Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Review - Mafia brotherhoods by John Dickie

Mafia brotherhoods : Camorra, mafia, 'ndrangheta: the rise of the Honoured Societies by John Dickie

London: Sceptre, 2012.                         ISBN 9780340963944

As any reader of my blog may have surmised, Italian organized crime is a reading interest of mine. I've reviewed both Midnight in Sicily and Mafia Republic in the last couple of years; the latter work also by Dickie, covering the history of organized crime in Italy since World War Two. Mafia brotherhoods is Dickie's history of the three main criminal societies from their birth up until the War. It is a highly engaging book, packed with incident and characters, based on sound scholarship.

Dickie explains that of the three societies he deals with, it was the Neapolitan Camorra which appeared first, in the prison network - the prisoners ran the jails, and the Camorra controlled where you slept, what you ate and wore, all for an appropriate fee. Dickie explains that the upheavals that occurred during the Risorgimento that allowed the Camorra and Cosa Nostra to enmesh themselves in the outside world. All three societies major crime was that of running protection rackets, with the Camorra also engaging in pimping.

It was Cosa Nostra in Sicily who were the first to realise the importance of entwining themselves with the forces of government for their own protection, and had a better idea of when to keep their heads down. In Naples, the different structure of the Camorra led to it being more exposed to law and order activities. Meanwhile, back in Calabria, the 'ndrangheta learnt a thing or two from jail time spent with other mafiosi, and set up a society that in some ways was more rigid than the other two.

Dickie builds his narrative around stories of law enforcement and trial transcripts, which lead the reader to ask themselves two questions. The first is why it has taken Italy so long to come to grips with these criminals when right from the earliest times the powers of law gathered enough information to know a lot about these groups: how they were structured, the crimes they committed, even on occasions their member's identities. It is clear from Dickie's history that the various mafia societies pulled in their favours, and at times lay low for a time, as they knew the body politic would soon move on. They also assiduously fostered the myths about the mafia; that it was a way of looking at life rather than an organized criminal syndicate, or that it was a product of prejudiced Northern Italian imaginations.

What is harder to grasp is why the state so quickly forgot what it found out, often at great cost. Did they just not see it as important, or could they not bear to face the truth of the cancer at the heart of their state? Or was it something more insidious?

As the citizen of a country that has a fine tradition of British law, I found Dickie's reference to trials interesting. Obviously Italy's legal system is different, but Dickie's continued reference to historians happening on trial transcripts, or of them being non-existant, seems odd, and disturbing. These trials all occurred less than 150 years ago, and many of them after World War One. It seems amazing that there is no index of cases or some other device for the judiciary to see what's gone on before. So, rather then building a body of knowledge about the mafia, the legal system started from scratch each time - Dickie describes the depressing detail that the diagram of the mafia that was proudly shown to the world in 1992 during the trial initiated by Tomaso Buscetta's confession was identical to a diagram included in a 1938 report prepared by the Fascist government. The continual change of governments after World War Two did not help in the task of keeping pressure to bear on these groups. As Dickie points out, while crime-fighting was a tactic of various governments, mafia societies have a long term strategy, which put them in a position to defeat whatever cane against them.

It seems that the glory years of the mafia finally may have passed, with the Italian and other governments finally taking a long-term view of the problem, and disrupting these societies more regularly and more successfully in recent years. Taken together, Dickie's books (which also include Cosa Nostra), provide the reader with a comprehensive history of the mafia in Italy.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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