Historical Legacies of Cosa Nostra

NOTE: On the Italian Mafia State: The missing link in this is story the relationship among ex-policemen, political police and clans. Please be careful to the detail. For Italians & Sicilians, I look like Very Sicilian. My surname and story of the Princes Cerami (tweets).


Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’) is not a new entity. Its origins can probably be traced back to the early nineteenth century when the Sicilian society started its transition from feudalism to capitalism. Cosa Nostra came to the attention of public authorities, however, only after the social tensions that exploded during the separation of Sicily from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies  (Dickie 2004; Lupi 2004; see also Colarizi 1996)[1]. During the period spanning the Spedizione dei Mille of Garibaldi from 1860 to 1920, the numerous bandits, thieves and smugglers (briganti) already present in the Sicilian territory substantially increased their power, setting up stronger ties with the powerful landowners. They soon became a secretive sect that found inspiration in the Beati Paoli – a confraternity of medieval-style Robin Hoods. Some considered them ‘Brothers’, like the Freemasons.

Even though attempts to stop the power of Cosa Nostra were immediately made by the carabinieri (royal policy) and by the regio esercito (royal army) of Vittorio Emanuele II, only in the 1920s the first positive results were achieved. In January 1926, Benito Mussolini’s newly appointed prefect of Palermo – Cesare Mori (The Iron Man) – started the campaign to get rid of the ‘Mafia problem’. The response of Cesare Mori was particularly strong with over 130 fugitives and 300 of their accomplices arrested in few days (Dickie 2004, p.175). Even though several hundred arrests followed in the subsequent months, Cesare Mori did not succeed in totally dismantling Cosa Nostra, as the Fascist press declared, with Mafiosi often arrested in occasion of the visits by fascist gerarchi  (fascist high ranking officials) and then liberated after their departure (Dickie 2004, p.176; Colarizi 1996). Despite an only partial success, the power of its families was greatly reduced, and several ‘men of honor’ fled to the United States[2].

In 1943, the Allied troops landed in Sicily. In order to limit the number of US casualties, in the months antecedent the allied landing (sbarco alleato) the US secret services contacted several bosses of Cosa Nostra jailed in New York and Chicago. In the weeks subsequent to these ‘informal talks’, several postcards from Italian emigrates started to arrive to their parents in Sicily. This had the hidden objective to prepare the terrain for the invasion (Colarizi 1996; Costanzo 2007). Once that Sicily was liberated from the Nazi-Fascist regime in 1943[3], a question of public order immediately came to light. Not only people in the region were starving due to the consequences of war (with robberies, civic tensions and crimes exponentially growing), but also local administrations had to be re-established. Since the war against Hitler and Mussolini was still under way and almost the totality of local bureaucrats had been appointed by the Fascist regime on the basis of their loyalty to the party, the US Allies decided to replace the existing administrators with members of Cosa Nostra. This decision, which, at first glance, could seem questionable, had a vital twofold objective. On the one hand, it permitted the US troops to concentrate on the war against the Nazi-Fascist regime still far from being finished, delegating, in this way, secondary tasks of public order. On the other hand, by granting the administration of the region to ‘locals’ also showed to the occupied population their will of not acting as foreign invasion troops. Nationalist ideals were, at the time, particularly strong in Italy, and every policy that could have given birth to national resentment was clearly carefully to avoid. In the eyes of the US Allies, Cosa Nostra was also a ‘trustful’ organization (or, at least, ‘more trustful’ than the Fascist or communist organizations present in the region). The members of Cosa Nostra had, in fact, not only been severely persecuted by Benito Mussolini and by the Prefect Cesare Mori, but they also had a vital personal interest to show their loyalty to the new governments. As a result, immediately after the US troops landed in Sicily, fascist mayors were deposed, and replaced with members of Cosa Nostra[4]. During this period, attempts to change the semi-feudal agricultural system present in Sicily also occurred. The change proposed by the socialist formations altered the existing equilibriums and this, clearly, implied dismantling the system of interests mutually beneficial for land-owners and members of Cosa Nostra (now became local administrators). The innumerable tensions, which emerged during these years, ended, as a consequence, in bloody and, sometimes, also even in mysterious suppressions in which different powers and interests merged together. The most notable example is here represented by the Strage di Portella della Ginestra where a group of Mafiosi led by the Bandit Giuliano, allegedly with the tacit consensus of the allied forces, shot on mass of demonstrators causing several hundred deaths and injuries.

After the end of World War II, in order to recover a country in ruin (especially the Mezzogiorno) the Christian Democrats-led government from Alcide De Gasperi decided to transfer a substantial amount of public money obtained through the Marshall Plan to the Cassa del Mezzogiorno (Fund of Mezzogiorno). The aim of the interventionist policy-making, was, on the one hand, to rebuild Sicily, while, on the other, also to acquire a stable system of clienteles necessary for the political stability and survival of the newly established Italian Republic. This unprecedented inflow of public money led to a big construction boom, but also to the establishment of dangerous relations between the Mafiosi, public administrators (such as Don Vito Ciancimino) and political elites (for example Salvo Lima, the Sicilian referent of Giulio Andreotti). According to Dickie (2004, p.318), for instance, between 1959 and 1963, the city council led by Vito Ciancimino granted 4,205 building permits (about 80 percent of total building permits) to only five men, who, as it will be later discovered by the state Prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, represented major construction firms in the hands of Cosa Nostra.

Following the first Maxi-Processo (Maxi-Trial) against Cosa Nostra in the early 1990s and the subsequent assassination of Giovanni Falcone on 23 May 1992 and Paolo Borsellino (his friend and successor) a few months later on 19 July 1992, public unrest exploded in the region with possible serious system-delegitimizing repercussions. In the funerals of the two state prosecutors national politicians were publicly accused of connivance to Cosa Nostra and, in some cases, also the objects of lynching attempts. The year 1992 represents, in this context, a critical juncture in the battle against Cosa Nostra. Since then, the arresti eccellenti (first-rate arrests) have been innumerable.


[1] The first theatrical representation of Mafia can be traced back to Giuseppe Rizzotto’s comedy ‘I Mafiusi de La  Vicaria’ (1863) which brought Cosa Nostra to the attention of the public opinion. The term ‘Mafia’ seems, however, to be used for the first time by Alongi ([1886]1977) in his book La Maffia.

[2] These were the cases, for example, of Carlo Gambino and Joseph Bonanno, who then became powerful bosses of Cosa Nostra in New York.

[3] When the Allies arrived in Sicily, many elderly with whom the author has spoken remember tanks with young American soldiers speaking a mix of old Sicilian and English language distributing chewing-gum, chocolates and other subsistence products to the population.

[4] The cases of Calogero Vizzini mayor of Villalba or Giuseppe Genco Russo mayor of Mussomeli are here two of the most notable examples.

  1. Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’): An Introduction
  2. Historical Legacies of Cosa Nostra 
  3. Cosa Nostra’s Political and Governance Mechanisms: National and Transnational Ties 
  4. Cosa Nostra: System of Values and Norms
  5. Cosa Nostra’s System of Taxation and The Transnational Criminal Integrated System
  6. The Political Regime of Cosa Nostra: Between Independentist and Consociational Pressures
  7. The Transnational-Based Criminal Market Economy
  8. Cosa Nostra’s Criminal-Fare Regime 
  9. Cosa Nostra’s Systemic Problems 
  10. The ‘Anti-Mafia’ Organization: A Historical-Institutionalist Approach
  11.  List of Sicilian ‘Noblesse’ (Noble Families) A-Z
  12. Reference List



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