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 context

In 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 politics

The 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:

“The DC decided to accept the mafia’s support to reinforce itself in the struggle against communism. If one doesn’t understand this, it’s impossible to understand everything that happens afterwards. The people who made the choice were not criminals, nor were they joining with low level criminals. They were allying themselves with a force [the mafia] that had historically played this role in Sicily. All this was justified in the name of the Cold War. The mafia was enobled by being given the role of military arm of a major political force, something it never had in the past. Naturally, the mafia then drew on the power of the government and became not only a major political and social force but an economic force and that’s when the real adventure began” (Quoted in Stille 1995: 19)

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 mafia (is) not only a force against the state, but operates at the same time within the institutions and within the state... It is certain that the mafia phenomenon has got worse, that the general situation has become more serious"

The 1990s

But 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
  •  the cold war ended. In 1990 the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union fell apart and the need to keep Italy as a ‘front line’ state in the NATO alliance became less important. It thus became less important for the US and Western Europeans to keep the Italian communist party (which had now renamed itself PDS (Partito Democratico della Sinistra – Democratic Party of the Left) out of government at all costs. The enthusiasm for keeping corrupt DC governments in power waned. More and more individuals started to ‘spill the beans’ about corruption in high places.
  •  in 1992 Italy was engulfed in a wave of corruption scandals which revealed the extent to which large numbers of powerful Italian multi-national companies had been paying massive backhanders to the political elite for public contracts etc. Their activities dwarfed those of the mafia’s building and construction activities in Sicily and the South of Italy. We were now talking about massive undertakings like the building of the Milan metro system (the tube lines) The investigating judges in these cases became national heroes (like Antonio di Pietro, the judge  from Milan who led the investigations. He must be the only judge in the world to have his picture on a T-shirt, and to have discos named after him). Italians breathed a sigh of relief that it was all coming out into the open and that generations of corruption and sleaze was now beginning to come out into the open.
All these developments were of course to the disadvantage of the mafia (at least in the short run). Their political friends in Rome were now on the defensive and their power to ‘fix’ things was being drastically reduced.

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:

“Even for a country all too used to political killings, the Lima assassination was deeply shocking. Dozens of politicians and prosecutors had been murdered by the mafia over the previous fifteen years, but—with the exception perhaps of General dalla Chiesa—Lima was the most prominent victim. Moreover the others had been outspoken enemies of the mafia. Lima, instead, was considered to be one of its closes friends in power… his murder was a profound embarrassment to the Christian Democratic Party. Given Lima’s close ties to Andreotti, it was as though the mafia had dumped a dead body on the prime minister’s doorstep as a sinister warning.” (1995: 351)

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.

“Although there are many people who are trying to restore the old status quo, there are reasons to believe that something important has changed in Sicily in the last ten to fifteen years. The social consensus the mafia once enjoyed has been seriously eroded.”

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.