The Sicilian Mafia and political corruption
But an important factor in the growing strength of the mafia in the period from the end of the Second World War up until the 1990s was its political relation with the Italian state. We have already said that the old Sicilian mafia during the nineteenth century took advantage of the weakness of the central state and was able to a considerable extent to substitute itself for the state authorities, providing functions of protection, mediation and repression.
In the post war period the relationship changed in emphasis. The
modernisation of southern Italy and Sicily meant that the state became
stronger and the mafia lost many of the functions that it had performed
in the old rural society. But just as it found new economic opportunites
in drugs and building construction, it found new political opportunities
in collusion arrangements with the dominant political parties in Sicily,
guaranteeing them votes and unchallenged political influence in return
for protection from prosecution by the police and judicial authorities.
The cold war contextIn order to understand the dynamics of this relationship we need to know a little about Italy in the post war period (that is the period roughly from 1950 to 1990). The second world war was rapidly replaced by the Cold War – the nuclear armed confrontation between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and Western Europe organised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Italy was very important as a front line state. The western border of Italy was Yugoslavia, part of the Soviet bloc (though the Yugoslavs showed a certain independence from Moscow). Italy was a vital place for NATO air bases, nuclear missile bases, radar stations etc. It was very important to the United States and its allies to maintain a regime in Italy which was solidly anti-communist and behind the NATO alliance.
The other problem was that Italy had a very strong Communist Party. The Italian CP was the strongest in Western Eurodpe and it had built up a good reputation in the struggle against the Mussolini fascist regime which ruled Italy from the 1920s until 1943 and which took Italy into the second world war as an ally with Hitler and Nazi Germany. The Italian communists were more western and democratic than the hard line Stalinist communist parties in other countries and was prepared to criticism the Soviet Union. In practical terms it had more in common with something like the Labour Party in Britain. But nevertheless the NATO allies were paranoid about the Communist Party ever entering government in Italy. During the 1980s the Communist vote appeared to be growing, reaching almost one third of the electorate.
To cut a long story short all this meant that there was a massive
support by the NATO allies for the conservative political parties in
Italy. Also of course inside Italy the conservatives used the cold war
threat ‘if you vote communist Italy will be taken over by the Soviet
Union’ etc. The main conservative party (though the using the British
term ‘conservative’ is not really an accurate description) was the
Christian Democrats (in Italian this is Democrazia Cristiana or DC for
short). They ruled the country almost continuously from 1948 until the
early 1990s. When one party is in government for such a long period,
corruption is almost inevitable. Things which would normally have come
out into the open were successfully covered up in a situation in which
the main preoccupation of the ruling elites was to ‘keep the
communists out’ and maintain a right wing government to keep Italy on
the right side in the cold war
mafia and politicsThe mafia, meanwhile saw immediately how to benefit from this new situation by offering itself as an ally to the ruling political elites in the struggle against Communists and Socialists. They started out right away. Between 1945 and 1955 43 socialists and communists were murdered in Sicily, often at election time. As the historian Francesco Renda in his book Storia della Sicilia (History of Sicily) explains:
In other words at the beginning of the cold war the DC entered into an unspoken contract with the mafia in which the latter would keep the socialists and communists weak in Sicily – by threats and assassinations and by using its influence to pressure people into voting DC at elections – and the DC in turn would use its influence to ensure that the police and judicial system did not put too much pressure on the mafia and interrupt its profitable activities in the drugs trade and the building industry. This relation of collusion was a major feature of Italian politics from the end of the second world war until the early 1990s. It is not possible to grasp the enormous power and influence of the mafia and the failure of all attempts to curb its power unless this political relationship is understood.
On the other hand the mafia prepared to confront the state - where its interests felt to be threatened. During the 1970s, as mafia power was growing, the police and government were preoccupied with the problem of terrorism – the Red Brigades. At the end of the 1970s this attention faded as the terrorist groups were arrested and the focus on the mafia grew. The leader of the Communist Party in Sicily, Pio La Torre proposed a bill making it a crime to belong to the mafia while the government in Rome sent General Alberto dalla Chiesa, who had led the fight against terrorism, to Sicily to ‘sort out’ the mafia. Immediately on arrival, in April 1982, he was greeted by the assassination of La Torre. Just four months later, in September, he was himself assassinated. The mafia felt so powerful they could now take on the state – not their political friends in high places but police officials and judges whose investigation of mafia affairs was too enthusiastic. General Dalla Chiesa had found out a lot about how powerful the mafia was becoming. Just before his death he said in a newspaper interview that “By now the mafia is in all the major Italian cities where it has made considerable real estate and commercial investments.” (Stille 1995: 67)
In the following years there were many assassinations, of police and judges and radical politicians who spoke out against organised crime. The criminal justice agencies in Sicily meanwhile often felt isolated and there were numerous complaints from the police, carabinieri and investigating judges that the central government in Rome was obstructing their efforts against organised crime. (Italy has two police forces – the polizia, which is the national police, and the carabinieri which is technically part of the army. In the Italian legal system, unlike ours, judges – called investigating judges - take an active part in criminal investigation alongside the police forces and direct the operations of the latter)
Thus the assassination of criminal justice officials was linked to political corruption. The politicians would work behind the scenes to undermine the efforts of those who wanted a real fight against organised crime. The result was that police and judges working in Sicily felt isolated and when it became clear that they were isolated and weak, that was the moment when the mafia would strike.
The political friends in high places of the mafia and corrupt members of the judiciary would arrange for many senior mafiosi who were convicted of crimes to either have their cases overturned on appeal or to serve their sentences ‘at home’ or in ‘hospitals’ on the basis of fictitious illnesses so that in reality they live normal lives and carry on their 'business' activities. Many senior members of organised crime who were convicted in the ‘maxi-processo’ of 1986 were in this position.
Meanwhile the Italian Parliament’s Anti-Mafia Commission, a full time investigative committee (rather like a Royal Commission or House of Commons Committee in the UK) was painstakingly sifting through the evidence of links between the mafia and sections of the political elite. In its report of 20 Feb 1992 it spelt it out:
The 1990sBut it was precisely at this time, the early years of the 1990s that things became to come apart a little. Three fundamental changes were at work
In 1992 the mafia assassinated Salvo Lima a prominent Sicilian DC politician who, allegedly, had been one of the key figures in representing mafia interests in Rome. What was happening? As Alexander Stille put it:
The warning was that the Mafia had perceived that its ‘friends in high places’ were not serving its interests effectively and they had better do so. But in the general chaos of the corruption scandals almost a third of Italian members of parliament found themselves under indictment and the old political party system collapsed. One prominent politician who has not escaped investigation is Giulio Andreotti, probably Italy’s most senior politician. Well respected internationally as a highly skilled and shrewd operator he was prime minister for a substantial part of the post-war period. In 1994 he was placed under indictment for mafia associations. It is envisaged that the hearings will continue for a good few years!
Read more on the links between the Mafia and political corruption and the involvement of Giulio Andreotti. [ click here ]
But the culmination was the assassination, in autumn 1992, of two leading investigating magistrates, Giovane Falcone and Pietro Borsellino. These courageous investigators were not Northerners who had been sent down to sort out organised crime in Sicily, they were natives of the area. They had both organised the massive arrests and trials of 1986 in which Tomasso Buscetta had given so much useful evidence much of which he gave, so it is said, because he developed a strong relationship with Falcone, a fellow Sicilian.
The funerals of these judges, attended by the Chief of Police and senior politicians from Rome was the occasion for considerable public demonstration of contempt for the politicians and corrupt officials who where regarded as having stabbed Falcone in the back. The crowd threw coins at them in the church.
But then in early 1993 what seemed the ultimate breakthrough came with the arrest of ‘Toto’ Riina, regarded as the most powerful mafia boss in Sicily who had been apparently living quite openly in Palermo for years.
The Italian political scene today appears on the surface to present a very different picture. The old Christian Democratic party has collapsed, and the government is currently led by the PDS. Though the prime minister, Massimo D’Alema is rather closer to Tony Blair than to any old ideas of communism. The general opening up of the political landscape has enabled all sorts of people to speak out – not least the residents of the island of Sicily who have been much more vocal opponents of the mafia
Alexander Stille concludes.
But a word of warning. Maybe we have been here before? Remember the optimistic notions about the decline of the mafia immediately after the second world war. Unemployment is a problem in Southern Italy as it always was. If the current global financial instability turns into a full blown recession then in Italy as everywhere else the attractions of the drugs trade and other forms of organised crime will be immense. The mafia may have lost the ‘direct line’ that it had to political collusion in Rome, but that is quite different to saying that it cannot survive and adapt. One factor in its favour is recent developments in Russia and Eastern Europe.