“Did you see any mafia?” people asked when we returned from Sicily.
“You’ll see signs they’re still around, like villages with piles of garbage at their entrances,” said those who had travelled there recently.
“You don’t see the Cosa Nostra in Sicily,” others said. “The power’s shifted to new mobs in Calabria and Naples.”
Our first night in Sicily we were on the west coast, in Trapani, the #2 stronghold after Palermo for the Cosa Nostra. On our jet-lagged walk in the old town, a harsh wind blew from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Streets along the sea wall were bare, no mafia. Or anyone else. Pale stone buildings appeared empty. Eerie, like there was a lockdown and everyone knew it except us.
Easter Sunday we drove to Piana Degli Albanesi. Remember our blog on this mountain town’s celebrations? Piana Degli Albanesi has a darker story, one of the most violent acts in the history of post-war Italian politics. The first “grey page” happened here.
Like many Sicilian farmers, the Pianesi wanted land title and were active during the revolts leading up to the unification of Italy. The unsupportive authorities in Rome decreed a law allowing meetings in piazzas but only “as long as neither the mafia nor land reform were discussed and no peasant took part.”
In 1946 Sicily was granted more autonomy and an elected parliament. The Reformist Left won the first regional elections and its leader pledged to redistribute landholdings.
On May 1, 1947, only twelve days after the election, separatist leader Salvatore Giuliano gunned down eleven Pianesi, four of them children, who had gathered near a lake above the town for May Day celebrations. A Pianese who noticed bandits preparing for the attack was thrown down a deep well. Twenty-seven others were wounded.
Though controversial, supposedly the mafia hired Salvatore Giuliano to carry out the attack. Three years later they double-crossed him by hiring his cousin Pi Sciotta to shoot him in the knee and arrange to hang his body in a courtyard to make it look like a spaghetti western. But whoever carried out the murder botched the attempt to fool anyone—Salvatore’s blood was flowing uphill from his body! Sciotta went to prison while Mario Scelba, believed to be the person who ordered Giuliano’s death, became Italy’s prime minster in 1954. At Sciotta’s trial in 1972 he shouted, “Bandits, police, state, they’re all one body, like father, son and Holy Ghost.”
Magellan and I didn’t see anyone who looked mafiosi-ish in Piana Degli Albanesi, but how would we know?
It’s said the Sicilian mafia took over the international drug trade in 1957. Not only the trade but production. About 30% of the heroin in the US in the 1970s was produced in Sicily. In the war between rival mafia clans known as la mattanza (the slaughter) 10,000 people were killed between 1983 and 1993.
The good guys, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia prosecutors, had presided over a maxi-trial that began in 1986 and ended with the conviction of hundreds of mafiosi. The most terrifying acts of mob violence occurred in 1992 within weeks of each other—the two magistrates were killed, along with members of their police escorts and Giovanni’s wife, bombed to death inside their armour-plated cars.
The murders triggered national outrage. To Italians, Giovanni Falcone’s death was like JFK’s death was to Americans. The trial was televised, the defense protected round the clock by eight bodyguards. Complacent officials were forced to crack down on the mafia. Prime minister Giulio Andreotti was hit with a murder conviction and for the first time in 700 years the church took a side when Pope John Paul II practically condoned the PM. (His conviction was overturned a decade later.) Troops were sent to Sicily, key mafiosi were jailed, businesses were shuttered—crushing blows for the Cosa Nostra.
A year later Salvatore Cancemi, a high-ranking mafia boss, admitted his connection in the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, turned himself in and snitched on the “feared boss of bosses,” Salvadore Totò Riina, who had presided over gangland wars and the murder of 150 people, including top judges. Riina was arrested and hit with 26 life sentences. He died in prison in 2017.
Here’s another mobster for you, Italy’s most-wanted man for years. “The tractor” and “the accountant,” Bernardo Provenzano, double-nicknamed for mowing down his enemies and mastering the finances of his Corleone fiefdom, became the uncontested head of Cosa Nostra. He was finally arrested in a farmhouse near Palermo in 2006, given 20 life sentences plus 49 years and solitary confinement for 33 years. He died in 2016.
After the Cosa Nostra killed the celebrated magistrate Giovanni Falcone, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria took over Cosa Nostra’s narco business, effectively buying them out by paying their debt to Colombian cocaine cartels.
Mafia crime quieted in Sicily. Locals were relieved to say addio-pizzo (goodbye extortion).
Did we pay pizzo? Many times. Pico pizzo—and only for the service of “car watching.”
I’ll tell you about the most memorable incident.
Early one Sunday we went to the archeological museum in Agrigento. A swarthy man rushed over, crossing his arms to indicate we couldn’t park in the small lot and pointing repeatedly to the grassy area across the street. Magellan indicated we’d be in the museum for about two hours. “Five Euros,” he requested. A few minutes later we were back—the museum was closed. The guy shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What can I do?” When we returned the next day he was back on the job. Same price, no weekday discount. At many parking lots you pay your fee at the machine and then pay a small pizzo to the car-watcher. Insurance against petty crime.
A decade ago when prosecutors warned that the Cosa Nostra was looking to rebuild, the mob retaliated by beating a high-profile lawyer to death. In 2017—almost 25 years to the day that magistrate Giovanni Falcone was killed—a mafioso informant released from prison after serving time for murder was shot in the head while cycling in Palermo.
Six months after Magellan and I returned from Sicily, police arrested the suspected new head of Cosa Nostra, a jeweller with a previous mafia conviction (an 80-year-old!) and 45 other alleged gangsters at a secret meeting—the first gathering of the Palermo mob families since Salvadore Totò Riin’s arrest in 1993.
Not only were we looking at men with the wrong mafia demographic in Palermo, they probably don’t go to cooking classes. But maybe they were at the ballet at Teatro Massimo? Or the market? “Is that guy collecting pizzo?” I asked Magellan at Ballaro on Saturday morning as a young man made his way down the line of vendors, collecting money that he put into a red and white pouch. “Don’t even talk about it,” he shushed me.
Driving along pot-holed backcountry roads I thought about the origins of the mafia in Sicily, what Peter Robb calls “a parasitic presence that grew in the space between the state and the people.”
A site promoting mafia tours says it began because of “the fracture created between North and South through a bitter and spiteful polemic of the islanders against the Piedmontese invaders.“
Scholars don’t agree on the word’s origin, but it was first used in 1880 in Sicilian Giuseppe Alongi’s book La Mafia, Fattori, Manifestazioni.
I ask myself, why are we even interested in the mafia? In its violent, dark and secretive underworld?
According to James Finckenauer, author of Mafia and Organized Crime: A Beginner’s Guide, glamorization of the mob started in North America during prohibition. Because it was hugely unpopular, the guys against prohibition were heralded as heroes, not criminals. Then came Mario Puzo’s The Godfather portraying mobsters as family men who cared about their communities, lived by their own codes of honour and conduct.
(Not because the San Nicolò church and the Bar Vitelli are famous sets in The Godfather or because there’s a Coppola memorial in the square did Magellan and I visit Savoca; we went because it’s listed as among “the most beautiful villages in Italy.”)
Hollywood habitually glamorizes the mafia, glorifies criminality. Who didn’t love The Sopranos, even find ourselves empathizing with Tony (those ducks, his therapy sessions). On the contrary, Italian filmmakers have only recently begun portraying mafiosi as alluring antiheroes.
Do you know about Inspector Montalbano, a fictional Sicilian detective who quietly solves small-town crimes? Andrea Camilleri made Inspector Montalbano the hero of two-dozen books that have sold 30 million copies around the world and become a hit TV series in Italy. Magellan and I visited the Inspector’s fictional hometown, Scicli. While Camilleri said he deliberately smuggled critical commentary into his novels, i.e. the political malfeasances of Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, he kept mafia bosses in secondary roles. “Not because I fear them,” he was quoted in The Guardian. “But I believe that writing about mafiosi often makes heroes out of them. I’m thinking of The Godfather, where Marlon Brando’s superb performance distracts us from the realisation that he also commissioned murders. And this is a gift that I have no intention offering to the mafia.”
“Look at that mess. They didn’t pay their pizzo,” I said to Magellan a few times on our trip. Teresa and Paul were right—we did see mounds of garbage dumped on the outskirts of a handful of villages: rotting food, frayed clothing billowing in the wind, heaps of plastic bottles. But did we see any mafiosi? Well, maybe…
After our chilling walk along Trapani’s desolate seawall, we went to 210 Grammi. (C’mon you know us better than that; it’s a restaurant.) Our fellow diners were few. Halfway through our fritto misto, a large family arrived. Mom, daughter, half a dozen children at one end of a long table, talkative, hands gesturing, laughter spreading; father and son (we presumed) seated close at the other end, silent, solemn for the entire meal as far as we could tell. “Are they mafia?” I asked Magellan. “Don’t say the word and don’t even think of taking a picture of our food,” he whispered. I described the scene in a note to friends and family back home, suggesting we may have seen our first mafiosi but I couldn’t be certain because the two men never talked. “Maybe they’ve had their tongues cut out,” quipped our friend Ed.
After intense pressure by Italian authorities in the early 2000s the ‘Ndrangheta, the most aggressive crime syndicate that controls more than half the cocaine market in Europe, added Canada to its turf of 31 countries.
But wait—there’s more—it’s like this post was meant to be shared now.
You might see mafia just by turning on your TV or scrolling your phone for international news or turning the pages of the National Post, where we read that the biggest mafia trail since the 1986 maxi-trial began on January 13, 2021. More than 350 alleged mobsters and collaborators of the ‘Ndrangheta are facing justice in a huge purpose-built courtroom in southern Italy. The state will call on more than 900 witnesses and draw on 24,000 hours of intercepted conversations to support the myriad charges. But… it’s mainly the Mancuso clan, leaving much of the ‘Ndrangheta’s top hierarchy untouched.
But hey, there’s one other place you may see mafiosi according to Rachel Donado writing in The Atlantic last October. “Outside Italy, the city with the most ‘Ndrangheta outposts is Toronto.”
Nadeau Lanza, Barbie. The Godmother, Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women. US: Penguin, September 2022. Recommended by our friend Jan, this book is written by a journalist who has been reporting from Rome for more than a quarter century. Here’s the NYT’s review.
Maddeaux, Sabrina. “Canada has become a narco state.” The National Post. June 12, 2021.
Camilleri, Andrea. Montalbano’s First Case and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 2016. From Publishers Weekly: “For this sparkling collection, bestseller Camilleri (A Beam of Light) selected 21 of his 59 published stories featuring Chief Insp. Salvo Montalbano of Sicily’s Vigàta police. The title tale, one of the longest and most satisfying, is the only one to have previously appeared in English translation. In 1985, Montalbano is transferred to Vigàta, where he deals first with a sensitive case involving Giuseppe Cusumano, the favorite grandson of Don Sisino Cuffaro, the head of a powerful Mafia family. The story showcases Montalbano’s love of good food, his perfect little house, his curiosity and sympathy, and his unconventional but shrewd problem solving. Some of the best stories are quite brief and moving, such as “The Pact,” in which Montalbano stops to help an old woman walking alone at night, and the metafictional “Montalbano Says No,” in which the detective has a dispute with his creator. Familiar supporting characters get a chance to shine, most notably and improbably in “Catarella Solves a Case,” in which “Cat” Catarella, his assistant (with a gift for butchering language), takes a lead role. This is a treat for admirers of the Montalbano novels and a superb introduction for new readers.” I loved it.
Donado, Rachel. “Mob Justice.” The Atlantic. October 2020.
Flood, Alison and Giuffrida, Angela. “Andrea Camilleri, beloved creator of Inspector Montalbano, dies aged 93.” The Guardian. Jul 17, 2019.
Gopnik, Adam. “The Mythology of the Mafia.” The New Yorker. December 7, 2020. He says the downfall of the mafia is more the result of changes in society not charges by magistrates. These days he says, “You’re better off being in waste management than using it as a cover.”
Konikkova, Maria. “Why do we admire mobsters?” The New Yorker. September 16, 2015.
Perry, Alex. “Blood and Justice.“ The New Yorker. January 22, 2018.
Pantaleone, Wladimir. “Italy police arrest alleged new mafia boss in Sicily.” Reuters. December 4, 2018.
Robb, Peter. Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Feed, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra. London: Picador, 2014.
Sciascia, Leonardo. The Day of the Owl. New York: NYRB Classics, 2003 (first published in 1961).
Staff and Agencies. “Italian mafia boss gunned down while riding his bike in Sicily.” The Guardian. May 22, 2017.
The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife (that would be Veronica di Gliigoli) is a superb source of info and humour. From May 23, 2013, here’s her take on the country’s garbage collection.
We visited Sicily with our daughter Christine. We rented an apartment in Catania for one week, then travelled to Palermo by bus and rented an apartment there for another week. Signs were often posted in shop windows and restaurant windows stating they were not owned by mafia and did not pay for protection. There was quite a strong presence of armed police, especially in Catania. We had an amazing time and hope to return some day.
You’re braver than us; we gave Catania a pass after reading there was still a great deal of crime in the city.You’re the third group we know though who visited and had a good (and safe) experience.
Makes me wonder how this kind of corruption became so ingrained in their society…
One would need to be a lifelong scholarly expert going back centuries to figure that out. Foreign invasions and control? Farmers’ lack of land title? The Catholic Church? Corrupt politicians at home and in Rome? American policy after WWII? But why here? How much does landscape figure into the equation?
Wow that was very interesting! Some amazing photos. Thanks for the investigation. Sicily still on my bucket list.
So frequently in Sicily we found ourselves saying, “Don’t you love this country?” instead of “this island,” well worth floating to to the top of your bucket list.