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. . . Italy's Mafia

Among the many things for which Italy is famous and one of it's major exports is organised crime. The Mafia is a political, economic and military force that extends its reach not just over southern Italy but also much of Europe and the USA. Recently eastern European and Asiatic crime gangs have competed and collaborated with indigenous criminals but even these are popularly known as Mafia when they reach a certain level of size and organisation. The word Mafia is generic, covering various groups in different areas.

The best known and most romanticised by Hollywood is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra - "Our Thing". The island of Sicily has been ruled and misruled by various invaders, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish. Cosa Nostra grew up as an underground network to resist the depredations of the rulers and to provide a system of rough justice, more trusted than the corrupt official version. The island was originally divided into about 100 areas, each of which was dominated by a different clan or "family", each family ruled by a patriarchal head, the Don. Members of the organisation saw themselves as protectors of virtue, calling themselves "Men of Honour"

Cosa Nostra has often been courted and enlisted by outside powers to advance their aims. At the end of the 1200's Sicily found itself under a French rule, disputed by the Spanish Bourbons. A time marked by the casual theft, rape and murder carried out by the occupiers. In a response worthy of Michael Corleone, simultaneously across the territory, as the bells for Vespers rang on Easter Monday, the populous rebelled beginning a six week uprising. Most of the French were massacred, survivors fled the island. This allowed the establishment of a slightly more respectful Spanish rule.

In the mid 1800's during the unification of Italy the Papacy was feeling upset by the take over of the Papal States by the central government. The Pope encouraged all Catholics to reject the new parliament and its laws. Cosa Nostra and the people of Sicily, never ones to accept outside control easily, now had religious approval for sedition and those who opposed them could be cast as heretical. This initiated an era when the disparate clans united and rather than just opposing government started to infiltrate and subvert it to their own ends, eventually wielding effective and unrivalled power.

Mussolini's rise to power in the 1920's was the first real threat to Cosa Nostra domination. "Il Duce" no stranger himself to brutality and illegality, decided to restore the authority of the state. Ignoring many of the finer points of law, he had over a thousand Mafia leaders and their lieutenants incarcerated in the first wave of arrests. However consistency was never a strong point with the Fascist dictator. The whole campaign, though effective in the short term, was folded once it threatened his party and supporters. A side effect of the crack down was that many Mafiosi fled to the USA where they set up in business doing what they had at home, prohibition was in full swing which provided especially rich pickings.

The Second World War provided the possibility for a resurgence. Once the USA had joined in, Cosa Nostra became a secret partner in its endeavours. Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano, the one time head of all the Mafia families in the New York, had control over the east coast ports. He ensured there would be no dockworker's strike and no sabotage, guaranteeing the lifeline to Europe. His connections in Sicily were a perfect off the peg espionage ring and trained partisan army. As a reward for his help he was granted early parole and sent back to Sicily.

Lucky Luciano's lieutenant, Vito Genovese, also destined to command his own New York crime family and once a close friend of Mussolini knew when to change sides. Still wanted on charges of murder in the US, he became the most trusted liaison officer of its army in Italy. A convenient position, providing communications and transport to pursue his criminal activities.

After the war Cosa Nostra was tolerated as an important bastion against communism. This plus profitable links across the Atlantic and semi official approval lasted for years while Cosa Nostra reached its height of power and wealth. Later governments have tried to rein it in but the sense of entitlement remains. Campaigns to destroy it have provoked violent reaction, with assassinations of politicians and investigators plus bombs in major northern cities.

Perhaps the main threat though comes not from the government in Rome but in competition from the criminal organisations on the mainland. The 'Ndrangheta in the toe of Italy along with their poorer neighbours the Sacra Corona Unita in its heel are similar to Cosa Nostra in being clan based but more closed to outsiders so harder to infiltrate and prosecute.

All three make their local income from kidnapping, protection money, public works contracts and smuggling, plus some relative legitimate businesses, for money laundering. Internationally through proxies and emigrated members, they are responsible for most of the drugs, arms and people arriving illegally in Europe, contributing about 5% to Italy's GDP. However in the areas under their control petty crime such as burglary, illicit drugs and muggings are rare. People are law abiding, even if the law is not that of the state.

Further north around Naples is the fourth Mafia group, the "Cammora". This is the oldest of the four but very different in operation and organisation. Rising from the urban poor of Naples it lacks the cohesion and hierarchical structure of the others. Though family links are important, a member doesn't have to be born into it, Algerians, Nigerians, Albanians and even Scots have been welcomed into its ranks. Though there have been bloody feuds in the other three, the Camorra has lived in a constant state of civil war over the last half century, resulting in the death of tens of thousands within its ranks. Even now it is unadvisable to ride a motorbike, while wearing a crash helmet, in parts of the Neapolitan hinterland. They are the traditional disguise and get away vehicle for assassins. Best to risk concussion and leave the headgear at home.

All the organised crime in Italy is territorial, each clan staking claim to its own geographical territory. But while others try to keep their zones of responsibility low key and apparently law abiding, those governed by the Camorra are often chaotic and lawless. A stroll through even the poorest neighbourhoods of Palermo in Sicily is regarded as practically risk free. Walk into the "Spanish Quarter" of Naples with a gold Rolex and the chances are better than 50/50 that you will leave without it.

Driving into the city motorists will spot battered old Fiat vans festooned with hubcaps, those unlucky enough to have theirs removed when parking, or even at the traffic lights can always buy them back on the way out. Truck drivers stopping for lunch will find the restaurant has a walled compound in which to leave their vehicle, but must be prepared to pay someone a small fee to "look after it" if they want to drive it away later. In the city centre it is not unusual to be approached by someone with a local accent, asking the way to a nearby square, they know where it is, but if you don't, you are a stranger to the place and so fair game. In the poorer suburbs and surrounding towns there are whole neighbourhoods who's inhabitants see the Camorra as their way of life.

In these areas the bosses control everything, the local supermarket, construction businesses, town council, refuse collection, contraband cigarettes and illegal drug sales. There is no way to avoid contact, and little chance of earning a living without acquiescing to the demands of the Mob. The fractured nature of the Camorra makes it harder to combat than its regional competitors. Though it suffers from a greater number of police informers (a short lived occupation) and is subject to a larger number of arrests, for each Camorrista that is incarcerated or eliminated by a rival there are another ten ready to take their place.

This is all a great pity, Naples should be the tourist capital of Europe and is, with all its faults, a great place to visit. It has a beautiful coast line with lovely beaches, Pompei and Herculanium hold some of the most important remains of Roman times, the city itself has a history as rich as Rome, Florence or Venice, the food is wonderful and all is presided over by the brooding majesty of Vesuvius. It is strategically placed in the middle of the Mediterranean and within a short drive of such wonders as the Greek temples of Paestum and the Regia of Casserta, a rival to the palace of Versailles. Unfortunately political corruption and mismanagement have allowed its infrastructure to erode. Investors seek a safer haven for their cash and fear of crime keeps many travellers away.

To tackle these criminals Italy has not just one but eight separate police forces, five of which are national with overlapping responsibilities. The total, the largest number of law enforcement officers of any European country and also the most per capita. The UK with a similar population has about half. Those most likely to be encountered are the Polizia (light blue cars), run by the Ministry of the Interior and the Carabiniere (dark blue cars) who answer to the Ministry of Defence. These run parallel organizations and are supposed to keep a check on one another. Members of both are no doubt honest and diligent, anyone travelling in Italy will find them to be both polite and helpful. However their task is an insurmountable one often made more difficult by politicians and the justice system.

The time taken from arrest to trial can be of biblical proportions. The World banks ranks Italy 151st out of 181 in the world for the speed and efficiency of its justice system, no other European country comes below the first 50. Many African countries have a better ranking. There is a statute of limitations of between two and twenty years, depending on the severity of the crime. So supposing the crime takes two years to come to light, the time taken to come to trial and exhaust the various appeals normally takes at least six years, a criminal needs only a clever lawyer to prolong things for another 24 months and they are free and clear from sentencing even for a very serious crime. However for the most heinous of crimes such as murder there is no time limit, but Mafiosi have often been able to count on politicians and judges to help them out.

Corrado Carnevale graduated from Palermo University and after a meteoric career, at 55 became the youngest judge ever to sit on Italy's highest court of appeal. During his time in office he cleared about five hundred Mafia members, sometimes for the smallest of technicalities, such as a missing rubber stamp on a page or because the stamp was rubber not metal. If all else failed he could arbitrarily refuse to believe a witness. He was himself convicted of being a Mafia member in 2001 and sentenced to six years of incarceration. He was subsequently exonerated on appeal, a slim majority decision by the judges, on the grounds that evidence of his fellow magistrates was inadmissible. Since 2007 he has been back at work in Italy's highest court.

Having read all of the above it would be easy to think that a holiday in Italy is to be avoided. This is not so. It is certainly inadvisable to take on the locals of Naples setting up your own waste disposal or cocaine distribution network. However leaving these things aside Italy is really a very safe place. True there are parts of Rome, Naples and Venice where you should be very careful of your valuables. Tourists have returned to their hotel to find their purse or wallet has disappeared, the culprits though tend to be skilled and often unnoticed, in London or New York miscreants are much more likely to mix violence with mugging. Also it is quite possible that political corruption is not more prevalent just more visible, as it is somewhat tolerated. The powerful in other countries have to be a lot more secretive when misbehaving.

Article written by Chef Jonathan Arthur

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