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CRIMINAL POWER AT ITS STRONGEST

Blood brotherhoods: A history of Italy’s three mafias By John Dickie, Public Affairs, $35

It happened a long time ago when “three Spanish knights landed in the island of Favignana... off Sicily.” Called Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso they were fugitives as they fled Spain after “washing the crime in blood”. One of their sisters had been raped by a Spanish nobleman. Thus rape and revenge laid the foundation of the history, legacy and notoriety of the three Italian mafias which established bases in Sicily, Naples and Calabria. They are better known as the Sicilian mafia (or the Cosa Nostra), Camorra and ’Ndrangheta respectively.

Understandably these three fugitive Spanish knights found a safe, new place (Italy), from where they could channel their “sense of injustice” into creating a new code of conduct and a new form of fraternity which gave birth to “refined rules of the Honoured Society”. The mafias of Italy arrived from the shores of Spain and they took their mission out into the world. It has been a “hooey story” yet serious and sacramental.

Through violence, these mafias have corrupted Italy’s institutions, drastically curtailed the life-chances of its citizens, evaded justice and set up their own alternatives to the courts. These killers, over the years, have developed into a “parallel ruling class in southern Italy”. They infiltrated the police, the judiciary, local councils, federal government ministries, and the economy of the state. In spite of tall claims of anti-mafia stand and use of ruthless force against them, the fascists and their leader, Mussolini, vanished from the scene after two decades of misrule but the mafias managed to survive and thrive through infiltration into the fascist bastion under the guise of loyal and sincere camp followers.

Even today, there are areas in Italy where “criminal power is strongest”, and “constitutes nothing short of criminal regime”. Thus, as late as 2008, the consul general of United States of America in Naples had this to report to his government on Calabria: “The ’Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate controls vast portions of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least three per cent of Italy’s GDP (probably much more) through drug trafficking, extortion and usury... No one believes the central government has much, if any control of Calabria, and local politicians are seen as ineffective and/or corrupt. If Calabria were not part of Italy, it would be a failed state.”

Although Italy is and has always been a deeply troubled society, the mafias have neither existed nor operated in isolation. All the three mafias have invoked and followed a code of honour and have called themselves the “Honoured Society”. Thus the history of organized crime in Italy is as much about Italy’s weakness as it is about the mafias’ strength.

Thus when Emanuele Notarbartolo, the Director General of Bank of Sicily and freedom fighter who fought along with Garibaldi in 1860, was stabbed to death on a train heading for Palermo on February 1, 1893, his son Leopoldo, in search of truth and justice, met the prime minister of Italy, Marquis di Rudini, and pleaded for justice for his father’s brutal murder. Rudini’s reply was curt, jocular and chilling: Leopoldo should find a good mafioso, pay him well, and let him take care of his father’s killer.

Uditore, a small village of around 800 people, saw more than 34 murders in 1874, “as rival mafia factions fought for a monopoly over lucrative business of ‘protecting’ the market gardens”. The local boss, Antonino Giammona, ensured that new recruits were taken to secluded spots for “baptism”. The recruits would have their finger or arm cut with a dagger, and then dripped their blood onto a small picture of a saint. The picture was then burnt and the ashes thereof scattered to signify the “total evaporation of traitors”.

The mafias have not changed much since the 19th and 20th century. Giovanni Falcone, the Prosecutor of the National Anti-mafia Directorate was killed by an explosion on a motorway to Palermo on May 23, 1992. John Dickie rightly finds that the “Italian state is viewed with scorn by many of its citizens; its human and material resources are treated by all too many politicians as mere patronage fodder”. Italian mafias judge the judiciary; the judiciary still cannot try the mafia or impart justice to the common people.

In the 21st century, there is one member of Cosa Nostra’s pro-massacre wing, Matteo Messina Denaro, who still remains at large. According to Italy’s Ministry of Interior, Denaro (who is on the run for 20 years) is wanted for “mafia association, murder, massacre, devastation, possession of explosives, robbery, and more besides”. Denaro is a mafia aristocracy and belongs to mafia blue blood but he is known for his less conventional ways. Since he is based in Sicily’s western province of Trapan, he cannot assume command and responsibility of Cosa Nostra in its capital, Palermo.

Blood Brotherhoods is a gripping yet credible tale. It provides a deep insight into an important yet little known aspect of Italian history — an aspect which is often discussed but did not have a verifiable and authentic record to fall back upon.