Mob Rule: Italy Is Becoming the Failed State of Western Europe, but Do Italians Even Care That the Mafia Is Running the Show?

By Pasquali, Valentina | Foreign Policy, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Mob Rule: Italy Is Becoming the Failed State of Western Europe, but Do Italians Even Care That the Mafia Is Running the Show?


Pasquali, Valentina, Foreign Policy


Vincenzo Guida is the notorius crime boss of Naples, and in 2006, he and his Camorra clan were well on their way to infiltrating Milan, using a construction business as a front to launder more than $25 million of dirty money. By late fall, however, Italian authorities were on Guida's trail, tapping the phones of his lawyer, Barbara Sabadini. That's when Sabadini called Rep. Francesco De Luca, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party, urging him to use his sway to help her criminal clients. De Luca seemed only too happy to oblige, alluding to a "friend," a judge who was about to take over Guida's trial. As Corriere della Sera reported last year, the Italian police were listening to all of this.

Investigators must have thought they hit the jackpot--that is, until they realized they were listening in on an elected representative's conversation. At the time, Italy's Boato Law conveniently required Parliament's permission to intercept the phone calls of elected officials. So the wiretap was cut off. Before the police could get clearance to investigate, Parliament was dissolved and elections held. De Luca was reelected and only a few members of the Guida clan were arrested last year.

Stories like this are no exception in Italy. No doubt, the mafia has been powerful in Italy for a long time. But as a series of insightful books published there over the last year documents in vivid detail, Italy is now becoming a mafia-sponsored state. Its powerless judicial system, corrupt politics, and bloated but weak bureaucracy are enabling the mafia to take over the world's sixth-largest economy--from construction to agriculture, waste management to manufacturing, small-time loan-sharking to high-end finance.

According to Confesercenti, the Italian association of small-business owners, the mafia's activities account for nearly one tenth of Italy's GDP. Corruption is finally starting to repel foreign direct investment, which in 2008 plunged more than three times as much in Italy as in the rest of the European Union. Indeed, in the World Bank's 2008 "Doing Business" report, the efficiency of Italy's justice system ranked 156 out of 181 countries--below Iraq and Pakistan, and just above Afghanistan.

This troubling picture is one that Italians don't like to confront. But the recent publication of no fewer than six books--from insider accounts of mafia investigators to the sober investigations of intrepid journalists--has rejuvenated a decades-long national debate about the health and future of Italian democracy. At the heart of this debate, and running throughout these new books, are devastating questions: Is Italy becoming the failed state of Western Europe? Is the mafia running the show? And do Italians even care?

Roberto Scarpinato, a deputy district judge in Palermo's anti-mafia division, and Saverio Lodato, a journalist, offer the most comprehensive account of the behind-the-scenes dealings between the mafia and politicians. Their Il Ritorno del Principe (The Prince's Comeback) has the grand sweep appropriate to a social history of organized crime in Italy. The term "mafia"--likely from mafiusu, 19th-century Sicilian slang connoting swagger or a kind of fearless, bullying arrogance--has become a catch-all term around the world. But the mafia actually comprises many organizations controlling separate territory, five of which are remarkably high profile: the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in and around Naples, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, and the Basilischi in Basilicata. And as Scarpinato and Lodato show, Italy's mafia cartels are not simply violent, drug-dealing gangs; they are 21st-century corporations with an integrated system of governance, blurring the line between licit and illicit activities.

Scarpinato and Lodato argue that there are two faces to the mafia: the more visible military component--the low-ranking foot soldiers who rob, kill, and deal drugs--and the white-collar mafia, or "mafia bourgeoisie. …

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