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And what about the mafia?

by Marie on April 3, 2018
And what about the mafia?

One of the most common questions I get is about the Mafia (Cosa Nostra). If it is risky to buy a property in Sicily, will I have to pay a protection fee, “pizzo,” to the Mafia? My default answer is always: No, you will not see any signs of Mafia even if you look for them. I will in this article elaborate that answer a little bit.

To understand what the Mafia really is, you need to have some context. You will also need to have some basic knowledge of the history of Sicily, and the reason why alternative, illegitimate powers like the Mafia have been allowed to take control. So here comes the short version:

Italy has not been a country for more than 150 years!

Various nations have all occupied Sicily throughout the ages. The island is strategically located in the Mediterranean and has always been attractive as a connection between Europe, Asia, and Africa. That has made Sicily a valuable asset, both in regards to war and trade. During the last 2000 years, everyone from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards to the Americans have occupied the island during one time or another. Italy was finally united under General Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861, and Sicily became an autonomous part of the new empire.

It may sound like they were on a council, democratically deciding to create Italy, but that was not the case. Sicily didn’t choose to become part of Italy – it was more of a “you will become a part of Italy, or you will all die.”-scenario.


Giuseppe Garibaldi

Interesting fact: As late as the 1950’s, only about half of Italians could speak the actual language of Italian. Most people only spoke one of the local dialect/ languages and were unable to communicate with one another.

Mafia – why, how, when?

What happens when people do not feel like a part of their nation and there is no well defined and permanent state? The need for law and order tends to be satisfied in one way or another. Someone will take over and create an informal power structure. A state within the state is thus created.

There are differing opinions about when the Mafia came to be. Some say the 19th century, others much earlier. Those who believe it was in the 19th century say that those who cared for the estates of the nobility (especially the citrus farms), found a loophole and started a protection racket against the peasant farmers. Those who instead consider the phenomenon to be older than that tend to point to support in historical descriptions that show a system reminiscent of the modern Mafia structure but under different titles. The Freemasonry, as it was known, runs like a small, intricate, red thread through the history of the Mafia.

But regardless of when the Mafia took its current form, you can, by looking at the history of Sicily, see the need for a coherent and comprehensible power structure. The occupying rulers were, if at all present, incomprehensible and whimsical at best, and oppressive at worst. This made the people lose their confidence in the power apparatus. Crime raged and poverty was widespread. The local  Mafia offered protection, and in return, the people paid a commission – a pizzo. The Mafioso system was, if not good, then at least comprehensible.

During Mussolini’s fascist rule of Italy in the years 1923-1943, the Mafia was very aggressively fought. However, after the end of World War II, the United States helped give the Mafia back its power, by appointing known mafiosos to strategic political posts – including at various mayor posts.

It is also important to keep in mind that the meaning of Mafia as a criminal network was not prominent at this time. The word still had positive values and represented honor, strength, power, and justice. It was only in the 40’s that the problem started being recognized at a national level. The state noted the unusually high murder rate in Sicily and began to worry. At this point, the value of the word began to change. And somewhere around this time is when we start to see what today is perceived as the modern Mafia.

How does the Mafia differ from ordinary criminals?

An ordinary thief tends to focus on his own, personal gain and works quite randomly. He robs a little here and there, but without more meaningful agenda. The Mafia, on the other hand, is an extremely well organized criminal network, that works outwards and interacts with society through a clearer strategy and with purpose. The protection racketeering activity formed the basis of the business. Both for good and bad, in the way that the Mafia did much replace the state in its role as the protector of the citizens.

People paid their pizzo, and the Mafia saw to it that no harm occurred to them in the form of burglary, damage, etc. Merely the fact that people felt that the Mafia was present in the background, discouraged potential trouble-makers. Nobody wanted to be a blip on the Mafia’s radar. If a crime was committed, the Mafia acted as court and executioner, much like the work police and authorities do in a functioning state. So far so good.

It is a common misperception that the Mafia is behind all crimes committed in Sicily. This is obviously not true. There are ordinary criminals, working for themselves, in Sicily as there are in any other place.

Mafia and the state

The Mafia is a business-oriented and pragmatic organization. And much, as you know, want more. They later began to dip their fingers in more and more jars. especially after World War II, when Sicily underwent rapid economic development that meant more to be collected for the Mafia network. There was also an established cooperation with the American Mafia network in place, and they developed, among other things, their routines for international drug trafficking. There was huge money to be made, and the power of the Mafia grew along with its wealth.

Traditionally, the Mafia is skilled in manipulation, “persuasion” and corruption. Countless are the politicians that run the errands of the Mafia. Since the Mafia had power over the people, they largely determined what politicians got elected. The people voted for the ‘right’ politician and were in turn rewarded with guaranteed employment, money and other things in return. Court cases with local and state politicians for Mafia collaboration, corruption, and fraud are commonplace in Sicily. Unfortunately, those who have been fired or even sentenced as a result of such trials are only a small part of the problem. This is because the Mafia also controls strategic people in the judiciary system. The Mafia is like an invisible spider that weaves its web throughout society, up to the highest political level, even beyond Sicily and on to a national level.

The Mafia is like an invisible spider that weaves its tissue throughout society, up to the highest political level. And we no longer speak Sicily, we speak Italy.

The mafia War

Near Palermo, the capital and largest city of Sicily, is a small town with a name that almost everyone has heard of – Corleone. A small, innocent town that holds no particular attraction in and of itself. However, it is quite central when describing the history of the Mafia. Corleone has a bloody past filled with poverty, Mafia leaders and vendettas that killed a significant part of the male population, and many disappearances.

The Mafia here is divided into different families who alternate between cooperating, or fighting, with each other. Cooperation is necessary for growth and strength, but the fighting is equally important to maintain the power balance between the families. Most of the Mafia killings are mafiosos from families like these that kill other mafiosos (occasionally also government officials that are standing in their way). The Mafia kills according to a cold-hammered logic. What this means is that the number of people not involved in Mafia activities that are harmed is very low.


After the World War II, a long and bloody Mafia war broke out. The war resulted with the Corleone family, with Toto Riina as its Don, emerging victorious with lots of new influence and power. Our idea of the Sicilian Mafia is based mainly on the two decades during which this war was ongoing. But keep in mind that what happened was not that the Mafia ran around like crazy, shooting people in the streets. They fought each other, and they assassinated representatives of the state that threatened their interests, or that would not be bullied into submission.

Two of the main Mafia culture characteristics have today been severely weakened. The first is omertà, and the second is the willingness to pay pizzo. Omertà is silence, not to tell, not to gossip (think of the three apes – blind, deaf, dumb). On one hand, Omertà is the Mafia’s core value, but it has also been a survival strategy for the common people. To force a people into silence grants power. There is no way to resolve a crime if there are no witnesses that have seen or heard anything.


The weakening of these two core values has mainly come from the Mafia itself, and the people of Sicily. Mafia defectors, so-called Pentiti, first started turning during the Mafia riots in the 70s and 80s and put many of their Mafia brethren behind bars. An anti-pizzo movement was also formed by business owners, who no longer accepted to paying pizzo. These two changes have broken the spell of the Mafia as being absolute and invincible. The fact that people agreed to join forces against the Mafia has meant that the totalitarian power of the Mafia was broken. The Mafia’s terror worked only as long as those exposed to said terror acted as individuals. As a group, they become stronger.

So what about today then? The answer is unsatisfactory ‘it’s complicated’. The Cosa Nostra still exists and co-operates with the other criminal networks, such as the Camorra (Campagna / Naples) and the Ndrangheta (Calabria). Today, the Mafia is more discreet, and have fallen into the shade of other, more violent criminal networks. Their involvement in traditional protection racketeering is lower today, and they are currently more active in drug smuggling, large public constructions, and political infiltration.

The fact that the Mafia still exists as more or less a part of the state is considered a clear failure on Italy’s part. Even though there is more pronounced resistance to the Mafia among the population today, they are still there – incorporated into the system. It is a sign that the feeling of national unity, that is the basis of a democratic society, is lacking. The explanation for this is a lack of confidence in the government and the democratic process. This type of mistrust is a prerequisite for an organization such as the Mafia to exist.



“Image: Falcone and Borsellino – the two judges murdered in their struggle against the mafia today are a symbol of resistance. They are celebrated during the so-called white night “La Notte Bianca” each year.”

A society in which there is trust in the government, the police, the courts and underlying security does not have room for the Mafia to thrive. The people in a society where there is a feeling of trust for the system will protest and turn to the authorities to clear out such injustices.


How do I recognize a mafioso?

You do not. The Mafia, or ‘Men of Honor’ as they call themselves, usually have quite ordinary jobs and keep a low profile. They do not have any special features, such as big gold rings or shirts unbuttoned to the waist… They usually live a regular family life, and the Mafia codex says that a ‘Man of Honor’ is faithful to his family and refrains from bragging and an extravagant lifestyle. They are the regular man you meet on the street.

So to sum it up…

Surely there is a Mafia, and inevitably they commit crimes. But no, as a foreigner in Sicily, you will not come into contact with any them. They just are not interested in us because we are small potatoes.

A small footnote: It’s ok to talk about the Mafia in Sicily – if the discussion and questions are serious. But stereotyped and dumb Mafia jokes are better to leave out. Remember, there is only a tiny part of the Sicilians who even know a mafioso. Most are honest, generous, kind people. And they are dead tired being associated with the crime that a very few people commit. Be gentle, be nice, because that’s how you will be treated here.