When the mafia becomes silent, it means that it is engrossed in business.
If, in the Sicilian streets, the killings are not as they once were, If the season of attacks is finished, in short, if Cosa Nostra seems to have disappeared, with the exception of sporadic and ephemeral spurts of flame, this we owe to the actions of Magistrates, Police and Carabinieri, who have arrested the bigger bosses, hundred of “picciotti” (those in the bottom ranks of the mafia) and collectors of the “pizzo” (protection money), but it could also be the result of a strategic choice.
The phenomenon of the present “submersion” of the mafia, of its capacity to adapt itself to the changing social, economic and political conditions is the theme that confronts Alfonso Sabella, Magistrate of the Anti-mafia District Direction, a man who has hunted down some of the most infamous and ferocious fugitives from justice.
What’s become of Cosa Nostra? Where is it that, up to ten years ago, was believed to be the most dangerous criminal organization in the whole western world?
The question is more than legitimate: the Sicilian criminal association seems, literally, to have disappeared, decimated by hard blows inflicted by the State, with almost all its men suddenly behind bars, of the 41 bis
, with the “never serve out the whole sentence”, with its secrets revealed by a plethora of “ignoble traitors” (those who turned State’s evidence) or by incautious emerging bosses, such as Salvatore Lo Piccolo, who went around with “the manual of the perfect Mafioso” in his pocket.
No more dead on the streets of Palermo, no more tons of pure cocaine or raw morphine to be refined, unloaded along the Sicilian coast; no judge, carabineer or policeman object of threats or attacks, no more subversive acts against the artistic patrimony of the Country, no longer millions of dollars in transit between questionable local banks and fiscal and legal paradises. And no more arsenals with tons of Semtex and T4, Stinger missile launchers, anti-tank grenade launchers and hundreds of Kalashnikovs, no face of an escaped mafia criminal staring out of the front cover of foreign magazines, to “muddy” the good name of Italy, and no more, or very little damage to construction yards. One can count on one hand the acts of intimidation towards shopkeepers and, even in Palermo now, there is an anti-racket association.
The answer could be extremely simple: Cosa Nostra has, literally, been defeated. The mafia exists no more – dead and buried under the weight of arrests, life sentences and seizures of arms and goods and properties. There remains only some old nostalgia or some hot-headed youngsters to cultivate the pipe-dream of the reconstruction of an agonizing society which, by now, no longer has any appeal for the young Sicilians, every day more similar to their peers of the North, and for whom the aspiration of climbing the social ladder to become ‘men of honour’ does not even enter their heads.
Those who support this thesis have, obviously, many arguments in favour and very few against, but these last, in my opinion, are still, unfortunately, insuperable.
It was the 7th of June in 1997. In the inmates’ visiting room, the Public Prosecutor of the Anti-mafia Direction of Palermo was questioning Pietro Aglieri, a “gentleman”, the right arm of Bernardo Provenzano, “the most famous Italian abroad”, as he was defined in an article which appeared on the first page of the English newspaper, The Guardian.
Fugitive from justice for over ten years, we had arrested him the day before in a country house in Bagheria. We found a private chapel in his hide-out and, in fact, we captured him by shadowing a priest who went to say mass at the house. I thought that he would be willing to cooperate with the police, but the Boss cut me short: “Look, Inspector, when you come into our schools
” – he said precisely that, our schools – “to speak of legality, justice, respect for the law, of civil co-existence, our youth listen to you and follow you, but when these youngsters come of age and look for work, a house, economic and health assistance, where do they find them? With you or with us? Inspector, they find them with us. And, only with us. You’re Sicilian, and you know very well it’s like this. Why should I cooperate, eh? Just so you can arrest another dozen fathers of families or to let you find a few rusty pistols. What would change if I told you what you want to know from me?
No analysis on the mafia phenomenon can prescind from this truth: “their” schools and “their” youngsters, on one side, the non-competitive presence of the State, on the other.
The peculiarity which differentiates the mafia from other criminal associations is clearly found in the Criminal Code, Art. 416 bis: power of intimidation through the associative bond and condition of subjugation and omertà
, (the code of silence) which derives from it. In other words, the control of “their” territory and of “their” people who live there, is the real power of Cosa Nostra.
And the so-called ‘men of honour’ know very well that this is so. When the epoch of the rural mafia finished, where the control of the territory was assured by the personal prestige and respect – most of the time dictated by fear – which the local mafia bosses enjoyed (usually, private guards of very large sections of cultivated terrain, the owners of which decided who could work and who could not), Cosa Nostra was forced to resort, in a massive way, above all, in the highly populated urban areas, to systematic and capillary extortion towards shop-owners and entrepreneurs.
As it clearly emerged from a ledger we seized from the hideout of a mafia fugitive, the ‘pizzo
’ (protection money) extorted from the shopkeepers does not serve, as many people believe, to swell the personal assets of the Mafiosi, but answers to the double need of sustaining the cost of the organization (salaries to the affiliates, monthly payments to prisoners and their families, lawyers’ fees, purchase of arms and other “capital goods”) and, above all, to let it be felt, in a clear and unequivocal manner, by the people of a certain territory or quarter, the presence and the power of Cosa Nostra.
No-one escapes the pizzo
, not even the smallest pedlar with his minute stand and, almost paradoxically, the more intense and effective the counteraction of the State, the more the mafia extortion activity becomes onerous and oppressive. It is forced, on the one side, to cope with larger management expenses of the association, determined by the increase of imprisoned Mafiosi and the trials that involve them and, on the other side, to demonstrate more energetically its intimidating power; or else suffer the loss of control of its territory, or its own criminal essence.
In the past, it was often said that the mafia was strong because it kept strict relations with politics, the entrepreneurial activities and finance. Instead, in my opinion, it is the exact contrary: Cosa Nostra maintains these relations because it is strong and, it is strong because it has control of the territory. A politician or an entrepreneur has no interest, at all, in putting himself “in the hands” of a Mafioso, if a result can be obtained in other ways, also by resorting to mechanisms of clientelism or ordinary corruption.
On the contrary, he is forced to negotiate with Cosa Nostra only when this organization can guarantee him a area of consensus, also electoral, or, according to the cases, the economic resources and the necessary coverage to effect a determinate speculation, finishing, therefore, with having “to pay” in blank cheques what he has underwritten, which will further reinforce the consortium sceleris
with which he made ‘that wretched deal’.
But then, also within the Cosa Nostra, those who held the military power always commanded (and, therefore, could exercise, more constantly and effectively, the control of the territory), and not those who had the more influential political connections or better contacts with the financial and entrepreneurial world.
The “mafia of the elegant drawing rooms” of the 70’s. those of the Bontate, the Badalamenti, the Greco had to yield before the power of the Corleonesi killers, of Salvatore Riina, and the same happened some years later when, after the arrest of the Boss of the Bosses, de facto
and contrary to what is believed, the control of the mafia organization passed, for some years, into the hands of Leoluca Bagarella who, with Giuseppe Graviano, Matteo Messina Denaro and Giovanni Brusca had the most numerous and organized “groups of gunmen”, and not of Bernardo Provenzano, formal regent of the Cosa Nostra Commission, who, instead, after a history as a ruthless killer, could count on – perhaps – “only” good “collusive” connections and on his close association with part of the Sicilian entrepreneurial activities.
Arrest of the Leoluca Bagarella (Photo Ansa)
Provenzano had to wait for the capture of Bagarella and his soldiers (24th June, 1995) to obtain the control of the organization and to be able, finally, to start that strategy of submersion which, to all appearances, has made Cosa Nostra disappear or, however, has convinced many that perhaps it has been brought to an acceptable level of tolerability.
What has happened in recent years, in reality, gives the measure of the other extraordinary characteristic of Cosa Nostra, of its exceptional capacity of adaptation to the environment and conditions in which it finds itself to operate: “lower the rush blinds because the river is passing in full flow
” (more or less, “let’s close down the hatches until the trouble passes
”) recites a well-know Sicilian proverb, and this is what the mafia has done now. And has already done in the past.
The old ‘men of honour’ recount that after the reactions of the Institutions following the massacre of Ciaculli of 30th June, 1963, when a Giulietta automobile loaded with TNT killed 7 carabineers (and the State was forced to show, at least, some sign of life, for example, finally making the Anti-mafia Parliamentary Commission function properly, even the Cosa Nostra families were broken up. And yet the massacre of Viale Lazio – which, after a period of relative silence, started what has past into history as the first mafia war and, therefore, demonstrated the existence of a criminal organization, vital and operative as never before – was in 1969, only six years later.
“Cosa Nostra has the form of water
”, written some years ago, improperly changing the title of a noted novel by Andrea Camilleri: how water has the capacity of widening and narrowing according to the container it is in.
The container of that water is, obviously, the State and the more or less recent story of Cosa Nostra has developed precisely on this relationship – at times conflicting, at times parallel – with the democratic Institutions, a relationship that does not regard, however, only the front of the repression.
The more the action of the State in the defence of legality, the rules of civil co-existence, and the commitment of the central and local administration in assuring the rights of the citizen and the essential services slacken, the more Cosa Nostra expands, to the point of developing that sort of delirium of omnipotence which, between 1992 and 1993, allowed them to bring the Country to its knees with the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, and with the slaughters of the “Continent”, which touched the summit with that of Via dei Georgofili, and the attack on the Uffizi Gallery, the most important picture gallery in the world.
At any uncertainty, at any sign of weakness or, even, of satisfaction of the State in the fight against the mafia phenomenon, a reinforcement of Cosa Nostra, inevitably corresponds.
I remember, for example, a mafia Boss prisoner submitted to the prison regime of the so-called 41 bis which, among other things, provided that family meetings took place through a glass divider, which impeded any physical contact. For understandable humanitarian reasons, the penitentiary administration, at a certain point, had allowed the Mafiosi to pass the last minutes of the meetings without the glass divider, with their children of ten years and under. Well, at the first useful meeting, a Mafioso took advantage of this privilege to transmit a death message through means of a ten-year old child whom he pretended to embrace. Fortunately, thanks to the video cameras which had been installed in the room, we intercepted the message before it arrived at destination. It is precisely this extraordinary capacity of exploiting any forms of concession and adapting to any new eventuality that has permitted Cosa Nostra to survive for, at least, a couple of centuries although, at the same time, always remaining the same.
When, in the second half of the 80’s, following the courageous undertaking of that handful of magistrates of the pool of the Office of Case Preparation of Palermo, assisted by policemen and carabineers who would have paid with their lives that spirit of service of these magistrates, the mafia, which found itself having to reckon with the ‘deep throats’ of the police co-operators, immediately ran for cover.
Cosa Nostra decided to reduce the number of the ‘men of honour’ to a minimum and had made recourse, in a massive way, to the so-called affiliates – little criminals, so-called “punciuti” who were used, in exchange for very small sums of money, to commit even murders and massacres – without, however, being accorded the full-membership of the organization, to those of whom the truth must be said, reveal the reasons for which they are called to commit a crime and refer to others belonging to the same organization.
If the affiliate decided to cooperate with the Police, he could recount only his own wrongdoings and could involve only some other ‘use and discard subjects’ like himself, but he was not allowed to disclose, as Tommaso Buscetta had done, for example, the organization chart and the most delicate strategies of the association.
After the carnage of Capaci and Via d’Amelio, when Cosa Nostra touched the highest point of its frontal clash with the State – which responded, finally, in an adequate manner, militarizing the Sicilian streets and investing its best resources, with extraordinary results, in its fight against the mafia – Provenzano understood that the only way to allow the association to survive was that of making it appear to disappear, to hide it from the eyes of the Institutions, the civil society and the mass media …. waiting until the trouble passes.
The old Corleonese strategy had only to postpone the operation by a few years, until the April of 1998 when Vito Vitale, the last of the Bagarella faithful, was captured by the Police Force, but from that moment on, he encountered no more obstacles in convincing many that with the mafia, with this new old mafia, the State can also co-exist.
In reality, the mafia of today has changed only to return the same as it was before, to how it appeared in the 50’s and 60’s, when many even maintained that it did not exist, that it was only a Sicilian way of being, of thinking, of representing itself.
Undoubtedly, Cosa Nostra, today, no longer disposes of those very considerable economic resources which derived from the fact of being the central junction in the international traffic of narcotic substances (which it practically abandoned in the first years of the 90’s, perhaps for an insult to their American “cousins”). It cannot count on groups of bloodthirsty gunmen structured to be able to carry out any kind of crime and, probably, after the capture of Provenzano, it is an association without a leader and without an adequate directive body able to devise possible strategies of attack on the Country’s Statesmen.
But how long will all this last? How much time will pass before the Commission of Cosa Nostra is reconstituted, the Cupola, as the newspapers call it, and how long before that violence will arrogantly re-emerge, which has always been part of the genetic patrimony of the mafia?
Cosa Nostra has certainly not lost control of the territory. In Sicily, the pizzo
is still paid; one continues to turn to the local Bosses for permission to start a commercial or entrepreneurial activity; the proceeds of State orders for goods finish up for the most part, directly or indirectly, in the pockets of the Mafiosi, and that which, elsewhere, is a citizen’s right, on Sicilian soil today, is still a favour for which the current Boss of the area must be compensated.