Epic history of Italy’s mafia organisations

Blood Brotherhoods: by John Dickie
published by PublicAffairs

John Dickie, author of Mafia Republic, in Gioia Tauro, Calabria

John Dickie, author of Blood Brotherhoods

I am often asked, Why does Italy have the mafia, and why can’t the state get rid of it? This book goes a long way to answer both questions, showing how seismic shifts in Italy’s rickety administration allowed the mafia to slip into the gaps and exploit the ruling class as well as the poor and disenfranchised.

With Dickie’s characteristic gusto, familiar to readers of his bestselling Cosa Nostra, we dash from one major trial to the next, across the most turbulent century and a half of Italian history. The first part shows how the two major events in recent Italian history – unification and World War 2 – enabled criminal organisations in three regions to insinuate themselves into the power structure. The second half, dealing with the post war period, shows how the mafias became seriously wealthy.

Blood Brotherhoods, John Dickie's epic history of Italian organised crime

Blood Brotherhoods, John Dickie’s epic history of Italian organised crime

Based on court records from a series of trials dating back to 1860, Dickie’s account follows the efforts of a small number of dedicated law enforcers as they try to bring members of the Honoured Society to justice. And in almost every case, they are defeated, as much by the corruption of the judicial system as by the mendacity or double dealing (or, in one case, murder) of the witnesses.

Dickie abandons the familiar story of the mafia’s beginnings (greedy land managers grabbing power on the big estates), and reveals their hideous engendering in the prisons of Naples and Calabria. Dating from the mid-1800s, the hierarchies and routes to promotion, initiation ceremonies and even the uniform were created and standardized in jail. Some rituals were modelled on the Masons, with whom the mafia has historically been entwined.

This theory endorses the so-called Buscetta theorem (not accepted in Italian law until 1992) that the Sicilian mafia, Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and Naples Camorra were, at that time, single-structured criminal organisations. This is important because up to the 1980s prosecutors were having to prove the existence of the mafia every time they brought a Mafioso to trial. Although since that time, the Camorra has splintered into numerous groups scattered across the hinterland of Naples, continually at war over interests.

Criminal organisations thrive when there is chaos in civil society. The Bourbon kings recruited police from the worst criminals in the community, believing they would exert authority amongst the city’s lawless population. After Garibaldi’s tiny army liberated southern Italy, the chaos that ensued left positions of influence in commerce, policing and taxation wide open for the Camorra to step in. Mussolini’s Iron Prefect made a great show of cracking down on the mafia, then returned to Rome (at which point all discussion of the mafia in parliament was banned), leaving the Honoured Societies to carry on as before. The Fascist party subsequently accepted a donation of $25,000 from Vito Genovese, boss of the New York Cosa Nostra, who was sojourning in Italy to escape legal troubles in the US.

A historical overview allows us a ringside view of the interdependence of criminal and civil society. The mayor of Palermo, Marquis Rudinì, testifying before a select committee in 1867, gave a remarkable description of the corrupting mechanism of extortion, which persists to this day: ‘To defend yourself and your property, you have to obtain protection from the criminals, and tie yourself to them.’

While certain exceptional police investigators risked their necks to expose the ladder of influence and corruption leading to the heart of government, prosecutors and, later, Allied commanders, stuck to a script about Southern Italians’ primitive nature and incurable amorality (a view echoed by sociologists in the 1970s). A Naples Camorrista said in his own defence, that he had ‘a strange violent tendency in the blood’. Mussolini’s man Mori declared, ‘The Mafiosi know one another mostly by instinct’. The mafia, he claimed, ‘brings together in definite unhealthy attitudes men of a particular temperament’. If the mafia was a matter of temperament, there was nothing to be done.

Pupetta Maresca's wedding to Pasquale Simonetta, kingpin of Campania's rural cartel

Pupetta Maresca’s wedding to Pasquale Simonetta, kingpin of Campania’s rural cartel

There’s a great account of the Naples rural cartel – mafia bosses including Pasquale Simonetti who fixed prices for crops and whose men beat up farmers who tried to complain they were being ripped off. It was Simonetti’s wife Pupetta Maresca, a small town beauty whose brothers were known as u’ lampetielli, the flashing blades, who made sure this story hit the news. They had been married only a short time when her husband was killed by a rival for control of the fruit and veg markets. A few months later, the young widow and her brother took revenge on the perpetrator in a shoot-out. When the case came to court, the glamorous murderess was a sensation. But besides a spicy murder story, the trial offered a glimpse of the Camorra’s control of agricultural produce in the whole region of Campania.

The three criminal organisations were already well established before Italy’s economic miracle in the 1960s: the building boom offered an apparently legitimate front for the “mafia holding company’s” other businesses: tobacco and narcotics smuggling, and kidnapping. The mafia’s white collar crime, what Dickie calles the Grey Zone (money laundering), has ensured its continued survival into the modern era. But as the mafia’s wealth and interests grew, so the violent struggles between different groups escalated, culminating with the extreme savagery of Totò Riina’s Corleonesi.

In the 1970s and 80s, the mafia flourished in what Dickie describes as the “catastrophe economy”: the Red Brigades’ terrorist bombs created distractions and unusual alliances between the mafia and politics, while earthquakes brought funding for reconstruction that was intercepted before it reached any building sites.

A close look at historical mafia trials show how many times Italy has had an opportunity to eradicate organized crime, and how often vested interests have prevented it. Dickie has unearthed some fascinating court papers, and rips through his material at a roaring pace. He even makes a detour to the US for the Kefauver hearings. One gets the impression of bouncing over the surface of periods of major change, but by bringing the stories of all three crime organisations into one volume, he does what Italian justice has for so long failed to do: present a joined-up version of history.



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