Feature Articles

February 2017
Camorristi and Mafiosi

      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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Organized crime is a structured form of associated delinquency that requires a stable organization, including enough persons to commit enough crimes to obtain, directly or indirectly, material and financial dominance to infiltrate societal institutions. Both the camorra and mafia, in recent decades, have extended their operations beyond Italy, making common cause with foreign crime groups.

     La camorra and La mafia: How do they differ? The former grew up in the big city, its origins early on, the latter with rural roots, and its nature given recognition with the founding of the Italian nation in the 1860s. Camorra earned a reputation for savagery, mafia for its stealth and infiltration into the Sicilian sociopolitical system. At first the two criminal phenomena appeared similar and thus the terms were interchangeable. It was not until late 1800s that they were seen to be separate and independent entities, reactions to dramatically varied opportunistic environmental stimuli.

La camorra and La mafia are both organized criminal groups. Meaning that they have manifested a sustaining culture, a structure, a credo, an ability to seek and exploit opportunity, and to adjust with the changing times. Born in urban Napoli, and spreading into the nearby provinces of Salerno and Caserta, camorra was first officially recognized in the 1820s as a street racketeering bunch of thieves on the docks of that seaport city, which was the major outmigration port for emigrating southern Italians, who were easy targets for street thieves. My father was one of those victims. In the Spring of 1906, at age nineteen, he arrived in Napoli with ten other fellow emigrants from his home village of Alberobello. He was relieved of his cash by an opportunistic pickpocket as he was waiting to board a ship bound for NYC, and the migrant receiving station at Ellis Island.

La camorra was a powerful presence. It is said to have evolved from the Setta Segreta (Secret Sect), characterized by a functional solidarity and mutual assistance. It had a set of initiation rites suggestive of the Massons. The Neapolitan Plebe (the masses), those at the bottom of the social scale, who were disfranchised, without voice, were always at the edge of rebellion. The plebe had to invent its own methods of ssurvival, and street racketeering was one form.

While camorra was urban, mafia had its birth in the Sicilian countryside. The two entities were products of their own realities. Mafia, by comparison, arose in a world of farm villages, Mafia was less visible, just as the Sicilians were less outgoing. Camorra displayed its colors�easily recognizable dress, a particular design of headwear. It is the difference between city folk and country folk: outgoing and inbred. We find the origin of mafia, its rise and form, as a product of a dominant agricultural system, the so-called latifondo, large agricultural estates, the soil worked by tenant farmers and the proprietor family with full control and �troops� at its disposal.

In that tight world of farm villages and low population density, a very different set of values and behavior life styles evolved, as well as different village dialects leading to a provincialism in contrast to urban life. Village identification was total and lifelong. Outward display was discouraged, Manliness was defined by a person�s ability to develop a reserved personality, to hide passion and not express weakness or doubt. Neapolitans, by contrast, were exuberant, a language expressed not only by voice but by a well-defined vocabulary of hand movements that have been well documented. City life is active, village life passive. There was one camorra while mafias functioned as �families. Generalizations can often cloud that which is complex and dynamic over time.

The concept and method of violence differed. The preference of the early mafiosi was reliance on the lupara (wolf shot gun). One could say that the camorristi had a much violent culture and that initiation into the ranks often meant spilling much blood, which involved the spirit of the dagger or stiletto. To demonstrate toughness and immunity to pain one had to engage in ritualized combat, deadly knife fights, not only to gain membership but also to demonstrate manhood, one might say a blood sport, both necessary and enjoyable.

There is this saying to consider: �A society gets the crime it deserves.� Such is all too true and perhaps too apparent, but often overlooked. The Sicilians and Neapolitans had dramatically different histories, especially in relation to the concept of Italianita�. That is, the concept of nationalism that brings together under one flag all Italians to see themselves as a unity. When Italy was formed as a nation in 1862 one prominent Italian politician had the insight to proclaim: �We have made Italy. Now we have to make the Italians.� From a bunch of city states uniting them in common cause is difficult.

Sicilians and Neapolitans never shared a heritage, a common culture or language. Each arose apart from the other. As immigrants in the Americas they developed their own colonies. Sicily has always been the renegade, an outlier, literally and figuratively. According to current official accounts, La camorra, in its diversity from La mafia has been more receptive to changing social and economic opportunities, thereby reducing the mafia to an amateur status.

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