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Modern mafia: how Italian organized crime has mutated beyond recognition in 30 years

After the portraits of Matteo Messina Denaro over time. | Font: EPA/Franco Lannino

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The arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro, one of Sicily’s most notorious mafia bosses, reminded many Italians of the extreme violence he was associated with when he acted as a leading figure in Cosa Nostra.

Denaro seems to belong to another era, when the mafia brutally killed at will. And it is true that the period of extreme violence with which it is associated is in the past. But this does not mean at all that the Italian organized crime groups have disappeared during the 30 years that Denaro has been in hiding: they simply rethought their way of acting.

The Italian mafia has dramatically reduced the number of murders. Violence is now used much more strategically and less conspicuously. Instead of bloody, screaming murders, the modern mafia intimidates with crimes that are unlikely to be reported to the police, such as arson, physical violence, or sending threats. Killing is now the last resort.

The violent conflict between the Sicilian mafia and the Italian state reached its climax in the early 1990s. It was a period characterized by one massacre after another, including the famous bombing in Via D’Amelio in 1992, when judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his entourage. In 1991 alone, there were 1,916 murders, 718 of which were mafia-related.

The media covered all the details. Politicians spoke in parliament about the scourge of organized crime. Mafia activities have played an important role in the public discourse and cultural imagination of Italy.

But the authorities reacted harshly. New laws were passed, such as the 41 bis prison regime, which included the threat of solitary confinement for members of organized crime groups. City councils could be stripped of their powers for up to two years if their officials were seen collaborating with the Mafia, and a state-appointed technocratic administration was set up to “cleanse” the house. A national anti-mafia office was also created to be able to allocate more resources to fighting organized crime.

In subsequent years, data shows a sharp decline in the number of mafia-related murders, from 718 in 1991 to just 28 in 2019. There were 271 murders in Italy in 2020, up from almost 2,000 in 1991. per 100,000 inhabitants, Italy is currently the country with the fewest homicides in Europe after Luxembourg, with fewer homicides per capita than Norway, Switzerland, Spain or Luxembourg.

At the same time, an interesting trend can be identified. In an ongoing investigation, I have analyzed the archive of RAI (Italian National Television) over the past 40 years and studied the content of national and regional news. Understandably, in years when more mafia killings are committed, the media coverage associated with it increases, as measured by the percentage of news on the subject.

Conversely, when the number of mob killings decreases, the issue is less talked about and there is less parliamentary intervention. For example, between 1992 and 1994, organized crime was mentioned in 15% of speeches by parliamentarians. After 20 years, he was mentioned in only 4.3% of speeches.

In other words, the more the mafia kills openly, the more attention it gets from the media and politicians. It is important to note that these are not necessarily years in which the Mafia was less active in other respects. Smuggling, blackmail and corruption have not decreased. Only the most visible violence recedes.

Unnoticed and unnoticed

All of this suggests that reducing the homicide rate may have been, at least in part, a strategic choice. Criminals have come up with what they need to go unnoticed.

This does not mean that they no longer resort to violence, just that they are more selective. As the anti-mafia organization Avviso Pubblico reports annually, the main targets of the mafia are now local managers. They receive threatening letters and are attacked about once a day. This phenomenon is hardly noticed by the media, which would certainly pay attention if a member of the national parliament were faced with intimidation or violence. At best, local officials can see their cases covered in the local press; such incidents are rarely reported at the national level.

In this way, the mafia achieves its goal of influencing local politics without attracting the attention of the mainstream media or politicians. Election periods are particularly sensitive: mayors are at their most threatened during this time, especially immediately after their inauguration, as local mafiosi see an opportunity to gain control over a rookie.

This strategy contributed to the economic expansion of the Mafia. Although the number of murders has decreased, the amount of property and businesses seized from the Mafia has increased dramatically, further suggesting that a decrease in violent crime is not necessarily an indicator of a decrease in other types of criminal activity. In 1991, the state confiscated two companies and four properties from the mafia. In 2019, 351 businesses and 651 properties were arrested.

These figures can be seen as an indication that law enforcement is doing a better job of detecting economic crime, and this may be true. But other data lend weight to a more pessimistic interpretation of the facts.

In 2019, organized crime-related assets were confiscated in 11 Italian provinces (mostly in the northern regions) that previously had no mafia activity. And today, every police operation related to organized crime results in the confiscation of property worth about 1 million euros. In the late 1990s, the average value of each seized shipment was around 50,000 euros.

This suggests that the mafia is not only not retreating, but is also expanding into new parts of the country, finding ever more lucrative opportunities as it goes.Talk

Gianmarco Daniele, Associate Professor at the University of Milan and Executive Director of the CLEAN Unit for the Economics of Crime at Bocconi University, Bocconi University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.

Source: RPP

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