different forms in other parts of Southern Italy and in other countries as well. In Sicily itself the mafia is not only brand name; it grudgingly shares the market with other groups which also deal in protection.� (Diego Gambetta, Mafia: The industry of private protection, 1993)

�When the butcher comes to me to buy an animal, he knows that I want to cheat him. But I know that he wants to cheat me. Thus we need, say, �Peppe� [That is, a third party.] to make us agree. And we pay this Peppe a percentage of the deal.�

     Peppe was selling information, which made transactions run smoothly. You could trust Peppe. He represented the guarantor of quality and payment. Peppe�s career entailed a perpetual exchange of insults, handshaking, cons and robust shoulder padding. There was simulated outrage, ritual claims of universal buddy-buddy friendships and good-old-boy friendly insults. Peppe vigorously controlled his territory. Illegality was part of the package. People like Peppe were very useful in economic exchanges. (One might say that such a function has been institutionalized in the form of lawyers.) He and his colleagues, you could say, were broadly speaking mafiosi. The Peppes wore may hats. They worked at the edges of the legitimate economy. It was this evolution of the roles played by Peppes that one might call the origin of the mafia.

     Protection is insurance. It protects your assets. It�s comforting. In another sense, it can become ominous. It is the latter that calls up images of shelter against danger imposed by a powerful �friend.� It evokes a racket in which a local strongman (backed by potential harm) forces businessmen to pay a tribute in order to not live in constant fear that he and his business will come to harm. It protects the insured from the insurer. That is the negative. The positive is that it can be a genuine commodity in an unstable political world and play a role in insuring smooth economic exchanges. It�s taxation without representation.

     Where the state is weak and corrupt the mafia can be a benefactor. Where you find mafia, you find law, social order and problem solution. As one example, statistics have shown the relatively low rates of death by drug overdose in Sicily. The mafia can control drug peddling rivals by administering mafia-type justice. The Italian judiciary supports mafiosi for their discipline. As one judge stated, �As far as I know, the mafia is an institution, a regulated and legal body, with its own rules. A criminal organization without rules is something else; it is not mafia.� To continue this line of reasoning: �The mafia is an industry that like many others is managed consistently with its own peculiar requirements and control mechanisms. It can then, thusly, be regarded as rational. If the mafia was not run efficiently, someone else would replace it.�

     Politics and mafia, it has been argued, are two powers that control the same territory. They can conflict or they can reach a peacefull compromise, each winning something. Pino Arlacchi, in his book, La mafia imprenditrice (2010), supplies an example. �Mafioso protection is a system of public taxation parallel to and more efficient than that of the state. The mayor of Palermo admitted the presence of a mafia system of protection in the city justifying it in terms of regulation of competition.� What the state can�t do the mafia supplies.

�You have informed me of a high-level political contact that permits you to engage in many big schemes, and you wish to know about my opinion. Who are these people? These days you can�t trust anybody. They could be cops, they could be infiltrators. Or big con men. I can tell you nothing.� (From a pizzino, meaning a small note, used by previous mob boss Bernardo Provenzano, while he was in hiding, to communicate to his men, in this case Salvatore Genovese, dated 1 October 1997)

     The question that you in such a position must ultimately contemplate is whether you would prefer a mafia insurance plan or one from a weak state mechanism that must get along with a longstanding criminal combine.

     Mafia protection starts as a form of extortion and morphs in penetration into politics as well as police and judiciary corruption. A criminal protection system defines the mafia as it does the Hong Kong Triads and the Yakuza. Protection tactics and goals can differ from one mob to another because they are centered in different cultural and economic environments. To not consider context leads to not grasping the criminal reality. The Sicilian mafia and in particular the Neapolitan camorra have long histories of relying on protection money to fund a host of ongoing activities, criminal and otherwise. In Montreal, Canada, as one instance, the construction industry pays a pizzo (Sicilian word), or fee, of five percent of their contracts. Protection money is outright extortion or it is viewed as the traditional manner in which business is conducted. La busta (the payoff envelope) is racketeer business talk. Viewed as a rational economic exchange, forms of protection guarantee that the protector�s promises are credible, Mafia services can be found both in legal and illegal markets. Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire and politician, bought protection both for himself and his family in a period of violence and instability in Italy.

     Palermo, Sicily: Figgy turns to me. Pete, we have a problem at the fruit place. The fruit guy wants what he has been paying for�protection. We never before gave much thought that a guy paying protection actually wants protection. The guy said he has a problem and now wants what he has been paying for. It�s a freak thing, but we have to do something or they will revolt and stop paying.

     Stefano Calzetta, a small time recruit with a Palermo family, was a spy in an eastern district of Palermo. (In Naples such street people were called mariuoli.) His job description was to cruise around by car without a precise purpose, simply to observe, to run into people by chance, and to record their movements and reactions to certain events: sitting, watching, changing vantage points, liaising, inferring, recording, revealing. Intelligence gathering is also carried out with specific tasks, notably in preparation of a killing. Vincenzo Sinaga was commissioned to spy on behalf of another Palermo family. This family had �sentenced� a man and was waiting for the first opportunity to sistemarlo (to settle an account). �Enzo told me to go around and see whether I could spot him. I took the motorbike toward Piazza Marina and spotted him on a bike. Half-hour later five bullets were pumped into this man.� Mafia justice.

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