History of the Mafia

History of the Mafia

Author: Salvatore Lupo
Columbia University Press, 2011
Reviewer: Klaus von Lampe | September 2011

This historical analysis of the Sicilian Mafia, based on archival data, was originally published in Italian in 1993 and in a revised version in 1996. Columbia University Press deserves praise for publishing a translation (by Antony Shugaar) of the 1996 edition which makes Salvatore Lupo’s witty critique of some of the main currents of mafiology available to a broad English-speaking audience.

“Mafia”, as Lupo points out, has been a frequently used, though ambiguous term since the mid 1800s. He argues that it is this ambiguity that has contributed to its popularity. The term, according to Lupo, refers, on one hand, to a system of illegal control over markets. At the same time it is a metaphor for an alleged Sicilian backwardness, a cultural code of “hostility to modernity.” As Lupo explains, this motif periodically reappeared throughout the twentieth century in the conflictual relationship between Rome and Sicily: “The public authorities simultaneously denounced the incapacity of Sicily’s traditional culture to grasp the sovereign nature of the law, and yet they also made extensive use of that very pathology they were denouncing as a … tool for governing” (p. 5). Lupo sees the leftist expectation that modernity will gradually destroy the Mafia phenomenon as not much more than a variation of the same notion that the Mafia is the product of an archaic Sicilian culture, a notion which he does not find convincing. Today, he argues, the cultural context has fundamentally changed compared to 19th century Italy, while there is still something that is being denoted as ‘Mafia.’ The relationship between Mafia and Sicilian culture, according to Lupo’s interpretation, is a different one. Cultural codes, he argues, do not produce the Mafia, but are used, instrumentalized and modified by the Mafia “to create consensus on the outside and coherence and compactness on the inside” (p. 12). In the same light, Lupo views with suspicion the notion of an “old Mafia” bound by respect and honor versus a “new Mafia” amounting to not much more than common criminality. This notion of what Arlacchi (1986) had called the “entrepreneurial Mafia,” Lupo remarks, “appears as early as 1875” and has resurfaced in certain intervals until today (pp. 12-13).

For a long time the academic and political discourse on the Mafia centered around the question of whether or not the Sicilian Mafia actually constituted a distinct organizational entity rather than simply a cultural trait, as many in the 1960s and 1970s, among them Henner Hess (1996), have argued. Lupo leaves no doubt that the Sicilian Mafia is indeed a coherent organization, made up of territorially based families or cosche, with a continuity beyond the lives of individual members, and a hierarchical structure and a filter for the entry of new members inspired by the “sectarian logic” of freemasonry (p. 26). This organization, however, has only a limited functional scope. Drawing on Alan Block’s (1983) distinction between power syndicates and enterprise syndicates he points to the “twofold nature of the Mafia’s activities” that “corresponds to a twofold organizational model.” The Mafia, and more specifically the individual Mafia families resemble power syndicates. They are, according to Lupo, “organizations … that finance their activities through protection/extortion.” At the same time, mafiosi are part of “a business network that cuts transversely across the organizations and in which the various affiliated members can participate, under certain favorable conditions, but still risking their own funds and earning money as individuals” (p. 18). This means that the function of the Mafia as a formal organization is confined to protection and extortion while also providing the structural basis for myriad business relationships. On an individual level, the separation between governance and entrepreneurial functions is less clear. In fact Lupo argues, the roles of the mafioso as protector and as criminal entrepreneur are so closely linked that they are impossible to distinguish.

The relationships within the Sicilian Mafia are regulated with a view to avoiding conflict and competition. The basic principle is that of exclusive control of each cosca over its own territory. Where this principle is not applicable, ad hoc agreements and more permanent, overarching governance structures come into play. These centralized structures, however, that were first reported as early as the late 19th century, have not necessarily served to preserve the peace within the Mafia. Quite to the contrary, the very tendencies towards centralization have triggered violent confrontations that have shaped the image of the Mafia.

Lupo traces the roots of the Sicilian Mafia to the “democratization of violence” following the end of feudalism and to the imperfect creation of modern state institutions in the first half of the 19th century when Sicily was still under Bourbon rule. The right to use violence, formerly a privilege of the aristocracy and in modern societies monopolized by the state, de facto remained in the hands of private individuals and groups. New rural elites consisting of lease-holders of large landed estates (gabellotti) and administrators of sulfur mines, landholdings, orchards and olive groves organized private militias to control the labor force and to protect against theft and kidnappings. These private militias, just like local police forces established in Sicily under the Bourbon regime, “were usually recruited from among former bandits capable of intimidating ill-intentioned and suspicious characters in a language they would understand, or, when necessary, work out agreements with them in the spirit of good neighbors” (p. 35). The need for protection, Lupo argues, was particularly urgent in the West of Sicily where agriculture for purely economic reasons continued to be practiced on a large-scale. Especially cattle farming, in the absence of stall-based livestock rearing, was vulnerable to predatory crime. Here, the practice of negotiated settlements between victims and thieves developed, which provided for the return of stolen goods and livestock “under the supervision of powerful criminals, respected professionals or prominent citizens” (p. 37). As Lupo suggests, however, the link between social elites and criminals has to be viewed in a much broader context — as the power struggles of clientelistic and family groups. In the period leading up to Italian independence, Lupo notes, Sicily saw a “rampant diffusion of ordinary and political violence” where it was difficult “to distinguish clearly among revolutionary mobilization, activities designed to seize control of the management of local power, and mere criminal activities” (p. 48). From the “pathological relationship among politics, society, and criminality” (p. 31) the Mafia emerged as a secret society of criminals that reproduced the organizational model of freemasonry adopted by the ruling class. How exactly the Mafia came into existence is not known, but Lupo hypothesizes that prisons facilitated the mutual recognition and “standardization” of local cosche (p. 49).

The close link between Mafia and politics paved the way for the anti-democratic polemics of the Fascist era. In 1925, Cesare Mori was appointed prefect of Palermo with far-reaching powers. One year later, hundreds of alleged mafiosi were arrested, not even sparing members of the Fascist Party. In fact, in 1927 the Palermo branch of the Fascist Party was dissolved and its leader put on trial while one key element in the mafia universe, the large landholders, were accorded “special and favorable treatment” (p. 182). According to Lupo then, Mori’s anti-mafia campaign had a distinctly political dimension in that it eliminated undesirable individuals from power and contributed to a resurgence of the political influence of the Sicilian aristocracy. What effect Mori’s campaign had on the Mafia is a matter of controversy. It appears certain that a considerable number of mafiosi escaped to the United States; among them some of the future bosses of the American Cosa Nostra: Joe Bonanno, Joe Masseria, Carlo Gambino, Joe Profaci, and Stefano Magaddino. Lupo does not go so far as to say that the Mafia was annihilated. Nor does he side with those who argue that only small-time criminals were targeted. Lupo believes that the Mafia survived the Mori campaign, but that “all linear historical continuity ended with the foreign occupation of Italy and the dissolution of the state” prior to the Allied landing in July 1943.

Following the allied invasion, the webs of relations destroyed by Mori were reconstructed in the Sicilian independence movement, and the political unrest and banditry gave the Mafia an opportunity to reestablish itself as a force of order in alliance with the large landowners. When the separatist movement was merged in the Christian Democratic Party, mafiosi came into contact with political decision makers in Rome, restoring on a grander scale the links between the upper world and underworld that had previously existed. “The right-wing Anti-Mafia vanished,” Lupo notes, “and with it went the Anti-Mafia tension in state structures. … The Mafia won itself a certain number of rewards by choosing to take on the same adversaries as the government and the bourgeoisie” (pp. 198-199). Instead it was the political left that brought the Mafia back on the political agenda, inspired by the Kefauver hearings in the U.S. Senate in the early 1950s. In 1963, under the impression of the so-called first Mafia war, a violent confrontation between two Mafia groups, the Italian parliament established a commission to investigate the Mafia and passed new repressive measures, including a law permitting sending mafiosi into internal exile. What followed, according to Lupo, was a phase of repression that “unhinged and dismantled the Mafia’s organizational structures” (p. 229). This success, however, was short-lived. In fact, the measures proved counterproductive in that the internal exile led to an extension of Mafia networks into mainland Italy. Contrary to the assumption that the Mafia was a by-product of an archaic culture, Lupo argues that northern Italy “proved to be a market that was perhaps more fruitful even than Sicily” (p. 230).

By the end of the 1970s an unprecedented boom in trans-Atlantic drug trafficking had set in, connecting suppliers in Sicily with buyers of Sicilian descent in New York. The enormous profits from the drug trade led to the ‘second Mafia war’ which claimed several hundred lives by the early 1980s. This second Mafia war, according to Lupo, amounted to an internal “class war” between those involved in and profiting from drug trafficking and those who did not. Eventually the latter faction, representing the “military organization” of the Mafia, prevailed. In the process, a shift in power occurred away from the individual cosche to a Commission, the central governing body, under the leadership of Toto Riina. The internal conflicts coincided with the beginning of a campaign of violence against public figures, including politicians and magistrates, which eventually culminated in the murder of the investigative judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. This “terroristic escalation” in Lupo’s judgment, is “the greatest discontinuity in the more than one hundred year history of the Sicilian Mafia” (p. 30). There had been one prominent victim of an alleged mafia murder in 1893, but no similar case had occurred for nearly eight decades until the killing of a public prosecutor in 1971. Targets of the Mafia terror were those few officials who actually waged the war against the Mafia that the state had “rhetorically declared” (p. 248). Despite the violence, and despite the halfhearted support from the government and critique from the left fearing a “culture of handcuffs,” the Palermo Maxitrial opened in 1986, based on the new criminal offence of membership in a mafia-like association and drawing on the testimony of mafia turncoat Tomaso Buscetta. For the first time, the Mafia as an organization was at the center of a trial, and the members of the Commission had to accept responsibility for any crime committed with their consent.

This time, the politicians allied with the Mafia proved incapable of keeping the justice system at bay. In 1992, all appeals were exhausted and the maxitrial guilty verdicts upheld. The Mafia responded with violence, not only however, against the driving forces behind the maxitrial –Falcone and Borsellino — but also against “its most authoritative links to official power,” two alleged middlemen between the Mafia and the Christian Democrats in Rome. The strategy of intimidation failed. Toto Riina, along with other members of the Mafia leadership, was arrested after years in hiding and eventually convicted in 1996.

In the end, Lupo remains skeptical about the future of the Mafia. He expresses no certainty, only hope, that the stable historical continuity of this organization may “soon be interrupted.” Retrospectively, sixteen years later, Lupo’s caution seems justified.

“History of the Mafia” is not an easy book to read, and much less to review for that matter. It is an essayistic treatise rather than a historiographical narrative, resembling an expressionistic painting in which an individual brushstroke reveals little. Instead of closely following chains of events over time, Lupo discusses particular themes such as the interpretation of the Mafia in the context of Italian politics or the relationship between Mafia and the ruling classes in Sicily, while rarely arriving at crystal clear and unambiguous statements. Frequently Lupo alludes to persons and events that will not be familiar to the average non-Italian reader — some explanations inserted by translator Anthony Shugaar notwithstanding. Where figures central to the history of the Mafia, such as Calogero Vizzini and Cesare Mori, are concerned, the reader is expected to have pre-existing knowledge. On the other hand, some issues prominently addressed in other books about the Mafia, such as omertà, are only mentioned in passing. Lupo rejects both the popular understanding of omertà as a code of silence, as well as the more sophisticated interpretation of omertà meaning virility. Instead, he suggests the word is derived from “the Masonic concept of humanity” and “the Camorristic concept of humility” (p. 27).

Lupo’s book does not provide a comprehensive, step-by-step account of the history of the Mafia. It aims at the intermediate to advanced student of the Sicilian Mafia who is already familiar with other key works on the subject, for example those by Raimondo Catanzaro (1992) and Henner Hess (1996). For this audience, however, “History of the Mafia” is essential reading — enlightening and thought provoking, though one may not necessarily come to share all of Lupo’s views.


Block, A. (1983) East Side, West Side: Organizing Crime in New York 1930-1950, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Catanzaro, R. (1992) Men of respect: A social history of the Sicilian Mafia, New York: Free Press.
Hess, H. (1996) Mafia & Mafiosi: origin, power and myth, New York: New York University Press.

Klaus von Lampe is an Assistant Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York

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