"Terror at Midday" - The Cosa Nostra as a terrorist organisation

Seminar Paper 1999 41 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal



I. Introduction

II. The History of Cosa Nostra
1. Rural Protection
2. The golden years
3. The fascist era
4. The post-war crisis
5. National and International Expansion
6. The Palermo Spring

III. The Cultural Roots of Mafia

IV. Mafia and Politics

V. Cosa Nostra as an economical Power

VI. The Fight against the Cosa Nostra

VII . Conclusion – The Cosa Nostra as a Terrorist Organisation


I. Introduction

On the 23. of May 1992 a huge explosion ripped a 50 meter crater into the Trapani-Palermo Highway, near the Capaci exit, killing the Judge Falcone, his wife and bodyguards. These murders were the climax of a violent campaign waged by the Cosa Nostra against those that threatened to destabilise a political arrangement that had emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War.

In this paper I make the claim that the Cosa Nostra is not only an organised crime syndicate, but in deed a terrorist organisation; an organisation who's acts are aimed to safeguard a political system which is beneficial to them for reasons of power accumulation in more than just the criminal or financial sense. Even though I refer specifically to the Cosa Nostra of Sicily, I will try and formulate a definition of this type of terrorism that might help us understand the actions of other organisations, called 'Mafia' in various places around the world.

I feel strongly that only when we understand the political side of 'Organised Crime' will we stand a chance to counter this ever rising threat to democracy. Italy, as an extreme case, can help clarify tendencies already observed in Post-Cold War Russia, and other places.

Terrorism comes in many shapes and forms, reaching from counter-cultural exesses of Neo-Nazi Skinheads to highly sophisticated actions of governments. To bring all these acts under one theoretical definition, Terrorism has been defined as "a symbolic act, designed to influence political behaviour by extra-normal means, entailing the use or threat of violence."[1]

I will use this definition as a guideline in my analysis, but before anything else we will take a look at how the Cosa Nostra got to become what it is today.

Some might argue that in light of recent developments in Italy, the maxi-processes, the political death of the Democracia Cristiana party, and the arrests of the most prominent political figures in post-war Italy, hope exists that a genuinely new era is dawning in Italy. The political system has seemingly gone through deep changes, electoral as well as conceptional. Holy cows have been slaughtered and taboos have been overturned. To any observer this has posed the question as to what extend these changes are genuine and there to stay. More than that, to what degree are the changes 'culturally' profound and not only cosmetic. While all this remains to be seen, one question sticks out with growing urgency, the question where all this leaves the Cosa Nostra, and if a study like this one is still relevant or should be regarded as an exercise in historical analyses?

Well, it has been argued before that the Mafia is a socio-cultural phenomenum (Hess)[2] thus any real change would entail a change in the cultural background on which Mafia exists. Others lay an emphasis on the economical aspect of today's uomini d'honore's activities, arguing that the Mafiosi of today is a capitalist entrepreneur more than he is preoccupied with matters of honour. (Arlacci)[3]

All seem to agree that Mafia exists where the state has lost its monopoly in the use of force and thus 'invites' Mafia to occupy the niche the state is either unable or unwilling to fill. For all it is clear that the central characteristic of Mafia is the private use of unlicensed violence as a means of control in the public arena.[4]

Politics is power, the accumulation and exercise of power is politics. In this paper we will discuss Mafia as a system of power, an expression of power, in the cultural, economical, and the political field. We will look at Mafia as the power that, where the lack of state allows it, successfully replaces it. And replaces it with actions whose "political content constitute an alternative to democracy."[5]

So where is the Mafia headed? Will the new wave of ' mani pulite ' sweep away all memories of corruption, protectionism, and intimidation? How realistic is it to believe that Italy has a real chance to make a clear break and start anew?

To answer this I will show in the first part of the paper where Mafia comes from, what changes it went through and how it always adapted to new realities.

Then the political power of Mafia will be discussed, clarifying the amazing political autonomy Mafia enjoyed in the last decades. Paramount here is the economic background on which Mafia acted and the distinct economic as well as social factors in the mezzogiorno that Mafia was able to use and abuse. Mind you these factors are not uniquely Italian in nature but have developed within immigrant societies like the US, and in other areas that have found themselves in turmoil after extreme regime changes like the one witnessed in Russia today. In some instances one might be tempted to go so far as to see Mafia as something of a by-product of the difficult process of democratisation.

The author uses the word Mafia in this paper whenever another word, Cosa Nostra, Organisation, Honourable Society etc. seemed less appropriate. In fact this paper deals with the West-Sicilian Cosa Nostra only, disregarding the other forms of organised crime that exist in Italy, or in fact the US, even though some of the conclusions are equally true for all organisations that are in the 'protection business’, namely the Camorra in Campania and around Naples[6], the ' Ndrangheta in Calabria[7] and the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia[8], as well as other similar organisations around the world.

In an earlier study on the subject[9] I claimed that 'Mafia' "as a hierarchically organised secret criminal society in the classic sense of the definition" does not exist, but what "does exist is Mafia and Mafiosi which are more of a way of life, a specific mode of behaviour, or ideology rather than an organisation."[10] This does not hold true anymore. Recent discoveries strongly suggest that the Cosa Nostra has indeed the characteristics of a well organised, hierarchical structure, called ‘cupola’, which makes decisions in an organised and orderly fashion.

The defining characteristic of Mafia is the private use of violence while the Mafiosi sees himself not as a criminal but a man of order and honour. The difference between a Mafiosi and a common criminal is the formers' wide net of connections to legitimate and respected figures in the economy as well as in politics, that supply him with insight and protection.

II. The History of Cosa Nostra

One of the possible roots of the word Mafia derives from the word in Arabic ' mu'afa ' which means 'place of refuge'[11]. When the Normans conquered Sicily from the civilised Saracens and reintroduced feudalism this is what the Arab smallholders looked for if they did not want to become serfs.[12] For more than two thousand years Sicily has been exploited for it's corn and slave labour in one form or the other, by the Romans, Normans, Germans, French, Aragonese, Spaniards, and the Bourbons. But since the Germans there was no central government, no monarch, no court, and no resident hierarchy[13] and thus a system of despotism and a parallel system of home made rules and punishment developed. For hundreds off years Sicily has been searching for 'State' but what it found were self-help systems starting with the 'familiari dell'Inquisizione' (15th cent.) 'meastranze' craft associations (17th cent.) and finally ' bravi ' and ' Mafiosi ', that took over the rule of law and offered their clientele real protection[14].

1. Rural Protection

Cosa Nostra as we understand it developed in the west of Sicily at the beginning of the 19th century. It has its roots in the feudal system. The landlords of the huge estates did not take care of their property but left it to the Mafiosi to keep 'law and order' (Police powers) and justice and right (judicature). Cosa Nostra thus started out as a provider of law and justice for the peasantry in the face of negligent landlords and a remote government. Cosa Nostra virtually replaced the police force, offering an arrangement with crime instead of its suppression.[15] This function of the Mafia was already noted by the Bourbon attorney general in the 1820's.

With the unification of Italy feudalism came to an end but the relations of power were not touched by the young and fragmented state, (only a tiny minority outside Rome and Tuscany spoke Italian.)[16], that from the beginning needed to make as many allies as possible to survive against its many enemies, like ,for example, the pope. So the demands of the rural population of Sicily for land reforms were ignored and violently suppressed. Garibaldi, who was supposed to the land to the peasants send his lieutenants to put down any uprising among the Sicilians.[17] Thus the first pact between Rome and the reactionary south was made.

Unification was deadly in other ways too. The few industries that did exist in the south soon collapsed under the pressure of the north Italian industrial powerhouse. So state formation for the South was something theoretical, symbolical that only brought profit to others in far away places, and thus the formula that should dominate south Italian development till today was formed: 'A lot of change so that everything stays the same.'

From the beginning the Italian state had difficult obstacles to overcome if it wanted to effectively rule in Sicily. Most of the island were all but inaccessible for the Italian police and judges: almost no roads existed and the huge farms were ruled by the former farm managers and their lupara armed, mounted thugs-the states power monopoly existed only on paper. To protect themselves against possible state suppression the new, post feudalism class of de facto rulers of the land founded the honourable society, the Cosa Nostra.

2. The 'golden' years

In these early years the Uomini d'onore made their illegal income mainly through Pizzu[18] but real power came in the wake of the electoral reform of 1882. The voter potential of the rural population gave the Mafiosi a means to secure protection in high places in exchange for votes. They took up the role of brokers between the candidate and the local electorate. This system grew to its full strength until after the First World War[19], when all male Italians were allowed to vote (female suffrage come just in 1946).[20] The situation after W.W.I became very difficult though, with high unemployment, inflation and civil unrest.[21] The more important it was that the politicians, voted for with Mafia votes (Guanto giallo)[22] had direct access to the subsidies the central government gave out and they made sure that the public investments of Rome were directly profiting the Uomini d'onore. During those "golden years"(1880-1920) Sicily developed, the infrastructure was build up, trade between the rural parts and the cities developed and the Cosa Nostra demanded its part, and got it: They dominated the paths linking the local community to the outside world thus not only political control but complete physical dependence of the population on the Mafia.[23]

The new status of the Mafiosi and their political connections were well known even than (the first Mafia commission was formed in 1875) but the Italian state preferred to turn a blind eye on the developments, practically becoming an accomplice. By doing this the ruling classes in Italy used the Cosa Nostra to avoid the rise of socialism among the Sicilian rural population and a fierce opposition in the mezzogiorno, in a way 'solving' the problem of revolutionary masses in Southern Italy, (the same problem that split Spain into two in the 1930's, and led to the civil war). So the South was declared 'Third world' and only one possibility was left for its population: emigration. Millions left Sicily between 1890 and 1913, most of them to the USA- the social problem of Sicily was solved, with the help of the Mafia.

3. The fascist era

In many Italian schoolbooks the fascist era is still described as a 'Mafia free' era. This is not quite the truth. The Mafia, strengthened through fruitful war business during WWI, had at an early stage switched their ' guanti gialli ' and hopped on the fascist bandwagon. Vizzini, the ' capo dei capi ', had met Mussolini even before the march on Rome and was financing the party.[24] Mussolini was dependent on the Mafia vote in southern Italy until the fascist dictatorship really began in 1925 but than Mussolini knew that he had to crush the Mafia domination in the region. He thus send the Prefect Caesar Mori to Palermo in early 1926, equipped with wide ranging powers, to crush the Cosa Nostra. He created an inter provincial police force under his personal control. He made 'en masse' arrests, retata, already using the "association for criminal purposes" formula in the law[25]. Many Mafiosi fled to the United States as Mori succeeded to spread real fear on the Island, by being "more Mafioso than the Mafiosi"[26]. But it was clear that he was send to go against the bandits and thugs, the ones that had blood on their hands and not against the landowners that used these thugs.[27] And so Mori's victims were mainly low and medium level Mafiosi and once he uncovered the many political connections of the organisation he was recalled to Rome (and made senator for life). Mussolini did not crash the Mafia but managed to severe their ties to the old ' guanti gialli ' and send a clear signal to Sicily: The old system of quasi autonomy on the island was no more.[28] But all this did not change the character, dealings or power structures among the Mafiosi. Just the old 'guanti' were relieved and only the fascist contacts survived. Because when the latifondisti sided with the fascists they did not need Mafiosi as a force of defence any more as the fascist regime regulated landlord-peasant relations[29], replacing Mafia violence but not Mafia.

4. The post-war crisis

To understand the role of the Cosa Nostra today one has to take into account their role during the war and in the immediate post war period.

The Mafia was substantially weakened though under fascist rule and their saviour would came from a far away and unsuspected source:

In 1941 the United States were increasingly worried by the German U-Boat threat off their East coast, as well as acts of sabotage within New York harbour[30]. Naval Intelligence had no clue as to how the Germans received information and re-supply so far from their bases, and who collaborated. To get this information US Naval Intelligence contacted the 'Fulton Street Fishmarket' Mafia boss Joe Landser, an Underboss for Salvatore Lucania alias Charles "Lucky" Luciano. This decision, sanctioned by N.Y. district attorney, opened the relationship of co-operation between the Mafia and the OSS (and later the CIA), first against the Nazis than against the communist threat.

Once the waterfront was 'cleaned' of spies, a new project arouse: The landing in Sicily. The Cosa Nostra became the main American contact in Sicily[31] before the landing in 1943. They did not only provide intelligence to the Allies but also prepared the take over of rule after the landing. 95% of the newly appointed majors, were Mafiosi[32]. Men like Don Calo Vizzini became majors (Villalba) and this power sharing between the Allied Military Government (AMGOV) and the Mafia continued till after the war. In the chaos after the invasion the Mafia exacted the price for the bargain sealed on the waterfront in N.Y.. The Mafia found itself with completely unchallenged civil and military power in Sicily. A position of power it would strengthen further and defend ruthlessly, once the new enemy, the communists emerged.

Again the lack of state control over the means of violence and the, by the fascists untouched latifondio structure, facilitated the Mafia's taking over of its former position.[33] When in 1946 a referendum was held on whether Italy should again become a monarchy or turn into a republic, King Vittorio Emmanuele III. turned to the Mafia for support. For a respectable amount of money he got their support (two-thirds of the Sicilian vote was in favour of the monarchy) but in the national result the republicans won by a narrow margin. So the Mafia's support for the now emerging DC[34] started. The choice of the Mafia was clear in the light of the developing Cold war, the Cosa Nostra stayed loyal to their American Allies and took up their part in the struggle against the hated communist forces which also, or especially, in Italy became a real threat to the capitalist life style. In the 1947 regional election the left-wing parties did remarkably well, which further prompted the Mafiosi-DC partnership.[35]


[1] Thornton, T.P., Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitation" in Eckstein, H. (Ed.), Internal War: Problems and Approaches, !964, p.73

[2] Hess, H., Mafia, 1970

[3] Arlacci, P., Mafia Business, 1983

[4] Blok, A., The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1974, p.xiv

[5] Falcone, G., Inside Mafia, 1992, p.19

[6] The Camorra grew out of the urban gangsterism in Naples in the last 25 years and has lately tried to get organised according to the Cosa Nostra model. Political influence grew especially after the 1980 earthquake. It reached the headlines because of the arrest of female bosses, the wives of jailed gangsters that took over their husbands businesses.

[7] The 'Ndrangheta is exclusively based on family connections, in a segmentarian system. Families devide the region and consequently one family holds all the important offices in that region. Lately several local administrations have been desolved and are now ruled directly by Rome. The main occupation is kidnapping, that the Cosa Nostra forbids in Sicily. To combat the families the Italian carabinieri have created a special unit, Squadrone Carabinieri Eliportato Cacciatori, that searches the rough mountains for kidnapping victims. Husson, Jean Pierre, Raids, March 1994, p.24

[8] It was founded after the second world war and dealt primary in the cigarette smuggling business. Because of the notorious gang wars a trend towards centralisation along Cosa Nostra lines is evident.

[9] Sinai, T., Mafia towards the 21st Century, Hebrew U., 1994

[10] Ibid., p.

[11] For 15 further semantic explanations as to the root of the word see: Gambetta, D., The Sicilian Mafia, 1993, Appendix A

[12] Lewis, N., The Honoured Society, 1967, p.23 ;

The Muslims fled to an area called 'Marca dei Saraceni' around Palermo, in the mountains and lived as bandits, handing down certain norms and values that rose from their outlaw status: a strong anarchist dislike for any State system of law etc. Hess, H., Mafia, 1970, p.15

[13] Lewis, N.,1967, p.28

[14] Hess, H., 1970, p.16

[15] Lewis, N.,1967, p.37

[16] Economist, June 26 1993, p..4

[17] Lewis, N., The Honoured Society, 1967, p.32

[18] Protection money. The tip of the beard, that dips into someone else's soup, or the beak of a bird:"fari vagnari a pizzu". The Cosa Nostra determines exactly what the victims financial possibilities are and than demands a high percentage, that if it is not paid leads to violent punishment. Furthermore it causes the victim financial problems and force it to search for financial help, that is in turn given by the Cosa Nostra-the first step for a Mafia take-over of the victims business.

[19] The Mafia, especially the pezzo di novante (American translation: Big Shot) Zu Calo, became quite rich during the war, supplying the Italian war effort.

[20] Blok, A., The Mafia of a Sicilian village, 1974, p.177

[21] Economist, June 26 1993, p.5

[22] Named after the than fashionable yellow gloves.

[23] Block, 1974, p.176

[24] Uesseler, R., 1994, p.45

[25] The formula that was later updated in the La Torre law.

[26] BBC, Allied to the Mafia, Timewatch, 1993

[27] Block, A., 1974 p184

[28] Uesseler, R., 1994, p.49

[29] Grieco,R., Antologia della Mafia, 1964, p.601, in Blok, 1974, p.187

[30] The sinking of USS Normandy 09.02.1942

[31] Special Military Plan for Psychological Warfare in Sicily, a) Establish contact with clandestine groups, f.eg. the Mafia... . BBC, Timewatch, 1993

[32] Russo, J. Head of OSS Palermo desk !943-45, BBC Timewatch, 1993

[33] Blok,A., 1974, p.191

[34] Partito della Democracia Cristiana, founded in Milan in 1942 as a roman catholic-inspired lay movement that would span class differences. Economist June 1993

[35] ibid., p.203


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Terror Midday Cosa Nostra Seminar Terrorism



Title: "Terror at Midday" - The Cosa Nostra as a terrorist organisation