The Mafia are more than Hollywood bad guys


Denise Muscella

Vele di Scampia, “Sails of Scampia”, a complex of buildings in the Naples province controlled by Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia

Clara Laino

If you’ll ask me where I am from, I’ll tell you that I’m from Italy. In the next two minutes, though, I’ll make sure to let you know that I’m from Southern Italy. 

   “Is there a difference?” you’ll ask. 

   I will always answer “Of course.”


Clash between North and South

   Most Northern and Southern Italians don’t like each other. Some Northerners believe that the Southerners are thieves, criminals, lazy, uneducated. Their economy is better and some of them feel like their money is wasted in the South.

   Most Southerners believe that in the North people are snobbish; though, they acknowledge the South’s struggles. 

   The government tried to improve the South’s poor social and economic conditions, but it failed every time. 

   The biggest reason why the government can’t help the South it’s because it’s not the government that rules there: it’s the mafia. 


What is the mafia

    Mafia is a word used to identify a criminal organization born and mainly located in Southern Italy in the regions of Campania, Calabria, Apulia and Sicily. 

   Every region has its own mafia organization, with different names: Camorra in Campania, ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, Cosa Nostra in Sicily, and other minor organizations. 

   The biggest difference is about the organization within the organization: Cosa Nostra has a pyramidal system, with at the top the boss; Camorra has many different gangs, each one with its own boss and its own “army,” and anyone can be part of it; ‘Ndrangheta is structured based on families, and only who is part of the family–directly or, for example, through a marriage–can be a member. 

   They also differentiate in the area of influence: for example, Sacra Corona Unita is mainly based in Apulia and has connections in eastern Europe, while ‘Ndrangheta is world wide, has alliances everywhere and can be found in every continent.

   Anyway, any differentiation doesn’t really matter: mafia is mafia and mafia is disgusting.


Where does the mafia operate 

The mafia spreads like a disease, and can be found in all Italy; in America as well, especially in the New York area. In America it’s known as IOC (Italian Organized Crime), Italian-American Mafia, Black Hand, or Mob. 

   It is also found in other countries: in Europe in countries like Spain, Germany, Albania; also in Japan (known as Yakuza), Turkey, Russia (known as Bratva), Australia and throughout America and western Africa. This comprehends both Italian mafia alliances and local organizations. Of course the list is longer. 

   If this surprised you, that’s exactly the mafia’s problem and biggest strength: you don’t see it. The mafia is everywhere, but it hides. It’s underground, it’s in the people who surround you, it’s in the institutions, but it’s hard to identify and catch.


What does the mafia do?

   Mafia’s activities are drug trafficking, money laundering, loan sharking, prostitution, fake elections, extortion, gambling, weapons trafficking, disposal of toxic and radioactive waste, and others. Other businesses that they run are related to food chains, bars, farms. In America, many Italian restaurants are run by the mafia. 

   ‘Ndrangheta is estimated to earn about 30 billion euros ($35 billion) a year only from drug trafficking. Having many alliances in the world, Ndrangheta managed to become rich, considering that in many of those countries there still isn’t the crime of mafia association, allowing Ndrangheta to move freely. 

   When I say that the mafia controls Southern Italy, there are many reasons. In politics, it doesn’t take much for the mafia (considering all the power and resources they have) to push local politicians to do what they want. Research from Openpolis shows how, in the last 40 years, 357 town councils have been dissolved because of mafia infiltration. According to Avviso pubblico, in 2019 there had been 559 acts of intimidation against mayors and any kind of public official–in average, every 15 hours a local politician is threatened, a victim of a fire, bullets, assaults, insults. This happens in 83 of the Italian provinces– 75% of the whole territory.  

   That’s just a small example to show the size and power the mafia has. 


Who is the mafia

   Mafia members have their own way of communication and traditions. They treat and consider each other as a family, and even if sometimes they are actually related (the idea of “clan”, see Ndrangheta), if they come from the outside they take an oath (Sacra Corona Unita means “United Sacred Crown”: United because it is important to them to be connected to one another; Sacred because at the time of the affiliation the new member is “baptized”; Crown refers to the rosary used in Church).  

   Why would someone join the mafia, it’s a great question. It’s a dangerous life; many lose their life and, even if they survive, they’re constantly running away from the police. Recently, an Italian mafia fugitive has been found in Spain through a Google Maps image. 

   Some people join because they desire for power. Some others for a more complex reason: as it has been said, the mafia is prevalent in Southern Italy, even if it spread all over Italy and eventually worldwide. In the South social and economic conditions are bad: people are poor and without a job or ways to provide for their families and there are no services or institutions to help them. So, to maintain themselves and their families, they often find a spot in the mafia to get easy money. 

   People start with minor roles, even at a very young age (teenagers are careless and deep down fascinated by criminal life), such as small robberies or selling drugs. 

   Soon, though, they find themselves involved so much that they can’t get away anymore. They are stuck. The choice is between being dead or a criminal. And many people choose life.

   Fear is what moves most of them. The mafia doesn’t forgive. Punishment for those who betray is big, often it means torture and then death. People have been drowned with their feet stuck in cement blocks, walled alive, killed with certain procedures so that everyone knows why they are dead: “This one was a snitch.”


Mafia’s victims

According to a study from a legality and safety Italian organization, only Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, killed more than 5000 people. Most of them are mafia members, but at least 500 are women, children–innocents. Some were killed by mistake, because in the wrong place at the wrong time; some others to punish mafia members: wives, kids, mothers, killed to punish their husbands, fathers, sons, who decided to collaborate with the government; journalists and police officers who investigated a bit too much.

   But victims are not only people who lost their life or loved one. Victims are also people who refuse to pay the pizzo, the protection money that the mafia periodically requires and extorts from shops and businesses. They are often punished with their stores set on fire or with bullets. 80% of Sicilian businesses pay the pizzo. 

   Victims are the ones threatened because they refused to let the mafia use their house as an observation point to oversee over dealing squares or other significant positions. 

   Victims also are the inhabitants of lands that the mafia use for disposal of toxic waste (known as terra dei fuochi, “land of pyres”, or “triangle of death”), that they burn or bury underground, causing an increase in cancer mortality rate. A study conducted by the Lancet Oncology detected that, if per 100,000 inhabitants the national death rate from liver cancer is 14, in the triangle of death is up to 38.4 for men and 20.8 for women. And there’s more.

   People like Peppino Impastato, Giuseppe Falcone, Paolo Borsellino, Don Peppe Diana, all victims. They all tried to fight this corrupted and cruel system, sometimes without the government’s support and protection. Some other times, even the police have been a victim while doing their job. There’s not enough room here to talk about all their stories, but I invite you to google them to see the incredible commitment to justice that these people had. 

   Even kids have not been spared; one of the many stories is of the 15 years old Giuseppe di Matteo. He was the son of a former mafia affiliate who decided to collaborate with the government. His son was dissolved in a barrel full of acid to punish his father for betraying the organization, after kidnapping and torturing him for over 3 years. 

   The mafia ruined my country and it ruined the idea that people have of us. The mafia killed, ruined people’s lives and still does it every day. It hides the beauties of my countries: the art, with Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, the amazing food, our romantic language, the breathtaking places like Rome, the eternal city, and then Capri, Le Cinque Terre, Venice, the leaning tower of Pisa, and so much more. My country is so much more than the mafia. 

   I hope, one day, my country will be able to free itself from this nightmare and give meaning to the lives sacrificed trying to stop all of this.

   So, for those who asked me if the mafia exists or is only in the movies, well, yes, the mafia exists.