In media and social debates and in everyday language, the term “mafia” has become almost commonplace and is widely applied to the most diverse phenomena. It is very often used to refer to cohesive clans or cliques engaging in “doubtful behaviour” and robust or violent practices to protect and maintain income gained from positions of power (Gaudino 1999). In France the spotlight tends to be on the suburban mafia (Pierrat 2006), or the mafia of the godfathers in the southeast. A confusion and mixing of genres can be seen today – sometimes even in the literature of the social sciences – between the terms “mafia”, pègre [underworld/gangland], milieu [underworld/gangland], grand banditisme [organised crime], etc. Each time the meaning of these terms, and the actors who use them (common sense language, members of the judiciary or the media, political leaders) to describe and condemn, vary greatly, so that we cannot realistically pin down their definitions.

Consequently, and without trying to rewrite the intellectual history of the words and the debates around terminology, our aim is to analyse what combination of economic, political, and social conditions enables us to describe powerful groups as mafia, and so to identify certain characteristics of modern mafias. We shall do this primarily on the basis of a perspective review of the very extensive literature on this issue in Italian and French – not forgetting some authors writing in English – updated by the debates linked to the growing internationalisation of criminal and informal economies (Ruggiero 1996; Tarrius 2000, 2002), the relationships between mafias and the politico-institutional world (Briquet and Favarel-Garrigues 2008a), and the capacity of mafia members to develop networks of relations within local civil societies (Sciarrone 1998). To this end we need to explain why we prefer the term “mafia” to that of “organised crime” when used as a synonym. The term “organised crime” originated primarily among politicians and the judiciary (very quickly joined by some academics), who were seeking to understand these phenomena in a very directly operational way, with the primary aim of suppressing them. In view of the repressive function of the analysis, to speak of organised crime seems to us to be highly reductive, as mafia phenomena cannot be subsumed into either their organisational or their criminal aspects, but are based on ties built up through time and space at the intersection of the economic, social, and political aspects of a particular society. In place of this terminology used by actors deeply marked by normativity, we prefer a term endogenous to the criminal world and also used in common parlance, which indicates the systematicity2 and distribution in a given society of a form of power wielded by social groups with the socio-economic and political projects of certain mafia groups. Although the term may at first sight seem outdated, speaking of mafia enables us to retain both the continuities and breaks between phenomena undergoing transformation and participating in both the growing internationalisation of the markets and old logics of political and socio-territorial anchorage.

Despite the Sicilian origins of the term and the mark left by Italian sociological explanations of mafia phenomena, we have found mafias in different latitudes, from the outskirts of Naples to Calabria, certain parts of Colombia and Brazil, and an ex-Soviet republic. However, for them to be termed mafias – and not just organised criminal gangs – in our view and in accordance with some aspects developed by the Italian literature on mafias (Lupo 1999; Pezzino 1999; Sciarrone 1998), they must have three basic characteristics: (1) they must function as a capitalist-style economic enterprise, at once local and global; (2) they must exert authority of a politico-institutional type that is at least partly legitimated by state authorities; and (3) they must be socially rooted in territories in which certain sectors of local society accept their authority.

Mafias as capitalist enterprises

  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography

The use of the language of economics to discuss mafia activities is not new (Kopp 1996). Pino Arlacchi (1986) spoke of an entrepreneurial mafia and mafia entrepreneurs engaged in processes for the rational accumulation of capital. Indeed, it seems to us highly appropriate to use economic and business terms to characterise mafia activities, if we consider the growing interpenetration of licit and illicit domains of economic and industrial production and the great capacity of mafias to profit from the recent transformations brought about by economic globalisation. So a mafia is first and foremost a capitalist enterprise. It must be able to maintain its organisation and expensive lifestyles by accumulating capital (belonging to the bosses and the organisation), which can be recycled and reinvested in both legal and illegal economic activities. In the context of an increasingly globalised economy and outsourcing abroad, the economic activities of mafias are not confined to the management of local markets (local distribution of drugs, extortion, prostitution, gambling, dominating markets for public works, managing commercial activities), they are also involved in the transnational flow of products and capital at the international level. They are increasingly likely to combine activities that are criminal, illegal, and entirely legal as their leaders seek respectability and social status through the development of classic entrepreneurial activities (such as public and private construction, waste management, tourism, banking and mutual societies, real estate and commerce distribution). In order to develop these activities in relation to both local business and globalised economic flows, legal and illegal production, contrary to the normative interpretations of the magistracy and some social scientists, mafias need flexible organisations that are not rigidly hierarchical, with bases in different locations.

Mafias: local economic roots and the internationalisation of exchange

It is generally agreed that Italian social sciences literature on the mafia – notably Sicilian – has provided the basis for the analysis of criminal organisations around the world. In the 1970s–1990s authors such as Arlacchi, Raimondo Catanzaro, Diego Gambetta, Salvatore Lupo, and Paolo Pezzino very successfully decoded the social origins and local roots of the mafia, its capacities for organisation and entrepreneurship, and its political links. They focused primarily on the socio-economic roots of mafia cultures and organisations in the Sicilian context (or Calabrian in the case of Arlacchi), paying very little attention, at that time, to networks and logics of economic exchange at the international level, which had existed since before the Second World War, when Mafiosi who emigrated to the United States (and Latin America) retained many relations with their homeland. Until very recently, these analyses of mafias, though generally regarded as works of reference across the world, lacked the crucial analysis of flows of international economic exchange, notably smuggling routes between Cosa Nostra and the Sicilian mafia and, from the 1950s–1960s onwards, the international drugs trade. Lastly, it is only in the 1990s and 2000s that investigative journalists, novelists, and – in still rare cases – social scientists have dealt more systematically with the increasing globalisation of mafia and criminal enterprises. With a few rare exceptions (Santino and La Fiura 1990),3 the initiative for this did not come from Italian authors working on the mafia through its Sicilian form, but from international analyses, usually on the development of the Russian mafias, Colombian cartels, and Far Eastern triads and yakuza. Even in Italy, most recently it is not the Sicilian mafia that has attracted the attention of various authors on the international ramifications of such enterprises, but the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and Neapolitan Camorra, noted for their capacity, since the 1980s, to integrate themselves into (and often to dominate) the national and international networks dealing in drugs (Forgione 2008; Oliva and Fierro 2007), smuggling (Guarino 2009; Sales 2006), counterfeit clothing, real estate, catering, distribution and so on (Saviano 2006).4 Notably, where the drugs trade is concerned, the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta have been observed to control supply and distribution – of cocaine in particular – between Latin America (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil) and Europe (Forgione 2009). The economic activities of mafias have thus become increasingly internationalised and globalised in the current context of open markets. So it is no longer possible to ignore the issue of the flow of economic exchange, which has traditionally been little studied and remains on the fringes of sociological research, despite its fundamental importance.

However, this internationalisation should not be seen as the sole new frontier of mafia studies, without reference to issues of their economic roots and territorialisation. Criminal enterprises of the mafia type are established in territories, from which they draw their economic capacity for production and the accumulation of capital. As the classic authors writing on the Sicilian mafia have magisterially shown, one of the primary sources of this mafia's economic power has been its capacity to sell protection in local contexts of difficult or uncertain relationships (or where it creates some of the danger itself) such as the great estates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century or agricultural markets where town and country meet (Catanzaro 1988; Gambetta 1992; Lupo 1987). So-called extortion activities – which are in reality often highly effective offers of private protection5 – and economic and commercial mediation enabled the mafia to build an extensive reputation for respectability, attracting new clients looking for protection. Extortion and the laundering of money obtained through criminal and illegal activities (drugs trade, control of prostitution, clandestine gambling, smuggling, etc.) also facilitate lasting integration into the commerce and distribution sectors. Rocco Sciarrone has studied mafia integration into productive activities in Calabria through apparently legal businesses linked to major infrastructure (ports, airports, large commercial zones).6 Integration into the bidding mechanisms for state contracts, notably in the field of public and private construction, is the other major economic means by which mafias take root in particular territories (Gambetta 1992, pp.314–321).

The entrepreneurial mafia is therefore necessarily a phenomenon at once local and globalised, territorially rooted and mobile across several sometimes very distant geographical zones. A mafia economy needs both local markets and social and political legitimacy in its territories (as we shall see below), but at the same time it requires the expansion, diversification, and sometimes normalisation (through investment in legal sectors) of its activities and markets.

The interpenetration of criminal, illicit, and legal economies

Just as, in our view, it is wrong to regard Mafiosi as criminals living in a separate world outside legal society, it is equally absurd to regard their economic activities as taking place in a world cloistered off from the rest of the market and contemporary capitalism (for a critique of this artificial compartmentalisation, see Briquet and Favarel-Garrigues 2008a). As the public debate on the mafia and organised crime takes place primarily in the media and the judicial sphere, it tends to concentrate on the criminal or illegal activities of mafia clans, such as murders of individual members of rival gangs (and still more those of politicians, magistrates, and journalists) and the trafficking of drugs, weapons (more recently also organs and people; see Monzini 2005), and waste. Illicit activities such as cigarette smuggling and brand counterfeiting (clothing, shoes, technological items) have long been left in the shadows, probably due to a lesser degree of social disapproval, or even because they are approved of by sectors of the population who can thus buy certain products at below-market prices (see below). Also long shunned by public debate are the perfectly legal business activities carried out by Mafiosi either before embarking on their criminal careers or in parallel to them. It was only very recently that Italian laws on the confiscation of the property of mafia clans highlighted the increasing diversification of their economic activities and the extent of their capitalist and financial networks at the national and international level. When we are able to reconstruct the social history of mafia families and their economic activities, we discover a number of important phenomena revealing the coexistence and interpenetration of criminal, illicit and legal economies: first, the flow of criminal activities is often grafted onto flows of commercial exchange that are illicit, but not necessarily criminal, such as smuggling or the counterfeit trade; second, Mafiosi have legal economic activities which either predate their criminal careers, and which they have continued to run, or have been developed simultaneously.

So the first important point to note is that, in mafia economies, criminal activities and exchanges very often use routes and channels that are not necessarily criminal, such as smuggling and the trade in counterfeit goods. A fairly representative example is provided by the Neapolitan dealers in fake products (known as i magliari, selling branded clothes and shoes, pirate CDs and DVDs, and technological items of all kinds), who travel across the whole of Europe to sell their wares, making a profit due to their lower quality and the fact that they completely evade tax. It is often along trade routes well trodden for decades by sellers of counterfeit clothes that drugs and weapons are moved. Isaia Sales clearly shows the crucial importance to the movement of drugs by the Neapolitan Camorra of their background of cigarette smuggling, providing recycling networks and fifty years of knowledge (Sales 2006, pp.177–204). Even when we analyse the process in latitudes other than those of the Italian mafias – in Brazil and other Latin American countries (Rivelois 1999; Schönenberg 2001) – drugs are often moved along the pre-existing routes of illicit trade. Analyses of transnational networks, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe7 and Morocco (Haddaoui 2009; Peraldi 2009) show the same interconnectedness between illicit and criminal activities.

Several analyses of the Italian mafias note that some mafia bosses own entirely legal business activities in sectors such as the food industry, retail, textiles, and public and private construction. In speaking of the “entrepreneurial mafia”, Arlacchi notes several cases of Calabrian Mafiosi who were initially involved in fruit transportation, vegetable oil production, animal husbandry, or construction, and who began using methods of intimidation and dissuasion against market competitors. These methods, in combination with the income from criminal economies (extortion, drug smuggling, kidnapping and so on) and reduced salaries, brought their businesses dominant or monopoly positions in local markets (Arlacchi 2007, pp.95–124).8 Here we see a continuity with the insight of other authors who refer to Mafiosi in such cases as “violent entrepreneurs” (Blok 1974). In Campania too, analysis of the socio-professional origins of Mafiosi enables us to see the extent to which criminal careers start with fairly classic entrepreneurial activities in spheres at the intersection of rural areas of intense agricultural production and the markets in high-consuming metropolises (notably the Neapolitan metropolis and markets of middle sized towns such as Caserta). Mafia bosses in the zone around Vesuvius and in Nola (north-east of Naples), such as Carmine Alfieri and Pasquale Galasso, who had won the Camorra war of the 1980s, were entrepreneurs active in furniture production, animal husbandry and slaughter, car franchises, textile industries, construction and so on (Barbagallo 1999; Gribaudi 2009).9 Their criminal and legitimate careers progressed with parallel success in terms of economic and commercial expansion and control of many of the region's markets, both legal and illegal.

Above and beyond the classic issue of the injection of money from criminal activities into legal businesses (“laundering” in journalistic parlance), recent times have seen some interesting questions from the worlds of investigative journalism and literature concerning the growing element of legal entrepreneurial activities run by Mafiosi, who thus retain large market shares (Saviano 2006). Mafia enterprises seem to be diversifying their economic activities more and more, which raises questions concerning, on the one hand, the proportion of legal entrepreneurial activities in their overall volume of business and, on the other, the normalisation strategies of their enterprises. There is a lack of empirical research in this area, notably concerning the different types of capital underpinning mafia economies and enterprises. Among social scientists working on the mafia, often highly dependent on judiciary sources and the intellectual constructions of magistrates (Judge Giovanni Falcone being one example), there has not yet been, to our knowledge, any sufficiently serious work on the economic diversification of mafia activities.10 Unfortunately the general trend is to ask highly normative questions about the problem of the influence of mafias and criminal economies on the legal economy, and indeed their “infiltration”, in what remains a view based on what we regard as an entirely artificial separation between a world of criminality and illegality on the one hand and that of classically competitive, legal economies on the other.11

Mafias as organised, flexible and autonomous structures

To maintain capitalist production and also carry out the political and social activity of mediation and controlling territories through violence, a mafia enterprise requires an internal organisation to coordinate and ensure communication between its various elements and activities. It needs hierarchical relationships, sometimes for quick decision-making. However, a hierarchy centralised around a unitary command structure and mafia cupola, as described or interpreted using a conceptual model based on analyses of the Sicilian mafia, cannot be generally applied and understood as a mafia's central, and indeed exclusive characteristic. On the contrary, in contrast to hypercentralised visions of mafia organisations, mafias and their capitalist enterprises – and ultimately, according to more recent analyses, even those of the Sicilian mafia – are in reality coordinated but flexible organisations, the components of which retain a degree of autonomy, thereby facilitating the mechanisms of capital accumulation and profit, particularly in the current context of the globalisation of their activities.

As far back as the mid-1980s, American authors such as Peter Reuter and Mark Kleiman observed the difficulties criminal organisations were having in establishing a monopoly of illegal activities, and also their lack of centralisation (Reuter 1983). More recently a number of analyses have indicated the flexible, autonomous nature of mafia economic organisations: the Neapolitan Camorra comprises a myriad organisations and – the early nineteenth century aside – has never been centralised around a single authority or common strategy (Sales 1988, 2006). It has always been characterised by a high degree of conflict between different groups and instability due to many changes of direction, collaborations with the justice system, and members joining and leaving the organisation. Mafia enterprises relocate their legal and illicit activities and subcontract different phases of production to different constituted groups, as in the drugs trade, leaving them a degree of autonomy and margin for manoeuvre. They recruit “ants”, as in the case of drug dealing in Naples – small sellers who are casual employees rather than affiliates to any of the organisations. If we turn to the Colombian cartels, or post-Soviet and Balkan crime, we find the same logics of conflict, flexible organisation, and autonomy of the different criminal groups (Atehortua Cruz 2002; Glenny 2008).

Even in mafias known more widely for their closed, hierarchical, and centralised organisations such as the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and Sicilian mafia, according to some authors these characteristics are historical exceptions. Enzo Ciconte notes that the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta (Ciconte 2008) adopted a command structure only in the early 1990s, with a view to opening up new economic markets (notably in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall); historically the different ‘ndrine (family clans of the ‘Ndrangheta) had always retained a very great degree of autonomy.12 While the Sicilian mafia has long been regularly cited as the model of a centralised, hierarchical structure around several territorially-based organisations (i mandamenti and le commissioni interprovinciali), more recently the historian Salvatore Lupo has shown that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra functioned with a single command structure only during the period of domination by the Corleonesi and Toto' Riina in the 1970s–1980s, itself a real exception in the historic panorama of the mafia, which otherwise consisted of coordination between fairly autonomous clans and families (Lupo 2007).

So, as we have just shown, it is important to relativise the issue of the centralised organisation of mafias – be it at the economic or political level – but we should also note that the organisational paradigm became more prominent in the intellectual debate on the mafias in the 1970s and 1980s, when the fight against mafia criminality by certain sectors of the Italian state – part of the magistracy and the Italian political class – was also taking shape. We can see a convergence between some social scientists and certain sectors of the magistracy, around an analysis of the mafia that sought to get away from the culturalist paradigm that had been dominant since the early twentieth century, in which the mafia was regarded as either an invention of the unified Italian state and its elites or a Sicilian cultural trait, but denied any form of lasting structural organisation (Lupo 1999).13 In reaction to these conceptions and to those of a certain cultural anthropology in the English-speaking world (Schneider and Schneider 1989), many Italian authors highlighted the importance of the organisational aspect of the mafia and its integration into modernity through the development of a spirit of enterprise (Gribaudi 1990; Pezzino 1990). The theories of mafia organisation were established in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the context of the creation of the anti-mafia pool in Palermo around Giovanni Chinnici and later Falcone, the first major trial and the state's successes in the fight against mafia phenomena. They were reinforced in the process of creating a model of excellence for specialists active in the fight against organised crime (Vauchez 2004). The intellectual and operational development of these judges took place in an environment of reciprocal exchanges and influence involving academics and members of the judiciary.14 It was this environment that would later give rise to both the theoretical concept of “organised crime” and national and then international legislation against crime committed by organised gangs of the mafia type (associazione a delinquere di stampo mafioso). In an agreement between social scientists and professionals active in the fight against mafia phenomena, the interpretation of the mafia as an organisational phenomenon became more and more entrenched, while academics, decision-makers, and journalists were tending to refer to “organised crime” rather than “mafia”. Other specialist analyses, changes to the magistracy and to paradigms of the fight against the mafia and the new historical context of the first decade of the twenty-first century ultimately brought greater complexity to this interpretation of mafia phenomena. Though very important, the entrepreneurial and organisational aspects could not account for the complexity of the mafia, which cannot be summed up in the notion of organised crime (Fiandaca and Costantino 1994; Lupo and Mangiameli 1990), its role being also highly political and institutional.

The mafia as a politico-institutional authority

  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography

While economic and organisational aspects are very important to an understanding of the mafia, they are not in themselves enough to explain the long-term persistence of the phenomenon. If these were simply gangs organised to ensure the accumulation of capital and economic expansion through criminal, illicit, and licit flows of goods over a long historical period, they would have been either completely absorbed by the classic capitalist economy or suppressed by the various state bodies controlling that economy. If mafias persist and perpetuate themselves, particularly in their traditional territories, this is because they are profoundly political in their capacity to acquire the status of politico-institutional authorities and to carry out particular forms of government and governance in the geographical areas in which they are rooted. Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the media, films, and novels, reinforced by the much-publicised terrorist period of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra,15 the mafia is not an anti-state in permanent conflict with a constituted order that it seeks to subvert. Nor is it a state within the state, or an institution filling a void left by the absence of the state. There are two reasons why none of these things are true: first, neither the mafia nor the state are homogeneous entities; second, the mafia maintain relations with state and public actors which, in different times and places, may be either competitive or cooperative or both at once.

Mafia authority can develop in contexts of uncertainty arising out of transformations to the political regime, when sectors of the state and local society may use the services of mafia entrepreneurs of violence to protect the dominant economic and political groups, to the extent of legitimising them as a political force with, to paraphrase Max Weber, the monopoly of formally illegitimate violence. The mafia takes root in territories through its ability to profit from its links with the local politico-institutional sphere, and particularly through tendering for public works, which enables it to acquire a high degree of legitimacy.

The mafia as holder of the monopoly of formally illegitimate violence: the protection of dominant groups

The mechanisms highlighted by the social history of the origins of the Italian mafias and the existing literature on the emergence of the phenomenon in Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe show that states and administrations (or at least some elements within them) often rely on mafia support – notably during transitions between political regimes – the better to manage and guarantee continuity of power within certain dominant social strata and to maintain public order for the purposes of strengthening their own power and legitimacy. The history of mafias from their origins to the present day is systematically characterised by close collaboration between segments of the state (local authorities and national government) and the various mafia organisations and the co-administration of territories.16

With Italian unification in 1860, the change of regime in Sicily aggravated social conflict on the island and failed to ensure order and security, driving aristocrats, landowners, and bourgeois with private incomes to hire the services of individuals and groups using violence and intimidation in order to protect their property and businesses from possible predation by other criminal groups. In particular, they became patrons of certain dominant groups who had come to terms with the Piedmontese state, but lacked guarantees in relation to the new demands and conflicts issuing from subordinate classes. Gradually these tenant farmers (gabelloti) came to replace the former nobility and aristocrats, becoming rural entrepreneurs themselves and at the same time entrepreneurs of violence (Catanzaro 1988). Several historians have highlighted the conflicted situation generated by the end of feudalism in Sicily in the early nineteenth century, with the gradual eviction of many tenant farmers, the exclusion of small farmers from lands formally used in common and increased uncertainty in relation to property and usage rights and control of the peasantry, giving rise to a demand for protection and the formation of groups of entrepreneurs of violence (Gambetta 1992). It was at that time, and in the presence of a unitary state with little capacity to ensure an effective and legitimate monopoly of violence, that, as Paolo Pezzino rightly notes, we see a process of the “democratisation” of violence in Sicily and the appearance of organised groups taking on the task of carrying it out (Pezzino 2000). Sadly, we have no in-depth studies offering a similarly detailed description of the mechanisms that gave rise to the Camorra or the ‘Ndrangheta.17 Where the Camorra is concerned, marking the difference between the city and its outskirts in the province of Naples, Sales (2006) advances the hypothesis of gangs who, rather than dealing in extortion and the protection of landed estates, invested in trade and mediation between the countryside and the urban centre. Recent analyses of the emergence of the Russian mafia show the existence of entrepreneurs of violence offering their services to groups and individuals in the economic and entrepreneurial world following the sudden opening up of Russia and the post-Soviet world to the capitalist market economy (Varese 2001; Volkov 2002).

The use of mafia services – and thus their legitimisation by the dominant classes – is not the only aspect enabling criminal gangs to become politico-institutional mafia authorities. In the social, political, and judicial history of nation states there are well-known means by which states use violent social classes to underpin and reinforce their authority over territories, in alliance with some social groups and to the detriment of others (Tilly 1985). Violent individuals and groups were often used in Sicily and the Naples region to maintain public order (Monzini 1999, pp.3–10); some were co-opted and integrated into the forces of order, others, whose activities were primarily extortion–protection, were often legalised.18 But it has been shown on several occasions that, in cases of regime change or upheaval and political crises, bureaucratic state apparatuses often make use of people with the skills and knowledge of violence to manage and resolve situations they regard as difficult. A recent multi-authored work analyses the emergence of criminal gangs in states that use them in order both to manage their power and to use their violent practices for the purposes of repression or maintaining security (Briquet and Favarel-Garrigues 2008a).

Mafias and the government of territories

As Sciarrone (2000, pp.38–39) notes, “the mafia is a political group in the Weberian sense of the term, to the extent that it displays the principle properties of that category: a regulated system of norms; a repressive apparatus capable of ensuring those norms are respected; a territorial dimension; physical coercion”. So mafias can be regarded as politico-institutional authorities, since they act on the same terrain as the state or, at least, have similar political objectives. In acting on the same terrain as the state, mafias adopt a posture that, contrary to what might be expected, is not that of perpetual conflict and confrontation with the authorities, but rather one of competition combined with co-operation.19 It is in this spirit, at once competitive and cooperative, that mafias seek political control of the territories where they are established and to share forms of government and governance with the state and local authorities. Control is exerted through different activities: the extortion–protection of commerce and production; the gathering of a maximum of information on the political and economic issues of the territory; the maintenance of several social, political, and institutional networks, extending into the arenas of institutions and elections; the acquisition of several economic markets for enterprises linked to the organisation. Among other things, racketeering and market dominance of the public works sector seem to us to be profoundly political and enable the organisation to become widely rooted in the territory.

The market in the extortion–protection of commercial and entrepreneurial activities is not merely an economic activity conducted by mafia and criminal groups for the purposes of capitalist accumulation. Its fundamentally political nature has been clearly shown, for the mafia “operate in a monopoly regime, just as the state would act: these are not natural monopolies, but monopolies of authority, linked to the capacity to forcibly suppress anyone who tries to participate without authorisation” (Campiglio 1993, p.111). Moreover, racketeering is profoundly political as it is imposed in defined areas on a particular group of individuals and for comparatively long periods (Sciarrone 1998, p.38). In this domain mafias act, albeit with different methods and aims, on the same terrain as the state and its fiscal policies, rackets being a mafia tax in the service of both a detailed knowledge of the territory, its management and control, and the extraction of profits for redistribution to its different organisations.

In considering a central aspect of the political dimension of the mafia, Umberto Santino (1994) states that it is a source of political production that can affect decisions concerning the management of power and distribution of resources. While its economic activities do not all require the collaboration of state authorities, mafias establish relationships with the politico-institutional sectors both to underpin their respectability and to strengthen their legal and illegal enterprises. The formation of a number of links with local authorities and state services is thus essential if their activities are to thrive and expand. In the case of the Italian, and particularly Sicilian, mafias, these links have often been present for a very long time. The accounts of the anti-mafia parliamentary commissions, some rulings by magistrates, and various historical analyses have shown lasting links between the mafias and the Italian politico-institutional world: relations between local and national elected politicians (members of parliament, local councillors, and mayors) and mafia members have been revealed as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Lupo 1999; Paliotti 2002); there have been links with political parties in the Sicilian context since the 1960s, notably the Christian Democrats and the political current led by Andreotti (Commissione parlamentare antimafia 1994a; Lupo 2006; Tranfaglia 1992); links since the 1980s between the Neapolitan Camorra and Christian-Democrat and Socialist circles (Commissione parlamentare antimafia 1994b; Barbagallo 1999, Behan 2004; Figurato 1993) have also been analysed; the repeated dissolutions of local councils in southern (and other parts of) Italy since the late 1980s due to “mafia infiltration” also reveal, beyond the limitations of a too narrowly repressive vision, many links between the institutional authorities and mafias (Trocchia 2009).

One of the ways in which the mafia becomes integrated into mechanisms of shared territorial governance with local authorities is by being very often present, either through its own enterprises or through racketeering targeting the work of other enterprises, in an important field of industrial production – notably based in southern Italy – such as the public works sector. Various sociological studies, the documents of the parliamentary anti-mafia commission and investigations by magistrates have widely revealed the capacity of mafia enterprises to take part in the processes by which contracts for public works are awarded, through both their capacity for intimidation and the control they exert over local authorities. It is now well known that one reason why the Camorra was able to expand in the Campania region was its ability to become involved in the enormous public spending on the reconstruction effort following the earthquake of 1980 (Sales 1988, pp.219–228) and that since that time Camorra enterprises have been included in the regional cycle of public works and waste processing contracts (Anselmo 2009; Anselmo and Braucci 2008; Capacchione 2008; Di Fiore 2008). Where Calabria is concerned, it has been shown that one lever for the economic expansion and the political rise of the ‘Ndrangheta was its inclusion, in the 1970s, in the markets for the construction of the Salerno Reggio Calabria motorway (Ciconte 2008) and management of the commercial activities of the port of Gioia Tauro (Sciarrone 1998). In Sicily investigations by the anti-mafia commissions and magistrates have several times raised the problem of mafia control of the system of public works. Recently discovered documents following the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano show the extent to which the public works system is controlled either directly by mafia enterprises or through racketeering in several Sicilian provinces (Abbate and Gomez 2007).

Above and beyond capitalist accumulation, this capacity to dominate markets and carry out works gives the mafia an opportunity to get to know the territory and to control it by imposing some of its rules on the local political and economic system. This gives it a de facto governmental role, shared with the authorities, due to the greater importance now given to private enterprise in establishing and delivering public policy in mechanisms of territorial governance. This factor, accompanied by vague denunciations of the mafia by the political authorities and their leaders, ultimately gives mafia organisations a high degree of political and institutional legitimacy, while simultaneously contradicting the discourse of state authorities and undermining their credibility.

The social roots of mafias and support from local populations

  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography

From the late 1970s to the first decade of the twenty-first century, two paradigms have become established in both the analyses of social scientists and the combat strategies of bodies working to suppress mafias: first, as we have already noted, the mafia are seen as criminal organisations seeking to accumulate economic property; and second, the development of mafias is understood to result from both their political dimension (which is practically absent from non-mafia criminal gangs) and their links to the politico-institutional world.20 The pre-eminence of these two paradigms, organisational and political, has certainly had the twin advantage of, on the one hand, developing a radical critique of cultural and even culturalist explanations of the mafia (Lupo 1999) and, on the other, recognising the links and alliances between mafias and the political sphere. However, in our view, in the analysis of more recent transformations of mafia phenomena (since around the 1980s) they have the major disadvantage of generating the misunderstanding and undervaluation of a third fundamental characteristic of the nature of mafias: the approval, support, or at least benevolence of important segments of local societies in relation to some mafia activities and their capacity to become rooted in territories and to redistribute resources and revenues.

The important factor we must necessarily face is that mafias and some of their activities enjoy the support, or at least acceptance, of some segments of every social class, and it is moreover thanks to this support from at least some of the local population that they succeed so well in surviving the attempts of the police and judiciary to suppress them. If the mafia were no more than a hierarchical economic and political organisation, it could be made to disappear fairly quickly by simply destroying its organisation and cutting its ties with the political sphere. But we are obliged to observe that, contrary to over-enthusiastic headlines in the daily newspapers vaunting the state's successes against various mafias, in most cases the arrests of bosses and godfathers and the confiscation of property produce only temporary diminutions of mafia power; the bosses are replaced and the mafia's politico-institutional and socio-economic capacity to maintain territorial authority remains more or less intact. So the mafia is fundamentally characterised by the social and territorial roots of its organisation and economy, its members' networks within territories occupied by large sections of the population with a very different view of Mafiosi, their organisations and economic activities from the perceptions, judgements, and stigmatisation of the politico-media system and other social segments. As Vincenzo Ruggiero notes, the mafia reproduces itself primarily through a sharing of interests between external actors and the elementary units of their clan or family (Ruggiero 1996).21 According to Sciarrone (1998, p.49), Mafiosi have a social capital of relations within civil society, the political world, and local populations due to their ability to form social networks and relationships, to set up exchanges, create ties of trust, exchange and favours, and establish reciprocal duties. These socio-territorial roots and the construction of a capital of social relations are a primary underlying reason for the persistence of mafias.

Unfortunately we have to observe that this support from certain segments of civil society, on this “demand and desire for mafia” (Bellavia and Palazzolo 2004) has been little or belatedly discussed by anti-mafia professionals, journalists, and social scientists. Either that or it has been considered – notably after the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano and discovery of the pizzini22– in terms of the stigmatisation of a civil society that colludes and is complicit with the mafia. However, we need to ask ourselves how we can understand the power of the Neapolitan Camorra in certain suburbs and inner city areas without recognising its capacity for the social redistribution of income from the drugs trade (and other illicit activities) in contexts of unemployment and chronic under-employment. How can we understand the reticence of certain entrepreneurs to denounce the racketeers if we do not acknowledge their perception of the state as incapable of defending them against insecurity?

We cannot grasp these phenomena if we do not recognise that certain mafia economies, their enterprises, and ability to mobilise capital are crucial for income redistribution – even through illegal or semi-exploitative forms such as underground employment – and employment. The distribution of jobs and wages is sometimes accompanied – the best known example being that of the Neapolitan Camorra in neighbourhoods where the drugs trade is based – by extraordinary forms of mafia welfare, in which benefits are given to the families of both associates and certain dealers in trouble with the justice system. This ability to redistribute income and financial aid determines certain forms of support and leads to a constant demand addressed to the mafia and their organisations for favours, services, rights, interventions, and mediation.

Mafia economies in the service of local populations

Whether we like it or not, whether we think it socially damaging or not, mafias manage economies and are economically productive; they put money into circulation and redistribute jobs and services. So they have a social function of income redistribution, whether through legal or illegal activities, in territories such as those of the Italian south that suffer from endemic unemployment and job insecurity. The mafia are an integral part of an environment characterised by informal and underground labour, a preponderance of insecure and underpaid jobs and widespread illegality (La Spina 2005). As noted by Carlo Trigilia (1994, p.183), in southern Italy, “for broad strata of the population, particularly many young people, more or less active support for crime (not necessarily committed by the mafia) has become a tool in the pursuit of social mobility goals … in a situation in which legitimate means to attain these goals are limited due to gaps in the legal economy”.

Despite the uncertainty of a field of knowledge for which it is impossible to provide reliable figures, estimates of the scale of the mafia economy in the southern regions mention, for Campania, Sicily, and Calabria, between 10 and 24 per cent direct mafia presence in local enterprises (Eurispes). Mafia and criminal organisations are present in many industrial and service sectors. They provide jobs either directly through their enterprises, or through their intermediary activities by offering (often in a way that cannot be refused) workers to other businesses.23 Orders issued by Italian magistrates for the confiscation of goods belonging to Mafiosi reveal the extent of mafia enterprises and their activities.24

Above and beyond the jobs that mafia organisations may provide either directly or indirectly to local populations, there is another activity we have already mentioned, which, despite its illegality, fosters tolerance and indeed support from local people: the production of and illicit trade (smuggling) in various goods. The smuggling of counterfeit products has been and remains particularly flourishing in Naples and Campania. All these activities constitute an informal market which is not – exceptional cases aside – particularly dangerous to society and is thus viewed in a comparatively favourable light by local populations, as it meets a real social demand for services that are appreciated. On these markets one can spend three to five times less for a music CD (Ravveduto 2007) or the latest must-see film on DVD. As a result of counterfeiting and underground employment practices, some markets and shops can sell clothes and shoes, including some of very high quality, for prices far lower than those in the classic shops. In the context of a strong market presence of fake and smuggled products, broad social strata – extending far beyond the camorristi and even the middle and lower classes with links to criminal groups – take advantage of this opportunity to consume more cheaply, without necessarily making the link between these illicit activities and all other illegal and criminal activities, or considering its moral aspects.25 The same could be said in relation to the purchase of smuggled cigarettes by very large swathes of the population of Naples and the Campania region, from the Second World War to the mid-1990s, from a great many men and women paid by Camorra clans. Estimates by the Guardia di Finanza speak of around 100,000 people living off cigarette smuggling, even in the 1970s and 1980s (Figurato and Marolda 1981).

Mafia welfare and the social demand for mafia

In addition to their ability to redistribute jobs and render the market and products cheaper for a captive clientele, mafias – and in a more limited way other criminal organisations – are in some contexts able to replace the state and local authorities in providing social assistance to very vulnerable populations (unstable employment, endemic unemployment, poverty, absence of any financial assistance to families). In contexts of this kind, the allocation of benefits to certain families in poor neighbourhoods and to certain prisoners resemble forms of mafia-run social welfare, reinforcing the institutional legitimacy of mafia organisations and establishing them firmly in their territories. The Camorra wars in the Secondigliano neighbourhood – the centre of drug dealing – in the mid-2000s revealed criminal forms of welfare widely publicised through Roberto Saviano's bestselling book Gomorra and the film of the same name. Families, or more generally spouses and girlfriends of individuals who had problems with the law, would receive a monthly allowance. These systems of redistribution had long existed in Naples in the form of requests for charitable donations for prisoners' families, which were made in every neighbourhood in the city.

The ability to redistribute income and allowances and the legitimacy this brings to the heads of the Camorra clans explain the very little studied but extremely interesting cases of uprisings against the police by the inhabitants of certain Neapolitan neighbourhoods when clan chiefs are arrested, noted by historians since the late nineteenth century. It has happened in Naples, and still does happen fairly frequently (15 times in the year 2005 alone), that, whether spontaneously or by prior organisation, groups of residents clash with the forces of the law (police or carabineri) following the arrest of a clan chief or dealer (Sales 2006). In 2007, after the arrest of Cosimo Di Lauro, gang boss of the Alleanza di Secondigliano in the outlying neighbourhood of Scampia, there was a popular uprising against the police, with barricades made of upturned dustbins erected on local streets. On 14 November 2009, in an area of social housing in the Caivano area on the edge of Naples, around fifty women confronted the police, who were in pursuit of three dealers, and tried to prevent their arrest.26 We could cite many more examples across the three regions with the greatest mafia presence (Campania, Calabria, and Sicily), while also noting that the same phenomena can be seen in other contexts. Action and arrests by the forces of the law interrupt and hinder routine economic activities based on drugs and other illicit trades, all of which are crucial sources of revenue for redistribution.

It is moreover really in the field of welfare and social assistance that the mafias are in competition with the state and often win, as the case of Naples shows. In southern Italy, where the industrial restructuring of the 1980s reduced still further the possibility of gaining unskilled jobs and where the state has extremely little presence (extreme rarity of unemployment benefits, lack of minimum welfare allowance, housing benefits, etc.), where the public sector has provided fewer and fewer jobs, their capacity to provide social assistance makes mafias appear legitimate and clearly more successful competitors to state bodies.

State authorities (or some of their segments at least) are not alone in lending legitimacy to the political authority of the mafias; the same is true of certain segments of the civil society (in both its individual and collective manifestations), which, by certain behaviours, recognise the role of mafias as institutional authorities able to mediate and to solve material problems. We have observed some aspects of this in working-class neighbourhoods in Naples. However, the demand addressed to the mafia stems from a much broader social base than the working classes alone. The great mass of information gathered in the course of recent judicial investigations show the extent to which, in some contexts, the middle classes – professionals, shopkeepers, and entrepreneurs, or simply citizens – ask members of the mafia for action, favours, or mediation of a kind not dissimilar to requests they might address to a mayor, member of parliament, or local authority department in order to solve a particular problem. So there is, in several sectors of society, a great “demand for mafia” (Bellavia and Palazzolo 2004). Since the mid-1990s and the lull in the numbers of murders of public figures by the Sicilian mafia, journalists have rediscovered the capacity for “immersion” on the part of the “new mafia”, said to be discreet and invisible, returning to negotiation and business, far from the sound and fury of the murders and attacks of the period 1980–1994 (Palazzolo and Prestipino 2007). In reality, this capacity to conduct discreet business with a great number of partners in the political sphere and civil society of all persuasions,27 to keep forming social networks, has always existed, before, during and after Cosa Nostra's terrorist phase; all these elements coexist in situations that are only apparently contradictory.

Recognition of the territorial rootedness of mafias, their ability to gain approval from at least a section of the population and to create networks in the local society based on their extensive social capital, may seem to bring back through the window that which social science literature, in association with the intellectual considerations of the magistrates of the Italian anti-mafia movement, has been trying to drive out of the door since the 1970s: a cultural interpretation, often accused of culturalism, of mafia and criminal phenomena. Recognition of the social roots of the mafias, the porosity between criminal organisations and local populations, between widespread illicit and illegal behaviours and the development of mafia organisations, might bring with it the risk of regarding mafias as a consequence of local cultures that tend to produce them. Our analysis has no intention of falling into that trap and joining others that give too much weight to overarching local cultures (see notably the output of certain English-speaking sociologists such as the Schneiders, Hess, and Banfield) or, worse still, naturalising mafia behaviour in an entirely determinist conception of social phenomena.

The explanation of mafia phenomena by considering mafia activities and their networks in the context of territories where we find support from a section of the population cannot in any way be understood in an overarching, deterministic sense, but in terms of a dialectic of interaction between several socio-historic and conjunctural factors and phenomena that are never fixed but are transformed over time. Like any other social phenomenon, the mafia never has a single cause or determinant, but can be explained in terms of the interaction and interlocking of several factors that are not always the same, particularly when they operate over a long period of time, including historical factors linked to the structures of the local economy, the role of the state and local authorities, the presence or absence of criminal groups and activities, the strategies of groups and individuals investing more heavily in certain illicit and illegal sectors, systems of social protection, and so on.

By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena

  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography

In our view the coexistence and combination of the three characteristics we have just outlined provide a starting point for deciding whether or not an observed phenomenon can be described as mafia. The absence of one or two of these characteristics seems to us to modify the nature of the phenomena, which are then more akin to criminal enterprises or groups more or less linked to the local political sphere, or informal economy networks. Thus micro-enterprises involved in the drugs trade at the Mediterranean scale, as exist today, for example, in the Marseille region or more generally in the south of France (Haddaoui 2009), with no political authority and enjoying very little or no support from local populations, cannot in our view – and despite the enthusiasm of some elements of the media – be regarded as mafias. In a context of great international economic competitiveness, criminal gangs that run only local gambling and prostitution, whatever their support from the local population, cannot be regarded as being of the mafia type if they do not have sufficiently robust logics of capital accumulation.

In conclusion to this perspective review of the literature, and with an awareness of the failings and limitations of the essentialist approach to the phenomena in question, we should like to open debates that look beyond the characteristics of mafias to the positions, investigative policies, and methodologies proposed by social scientists for the study of mafia and criminal phenomena. Our approach may seem paradoxical, but it seems to us that one way of renewing mafia studies would be to shift the focus and subvert the object of research by turning away from direct approaches to the mafia and criminality to investigate, from different angles, other social phenomena that may foster and provide a seedbed for mafia-style criminality. In other words, we suggest not considering the mafia directly in order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which contemporary economic, political, and social transformations may feed, consolidate, and even generate mafia phenomena, through social practices common among politicians, in public intervention and the everyday consumption of citizens, and which arise out of conflict, furious economic competition, social inequalities, and everyday violence. So it seems to us important for social science research to shift its focus and to look directly at certain economic sectors (such as, for example, tourism, waste, catering, construction, or the leisure industry), which, we might hypothesise, generate violent competitive practices that offer fertile ground for mafia entrepreneurs, and to consider how their channels and modes of production take shape, taking their practices and actors as fields of study. We could, again as an example, pay more attention to financial issues relating to political parties and to the budgetary expenses of public institutions, hoping perhaps ultimately to find business links between politicians and Mafiosi/businessmen. In reality the degree to which mafia and criminals in general are involved in legal companies should make us regard them as not simply deviant in relation to juridical and social norms. We would agree with Howard Becker that “whether an act is deviant, then, depends on how other people react to it” (Becker 1963, p.11). For Becker deviance is a property not of the behaviour of an individual or group, but of the interaction between those who commit an act and the individuals who react to it. A detour via activities that are at first sight completely legal might enable us to work better on activities regarded as deviant, but through a more dispassionate observation of their social mechanisms, including unofficial, illicit, and criminal practices, as entirely usual elements of social interaction, freeing ourselves from the constraints of a necessarily moralistic perspective whose only point of entry is the viewpoint of the justice system. Indeed we have seen the extent to which, in sectors such as illicit trades and counterfeit smuggling, the boundaries between what is or is not a mafia activity are blurred and the line between illicit, criminal, and legal can shift.

This change of focus can thus, in our view, facilitate work over the long term that will be fruitful for social scientists, involving reduced dependence on the magistracy and bodies involved in the fight against the mafia and generating more complex policies for the investigation of mafia phenomena. Social scientists will then be able to free themselves from the twin dependency that now hampers their ability to alter their focus and approach, in the form of a reliance on the intellectual construction of mafia and criminal phenomena historically developed by magistrates and others and, of course, a high degree of dependency on judicial sources. Judicial sources have long been the main, if not the only sources used in analyses of mafias. Whether judicial (records of trials, police interrogations, accusations by magistrates, cessations, etc.) or politico-institutional (declarations of principle by international organisations, legislation for the suppression of criminal phenomena, reports from parliamentary enquiries into mafia criminality, etc.), these sources require a sociological critique that has not yet been undertaken: produced by institutions in charge of the judicial fight against phenomena juridically labelled as criminal, this documentation is certainly not neutral and cannot be used for every purpose or regarded as “objective”. It requires to be viewed in a distanced way, with objectivity. Dependency on judicial and police sources involves, in the best case, a choice of research objects that too closely follow the objectives of the magistrates' investigations and, in the worst, a regrettable objectivation of phenomena from the point of view of actors interested primarily in their judicial suppression rather than their scientific analysis. Ethnographic and sociological analyses of economic sectors regarded as producing criminal enterprises and micro-sociological analyses of local political networks and certain practices of work and consumption would avoid the pitfalls of the single source and multiply research approaches to mafia phenomena.

Translated from French

  1. *The present article develops thinking begun in the writing of a report on research into the social worlds of drugs in Marseille for the Mission interministérielle pour la Lutte contre les Drogues et la Toxicomanie [Interministerial Mission for the Fight against Drugs and Addiction] (MILDT) and INSERM, conducted with Michel Peraldi, Amina Haddaoui, Monique Weinberger, and Mathieu Coulon of the Laboratoire Méditerranéen de sociologie (LAMES) and the MMSH of Aix-en-Provence. It has benefited from comments by Laurent Mucchielli and Laurence Montel, whom I should like to thank.

  2. 2

    It is no coincidence that, rather than the traditional word “Camorra” referring to the Neapolitan mafia, the mafia increasingly speak of a “system” (“o' sistema” in the Neapolitan dialect) to identify what they collectively are and do.

  3. 3

    It was only very recently that Salvatore Lupo partially filled this gap by publishing his latest book on the temporary and lasting links between the Sicilian and American mafias. See Lupo (2008).

  4. 4

    Although Roberto Saviano works in the field of the literary novel, he has greatly contributed to our understanding of the internationalisation of mafia businesses through the example of Camorra groups in the Campania region. See Mattina (2008).

  5. 5

    The sociologist Rocco Sciarrone speaks of “extortion–protection”. See Sciarrone (1998).

  6. 6

    See his analysis of businesses in the plain of Gioia Tauro in the Calabrian province of Reggio Calabria (Sciarrone 1998, pp.53–111).

  7. 7

    Although in a more journalistic register, it is important to note the description of the interconnection between the illicit and criminal economies of smuggling channels in the Balkans and in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. See Glenny (2008).

  8. 8

    In a book taking a generally economic approach, Clotilde Champeyrache speaks of “mafia-legal enterprise”. See Champeyrache (2004).

  9. 9

    On the rural origins of a Camorra with, unlike the urban Camorra, characteristics similar to those of the Sicilian mafia, see Sales (2006).

  10. 10

    The Italian magistrature and anti-mafia political and social circles have, somewhat belatedly, understood the centrality of capitalism and the accumulation of profit within mafia enterprises. The laws on the confiscation of property were passed and came into force in the years 1990–2000, but this gave rise to intellectual contributions solely from anti-mafia professionals and not from the social sciences. See Violante (1998).

  11. 11

    Following investigations by the magistrature into mafia activities in regions outside southern Italy (such as Lombardy, Tuscany, Umbria, and Piedmont), many anti-mafia actors, journalists, and sometimes social scientists began speaking of infiltration by the mafia and organised crime (s Becucci et al. 2006). Other authors speak far more pertinently of the expansion of mafias and organised crime into territories outside their traditional areas (see Massari 1998, pp.15–27; Sciarrone 1998).

  12. 12

    The anti-mafia parliamentary commission reached more or less the same conclusions in its accounts of 2008. See Forgione (2008).

  13. 13

    For a critical review of the literature on mafias that traces the evolution of the debate remarkably well, see Briquet (1995).

  14. 14

    In the conclusion to the new edition of his book on the “entrepreneurial mafia”, Arlacchi mentions the existence “of a mixed research group – consisting of academics, magistrates, journalists and politicians – which I co-ordinated at the University of Calabria 1978–1983”. Arlacchi tells us that it was in this discussion group, which included magistrates such as Chinnici, Falcone, and Paolo Borsellino, politicians such as Pio La Torre and many others, that it had become possible to understand the importance of the fight against the accumulation of capital by mafia entrepreneurs, who could threaten the entire Calabrian economy. “This hypothesis influenced Italian legislation and policy against the mafia throughout the 1980s and 90s”. See Arlacchi (2007, p.210). In the period 1990–1997, Arlacchi returned to work at the Ministry of the Interior as the expert charged with establishing the DIA (department of antimafia investigation).

  15. 15

    Between the late 1970s and 1993, in addition to the very violent mafia wars, there was a great increase in mafia murders of police, magistrates, politicians, and journalists, and large-scale attacks such as those in Rome and Florence. This generated a false idea of the mafia as systematically defying state authority. However, a more in-depth historical analysis reveals that this “terrorist” period is very much the exception in the long history (150 years) of the Sicilian mafia and still more of the mafias of Campania and Calabria.

  16. 16

    Of course this does not imply that the history of these relations between state authorities and the mafia is not also characterised by competition, sometimes very violent conflicts, and heavy repression, notably by the state, in its judicial and police role at several points in mafia history, the two aspects being in no way contradictory.

  17. 17

    Enzo Ciconte, the best-known socio-historian of the Calabrian mafia, states that no one really knows whether the ‘Ndrangheta is more rural or urban in origin. See Ciconte (1992, p.144).

  18. 18

    We might think of the extension of vigilance and security groups in southern Italy, and in the entire post-Soviet world in the 1980s and 1990s.

  19. 19

    As Jean-Louis Briquet and Gilles Favarel-Garrigues (2008b, p.10) rightly note, “the entrepreneurs of violence are often very pleased with the rules of the political and economic game in which they work, finding it offers opportunities for them to develop their activities”.

  20. 20

    The trial of Giulio Andreotti, a very important Christian Democrat politician and several times Italian Prime Minister, for associazione a delinquere di stampo mafioso was a key moment in the judiciary's understanding of the mafia as a political phenomenon that could not readily have developed without the support, connivance, and complicity of the political sphere. For a subtle analysis of the “mafia issue” in the Italian political system, see Briquet (2007).

  21. 21

    Ruggiero (1996, p.60).

  22. 22

    The pizzini are letters and messages typed by mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano in his hide-out and sent, via friends and family, to mafia associates throughout Sicily, and to the entrepreneurs, professionals, traders, civil servants, and others with whom he was in permanent contact.

  23. 23

    In a study on enterprise and criminality in southern Italy conducted with a sample of southern entrepreneurs, the scale of the workforce imposed on businesses by criminal organisations can clearly be seen. See Censis-Fondazione study, BNC, 2004.

  24. 24

    One of the most recent confiscations of property, that of the west Sicilian boss Matteo Messina Denaro and entrepreneurs closely linked to him, involved goods worth a total of 550 million euros, 15 individual enterprises and capital companies primarily in the private and public construction sectors, 200 pieces of agricultural land, 90 buildings including blocks of flats, shops and warehouses, 9 factories, and 120 vehicles (cars, lorries, agricultural machinery, etc.). See the article “Sequestrati i beni di Messina Denaro. Un colpo all'economia di Cosa Nostra”, in La Repubblica, 27 January 2010. Available at (accessed 8 February 2010).

  25. 25

    In this regard, Sales (2006, p.184) notes: “Counterfeiting a product to swindle the buyer is not always the prime purpose of the sale; the real underlying principle is to sell at a price acceptable to the consumer who, in exchange, makes a moral concession to obtain the product at a lower price: in other words consumers know they are buying fake products, but at the same time they know that this is a moral concession they have to accept in order to pay less”.

  26. 26

    Primapress “nel Napoletano, 50 donne in rivolta contro la polizia per evitare l'arresto di tre spacciatori”. Available at (accessed 8 February 2010).

  27. 27

    The pizzini found by the Sicilian magistrates tell of a very extensive sphere of relations between mafia circles and entrepreneurs, professional people, civil servants, managers of cooperatives (even those close to the old PDS). See Abbate and Gomez (2007).


  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography
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  1. Top of page
  2. Mafias as capitalist enterprises
  3. The mafia as a politico-institutional authority
  4. The social roots of mafias and support from local populations
  5. By way of conclusion: a change of focus and new research perspectives for a different approach to work on mafia and criminal phenomena
  6. References
  7. Biography
  • Cesare Mattina is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille and a researcher at LAMES (Laboratoire Méditerranéen de Sociologie), Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l'homme, Aix-en-Provence. His work focuses on government and urban governance in relation to the influence of clientelism and redistribution of public wealth in western urban societies. He encountered the issue of the mafia while working on political clientelism in Naples and reading the extensive Italian literature on this question. More recent collaboration on research into the social worlds of drugs in Marseille has also led him to examine the transformations affecting criminal economies, the relationships of criminals to politics and local societies, and the distinctions between the mafia, organised crime, and crime in general.