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Pizzo vs. Piso: Extortion as a Legitimacy Practice in Sicily and Michoacán


This article aims to improve our understanding of criminal legitimacy-building phenomena by comparing extortion practices performed by criminal groups in Sicily, Italy and Michoacán, Mexico. It is argued that these extortion practices, known as pizzo in Italy and as cobro de piso in Mexico, do not only have a practical dimension but also a symbolic one. On the one hand, the practice of extortion produces incomes for the criminal group. On the other hand, extortion works as an authority claim and is linked to the political legitimacy discourse of the criminal group. This article explores this second, symbolic dimension of the practice of extortion by comparing the results of qualitative field research in Sicily and Michoacán. It is argued that extortion does not only work as a form of parallel taxing, but also shapes the contact and creates a closer relationship with the local population. Pizzo and piso then work as power-reaffirmation devices by configuring a particular political display related to the political legitimacy interest of the criminal group that engages in extortion practices.

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Fig. 1

Source Author´s calculations based on data from SESNSP and CONAPO

Data availability

Data associated with the interviews that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Names are anonymized due to the agreement with informants. Resting data belongs to public dataset referenced in the sources and processed by the author.


  1. Given the topics discussed in the interviews, anonymity was promised to every informant.

  2. Putnam´s work in this regard described how the North of Italy developed a higher level of social capital compared to the South, characterized by lower levels of interpersonal trust and association. Through these indicators, Putnam explain the disparity in the historical country´s democratic development (1993).

  3. Migdal´s state definition actually works closely with Weber´s definition of the state—which usually works as the primary reference in this regard—except for the fact that Migdal opens the possibility for the state as a social phenomenon in which monopolizing violence in a given territory does not necessarily occur.

  4. Indeed, parallel taxation is a wide practice among rebel groups (Schlichte and Schneckener 2015, p. 418). The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the FARC in Colombia are examples in this regard.

  5. The original one was published in Spanish. Besides the analytical elements for this research, it was characterized by several grammar errors as well. This translation did not attempt to correct them, but aimed to reflect the original spirit of the message.

  6. Some of the local business that suffered piso charging that were mentioned when carrying out fieldwork, and that match with journalistic reports, are cafeterias, restaurants, night clubs, public transport operators, and tortillerías, among others. Moreover, the increasing violence reached levels that caused autodefensas reaction: ‘If you did not want to [pay] piso they would say, well, we will get your business […] and in the case of Tepalcatepec […] they started to take things away from you, and later women, and then not only women but also their daughters […] and that is why they rebelled’ (Interview in field, 2017).

  7. In this regard, Addiopizzo had already documented how CN, at Palermo, charges pizzo differently depending on the neighborhood. Moreover, usually this geographical distribution for asking pizzo coincide with the local police patrolling distribution. In this regard, to some extent, pizzo in Palermo also works for CN as neighborhoods control mechanism through which the criminal group mark affirms their presence in the territory depending on the area of the city.

  8. The shift could be explained through the tragic appearance of emblematic victims, the so-called ‘excellent cadavers’ (Schneider and Schneider 2001, p. 431; Paoli 2003, p. 12) and the work they did against mafia before being assassinated precisely by mafiosi. During the seventies, eighties, and nineties, mafia killed well-recognized local individuals with diverse professional profiles and ideologies. These people common denominator was precisely their labor against CN. The ‘excellent cadavers’ symbolism was powerful enough to inspire and improve the anti-mafia work and, consequently, to undermine CN’s political legitimacy by unifying this movement that became the most significant criminal group threat to its mandate. Contrary to what used to happen with the so-called Lupara Bianca, i.e., mafia victims who have been killed in a way their corpse cannot be found, the ‘excellent cadavers’ were publicly exposed. With more or less public attention, each assassination took a place in the public debate domain and inspired new generations and sympathizers to keep anti-mafia actions. Along the ‘excellent cadavers’ profile there are journalists, bishops, judges, authorities, etcetera.


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Correspondence to Rodrigo Peña González.

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Conflict of interest

The author did not receive funding for this article. However, most of the data used come from his Ph.D. research, which was funded by the National Council for Science and Technology of Mexico, as well as the research group From Disorder to Order: Conflict and the Resources of Legitimacy at Leiden University.

Research involving human participants and/or animals

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed consent

Verbal informed consent was obtained from all the informants prior to the interviews carried out for this research. Also, the author offered them to keep their identity anonymized.

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Peña González, R. Pizzo vs. Piso: Extortion as a Legitimacy Practice in Sicily and Michoacán. SN Soc Sci 1, 41 (2021).

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  • Extortion
  • Michoacán
  • Sicily
  • Criminal groups
  • Legitimacy