Family reunion

August 1, 2009

by Guy Dinmore published on the Financial Times on August 1 2009

Into the Heart of the Mafia – a Journey through the Italian south – by David Lane
Profile Books, 261 pages,  £15.00

History of the Mafia, by Salvatore Lupa – Translated by Antony Shugaar
Columbia, 336 pages, £19.95 August 2009

Two powerful books on the Italian Mafia – seen through Italian and foreign eyes, each very different although by coincidence they feature the same cover photograph of six men in square-cut suits, taken from
behind,  walking down a poor town street as if heading for a high noon shootout.

David Lane, veteran Rome correspondent for the Economist (and former Financial Times reporter), takes us on a contemporary and at times very personal journey through southern Italy, delving among the diverse tentacles of the octopus that stretches from Cosa Nostra in Sicily across the Straits of Messina to the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia and finally to the Camorra around Naples.

There are conversations over coffee with prosecutors, policemen,
bankers, clerics,  businessmen, academics and politicians. While
underlining how the Mafia have so successfully infiltrated the economy
and the corridors of power, Into the Heart of the Mafia is also a
sensitive portrait of heroic individuals, usually isolated, in their
struggle against criminal organisations buttressed by 150 years of
constant evolution.

“Either you accept the Mafia’s rules or you challenge them. That is the
choice. The Mafia can only be beaten when its interests are hit, when
its economic roots are attacked,” says Rosario Crochetta, Gela’s
left-wing and homosexual mayor, only elected after a recount overturned
a Mafia attempt to rig the vote in favour of his centre-right opponent.

A constant theme through both books is that, contrary to many hopes,
economic development has provided the Mafia with fresh opportunities
rather than undermining foundations based on exploitation of poverty
stricken populations.

So it was that construction of a massive refinery actually attracted
Cosa Nostra to Gela, drawn by contracts to corrupt and workforces to
manipulate. “Tenders were a matter over which one could die,” says the
mayor, living under constant armed guard.

A key weapon against the Mafia has been a law (whose left-wing
instigator was murdered) providing for sweeping confiscation of their
assets and allocation back to society. It sounds simple but Lane, in his
characteristically meticulous way, explains for example how a rural
cooperative on seized Mafia land is fighting against the odds.

Flocks of sheep are driven across crops, properties are torched, banks
are reluctant to give loans. Financial rescue eventually comes from a
Bologna-based cooperative in the north, providing an outlet for their
lentils, chickpeas and pasta, all sold with the defiant label “From land
freed from the Mafia”.

Between visiting historic and blood-soaked sites of ambushes,
assassinations and massacres – most famously the slaughter of farm
labourers pushing for land reform in Portella della Ginestra on May Day
1947 – Lane returns to the village where his Italian wife was born, a
place he has known since 1972. There he has his own encounter, finding
his car tyres slashed, perhaps because of an article he had just written
for the Economist on crime and morality. “For the first time I felt
uneasy in Tramutola, knowing and understanding the small village less
well than I thought,” he writes.

A sense of despair over Italy’s direction leads to an indictment of the
Italian and Roman Catholic establishments in Rome. Lane, who bears the
distinction of being the only foreign journalist sued (unsuccessfully)
by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, quotes Roberto Scarpinato, a
veteran anti-mafia prosecutor, as defining Italy’s “dark sickness” as
the “criminality of its governing class”.

Lane adds: “Legislation and financial restrictions that weaken the
magistracy and the justice system, and laws to protect his own interests
and those of friends, are features of Berlusconi’s time in power.”

Political parties still put up candidates with Mafia ties who are
fighting appeals against convictions. Giulio Andreotti, former prime
minister who escaped conviction  although a court found close
association with the Mafia, is lauded as a statesman, his opinion
eagerly sought by journalists.

“It is the moral arrogance of a political caste that admits no blame and
has no shame,” says Nanda dalla Chiesa, the son of General Carlo Alberto
dalla Chiesa, prefect of Palermo who was killed by the Mafia in 1982 and
had been deeply suspicious of Andreotti’s connections.

Lane argues there was no moral cleansing or renewal in the south after
war-time liberation by the allied forces.  “Landowners, the middle class
and the Mafia, who had formed the ruling order for more than half a
century, continued to do so after Mussolini and his movement were
beaten, supported by the church and conservative politicians frightened
of a communist advance.”

Salvatore Lupo, a University of Palermo professor, completed his History
of the Mafia in 1996, but only now is it available in translation with
an updated preface.

Written in rather dense academese that must have sorely tested the
translator, Lupo explores the origins of  Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in the
turmoil of the late 19th century and their exploitation of land reform,
first as intermediaries and “protectors”, a kind of “aborted

From first-hand sources of the day, Lupo reconstructs vivid images of
Mafia hoods, starting with Antonio Giammona, first boss of Palermo, born
around 1819, starting as a small-time bandit, becoming a leaseholder of
citrus groves then a land owner himself, controlling a small but
important bloc of votes when suffrage was limited.

Masonic-like induction rituals are described with taking of oaths and
the pricking of blood, not by a needle but with a bitter-orange thorn of
the citrus groves that brought the Mafia to the US, first through New
Orleans in the export of fruit.

The portrait penned of Raffaele Palizzolo, a member of parliament put on
trial in the early 1900s for a high-profile Mafia-related murder, could
eloquently describe some of Italy’s modern-day politicians:

“He was exceedingly popular, if popularity consists of being easily
accessible to people from every walk of life, every class and every sort
of morality. His house was open to everyone; it mattered little whether
they were gentlemen or swindlers. He welcomed them all in, made promises
to all of them… described his oratorical triumphs in parliament and
conveyed to his visitors how many powerful friends and acquaintances he

Frustratingly for a foreign reader Lupo skates over some of the more
momentous events to shake Sicily, such as the Portella della Ginestra
massacre that Lane vividly describes, but he builds a comprehensive
picture of how the Mafia took advantage of weak and corrupt central
governments, until they “flooded the system” to become a dominant rather
than just parasitic force.

Many believed that the Mafia would vanish once the sound of the
locomotive whistles echoed through the villages of the desolate Sicilian
hinterland, Lupo writes, but instead they adapted and survived, “old but
not afraid of modernity”.

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