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The Mafia under the magnifying glass

Do we find the roots of the Sicilian mafia in medieval Spanish occupation or among English sailors' lemon eating in the 1800th century? Two new books are looking for answers.


It is early in the morning, May 9, 1978. Police in the Sicilian city of Cinisi are notified by some railway workers that the railroad is damaged. They find that a charge of dynamite has blown away about 50 centimeters of the railroad tracks and the badly decorated body of 30-year-old left-wing activist Giuseppe "Peppino" Impastato. The clothes and the body are spread over a radius of 300 meters, and only the legs, parts of the face and a few fingers are recognizable.

A left fanatic's suicide

Police quickly conclude that the death was a terrorist suicide attack. Despite Cinisi being a notorious mafia island stronghold and Peppino for years had openly fought against the mafia. Despite witnesses finding traces of torture at the scene and banners such as "Peppino murdered by the mafia" carried in the victim's order. The possibility of his murder was not even included in the investigators' views. "Left-wing fanatic blows in small pieces of his own bomb on the railroad tracks," concluded the conservative Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Peppino's friends and family did not give in, as they were adamant that he was executed by the Cinisi Mafia. The fight eventually yielded results: In 1984, investigating judges concluded that Peppino became murdered by the mafia. In 2000, a commission of inquiry concluded that the deaths were treated as sloppy and insensitive, and that investigators helped the killers make the deaths look like suicide. And in 2002, Mafia boss Tano Badalementi received a life sentence for ordering the murder.

The story of Peppino is one of the key narratives in Cosa Nostra. The story of the Sicilian mafia, the book in which the British historian and journalist John Dickie dissects the mafia over almost 400 pages. Now the book is published in Norwegian, and here Dickie depicts the bloody story of the mafia's origins and development, at the same time as he strips the mafia of all the myths about honor, family unity, solidarity and respect. The story of Peppino is extra heartbreaking because he grew up in a family with long mafia traditions, and his transition to left-wing politics and anti-mafia work was also a solid revolt against the family and everything it stood for. The image of the young Peppino holding his father's hand in a street photo taken in Cinisi in 1952 runs like a red thread through the book, and the photograph itself brings to life the suit-dressed gangster glamor we know from Goodfaren, Reservoir Dogs og The Sopranos. But with the fate of Peppino as a background, the image loses its luster. Just as Dickie painstakingly picks apart the glamorous mafia myths throughout the book. "The honor presupposes that a mafioso must put Cosa Nostra's interests above those of the family," Dickie writes, and then tells how Peppino's father has long tried to prevent the murder of his son. But when he himself died in a car accident, which was probably arranged, it was free before the execution of Peppino six months later.

A shadow state

Cosa Nostra is like a character assassination on the mafia. Dickie deals with the romantic mafia myths we know from film, TV and fiction with a steady hand, and further describes how the Sicilian mafia has for years infiltrated Italian politics, church and business. "On film, the world of the mafia is a world where the conflicts everyone knows (between the competing demands of ambition, responsibility and family) become a matter of life or death ( gruesome reality, "writes Dickie.

Many a politician and priest gets his passports stamped, and Dickie believes the priests have overlooked the mafia's evil influence because it apparently cultivates the same values ​​as the Church: reverence, humility, tradition and family. And this week, Dickie gave a lecture in Oslo, which gave a solid indication that the mafia problem is by no means out of the world. He spoke about how Senator Marcello Dell'Utri was recently found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison for "external cooperation with the mafia", in a role as a contact person between the mafia and entrepreneurial and financial circles in Milan – especially the Fininvest group. The latter dominates the television market in Italy, and is controlled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The most frightening thing was not that a politician was once again arrested for collaborating with the mafia, but that the news was overlooked by the media. This inability to take the mafia problem seriously runs like a dark shadow throughout the book.

But what is the mafia, or Cosa Nostra, as the mafiosi themselves call the organization? And what sets it apart from other organized crime in Italy, such as the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia, 'ndrangheta in Calabria and camorra in Naples? "No other illegal company in Italy is nowhere near as powerful, as well-organized or as successful as the mafia," Dickie writes, continuing with the following definition: "The Sicilian mafia seeks power and money by cultivating the art of killing people and escaping. that, and by organizing itself in a unique way that combines what characterizes a shadow state, illegal business and a company as secret as the Freemasons (…) The protection money they push people for, is for a mafia family the same as the taxes are for a legitimate government . »

The lemon mafia

But how did this secret brotherhood come about? Dickie draws the lines back to the middle of the 1800th century, when increased world trade led to economic recovery in Sicily, among other things strongly influenced by the British Royal Navy in 1795 began to feed their crews with lemons in the fight against scurvy. In addition, the English began to perfume their Earl Gray tea with bergamot oil, which is extracted from another citrus fruit. In 1834, more than 400 boxes of lemons were exported from Sicily, while by the mid-000s it had increased to 1880 million boxes – to New York alone.

Palermo was the center of this profitable business, and Dickie writes that the mafia did not arise from poverty and isolation, but on the contrary from power and wealth. The mafia sold protection and violence, and since then the mafia has always been lured to growth industries where money is loose. Whether it is legal industries such as sulfur extraction, concrete industry or the export of wine, cheese and olive oil or illegal activities such as kidnapping and smuggling of cigarettes, opium and heroin.

By the end of the 1800th century, Sicily had become the home of the violent industry. "Violence was an essential asset for any business, and the ability to use force was as important as having capital to invest," Dickie writes.

The criminal environment in Sicily became a sect when the toughest and smartest bandits came together to specialize in this violent industry. They brought with them family members, business contacts and other criminals, and the sect was formed mafia when the newborn Italian state awkwardly tried to suppress it. "By the mid-1870s, the main components of the mafia method were safely in place, at least in the Palermo area. The mafia pushed money for protection, it had powerful political friends, it had the cell structure, the name and the rituals, and it had an unreliable state as a competitor. "

The Knights of the Land

This unreliable state is the backbone of the Swedish journalist Tomas Lappalainen's book Mafia, in which he describes the Sicilian mafia as a counterpart to the Scandinavian welfare state. The book feels like a light starter compared to Dickie's filling main course, but especially at one point the two authors differ. Dickie takes a strong stand against what he calls the myths that the mafia is not an organization, but a defiant feeling of pride and honor that is deeply rooted in every Sicilian's identity. Lappalainen, on the other hand, digs into Sicilian history, and comes to conclusions that Dickie will sneer at.

Lappalainen traces the threads all the way back to the Arab and Spanish dominance in southern Italy in the Middle Ages. "For more than any other word, 'mafia' came to denote features of Sicilian society that were incompatible with the modern state formation that Italy was trying to realize," he writes, referring to researchers who have highlighted the mafia as a cultural form, way of being and worldview. In this worldview, the Sicilian mafia was a substitute for the state, made possible by poor infrastructure and centuries of occupation. He also points to a strong individualism and lack of collectivism in southern Italy, and so he goes in the opposite direction of Dickie – who does his best to crush the idea that the mafia has something to do with the Sicilian mindset.

Of course, it is impossible to say who is right here, but personally Dickie's approach feels like the most fruitful. If you are going to fight the mafia, you cannot criminalize an entire people. The murdered judge Giovanni Falcone thought it was important to avoid confusing organized mafia crime with mafia mentality, and thought one could have the latter without being a criminal. Lappalain's book is highly interesting and readable, but the author is close to whipping up crime and mentality when he delves as much into Sicilian history, language, culture and proverbs as he does. That is why I give Dickie the last word: “Sicilian culture has been mixed with for far too long mafia ('mafia hat'), and this mixture has served the interests of organized crime. Countless writers have chewed on the same, misguided argument, namely that centuries of invasions have made Sicilians suspicious of outsiders, so that they naturally prefer to settle disputes between themselves without involving the police or the courts.

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