Italy's Mafias: All in the Famiglia

By Stille, Alexander | International New York Times, June 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Italy's Mafias: All in the Famiglia


Stille, Alexander, International New York Times


In "Blood Brotherhoods," the British scholar John Dickie has written the histories of Italy's three major criminal organizations from their origins in the mid-19th century to the present.

Blood Brotherhoods. A History of Italy's Three Mafias. By John Dickie. Illustrated. 748 pages. PublicAffairs. $35.

In "Blood Brotherhoods," the British scholar John Dickie sets himself the wildly ambitious task of writing the histories of Italy's three major criminal organizations from their origins in the mid-19th century to the present. The result is a book that is alternately impressive and infuriating. Mr. Dickie has amassed and digested an astonishing mass of material (tens of thousands of pages of trial documents, newspaper accounts and secondary literature) and followed scores of different characters (bandits, crime bosses, policemen, judges, politicians) in disparate places across a 150- year span. And yet he has managed, despite the girth and diversity, to sustain an argument and a story. He entertains the reader with dozens of fascinating figures -- both noble and blood-chilling -- while making frequently shrewd judgments that place this story in context, as a central feature of Italian life.

At the same time, Mr. Dickie, in his attempt to give coherence to so much material, makes overly grand claims about the essential unity of Italy's various crime groups. If he had shortened his book by 20 percent, reduced the rhetorical temperature by 20 degrees and scaled back some of his more ambitious assertions, one would be left with an extremely valuable history of Italian organized crime.

The Mafia in Italy, Mr. Dickie argues, is a modern and not -- as many believe -- an ancient phenomenon. In the wake of Italian unification, with the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (the Bourbon monarchy based in Naples), the conditions for incubating a new and dangerous form of organized crime were created in Southern Italy -- much as they were in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Key ingredients were the collapse of public order, the proliferation of new opportunities for rapid enrichment, the lack of credible institutions to provide basic protections and the presence of violent entrepreneurs ready to take advantage. The introduction of democracy, as Mr. Dickie points out, was also important: Powerful crime bosses could be useful in drumming up electoral support, intimidating political opponents, helping to control small-time criminals and sharing illicit profits with corrupt politicians. While a dictatorship or an absolute monarchy could arrest and execute known criminals with little or no proof, the legal procedures of democratic Italy offered many opportunities for the new class of criminals to use powerful connections to achieve a measure of impunity. The failure to understand this, Mr. Dickie argues, allowed a much more insidious form of organized crime to insinuate itself into all levels of Southern Italian life, becoming a kind of "state within the state," draining the region of resources and keeping much of it in a condition of semipermanent underdevelopment.

This part of Mr. Dickie's argument -- while not new -- is perfectly sound and forcefully illustrated. But he goes on to make bigger, bolder and much less supported claims. He stresses that these Mafia groups are secret fraternities, with initiation rituals and codified rules, some of which have been consistent over time and are found in different variations throughout Sicily, Calabria and Campania (the region surrounding Naples). This constitutes proof, in Mr. Dickie's view, that the three main Italian Mafias -- Sicily's Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta -- have been continuous and unified over a 150-year period, and that the three groups are different faces of what is essentially the same organization. Mr. Dickie frequently uses the rather odd term "Honored Society" to refer to a single criminal fraternity that links all three regional groups. …

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