former Mafia boss Giovanni Brusca was arrested in Palermo in 1996
A notorious Sicilian Mafia boss responsible for some 150 murders – Giovanni Brusca – was released last week, causing much anger in Italy. He detonated the bomb that killed Giovanni Falcone, Italy’s legendary anti-Mafia judge, in 1992.
Here Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University, describes how the Mafia – or Cosa Nostra – continues to influence Sicilian life, despite the state’s successes against it in recent years.
The release of mafioso Giovanni Brusca, the sixty-four years old man responsible for some 150 murders, has been controversial in Italy. Yet several magistrates have pointed out that his testimony was instrumental in key investigations. Italian legislation on the so-called collaboratiori di giustizia—a brainchild of judge Falcone in the early 1990s—remains a crucial tool in the fight against serious and organized crime. Yet a question remains: What will Brusca find out when he walks out of prison? Is the Sicilian mafia still a force to reckon with, or is it a ghost of its previous self? The answer is a bit of both.
A useful starting point to assess the place of the Sicilian mafia in local society is the April 2021 investigation into the Pagliarelli mafia family. Pagliarelli is a central neighbourhood of Palermo, with the main prison, the hospital and several University buildings are located. The documents released in 2021 by the investigators make for a chilling reading. Under the heading of “public order of the territory,” they document how entrepreneurs routinely turn to the mafia to recover stolen goods, claim unpaid debts, and manage economic competition. In the summer of 2019, the owner of a chain of seven shops selling home products is the victim of theft, twice. He is heard calling the deputy boss of the Pagliarelli family: “Could you come up … for five minutes to the shop?” “Sure”, swiftly replies the mafioso. The entrepreneur shows him CCTV images of the thieves and gives him all the information he has. Within seven days, the mafia finds the culprits and severely tortures them, forcing them to return the stolen goods. The entrepreneur is present at the beating. There is no evidence that the mafia was in touch with the thieves, who were free-lancers. This is not a case of the mafia “offering protection against a danger they themselves create.” In a similar instance, the owner of fancy bar in the centre of town calls the boss when a colleague of his has her car stolen. Within five days, the car is returned.
The investigation offers evidence that the mafia can deal with more complex issues. In one case, a bar decides to expand its business to sell pastry and hot food. Yet a few yards down the road another establishment also sells pastry, and the owner is worried about the competition. Again, the mafia is called in to discuss matters. In a further example of the mafia ability to govern economic relations, a mafia representative is present at a meeting between an accountant, the owner of a building and a tenant who is late with rent. In time of Covid, a man close to the Pagliarelli clan has even been instrumental in arranging (through a front) the delivery of 5,000 face masks (in another unrelated investigation, a person related to the mafia was seen handing out food parcels). Mafia ‘justice’ and charity is a double-edge sword. If you accept it, you are bound to be asked for further, compromising favours. Yet it cannot be dismissed as purely bogus.
There are signs that not all is well for the mafia. First, bosses are younger than in the past. The alleged current boss of Pagliarelli family was born in 1977, the previous acting boss (arrested in 2009) was born in 1981. The man who became head of the family in 2003 was 57 years old. The arrests have wreaked havoc on the organization, which is forced to choose increasingly younger or marginal leaders in the Cosa Nostra world (as in the case of Settimo Mineo). The current boss was so afraid of being arrested that he moved through Palermo in disguise. He also decided to spend the covid year in Brazil. When he returned in 2021, he was arrested. At the macro level, the Sicilian mafia is no longer a player in international drugs trafficking and is now buying drugs for the local market from Neapolitan dealers, as I have shown in my book Mafia Life (2018).
It is shocking that legitimate entrepreneurs, with high social and economic capital, have no quals at turning to the mafia for services the state should be able to supply. And yet the efficiency of state-supplied justice is wanting. It takes 527 days to obtain a judgment in the first instance in a civil dispute in Italy, the longest in Europe. Recently, newspapers reported of a work-related dispute in town of Vibo Valentia (Calabria): it lasted almost 12 years. A similar dispute in the town of Sabaudia (Lazio) took 11 years to be settled. In the meantime, the plaintiff had died. Only 3 out of 10 citizens, and only 4 out of 10 businesses, have faith in justice system. There are several proposals linked to the Europe’s Recovery Fund to speed up court proceedings. It remains to be seen whether these reforms will have a significant impact. An advanced market society must equip itself with the tools to make the economy work fairly for everyone. Otherwise, the void will be filled by guys from Pagliarelli.
Federico Varese is the author of Mafia Life: Love, Death and Money at the Heart of Organised Crime.
A slightly different version of this post has appeared on the BBC News website here.