Organized Crime in Italy

25 MINS READMay 2, 2008 | 23:03 GMT
Italian organized crime enjoys a global reputation thanks to countless movies depicting its activities. Its story began not in Hollywood, however, but on the island of Sicily. By the late 20th century, Italian organized crime had moved to the mainland. Today, organized crime is largely regional, dominated by powerful families and alliances that control everything from drug and weapons trafficking to local protection rackets and the cement industry. Regardless of the ongoing competition between families and alliances that sometime breaks out into so-called Mafia Wars, the groups will not disappear anytime soon — though as long as they are forced to focus on regional control, their hand will remain weak.
Editor's Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series on organized crime worldwide. Italy is as famous for organized crime as it is for its cuisine. The main organized criminal groups in Italy are dominated by powerful families and alliances associated with specific regions. Despite the unending competition between families and alliances that hampers their reach, the phenomenon of organized crime in Italy will persist.

Organized Crime Emerges

The phenomenon of organized crime in Italy began on the island of Sicily. This strategically placed island in the Mediterranean Sea has been ruled by dozens of different invading armies for millennia. The island's position makes it an excellent naval and trading station. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards (among many others) have all ruled the island, fighting for control of its well-protected harbors and ignoring the plight of its citizens. During Sicily’s existence under foreign rule, a system of local protection and security emerged, giving rise to a caste of middlemen who operated farms and controlled agricultural output on behalf of absent, foreign land owners. Without supervision, these middlemen became the law enforcers in Sicily, favoring their own style of business and justice over that of the state and the land owners. They were not shy about using violence to impose their will and shotguns were the weapon of choice. Eventually, landowners became irrelevant and retained little actual control over their Sicilian farms. The ruling power of the day would occasionally crack down on the feudalistic system these middlemen had imposed. But as always, Sicily's main importance to foreign occupiers was as a naval hub in the Mediterranean, not as an agricultural producer. After years of disinterested, foreign rule, Sicilians built up distrust for state authority, preferring to do things their own way — which often included violence and illicit economic activity that evolved into Sicilian organized crime. Hence the rise of organized crime, an institution largely left alone until the 1920s when Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini attempted with some success to eradicate it on the island. By the 1940s, many Sicilian organized criminals had either fled or were dead. Others escaped to the United States, where they built criminal empires along the East Coast and in Chicago. The end of World War II brought renewed opportunities for organized crime in Sicily. In the face of global war, the threat of organized crime lost significance. In fact, the Allied forces were aided by underground organized crime members when they landed in Sicily in 1943. After the invasion, the Allies placed Sicilian organized criminals in positions of power. By the end of the war, organized criminals were the only substantial social force without ties to communists or fascists. As a result, they reasserted their social dominance over Sicily. Trade in weapons and drugs and extortion subsequently flourished. As the Italian government formed ties with the Soviet Union, and Italian-U.S. relations froze, organized criminals used their positions in Sicily to influence the national government by supporting Christian Democrats — the pro-Western party that countered communism in Italy. Despite the violence in Sicily, the threat of communism ensured the survival and spread of Sicilian organized crime through its support for the Christian Democrats. What was once a loosely grouped cultural phenomenon evolved into a cohesive faction known as La Cosa Nostra (LCN) once political support and a solid drug trade was established in Sicily. But internal struggles for power between rival families in 1962 resulted in what has been called the First Mafia War, a violent six-month clash sparked when a prominent LCN boss was killed by the Corleone family over a heroin shipment dispute. The war ended when a bomb ordered by the Corleone family targeting a rival boss missed its target and killed seven police officers instead, prompting the national government to intervene and arrest more than 1,000 LCN members. The crackdown proved half-hearted, however, and eventually the LCN was restored under new leadership again dominated by the Corleone family until the Second Mafia war in 1981. The second conflict proved more violent, producing 200 confirmed dead and countless disappearances (LCN commonly used barrels of acid to dispose of bodies). Ultimately, the Corleone family emerged victorious and strengthened their hold on the lucrative cocaine and heroin trades. Again, violence brought a government crackdown and the biggest anti-mafia trial in Italian history. A prominent LCN member turned state's witness, Tomasso Buscetta, provided valuable testimony on the group. His cooperation, along with years of bank transactions, wiretaps and forensics, helped convict 360 members in the famous "Maxi Trials" of 1987. Meanwhile, the fall of European communism weakened LCN's political connections with the Christian Democrats. In 1989, the Italian Communist Party disbanded, and the Christian Democrats followed suit. Shortly thereafter, in 1992, LCN assassinated two top state prosecutors closely involved in the Maxi Trials in an attempt to end the government's campaign against their organization. But the killings led to more trials and the arrest of LCN's most violent boss, Toto Riina. The damages LCN sustained in the early 1990s cut deeply into its operations. (click image to enlarge) Criminality in Italy, however, continued. After the prosperous years of the 1960s and 1970s, internal wars over control of Sicilian organized crime created opportunities for other southern Italian organized crime groups like the Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, the Sacra Corona Unita and La Stidda to expand. Another family-based operation with a similar background to the Sicilians known as the Camorra, — centered in Campania, the region surrounding Naples — filled the vacuum left by LCN. By 2004, the Camorra dominated the cocaine and heroin trade in Europe. But success brought competition, and a three-month war between rival members of the group ensued during the winter of 2004 and early 2005 over territories and distribution networks. The battle left hundreds dead. Eventually, the police intervened and many top bosses and influential members of Camorra were either killed or arrested. Currently, the top Italian criminal organizations are the less known and more secretive 'Ndrangheta from Calabria and La Stidda from Sicily. In a rare example of a dispute conducted openly and outside Italy, in August 2007, the 'Ndrangheta killed six Italians in the German city of Duisburg as part of an inter-family feud. Later that year, police arrested a mayor and several of his deputies in a Calabrian town for collaborating with the organization. Meanwhile, La Stidda has also faced arrests. Their identity was revealed to the public only in the 1980s. It is believed they consist of LCN members that left during that time. For now the group operates in south and east Sicily — LCN operated in the north and west, primarily around Palermo. La Stidda has only begun and it is unclear whether they have entered the drug trade — a lucrative facet of Italian organized crime determining who the real powerbrokers are. Like the 'Ndrangheta, La Stidda is worth watching as it faces a double threat; competing for territory with LCN (despite its drop in power, it still controls large swaths of Sicily) and eluding a smarter, less corrupt police force. Whether the 'Ndrangheta and La Stidda can retain a low-profile and avoid the mistakes that afflicted the LCN and Camorra remains to be seen.

Geography and Organized Crime

As indicated, the most important aspect of Sicilian geography is its location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The coastal areas in the south and east are flat and ideal for cities and harbors, while northern Sicily is rugged and mountainous, providing insulation for the island's historically agricultural-based natives. The traditional centers of Italian organized crime are located in the north of Sicily, in towns like Palermo, Corleone and Nicosia. La Stidda, in comparison, has begun to set up shop in the south and east of the island, focusing on Gela. Finished products rarely have ended or begun in Sicily, but the island has served as a transshipment point for raw materials from Africa and the Middle East on their way to bigger markets. Organized crime families treat Sicily in the same manner: While more money can be made on the island today thanks to government injections of capital, the big markets lie elsewhere. Friendly port operators in Sicily (either on the organized crime payroll or owned by them outright) handle cocaine and marijuana traffic from Latin America, heroin traffic from Asia and arms traffic from Southeastern Europe and Russia. Only a fraction of these goods stay in Sicily; the bulk go on to Spain, France, Germany, the United States and (in the case of weapons) Africa and the Middle East. Since LCN's stumble in the 1990s, other groups have cut into the drug and weapons market. The Camorra capitalizes on the strategic location of the port of Naples and southern Italy to participate in Mediterranean trade. The Camorra's rise has redirected drug shipments to Campania from Sicily, transforming the Naples area into one of the cheapest markets for cocaine and heroin in Europe. Drug users and pushers from all over Europe make their way to Campania in search of bargains. The Camorra's rise has corresponded to China's rise, and the group has also entered the market for Chinese-made counterfeit goods. It uses the port of Naples to collect and distribute counterfeit sneakers, handbags and accessories. Even many legal items from China that come through the port of Naples are picked up by organized criminals, who avoid paying duties. The Camorra thus has managed to turn Naples into an illegitimate free-trade zone for criminal activity. Since the Camorra war of 2004-5 and the police crackdown in 2006, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria has enjoyed increased power at the Camorra's expense. According to Italian officials, the 'Ndrangheta now controls up to 80 percent of the cocaine traffic between Colombia and Europe. They also enjoy control of one of the bigger, more strategic ports of Europe, Gioia Tauro, located near the regional capital, Reggio Calabria. Italian organized crime consists of regional actors with global contacts rather than a nationwide conspiracy. Each group operates in a specific geographic area. Certainly, bosses and clans will have contacts with banks in Milan and politicians in Rome, as well as hideouts elsewhere in Europe or the world when there is a bounty on their head, but the heart of business resides in their home region. This is where each group's power base lies, and due to inter-family rivalries, it is also where each group's greatest threat resides. Maintaining power as an Italian organized criminal requires vigilance not just over the complex trafficking arrangements and the flow of money, but also over the threats back home. "Mafia Wars" in the past have been fought between clans operating in the same region as well as within the same group. Bosses hungry to expand rely on their bases back at home to provide capital, trusted talent, and most important, to guarantee their personal survival. If they ignore the home base, many families and bosses are waiting to wrest control and start their own empire. It is the constant threat of regional competition that has kept any one organized criminal entity in Italy from becoming an international or even national power.

The Criminal Groups' Structure

LCN, the Camorra, 'Ndrangheta and La Stidda are all named based on geography. Each organization refers to a grouping of families that operate in a specific region of Italy. Crimes, whether economic, narcotic or violent, ultimately are delegated and performed by a family — or clan — member. These families in turn are defined by their geographic location, not by actual blood relations. Families often are defined by where its members are from, not necessarily by shared parentage. For example, the Corleone family that ruled LCN for so long came from Corleone, Sicily. Since the families are grouped by geography, many relatives will be part of the same family. But ultimately, family ties do not define the family, geography does. Depending on how much power it wields and where it operates, within each family there will be managers, lookouts, soldiers, hit men and any other employee deemed necessary to the family's business. The more powerful families employ more people; less powerful families either are squeezed out or are incorporated into alliances. Alliances are collections of families, with one family providing a foundation of power. Whereas there may be hundreds of families operating within a region, there will be two or three major alliances that will wield the power. When wars break out, they almost always occur between alliances, with certain families fighting for specific interests. Violence between families represents an attempt to resolve power struggles between family alliances. Families use periods of fighting to settle old scores. Wars either will reinforce an alliance's control over a region (as happened with the Corleone family during the first mafia war) or upset the power structure and allow new players to get involved. Like wars fought between nations, family wars must take into account the economic losses resulting from expending resources on violence. Invariably, violence directed at other criminals will affect civilians and police officers. When violence between families reaches this level, government crackdowns target the causes of the violence: the competing bosses and their inner circle of associates.

The Culture of Organized Crime

The major organized criminal groups of Italy share similar practices, structure and culture. Their similarities are the result of a common, Southern Italian culture that values family and machismo. Organized crime before World War II was very different from modern organized crime. Before the war, organized criminal groups were largely agrarian, and had a strict code of silence and secrecy called omertà. More than a code of silence, omertà emphasizes self-reliance and toughness. It rejects outside authority (in the form of the state or any occupying power) and encourages members to solve problems on their own — eliminating the need for burdensome mediation, and thus promoting more efficient criminal organizations. Organized crime creates its own sort of justice system as dictated by the necessities of business and power. Omertà is the foundation of this justice. After the war, as organized crime came to operate in the more profitable urban areas, the culture changed and emphasized money as a form of self-reliance instead of omertà. Whereas before, cooperating with politicians, police or any other state actor represented a death sentence for the offender and his family, after the war, such cooperation became acceptable. LCN, for example, enjoyed a relationship with the Christian Democrats in Rome until the 1990s. And in 1983, Tommaso Buscetta became the first major state witness to reveal the secrets of organized crime in Italy, living after telling the tale until cancer killed him in 2000. Buscetta was followed by many others who chose to talk in return for the protection their criminal families no longer offered. Cooperation with the government created new sources of wealth for criminal bosses not content with staying on the farm. Construction contracts, grants and development projects were an easy target for LCN in Sicily, and so as long as it was for business purposes, cooperating and supporting certain politicians and bureaucrats became acceptable. The flow of government money effectively silenced many of the more traditional organized criminals, but also stirred up rivalries over who controlled what shares of the wealth. The rise in the number of police informants was also a consequence of the struggles over the group's newfound wealth. Mafia wars did not occur with regularity until after World War II. The violence in these wars drove some to question the respect of family held by LCN. After a rival clan killed his entire family and network of contacts, Buscetta had nothing more to gain from a life in organized crime. After being arrested in Brazil and extradited to Italy, his only remaining source of power was the information he had on LCN and the police. New security measures ensured the protection of state witnesses like Buscetta, and prevented him from being killed before he could testify. With help from the state, Buscetta broke the tradition of omertà, ushering in an era of increased police activity and capability in the fight against organized crime.

The Economics of Organized Crime

Confesercenti, an Italian commerce association, estimates that organized crime has become Italy's biggest business with earnings estimated to be $128 billion (or about 7 percent of Italy's gross domestic product) in 2007. This figure tops the earnings of ENI, Italy's state oil and natural gas company, and the earnings of the automobile company Fiat. It is inaccurate to portray Italian organized crime as a company with a leader and a vertical managerial chain like ENI or Fiat, however. LCN, the Camorra, 'Ndrangheta and other regional criminal groups are more accurately portrayed as an industry. They have carved out niches for themselves largely based on geography, and work their territory as they see fit. A more accurate comparison would be between organized crime and Italy's energy or automobile sectors. Nevertheless, organized crime makes up a significant slice of the Italian economy. The economics of organized crime have seen significant changes since the end of World War II. Traditionally, groups like the LCN and Camorra operated in rural areas and measured their power in agricultural production and transportation. Gangs would form in prisons as a form of protection and would continue to work together after their members were released. In Sicily, mayors and entire towns would be under the control of organized crime in a feudalistic system that saw very little economic growth. However, after World War II and land reforms that broke up organized crime's hold over agriculture, cities became the new centers of organized crime, with the quest for money its primary motivation. In Sicily especially, the move to the cities was encouraged by the Italian government through public works projects and grants to stimulate Sicily's lackluster economy. As LCN members were already embedded in the regional government, this money quickly found its way into the pockets of influential organized crime families. This precipitated a construction boom that continues today with state support, though in more recent times EU money has filled the criminal group's coffers. Under dubious circumstances, entire blocks of Palermo (the capital of Sicily) were torn down to create demand for new buildings. Organized crime families entered the construction business and won contracts to build the housing for thousands of peasants trading the country for the city. It was during this time that Italian organized criminals realized the power of concrete. LCN and Camorra crime families are known to operate in the cement industry. The industry is appealing for several reasons: It is profitable, allows high levels of local economic involvement and is a good way to cover illegitimate business. Society relies heavily on cement for construction of buildings, homes, roads and other forms of infrastructure. The Italian government has focused on rejuvenating poorer, less developed areas (usually those with the highest saturation of organized crime) by funding major projects. Wherever there is construction, cement is needed. That axiom held true in the building boom days after World War II and still holds true today. In January of 2007 a story broke that Calcestruzzi, a subsidiary of cement maker Italcementi, had ties to the mob. The subsidiary's CEO and two other officials in Sicily and Campania were arrested after Calcestruzzi suspended operations, suspecting organized crime activity within its company. These are big businesses; Calcestruzzi produces around 77 million tons of cement a year. Italcementi earned nearly $1 billion in 2007. A second advantage to operating cement companies is that it gives the operating company a finger on the economic pulse of a region. Modern organized criminals in Italy are very much businessmen, and for them, information is power. By building the bakeries, restaurants, apartments and government buildings, crime bosses build relationships with influential people and can better leverage their own business interests. Cement companies also are a kind of gatekeeper for what businesses go into an area. If the local crime family owns all of the bakeries in a certain neighborhood, it can ensure that no more will be built thanks to its control the access to building materials. The family often own or influences all buildings in a given area and ensures nobody can get business done without their permission. Another advantage of doing business in cement is that it offers a window into conducting other illegal and even more profitable business. The Camorra's waste management companies around Naples are known to take anything — no matter how toxic — and find dumps for it throughout Campania. Many dangerous residuals from industrial areas in northern Italy get worked into the cement that is used to construct buildings in the south. Transporting cement is also a good cover for transporting weapons; similarly, waste removal trucks are known to ferry drugs through neighborhoods. Organized criminals use their seemingly unrelated spheres of influence in drugs, waste removal, cement and weapons trafficking to reinforce and strengthen their activities. Modern family crime syndicates are shrewd business operators who create profits at every turn. While cement is an excellent front business for organized crime families all over Southern Italy, the real money lies in drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana and hashish. Control over the drug trade translates into financial and military superiority over other organized crime groups. LCN became wildly successful when it started trafficking and selling drugs to its American affiliates in the 1960s and 1970s. The resulting profits helped the Corleone family rise to power in Italy's criminal world. Their weakening in the 1980s and 1990s left room for the Camorra to take over. The Camorra took advantage of the new markets and suppliers that opened up in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. By then, Colombians had begun to compete for customers in the American market, so Italian groups focused on the European and Balkan drug markets. Currently, 'Ndrangheta appears to control the drug trade in Italy. Their members have fewer ties to the United States than the LCN and the Camorra. 'Ndrangheta drugs are being supplied by networks in Argentina and pedaled in Western Europe, Canada and Australia.

Security and Organized Criminal Groups

As the organized crime financial empires grow, the economics of a family are more and more connected to the security of that family. Modern mafia wars are inevitably fought over economic resources. Families within a specific group fight over territory, control over markets and shipment routes. Absolute control over these assets results in economic gain for the family that wins and the loss of markets — if not extinction — for the defeated family. Families very much approach business as a zero-sum game, with economic superiority giving them more influence and resources with which to fight mafia wars and defend their members. A family that is powerful and rich has the ability to recruit. As it grows, families rely on youth from poor areas who will serve as soldiers in future mafia wars. Young recruits start out at the bottom, pushing drugs and running trafficking routes; eventually, they work their way up to lookouts. These are dangerous jobs and pay very little. But in Southern Italy, where unemployment can reach 20 percent among 18-24 years olds, it is still an opportunity. As they prove that they can be depended upon, they are given a gun, taught to fight by older members — finally becoming clan soldiers. One rite of passage for such youths, sometimes occurring even at the age of 15, is when they are given a bullet-proof vest and shot several times to prepare them for their first conflict. These low-level soldiers are integral to organized criminal security, as they protect shipments of goods, safe houses, and in times of war are assigned to intimidate and kill the opposition. Assuming they survive and continue to advance, the next step up for these soldiers involves entering a boss' inner circle of protectors or joining a hit squad. Depending on their talents and their connections, they may even be tapped to enter the business side of the clan's operations — a job that nevertheless requires fighting skills. For reasons of security, boss bodyguards are only the most trusted of soldiers. They are often the only ones who know where the most important member of a clan will be at any given time. Their dedication must be perfect and lapses are punished by death. Italian organized crime bosses are high-value targets, and are sought by the police as well as rival families. During particularly tense times, bosses will leave the country and operate business from Spain, France and the United States, or they will go into hiding in a safe location in Italy, moving only when absolutely necessary. When bosses do move, their level of security reflects their status. They will deploy deceptive measures such as using several identical armored cars, which leave at the same time and then scatter, with only the driver knowing which car the boss is in. Personal bodyguards are a must, while an army of lookouts and scouts ensures that all activity in a family's territory is monitored. Murder is an important part of any organized crime group, so every clan will have its own hit squads. These teams of four to five men operate as a special forces team would operate. During times of peace, they occasionally are called upon to carry out specific attacks, such as the murder of a baker who refuses to pay protection money or member of the family suspected of disloyalty. During tense times, hit squads are an invaluable asset. Hit squads usually fire the first shots in mafia wars by directing their violence at a leader of another clan who is blocking economic growth. During these wars, they seal themselves away in special houses and only leave to carry out ordered attacks. During the LCN wars of the 1960's and 80's, the Corleone family prided itself on the fact that every high-level murder was ordered directly by the boss and carried out by the hit squad. The successful organized crime families are powered by discipline and rewarded by the money that results from their control.

Organized Criminal Groups' Vulnerabilities

Organized crime groups in Italy face two major challenges to their future growth and success. Family rivalries and the plurality of regional groups ensure that no one family or group will come to dominate the organized crime world for any meaningful period of time. On the international scale, they must compete with foreign groups over markets, trade routes and suppliers. While organized crime in Italy is far from defeated, the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s are unlikely to return. Additionally, the violent crime that results from inter-family competition will inevitably spill over, taking the lives of innocent civilians and public officials. Whenever these outbreaks occur, the state will step in to manage the crisis. Crackdowns after the two LCN mafia wars, the assassinations of two prominent prosecutors and the Camorra war show that the state is willing to handle the situation when it gets out of control. Currently, Italian organized crime works with other organized crime entities in China, the Balkans, the United States and Russia, but they also compete against them. At the moment, Italian groups are at a disadvantage. Operating a highly illicit organization in a highly developed, first world country is not ideal. Despite Italian organized crime's regional control, cultural influence and its foreign networks, Italian police have showed over the past 20 years (since the Maxi Trials) that they have the ability and desire to crack down on illegal activities. Additionally, integration into the EU means more police forces in neighboring countries will have increased access to information and the authority to make arrests. This means that forays into the rest of Europe (like the 'Ndrangheta shooting in Germany) that draw more attention to organized crime groups will hurt their operations. Despite these challenges, Italian organized crime will not disappear, however. Organizations have been integrated into Italian culture over hundreds of years, and there always will be a great deal of money to be made in extortion, drug smuggling and weapons trafficking. But as long as a family is forced to focus on regional control instead of national or international control, its hand will be weak.

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