La Cosa Nostra and Mexico’s Own Criminal Groups
By ENRIQUE KRAUZE
The origins of the Sicilian mafia are shrouded in vigilante myths that the criminals themselves like to repeat, but recent historical research indicated that it dates back to 1812: The fragmentation of large estates and the confiscation of communal lands, together with an increase in banditry and the weakness of the state, would have led landowners to become the first employers and organizers.
According to John Julius Norwich, the Mafia could have had these viceroyal antecedents, and even others (nepotism, patronage, sale of positions), but its appearance coincided with the premiere in Palermo of a play, “Il Mafiusi Della Vicaria,” which had an immense success and foreshadowed the aura of heroism that had long surrounded the thugs. Those were the times of Italian unification, which for the Sicilians meant new taxes, compulsory military service and the presence of a new despotic political and administrative class alien to the island. This double wrong of neglect and abuse would have strengthened the Mafia.
Already in 1867, the mayor of Palermo thus described the new form of illegitimate domination, the Cosa Nostra.
The Mafia in Italy is powerful, perhaps more powerful than people realize. Only those who enjoy the protection of the Mafia can move freely in the field. The lack of security has meant that anyone who wants to go to the countryside and live there must become a bandit. No alternative. In order to defend yourself and your property, you must get protection from criminals, and tie yourself to them in some way.
Ucciardone, Palermo’s prison, is a government unto itself. From there, the rules and orders are dictated. In Ucciardone, everything in known by the Mafia, which makes us think that the Mafia has formally recognized the bosses. In the countryside around Palermo, criminal groups have proliferated and there are different bosses, but they often act in coordination with each other and look to Ucciardone for leadership.
Although the economic history of the Mafia is linked to the agricultural character of the island, over the course of a century, it diversified its operations until it became a multinational dedicated to murder, kidnapping, fraud, extortion, smuggling, gambling, money laundering, arms and people trafficking and drug trafficking. It has suffered sporadic blows, sometimes severe, by the Italian government, but it has never been completely defeated.
The damage it has inflicted on Sicily was early, deep, permanent. Combined like the biblical locust with natural disasters — the 1908 earthquake left 60,000 dead in Messina — the Mafia has torn apart the social fabric and turned off, cut down and dominated the productive sources of Sicily whose population emigrated en masse to Argentina and the United States, a country where the Mafia famously set up branches that became capitals.
The Mafia seemed invincible, until the martyrdom of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, assassinated in 1992 by the Mafia, shook Italy and convinced Sicilians that the battle for legality was at least possible.
And there it continues, that prodigious island through which all the civilizations of the Mediterranean passed and left their mark: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Hellenics, Jews, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, French, Aragonese, Spanish, Austrians. One example is Agrigento. On a gentle hill, the baroque city looks out over the imposing Greek Acropolis of ocher temples. A little further on, illuminated by immensity, the wide horizon of the sea opens up. But in the streets of Agrigento, which has always been violent, there is an air of desolation, oppression and sadness. In Agrigento, you don’t talk, you whisper. Taxi drivers are the listeners of the Mafia. What would Sicily be if the rule of law prevailed there?
I inevitably think of Mexico, of Michoacán, of Tamaulipas, of all the vast areas of Mexico that are no longer entirely ours. The old political regime believed it could dominate the nascent Mafia in Mexico by agreeing with it. It was wrong. The governments of the democratic transition faced it in an erratic, lukewarm and even cloudy manner. They, too, were wrong.
Since 2018, the Mexican government has given up confronting it. And it is also wrong. The illegitimate use of force by criminals has displaced the legitimate use of force by the state.