The Sicilian mafia originated during the rule of the Bourbons. In a society where the state existed merely to collect taxes and preserve the privileges of the nobility and the large landowners, justice was a matter for individuals, and the mafioso (“man of honor”) who would defend his family’s property and avenge insults to the family name or its women became the most respected man in his community. According to the Italian scholar Pino Arlacchi, mafiosi passed through two stages in their social development. In the first, “anomic” stage, they established themselves as men to be feared by virtue of their ferocity in conducting vendette. Thereafter they performed the role of government in the small village or the neighborhood in which they lived. The mafioso and his “family” or “clan” of friends provided protection from thieves and bandits, punished social deviants, and acted as mediators, patching up quarrels over seduced daughters and marriage dowries before they led to bloodshed. They brooked no interference and dealt brutally with informers, giving rise to the phenomenon known as omerta, which prohibits collaborating with “outsiders,” that is, the Italian state or its judiciary or police. Men of honor were courted by the political class, especially after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1912. Becoming a “man of honor” could arguably be seen as a dangerous form of social mobility, a way for the most ruthless peasants to emerge as social leaders. Benito Mussoliniwaged war on the mafia clans after his accession to power in 1922. Thousands of Sicilians, whether or not proven to be mafiosi, were arrested and sent into internal exile. The arrival of the Allies in 1943, however, gave the leading mafia bosses a new lease on life. Assuming that imprisoned mafiosiwere antifascists, the British and American armies released and even gave political responsibilities to well-known men of honor. Italy’s postwar economic miracle reduced the power of the traditional mafia. Fewer young Sicilians were tempted into becoming men of honor, and the (relative) modernization of social and sexual mores and customs meant that the clans lost their mediating function. The word “mafia” increasingly became associated with criminal gangs trafficking in contraband cigarettes and, from the 1970s onward, drugs. The Italian state fought these gangs with zeal. By the end of the 1960s, Sicily was a more law-abiding place than at any previous time in its modern history.
   Three factors saved the mafia from extinction. First, the economic miracle came to an end in the 1970s. Second, the gangs became entrepreneurs and used the proceeds from their illicit activities to buy up large sections of the economy of southern Italy, especially in low-technology construction, agriculture, tourism, and transport. Aside from providing services that are illegal, such as prostitution, intimidation of competitors, and contract-rigging, the mafia’s activities include legitimate businesses and investments, particularly in construction industries. Third, the degeneration of the Italian political class allowed the mafia to regain its influence over the political process: In exchange for votes, the politicians funneled public works contracts to companies beholden to—if not owned by—the mafia. In exchange for campaign funds and the delivery of votes, political figures offered protection against investigation and a share of public contracts.
   It is no exaggeration to say that by the 1980s political life in three southern Italian regions—Campania, Calabria, and Sicily—was heavily influenced by local crime bosses. Politicians who crossed the leading clans, such as Piersanti Mattarella, the president of the Sicilian regional government, were brutally murdered, as was a grisly list of judges and policemen. The early 1980s also saw the emergence of the Corleonesi. Led by Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, they exterminated the older clans. In Naples and Calabria (where the criminal gangs are known as the Camorra and the ’ndrangheta, respectively), the domination of the political-criminal elite was arguably even more complete. Earthquake relief funds, together with the profits to be made in narcotics dealing, added further to the sums at stake and contributed to the viciousness of the struggle among rival clans for dominance. The Italian state’s fight against the mafia was led by a determined prosecutor, Giovanni Falcone, who persuaded several mafia associates to break the ancient code of omertaand turn state’s evidence (the so-called pentiti). A huge trial of literally hundreds of gangsters between 1984 and 1987 (the so-called maxiprocesso) concluded in a personal triumph for Falcone and the imposition of 19 life sentences. Despite this triumph, the antimafia judges and policemen of southern Italy were denied the political backing that they needed to prosecute the battle efficiently. By the early 1990s, lawlessness had reached unprecedented levels. In February 1992, Salvo Lima, a Palermo boss politician close to Giulio Andreotti, was gunned down. His death was widely seen as an admonition to the political class. Later in the same year, Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino were murdered by car bombs. The Italian state at last acted with vigor. The heads of the Corleonesi, including Toto Riina, were hunted down in 1993, as the collapse of the Democrazia Cristiana/Christian Democracy Party (DC) robbed the gangs of their political protection. Riina was eventually sentenced to 11 life sentences. Although there have been intermittent cases of alleged political collusion between politicians and the mafia in Sicily and Naples since the mid-1990s, and although the use of pentiti in trials has provided increasingly dubious results, notably in the case of Andreotti, it is fair to say that the Italian state has restored much of its authority.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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