"Men of Honor"

A brief history of the Cosa Nostra—a.k.a. the Mafia—in Sicily

First of all, Sicilians don't call it the Mafia (which comes from the Arabic mu'afah or "protection"). They call it Cosa Nostra, literally "our thing," but more accurately "this thing we have." It is a curious "thing," to say the least, and one that requires a bit of explanation. It began, as did so many noxious elements of Italian culture, in the dying days of feudalism.

The origins of the costa nostra

The origins of la cosa nostra are debated, but the world's most famed criminal organization seemed to grow out of the convergence of local agricultural overseers working for absentee Bourbon landowners—hired thugs, from the peasant workers’ point of view—and 18th- and 19th-century brigandage.

Members of the Sicilian Mafia—or "Men of Honor" as they like to be called—traditionally operated as a network of regional bosses who controlled individual towns by setting up puppet regimes of thoroughly corrupt officials. It was a sort of devil’s bargain with the national Christian Democrat party—which controlled Italy's government from World War II until 1993 and, despite their law-and-order rhetoric, tacitly left Cosa Nostra alone so long as the bosses got out the party vote.

Men of honor trafficked in illegal goods, of course, but until the 1960s and 70s their income was derived mostly from funneling state money into their own pockets, low-level protection rackets, and ensuring that public contracts were granted to fellow mafiosi (all reasons why Sicily has experienced grotesque unchecked industrialization and modern growth at the expense of its heritage and the good of its communities).

Things get dirty: the Mafia of the 1970s and 1980s

How the mafia made Sicily safe for tourists
Now that the mafia has lost its stranglehold on Sicilian life, this is changing, but for years they made Sicily among the safest places in all of Italy for the average tourist.

See, in much of Italy, you run the risk of getting pickpocketed—and annoying but, thankfully, non-violent crime. Until recently, tourists were never, ever pickpocketed in Palermo.

Why? Because the mafia had their hand in nearly the entire tourist infrastructure, including the top hotels and restaurants—and if it is anything, the cosa nostra is a cabal of businessmen (corrupt businessmen often operating illegally, but businessmen nonetheless).

Victimized tourists would be bad for business, so any "non-union" pickpocket or sneakthief caught preying on tourists would be quickly run out of town or otherwise, ahem, retired—if only to protect the local boss's investments.
But the younger generation of Mafia under-bosses got into the highly lucrative heroin and cocaine trades in the 1970s, transforming the Sicilian Mafia into a major world player on the international drug trafficking circuit—and raking in the dough.

This ignited a clandestine Mafia war that, throughout the late 1970s and 80s, generated lurid headlines of bloody Mafia hits. The new generation was wiping out the old, and turning the balance of power in their favor.

The murders of the magistrates

This situation gave rise to the first Mafia turncoats, disgruntled ex-bosses and rank-and-file stoolies who opened up and told their stories, first to police prefect General Alberto Dalla Chiesa (assassinated 1982), and later to crusading magistrates Giovanni Falcone (slaughtered May 23, 1992) and Paolo Borsellino (murdered July 19, 1992), who staged the "maxitrails" of mafiosi that sent hundreds to jail.

The magistrates' 1992 murders, especially, garnered public attention to—and, perhaps for the first time, true shame regarding—the dishonorable methods that defined the new Mafia.

On a much broader, and in many ways culturally important, scale it is these young mafiosi, without a moral center or check on their powers, that have driven many Sicilians to at least secretly break the unwritten code of omertà, which translates as "homage" but means "silence," when faced with harboring or even tolerating a man of honor.

The Mafia still controls much of Palermo, the small towns south of it, and the provincial capitals of Catania, Trapani, and Agrigento. Throughout the rest of Sicily, though, its power has been slipping.

The fading Mafia of today

The Mafia's allies in national and local government, the all-but-defunct Christian Democrats, lost power in the early 1990s and are effectively now gone.

Sicilians have slowly come to realize that, while the Mafia occasionally served the common good in the past, they can now only serve to keep Sicily in the Dark Ages. As feudal hoods, they represented a certain stability and the illusion of a kind of Sicilian self-government throughout an era of constantly changing monarchies.

But this aspect of Cosa Nostra just doesn’t transfer to an urban, 21st-century Sicily concerned with large scale agricultural, industrial, and tourism initiatives. The heroin trade is a far cry from construction schemes and protection money, and the Mafia is swiftly outliving its usefulness—and its welcome.

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