The history of mafias is the history of Italy. Interview with Isaia Sales

Different opinions have been expressed on the study and analysis of mafias for some time now. After years of silence and often denial of the criminal phenomena, the opposite extreme has been reached: a wide range of “words in freedom” that have little to do with a reasoned study, with field analysis made by crossing economic data and also the results of the investigations of the judiciary, but there is more than this. The attention on an investigation is mainly at the first headline in the newspapers and then everything is forgotten, because a trial takes years. Because not all operations attract interest, the more complex ones that affect the territories are the first to be forgotten.

The study of the mafias is, therefore, above all, an historical study in which nothing goes underestimated, in which every data is fundamental. The data are probably less fascinating than the opinions, but they are, nevertheless, true. Dialogue with Professor Isaia Sales offers an opportunity to hear a real lectio magistralis not only on the mafias, but on the history of Italy, its powers and relations, its society. And on data basis, contexts and clear thinking are extrapolated, tracing a story often seen as fragmented and divided. Isaia Sales teaches “History of the mafias” at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, essayist, columnist, was also Undersecretary to the Italian Treasury.


In one of your recent writings I found a passage that is illuminating – to say the least – and above all that highlights a fundamental point: “The mafia’s members are the first criminals in history who have transformed their violence into stable power, thanks to the relationships with those who should have isolated them, opposed them and repressed them instead ». Is this connection still present and what to do to break it?

For some time I have felt a deep unease with the dominant “story” about mafia. Despite the remarkable steps forward made in recent decades in terms of contrast, in terms of the reaction of the concerned population, in terms of general awareness of the danger they represent, the narrative remained virtually unchanged. The history of the mafias is told as a separate story from the fundamental events that characterized the formation of the Italian nation, almost as a separate story, as “another” story, which joins the official one but never mixes with it. But in this way, if the two stories are irreconcilable and incompatible, it becomes almost impossible to explain the centuries-old success of the mafias.

In fact, can this success be explained simply by the military force that the mafias exert on the territories they control? This is an assumption that breaks down, from an historical perspective. Pirates and brigands were much more organized on a military level than the mafia. The pirates had ships equipped with cannons at their disposal and were armed to the teeth. The brigands were organized as regular armies and faced the Italian military in armed clashes, in real pitched battles. No, the mafias are not armies that occupy a territory with weapons, even if they have thousands of affiliates at their disposal who know how to use them well. Surely their centuries-old duration is not due to military force.

And then, do the mafias owe their historical success to popular consent? This explanation doesn’t hold up, neither. The brigands, for example, have enjoyed a much wider popular consensus than that of the mafia, witnessed by songs, anecdotes, stories, fables still today; yet, they disappeared.

The mafia affiliate is in history the overcoming of the bandit, the brigand and the pirate. He has permanent success because he relates to the established power nor is it opposed to it, both on the political, on the economic and on the social level. This is the explanation. The success story of the mafias, as Sciascia would say, is basically “a simple story”.

Generally, in modern societies, private violence is associated with confrontation, opposition, war. That mafia, I repeat, is not violence of opposition or clash with the State, it is not anti-state and anti-system violence but it is an “interstate” violence, it is not external to society and institutions nor is it exercised only with weapons, it is on the inside, internal. In modern states, no form of power, especially if it is violent, can assert itself, consolidate itself or last that long if it is not permanently in established relations with official and institutional power. No extra-institutional power can live and survive in opposition to the governmental one. If the mafias, therefore, lasted for two centuries, this means that they didn’t represent an alternative and opposed power to the official one, but a power directly related to it. These relations have been different over time, they loosened or strengthened depending on the context, the circumstances, the power relations, the degree of social consensus received, but they are certainly internal to the history of powers in Italy.

The history of the mafias, therefore, is in fact the history of the relations that part of Italian society has established, over time, with criminal phenomena and vice versa. The strength of the mafias lies in the relationships with those who were supposed to fight them. Without these relations, without these connections, the mafias would not exist, they would not last that long, they would not have such an impact on the past, the present and the future of Italy.

Today these connections are less stable nationally than locally, compared to the previous period, but they still exist. If these are not broken, we will never be able to defeat the mafias.


One of your most important books, from my point of view, is “Storia mafiosa dell’Italia” (Mafia History of Italy); starting from the assumption that since the mafias are so connected to Italian history, it is necessary to analyse it by taking into account these connections and explaining how much they had an impact. Has this appeal been successful, is there really the willingness to face this issue exposing our Democracy to very uncomfortable questions?

Unfortunately not. Even today among Italian historians it is difficult to understand that when criminal phenomena last so long, when they easily break the boundaries within they were thought to be historically and socially confined, and when all attempts to repress or reduce them have been proved ineffective or not definitively decisive, this means that the mafias are not only “criminal history”, but are fully part of Italian history. Because if they were only organized crime, they would have been defeated or downsized since a long time, as happened before for all the criminal organizations that have opposed the current institutions, just as happened with bandits, pirates and brigands. If after two centuries this has not yet happened in Italy, it means that the reasons for their success cannot be traced only in their criminal skills but in the intertwining of these skills with the historical events of the Italian ruling class and their concrete contribution to building the nation.

South of Italy is not something apart from Italy, it is not an isolated world and it has now – and had in the past – well established connections with the history of Italy, both influencing and being influenced by it.

Comparing the Italian criminal phenomena and those in other European countries, the difference can precisely be ascribed to this: that in Sicily and in other regions with a mafia presence, the crime is part of a wider power strategy, while elsewhere it almost always responds only to a specific criminal objective.

The mafias are certainly not understood without a careful look at the specific context in which they emerged, but it is impossible to give them the right historical dimension if not looking at the nation, its formation and its ruling class, those that have supported the mafia and those who accepted their votes and support. If the mafias are a product of a part of Sicily, a part of Campania, a part of Calabria, they owe their success to the ways in which these territories were integrated into the nation-state and to the mutual influence between local and national economies, between local and national ruling classes. If the socio-political context under the Bourbons let mafias arise, they consolidated and became central actors of the Italian national history after the Unification. It was the new state purview to make them a Bourbon and feudal residue, while the newly unified nation let them become influential actors of the Italian national history.


While it is not correct to consider the mafias, therefore, as a result of the Unification of Italy, it is more than appropriate to remember that Italian unification has not managed to overcome them, indeed it has legitimized them even more. The class that protected the mafia supported the national governments and the national governments were aware of this support, to the point that they never waged a frontal battle against the mafia, on purpose. The mafias needed the formation of the national state to assume a central role that they previously failed to play completely, under the Bourbons. The new state and its ruling class felt the need, in administrating the South, of using the existing arrangements in those territories (including the mafias) and by doing so, unofficially recognizing them. The contempt that many of them felt towards the southern ruling and landowning classes did not push them to reject their alliance.

The unification of Italy, therefore, allowed phenomena related to the survival of feudal systems to survive within the new state order. That was a legitimation of a need, which represented and unavoidable condition for the formation of Italian nation. The unification of Italy, and in particular the way the relations between the northern and the southern ruling class were established, allowed the influence of the mafias in the political and electoral history of the country. But it was just in 1982 (more than a century after the unification of Italy) that a first significant anti-mafia national legislation was enacted, in a nation that more than any other had produced and raised this particular criminal system. Perhaps the mafias can be considered as the greatest failure in the unified history of Italy.

Have the mafias become irreparably an economic response to the dynamics of the market? Which kind of scenario do you see over the next few years?

This will occur even more in the future. Violence, with the mafia, has fully entered into market relations by mocking its alleged “moral” prescriptions that consider the market equal to democracy, as opposed to illegality, the crime a wealth destroyer, according to the classical canons of modern capitalism dictated by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

It is hypocrisy on the market’s rules that covered the fact that even in productive economies, violent forces are not pushed back to the margins and there is no conflict between market and violence, between legal and illegal economies. The criminal economy is against the laws of the states, but not against those of the markets. The economy is much more open than the strict law regulation. You can also do business outside or even against the law: the mafias are the most authentic and lasting proof of this.

Mainly three factors have led to today’s “explosion” of the criminal question.

  1. A) The monopoly of drug trafficking, an economic activity that is unmatched on the market in terms of profits with any other legal and illegal goods. Having left in the hands of the mafia the management of such trafficking due to prohibition policy has proved, beyond any other consideration, an extraordinary economic growth opportunity for the mafias, far superior to that offered by alcohol in the USA to the US mafia. Drug trafficking has radically changed the economic availability of criminals like no other business in the history of crime and, therefore, it was this circumstance that determined the current phase of mafias power in Italy and in the world. It would be absurd not to take these aspects into account in the analysis and in the solutions to be adopted to defeat them.
  2. B) The economic globalization, and its progressive financial prevalence, has also allowed mafia criminals to make money with money (by having earned a lot of it). Financial prevalence of the economy proved to be absolutely congenial to the “entrepreneurial” characteristics of the mafia and to laundering their capital. The mafias are, therefore, among the leading forces in the current phase of the dematerialization of the economy. Controlling drug trafficking is not enough to play an important economic role, but it is nonetheless a mechanism, a method, an opportunity needed to allow the money laundering of profits illegally acquired. Within the old financial order, the mafias could not have be given this chance, at least at today’s level. Without the possibility of laundering drugs profit with the usual tricks to hide wealth, avoiding taxes or without going through the production of goods, it would have been far more complicated for the mafias to launder their capital. All this happened even more quickly starting from the last two decades of the twentieth century, when the mafias have increasingly structured transactions on a transactional scale, the current relevance of mafia crime system in the world economy is a stable globalization factor. Even those who do not consider mafias as a product of globalization cannot avoid to consider it a very serious globalization problem.
  3. C) The consonance of uncertain regulations with the current operation of the market and some entrepreneurial values ​​of the mafia. The growth of mafia crime does not appear to have been hampered by the legal economy. In the entrepreneurial dimension, there is no safe, certain and insurmountable border between legal and illegal activities. And morality or religion is not enough to build boundaries. The legal economy does not automatically eradicate the illegal and criminal economy, there is no total incompatibility between the two, one does not oppose the other and on the contrary, coexistence seems to be the main characteristic of their relationship. The irreconcilability between the legal economy and the illegal economy seems to be a devout aspiration of classical economic assumptions, more than a scientific certainty. In practice, compatibility and mutual adaptation seem to prevail.
The word antimafia still makes sense, has it not been used too many times as a convenient tool for other purpose and, by doing so, depriving one of the country’s main pillars of its real meaning?

Of course, when absolutely minority positions turn progressively into majority positions, they can degenerate like all forms of power. But it must always be noticed that the anti-Mafia fight is not a priority of fanatic people who invented an unreal danger or that they have overestimated on purpose.

The Mafia is there, the mafias are there and they still have a strong and invasive role, and no longer only in the South of Italy. A process of “nationalization of mafias” has been going on for some time now and mainly concerns mafias expansion and rooting in the most economically important Italian regions. In any case, it is better to pay too much attention to mafias than that to be in denial about them, as it was the case during the first thirty years of republican Italy. Characteristic of the anti-Mafia movement in recent decades is the support, to those in charge of the counter-action, of an original opinion movement that was previously non-existent.

There is no doubt that this civil support has led to forms of fanaticism, or forms of refusal of the basic rule of law. And all people working in this field, starting with the magistrates, must be absolutely invited to renew their commitment to sobriety. But the previous situation cannot be regretted at all.

For example, how can we not grasp the disruptive value of victims’ families associations? Private pain turned into public grief and also that violent death had to be kept private wasn’t a taboo anymore. Family members reversed the resignation and private dimension of their tragedies, pushing institutions to name streets, classrooms, libraries after their fallen loved ones, to write biographies, inspiring exhibitions, novels, films, plays, songs. Based on other contexts’ experiences (the mothers and none of the desaparecidos in Argentina and Chile), the anti-Mafia movement has pledged that no innocent victim should be forgotten. And when private sorrow shows in the public arena, there may be excesses and sometimes protagonism (also due to the incomplete grieving process of some family members). But it is preferable the disruptive and sometimes unbalanced value of public grief than private resignation. In the South, this is even more relevant because it has been shown that not only there have been mafias in these areas, but at the same time there has been people who fought them. In Italy, the civil heroes of the post-war period are almost all from the South, and the anti-Mafia fight represents the most original contribution of southern civil society to the nation’s shared values.

Many times, when discussing about mafias it seems that there are more unprofessional opinions than a real and in-depth study, a secular analysis of criminal phenomena. What needs to be done in order to ensure that mafias field of study is not subject to approximation, since it concern true stories of death and pain, which are not a TV script but real life?

Mafias studies should be included in Italian universities programs with special departments and with adequate funding. It would be important to study mafia phenomena not only in magistrates’ papers, but with in-depth field research promoted and conducted by universities. In particular, within the Faculties of Economics, where the role of mafias is not yet considered as a serious problem by the economists of our country. In contrast to other opinions, I think that television played a great role in getting the mafia phenomenon familiar to all Italians and in promoting awareness.

The TV Series” La piovra”, for example, represented the first nationalization of mafias in Italian public opinion. I am convinced, as Paolo Borsellino was, that it is essential that we talk about mafias: no matter how, but that we talk about it. I prefer the misrepresenting of them to denial and silence.


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