“Italians have little trust in the state because they live in one that doesn’t deserve their trust.”
Driving a moped in Naples is particularly dangerous – and not just due to Italy’s notoriously daring drivers. An unwritten code, devised by the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia, overrides the official law obliging motorcyclists to wear a helmet. The Camorra asks that people do not wear helmets on mopeds in Naples; headwear is reserved not for the safety of riders, but for mobsters on call. Helmets are thus rarely seen: to wear one is to give the impression that you are part of the Camorra, and risks provoking violence against you.
Today the Italian Mafia does not manifest itself as flamboyantly as it did in the late stages of the 20th century; many “big bosses” are now imprisoned and reaching old-age. It is a far cry from the commonplace and unsurprising stings and massacres. However, the submission of politicians to organised crime is largely responsible for the detachment many Italians feel towards the state. Organised crime continues to be an active force in the economy, and the so-called “treaty” between the state and the mafia remains a force of corruption.
Giuseppe Pipitone, a Sicilian investigative journalist who specialises in organised crime, is very well versed on the power of the Mafia. We discuss the history of this unique relationship between the Mafia and the Italian state. Pipitone explains that organised crime pervades the state from small bribes taken by policemen up to government ministers actively undermining the ’41 Bis’ (a law that condemns individuals for activities related to organized crime) by granting “an unofficial immunity” to certain Mafiosi for various prosecutions. He concludes that “Italy is a state that concedes sovereignty to a criminal organisation under threats.”.
According to Pipitone, January 30th 1992 is the most significant event in the history of the state-Mafia complex. That day, the Judiciary, led by attorneys Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino, broke an existing “pact” of immunity between Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia) and the state. They confirmed the sentences of the ‘Maxi Trial’ (the greatest criminal trial against the Mafia) and gave life sentences to the notorious Cosa Nostra bosses, Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Riina. This prompted an unofficial “war” between the state and the Mafia, culminating in a series of bombings designed to force the state into submission. They were successful. Falcone and Borsellino had been murdered by the summer. A new pact was formed between Cosa Nostra and Marcello Dell’Utri, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s senior adviser and co-founder of his party, Forza Italia. This move in reverse was marked by countless corruption scandals: the Naples Waste Management Crisis in 2008; Berlusconi’s Prostitution Scandal in 2014; the ‘Mafia Capitale’ scandal in 2015, where funds dedicated to city services in Rome were misappropriated to organised crime, are just a few examples.
Pipitone enlightens me on the state of the treaty in 2016. “The “military” guise of the Mafia no longer exists – the Judiciary dismantled the power structures behind the terrorist attacks of 1994. The Mafia is no longer simply a force that “controls turf”. Furthermore, we find a level of state corruption that might be less tangible, but is truly superior to the times of the First Republic. Today’s Mafia is revitalised as soon as the state grants the opportunity.” He quotes Palermo’s Chief Attorney, Roberto Scarpinato, who theorises that it’s a network of ‘occult’ powers that offer illegal services in response to high demand. To Pipitone, “that’s where the mafia becomes important to the state.”
It seems to be easy for Italians to lose faith in a state so fraught with corruption. Pipitone agrees almost instantly: “Italians have little trust in the state because they live in one that doesn’t deserve their trust. And it is essentially the state’s ignorance that allows the Mafia to flourish. Cosa Nostra proliferated in Sicily for 150 years because Sicily was effectively devoid of a state. In this case, the state had simply delegated control of the territory to organised crime.” Yet with an “occult” Mafia that is far more elusive in comparison to the aristocratic Mafia that dominated the First Republic, I ask whether such a clear relationship between state and Mafia is still valid. Pipitone corroborates immediately with the superlative: “Validissimo”.
Pipitone recounts how even the former President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, an individual who is supposed to be politically neutral, and the person responsible for safeguarding the constitution, dabbled freely in organised crime. Napolitano successfully destroyed four intercepted phone calls between himself and Nicola Mancino, a Senator who asked for his ‘protection’ during an inquiry on relations between the state and Mafia in 2012.Was the Italian media not outraged? I raise the Panama Papers Leak, and recount how David Cameron, under considerable pressure from the British press, eventually conceded to publish his tax summary.
Pipitone sighs: “You can’t compare the UK to Italy. Such scandals are the norm. During Marcello Dell’ Utri’s trial (for complicity with the Mafia in 2004), it emerged that Berlusconi had paid Cosa Nostra for its services in the seventies and employed Vittorio Mangano as a ‘gardener’, at his villa in Arcore – needless to say, Mafia member Mangano wasn’t employed for his green fingered ability. Dell’ Utri and Berlusconi then created a political party, Forza Italia, which won the majority vote in Italy for twenty years.”.
If corruption on this level can occur without much outcry, is it possible to cut the chord that ties the Mafia to the state? “Nothing is impossible”, Pipitone responds with a suddenly ardent tone. “In any democratic system there exists one resource, the vote, that can bring about progression.”
His answer doesn’t convince me. The incumbent centre-left party, the Partito Democratico, was recently involved with the ‘Ndrangtheta (the Calabrian mafia) where PD candidates in the North of Italy struck deals with the criminals in exchange for votes If parties across the spectrum have been complicit in collaborating with organised crime, it seems unlikely that the symbiotic state-Mafia relationship can be undermined by political parties. Pipitone admits that the solution “is not so clear-cut. You can’t vote for any party purely on the basis of addressing the Mafia. The ‘antimafia’ is more of a professional, or a legal, affair than a partisan one. But if you vote for a party that tackles issues of economic inequality and redevelops deprived areas, you can undermine the Mafia in those ways.”
Investigative journalism in Italy is said to work well in exposing organised crime and motivating communities to take action against mafiosi. The celebrated author Roberto Saviano achieved recognition from his eloquent exposure of the Camorra in his book Gomorrah (2008), which sold millions internationally and was critical in prompting the arrest of key bosses in the Neapolitan Casalesi clan. Yet Saviano paid the price by living with an armed guard and travel between secret locations for the rest of his life. The two editors of Pipitone’s paper, Marco Travaglio and Peter Gomez, and the journalists Michele Santoro and Gianni Barbacetto, are also significant in exposing state-Mafia ties in a field dominated by Berlusconi’s media empire, which purports to be comfortably ignorant of the issue. They received a written death threat in 2011, containing four bullets – one for each journalist.
Nevertheless Piptone appears to be drawn to his career precisely because it is dangerous. “Investigative journalism has changed a lot and can still do a lot more. I wouldn’t even say that the risk of death threats is a drawback.” However, Pipitone underlines that aside from investigative journalism and judicial action, what is needed to counteract Italian crime will be found on a more personal level. “You need a prise de conscience, a widespread burgeoning of awareness. I think that’s been developing in the past twenty years. Note that now, Cosa Nostra’s bosses are all over seventy and in prison. The new bosses are old.”
In spite of the disgust and horror felt towards mafiosi, there remains a certain Godfather fascination. Mafiosi still achieve a curious celebrity status; in April 2016, the son of Salvatore Riina, the Cosa Nostra boss who engineered a brutal bombing campaign in the 1990s, appeared on a popular talkshow, Porta a Porta, to discuss a new book and defend his father. Pipitone agrees with the atmosphere of cult celebrity: “There’s still a lot to do [to raise awareness of the problems]. But it isn’t your average Italian that gives into the Mafia in this way. The Mafia is most powerful where there is poverty and ignorance; no awareness of one’s own civil rights; no culture. It’s always been like this.”
We return to discussing Naples and the Camorra’s ‘ban’ on wearing helmets on mopeds. The state-Mafia relationship is effectively an alternative constitution. To repudiate it, Pipitone believes “an army of teachers is far more useful than an army of police.”
If there is one thing fraying the chord between the state and the Mafia, it is simply talking about it. Education will tie a new one between the state and the Italian people.