All in the Famiglia

John Dickie’s ‘Blood Brotherhoods’

By Alexander Stille

June 13, 2014


1st McDonaldsIn “Blood Brotherhoods,” the British scholar John Dickie sets himself the wildly ambitious task of writing the histories of Italy’s three major criminal organizations from their origins in the mid-19th century to the present. The result is a book that is alternately impressive and infuriating. Dickie has amassed and digested an astonishing mass of material (tens of thousands of pages of trial documents, newspaper accounts and secondary literature) and followed scores of different characters (bandits, crime bosses, policemen, judges, politicians) in disparate places across a 150-year span. And yet he has managed, despite the girth and diversity, to sustain an argument and a story. He entertains the reader with dozens of fascinating figures — both noble and blood-chilling — while making frequently shrewd judgments that place this story in context, as a central feature of Italian life.

At the same time, Dickie, in his attempt to give coherence to so much material, makes overly grand claims about the essential unity of Italy’s various crime groups. If he had shortened his book by 20 percent, reduced the rhetorical temperature by 20 degrees and scaled back some of his more ambitious assertions, one would be left with an extremely valuable history of Italian organized crime.

The Mafia in Italy, Dickie argues, is a modern and not — as many believe — an ancient phenomenon. In the wake of Italian unification, with the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (the Bourbon monarchy based in Naples), the conditions for incubating a new and dangerous form of organized crime were created in Southern Italy — much as they were in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Key ingredients were the collapse of public order, the proliferation of new opportunities for rapid enrichment, the lack of credible institutions to provide basic protections and the presence of violent entrepreneurs ready to take advantage. The introduction of democracy, as Dickie points out, was also important: Powerful crime bosses could be useful in drumming up electoral support, intimidating political opponents, helping to control small-time criminals and sharing illicit profits with corrupt politicians. While a dictatorship or an absolute monarchy could arrest and execute known criminals with little or no proof, the legal procedures of democratic Italy offered many opportunities for the new class of criminals to use powerful connections to achieve a measure of impunity. The failure to understand this, Dickie argues, allowed a much more insidious form of organized crime to insinuate itself into all levels of Southern Italian life, becoming a kind of “state within the state,” draining the region of resources and keeping much of it in a condition of semipermanent underdevelopment.

This part of Dickie’s argument — while not new — is perfectly sound and forcefully illustrated. But he goes on to make bigger, bolder and much less supported claims. He stresses that these Mafia groups are secret fraternities, with initiation rituals and codified rules, some of which have been consistent over time and are found in different variations throughout Sicily, Calabria and Campania (the region surrounding Naples). This constitutes proof, in Dickie’s view, that the three main Italian Mafias — Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra and Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta — have been continuous and unified over a 150-year period, and that the three groups are different faces of what is essentially the same organization. Dickie frequently uses the rather odd term “Honored Society” to refer to a single criminal fraternity that links all three regional groups. In fact, Italian prosecutors (in all the recent cases I am familiar with) never use this term, and treat the three main crime groups as distinct organizations with varying and often changing degrees of centralization. In all three organizations, individual Mafia clans have considerable autonomy, and are often in rivalrous — and sometimes murderous — competition with one another.

To reach a wider audience, Dickie has dressed up his story in the language of true-crime literature. The book (especially the first half) is full of phrases like “a dungeon’s sepulchral gloom,” “silent howl of rage,” “writhing in excruciating pain,” “sinister subplot,” “thick with intrigue.” On a deeper level, Dickie has chosen to fill most of his 660 pages with stories of ghoulish criminality, grisly murders and courageous but doomed police officers at the expense of larger historical context.

Dickie dedicates an entire chapter to the bloody deeds of Giuseppe Musolino, a Calabrian bandit who went on a killing spree and eluded the Italian police for four years before being arrested in 1901 and tried the following year. He writes that one police investigator, Vincenzo Mangione, concluded that Musolino’s family were founding members of a Mafia group in his hometown, Santo Stefano. “In other words, the evidence collected by Mangione, together with the fact that Musolino was able to rely on a regionwide support network, strongly indicated that the ’Ndrangheta has always been a single organization, and not a ragtag ensemble of village gangs.” This seems a wild overinterpretation based on very scant evidence. It is far easier to believe that Musolino’s ability to elude the police in the Aspromonte mountains had much more to do with a deeply ingrained distrust of authority among Calabrian peasants and their lack of identification with the new Italian state than with the omnipotence of a secret criminal organization.

For Dickie, the initiation rituals he emphasizes are the key. At one point, he tells us that in 1876: “The Italian government discovered the most important piece of evidence in the entire history of Sicilian organized crime. The Palermo police chief wrote to the minister of the interior to describe, for the first time, the initiation ritual used by Mafiosi in a settlement in the Conca d’Oro.” The failure to grasp the importance of this discovery, Dickie writes, led to “a century of bloodshed.”

But this infatuation with initiation rituals and individual stories results in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mafia phenomenon. Criminal bands with considerable organization and networks of solidarity existed in early modern England — as well as in many other parts of Europe. But most of them disappeared in the 17th and 18th centuries as the central state asserted itself and eliminated most forms of private violence. This process of state formation did not happen in Italy until the mid-19th century and was highly incomplete in Southern Italy. Mafia-type groups thrive in places where there is a power vacuum — in countries with weak states like Mexico, Colombia and post-Soviet Russia, or among isolated and homogeneous immigrant populations as in Italian, Irish and Jewish neighborhoods in early-20th-century America. We have seen the same thing more recently in inner-city neighborhoods where local residents fear drug lords more than they do the police.

Gangs like the Crips, the Bloods and the Latin Kings have rituals, recognizable dress and secret codes that are quite similar to those of the Southern Italian Mafias. The rituals and codes of behavior serve a double function: They enforce solidarity, and they serve as a powerful “brand” to the outside world. The knowledge that a particular person is a Mafioso or a gang leader is often enough to gain someone’s cooperation without firing a shot.

The Italian, Irish and Jewish gangs grew weaker as immigrant populations joined the middle class and began to trust — and fear — the police more than the gangsters. Brazil, for example, has had some success by making a concerted effort to improve services and employment in the favelas where drug gangs were virtually all-powerful not long ago.

The big issue, then, is not why the Italian police did not understand the importance of initiation rituals but rather why the Italian state did not extend its control throughout Southern Italy. As thorough as it is, “Blood Brotherhoods” would have served its subject better by devoting less space to gruesome misdeeds and more to Italy’s thorny “Southern question” — the failure to establish both rule of law and a normal economy there — leaving space for this murderous “state within a state.”

Blood Brotherhoods

A History of Italy’s Three Mafias

By John Dickie

Illustrated. 748 pp. PublicAffairs. $35.