Different ways of conceptualizing the mafia have been proposed over the time, emphasizing either the cultural or the organizational factors. The former describes the mafia as a subculture typical of certain areas of Southern Italy, whereas the latter focuses on its internal configuration. The mafia has also been conceptualized as a business enterprise, although its political dimension has also been emphasized by delineating it as an industry of private protection. Indeed, Italian mafias differ from other criminal organizations for their will to political dominion in the areas of their traditional presence. Another peculiarity of mafia groups in Italy is their internal configuration and the resort to symbols and rituals that promote the creation of strong ties among the affiliates.
Italian mafia organizations include Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta (Society of the Men of Honor) in Calabria, and the Camorra in Campania. Although these criminal organizations share common elements, they differ in terms of history, internal organization, illegal market activities, and infiltration in the legitimate and informal economy, and cannot thus be considered as a single phenomenon. The historical and cultural background, the internal organization, and the expertise provide an explanation for the differences that emerge with regard to the presence of mafia groups in illegal markets and the way they conduct their criminal activities. Extortion is instead common to all Italian mafia organizations, and it constitutes the core business of Italian mafias, since it allows them to gain control over a specific territory and thus exercise political power in that area.
The large profits coming from illegal activities are invested both in the illegal markets and in the legitimate economy. Investments in the legitimate economy allow mafia organizations to extend their political dominion by infiltrating into and controlling legitimate economic sectors. Among the economic sectors, mafia groups seem to favor the public construction industry, as well as other “protected” sectors where the public administration regulates the participation by requiring a specific license or permission and thus reduces the competition.
To this day, most research on Italian mafias focused on areas of their traditional presence and explored the reasons they emerged in those territories, whereas little is known about the colonization and transplantation processes. In the future, the adoption of more complex interpretations of the mobility of criminal groups might help identify the factors that foster transplantation and that make it successful.
Mafia and Organized Crime
For a long time, the term “mafia” has been used as a synonym for organized crime (Blok 2008), and Italian mafia has been considered a paradigm of organized crime (Paoli 2003). Nonetheless, the term “mafia” refers to a specific form of organized crime (Finckenauer 2005), and the illegal organizations that have been presented as its archetype include large-scale criminal groups other than Italian mafias, such as the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza (Paoli 2002).
The main trait that distinguishes mafia groups from other criminal organizations is their political dimension. Although actively involved in illegal market activities, mafia groups cannot be reduced to these activities (Paoli 2002) nor is their internal configuration the consequence of their participation in illegal businesses (van Duyne 1997). Besides the provision of illegal goods and services and the maximization of profits, mafia groups aim at exercising political dominion over the areas where their members live and where most of their illegal activities are conducted. The control over the territory is guaranteed by a generalized system of extortion, which also allows mafia organizations to increase their income (Paoli 2003).
Another peculiarity of mafia groups is their internal configuration. Despite variations, mafia organizations are characterized by the presence of government bodies that coordinate the activities and regulate the relationships among their member. Symbols and rituals, including a ceremony of affiliation, promote the creation of ties of brotherhood among the members of the organization, who become “men of honor” and are subject to the duty of silence (Paoli 2003).
The first comprehensive study of the mafia was published in 1876 by Leopoldo Franchetti (1974), who described it as an extralegal social system, namely, a specific and socially accepted way of exercising violence to solve conflicts. After Franchetti’s work, different ways of conceptualizing the mafia have been proposed over the time, emphasizing either the cultural or the organizational factors (Sciarrone 2009). The cultural approach describes the mafia as an attitude, a subculture typical of certain areas of Southern Italy, rather than a formal organization (Hess 1973), although organizational factors have also been considered by analyzing the network of family, friendship, and business relations of mafia members (Blok 1988; Schneider and Schneider 1976). The organizational approach instead emphasizes the internal configuration of mafia groups and describes them as formal organizations with articulated structures and a set of symbols and rituals. The depiction of mafia organizations as criminal associations can also be found in the Italian penal code, where Article 416bis describes the mafia as a specific type of criminal organization and lists the main features of mafia groups.
In the mid-1980s, the focus shifted from cultural and organizational aspects to the illegal activities carried out by criminal organizations, and the mafia was conceptualized as an enterprise. According to Pino Arlacchi (1988), between the 1950s and the 1960s, the Italian mafia had experienced an entrepreneurial transformation and had focused on the accumulation of capital. Other scholars refused the identification of mafia groups with business enterprises and the sharp distinction between a modern and an old mafia. They instead emphasized either the importance of the threat or use of violence to regulate economic transactions (Catanzaro 1992) or the political dimension, describing the mafia as “a specific economic enterprise, an industry which produces, promotes and sells private protection” (Gambetta 1993, 1). More recently, the complexity of the phenomenon has been recognized (Santino 2006), and Italian mafias have been described as “multifunctional organizations” involved in a plurality of illegal activities and aiming at pursuing a plurality of goals, including the exercise of political power over a specific territory (Paoli 2004, p. 274). Mafia groups cannot thus be reduced to their economic dimension, both because they originated before the illegal markets they operate in and because their activities include noneconomic ones, such as the exercise of political dominion (Paoli 2002).
Most of these conceptualizations of the mafia have been proposed with particular reference to the Sicilian mafia, also known as “Cosa Nostra.” However, mafia organizations which originated from and mainly operate in Italy include Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta (Society of the Men of Honor) in Calabria, and the Camorra in Campania.
Although these criminal organizations share common elements, the history of the mafia “cannot be reduced to a single scheme or interpretation, valid in every situation and time” (Lupo 1996, p. 26). Italian mafias differ in terms of history, internal organization, illegal market activities, and infiltration in the legitimate and informal economy (Sciarrone 2009), and they thus need to be discussed separately.
The term “mafia” first appeared in 1865 in a report by the then-prefect of Palermo Filippo Gualterio, who used it to refer to Sicilian criminal groups. Only 20 years later, the same term was adopted in the United States to refer to a criminal organization of Italian origins. The same organization was also referred to as “La Cosa Nostra,” as Joseph Valachi testified in 1963 before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the US Senate Committee on Government Operations. The same term has also been adopted by Sicilian mafiosi, together with other names, such as “Onorata Società” (Honored Society) (Lupo 1996).
Evidence of antecedents of Cosa Nostra in Sicily can be found starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, although only in the 1920s, the Italian government ordered a systematic repression of Sicilian mafia groups. After World War II, Cosa Nostra extended its power, mainly by expanding from the countryside into the largest cities and infiltrating into the public construction industry. In the mid-1970s, the Sicilian mafia entered the illicit drug market further increasing its power and profits, until the beginning of the 1990s. In 1992–1993, the killing of the state prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino was followed by an intensification of law enforcement repression. As a consequence, Cosa Nostra adopted the so-called “strategia dell’inabissamento” (sinking strategy), aimed at reducing its visibility and thus the attention from law enforcement agencies by minimizing violence. However, this strategy also led mafia groups to concentrate their illegal activities in Sicily, mainly focusing on extortion and infiltration in the legitimate economy (Lupo 1996; Savona 2012).
The internal structure of Cosa Nostra has not changed since the 1950s. It is composed of a number of cosche or families. Each cosca controls a specific territory, and a boss, who is elected by the affiliates, is in charge of its management. His counselors are also elected by the affiliates and assist the boss in his decisions. The hierarchical structure of the cosche, the direct election of the high-ranking positions, and the frequent turnover guarantee the cohesion of the group and help strengthen the ties of brotherhood among mafia members. In 1957 a Commission was also created to regulate the relationships among the different families. The meetings were attended by representatives of the mandamenti, namely, groups of three or four families. The Commission had the aim of settling disputes, sanctioning violations and taking any decision related to the use of violence, whereas each cosca was still autonomous in doing business (Paoli 2003).
The intensification of the law enforcement repression since the early 1990s and the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the latest chief of Cosa Nostra, in 2006 have considerably weakened the Sicilian mafia, which has experienced a strong reorganization process. However, despite the undergoing crisis, the organization can still rely on a widespread network of entrepreneurs and politicians that ensure Cosa Nostra the ability to commit extortion and infiltrate into the Sicilian legitimate economy (DIA 2010).
Evidence of the presence of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, although the term “‘ndrangheta” has been consistently used only since the 1960s. Different names instead appear in the first judicial documents, such as “mafia” or “camorra” – which were used to refer to Sicilian and Neapolitan mafia organizations – or “onorata società” (honored society) and “picciotteria” (Paoli 2003). The limited violence and the fact that it was considered outdated in comparison to Cosa Nostra and the Camorra made law enforcement agencies and scholars not to pay too much attention to the ‘Ndrangheta (Ciconte 2011). Today the Calabrian mafia is instead considered the most powerful among Italian criminal organizations and the most involved in drug trafficking, and in June 2008, it was included into the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) Foreign Drug Kingpin list (U.S. Department of State 2011).
The ‘Ndrangheta is organized in cosche or ‘ndrine which are usually formed by the members of the same family and exercise their influence over a specific territory according to the arrangements made with the other families. The fact that members of the ‘ndrine are bonded by kin ties guarantees secrecy and trust (Paoli 2003). Within each ‘ndrina, specific tasks are also assigned to the affiliates, according to their formal rank in the organization. A two-level hierarchical structure is present; low-level affiliates are referred to as members of the società minore (lower society), whereas bosses are part of the società maggiore (higher society). Within both the società, a long series of different roles and tasks can then be identified.
The familistic structure of the Calabrian mafia has been considered for a long time a sign of backwardness, compared with the Sicilian mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra. Rather than being old fashioned, this type of structure guarantees a high degree of cohesion among its members and minimizes the risk of defections. The number of defectors has indeed always been lower than that of other Italian mafia groups (CPA 2008; Ciconte 2011). The internal cohesion is also guaranteed by a set of formal rules, an extensive use of rituals and symbols, and strong barriers to entry. As in Cosa Nostra, an affiliation ceremony or battesimo is indeed required for a new affiliate to be appointed and become a “man of honor” (Paoli 2004).
For a long time, the ‘Ndrangheta was conceived as a confederation of families without a coordinating body which establishes common rules in order to avoid conflicts among the cosche. This idea of the ‘Ndrangheta as an horizontal organization started to be reexamined in the 1990s and has been abandoned when the existence of a collective body (Crimine or Provincia) entitled to establish common rules and settle disputes emerged from recent criminal investigations (TrMi 2010). However, despite the presence of a collective body, each family enjoys a monopoly on its territory and the autonomous running of illegal activities, even though a collaboration among different cosche is frequent, especially for the trafficking of drugs (Ciconte 2011).
The power of the Calabrian mafia also comes from its ramifications, both in other Italian regions and abroad. In the last decades, the ‘Ndrangheta has indeed created outposts both in Central and Northern Italy and in foreign countries, where it has developed an extensive network of contacts to facilitate its involvement in illegal market activities. Kin ties maintain their importance in the internal organization of the ‘ndrine also outside Calabria, since they allow for a quick replacement of affiliates in case of arrests by law enforcement agencies. However, in addition to mafia associates, ‘Ndrangheta groups resort to other individuals outside the organization and can rely on an extended network of contacts with both common criminals and legal entrepreneurs and politicians (CPA 2008; Ciconte 2011).
The Camorra refers to a variety of independent criminal groups and gangs which conduct their illegal activities in Campania. These criminal groups – unlike Sicilian and Calabrian ones – vary considerably from long-lasting family businesses to gangs developed around charismatic leaders, often in competition among each other (Paoli 2004).
First mentions of the Camorra as a criminal organization can be found in police records which date back to the early nineteenth century, when written statutes describing symbols and rituals, as well as signs of the presence of stable coordination mechanisms, were found (Behan 1996). Although most symbols and rituals have been maintained, the Campanian underworld has changed, and the contemporary Camorra has turned into a different criminal organization. In the 1960s, the Camorra groups entered the tobacco and later the drug market, making large profits which were then invested both in the same illegal markets and in the legitimate economy, dealing mainly with public sector contracts (Paoli 2004). With the development of the contraband industry, competition among rival groups increased, as well as their dynamism and the territorial control (Behan 1996).
The presence of a stable mechanism that coordinates the activities of the different groups and settles disputes among them no longer exists, making wars against rival gangs more likely to occur than in Sicily and Calabria (Paoli 2004; DIA 2010). The Camorra is indeed horizontally organized, with criminal groups forming temporary alliances and maintaining their autonomy (Barbagallo 2010). As for Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta, the direct physical control over a territory is fundamental for Camorra groups. “Once this control is won, criminal gangs can not only extend their protection rackets, illegal gambling, usury, cigarette, and drug trading; they can begin to become power brokers, mediating between ordinary people and ruling politicians” (Behan 1996, p. 110).
The heterogeneity of criminal groups and gangs which populate the Campanian underworld is reflected upon the illegal activities they conduct. Smaller groups are mostly involved in the supply of illegal goods and services, such as extortion, loan sharking, drug trafficking, counterfeiting, exploitation of prostitution, and illegal gambling; the most powerful and long-lasting groups combine these illegal activities with infiltration into the legitimate economy and the public administration sector (Paoli 2004; DIA 2010).
Extortion and protection constitute the core business of Italian mafias. Although extortion is not as profitable as other illegal activities, such as usury, drug trafficking, or infiltration in the public sector contracts, it does not require any initial investment, and it can be carried out without high risks or high managing costs. Besides being a source of profit, it allows mafia groups to gain control over a specific territory and thus exercise political power in that area, as well as it enables them to establish contacts with legal entrepreneurs and penetrate into the legitimate economy. The sum that legal entrepreneurs are forced to pay is usually calculated on the basis of their legal profits, so to encourage their compliance and minimize the risk of reporting to law enforcement agencies. In some cases, however, extortion is also exploited by mafia groups to take possession of profitable businesses by forcing entrepreneurs to undersell their company when they are no longer able to handle mafia organization’s request of money (Paoli 2003; Savona 2012).
Extortion can take shape in different ways. The most common one involves the request of money in exchange for protection. However, mafia groups also resort to “indirect extortion” (Sciarrone 2009, p. 76). In this case, the mafiosi establish special relationships with a selected number of legal entrepreneurs, and they ask for materials or services normally provided by the entrepreneurs’ businesses in exchange for protection. Another form of indirect extortion involves the request to hire affiliates or other people related to mafia members. By giving suggestions for hiring, mafia groups create new jobs for those who accept their presence and collaborate with them, and thus increase the collusive behavior within their communities (Sciarrone 2009).
Whereas extortion is common to all Italian mafia organizations, some differences emerge with regard to their presence in illegal markets and the way they conduct their criminal activities. These differences depend on the history and culture of the three mafia groups, as well as their internal organization and their expertise. These three factors – historical and cultural background, organization, and expertise – provide an explanation for the involvement of the ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra in drug trafficking, an illegal business formerly run by Cosa Nostra. The same factors also explain the involvement of the Camorra in counterfeiting and in the illegal traffic in waste. The Neapolitan mafia has indeed exploited the need for new places for waste disposal and the inefficiency of the public administration and corrupt politicians to enter the market, whereas the lack of the same combination of criminal opportunities in Sicily and Calabria have prevented Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta to do the same (Savona 2012).
Together with extortion, drug trafficking is among the most profitable illegal activities conducted by mafia organizations, and it is carried out in coexistence with other criminal groups. Indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s, mafia groups tried do gain the monopoly of the drug market both in their traditional communities and in some Italian cities, enforcing retailers to buy solely from them, but they never succeeded in controlling the whole exchange of drugs in an entire city or even in one neighborhood, except for a few mafia strongholds in southern Italy (Paoli 2004; DIA 2010).
The ‘Ndrangheta is particularly active in the illegal drug market since 1980s, when the Calabrian mafia has succeeded in entering this profitable market partly at the expense of Cosa Nostra, whose members were no longer considered trustworthy interlocutors, especially by South American drug producers. Among drug trafficking activities, the ‘Ndrangheta is mainly involved in the importation and wholesale distribution of drugs, especially cocaine and heroin. The position of strength of ‘Ndrangheta families in the illegal drug market is guaranteed by their extensive network of contacts in Center and Northern Italy, both with their affiliates and with external drug dealers. In the last decades, the Calabrian mafia has also created outposts in foreign countries which serve as transit countries for the smuggling of drugs (CPA 2008; DIA 2010; Ciconte 2011).
The illegal activities mafias are involved in are not limited to the trafficking of drugs. Other illegal goods are provided by the Italian criminal organizations, such as firearms and counterfeited products. Mafia groups are also involved in the illicit traffic in waste, illicit gambling, loan sharking, frauds, as well as robberies and homicides (DIA 2010). The large profits are then invested both in the illegal markets and in the legitimate economy.
Infiltration of the Legitimate Economy
The infiltration of mafia organizations in the legitimate economy “has to do with the very nature of Italian mafia groups and their claim to exercise a political dominion within their communities” (Paoli 2004, p. 284). Extortion allows mafia groups to achieve an indirect control of companies, by forcing them to pay for protection services, hire specific people, or supply materials or services. Investments in the legitimate economy allow mafia organizations to extend their political dominion by infiltrating into and controlling legitimate economic sectors. The management of legal companies is indeed a way mafias can create new job opportunities and extend their power within their communities, as well as establish relationships with legal entrepreneurs and politicians. Also, the large illegal profits generated from illegal activities cannot be completely reinvested in the same illegal markets. The management of legal companies thus enables the mafiosi to launder part of their money and make even more profits from investments in the legal markets (Arlacchi 1988; Ruggiero 1996; Fantò 1999).
Among the economic sectors, mafia groups seem to favor the public construction industry, as well as other “protected” sectors, i.e., those where the public administration regulates the participation by requiring a specific license or permission and thus reduces the competition. These economic sectors are generally characterized by a low productivity, but they do not require specific skills nor technological innovations (Sciarrone 2009). Also, they allow mafia groups to capitalize on their competitive advantages, namely, the constant availability of floating assets and the possibility to discourage the competitors by resorting to violence (Arlacchi 1988).
Most research on Italian mafias focused on areas of their traditional presence, namely, Western Sicily (Palermo, Agrigento, and Trapani provinces), Southern Calabria (Reggio Calabria province), and Naples and its surroundings. Only recently the interest in the mobility of criminal groups has generated a small but significant number of studies on mafia transplantation into new territories (Sciarrone 2009; Varese 2011; Campana 2011). Different interpretations have been proposed on whether, why, and how mafia groups expand to new and distant territories. Peter Reuter (1985) and Diego Gambetta (1993) have argued that mafia organizations tend to be local in scope and are not likely to migrate. However, examples of successful mafia transplantation do exist (Varese 2011). The possibility that generalized migration of the population or of convicted mafiosi relocated outside their areas of origin might foster the mobility of criminal groups has also been discussed, as well as the hypothesis that involves specific mafia expansion strategies (Sciarrone 2009). To this day, little is known about the colonization and transplantation processes, whereas a significant body of research has explored the reasons Italian mafias emerged in their territories of origin. The adoption of more complex interpretations of the mobility of criminal groups might help identify the factors that foster transplantation and that make it successful.
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