The history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia

The history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia
The history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia

The mafia in Sicily originated in the western part of the island at the beginning of the 19th century. Of a pyramidal and top-down structure, its basic body is “the family”, not to be understood as blood relations as for the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta. In the Sicilian mafia the family is governed by a representative, elected “democratically” who is entrusted with control of a specific territory.

Historically, the center of Cosa Nostra’s activities and decisions resided in the city of Palermo. From the second half of the 1950s, on the advice of the American Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia began to implement a higher level hierarchical structure generally called “Commission” or “Dome”. The major leaders of the organization located in the various provinces of the Sicilian territory fall here. The “picciotti” at the base of the mafia pyramid are considered the Cosa Nostra army. Above them we find the figure of the “decina chief”, who holds control over the work of ten chosen men. A step higher identifies the figure of the “district head”, i.e. a set of three families contiguous at a territorial level, who make up the “provincial commission”. In the event of the arrest of a district head or a head of family, his place is temporarily occupied by a regent.

Entry into the organization is via “call” and the internal behavioral norms are rigid to say the least. Generally the subject in question is subjected to a period of observation, so as to be able to evaluate his criminal capabilities. Subsequently, the chosen individual, after the authorization of the Head of the Family, is approached and invited to carry out some criminal actions together with other members of Cosa Nostra, effectively making him an “affiliate” of the organisation. Subsequently, to become “picciotto”, the person must undergo an affiliation rite, in the presence of other members of the organization. During the rite, the chosen one must recite a solemn oath of eternal loyalty to the organization, which consists of passing between his hands a sacred image on which, previously, a few drops of his blood had fallen from a finger that had been point.

This passage in dialect is described with the term punciutu. Among the fundamental rules of Cosa Nostra, first of all there is that of not being able to be part of the organization if you are related to members of the police forces and magistrates. During the 1990s, to reduce the damage caused by repentant justice collaborators, such as the numerous arrests and confiscations of assets, Cosa Nostra decided to partially modify its structure following a logic of compartmentalization that was in some ways borrowed from the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta. Simply put, members of a given group only recognize their leader and other participants, effectively recognizing only a part of the organization rather than its entire structural whole. By doing so, a possible arrested member limits the damage in case of collaboration with the justice system in terms of revelations. It is no coincidence that there have been many murders committed by Cosa Nostra against family members of repentant bosses after their decision to collaborate with the Italian State. Among the various cases, the first of all was without a shadow of a doubt the kidnapping and imprisonment lasting two years of the twelve-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo (19 January 1981, Palermo-11 January 1996, Giardino della Memoria), son of Santino Di Matteo , member of Cosa Nostra who later became a justice collaborator. The child was strangled and dissolved in acid on the orders of mafia bosses Matteo Messina Denaro, Giovanni Brusca, Giuseppe Graviano and Leoluca Bagarella.

But in addition to violent crimes, one of Cosa Nostra’s strengths has always been its connection with the political world, to obtain contracts and impunity. This brings us back to the figure of the mafiosi in the times of landownership, the so-called gabelloti, i.e. individuals who, in order to rent the land of the feudal lord of the situation, paid the latter a gabelle, or a consumption duty. The gabelloti made use of the so-called “campieri”, a sort of private police force of the fiefdom, to have greater security, protection and control of the activities. In turn, the gabellotes, for a price clearly higher than that of the gabelle paid to the feudal lord, rented the land to the farmers. In all of this, with the help of the “campieri” and their trusted men called “superspers”, the gabelloti quelled the demands of the peasant workers with the use of violence. As recalled in the Report on the relationship between the Mafia and politics of the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission of the abolition of large estates. Many labor chambers were devastated and trade unionists killed by Cosa Nostra in those years. But in addition to these facts, there are numerous murders carried out by Cosa Nostra against representatives of institutions and politicians, thus bringing the Sicilian Mafia from the fruit and vegetable markets of the countryside, to contracts and power in the cities between the years 1970/80, above all thanks to the riches and power obtained from drug trafficking, a shady business but much more profitable than cigarette smuggling, which in a short time causes a mafia war, the death of many mafiosi and the subsequent and consequent rise to power of the clan of the Corleonesi famous for their unprecedented ferocity. In fact, in the year 1992, and respectively on 23 May in Capaci (Pa) and 19 July in via Mariano D’Amelio in Palermo, the Sicilian Mafia led by the Corleonese Salvatore “Totò” Riina, (Corleone 16-11- 1930–Parma17-11-2017) kills the judges Giovanni Falcone and his wife Francesca Morvillo, and Paolo Borsellino, together with the agents of their respective escorts, with two bomb attacks, terribly shaking all national public opinion.

The following year, in 1993, it was the turn of some car bombs in Milan, Florence and Rome, which caused the death of some citizens. The artistic heritage of those cities is also paying the consequences. All this to try to soften the State regarding some anti-mafia laws. But the Italian state does not compromise and does not allow itself to be intimidated. The work carried out led to the capture of many members of the organisation, including Salvatore Riina, a fugitive for more than twenty years, arrested on 15 January 1993 in Palermo by the special ROS team called CRIMOR headed by Captain Ultimo (Sergio DeCaprio). Following Riina’s arrest, the command of Cosa Nostra passed into the hands of Bernardo Provenzano (Corleone 01-31-1933 Milan 07-13-2016). In this period the strategy of the Sicilian Mafia sees the use of the so-called pizzini, i.e. pieces of paper with coded messages made with an old typewriter, to facilitate communication between mafiosi without arousing particular suspicions and avoiding any interceptions.

It is the period of collaboration with foreign criminal organisations, of corruption, of extortion, of drug trafficking, of money laundering through unsuspecting professionals, and of infiltration into public procurement, but without the use of violent and sensational acts that for years have distinguished the Corleonesi. The boss Bernardo Provenzano, after forty-three years on the run, was arrested on 11 April 2006, in Corleone, in the Montagna dei Cavalli area in a farmhouse. Following his arrest, among the heirs to the title of Chief of Chiefs of Cosa Nostra stand out the boss Matteo Messina Denaro, head of the organization in the province of Trapani, a fugitive for 30 years until his arrest on 16 January 2023 in near a private clinic in Palermo, and the boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, from the San Lorenzo district, but very influential in the western part of the province of Palermo, arrested in Giardinello, a town located near Carini in the province of Palermo on 5 November 2007. With him also his son Sandro and the two mafia bosses Gaspare Pulizzi, head of the mafia in Carini and Andrea Adamo, regent of the Brancaccio district. But it is certainly the arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro that has caused the most stir because it happened in 2023 and that in the last few days he declared: “You took me for my health conditions… I will never regret it. .. I have never committed massacres… I only know about the Cosa Nostra from the news.” Analyzing the Mafia in all its forms is complicated to say the least, but according to research carried out by the National Anti-Mafia Directorate, what characterizes it most is the presence of the so-called “grey” area, that is, that set of elements that are not part of the organized crime directly, but which in some way have relationships and links with the latter. People who act legally and provide support and advice to business criminals, such as bureaucrats, politicians, entrepreneurs and many others. This has allowed the Mafia over time to expand its borders even outside the Sicily region and to make it present in Lazio, Tuscany, Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia Romagna.

Today Cosa Nostra is invisible in the eyes of many because it no longer kills, does not commit massacres, does not fill the pages of national newspapers. But perhaps this is the biggest problem. The Mafia is still alive, and is probably stronger than before, precisely because it no longer needs to kill.

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